Look, the absurdity of writing yet another intro to an Album(s) of the Year list isn't exactly lost on me. If you're a purveyor of music review sites, you've undoubtedly already skipped over a fair share in the interest of checking out the actual content. We all had a very tough year, but as a consolation prize, 2021 presented a veritable bevy of good (and indeed great) music. Etcetera, etcetera. Let's leave it at that.
In terms of format, this list is purely unranked. While previous years counted down to #1, that generally arbitrary structure simply doesn't demonstrate the way I enjoy music. It's also not an effective or accurate way to make recommendations. I'm also significantly less concerned about genre as in the past--I listen to a lot of different stuff, and if I'm writing a list, it should probably reflect that reality instead of projecting a false image of metal exclusivity. So be prepared for a little eclecticism.
I hope there's something herein that catches your ear. If so, please support the artists in any way you are able. And lastly, thank you for your readership! You're the best. Yes, you.
Vulgaris - Asundre (February 26th, Independent) Find it here!
As I stated, somewhat prophetically, back in June: “My favorite albums of the year are, more often than not, those that sneak their way into rotation...and then simply never leave. Despite a whole lot of listens under my belt, I highly doubt I’ll be shelving Asundre anytime soon.”
My original review sums it up far better than I could reiterate here: Asundre is a very good debut. Beyond that, it’s a very good album, regardless of its spot in what I can only hope will be a burgeoning discography. While one always runs a risk of alienating the fans of component genres when creating something that pulls from various aspects of established sounds, Vulgaris have succeeded inordinately well at creating a piece of work that holds up to scrutiny from multiple angles. Asundre is harsh, and elegant, and high-octane, and somber, and frenetic, and, above all, consistently interesting. It is an album that simply works. Don’t let it fly under your year-end radar.
Dr. Colossus - I'm a Stupid Moron With an Ugly Face and A Big Butt and my Butt Smells and I Like to Kiss My Own Butt (May 26th, Independent) Find it here!
"Pickabar," the second track on this stupendously weird effort, is one of my favorite tracks of the year. More than that, it is a prime summation of what make this goofy album so enjoyable: good riffs, intriguing song structure, sing-along refrains, and a wild thematic current so singular in its focus that I really can't help but respect the dedication to the bit. The whole (obnoxiously monikered) album contains in this vein, demonstrating that stoner doom is often the best when it accepts humor and unadulterated fun into the proceedings. Everyone in this space has heard the same old shit before. Dr. Colossus offered something entirely unprecedented and exciting this year, and I think they deserve a little respect for doing so.
Shoutout to Melinda over at Noob Heavy for recommending this band and album. It has been on heavy repetition during bad days and good days alike, and hasn't yet grown old.
BIG|BRAVE - Vital (April 23rd, Southern Lord Recordings) Find it here!
(Blatantly stolen from my mid-year list entry, as it still applies!) I'll cut right to the chase on this one: Vital is one of my very favorite albums o' the year thusfar. It's a designation that is fairly surprising to me, given a certain tendency to bestow that title upon more bombastic releases. However, on their latest, BIG|BRAVE have created one of the most harrowing and emotive experiences I've had the privilege of enjoying. There's a certain restlessness at play on this album--a tension that, even in the most delicate moments, remains coiled and ready to pounce. The dynamic at play between the lurching guitar's thunderous tone, the passages of droning ambience, and the warbling vocals feels entirely unique, and the general atmosphere painted across the breadth is simple perfection. Vital is gorgeous and utterly devastating at the same damn time. It's a brilliant album, and I anticipate carrying it with me far, far into the future.
Hand of Kalliach - Samhainn (Oct. 22nd, Independent) Find it here!
My review for this album served as a rebirth into the world of the Sleeping Village, and I still owe it a debt for pulling me back into the fray. Here's a summary of my thoughts, courtesy of said review:
Y'know that feeling of witnessing the genesis of something truly significant? There's a magic and a wonder associated with the potency of potential. While this album is, in this scribe's opinion, an absolute smash, part of my enjoyment stems from the implicit fact that Hand of Kalliach are perfectly poised to make it big. Folk metal thrives when it is bolstered by unbridled energy, and the consistent and clever use of contrast across the breadth makes for a highly engaging listen. This album has made a substantial splash here and elsewhere for very good reason, and I'm excited to see Hand of Kalliach's popularity continue to grow. They are on the cusp of something great, and that you can print. Hand of Kalliach could have gone half as hard and I'd still be singing this album's praises. This is a damn near perfect debut album, a magical and heartwarming piece of art that went far beyond my expectations.
Underking - At Hell's Gate (April 23rd, Independent) Find it here!
You know that kickass feeling when you write about an awesome album, and then find yourself agreeing with the review, fully and completely, a whole 8 months later? It's a specific situation, but bear with me. Longevity in opinion is a rare thing for this particular scribe, and so when an album strikes me the same way across the breadth of a year, it probably means good things.
Underking--the moniker of the very talented Maxwell Jeffries--plays a stupidly infectious blend of traditional heavy metal, thrash, alternative metal, and NWOBHM, all encased in a decidedly modern sheen. Across the varied breadth of At Hell’s Gate, Jeffries sounds like he’s paying homage to a veritable horde of influences, while simultaneously delivers a fresh-faced take on the side of metal that revels in jubilant hooks, catchy choruses, and enthusiastic groove. Underking arrives at hell’s gate with glee-inducing energy and a penchant for catchy-as-hell songwriting, and if that ain’t enough to wet yer whistle, I can offer nothing but sympathy and condolences.
The Sun Came Up Upon The Left and Everson Poe - Ancestral Memory (Jan. 22nd, Trepanation Recordings) Find it here!
I wrote a big ol' review for this outstanding split. I agree wholeheartedly with the author:
Despite various stylistic distinctions between the artists, The Sun Came Up Upon The Left and Everson Poe work together with a rare precision, demonstrating their impressive individual abilities without ever overshadowing the other's strengths. The release as a whole doesn't feel disjointed or inconsistent. The best splits are those wherein each artist shines brightly without overly dictating the direction of the overall image, and here, I simply don't think you could have a more cohesive and mutually supportive pairing. At the end of the day, Ancestral Memory is an impressive piece of art on both an individualistic and a holistic basis. And, on a purely pragmatic basis, it is a release that maintains its emotive trappings after many, many listens. Re-playability is an underrated quality, but for those who like to sink fully into the same album time and time again, Ancestral Memory presents an ideal experience.
Breaths - Lined in Silver (March 26th, Independent) Find it here!
I've written about Breaths a whole lot in the past few years--a fact I obnoxiously bring up every time I write about Breaths. I regret none of it. This debut is a beast. To self-plagiarize:
Lined In Silver succeeds enormously at melding seemingly disparate genres in a fashion that feels both innovative and sincere. Combining traits of post-metal/rock, doom, hardcore, prog, and blackgaze, this album is all over the map, but manages to find a common aesthetic that perfectly serves the storytelling. Whether engaging in dreamy ambiance, immersive doomgaze, emotive abrasivity, angular aggression, or a general post-rock melancholy, Breaths maintains a wonderfully rare and pure sense of self. There's a tangible emotional weight on display here--the whole affair feels deeply personal. Lined In Silver is an album that rewards (and demands) multiple listens. Don't miss it.
Abscession - Rot of Ages (Nov 19th, Transcending Obscurity) Find it here!
You call this an AOTY list? On a metal review site? How about some goddamn death metal already, amiright? This list is suffering from an extreme case of chonky riff withdrawal, and Abscession are here to deliver an appropriately intense bludgeoning. With that said, this album is here not by force and brawn, but rather because of a uniquely nuanced approach. As I said a few months back:
No doubt about it: this album is muscular and chunky as hell, and thereby serves up a healthy pummeling. But sheer heaviness does not constitute Abscession's full hand. Rot of Ages is a delectably balanced and nuanced piece, with many, many moments that stick out as poignant oddities and points of interest. Sonically, this is a very diverse 40 minutes, which is not a phrase I was expecting to write when first selecting this album from the promo pit...Abscession are far more than just another satisfying-but-forgettable Swedeath band. This album stands out from the crowd in a big way by benefit of its willingness to shake things up and utilize various sounds and styles to accomplish engaging songcraft. Abscession seek to bludgeon without relying exclusively on stale convention, and that's no small commitment.
CAPRA - In Transmission (April 23rd, Blacklight Media) Find it here!
When I feel like shit, I listen to In Transmission. Suddenly, I feel a whole lot better. It's a simple formula.
This is metallic hardcore done right. The energy is infectious as all hell. The high-octane vocals are a particularly strong suit--the barks and shouts explode with unrestrained abandon, lending the affair a distinctly punky conviction and attitude.
As I said upon the release of the first few singles: CAPRA feel relentlessly youthful, but, at the same time, carry themselves with the confidence of an act that knows the ropes. If you're in need of something a little explosive and energetic and raw and chaotic and messy and jubilant and furious and expressive, In Transmission is a clear choice. It's a stunning release.
Desolation Plains - Sword of Hailstorm (May 7th, Independent) Find it here!
This year I enjoyed a lot of dungeon synth, and of that niche, I enjoyed Desolation Plain's debut most of all. As I said this summer: this is simply top-notch: everything I crave in a synth-laden experience is inordinately well represented. If you're questing for a soundtrack to adventure, Desolation Plains delivers in spades. Inspired by the bitter isolation and cold of the midwestern winter, Sword of Hailstone is appropriately menacing without going too far off the rails into spooky country. The general vibe is crisp yet ominous, with bright glimmers consistently adding significant depth to the atmospheric backdrop. Sun dances on the snow, but the knowledge of the impending blizzard lurking over the horizon never quite allows the tunes herein a sense of unadulterated tranquility. Needless to say, it's a very nice balance, and one that reflects the triumphant peaks and dread-laden valleys of a successful fantastical narrative.
In sum? If you enjoy dungeon synth and/or RPG soundtracks, this is certainly worth checking out. For that matter, if you don't quite get the appeal of dungeon synth and/or RPG soundtracks, Sword of Hailstone might just be the one to pull you in.
Backxwash - I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES (May 7th, Independent) Find it here!
Backxwash made quite the splash this year, and I was very excited to see significant ripples in the metal community. And for good reason: if we're being honest with ourselves, I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES routinely goes harder--thematically and sonically--than anything else we encounter here at the Village. This is an intensely harrowing, suffocating, and cathartic album, and I have never heard anything like it before.
Backxwash seems to be at the forefront of something quite special. Her innovative blend of horrorcore, hip hop, and industrial is delightfully (and frighteningly) fresh and aggressive. Despite an emphasis on overwhelming soundscapes and intensely snarling vocal delivery, the sheer surprising catchiness of this project results in earworms that simply will not unbury themselves from the subconscious. The features and samples are well-placed and well-conceived, and each individual track feels like a cohesive piece that fits neatly into a larger cohesive whole. Beyond acting as a vehicle for outstanding songs, the album simply works.
I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES is stunning and poignant and powerful, and remains in constant rotation 'round these parts. If I was in the business of crowning an official Album of the Year, this would be it.
Lil Nas X - MONTERO (Sept. 17th, Columbia) Find it here!
I have listened to this album non-stop since release. I suspect a sizable contingent of our readership could care less, but frankly, it’s time to start caring.
Beyond representing the humorous and no-fucks-given future of pop, Lil Nas X is a force of nature. From his remarkable ability to rouse the rabble, to his social media dominance, to his consistency when it comes to writing earworm-y radio singles, this kid is an absolute beast. The features are well curated as well--Lil Nas proves that he can work with a variety of different voices and execute a variety of different sounds with great aplomb. MONTERO is the debut album I was hoping he would deliver, and damn, said delivery is impeccable. Watching the rise of an icon in real time is a genuine treat.
Vince Staples - Vince Staples (July 9, Motown Records and Blacksmith Records) Find it here!
This one also might be an EP? Damn it, I dunno. In any case, it is the best Vince Staples release to date, which is saying something, given a personal enthusiasm for his eclectic discography at large. And yet...Vince Staples. The balance between melodic hook-laden sensibility and the emotive storytelling he has built a brand on has never been so articulately realized. It is super somber. It is arrestingly low-key, so much so that Vince's status as a rapper pales in comparison to his ability to sing a hook. It feels oddly effortless. Most importantly, it is utterly addictive.
Vince Staples is a trim 22 minutes, and I routinely throw this thing on repeat for hours at a time. Really stellar stuff, 'nuff said.
Sa-Roc - The Sharecropper's Daughter (May 2021, Rhymesayers) Find it here!
This one feels like a slightly odd addition, given the fact that the original version came out in late 2020, so we'll just slap the 2021 Deluxe Edition artwork up there for consistency.
Sa-Roc is a prime example of an artist with a discography demonstrating constant evolution and upward momentum. This masterful album is a result of the keen eye and technique that is birthed from years of experience. Sa-Roc is a smart and vivid lyricist, and consistently delivers bars with a trademark aggression that somehow feels subtle and laid-back despite a remarkably punchy aggression and bite. Her flow switches and ability to establish a trademark sound without copy/pasting a specific delivery tactic is quite impressive, and affords the entire project an exciting replayability. The production is simultaneously polished and nostalgic in its application of dreamy boom-bap--and, notably, the beats never serve to overshadow Sa-Roc's presence.
The Sharecropper's Daughter (and the extra tracks that make the Deluxe edition, well, more Deluxe) is delivered with a confident ease and elegance that bodes well for Sa-Roc's future. She is a wildly underrated artist, and at this point, it's time for some damn accolades already.
Benny the Butcher - Pyrex Picasso (Aug. 13th, Griselda) Find it here!
If we're talking about albums that represent a marked evolution into excellence, Burden of Proof by Buffalo, NY rapper and Griselda co-finder Benny the Butcher certainly applies. Regrettably, said album came out last year and is disqualified from contention. But luckily, Benny is a prolific powerhouse, and Pyrex Picasso, the best of his 2021 releases, is a crisp collection of coke-rap bangers. Coming in at a brief seven tracks, this thing packs enough heat for an album or two from, well, pretty much anyone else. I'm generally a fan of Griselda output, and Benny has climbed to the top of the talented roster by benefit of his authenticity and his ability to rip it up without sacrificing immersive narrative. The features here are all excellent, with Conway the Machine appearing in predictably consistent fashion. While Pyrex Picasso feels less like the deliberately cohesive projects we've seen in the past, the seven tracks here are excellent across the board. Benny is killing it, and if his next LP proper is built on the back of tracks of this caliber, it'll inevitably be another classic.
Thank you again for reading, and thank you to all the artists appearing here for making cool music! I'll catch ye on the flip side.
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that wakes us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry.