My Favorite Records of 2021
Mare Cognitum — Solar Paroxysm
Being a guy who still only has a passing familiarity with the wide scope of black metal, I do know that the genre has reputation for being made by insulated weirdos with questionable politics. But don’t worry about the man behind Mare Cognitum, Jacob Buczarski, because the manifesto behind his music namechecks climate change, fascism and racism as the forces that will destroy our world if not immediately dealt with. Woke black metal, everyone, that’s what we need! We especially need absolutely ripping stuff like this, where there is plenty of discernable melody, pounding rhythms, and the occasional guitar solo that sends you into the heavens. 5 songs in about 50 minutes, and it’s worth every minute of your time. A strong contender for my favorite record of the year.
Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights
Recently, I posted a clip of a Wild Pink song on Instagram, and two of my snarkier friends commented that their music sounded like it was from a car commercial or a pharmaceutical commercial. Is it such a crime to make pleasant music?? In THIS economy??? Come on! Frontman John Ross just kinda can’t help but make sweeping folk rock that can accompany you on your rural car ride, or help you come down from drugs. It’s music perfect for not just those activities, but for getting through another tough day and reminding yourself that the beauty out there is worth the fight.
Panopticon — …And Again Into the Light
It’s another one-man-black-metal-band situation here, but with a much different tone. Austin Lunn plays all the core instruments here and buries everything, including his lyrics, under an almost impenetrable sheet of ice. You have to work to hear exactly what’s happening, but when you do, it’s gorgeous. Lunn did not publish the record’s lyrics, instead choosing to give us the gist of them by saying, “To those I have let down or disappointed in my 37 years on this earth, please accept this work as my recognition of a need to change, grow and to atone for failures.” Later, “This record is dedicated to all who efuse to give up and continue to struggle for light and beauty in this world.” So, clearly the record’s themes are about struggles with mental illness and personal imperfections. The album’s title comes about from the hope we should all carry with us, that whatever is holding us down and suffocating us will eventually subside, and we can return to the light. Whatever that means to you.
Lucy Dacus — Home Video
I know that Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers would prefer no one compares them all to each other and tries to rank them or whatever, but sorry, I am about to do that! Baker’s record from this year is good, but it’s just not very fun and kind of a slog. Bridgers’s record from last year is very good, but also kinda dry and I haven’t felt a single urge to listen to it this year. But Lucy Dacus, on the other hand, THIS is where it’s at. I liked her last two records, but Home Video is her really stepping her game up and writing some brilliant songs that will shake you and stick in your head. She can playfully needle her ex in a song like “Brando,” she can be honest about her embarrassing past in a song like “VBS,” or she can cut deep emotionally with a specific-yet-universal song like “Thumbs.” If she can keep writing songs this good with such vivid lyrics, then she will be the clear Number One among her peers in Boygenius. (Again, sorry for the unfair pitting them against each other, I just had to do it!)
Every Time I Die — Radical
I’ll admit that I haven’t given much attention to the last three or four Every Time I Die records, possibly because I grew a little tired of their 20-year dedication to the same old style of rock’n’roll-tinged metalcore. I also felt like Keith Buckley’s lyrics, though still intelligent, weren’t saying a whole lot that needed to be said. That has all changed with Radical, as Buckley has sobered up, changed some things around in his life, and has begun singing about issues that feel more pressing and urgent. It also helps that this seems to be the best batch of songs this band has written in ages — full of inventive breakdowns, insane riffs and tastefully-incorporated melody. I said as much on Twitter to their guitarist Jordan Buckley, and he thanked me and said, “Getting better is so much more fun than getting worse. I can’t believe how many people are shocked by this!”
Ryan Werner — Beverly Beverly Beverly
Here’s the only record in this whole list that gives special thanks to me. Ryan is a friend of mine with whom I share a lot of common interests, namely pro wrestling and Thin Lizzy. He’s going to hate reading this, but Ryan is one of the most talented people I know. So when he started sending me early demos of this album and was asking me for input, I was completely flattered and honored. Most of my notes boiled down to, “Keep writing 90-second songs with lots of killer riffs in them.” Thankfully, that’s what Ryan did. This record is just an absolute blast, and I can’t recommend it enough. Go find it on Bandcamp here.
Slant — 1집
I found this back in like February and have zero memory of how I got hipped to it, but I sure am glad I did. This is hardcore punk from South Korea, with a frontwoman who just SHREDS with the vocals. I guess maybe it’s kind of like an even more pissed off Minor Threat. 10 songs in 17 minutes, and it does not let up the whole time. Good catchy riffs. Damn, I wish I had ever learned how to skateboard.
Koo Koo Kangaroo — Slow Clap
When you are the parent of small children who like listening to music, you’re going to experience the same songs more times than you might prefer. So the goal is to make sure this music is fun, catchy, and won’t drive you nuts. Thank goodness for groups like Koo Koo Kangaroo who make music that works just as well for adults as it does for the kids they’re intending to reach. Bryan and Neil upped their production game for this new record by really trying to do legitimate takes on hip-hop and dance music, with some songs only sounding like kids music thanks to the vocals. They do this while also singing about slip’n’slides, driving forklifts and ding-dong ditching people, so you’re just always going to have good time with this goofballs.
Suffering Hour — The Cyclic Reckoning
Easily the most EVIL record in my whole list. They call themselves “cosmic” black metal, which in this case just means the riffs are really twisted and spacey and the songs go on kinda long, but it’s totally fine because they’re fascinating the whole way through. I told my friend Brian I was listening to them and found it to be cool and unsettling, and he said, “Unsettling is a perfect word for that band. Shit is evil as fuck.” So take it from Brian — it’s evil!
Church Girls — Still Blooms
I still browse through Punknews.org every few days, a habit I’ve kept for almost two decades, because I’ll still come across bands unknown to me who end up being a delightful surprise. Church Girls is another of those surprises — super solid emo-punk with catchy riffs, angular song structures, the occasional gang vocal and hummable choruses all over. Mariel Beaumont has a relatable, casual vocal delivery that doesn’t need to hit you over the head. She’s confident in her words and in her riffs.
Another Michael — New Music and Big Pop
The first song on this record, “New Music,” is a goddamn revelation. When I first heard it, I was blown away. When I first played it for my wife, she perked up and was like, “Ooh, what is this?” And when I sent it to my friend Bill, he said, “This is absolutely delightful.” Folks, the people have spoken, and that means you need to hear this band. They’re tender-hearted indie-folk rockers with stunning vocal harmonies, thoughtful lyrics and super tasteful instrumentation. Lots of moments that will brighten up your day. You need that. I can just tell.
Low — HEY WHAT
Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have been married and in a band together for about 30 years, and though there have been a few small periods of complacency in that time, they have mostly pushed their sound in new directions. HEY WHAT is one of their most profound statements yet, doing away with most of their usual guitars and drums, and just trying to find the craziest possible sounds with which lovely music can be made. Some of it borders on meandering, but at the last minute they always pull it back and find the juice worth squeezing. And my goodness, Alan and Mimi’s voices maybe have never sounded better together than they do here.
Armand Hammer and The Alchemist — Haram
I loved Armand Hammer’s 2020 record, Shrines, and this new record sees ELUCID and billy woods collaborating with The Alchemist, who is described as a living legend of a producer in the Bandcamp liner notes. Since I don’t know nearly enough about underground hip-hop, I’ll have to take their word for it, but I can confirm that his beats are really out of this world. You won’t find yourself bobbing your head to this stuff in your car. This is hip-hop designed to go right to your brain and send it places you didn’t know it could go. The balance between these two emcees is still just so right — ELUCID has the more rapid-fire intense delivery, while billy woods is the impossibly cool casual dude who spots bullshit everywhere it exists.
Aeon Grey — Chaos Infinite
Luke Driscoll has been a friend of mine for many years now, and what I’ve always admired about him is his steely indifference to trends. Aeon Grey could be a hip-hop artist who puts big bass drops and trap beats over his music, and his message might still get across, but that wouldn’t be remotely true to Luke’s artistic vision. Luke wants to make brutally honest and moody hip-hop that offers little hope for the world, other than whatever you’re willing to do to change it. As a producer, Luke doesn’t make it easy for you. On this new record, there is barely even a snare drum to be found. It is a meditative experience that demands you listen and absorb.
Rhye — Home
Rhye’s leader, Mike Milosh, continues his mission to make extremely sexy music for all the sexy people of the world. Does this include you? Are you one of the sexy people? Am I one of the sexy people? Look, there’s only one person allowed to answer that question, and that’s my wife. I’m sorry for even asking the question. But this Rhye record? Get it in your ears if you want to be sexy. *Ed. note — I truly apologize for saying “sexy” so much.*
Sincere Engineer — Bless My Psyche
Deanna Belos has a true knack for writing razor-sharp pop-punk songs where the hilarious joke is that we’re all depressed and barely able to get by. Futility never felt so invigorating. Bless My Psyche is another statement that the rough’n’tumble pop-punk popularized by Dillinger 4 and The Lawrence Arms should never go away. Bless Deanna’s psyche, and bless these Chicagoans for fighting the good fight, and also for making this music video where the payoff is Deanna getting “pooped” on by a bird (my 5-year old daughter really liked that).
Jeff Rosenstock — SKA DREAM
Jeff Rosenstock’s NO DREAM was my favorite record of 2020. In a truly inspired fit of madness, Jeff decided to re-record and re-arrange that record to be a ska record. Hence, SKA DREAM. And it should be no surprise that this concept is executed to perfection. Every song is a total joy to hear, obviously more so if you know the original arrangements, but even if you had never heard those, it would still sound flawless. That is, of course, if you like ska. Which, come on, you should. Stop trying to be “cool.” When ska is good, it’s so awesome.
SAULT — NINE
I almost shouldn’t be telling you about this record, because unless you’ve already bought it, then you can’t now! SAULT only kept the record up for sale for 99 days, and then took it down. But you can still get to YouTube and hear this incredibly unique stuff, and you should. In line with the bizarre decision to have a record available for a limited time, SAULT is a mysterious collective who keep their identities secret. NPR named their record last year as the Best of 2020, as it captured the year of Black Lives Matter like nothing else did. This is a strange mix of hip-hop, R&B and other found sounds — most of which doesn’t sound much like a conventional version of anything. I like the record a lot, but I am obsessed with “Alcohol” — one of the most beautifully sung songs I’ve heard in ages. Please check that out.
The Weather Station — Ignorance
This band is like if Fleetwood Mac somehow formed 40 years later than they originally did, kept most of their style, but also were heavily informed by indie rock and a little bit of folk music. Tamara Lindeman writes all the songs and sings with a sultry voice that goes low and high but rarely rises very loudly. It’s the kind of thing I don’t normally dig, but it’s just so very cool and smooth and above all, very catchy. I had some of these songs stuck in my head for days.
The Sonder Bombs — Clothbound
Give me a record like this all day, folks. Willow Hawks and her band are a fantastic indie-emo-punk band from Cleveland whose songs are delightfully bitter stories about trying to make it through this terrible world as a twenty-something. The riffs are real catchy and cool, and Hawks writes great lyrics like, “What are friends for, if not to treat like shit or completely ignore?” Oh, to be in my twenties again and worry about such things!
Inferi — Vile Genesis
Shoutout to my friend Bill for knowing that I might dig this. It’s just about on the most extreme ends of my enjoyment in the realm of technical death metal and what may be described as “symphonic” metal. I need my death metal to be very melodic with plenty of neat riffs, and these guys meet my criteria. If it could also have some chugging and headbangable parts, that would be great, and these guys also do that. And they keep the “symphonic” parts to a minimum. It’s just amazingly played, amazingly structured stuff that I could never in a million years wrap my head around. BUT I can headbang to it. Very important.
Amenra — De Doorn
I will forever love these doom’n’gloom dudes from Belgium for the time I booked a show for them here in Des Moines back in 2008. They played a house show and they were SO loud and used SO MANY amps that during their set they tripped the breaker box twice. It was the best. They have since made a pretty big name for themselves, at least within the world of doom metal, as masters who channel despair through heaviness. Vocalist Colin H. van Eeckhout can whisper, sing in an eerie falsetto, or just howl like a man on the edge of ending it all. Not a record to put on at your next party.
Stars Hollow — I Want to Live My Life
I have a soft spot for the twinkly guitar, overly passionately howled brand of emo being played by lots of young bands these days. I don’t seek much of it out — I think I only need like two or three records each year that sound like this, and I especially will make room for it when it’s a band from my hometown! I think these guys are from Ames and Des Moines, maybe, I’m not sure. I don’t know them at all! I’m an old dad now who barely goes to shows, so I guess that’s my excuse. But when they do play here sometime next year, I promise to be there singing along next to a bunch of people who were born after 9/11. Good lord.
Bicycle Inn — THIS TIME AND PLACE IS ALL I’LL EVER KNOW
Here is the other twinkly emo record I liked a lot this year. These guys are a little less rambunctious and shouty than Stars Hollow, instead using conventional doses of melody and emotion. It’s a bit more meditative than most modern emo, but they do have a couple huge anthemic choruses. Their lyrics are really good and capture youthful existential dread nicely. Put this one on and feel good about being sad.
Andrew W.K. — God is Partying
I wish I fully understood what Andrew W.K. is doing. He is playing with ideas of identity, of spirituality, possibly of fidelity within a marriage. It’s all A LOT, and honestly, I kinda don’t care about the meaning behind it. What I do know is that whatever timeline Andrew is on in this bizarre career he has plotted out for himself, God is Partying is the hangover after the party. No longer are the songs fast and furious. Andrew has slowed things down considerably, sometimes evoking riffy sludge metal like Pelican. This is a record that at times feels overwrought and silly, which seems to be the point of an Andrew W.K. record. But as long as the songs are cool and Andrew is singing in such a fascinating way, I’ll cautiously go with him on this journey.
R.A.P. Ferreira — bob’s son
I just really enjoy what R.A.P. Ferreira does. He makes hip-hop on his own terms, which is of a guy half-asleep who is still smarter than everyone who could possibly step to him. The beats are loopy and weird and winding and out of tune, and his lyrics and flow could be described with all the same adjectives. And apparently he just put out another full-length record recently, which shows that he has an unstoppable ambition to be creative and share it with the world. He’s an inspiring presence.
The Lion’s Daughter — Skin Show
I found this band because many years ago I was friends with their bassist, Scott Fogelbach. Scott was in a St. Louis band called Love Lost But Not Forgotten, whose name may have been unwieldy, but they were one of the best screamo bands of that era. Now Scott is in The Lion’s Daughter, doing a very interesting style of metal that incorporates elements of 80’s horror through subject matter and eerie synthesizer. I usually don’t like it when metal bands get out the keyboards, but these guys use them seamlessly to make a sound that keeps you uneasy at all times.
Regional Justice Center — Crime and Punishment
10 songs in 13 minutes fly by and deck you in the jaw the whole time. Unless you dug deeper, you’d think this was merely pissed off hardcore punk. But vocalist Ian Shelton started this band out of the need to process the intense trauma he has gone through in his less-than-peaceful life, while also dealing with his younger brother currently serving a six-year jail sentence. These lyrics are short, blunt and to the point, and the music is crafted to serve the message: life is pain, and we have to fend for ourselves.
Succumb — XXI
If you have a strong stomach for sludgy stuff that uses elements of black metal, death metal and grind, then I implore you to check this out if only for the vocal performance from Cheri Musrasrik. She’s not so much screaming as she is menacing the listener. It’s legitimately upsetting and I love it. The band does its job by being equally menacing and scary.
Thirdface — Do It With a Smile
Here’s a record that’s in the ballpark of Regional Justice Center, but played in a slightly more off-kilter weirdo way. Still speedy and furious, still maniacally screamed, but the riffs are just very odd and unsettling. I like this record a lot, but I bet I would like it even better live.
Foreign Pain — Death of Divinity
The former guitarist of The Ghost Inside started a new band that is VERY MUCH up my alley — nasty riffs, big-time breakdowns, and no clean singing. Just give me lots of crazy heavy parts to fuel me lifting weights in my basement, and I’ll be a happy muscle-bound freak.
Silicone Praire — My Life on the Silicone Prairie
Ian Teeple is a one-man band from Kansas City who makes tripped-out garage rock that gets my toe tappin’. The whole record sounds like it was recorded onto a cassette tape at half speed and then sped up to normal speed. It is WOBBLY. But a super cool type of wobbly that feels very intentional and professionally managed.
Rata Negra — Una Vida Vulgar
Garage-surf punks from Spain who, get this, sing only in Spanish. I know, I had trouble with it too, but all you have to do is just treat the voice like it’s another instrument, try to use your high school-level understanding of Spanish to pick up a couple words here and there, and you’ll be just fine. This is really nifty stuff with good riffs and good-time vibes.
Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
As the record’s documentary-like title might suggest, Jenkins turns her gaze to the world around her — utilizing both found nature sounds and a real recording of a museum tour guide pontificating on life. Along the way, Jenkins and her band play it slow and steady, creating beautiful tones of chilled-out indie rock. One of the songs I liked most this year was “Hard Drive,” a magical slow burner with half-sung, half-spoken vocals.
Laura Stevenson — Laura Stevenson
These songs could be total trash, just derivative dreck, but as long as Laura Stevenson was still singing like that, then the record would be great. She really has a miraculous voice — able to convey so much even in a lower, softer register. I could listen to her sing all day. Luckily, her songs are also really solid indie rock with emo sensibilities. Check her out!
Foxing — Draw Down the Moon
I struggled with whether or not I should write about this one, or put it in my Honorable Mentions. So I’ll give it this quick write-up: I admire this band for taking a big swing and trying to make a huge rock record that’s also kinda difficult and uncompromising. I like probably 60% of it, especially “Go Down Together.” What a friggin jam that is.
Ka — A Martyr’s Reward
Hovvdy — True Love
Vince Staples — Vince Staples
Sydney Sprague — maybe i will see you at the end of the world
Pupil Slicer — Mirrors
Julien Baker — Little Oblivions
Anika Pyle — Wild River
Ellende — Triebe
Woman is the Earth — Dust of Forever
Iron Maiden — Senjutsu
serpentwithfeet — Deacon
Bridge Burner — Disempath
Amyl and the Sniffers — Comfort to Me
Yautja — The Lurch
Good Sleepy — everysinglelittlebit
A Great Big Pile of Leaves — Pono
Skyzoo — All the Brilliant Things