ICYMI: Albums That Rocked 2021

Perhaps one of the only positives to come out of the last few years of Brexit and the ongoing pandemic has been the amount of creativity from musicians and the arts in general. Fuelled by confusion, anger, distrust and even depression, creative minds have come together – often over Zoom calls in the case of lockdown – to express their feelings and let the world know what they are going through.

In 2021, specifically, some truly great music was released across many genres. Some were debut albums by eager young bands looking to make an impression, others from more experienced musicians still knocking out great tunes decades in. Either way, it was a good year for music (if not much else) and here, adding onto our prior list, we have a whole bunch more albums worth celebrating.

Mason Hill – Against the Wall

Always nice to start with a fresh, new band, and Mason Hill’s debut album is as solid a start as you could wish for.

Formed in 2015 and releasing two EPs prior to Against the Wall, the Scottish hard rockers mix up anthemic 80’s/90’s influenced hard rock with some grunge inspired tunes and big choruses, creating a near flawless debut.

Songs like ‘No Regret,’ ‘DNA,’ and ‘Hold On’ will have you headbanging, air-guitaring and singing along. Throw in a couple of slower numbers to even up the pace and you’ve hit the jackpot.

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Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined

Always a band where the phrase “does what it says on the tin” applies, death metal legends Cannibal Corpse are now 15 studio albums in on a 30+ year career.

Any thoughts of them slowing down or getting a bit lighter in their old age are immediately put to bed as soon as Violence Unimagined begins, battering the listener with brutal riffs and horror-fuelled lyrics right from the get-go.

With thrash metal icons Slayer retiring, Cannibal Corpse appear to be the next heavy metal band that fans can count on to dish out dependable brutality on every release. Consistent and as heavy as ever, Cannibal Corpse surely have the right to claim themselves as one of, if not the best death metal band of all time.

Spiritbox – Eternal Blue

Another debut album, this time by Canadian metallers, Spiritbox.

But to merely call the band “metal” or “metalcore” would be doing them a disservice, as Spiritbox combine their brand of metal with progressive influences and electronic elements, creating a sound that, although not completely unfamiliar, is still very much their own.

Citing acts such as Gojira, Meshuggah, Deftones, Tool, Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears as influences, and with Courtney LaPlante’s stunning vocals – listen to the singles ‘Holy Roller’ and ‘Secret Garden’ for proof of LaPlant’s versatility – Eternal Blue received critical acclaim worldwide, and it appears the sky is the limit for this talented band.

Every Time I Die – Radical

At the start of this year, US hardcore institution Every Time I Die imploded in contentious fashion.

A crying shame not just for their storied history, but because ninth album Radical was a brilliant display of what made ETID so good; riffs, riffs and more riffs!

The band’s rock n’ roll and southern rock/metal influences make them stand out from the hardcore metal pack, whilst Keith Buckley’s interesting lyrics and often manic vocal delivery ensured the band a cult following over the years. Add in a reputation as a ferocious live band and it’s clear that Every Time I Die will be truly missed. A band that truly deserved the acclaim they received for their last few album releases – 2012’s Ex-Lives, 2014’s From Parts Unknown, and 2016’s Low Teens – and listening to Radical is definitely the sound of a band going out with a bang.

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Cradle of Filth – Existence is Futile

Cradle of Filth and their clever plays on words for their album titles!

The British extreme metal institution have been on a great run of form with their past few releases: 2015’s Hammer of the Witches and 2017’s Cryptoriana – The Seductiveness of Decay bringing to mind the Cradle of Filth of old.

The proof is in the (black?) pudding as Existence is Futile is full of the kind of riffs, solos, powerhouse drumming and flourishes of dramatic symphony that you would want and expect from a COF album, along with enigmatic frontman Dani Filth’s dark gothic poetry.

Their metal is labelled everything from death to black, symphonic to goth, heavy to extreme metal – the last of which being probably most fitting – but in all honesty any of the above could fit somewhere within Cradle of Filth’s overall sound, and Existence is Futile is further proof that they’re still a relevant and brilliant band, however you wish to describe them.

Trivium – In the Court of the Dragon

For their tenth LP, Florida’s Trivium have again turned in an album that gets the best out of their old school metal influences whilst using a modern sound.

Following a patchy few albums, 2017’s The Sin and the Sentence and 2020’s What The Dead Men Say were released to wide acclaim, a return to form for the outfit responsible for 2005’s Ascendancy.

From the opening title track onwards, In the Court of the Dragon has the kind of energy and delivery that you would expect from a younger band, not one ten albums in, and it’s a credit to frontman Matt Heafy and company that they have achieved such metal mastery at over 20 years into their career.

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The Wildhearts – 21st Century Love Songs

Another UK band doing us proud in 2021 was The Wildhearts.

Valiantly running since 1989, their diverse mix of influences – taking in such bands as Metallica, the Beatles, Cheap Trick, the Ramones and Motorhead – creates a near-timeless concoction that’s always a joy to listen to.

21st Century Love Songs reliably provides enough riffs, choruses, harmonies, humour, and that all important rock n’ roll spirit which has seen the band become much loved.

A much anticipated release, frontman and all-round songwriting genius Ginger Wildheart comparing the album to 1995’s PHUQ in terms of experimentality. Fortunately, fans needn’t have worried as, although more of a grower than the instant audio slap to the face of Renaissance Men, 21st Century Love Songs bristles with the level of quality we have come to expect from The Wildhearts. Moments of heavy metal riffing colliding with pop harmonies, all out punk at times, rock n’ roll…

As Everything Unfolds – Within Each Lies the Other

Another great debut, this time by High Wycombe’s own As Everything Unfolds.

After the six-piece released their second EP, Closure, in 2018 to positive reviews, they needed to capitalise with a strong debut full-length and delivered big time.

From brilliant opener ‘On the Inside’ onwards, Within Each Lies the Other has the kind of youthful exuberance you would want from a young band on their debut album.

There are big riffs and infectious energy, swathes of electronica, and Charlie Rolfe’s impressive vocals. You can hear elements of Paramore, Deftones and Architects within the band’s sound, meaning big appeal for modern metal fans everywhere. Definitely an album for fans of the previously mentioned Spiritbox to check out.

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Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

Easily the biggest selling album on this list, as well as being its odd-duck, Sour is the type of debut that most artists can only dream of.

A throwback pop-rock record released to worldwide acclaim, Rodrigo proved what a budding talent she is with a variety of songs tackling failing relationships and teenage life.

Up-tempo rockers (opener ‘Brutal’) mix with Lorde-esque ballads (the massive hit ‘Drivers License’), and high-energy pop-punk (‘Good 4 U’) sits alongside mid-tempo numbers (‘Jealousy, Jealousy’) to create a surprisingly diverse record. Handling just as much of the instrumentation as well as her singing, Rodrigo is certainly a big new talent and Sour is a classic coming-of-age album, up there with Alanis Morrisette’s much loved Jagged Little Pill.

Smith/Kotzen – Smith/Kotzen

Yet another 2021 debut, but this time from two musical veterans establishing a new partnership.

Richie Kotzen (solo, The Winery Dogs) and Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith joined forces to create an album that was influenced by blues, classic rock, hard rock and traditional R&B, and what an album it was.

Theoretically, it shouldn’t have been a surprise given that both guitarists are legends in their own fields. But I imagine Maiden fans weren’t expecting Smith to show this level of versatility, providing some great guitar work in a variety of styles and even sharing his talents as a singer with Kotzen.

Musically, Smith/Kotzen has a lot more in common with Kotzen’s solo work than it does anything that Iron Maiden have done, but both members work together excellently. A follow-up EP, Better Days, was released later in the year, hopefully indicating that this link-up is more than just a one-off.

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Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Blues Album

After releasing her brilliant debut album, White Sugar, in 2009, Joanne Shaw Taylor has consistently proved she is a blues guitarist of the highest order.

Influenced by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins, with a voice that comes from New Orleans as opposed to the West Midlands she was born in, Taylor decided to release a covers album as a follow up to 2019’s impressive Reckless Heart album.

Fortunately, whereas some covers albums don’t always work, Taylor provided a solid mix of upbeat bluesy numbers and softer ballads that show off her abilities as both a guitarist and singer, often to goose-bump-inducing effect. Co-produced by modern blues legend Joe Bonamassa, The Blues Album is another strong release from one of the UK’s most talented blues musicians.

Samantha Fish – Faster

An artist primarily know for blues, vocalist/guitarist Samantha Fish wanted to try something different on her seventh solo album.

Faster is a culmination of influences combining blues, rock, traditional R&B with some Prince-style funk thrown in for good measure, and it all works.

The 32-year-old Kansas City native proving again she is up there with the best of a newer breed of blues-based artists.

Elsewhere, a guest spot on the song ‘Loud’ from rapper Tech N9ne also proves she is willing to take risks and experiment with different sounds and influences within her music.

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Circus 66 – Follow The Black Crow

Maidenhead, UK based four-piece Circus 66 weren’t messing around with this, their debut album.

After a couple of EPs, changing line-ups and building a reputation as a solid live band, they hit the spot with Follow The Black Crow. A range of influences from 80’s hard rock to funky blues and more meant quite a unique and standout sound for a band on their first full-length release.

From opening number ‘Take a Shot’ to epic closer ‘When The Black Crow Flies’, Follow The Black Crow is an energetic, gripping, rousing and most importantly rocking record with powerful vocals and impressive guitar work throughout which point to a promising future for this talented band.

Rob Zombie – The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy

Everyone knows what to expect from Rob Zombie by now.

Big, stomping industrial beats; catchy guitar riffs; horror-themed lyrics; B-movie samples.

Nothing wrong with that and, with his seventh album, Mr Zombie has provided us with another set of dependable shock rock songs while adding in the occasional nod to other genres such as country/bluegrass and 70’s rock.

In large part thanks to his loyal, settled and talented bandmates – including guitar genius John 5 providing big riffs, shredding, and noodling aplenty – The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy is another RZ classic to add to his already impressive discography.

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Evanescence – The Bitter Truth

After several line-up changes – fun fact: none of the band’s albums feature the same line-up – and a decade-long break, it’s actually quite surprising how good The Bitter Truth, Evanescence’s first album of new material since 2011, turned out.

The Arkansas goth rockers’ fifth full-length still successfully combines hard rock/metal riffs with nods to gothic and industrial, big anthemic choruses and the occasional heart-breaking ballad.

Amy Lee yet again proves she is one of rock’s best vocalists, capable of belting it out skyward in cathartic releases yet also reigning it in for wrenching effect when needed. Released to largely positive reviews and acclaim, The Bitter Truth was just what the band and their fans needed in 2021. A welcome return.

Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia

The Atlanta country rockers’ seventh studio album was yet another outstanding release, proving Blackberry Smoke to be one of the most consistent bands around.

The likes of The Whippoorwill (2012) and Find a Light (2018) might be seen as among their strongest releases, but generally Blackberry Smoke have rarely put a foot wrong so far.

You Hear Georgia is yet another example of their country/rock songwriting skills, led by the talented Charlie Starr (vocals, guitar), pointing to an even longer and brighter future. Fans of the Black Crowes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule will definitely appreciate what Blackberry Smoke are doing and, if they have not yet been introduced to the Smoke, now is the perfect time to jump on board.

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Carcass – Torn Arteries

UK death metal legends Carcass made something of a comeback in 2021, considering it had been eight years since their previous album, 2013’s brilliant and brutal Surgical Steel, itself a comeback for the album previous to that, Swansong from 1996!

Fortunately, Carcass never stopped being brutal, and the 2020 Despicable EP was a taste of what was to come. Torn Arteries ups the ante with some seriously chunky and crunchy riffs throughout courtesy of ever-faithful guitarist Bill Steer – honestly, every riff is pure filth – and those vicious vocals from bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker.

In terms of  melodic death metal, and metal in general, Carcass are one of the genres most important and influential bands and Torn Arteries, like Surgical Steel before that, proves why.

The Pretty Reckless – Death by Rock and Roll 

This fourth studio album was the New York City project’s first US number one; an accolade definitely deserved.

The Pretty Reckless had to overcome tragedy before they made this album.  Regular producer and close friend Kato Khandwala passed away, followed by the untimely death of friend Chris Cornell whilst on tour with the band: a big obstacle for the band and particularly singer Taylor Momsen to overcome.

But overcome they did, and Death by Rock and Roll is possibly their strongest set of songs yet. Their slickest, at least.

Mixing hard rockers like ‘And So It Went’ (featuring Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello), ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’ (featuring Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron), and the barn-storming title track with slower acoustic numbers like ‘Harley Darling.’ And in Taylor Momsen, The Pretty Reckless have one of the best frontwomen in the business. The only way continues to be up for these determined rock n’ rollers.

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Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum 

Album #10 by the US industrial metallers, continuing a run of form and critical acclaim.

2010’s Mechanize, 2012’s The Industrialist and 2015’s Genexus all proved popular with critics and fans alike and it’s easy to see why. Fear Factory’s big, crunchy riffs and double-bass drumming has sounded ahead of its time since the mid-90s and continues to sound impressive on Aggression Continuum.

Guitarist Dino Cazares’ signature sound is all over the album. Those moments when the big riffs and pounding drums come crashing in halfway through or towards the end of a song are truly life affirming metal. Although the band’s future might remain unclear at this point, with vocalist Burton C. Bell having quit the band in 2020 – fortunately his vocals for Aggression Continuum had already been recorded – but Fear Factory’s legacy remains assured with this thrilling work.

Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate

Criticised in some quarters for their overly-Led Zeppelin influenced sound, Michigan rockers Greta Van Fleet do indeed conjure up many thoughts of the mighty Led Zeppelin.

But, like the Airbourne:AC/DC comparisons before them, when they do it that well, why complain?!

And to be fair, GVF are certainly a talented bunch. Here on their second full length studio album, they show why they’ve also garnered much positive attention with their 70’s rock flavoured tunes, Josh Kiszka’s unmistakable vocals, and brother Jake’s great guitar work. The Battle at Garden’s Gate demonstrates they are much more than a mere tribute act.

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Employed To Serve – Conquering

Another brilliant metal release in 2021 came from Woking, England’s own Employed to Serve.

Officially the band’s fourth album, Conquering is probably their most consistent set of songs yet.

Drawing influence from the likes of old school thrash bands Testament and Exodus through to modern metal greats Slipknot and Machine Head, Employed to Serve’s sound is as intense and heavy as it is addictive.

Add in vocalist Justine Jones’ powerful roar and EtS have become a band to be reckoned with, Conquering being an example of modern metal at its finest.

Creeper – American Noir

UK goth rockers Creeper have been around since 2014, steadily changing their sound over the years from Misfits/AFI/Alkaline Trio influenced horror-punk of their early work to more My Chemical Romance/The Cramps/David Bowie influenced sounds over their career so far.

Following the UK top-five album Sex, Death & the Infinite Void from 2020, American Noir is a highlight of the band’s discography so far. Piano/keyboards find themselves becoming a more prominent presence on this release with as Hannah Greenwood stepping up to lead vocal duties more frequently.

EP highlight ‘Midnight’ is a dark duet with frontman Will Gould, whilst the rocking ‘Ghosts Over Cavalry’ proves that giving Greenwood a bigger role in the band was a smart move. Who knows what style they will try next but, if previous releases are anything to go by, it’ll likely be another success and Creeper will continue to have the world at their dark brooding feet.

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