Are you still out there? Hello? What’s going on?
Is it just me now?
Just as verbing weirds language, pandemics weird time, and times have gotten plenty weird of late. You remember all those years you used to get, which were about a year long? Roughly a yearsworth of stuff happened? Then everyone got drunk, watched some fireworks, and started the next one? Well now we’re in for the long haul. I personally have aged seven years since last we spoke about Album of the Year, I don’t mind telling you. So many things happened, failed to happen, happened too much or happened too little in 2021 that I’m afraid I will inevitably have to leave some of it out. But that’s ok. Remember the good stuff, don’t pet the yellow snow, ride the purple train to groovy city, and soon we’ll be recounting the best albums of 2021, just you and I, shooting the Bries and the Camemberts, two star-crossed music-lovers gazing backwards at the just before, so that we can tie off the year that was and turn to glare fuzzily together at that which is yet to come. Or will be.
If 2020 was the year of COVID, then 2021 was the year of the variants and the vaccines. A lot of things that had been postponed from 2020 happened in 2021, such as the Olympics and Paralympics, the Euro footy, and the good old UN Climate Change Conference, whereas the two events I was most interested in that had been postponed from 2020 were postponed again until 2022 (namely arena gigs to which I had tickets, by My Chemical Romance and Lady Gaga).
Tr*mpsters attacked the US Capitol, Joe Biden became US Prez 46 and Kamala Harris became VP, Poland banned abortions, a chonky ship blocked the Suez Canal, NASA flew a helicopter on Mars, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, the first malaria vaccine was developed, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched, and a whole load of other unsavoury stuff went down. Overall, not ideal.
Signing out: Sophie, Captain Sir Tom Moore, Christopher Plummer, Chick Corea, Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs), Saint… (Ian St John), Murray Walker, Marvin Hagler, Yaphet Kotto, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), Prince Philip, DMX, Helen McCrory, Michael Collins, Nick Kamen, Eric Carle, John McAfee, Donald Rumsfeld, Tom O’Connor, Joey Jordison, Dusty Hill, Una Stubbs, Sean Lock, Buddy Blaze, Sonny Chiba, Charlie Watts, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sarah Harding, Omar (Michael K. Williams), Sir Clive Sinclair, …and Greavsie (Jimmy Greaves), Boycie (John Challis), Mozzie (Willie Garson), Ruthie Tompson, Malcolm Dome, Lionel Blair, Dean Stockwell, F.W. de Klerk, Stephen Sondheim, Anne Rice, Richard Rogers, Janice Long, Desmond Tutu, and Betty White, among (as always) many others.
I got through quite a lot of music in 2021, and even released some to boot. Shall we?
- Adele – 30. (Pop/soul.) Ms. Adkins MBE gave us her fourth studio album, and it’s a corker, full of confidence, and worth the price of admission for “Easy On Me” alone.
- Tori Amos – Ocean to Ocean. (Pop.) Tori, Tori, tell us a story. I hadn’t listened to Tori’s output for aaaages, and when this crossed my musical path I was most pleasantly.
- Death Garage – Death Garage #2. (Garage, I suppose? I have no idea, TBH) The enigmatic outfit return with a second EP full of crunchy tones and moody vocals. Greasy.
- The End Machine – Phase2. (Rock.) George Lynch. I mean… that should be enough, right? It is. Very good.
- Garbage – No Gods No Masters. (Alt-rock.) Shirley Manson’s voice is still to this day 75% chocolate, 25% ice-cube-down-the-back-of-the-shirt, and the whole band are still masterful songwriters. You may have missed this… DON’T.
- Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate. (Rock.) Nothing especially new from the retro-focused Michigan quartet, but then, isn’t that largely the point?
- Indigo Down – Still Alive. (Executive rock.) Well it had to happen eventually. Yes, my band what I am actually in finally released new music. AND IT’S REALLY GOOD.
- The Kite Experiment – Atmospherics. (Prog pop/rock.) Friend of the show, the eternally prolific His Holiness John Mitchell sings and tinkles the ivories on this UK prog collaboration EP with Craig Blundell and Chris Hargrave. Beautiful, to be honest.
- The Totemist – 2880. (Instrumental metal.) The faultless, matchless Rabea Massaad has another side project, and it’s a crusher. Only three tracks, but NNNNNGH.
- Sithu Aye – Senpai III. (Instrumental metal.) Part 3 of Sithu’s ongoing anime-themed series comprises a full-length long player, and is as well executed as always. If you like Sithu, you’ll love this.
- Tremonti – Marching in Time. (Metal.) Mark Tremendous goes from strength to strength as a songwriter and frontman, and his chops are as always beyond question. Chonky.
- Steven Wilson – The Future Bites. (Prog-pop-rock.) This is a great album, don’t get me wrong. It just couldn’t quite live up to its predecessor, To the Bone, but then not much can. Check it out if you haven’t already.
And that’s me trying to trim it down… I haven’t even mentioned the 2021 releases from Angels & Airwaves, Elbow, Evergrey, Foo Fighters, Gus G, Insurgent, Iron Maiden, Jean-Michel Jarre, Myles Kennedy, Liquid Tension Experiment, The Pretty Reckless, Max Richter or Taylor Swift. I mean… I could… but then this would be so much longer, and I know you’re busy. You’ve got that thing to do later, and then there’s that other thing that you nearly forgot about too. And lunch. I understand.
I’m here to help.
When I first heard BVB, it was the high-concept rock-opera album Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones, and quite aside from the blistering fretwork from the two excellent guitarists and the frankly preternatural vocals emanating from the bewitching Andy Biersack (mmmm), the conceptiness of the conceit worked for me, and it remains my favourite release of theirs. This, however, pops in just behind it, as they have brought the pomp back to centre stage (with aplomb), and it feels like they’ve just spent a little longer honing these songs than those on the previous couple of outings. Top track: “Scarlet Cross”
If you’re anything like me—and I know I am—then you have loved Buckcherry since the moment you heard them. It was sooooo long in the cold and the dark, waiting for The Dark Times to end, and then there they were… BAM. Sorry, did you miss hard rock? Well here it is! It’s back! And they’ve been putting out top-drawer releases for the last two decades. This is one of the better ones, too. Get it down you. Top track: “Hellbound”
Before we even start here, sit the eff down and listen to uncle Clive: If you hear Billie Eilish using autotune, then you are supposed to be hearing it.
It is an effect, a production choice, a compositional tool, it is not being used because she can’t sing it. Billie is the real deal, she is a proper singer with chops and control that rival any of her musical peers. Is her image manufactured? Of course, she’s a pop star. Does she do everything herself? No, nobody does, not even the sainted Lady G. Is she a real musician? 100% hell yes, and if you don’t agree, there are plenty of alternatives on the Shitify top 100 you may enjoy, please don’t let me keep you.
Still here? Great. Now, as alluded to in previous years, my musical tastes have wandered from the narrow track of hard rock and metal of late and I’ve really begun to appreciate voices, a lot of them female. The progression between this album and 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is edifying, and shows a great maturing in both the lyrics and the mood—the angle of attack, if you will—of the entire album. It’s moody, it’s confident, it’s sometimes flippant, it’s always self-aware, and for me it’s refreshing in many ways. Valuable. Top track: “NDA”
Another female voice, this one perhaps with a handful more miles on the clock, but bringing hard all the grit that bestows. Amy Lee is an utter god, and if you have any skin in the “gothic/symphonic rock/metal” game then you already know what she’s capable of. I was a fan back in the day, and I was overjoyed to hear rumours of reformation and new music back in The Before Times, and elated when this album dropped in Spring 2021. Uplifting, defiant, gorgeous. Top track: “Better Without You”
Regular listeners will be well aware of my fandom for all things John-Mitchell-based. I think he is superb in It Bites and Kino, love his solo project Lonely Robot, and rumour has it he even sang backing vocals on a track by top executive rockers, Indigo Down. But Frost* is the brainchild of keyboardist, producer, singer, and all-round general prog whiz Jem Godfrey, with HHJM providing vocals and guitars as required, and this is their fourth studio album, following 2016’s Falling Satellites. Messrs Godfrey and Mitchell are—as seemingly always—at the top of their game here, with prog chops aplenty on show, and their expertly crafted soundscapes always sounding fresh and interesting. Prog-tastic? Not ‘arf. Top track: “The Boy Who Stood Still”
I couldn’t get on with vaunted French metal quartet Gojira for a good long while. Mainly, I think, I prefer my metal vocals cleaner than theirs, and I used to find anything even remotely growly very off-putting. With these lads I persevered though, as the riffage is extremely choice. (Aside: Uncle Ben can show you some of the secrets behind the riffs.) On this, their seventh studio outing, everything comes together and makes fifty minutes of really good, really heavy noise. Weighty. Top track: “Another World”
Man cannot live on riffage alone, though. Well, that’s not strictly true, and many do, but personally I find more and more that there has to be balance—light alongside the dark, yin with the yang, pie with the mash, etc etc. I forget where I first heard of London Grammar, but I gave them a go one day and found myself loving their indie pop stylings. Still do. They kind of remind me a little of Zero 7 but less wishy-washy. Your M, may of course, V. Top track: “Lose Your Head”
Has anyone checked if George is OK? I think he only put out two albums in 2021, so he’s slowing down a bit finally. This is a solo Lynch album, and it’s purely instrumental (which can only be a relief for those of us who remember Sacred Groove…). As you’d expect from George, the playing is absolutely never boring, and there are some great tunes here. Top track: “Falling Apart”
I was massively into Americana back in the day, but I never delved any further into the catalogue of these Californian skate punk deities, so I’m aware I’ve probably missed some corkers. Anyway, their 2021 release wandered across my desk one day and you know what, it’s bloody great. The Offspring know what their job is, and they do it well. And I respect that. Fun. Top track: “Let the Bad Times Roll”
OK, so I am old enough to still be a bit perplexed about “reaction videos”. Why on this or any other earth would I want to watch someone else watch a video? It makes no sense. That said, I do find Nik Nocturnal’s YouTube channel pretty entertaining, so go figure. And it was there that I first encountered the absolutely unearthly voice of Courtney LaPlante, singer of Spiritbox. It’s common for bands this heavy to mix “clean” and “harsh” vocal styles these days, and this often necessitates two singers. There are of course fantastic exceptions, Amorphis come immediately to mind, and let’s not forget the mighty Arch Enemy, of course. But yeah, Courtney does it all with aplomb, and the band are heavy as balls. This is their first full-length album, and it’s superb. Top track: “Yellowjacket”
Yeah, I do love these boys from Surrey. Their previous album was fine, but not what you’d call a classic. Not up to the calibre of, say, Cavalier Youth, for example. This, their seventh album feels a bit heavier and more cohesive, and hopefully will last a while longer in the rotation here at Murray Mansions. When it’s good, it’s very good. Top track: “Glasgow”
And the winner is…
I think it was my friend in Germany who alerted me to the mighty Architects, who hail from Brighton OF ALL PLACES, and for that I thank him enormously.
Let me tell you this right up front: Architects absolutely slam.
I think the genre we’re talking about here is metalcore, but that could be wrong… I’m not an expert, and trying to keep tabs on the shifting sands of metal subgenres is both difficult and impossible. I can tell you that I’m not a fan of death metal, or any bands that communicate their lyrical ideas exclusively through the medium of grunt and growls. (Apologies, Mathias.)
Splendid, then, that Sam Carter is an excellent metal singer. Sure, he screams and shouts, but (and I know how old this makes me sound) you can actually hear the words. This seems to me to be an advantage in a singer.
This is their ninth album, and they have been through some stuff over the years. They were formed by brothers Dan and Tom Searle—Dan on drums and Tom on lead guitars—way back in 2004, and in 2007 they found their current singer, the aforementioned Mr. Carter, and really started to hone their sound and craft with a consistent core lineup… until Tom Searle died of cancer in 2016, a career move considered by many to be “sub-optimal”. In time, Josh Middleton off of Sylosis was brought in as new lead guitarist and Architects continued.
I was unaware of the band, and indeed of pretty much all metalcore at this time, and have only read about all this in hindsight having become a fan in about 2019 or so, but I’m now fully on-board the Architects train and pretty excited for the upcoming 2022 release, as it goes.
But we’re talking about 2021’s For Those That Wish to Exist right now, so let’s do that. First up, the production is absolutely massive. Walls of crisp guitar tones, you would expect, and you would be right to do so as they are present in spades. The drums are crystal clear without being intrusive, and the bass is if anything a little too polite, but that may be in order to leave more room in the low end for the kick drum. It certainly doesn’t feel lacking. But where the production as a whole goes above and beyond is all the extra elements beyond the core instrumentation: strings, synths, keyboards, electronic percussion, all of these are present throughout and yet the sound is never overcrowded. This is a fascinating album sonically.
Musically, it crushes. Once the intro track is out of the way and “Black Lungs” gets off the blocks with an absolutely mind-buggering riff, it keeps the intensity up pretty much solidly for the next 50+ minutes. You’ll be glad of those breakdowns so you can catch your breath.
I could sit here and froth on for another few hundred words without much trouble, but honestly your time is better spent clicking the play button on this here video than reading my waffle.
So do that.
Top tracks: “Animals”, “Black Lungs”, “Discourse Is Dead”
Turkey of the Year
I initially had Liquid Tension Experiment 3 down as Turkey of the Year, but on reflection it is such an utterly unlistenable pile of absolute sonic horseshit, that it would be unfair to even include it as a contender. I wouldn’t rest even one of my drinks on the CD of it that I didn’t even buy.
Hurling that metaphorically—and had I bought it, literally—out of the window of a moving train, that leaves us with…
Look, I know this is hallowed ground, and I’m playing with fire just by mentioning the sainted Iron Maiden… but the fact is that this just bored me to tears. I don’t think I even managed to bear the whole 82m running time before binning it. Or maybe I did… or maybe I fell asleep. Don’t know. What I will say is that’s nearly enough time to listen to Piece of Mind and Powerslave back to back, so maybe do that instead?