Best of 2021 - Sam Houlden's Picks (Cover Artwork)

Best of 2021

Sam Houlden's Picks (2021)

Staff Picks

2021 - Another year less ordinary

So we reach the end of another year. At times even that didn’t seem a certainty, so I guess I should be thankful. But being marginally less existentially dramatic for a minute, there was plenty to be grateful for in 2021. The roll-out of vaccines, the subsequent return of (some) shows and even some ‘proper’ bands achieving mainstream success in my native UK. Architects and Mogwai both had no.1 albums (as did BMTH and You Me At Six, but their music is arguably more pop than alternative at this point) and there were hugely successful campaigns for Gojira, Deafheaven, Turnstile and many more besides. I’m not suggesting this isthmus beginnings of a paradigm shift and that rock/punk/metal is about to take, en masse, to the television and airwaves again, I should say. But I think it is indicative of a new generation of music listeners who see less distinction in genre and are (in spite of what I’ve spent a portion of my life believing) actually quite open-minded when it comes to what they listen to. 

I mention this only because it seems apt when I look back on the records I’ve listened to and loved this year. Electro, country, classic rock, hardcore, singer/songwriter, avant-garde, pop…and predictably, quite a lot of extreme metal. As a result of that broad spectrum and the sheer volume of records deserving of attention this year (many people have commented how at times the release schedule became completely overwhelming), it has been comfortably my hardest top 20 I’ve had to put together. I’m sure no-one reading will agree with the list entirely, but two things; firstly, these are my favourites, not what I think is objectively best. Secondly, if something in here sounds interesting or like it might be up your street, then I’d suggest taking the time to listen. Because if this year has been anything, it has been absolutely overflowing with records of real quality. Enjoy…

Top 20 albums of 2021

20. Eidola: The Architect

Blue Swan Records

Andrew Wells, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for Eidola is an unusual person. In the scene in which he exists, at any rate. The lyrical themes he explores include existentialism, theology, anthropological/technological development, futurism and more besides. When he speaks about these things in interviews, it is also very clear he has a genuine deep understanding of these subjects, so the songs and the themes contained herein are more than just lip service to these concepts. And that makes this an utterly fascinating listen. On top of that, the combination of bright, mathy guitar work and Wells' mellifluous high-register vocal juxtaposed by occasional flashes of brutality gives me the same thrill I used to get from metalcore, to be frank. It might be a little polished for some, but that also makes me wonder why these guys aren't bigger, frankly. The last record was great, this one is too.

19. Teenage Wrist: Earth Is A Black Hole


It seems that each year, one of these comes along. A band who I’m aware of and I think I know what they are and I believe I’m not overly interested. Then I listen to the new record briefly. Then I listen to it again. I mention it to friends. They all love it. Before I know it, every song on the record has fixed itself firmly into my brain and one will surface as soon every time I’m alone. This isn’t my usual wheelhouse, but my god is it good. Full transparency, I just booted a death metal record out of my list for this. I considered which record I’d reached for more. Which one had given me the most joy. Which one I would find myself routinely singing in the shower. Yeah. It’s this. The songs are huge, the production is lush and clean and the record just feels comfy somehow. And that’s been invaluable in another year that many of us would rather forget.

18. Bewitcher: Cursed Be Thy Kingdom

Century Media

Sometimes the right record lands at just the right moment and that has not been more true this year than with this absolute riot of a record. It's that slightly blackened/thrash/trad metal thing that has become quite popular of late (Hellripper, Demiser, Black Jackal, etc) but Bewitcher sit closer to the trad metal end of the spectrum. Song titles like "Satanic Magick Attack" and "Electric Phantoms" leaves you in little question of what kind of party you're at, but it's the Motörhead meets Thin Lizzy meets Iron Maiden combo that really makes it. Fast, dirty, overflowing with riffs of real character and hard to listen to without wanting to drink irresponsibly. Stick it on. Crack a beer. Bang your head. Hail Satan.

17. Devil Sold His Soul: Loss

Nuclear Blast

The DSHS story is a relatively complex one. I shan’t go over it now, but I’ll just say that this is their first full-length in 9 years and the first featuring 2 vocalists. Paul Green stepped in when Ed Gibbs stepped away from the band in 2013. Paul handled live shows, etc and then after a handful of shows where Ed came back to share vocal duties, he returned to the band formally and DSHS v 2.0 were born. For the uninitiated, DSHS could possibly be described as post-metalcore. There are the clean/harsh vocal and guitar trade-offs, but applied to song structures that are altogether more interesting and immersive. So when the album arrived, named Loss, then it was clear we were in for an introspective and quite personal affair. What I had not quite bargained on was how affecting the record would be. The use of post-metal dynamics, particularly the swelling and crescendo moments are stirring to say the least and the vocal interplay between Gibbs and Green is, at times, spectacular. I suspected I would like this record, I didn’t expect to love it. But I really do.

16. 200 Stab Wounds: Slave To The Scalpel

Maggot Stomp

Practically every year, there is a death metal x hardcore record that comes along and reminds you of what the styles can sound like when they’re smashed together properly. This year, it was 200 Stab Wounds. This is death metal at its core, but the delivery draws heavily from the more brutish, stomping end of the hardcore spectrum and comes bearing the attitude of that scene as well. Released on underground death metal label du jour, Maggot Stomp, there was a fair amount of hype around this record and for once, the record delivered on that hype. With song titles like “Tow Rope Around the Throat” and “Drilling Your Head”, there’s an element of tongue-in-cheek splattercore here as well, which is in-keeping with the DIY feel of it all, too. I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s aggressive, fun and hits really hard. Maggot Stomp can just keep finding these bands forever as far as I’m concerned. 200 Stab Wounds are fucking sick. In both senses of the word. 

15. Dying Wish: Fragments Of A Bitter Memory


If you ever need to remind yourself of why it makes a difference having bands who really care about the music they play, then you need look no further. The constituent parts of Dying Wish's sound are ground well-trodden, of this there can be no doubt. It's melodic metalcore of the early 00's ilk, which has been widely imitated for years, which in turn has led to a kind of quiet backlash to the sound in some areas. But I cannot see anyone who has liked that sound at some point not enjoying this, Dying Wish's debut record. The absolute white-hot fury and passion with which these songs are delivered is absolutely undeniable. Maybe not surprising given some of the subject matter (abuse, racism for example) but there is no question how much this means to front woman Emma Boster and her bandmates. Boster even shows a flair for a melodic vocal a couple of times in the record which adds a nice dynamic, as does the guest spots from Bryan Garris of Knocked Loose in “Enemies In Red”. This record is engaging, punishing and exciting. What more do you really want? The replay factor and potential for live show madness is just the icing on the cake.

14. Ekulu: Unscrew My Head

Cash Only Records

I need to give a shout out to Forever Fire by Honey at this point. That record and this one were jostling for position in my headphones for many weeks and although I do love Forever Fire as well, Unscrew My Head has something just slightly more strutting, more sassy and hip-swinging, that I ended up reaching for this record so much more than I initially thought I would. It’s 28 minutes of up-tempo hardcore, laced with thrash and classic crossover vocals and even gang chants. As I alluded to in my review earlier in the year, it feels like the band’s DNA has a few little strands of sunset strip in there somewhere. The occasional mellifluous solos and general sense of reckless abandon is just so infectious. On top of all of this, there is a flair for a good old-fashioned rocking riff and an innate knowledge of when to pull back a little on the accelerator to let those riffs hit just right. Listen to “Who’s In Control?” and you’ll see what I mean. I thought this would be with me for summer, but I’m still listening to it as the rain falls in December, because it’s just so damned good.

13. Wode: Burn In Many Mirrors

20 Buck Spin

It’s not too often that the largely infallible folk at 20 Buck Spin extend their reach to this side of the pond. So when they did in the case of Liverpool’s Wode, my interest was piqued. When Burn in Many Mirrors arrived I could understand by 20BS picked them up. The record is a death-tinged black ‘n’ roll affair with melodic elements and sprinkled with an overt love for classic heavy metal. All that is great, but the trick is turning that into actual songs. And Wode have proper songs. There’s groove, variety and an incredible grasp for mood that permeates the entire album. Also, where many extreme albums can conflate quantity and quality, Wode do not waste a single second. The record clocks in at 39 minutes and feels like it goes by in about 25. It’s a fun ride and one that I find myself coming back to time and again. They were also my first show after the world started opening up again, in my favourite bar no less. So this record will always be symbolic of that as well. Hail Wode, hail Satan. 

12. Gosudar: Morbid Despotic Ritual


Unquestionably in the short list for my ‘From outta nowhere’ award this year, Gosudar, from Moscow, Russia dropped this record of exceptional quality that also lives so squarely in my death metal sweet spot, I have to wonder if they had been tracking my Spotify stats. This is murky, grimy, cavernous death metal with hints of doom, groove and even those haunting leads that have become a thing in recent years in certain death metal circles. I could give a full list of FFO, but in short, if you like Planetary Clairvoyance by Tomb Mold (one of my favourite DM records of all time), then you’ll adore this. How at home Gosudar apparently are with seamlessly stitching together the amount of ideas and riffs that they are is baffling given this is a debut album. I sincerely hope that they get picked up by a label with the appropriate reach, because the wider death metal community need to be introduced to this band; and the band need to be nurtured, because this is A-grade stuff by anyone’s measures.

11. King Woman: Celestial Blues


I’m a bit of a sucker for mysterious, enigmatic frontpeople and King Woman’s Kris Esfandiari is that more so than pretty much anyone else I can think of. Her lyrics and vocal delivery are diverse, expressive and utterly fascinating. More often than not, you’ll find this sort of performance backed by a musical canvas that deliberately steps aside to allow the character of the artist to remain front and centre. However, in the case of king Woman, there is no holding back and the spartan, organic-sounding picking passages from Peter Arensdorf’s guitar are as impactful as the tectonic-plate-sized slabs of doom. Both are applied expertly and with a grunge-meets-shoegaze sensibility to create a sound that feels like a LSD-fuelled sermon, or even eulogy, being delivered by a fallen angel. 

10. Worm : Foreverglade

20 Buck Spin

Released towards the back end of October, when there was a surfeit of death metal releases and when some other key records were soon due, I initially suspected this would be another record that I’d listen to and might have to ultimately pass me by due to the sheer volume of records I was trying to familiarise myself with. But upon listening to this record just one time, I felt an immediate connection with it and also heard stylistic choices that made it feel unique in an increasingly crowded scene. Worm make death doom, but they make it in a way that I’m not sure I’ve heard before. When most bands aim for this type of sound, it can become muddy and indistinct. But Worm do something quite different. Whereas others may go for the ‘suffocating in a tarpit’ sensation, Worm grant each element of their sound room to breathe. Room to excel, and at times, room to sit back. The ambience is, if anything, more sinister than most of their peers as a result, but in a completely different way. Adding to this is a flair for searing lead guitar lines (and even dual leads) rarely seen in this style of metal. It’s gloopy, grimy, spooky and slimy. But it also boasts patience and unabashed Malmsteen-style guitar hero virtuosity. I’m fully sold. 

9. The Bronx: Bronx VI

Cooking Vinyl

The problem with The Bronx (if that’s not a mad way to start this entry) is that they’re so consistent and the thing they do isn’t done to the same standard by anyone else. So explaining why this has earned its place this far up my list seems like a difficult task. We all know what the Bronx sound like. We all know they don’t release duff records, but I suppose where this one hit me more than the last is the increase in what was once the trademark reckless abandon that characterised the first 2 or 3 records. The record could comfortably soundtrack a video montage of a particularly wild night out partying. And that’s not a coincidence of course, it’s what these guys do. And 6 records in, they’ve delivered what is, to me, their best collection of songs in over a decade. In a world that continues to burn, so do The Bronx. 

8. The Dirty Nil: Fuck Art

Dine Alone Records

Releasing your record on January 1st is a bold decision. It’s not a time when people are typically clamouring to spend money or even pay too much attention to new releases, but The Dirty Nil did exactly that and called the record Fuck Art as well, just to really clarify the fact they aren’t seeking any sort of mainstream validation. Which is possibly an interesting stance to take when your record includes 11 of the catchiest, most fun, anthemic rock songs you’re likely to hear on a single album this year. It’s also utterly immediate and accessible as well. I reviewed this when it came out and I have been back to it frequently throughout the entire year. It’s fabulous songwriting, delivered immaculately. I can ask for no more from these guys.

7. Grima: Rotten Garden


Another early ‘21 release that has felt like it’s been with me for years, Grima are a Siberian 2-piece black metal project, focused much more on the elemental side of black metal. They wear wooden masks, have song titles such as “Cedar and Owls” and “Old Oak” (the former including some fabulous Owl samples that genuinely enhance the song). I had never heard of Grima before this record, but I fell in love with this release. The sweeping majesty of the songs is exactly how I like my black metal. There are huge dynamic swings as well, from spacious, fragile picked guitar passages underlaid with barely audible atmospheric synths to immense, dramatic soundscapes created with a variety of instruments, some of which I’m unlikely to have ever heard before, as there is a huge influence from the folk music of their native Siberia. It could be argued that this is as much post-black metal as it is black metal but I don’t care either way. It’s magnificent and getting lost in the world that Grima inhabit feels like a deeply worthwhile way of spending one’s time somehow, so imbued with a sense of class and depth is their meticulously-textured musical tapestry. Where others will have Wolves In The Throne Room in their list, Grima have created the earthen, mystical black metal record of the year by some distance for me.

6. Mastodon: Hushed and Grim


Poor old Mastodon. It does seem that tragedy tends to haunt them more frequently than most bands. I won’t dredge up the past, but there is no avoiding the fact that this double album is influenced to an inescapable degree by the passing of the band’s long-time manager and friend Nick John in 2018 at the age of just 57. the result is a more introspective and contemplative Mastodon than might have otherwise been the case. Being a huge devotee of Crack The Skye, it’s probably not a  surprise that this record is more in line with how like my Mastodon. The tracks are longer, the pace is slower, the complexity and mastery of their craft that is imbued into the entire record is very much apparent but it is only used in ways that will serve the songs. Even in the moments when Brent Hinds unleashes his solos, they are focused almost entirely on emotional impact. Even when there are passages of shred, they feel part of the message being communicated. There is as much prog rock on here as anything else and it suits Mastodon’s mood beautifully. One of the best metal bands of the last 20 years come good - by creating a double album based around grief and loss and eschewing many of the tropes of the genre they call home. Seems unlikely, but here we are. 

5. Inhuman Condition: Rat God

Blood Blast Distribution

I listen to a lot of death metal. Way more than I could ever review, but I reviewed this at time of release because I believe this to be one of the most accessible and fun death metal records I’ve ever heard. It’s 9 tracks, 32 minutes of OSDM-worship. It’s Obituary, it’s Morbid Angel, it’s Deicide. The vocals are death growls, but completely intelligible and gloriously gory and silly. The guitar tone isn’t absurd and the smatterings of thrash make it feel authentic to both the band (who were only formed in 2020) and the influences they’re drawing from. If this is what they came up with in around 9 months since forming the band, then the mind boggles at what could be in store for future releases. Also, massive shout out to the cover art. I also think Killing Pace might be my song of the year. This is how you do party death metal, right here. 

4. Employed To Serve: Conquering


I have been a fan of ETS since their second record, The Warmth of a Dying Sun; a savage, complex and at times overwhelming record of metallic hardcore. That was only 4 years ago. Since then, 2019’s Eternal Forward Motion cemented their place as the brightest and the best of that crop of UK bands, ramping up the anthemic elements and providing the ammo for the band to lay waste to venues around the country. A mere 2 years later and the aptly-named Conquering has loosely continued on the same path, but in doing so, ETS seem to have fleshed out and improved any of the areas they could at one point have been accused of being weaker in and are now a crushing, technically impressive and immediately identifiable metal band with an absurd catalogue to their name. There have been some personnel changes, but Sammy (guitar/vocals) and Justine (vocals) remain the driving and creative force in what has now become one of the very best metal bands in the world; and people are going to come to realise this when they tour with Gojira in the new year. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that there will be some very impressed new ETS fans leaving some of those shows.

3. Every Time I Die: Radical


As I write this, the future of ETID is hanging in the balance. At one point in the last 24 hours, that bumped this record up to No.1 because the very real possibility of a world without ETID made me reconsider how immaculate this record really is. However, I’ve pulled back slightly. Not because the record isn’t magnificent, but because that knee-jerk reaction has faded somewhat. If it does end up being the swan song of the band’s illustrious and practically flawless career, then it’s quite the way to go out. A 16-track double album that should by all rights have at least 20 minutes of superfluous material given the full-throttle approach the band take, but the bottomless well of riffs and what could easily be argued to be Keith’s career best vocal performance means I’ve listened to this, in its entirety, practically every day since I received it. Yes, a majority of it is ‘just’ ETID doing ETID things, but the thought of not having them anymore has brought into sharp focus how much the world needs them. I certainly won’t be taking them for granted anymore, because any band who can write “Post-Boredom”,  “Colossal Wreck”, “White Void”, “Thing With Feathers” and more besides, this far into their career are clearly a very special band indeed.

2. MØL: Diorama

Nuclear Blast

Denmark’s Møl possess a rare gift. Specifically, the ability to not only marry disparate styles of music, but to do so in a way that feels quintessentially like Møl and feels like the particular combination must surely have been around since time immemorial. Admittedly, there are plenty of other blackgaze bands in the scene now and plenty who have come before, but I don’t think Møl are looking to any of them for inspiration. There is scathing, ice-white fury alongside rapturous joy and beauty. Melodies that I wouldn’t even expect from the most chipper of dream pop bands. Guest vocals as well as Kim expanding his own range to extraordinary effect. Dynamics in tone, tempo and mood, all composed and delivered with such delicate grandeur that I cannot listen to the record without it pulling me in. And I’ve tried, believe me. I can be sat working with this on in the background and before I know it, I have lost myself in a revery. Yet there is a grasp of nuance throughout the record that elevates this above more typical metal triumph or aggression. At moments there is longing, there is redemption, there is regret, there is catharsis. And all of this in a record that I know definitively that I will never get tired of hearing. It’s a masterpiece. 

1. Turnstile: Glow On

Roadrunner Records

Although Turnstile always felt like they had the potential to appeal to music fans beyond the walls of hardcore, after Time and Space saw only a modicum of wider interest in the band, I started to wonder if it would ever happen. Now they’re selling out venues 4-5 times the size they were on the last album cycle, headlining festivals and being spoken about in pop/hip-hop/rock circles alike. The really gratifying thing though, is that this has happened without Turnstile having to abandon any of the weirder or heavier elements of their sound. On this record you can hear bits of modern rap music, alt-rock, 80’s pop and it’s all wrapped up in a package that is nothing if not fun and appealing. All of this while still retaining a true punk spirit; and if you need any proof of that, just watch one of their shows. There is also something oddly familiar about the music that Turnstile.  You’ll listen to ”Holiday” or “Wild World” and it’s hard to believe that the riffs haven’t been around forever, such is their classic, timeless nature; but they also sound fresh. It’s a very good trick indeed. Turnstile are the real deal and we’re lucky to have them.