What an incredible year of music! In preparing this year's list, I listened to over 500 albums, narrowed those down to 60 finalists, and then intensively listened, re-listened, and listened some more times to slowly cull the list to a Top 20. This year's list is dominated by my usual penchants for psychedelia and memorable hooks, as well as by a newer focus on whether the album is fun to listen to. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did making it.
20. Jason Bieler And The Baron Von Bielski Orchestra – Songs For The Apocalypse
Jason Bieler is most known for his membership in the late 1980s/early 1990s glam metal band Saigon Kick. But his 2021 solo album is a fantastic collection of prog-inflected hard rock songwriting. The music reminds me of the more progressive minded mainstream bands that were popular during Saigon Kick's heyday, like King's X, but updated for 2021. The album features really well-executed vocal harmonies and some of the best pop hooks of any heavy album this year. The album also boasts an nice roster of guest stars including Todd LaTorre (Queensryche), Devin Townsend, Pat Badger (Extreme), David Ellefson (ex-Megadeth, and less controversial when the album came out), and Bumblefoot.
19. Khemmis – Deceiver
Here are the two most important things for you to know about Khemmis's 2021 outing, Deceiver. First, singer (and guitarist and bassist) Ben Hutcherson's vocal performance on the album is the best metal vocal performance of 2021 (narrowly beating Jón Aldará's performance on Iotunn's Access All Worlds). Secondly, Deceiver is the best produced album of 2021. Dave Otero, who engineered, produced, mixed and mastered this one seemingly could do no wrong here. Between Hutcherson's booming baritone (and occasional blackened rasp) and Otero's superlative mix, the experience of allowing this album to wash over your ears is one of pure pleasure. It doesn't hurt that the songwriting and riffage is right there too. Great album.
18. Empyrium – Über Den Sternen
Empyrium's sixth album in twenty-five years, Über Den Sternen comes seven years after The Turn of the Tides. It is not only Empyrium's most metal album since 1997's Songs Of Moors And Misty Fields, but it is also the most complete articulation of what Empyrium stands for artistically. Über Den Sternen masterfully captures the classic Empyrium aesthetic while combining the many stylistic explorations of Empyrium's past albums into a single cohesive whole. You get acoustic guitars, epic operatic vocals, crushing walls of doom metal guitar, baritone black metal rasps, and beautiful flute and string playing, all framed by a production perfectly suited to the album's sound. Check out my full review here.
17. Seth – La Morsure Du Christ
Certainly the most blasphemous album on this list—adorned with a cover featuring Paris's famed Notre Dame Cathedral aflame two years after a very real fire occurred there—La Morsure Du Christ ("the bite of Christ") is also the best pure black metal release I heard this year. France's Seth have been putting out traditionally minded black metal since the mid-1990s and have become masters of their craft. Although this album arguably approaches the boundaries of being (barely) melodic black metal, as opposed to pure traditional black metal, there's no need to get caught up in the taxonomy of this one. Instead, just listen to the incredible riffing, which always seems to be just catchy enough to be constantly engaging to listen to without compromising the black metal authenticity. The close attention to detail on the production here may be a bit anachronistic for a (semi-) traditional black metal album, but it also makes for an outstanding listen. Any lover of black metal should add this album to their collection.
16. Dordeduh – Har
Two great albums of Transylvanian metal were released by former members of Negură Bunget in 2021. Dordeduh's Har and Sur Austru's Obârşie. But only Har is good enough to make this list. While Obârşie features very well-done folk-inflected black metal, Har goes farther, transcending its sub genre and creating something truly incredible. The best moments on Har are some of my favorite musical moments of 2021. When Dordeduh are firing on all cylinders, they are much more than just a progressive black metal band. They have an amazing ability to weave different layers of sound into complex but cohesive arrangements that are powerfully psychedelic and connect at a deeply innate level. I can't wait to see what this band has in store for the future and I hope they continue to explore the psychedelic and introspective sides of their sound.
15. Stortregn – Impermanence
These black/death metal masters get labeled as tech death, but that label doesn't really fit for me. Although some of the technique on display on Impermanence is by all accords extreme, the band resist almost all of the compositional excesses that make tech death a sometimes-derided genre. At no point on the album does technique ever supplant good songwriting as the principal motivation for the band's artistic decisions. To the contrary, Stortregn use good technique as a tool to realize their songwriting goals rather than using songwriting as a showcase to display their technique. This album is chock full of great, memorable riffs, harmonized lead guitars, and well-composed melodic themes, making Stortregn one of only two "tech"-leaning bands to the crack my list this year. Check out the track "Multilayered Chaos" to hear them at their best.
14. Kauan – Ice Fleet
There are a lot of parallels that one could draw between Kauan's Ice Fleet and Empyrium's Über Den Sternen. Both represent albums by bands who have drifted away from metal in recent years who are making a stylistic return of sorts, seeking to synthesize their many musical styles to date into a single, cohesive whole. And although Empyrium's effort in doing this was outstanding, somehow Kauan's Ice Fleet bests Empyrium's Über Den Sternen in every way. The introspective parts are more introspective, the beautiful parts are prettier, the metal parts are both heavier and better integrated from a compositional standpoint. Even the vocal performances (both clean and blackened) are stronger, which is an astounding thing to say given how good they are on the Empyrium album. Ice Fleet mixes powerful doom metal and extended atmospheric, ambient and neofolk sections into expansive, contemplative compositions that are equal parts introspective journeys and psychedelic soundscapes. Telling the tale (in Finnish) of a fleet of ships discovered in the Artic in the 1930s, their crews frozen place, Ice Fleet manages to extract incredible amounts of pathos. Not to be missed for any lover of introspective and ambient metal. Read my full review here.
13. Be'lakor – Coherence
The latest outing from Australian melodic death metal masters, Be'lakor, Coherence does not disappoint. Playing to Be'lakor's many strengths, Coherence features incredible riffs in a non-Gothenburg prog-inflected style of melodic death metal. Coherence finds Be'lakor making heavy use of 12/8 time for a great sense of propulsion, brought to life with masterful rhythm guitar, extremely dynamic arrangements and instrumental part writing, and fearsome death growls, all framed up by a beautiful mix by Jens Bogren, universally regarded as one of the best in the business. What's not to like? Good choice for people who miss death metal Opeth. Read my full review here.
12. Yoth Iria – As The Flame Withers
What did Greece's Yoth Iria do on As The Flame Withers to merit the number twelve spot on my list? Nothing much. Just released a 45-minute melodic black metal album that is one of the best releases the subgenre has seen in recent years. As The Flame Withers is mostly a pretty rocking affair, but the band knows how to change pace and pour on the psychedelic gloom at just the right place in their album. Killer lead guitar harmonies and vocals complete an incredible package. Check out "the Mantis" and "The Red Crown Turns Black" for the riffs, immediately followed by the infernal vocal performance on "Unborn Undead Eternal," easily one of the best three song stretches on any album released this year. Highly recommended.
11. Biffy Clyro – The Myth Of The Happily Ever After
Easily the most mainstream album on this list, these Scottish rockers are huge in the UK where this album hit number 4 on the UK top albums chart. Blending alternative rock, progressive rock, and post hardcore with a heavy dose of strong pop hooks, Biffy Clyro have prodigious amounts of songwriting talent. The hooks on this one are strong and after even just one listen they will stay with you for hours. Each song has typically has four or five parts, the worst of which is still more skillfully composed than the best part on many bands' entire albums. There's definitely some cheesiness at points here, but it's done pretty earnestly. I could see being annoyed by these guys if I lived somewhere where they are major superstars, but I live in the United States, where they still seem relatively unknown. If you appreciate great songwriting and aren't afraid of hooks designed for catchiness, this album has a lot of pleasure to give. Great musicality.
10. King Buffalo – The Burden Of Restlessness
This one really grows on you with repeated listens. One of the most overtly psychedelic albums on the list, The Burden Of Restlessness has a sound and sticks to it. It's a sound that pulls you through a tunnel, and its strength lies in the profound sense of atmosphere and tension it creates. There's no way I should love an album that feels this repetitive, but here I am with it in my top 10 for the year. The thing is, it never feels boring when you're listening to it. To the contrary, the band is so effective at creating tension within their music that your attention is rapt whenever this thing is playing. And when it's not playing, you want to be listening to it. This is a great album for a nighttime drive and the best workout album I've ever heard. After Khemmis, this album has the best production of anything I listened to this year, which is remarkable given that the band produced it themselves.
9. Mastodon – Hushed And Grim
To be totally honest, I'm still unpacking this massive October release. The first double album in Mastodon's acclaimed studio career, Hushed And Grim is a melancholic and decidedly mellow affair. Oh sure, the first two tracks are rockers and a few more heavy moments appear throughout the album. But this thing has a lot of ballads. Thankfully, I've always found the slow, psychedelic ballads that Mastodon has always included on their albums (going all the way back to "Elephant Man" on Remission) to be some of their most compelling output. To be certain, there's a question of whether the ballads lose some of their emotional effect when they cease to serve as a counterpoint or moment of dynamic contrast and instead become the focus of the show. That's one of the issues that I am still grappling with. But I'm giving Mastodon the benefit of the doubt for now. Indeed, this ranking may ultimately prove to be too low.
Although not a full-fledged member of the band, the presence of keyboardist João Nogueira is a noteworthy plus on Hushed And Grim. Just listen to the way his mind bending synthesizer solo on "Skeleton of Splendor" sets up the Brent Hinds guitar solo. Album closer, "Gigantum," which flirts with post-metal, is one of the best tracks released by any band this year as well as one of the best tracks in Mastodon's storied discography.
8. Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever
Subterranean Masquerade have been putting out interesting work that has caught attention in both prog and metal circles for 15 years now. But they seem to have upped their professionality and consistency by a notch on 2021's Mountain Fever. Featuring psychedelic and progressive rock and metal with occasional forays into extreme metal and Middle Eastern folk sounds, Mountain Fever at its core conveys a real sense that the musicians who made it are having fun, something all too often missing in the metal world. The songs frequently reach astounding crescendos of dazzlingly creative instrumental part writing. The band makes great use of horns on this release. The title track is one of the best tracks of the year.
7. Archspire – Bleed The Future
In stark contrast to Stortregn, the other tech death-leaning band on this list, Archspire doesn't seek to avoid the excesses of the subgenre. To the contrary, they embrace them in the extreme to a point that borders on self-parody. This, as it turns out, is a good thing. Notwithstanding the extreme musical acrobatics that we're hearing on this—and I am agnostic and, frankly, uninterested as to how much, if any, technical assistance was used in the recording of this music—you get the sense that the musicians in Archspire don't take themselves too seriously. This helps keep things refreshingly fun. In fact, this album brings fun by the boatload. No album made me grin more often when listening to it this year. What pushes it over the top? I think it's the combination of the Busta Rhymes speed death growl flow and the classically influenced guitar and bass breaks. Mercifully and appropriately short at 31 minutes and 33 seconds.
6. Thy Catafalque – Vadak
With this, Thy Catafalque's tenth studio album, it should be clear to all of us that Tamás Kátai, the project's sole member, is a musical genius of unusual vision and originality. Vadak marks the release of yet another fascinating slab of avant-garde black metal, touching upon psychedelia, folk music, industrial, post-rock, synthwave, ambient, and classic metal. The most impressive thing about this album is that throughout the stylistic shifts, not only does the release continue to feel musically cohesive, but the quality of the songwriting never dips. Few artists in metal can execute at this level.
5. Soen – Imperial
On Imperial, Soen, featuring former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez, brings great riffs and highly polished vocals. Get ready for big choruses and huge hooks. The one criticism here is that maybe it's a little too radio friendly, but the band never completely loses touch with its prog ethos. That said, there's definitely a little cheesiness you have to be willing to get past if you're going to enjoy this one. The production on these songs is huge but pretty enjoyable to listen to because it's so well done. The drums in particular just sound massive. Listening to the music, everything—from the refined hooks to the polished vocals to the tasteful guitar leads—telegraphs that these guys are true industry pros. The album opener feels like it could be on Eurovision. And I love it for that.
4. Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen
The first album from a solo project by Amorphis guitarist and principal songwriter Esa Holopainen, Silver Lake was among the biggest surprises for me this year. Incredibly deft, nuanced songwriting is the dominant feature of this album. In fact, for a guitarist's solo project, there's not really that much lead guitar at all. Instead, what you get is a series of beautifully crafted, melancholic songs, most of which lie somewhere between metal and hard rock. Holopainen is aided on Silver Lake by a slew of superstar vocalists, including Jonas Renske of Katatonia, Håkan Hemlin of Nordman, Einar Solberg of Leprous, Holopainen's current Amorphis bandmate Tomi Joutsen, Björn Strid of Soilwork, and Anneke Van Giersbergen. Part of the joy of listening to this album is discovering how Holopainen worked with and wrote for this dazzling array of vocal talent, so I won't spoil that for anyone. I'll just say that the hooks and songwriting are incredibly strong on this one (even better than on the Soen album) and each vocalist is given a perfect platform for his or her respective talents.
3. Netherbird – Arete
Among the most underrated bands in the metal world, Sweden's Netherbird have consistently churned out top notch, moderately melodic black metal. This year's Arete may well be a career highlight for them. Almost every riff on this album is a killer and every song has at least one moment that is jaw-dropping. A spellbinding listen for the lover of melodic black metal, Arete has the perfect blend of pummeling black metal and gloomy psychedelia. The most amazing thing about this album, however, is the way that so many of the parts can be so catchy without diluting the band's commitment to being a black metal band. The easier-said-than-done key to accomplishing this feat is writing riffs that are simultaneously musically accessible while conveying intense feelings of doom and foreboding. Listen to this album.
2. Various Artists – Still Wish You Were Here & Animals Reimagined
Technically two albums, these incredible Pink Floyd tributes released by Cleopatra Records this year belong on the shelf of anyone who loves the original works. Apparently conceived of and spearheaded by label head Brian Perera, these are not your standard tribute albums where each track is recorded by a different band. Instead, each track on these albums was recorded by a once-in-a-lifetime supergroup made up of some of the greatest prog, metal, and rock royalty of the last 50 years. The scope of the lineups on these albums is audacious in its ambition and some of the combinations are truly amazing. Hearing Genesis's Steve Hackett and King Crimson/Camel's Mel Collins trade licks on a version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" with Queensryche's Geoff Tate on vocals, Billy Sheehan on bass, and Ian fucking Paice of Deep Purple on drums. Are you kidding me? And if that's not enough, the "Shine On" reprise keeps Paice, but then rotates in Rod Argent (Argent), the amazing Steve Hillage (Gong), and the legendary Bootsy Collins (Parliament/Funkadelic) to close things out on a funky note. And even Joe Satriani manages to not mess up the title track with too much overplaying. (Just kidding! Love ya, Joe!)
Things are just as crazy on the Animals tribute where James Labrie (Dream Theater), does "Pigs" with jazz fusion legends Al Di Meola and Billy Cobham among others. And believe you me, Vinnie Moore (UFO) and Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) can rip through "Dogs." But the best track on either album may well be the "Welcome To The Machine" with Todd Rundgren, Rick Wakeman (Yes), and Tony Levin (King Crimson).
There were two incredibly difficult parts of getting these albums right (aside from whatever it took to make them happen in the first place). One was nailing the right balance between respect for the hallowed source material and allowing these incredible musicians to add their own personal touch to the tracks. The second was maintain enough consistency of feel from track to track so as to preserve the listening experience of listening to an album as a whole, an artistic cornerstone for these works. For this reason, most of the performances are pretty straight, with just the right amount of embellishment. Even James Labrie sounds more like Roger Waters than he sounds like the singer of Dream Theater. I know I will catch some flak for putting two non-metal tribute albums this high on my list, and I acknowledge that the creativity in making a tribute album is substantially lower than it is in composing an album of original works. But getting these songs right was an incredibly difficult task and the albums have brought me as much joy as anything I listened to this year. Cleopatra Records should be applauded for its vision in executing these projects.
1. Dvne – Etemen Ænka
My number one album of the year, Dvne's Etemen Ænka is a formidable accomplishment and should stand to become one of the definitive statements of progressive psychedelic stoner/sludge metal. The songs on Etemen Ænka are built around killer riffs in a wide variety of styles. Dvne then takes those riffs and pushes them, evolves them, and takes them to unexpected destinations—lysergic crescendos that leave a lasting impact on their listener. Similar to Cult of Luna's best work, the strongest moments from Dvne are not dominated by any particular individual performance but instead are meticulously composed and arranged moments of ensemble playing, with every member of the group playing just the right thing. Required listening for any fan of creative, psychedelic heavy music.