Like my best bud Axl, 2021 was the year I officially grew bored of all the bands you might expect to see on year-end lists (and you’ll likely see elsewhere). No disrespect whatsoever to all-time metal greats such as Mastodon, Gojira and Between the Buried and Me, to name but a few who put out new music this year — they’re still some of my favorites of all time, I’ll support them and go see them live forever and ever, and their new albums are indeed quite good! — but I found myself more interested in exploring other arenas in 2021, enticed by something different from the same old same old.
Unlike Axl, however, with a few notable exceptions, I found myself pulled back towards the rock world in which my musical interests began some 30 years ago instead of further into the esoteric. In the year we thought would bring relief and a return to normalcy but instead just kept delivering gut punch after gut punch, what I craved most were singalong rock jams to ease my mind rather than music that must be absorbed, groked, digested and analyzed several times over.
Like I said, there were exceptions: plenty of heavy albums made my list, including Alluvial, Rivers of Nihil, Unto Others and King Woman. Others, like Dirty Honey, Crazy Lixx and Royal Blood, have little to do with what we call metal in 2021.
What all my choices share, though, is the one factor that grows more and more important to me in my old age: great songs.
I’ll say it again: Great songs! Little else matters. Whether they’re heavy or soft, fast or slow, a great song is a great song, the ultimate determinant of an act’s enduring success (or lack thereof).
I hate making these lists because all art is subjective. But alas, I must. Maybe MetalSucks will switch it up next year and it’ll be the last one I ever write… who knows?
15. Crazy Lixx – Street Lethal (Frontiers)
I will always have a soft spot for music that pays homage to our hair/glam forefathers, and no one does it better today than Crazy Lixx (and Girish and the Chronicles, but alas, they didn’t put out a new album this year). The fist-pumping anthems with singalong choruses, the swagger, the look, the guitar acrobatics… Crazy Lixx do it all! It’s fitting that “Anthem for America,” the album’s standout track, excels at its goal of doing America better than America does America these days. Great songs.
14. Times of Grace – Songs of Loss and Separation (Wicked Good)
We all expected the sophomore album from Times of Grace, featuring Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach and Adam D., to deliver given the ten year wait and excessive blood, sweat and tears that went into it. But whereas most of us likely expected The Hymn of a Broken Man Part II, a continuation of their 2011 Killswitch-esque debut, Songs of Loss and Separation took a hard left turn into new territory and is all the better for it. Put this record on, smoke a doob (or just lie in complete darkness) and get lost in introspection. Extra props to Adam D. for stepping up vocally on this one. Great songs.
13. Lizzard – Eroded (Pelagic)
Equal parts Soundgarden, King’s X and Royal Blood, I wasn’t familiar with Lizzard before Eroded, but it maintained its spot on my running year-end iPhone Notes app shortlist despite coming out early in 2021. This French trio of musicians interject heady, musically complex moments into their otherwise mostly straightforward template of capital-G great songs (!) — think verses where you can count out time signatures by tapping on your knee, and lock-step, off-time transitions — but this record is best enjoyed by turning your brain off and enjoying the ride, as all great songs are.
12. King Woman – Celestial Blues (Relapse)
As I’m guessing is the case for many of you — a premise its impressive YouTube view count certainly supports — the captivating video for “Morning Star” (below) was my main introduction to King Woman despite my peripheral awareness of Kristina Esfandiari’s rising star in the New York metal scene over the past few years. Thankfully Celestial Blues is full of pieces of music just as arresting as its lead single and video, at once soulful, haunting and devastatingly heavy. Great songs that straddle the line between doom, sludge and, I dunno, modern folk?
11. Alluvial – Sarcoma (NB)
Leave it to Wes Hauch, one of the tastiest metal players on planet earth, to prove that technical death metal still has life. Since parting ways with Keith Merrow after the band’s first album, Hauch only upped seemingly everything on their second, delivering tighter arrangements, harder hitting riffs and more memorable (some might even say great) songs. And, like I said, the guitars are tasty, maaaaan! I’ll bet Wes is tired of hearing that word with regards to his playing, but it simply fits better than any other.
10. Royal Blood – Typhoons (Warner)
I don’t follow the modern rock radio landscape close enough to know whether Royal Blood pioneered the groovy, raw, glitchy but heavy sound favored by the younger generation of bands on that format, but they certainly have to be in the conversation. This much I do know: Royal Blood are doing it better than everyone else. Typhoons feels like the culmination of everything the British duo have worked on up to this point, with danceable, booty-shaking, memorable songs (great ones, even!) that somehow also rock hard.
9. Todd La Torre – Rejoice in the Suffering (Rat Pak)
Who could’ve predicted that that a non-Geoff Tate frontman for Queensryche would deliver such a head-turner of a solo record? (not that I think Tate would’ve either). Todd himself, a handful of confidants and collaborators, and I’m guessing the short list ends there. But this one grabbed me right away and never let go, with its pan-metal mix of sub-genres all handled with masterful aplomb while steering clear of anything you’d expect from a member of Queensryche. Not that there’s anything wrong with Queensryche — I love their catalogue to death and Todd’s work with the band has been solid — but side projects are side projects for a reason, ya know? Great songs.
8. Iotunn – Access All Worlds (Metal Blade)
Not a lot of prog bands move the needle for me these days, but Access All Worlds, the debut from Denmark’s Iotunn, made one hell of an impact (an assertion with which my pal Axl agrees). With all but one of the album’s eight tracks clocking in at over six minutes and thirty seconds (and two over eleven minutes) you might think you’re in for a challenging listen, but that’s the beauty and the appeal of Access All Worlds: the worlds of Iotunn are much easier to access than you’d expect. In a word… great songs.
7. Rivers of Nihil – The Work (Metal Blade)
I likely would’ve ranked this record higher if not for the conflict of interest that I manage the band. Thing is, I truly love it — and the great songs thereon — a whole lot. Thankfully Axl already did that so I can rest easy (he stands to gain nothing from that placement; I didn’t even know about it until his best of 2021 list went live). So, as I did with Where Owls Know My Name in 2018, this one gets plopped smack in the middle of my rankings as a PC peace offering to the haters. Still, I think The Work is phenomenal, the perfect next evolution for a band who refuse to do anything but continue evolving, shattering norms, and expanding their fanbase.
6. Dirty Honey – Dirty Honey (Dirt Records)
I described Dirty Honey to Axl as “Black Crowes for the new generation,” and though it’s hardly an original descriptor — and far from an original musical premise — as I said in this list’s intro and nine times since (now ten), great songwriting trumps all, and this record’s got songs up the wazoo. Listen, then listen again and again, ’cause you won’t be able to help yourself.
5. Unto Others – Strength (Roadrunner)
It’s weird that in the year of our lord 2021 no one thought to themselves “What if we took Metallica riffs and made them goth?” But here we are and somehow, some way, Unto Others (formerly known as Idle Hands) are the first to do it… or at least to do it well enough to catch on. Down-picked staccato riffs and twin guitar leads collide with shimmery atmospherics and vocals that’d sound more at home on a Depeche Mode album, but somehow it not only works, it works masterfully. And here’s the phrase again: great songs, the ultimate divider of posers and kings.
4. Sumo Cyco – Initiation (Napalm)
“Alt rock mixed with ’90s ska and nu metal” was not on my 2021 bingo card, but, once again, here we are! I couldn’t be a bystander watching the world go ‘oh my god’ as these Canadians cracked the code of mixing up the above genres with a pop sense of songwriting. Don’t ask questions, don’t be a hater… just listen to the below, one of many great songs on Initiation.
3. ’68 – Give One Take One (Cooking Vinyl)
’68, the not-so-new-anymore project led by Josh Scogin (ex-Norma Jean, The Chariot), never previously drew me in even if I was a passive appreciator. That all changed on Give One Take One thanks in no small part to — you guessed it — the extra emphasis on great songs (every artist thinks their songs are great, I suppose). Sometimes it takes bands a while to hone in on exactly what makes them them, or at least to refine the recipe, and three albums and two EPs deep into ’68’s career they’ve finally fully hit their stride.
2. The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II (NB)
MetalSucks devotees and Vince Neilstein followers know well that no album by The Night Flight Orchestra could ever escape one of my year-end lists (except, weirdly, Skyline Whispers … just couldn’t get into that one). And Aeromantic II, the sequel to Aeromantic  — these guys are nothing if not prolific! — is no exception. It bops, it shakes, it grooves and it rocks, as The Night Flight Orchestra have long since stepped out from under the shadow of their members’ more famous bands (I won’t even mention them!) to emerge as the clear leaders in a growing pack of acts paying homage to the great-song-fueled dad rock of the ’70s and ’80s.
1. Andrew W.K. – God is Partying (Napalm)
He did it. He fucking did it. Did anyone see this coming?
Andrew W.K., best known for being the happy-go-lucky guy who likes to party, turned full heel and dove headfirst into the dark, depressing waters of… I’m not sure how to say this without being offensive/insensitive to his pedigree and history… but, for lack of a better phrase… real music. From the very first single, “Babalon,” it was clear this wasn’t the same old Andrew W.K. we knew and loved — as if that album cover doesn’t say it all on its own — but an entirely different beast, figuratively and literally. Perhaps no album was more hyped leading into its release thanks to the strength of its singles, and for certain no album matched or exceeded that hype as much as this one when we finally got to hear the whole thing.
And then, just like that, he disappeared. How fitting.
To answer my own question at the top of this writeup, I certainly didn’t see it coming. Shit, I’m not sure I ever even listened to an entire Andrew W.K. album from start to finish before this one. And I reckon a whole lot of other folks digging on this record are in that same boat.
That’s what great songs can do.