Best Music of 2021

It may feel like a broken record for me to say "this was a great year for progressive music", but it's unquestionably true. My highlighted list this year is more than half progressive bands, and they were the ones whose records I went back to time and again. This was just an embarrassment of riches for music, especially in the second half of the year. It was incredibly difficult for me to pick the ordering of the albums this year (aside from my #1 choice). On any given day, it's easy to imagine any of my highlighted albums throwing itself into the any slot on this list; I'm sure my choices a week or a month from now will look entirely different.

As always, new albums from old favorites like Tori Amos and Helloween are intermingled with new-to-me bands like The Pretty Reckless and Royal Blood. There was no lack of great things to choose from when creating my honorable mentions list, and I managed to reduce the list down from the roughly 60 albums I bought from 2021. Instrumental albums were frequent driving music (when I'd run out of podcasts 😃), and notably the new releases from Ethereal Girl, Paul Wardingham, and Hans Zimmer got a ton of time in the car and on the motorcycle.

Top 6 albums of the year

#6: Resident Human by Wheel

Finnish progressive metal band Wheel is relatively new to the music scene. Resident Human is their second full length release, following up 2019's "Moving Backwards". Where the earlier album was a relatively polished affair, the new album feels grittier and heavier, avoiding the mildly sterile feeling of Moving. The songs are very much a product of the pandemic, and inspired by sci-fi author Dan Simmons' book series "Hyperion Cantos". It tells stories of the dichotomy of modern man, struggling between our desires for good & evil. The band is superbly talented, as you'd expected from a progressive band, and provided countless hours of coding fuel for me this year.

#5: Ascension Codes by Cynic

Cynic is a band with a storied history. Their first album "Focus" released in 1993, after which the band took a hiatus for more than a decade. Their second full length "Traced in Air" was released 15 years after their debut. Then over the next handful of years they produced two more full length albums, with "Kindly Bent to Free Us" releasing in 2014. Over this time, there was a definite shift in tone for the band, with some fans preferring the heavier early days, and some becoming more attached to the later, more polished and somewhat ethereal albums.

After Kindly was released, there was talk of breaking up, and a few years of mostly silence from the band. One single was released in 2018. Then 2020 dealt the band a double blow: founding drummer Sean Reinert died in January, and bassist Sean Malone (who had recorded all of Cynic's full length albums up until that point) died in December. Many assumed Cynic was done, but founding guitarist Paul Masvidal was able to power through to create "Ascenion Codes". Personally, this is my favorite Cynic album, and if this is their farewell, then it's an astonishingly influential life they've lived.

#4: Coherence by Be'lakor

Unusually, there's only one straight up death metal album in my top list this year. That probably says more about the strength of Be'lakor's release this year than any shift in listening tastes. I reached for it again and again when I was seeking melodic aggression. They fill a role for me that was vacated by Opeth, and in previous years might've been satisfied by bands like Enslaved or Insomnium (who also had an excellent EP release this year). The pacing of this album is excellent, and there is no filler, even in the longer songs; five of the tracks are 7 minutes or longer. It's lush, with lots of musical variety and beautiful interludes in between moments of sheer brutality. A real stand out for the year.

#3: Hushed and Grim by Mastodon

It's hard to be unhappy with a Mastodon album. Even the more recent albums, which felt a little safe and predictable, were still excellent affairs. I admit to being at my Mastodon happiest when I hear drummer Brann Dailor belting out some lead vocals (and credit where it's due, that's no easy physical feat), so the first single "Pushing the Tides" really set my expectations high. The opening dissonant and challenging riff let us know that this new album was definitely going to be shifted very deeply into the prog side, where I love them best. The energy on the album is undeniable and invigorating to listen to, and they cover bits and pieces of so many genres that the album's 86 minute length goes almost unnoticed. While Hushed and Grim doesn't quite reach the heights of Crack the Skye at the top of my Mastodon list, it's up there in good company.

#2: Colors II by Between the Buried and Me

Between the Buried and Me are legendary musicians who rarely slot cleanly into a single genre. Whatever multi-adjective description of them you choose would certainly include "extreme" and "progressive", but at any given moment they could throw words like "post-grunge" or even "polka" on the list. Their album Colors, released in 2007, is considered by many (including me) to be one of the best efforts of their career. There's never a wrong time to crank up Prequel to the Sequel.

Obviously they have to approach a sequel album with great caution, lest they tarnish the love that their fans have for the original (*cough* Operation: Mindcrime II *cough*). But as I'm sure you guess based on its placement on my list, the new album is up to the challenge, and in some ways may even surpass the original. The first single "Fix the Error" released with a video that is part studio performance, part animated hallucination, featuring guest percussionists like Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), Navene Koperweis (ex-Animals as Leaders) and Ken Schalk (ex-Candiria). It's so uniquely fun and BTBAM that when I heard the banjo part, I said out loud "of course". An instant classic.

#1: An Evening With Silk Sonic by Silk Sonic

When Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak toured together in 2017, they became fast friends and decided to create a band "as a joke" while touring. Their chemistry together is evident not just in the music, but the highly entertaining videos they've released. Legendary R&B artist Bootsy Collins (who has performed with George Clinton, James Brown, and Snoop Dogg, in addition to one of his best known guest roles with '90's dance band Deee-Lite and huge hits like Groove Is in the Heart) attached to the project and came up with the name Silk Sonic. Bruno and Anderson trade off lead vocal duties with an undeniably throwback '70's R&B that is heavily infused with modern sensibility. Most importantly, though, the music is just plain fun to listen to and watch. Everybody has been highly anticipating this album since the first single dropped in March, and it did not disappoint. Listening to this album is an instant jolt of happiness.

Honorable mentions

30 by Adele

Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

A View from the Top of the World by Dream Theater

Ωmega by Epica

Gaia II by Ethereal Girl

The Bitter Truth by Evanescence

The Impassable Horizon by Fractal Universe

3rd Degree | The Raising by Gemini Syndrome

Fortitude by Gojira

The Dune Sketchbook by Hans Zimmer

Helloween by Helloween

Argent Moon by Insomnium

Access All Worlds by Iotunn

Wallflowers by Jinjer

Chemtrails Over the Country Club by Lana Del Rey

Aphelion by Leprous

Origin by Omnium Gatherum

Cybergenesis by Paul Wardingham

Death by Rock and Roll by The Pretty Reckless

The Work by Rivers of Nihil

Typhoons by Royal Blood

Imperial by Soen

The Future Bites by Steven Wilson

Tales of Othertime by Stormkeep

Moonflowers by Swallow the Sun

Ocean to Ocean by Tori Amos

The Absolute Universe by Transatlantic

Vengeance by Twelve Foot Ninja

Servant of the Mind by Volbeat