How to make 2021 actually good

by Tarbeaux

Sun, 9 Jan 2022

Read in 18 minutes

2021 albums sucks, so I had to find good ones in the past

The past year I have intelligently and purposefully avoided 2021 and her wagons of mediocre albums to focus on listening to older albums, finishing discog runs and taking time to discover new genres. Ultimately, I ended up listening to 249 albums, with 31% of them managing to be a 7 or above; compared to the meager 6% of good albums released in 2021, it was bliss. Some discog runs were rewarding, like The Doors, SepticFlesh or Immolation, others were… let’s say, mixed (Josh Homme and Ihsahn). Motorhead managed to be the worst run, not because it’s absolutely horrible, but more because it’s super long, monotonous, with no good albums after Ace of Spades - all in all, it was a huge waste of time. Another disappointment came from the additions in the reliquary, it was hit with a load of swedish punk, with swedish vocals, and more annoying hardcore. At least Breakfast in America was also added, which led me to discover another album from Supertramp that made it into my top 10 list of the non-2021 albums I listened to this year. Speaking of the list, it’s time to get into it. First though, let me address some honorable mentions of good albums which are a bit too flawed to get a higher spot. All of them managed to be rated 7/10, and are shown below without a particular order.

Kyuss - Wretch 

The beginning of the most famous stoner band actually reminds me more of Queens of the Stone Age than the rest of the Kyuss discography. Very energetic, very teenager, with a great influence of rock garage and sick guitar tones. A happy and enjoyable album.

Paradise Lost - Gothic

Way more death/doom than I expected from Paradise Lost, it’s darker than the future albums, has good riffs and a very rough and sloppy production. But what strikes me the most is how some of the songs are catchy and melodic - Shattered, Rapture and Eternal stayed in my head during the whole year. 

Talking Heads - Talking Heads 77

Always very inventive and sometimes avant-garde, it’s still amazing how pop some of these songs are, with catchy lyrics, choruses, and with David Byrne already weird, you have all the ingredients for a classic that is too often reduced to the song Psycho Killer. 

Samael - Passage

Samael here strays away from black metal and goes more into symphonic and industrial territory. You’ve still got pummeling riffs, martial drums and scorching voices, but with a great mood and atmosphere. Very front loaded unfortunately. 

Dismember - Indecent and Obscene 

Sometimes you just want riffs, and fortunately, Dismember is here to deliver, in the purest Swedish style, with HM-2 cranked to the max. Stretch your neck before putting it on and be ready to scream ‘’REBORN IN BLASPHEMYYYYYYYYY’’.

SepticFlesh - Ophidian Wheel

All the ingredients that make SepticFlesh great are here, deep growl voices, big riffs, ultra effective leads and avant garde fuckery, served with a clear production. An overall original but a bit disjointed melodic death metal album.

Deep Purple - Burn 

It’s classic Deep Purple, bluesy rock, good solos and nice organ, but what would be a quite forgettable album is saved by the opener and title track. In pure Deep Purple fashion, this album starts with an absolute and immense rock banger at the same level as Speed King or Highway Star. This song is so good it manages to make the album a 7/10 by itself and might be my favorite song of the year. All I hear is BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUURN. 

Now it’s time for the big showdown. It was easy to make a top 10 because I ended up with ten 8/10. What really surprised me this year is how much I liked all those flavors of doom. We got traditional doom, beauty and the beast doom, symphonic doom and gothic doom in the list. But fortunately, this isn’t all. For the riffs section we got classic black metal and technical thrash, sprinkled with psychedelic and progressive rock on top. 

Let’s get on to it.

10: The Sisters of Mercy - Floodland

Do you want an 80’s drum machine? And 80’s guitars? Old synthesizer? Do you like wearing Ray-Bans even if it’s pitch black and raining while trashing your ex-members' new band in a 9-minute long banger? If yes, then you are probably Andrew Eldritch and I wonder why you are here. The Sisters of Mercy is all about him, the front man, singer and main member of the band that would go on to inspire all the gothic metal and rock scene; it’s hard to not hear where Peter Steele took inspiration for his crooner moments. The music on Floodland isn’t very subtle but it’s very effective. Between gothic rock and darkwave, with industrial elements in it, this album teleports you directly to an underground London club in Camden with junkies dancing in the pit and repetitive beats putting everyone in a trance. This album is stronger on the upbeat tracks like the opening or Lucretia My Reflection, the slower ones get a bit repetitive, but I found them so 80’s that they are quite entertaining. Although for me the best track is the centerpiece, This Corrosion, where he parodies the band The Mission. Composed of ex-members of Sisters of Mercy, he thought that their music was a total rip-off, and that their lyrics were dumb and meaningless. He wrote this ‘’stupidly over-the-top bombastic’’ song to mock them; ‘’It is, of course, directed at somebody and it doesn’t take a genius to work out who, although it’ll probably take the person concerned some considerable time’’, yes, that’s a lot of salt. He went on to spend the majority of the album budget just on this song to record with a 40 person choir. Simply amazing. 

9: Trouble - Psalm 9

If only mass would have more traditional doom instead of latin litany or something, because yes, Trouble is one of the first metal christian themed bands (that have achieved success at least). The songs are about faith and how the devil will tempt you or how you should repent to save your wretched soul. But all of what I say is basically useless, you don’t like an album or a band because they have some cool gimmicks or are original in their theme. If the music doesn’t follow and is plain bad, well who cares. But here, thank God, Trouble manages to serve you a hefty dose of sweet early doom riffs, clearly inspired by Black Sabbath, with possessed vocals and a suitably heavy production. Talking about heavy, Trouble isn’t afraid to speed it up to add some variety and lean into heavy metal, like on the song Assassin. To top it all off, Trouble grooves, with notable blues influence, alternating between metal riffs, more classic hard rock parts and heavier crushing sections. However, the transitions could be better sometimes. The album starts with The Tempter which, I think, is the best song. It manages to showcase the band’s ability to mix all their musical aspects into one track. 

8: Sabbat - History of a Time to Come

I like riffs and I like thrash, and here comes an album featuring Andy Sneap, so I knew I would be served. And I was served and served hard. In the entree you get frantic vocals followed by the main dish, a variety of riffs that are thrown at you non-stop. And for dessert you get solid drums that aren’t slacking either. It’s a very intense album with little dead time to catch its breath between two headbanging sessions. The musical skill on this album is flawless, everything is so tight and fast it sometimes feels delightfully overwhelming. This album is also interesting because it doesn’t sound like american thrash or the german thrash of the era. It stands quite unique, influenced by Judas Priest and Satan, but faster and heavier. There aren’t many weak songs, although my favorite is probably For Those Who Died, which starts with a poor soul screaming ‘’NOT GUILTY’’ before being sent onto the funeral pyre. 

7: Watain - Lawless Darkness

Did I already mention that I like riffs? Straight from Sweden, Watain delivers rapid and furious black metal that would make their Norwegian neighbors proud. Mix in their Swedish melodic influence and you have the perfect Dissection offspring that still manages to have their own style. Again this is a very tight album, gone from the scruffy play and the rough production made in mom’s basement from their illustrious predecessors, released in 2010, Lawless Darkness is definitely a modern interpretation of classical composition. Everything is set to be in your face and effective. But don’t think of modern as soulless and compressed, here the music is really served by the production, in particular songs like Reaping Death or Wolves Curse. It’s true, it’s not the most trvest and aggressive black metal, with its catchy leads and effective chorus, but it’s immensely enjoyable. The major drawback of this album is its length. Watain didn’t have 1 hour and 14 minutes of interesting music to record. This album would have benefited from shrinking to its most essential tracks and strengths, because finishing on a 15 minute long mid-tempo song isn’t the best compositional move. If you want to get an idea of what you’ll get on this album, listen to Malfeitor. This track stands above the others by its variety, in riffs, sections and atmosphere, starting with a blast to rip your head off, passing through with catchy chorus and ending on a slow and sinister note. 

6: The Gathering - Mandylion 

It’s the 90’s, you’re a classic death/gothic/doom band that gets moderate success, although you don’t really stand out from anyone in the genre. You wonder how to stand out from the whole bunch of bands with growl vocals and female voices. Why not go full female voice then? So you start searching for a lead singer for your next album. Then you get lucky. Extremely lucky even, because you just found Anneke van Giersbergen, one of the best female singers in the whole metal genre ever. 

I really feel Mandylion is all about Anneke’s voice. The guitars focus more on a classic gothic rhythmic base with slow and heavy riffs, letting her do the lead melody most of the time, with her incredible vocal modulation. The production really puts her upfront anyway, while still leaving enough room for every instrument. The use of synth layers works well to set up the mood and sometimes even takes a more prominent place in some songs, like In Motion #1 or the experimental title track. Musically, it’s a classic gothic metal album, although on the progressive side, with darkwave elements that feel inspired by Dead Can Dance. Unfortunately, not everything works, which tends to make the album feel longer than what it really is. While most gothic doom wants to be dark and depressing, there is something solar about The Gathering, that gives it a more joyous atmosphere. I think it’s noticeable on the first, and best, song of the album, Strange Machines. It’s really an amazing track, great narration both with the music and the lyrics, that flows very well, and is quite emotional.

5: Pentagram - Relentless

Relentless was released in 1984 and is the first Pentagram album released. But is it? Yes and no. It’s indeed the first album, but the band has been active since ‘71. They started releasing demos and selling them underground in 1972, which makes them both part of the first heavy metal scene, and then the doom era starting at the beginning of the 80’s, with bands inspired by their first work. To add to the confusion, Relentless was released two times, the later in 1993 by Peaceville, that decided to ruin the mixing by making it boomy, and putting the drums and the voice too far back. Until I found a vinyl rip of the first mix on youtube, I found the production reduced the impact of the album. It’s a shame because the original is rawer, darker and grittier than some second wave Black Metal. Mayhem might have taken notes. So now you have a heavy doom album, with a guitar tone that would cut a hundred years old sequoia. The strongest songs like opener Relentless, Sign of the Wolf or Dying World are built on some of the strongest riffs of the traditional doom game, and the solos are great most of the time. Sure, the voice reminds me a lot of Ozzy, and some songs can feel like a heavier version of Black Sabbath, UFO or Uriah Heep, but I think this album still has its own personality. In a funny way, the two classic doom albums I liked this year couldn’t be more opposed with the lyrics: while Trouble speaks of repenting for your sins and to fight against evil temptations,  Pentagram urges you to sell your soul to some demons to get you out of Death Row. Talking about Death Row, it’s the best track on the album for me, just slightly better than Relentless. Opening with a wall of guitar noise before crashing into a gargantuan riff and wailing vocals, it’s one of my favorite songs from this year, and really shines with the original mix. 

4: The Doors - The Doors

One of the most important rock albums of all time, one of the most famous ones too, so I will not get too long on this. I made an effort this year to do a discography run of the whole The Doors catalogue because I was acquainted with a lot of their songs but not much with their whole albums, except L.A Woman. That was the case with their first album. Everyone knows about Break on Through or Light My Fire but I feel not many people listened to the whole album. Overall, The Doors' discography was really strong until Jim Morrison’s death, but a lot of their albums have filler songs between two or three bangers. I feel it’s a lot less the case here, even less important songs like The Crystal Ship or End of The Night get some catchy moments. I also really like Alabama Songs, Twentieth Century Fox and Take It As It Comes, which makes for a very strong album overall. Ray Manzarek’s organ and Jim Morrison’s performance are the clear shining stars from this album, but you probably already know that. My favorite song of the album is the 11 minute long Freudian piece The End, where Jim Morrison goes freaky and creepy as fuck, and the music goes dark and dips into the occult. What a way to end the album.

3: Supertramp - Crime of the Century

I was mostly familiar with the more famous album Breakfast in America, but I was a bit put off by it’s very pop aspect. Everything was effective, even innovative, but the music always struck me as a bit superficial, lacking any depth behind the radio anthems (not the themes of the songs though, as the album is pretty dark on that aspect). So I was curious to discover a bit more about the band. I tried their first acclaimed album, released in 1974, 5 years before Breakfast - Crime of the Century. There I found what I wanted from Supertramp. While still having the inventiveness, sometimes even the exuberance of their later release, this album is much more a progressive rock one, way grittier and more aggressive. The best example is on Bloody Well Right, where the sarcastic tone of Rick Davies clashes with the riff of the verse and the little piano melody of the chorus. Otherwise you find the intensive use of saxophone that became a signature for Supertramp, but I must say it got overall impressive playing and arrangements. The songs are more complicated and ambitious, but you can still perceive where the band is going, in particular on the single Dreamer. This album never repeats itself, all tracks bring new ideas and have so many details that make them unique. But what could be a total mess is actually quite coherent, thanks to what strikes me the most when I listen to this album - the emotive charge it carries. Crime of the Century deals with the themes of loneliness, mental stability and internment, and while the first two songs are linked, it isn’t a concept album per se. Roger Hodgson stated it was to the discretion of the listeners to link all the songs together if they wanted. Perhaps this album hit close in these weird times we live in, particularly one of my favorite songs of this album, Rudy, that starts with these lyrics:

‘’Rudy’s on a train to nowhere, halfway down the line

He don’t want to get there, but he needs time

He ain’t sophisticated, nor well-educated

After all the hours he wasted, still he needs time’’

Although the best song award has to go to the opener School, that has everything I want from this album. It is very impactful and sets the tone for what will come next. 

2: Therion - Theli

Theli has got some of the songs I listened to the most this year. Honestly I didn’t expect to enjoy some 90’s symphonic metal as much as I have. But it’s not just symphonic metal, it’s death metal as well, which means it got, guess what, riffs! This album is super ambitious and marks the entry of Therion’s symphonic era. And what an entry. You have a male and a female choir, classic music samples, every 90’s synthesizer sound you can think of, all slapped together to make an … oriental/egyptian themed album? Who in their right mind tries something like that? Well it didn’t bother Christofer Johnsson at all, where his tastes for elaborate, operatic grandeur, are completely let wild, helped by Dan Swanö behind the mics and the production (a busy 1996 for him). Funny thing, the classical parts are labeled the “Barmbek Symphony Orchestra” after the subway station next to the studio. At the time, it was the most expensive album recorded by Nuclear Blast (around 30 000 euros, yes…) and it kinda broke the band line up and finance. Johnsson didn’t know if the band would even continue to exist after that, and was certain he would never tour the album, so he threw everything at it. Amazingly almost all of it stuck. One of the things I like is how unrestrained this album is. Opera interludes? Let’s go. Violin doing the main riffs with lead harpsichords? Sure. Alternating neo-classical guitar leads with melodic death metal ones? Absolutely necessary. This goes in every direction but that makes it balanced, unlike the next Therion albums I have heard. I still have difficulty understanding how this didn’t end up as a messed up block of cheese (which is kinda what Therion is at the moment…) and how everything is so attractive, effective and dynamic. This album is a joy to listen to because of all the ideas they throw at you, and the overall madness; you never know what will happen next. I will admit the long ballad is a bit too much and that it was a good move to not end the album with it. I must say my favorite song (and my most listened to song of the year according to Spotify…) of the album is Desert of Set. The progression of this track from a slow and obscure start to a more upbeat tempo, big riffs and great chorus, to end on an explosion of synth, guitars and violin solos. A good summary of what the album is. 

1: Theatre of Tragedy - Aégis

I never knew I was a goth all along. How does that even happen? How is this album even my favorite album of the year? It almost doesn’t have riffs! Yes! Shocking, I know. Theater of Tragedy started as one of the first bands doing the ‘’Beauty and the Beast’’ act, mainly ethereal female voice with deep growls and doom riffs. However, on this album there are no growls, just some deep sad-boi voice. I would consider this atmospheric gothic metal, it’s all dreamy and cloudy, with deep synth layers on simple guitar parts, with a great high-pitch female voice on top of it. Put a bit of reverb on it and it’s done. To add to the aesthetic, they even sing all their songs in early modern English, except one (“Venus”, which is in Latin), and they are about mythical or mystical female figures from different mythologies. I should not like this as much as I do, but I love it, except on the last track - I’m sucked into that dreary atmosphere every time Cassandra starts. I have chills every time Liv Kristine starts singing on Angélique, or on any song for that matter. It’s very sensitive and fragile, but the interpretation still remains dark and shrouded in mystery, like some kind of OST for a Shakespeare piece. The production, the tone of the instruments, and the mixing are perfectly suited for the contemplative aspect of the music. Also Theater of Tragedy didn’t fall in the trap of doing too slow songs, most of them are on a mid tempo, with solid drums to not make the tracks too sloppy and sleepy. I guess I will be quite alone to not find this album terribly boring and pompous, but I love how calming and beautiful it is. All songs work with the same ingredients, but manage to produce something different and memorable each time. Cassandra, Siren, Venus, and Lorelei are amazing tracks, but my favorite remains Aoede. With the syncopated riff into that crooner voice, the almost industrial break before a beautiful chorus with the duet between the two main singers, a really great song. 

Overall a pretty good year, even if I regret not having found a 9, like Cynic’s Traced in Air in 2020. Lots of albums had one or two great tracks, but were ultimately too inconsistent. If you want to see the whole list and witness how bad my tastes are, follow this link: