D-Rock's Top 21 Albums of '21
|Photo by me at Shoreline Amphitheatre in California at a concert featuring Korn & Staind
2021 may not have been an especially good year in other ways but it was most certainly an amazing year for music. Not only did live music return (which I have complex but mostly joyful and grateful feelings about) but dozens upon dozens of fantastic albums were released this year. So I thought it only fitting to celebrate the year in music with this list of my top albums of 2021. Bearing in mind that rankings are always a little complex and these things are constantly shifting (my top three are honestly pretty much interchangeable based on my mood) blah blah blah all art is subjective, etc....enjoy my top 21 albums of 2021!
I'll be the first to admit I might be a little biased about this one--as a trans nonbinary person who has followed the career of Nat Puff since 2018's "Transgender Street Legend Vol. 1," this one has a lot of meaning for me personally. Honestly, the main reason I'm ranking this so high is because of how impressed I am with how much Nat has grown as a musician and artist. She's always made music with an air of confidence but with "T.I.A.P.F.Y.H." her confidence seems to have grown dramatically. This is evident not just in the savvy and sophistication of the songwriting, as it was on her previous releases, but also in the boldness of the experimentation, fusing her indie pop/R&B sound with elements of indietronica, electropop, prog, and even some hints of deconstructed club. It's an album that almost tells us more about her potential than anything but it still is excellent in its own right while hinting at bigger and better things in the future if she continues her path of measured experimentation.
What an absolutely unique hip hop record this was! Zambian-Canadian artist Ashanti Mutinta, a black trans woman with an unapologetic creative vision, has certainly established herself as a force to be reckoned with on "I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses," a thick slab of industrial hip hop so forceful and focused it's almost hard to believe. It wouldn't be off-base to fit this with the "horrorcore" label although anyone who's a fan of industrial music knows what a genre staple the overarching foreboding, horror-esque atmospheres are and they're used to brilliant effect with Ashanti's ferocious delivery. If I have one complaint about this album it's that it never quite lives up to the promise of its opening salvo, particularly the all out assault of a title track so harsh that it blurs the lines between industrial hip hop and industrial metal (partially due to the searing guest vocals of Ada Rook, formerly of Black Dresses). A full album of that sort of experimentation and abrasiveness would likely be deserving of a spot in my top ten or even top five whereas this album does, at times, become somewhat repetitive. It's a small complaint, though, and the album is ruthless and inventive enough to come pretty damn close to cracking the top ten in its own right. Can't wait to see how much further Ashanti takes this vision on her next album.
Over the past two decades, Cult of Luna have pretty well established themselves as one of the top atmospheric sludge metal bands in the genre and with Isis and Neurosis all but sliding out of relevancy (at least with regards to new music), Cult of Luna are essentially the lone torch-bearers of the genre these days (with the possible exception of Rosetta, who haven't released an album in four years, and The Ocean, who seem mostly focused on collaboration albums these days). Their latest EP (which, at 38 minutes long, really only constitutes an EP by Cult of Luna's standards) is actually a collection of "outtakes" from their previous 79-minute opus, "A Dawn to Fear." You'd never know it though because this album stands very much on its own. "The Raging River," for my money, is a perfect illustration of all the things that set Cult of Luna apart from their contemporaries--an innate sense of melodic composition that beautifully combines their post-rock and sludge metal influences, a unique sensitivity to dynamic range that spans the full spectrum, and a sophisticated understanding of how to build emotion and momentum structurally into their songs. Even in the weird, warbly interlude in the middle of the album, they almost lost me but it serves as a perfect set-up for the crushing "I Remember," which is my favorite song on the album. My only other (very slight) complaint might be that although I love the driving, almost danceable beat of the closer "Wave After Wave," it does take a little while to "get to the point" so to speak--but when it does get there it's completely worth it. Leave it to Cult of Luna--models of consistency over their two decades as a band--to turn an "EP" of "outtakes" into one of the top albums of the year.
If there's one word that can adequately describe this album, it's BLEAK. From the desperately shrill vocals (and haunting backing vocals from Oathbreaker's Caro Tanghe who also lends her own shrill screams to the mix) to the bulldozer-heavy guitars and bass to the ruthlessly foreboding atmosphere looming over the whole production, it's enough to make you want to walk into the ocean (a feeling I'm sure many of us are intimately familiar with In These Times). The opening track, "Ogentroost" is particularly a highlight, especially if you're a huge AEW/Malakai Black fan like myself and recognize his entrance theme as an (extremely) abridged version of this song. But then something happens toward the end of "De Evenmens"--right around the middle of the record itself. A glimmer of hope emerges. You start to think the record is about to take a significant turn and just as you start to think that, this glimmer of hope falters. But it doesn't disappear. Instead it dissolves into a sort of sense of despair tinged with hope--or at least the yearning for hope--and slowly builds, climaxing with the album's closing song, "Voor Immer," which comes ever so close to reaching the hope it so desperately desires--but this isn't that kind of album. Still, the hopelessly hopeful beauty of the end of this album leaves you with something to hold onto and that's what makes it so great. It takes you on a journey and leaves you somewhere quite different from where it started but also different from what you expected. I love albums that can do that and if you do too, I definitely recommend checking this one out.
Following in the massive footsteps of legendary bands such as Death and Coroner, London's Atvm have produced an excellent debut full-length of progressive technical death/thrash metal with a flavor all their own. What I love most about this record is that it's perhaps as accessible and catchy as it is dense and heavy which is an extremely difficult line to toe and Atvm do it admirably, a testament to their high level of songwriting ability that blends the prog influences and the metal influences so well that they're pretty much inseparable. The riffs, much like those of Death and Coroner, rely on mid-range speed and technicality (rather than low-end bombast) for heaviness while also providing a lot of melody, the song structures are compelling and infectious while still reveling in the transient forward momentum that is such a staple of both prog and tech death/thrash, the drumming is punchy, raw, and technical, and the production brings out every aspect of all of this beautifully.
I've listened to this several times now and I'm still not quite sure I fully grasp and understand this wild and wonderful explosion of avant-klezmer post-punk madness and maybe I don't need to. Maybe I'm better off just letting this record have its way with me over and over and mindfuck me into oblivion. If you're looking for something completely and utterly unlike anything you've ever heard, there might be no better album for you than this one. Rich instrumentation with a broad dynamic range and a wide array of influences all meld together wonderfully in this delightfully surprising burst of pure creativity. I wish I had more to say about this but trying to describe this album is like trying to describe color to a blind person. It's better if you just go experience it for yourself. Just leave Kanye out of this.
There really is only one way to describe this album: relentless. I mean this thing is just an absolutely unforgiving buzzsaw that barely gives you a chance to breathe in its all-out assault on your senses. Combining blistering djent-style mathcore chaos with ear-splitting glitch electronics and noise elements, this album is not for the faint of heart. Normally, I find myself bristling at albums this completely overwhelming as they become both monotonous and unwieldy and it's simultaneously boring and way too much for my brain to handle but for some reason that never happens here. I think because the band is both tightly focused and supremely confident in their vision as well as cognizant enough to throw in just enough variety to keep things interesting throughout. In its relentlessness it still manages to dabble in different tempos, textures, moods, and even some melodic passages which keeps everything feeling very fresh and unpredictable enough to keep you compelled the whole way through. Truly a singular sonic experience if there ever was one--but one that definitely is not for everyone.
I fell in love instantly with this massive, manic, messy slab of chaotic industrial rage from two badass trans women. Ada Rook and Devi McCallion have created something really special here on what tragically may be their posthumous swan song as they broke up in May of last year due to Devi's continued harassment by some of their fans. I can't help feeling very disappointed and angered by this, especially as a trans nonbinary person, knowing how all-too-common it is for any trans person with even a small modicum of fame to be persecuted, and I hope Devi is safe and taking care of her health. And I'm thankful that we at least get to have the gift of this phenomenal posthumous album. There's so much to love here from the devastating textures to the surprisingly beautiful melodies to the wildly emotional, dynamic vocal performances but what I love most is that this record never seems content to stay in one place very long. Ranging from sleepy, buzzing melodic passages to galloping spurts of pop to abrasive heaps of screaming metallic rage and spanning the whole spectrum in between, it's not always a pleasant experience exactly but it is always a unique and very raw and honest one.
This one really took me by surprise in the best possible way. Although I definitely like a little bit of everything when it comes to music, there are certain things that aren't usually in my wheelhouse and synthpop/dance-pop is one of them. But like anything else that isn't generally my thing, when it's good, it's REALLY good and that's definitely true of synthpop duo Magdalena Bay's debut full-length "Mercurial World." This album does so many things so well--for starters, the production of Matthew Lewin is really pretty much flawless. Not just the way everything sounds immaculate but the music itself is so intricately crafted with so many colorful flourishes. The beats are infectious and at times bombastic, there are so many colors and textures going on here, and at times the album is unafraid to get loud or borrow from other genres like indie or shoegaze or hyperpop. On top of all that is Mica Tenenbaum's amazing voice--the production is slick but that 100% works here and it's pretty clear she can sing with or without it, plus there are passages with little effects and things on her voice that are so beautifully done. This is one of those pop albums that will stay with you for a long time, begging to be listened to over and over and over. I, frankly, can't wait to listen to it again. And again.
Like so many other disenchanted Weezer fans, I've been waiting over twenty years for the band to make an album this good again. Some of us thought there might be a glimmer of hope with 2005's "Make Believe," a respectable--if somewhat clunky and inconsistent--entry into the band's increasingly dismal catalog (for my money, "Perfect Situation" and "Hold Me" still rank among the best songs the band has ever produced and "This Is Such a Pity" also rules; still, it's hard to forgive the musical crime of "Beverly Hills" in all its duck-soloing glory) but at least it sounded like they were actually trying again finally. But everything after was sort of in line with the theme of the aftermath of "Pinkerton" leading up to the Green Album--wherein Rivers was so deeply affected by the supposed "failure" of "Pinkerton" that he went into seclusion for 5 years only to emerge with the goal of making music that "makes people happy." That has more or less become Weezer's M.O. for the last 20 years until "OK Human." Directly influenced by The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and Harry Nilsson's "Nilsson Sings Newman," Weezer finally found a way music that both makes people happy and is actually inspired. Teaming up with a 38-piece orchestra on a collection of songs that bleed together into a tight 31-minute conceptual masterpiece that perhaps evokes shades of Ben Folds more than anything else, Weezer has created something as deeply personal and intoxicatingly memorable as anything they've done, coming very close to equaling the greatness of their first two albums.
This is, in many ways, the perfect progression of a new, much more simplified sound that the band began exploring with 2017's "Luciferian Towers." It has much more of the older Godspeed trademarks, mixing in more field recordings and shortwave radio recordings and more atmospheric flourishes and unsettling, desolate soundscapes with this climactic melody-driven sound. Things are once again much more menacing and apocalyptic and hopelessly hopeful where "Luciferian Towers" dwelt much more in the uplifting and dramatic. There are even moments like "Cliffs Gaze" where the band seems to expand into new territory even as it all sounds strangely familiar at the same time. It may not satisfy die-hard Godspeed fans who don't care much for the band's simpler new direction but it also may be the band's most focused and cohesive representation of everything they've ever done and everything they hope to do in the future.
Admittedly, shoegaze is a genre that is often very hit-or-miss for me. I certainly would not be offended by anyone taking this review with a grain of salt from someone who has tried many times to get into My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" and just doesn't get the hype (personally I like to be able to actually hear and decipher what the band is playing but that's just me). Having said that, this sophomore album by South Korea's Parannoul (who I was amazed to find is just one guy "writing music in his bedroom" as he puts it) is a refreshing take on the genre that really blew me away. The thing that sets this album apart for me is the energy it brings to shoegaze, which is very often quite slow and meditative, as the moniker would suggest. This unique energy is largely due to the effortless fusion of influences ranging from emo to indie rock to post hardcore that imbibes the music with driving forward momentum. The songs are by turns meditative and intense, epic and intimate, simple and complex, sometimes at the same time. This is definitely an album that demands repeated listens to fully experience it all but every listen is a completely immersive experience (listening on headphones or very good speakers is a must). And I can't recommend highly enough having the lyrics handy because the existential dread they invoke is a perfect companion to the wall of sound and energy that envelopes you.
This is a true collaboration in every sense of the word and it's everything you would hope and expect it to be and more. Anyone who's followed the career of Converge--especially everything from Jane Doe on--won't be surprised that a band that, while best known for blistering chaotic metalcore, has created such sprawling melodic epics as "Jane Doe," "In Her Shadow," "Grim Heart/Black Rose," "Worms Will Feed," and "The Dusk In Us" could combine forces so beautifully with someone like Chelsea Wolfe to create something very different from anything in either artist's discography and yet still unmistakably Converge and Chelsea Wolfe. Starting off with the epic soundscapes you would expect, the middle of the record begins to pick up momentum and then dive into some very interesting and somewhat diverse moods and textures. It's hard to argue that "Crimson Stone" is the emotional climax of the album and while it's definitely the most simple and straightforward song on the album, the mood and feeling it evokes are beautiful and dramatic. I wouldn't go so far as to say, as many others have, that this is the best song on the album--in fact, I was much more enamored with the prior track, "Daimon," a very desolate old west ghost town of a song that's very reminiscent of some of the finer such moments in both artists' respective catalogs--but it's definitely a fitting final chapter (with the last track, "Blood Dawn," providing a sort of epilogue to the album), bringing the drama and pathos in a way that ties the album together beautifully.
An incredibly unique artistic statement that is truly captivating from the blistering cacophony of its opening track to the subtlety, variety, and dynamic range of its middle to the depth and complexity of its second half, culminating with an ending that, in context, is somehow the most unusual moment on the record--but also a fitting ending to a record that never goes where you expect. It doesn't seem possible that music this relentlessly creative and unique could exist in a day and age where it feels like everything has already been done and the only thing left to do is to do something that's already been done (or combine a few of them) as best you can and put as much of your own fresh perspective into it as possible. But there is, of course, another option: to do something so completely unheard of that the world can't help but take notice. And then there is also a whole spectrum of space between the two where this album thrives. "Cavalcade" is like nothing you've ever heard before and yet it still manages to have an eerily uncanny quality in so transforming the influences it arises from as to make them almost unrecognizable yet somehow vaguely familiar. That is truly the mark of great art.
After making a name in the underground as one of the most impenetrable but brilliant death industrial artists, Kristin Hayter, better known as Lingua Ignota, may well have made the best and most accessible album of her career, though no less overwhelmingly sombre and certainly brutal in its own way--especially emotionally. Exploring her oppressive religious upbringing in rural Pennsylvania (as well as seemingly some undertones of the sexual assault she professed to suffering at the hands of Daughters vocalist Alexis Marshall), Hayter writhes, wails, croons, and spits her way through a deliciously drab, funereal album of neoclassical darkwave wrought with jarring sounds and textures against a backdrop of Christian liturgical music-influenced hell that meanders and buzzes and mourns in infinitely engaging and compelling ways. I was particularly impressed by how an album that's so amorphous and lacking much in the way of rhythm or linear forward momentum or even direction at times is able to use a number of other colors and textures to keep things fresh and interesting without ever surrendering the oppressive sense of gloom that permeates the record. Definitely an album that's not like anything else you're likely to hear this year or really ever.
The way this album combines epic atmospheric black metal with elements of post-rock and even folk and Americana is endlessly captivating, especially the way the violin and high guitar melodies and solos weave their way through the devastating slabs of black metal as well as those handful of moments of quiet post-rock/folk beauty at the beginning, middle, and end of the record that really space out this 71 minute behemoth nicely. And forget "Wall of Sound," this is an absolutely towering monolith of sound. At times the production almost sort of acts as a shroud over a lot of the finer subtleties of the music, creating a sort of ghostly quality to the music where at times you almost wonder if you're hearing what you think you're hearing. It perfectly suits this towering, beastly apparition of an album. And never does "...And Again Into the Light" loom larger than it does on, for my money, the climax of the album: "Moth Eaten Soul." This wild and wonderful journey vacillates from foreboding black metal melodies to monstrous doom metal, chock full of memorable riffs, and clamors to a close with some haunting spoken word in that classic Mayhem-style grim black metal voice. And as brilliant as the song is, it serves almost as an epic set-up for the amazing final salvo of the album as it returns to its folky post-rock beginnings, leading into what could almost be called another climax with "The Embers at Dawn" which swells seamlessly from its post-rock beauty to its devastatingly epic second half. It's almost as if "Moth Eaten Soul" is the thrilling conclusion of Act Two and sets up the epic finale of Act Three. Unbelievably, at an incredibly spacious one hour and eleven minutes, it never once feels overlong. In fact, I would argue that it's actually over all too quickly. And the whole thing was created by one man! Bravo, Austin Lunn. Bravo.
This post-industrial experimental art-pop mauler is a masterclass in creating cohesion out of stark contrast. It almost feels like a shortwave radio message from a distant (or maybe not-so-distant) future where the machines have seized control of the world and the last remaining humans are sending out beacons of hope in the form of mechanically-drenched heavenly hymns that swell and burst with incredible beauty not just from the human elements but also the computerized ones--a perfect melding of ethereal human voices with abrasive-yet-heartrending mechanical ones. It's equal parts apocalyptic and ecstatic all at once--simultaneously a funeral procession for the death of the old world and a celebration of the birth of the new one. Bombastic and audacious yet emotional and delicate. Perhaps most of all, impossible to describe adequately.
4. Genesis Owusu - Smiling With No Teeth
I find myself struggling to articulate exactly why this album, for me at least, leaves every other hip hop album of 2021 in the dust and I think in the end it just boils down to variety and musicality. While I am a fan of hip hop it's not exactly what I would call my wheelhouse and therefore what I look for in a hip hop release may be quite different than what others might look for. I can acknowledge the talent and artistry of a lot of hip hop records but a relatively small sample of them really knock my socks off to become something I want to listen to on a regular basis and I think in most cases variety and musicality are at the core of that. This is a record that, while wearing its influences quite proudly on its sleeve, very much creates its own sound by melding and swirling them together in new and exciting ways, with every song dipping its brush into new genres and colors and textures--from funk to soul to alternative to punk--while painting with exceptionally refined strokes that never sacrifice cohesiveness for diversity. At the center of all of this is a very impressive vocal performance from Mr. Owusu-Ansah himself, not only in his achingly soulful crooning but also his unique rapping style, both of which perfectly compliment the musical melting pot of "Smiling With No Teeth."
This album is an absolute BEAST. I've never heard anything quite like this, even from avant garde metal legends Gorguts who are clearly a prominent influence but this is its own monstrous experience. Menacing and destructive and dense and chaotic and post-modern, even delving at times into sonorism as an influence with its many atonal and tone cluster chords. This album is to death metal what Deathspell Omega is to black metal--haunting and mind-bending and frantically punishing and altogether unique, pushing the boundaries of what you think of as music and sound into unfamiliar and deeply unsettling territory to create something entirely new and without precedent. It has to be experienced to be believed and I can't recommend highly enough getting your hands on an official copy of the album (whether it be digital or physical) as it was recorded in Full Dynamic Range and any unofficial copy of the album is likely to have some loss of quality (in fact, the band themselves discourage people from listening to the album on Spotify or other streaming services for this reason).
What do you get when you combine one of the all time great avant-garde spiritual jazz saxophonists with one of the most exciting new progressive electronic artists and the London Symphony Orchestra? Something very special. The beauty of this epic, hypnotic opus is in the simplicity. Never deviating too far from its central thesis, it instead builds on it and branches out from it while always staying singularly focused on its core theme. At the same time, each collaborator has ample time to truly shine--Pharoah is as brilliant as ever in his showcase moments of cascading free jazz while still being mindful that the atmosphere he is creating with his collaborators is the core of the work, and Floating Points so seamlessly melds with the orchestra in creating such grandiose yet intimate modern classical soundscapes that you can scarcely separate the two in talking about this album--though certainly the LSO does get their own chances to shine through. But really, all three elements combine beautifully in creating this incredible, unforgettable piece.
I almost feel bad for Brazilian brutal prog outfit Papangu because with this, their debut album "Holoceno," they have absolutely broken the scales and created astronomical expectations for the rest of their career. Much has been made of the way the band fuses sludge metal with a genre of music known as "zeuhl" (a genre combining elements of jazz, prog rock, and modern classical, pioneered by French artist Christian Vander and his influential band Magma, who were, for a long time, effectively the only band the label was applied to) but there is so much more going on here. It's not surprising that this album has been about seven years in the making because the level of density and complexity and meticulous songcraft is astounding and yet for what it is, this is also a relatively accessible album, in part due to being such a musically diverse melting pot of styles and influences that are fused so effortlessly and seamlessly as to meld into a singularly focused and cohesive sound. The band also has such an incredible knack for creating mood and evoking emotion with its melodies and harmonies and this serves as a truly compelling backdrop for some of the amazing technical precision and some really monster sludge riffs that at times call to mind King Crimson more so than, say, Neurosis or Melvins. This is an album that grips you from the very start and takes you on an amazing journey the never seems to go in the direction you expect it to but always in a direction that makes sense and is fresh, exciting, and captivating--and somehow even reaches new and greater heights with the album-closing title track; a truly spellbinding punctuation on an already brilliant album. Can't wait to see what they come up with next!
Thrice - Horizons / East
As a fan of Thrice for about 15 years now, I had somewhat mixed feelings about this one on first listen. The first thing I noticed here was that Thrice seems to have all but abandoned the lion's share of hardcore and post-hardcore influences that have defined the band for so long but also have been slowly evaporating more and more with each album in favor of a more focused alternative rock sound. I lamented this at first but the more I listened to the album, the more I appreciated the confidence and self-assuredness of a band who seems to have found their sweet spot. They may not take as many risks but that doesn't mean they've become so complacent that they don't take any, they're just more measured risks borne of a maturity and a sophistication of songwriting that comes from long years spent experimenting. They can't all be "Vheissu" or "The Alchemy Index" but Thrice has proven throughout the 2010s to be nothing if not consistent and the trend is showing no signs of slowing down in the 2020s.
BRUIT ≤ - The Machine Is Burning and Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again
This is one of those records that may not be the most groundbreakingly original thing you've ever heard but it does what it does extremely well and gives enough of a fresh take on it to make it interesting. There may be others who are more well-versed in the depths of the post-rock genre who find this to be thoroughly derivative but I love the aching beauty of this combined with the driving forward momentum compliments of some excellent bass work and delightful electronic and acoustic flourishes. The apocalyptic atmosphere and the field recordings definitely give it a bit of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor feel but I don't see this as being particularly derivative of the post-rock pioneers and really feel that this album holds its own admirably against its contemporaries in the genre.
Mare Cognitum - Solar Paroxysm
Epic atmospheric black metal is a genre that has been pretty much done to death over the last couple decades or so. Many have come and gone trying their hand at being the next Blut Aus Nord or Leviathan or Drudkh and not many have left much of a mark. After listening to Mare Cognitum's "Solar Paroxysm" (admittedly, without having heard any of his numerous other releases over the last ten years), I think the best I can say about this is that it's among the best of the latter group. It's nothing particularly groundbreaking or innovative within the genre but it does it well enough to still be more than worth your time. The riffs and the atmospheres are compelling enough to hold your attention for nearly an hour and I think I can safely say that pretty much every song has at least one moment of brilliance that makes it an hour worth spending and an album worthy of a place in your music library.
S280F - 28
This is an EXPERIENCE. Definitely not for everyone--it's weird and disjointed and hops back and forth between ambient modern classical and bombastic glitchy deconstructed club madness but if you like experimental music in the truest sense of really feeling like it's just throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks in an almost improvisational way (and I mean that in the best way possible), this is for you. Admittedly, the electronic bits are much more engaging but they're also pretty overwhelming and the ambient parts really give you a chance to breathe so it's kind of a good balance--although the electronic parts are also mostly front-loaded on the album so the back end can get a little indulgent and isn't quite as engaging, though still worth your time.