You know I had to do it, so here it is. As I’ve already said, this year was a year that was cram-packed with excellent releases, and the world of non-metal and metal adjacent was no exception, so much so that I almost considered doing another, separate honorable mentions list just for non-metal. The only reason I didn’t is because free time and sanity are at something of an all-time-low, so you’ll forgive me if anything feels like it got left off, because, well, it did. Still, there are plenty of worthy releases here, and if that stirs up your appetite for more, there is plenty else to be found out there. Now, without further ado, here are my favorites, in almost no particular order.
Backxwash – I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES
I guess I haven’t really talked about it much, but I’ve been trying to get more into hip hop lately. Not even as a way to avoid the “mainstream” hip hop that people tend to trash (honestly, I like that stuff just as much), but because this is a genre I’ve only scratched the surface of, and I kinda want to fall down the rabbit hole. Enter I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES, which immediately captures the kind of hip hop vibes I’m looking for: high energy, intense passion, deep atmosphere and vicious social commentary, as well as allowing me to expand my musical knowledge by incorporating more work from black and trans folks. I don’t see anything not to like about that formula.
MONO – Pilgrimage of the Soul
MONO have had a long and quite prolific career, and one might think that there’s no way that they can keep churning out the same level of quality on this, their eleventh studio release and their twentieth year since their debut. One would be wrong about that. Pilgrimage of the Soul takes everything that makes MONO so incredible and turns it up. The band renews its long partnership with the legend Steve Albini, so you know the production quality is going to be top-notch, and on bangers like “Riptide” and “Innocence,” you get all the majestic swells and roaring wall of sound you’d come to expect. The real magic of Pilgrimage comes in the quiet moments, like “Heaven in a Wildflower” that somehow still manage to rip you to pieces in the best way possible.
Fortunate was I to be able to review this one. You can find more of my thoughts right here.
Osi and the Jupiter – Stave
Appalachia was a release from last year that absolutely floored me out of nowhere. I thought I had a handle on what Osi and the Jupiter were about, but their thematic switch from Norse to American Appalachian left me not only thoroughly impressed, but hoping for more. Stave is exactly that, a righteous blend of the Nordic inspired past and the American folk of their present, all held together by the folk instruments, delicate cellos and swirling electronics that make them so unique in their sphere and basically untouchable at this point in their career. The fact that they can plumb the same emotional depth with simple instrumentation as they can with complex cello lines and gorgeous layered synths says something profound about the genius of their songwriting.
Whaddya know? I reviewed this one too. There’s lots more ravings at this link.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell
It took me quite a long time to actually sit down and listen to Engine of Hell. Not because I didn’t want to, or because I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but because it’s hard to feel ready to receive something like this. There’s a headspace that you have to be in to properly connect with someone’s pain and heartache, and it took me a long time to be able to put myself there. When I did, I was rightly blown away. Engine of Hell is extremely sparse and an understated side of Emma Ruth Rundle, featuring almost nothing other than piano or acoustic guitar and voice, but this stripped-down setup allows her to shine with a violent light that burns as much as it warms. It’s an extremely difficult album to listen to, but it is one of the most important offerings this year, metal or not.
The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here
You know I had to do it to ‘em. It’s a simple formula: The Mountain Goats release an album, I sing its praises. Yes, I am fully and emotionally invested at this point, and I’ll back anything JD and Co. do, but Dark in Here is also an exceptional album in its own right, showcasing a band that continues to expand its sound and embrace newer direction without sacrificing everything that makes them so incredibly special to me and countless others. The core of what makes the Mountain Goats great lies in the poetry of John Darnielle, but Dark in Here continues the group’s trend of having the music itself play just as much of an emotional role as the words, and I hope this trend continues.
Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque
Does screamo belong on a non-metal list? It’s hard to say, and you could argue it either way, but at the end of the day, no matter where I talk about it, Modern Grotesque is an album that I feel an intense need to talk about. If you were to blindfold me, spin me around five times and then put on “A Crouching Tiger Waits for Prey That Never Comes” and tell me the year is 2007 and I’m still in high school, I would absolutely believe you without question. That’s not to say that Dreamwell make music that is outdated; rather, they bring an oft-maligned genre into the present day and show why people like me had, have, and always will have such a strong connection to it. Also, where to cop that WELL BITCH shirt from their press photo, because I need it.
Vince has a column exclusively dedicated to screamo, and we pray fervently for its return. In this edition, he more eloquently waxes about Modern Grotesque and you get a picture of the aforementioned shirt.
Ploho – Phantom Feelings
One of the first albums of this year that I felt a real, deep, honest connection with, and one that still sticks with me today. I can’t quite put my finger on what resonates so strongly with me about Phantom Feelings, only that somewhere in there is a musical idea that speaks directly to my soul, which is ironic considering one of the things I have mentioned about this album is my fascination with not being able to understand a literal word of it. I love the idea of language as being like another instrument, and the vocal delivery by Victor Uzhakov blends so perfectly with the synths and the unbelievably groovy basslines that I not only don’t care about not speaking Russian, I actually prefer it.
You know what it is, peep the full review right here.
Torment and Glory – We Left a Note with an Apology
How fucking dare Brian Cook. Not only is he one of my favorite musicians, with his bass work in Russian Circles being incredibly influential to me, but now he also has to be included as one of my favorite songwriters as well. How dare he make an album that is so unexpected and out of left-field and against every preconceived notion I had of him and his music? How dare he make an album that is so fucking good every time I listen to it, it feels like the first time all over again? How dare he make an album that I literally cannot go more than a day or two without putting on? We Left a Note with an Apology is nothing short of an absolute triumph, and it is one of the best albums I have heard not just this year, but in a long time.
Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
This is the crispiest, hottest take that I’ve got in my arsenal: Infinite Granite is not a metal album and thus belongs on this list, at least the way I organize my lists. No disrespect to anyone else who chose to include it in a combined list or even a metal one. I just can’t look at this album and see them in the same category as the band who made Sunbather or New Bermuda. But maybe that’s the magic of Infinite Granite, and Deafheaven in general: they actively, vehemently defy categorization. As soon as someone tries to put them in a box, they smash out of the side of it, Kool Aid Man style, and do the exact last thing anyone would expect of them. For that, I will forever be a fan, and if you haven’t given Infinite Granite a chance, you should, because you just might be too. Genre be damned anyway.
KennyHoopla and Travis Barker – SURVIVOR’S GUILT: THE MIXTAPE//
Here we have another case of How Are People in the Year of Our Lord 2021 Making Music that Sounds Exactly Like What I Listened to in High School. On SURVIVOR’S GUILT, Kenny takes the original recipe of indie rock meets hip hop meets punk and just goes full pop punk on everyone’s ass, and it is an incredible 20-minute ride. KennyHoopla is a kid who is going places, and I think that should be apparent to everyone, considering the fucking Space Pope of all pop punk’s name is attached to this release. If this is any indication of the things to come from Mr. Hoopla, pop punk is certainly being defended well.
Some of my favorite releases this year, all things condensed, have been non-metal releases, so I am very happy to be able to put one of these lists out again. In a year that has pendulum-swung between cautious optimism and crushing despair, the one constant was music, and I found myself drawn a lot harder to the gentler side of the sonic spectrum. Mostly what I was looking for was emotional release, and boy do these albums accomplish that in spades. They hold up to anything else put out this year on their own, and if you’re looking for a change of pace, any one of these will take you where you need to go.