My 14 Favorite Records of 2021
Here's everything I've had on repeat during this wild and unpredictable year.
Hello, my name is James, and I am a self-hating music writer who argues everything has value while constantly stressing about creating end-of-the-year lists where I rank art based on made-up nonsense in my mind. Let me explain.
I spent the first eight years of my career scheming to make the most exciting, engaging, and thought-provoking list features possible. That was when I had a staff of music fanatics at my side, and the idea of discussing our favorite records felt more like an event than it does when you're sitting alone in front of your computer. We were the cool kids deciding who could sit with us, and even though our opinions didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, the power we felt in selecting who got what rank was a pure high no drug can replicate. It was a time when I often pictured myself as the Rob Gordon of my personal High Fidelity without realizing that nobody should want to be Rob Gordon in High Fidelity. If anything, you should want to be Barry Judd, only less of a dick.
I honestly don't care to rank my favorite records, so it's hard to justify doing it as a means to make you feel guilty for not hearing them or 'getting' them the way I do. I like the records that I like when I like them, and when those times arise, whatever album is on at that moment is the best thing I've ever heard. To say the album that helped me grieve the loss of my best friend is better or worse than the album that served as the soundtrack to my first kiss is silly. Both records were what I needed at the time, and therefore, at least in my mind, are perfect. They all have imperfections, but they were precisely what I needed, and their continuing existence helps remind me of my personal evolution, not to mention some of the best and worst moments of my life.
2021 was a wild year in every way imaginable. I made some of the most regrettable decisions of my life, and each came with a lesson that I often learned in the hardest way possible. With the exception of moving, which I have yet to do, almost every other aspect of my life has changed in the last twelve months. I feel stronger in some ways and weaker in others, but I'm thankful for the journey nonetheless. The jury is still out on whether or not there is a plan in the chaos of existence, but this year has made me believe more than ever that we each have a path to find. Some of us stumble upon it rather easily, but most experience countless course corrections. All the while, music is there to support and champion our efforts. It's there to encourage us to live fearlessly, even if it means making mistakes.
Everything that follows is my attempt to capture the countless ways music has kept me company on the adventure of life throughout 2021. The albums and artists mentioned are responsible for keeping my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground, even when my skies were grey and the earth felt like quicksand. That's a long way of saying they mean everything to me, and I hope one or more means something to you one day.
Death Goals - The Horrible And The Miserable
There is always something to be said for chaos in music. To walk the line between melody and cacophony takes a level of craftsmanship that possess. You're essentially trying to make people believe the song will fall apart at any given moment, all well knowing that can never happen. You know where everything is going, even if it doesn't feel like it at the moment.
The Horrible And The Miserable, the ferocious debut album from UK's Death Goals, walks that line with razor-sharp precision. It's not hard to imagine someone writing off the band's music as the sound of two people having competing mental breakdowns at the same time, and strangely, that's sort of true. Death Goals use their record to exorcise demons and relieve themselves of the countless burdens life has forced upon them. A sense of catharsis is found among the noise that brings to mind the work of The Blood Brothers or The Chariot but make no mistake—Death Goals is no imitation band. These guys are doing the work that growth and personal development demand. The only difference between them and your favorite group is that Death Goals aren't afraid to do that work in full view of the public eye.
Baby Keem - The Melodic Blue
The best stories are rarely told in a linear fashion. While explaining your life from birth until now may make the most sense, in theory, it's probably not the most exciting version of your life story. To tell that, you need to rearrange the pieces so that all the biggest dramatic moments happen at exactly the right time. You are who you are because of your decisions yesterday, but those choices might not be the biggest influencers on the person you are becoming. Whether they are made by you or someone else, those decisions are where the story of your life comes into focus.
The Melodic Blue combines the boastful swagger of a young man who holds the world in his hand with the melancholy confessions of a boy forced to grow up far too soon. As Keem bounces between visions of poverty and excess, you get the sense that he's keenly aware of his influence on reality. He understands there are things we can do to shape the world and that there are limits. People die, friends fall apart, and everything good eventually comes to an end. You can let that knowledge crush you, or you can learn to savor every last drop of life. Keem is doing the latter, and I encourage you to do the same.
bad luck. - Summer of Pain
I first heard Summer of Pain after bad luck.'s management hired me to write a new bio for the band (something you can hire me to do as well). It was one of many biographies I was working on at the time, but I can still clearly remember the first time I gave the record a spin. Rather than listen at my desk, I chose to wait until I was driving a considerable distance to hear the album with a proper sound system. It was late-spring at the time, and Michigan was caught in its usual battle between days of eye-popping beauty and others of gray skies with cold winds. That particular day was pleasant, so I was able to crack the windows just enough to feel the wind in my hair as the album opener, "Favorite Smile, "began.
The men of bad luck. get it. Caught between the people we were before and the visions of adulthood we've clung to since childhood, the band exists in the aggravating space where self-awareness collides with the inability to act. It's not that we don't spend our days fighting to get ahead; it is that everything we do leaves us exactly where we were in the first place. Life often feels less about getting ahead and more about staying in place out of fear of falling behind. We don't want to be worse off than we are now, and that's more than many can hope for most days.
Summer of Pain finds beauty and pleasure in life's little moments. It's about hugging your dog and getting high at the end of a long workday. It's the way the sunshine feels on your skin, even if you're having a terrible day. So many of the band's songs are about the tiny details that make up the pivotal moments of our life that one cannot help noticing the small moments of joy in their own existence. That's a gift that keeps on giving, and we have Bad Luck to thank.
NEEDTOBREATHE - Into The Mystery
In March, Laura and I took a trip to Tennessee to see NEEDTOBREATHE record their second live album, Live From The Woods Vol. 2. Venues were still shuttered due to COVID-19, but the band found a workaround in an outdoor venue located outside a tiny rural town called Pelham. That was before we knew the band would be releasing another studio album this year, but it felt worthy of mentioning because they have been pivotal to developing our relationship.
The one thing that life and love have in common is that they both require a certain level of risk. You can stay in your hometown and play it safe forever, but you cannot tell me that it is living. Life, like relationships, requires excepting vulnerability. You have to be willing to fall and fail again and again. There is no end, only a slow progression that you must work out every day with everything you have within you. Still, it's beautiful to have the opportunity at all.
Into The Mystery embodies this idea in every way. The band wasn't set to record another album for at least a year, but as the pandemic carried on, NEEDTOBREATHE gathered in a Tennessee Airbnb. The group challenged themselves to make an album from scratch in a matter of weeks as opposed to months, and the songs found here are the result. Combining simple instrumentation with lyrics that focus on themes of family, faith, and an openness to the endless possibilities of an ever-expanding universe, NEEDTOBREATHE delivers yet another deeply satisfying collection of songs that are impossible to forget.
Sleep Token - This Place Will Be Your Tomb
We all wrestle with the void within. Some folks stare so long that they begin to lose themselves, while others try and fill it with meaningless clutter and vices that only lead to ruin. Sleep Token, the curious anonymous collective, cannot stop exploring the void. This Place Will Become Your Tomb dives headfirst within to seek answers to life's greatest questions. It's not a general conversation about gods or a lack thereof, but a focused pursuit for the purpose of being and our role in the events that happen both to us and around us. The band looks so far within, working through memories and dreams with poetic reverence, that they must make a conscious effort to remember that the present matters more than any of the things that have already come and gone.
This Place Will Become Your Tomb reminds us that while we can learn from the past, it is no place for us to exist. We must move forward, and we must do so with the knowledge of our ability to shape reality. We must hold ourselves accountable. We must celebrate the wins and appreciate the losses. Whether there is an orchestration to the universe or not doesn't matter as much as whether or not you take life by the reins while you have the time to do so.
Pupil Slicer - Mirrors
The more extreme areas of metal are something that I have always appreciated from afar. It's not that I don't get it, but I don't know how to express what I get about it. My gift in writing about music has never been about discussing key changes or what time a song is in. I admire anyone capable of doing the advanced mathematics needed to understand how the more meticulous heavy artists make their music, but it always felt too complex for me.
So, while I may not be able to discuss all the technical accomplishments that I'm told exist on Pupil Slicer's 2020 debut album, I can tell you how it made me feel. Mirrors is an album about getting to know yourself. Not the person you pretend to be online or the person people may see in photos, but the real you. I'm talking about the person you might encounter if you stood in front of the mirror naked after shaving your head under unforgiving lights. The person who cannot hide anything because you already know all their secrets. Is that a person that you like? When you stare into that metaphorical mirror, do you want to be friends with the person staring back? Do you even know that person?
Mirrors cannot give you any answers, but the record can provide a soundtrack for processing the many complex thoughts and feelings that accompany trying to understand oneself. It's an unrelenting crusade to the heart of what makes us the people we become, and I am utterly fascinated by every note.
The Plot In You - Swan Song
The Plot In You makes music for people who recognize the darkness surrounding us and refuse to let it stop them. Swan Song, to me, is an album about taking your punches and learning lessons. It's about remembering how fragile our lives are and pressing onward all the same in pursuit of something we recognize as happiness. It's a hard-fought battle, but it's worth it.
Swan Song is so good that it argues for The Plot In You to receive the mainstream rock recognition they have long deserved. That's not to say it's the kind of record you'd hear on the radio or find performed in full at a summer festival, but it's bursting at the seems with undeniable rock talent. That's probably why The Plot In You is already your favorite band's favorite band, but I hope 2022 finds them becoming a household name.
Parker McCollum - Gold Chain Cowboy
Radio country is dead! Long live radio country!
Parker McCollum looks like every guy who used to beat me up in high school, but he has the voice of someone far more soulful. Hailing from Texas with a big heart and smooth vocals, McCollum makes music for adults whose tastes are caught between mainstream culture and the country roots that raised them. In other words, "it's not your daddy's country."
I've spent countless hours in recent weeks revisiting Gold Chain Cowboy looking for the right words to tell you why I love it so much. The only answer I've developed is that it simply speaks to my soul. Hidden amongst the vocal runs and guitar riffs is something that I recognize deep within myself. McCallum is tapping into something I didn't even know needed to be reached, and I cannot wait to see where he goes next.
Remble - It's Remble
One of my biggest fears in life is becoming a callous music listener. After 14 years in music on a professional level, not to mention another ten as a diehard fan, I sometimes fall into the habit of thinking I have seen and heard everything anyone can create. Thankfully, it's usually around this time that someone comes along who completely flips my opinion and makes me believe in the boundless potential of creativity once more. In 2021, few people did that better than Remble.
A rapper whose motto could easily be, "diction rules everything around me," Remble broke free from the hip-hop underground thanks to a string of viral sounds on TikTok. I found him there along with almost everyone else, but it's the material on his latest mixtape, It's Remble, that places him on this list.
Empty Heaven - Getting The Blues
I don't know if my friend Anthony makes music for anyone other than himself, but that's why I love him. Empty Heaven is the actualization of every strange idea that's rolling around the brain of Anthony Sanders. It's a dense and impossible to categorize musical endeavor that melds everything from shoegaze and spoken word to elements of punk, EDM, and just enough noise to keep listeners on their toes.
Listening to Getting The Blues is akin to spending an hour sitting with Anthony on any given day. As he recounts memories and dreams of impossible landscapes against a lush backdrop of digital production, Anthony works feverishly to help you see the world through his eyes, if only for three minutes at a time. His storytelling talent and knack for melody are second to none certainly, But Getting The Blues succeeds most obviously because it speaks to the human condition with unflinching honesty. We are the sum of everything and everyone we've ever known, but what do we do with that knowledge? Empty Heaven has the answer.
Cleopatrick - BUMMER
Bummer is the album your favorite local band currently playing in garages, barns, and various basements in the tri-county area dream of making if any label ever gives them a chance. Canada's Cleopatrick radiates the kind of raw energy generally reserved for the DIY market while delivering radio-friendly grunge rock that speaks to every bright young mind turned twenty or thirty-something burnout inside all of us. It's music for the people who are scraping by with full awareness they'll always be scraping by, even if things go their way, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Every generation of blue-collar dreamers needs a rock band that understands their grievances with society without submitting to them, and Bummer makes the argument that Cleopatrick is that band. This music is resilient, and it's built upon a foundation of understanding that nothing matters more than family, friends, and the ideas that set your mind on fire.
Chase Matthew - County Line EP
I discovered Chase Matthew the same way young people everywhere find music nowadays, and by that, I mean his music appeared on a random Spotify playlist. Matthew has been writing and recording for a few years, but 2021 marked his first debut on the national stage as his latest EP, County Line, released with a bevy of potential radio hits. It's the kind of music you picture fans of Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and other 'bro-country fans falling for, but there is an unbridled earnestness to the lyricism that mainstream genre talent rarely deliver. Matthew is very much a rough around the edges southern boy who isn't afraid to insult a man for having "bitch boy hands" and appreciates when southern belles keep it shaking like a bobber after you get that first bite. If the bright lights of Nashville don't rob him of his hometown charm, Matthew could very easily be the next big thing in the country.
If you can make it through "County Line" and "Pull Up" without fighting the urge to dance, smile, or sing-a-long, then you are a far stronger mind than me. That, or you cannot have fun. I don't know. It's just something to think about, you know?
Morgan Wallen - Dangerous: The Double Album
If you're thinking, "wasn't Morgan Wallen canceled earlier this year?" The answer is yes, he was, and I no longer care. Weiland was caught on camera drunkenly saying racial slurs to a friend in the parking lot of an apartment complex. He was pulled from radio for months, had all promotional opportunities taken away, and essentially became a ghost. He also pledged $500,000 to help make amends, which he made good on in a matter of months. People make mistakes. He shouldn't have said what he said, and I'm happy to see him taking steps to do better and be better as a person in a position of influence.
Dangerous is one of the best country albums I've ever heard. Not only does it contain over two dozen radio-ready singles, but it showcases a wide array of today's most talented songwriters. Of course, Wallen is one of them, but so are his frequent collaborators, such as Hardy and Ashley Gorley. There is something here for everyone, and it flows as well as any genre release marketed toward the masses in 2021.
Wallen has positioned himself as the blue-collar every man hailing from a town you've never heard of and working hard to reach his big-city dreams. His songs talk about the struggles and his battles with alcohol, depression, and a seemingly endless string of bad romances. Through it all, Wallen views himself most often as a villain getting his own way, and he grapples with how to break that cycle throughout the record.
I find myself thinking of so many tiny moments and lines on Dangerous weekly that it's hard to pick one track the stands out. From the instantly memorable hook of "Sand In My Boots" to the rowdy fun of "Country Ass Shit," Morgan Wallen is crafting an expansive musical world of fun and reflection. He won't need to make another record until 2023 at the earliest, but I'm secretly hoping we hear something much sooner than that.
You, Me, And Everyone We Know - Something Heavy
I cannot talk about something heavy without talking about my friend Ben, who is one of my favorite humans ever to walk the earth. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I thought I would never see Ben sing a song again. The journey he took to get from that point to releasing the defining album of his career is nothing short of a staggering work. If you don't know his story already, that's ok. Everything you need to know is in the music. Something heavy is a journey into Ben's life and the lessons he's learning along the way. There's nothing like it, which I've probably said about every record on this list and one way or another, but I mean it this time. What Ben does is be himself. Nobody else can do it. When he decides to stop, that's when the magic ends. There is no next of kin to take the throne. There is no successor. For all we know, something heavy is as good as it gets, and that's pretty damn good.
“That is A LOT of music. Do you have a playlist I can stream?”
Of course! I would never think about sending a new Spin Cycle update without first creating a playlist. You can find a link to my ‘best of’ collection below, but be warned: The following playlist is a mess and is meant to play on shuffle. It is incredibly hard to mix technical death metal with radio country and underground hip-hop, but I tried my best! I hope you find one or more songs on here that make you feel seen. Who knows? You might find the next artist that changes your life!
I know you probably have a few questions about where I’ve been the last few months. Rest assured that all will be explained soon, but for now, let’s celebrate a great year for music. We needed artists more than ever in 2021, and thankfully, they were up to the challenge.