This past year was an excellent year for music, much better than the travesty that was 2020. Right from the beginning with the early releases it promised to be a strong one, and quality-wise it never really let up. The music did come along in fits and starts: a bunch of late winter/spring releases, a bit of a lull through summer into the fall, and then a final surge very late in the year. It was this last bit that proved problematic, because the late releases were so strong they threw off all the calculations I had made up to that point. By mid December I had to completely rethink my top-tier albums.
In terms of genres, what attracted me is largely divided between various forms of instrumental ambient electronica or industrial, and good ol’ rock‘n’roll/metal. A bit of proggish and alternativey stuff is sprinkled throughout, but not too much. There were certainly surprises along the way. I ended up with an even dozen albums that stand out; I think this is the strongest year for music in a while.
Gary Numan released his crowd-funded album early in the year, and Shriekback did the same thing in December. Industrial legend Bill Leeb gave us two offerings: one from Front Line Assembly and another from the long-quiescent Noise Unit. Mariusz Duda, who has an inordinate fondness for trilogies, also released two albums to complete his latest, which was begun in 2020 with Lockdown Spaces. The Tea Party emerged almost out of nowhere to demonstrate that they are still very much alive and a force to be reckoned with. The long-awaited new album from post-metal masters Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster finally appeared.
Anyway: on to the list.
12. Mariusz Duda: Claustrophobic Universe and Interior Drawings
Duda completed his electronic Lockdown Trilogy this year: one album (Claustrophobic Universe) released in April, the other (Interior Drawings) in December (the first came out in the summer of 2020), so I am combining them together. This set of albums is meant to evoke his original influences and the first music he loved, the electronica of his early youth, back when keyboards and tape machines were the only things he had to work with. Deliberately spare and jagged, there is very little analogue instrumentation or voice (mostly this appears on Interior Drawings), and it does not sound very much like Riverside or Lunatic Soul. For a project that began almost on a whim back in 2020, it has become rather well-developed — each subsequent album is denser and more refined in sound. That being said: this is a relatively new direction for Duda and I think there is a way to go before he hits his stride in this genre, so it’s probably a trilogy that the existing fan base will attend to rather than one that will attract new fans.
In terms of which one I like better, I think Claustrophobic Universe wins out by a hair: it has somewhat less diversity of sound (i.e. more strictly digital), but more diversity in arrangements. Almost all the tracks on Interior Drawings seem to start in a samey spare percussive fashion; the songs on Claustrophobic Universe are more obviously different from each other.
Claustrophobic Universe is reviewed here
Interior Drawings is reviewed here
11. The Grid and Robert Fripp: Leviathan
Way back in the early 1990s Robert Fripp contributed some guitar loops and atmosphere to a couple of albums by the industrial dance duo The Grid. Recently the guys came across the original Fripp sessions, added synths and programming, and turned them into this album of sweeping ambient soundscapes, featuring classic Frippertronics-style repetitive looping and slow solos. It’s a long album (over an hour), of moody atmospheric background ambiance, and for some of us old folks it’s quite nostalgic, being reminiscent of the early days when Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting sounded like nothing else. There are hints that this material is reworked: a couple of the tracks simply fade away in mid-loop instead of actually ending, but overall it is a worthy addition to my ambient electronica collection.
10. Noise Unit: Deviator
Dark, angry, and heavy industrial, this album has grown on me. I was stoked to hear that a new Noise Unit was coming, because there has been little action on that front for many years, and at least one NU album is among my all-time favourite albums. At first listen, though, it seemed rather similar to Bill Leeb’s other effort, the Front Line Assembly album from very early in 2021 which has not made the short list, but there was something about it that kept me coming back. I have always preferred Noise Unit to FLA, and while this one is not at the level of NU’s best (Drill, or Voyeur), it does have the signature density and detail, if rather more in the way of vocals than the usual Noise Unit album.
9. Bass Communion: And No Birds Sing
Yes, there is a fair amount of electronica in this year’s list. I like it. Here we have slow-building ambient soundscapes from Steven Wilson’s long-running side project; these two long tracks represent a soundtrack from some kind of film that may or may not eventually be made. Both tracks are called “And no Birds Sing”; the first is background, largely ambient and almost on the edge of consciousness, and the second shorter one a more melodic theme. This is vintage Bass Communion.
8. Michał Łapaj: Are You There
The long-awaited solo album from Riverside’s keyboard player finally arrived, and I think it is fair to say that this is an album of surprises. There is, of course, the atmospheric analog-synth-driven instrumental material that Łapaj is well-known for and that he had been intermittently posting on his Youtube channel and Bandcamp page, but there are also actual songs, with a drummer (Artur Szolc), and lyrics, and couple of well-known guest vocalists to deliver them. And I think the biggest surprise is just how good Łapaj turned out to be as a composer of these kinds of songs – this is not a skill that he has had much chance to display as a member of Riverside.
Are You There is a powerful and surprisingly adept debut album. However, it is no surprise how melodic it is, because that is one skill that Michał Łapaj excels at. Every track is rich and sweeping, dense with synths, and guest-vocalists Mick Moss and Bela Komoszyńska both do a great job of delivering the lyrics, songs of loss and desolation; this is also a surprise to me because I am not a fan of Moss’s mannered vocal style, but it works here, especially in the track “Shattered Memories”.
There is a lot of potential here but I think it is not quite realized. The instrumental synth tracks tend to dominate the latter half of the album but don’t seem fully differentiated from each other. “Fleeting Skies” and “Unspoken” contain intriguing ideas that hint at some interesting musical thinking, and it would be great to see Łapaj further develop his songwriting skills in that direction. At any rate this is an album that deserves the accolades it has been getting.
The album is reviewed here
7. Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster: The World Inside
This album has been a long time coming, but it is definitely worth the wait. TNBD was the band that introduced me to post-metal, and though I’ve grown out of that phase they (along with Pelican, Russian Circles, and Sisters of…) are still with me. The band has gone through a few personnel changes and rough patches in the years since I found them, but they seem to have achieved some stability of late.
This is the album I knew TNBD had in them: smart, intricate, nuanced, demonstrating enormous confidence and maturity. The tracks are heavy in all the right places — not as facemelting as stuff from Exegesis or the first one, but a lot more consistent than all of the previous releases. There is one track with vocals, and while it is good, it doesn’t quite live up to the rest, fully instrumental tracks — I think that is where their strength lies. The album is almost an hour long, and that seems to be the right length, because I stay interested in what I am hearing and am always somewhat surprised when it ends.
6. The Quill: Earthrise
These Swedish rockers really do channel their hard rock influences in all the best ways, kicking rock ‘n’ roll ass without sounding derivative at all. Heavy and punchy and relentlessly energetic, and it definitely has the best opening track (“Hallucinate”) of all the albums in this list. It was released quite early in 2021, which is always a bit of a risk since there is a lot of opportunity to be surpassed, but the album stands up.
5. Gary Numan: Intruder
Numan brings us another dark, synth-driven epic album, dense and compelling, but somehow it doesn’t carry quite the weight of the last one, Savage. I think the main issue is that Intruder is very Savage-like: it has much the same feel to it, although it is darker and less heavy, and I think slightly more nuanced and thoughtful. It carries on the somewhat apocalyptic theme of Savage, except in this case the earth itself is rising up against the humans who are decimating it.
I do not find it to be a lesser album than Savage, but because it sounds much the same it may not be given enough time to grow. I know that once I get started on it, it really sucks me in, and I do love it. I think the secret to it is to crank it.
4. Gojira: Fortitude
The French metal kings kick some serious ass with this album, marrying technical metal with prog, but retaining their signature heavy rolling guitar riffs and massive density of sound underpinned by Mario Duplantier’s ruthlessly precise drumming. In fact, a lot of prog fans perked up their ears on hearing this one. Relentlessly engaging with thunderous riffs, huge choruses of growl vocals, no lack of headbanging, this album is way more metal than prog.
3. The Tea Party: Blood Moon Rising
The Tea Party is one of those bands I have wanted to like more than I do. In general, I found that each album had a couple or three great tracks, and then the rest of them were simply meh. Then, a few years back, they released an EP called Black River, which seemed to break that mold — every track on it was excellent.
Blood Moon Rising is a marriage between Black River, and another EP (Sunshower) that was released in November of 2021. The album seems to be aimed at the European market which makes it difficult to get in this form in North America, although both EPs are easily obtainable.
At any rate, it really is a great album, an all-round outstanding release of hard melodic ballads and powerful rockers that still evoke that vaguely oriental feel the band has been noted for. All the band’s songwriting chops are on display here, and there really are no weak songs. My favourites include “Hole in My Heart”, and a rousing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Out on the Tiles” which I like better than the original.
2. Kauan: Ice Fleet
I’m surprised at how far up the list this album eventually landed. I did like it from the first time I heard it, and I knew it was very accomplished for what it is, but it wasn’t until I really sat and compared it to everything else on the list that I understood just what this Kauan outfit has managed to achieve. These are guys I’d never heard of before but the album was getting considerable buzz from my friends. And with good reason.
This is an almost perfect album of epic thematic ambiance, a kind of instrumental doom folk. Masterfully-composed mood music, it moves from gentle passages to powerful metal monster riffs and back again, but perfectly arranged. It has sections with titles but the “tracks” are meant to be seamlessly connected without breaks which gives it great cinematic power. A surprisingly engaging album.
The Number One album will have its own review which you can find here