Thursday, 23 December 2021

CPRW Top Ten Albums of 2021: Part 4

2021 was supposed to be the light at the end of the 2020 tunnel. There was some optimism for the worldwide vaccine rollouts (albeit at frustratingly slow rates in the non-First World) and news of some shows and festivals starting to take place, creating hope that things could return to some kind of normal. But ultimately new variants and travel restrictions eventually led to more of the same for many of us, except with fewer live streams this time.

Despite the difficulties of the past year, I am still super thankful to have made it through with my health, family and friends, and I’m hopeful that 2022 will bring with it better vibes and more live shows that I can actually attend.

I did not make it through the year on my own, so thank you to my favourite wife, Robyn, for all the support throughout the year and to the good folk here at CPRW for regularly providing me with a much-needed dose of reviews, as well as great playlists introducing me to a bunch of fresh music. As always, taking up the task of whittling down the list of releases to ten of my favourites has not been an easy one but it has been fun and I’m excited to see what everyone else picks as their favourites.

10. Nowhere Generation by Rise Against (Loma Vista Recordings)

Nobody is more surprised by this entry than me. I’m one of those Rise Against fans who considers The Unravelling and RPM to be some of the best hardcore melodic punk albums ever and pretty much most of what they’ve put out since then only serves to remind me of how good they used to be. Maybe I’ve grown up a little (probably), but something about Nowhere Generation just made me happy and brought me the kind of joy I haven’t felt with a Rise Against release in a long time. Sure, it’s less hardcore and more melodic, and the production is just as slick as you’d expect from Rise Against at this point, but none of this takes away from the dynamics and emotion put into some super catchy head-bopping songs.

9. We’re All Doomed by Avenues (SBÄM Records, Wiretap Records)

The latest addition to this list, Avenues, is a band I discovered while browsing the Wiretap Records webstore looking to buy some records. Even though it was unavailable on the site, I was convinced by the description of “classic skate punk singalongs, social justice, love/loss, and even nerdy video games” to add the album to my library and give it a listen. I was reminded of bands like Enemy You and The Fairmounts and was hooked from the very first listen. It’s only been in my library for a few weeks, but it has had a lot of play time already and as soon as circumstances allow, I will be putting in an order for the vinyl.

8. Noise Noise Noise by The Last Gang (Fat Wreck Chords)

Noise Noise Noise is the second Fat Wreck release for The Last Gang, and no matter your opinion on Fat Mike or his label, he does have a talent for picking bands and making them sound great. Brenna Red’s raw and distinct vocals sound better than ever. The tone of the bass guitar is one of the best I’ve heard all year and the production is just right. The Last Gang have essentially kept the ingredients that made their 2018 album, Keep Them Counting, so good and added more groove and reggae-ska into the mix to create a dynamic album that will keep you entertained from start to finish.

7. Dreamers by Chaser (SBÄM Records, Thousand Island Records)

If you listen to punk and need an injection of positive energy into your life, look no further than Chaser and their latest album, Dreamers. In spite of all the negativity we experienced in 2020/1, Chaser manages to deliver a message of optimism and resilience. Musically, the songs are still filled with the tight melodies, big hooks, punchy guitars, and speedy drum beats you’d expect from Chaser. The influence from 90s “EpiFat” punk bands is unapologetic throughout the album and the last song, in particular, features a number of references and serves as a tribute to the bands of that era.

6. Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense by Belvedere (Lockjaw Records, Thousand Island Records)

After being in the game for almost thirty years and a few line-up changes, Belvedere are still one of the bands that set the benchmark for skate punk against which all other bands are measured. The benchmark is moved a little higher once again with Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense. The complex melodies and lightning-fast riffs are perfectly executed and the crisp production showcases the talent of each individual band member. There are also some great guest spots from members of Less Than Jake, Wolfrik and Protest The Hero. Throw in the impactful and topical lyrics and you have close to the perfect skate punk album.

5. Fuck Art by The Dirty Nil (Dine Alone Records)

I don’t know what I expected when Robyn told me to listen to this new song ‘Doom Boy’ by a band called The Dirty Nil and played me this hardcore-esque intro, but after hearing the melodic verse (including the Turnstile namedrop) and catchy chorus I immediately wanted more. Fuck Art is packed full of melodies and lyrical hooks that are begging to be sung/screamed back at the band on stage. There is something for a fan of almost any guitar driven genre of music here, and will have even the most timid of fans bobbing their heads, singing along or shredding the air guitar in no time.

4. Twistin’ The Knife Away by Heart & Lung (Red Scare Industries)

I can’t remember how I came across Heart & Lung, probably through a CPRW playlist or recommendation, but it was well after the release of their 2017 album You Wanna Know The Truth. I thoroughly enjoyed that album and discovering them so late meant that I didn’t have to wait too long for a new full length. Twistin’ The Knife Away has at least as many catchy melodies and Fest-worthy sing-alongs as their previous outing, but with better production and tighter musicianship. There are hints of Dead To Me, The Dopamines and The Copyrights, so if you are a fan of any of those bands then I highly recommend Heart & Lung.

3. Glow On by Turnstile (Roadrunner Records)

A late introduction to Turnstile with Time & Space in 2018 made me an instant fan of their unique brand of hardcore and I eagerly anticipated the release of anything new from the quintet. Glow On is a natural progression for Turnstile but it also feels more bold, with genre-blending experimentation that is also in-keeping with the band’s hardcore roots. I’m pretty sure this album is going to be high on many end-of-year lists and I’m not ashamed to admit that my list is no exception.

2. Radical by Every Time I Die (Epitaph Records)

For the longest time, it felt like I just didn’t get the love for Every Time I Die. I had heard of them and listened to a few songs here and there but never really enjoyed it enough to commit to a full album. I decided to give Radical a try on its release day and now I can’t seem to get enough of it. The songs are so well crafted that you can’t help but feel the pure passion and intense aggression put in by the band. Becoming a fan so late also has the added benefit of allowing me to discover the band’s entire back catalogue, which is well worth the hype.

1. Ordinary Life by We Are the Union (Bad Time Records)

I have been a fan of We Are The Union since 2011 and have loved all of their previous releases. Ordinary Life, however, takes the band to another level and has ushered in the best sounding WATU so far. Reade and the rest of the band were able to find a new level of introspection with the lyrics while staying relatable and optimistic about self-acceptance. I knew from the moment I listened to this album back in June that it would be high on my end-of-year list. The songs are catchy and sincere, with enough ska, pop, and punk to keep this album in constant rotation and to make this my favourite album of the year.

If you liked my top ten, here are some other really great bands that released new music this year and which nearly made this list: Our Darkest Days, Catapults, Gibberish, On A Hiding To Nothing, and Douglas Firs.

If you’ve got this far, thank you! You might be interested in some other things I’ve enjoyed from this year:
One of the only live shows I attended with two of my favourite local bands Monday Morning Justice and Fuzigish.
EPs from Meet Me @ The Altar, Beach Bunny, Rest Easy, and American Thrills.
The Enemy You tribute by The Lillingtons. 
Propagandhi’s Today’s Empires Tomorrow’s Ashes reissue.
The Monday Morning videos and surprise live album from MXPX.
Mare of Easttown.
Watching Breaking Bad with Robyn.
The Formula 1 season but not the FIA.

To quote The Burnt Tapes, this year’s been a weird one…

Gigs came back eventually this year and live music reminded me once again how much I love and appreciate having music in my life, which was especially important for me as I spent much of this year just not really being all that into music. I do feel like this year has not had nearly as many releases as other years – of course, we all know why that is – but those that I have enjoyed, I’ve enjoyed a lot. My list doesn’t feature as many UK (or European) artists as previous years but I fully expect 2022 to make up for that. Also, there have been a lot of good US albums released this year, so I guess that’s just how it goes…

10. Death Of A Cheerleader by Pom Pom Squad (City Slang)

I know very little about Pom Pom Squad, but what I do know is that I discovered them at some point early this year (it might even have been last year) on one playlist or another – and I instantly loved what I heard. I didn’t know if Pom Pom Squad was a band or a solo project – I’m still not entirely sure – and I only just found out that they are based in Brooklyn, NYC. In June, I happened to see that they had a whole new album out and quickly added it to my listening library. Death Of A Cheerleader is a perfect blend of exhilaratingly raw riot grrrl energy and catchy pop sensibilities. It’s well thought out as an album with a smattering of electronic interludes and sample snippets that make the whole thing feel like it could be a soundtrack – about a badass feminist cheerleader who’s out to tear down the patriarchy, obviously.

9. To Bloom Is To Grow by Passionflower (Self-released)

This album would make my list for the track Neverland alone – which might just be my favourite song of the year – without even considering the rest of it (which is also very good!). Passionflower were a new discovery for me this year and they’ve fast become a band that I’m very excited about. Based in Warrington (UK) and fronted by Kyle Richardson-Nickle, Passionflower’s music is a wonderful combination of melodic emo and energetic post-hardcore. When I first heard them (with the aforementioned Neverland), I was instantly reminded of Funeral For A Friend who are probably my favourite band from the 2000s emo era, but that’s not to say that To Bloom Is To Grow is just a nostalgic rip-off. There’s definitely a freshness to Passionflower’s interpretation of emo and I’m all for it.

8. Matador by Burning Flag (Self-released)

I am not usually much of a hardcore fan, particularly on recording, but when the band is fronted by someone as inspiring and relatable to me as Holly in Burning Flag, I can’t help but pay attention. Matador is as ferocious and cathartic as it is thought-provoking, with songs tackling subjects of toxic masculinity and misogyny as well as the general dire state of Britain and its politics. Standout tracks for me are Man Up, Toxic By Design and Eat The Rich but the whole 30 or so minutes album is intense – in the best way. Hopefully 2022 is the year I get to see Burning Flag live, assuming I’m brave enough for a hardcore show!

7. Graceful Rage by Harmony Woods (Skeletal Lightning)

I almost forgot about this album when it came to putting together my shortlist but as soon as I hit play on the first track, Good Luck Rd., again it all came flooding back to me and I knew this had made my top ten. This is an album of heartache but instead of making you feel sad, it makes you feel empowered – particularly if you are a woman. The album is about processing grief and trauma but it feels like Harmony Woods are coming to terms with these feelings throughout the album and those experiences have just left them feeling stronger. Vocalist Sofia Verbilla’s voice is absolutely incredible, like jaw-dropping-ly good – they’re undoubtedly the ‘best’ vocalist of any on my list. It’s only when I’ve come to write about this album that I’ve realised just how apt its title is. ‘Graceful Rage’ really is the best way to describe these songs.

6. Bless My Psyche by Sincere Engineer (Hopeless Records)

2021 has been another year of new musical discoveries for me but it was also the year that one artist that I was already well acquainted with, Chicago’s Sincere Engineer, would release their much anticipated second album. The wait was finally over come September and, because the band had released a fair few singles in the run up to the album’s release, I already knew that Bless My Psyche was going to be great. I was not wrong. The album is a bit of a leap forward from their 2017 debut, Rhombithian, with perhaps a bit more of a polished full ‘punk’ band sound but it still retains elements of Deanna Belos’ acoustic roots – not to mention Deanna’s self-deprecating humour. The relatability and level of emotion packed into these songs is what makes it so appealing and the melodies throughout are pretty darn catchy too. I really hope I get to see Sincere Engineer live next year.

5. Ordinary Life by We Are the Union (Bad Time Records)

Confession time: I’d not really listened to We Are The Union before Ordinary Life was announced and the band released lead single, Morbid Obsessions. It was oh so catchy – the perfect balance of ska and pop punk – and, of course, told a very personal story for vocalist Reade Wolcott, coming out as a trans woman. It’s not something that I can relate to personally but I can certainly appreciate how powerful the message of the song is – I can’t help but think that it must be a huge comfort to trans folk in the ska and punk scene. Ordinary Life is the perfect blend of honest lyrics about dysphoria and heartbreak with hook after hook and catchy choruses a’plenty. There’s been a lot of great ska punk releases this year – this is one of many on the Bad Time Records roster alone – and this is certainly one of my favourites.

4. Call In The Mess by Nervous Dater (Counter Intuitive Records)

Due to it being released way back in February of this year, Call In The Mess must be one of my most-listened-to albums of this year – and I’m not sick of it yet! After getting into Nervous Dater’s previous album, 2017’s Don’t Be A Stranger, in a big way towards the end of last year, I was very pleased when I found out that I didn’t have long to wait for the follow-up. This is an album that I fully intended to write a full album review of earlier this year but, well, life got in the way. The album is full of fuzzy indie punk melodies and some of the most wonderful vocal harmonies, thanks to all three members of the band sharing singing duties throughout. I feel like there’s a fair amount of variety throughout Call In The Mess – not just due to the different vocalists – from the country flavours of Farm Song to the crunchy upbeat pop punk of Tin Foil Hat and Red String Map. There’s a lot to love here, for sure.

3. The First One by Andy B And The World (Pookout Records)

You might not know who Andy B is (former Fandangle and New Riot bass player), but I bet you’re aware of many of musicians who make guest appearances on this album – members of Less Than Jake, [Spunge], Random Hand, Call Me Malcolm and Lead Shot Hazard, to namecheck but a few bands. The First One is an album that has been over four years in the making and features over 130 different musicians from all over the world. But that’s not what makes this album so impressive, nor why it appears so high on my end of year list this year. What makes this album so great is quite simply how good the songs are. Genre-wise, The First One is first and foremost a ska punk album but there’s an awful lot more to it than that. There’s elements of folk, reggae and straight-up punk rock on show here and no two songs sound alike. Lyrically, the album tackles themes of mental health, friendship and politics – topics that I know are incredibly relatable in the world of punk rock and beyond. Despite the amount of guest musicians involved in this project, I can’t help but feel that The First One has fallen under the radar a little bit. If you haven’t listened to it, now is the time! You won’t be disappointed.

2. Swim Out Past The Breakers by Telethon (Take This To Heart Records)

Like Sincere Engineer, the new album from Wisconsin five-piece power-pop band Telethon was one I was very much looking forward to. You might think that greatly anticipating an album could lead to disappointment but that was never going to be the case with Telethon. They’re a band who are not afraid of doing things a little differently and somehow they still managed to surpass any expectations I might have had when they released Swim Out Past The Breakers in August this year. There’s so much going on throughout the 16 track album (side note: normally I would consider 16 songs to be far too many for an album but not here) that, despite having listened to it seemingly non-stop since its release, it feels like there are always new things to discover. It spans multiple genres and features a host of recognisable guest vocalists but each and every song manages to retain that iconic Telethon sound all the same. I was a big fan of their previous album, Hard Pop, in 2019 but this definitely tops it. Now I just need to get my mitts on the vinyl…

1. Like A Stone by Remember Sports (Big Scary Monsters, Father/Daughter Records)

Like A Stone is one of those albums that just makes me FEEL things. I can’t even really begin to explain what it is about the album that connects with me like nothing else that I’ve heard this year. The album was released towards the end of April and it was a time when I just wasn’t listening to much music at all. In a way, I’d fallen out of love with music and was finding solace, that I previously would have found in music, in books and podcasts instead… But then I listened to Like A Stone by Remember Sports and something just clicked. It gives me warm fuzzy feelings from start to finish and vocalist Carmen’s lyrics just seem to speak to my soul. Every. Single. Time. Sonically it’s a flawless combination of distorted indie rock riffs, melodic hooks and subtle harmonies with a surprising amount of country twang thrown in thanks to the addition of some banjo and pedal steel guitar. I haven’t heard nearly enough people talking about this band and this album (except for CPRW Marcus!) and I don’t get it. This album is amazing and I wish that everyone I know could get that.

BONUS: Bad Operation by Bad Operation (Bad Time Records)

I have to give an extra special shout out to the self-titled debut album from New Orleans’ new-tone punks, Bad Operation, which was released on 18th December 2020. It’s one of my most played albums of this year and, even twelve months later, I still just can’t get enough. If it had been released just a few weeks later then I have no doubt that this would appear very high on my top ten albums of 2021. I am very, very excited to see what this band does next.

Other albums that didn’t quite make the cut this year include The Battle Of by Bong Mountain, Dark Hands, Thunderbolts by Crazy Arm and Heat by The High Times.

There were also a load of brilliant EPs released this year that it would be remiss to not mention. My favourites were: Attempts At Understanding by Animal Byproducts, Blame Game by Beach Bunny, Hey Tori by Cherym, The Summer I Got Good At Guitar by Fresh and Saccharine by Pinkshift.

Bring on 2022!

So, last year, during the covid times of 2020, I felt like I was mainly sinking my teeth into my traditional comfort foods when it comes to music – that being political punk rock or emotional pop punk. So it felt like I didn't do a lot of listening to new music which wasn't all a bad thing but I felt like I was missing out on some new band. This year I went out of my way to do exactly the same again this year! Whoops! Maybe next year I will manage to push that comfort zone a little further but, regardless, I'm happy to talk about my top ten records of this year! 

10. Inside (The Songs) by Bo Burnham

Like lots of people this year, I watched Bo Burnham's Inside comedy special on Netflix and fell complete head over heels for a perfect blend of jokes, songwriting and life crippling introspection like we have never seen recorded before. Then, shorty after, I ended up downloading the songs from the special and can say that I have made more connections with the darker emotions portrayed in these songs than most other music this year. It's terrifying how well these songs explore the anxiety of being an artist during a pandemic and this currently awful world we exist in. It comes across as one of the most interesting records this year that I could easily recommend it to anyone who enjoys punk!

9. Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense by Belvedere (Lockjaw Records, Thousand Island Records)

This is record is the year’s face-melter stuffed with riffs to the brim,.Belvedere's new offering is everything you could hope for from one the masters of skate punk! This one feels like it has no off switch with every song being a perfect showcase of why skate punk musicians are not humans but gods of their instruments and writing songs where all that complexity blends perfectly together. My personal favourite were "Elephant March" for one of the coolest opening hooks of all year and "Camera Obscure" for its amazing harmonies! 

8. Nowhere Generation by Rise Against (Loma Vista Recordings)

"I'm gonna skip this one, it's finally the Rise Against album that isn't aimed at me" – That's what I thought when I heard the title track. But after giving the opening track a listen, I was reminded exactly why I'm still a huge fan of this band’s tight political punk rock that is still accessible to a wider audience and that Rise Against are still the best at making. Tim's voice at this point is a honed machine belting some of the best chorus hooks of this year. The track list is varied with songs like "Talking To Ourselves" appealing to new fans while "Broken Dreams, Inc" and "Monarch" are more skate punk in sound and speed! Honestly, this one feels like it blew the doors off my expectations and I'm stoked to have it on my list. 

7. Hearts Of Gold by Dollar Signs (Pure Noise Records)

This one feels rough around the edges in all the right ways. Dollar Signs make each and every one of their gruff pop punk songs feel super personal with brutally honest lyrics that border into too much information, with the confessions of weakness and stories that don't show them in the best light but it really makes them connect! The production and writing adds to the DIY feel which adds to the charm and honesty. "I Love You" is the most real love song I have heard this year. I loved this record from the first listen and it has just grown on me even more as the year has gone on.

6. [laughs] by Kali Masi (Take This To Heart Records)

My oh my! This one is special, I would be surprised if this one doesn't top everyone else's lists! Kali Masi have created this perfect pick of gruff punk rock slow jams tugging at heart strings like losing old friends might. I'm normally the person that avoids the slower release of the year but every single verse hook held my attention and the emotion rich texture of the vocals is so good. It is a perfectly produced record with nothing sounding out of place with some of the best builds and payoffs on this list.

5. CLOUDS (THE MIXTAPE) by NF (Self-released)

As usual I'm breaking Colin's Punk Rock World by putting a single rap album on my list! NF's emotion rich rapping style and dynamic almost movie soundtrack like beats have always been the big draw but on this record his lyricism and rhymes schemes have taken centre stage, creating some of the most unique and hard hitting songs I have heard this year. The storytelling throughout in "Story" and a Tech N9ne feature on "Trust" were my personal highlights.  

4. Our Hell Is Right Here by Drones (Lockjaw Records, Thousand Island Records)

Drones’ third full length solidifies the ground work done by "Exiled" with a confident step forward. Every song is a punk rock banger with a teeth kicking chorus to match and the drumming on this record and keep the blood pumping throughout! The production is super sweet blend where the guitars and drums sound powerful without overshadowing the big chorus hooks! Also "Lost In Translation" is easily my song of the year, I must have looped it about 20 times after hearing it for the first time and I will still happily listen to it on a loop for the bass fills alone!

3. Megabear by ME REX (Big Scary Monsters)

Megabear is the most ambitious record on this list. A 32 minute 52 song masterwork which is designed to be played in any order, perfect for the streaming age! This new release from ME REX has been the sound track to every late night drive, every sad evening and every dark night long inspiration search. It is full of call backs, perfect hooks, amazing lyrics and positively chilling chords. Like last year, they have brought me to tears of joy and I barely have the words to describe why. The party is never over but I don't really mind ’cause they are playing this record from the speakers and it makes me feel safe, happy and fulfilled! 

2. Beginnings by The JB Conspiracy (Everything Sucks Music)

Not a single wasted second is how I would describe this album. The JB Conspiracy sets a new bar for UK ska punk in perfection with every unskippable song being either a powerful pulse raiser or a flawless flowing singalong. Nothing falls out of place, all the instruments play their parts adding to the fullest sounding record I have heard all year and the vocals are belted out in amazing high ranges that complement the deep and powerful sound of the instrumentation. "Egos At The Door", "Battles" and "Head/Toes" is my favourite run of 3 songs ever with the transitions from one to the next being perfection. To top it off, getting to see JB play a handful of these masterpieces live in Bristol and London made this my solid number 2 pick of the year. 

1. Rare Americans 2 by Rare Americans (Self-released)

I can name every song off this record, I can sing you every hook on this record and, until this year, I had never heard a single song by Rare Americans but I'm now one of their biggest fans. They have captured the same energy as a later Streetlight Manifesto album with the story telling through the lyrics to back it up, without ever being able to tell what is coming up next. Each note played on every instrument complements, back-ups and improves every song – I can't fault it. There is a great deal of skill in making an album that seems to contain so many different sounds and style of songs, with them all fitting together. "Brittle Bones Nicky" is the best opening song I have heard in all year and "Berlin" is the best slow song. I get inspired every time I have listened to this record and I'm sure I will come back to it every year. 

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