My Favorite Albums of 2021

Often times, as people get older, they stop following new music. Which is totally understandable: new responsibilities creep in, free time gets shorter, and our tastes get more set in stone. But thanks to Spotify being a thing, I’m happy to say that 2021 has been my most active year for new listens ever. This year was absolutely jam packed with amazing albums, with so many I loved that this list was very hard to decide on, and honestly, could probably change if you asked me again a few weeks from now. Because beyond the albums that I outright loved, there were plenty more than still caught my ear and stayed in my rotation for a while, never leaving me wanting for options when it came time to put something new on this year. Take a look at what albums I loved this year, and hey, maybe find a few that sound interesting to you, too!

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16. Weezer – OK Human

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up on Weezer at this point. Every time they pull me back in with a great album, they drop another 2 or 3 that simply aren’t even remotely good. So while I’ve mostly written them off, every once in a while I’m pleasantly surprised, and this time that surprise is OK Human. On this album Weezer take their biggest musical leap ever, by replacing the majority of their guitars and power-pop instrumentation with a full orchestra. The result here is their most honest, plain-spoken, and beautiful piece of work possibly ever. These songs glitter with gorgeous, Beatles-esque orchestration, augmenting the band’s already powerful ear for melody with a wall of talented musicians, and it’s a joy to listen to. While in recent years Rivers Cuomo has been pretending to be a cool, partying Californian teenager on record, OK Human finds him simply discussing the realities and mundanities of his middle aged life, and while that sounds boring on paper, it’s honestly refreshing to hear him just be his real self. That’s the quality that made the Blue album so relateably geeky, and Pinkerton a harrowing dive into the mind of a man becoming horribly isolated and misguided. And it’s what makes OK Human feel, well, human. Of course, Weezer would release the horribly corny Van Weezer just a few months later, making it the shortest lived cycle of me enjoying Weezer again yet, but this wonderful record dropped during a dark time early in the year, and it was exactly what I needed.

15. Circa Survive – A Dream About Love

After 4 long years without new Circa material (their longest gap yet), they’re back with an EP that I just couldn’t get enough of. On their previous album The Amulet, they dove into softer sounds that burned slower and sighed instead of shouted, and they’ve continued down that path here. On A Dream About Love, they introduce some twinkly keyboards to the mix, augmenting their already spacey and dreamy sound even more with a touch of ’80s nostalgia mixed in. These songs all sound beautifully sad, yet gleam with the glint of hope that maybe those good things won’t just have to be a dream.

14. Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone & CHRISTF****R

Portrayal of Guilt actually put out two short and sweet records this year, one early on in January and another to cap the year off in November. Both of these albums are hellish blasts of screamo, black metal, thrash, and maybe even a little post-metal, creating a dizzying array of ways to punish the listener. We Are Always Alone has a bit more of a spacier side, with some quieter sections peeking in to contrast against the more hateful ones, and CHRISTF****R burns with rage at almost every turn, as necessitated by such a ire-inducing title. I knew nothing about these guys when 2021 started, but as it ends, they’re very much on my radar for a while to come.

13. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

As a big Nine Inch Nails fan, I couldn’t help but get excited at the idea of NIN producing a pop album. Because for as noisy and harsh as NIN could get in their heyday, they still always flirted with those radio rock sensibilities that landed them their biggest hits, even though there wasn’t room for much more than flirting. On Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love…, NIN and Halsey strike gold together. Halsey gets to dip into a darker, edgier sound that her previous outings couldn’t offer, and NIN get to write those big hooks and straightforward pop songs they’ve probably always wanted to write. This record drips with the sonic DNA of NIN, with plenty of buzzsaw guitars and eerie piano/synthisizer sounds creating a thick atmosphere of unease and power, while Halsey uses these dark beds of sound to empower herself within her newfound motherhood and as a woman making her way through the spotlight while relentlessly seeking her own happiness. The result is a vital record that finds darkness in the beautiful things and beauty in the darkness, and I hope NIN decide to produce more artists this way in the future.

12. Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon

I’ll admit that I was never really hip to Genghis Tron in their scene days, because their particular brand of crazy electronic math metal was far away from something I would’ve liked in 2008. But with Dream Weapon reintroducing them to the world, I dove into their back catalog and found a lot to love there. But as much as I’ve come to love a record like Board Up the House, Dream Weapon takes the cake for me. Shedding all traces of their metallic past, you won’t find any blasts of hardcore or harsh vocals on this record. Instead, they opt for a dreamy fusion that could best be described as Nine Inch Nails making shoegaze. Dream Weapon earns its name by somehow being propulsive and spacey at the same time, grounded through superb drumming and absolutely thick with synth pads, effects-laden guitars, and dreamy vocals that act not so much as strong lyrical or melodic hooks but as another instrument and melody to blend into the haze. A lot of times that can work against a band, making their sounds hopelessly blend into each other and just becoming a vague murk. And while I’ve seen people say that about this record, too, I personally love it. It combines a lot of my favorite sounds in a way that makes it ridiculously easy to just put on a good pair of headphones and get lost inside of it, and Dream Weapon scratches a particular itch for me that I didn’t know needed scratching.

11. LiSA – Ladybug

Sometimes I need a musical pick-me-up, something to cleanse my palette and give me a break from the often angsty and dark stuff I thrive on. And almost every time, I find myself dipping into some kind of J-pop or J-rock, and LiSA has been one of my favorite artists in those realms for a while now. So when she dropped Ladybug this year, a project that straddles the line between EP and album, I just couldn’t get enough of it. Working as a sort of musical retrospective on her first ten years in the music business, it combines some nostalgic sounds of of her past while also pushing into fresher ones of the present, which means careening from sentimental ballads, upbeat pop rock songs, pure J-pop bubblegum, and a dark electronic track that borders on rap with ease. Simply put, it’s an easy, fun listen, with plenty of different styles packed into its short runtime that make it impossible for me to get bored of.

10. Cynic – Ascension Codes

Cynic has had a rough go of things this decade. In 2014, the band seemed to implode after a series of shows in Japan, and they went radio silent for years after. And then, in the midst of an already hard year, they tragically lost two of their key founding members, drummer Sean Reinhert and bassist Sean Malone. It was heartbreaking to see such wonderful musicians have their time cut short, and it would’ve been easy for the sole remaining member Paul Masvidal to hang up his hat and call it a day on Cynic. Instead, looking to honor the memory of his lost friends, he crafted the gorgeous Ascension Codes. Cynic has always drawn influence from deep wells of spirituality and alternative theories on human consciousness, and that unique take on progressive metal is always what put them head and shoulders above their peers. And on Ascension Codes, they’ve dialed that up to 11. While some of their metal DNA is still deeply embedded into these tracks, they’ve also taken a bit of a different approach here. Replacing traditional bass with synth bass and a heavy use of keyboards, Cynic has dove into the more classic side of progressive music, creating lush soundscapes that are indebted to jazz and ’70s prog just as much as they are to Death. Records like Focus and Traced in Air are thick with complex guitars, relentless drumming, and screams to heighten the tension and give a more metal edge to the band. But Ascension Codes relishes in the negative space, leaving plenty of room for each song to breath and each instrument to play its role in its own time, instead of trying to compete against something else. These songs are not only couched in atmosphere and multitudinous layers of sound, but are also surrounded by gentle interludes that let the record flow more gently from one main track to the next. And ironically, Cynic now couldn’t possibly be further away from their own name, because this record positively glows with positive energy, and band leader Paul Masvidal uses every second of it to tell us that death is not the end, more is out there, and we’ll see our friends again.

9. Gojira – Fortitude

While I’ll always miss the more death metal feel of Gojira’s earlier stuff, I really ended up loving this year’s Fortitude. While they’re not quite as heavy these days, they’ve really grown into their own as songwriters, and they’ve put together a memorable batch of songs that balance mainstream rock accessibility with some of that classic Gojira bite. Of course, there may be a reason that they’re looking to make this record a bit more accessible. Because on Fortitude, they’ve come warning us about the looming climate destruction that humanity has brought upon itself, as we hurtle towards the point of no return. These songs pummel and push in the hopes of bringing some of us to our senses, and that’s a message worth spreading. No matter how far from their death metal roots they might stray, Gojira remains one of the most intellectual and compassionate metal bands working today, and those lofty ideals and hard-hitting sounds are why Fortitude is one of my favorite albums of the year.

8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee at State’s End

I’ve been a fan of GYBE for a while now, but I couldn’t help but feel pretty disappointed with their last offering, 2017’s Luciferian Towers. It dragged on too long and had too little in the way of their usual climatic resolution, often feeling like it was building to something that either never came or didn’t feel satisfying once it did. Thankfully, after putting out what I thought was their weakest record, they came back this year with one of their strongest records ever, one I feel is on par at least with 2012’s Allelujah. Here, the band dips their toes back into the samples and street recordings that once made their music so eerie and unsettling, using them to fill in the slower spots of the record and to amplify the atmosphere of the more drone-focused, ambient sections. But on top of that, the band has found their inner editor again, tightening up these tracks to just the right lengths to fully let them both build tension, explode, and resolve themselves into the next piece. And yet, for all the darkness that GYBE is capable of, and exhibits all over this record, there actually feels like there’s an undercurrent of hope and happiness burbling away, too. When these tracks finally open up, they often feel celebratory and energetic, landing a ways away from the apocalyptic fare that made them perfect to score 28 Days Later. Maybe they sense that the state’s end really is near as the world seemingly falls apart, and GYBE is just dancing on those impeding ashes. Either way, I couldn’t get enough of this one this year, and I’m really glad one of my instrumental bands absolutely knocked it out of the park again.

7. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence

I loved CHVRCHES’ debut album in 2013, but I never kept a close eye on them after that. Maybe I just didn’t happen to be in the mood for them, or maybe it was because I just didn’t like their second album nearly as much, but they fell off my radar. However it happened, I got to rediscover them this year when Spotify suggested I listen to Screen Violence immediately, so I figured I’d give them another whirl. And boy I’m glad I did, because Screen Violence might just be their best – or at least my favorite – record from them yet. Slightly re-tooling their synthpop sound with a darker 1980s horror film score edge, CHVRCHES uses that unsettling edge to allow for confessional, vulnerable lyricism that explores the pressures of being a woman in modern society and dealing with the taxes and traumas that can come with nearly a decade in the music industry. These songs very quickly wormed their way into my brain and simply never left, because every song is jam-packed with effortless hooks and melodic production that insures even certain drum beats will be looping in your head for days. This was one of those records that, as soon as it ended for the first time, I just had to start it again from the top. And like a lot of the records here in my top 15, this one was never far from my repeat button.

6. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite

I’ve been a big fan of Deafheaven since the instant classic Sunbather dropped in 2013, and I’ve loved how each record was able to capture a new angle on the band’s sound. However, after the release of 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, I started to feel like they could be doing more. That album was good, but it didn’t quite grab me the way the previous two had, and I think I wasn’t the only one in that boat. Because on their newest record Infinite Granite, Deafheaven has flipped their script entirely. They’ve taken the shoegaze influences that made Sunbather such a unique record and blown them out into the core of this album, transforming themselves from black metal-adjacent to something much closer to the Cure. Infinite Granite twinkles and sparkles, opting to focus on gentle vocals and cooing melodies with huge washes of guitars underneath, instead of chest pummeling blast beats. And while this record was pretty controversial among their fans, I fucking loved it. Because for as radically different as this album sounds from their past work, they’ve somehow managed to still make it feel distinctly like Deafheaven. The vocals still retain some of that stacatto, cold edge that was present in their harsher stuff, and the swirling pools of reverbed guitars will still sound familiar to any fan of Sunbather. This was the reinvention of Deafheaven that I was looking for, and I found myself lost in this record over and over again.

5. The Armed – Ultrapop

A couple of years back, The Armed absolutely blew my mind with their hard pivot into a maximalist version of hardcore punk on their opus ONLY LOVE. That record felt like a screamy fever dream, jam packed with as many layers of guitars, synths, drums, and flat out noise as an engineer could humanly fit into each track. And while it wasn’t for everyone, I adored both its bravery to commit to such a unique sound, and the insane sound itself. It was a sensory overload in the best way, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. So naturally, I couldn’t have been more excited for the follow up to that album, which came in the form of Ultrapop. I knew they were up to something when I was one of the lucky few fans who received a mysterious cassette from them in early January, cheekily labeled under the name “Kanye West”. What followed was a cult-like ARG filled with band-sanctioned themed Discord chats, a fake cult website straight out of the ’90s, and plenty of strange writings and ephemera to sift through from those sources. All of that set the stage for Ultrapop, a record which picks up immediately from Only Love and develops it even further. Where Only Love was still a hardcore record, Ultrapop has dropped most of that pretense. Instead, the band puts together a laser-focused fusion of the heavier sounds of hardcore with the straightforward melody and ear-catching hooks of pop music, throwing in massive shout along choruses and foot-stomping power alongside gargantuan riffs and pounding drums. The proceedings ultimately feel a little less manic than its predecessor, but instead give way to an overwhelming sense of positivity and hope that feels so rare in this genre, tying together the mishmash of genre conventions with the through-line of self-empowerment.

4. Teenage Wrist – Earth is a Black Hole

Every once in a while, a band I never heard of even in passing suddenly pops up on my radar and drops a record I end up adoring. This year, that surprise was Teenage Wrist. On Earth is a Black Hole, Teenage Wrist manage to create something of a time machine with their sound, fully absorbing so much of ’90s grunge and alt rock that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this record was just simply written IN the ’90s. But nostalgia bait would be insipid and boring if that was all they had to offer, but thankfully, Teenage Wrist are also incredible songwriters. Every track on this record is immediately catchy, and I found myself singing along with these songs on my first listen by the time the last choruses rolled around. Earth is a Black Hole is a perfect blend of nostalgic influence, impeccable sound design, tasteful production choices, and excellent songwriting, and it earned a spot on this list very early in the year.

3. Bo Burnham – Inside

It goes without saying that the past couple of years have been pretty fucking bleak. Covid has hit us hard, climate change is lurking in the background, and a lot of us spent a fair bit of time locked in our homes with no other connection to the outside world other than the internet. And like the rest of us mere mortals, Bo Burnham also found himself in this strange situation. Right as he was about to make a long-awaited return to comedy, the world shut down, leaving him suddenly adrift. Thankfully, he took all these things and channeled them into what is easily his one-man masterpiece, the comedy special/long form music video Inside. I could write an essay about that special by itself, so we’ll leave that for another time. On a purely musical level, Inside is a phenomenal record that finds Bo at the absolute top of his game. Because once upon a time, Bo wasn’t the greatest songwriter. His early stuff sometimes felt like he was just playing the piano so that he’d have something to tell his jokes over, but that’s no longer the case. Inside is full of incredibly well-crafted songs that brim with clever chord progressions, slick and precise production, and enough hooks to open a meat packing plant. And besides being expertly put together, there’s a wide range of genres here, too: there’s dark pop, EDM, folky singer-songwriter stuff, and even theater-kid showtunes that delight in their showmanship. Inside feels like the album Bo always wanted to make, but probably never had the time to sit down and put together, and as such it’s just bursting at the seems with highlights. But beyond these songs simply being well-written and insanely catchy, there’s a lot of depth to be found, too. In between jokes, Bo covers mental breakdowns and anxiety, depression, loneliness and online dating, society’s addiction to the internet, and the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. It’s a flat out impressive thesis on the state of our world in 2021, and the most clever part of it all? Inside never once mentions the pandemic or Covid by name. It manages to be both incredibly timely while also allowing it the privilege of not dating itself by referencing this very specific time frame, which fully allows Inside tofunction as genre-hopping, society-examining piece of work full of laughs and great songs that it is.

2. Every Time I Die – Radical

When Low Teens dropped in 2016, I quickly became a late convert to the ETID party. I quickly blew through their whole catalog and became a massive fan of theirs practically overnight, and I started looking forward to whatever their next album would be. But a strange thing happened…or didn’t. Normally one of the most prolific and reliable bands in hardcore, the years started passing without any new ETID. And that was for a number of reasons: even before the pandemic pressed the pause button on so many musician’s livelihoods, vocalist Keith Buckley was in the middle of a radical shift in his life. He found himself getting divorced, finding sobriety, trying to love himself, and ultimately discovering new love. And like the trauma that birthed Low Teens, much of that turbulent period of his life has found its way into the bedrock of Radical. This is a powerfully pissed off record, but the anger feels much more righteous than injurious. While Radical does take turns skewering corrupt, cowardly police officers and the selfish pricks dragging us through hell in 2021, it also uses anger as a form of release. Here, Keith has pushed himself to the edge, expecting to fall off the cliff, only to find a path forward after all. And after discovering that there’s a way forward after all, Keith directs his anger at the person he used to be, the one who walked up to that cliff in the first place, and now has the perspective to lash himself for all the damage he’d done to his own life and to others. It’s a powerfully cathartic record full of incredible lyricism, and Keith’s presence alone would make this record for me. Thankfully though, the rest of the band comes equally supercharged. It’s pretty par for the course for metal bands to get increasingly less hungry and fiery as they hit the 20 year mark in their careers, but ETID is still as torqued up and fucking terrifying as ever. Song after song is just jammed full of finger-demolishing guitar work, stomping bass, and pummeling drums, lending this record an urgency and propulsion that a lot of bands half their age don’t even have. And most impressively, they’ve given us 16 tracks on this beast, and they’ve managed to not only make each one feel necessary and important to the record, they’ve made them flow so that this nearly hour long album never blends together or wears out its welcome. On the contrary, I’ve found myself starting it again from the top several times this year, and I still can’t get enough of it.

1. Between the Buried and Me – Colors II

Sequels are fucking scary. More often than not, they take the things we loved and bastardize them, stripping them down to what focus groups think we loved about the originals and trying to squeeze a little more cash out of the properties. So when Between the Buried and Me announced a sequel to what I consider their best album, Colors, I felt a powerful mix of emotions. Part of me was excited at the opportunity to hear more of the music that completely blew 16 year old me’s mind, but part of me had a swirl of questions: does this mean they’re out of ideas? Is there any way they could ever live up to the original, 14 years after the fact? Is this just a cynical cash grab to revitalize their career? They were taking a massive gamble, and I was nervous.

As it turns out, I never had any reason to doubt BTBAM. Colors II is one of the rare sequels that takes the blueprint laid out by the original and manages to both give us more of the thing we loved, while also building upon it and taking it in a new direction. There was an easy road for them to take when making this record, that that would’ve been to sit down and pick the bones of the original to rehash it with nothing new to say. But in the 14 years that have passed since the original, this band has done a lot of experimenting and maturing. So instead of picking the bones, they’ve used them as a blueprint: Colors II does indeed feature a good helping of that dark, hard-hitting, mind-bending progressive metal that cemented them as one of the most forward thinking bands in the genre back in 2007. But there’s also just as much of the more classic ’70s prog sound that they developed on their Coma Ecliptic album, which is one of my favorites of theirs. Colors II starts off ridiculously heavy, just like their older work, and dips back into some of the zanier, off the wall ideas that made Colors such an exciting record. But for every crushing riff and mosh-worthy breakdown here, there’s also something pretty, something melodic, or something cinematic that gives the record a powerful through-line. The record slowly and subtly shifts from the heavy to the pretty, letting the band build a wash of keyboards, soaring clean vocals, and flashy instrumental runs that give these songs room to breathe and explore while maintaining strong, coherent song structures that move with purpose and direction. Colors II acts as a roadmap of the band’s musical evolution, featuring a little of everything they’ve ever done, and yet by putting it all together like this they’ve created an album that’s wholly unique in their catalog. The genius of this album is in how they’ve managed to not only dip back into the sounds that built their career, but do it without parodying themselves or paying too much fan service. It would’ve been easy to rewrite their past for a quick buck, but instead, they bet on themselves and created something new from something old. 2021 was a great year for this band, as they lovingly remixed and reissued their back catalog, played online live stream shows, and finally pulled off a two-set “Evening With” tour that was delayed by the pandemic. So for them to top that off with an album that both looked to their past and their future was the icing on the cake for me, and it quickly cemented Colors II as the best thing I heard all year.

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Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

Jeff Rosenstock – Ska Dream
Nas – King’s Disease II/Magic
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Sleigh Bells – Texis
Pupil Slicer – Wounds Upon My Skin
Eidola – The Architect
Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
IDLES – Crawler
Thrice – Horizons/East
Full of Hell – Garden of Burning Apparitions
Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Blood Moon
Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God
Kaonashi – Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year
Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders – Promises
Bilmuri – 400LB BACK SQUAT
Origami Angel – Gami Gang
Tiger’s Jaw – I Won’t Care How You Remember Me
Turnstile – GLOW ON
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
Frontierer – Oxidized
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Modest Mouse – The Golden Casket
Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Limp Bizkit – Still Sucks
Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation
Kanye West – Donda
Zack Fox – Shut the Fuck Up Talking to Me

My Top 15 Albums of 2020

15. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

OPN first caught my attention on Daniel’s opening spot for Nine Inch Nails back in 2014. I wasn’t immediately in love, but there was something about his unsettling take on ambient music that got its hooks in me. And on an album like Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, it’s clear to see why. Daniel Lopatin has always been a master at building and maintaining a mood throughout his records, and this one is no exception. Here he explores a twisted sense of nostalgia, mining the sounds and textures of 1980s elevator muzak, afterschool specials, and other incidental bits of background music that were once used to set a happy go lucky tone. But in OPN’s world, this nostalgia curdles into something more sinister and menacing, bleeding from bright warbling synths into walls of noise and atonal clash without a second’s notice. Beyond that, Magic OPN also plays with more pop-based song structures as well. While he doesn’t use vocals often, here he uses them on several tracks as the focus of the song, or at least a melodic center to hold the more abstract moments together (or even just to poke fun at indie rock with the tongue-in-cheek “I Don’t Love Me Anymore”). But beyond including more vocals in his arsenal, he also flirts more with traditional verse-chorus-verse structures, which allow him to more easily lure you into a false sense of security during the album’s more syrupy, saccharine moments. Because those moments are only brief respites before Daniel throws you headlong back into musical uncanny valley, flipping what almost sounding like a traditional bit of pop, rock, or electronic back on its head. Oneohtrix Point Never’s music can be hard to digest or even get into at times, but if you have any interest in electronic or experimental music, this one is definitely worth a listen.

14. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers

When both my brother and a good friend of mine were suddenly talking about beabadoobee nonstop, I knew I had to check her out. I knew next to nothing about her going into this album, outside of hearing a few non-album tracks I’d been linked, so I was definitely caught off guard by what I heard. Because on Fake It Flowers, this 20 year old woman has faithfully replicated the sound of music that was already out of fashion before she was even born. Beabadoobee handily mines that 1990s singer/songwriter alternative rock vibe, lovingly and unironically paying tribute to and revitalizing that sound. But were nostalgia the only thing Fake It Flowers had to offer, well, it wouldn’t be here in my top 15. Because once the veneer of nostalgia is stripped away, it’s clear that this girl has some incredible songwriting chops. These songs are raw and emotional, with Beabadoobee pouring her heart out lyrically and vocally amidst a bed of lush acoustic guitars, gentle keyboards, and rich string arrangements. It’s a warm and inviting sounding record, made even more so by her easy melodic prowess and ear for dynamics. This is easily one of the best put together debut albums I’ve heard in quite a while, and if the beginning of her career is this good, well…I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

13. IDLES- Ultra Mono

It’s rare to see public opinion of a band sway so quickly. IDLES were post-punk darlings just a couple of years ago with the release of Brutalism, being held up for their leftist-leaning lyricism and inclusivity. But now they’re being painted as having “gentrified punk” by espousing those same views without the (un)luxury of having lived in squalor or not having been sufficiently oppressed by the things they decry in their music. Personally, I couldn’t give less of a fuck about any of that. On Ultra Mono, IDLES have written the closest thing they’ll probably get to their pop record, leaning hard into hooky battle cries and tight songwriting. These are songs that leap out of the speakers with explosive energy by keeping things simple and raw. And sure, some of the lyrics do come off as trying too hard occasionally, but I believe that they believe everything they’re saying, and I believe in those things as well. Just because they haven’t experienced an equal helping of injustice doesn’t invalidate their positions: in fact, there’s just as much merit in using your more privileged position to bring injustice to light, as long as you’re doing it intelligently and respectfully. So when you marry those beliefs with jagged punk riffs, big choruses, anthemic one liners, and a sense of raw, fun energy, well, you get Ultra Mono.

12. Hum – Inlet

Hum is one of those bands that never quite got their due when they were first active, but they developed a cult following and quietly influenced their fair share of rock and metal bands through the years because of it. So when they suddenly announced that they’d be dropping a brand new album in just a few days time earlier this year, it was a huge shock: after all, it’d been something like 20 years since their last one, and nothing really pointed to them being even close to writing a record. And man, are there a lot of things that can go wrong when a band has decades – plural – between their last release. Thankfully, Hum picked up exactly where they left off and gifted us with a wonderful comeback album. Inlet is packed with towering guitar riffs that sound a thousand miles wide, creating a nearly overwhelming sense of distortion and power. And while most bands that opt for such attention-grabbing guitars would go for a heavier, more traditionally metal approach, Hum leaves plenty of room for delicate ambiance and reverb to make it feel like you’re hearing these instruments bouncing off of high cliffs (instead of simply getting blasted by a dimed amp). But this record does feel plenty heavy too, driving along at a steady pace and becoming almost hypnotizing with its sense of repetition and slow development, and paired with its understated vocals. Hum starts each track with a clear destination in mind, but no set time to get there: there’s plenty of room in the middle to explore and enchant along the way.

11. The Fall of Troy – Mukiltearth

After their original line up reunited and released a brand new album in 2016, The Fall of Troy soon found themselves in trouble again. Bass player and backup screamer Tim left the band once again, derailing the band’s momentum and leaving them in an awkward place. After all, they’d written a few new tunes together, but now they wouldn’t have enough to make an album, and they had to figure out how to move forward with the band and leave the past behind. On Mukiltearth, they found the perfect way to do that. The first 6 tracks on this record are re-recordings of the very first material that line up wrote together as a different band, Thirty Years War, and the other 4 tracks are the very last tracks they wrote together. The older tracks brim with the fire and naivety of youth, throwing caution to the wind and writing winding, energetic tunes influenced by emo and post-hardcore. They hadn’t quite found their wildly chaotic style that would be on full display by Doppelganger, and this material does sound a bit less developed when being revisited after 6 full length albums as The Fall of Troy. But they also feel freshly updated, as the nearly 20 years of experience as a band has quite obviously not only changed them as musicians but as people, and it gives that youthful energy a more refined maturity.

And while it would be easy for these 6 tracks to feel like a total tonal whiplash when set against the 4 new ones, they aren’t: for as much as The Fall of Troy may have changed in the intervening years, some things always stay the same. These tracks are a bit more straightforwardly structured – and a little more immediately catchy – but they still feature those classic twisting, winding, and complex guitar lines, colossal bass riffs, and hard hitting drum patterns that only Thomas Erak, Andrew Forsman, and Tim Ward could put together. So with one eye on the past they’re leaving behind, and the other on the future of The Fall of Troy (now that they’ve acquired a new bassist), Mukiltearth perfectly sums up not only the band’s sound and style, but their history as well.

10. Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything

I never would’ve thought at the beginning of this year that Deftones would drop a new album, and I would be…just not that enthusiastic about it. And I also wouldn’t have thought that a brand new band would be able to pick up their torch and out-Deftones them at their own game. But here we are: Loathe dropped I Let It In and It Took Everything to immediate acclaim, and for good reason. While a large chunk of this album is made up of drop tuned, extended range guitar riffs that are more reminiscent of Meshuggah and Car Bomb, there’s also a lot more going on. For every bit of crushing heaviness and throat-shredding screaming here, you’ll find an equal measure of blissed out ’90s alt-rock that borrows a vibe from Deftones and Hum. Tracks like Two Way Mirror, Screaming, and A Sad Cartoon are ethereal takes on grunge rock, featuring plenty of breathy vocal lines and long corridors of reverb. These are tracks that you can fully lose yourself in, and almost forget just how heavy stuff like Red Room and New Faces in the Dark are, until another one comes along to snap you out of that dream-like reverie. And while it would be easy to accuse these guys of cribbing a bit too much from their heroes, I don’t quite see it that way. While plenty of aspects of their sound remind me of other bands I love, they manage to blend these influences in a way that still feels engaging and unique to Loathe, and I’ll never not be a sucker for a band that can expertly glide between heavy and soft without coming off as goofy good cop/bad cop metalcore goons.

9. Touche Amore – Lament

Touche Amore have spent years shouting their pain at the top of their lungs, struggling through personal struggles and tragic losses by transforming that hurt into words. Not just any words, but words that mirror your own struggles, and words that you can scream along with and channel your own pain through. But on Lament, Touche Amore seem to be seeking a different form of catharsis. For the first time, it feels like they have their eyes on something akin to hope: there may not yet be anything but a dim bulb at the end of the tunnel, but its enough to prove that all the work hasn’t been for naught. Lament is an album that focuses on learning who you are and how you work, accepting the best and worst parts of yourself in equal measure, and then finding ways to short circuit those dark parts and find a way to the better ones before they can drag you back down. And in a year that’s been full of so much darkness trying to drag us all down, well, Lament resonated with me pretty damn quickly.

8. END – Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face

Fuck me if END didn’t deliver one of the filthiest, heaviest metal albums of 2020. Admittedly, they landed on my radar because former Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Billy Rymer snagged a spot on their drum throne, but they earned their spot in my rotation for much more than a connection to another band. From start to finish, Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face is bleak, nihilistic, and just unrepentantly pissed off, with each riff hitting harder than the last. It’s honestly kind of tough to write about a record like this, because it offers up everything about itself immediately: crushing guitars, breakneck drumming, relentlessly dark lyricism, and grim production that leaves just enough grit to make this thing feel convincing in its ugliness. And END aren’t content to stay in one lane, because their sound blends a wide variety of metal subgenres together into something that defies easy categorization. Since you’ll find little bits of death, grind, thrash, and core here, it’s easier to just say that END is fucking heavy, fucking dark, and fucking excellent.

7. Mac Miller – Circles

Few celebrity deaths hit me hard, but for some reason, Mac Miller’s did. I didn’t even really know his music very well when he passed, I had mostly just seen his come up from afar, transforming from a scrappy young kid spitting backpack raps into a full-fledged musician producing, writing, and playing a plethora of instruments to craft something that was truly his own. After his death, I had checked out his final album Swimming and instantly loved what I heard in its combination of funk, jazz, cloud rap, and traditional hip hop beats, and Mac’s unique singing voice that he peppered into his bars.

So when I found out that he had a companion album to that on deck, that was almost fully done at the time of his passing, I was pretty damn excited. Bur when the first single dropped, Good News, my excitement turned to heartbreak. Mac’s lyrics revealed someone who was bone-tired, already seeming to look at himself in the past tense, and realizing that the hole he had fallen into might be too deep to dig out of. It was downright eerie hearing someone practically eulogize themselves over a year after they had left us, and I wasn’t sure I’d be ready for the rest of the record. However, Circles is mostly a different beast than that track. On it Mac almost entirely abandons rap and focuses mostly on a hybrid of singing with rap cadences, to the point where it’s almost hard to even call this a rap release. It’s an almost sunny record full of bouyant keys and lush string arrangements courtesy of Jon Brion, and yet its brilliant in its low-key vibe and minimalism. You could look at that minimalism as the result of an artist dying before completing what would be his final work, but to me it feels deliberate. Nothing here is overused, and the slimmed down instrumentation serves only to highlight Mac’s character to its fullest. Whether we’re getting bars that remind us of the effervescent kid in Blue Slide Park, the downtrodden moments where he reflects on addiction and heartbreak, or even the rays of hope as he longs to start his own family and raise a child one day, Circles gives us a full picture of who Mac really was. It also proves that he really had nowhere to go but up: his writing, playing, and production was only getting better and more experimental with each release, and he was shifting into a lane all his own. Mac so clearly had much more love and music to give, and the world is worse off without him in it.

6. Protest the Hero – Palimpsest

Time sure flies, huh? While Protest the Hero dropped a 6 track EP in 2016, it has been 7 long years since their last full length album, Volition. That record was a crowning achievement for them, a masterpiece created in the midst of what nearly ended up being the end of the band. And while most bands lose the fire that made them so great after losing key members and taking a long break, Protest the Hero hasn’t. Because on Palimpsest, the band explores a more refined side of their sound. They’ve spent a lot of time pulling back on some of the constant guitar heroics, and instead use that space for dramatic string arrangements, layered keyboards, and some powerfully melodic vocal passages that create a strong sense of push and pull throughout the album. And they pair these emotional arrangements with an equally stirring concept: Rody Walker uses the lyrics here to explore different aspects of America’s revisionist history.

Because let’s face it, no matter which side of the aisle you may fall on, America has a lot of skeletons in its closest. From our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans, our willingness to massage a narrative and trick the public, the ugliness and abuse so prevalent in our celebrity culture, and even the bloody outlaws that played such a part in building our country. But while Rody spends a lot of time calling out and bringing to light the harsh parts of his neighboring country’s history, he doesn’t mean any ill will. Instead, with the album’s closing track we find him repurposing a dog whistle phrase that’s less about returning to some golden standard of living and more about reconstituting a more racially segregated, unequal society. Because when Rody calls to “make America great again”, what he really means is to recapture (or create) the American spirit of ingenuity, equality, rebelliousness, and innovation. America is built on some lofty ideals that we very often don’t live up to, but the potential to meet them is always there. And after an album that spends its runtime digging up America’s dark secrets and undoing the rewrites we’ve used to paint ourselves as the heroes, it asks us to rewrite the only thing that really matters: how we treat each other.


5. Cloudkicker – Solitude

Generally when Cloudkicker releases an album, it’s pretty much a guarantee to land somewhere on my year end list. But sadly, it’s actually been a long while since Ben Sharp’s last full length record: Unending came close last year, but it wasn’t quite as full-fledged as I would’ve liked. Thankfully(?), due to the pandemic, Ben suddenly found himself with a lot more free time. With a pandemic looming heavy in the air and forcing everyone to stay home for an indefinite, interminable amount of time, there was an easy source of inspiration, too. That inspiration led to Solitude, easily Ben’s darkest sounding material to date and possibly his heaviest. Cloudkicker hasn’t been exceptionally heavy for a while now, so right from the opening notes of this record, I knew I was in for a ride. And like the year it was born from, Solitude rarely lets up on the darkness. These songs rarely stop to catch their breath, delivering riff after thundering riff, and filling every nook and cranny of empty space with drums, gritty bass, or ambient guitar textures to create a cinematic sense of push and pull in each moment. And even when the album finally does land on a slower moment, there’s not really much sense of relief: there’s still tension hiding in the corners, never letting you forget what Solitude‘s goal is: bloodletting the pain of a rough year.

4. The Weeknd – After Hours

I’ll admit to not having paid the Weeknd much attention over the years. I’ve liked his singles here and there, but outside of his Trilogy stuff, I always found his full length albums lacking either for direction or for some of the fat to be trimmed. I wanted to like him more than I did, because his voice is golden and I love the dark pop he does so well, but it just wasn’t to be…until After Hours. This record grabbed me immediately, and here at the end of 2020, it’s still in my rotation pretty damn often. Here Abel finds his more cohesive and coherent vision by mining the sounds of both the past and the future, focusing on a heavy dose of ’80s pop nostalgia and filtering it through a turbulent, foreboding lens of drug addiction, personal struggle, and failed relationships. Cuts like Snowchild, Heartless, After Hours, and Until I Bleed Out are murky, washed out tracks detailing everything from his troubled childhood to his inability to love, and even the grim fate that awaits him should he continue down this path.

But the darkness that pervades this album is excellently balanced out by some of his biggest pop hits yet. In Your Eyes, Blinding Lights, Hardest to Love, and Save Your Tears are just absolutely massive earworms, finding their way into your brain and refusing to leave for days. These tracks take that same murky ’80s pop influence as the darker cuts on the record, but they go for sugar instead of the spice, delivering the dopamine-rush only an excellent pop song can. And above all, After Hours is impeccably produced, leaving plenty of air to breathe when the mood requires it, and knowing when to hit harder and create fuller soundscapes and washes of texture, making this an incredibly rewarding album to listen to again and again.

3. Bring Me the Horizon – Post Human: Survival Horror

Bring Me the Horizon has had one hell of a fascinating career. Once upon a time they were deathcore darlings, young kids caked in eyeliner and swoopy emo haircuts that cared more about churning out breakdowns than songs. And even back then, I had a soft spot for a lot of stuff on Count Your Blessings and Suicide Season, but I always felt like they could be more than they were. And they must have felt the same, because with each album, their sound grew: from atmospheric metalcore, then to mainstream radio rock, and finally to unabashed, dark electronic pop, they weren’t content to stay in any lane long. And of course, lots of people felt lots of ways about these shifts to more accessible sounds, but I loved them all and found myself amazed at how easily they could craft a hook.

But after all those years of experimentation and focusing on landing in the mainstream, it’d be easy for them to lose their way, or sell out their values. Instead, on Survival Horror the band completely throws caution to the wind and focuses down every single one of those sounds into one seven song EP. The opening track Dear Diary, is a ripper that could’ve come directly from those Suicide Season days, Kingslayer (feat. Babymetal) toys with Count Your Blessings-era death growls and some absolutely massive riffs, and One Day the Only Butterflies Left… would sound right at home alongside Sempiternal‘s more somber, slower tracks. And then there’s tracks like Obey and Teardrops that seem to blend all of those things together at once: huge earworm choruses, aggressive guitars, a heavy dose of keyboards and programming, even a touch of nu-metal, and both sung and screamed vocals. In fact, Oli is screaming all over this album, which makes me quite happy since I was pretty convinced he either wouldn’t or just couldn’t scream ever again. And Kingslayer might be one of the finest tracks they’ve ever laid down, careening drunkenly from barreling riffs, glitchy electronics, devilish screams, and the airy-yet-powerful vocals of Suzuka Nakamoto to complete this metal kaleidoscope of a song. Survival Horror is jam packed with moments that will please just about every fan of Bring Me the Horizon, no matter which album may be their favorite, and it excels at proving why this band has managed to stay relevant and interesting for over 14 years now. With this release, they’ve created a funhouse that collides together metal, pop, rock, and electronic into one succinct package that somehow feels completely natural and absolutely vital. This band has become a powerhouse and I’m no longer ashamed to call them one of my favorites.

2. Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God

From the moment I first heard a Dillinger Escape Plan record, I knew Greg Puciato was a vocalist of unmatched caliber. The man can scream like the victim of a possession, softly coo and croon his way over jazzier, quieter moments, and even belt out a wickedly catchy chorus worthy of constant radio rotation. And yet, these moments were always fleeting in Dillinger: you would only get a small taste of the full range Greg was capable of before the song would move into something else entirely, and it left me long wishing for him to put together a project that could fully explore his talents.

Thankfully, we’ve finally gotten that with his first full-fledged solo album. Outside of the drums, Greg has written and recorded everything you hear on this record, being the sole creator of his own vision, and that vision encompasses a vast range of possibilities. On Child Soldier: Creator of God you’ll find both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Of course, you’ll get a fair helping of outright heaviness, like on the Dillinger-infused cut Fire For Water (featuring former Dillinger drummer Chris Pennie, no less), the furious grunge rock of Deep Set, or the hateful screed of Roach Hiss. But it would’ve been both too easy and too predictable for Greg to turn in an album that was nothing but metal and hard rock, and thankfully he hasn’t pigeonholed himself. Because outside of the heavier sounds, this album finds plenty of room for the pretty and the melancholy. Temporary Object is a glittering piece of 80s-inspired synthpop that would be perfectly at home on his other project, The Black Queen, easily doling out some gorgeous melodic falsettos over a bed of blissful electronics. Earlier than that though, you’ll find a noisy piece of pulsing, pounding, distorted electronica in the album’s title track, and later on in the tracklist you’ll find Evacuation, which takes some of the sparkle of Temporary Object and then blows it out halfway through with stomping guitars and vicious screams that make for a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nine Inch Nails album. And even more out of left field comes Down When I’m Not, a track that somehow seems to fuse the aesthetic of ’90s pop punk with the guitar wash of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. On paper, this sounds like it should be an absolute mess of genre-hopping with no coherent vision. But instead, despite the massive variations in sound and mood from track to track, everything on this record feels purposeful and coherent, with each piece serving as the foil to another. Without a strong personality holding this thing together, a lesser artist would fall apart. But Greg’s character comes through on every track, no matter what he may be trying his hand at, and that creates a through-line that makes Child Solider: Creator of God one of the most compelling and impossible to define records of the year.

1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4

Well, I don’t think I need to say it, but I will anyway: 2020 fucking sucked. Not only have we had to contend with the worse pandemic since the Spanish Flu, but it seemed like our number was coming up on every front. Our government abandoned any pretense of pretending they represent us, income inequality grew by leaps and bounds while the rest of us were evicted from their homes, racial tensions simmered in the face of a party that no longer couched its hatred in economic theory, and the Trump administration seemed hellbent on corrupting and breaking every part of government they could if they thought if could enrich or reelect them. And then at the end of May, that powder keg finally exploded. George Floyd was murdered by police for the crime of passing a fake $20 bill, and cell phone video showed all 9 minutes that the officers spent holding him down and kneeling on his neck while he begged for a breath.

So who would’ve known, months before all this had happened, that Run the Jewels were writing the album that would come to define 2020? Because no piece of music this year was more powerful or hair raising than a line from Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow”. On it, he references the 2014 murder of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed for the crime of selling loose cigarettes and who also begged for a breath in his final moments. Hearing Killer Mike say the words “I can’t breathe”, after watching protests against police brutality erupt across the country – fueled by tens of millions of rightfully angry people – didn’t just feel prophetic, it was downright depressing. What should have been a six year old reference was now suddenly brand new again, highlighting the complete impasse that America is stuck at in terms of its racial relations. These guys would love nothing more than to just be angry middle aged dudes yelling at the clouds, with no basis in reality for their indignation. But instead, their rage is just as justified as ever, as the elites rob and pillage everything they can and leave the scraps for the rest of us to fight each other over.

And yet, for as heavy as things can get on RTJ4, social commentary isn’t the only thing Run the Jewels have going for them. This record is the duo’s clearest mission statement yet, perfectly distilling the best parts of their sound and attitude into one concise package. El-P’s production has always been ahead of his time, and after 20 years in the game, its fully congealed into something that’s entirely his own. In his toolbox you’ll find everything from nods to classic boom-bap to flashes of modern trap, and in between you’ll find the futuristic hyper-beats that only El-P can create, layered with everything from eerie guitars, ghostly backing vocals, and even a cinematic saxophone solo. And yet, for everything going on in the sound design of this record, nothing is wasted or overstays its welcome: these tracks are refined into the absolute best versions of themselves, wasting no time on drawn out instrumental sections or superfluous verses. These rich beats are nothing without great rappers on top of them though, and both Killer Mike and El-P turn in rabble rousing performances throughout. These two men have a brotherly camaraderie that’s impossible to replicate, easily trading bars, finishing each others lines, and bigging each other up with nothing but love. And of course, for as serious as they can get while dealing with the social ills of our time, they’re still hilarious MCs too. These guys can have to wanting to tear something down one moment and laughing at a dick joke the next, or defiantly spitting in the face of the devil with grim gallows humor. These guys have seen it all, and haven’t been broken by it yet, instead finding fuel in the strife and trying to find some light in the dark. One can only hope that one day these guys will start being wrong – that the world won’t be such an ugly place, that black people won’t have to fear walking past an officer, that the poor may have some representation and a chance to earn an honest living, that things aren’t just completely fucked all around. But until that day comes, well, I couldn’t think of two better men to be the voice of our times.

My 2015 In Music: Highs, Lows, and Shows

It’s my yearly installment of a whole bunch of shit you ain’t gonna read! Cue up Huey Lewis and the News, cause it’s about to get all Patrick Bateman up in here. But anyway, this is the music I dug this year, the music that let me down, and whatever else fell in between. Here goes!

The Top Ten

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
It was honestly really hard for me to pick a number one album this year, or even a top five of any sort. But OPN gets the top spot for one very good reason: Garden of Delete is the most challenging, boundary-pushing album I’ve heard all year. Few albums ever give me that rare “what the hell is this and why do I like it?” feeling like Garden of Delete’s blend of angular, distorted synths, schizophrenic bursts of noise, and oddly melodic samples and robotic vocals did. It’s an album that refuses to stay in any one place for more than a minute, drawing in influences as far reaching as ambient and drone, dance music, rock, even industrial and metal, and yet somehow managing to make sense of it all. These disparate influences aren’t used as a way of showing off OPN’s production skill or as some hipster display of his own music taste either, they’re put to use as the building blocks of interesting songs and melodies – something that quite often falls by the wayside. No matter what genre you might claim as your favorite, I think Garden of Delete has something to offer you, and if you like being challenged by new sounds, it’s my highest recommendation of the year.
2. Death Grips – The Powers That B
Last year was an odd year for Death Grips. Within a month, they dropped their most esoteric and labyrinthine slab of music yet, Niggas on the Moon, “broke up” (but not really), and announced that that album was actually the first disc of a yet-to-be-finished double album. Well, that album was finally completed this year, with the March release of Jenny Death. Jenny Death is the polar opposite of its first half – where NOTM was built upon layers of skittering drums, vocal samples, and introspective lyrics, Jenny Death brings the aggression back in full force. This album finds the band incorporating more of a hard rock sound into their trademark blistering electronics, introducing psychedelic guitar riffs and crushing live drums to amplify their sound to the point of constant, audible distortion. And where NOTM found vocalist Stefan Burnett looking inwards, here he projects outwards, raging at the world and using that anger to try and cover up his own crippling depression instead of being consumed by it. When taken as a whole, it creates a thematic contrast between both halves of the album, and musically it presents the most evolved and intelligent version of the band yet. That, and there’s no better song to break in a new set of speakers with than the title track, “The Powers That B”.
3. Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha and Omega
Periphery’s evolution as a band has been pretty interesting to watch. What once started as a one-man bedroom project has grown into a full-fledged creative force, with all six of its members having an equal, yet different, influence in the music it writes. And there’s no clearer example of that force than on Juggernaut, the band’s first concept album. Where once the band had a tendency to try and pack too many ideas into one song, here the songwriting is streamlined and purposeful, aiming to evoke a specific emotion or sound instead of showing off technical chops, while still retaining each member’s voice. There’s big pop choruses, bright electronics, crushing drop tuned 8 string riffs, progressive song structures, and brooding instrumentals that all combine to tell a single story with a range of emotion. It’s quite possibly the band’s best music yet, and having a concept behind it to dive into and puzzle out makes it even more rewarding to listen to over and over again.
4. Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic
BTBAM is a band that fell off for me, hard. After their landmark album Colors, each new album felt like another, lesser iteration of that sound, and it was losing steam fast. Possibly sensing that themselves, they took a left turn with their sound on Coma Ecliptic into entirely new territory. While their progressive metal elements will always be there, Coma Ecliptic finds itself rooted much more strongly in the prog music of the 70s, featuring just as many synth lead lines as guitar riffs. And on top of that, vocalist Tommy Rogers has finally stepped his game up to the point of being able to carry most of a song with his clean vocals, rather than his one note growls. It’s a refreshing change to hear the band’s music buoyed just as much by melodic vocals AND crushing growls, instead of just a moment or two of singing, and it’s a change that makes this new batch of songs instantly memorable and catchy. It’s the first time in years that a BTBAM album has truly surprised me, and what a good feeling it is to be surprised.
5. The Dear Hunter – Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
Simply put, there’s no other band out there that makes music quite like The Dear Hunter does. Of a certain kin with Coheed and Cambria, the bulk of the music is conceptual, telling one long story across several albums. And after taking a break from that concept to explore other sounds, Rebirth in Reprise finds them taking all those things they’ve explored and using them to make an even better record. From the start, this album is lush with string arrangements, layered vocals, grand soundscapes, and sticky melodies. At their catchiest, they write huge pop tunes like Waves or King of Swords, and at their most progressive, they write sprawling epics like A Night On the Town. That term ‘epic’ may have been horribly misused at the turn of this decade, but The Dear Hunter is truly deserving of it, because they’re capable of telling a story just as much with the music as they do with the lyrics. If you want to hear something refreshing, layered, and gorgeous all at the same time, you want to give this album a spin.
6. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
While I’m on the subject of big changes in sound, I can’t leave out Kendrick. After showing the world his talent as a storyteller and a wordsmith on 2012’s Good Kid, Mad City, To Pimp a Butterfly shows him taking not just one step from there, but a couple dozen further. This album is built upon a hypnotic blend of free jazz, funk, and soul, completely sidestepping pretty much any sort of “banger” beat you’d find on most of 2015’s hip hop releases. The music is dense and huge in scope, and boasts an all star cast of musicians and producers, from Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, and Dr. Dre. But all that would be for nothing if it wasn’t backed up by great lyrics, and that’s where Kendrick truly shines. TPAB tackles a broad range of social, racial, personal and political issues, tying it all together with a poem that details his own struggles with fame, influence, and success, and thus grounding all these issues in the realities of his own life. Any way you look at it, it’s a modern classic.
7. Bring Me the Horizon – That’s the Spirit
As much as I hate to admit it, I think I’m officially a fan of BMTH. After 2013’s excellent Sempiternal, which found the band maturing into their metal sound while expanding it with melody and texture, 2015 finds the band deciding to take the world by storm – and somehow succeeding. That’s the Spirit is, by pretty much any definition, a pop rock album. Gone are the metal and deathcore influences of their past, as well as much of the screaming, too. Instead, Oli’s learned to sing, and the band’s learned not to rely on drop tuned chugs, and they end up defying all expectations you might have for the band that once penned “Pray for Plagues”. But while they may have traded much of their old sound for a much more polished, melodic, and even a little calculated one, the reason this album succeeds is because it still has heart. The lyrics tackle Oli’s issues with addiction and depression, and how embracing your problems and wearing them like armor can help you through to the other side. But even besides all that, these songs are just ridiculously catchy – just try getting “Throne” or “Happy Song” out of your head for the next day or two after hearing it.
8. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
I first fell in love with Silversun Pickups because they were like a more subtle, more pretty version of Smashing Pumpkins. They brought the same sort of dreamy, fuzzed out riffs and airy vocals that even the Pumpkins hadn’t delivered in years, but without any of the cringey angst or hamfisted-ness they were capable of. But as time went on, they evolved away from that, dropping much of their guitars in favor of electronic elements and empty space, and it was a hard change for me to adjust to. But with their newest record, Better Nature, they’re found an equilibrium between guitars and electronics that leaves their trademark sound intact. Better Nature has more edge than its predecessor, Neck of the Woods, but it’s also prettier and mellower, sometimes opting for the obvious melodies and sometimes exploring a texture instead. And it’s all tied together with the band’s penchant for writing inherently ear-grabbing music, no matter which of those two things they’re doing, making this album a great next step for the band.
9. Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun
I mentioned Coheed earlier while talking about The Dear Hunter’s record, and here they are again. Coheed is another band that’s taken multiple albums to tell a sprawling story, but in their case, it was just as much to cover up their singer’s own insecurities as it was to actually tell that story. So this time around, Coheed switched things up and decided to drop the concept entirely for this album, and to put singer Claudio Sanchez’s real life at the front and center. The result is their most heartfelt, down to earth album yet, ditching much of the space opera sound they built their name on in favor of simpler, easier arrangements. Much of the music is bright and bouncy, evoking memories of their poppiest songs (“A Favor House Atlantic”, “The Suffering”) while keeping things feeling fresh and energetic. But the lyrics are a bit darker, detailing the conflicts and fears that come with reaching middle age and starting a family, yet eventually finding the security and meaning that comes from it. Who knew real life could be the most interesting story of all, huh?
10. Clutch – Psychic Warfare
You could call Clutch dad rock. Because they definitely are. But no other rock band in America does dad rock quite like Clutch does – while a lot of rock bands opt to drench their music in irony, Clutch doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word. For years they’ve been pumping out tough, hard hitting, kick ass rock n’ roll music and they mean every damn note of it. Psychic Warfare is no different, as it finds Clutch picking up where they left off on Earth Rocker. Dropping most of their stoner rock influences, Clutch instead take us through a gritty southern-fried romp through tales of no good women, monsters from another world, and good old fashioned mind control. Clutch is one of those bands that you know exactly what you’re gonna get every time they put out new music, yet for some reason, it just never gets old.

Honorable Mentions

Tesseract – Polaris
Polaris shows original vocalist Dan Tompkins returning to the fold after a 3 year break. In the meantime, the band has honed their songwriting from the sometimes amorphous lumps of riffs present on their first and second albums into something more approachable, giving each song it’s own distinct character. Combine that with Dan’s growth as a vocalist and you get Polaris, an album that can be atmospheric, heavy, and soft without forcing any of it. My only real complaint is that it could’ve been a song or two longer, but hey, it is what it is.
Tricot – A N D
Tricot is one of the best rock bands out there right now, not just in their homeland of Japan, but in the world. Their music takes elements of math rock – that is, odd time signatures, unique chord voicings, and distinctive rhythms – and combines it with the best elements of J-Rock and J-Pop. The result is a band that can rock hard, lay on the technical guitar chops, and write hugely catchy choruses all in the same song, without ceding any ground to typical rock cliches. And did I mention they’re all girls?
The Armed – Untitled
There’s not a whole lot to say about The Armed. They’re ferociously heavy, they play at breakneck tempos, and they can somehow infuse melody into all that chaos. Untitled is only their second full-length record in 6 years, but it’s well worth the wait – from start to finish, there’s rarely a moment to breathe, with each successive song finding another way to punch you in the gut. And you can get punched in the gut totally free at thearmed.bandcamp.com.
Babymetal – Babymetal
This is an honorable mention because technically, it came out last year – it just wasn’t released in America until this year. Babymetal is the guilty pleasure of all guilty pleasures, slamming heavy metal and Japanese idol pop together without any regard for the consequences. It’s catchy, it’s fun, you can dance AND mosh to it, and you can do it without understanding a single damned word in the process. Just do what the Fox God says, man.
Good Tiger – A Head Full of Moonlight
Good Tiger was formed out of the ashes of The Safety Fire, an excellent progressive metal band that ended far too soon. Recruiting former Tesseract vocalist Elliot Coleman, they continue on The Safety Fire’s sound with a slight twist. Coleman brings a soulful, almost RnB sort of sound to the band’s knotty technical riffs, opening up interesting melodic doors for the band that weren’t once there. It’s a short listen at a little under 40 minutes, but as far as debut albums go, it’s packed with potential, and I can’t wait to hear more from them.
Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Deafheaven made their name on the unique blend of shoegaze and black metal they presented on 2013’s Sunbather, but they knew they couldn’t just recreate that album for the follow up. Instead, New Bermuda shifts things more towards a metalcore influence, dropping the long ambient passages and focusing more on hard hitting riffs and pure aggression. They still bring a lot of texture to the music, but New Bermuda just feels a lot different than its predecessor, with more varied vocals and more focus on keeping things uptempo and energetic.
Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia EP
I’m actually pleasantly surprised by this EP. Sonic Highways was a huge letdown for me, since the band had a chance to incorporate new sounds and influences and wasted it instead. But on this new EP, instead of walking that bland middle of the road sound they walked on Sonic Highways, this EP sounds much more like the classic Foo Fighters stuff. And if I can’t see them grow as artists and try new things, I’ll at least take something that’s a shade on the classic sound I first fell in love with from them.

The Disappointments

Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
I’ve been a fan of Modest Mouse for about 6 years now. I love just about all of their albums, but in the time that I’ve been a fan, I’ve never seen them actually release something new. The band took a sort of almost-hiatus in the 8 years between We Were Dead… and this new release, and expectations were high. Instead, Strangers to Ourselves finds the band having not evolved in the slightest in that time, mailing in a collection of songs that sounds less like a complete album and more like just that – a collection of random songs. I really liked this album on my first few listens, but it just didn’t hold up, and in the end there were only a few really songs worth keeping on it (“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, “Sugar Boats”, “Lampshades on Fire”, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”). Otherwise, Strangers is a very middle of the road album from a band that used to be very insistent on pushing their boundaries and making statements, and as such, it’s a let down.
Muse – Drones
Muse have been bad longer than they were good at this point. After a foray into cheesy Queen worship and overabundant keyboards in the past few years, Drones marked their return to the guitar based music of their roots. But even bringing guitars back can’t save them at this point: Drones finds the band succumbing to every arena rock cliche in the book, from overblown “epic” songs, obvious attempts at pop hits, recycled riffs, and godawful lyrics about Big Brother. Matt Bellamy has become the musical equivalent of a teenage kid typing a rant about the evil government on Facebook, and the rest of the band couldn’t seem to care less about stopping him – or ever writing a great song again.
Cloudkicker – Woum
I hate to be hard on Cloudkicker, because Ben Sharp is one of my favorite musicians, but Woum did nothing for me outside of being pleasant background music. The fun part about following Cloudkicker is that you never know what to expect from each new release, but once in a while that comes with a downside, too. Woum is a nice, warm listen, but it doesn’t have much in the way of actual songs or memorable melodies. I’m happy to hear artists explore new musical directions, but only as long as there’s great songs to back them up, and that just didn’t happen here.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Sweet, Asunder, and Other Distress
This is another album that I liked a lot initially. But the more I listened to it as a whole, the more its 20 minute drone midsection wore on me, until I eventually stopped listening to it altogether. The two main movements of the album stand right alongside the rest of the band’s material in terms of quality, but as a full piece of work, it unfortunately falls apart in the middle.
Chrvches – Leave a Trace
I liked Chrvches debut album. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was a nice little slab of well-crafted synth pop that didn’t overstay its welcome. But the problem with their newest effort is, well…it’s the exact same thing. There’s pretty much no measurable artistic growth between the two albums, outside of maybe slightly glossier production on this new record. And since I’m already familiar with The Bones of What You Believe, I can’t really see myself taking the time to familiarize myself with another album of the same thing.

Non-2015 Releases I Discovered in 2015

Brand New
Man, I am so late on this band. But within the past two months, I absolutely fell in love with Deja Entendu, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, and Daisy. There’s a distinct core of sadness and anger that runs through their music that I’m an absolute sucker for, and Jesse Lacey is a brilliant lyricist. So, even though I’m over a decade late on discovering these guys, I’m so glad I did.
letlive.
letlive. is my other big discovery of the year. Their first album, Fake History, is one of the best heavy albums I’ve ever heard. They somehow manage to take these intense moments of pure aggression and combine them with poppy elements, social commentary, and even a bit of soul in Jason’s vocal delivery, and that makes for a really unique mix. On top of that, their live energy is unprecedented, with the band giving such intense performances night after night that you wonder how Jason hasn’t been killed yet.

Concerts

Circa Survive
This was my third time seeing Circa, but my first time seeing them as a full-fledged fan. I finally had all the albums, knew all the songs, and I had the extra cash to spend on the meet and greet and acoustic session to boot. I got to sit in a circle a few feet away from them while they performed an intimate 3 song acoustic set, before taking to the stage later on in the night and delivering on every level. They’re a band that truly loves their fans and truly loves making music, and it shows in everything they do.
Slash
While it’s been a long time since I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, I’ve made it a point to see as many of their members as I can. I finally got the chance to see Slash this May when he came to the Sherman theater, and it was actually a damn good show. I got to see the GNR hits that first sparked my love of music as well as newer songs from his current band, The Conspirators. It was great to touch base with my adolescence that way and revisit the music I once loved.
Death Grips
There are few words to describe the raw power of this show. After waiting over two years for the chance to see them, I was already beyond hyped for this show. And when I got there, the band knew how to play the crowd like a fiddle – instead of having any openers, they instead played the band’s side projects and a 40 minute noise remix of unreleased material, making everyone antsy and on edge. So, when they finally did take the stage, the crowd fucking EXPLODED into a throbbing mass of pure hype and rage. I’ve never been literally scared of getting trampled or crushed at a show before this night, but that’s how intense the crowd was. The band ran through nearly two hours of music in one long, (nearly, thanks to a laptop glitch) uninterrupted set in which each song seamlessly transitioned into the next. How Zach Hill can drum like he does for so long without a rest is beyond me, and the same goes for how long Stefan Burnett can bellow his lungs out and contort his body. All around, it’s one of the craziest, best shows I’ve ever been to, and probably ever will go to.
Tricot
I never, ever expected I’d get the chance to see Tricot. But the stars aligned and this October, they crossed the globe to do a short North America run, and I got to see them on the first show of that run in a tiny, intimate venue. It’s rare that you’re literally close to enough to lean on the stage all night, and man, does it make a show so much better. I was blown away by the level of energy the band had, and how much they jumped around despite the tiny stage. I could tell this was another band who truly loves what they do, giving their all into every performance, and it was made all the more special by the small venue I got to experience it in.
Rise Against
I actually went to this show solely to see letlive. as an opener. As I expected, letlive. played an intense, albeit short set, which saw Jason Butler climb into the balcony of the Sherman Theater and get a circle pit going (I’ve seen many opening bands try, but never succeed). And I was lucky enough to see them play a brand new song, too, from their upcoming album. But I wound up being really impressed by Rise Against – I was familiar with their music, and I enjoyed a few songs before that, but they put on a heartfelt and powerful enough show that convinced me I need to pay more attention them as a band. I didn’t expect the crowd to go so nuts for them, but they definitely did, because they managed to get the second circle pit of the night going, which I definitely didn’t expect from a punk band. It’s a great feeling to leave a show as a fan of a band you didn’t like before.
So that’s that. What I loved, what I liked, what I downright hated in 2015. If you’ve made it this far, well, congratulations, and I hope I turned you onto some new music! If you just scrolled all the way to the end, well I see you too fam, it’s okay. Till next year!

Top 20 of 2013

2013 was a great year for new music, at least personally, and since I like to review my favorite albums I slowly put together a top 20 through the year. Past my top 5 or so, the rankings don’t mean a lot since it’s hard to put different kinds of music above or below one another, but whatever. Call me a nerd or tell me I have too much time on my hands, here’s my top 20.

1. The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us is the Killer

I knew this was probably going to be my album of the year after the 2nd listen. I may have listened to other albums more, or for longer, but One of Us is the Killer was special for me. If you’ve ever heard Dillinger before, you know what to expect from one of their albums (that being tightly-wound, frenetic mathcore with an experimental slant). That being said, this album actually distills a lot of the ground they’ve covered into a more coherent, straight forward attack compared to previous efforts. But the reason this album was special was that it came at a time when I needed something angry and aggressive to kick me out of a funk, and it did the trick marvelously.

Top Tracks: Prancer, One of Us is the Killer, Paranoia Shields

2. Cloudkicker – Subsume

On the other side of heavy things, this year Cloudkicker delivered what’s possibly Ben Sharp’s best work to date. Inspired by the novel 1Q84 (which is a great read in and of itself), Subsume is an ambitious record that jumps back and forth between the djent-influenced riffing of his past and the more introspective, quieter side of his present without ever sounding disjointed. From start to finish Subsume feels like a journey, starting off gently and then rocketing through layers of sound until reaching it’s fuzz-drenched climax during ‘You could laugh forever but never end up happy’.

Top Tracks: A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time, You could laugh forever but never end up happy.

3. Protest the Hero – Volition

For all the music I listened to this year, my top three wound up being all metal albums.

Protest made waves when they decided to forego a label’s backing and crowd fund their new album, and their fans responded in kind by giving them more than twice the amount they needed. The result is their best album since 2008’s Fortress.

I have to admit, their last album before Volition lost me a little. The lyrics were pretty cringe-worthy for a band that used to write thought-provoking concept albums, and some of the songs just didn’t feel very inspired. That’s all changed with Volition, though – Rody’s stepped up his game lyrically, and with Chris Adler filling in on drums, they sound heavier and faster than they have in a while. Stylistically, things haven’t changed much, but the one thing I have to commend most is the themes tackled in the lyrics. It takes guts to write songs about bigotry and rape culture on a metal album (with metal not being the most open-minded fanbase out there), and it’s even better when it doesn’t feel like they’re pandering or talking down. All in all, Volition shows Protest at the top of their game.

Top Tracks: Skies, Clarity, Animal Bones, Plato’s Tripartite

4. NK – Nothing to Be Gained Here

I’ve been following NK since they were called North Korea, and this year they finally released their debut album. They’ve softened a bit since their first two EPs, but their sound still features a unique blend of grungey riffs, Radiohead-esque soundscapes, and a rhythm section that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Top Tracks: Set A Fire, Shoulder Gorilla, Vacation Days

5. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension

The second half of their double album, The Afterman, lives up to it’s predecessor and continues to deliver Coheed’s trademark sound. While front-loaded with some of the bands heaviest and most progressive songs in years (Gravity’s Union being the first Coheed song recorded on an 8 string guitar), it starts to tail off towards the end into more sentimental, poppy sounds. Away We Go sounds like the eighties’ idea of a pop-punk love song, and 2’s My Favorite 1 is straight up cheese, in the best way. This works best when paired with it’s other half, Ascension, as it serves as a sort of come-down to the 18 track whole. Overall, while it could’ve been tracklisted a bit better, Descension is still a great album.

Top Tracks: Gravity’s Union, Sentry the Defiant, Dark Side of Me,  2’s My Favorite 1

6. Death Grips – Government Plates

Government Plates is experimental even for Death Grips, eschewing most song structure and even vocals in favor of a more free-form, electronic approach. For a band that managed to somehow cram hooks into music that rightfully shouldn’t on their first three albums, Government Plates is a disorienting listen, but one that’s all the better for it once it finally clicks.

Top Tracks: You might think he loves you…, Birds, Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

7. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

I checked out Fuck Buttons solely because I needed to know what a band with a name like that even sounded like. The answer? An electronic band whose music is structured like a post rock band playing noise music. They’re aggressive and trance-inducing at the same time.

Top Tracks: Brainfreeze, Hidden Xs, Stalker

8. Danny Brown – Old

Half street music and half club music, Old is a concept album about the struggles of growing up the ghetto and not letting it define his entire life at the same . Combine that with Danny Brown’s wicked sense of humor, and you get one of my favorite rap albums of 2013.

Top Tracks: Side A (Old), 25 Bucks, Way Up Here

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

For all the things that could be said about Kanye, the one thing you can’t take away from him is his music. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a grandiose ‘I’m sorry for being Kanye West’, then Yeezus is the exact opposite, shoving his arrogance in the face of the world. Nothing in his discography could’ve predicted the sound of Yeezus, its being laced with dark, almost industrial synth lines and minimalist beats, and as a result it has more bite than much of his work could ever hope to have. For an artist as mainstream as Kanye to release an album like this takes courage, and it mostly proves itself. However, some of the lyrics are certainly pretty cringe-worthy, and it takes a bit of a dip in the second half, so I can’t call it one of my absolute favorites. Either way, Kanye has proved himself as an artist by taking this chance.

Top Tracks: New Slaves, Black Skinhead, Blood on the Leaves

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather

Sunbather took me a bit by surprise. I usually don’t like black metal, or anything that sounds like it, but I had to make an exception for this record. Deafheaven takes the vocal approach of black metal (the shrieking, screamed vocals) and pairs it with a sound that’s more akin to My Bloody Valentine moving to Scandinavia and playing metal. With most of its songs going well over the ten minute mark, the music takes on a nearly hypnotic effect as it swells and crescendos, only stopping for the three interludes after each main track. While admittedly, their vocalist doesn’t have a lot of range (he has two speeds – AHHH and AHHHHHH) and threatens to bring the band’s unique sound down at times, I still think it’s a great album.

11. Nice Hooves – Nice Hooves

Featuring members of my other favorite hardcore band, The Armed, Nice Hooves deliver a more punk take on thrashy, noisy metal. Their album is free to download at http://nicehooves.bandcamp.com/ and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in any of that.

12. Palms – Palms

Palms is a supergroup made of of members of Isis and fronted by Chino Moreno of Deftones. While some of the songwriting could certainly be stronger, the atmosphere the album delivers alone makes of for it, delving into dreamy, shoegaze influenced post-rock that neither Isis or Deftones truly explored.

Top Tracks: Mission Sunset, Future Warrior, Antarctic Handshake

13. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

…Like Clockwork is QOTSA’s first album in 6 years, and as you’d expect from that big of a gap, it sounds pretty different than any other album of theirs. Stripping away most of their ‘stoner rock’ sound, Like Clockwork finds the band focusing more on straightforward rock numbers, and surprisingly, piano ballads. While this could have been disastrous for a band like Queens, by drawing on Josh Homme’s near-death experience, they infuse the songs with real meaning and atmosphere that give it a unique character from start to finish.

Top Tracks: I Appear Missing, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, I Sat By The Ocean, My God Is The Sun

14. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I’ll be honest, I’m totally biased when it comes to Eminem. I grew up on his music so I’m a lot more lenient on his newer stuff. But even though the guy basically gets a free pass from me, MMLP2 is actually really goddamn good, even if it can never touch the original MMLP. Em revisits Stan on Bad Guy, shows an insane level of technical skill on Rap God, apologizes to his mother on Headlights, and kills it on a hilarious track with Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a start to finish masterpiece, and it’d be great if he’d stop shouting so damn much, but MMLP2 proves that Eminem is still the same old Shady.

Top Tracks: Bad Guy, Love Game, Rap God, Headlights, The Monster

Other Favorites:

15. Lorde – Pure Heroine
16. O’Brother – Disillusion
17. Clutch – Earth Rocker
18. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
19. The Dear Hunter – Migrant
20. J. Cole – Born Sinner

Top 20-ish of 2012

 1. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension

 I have to say, Coheed has made me really, really happy to be a fan this year. This is the first album by them I’ve gotten to wait for by them since I’ve been a fan, and it was a bit of a wild ride. Mic Todd left the band after a run in with the law, and Chris Pennie quit shortly after due to creative differences. I thought the band was about to break up when they started dropping cryptic videos on YouTube. Instead, it turned out that drummer Josh Eppard, who had originally been kicked out in 2005, was rejoining the band – something totally unexpected, and honestly, the only right choice. Then we get introduced to the new bassist, Zach “Super Dooper” Cooper, who blended right into the band’s sound flawlessly.

 And finally, Coheed announced their new album. Free of a record label, they were finally able to write and record however and whatever they wanted – and this time that meant a double record. Ascension is the first part, a 40 minute ride that travels through mellow piano intros, a twisting 8 minute lead single, classic bouncy Coheed pop rock, and gentle electronics. It’s seriously crazy that they managed to pack so much into such a short album, but that’s one of it’s defining features. It’s short, to the point, and begs to be listened to again as soon as the last notes of Subtraction ring out. If Descension is even half as good when it drops in February, the album as a whole has serious potential to rank as their best. Hats off to the ‘Heed.

 2. Deftones – Koi No Yokan

 Deftones’ previous album, Diamond Eyes, was a beast that kicked ass from start to finish. It saw them reaching insane new highs 15 years after their first album, which is no easy feat for any band. So naturally, Koi No Yokan was my most anticipated album of the year.

 The result is an expansive album that expands on what Diamond Eyes did in terms of texture and sonic landscapes. Diving into it with a good pair of headphones is a must, because it’s the most sonically expansive and lushly textured album of their career. Eleven years after White Pony, Deftones has finally made good on the promise that record held, and have unarguably hit their stride.*However, that being so, it’s not as immediate as it’s predecessor. Several songs stand out immediately, like the monster Leathers, the spiraling dream pop of Entombed, the otherworldly Tempest. The highs are up there in the stratosphere with their best work, but that very quality is also something of a curse. At times it feels as if things are blending together, and a fair few of the songs took me a lot longer to get into and remember than some of the ones I named.

 That said, the “blending together” is also a good thing – each song flows into and complements the next so well that it doesn’t feel like almost an hour has passed by the time ‘What Happened to You?’ closes it out. Few albums dare to work so well as a whole in this era of singles and one-hit wonders, and the total package ends up being pure ear candy.

 3. Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal

 Periphery’s first album was definitely not one of my favorites. I liked some of it, but I just couldn’t really get into them. I liked the singing, but the screaming just wasn’t up to par. I loved the riffing, but it got too repetitive over a whole album. I felt like they could really be a great band though, and I decided to give them another chance when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Man, was I surprised – everything I hadn’t liked about the first record was gone. Spencer’s screams were absolutely throat shattering, the songwriting was leaps and bounds ahead of PI, and really, they just finally felt like a band (the first album had been written and recorded over a few years and with a few line up changes, so it wasn’t as cohesive as it could’ve been). It’s a fun record, insofar as djent can be fun. The choruses soar and stick in your head, the heavy parts make you feel like you could just walk through a brick wall, the drumming pummels you into submission (or at least into a complex toe tapping session).  It’s a record I can put on and jam to with no pretense, and one that has finally made me a fan of Periphery.

 4. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here

 On the other hand, I’ve pretty much always loved P.O.S. I’ve heard few artists fuse such disparate genres as punk rock and rap into something that works so well, hits so hard, and never feels forced or cliched. You only need to listen to ‘Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty)’ to know what he’s about.*So go figure that my favorite album of his comes in the form of his least punk, most ‘club’ album yet. WDELH rips the floor out from underneath his punk experimentation and replaces it with a slick, futuristic sound, worthy of clubs around the world. Most other artists would be getting shouted down as sell outs for this, me probably being one of the shouters, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work perfectly here.And that’s because P.O.S’ core message hasn’t changed. At heart, his lyrics are still the same brutally honest and subversive ones he’s best at, it’s just the instrumentation that’s changed. And this sound even allows him to take that one step further – ‘Get Down’ is a scathing indictment of vapid club songs that manages to also be one a damn fine club song itself, and ‘Fuck Your Stuff’ pokes and prods at the materialistic pop culture that’s dominated the media the past decade. Honestly, this album is so packed with great songs, it’s all one giant stand out.

5. Circa Survive – Violent Waves

I found this album totally on chance. I always passed over these guys because I’d somehow lumped them in with a million other generic scene-y bands. But after seeing a lot of hype for Violent Waves, and finding a way to, ahem, acquire it, I figured it couldn’t hurt. And damn – right from the seven minute opening track I knew I was totally wrong about them the whole time. Violent Waves is spacey, progressive rock at it’s finest.

 Honorable Mention:

 6. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

 I hadn’t even known Big Boi was putting out a new album this year, so VLaDR came totally out of the blue when Spotify recommended it to me. If it had come out sooner it would probably be higher on my list, but I haven’t had much time to listen to it yet. And yet, in the week it’s been out, it’s quickly rocketed up to being one of my absolute favorites this year. It’s right on par with Sir Luscious Left Foot, with tons of experimentation, plenty of hooks, and some straight out wacky guest appearances (Wavves, anyone?).

 And now, in no particular order, here’s the rest of the stuff I liked this year.

 Cloudkicker – Fade

Ben Sharp can really do no wrong, and Fade continues to prove that. Strangely, he’s taken on a sound that’s in part reminiscent of alternative mixed in with the more atmospheric stuff he’s been doing lately, which is far removed from his old djent style, but is still just as good.

 Japandroids – Celebration Rock

You seriously don’t find a rock record more fun than this one. It’s perfect summer music.

 Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Mark Lanegan’s voice is untouchable. He’s one of the most distinctive singers I’ve ever heard, and his voice alone sounds like it could tell a few stories. Plus, the album is really, really good. It’s bluesly and electronic at the same time, which is actually a lot better than it sounds.

 Soundgarden – King Animal

I had really, really low hopes for a new Soundgarden record, but it came out a lot better than I thought it would. It’s still not a shade on their earlier stuff, but it’s new fucking Soundgarden music in 2012. Who would’ve thought?

 Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

Even though it’s just Billy Corgan with some other dudes these days, Oceania still has some really classic Pumpkins-sounding stuff on it. Plus, bringing back that classic Siamese Dream guitar fuzz is a dream come true.

 Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods

I wanted to like this album more, but it just didn’t stick with me as much as Carnavas or Swoon. Still, it’s got a lot of really good songs on it, and hearing their more electronic influenced side is cool, too.

 Say Anything – Anarchy, My Dear

I think I actually like this band better when they sound as laid back as they do on this album. Burn A Miracle, The Stephen Hawking, and Say Anything are all great songs.

 Muse – The 2nd Law

Having been massively disappointed in their last album, I was surprised that The 2nd Law was actually pretty damn solid (seriously, Panic Station is fucking funky) – even if it’s sorely lacking in their trademark guitar theatrics.

 Linkin Park – Living Things

I only actually started listening to these guys back when A Thousand Suns came out, so I’ve never been totally partial to the old nu-metal sound. This album takes the best parts of that style (most lyrically and song-structure wise) and combines it with the new electronic style they’ve been going for the past few years, with a ton of catchy songs.

 The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

I like long songs, and progressive music, but I usually can’t stand TMV. They tend to suffer a lot from audio wankery that stretches their songs out way past their welcome. However, Noctourniquet actually pares the song lengths down and focuses much more on songwriting than what I’ve heard from them in the past, and I think that makes for a much more enjoyable experience with this album.

 Between the Buried and Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence

I wish I could’ve put this album in my top five, but either I’m just not feeling BTBAM as much these days, or they’re getting a bit boring. While it does get a bit repetitive over the full hour+ run time, there’s still a lot of great riffs and songs in there – they’re just a bit…buried.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Simply put, AWLWLB is Converge delivering yet again. The modern-day hardcore pioneers continue to thrash harder than bands half their age, and show no signs of stopping.

 Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

This guy has one hell of a voice, and channel ORANGE is smooth and soulful as fuck.

 Jack White – Blunderbuss

It’s a bit of a departure from the White Stripes and Dead Weather stuff, but hearing a bluesy, countrified album like this is a refreshing change once in a while. Sixteen Saltines and Love Interruption are two of my favorite songs from this year.

 Rush – Clockwork Angels

And here’s another band that’s still better than guys half their age, despite having been around for the better part of thirty years. It’s their first full concept album, and probably one of their heaviest records, too.

The Prize Fighter Inferno – Half Measures

It’s only an EP, but it was actually one of my highlights this year. PFI is Claudio Sanchez’s (Coheed and Cambria singer/guitarist) side project, which has a lot more of an indie/electronic feel to it. It’s really cool to hear such a different side to his music, and to hear him branch away from the concept album thing as well.

The Armed – Spreading Joy

Clocking in at only 9 minutes, I don’t think it could even be called an EP. But Spreading Joy is the angriest, heaviest, most intense 9 minutes you’ll hear all year.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allalujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

I actually didn’t get into these guys until very, very recently. The two drone tracks aren’t really anything special, but the two twenty minute beasts that are Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire are masterpieces.