Best of 2021: Chris’s List

Best of 2021

The beginning is the end. Literally, in this case. I started this post with the entries for my list a few weeks ago, wrote my 1,000 word review (sorry) on my Album of the Year and concluding paragraph right before Christmas, and now here I am in the vaporous ether before the new year pondering the introduction.

And there are no words left.

I’ve wrangled with the why, trying to make sense of the music I consume and what it says, and I hit a point where trying to find an answer was…pointless. Not because it’s unimportant to know, but in the last two years the rest of the world became so much harder to deal with, life became so much harder to deal with, something in my brain went into emergency mode and just shut down the logic circuits, sending one single message over and over again:

“Stop thinking, stupid. It’s just music.”

It’s just music. Which is powerful enough on its own without me having to struggle to narrow it into some framework of identification. So I stopped thinking, stopped writing, and just listened, forgetting about what people said I should like or not like, and whether there were connections and influences and parallels that enriched what I was hearing. Most of all I stopped worrying about what the music I consumed said about me.

And what do you know…I enjoyed the hell out of it.

By not worrying so much about the whys of music I found myself connecting even more: hearing previously hidden nuances in the music of my youth, finding unexpected joys in new bands, and finding treasure in older music newly discovered. If music can be said to save us, this year it saved me by reminding me in the power of it simply being “just music” again.

But hey, there are still almost 5,000 words below (again, SORRY) about the music I connected with in 2021. I don’t know what the future holds, but as along as this genre continues to surprise and connect to me I figure I can find some way to share that enthusiasm back with you.

Maybe there are some words left, after all.

The Inner Circle

My Top 25 Albums of 2020, Part I: Albums 25-11

25. Wolves in the Throne Room – Primordial Arcana: Who would have thought that a band best know for their lengthy, foundation-laying brand of Cascadian black metal would hit the next level of greatness by crafting more compact songs that leave an immediate impact? Starting off with the just under six-minute “Mountain Magic” WIITR show that they can get across the same level of mystical romance and conjure the spirit of the Pacific Northwest with arrangements that are equal parts punchy and majestic. Ian and Angela tag-teamed the review which you can read right here.

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24. Celestial Sanctuary – Soul Diminished: Just some nasty old school death metal out of the UK. I was smart enough to realize in my mid-year report that these guys were going to stick, and true enough: I haven’t begun to tire of their swampy, 90s death metal sound. That HM-2 sound is there, but the layer of groove and doom helps to keep Soul Diminished from being an overt clone. I haven’t been able to turn away from “Rid the Gormless,” “Suffer Your Sentience,” or the title track since the vinyl arrived at my house. Throw in some killer artwork and you have all the trappings of a modern death metal classic.

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23. Silver Talon – Decadence and Decay: Who knew that when Spellcaster was put to rest we would get two fantastic bands out of it? We’ll talk about the other one in a bit, but Silver Talon are carrying the torch for the dynamic kind of metal perfected by Nevermore, and if tracks like “Deceiver, I Am” and “As the World Burns” feel a little too close to that band, then you’re crazy. We need more straight ahead dark melodic metal with 10,000 riffs and solos and vocals that soar with this kind of power and menace in equal measure. Also happy to see another entry from my mid-year report made it to the final ranking. It’s like sports, but not!

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22. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime: Even if the music wasn’t excellent, this would have made it for the cover alone. AOTY material, right there. On Halloween my brother and I re-watched The Gate for the first time in years, and we both loved how they nailed the intricacy of the metal album The Dark Book by Sacrifyx (actually Canadian thrash masters Sacrifice). Stormkeep’s latest feels like that: filled with mythology and magic, and practically overflowing with black metal wonder. When you get to the bent riff about halfway through “The Seer” you’ll know what I mean, and if you were lucky enough to get one of the numbered, limited editions of the vinyl complete with map, book, patch and die cut outer cover you’ll understand more of why I’m over the fog enshrouded moon for Tales of Othertime.

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21. Demiser – Through the Gate Eternal: You’re probably going to be seeing Demiser a lot on the 9C lists: these guys hit a LOT of folks’ buttons this year. Josh interviewed them back in February, I reviewed the album back in March, and surprising to no one we made Through the Gate Eternal AOTM as well. Since then the band has been picked up by Metal Blade and its no wonder when you hear the aggressive thrash attack of songs like “Offering,” “Hook and Torment,” and the blistering Slayer-ific title track. Yes, there are many classic nods to the progenitors of this kind of metal, but it’s few that can really bring it to life in the here and now, including some of those classic bands. Demiser has no such problem, and this album rips from start to finish.

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20. Between the Buried and Me – Colors II: I’m still not 100% sure why Between the Buried and Me decided to name their new record Colors II when sonically there’s little in relation to the groundbreaking album that put them on the map back in 2007. It sounds like the band coming further and further into their own, unafraid to weave whatever disparate influences they want into their overall frantic sound. One thing is for sure: this thing is monumentally heavy, probably the heaviest thing they’ve done since…well, the first one. Tommy Rogers might be in the best vocal shape of his life, able to nimbly move from roar to clean with no loss of impact, and the band sounds like there’s nothing they can’t execute. That in itself is exciting enough to always cheer new music from the gang.

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19. Bloody Hammers – Songs of Unspeakable Terror: From the incredibly complex and progressive to the incredibly simplistic and hook-laden. The latest from North Carolina’s Bloody Hammers seems to have come and gone, but I absolutely never tire of their Misfits-inspired punk and roll explosion. Songs of Unspeakable Terror has some of the catchiest songs in the band’s catalog, from “A Night to Dismember” to “Waking the Dead.” For a horror nerd the references and lyrical content are a gas, but none of that would matter if the songwriting wasn’t top-notch. Add to all of that the pitch-perfect vocal delivery of Anders Manga and this is probably the most fun I’ve had with an album in 2021.

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18. Helloween – Helloween: There is no way this should have worked: After not having been in the band for almost 30 years, guitarist Kai Hanson and vocalist Michael Kiske return to the Helloween fold, joining forces with the current lineup to tour and craft a reunited album that is the best thing anyone in the band has done since Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part II. Three lead vocalists and three guitarists; not only does no one step over each other or hog the limelight, they coalesce to craft the kind of ferocious speed power metal album only Helloween could pull off. It’s glorious. Listen to opener “Out For The Glory” and try to stop your face from grinning as the fellas show everyone how this is supposed to be done. Stick around for another hour filled with uplifting verses and choruses, killer solos, and another epic closing number in “Skyfall” and you’ll come to understand why back in 1987 this was the band I had as a back patch for my denim jacket.

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17. Dream Theater – A View From The Top of the World: Hi, my name is Chris and I’m the unapologetic Dream Theater fan of the group (though I will apologize for The Astonishing…sorry). Since Portnoy left the subsequent albums felt a little like the band wandering, trying in their new configuration to figure out what it meant to be Dream Theater. A View From The Top of the World is the sound of a band confidently finding their place again. It’s (obviously) a sonic marvel in terms of production, but the songwriting hasn’t been this on point in forever. You have master rockers like “The Alien” and “Awaken the Master,” requisite epics like the closing 20-minute title track, but then you have the ridiculously infectious Rush vibe of “Transcending Time” and it’s about the most perfect thing I’ve heard all year.

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16. Flotsam and Jetsam – Blood in the Water: Ah, another from the mid-year report makes it to the end. I know some folks still think of Flotsam and Jetsam as “the band that lost Jason Newsted to Metallica” but those folks haven’t been paying attention to just how good the band has been – has ALWAYS been. Vocalist Eric A.K. sounds just as commanding as ever on their 14th full-length Blood in the Water. Songs like the title track and “Cry for the Dead” show the range the band has, and the modern production is fantastic – everything is crushing without being compressed. The band sounds classic without once sounding dated, and that’s no small feat in this day and age.

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15. Kowloon Walled City – Piecework: I don’t know who “they” are, but they say that it’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play. That’s just a fancy way of commenting on the space in music, which after listening to the latest from Oakland’s Kowloon Walled City I completely understand. They’ve always been outstanding when it comes to a certain type of minimalistic post-rock but on Piecework that process is refined and smoothed out even further, cleaning up some of the distortion without losing any of the impact or heaviness on tracks like the opening title track or my personal favorite, “Oxygen Tank.” In each thud of the bass you can hear the band’s entire history, and the fact that it’s far from over is good news, indeed.

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14. Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon: When word got out that after 13 years Genghis Tron were finally ready to release a new album, one without founding member Mookie Slingerman, folks were both overjoyed and skeptical. When the single for the title track came out, folks were shocked at the change of direction: gone was the Nintendo-core hyper glitch grind of the previous albums, replaced with electronic shoegaze that feels to me at least like a natural extension and rejection of what they’ve already accomplished in favor of reaching new shores. And I am 100% here for it, in a way that has a more immediate impact on me than what Deafheaven similarly attempted. Dream Weapon sounds like an unsettling phantasm, a deft work that invites closer inspection on songs like “Pyroxene” and the 10 and a half minute “Ritual Circle” but at the same time is happy to let carry you along its course.

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13. Sarke – Allsighr: If you know me at all, you know it’s no surprise when Nocturno Culto appears on my end of year list. But he usually does it with another band (don’t worry, we’ll get to that later); I think this is his first appearance with Sarke, the hard-charging metal band of many styles led by Thomas “Sarke” Bergli, formerly of Khold and Tulus. I’ve always been a fan at a distance, but there’s something about Allsighr that feels more immediate, more progressive than anything the band has put out before. “Bleak Reflections” shows the crystal clear production and the way the keyboards become a more prominent force with the guitars. That black metal sheen is still there, but it’s no longer the primary color by which Sarke creates their music – hard rock, doom, and even some punk show throw the biting riffs and vocal work.

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12. Howling Giant – Alteration: I almost considered not putting Alteration on my list this year: it’s a stop-gap between albums, something Howling Giant did on the fly during the pandemic: live Twitch streams of jams taking inspiration from audience members giving out song titles. And there’s a loose, stoner jam quality to the songs on Alteration (yes, released on 4/20) but man the band executes on these so well I had no choice. Howling Giant are fast becoming one of my favorite bands and the chance to include another release so soon after their previous split release with Sergeant Thunderhoof hit #2 on my EOY list last year was too good to pass up.

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11. Miserable – Esclavo Miserable: WHY IS EVERYONE SLEEPING ON THIS INCREDIBLE ALBUM?!? Seriously, this record found the beating heart of 80s thrash, ripped it out of its chest and made it its own. There is not a weak track on the Peruvian band’s debut 32-minute aural assault. At moments the songs take on an almost progressive vibe, recalling great bands like DBC and Wrathchild America. From the opening moments of “Deprecio” to the finale of “Sobre Mis Ruinas” this is a thrash masterpiece. If I have a regret, it’s that you can listen to the full album by clicking on the YouTube link above or by streaming it, butt no chance to support via digital purchase because WHY IN THE HELL IS THERE NO BANDCAMP LINK?!?!?! Seriously, this is one album you do NOT want to sleep on.

The Ninth Circle

My Top 25 Albums of 2020, Part II: Albums 10-1

10. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu: Somewhere, buried in the detritus of the interwebs is an intense SMS conversation between myself and Dan Kaplan around Senjutsu…the tracks, its placement in the overall pantheon of Maiden albums, both pre- and post-reunion with Bruce and Adrien. I know a lot of Maiden “fans” wish they would go back to the catchy, shorter songs of their heyday, but I have been ride or die for this band since 1982 when I got The Number of the Beast on cassette, and if they want to explore their proggy side, I’m there for it. I think the curve ball of “The Writing on the Wall” makes for a HELL of a single, and the boys have upped their soloing to a ridiculous degree. Are there qualms? Sure, a few: I wish “Stratego” didn’t have that weird guitar lick in the verses that sounds so cheesy and thin. I kind of wish the last three tracks weren’t a half hour of Steve Harris overload. But this is Iron Maiden, one of the most influential bands to ever grace my ears, and I can easily forgive the similarities “Death of the Celts” has to “The Clansman” because these are my boys and I will never not love when they come together like Voltron to put a new album out there.

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9. Green Lung – Black Harvest: Let’s start with that opening. For a second I thought I was listening to a heavy metal cover of a Yes song. But then “Old Gods” kicks in and DAMN if these boys out of London don’t infuse their occult stoner rock with a serious bolt of rock and roll and prog. You get mountains of twin guitar leads infused with tasty 70s keyboards and a decidedly analog approach to songwriting… there’s nothing here that would sound out of place circa 1977. Vocally Tom Templar sounds like he came right out of the same pool that birthed folks like Bobby Liebling – just listen to the chorus of “Reaper’s Scythe” and you can feel the energy seeping into your soul. It’s a perfect blend of Black Sabbath and the later NWOBHM, filtered through a stoner haze of riffs and thundering drums. Even on more sedate songs like “Graveyard Sun” you can feel the pull of the darkness that only comes with the best rock music. Take my word for it…take the trip.

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8. Darkthrone – Eternal Hails…..: What universe are we in where I have a Darkthrone album NOT in the #1 spot?!?!? In truth I was so taken with the 1-2 punch of Arctic Thunder and Old Star (both of which were my #1 album for their respective years) that I wasn’t ready for the icy return to a rough and raw production, as well as a more epic doom take on the songwriting. Single “Hate Cloak” didn’t help matters, but as I slowly warmed to the album over the months since its release I began to understand it (though it’s still my least favorite track on the album): Ted and Fenriz are returning to primitive heavy metal in all its evil glory, and “Hate Cloak” is probably the most primitive of the bunch. As stated in my review there’s a surprising amount of nuance tucked away to make me second guess if “primitive” is the right way to go. Opener “His Masters Voice” has keyboards and an almost indie rock feel to the guitar before it kicks into a Motörhead-inspired black and roll charger. “Wake of the Awakened” has a coldness that serves the old school tremolo picked riffs, and closer “Lost Arcane City of Uppakra” perhaps has the most shocking change of all as the final minutes of the track and album sink into the murky depths of dungeon synth. Eternal Hails….. is a grower for sure, but still amazing enough to land in my Top 10.

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unto others - strength

7. Unto Others – Strength: When they were known as Idle Hands the band now known as Unto Others got all the way to #6 on my 2019 EOY list with debut album Mana. They may have dropped a spot (maybe it’s because as great as the album is, the new band name is a little, uh…meh) but the music on sophomore effort Strength is if anything even more laser focused. Josh pretty much said it all in his September review of the record: this album brings back the heavy in a big way without sacrificing any of the gothic swagger the band displayed on their debut. Opener “Heroin” is a monster, leading with a massive chugging attack that had me wondering what it was I had put on. Gabriel Franco’s vocals channel some serious Tom G. Warrior before descending back from the metal heavens with his signature voice and it sets the stage for the rest of the record. The aggression is very much back, but so are the hooks that refuse to leave your brain for days: the vocal harmonies in “Downtown,” the whole of “No Children Laughing Now” and the whopper surprise of covering Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children.” If covering Pat Benatar isn’t metal, I don’t know what is.

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6. Black Sites – Untrue: It would be easy to say Black Sites trade in whatever tag we’re calling trad metal metal…is it NWOTHM? When I hear the melodies of the guitars and in particular the vocals of mainmain Mark Sugar the first word that comes to mind is timeless. Untrue is classic metal in the best sense in that it doesn’t feel beholden to any era of metal. It is thoroughly modern thanks to a killer production job by Sugar. The fact that it’s mixed by a certain Sanford Parker doesn’t hurt matters either, but all the production in the world wouldn’t help if the songs weren’t there. And they most certainly are there: the opening punch of “Sword of Orion” into “Call It By Its Name” are so full of guitar and vocal harmonies, punchy arpeggiated licks and drums that sound massive you already have an album’s worth of highlights – and then you realize there are six more blasts of heavenly hard rock to get you through the day. I hate making band comparisons, but the last time I was this excited about a band that traded in this kind of music it was Dawnbringer – another Chicago based outfit. There must be some magic that Chris Black, Mark Sugar, and Sanford Parker have been casting because although I wasn’t really aware of Black Sites before, that’s now changed for good.

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dordeduh - har

5. Dordeduh – Har: From the tatters of Negura Bunget rise Dordeduh, and as I mentioned in my mid-year report once I heard opening track “Timpul Întâilor” I rushed out to secure a copy of the first pressing. In my short time as a vinyl addict I’ve never been what you’d call a purist: not everything sounds better on vinyl. This goes doubly for black metal, but in the case of Har the warmth and dynamics of the band’s blend of black and progressive metal, peppered with heavy doses of folk and psychedelia really come alive off the wax. The Romanian indebted melodies and extended song structures weave a dream-like narrative over you, and when the songs oscillate into more metallic territory it feels like a gradual, inevitable drift, not a jarring “hey, here’s a new section!” seismic shift.

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Carcass - Torn Arteries

4. Carcass – Torn Arteries: So look: I don’t want to be in lock-step with Decibel; we all know the hard-on they have for the classic masters of death metal (although somewhere Tomas is stalking Albert over the fact the new and excellent At The Gates didn’t make the Top 40). And I’ve gone on record for not liking comeback album Surgical Steel – I still don’t really care for it. But damn if Torn Arteries isn’t the most enjoyable death metal record I heard all year. Every time I put it on in the house I gradually turn the volume up higher and higher until it’s an ear-shattering roar. Carcass sounds like a band who got the reunion out of the way, did what they needed to get back on top, and now are just writing for the sheer fun of it. Which is not to say this is in any way a loose, shaggy record. Songs like “Eleanor Rigor Mortis,” “Kelly’s Meat Emporium” and the nearly 10-minute “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited” are razor sharp and calculated for maximum, well…flesh ripping. When I think of technical death metal bands I tend to include Carcass despite their earlier grind output because in order for songs lie this to work the music has to be so ridiculously tight – they need to be airtight. The harmonies on the guitars are locked in, the bass and drums create a pocket so deep and focused on the attack that when it’s all put together and Jeff Walker’s in your face snarl jumps on top Carcass become an unbeatable machine. And I’m just as shocked as you are, but feet to the fire this is my death metal album of the year.

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thy catafalque - vadak

3. Thy Catafalque – Vadak: I can’t believe it’s only been a year since Naiv rocked my world and made my Top 10 of the year. Then Thy Catafalque mastermind Tamás was #8; today he’s #3 so I guess that makes new album Vadak five better? Is that how it works? I don’t know, all I can tell you is that Vadak feels like the heavier, angrier brother of Naiv. The industrial-tinged chugging of “Gömböc” intersects with overt electronic music and dare I dare dance pop that’s equally indebted to Tamás’s native Hungary that it creates its own unique style I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. There are still moments of wonder that have nothing to do with metal: take for example the cinematic jazz-pomp of “A kupolaváros titka” with its dialog and piano breaks – it shouldn’t work (although it’s lovely) but in the context of the entire album it works beautifully as it partners with the more experimental “Kiscsikó (Irénke dala)”. Vadak is an album filled with so many twists and turns I still don’t feel like I’ve plumbed all its depths yet. This is a favorite for a lot of folks this year, so while you’re listening to it don’t forget to check out Buke’s excellent interview with Tamás here ands read Hera’s review here.

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Khemmis - Deceiver

2. Khemmis – Deceiver: Here’s the best way I can explain my all-out love for Deceiver, the latest from Khemmis, and a band that has gotten incredibly better with every album: They just made the album I wished Pallbearer had made after the spellbinding Heartless. Simple as that. From the second that acoustic guitar opens “Avernal Gates” to the moment those blended vocals – the best they have EVER sounded – come in, to the hour that passes in blissed out doom rock majesty that it takes me to recover, this is the album Khemmis were born to make. The doom component is still very much there, but it serves as a foundation for some of the best pure heavy metal in 2021. The solos are phenomenal, a tribute to the classic, timeless (again) nature of this incredible genre that has sustained me for so many decades. When Ian and Angela tag-teamed on the review they talk about the grandeur of the album: everything from the melodies to the riffs to the dirge-like moments feel bigger, more epic. That’s it exactly. Every moment is turned up to 11 and it makes for one of the best front-to-back listens of year. In fact, it IS the best front-to-back listen of the year, with one exception…

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Mastodon - Hushed and Grim

1. Mastodon – Hushed and Grim: Sometimes you have no choice. When it comes the way modern metal grew and evolved over the last 20+ years there are few bands I got into on the ground floor. Mastodon was one of them, and starting with the blistering fury of Remission I waited with bated breath for each subsequent release. Hearing the band evolve from the aggressive progression of the early releases to the flat out prog rock epic of Crack the Skye to the more streamlined rock of The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun were necessary stops on the way to pushing their polarity of their styles together, first on Emperor of Sand and now to their first “proper” double album Hushed and Grim.

It’s rare to see a band so clearly wear their influences on their sleeves, but in Mastodon’s case it’s impossible not to feel the incredible sense of loss that permeates to me on their best albums. For Crack the Skye, mixed in the heady concepts of the dark matter of the universe and Tsarist Russia was Brann Dailor’s working through the trauma and loss of his sister’s suicide at age 14. For Emperor of Sand the band wrote through the pain of cancer and death: Troy Sanders’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Dailor’s mother was going through another round of chemotherapy, and Bill Kelliher’s mother passed away from a brain tumor. Now with Hushed and Grim the spectre returns, as the album is in part a tribute to the band’s longtime manager Nick John who passed away from cancer in 2018.

Each track has the sting of loss, of grappling with the inevitability of the end and wondering how to take that one more step, and why even bother. We all bring something of ourselves to music when we listen, and it’s telling that on one of my favorite tracks from the album, “The Crux,” I kept mishearing the lyrics as “I feel pressure / I feel the depression.” But the magic of Mastodon for me has always been their ability to show me the depth of their sorrow, and how it mirrors my own, but also to lift me up and show that, dark as it may be, there is light to be found. For every lyric where the night seems to fold in on itself like on “Savage Lands” with “Drinking from reflection in the pool of endless doubt / Continue on the path of reckless devastation” there’s a (sometimes literal) hand offering a way out: “In the pit of death and bones and carcasses decayed / It’s here I find a guiding hand to true salvation.”

It’s rare that I talk about the lyrics of an album, and in truth that’s because lyrics for me are usually secondary to the music. And the music on Hushed and Grim is stellar, catering to all my love of 70s classic rock and prog, completely happy to ignore all the trappings of a what a “metal” record should be and simply focus on making music that moves from various states of being. Vocally this is the best the band has ever sounded. Brann Dailor has stepped up to take even more lead vocal duties, and his classic clean rock voice lifts the songs to a higher plane. And although he’s not nearly as much of a vocal presence as he used to be, Brent Hinds is deployed like a secret weapon – that’s always been the case with his incredible lead guitar work, but vocally he brings a gravitas to “The Beast” and his other contributions that really help to carve out the album into suites. But the superstar is Sanders, who takes his signature roar and when needed tempers it, bringing more melody and heart to every song. His tandem leads with Dailor make every Mastodon song an event: the way he comes in on opener “Pain With An Anchor” is just phenomenal. From a pure execution level Mastodon has never not been at the very top of their game, but the riffs brought together by Bill Kelliher this time around are so varied and catchy it’s like he was on the attack from the very moment of the album’s conception. And so, despite all the incredible vocal and musical performances, it’s the first time I really feel like so much of this is his album.

So much of what we consume musically tells our story as much as it tells the story of the people who made the album. In 2021 I needed music that both soothed and brought me back to happier times. But I also needed music that would reflect the pain I’ve been feeling for what seems like forever, and no album reflected that more purely than Mastodon. And no album offered the hope to eventually pull out of it. For that and a thousand others reasons there could be no other album of the year other than Hushed and Grim.

I hope whatever it was you listened to in 2021 it gave you what you needed. Sometimes that’s all we can ask for.

– Chris

4 thoughts on “Best of 2021: Chris’s List

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