Jeffery X Martin’s Top Five Albums of 2021

2021 was a fantastic year for music and, let me tell you, I am surprised by that fact. Globally, we have all felt the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When forced to shelter in place or restrict your social interactions, the temptation is to curl up on the couch, lean on your vaccinated arm, and watch old episodes of The Office. Instead of resting on their laurels, some musicians released some of the finest work of their careers, in some cases gloriously transcending their given genres. Our hearts needed good music this year and, as is often the case, artists came to the rescue. Thank the gods for that.

Every Time I Die — Radical

The ninth album from Buffalo, New York’s stalwart metalcore band Every Time I Die, Radical, is an angry and gorgeous brass knuckle punch to the temple. Centered around Keith Buckley’s anguished vocals, Radical is one of the few albums in any genre where skipping tracks is not advisable. There’s a cohesiveness to Radical that makes the album feel like a statement, not just a collection of cool tunes. Every song stands as a solid hunk of palpable pain as unpredictable as the human spirit. Radical features black-hole-heavy guitar riffs, thunderous drumming, and lyrics that express both frustration with the state of the world and the desire to be a better person. From its beginning, Radical grabs the listener by the shoulders and shakes them like a rag doll. Catharsis reigns in the opening track, “Dark Distance,” as Buckley screams his plaintive demand, “Spare only the ones I love/Slay the rest.” Homelessness is addressed in “Hostile Architecture,” a brutal piece of work with the most affecting ending I’ve heard since the early years of From Autumn to Ashes. Radical‘s pace slows briefly during “Thing With Feathers,” Buckley’s tribute to his sister who died as a result of Rett syndrome. Overall, Radical insists that you move along with its brutal rhythm while challenging your thought processes with straightforward lyrics that encourage the listener to question everything. With bright production leading the listener through dense material and a mix that comes dangerously close to perfect, Radical is a masterpiece.

Failure — Wild Type Droid

The modern masters of space rock, Failure, return to a ravaged earthbound civilization with their sixth studio album, Wild Type Droid. Gone are the instrumental segues and long ruminations on interstellar insanity. Instead, Wild Type Droid grapples with existing in a world ravaged by disease, distrust, and dissociation. Failure approaches this broken new world with its usual dark humour and a healthy dose of a new lyrical element: optimism. With only ten songs on the album, Failure has distilled and sharpened its sound to create their best album since 1994’s magnified. “Submarines,” a powerfully wistful song wishing for the world to return to normal, features one of the best guitar riffs in Failure’s catalog. Listeners may be lulled in by the acoustic opening of “Bring Back the Sound” only to be slammed against the wall by the sudden sonic assault in the middle section. Failure’s familiar dissonance is sumptuously presented, the harshness tempered by a gloriously wide soundstage. Clocking in at less than 45 minutes, Wild Type Droid showcases Failure at its most focused, resulting in one of the most strangely beautiful albums of the year.

Deafheaven — Infinite Granite

Deafheaven’s Infinite Granite sees the band resolutely move out of the black and into the shoegaze. Singer George Clarke replaces his famed screaming with clean vocals that border on ethereal. The songs are dopamine fuzzy and filled with reverb, as one would expect from shoegaze music, but Kerry McCoy somehow elicits fireworks from his guitar. There are stunning moments of pure musical joy that rise from the maelstrom. “Great Mass of Color” seems to live on the edge of a geyser that erupts every few moments, sending the song into paroxysms of joy. But this is far from a happy album. “The Gnashing” is pushed forward into oblivion by snarling guitars and intense drums, offset by Clarke’s hypnotizing tenor vocals. Infinite Granite feels like an ending, Deafheaven reaching its final form after blazing its way through screamo and black art metal only to become something that transcends all of those genre labels. One hopes that Infinite Granite serves as only a way station and that, when the time is right, something new and glorious will emerge from the Deafheaven chrysalis for us to marvel over.

Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum — THANKS FOR COMING

Fronted by Dexter star Michael C. Hall, the art-rock trio Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum presents music to make the listener gleefully twitchy. A conglomeration of disparate influences, THANKS FOR COMING flits from musical style to style without transition or apology. “Nevertheless” spotlights Hall’s cool, almost whispered vocals over an increasingly oppressive soundscape by drummer Peter Yanowitz and guitarist/keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen. Hall’s vocals are transformed on “Angela Peacock” into a retro-electronic commanding bark while the music comes across as a modern take on psychedelia. While titles such as “Armageddon Suite” and “Eat an Eraser” may feature the most soothing music, there’s an underlying venom to the lyrics that prevents the listener from getting completely comfortable. THANKS FOR COMING represents a return to the time when artists like Klaus Nomi and Berlin-era David Bowie could entrance listeners with music that seemed to come from a different dimension. It is a consistently surprising album filled with sudden turns and tremors. THANKS FOR COMING may not always be poppy fun, but it thankfully separates its arthouse proclivities from pretentious trappings.

Lower Automation — Lower Automation

Hailing from Illinois, Lower Automation serves as the logical bridge between the complex musical arrangements of mathcore and the arch oppressiveness of noise bands. In the wrong hands, that combination could be an unlistenable mess. Lower Automation draws the listener in and keeps their attention with something beyond the soft/loud/soft dynamic. “Combover” begins in abject musical chaos, progresses into some modicum of order towards the middle, and then ends with chaos and fury staging a hostile takeover. “Father’s Shirt is a Dress on Me” startles the listener as every instrument seems to be at odds with each other while Derek Allen’s vocals, increasingly high and jittery, soar through the music like a jet taking off. Lower Automation’s music is not for everyone. Some may find the abrasive style difficult to digest, but listeners willing to sift through the sonic sandstorm will find plenty of haunting moments of fear and beauty.

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