Saturday, December 4, 2021

My 40 Favorite Records of 2021



Jesus Christ, this is a long one. I started working on blurbs for the shoe-ins a few months back, and it just ballooned from there. This is probably why professional writers have editors -- also, because I haven't even proof-read it -- but that ain't me. Are you a bad enough dude to actually read the whole fucking thing?

Given the already considerable length of this list, I'm gonna cut this intro off here. Please leave your top 10s/20s/100s in the comments, I'm sure I missed a lot of good shit.





#40
Misotheist
For the Glory of Your Redeemer

The second and undeniably superior album from these anonymous Norwegians. At 3 songs and just over half an hour of dense, anti-theistic black metal, not a second goes to waste. Churning guitars, punishing drumming, and a disgusted, gravely vocal performance that's one of the most effective I've heard on a black metal record in recent memory. Then there's the production style, which balances void-like reverb with suffocating distortion, and reminds me of the Icelandic BM that we all love so much.




#39
Andy Shauf
Wilds

As one fan on Bandcamp put it: "The Judyverse continues." Wilds picks up some of the threads of The Neon Skyline, Shauf's excellent previous album (my second favorite of 2020!) without taking on a larger storyline. This time around, arrangements are looser and recording quality is slightly rougher, but the melodies are no less immaculate; Shauf remains master of the instrumental hook. Freedom from an overarching narrative allows Shauf to lean into the more dreamlike qualities of his songwriting. Our narrator generally just appears in media res -- on a beach, at a wedding, in a hospital or motel room -- arguing with a lover, grappling with guilt or a hangover, or getting high and dancing clumsily.





#38
S.H.I.
4 死 Death

A violent collision of 90s Ministry-esque industrial thrash and G.I.S.M.-esque hardcore, with a dash of power electronics for bad measure. Nothing but driving, noise-addled, fist-pumping anthems encased in chaotic, echoing atmospheres, with virtually no respite.





#37
Steel Bearing Hand
Slay in Hell

When I wrote about this record back in May, I called it "an absolute ripper of a death/thrash record." I also said, "Throw in a bit of lysergic death-sludge and a lightly blackened finish, and we're looking at one of the best, most fun metal records I've heard in a while." Then I said, "Additionally, it has accompanied some pretty intense iron-pumping sessions around OPIUM HUM headquarters, so that means it's fun AND it's good for you!" And then I talked about my nards, briefly. Then it was over!




#36
GosT
Rites of Love and Reverence

Despite being a figurehead of synthwave, GosT (aka Texas artist James Lollar) never really played into that scene's blatant nostalgia, using the dark, pulsing synths of 80s horror scores as a jumping off point rather than a destination. Rites of Love and Reverence pumps the breaks on the metal-infused fader abuse of GosT's past, leaving behind a transfixing, highly danceable concoction of witchy EBM and darkwave that's still haunting, and fully capable of destroying your speakers.




#35
Danny Elfman
Big Mess

A lot of people can't stand this record. And I don't blame them. It's right there in the name: this record really is a big fucking mess. It's gross and scattered, both musically and lyrically: an avant-industrial-rock monolith suggesting a densely cluttered, lightless inner landscape. Vocally, Elfman channels his inner Mike Patton, and through all the groaning, shouting, quasi-rapping, and crooning (his preferred mode), Elfman really enunciates, so his unadorned, misanthropic musings ("Sorry you exist because you suck the fucking air out of my lungs"), menacing mantras ("I want to see you without your clothes, without your skin"), and late-night panic ("Old white men, they want to suck my blood") all come through crystal-clear. Distorted drums, cinematic strings, scraping guitars, and tarry synths abound. And it just gets more chaotic and unhinged as it goes on. I'm not here to offer any counterpoints. I just think that all of that stuff's awesome.




#34
Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis
She Walks in Beauty

Every year, in making these lists, I attempt to represent not the albums that are 'the best,' or the most culturally significant, or the coolest, but the ones that I consider most likely to stay in my regular rotation for years to come. By listing She Walks in Beauty, I'm breaking my own rules. It's a full-length record of Marianne Faithfull reciting Romantic poetry -- by John Keats, Lord Byron, and a bunch of other fancy-pants writers whose names sound familiar -- over chief Bad Seed Warren Ellis' lush ambient compositions. I have listened to it twice, and I don't expect to listen to it with much more regularity in the coming years. But it makes me cry like a baby. Somewhere between the sound of Faithfull's weathered voice, her effortlessly expressive delivery, the timeless, impossible beauty of the poems themselves, and Ellis' shimmering accompaniments, there's a magical, forlorn alchemy, and it absolutely kills me.




#33
Bríi
Sem Propósito

From my previous writeup: "Trance-inducing Brazilian black metal. Two sprawling, psychedelic compositions merging the seemingly disparate worlds of krautrock/Berlin school synth and atmospheric black metal. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that this is one of my favorite records of the year so far, but honestly, I went into it expecting atmospheric black metal broken up by synth-y interludes, and was elated to hear an actually complete and seamless fusion."




#32
Paranorm
Empyrean

The extraordinary debut from this still-young Swedish band, Empyrean marks the first time I've gotten truly stoked on a straight-up thrash record in years, I think. Ripping, multi-part epics with razor-sharp riffs, harmonized guitar heroics for days, and a raspy, black metal-y vocalist to go along with their occasional blackened diversions. Harkens back to the glory days of bands like Dark Angel, Heathen, and yes, Metallica.




#31
Alice Phoebe Lou
Glow

A laid-back, sweet-sounding album about love -- and sex, infatuation, heartbreak, etc. Most of the songs on Glow sound influenced by 50s vocal pop, lounge, and exotica; there are also allusions to lite-grunge and Beach House-y dream pop. Like the figure on the album cover, the whole record sounds submerged in warm water. Maybe that's why I listen to it in the shower so often.




#30
Casper Clausen
Better Way

Conceptually abstract, electronics-heavy art rock. Better Way blasts off with "Used to Think", an almost 9-minute-long, kraturock-indebted endorphin rush. It proves to be a red herring, though, as the album tends to stick to slower, murkier waters. This is cool, weird, experimental pop with some not particularly cool reference points -- I hear Cluster and Radiohead, sure, but I also hear a bit of Face Value-era Phil Collins, and Passengers, the one-off collaborative project between U2 and Brian Eno that I will defend to my dying day. And from its soothing, shimmering sound to its oceanic lyrical themes, album-closer "Ocean Wave" always reminds me of another album-closer: "Blue Ocean Floor" by Justin Timberlake. (That's more of a personal association than a perceived influence.) But I like tons of hella 'uncool' music, and you probably do too, you big liar.




#29
God's Hate
God's Hate

You know how the two-party system in the United States is a fucking joke? And how the mainstream Republican party has aligned itself with radical right-wing fringe groups like the Proud Boys and Q, thereby shifting the entirety of our political discourse to the right, and painting moderate, centrist, and even right-leaning Democrats as communists? And how, as of 2021, the only real difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is "fuck the poor" vs. "fuck the poor #BLM"?

Of course you do. Well, that's kinda like what happened with hardcore and metalcore. In the 90s, bands like Earth Crisis and Hatebreed, who were extremely heavy and tough, were considered metalcore. Then in the early 2000s, along came a million bands that sounded like At the Gates with chuggy breakdowns, and that sound became what everyone called metalcore, while bands who followed in the footsteps of 90s metalcore (like God's Hate) were now just hardcore, full-stop. Essentially, the whole conversation got shifted. The only reason this analogy doesn't hold water is because hardcore is stronger for it, whereas the US political system feels like it's constantly on the verge of collapse.

Anyway, God's Hate kicks fucking ass. The minute I heard the hook on "Be Harder" ("Life! Is! Hard! BE! HARDER!") I knew this was a certified classic. I can't imagine how much iron has been pumped to this record already.




#28
Gnod
La Mort Du Sens

Sludge-y noise rock with dissonant, choppy guitars, an anxious, sarcastic vocalist, and a big, fat, distorted low end. There's a bit of post-punk in the album's stripped-down, jittery sound, but the repetitive, nihilistic, self-flagellating songs and precise, almost riff-like drumming are 100% noise rock. Every time I put this record on, I end up cranking it up so loud that then when it's over, my ears are ringing. This band's new to me, but from what I can tell, they used to be a psych rock band? I guess I could see that -- there's something psychedelic about the layered, slow-burning apocalypse that is album-closer "Giro Day" -- but they've definitely crash-landed in our shitty reality for now, and they're pissed about it.




#27
Laura Mvula
Pink Noise

I dug Mvula's first two records, but for me, they never quite rose above pretty-great status, and as the years went by without a new record, I kinda figured she might have moved on. Then Pink Noise came busting down the door, sporting big, punchy, positively immaculate 80s production that's worthy of taking on So-era Peter Gabriel-esque art pop, electrofunk, and hooky R&B, all of which Mvula handles with supreme, awe-inspiring confidence and sophistication. The album's fat-free structure -- 10 tracks, 37 minutes, an obvious Side A and Side B -- merely emphasizes the strength of every single song, and the subtle versatility she pulls from an extremely cohesive sound. It's a triumph of an album that somehow still hasn't garnered her the recognition -- at least stateside -- that she deserves.




#26
Miasmata
Unlight: Songs of Earth and Atrophy

Debut full-length from Miasmata, the new solo project from ex-Soujourner-er Mike Wilson. Epic melodic black metal played with the ferocity of speed metal and the triumphant leads of heavy/power metal. Wilson puts the pedal to the metal from jump, and there it stays, speeding at a breakneck pace from killer riff to killer riff. Who knew you could have so much fun in such close proximity to icy black metal?




#25
Azure Ray
Swallowing Swords

An unexpected reunion album from one of the definitive Saddle Creek bands. Thankfully, the duo avoid any attempts at reinvention, staying right in their wheelhouse of whispery, harmonized vocals and melancholic but comforting songs that are just a bit too lyrically ambiguous to be considered "confessional." The dreamy, atmospheric synth-gauze that colors most of the record continues a love affair with synthesizers and drum machines that began with Hold On Love in 2003; here, though, they sound more natural and refined than ever. In a year marked by near-constant anxiety, Remedy truly lived up to its name, helping me to breathe and refocus at some particularly low points. And if that's not a good barometer by which to evaluate a record's worthiness, I don't know what is.




#24
Isaiah Rashad
The House Is Burning

One of a few rap records that really got me this year. Rashad pays tribute to Southern gangsta rap royalty with samples and lyrical references, and there are some moody, trap-inspired beats and flows towards the beginning, but as the album goes on, a more laid-back, R&B-infused sound begins to take hold. It's a chill, smoked-out vibe, and Rashad spends a lot of time flexing, but lines like "My brother was my partner, died last week" and "You ain't got nothing to live for" point to a world of hurt lurking in the fringes of every bar.




#23
Order
The Gospel

The latest from these flag-bearers of True Norwegian Black Metal™. Order's members are old-school Norwegian metal royalty, including two original members of Mayhem (vocalist Messiah and drummer Manheim) as well as guitarist Anders Odden (aka Neddo) of Cadaver. Fittingly, their approach to black metal is skillfully primitive, evoking Celtic Frost, Bathory, and, yes, Deathcrush, while displaying an awareness of second-wave melody and 'modern' atmosphere. Simplistic yet inventive riffs, mid-tempo bangers, and an unflinching sense of Satanic devotion. Another record that earned my undying support via pumping me up while I'm pumping iron.




#22
Alessandro Cortini
Scuro Chiaro

Cortini has played keyboards in Nine Inch Nails since the mid-aughts, and on Scuro Chiaro, you can really tell. And it's not just that he's utilizing a more organic-sounding palette than he did with his earlier solo works. It's in the minimal, skewed melodies; the warped synths; and most of all, the static-y, shoegaze-y waves of distortion that ebb and flow throughout so many of these compositions, at times threatening to swallow them whole. Much like NIN's Ghosts albums, Scuro Chiaro can be classified as ambient music, but it's too dark, too emotionally evocative, and -- perhaps most importantly -- simply too loud to fade into the background.




#21
Low
HEY WHAT

Low's last album, Double Negative was my favorite album of 2018. As innovative and fresh-sounding an album as we're likely to hear in the 21st century, it found the band gutting their sound, replacing glacial guitars and heavenly harmonies with a great deal of what Tim Hecker might call "digital garbage" -- harsh noise, glitch, generally heavily processed sounds.

HEY WHAT is a refinement and a brightening of that sound. The vocals sit comfortably atop the mix, in far less processed form, and the sonics -- a near-constant wall of distortion that leans heavily on pulsing tremolo as a stand-in for proper percussion -- are more uniform. Appropriately, HEY WHAT also suggests that Low are slowly finding their way back from the void of hope that was Double Negative (and, not coincidentally, the end-times of the Trump administration), and while hope hasn't necessarily returned, it's been replaced by a sense of resilience and hard-earned wisdom. That corrosive, city-leveling noise is now pointed outwards, acting as both a shield and a weapon.





#20
Genghis Tron
Dream Weapon

For me, Genghis Tron were always a band that other people liked. A friend would put them on, I'd say, "Damn, this is crazy!" then never listen to them again until someone else played it for me. All that changed with Dream Weapon, because they pretty much completely changed their sound. Gone are the spazzed-out song structures and chiptune vocals that practically begged the listener to get annoyed and shut down, replaced by churning, rhythmic, retro-futuristic post-metal that sounds like Mastodon and Black Moth Super Rainbow somehow ended up quarantined together and decided to make an album out of it.




#19
Shifted
Constant Blue Light

Extremely abstract, borderline non-musical sounds that are, somewhere deep down, rooted in minimal techno. Whereas some of Shifted's music has been fully dancefloor-friendly, Constant Blue Light is all color and texture: smooth chrome, jagged rust, and dim fluorescence. Subwoofer-rattling drones simulate melodic elements, the sounds of digital scraping whir and sputter, and a trembling pulse or a recurring blip of static anxiously keeps time. Nothing here will compel you to dance, or even move for that matter. On the contrary, this is music that inspires temporary paralysis.




#18
Funeralium
Decrepit

Easily one of my favorite doom metal bands on the planet currently. It's funeral doom, so sprawling, depressive songwriting is a given, but whereas most of Funeralium's peers employ a hypnotic, guttural-heavy approach, Funeralium play with the intensity of classic 90s sludge, with an expressive, versatile vocalist to match -- he's not just miserable, he's in utter agony. Plus, there's the lingering presence of atmospheric black/death that intermittently boils over into blasting, tremolo-picked catharsis, keeping songs compelling even as they stretch past the 20- and 30-minute marks.





#17
VOLA
Witness

Super clean, melodic prog metal with chugging, djent-y verses and big, pop-leaning hooks that are genetically engineered to stick after one listen. Meanwhile, there are all these electronic elements -- synths, vocoders, programmed beats -- integrated so seamlessly that they might not immediately register. It's all executed with such awe-inspiring precision, it's easy to forget how quickly it could have gone so wrong. The first big shock comes a few tracks in, when after a few runs through the darkest, heaviest riff yet, along comes a beat that wouldn't sound out of place on a Korn record, followed by a full-on rap verse from Bless (of LA duo Shahmen). The second shock comes a few moments later when you realize that it fucking works, and you now believe in miracles. I'm often somewhat leery of this kind of sugary prog, but Witness is simply undeniable.




#16
Valac
Burning Dawn of Vengeance

One of the less notable side effects of the social and political upheavals of 2020-21, for me, was a decreased interest in music that actively aims to be unpleasant. When the world's throwing new awful things to think about in your direction seemingly on a daily basis, you don't really need a band to do it too. This was a very real shift for me, and I actually quit a long-term band over it. (Of course, as much of this list shows, it's not a hard and fast rule.)

Thus, at some point along the line, I completely lost interest in the present-day raw black metal scene. It just started feeling like a race to the bottom to prove who could make the shittiest-sounding recording, do a quick basement photoshoot, convert the spookiest image to high contrast black and white, slap a cool-looking frame around it, and trick young black metal fans into buying your limited run LP for $150. In their haste to sound like utter ass, many of these bands and projects forgot to write songs.

Enter Valac. At first glance, this spectral Santa Fe solo project might appear to fit that stereotype, but it differs from the formula in two crucial ways. For one, the recording is raw but comprehensible. There's a degree of separation between drum, bass, guitar, and vocals, that grants the record a sense of space and atmosphere. So when a tremolo-picked lead hits, or the reverb-drenched ghoul vocals come back in after a break, there's room for them to hover above the mix like aggrieved apparitions. Secondly, and most importantly: dude is writing bonafide riffs, and putting them together in effective, melodic, mournful rippers for drifting off of this mortal coil.




#15
The Reds, Pinks & Purples
Uncommon Weather

80s jangle rock drawn into 2021 via a lo-fi, Beach Fossils-esque haze. Uncommon Weather, the second full-length from this solo project of SF indie rocker Glenn Donaldson (according to Discogs, he's been in a million other bands, none of which I'm familiar with) embodies the sweet, jangling innocence of early west coast indie so perfectly, it's easy to miss that every song is an absolute gem of clever, barbed, plainspoken indie pop.




#14
Mastodon
Hushed and Grim

Look, no one's more surprised to see this on here than I am. Sure, I fucking loved Remission, but I wasn't ready for the clean vocals and more melodic sound they took on with Leviathan -- the insane amount of hype surrounding it probably didn't help -- and I never really caught up. But I stay checking in with them, and this time around, they nailed it. As one might expect of a double album, the prog ambitions are back in full force, but they're tempered by the taught, muscular alt rock they've been leaning into since Once More 'Round the Sun (maybe even The Hunter, I completely forget what that record sounds like), finding a majestic, emotive middle ground that makes both sides of the coin shine brighter. The last songs on each disc are my two favorites -- "Pushing the Tides" is one of their best gnarled ragers yet, and "Gigantium" reimagines Torche as a cosmic force -- but the whole album is as emotionally resonant as you're likely to hear from a band that I've referred to more than once as "BBQ metal."




#13
Amyl and the Sniffers
Comfort to Me

All of my friends were losing their shit over this band a couple of years back, but I stayed sleeping on them until Comfort to Me and its accompanying music videos. Whoops. This band is incredible, and Comfort to Me is the best pure punk record I've heard since Royal Headache dropped High then promptly broke up. The production's beefy, the guitars rip, and Amy exudes the kind of snotty charisma that only the best punk rock vocalists can muster. So many instantly quotable lyrics: "Good energy and bad energy / I've got plenty of energy / It's my currency"; "Security, will you let me in your pub? / I'm not looking for trouble, I'm looking for love." Just typing those out makes me wanna get drunk and steal a cop car.




#12
Loscil
Clara

As dark and immersive as Loscil has ever sounded. Despite its 70-minute runtime, Clara is largely sourced from a single, 3-minute orchestral composition. That original recording was then clipped, manipulated, and stretched into an enveloping, late-night haze of lush, Lynch-ian strings, grainy static, unnamed echoes, glimmering drones, and weightless synths. From my vantage point, ambient music currently is as popular as it's ever been -- probably because everyone in the world is suffering from some form of chronic anxiety -- thus, the market's been saturated with half-baked albums designed to get recommended to you by an algorithm, thereby making a subtle, thoughtful, and quietly stunning album like Clara feel all the more miraculous.





#11
JPEGMAFIA
LP!

Further dispatches from one of the most consistently challenging, dynamic rapper-producers on the planet. JPEGMAFIA albums are always chaotic affairs, and LP! really leans into that idea-packed sensibility on all fronts. Its instrumentals careen from bubbling synths to pitch-shifted gospel to Animals As Leaders (yes, the instrumental prog-metal band) samples to lo-fi R&B to blown-out nihilism. Lyrically, as always, everyone's suspect, from the police to pop stars to peers to his own friends and edgelord fans, and his vocals range from a gravelly, rapid-fire near-whisper to hyped-up shouts, often within the same song. None of this is particularly new to the world of JPEGMAFIA, but LP! is, to me, the tightest, most fully-realized album yet from this uncompromisingly singular artist.




#10
William Doyle
Great Spans of Muddy Time

Inventive, scatterbrained, electronics-heavy art pop. Doyle sings in a bright croon that easily glides across lush, churning seas of synths and glitch, equally adept at conveying starry-eyed wonder ("There is another reality / Beyond the one we've chosen to read as gospel / And never is that truer than in your light") and crippling depression ("We're buried beneath great lengths of nothing at all.") These searching, poetic lyrics are complimented by a series of rickety, lo-fi instrumentals, found throughout the album, that at times almost appear to still be under construction, helping to flesh out a narrative of self-exploration and emotional rawness.




#9
Wednesday
Twin Plagues

"Grunge lives!" So said an old, departed friend of mine when I first played him "Little Judas Chongo" by Melvins, a moment in time that has over the years become a reaction gif that plays in my head every time I hear a perfect piece of grunge revival, like Twin Plagues' album-opening title track. Every piece of writing about Wednesday refers to them as a shoegaze band, and that's certainly a part of their sound, but I also hear a lot of Magic Dirt's gnarly distortion and Helium's narcotized guitar heroics. Wednesday hits hard and heavy, then out of nowhere they hit you with a heartbroken, alt-country reverie like "How Can You Live If You Can't Love How Can You If You Do" (which my friend mistook for Mazzy Star) and you realize that, as great as this band already is, as young as they are, their potential is positively massive.




#8
Cory Hanson
Pale Horse Rider

A midnight trip down a lost highway of psychedelic Americana from this Wand bandleader. Surrealist country and folk-rock songs with a hazy, mystical quality and ghostly, understated arrangements -- finger-picked guitars, pedal steel, piano, understated drumming -- that occasionally take on amorphous clouds of atmospheric psychedelia. I hear echoes of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, particularly in the sprawling, ramshackle "Another Song from the Center of the Earth", and I refuse to believe that "Angeles" isn't, in part, an homage to the Elliott Smith song of the same name. However, taken as a whole, Pale Horse Rider -- and the world of dimly-lit desert roads and late-night longing that it conjures -- is entirely Hanson's own creation.




#7
Andrew W.K.
God Is Partying

There's a song on The Sophtware Slump, Grandaddy's low-budget masterpiece of turn-of-the-millennium angst, that's written from the point of view of a suicidal robot who's been neglected by his inventors. It's one of my favorite songs, and one lyric in particular has always stood out to me: "I try to sing it funny like Beck / But it's bringing me down." That lyric always struck me as clever, but it took on new meaning when, a couple of years later, Sea Change came out, and, it seemed, even Beck couldn't sing it funny anymore.

I got a similar feeling upon hearing God Is Partying, in which the Party God, advice columnist, workout enthusiast, and overall hype man for all that is good, true, and positive in this world, has seemingly succumbed to the ever-encroaching darkness. This darkness permeates the lyrics ("Take the world as a loss", "Annihilate, turn me to dust", "I'm in hell") and the music, which is the heaviest he has ever produced; in addition to the expected Def Leppard-via-Meat Loaf bombast, I hear a bit of synth-y, No More Tears-era Ozzy and modern prog metal. If I were to speculate, I might suggest that his recent divorce influenced this artistic direction. Regardless, God Is Partying is definitely the best thing he's put out since the incredible, overlooked The Wolf.





#6
Lice
WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear

A friend of mine, bless his heart, is constantly sending me links to new post-punk records that, to my ears, are all completely interchangeable. I forget how I came across Lice -- it wasn't through him -- but their chaotic songwriting, ranting vocals, thunderous drumming, and discordant, city-leveling sound absolutely blow all that shit out of the water. You can tell that Lice are fans of The Birthday Party and The Fall, but they use those sounds as inspirations, not end goals. Because they're from Bristol, comparisons to Idles are inevitable, but Lice are way weirder, more ambitious, and all-around far more interesting -- to me, anyway. (No hate, I do like that band.) A dystopian, sci-fi concept album, WASTELAND rides the precarious line between pretension and taking the piss so skillfully, it's absolutely impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.




#5
Ferriterium
Calvaire

Towering monoliths of orthodox (are people still calling it that?) black metal with massive, wall-of-sound production. Each of these four songs is constructed as a multi-part epic -- with all the ring-outs and tempo changes that go along with that -- but it's all so well-written and flows so naturally, it's utterly compelling and filler-free. The guitar work, almost all melodic, tremolo-picked perfection, comes courtesy of the band's only official member, Raido, who also handles bass and vocals. The riffs and melodies are so fucking great, it might take you a few listens to notice session drummer Thyr absolutely playing his ass off, effortlessly intermingling frenzied blasts, thrashing one-twos, and hyper-speed double-kicks with slower, heavy-hitting drama. Who knew that the black metal AOTY would be out before the end of January?




#4
Injury Reserve
By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Hip-hop deconstructed to the point that it's nearly unrecognizable. By the Time I Get to Phoenix actually took me a few listens to really wrap my head around, because I kept going into it expecting, on some level, a hip-hop record, and it sounds absolutely nothing like any hip-hop I've ever heard. It's a raw, writhing, mind-melting mass of stuttering beats, wandering synth lines, chopped-up samples, grunge-y guitars, surreal raps, and warped vocal hooks, and it's all as fascinating as it is utterly disorienting.

Completed in the wake of the death of bandmate Stepa J. Groggs, By the Time I Get to Phoenix is the best kind of tribute album. There are songs that directly address the group's grief. In the particularly devastating "Top Picks for You", they describe algorithms as extensions of their departed friend's life after signing into his Netflix account and scanning the recommended viewing, accompanied by Netflix's encouragement to "jump back in." But the tribute isn't just in the album's subject matter. Injury Reserve suffered a devastating loss, but instead of breaking up or retreating, they steered headlong into the eye of the storm, and emerged with an incredible, challenging piece of art that would unquestionably have made their friend proud.




#3
Converge & Chelsea Wolfe
Bloodmoon: I

Converge changed my life. I've been to a bunch of their shows and they've always killed it, but nothing will ever top the first one. I was 17 and on a road trip up and down the west coast with my mom, dad, and sister. While we were staying with my aunt and cousins in San Diego, the older cousin suggested that we go to a show, and I was into it based solely on the fact that it would be an opportunity to smoke cigarettes and possibly get drunk. It wasn't until we were in the car that I found out that we were going to see motherfucking Converge with American Nightmare opening at some VFW hall-type venue. It was phenomenal. I bought a T-shirt from Jacob Bannon himself (at least, I thought so at the time), moshed, took a spin-kick to the face, moshed with a bloody nose to "My Great Devastator", and went home reeking of cigarettes, positively vibrating with excitement. When the vacation was over, I immediately joined a band with the primary goal of sounding as much like Converge (and Catharsis) as possible. While I don't have the same kind of history with Chelsea Wolfe, I am definitely a fan, and have loved the turn towards witchy sludge metal that she's taken with her past couple of records.

I'm really not sure what 17-year-old me would make of Bloodmoon. It sounds closer to Chelsea Wolfe than to Converge, and definitely sounds nothing like those early records, or anything they've released since then, for that matter. No one's gonna do amateur karate moves if they play it out. And as opposed to discordant and fast, it's melodic and slow, with more sung vocals than screamed, and it's fleshed out with pianos, bells, acoustic guitars, and synths. There are overtones of space rock and noir Americana all over the place. One song sounds exactly like Jupiter-era Cave-In (whose Stephen Brodsky also appears on a couple of tracks.) But as far as 39-year-old me is concerned, it's a sumptuous feast for the ears -- Ballou's production never fails -- and a welcome change for a band that, for me, has been impressive but not particularly compelling for the past decade or so. Honestly, this is the record that I've wanted them to make ever since I first heard the slow-burning anguish of Jane Doe's epic title track fade into eternity. Here's hoping there's a Bloodmoon: II.




#2
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Theory of Ice

Of all of the albums that I loved from this year, Theory of Ice is the one that I feel least qualified to discuss. In addition to her work as a musician, Simpson is an acclaimed poet, and Theory of Ice is rooted in a series of pieces that she wrote about water. And despite the depressive screeds that filled my notebooks when I was 16-18, I actually know jack shit about poetry. Additionally -- and more significantly -- she is a scholar of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, an indigenous people who originally occupied what is now called southern Ontario, and this record is heavily informed by that cultural experience and knowledge. So that's two worlds of practices, reference points and standards about which I know virtually nothing.

What I do know, though, is that Theory of Ice is as moving a record as I heard this year. Musically, it's a tasteful mix of acoustic and electric guitars, piano/keys, gentle percussion, and Simpson's hushed, whispery voice -- an endlessly pleasant sound that lands it somewhere in the realm of indie-folk-rock. Lyrically, though, it's absolutely fascinating, and often wrenching. It's rich with images of wintery beauty, familial love, and tribal traditions, but shot through with the uncertainty of melting sheets of ice, leaky boats, and failing crops.

Every song is breathtaking. "The Wake" has a bright, simple acoustic strum that suggests innocence, making lines like "Injured certified / I wish I'd held you when you died" cut like knives; by the time its ending refrain of "Ashes in my eyes crushed fires" rolls around, the world is falling down around you. "Viscosity" is a cleansing ritual for the toxicity of online culture and neoliberalism. Then there's the centerpiece, a cover of Canadian/indigenous folk singer Willie Dunn's "I Pity the Country", which Simpson transforms from a straightforward folk protest song into a glimmering, slow-building anthem that highlights both the sadly timeless nature of the song's lyrics and the sense of catharsis that can come from simply saying things like "I pity the country, I pity the state / And the mind of a man who thrives on hate" aloud, for whoever will listen.




#1
Marissa Nadler
The Path of the Clouds

Midway through The Path of the Clouds' stunning title track, a gorgeously hazy twin guitar solo comes bursting through the clouds like light from the heavens. It's the kind of magical, transportive sound that made me fall in love with music as a kid, and upon first hearing it, I immediately realized that Nadler had stepped it WAY up for this one. The Path of the Clouds is still rooted in the spectral, reverb-soaked folk that she'd already mastered in the mid-aughts, but the sound here is by far the most lush and psychedelic in her discography: a full-band sound painted in bright swirls of harp, synth, organ, piano, chimes, woodwinds, and more. Every time I hear it, I feel like I'm levitating.

It's not just the sound that gets me, though. These are some of the most evocative songs and melodies that Nadler's ever written. She digs deep into mysterious disappearances -- apparently due to a quarantine-based fascination with old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries -- to breathtaking, chilling effect. At times, she gives voice to the disappeared and their suspected tragic ends; elsewhere, she's simply telling their stories, leaving them suspended in mid-air like ghostly question marks. They feel both deeply rooted in the traditions of Laurel Canyon folk rock and beamed directly into our world via some portal from Hades.

I took my time with this one. I really did. I listened to it a bunch of times before I even wanted to talk to anyone about it, because apparently, few artists inspire in me hyperbole like Marissa Nadler. When the self-titled came out, I said it was her best. Same for July, then Strangers. I may have even briefly said it about For My Crimes. Between albums, though, I always seem to revert back to Songs III: Bird on the Water. So when midway through my first listen to The Path of the Clouds, I found myself thinking, "Holy shit, this is totally her best album!" I had to take a beat, lest I play myself yet again. But here I am, a month later, still thinking it, so I'm gonna call it what it is: her masterpiece, and my favorite album of 2021.

38 comments:

  1. Well, I didn't know if I was a bad enough dude to read all this so I started at the bottom with #1. Thought I'd see how far I'd get. I got as far as #4 (so far). I'll be back to read more & try to be a bad enough dude to read it all, because right now I'm going elsewhere to buy the Leanne Simpson & Injury Reserve releases. They are both so far out of my wheelhouse that I never heard of either. I was giving the suggestions you've made a listen as I read your reviews. These two both blew me away. By the Time I get to Phoenix is like nothing I have ever heard. Thank you so much for these & in the words of The Terminator...

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    1. Hell yeah. I (obviously) love both of those records. Honestly, if I'd had more time with it, By the Time I Get to Phoenix might have ended up placing even higher. It's just brilliant stuff. Happy to hear you're finding stuff that is outside of your wheelhouse!

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  2. I was at that Converge show! It was at the Che Cafe. I actually still have a copy of the flier, I'll try to find it and email it to you.

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    1. Whoa, hell yeah! I actually was trying to google it and couldn't find anything on it. I remember when I got back east telling my friends about it and they were all pissed because apparently they rarely played "My Great Devastator" live -- not sure about that, but it is the only time I ever saw them play it. Would be so stoked to see that flier.

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    2. I sent it to invisibleartery@gmail, enjoy!

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  3. Gnod are VERY worth exploring. "Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine" is another anxiety-fuelled rager of theirs.

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    1. Awesome, I definitely intend to check out more of their stuff, and it's good to have some direction. Thanks!

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  4. I am a sufficiently bad dude.

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  5. that laura mvula absolutely kills. i am pretty much exclusively listening to speed metal lately and this immediately broke that trend. thank you for another great list.

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    1. So happy to hear some love for that record, I wasn't sure anyone reading this would be into it. It's so good! Great running/cardio jams, too.

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    1. The time has come to KILL! THEM ALL! Were you the one that recommended that record? I swear I found it through someone on here but I can't find the comment.

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    2. No, you shed The Light on me

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    3. It was me! It was on the post for "Traumatomy - Transcendental Evisceration of Necrogenetic Beasts (2013)". The comments turned into recommendations for pumping iron/squats. Guess I should stop lurking anonymously lol. Anyways great list, keep up the awesome work.

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  7. I didn't expect to read through your entire list because our musical tastes don't always align but I do greatly respect the diversity of styles that you promote here. However, when I saw that you included Steel Bearing Hand I felt compelled to read the entire list. As a result there are a few albums that you enlightened me too that I now want to familiarize myself with and I want to thank you for that.

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  8. Awesome list as always - thanks for posting! Lots of great stuff to dive into while I'm impatiently waiting for the all-Black-Metal list...

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  9. Hi.
    Please consider to check out my blog:
    https://glassmountaintheatre.wordpress.com/

    First post is up :)

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  10. Very excited to dig into the albums I am not familiar with. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. This is one of the few music blogs left I still frequent on a regular basis. (Still miss perception through dissonance.)

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  11. Some albums that made it to my top 10:
    1. Hellspike – Dynasties of Decay (speed/thrash metal)
    2. Robben Ford – Pure (instrumental/blues)
    3. Bestial Invasion - Divine Comedy: Inferno (tech thrash)
    4. Kenn Nardi – Trauma (progressive metal)
    5. Eternity's End – Embers of War (speed/power metal)
    6. Błoto – Kwasy i Zasady (hip hop/jazz)
    7. Be'lakor – Coherence (melodeath)
    8. Stormkeep - Tales of Othertime (meloblack)
    9. Rogér Fakhr – Fine Anyway (folk)
    10. Pharaoh - The Powers That Be (power metal)

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    1. have you checked out the record "wretch" by anti-god hand? totally agree with you about the excesses of this new wave of raw bm right now. i think it's technically "raw" black metal but the musicianship way exceeds the limits of the recording fidelity. genuinely surprising record that i think you might dig if you don't know it, i thought i found out about it through your blog but i can't find the post on it.

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  12. this rules. thanks as always; it's so cool that blogs like yours still exist with singular taste and even if our tastes don't 100% line up something like this is always so fresh and interesting to dig into

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  13. Always looking forward to your list!

    Really hesitant to listen to that Converge record because I was not that into the singles and I'm afraid I won't like it. Like you I'll always love em, but nothing will beat the nostalgia of the early shit. But you sold me, I'll listen to it.

    This Casper Clasuen record is NUTS! Thank you for that!

    In No Order:

    Dean Blunt - 'Black Metal 2'
    John Glacier - 'SHILOH: Lost For Words'
    Turnstile - 'Glow On'
    The Armed - 'ULTRAPOP'
    Tirzah - 'Colourgrade'
    Mach-Hommy - Pray For Haiti
    Koreless - 'Agor'
    Ka- 'Martyrs Reward'
    King Woman - 'Celesital Blues'
    Ross From Friends - 'Tread'
    Arca - 'Kick iii'
    Anthony Naples - 'Chameleon'
    Blawan - 'Woke Up Left Handed' e.p.
    Knocked Loose - 'Tear In The Fabric Of Life' e.p.
    Leon Vynehall - 'Rare Forever'
    Pink SiIfu - 'GUMBO'!'
    Space Afrika - 'Honest Labour'

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  14. So far, I've listened to the below 10 records, and it's 10/10 for me. Remarkable. I'm looking forward to trying many more from your list. Thank you!

    Marissa Nadler
    Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
    Converge & Chelsea Wolfe
    Lice
    Wednesday
    Amyl and the Sniffers
    The Reds, Pinks & Purples
    VOLA
    Alice Phoebe Lou
    Paranorm

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  15. whoops, meant to post my wretch shill as a main comment.
    some of my favs of the year:
    anti-god hand - wretch
    atrae bilis - apexapien
    aenigmatum - deconsecrate
    turnstile - glow on
    cfcf - memoryland
    msylma & ismael - the tenets of forgetting
    dean blunt - black metal 2
    marissa nadler - the path of the clouds
    and tons im forgetting of course

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  16. Man, I love these lists. Gotta ask, though, where are you with Lingua Ignota? "Sinner Get Ready" is my album of the year for sure.

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    1. I love Lingua Ignota. Her stuff is always so devastating, I honestly just haven't felt ready to listen to "Sinner Get Ready". I'm 100% sure that when I finally listen to it, I will love it.

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    2. I second Lingua Ignota!

      Also, a sort of strangely related record, Alexis Marshall's "House of Lull . House of When" was pretty unlike anything I've heard -- like his work with Daughters, plus a lot more instruments and sounds, and minus any kind of song structure. Strangely related because 1) she sings on the album, and 2) she recently accused him abuse. I'm assuming based on previous posts you're probably ok with listening to good music by bad people...

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  17. Nala Sinephra Space 1.8--space, jazzy, proggy, mixture: https://youtu.be/Qqi_EZ0DgrA

    Pat Metheny From This Place: https://youtu.be/dgcUeMy_kHY

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  18. Super list! Totally digging the Danny Elfman and I had no idea. Thanks!

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  19. Totally dig your lists each year. It's just nice to explore new stuff from nerds 8)

    I will listen through everything soon.

    Personally I really liked the new album of Lantlôs 'Wildhund'. But you probably already heared this as well.

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  20. Great list as always! I've been checking your blog for some years now and really like the diversity here. I would like to recommend The Silver - Ward of Roses. Cheers!

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  21. Glad to see Ferriterium and Amyl and the Sniffers high up. Miasmata was a good discovery - melodic BM isn't often done well these days but those Windir-esque leads are to die for.

    My BM album of the year is Koldovstvo - Ни царя, ни бога.
    Notwithstanding that you're tiring of raw BM, this is the real deal: crypt-like but surprisingly catchy and hypnotic.

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  22. Thank you for sharing, always.
    Maybe I can listen to more than 5 of these and fuck up my own end of the year lists by end of December

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  23. A lot to explore. Thanks for opening the path.

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  24. Hey man, thanks for the list.
    Did you get the chance to listen to The Bug's new record Fire? You totally should if you haven't.

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  25. I come here for your writing. That's mostly as far as I get, and it's enough. You're consistently inventive, cliché-avoiding, passionate, and honest.

    I've found a couple of your recommendations, and look forward (peeking through mu fingers) to hearing them.

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  26. As always, a stellar list that will keep me flush with good listening for some time!

    Here are some favorites of mine that I thought you might dig as well:

    Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince
    Moor Mother & Billy Woods - BRASS
    Hali Palombo - Cylinder Loops
    Nansarunai - Ultimul Rege
    CODENINE - Base and Beauty
    Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt - Made Out of Sound
    Rorcal & Earthflesh - Witch Coven
    Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises
    Militarie Gun - All Roads Lead to the Gun II
    Pupil Slicer - Mirrors
    Big Brave - Vital
    Sleepwalker - Noč Na Krayu Sveta
    L'Rain - Fatigue
    Armand Hammer & The Alchemist - Haram

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