It’s been a decidedly terrible year in more ways than I can count, and I can honestly say that I haven’t learned a single thing from any of it. If anything, the differently toxic crew of drone lovers occupying the White House, the wholesale betrayal of my lover’s country after two decades of feckless occupation, and the death of my mother, has all served to make me even stupider than I was in 2020. I can’t finish reading short articles. The non-music book that I did manage to finish, The Power Broker after a couple of years, gave no sense of accomplishment; just an irrational feeling of guilt that I let my mom down one last time by not completing it before she died. So much so that, when doubts were raised about Robert Caro’s claim that the roadways to city beaches were racist, I felt a physical rage as if historians were trying to disrespect my mother’s memory by implying I’d wasted time reading a thousand pages cataloging Robert Moses’ sins that I could have spent helping out around the house in Massachusetts. When one is prone to such flights of self-flagellation, it’s difficult to stay mad at faceless Ohioians for believing that vaccines are a plot cooked up by the serpentine Rosicrucians from the heat-lamped safety of a moon landing soundstage. It doesn’t help that, even with satire rendered redundant by the previous administration and superhero movies now lasting longer than our average life expectancy, our shared cultural life under COVID feels very much like fiction. Except instead the horror trope of a mass murderer continously getting back up despite every effort of the heroes, the pandemic/villain in this movie keeps getting up after the heroes spent most of the film calling each other snowflakes or Nazis, with just a few minutes spent throwing a couple Nerf balls in the monster’s general direction.
And the government shut down the concession stand in September.
On the other hand, the soundtrack to this stinker could be a lot worse. That may come off as offensive (to myself in particular!) and glib, but I don’t have much else in my tank. I’m angry all the time, but not necessarily more about mass death and inanity than the same shit I’ve been angry about all my life. Bad art, bad artists, over-culture’s continuous fidelity to the art of dick/clit sucking the netherest of mediocrity’s nether regions. Yeah, I cry about my mom every day of the week, and if she taught me anything, it was that the world makes a sucker of those who can’t prioritize grievance. But it’s also possible that I may have been born from her with a natural immunity to perspective.
So… no greater appreciation of life, no newfound ability to pick my battles, and no lessons to impart. Just a list of music that I enjoyed despite everything. Some of it may have even helped. But that’s a treacherous, potentially sentimental path. One I won’t go down for free.
So, here’s my EOY list. I tried to keep it to albums that were either not on other lists, though in the case of certain artists (Turnstile, Vince Staples, Armand Hammer for example), it would have been weird for me to ignore. But obviously I loved the Mdou Moctar album and, less obviously, I actually bought Heaux Tales before I saw all the (appropriately) appreciative reviews. I saw Jazmine Sullivan on Watch What Happens Live and she seemed cool. Other omissions may seem jarring to those who know I like punk/metal/hardcore but otherwise have an only passingly familiariaty with my aesthetic. So… I liked the previous album by The Armed well enough (even went and saw them) but ULTRAPOP feels like a hodgepodge of every single CD in the used bins of Sound & Fury/Kim’s circa 1999-2003. It’ll probably age better than Kill Me Tomorrow, about as well as Milemarker, and not even an iota as well as The Faint. If it resonates with you, I’m glad (kinda), but to me it feels like a put-on. I’m loathe to take shots at The Chisel (who I quite like) but I’m not clear why their album is better than a number of other Oi!-adjacent albums, outside of it being the one that critics have heard of. And new Converge ain’t on the list because it’s not very good, and it’s hella weird that so many people are saying this privately but seem to feel like they might have to hand in their neck tattoos if they say so publicly.
I could just let the above omissions stand without comment. That would be the kind decision. But it’s been a mean year. And I’m tired of overhyped weenies getting a pass.
(The Chisel aren’t, as far as I can tell, weenies. And it’s possible that, any day now, their record will click. I only note their omission because even I myself think it’s weird that it’s not on this list.) (I also omitted Dry Cleaning, Squid, and Black Country New Road, all of whom I assume aren’t weenies either. Those albums, too, may eventually click and I may someday regret their omissions. Probably the day I run into any of the band members at a bar or the day I need to borrow money from The Quietus.)
There were also a lot of albums that I enjoyed very much, but simply didn’t make a top fifty (or did and I just forgot about them this week) probably less because it was “worse” than any of the listed albums than because I tried to make the list representative of a number of genres, so some stuff got cut just because I already had too many punk or darkwave or freak folk or whatever albums. In the case of a few rap albums, the omission was also because I kind of suck at writing about hip hop and feel weird that I pretty much only listen to Backwoodz Studioz artists. But luckily, Gary Suarez’s EOY list is perfect so I’ll just piggyback on that (particularly PremRock, Zilla Rocca, and Semiratruth).
Basically, if your album isn’t on here, but I even once tweeted or wrote about it, then I liked it very much. I’m not paid enough to lie. (Though I’m open to that changing.)
Aaaand final caveat: while writing this, I’m listening to some stuff (Solemn Brigham, Yves Bernard, J.R.C.G.) that I missed entirely and that I haven’t had time to sit with but that seem real, real nice.
The following is in no order than the order in which the albums occurred to me. I tried very, very hard to keep descriptions to just a couple sentences.
Fifty Albums I Liked In The Year 2021
Nuha Ruby Ra How to Move Pop Group terrorsonic sounds coupled with elastic rhythms and Elastica’d scorn.
Morbo ¿A quién le echamos la culpa? None of these albums are in any order, except this one. The bass and guitar tones are a thing of beauty. The crash sound is beautifully appalling. The songs are testaments to human dignity in the face of an annihilation both internal and existential. No idea what the lyrics are but I can tell by how they’re sung that they’re better than the Bible and the first season of Ted Lasso combined. A masterpiece and best album of 2021.
Soursob s/t debut Glasgow Mods doing lines of static and (lovingly) gakking all over Darby Crash’s grave. The song “Shoegaze” is the Tobi Vail tweet that only a fool would argue with.
The Mind Open Up The Window and Leave Your Body Cough syrup psychedelics for squatting in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds Swing From the Sean DeLear Half rave-up. Half wake. A barn burner, from the barn’s perspective. Arguably Kid’s best work since The Las Vegas Story.
We Are The Union Ordinary Life As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, a lot of the bands of the Ska Revival are a bit too fond of the era of pop-punk I loathe most for me to actually listen to them for pleasure. We Are the Union def loves those bands too, but they, through inventive songcraft and and a hyper-intelligent sincerity, manage to take all that slick striving and nasal complaint and transform it into unshakable, unsinkable (More Than a) feeling.
Taqbir Victory Belongs to Those Who Fight For a Right Cause Ferocious wind tunnel punk so pillow-y distorted and echoed-out that it’s practically a Phil Collins produced Hellbastard album.
Goon Sax Mirror ll The opener, “In The Stone,” is such an instant meanie-pop classic that, for most of the year, I thought the rest of the album sucked in comparison. But, just a week before I made this list, the rest of Mirror ll finally clicked. Sideways staring Stadium Twee for dumping all the desperate bicycle riders who done you wrong.
Backxwash I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND DRESSES Best industrial album of the last twenty years.
FACS Present Tense “Strawberry Cough” is the song of the year. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for everyone whose chronic tummy issues extend outward. The rest of the album is the sound of Kurdt’s kick-ass band in Purgatory, jamming with all the other sexy, doom-cute suicides.
Canal Irreal s/t Martin Sorrondeguy’s death rock band. Meaning it sounds like a punked out, mathless Drive Like Jehu, AKA my dream album.
Vince Staples Vince Staples Stripped down Staples. The rapper could easily coast on charisma alone but seems incapable of making a bad (or even just OK) album. As effortlessly cool and dread-drenched as the first Suicide album.
Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp We’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway Dog Faced Hermans for hermanos with dirty faces. The best peace-punk big band collective since Brooklyn was lousy with them. I fucking hate when people claim that Emma Goldman said that dumb “I don’t want a revolution that I can’t dance too” quote, as it usually means “I value my hobbies as much as class war and I resent you implying that my interpretive burlesque troupe isn’t contributing to carceral reform.” But Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp’s songs of hope and rage make me think that maybe I should take being a pedantic armchair whiner down a notch and focus less on judging other people and focus more on getting my own ass/mind free.
Liberty & Justice Pressure Heavenly and hell raising skinhead Rock ‘n’ Roll by Houston, Texas bad, bad boys who indubitably hate fascists and are probably still kinda sociopaths. Not a complaint (Sheer Terror is still my favorite band after all). A collection of street punk/Oi! anthems that are pro immigrant and pro putting the boot in. If you want an album of thug-tastic hip swingers that has both a Rezillos/Fleetwood Mac cover and a Fat Tony feature, Liberty & Justice have got you covered.
Taulard Dans La Plaine Released in France in 2020 but in America in 2021, so I’m counting it. The finest album so far from the long running post-punk synth-punk band. A rhythmically thrilling record that manages to combine ‘60s/Stranglers organ, plaintive gang vocals, and post-hardcore dynamics into something that sounds entirely potent and, unlike literally 95% of post-punk bands, distinct (yes, really).
Neighborhood Brats Confines of Life Deliriously catchy poppy (as opposed to “pop-”) punk rock. Didactic and righteous, but delightfully so; like if John Sayles directed Clueless (without any disrespect intended to Amy Heckerling, whose revolutionary instincts were only differently potent to Sayles’). Sunnily apocalyptic pogo bops for anyone who’s still got the neutron bomb in their big, beautiful hearts.
Turnstile Glow On You already know. Utterly and indefatigably deserving of every ounce of hype. When I wrote about them for NPR (thanks, Lars!), I got texts from two hardcore icons. One said “best band. So inspiring.” and the other said “how much did the label pay you to write that.” Both were right! But the infinite pleasures of Glow On are their own payola and I’m happy to be on the bandwagon.
Psychic Graveyard Veins Feel Strange I know I keep saying this about albums on this list, but Veins Feel Strange really is the best album of Eric Paul’s long (and high-ass quality) career. Squirming synths warble concurrent death-disco motortronics, all in the support of Paul’s most fully inhabited lyrical pathos and passion.
Amyl & The Sniffers Comfort to Me The Sniffers’ sophomore full-length is a (very) slightly less instantly accessible collection. But it’s also a deeper listen than the debut. Amy Taylor, who was already one of the best lyricists in rock, uses her conversational yelp to rip off every scab in sight. Not that lyrical honesty is an inherent virtue. Plenty of plain-talking diarists boring the pants back onto indie songs worldwide. But Amyl & The Sniffers frame excavations of trauma within sly, bracing wit and (as always) thuggish-ly sly guitar lines that sidewind as often as they bulldoze.
Znous Znousland 3 The reigning kings of nü-Tunisian-metal return with more System Of The Down dancehall heaviness. As always, the heaviness is equal parts Headbangers Ball-era double bass drum ‘n’ grunt, (far east of) Corona groove, and interweaving streams of Afro-industrial folk-funk. It’s a chugga-chug chugging whirlwind of hellacious goodness. And it ends with *extreme Max Cavalera voice* Flutes! Bloody Flutes!
Spiritual Cramp Here Comes More Bad News An all-too-short burst of mod-bounce, stiff middle fingers, mouthing off by San Francisco’s handsomest skinhead-adjacent boy band. The guitars shake, the bass twists, the drums operate under the belief that people can/should dance at rock shows, the vocals rise and crew respond themselve, the tambourine is admirably audible. Spiritual Cramp keeps staying the happy medium between the bossest of record collections and a bootleg adderall prescription, existing in an unsung state of good-hair grace, where the nerd and bully’s lips meet.
Steel Tipped Dove Call Me When You’re Outside The only project that uses the term “community” in its bio that doesn’t make me want to defenestrate myself. Steel Tip Dove’s beats skitter and swirl like a Tardis blinking in and out of time, with dapples of baroque soul-jazz colliding with the sparsest of picked guitar and minimalist hi hat, while a roster of Backwoods all-stars and all-star associates make themselves comfortable within the shifting landscape. The album feels like a dream where familiar faces show up Virgil-style to point out all the various devils and angels, and assorted sins/salvations, all existing within the same thrillingly disorienting territory.
Moonscape Monolith An Amebix sticker on a Cadillac driven by Johnny Blaze. Lurching crust that mixes epic, horsepower guitar work with occasional Godfleshian textures of loveliness. The songs seem to be writing themselves of their own accord. The musicians, fully aware of humans’ inability to control anything, throw a couple solos (and a piano) at the landslide and eventually just ride it out till each song’s (usually under two and a half minute) end. As good a representation of contemporary life as any record this year could hope for.
Les Filles de Illighadad At Pioneer Works I usually only go for live albums if the studio albums are particularly antiseptic or the band does a quirky cover of, like, Bad Company or some such hoo-ha, but all Les Filles albums are and/or feel live as hell so this document is just one more addition to a flawless catalog of transcendent repetition and neo/pre- psych guitar heroics.
Blockhead Space Werewolves Will Be The End of Us All Another stunning collection of collective memory from the wittiest (as far as I know) man in instrumental hip hop. The amusing song titles belie the melancholy and eerie romanticism of the tracks themselves. I’m not smart enough to understand why The Caretaker is beloved by Certified Genius Critics and Blockhead is beloved by Dispensary Operators From Denver but it’s all boss ghost stories to me.
Anatomy of Habit Even If It Takes a Lifetime Look, sometimes beauty just takes the time it takes, OK? Mark Solotroff continues to figure out what it might mean to be a serious human person in a deeply unserious, anti-human era. And he documents this interrogation in real time. With enough wooly riffs and shifting dynamics that his EP-length lectures remain faithful to the Alice Cooper-ian dictum of school being out.
Chubby & The Gang The Mutt’s Nuts Like the Amyl & The Sniffers album, this second Chubby full-length seemed, on first few listens, to be a bit of a let down from a blazing debut. But, also like Comfort to Me, the sequel rewards time spent with it. Friskier, odder, more surly, more glammily cavernous, and eventually as (if not more) satisfying than the immediate pleasures that preceded it.
Anti-Machine EP I didn’t realize how much I missed Walker’s reptilian yowl until this cretinous bopper appeared. I won’t say what hardcore/punk bands this sounds like because the members would probably roll their eyes and say that actually it sounds like a bunch of Swedish/Finnish/Japanese bands I’ve never heard of. Suffice to say that the EP sounds so classic it’s like getting slapped around by the Louvre. The songs on the EP remind me of my cats: wide eyed, lithe bags of fur and razors that I love.
Threshing Spirit The Crucible Ethics In End Of Year Lists require that I note that Mr.Spirit is releasing Zohra’s solo album next year. But it is worth noting that Z was excited to be on the label because she and I loved Jordan Reyes' last album so much. This is obviously not Sand Like Stardust redux, but the off kilter patience, dreamlike discursiveness, and sonic curiosity that made that record so potently lovely is present here in spades, even while filtered through the requisite frostbitten grimness of the medium. And, while the frost certainly bites, Threshing Spirit doubles up the Solarfall pre-chorus woosh to make entire movements of Immortal’s wintery drifts. A pillow and electric blanket for laying down one’s soul to the gods, Rock and Roll.
Susana Baca Palabras Urgentes A gorgeous tapestry of Peruvian musics as bracing and vibrant as any punk or metal album this year. Not speaking the language, I can only repeat on faith the press bio that the album is political, but it certainly sounds like a collective spirit rising up. In fact it sounds like opening the window at night to be met by the light of an enormous full moon.
Scowl How Flowers Grow As much as I love tuff guy, knuckle dragging hardcore, I don’t believe those traits necessitae a spiritual/aesthetic retreat into cartoonishness. Scowl ably walk that razorwire between necessary thugness and barely covert jock shit. The songs on Flowers Grow glower and (yeah) scowl like (even more) primitive cro-mags but they maintain a pointed bounce that keeps ‘em from sounding like warm-up jams for future cops. In fact they just sound like your one honest friend in a bullshit town. And in the middle of the album Scowl throws in a Turnstile-esque boogie-synth-bop just to prove they live on the sunny side of the teenage wasteland.
Richard Dawson & Circle Henki Others have already written perfectly about how great this freak-scene collaboration is (thanks, The Quietus!) but just imagine Robert Wyatt getting down with Lucifer’s Friend and you get the idea. A utopian ideal of a new folk rock, free of The Basement Tapes’ oppressive influence. And all the other oppressive influences lurking in every corner as well.
Meridiane To Walk Behind The Sun A supergroup (made up of members of Clan of Xymox, Vaura/Azar Swan, and His Name is Alive) make a glorious reverie as sublime and, in its own way, as devoted to fawn and fauna as Dawson and Circle’s triumph. A finely attuned tribute to the ethereal side of 4AD’s catalog, free of pastiche by infusing the proceedings with a fully modern exploration of texture, a neo-folk/Scott Walker-esque sense of drama, and a deeply expressed (and correct) confidence in its own, fully realized, presence.
Monsieur Doumani Pissourin An album by Cypriot hep cats that is “avant-folk” in that it pushes against limitations to the point of a joyous sacrilege. Some avant-whatever “world music” (ugh) albums can feel… iffy. Like there are countless techno deejays in the European Union backpacking the lengths of Asia and Africa to find some previously underexploited “traditional” music for them to throw some breakbeats underneath so the festivals in Asgard are never short a middle-font-on-the-poster, afternoon performer. Or maybe I’m just a jerk. Regardless, this ain’t that. While certainly more electro-fied than the group’s 2018 album, the journey feels entirely organic even as the throb and pulse expands outwards from the band’s roots. Whispers and tonal shifts and creeping dance rhythms and chanted exultations intermingle effortlessly with soaring synth lines and extended bursts of psychedelia. This feels like an authentically “new” music, without sounding remotely moored to any time.
Generacion Suicida Regeneracion A huge leap forward for these LA punkers. Their take on hey-ho-let’s-go was always of a darker variety than many of their contemporaries, but on Regenracion Generacion Suicida bully death rock into submission, using what they need from the genre while leaving its more plodding aspects at the cemetery gates. The result is a crazily passionate album that’s as left-field in its punkness as it is sublimely direct in its version of Rock and Roll.
Lukah Why Look Up, God’s In The Mirror Another record that’s entirely deserving of all the sugar placed upon it. Endlessly quotable bars that never settle for just being quotable in a vacuum, evocative imagery that is never content to just sketch or gesture, a consistency of dread-laden vibe that never settles into an easy repetition, Why Look Up is straight-up classicist in its realization of what an album should be. It’s all so commanding and assured that I didn’t even notice till just now that there aren’t any, technically speaking, choruses. Doesn’t need ‘em, like there’s no need for anything between comic book panels. The art is right, so the eye (or ear) follows.
Maurice Louca Saet El Hazz (The Luck Hour) Maurice Louca, a bright light in an Egyptian avant scene that’s practically blinding from them, is both envy-inducingly prolific and obstinate in his refusal to make prosaic art. Dude pierces the veil like it’s his job. Saet El Hazz requires a bit of patience, something in short supply, but Louca is doubly admirable for his refusal to allow a collective mutilation, caused by virus and technology, to dictate the requirements of his art. In the end, an attentive listener is rewarded with an agile (and occasionally witty) meditation as sensual as it is heavenly.
Snapped Ankles Forest of Your Problems I was going to write that this was the “antithesis of death disco,” but I guess that would just be, you know, disco. So this is something else. But, like both kinds of disco, this is body music concerned with getting the body and mind real, real free. Basically Snapped Ankles are the dream of Can playing The Hacienda that you don’t remember having had but, trust me, of course you did.
The Rebel Riot One Day Not that context determines worth, but it kind of goes without saying that being the most long standing and vocal punk band in Myanmar/Burma is a slightly higher echelon of “punk” than your average disgruntled Orange County brat beaters. That said, I know “virtue signaling” is frowned upon so I wouldn’t include this absolute beast of an album on this list if it wasn’t a completely bananas collection of anthems, that uses d-beat, thrash, black metal, hard rock, pop-punk, and nearly every other subgenre of punk/metal that The Rebel Riot can get their hands on to dizzying effect. The stakes for Rebel Riot are high in a way that’s difficult to comprehend. And One Day reflects that throughout.
Duel In Carne Persona My usual joke about alt metal is that it’s music by and for bearded baristas without the strength of character to write Manowar riffs. I’m occasionally amusing if not always kind (or accurate). Duel, while certainly existing on the same aesthetic plane of existence as QOTSA, Eagles of Bad Ideas, and all those more abstract dullards who should never have been given Through Silver in Blood for Christmas, manage to show me up as the fool we all suspected me to be. Oh well! Starting slick with a nice Easy Livin’ motif, Duel don’t ever deny their pappys. There’s plenty of AiC, Clutch, and Lucifuge to go around (not to mention all the ‘70s/’80s stalwarts that influence any metal band worth its salt). Possibly even some Buckcherry if we’re down for a slight reach (whatever… that one song rules). But, regardless any arbitrary list of bands, this album just fucking works, OK? It’s a tad absurd, but it’s also idiosyncratic and absurdly tuneful. And absolutely a hoot. And, fuck it, it’s also kind of moving.
Hez Guerra Interior Easily one of the top five punk releases of the year. Scabrous annihilation pop. These Panamanian bad boys don’t make bad music ever. Or all they do is make bad music. The worst music. Simply gods of it. I want this 7” played from a helicopter at all my enemies’ funerals. It’s a long list but the EP is short so I feel like we can hit ‘em all if we plan it right.
Juliana Hatfield Blood The singer/songwriter that countless indie acts are ripping off while they think they’re ripping off artists far worse. The tunes are power-perfect and the lyrics are real mean and self-lacerating. I suspect that Ms. Hatfield may be drifting into Classic Liberalism as she gets older (or she was always there) but that’s OK. I’m not voting for her for president of the United States, just president of being hella sick.
Christian Fitness hip gone gunslingers Andrew Falkous playing it rough and tumble, with the requisite hookiness he’s incapable of not providing. As always, he’s got a Big Black on one shoulder and the entire history of girl groups on the other. Smart, soulful (in his fashion), and recorded for maximum grit. Like if Future of The Left signed to Goner Records and blew the (sizable, I’m sure) advance on a signed copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Holy cow. That’s it. Thanks for reading. I haven’t forgotten all the essay ideas I promised this year. Crimpshrine, moth culture, Peter Murphy, etc. Subscribe and I’m way more likely to actually do some of them. Just kidding, I’ll do them all. What else is there.
See you soon!