The “End of Year” lists are starting! I had so much fun writing last year’s blog posts about my favourite music and TV, this year I attempted to be a little bit more rigorous in documenting what I liked. So now I have another Top 10(ish) list of albums! At the end of each month, I documented the albums that I listened to the most via my Last.FM. I decided that if an album ever hits #1 in a month, it MUST claim a spot in my end-of-year list, to combat recency bias in this list which is, after all, meant to be for the whole year.
This year, I think my music taste has spread out a little from last year, touching more genres of music than before. Whilst not all of them will be super accessible, as with last year, I’ve provided suggested tracks from each album to try. If you try any of these and enjoy them, do let me know! I’d love to hear about it!
Important caveat - these aren’t necessarily albums that came out in 2021. But I discovered them this year (or more accurately, after all of the “End of Year” lists came out in 2020). Here are my favourites, counting down to my #1!
I’ve also provided a Spotify playlist with a few tracks from each album - scroll down to the bottom to see it!
#10(ish). BACKxWASH // I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES (Rap / Industrial): This album is angry, hard-hitting, and at some points genuinely creepy. BACKxWASH is a trans rapper from Canada who builds oppressive layers of music over lyrics that rage at how she has been treated by society. Try “In Thy Holy Name” or “Terror Packets”. YOU NEED DELIVERANCE!
#10. Wormwitch // WOLF HEX (Melodic Black Metal): Wormwitch caught my attention first with the bizarre name of their opening track. But I stayed with them for a snappy album (about half an hour) which blends aggression with catchy melodies. Try “Canadian Denim Mountain Attack”, full of galloping riffs which I couldn’t resist.
#9. Fractal Universe // The Impassable Horizon (Technical Death Metal): I struggle to click with a lot of Death Metal as it becomes a little samey and it’s often hard to pierce the wall of sound to pick out what I enjoy. Fractal Universe don’t have that problem - they blend impressive playing with progressive songwriting and even hints of melody, and some fun saxophone moments. Try “Black Sails of Melancholia”, where the melody and sax hit their peak (at least on this album).
#8. At 1980 // Late Night Calls (Synthwave, Pop): My Top 10(ish) list contains a lot of synthwave/pop this year. Each album speaks to me in a different way, fulfills an oh-so-slightly different niche. But every single one is easy listening and catchy. Late Night Calls makes fantastic use of Synthwave darling vocalist Josh Dally to put together some of the cosiest, 80s-style earworms of my year. Don’t expect anything wildly original here - it’s not - but At 1980 revel in it. Try “California Nights” or “Maria”.
#7. 1914 // Where Fear and Weapons Meet (Death Metal): 1914 theme their music around the events and battles of the first world war. In Where Fear and Weapons Meet, they layer orchestral melodies in to create Death Metal that manages to be both crushing and surprisingly accessible. Highlights for me include the ear-ringing sound from the bombs going off in “Pillars of Fire (The Battle of Messines)” and the mixed vocal styles in “…and a Cross Now Marks His Place” which takes its lyrics (almost) entirely from a letter sent to the mother of a fallen soldier.
#6. Let Em Riot // Years Later (Synthwave, Pop): I spent quite a bit of time thinking about why I really love this album. Let Em Riot capture the 80s style really well, they keep their instrumentation relatively simple which allows their music to ebb and flow, they have catchy choruses and singalong verses… There’s no one thing I can point to about Years Later which makes it stand out. But it’s album that I kept coming back to, over and over again, and I continue to do so 6 months after I first discovered it. Try “Getaway”, “Black Ink”, and “Say”.
5. Wayfarer // A Romance With Violence (Black Metal)
This year has seen me stray into the more extreme side of metal. Often here, melody is not the driving force behind the music - instead, rhythm, mood, and technical skill of the instrumentalists often take the fore.
Wayfarer play what they describe as “black metal of the American West”, a sharp and bizarre contrast between the jerky melodies and sensations of a Wild West Saloon and the bleak and near-impenetrable feel of modern black metal. In the case of Wayfarer, what they capture so well is the mood - the tense lawlessness alongside the advance of technology that brought it about.
A Romance with Violence captures exactly what it claims to - the lyrics lead you through the romance of the ‘Lone Gunslinger’ through their classical-style guitar interludes and background riffs.
The album comes to a head with its utterly triumphant closer, “Vaudeville”, which shows that Wayfarer aren’t just about black metal riffs and rhythms, but that they are truly excellent metal songwriters. This song, more than any others, blends and captures the Wild West themes perfectly from its contemplative introduction through to a furious finish. A strong contender for my favourite song of the year.
4. The Amazing Devil // ruin (Alternative Folk)
ruin hit me quite late in the year - and from my first listen, I immediately went and told everyone I could think of about the album. The Amazing Devil list themselves as a “Dramatic, lyrical alt-folk band”, which I’m posting here as I can’t think of a better description for their music.
The thing that first hooked me about ruin was the way they blend together incredibly loud, dramatic sections with quieter, calmer moments. What kept bringing me back was the fun, depth, and emotion in the lyrics themselves. ruin is full of tracks that take you on a journey, and I was utterly captivated by the stories weaved in the songs. Not only that - but every single song has a lyric or hook that get stuck in your mind, and I find myself noticing and smiling at these each time I relisten to this album.
ruin is quite an unusual pick for me - but this is an incredible album, with (in my opinion) something for everyone. Try the dramatic opener “Secret Worlds”, or the slow build up to an emotional climax in “Chords”.
3. Seven Spires // Emerald Seas (Power Metal)
Emerald Seas is an album that listed so high for just being such good fun. Despite it being my gateway to metal music when I was younger, I’m increasingly finding that Power Metal is a really difficult genre to get right. It’s easy to make something that is too pompous, too overblown, too technical, or that simply has sub-par vocals. Emerald Seas has none of those flaws.
Seven Spires mix clean and harsh vocals together to produce an album that flows, with wonderfully catchy melodies and very few dud tracks over its 50-minute length. In theory, Emerald Seas is a concept album about a pair of star-crossed, immortal lovers in the Age of Sail. But I found when I was listening that that didn’t matter.
If you’re not a metal person, Emerald Seas likely won’t win you over. But if you enjoy it even a bit, I’d encourage you to try this! Start with the almost power-ballad-esque “Succumb”, then try “Ghost of a Dream”.
2. Spanish Love Songs // Brave Faces Everyone (Pop-Punk)
Pop-punk, as a genre, has a bit of reputation for angst. Spanish Love Songs take that formula and double down on it on Brave Faces Everyone, combining interpersonal emotional gut-punches with existential despair. Yet they do so whilst writing high-energy, catchy pop-punk.
Brave Faces Everyone focuses primarily (though not exclusively) on the plight of people who are stuck in a cycle of poverty through unreliable / low-paid work, often sucking them into depression or drug dependency. Spanish Love Songs are not subtle in their lyrical approaches - but here, I find that this works tremendously well to put across a feeling of sheer helplessness.
Brave Faces Everyone is, frankly, a really depressing album. But the music is catchy, the vocals fit the music PERFECTLY, and I found myself continually drawn in. Try “Kick” or “Beach Front Property”.
1. W O L F C L U B // Just Drive - Part 1 (Synthwave, Pop)
I’ve already written about some of my favourite Synthwave albums of the year. It’s not a genre that is particularly complex to understand or click with. It’s designed to evoke an emotional mood and a nostalgic throwback to 80s-style synth. In a year where the pandemic continued to rage, and stresses pile up everywhere, I found myself quite frequently not in the mood to listen to complex or heavy music. Instead, I retreated into what (with rose-tinted glasses) is a simpler time, and bathed in emotions of romance and/or heartbreak. My first foray into this was with Just Drive - Part 1.
W O L F C L U B (WolfClub) is an English synthwave duo who bring on a multitude of guest vocalists, and put together simple, catchy, and emotional synth-pop. The songs are pretty formulaic and sometimes even a little repetitive, but that didn’t stop me from listening to this album for more time than ANY other this year. From the upbeat rhymths and optimism of “Just Drive”, to the heartfelt and intimite “Shoulder Blades”, this album washed over me and gave me an experience that I wanted to come back to over and over again.
Just Drive took me to a place I’d never been to before, but it’s magical and so I stayed there. It’s an accessible album that I would recommend to absolutely everyone.
(Note W O L F C L U B also released Just Drive - Part 2 this year. Whilst it’s not quite on the same level as Part 1, I’d suggest checking it out if you enjoy this one!)
If you’d like to listen to any of the music I’ve discussed, I’ve put a Spotify playlist in here. I wouldn’t suggest listening to this playlist as-is, as you’ll get whiplash through the genre changes, but it’s a good starting point!