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!
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.
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