Every year, it's the same story: I sit down during the final week of December, think about all the new music that I still haven't heard—combined with the fact that I don't post that often—and feel like if I bother to put together a year-end favorites list, there aren't gonna be many surprises. There will, however, be several "obvious" omissions from the perspectives of readers more attuned to what's actively "popular" (by underground standards). So, I never particularly want to throw together these lists, but... the other cycle that repeats itself without fail is that after I post my favorites, a number of people enthusiastically react to selections for the first time, even though I've already written about them—sometimes more than once—earlier in the year. Thus, I might as well maintain the streak. Here are 2021's picks, in alphabetical order...
Dome Runner, Conflict State Design (Starving Light Collective)
Dome Runner is this year's example of why one should never put together an end-of-the-year list until the year is actually over. Conflict State Design didn't cross my path until December 17, but it's damn sure one of the most impressive outings I heard in 2021. Masterfully executed industrial metal of the classic '90s variety, bringing to mind Pitchshifter, Godflesh, Dead World, etc. Think crushing heaviness, mechanically thudding percussion, and just the right amount of dissonant atmospheric texture or subtle melody that at its best—which is often—exhibits similarities to the aesthetic force of scarce Napalm Death tracks such as "Contemptuous." Everyone that I've feverishly recommended this album to has been immediately impressed. Industrial metal simply doesn't get much better than this!
End You, Aimless Dread (The Ghost is Clear/Pax Aeternum)
The Ghost is Clear Records hadn't really been on my radar prior to 2021, but the label's tied to three releases on this list, which is pretty fuckin' stunning. First up is Aimless Dread, the impressive debut from End You, which is a solo project from Eric Smith, former guitarist/vocalist of The Catalyst. The material won't sound too unusual to anyone who's heard The Catalyst in the past, but should strike you as more focused and potent; though certainly no less diverse in its seamless transitions from churning, chunky rhythms to sludgy swagger to atypically catchy/grungy fusions of post-hardcore, noise rock, and then some—all peppered with effects-laden quirks that texturalize the outcome in its own unique fashion. It's a dark and despondent journey through both the personal and the political, yet in some ways acts as a beacon of perseverance in and of itself.
Gaadge, Yeah? (Crafted Sounds)
Yet another debut full-length, Yeah? from Gaadge presents a moody and meaningful form of experimental indie rock with occasional shoegaze tendencies, centered around a little jangle, a little sizzle, and a lot of heart. The group draws from a range of different influences, and the results possess a basement/bedroom ruggedness that lends a certain special charm to the material—hence I was already predicting way back in February that this album would be one of my favorite releases of 2021. I'm hoping to hear some new tunes from Gaadge sooner rather than later.
J. Robbins/Her Head's on Fire, Split (New Granada)
Another late-in-the-year but insanely great discovery, this split pairs J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines, etc.) with Her Head's on Fire (fronted by Joseph Grillo from Garrison, etc.) for angular surges of post-hardcore perfection and emotional/spacious/subtly heavy indie rock, respectively. Both tracks deliver in fine form, and should absolutely appeal to fans of the aforementioned artists' past efforts. Seriously: this is really, really good!
Knub, Knub (The Ghost is Clear)
The second entry from The Ghost is Clear Records is the mind-blowingly awesome, came-outta-nowhere debut EP from Knub, which I previously described as "Helmet meets Downer with more of a lurching noise rock oomph." The band's vocalist is Dave Ort from Onespot (a.k.a. Onespot Fringehead), which probably doesn't mean much to many, but it's an important bit of trivia, so take a few minutes to do some digging on that if you enjoy Knub—and you must, right!?—you won't be disappointed.
Man Destroyed Man, [Know Thy] Self-Titled EP (Self-Released)
One of the very first things I listened to in 2021 was rough mixes of these tracks from Man Destroyed Man. The group includes three former members of one of NJHC's most criminally unsung greats of the '90s, Elements DEC, so of course I was goofily eager to hear this EP and pretty much knew before the first note that this would be among my favorites for the year. Unusually melodic metallic hardcore that doesn't sound like anything else out there at present—certainly comparable to EDEC, but more streamlined.
This one's digital-only, so click over to Bandcamp or Spotify, and I also highly recommend the two follow-up singles. Man Destroyed Man is aiming to release another new EP within the next couple of months, so keep an eye out...
Manu, Earth (Self-Released)
Manu hit me with probably the biggest surprise of the year. This niche of heavy shoegaze-soaked post-rock is incredibly "in" right now, and Manu executes the style to a level of quality far beyond a number of other new-ish groups that are actively receiving more hype than they deserve by comparison. This is one of those situations where, if you like this, you need to recommend it to a few friends. There's just no logical reason why this band isn't getting more attention out there other than the simple fact that not enough people have heard this vastly underrated album.
Merauder, The Minus Years (Upstate Records/etc.)
I essentially wrote a love letter to this release back in March, so read that if you want the full-on gush as to why The Minus Years is a hugely important "big deal" reissue. The short version? Merauder's one of the most influential metalcore bands of all time, and their recordings with first vocalist Marco "Minus" Rodriguez had reached mythical status in the decades since his departure from the group, so to finally have them all combined into one handy compilation is just plain awesome. Especially when it comes to hardore, there's too much rare/obscure music being lost to time, so I respect this undertaking so much, and really hope to see more of these types of reissues climb out of the scene in years to come.
This was a significant collaborative effort between Upstate Records, Generation Records, Coretex Records, RevHQ, Retribution Network, Static Era Records, and Blood Blast Distribution, so you'll find a number of variants across all physical formats at those links (though some have probably sold out by now). Digital peeps, you'll be all set with Bandcamp or Spotify.
Neckscars, Don't Panic (Sell the Heart/Engineer)
Neckscars hit me with another huge surprise from a band that I had never heard of before, and Don't Panic wound up being one of my most-played albums of the year. For a guy who listens to several hours of new-to-me music almost every single day, it really means something when I come back to a new release repeatedly, so I can't recommend this quartet's brand of catchy, emotive punk rock enough. They tend to draw comparisons to classics like Leatherface and Hot Water Music, which somehow fits without landing right on target. Their approach is melodic and memorable with elements of pop-punk and alt.-rock, but you can't just force them into any single genre and be done with it. There's too much blending together in a manner such that clean and tidy classifications aren't wrong, they're just not painting the complete picture.
Olly Steele, "Open" (Self-Released)
I know, it's just a single, but I really spun the hell out of this thing, and even rewatched the playthrough video a shitload of times, which almost never happens. This composition totally locked me in as an immediate Olly Steele fan. I'll just describe it as technical and progressive instrumental shred metal with some of that contemporary "djent"-y percussiveness and a sleek melodic edge. I'm big time crossing my fingers for an Olly Steele solo full-length as soon as humanly possible!
Peroxide Blonde, "No Reason to Pretend" (Jetsam-Flotsam)
Yep, another single! Sometimes that's all you've got to work with. Peroxide Blonde is one of the few newer bands that I've followed closely in various forms over the years, and they'd been pretty quiet until "No Reason to Pretend" hit the streets back in September. Resurfacing with a new lineup and a continually evolving sound, the group's jazzy, topsy-turvy riffing and jangly/bendy swing still implies a general U.K. indie/alternative type of influence, but absolutely defies obvious comparisons or categorizations. They've been playing out more over the past month or two, so I truly hope they're finally building some of the momentum they've deserved for years now. I know that several new songs are in the works, so hopefully another EP will show up during the first half of 2022...?
Rid of Me, Traveling (The Ghost is Clear/Knife Hits)
My final selection from The Ghost is Clear Records comes from Rid of Me, another of my "new" favorites. I've been snatching up pretty much everything they've released since their inception, but feel like I've yet to do them justice with words. Discussing this album a few months ago, I stated: "Things are still very much rooted in the hefty grit of noise rock, but the musical and emotional textures have grown darker and more expansive in ways that you can't just throw a bunch of different genre tags at. It's their own thing. The music isn't generic, and the inimitable vocals just take it to another level." Which still isn't enough. For some damn reason, I always struggle to land on the right way to express what it is that Rid of Me offers, but when fans of this niche hear it for themselves, I think they generally seem to just "get it" rather quickly. Unique and intriguing—a total powerhouse.
Subway Mirror, Subway Mirror (Divebomb)
I had to include two reissues this year, and this one's another "big deal" for me—selfishly, probably the most meaningful release of the year. Having been a Dan Swanö superfan since the late-'90s, I didn't discover Subway Mirror—also known as O (:the circle)—until 2019. The early- to mid-'90s outfit was influenced by the likes of Buffalo Tom, Mega City Four, and Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and has quickly become some of my absolute favorite music amidst Dan's legendarily massive discography; so to see this rare alternative rock from a "metal icon" released on CD was exciting in itself. On a personal level, though, I was lucky enough to be able to participate behind-the-scenes by interviewing Dan for the CD booklet about the entire backstory behind Subway Mirror. We spoke for 90 minutes, he was unbelievably cool, and it's without question my favorite interview that I've ever done.
Visit Divebomb Records for a CD (limited to a mere 300 copies), which also contains an obscure bonus track called "Waterfall" from 1992. Swanö digitally distributed these recordings back in 2019, so you can find those through outlets like Amazon, Spotify, etc.
Webbed Wing, What's So Fucking Funny? (Memory Music)
Webbed Wing's momentum seemed to cook on a slow burn considering the lineup ties to the should've-been-huge Daylight/Superheaven, but with What's So Fucking Funny? it seems that the tide is finally starting to change. The band may cringe when jackasses like me refer to certain aspects of their sound as "grungy" or reminiscent of the '90s, but I've come to regard such qualities as interest-piquing compliments, especially when balled up with brooding power pop, occasional sludgy/stoner undercurrents, and "Americana" twists—all delivered through that soaring Will Yip production. Over the course of the past 10+ years, some of these guys have demonstrated themselves to be amongst the best songwriters of their generation, and the aforementioned should've-been-huge potential is still readily apparent all over this thing.
Zero Trust, Zero Trust (Equal Vision)
As if Man Destroyed Man's ties to Elements DEC weren't enough, 2021 further cracked my skull like an egg with Zero Trust's connections to another of NJHC's most criminally unsung greats of the '90s: Train of Thought (and Bulldoze, Agents of Man, GMK, Ghidrah, Coheed and Cambria, etc.). I mean, holy shit! Zero Trust is more or less the culmination and expansion of the wide-spanning and tough-to-categorize styles that some of these guys have been innovating for over 25 years now—that tug-of-war balance between aggression and emotion, complemented by an elevated and emphatic maturity that coincides with the sheer volume of experience that this lineup's collective résumé carries. The project already seems to be getting a decent amount of exposure to a wider range of listeners than some of the members' past efforts, so I'm desperately hoping for a full-length in 2022.