Madison’s Top 13 Albums (and Best Song!) of 2021

Arts Coverage, Blog

I’m doing a Top 13 instead of a Top 10 this year because I’m edgy and there were too many good albums to choose from. Without further ado:

Honourable Mentions:

Pop weirdo Billie Eilish showed off a different musical side on Happier Than Ever, summoning the ghost of emo songs past to vanquish an evil ex on the towering title track. 

St. Vincent crammed Pink Floyd, Bowie, and Steely Dan in a blender for the deliciously vintage Daddy’s Home

Hamilton rockers Arkells put out another infectious and heartfelt collection with Blink Once, and The Tragically Hip’s spiky Saskadelphia (a collection of Road Apples outtakes) is an instant classic. 

Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider showed off his commanding vocals on the heavy and empowering Leave a Scar, and The Pretty Reckless continued to make classic rock tropes their own on Death By Rock and Roll.

Now, the list:

13. Dee Gees / Foo Fighters – Hail Satin

The disco record I didn’t know I needed this year. The Foo Fighters have long been a playful group, so it is not out of character for them to release a BeeGees cover album. What did surprise me was how convincing the imitation; the rock titans faithfully recreate the infectious seventies rhythms and Dave Grohl adopts an impressive falsetto. (Although my favourite cut is their “Shadow Dancing” cover, which has drummer Taylor Hawkins singing lead). The second half of the record consists of live versions of choice tracks from their Medicine from Midnight album. It’s super fun.

12. Rob Zombie – The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy

Skim the song titles on this one and you’ll have an idea what the album sounds like. Zombie grave robs industrial textures, hip hop beats, heavy metal growls and southern-fried seventies rock riffs, Frankenstein-ing them together with horror movie samples and lyrics so bizarre they’re almost avant garde. The resulting songs are stompers; the effect is like going to a dive bar for the undead and partying with the likes of King Freak, Blacula, and the Howling Man.

11. Evanescence – The Bitter Truth

It’s been a good year for goths! Evanescence’s first original album in a decade feels like a callback to their gothic nu-metal heyday, with a slightly sunnier outlook. Amy Lee can still write rousing songs about grief, resilience, and fraying faith, and her empowerment anthems feel hard-fought.

10. John Carpenter – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death

With Lost Themes III, filmmaker and composer John Carpenter provided the soundtrack to the horror movie that was our lives this year. Propulsive and sinister, powered by the eerie synths that are Carpenter’s calling card, each track channels the thrilling climax of an eighties action flick that doesn’t exist. (Listen to “Weeping Ghost” and try not to picture Tom Atkins fleeing from a covert government facility). If we’re living in a dystopia, at least it’s got a great score.

9. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

Olivia Rodrigo’s hyper-specific breakup songs are oddly infectious. The former Disney star has a knack for melodrama and barbed lyrics that walk the line between self-pity and scathing contempt (“Another actress? I’d hate to think that I was just your type”). It’s not all ballads: “Good 4 U” is a pop-punk kiss-off in the tradition of “Sk8er Boi” and “Misery Business,” and punchy opener “Brutal” perfectly captures the spirit of being a teenager and wondering why high school isn’t like the movies.

8. Jerry Cantrell – Brighten

Eerie vocals and haunting guitar work dominate this solo effort from the Alice in Chains singer/guitarist, which subs out heavy metal for elements of alt-country. The record has an authentic neo-western vibe, with Cantrell’s weathered voice lending credence to world-weary lyrics about guilt and disillusionment.

7. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Produced and co-written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Halsey’s latest is an inspired fusion of alternative, pop, and punk, underpinned by the ominous mechanical soundscapes of her collaborators. Halsey’s raw lyrics are a perfect fit for NIN-style industrial rock, and her songs about rejecting gender roles have a fittingly claustrophobic feel, asking to what extent you can be vulnerable before weakening yourself, and whether you can assert your own power without recreating oppressive systems.

6. Lorde – Solar Power

Once known for her witchy style and sparse arrangements, Lorde embraces a hypnotic, beachy vibe for her third album. At turns earnest and ironic (“I can’t feel a thing / I keep looking at my mood ring” is one of the snarkiest lyrics), Solar Power reflects on growing up, retreating the spotlight, and embracing nature – with a side of environmental angst. (She also re-did a bunch of the songs in Maori, which is cool).

5. The Beaches – Sisters Not Twins: The Professional Lovers Album

Is this technically a standalone album? It is whatever it wants to be. Sisters Not Twins fuses The Beaches’ two most recent EPs, 2021’s Future Lovers and 2020’s The Professional. Combining glam-punk attitude with new wave sheen and irresistible hooks, the songs obsess over cool girls and take aim at douchebags, dick pic senders, and boomers mansplaining punk rock. Some of the band’s best work (and that’s saying something).

4. The Dirty Nil – Fuck Art

This whole album is a blast. The punky Hamilton trio deliver eleven tongue-in-cheek anthems of misspent youth (sample lyric: “We could hold hands / Listen to Slayer in the back of my Dodge Caravan”), It’s all crunchy power chords and killer choruses, and frontman Luke Bentham sings with an anguished howl that seems to come from the depths of his soul, whether he’s saying farewell to the drug scene or cursing out a bike thief.

3. Danny Elfman – Big Mess

Danny Elfman channelled political frustration and pandemic neurosis into an offbeat, angry album that captures the vibe of the last two years like nothing else. Blending industrial rock, punk, and new wave at its weirdest, with a sense of grandiosity honed by years of composing scores for gothic blockbusters. Musically, the sound is somewhere between his Tim Burton scores and his work with Oingo Boingo, but more personal than either; it’s like being invited into a nightmare tour of someone else’s brain.

2. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

Time travel, epic battles, Eddie as a Samurai: Senjutsu has everything an Iron Maiden fan could hope for (not to mention, increasingly grandiose guitars competing with Bruce Dickinson’s operatic vocals.) Each of these songs is a journey: pretty much every track clocks at around ten minutes, with intricate arrangements (that slow-building, finger-picked intro to “Death of The Celts”) and soaring choruses. When an invading army announces itself with “the sound of distant drums,” you can almost smell the blood in the air.

1. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Life After

The Haisla hip hop crew’s fourth album boasts more of their defiant wit, while expanding their musical palette. The Napoleon Dynamite-referencing “Uncle Rico” might be one of their catchiest tracks yet, while “Sink or Swim” is an infectiously abrasive punk-rap banger (they go full heavy metal on the remix). Shades of their early work can be seen on “Changes” and “After Dark,” which share a reflective G-funk vibe while addressing personal growth and intergenerational trauma. SNRK address heavy issues with humour and righteous indignation, and their rap boasts double as rallying cries.

Song of the Year

Ghost – Hunter’s Moon

Infinitely better than the movie it was written for, “Hunter’s Moon” perfectly captures the unsettling mystique of the slasher. Like most Ghost songs, it’s the perfect combination of eerie and catchy, from the haunting open guitar notes to the piano-driven choruses, culminating in a triumphant bridge that’s simultaneously menacing and inviting. Macabre lyrics like, “Under a headstone sister, I’m dying to see you my friend” nail the enigmatic relationship between killer and final girl. If only Halloween Kills had been this compelling.

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