We’re approaching the end of 2021 and the obligatory end-of-year retrospectives are a-plenty. Same as last year, I’ve decided to record my progress this year in films, music, and books using this medium again (wink wink, nudge nudge).
What follows is a list of my favourite albums that came out this year. The only caveats are that these are all original studio recordings (EPs are welcome) and no compilations are allowed.
Without further ado …
50. Teatro d’Ira Vol. 1 | Måneskin
I never thought I’d be putting a Eurovision winner as one of my favourite albums of the year. But that’s 2021 for you. There have been Eurovision songs / artists that I liked for the novelty of it before, but they would usually drop off my radar within a few weeks. Not the case here, because Måneskin are anything but a fad. They are one of the best (if not the best) glam rock band out there. They walk the walk and they talk the talk. Future is bright for them.
Choice cut: “Zitti e buoni”
49. The Darkest Skies Are the Brightest | Anneke van Giersbergen
One of the hardest working women in rock, Anneke van Giersbergen is a legend of European metal. Closer to her collaborations with Anathema than the band that she is most associated with, The Gathering, this is airy, folksy pop at its best. Subdued yet subtly complex, it is a perfect lazy Sunday afternoon soundtrack and something you want to appreciate with your headphones on in a room on your own.
Choice cut: “Hurricane”
48. For Those That Wish to Exist | Architects
Darlings de jour of metal press, Architects’ latest album sees them flex their muscles a little more than usual and the results are actually … very good. Full disclosure: I don’t like metalcore as a genre. I find the teenage-growls offputting and the alleged balance between the heavy with the cathartic feels forced. With their latest, though, Architects (one of the purveyors of the said genre) manage to pull it off admirably. This is a seriously mature album with some great production throughout.
Choice cut: “Animals”
47. The Battle at Garden’s Gate | Greta Van Fleet
I still can’t get over the Led Zeppelin comparisons, but credit to Greta Van Fleet: they are really trying to distance themselves from all of that nonsense here. Whether that was by choice or by natural progression remains to be seen, but there is no denying that this is a work of a band that want to make clear that they are not second-class clones. Case in point is the magnificent “Age of Machine”, one of the best songs of the year.
Choice cut: “Age of Machine”
46. Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent
This is obviously not the best album of the year according to my humble opinion, but it is surely the most interesting one. Coming off as a modern-day David Bowie (or an Americanised P.J. Harvey), there is experimentation not only from one song to the next, but from one chord to the next within each song. It’s a tapestry of soundscapes that oscillate from late-night lounge to full-on alt-rock and the effect is dazzling. While you’re at it, also check out her cover of Metallica’s “Sad But True” on the The Metallica Blacklist album.
Choice cut: The Melting of the Sun
45. Typhoons | Royal Blood
We are still living the hype and perhaps it’s time to stop calling it a hype. Although it doesn’t have the same ‘wtf is going on here?!’ feel of their previous two albums, Royal Blood once again turn the volume up to 10 and the cool up to 11. The duo bombards us with one brilliant riff after another and the result is another really good (albeit a little too polished) album.
Choice cut: “Oblivion”
44. As Blue As Indigo | Tigercub
Yet another Brighton band. Tigercub’s debut is a hard rock album that touches radio pop, with a proggy side hustle. It’s full of vigour and invention with some of the grooviest riffs this side of … well, Royal Blood. But, unlike the Glastonbury-ness of their local comrades, this is more geared for the headbangers and riffmongers.
Choice cut: “Sleepwalker”
43. Steadman’s Wake | The Connells
What a time to be alive — the greatest one-hit-wonders of the 1990s are still around and making some cracking music. Admittedly, I am completely in the dark about The Connells’ output since that song, but after hearing this I have a lot to catch up on. If you’re up for full-on 1990s nostalgia, this is the album for it. Don’t be fooled, though — this is still an album of 2021, especially lyrically. But nothing’s wrong with a stroll down memory lane.
Choice cut: “Steadman’s Wake”
42. Joy Bomb | dUg Pinnick
As soon as that unmistakable gospel vocal kicks in, you know the quality will shortly follow. While a new King’s X album doesn’t seem to be around the corner, we are lucky that Doug Pinnick is keeping us entertained with side projects and solo albums (under dUg Pinnick moniker). Funky bass, endlessly singalong choruses, and subtle arrangements … the world needs more of his kind.
Choice cut: “Equally Divided”
41. Anti | White Void
Based on Albert Camus’ theory of Absurdism, this is the next generation of “thinking man’s metal” (why is it always a ‘man’?). Anyway, unlike the subject matter’s heavy significance, this is a lighter-sounding album with full of late-70s guitar hooks and unabashed love of 80s synth rock. It does veer into a doom-laden pop occasionally, which shows their appreciation of Ghost, surely. As far as debuts go, this is an exceptionally accomplished one.
Choice cut: “The Fucking Violence of Love”
40. This Is How the World Ends | Badflower
They can be as subtle as a bugle in a library sometimes, but Badflower are very good songwriters (and pretty awesome live too). They’ve clearly matured here, but the punk attitude is there and their sweaty middle finger is still high up in the air for those who’ve crossed them. It’s an angry album full of in-your-face and oh-so-delicious punk rock. Like Weezer hanging out in detention with Faith No More.
Choice cut: “Family”
39. Doom Crew Inc. | Black Label Society
As reliable as a cold winter, Black Label Society have been making solid albums for what feels like forever. With their latest, they are not rewriting the rulebook — headbanging Southern-fried riffage in between jaw-dropping shred solos and the Ozzy-like drawl of Zakk Wylde. If there is one thing that’s different is that the whole album feels a little bit more mid-tempo than some of their other recent albums. It just works and if you’re in need for some rifftastic tunage, look no further.
Choice cut: “Set You Free”
38. Surface Sounds | Kaleo
Iceland’s Kaleo had a lot to live up to after their breakthrough album A/B and with the much-delayed Surface Sounds they deliver exactly that. This is a fantastic set of songs that traverse the world of blues, soul, and indie rock to great effect. There is a cathartic moment in virtually every song here, which is probably why it works better when taken in small doses. And that’s why it is not higher up on this list.
Choice cut: “Alter Ego”
37. The Future Bites | Steven Wilson
I had (and still have) some reservations about this album. While Steven Wilson is the epitome of consistent brilliance over the years as a solo performer or with his other projects, the overtly pop / electronica feel of the early singles from this album seemed a step too far. It’s a grower, as they say. And it’s probably going to grow over the coming years too. He is, for want of a better word, a true genius — I mean, who else would have Elton John as a guest on a song where he randomly lists consumer products? Genius.
Choice cut: “Personal Shopper”
36. Carnage | Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
There are very few people in music who genuinely make me uncomfortable, in a good way. Nick Cave and his long-time musical partner Warren Ellis are near the top of that list. As with any album bearing either man’s name in some form or fashion, this keeps you guessing all the way through. It’s so dark, weird, cathartic, introspective, expansive … it’s a trip, all right.
Choice cut: “Hand of God”
35. No Gods No Masters | Garbage
Another nostalgic comeback (is it?). Garbage never really fit in with the mainstream or the indie scene. I’ve always liked them, but never really ‘loved’ them. Not sure if this is going to change that opinion, but it reminded me how consistently good they can be. Any of these songs could easily fit in to the albums from their heyday, but the feminist stance feels more urgent now than it did back then. Obviously the current socio-political climate emphasises that, but it only makes this album (and Garbage’s music) truly timeless.
Choice cut: “Wolves”
34. The Million Masks of God | Manchester Orchestra
I’m very late on the Manchester Orchestra bandwagon, but better late than never, right? Vocalist Andy Hull, who sounds a bit like Passenger, carries the songs to soaring heights that many indie pop bands have tried and failed miserably for decades. Uplifting, epic, and truly beautiful, this is a much-needed band / album for our times.
Choice cut: “Angel of Death”
33. Brighten | Jerry Cantrell
Jerry Cantrell is such an integral part of Alice in Chains that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his solo albums sound quite a bit like subdued Alice In Chains. That’s not a negative criticism, but it’s hard to dissociate the man from the band he co-fronted for over three decades (give or take). Despite the obvious comparison, this is a singularly good album. Slightly country-infused in places, which softens the effect and it’s a welcome addition to his repertoire. An album for big arenas, with big sing-along choruses.
Choice cut: “Siren Song”
32. In the Court of the Dragon | Trivium
I reckon Trivium might be the most consistent metal band of the last few decades. Admittedly they probably never fulfilled their potential as the saviours of metal when they came out on the big stage in early noughties, but they have managed to stay relevant without compromising their sound too much. And this album is a worthy addition to their already respectable oeuvre. It’s full of rifftastic songs with breakdowns as heavy as an elephant’s behind and some jaw-dropping guitar histrionics. What’s not to like?
Choice cut: “Like a Sword over Damocles”
31. Van Weezer | Weezer
With a delayed release due to you-know-what, expectations were sky high for Weezer’s ‘hard rock’ album. If you view it from that perspective, the album is a failure. Because it’s not a hard rock album. Arguably, it’s no heavier than any of the earlier Weezer albums. Yes, the guitars are more upfront, but the songs are still those lovely pop-rock anthems that we all learned to love and hate in equal measure. If you look at it as another Weezer album, though, then it’s definitely one of the better ones of the last few years. It’s not their best from this year though …
Choice cut: “I Need Some of That”
30. Open Door Policy | The Hold Steady
Okay, I’m probably vastly underrating this. But, hear me out. It is a fantastic set of songs. You know exactly what you’re getting with The Hold Steady and they (almost) always deliver. The main issue I have with this (and with all of their other albums) is that I think their music works best in smaller doses and if a higher dose is needed, they are best served live. That’s the only quibble I have, because each of these songs are about specific contexts and I appreciate them more piece by piece. And these are glorious pieces: uplifting, tongue firmly stuck in cheek, rocking when they need to. Top-shelf quality.
Choice cut: “Lanyards”
29. Medicine at Midnight | Foo Fighters
One of the few things that got me going in early 2021, in the face of all that was going around us, was this album. I think it wore off slightly as I think it has a couple of fillers without which this would have been a good contender for the best Foo Fighters album. Still, it’s a cracking album that sees the band stretch their muscles a lot more subtly this time around. It’s exactly what we needed at that time and I’m eternally grateful for it.
Choice cut: “Medicine at Midnight”
28. OK Human | Weezer
Well, here it is: the best Weezer album of 2021. And I can hear some of you wondering where the guitars had gone. I did too. Then I learned to love the album. Its introspection both in the themes it’s exploring and in its arrangements made this the perfect album for lockdown. It wasn’t all doom and gloom as there are plenty of light moments that you always expect to hear on a Weezer album. Don’t call it a comeback, but as a stand-alone (and even maybe as a throw-away) album, this is one of the best they’ve ever done.
Choice cut: “Grapes of Wrath”
27. Migration | Bossk
With a little help from their friends, Kent’s Bossk deliver a sophomore album full of ferocious riffery and atmospheric soundscapes. Arguably too hipster even for the post-metal crowd, this is an intelligent and extremely talented band. You can clearly hear the immense influence of Cult of Luna in their arrangements (Johannes Persson even makes an appearance on the album highlight, “Menhir”) and that’s not a bad thing, of course. The band still manage to carve their own sound out of it all. Not something for a lazy Sunday afternoon, but for a rainy weekday evening, this is perfect.
Choice cut: “Menhir”
26. A View from the Top of the World | Dream Theater
Despite its mid-table showing on this list for yet another Dream Theater album (I really miss the early noughties DT), this feels like a better album than their last six. It feels more nuanced and not just a collection of instrument-wankery. This is the first time in over a decade where it feels like they are progressing to something different and not retreading the same old ground. I don’t think this is a comeback that I was hoping for, but it’s definitely a sign of better things to come.
Choice cut: “Answering the Call”
25. A Beautiful Life | Heartless Bastards
What a joy to get a Heartless Bastards album, knowing that you will get a perfect slab of indie rock, with a tongue firmly stuck to the cheek, taking you to a journey of ebbs and flows. It’s an idiosyncratic album even by their own standards —this was originally slated to be a solo album and vocalist Erika Wennerstrom really makes her mark on each song here. Especially on the album highlight and one of the best songs of the year, “Went Around the World”. You can almost smell the artisan coffee emanating from whatever medium you’re listening to this on.
Choice cut: “Went Around the World”
24. Aphelion | Leprous
Once I managed to get over vocalist Einar Solberg’s falsetto-Ian Astbury vocals (I deeply dislike Ian Astbury’s vocals and subsequently any song by The Cult), this album opened up to being something truly special. Revelatory, even. It’s so subtly complex that it makes true prog sound extremely accessible. That may not be something the anoraks will like much, but who cares? If there is a band that can take prog to the mainstream, then Norway’s Leprous are that band. This has been my introduction to them and if it is the same for you, then get ready for a pleasant surprise.
Choice cut: “The Silent Revelation”
23. Glow on | Turnstile
This sounds like a bridge between the post-grunge of the late 1990s and the mainstream American rock radio of the 2000s, but definitely way cooler than either thankfully-short-lived musical movements. The deep and muffled distortions, crisp production, short and snappy songs … it’s all too familiar, but Turnstile are so confident in their songwriting that it all sounds somehow contemporary. New. Fresh. You can almost imagine the music video when you’re listening to any of these songs. Am I a little nostalgic? Maybe.
Choice cut: “Don’t Play”
22. Ain’t It Tragic | Dead Sara
Los Angeles hipsters Dead Sara have always managed to sound authentic with their heady mix of 1990s bubblegum pop and proper punk, all swirling in a pool of indie rock. It’s a loose, raucous album that has an unmistakably young but confident vibe. Some of the music belies the maturity in their lyrics and that dichotomy works extremely well. They’ve toned down some of their more punk-ish edges here and I think that really helps them too.
Choice cut: “Hypnotic”
21. Deceiver | Khemmis
I don’t know what happened to Khemmis (other than apparently parting with their bass player), but this is a much looser and open band than the one I know. It sounds much more expansive than before; everything sounds bigger … and better. In addition to their melodic doom sound, they’ve added heavier elements that create a wonderful interplay between the two extremes. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, this is all too brief, but if this is the shape of things to come from Khemmis, I’m on board.
Choice cut: “Shroud of Lethe”
20. God Is Partying | Andrew W.K.
“What the actual fuck?!” was my actual reaction when I first heard “Babalon”, the first single from the God of Party’s upcoming album. What happened to the king of the ABBA-meets-Metallica genre? Where is this darkness coming from? And, where is the party?! Mind you, “Babalon” is a brilliant song (that RIFF). But so unlike the Andrew W.K. that I knew and loved (still remains one of the best live performers I’ve ever seen). So, with bated breath I listened to the album the day it came out. And, oh yes. It was dark, all right (well, relatively speaking, of course). But, and this is crucial, it was a really, really good album. I mean, [slow clap] …
Choice cut: “Babalon”
19. The Ultra Vivid Lament | Manic Street Preachers
Get ready to have your mind blown: this is only the second Manics album that topped the charts in the UK. Say, what?! This is a collection of breezy indie rock that still bites when it needs to, but the overall effect is much looser than you would expect from them. They are still great.
Choice cut: “The Secret He Had Missed”
18. The Nightmare of Being | At the Gates
Swedish metal royalty At the Gates’ latest album is a ferocious slab of melodic death metal. At times going at breakneck pace, there are a lot of hummable moments throughout the album. There is a punk-ish quality to it as well, which has always set At the Gates apart from their most obvious Gothenburg metal rivals/contemporaries. But this is still a balls-to-the-wall metal album full of epic, fist-in-the-air tunage.
Choice cut: “The Paradox”
17. Eternal Blue | Spiritbox
Many bands claim to transcend genres, but few truly manage to do it properly like Spiritbox. On this, their debut, they alternate from alt rock to punk to prog to death to black metal in reckless abandon. And the result isn’t a hodgepodge of random tunes, but a truly awesome collection of songs and styles. It’s heavy, melodic, emotional, cathartic, and always surprising. As far as debut albums go, this is up there with the very best.
Choice cut: “Holy Roller”
16. Arrows | Red Fang
If there is a way to turn the fuzz up (or down, I guess), Red Fang can and will do it. This is filthy; so dense in weed smoke that you may want to clean your speakers / headphones immediately after every listen. As expected from Red Fang, the riffs come from all angles here and it’s impossible to resist bobbing your head along to the beat. Grooves trap you in their wake and you’re helplessly trying to hold on to something, anything that is clean. But there is nothing clean about this. It’s pure filth. It’s fucking awesome.
Choice cut: “Arrows”
15. Resident Human | Wheel
Cerebral (pun somewhat intended re album cover) prog at its best. Wait … isn’t prog always cerebral? I mean, isn’t that the whole point? Yes, to an extent. Once in a while a band that comes along that you know they are playing music not for the sake of it, but because that’s the only style they can do. And that’s not a criticism. I’m way too late on the bandwagon ((bad) pun somewhat intended re the band’s name), but I’m glad I’m on it now.
Choice cut: “Dissipating”
14. Servant of the Mind | Volbeat
You wait for years to have multiple albums from Denmark in your end-of-year list and it finally happens in the most glorious, satisfying way. Perhaps there is a bit of recency bias (this is the most recently released album on this list) and to avoid that I might be underrating it actually. I’m not sure this is my favourite Volbeat album, but it is without a doubt that one that gave me the most joyful experience. And it’s heavy. Reliably heavy. Take “Shotgun Blues” (one of the best songs of the year) or “Becoming” and witness a masterclass in heavy catchiness.
Choice cut: “Shotgun Blues”
13. Echoes from a Mass | Greenleaf
Greenleaf might just be the best stoner rock band in the world and their latest is just a wonderful slab of rifftastic singalong fuzz-rock. Their seemingly endless repertoire of hummable grooves may not be revolutionary, but their slightly idiosyncratic take on stoner rock is refreshing compared to overtly sunny take of their North American counterparts. I can’t imagine the likes of Kyuss and Fu Manchu emulate the subtlety of a song like “Needs in My Eye”, for example (as great bands they both are). I’m already looking forward to their next album.
Choice cut: “Needle in My Eye”
12. Marching in Time | Tremonti
When not out with his mates at Alter Bridge, guitar-god (yes) Mark Tremonti churns out some high quality heavy rock with the band that shares his name. You would think he might be recycling riffs that are perhaps too heavy for his other, bigger band, but that’s never the case with Tremonti. And this is no exception. Not quite heavy to be classified as traditional heavy metal, but it’s not a cop-out either— there is quality heaviosity here on each song. Sit back and listen in awe as Tremonti the man chuggs along one neck-breaking riff after another. Glorious stuff.
Choice cut: “In One Piece”
11. The Dark | Delta Rae
I generally like Delta Rae, but they are exceptionally good when they tap into gothic Americana. And as if they’ve heard me thinking about this, one year after their (let’s face it) disappointing The Light, they release its much better evil twin. They’re still playful, though. I mean, the lyrics for “Take off Your Shoes” are wonderfully cheeky. Their brand of countrified folk works really well with these sets of songs as they mix Americana, bluegrass, gospel, and the occasional occult. Superb.
Choice cut: “All Good People”
10. The Raging River | Cult of Luna
Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, this so-called EP packs more ideas in 6 songs than many bands (even post-metal bands) come up with in their entire careers. Cult of Luna are clearly riding extremely high these days and I’m not even sure we’ve seen the best of them just yet. Paraphrasing a friend of mine (huge fan, got me hooked on the band in the first place): they are unable to make bad music. I’m beginning to think that might be true.
Choice cut: “Three Bridges”
9. Witness | VOLA
And here’s the second Danish album on the list. Having found out about VOLA and this album fairly late in the year may have created a recency bias in my opinion, but I am fairly certain that in the coming years I will be revisiting this album fairly frequently. Progressive rock is having a great year and VOLA’s mix of 1990s progressive rock and electronica works extremely well. Subtlety is an art form in prog and VOLA nailed it here.
Choice cut: “Inside Your Fur”
8. Senjutsu | Iron Maiden
After months of speculation and many an internet conspiracy theory, Iron Maiden released their latest album. At first, I wasn’t too sure. Not because of the folksy first single “The Writing on the Wall” (it’s a great song), but mostly because all songs sounded comfortable in that mid-tempo range. It all sounded a little flat as a whole. And Bruce Dickinson’s vocals seem to be lost in the mix somewhere, he sounded tired. I got over the first and I’m still on the fence on the latter. This is a grower. And when it does, it’s incredibly rewarding. If for nothing else, it features one of the best songs Steve Harris has ever penned, “Hell on Earth”. I mean, it’s an Iron Maiden album. It can’t be bad. (yes, I’m aware of Virtual XI and No Prayer for the Dying).
Choice cut: “Hell on Earth”
7. Hushed and Grim | Mastodon
This could have been number one. It should have been number one. It’s perfect in all ways, but one. And it took me a lot to finally admit that Mastodon are in dire need of a vocalist. Putting that aside, this album is everything I want from a Mastodon album and definitely their best since The Hunter. Admittedly, they’ve been coasting a little lately, but here they’ve returned to their own brand of progressive nerd metal that only they can do well.
Choice cut: “Skeleton of Splendor”
6. Monuments | The Vintage Caravan
I LOVE The Vintage Caravan — they are a treasure that just keeps on giving. Admittedly, it’s the same old 1970s-hard-rock-meets-nerd-rock that they’ve given us in their previous albums, but what a joy it is. Pick any song and it is guaranteed to give you a perma-smile and will have you hit that repeat button immediately.
Choice cut: “Dark Times”
5. Colors II | Between the Buried and Me
Fuck. Yes. It’s a daring move by any band to write a ‘sequel’ to their (arguably) best album. Few can pull it off (Queensrÿche tried it with Operation: Mindcrime and it was … all right), but Between the Buried and Me not only did a good job, I would argue they did an even better job. In fact, this is easily their best album (and they’ve got a lot of those). Not sure I’ve said “Fuck. Yes.” this many times for an album in such a long time. Fuck. Yes.
Choice cut: “The Future Is Behind Us”
4. Imperial | Soen
I’m relatively new to Soen, but taking into account its release date, I think I went back to this album the most throughout the year. Their mix of soft-Tool and hints of mid-noughties Amorphis works extremely well. What’s fascinating about this album is that despite its heaviness, if you like, it still sounds accessible. Without a weak song in sight, it’s time people check out Soen.
Choice cut: “Dissident”
3. Argent Moon (EP) | Insomnium
Insomnium’s melodic doom may not be to everyone’s taste (I’ve often wished they were just a teeny bit faster), but there is no denying that this 4-song EP is the best 4 consecutive songs recorded this year. There is a clear debt to the likes of Agalloch on “The Wanderer”, one of the best songs of the year. “The Conjurer” throws melodies at you that you will not forget easily. The expansive soundscape they create on this album is the perfect antidote of our closed-off year (and more). Embrace the harsh vocals and lose yourself in its melodies.
Choice cut: “The Wanderer”
2. Persona Non Grata | Exodus
Coming in late in the year, Exodus continue their amazing run of albums. Arguably they are at the peak of their career — a career that spans nearly four decades now (eek!). The ending of the titular song should initiate impromptu mosh pits in every situation you find yourself in. It’s one bludgeoningly heavy riff after another, all delivered in an endless loop of grooves and melodies. It’s unrelentingly heavy and catchy at the same time. This is thrash metal done right.
Choice cut: “Slipping into Madness”
1. Fortitude | Gojira
As soon as it came out, virtually every metal fan in the world (probably) thought to themselves: here it is, nothing’s going to beat this. We all knew it. It was coming after their previous, brilliant Magma and the singles they teased before the album’s release were very, very good. This was going to be special. And it’s the easiest choice for number one. Nothing is wasted. Everything’s so tight. Every song is a journey; they are all different but fit each other perfectly. It’s a bar that few bands can set this confidently. Gojira are the best metal band in the world right now.
Choice cut: “The Chant”