2021 – A Final Look

After dispensing with the Album of the Year on Monday and a more fleshed-out list the week prior, I’m back to wrap up 2021 with a variety of thoughts on things. I’ll discuss music as a whole, where I’m personally at and going with this blog into the new year, and I’ll give out a few “… of the year” awards as I go along.

The End Of The Year In Music, 2021

It’s about time to bring 2021 to a close. Christmas is just days away, and with that just one more week until 2022 begins. The COVID pandemic rages on after a brief glimmer of hope in the summer. Political unrest and partisan hostility continue to define the social conversation. We appear headed to the brink of some dystopian disasterpiece, but it’s kinda hard to say.

In music, the industry and artists tried their best to get back to the business of making music, tours and money. Legacy acts sold off catalog rights for large sums while smaller acts hit the road in uncertain conditions to try and make a buck. Bands who had sat on albums hoping to air them out as part of a new touring cycle instead chose to release their efforts and see some recompense.

Psychical formats came back strong, even in the wake of massive streaming numbers. But those formats might be threatened by short supply. Record plants are backed up on orders for years, only pushed further when one of the world’s biggest artists needs half a million copies of her album pressed ASAP. Cassettes have returned as a novelty but are only made in one place on a mountain in some remote Himalayan nation. More and more physical format collectors are casting fond eyes once again at the CD, a format thought to have been rendered obsolete by streaming. Hey, some people want to have something on their shelves.

Fans have turned out again for the bands who have braved the perils of travel to tour. While many places in the world continue to lock down over virus concerns, other parts have flat outlawed health restrictions and are as open as they were before 2020. It’s in these enclaves that bands and fans have met again after a nearly dead touring scene in 2020. It appears that the touring machine is preparing to fire up in a bigger way for 2022, replete with arguments about vaccination requirements and other protocols that have become as divisive as opinions about the best Metallica record.

2022 appears to be promising for a real return to the business of music, at least on the surface. Bands left and right are queuing new albums for next year’s release and many acts who sat on the sidelines during 2020 and last year are gearing up for tours this next go around. It might be a tenuous hope, but it is some hope after all that these groups can get back to what they need to do in order to keep themselves going.

Live Album Of The Year 2021

I’ll just be real – I didn’t listen to a lot of live albums this year. I don’t know of that many even released. I know some legacy acts like Kiss and Metallica pump them out almost in constant rotation, and that Deep Purple dumped a few old recordings on the market. Hell, I guess Pink Floyd just did a massive dump of early 70’s live stuff the other day. But I haven’t got to any of it yet. There’s stuff I’ll give a spin to later, sure, but live albums as a whole aren’t the biggest part of my music experience.

Of course, one live album did get released that caught my attention this year. In fact I spent a good portion of time on here discussing the band in the lead-up to the album’s release.

The live album of the year, to probably no one’s shock: Oasis – Live At Knebworth 1996.

I went into very full detail on this album and the accompanying documentary already in this earlier post, so I’ll spare details now. I’ll probably back off on Oasis content for awhile since knocking out the first two albums and the Knebworth discussion does tend to cover most of their career highlights. Liam does have a solo record hitting sometime in 2022 so I’ll certainly give space to that, but for now Oasis can give way to a multitude of other stuff I want to discuss.

This Blog In 2022

I was uncertain how I’d feel about getting back into blogging after a 10-plus year absence. Also I was unsure of sticking with one topic – in the past I would just write about whatever I wanted. But these days require a bit more specialization of subjects to hold any attention at all and music has always been one of my primary interests, so music it was.

So far I have to say I’ve been quite pleased with how things have turned out. I don’t find myself with as much time to write and plot out future stuff as I’d like, but I’ve started getting a handle on that. I have some new series and project-style features I want to air out and I should be getting to some of those early next year. I do hope at some point to expand to at least 4 days a week of posting, but for the time being I’m going to hold to 3 a week as it suits my present routines and time constraints.

One project I had intended to have going by now was a YouTube channel. I figured it would be a good way to do some list-style things like ranking a band’s albums and stuff of that nature. I haven’t found the time to get to work on that yet though I have a bit of planned content ready to go. It is a whole other animal with more demanding time requirements than the blog so it’s been a bit to get it going. I’ll be knuckling down after the holidays to get that ball finally rolling, though in reality the blog will remain my main mode of expression.

Thanks to everyone who has dropped by and read, and either left comments here, on social media or in person. It’s been a different world than when I blogged in the past, when it was semi-anonymous and almost no one knew or cared what people were writing. Even in an age where social media and video have driven many people from this written format, I’ve still found that people are interested. Time marches on into the new year, and this thing will keep going.

Song Of The Year

I’ll leave off with one more “award” presentation. Albums are fine and all but the individual songs do mean something and have their own processes to evaluate and take in. I didn’t bother with a ranked list or anything else for this one. Perhaps next year I’ll take some extra time to give a list.

But for this year I’m just going to crown a champion. I discussed this EP early on in the blog’s beginnings and I’ve been over it a time or two since. It wasn’t much of a contest for me to determine my pick for Song of the Year – To The Hellfire by Lorna Shore.

I went over it in my Spotify Wrapped review a bit ago – I played the shit out of this song. I was reeled in right when I heard it. I did miss it when it actually released in June due to being busy with a million other things, but I got into it right when the EP released in August. And I played it a few hundred times since.

I’ve noticed a lot of adverse reaction to this song after the hype built for it across the Internet. Now I can find as many people dismissing it or digging up every other deathcore release in 2021 to proclaim that “better.” I guess that’s how things go, but no other deathcore act captured that many ears and put up the kind of numbers that Lorna Shore and this song did.

But hey – it isn’t worth it to try and argue against people arguing against something. The song struck a nerve with a whole lot of people and did great things for the band and the subgenre as a whole. A rising tide lifts all ships, as they say. Lorna Shore have completed recording their new full-length, an album I’d expect to see sometime next year. They gave themselves a tough act to follow with this song and EP, we’ll see if they can live up to it.

Wrap It Up

That’s about all for my look back at 2021. A wild year, unsettling and chaotic with everything going on and the uncertainty of the future. But the music landscape looks to possibly be brighter in the coming year, and even with all the chaos, it seems many artists were able to turn in some great releases over this pandemic-soaked landscape.

I will be posting on my regular schedule for the rest of the year – this coming Friday and 3 days next week. And I’ll have a special album of the week that ties in to the coming of 2022, I’ve been looking forward to this since I got this up and running back in August. Have a good holidays, I’ll be around on my normal schedule, and off to the new year we go.

Album Of The Year 2021

This is the second part of my look at 2021. My picks 2 through 10 of 2021 albums can be found here.

As 2021 draws to a close it’s time to pick an album of the year. I haven’t really picked an AOTY in many years, 11 at least, so it’s a bit weird to be doing so again. And while I had a bit of deliberation over a few albums that were clawing at my top spot, the answer was fairly clear to me in the second half of the year.

It was a bit tough to figure as the year wore on – I have gotten into several new sounds I wasn’t familiar with before the year. My favorite band released a new album. Plenty of albums from my generally favorite overall genre came out from bands old and new, something reflected on my top ten list. I’ve been more receptive to music than I have been in a long time, perhaps owing to the long-term crush of the pandemic, I don’t know.

But in the end I have my album of the year. It’s from one of my favorite acts and it made an immediate impact on me when I first heard it. It received good critical reviews on release though met with mixed reactions across the fanbase. I’ve seen it on several year-end lists from others, but none that I saw have it pegged near the top and certainly not on it.

None of that matters much though – it’s time to reveal my 2021 Album of the Year.

At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being

Released on July 2, 2021 via Century Media Records

My Favorite Tracks – The Fall Into Time, Spectre Of Extinction, The Nightmare Of Being

This album, the third of ATG’s reunion stint, continues in the path that its predecessors set forth. The band did not get back together to pay perpetual tribute to their 1995 masterpiece Slaughter Of The Soul – rather they came back to explore new territories and push boundaries in extreme metal.

The Nightmare Of Being explores the thematic concept of pessimism. It is far more involved than a simple chant of “life sucks, now here’s some fat riffs.” Both the music and lyrics delve into a greater contemplation of what a negative outlook means. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg composed lyrics that offer a deep dive into the philosophical concept, rather than simply venting about stuff that could be aired on a therapist’s couch.

The music mostly fits well in the present-day lineage of the band, often piggybacking off of work done on prior effort To Drink From The Night Itself. Album opener Spectre Of Extinction certainly sounds like it could fit on either of the band’s other reunion-era records.

At The Gates introduce more layers of sound and arrangement as the record wears on. The Gardens Of Cyrus is especially notable for both being a piece of movements rather than a standard verse/chorus construct. The song also features a saxophone, an uncommon element in metal for anyone not in studio with Ishahn. The accompaniment works well on the song, which seems to twist the album and thus the listener down further into a spiral of philosophical agony. The Fall Into Time also goes into non-conventional metal territory for its melodies and stands as a greater work for it.

The album lyrically is more layered and opaque than a cursory rundown of misanthropy and negativity, long standards of heavy metal subject matter. Instead, the song The Abstract Enthroned probably sums up the album the best – this album is abstract, requiring a deeper sense of exploration than surface-level headbanging enjoyment would provide. The Nightmare Of Being does require something of the listener in order for the album to be processed, it won’t just come with a casual spin or two.

Songs like The Paradox, Touched By The White Hands Of Death and Cult Of Salvation continue to walk a line between between the signature At The Gates sound and the need to explore other soundscapes in order to deliver the concept better. There are dense, atmospheric layers to a lot of the songs that add to the complexity the lyrics deliver but also fit well with the band’s style. This may be an extension of more experimental parts of the band but this isn’t a departure – the band was always going to do stuff like this, almost as if they were interrupted by their melodic death magnum opus in the mid 90’s rather than working toward it as a goal.

Several people have made one criticism of the album – the vocal delivery of Tomas Lindberg. It is a raspy bark as opposed to the ferocious sneer often associated with melodic death metal. Of course Lindberg is no spring chicken, having been a part of many a project over the past 30 years. But also, his somewhat worn delivery works very well with the album’s theme. This isn’t some feeble old man trying to hang with the music – instead it’s someone singing in keeping with the album’s lyrical fare. And also – listen to The Red In The Sky Is Ours again and then tell me what Lindberg is supposed to sound like.

It was a fine day when The Nightmare Of Being released and delivered on its promise of a deep exploration of pessimistic themes. Such fare is dark, sure, but is also very fitting in these present times. It is another master stroke in the catalog of the Swedish pioneers of melodic death metal. No one could blame At The Gates for resting on their laurels and simply touring a nostalgia package centered around Slaughter… that bore influence in so many areas of heavy metal. Instead, the band pushed their own boundaries when they reunited and have now offered this complex, opaque and demanding record. It may not be for casual listening and perhaps is not easily enjoyed, but the true weight and beauty of the album is there to be found.

Here again is the first part of my Top 10 of 2021 list. On Wednesday I’ll wrap up the year in review with some thoughts and the Song of the Year.

Top Ten Albums Of 2021 – 10 through 2

It’s that time – the end of 2021. With any music-related posting, that necessarily entails top “of the year” lists. It’s time to get mine rolling.

I’ll do this in a few parts. Today I’m going to roll out the bulk of a Top Ten Albums list. I’ll do everything from 10 through 2 today. On Monday I’ll give extra space to my 2021 Album of the Year. And on Wednesday I’ll go over some other stuff like Song of the Year and various thoughts about music this year.

No point in wasting time, here it is – my top 9 of 10 albums for 2021.

10: Darkthrone – Eternal Hails

The old gods of black metal switch it up, much as they have over the past many years, and go full-out dungeon dank on this record. It’s part Celtic Frost worship and very awesome. Only five songs but 42 minutes of old school, depth-trawling throwdown.

9: Hypocrisy – Worship

After 8 years away, Hypocrisy returned with a set that hits all the right notes. This set is a bit more savage and in-your-face than previous, more atmospheric efforts. It’s a highlight from a band that has done little wrong in a very long career.

8: Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile

The group’s 13th studio album finds the band reinvigorated and firing on all cylinders. This album blends the band’s signature sound with the present day existential crisis running through the world.

7: Asphyx – Necroceros

A bit of a tricky one here. I could’ve sworn this album came out in 2020, but everything I’m seeing indicates it was released the very first day of 2021. We’ll go with that. Anyway, another great effort from the reformed group who have been kicking ass since their somewhat unexpected return several years ago.

6: Genocide Pact – self titled

Unrelenting death metal that doesn’t take a note off from pummeling the listener. This is brutality at its finest.

5: King Woman – Celestial Blues

A spectacular record that shapes its sound from several genres to fashion a harrowing masterpiece. This album can’t be labeled by any one thing and is a work greater than the sum of its parts. Truly one of the more unique listening experiences of the year.

4: Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

The 17th studio album from the legends raised some eyebrows with song length and composition. The album saw Steve Harris reclaim the creative reigns and head in a more atmospheric, ponderous direction.

Senjutsu was my Album Of The Week on September 6.

3: Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More

This one came out of nowhere for me and instantly reeled me in with a mix of indie rock, pop punk and plenty else going on. It has been climbing this list since I started going over it this fall.

Let Me Do One More was my Album Of The Week on October 25.

2: Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine Of Hell

I only really began exploring Emma’s work earlier in the year and she capped 2021 with this minimal, desolate collection of songs. Only her voice, a guitar and piano weave these tales of trauma and sorrow.

Engine Of Hell was my Album Of The Week on November 29.

That’s the list, except for the Album Of The Year, of course. I’ll be back Monday with my 2021 champion.

Smith/Kotzen – Better Days EP

Rather than cheap out and make another EP the Album of the Week, I decided to go ahead and give this one its own space. This new record comes to us from Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen, a perhaps unlikely pairing who offered up a fantastic full-length album earlier in 2021.

Richie Kotzen has been around the block in rock music – over 20 solo albums, many more as a band member, and a slew of guest shots and projects. And Adrian Smith has a handful of various projects over the years, interspersed with his time as a part of Iron Maiden’s celebrated guitar duo/trio. As luck would have it, Kotzen and Smith are neighbors and the pandemic finally gave them a chance to hang out and record some music.

The self-titled debut of Smith/Kotzen was an excellent affair that stood out from the typical “side project” crowd. We’re now offered this 4-song EP as a Black Friday treat. Thankfully this release did not suffer from the secondary market RSD premium and is readily available on wax for normal retail prices. I just couldn’t bear the thought of not having an Iron Maiden-adjacent record in my collection, even if it means financial well-being will elude me.

As there are only 4 songs on this disc, it should be pretty easy to get through a track-by-track look at it.

Smith/Kotzen – Better Days EP

Released November 26, 2021 via BMG

My Favorite Track – Better Days

Better Days

The EP’s title track leads the proceeding. This is a nice rocker that picks up right where the debut album left off. The song brings the well-worn theme of looking at the past with rose-colored lenses while hoping for better days to come, something certainly relevant after the past few years. On highlight is the guitar work, well done but also very fitting for the song and not just a wank fest showcase. Of course both Smith and Kotzen have long plied their trades in that fashion so it’s no surprise.

Got A Hold On Me

This track kicks up the power a notch. It is another example of rock music done in 2021 outside the influence of alternative rock, something that usually takes a bit of digging to find these days. It’s a song that also would have been at home on the full album, driving home the point that this EP is not an exercise in getting rid of leftovers.

Hate And Love

A more mid-tempo affair that sounds like something that could have been a solid hard rock hit from the later 80’s. It does benefit though from the seasoned experience of the players, both in vocal delivery and in the to-the-point groove of the song. The song is fine to listen to for its own merits, and a person almost needs to keep an ear out for the quick guitar flourishes that remind everyone who exactly they’re listening to.

Rise Again

This song brings a different vibe that reminds me at points of Van Halen’s song Judgment Day from the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge record. It’s a very quick rocker that feels like it’s over almost as soon as it began, but with plenty going on for its duration. This closer keeps things fresh with its variety but also maintains the rocking mood of the EP.

The Better Days EP is another excellent offering from the duo of Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen. It’s great to have both a full album and this bonus recording from the group. Hopefully they will find time to do more in the future and perhaps have a gig or two. Time will tell, especially as Adrian’s day job is calling again. Whatever the future may hold, it’s nice to have some good rock music in 2021.

Spotify Wrapped 2021

I was shuffling around my next few posts a bit and had a bit of a hang-up as I tried to figure out what to do for today. As luck would have it, Spotify would drop some quick and easy content in my lap in the form of their Wrapped end of year data dump.

For those unaware, Spotify provides a rundown of a user’s most-played songs, genres and artists for the year every December. It’s a neat little thing that provides a bit of info and can also be fun and silly. For me and the purposes of this blog, it’s a great way to get some content with just some screenshots and a few words. Let’s have at it.

This is the total minutes I spent listening on Spotify this year. This is by far the most I’ve used the service in a year. For the biggest part of 2021 I had a job where I could play music all day and I’d alternate between Spotify and the digital music collection on my phone. It’s over 450 hours, which is a fair bit of time when considering I didn’t use it all the time.

This tidbit did shock me a little. I don’t really know how Spotify does genres, I haven’t looked at the least how deep they get. I don’t feel like I listened to 35 different genres of music but I’ll take their word for it. If symphonic blackened britpop deathcore counts as 4 separate genres then I can see it. Not sure if I heard any whale sounds in the past year…

Here are the top 5 genres. Shoegaze sticks out a bit on the list but it’s not surprising since I just got into it this year. I did way more exploring of it than I did of anything else. Nothing else is a real shock. I did listen to what I guess is a lot of hard rock this year though I figure some of that might actually be indie rock or some offshoot of that. Again, who knows how Spotify genrefies things.

My most-played song of the year is no surprise at all. I played the ever living shit of this right after I heard it. In truth I’ve played it way more than that because I eventually got a digital copy on my phone and I’ve also played the YouTube video countless times. I’ve probably doubled the Spotify play count. I’ve literally been bitched at for how much I’ve played this song.

One bit of a shocker here. I didn’t realize I’d played Muse that much. I honestly only started listening to them in earnest this year. I wouldn’t have thought they’d rank that high or that Hysteria would be the song that did. The rest are all reasonable – I played LoG a lot because I didn’t own Ashes Of The Wake on any format until a few weeks back. I played the Iron Maiden lead single multiple times a day until Senjutsu released and then I played the CDs or vinyl.

This is absolutely no surprise at all. Emma Ruth Rundle was easily my most-played artist of the year, and I only truly began listening to her about halfway through the year. According to Spotify I spent a total of 3,682 minutes playing her songs in the span of about 5 months. That’s over 61 hours playing the same artist. Yeah, I dig her stuff that much. And this also doesn’t account for when I eventually got her albums on vinyl, which provided digital download copies as well.

Being in the top 0.1% of listeners is really cool, I have never seen that before. I’ll put that on my resume.

Again, Muse is throwing me a bit. I mean, I’m not one to argue with statistics, but still. I would’ve thought Lorna Shore had the number 2 spot in the bag, but I guess I really, really liked Muse earlier in the year. None of the others are huge shocks. I got Rage’s stuff on vinyl about halfway through the year but I was blasting them a lot in the first part of 2021.

I don’t know what the hell this is but I guess I’m bold and wistful, based on my musical tastes of sad indie rock and deathcore. I don’t know, whatever. I’m not really all that bold I don’t think. Wistful is probably right. I don’t how much of my personality I’m going to analyze from a damn music streaming app.

That’s a wrap for the Spotify Wrap 2021. I didn’t listen to Taylor Swift for over 200,000 hours like some people but hey, I did listen to something. We’ll see what the next year brings as Spotify remains more a vehicle for discovery for me instead of what I use to listen to my favorite stuff.