Mark: In order to keep with the structure of every introductory paragraph of every music/culture round up on every website on the planet…
Well, here we are at the end of another year, [COVID19 reference]. Music has kept us [ADJECTIVE] during a time in our collective experience that has forced us to [VERB] like a [SIMILE]. Whether it was the new [POPULAR ARTIST] track getting you pumped during your morning [ACTIVITY] or the latest [EVEN MORE POPULAR ARTIST] keeping you company while you self-isolate, music truly is the connective tissue that [YADDA YADDA YADDA].
It’s customary for people who write about music at this time of year to present some kind of a ranking of albums or a ranking of songs, in a “TOP XX” manner, but I’m not going to bother doing that. My tastes are super specific and not particularly representative of what is “good”, so I’m just going to list an absolute dump-pile of songs from this year that I enjoyed, in no particular order, with no particular method of sorting. It was actually a great year for music, and albums coming out by the dozen every week feels pretty essential in this moment where its been like 2+ years since I’ve seen anyone pick up an instrument in a live setting.
I have invited JAY along for the ride to critique my picks, because we all deserve to be taken down a peg or two. Especially during the holidays.
Jay: Glad to be here! Let’s hope I add more cheer than sneer.
The Song of the Year!
The Armed – An Iteration
Mark: I will make only ONE value judgement during this post, and it is this one. ULTRAPOP (which we went deep on in this post) is my Album of the Year and “An Iteration” from this album is my Song of the Year. It’s just a synthesis of so many sounds that I love, I can hardly believe that it exists. We say more about it on the other post, so I’m not going to waste a bunch of text on it here. Just a GOAT track.
Jay: There is a lot of fun to be made in this post, no doubt. But in this I cannot disagree with Mark here: ULTRAPOP is an exceptional work of art, and “An Iteration” is an absolute perfect pop song. The only gripe I have with this song is the fluff at the top and tail of its music video. And I would be irresponsible to not mention that the live version of this song is even better than the album version. It’s a really good song!
A BUNCH OF OTHER SONGS
Japanese Breakfast – Savage Good Boy
Mark: A possible runner-up for my Album of the Year, Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee is a pretty amazing piece of work. There are probably five or six songs on the record that I could have posted here and been completely happy with including, but I’ve just picked one of the three singles. The record kind of reminds me of a modern indie-rock Summerteeth, full of good songwriting and varied arrangements. None of the songs sound quite the same, but they all feel as though they’re part of a whole. Not a bad track on the album, really.
“Savage Good Boy” is an extremely amusing earworm of a track, one of the most Wilco-inflected songs on the album. I… I sang this to myself a lot this year. It was probably very annoying.
Jay: Yeah, no, I’d rather be listening to her soundtrack for Sable, which also came out this year. But this is fine, I guess!
Dream Weapon – Genghis Tron
Mark: The lead single off of Genghis Tron’s new album filled me with great anticipation for the album. Although I feel as though the album as a whole doesn’t all work, “Dream Weapon” is still a killer song. Ditching their old tech-nightmare 8-bit screamo sound for melodic vocals and more of an electro-prog sound, this propulsive banger was packaged along with a video that may induce seizures. So, like. keep that in mind if you plan on watching. “Ritual Circle” is another great tune off of this record, and both songs were in heavy rotation for me in the early months of 2021.
Jay: This album made me think of God Lives Underwater meets Hum, and that is a fine pairing, in my opinion. I find the music far more interesting than the vocals, but overall, I can’t fault Mark on this one!
Andrew WK – Babalon
Mark: I’ve always looked at Andrew WK as kind of a joke artist. And I think I kind of still do. But I find the joke very amusing. When “Babylon” dropped, I watched the video and was (as I anticipated) very amused. As I chuckled, though, I thought to myself “wait… this… rocks?!”
It is a behemoth of a track. Completely audacious in its songwriting and execution. The hooks fly fast and furious, like freakin’ Pinhead is over here or somethin’. It was the first guitar riff that I encountered this year that made me think “I should learn to play this!” It’s capped off by the most on-the-nose hilarious/perfect falsetto wail of the year.
An amazing track. I didn’t love everything on this album, but “I’m In Heaven” (and its accompanying video) is similarly huge and hilarious.
Jay: This is pretty great! And dumb! I dig all the chord progressions and synth nonsense. To have this immensely self-serious song with the misspelled “Babalon” title just makes me chuckle every time. I must say Mark’s not giving me much to chide so far!
Dry Cleaning – Scratchcard Lanyard
Mark: Sometimes you want to sit down and listen to a song where you can engage with the lyrics in a similar fashion as you would with a particularly wry novel. I’ve listened to “Scratchcard Lanyard” numerous times (along with some of the other album cuts from New Long Leg), and I’m never less than tickled by some of the lyrical barbs delivered. Set to a cool, bopping post-punk tune, we’re told of some different kinds of bouncy balls, smashing what others have made, and – most importantly – doing everything and feeling nothing. This song crawled under my skin this year in a way that very few other songs did. I love it deeply!
Jay: This strikes me as the music that people listen to when they really want to seem clever to others. But also it strikes me as not terrible music! I might give this record a shot.
Portrayal of Guilt – The Second Coming
Mark: Portrayal of Guilt put out two very ambitious and challenging collections of extreme music this year, and I was delighted to be terrified by both of them. I love a good exercise in genre-smushing and this band smushes genres together with the best of ’em. A super nauseating mix of black metal, hardcore, noise, sludge, grunge, gurgles, and post-hardcore, it’s not really something that I have widely recommended. But songs like “The Second Coming” scratch an itch deep in me with rusty barbed-wire mittens. Whadda racket!
I should mention that the songs on “We Are Always Alone” in particular are blended in such a way that makes them difficult to digest on their own. But let’s be honest, most people would find this stuff difficult to digest regardless! It’s a great time!
Jay: Hahaha, this is the first truly terrible song Mark has asked me to listen to! I actually don’t mind the chord progressions and some of the instrumental choices, but those vocals really aren’t for me. The song proper is like a minute long, with the full run time still being less than two minutes, and it’s basically someone who smokes too much shouting while bits of mashed potatoes come flying out of the corners of their mouth. But honestly, I don’t know enough about the genre—or mash-up of genres, as Mark describes—to speak intelligently about this. Song of the year!
Metz – Acid
Mark: This new Metz song came out this year. It sounds like Metz. That’s, like, enough of a review, I think. In conclusion: I can listen to this kind of Metz mess every year and not really get tired of it. Bless these herky-jerky noise merchants.
Jay: This is a good riff! I still haven’t listened to the new record, but everything I’ve heard from it seems like it’s a little more up my alley in terms of listening to it as an album. Emotionally, it doesn’t really do anything for me, but it’s a fun romp.
Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha
Mark: “I Know I’m Funny haha” is one of those songs that is nearly formless in terms of a verse/chorus structure, and is possibly more successful because of it. Short & sweet, the tune doubles down on its assuredly cool vibe, giving us a window into a relationship that seems to be working out great. It’s a real pleasure to listen to, and it’s a refreshingly grounded take on a modern “love song”. The whole record is quite good, really.
Jay: Any song that has a line that sums up as “fuck landlords” is A-OK in my books. In all seriousness, though, the chord progression is lovely, the production is very nice and intimate, and it’s just a very nice listen overall. It’s a slice of someone’s life I was grateful to share. I’d definitely give this whole record a spin!
Karen Peris – I Would Sing Along
Mark: I had never heard of Karen Peris or The Innocence Mission prior to stumbling across this song, but the delicate folk sound on display sent me down a rabbit hole of listening to as much of the Innocence Mission’s music as I could find. Which is a lot of stuff, because they’ve been around since the 90s (?!). “I Would Sing Along”, like a lot of the songs that Peris performs on, feels a lot like reading a novel to me. I have already said something like this in this post, yes. I am aware. I am not very smart.
But there’s a certain narratively evocative quality to the lyrics and their performance that feels literary to me in this music. It feels as though everything happened a long time ago and we’re left to construct some sort of feeling from the words. This music makes me feel nostalgic for things that definitely never happened to me.
Peris’ voice is lovely, and there’s something about the chord structure – performed by an extremely pleasant and never overbearing folk ensemble – feel very fresh and surprising to me. There’s a part of me that only wants to listen to folk music like this. Don’t tell the metal guys.
Jay: Like Portrayal of Guilt, Karen Peris does absolutely nothing for me, and the vocals are my primary issue with the song. Hah! I’m terrible. But really, I can’t get on board with the general production style (reverb on everything!) even though I’ve employed this production style liberally in the past. Maybe this is just self-hate? No, I’ve never sounded as precise and delicate as Peris’s vocals. Tell me this person is from Europe or something at least, and they’re not just putting on a hugely affected accent… no, no, they’re from Pennsylvania.
The Blow – I’m Not In Love
Mark: This is a cover. And I think that it is very funny. I love the keyboards.
I listened to this a lot this year and I can’t even explain why. I don’t even think that it’s very good. I mean, it’s a cover of a song that I think is good.
Also, there’s a cat.
Jay: This has the looseness of someone who is probably musically very competent and trying to make it sound deliberately loose. I guess the cat is OK.
Kills Birds – Rabbit
Mark: I had never heard of Kills Birds before hearing this song, but it struck me as a pretty fresh blast of heavy rock music. The song plays around with structure and features some pretty sick performances. They’re not reinventing the genre or anything, but this is very tight, punchy rock music and I enjoy it! Also, it is the perfect length for a song (<2 minutes).
Jay: This absolutely rules. I need to hear this record.
Le Ren – Dyan
Mark: Now we get into the part of the post where I talk about the music video that made me (almost cry). “Dyan” is a gorgeous folk song. Paired with its very charming and touching video, I was very moved by it. This is probably in part due to the fact that in the pandemic-fucked year that we’ve all just endured, I saw my Mom fewer times this year than any other year of my life. There’s a certain gratitude conveyed in “Dyan” that I connect with immensely, and I was very happy to have stumbled upon this tune. Even though it did make me cry. Almost. Or maybe all the way. I can’t say. Or I won’t say.
Jay: This track starts like most internet commercials in 2021, with that inoffensive acoustic guitar sound. But where it goes in terms of the chord progression and vocal performance is fantastic. There’s a bit too much affectation for my tastes in the vocals and in the video, but its sense of melody is irresistable.
Kowloon Walled City – Oxygen Tent
Mark: There’s a place in my heart for all of God’s sludge-metal post-hardcore bands, but this album released in 2021 by Kowloon Walled City was particularly tasty. This is patient, dynamic stuff, lurching forward with plenty of space around its rumbling discordance. I’m not sure that you could call a track like “Oxygen Tent” pretty, what with its churning guitars and shouted vocals that would make the guy from Helmet nod approvingly, but there’s a certain… majesty to the thing. This might sound weird, but if I were going to get ripped on a doobie, this is the kind of music that I would throw on. I find it kind of relaxing!
Jay: Hoo boy, that intro drum, guitar, and bass sound. The way the snare echoes off the walls. Be still my beating heart! Whatever feeling this music conveys, it’s the feeling I’m often feeling when I’m not thinking about the fact that I’m feeling. This is a beautiful modernization of a genre I’ve been listening to with Mark and my other nerdy guitar friends for years. I love it. I have to look this album up, too!
Chat Pile – Brutal Truth
Mark: Another group that smooshes up extreme genres with an admirable vigor, I got pretty into Chat Pile this year after hearing “Brutal Truth” on a split single they released with Portrayal of Guilt. There are shades of the harshest side of pre-Nevermind Nirvana on display here, alongside absolutely filthy noise punk and the avant-est levels of avantgarde noise rock. This song sounds like what it feels like to throw up. And I love that!
Jay: This seems like they are just aping Nirvana. Is all their stuff like this? I mean, technically proficient, some interesting ideas on guitar, but the rest just reads as a joke to me. Ah well. I don’t have to get it.
PLOSIVS – Hit The Breaks
Mark: I heard that Rob Crow from Pinback had started a band with some dudes from Hot Snakes and I said “Holy fuck, that sounds great!” and then I heard this single and it sounded exactly like what Rob Crow would sound like jamming with Hot Snakes. So, obviously I fell in love with it. “Hit The Breaks” is tremendous fun, balancing the jerky, off-kilter riffing of Hot Snakes with the hooky melodic knack of Rob Crow’s work, and doubling down on the ADHD-addled restlessness of both acts. I actually haven’t heard any other tracks from this record, but I’ve listened to “Hit The Breaks” from front to back every time that it has popped up on shuffle this year.
Jay: Why on earth haven’t I heard this record yet? Pinback is one of my most essential and influential bands. I love Hot Snakes’s most recent record, too. And this single rules. Gotta go get this album.
Mastodon – Teardrinker
Mark: Mastodon released a basically perfect metal record in the early 2000s and has been extremely hit and miss for me ever since. In general, though, I know that every album that they put out is going to have a couple of tracks on it that I’ll really like. “Teardrinker” is one of those songs, from their most recent album. This finds the group more in their “melodic heavy band” pocket than their proper metal pocket, but it works for me in this case. The song’s vocal performance rests largely with their strongest singer, the drummer guy. The soaring vocals feel like a supreme throwback to me, and it makes the track sound like a deep cut that escaped from a 80s power metal band, although a little darker and heavier. The bridge section and guitar solo amp up the song’s aggression levels in a very satisfying way, and I find it to be a pretty satisfying listen. It’s no “High Road”, and it sure as hell isn’t Leviathan, but I like it.
Jay: I have come to terms with the fact that many, many of my friends and acquaintances love this band, and I can never do more than simply like them. It’s fine music that often verges on being super goofy to my ears, but I’d rather hear it in the background than most music. This song is no exception. It’s fine, but I still don’t understand the love!
Makaya McCraven – Autumn in New York
Mark: This is pretty far off of my usual roadmap in terms of music that I reflexively latch onto, but I stumbled on this track at some point this year and I’ve listened to it a whole pile of times. It’s a remix of a jazz ballad from the 50s, and it’s just a smooth, bopping delight. I haven’t heard the source track, but the remix is wonderfully produced. It is much, much cooler than I am. This song is surprisingly great to drive to!
Jay: Great chords! It feels like background music that does only a minimum of colouring your feelings, specifically to make you feel like you’re doing a good job of sautéing the onions or that it’s not too early to have a glass of wine. I tend to like my background music to make me feel like a sad sack of shit, but this is alright, I guess.
Ovlov – Land of Steve-O
Mark: I wrote about this song in some detail a couple of months ago, but it deserves to be on this round up, because it really is one of my favourite tracks of the year. I won’t write much about it here, but I can confirm that Buds is a great record overall. “Land of Steve-O” is probably the stand-out track, for my money. This band is great.
Jay: This really appeals to me. I need to hear this record. No snide remarks here!
Wet Leg – Chaise Longue
Mark: This might be one of the most flat-out entertaining songs of the year. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how someone could write something that is simultaneously so smart and so silly. The lyrics (and their delivery) make me smile every time I hear it. The tune itself seems absolutely simple at first blush, but if you pay attention to how strategically it’s all structured, Wet Leg has made every entrance of the song’s ultra-catchy lead guitar hook land with maximum effect. Just a delight, this one.
Jay: Alright, everyone. Let us acknowledge a certain niche of music, a wedge of the pop-rock sphere, where our friend Mark resides. British women, clever lyrics, some nice post-punk leanings, a two-word name. Dry Cleaning, Kills Birds, Wet Leg? What else shall we find as this post continues?
All that said, this is an undeniably hooky and fun song.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Blooms of Oblivion
Mark: I also wrote some words about this song some months ago. This song is not what I would call a delight, but it is kind of like being slowly compressed into the floor of whatever room you may be listening to it in. That’s a kind of delight. I think? Anyway, it’s great, crushing stuff.
Jay: This album is devastating and I’m already very much a fan of it. If you haven’t heard the first track off the record, it is well worth your time.
Penelope Isles – Sailing Still
Mark: I don’t remember where I found this, but I absolutely adore the sounds in this recording. The way that it moves back and forth between a delicate, icy tingle and a full-on blown-out warble is tremendously well done. Some of my favourite production of the year. The sounds kind of overwhelm the song for me, but I think that on a certain level, the way that the arrangement moves is the song. For me. Do I make sense?
Jay: British band with a two-word band name and a frontwoman, but not quite of the same ilk as the other bands above. I’ll admit this song does a little less for me than the other tracks above, in terms of immediate catchiness, but I bet this would be a great track to have on while thinking about life or walking the dogs.
IDLES – The Beachland Ballroom
Mark: When IDLES released this single, I was immediately struck by how much more liked it than anything off of their last LP (an album that I found to be a really dismal disappointment). It’s not actually that “The Beachland Ballroom” goes back to the vibe found on Joy As An Act Of Resistance. Quite the opposite, actually. This track finds the band in a completely different mode, crooning and swaying through a grimy doo-wop number, but it I guess I’m just surprised by how well it works. Joe Talbot hasn’t ever really been a vocalist who has caused me to think “throw this guy something with some melody“, but he handles things here with a great, vital swagger. The whole track feels more on-the-pulse than anything from Ultra Mono did, without resorting to the catch-phrase laden trappings that were all over that record. I should really listen to the rest of Crawlers, but I haven’t gotten around to it.
Jay: This is OK! I’m not sure the song has enough momentum to carry me for four minutes, but I really appreciate hearing more melody in the vocals. I’m only a casual fan of the band, but this strikes me as a decent direction for the band to go.
black midi – John L
Mark: I liked black midi’s debut record a few years ago, because it was admirably… weird. I am pretty happy that they’ve only gotten weirder! This song and video are a real trip. Just aggressively, furiously bizarre. It also just kind of slaps. I know we don’t say “slaps” anymore now that it’s not 2015, but this, to me, is a slapper. It’s also a reminder to myself that I like avantgarde jazz influences when they’re married with dumb prog and noise rock elements. How much reefer are these kids on? It’s great.
Shoutout to the baby at the end of this video. One hell of a baby. One hell of a video.
Jay: This is the kind of music that I wouldn’t subject my partner to, but my kid (a weirdo himself) would probably be delighted by. This is extremely, aggressively weird, but if its goal is to unsettle and emotionally provoke, I think it’s doing an awesome job. And I really enjoy that it keeps finding new and pushier territory as the song progresses. I love the verve! Kudos to a band truly doing something unique in these times.
Arooj Aftab – Mohabbat
Mark: I didn’t find out about this album until the year-end best of lists started dropping (and I have barely scratched the surface on those). This track grabbed my attention immediately. A delicate marriage of minimalist folk and South Asian melody (quick research tells me that Aftab is Pakistani-American) sounds unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. I don’t often go in for songs this long, but I can get lost in this one. The vocal performance is remarkable. It leaves me soothed and haunted at the same time. I’ve got the record earmarked to return to soon.
Jay: Really beautiful vocal work here that makes me feel a good feeling in my guts. I’d definitely listen to more.
Laura Stevenson – State
Mark: This song and video elicited one of my biggest “YES!” moments in music of the year, when the simmering opening verse erupts into a burst of violence that I had not been expecting. An absolute rager of a tune. I haven’t found another song by Stevenson that hits as hard, but this track is so well executed and has been complimented by a video so fitting, I think that it may be one of my favourite singular statements of this year in music.
Jay: Mark showed me this earlier this year and I was floored. Very much in my wheelhouse and extremely emotionally cathartic. I love it. I wish there were a record of songs like this to go with it, though (like Mark mentioned, I haven’t found anything else by Stevenson nearly as good).
King Woman – Boghz
Mark: I have heard a couple of really great songs off of this record, but selected “Boghz”, a doomy, dread-fueled punch in stomach that may be one of the angriest sounding songs I have heard this year. This song sounds heavy and scary even before the dump-truck of distorted guitars land on you. A great pick for someone who likes to get down to heavy music, but don’t want to listen to some guy with giant pecs burbling like Cookie Monster. Oh, also someone who likes their music to feel like they are slowly sinking in very angry mud.
Jay: Did someone call my name?
Anybody else notice that Mark is having a reverb year? A lot of reverb-drenched stuff this go-around. I’m not complaining, though; I’m a notorious reverb lover (see the next track). I’ll admit that I enjoyed this more before the huge parts, but it’s still a nice, spooky song.
You know, I came into this year-in-review thinking I’d be poking fun at Mark for his tastes, but I largely think he’s got a solid collection of hits here. This is a great bunch of songs that made me feel something despite the exhaustion and the default inclination to tune out. My friend is smart and good.
Jay Hosking – The Prince
Mark: Check out Jay Hosking’s music on Spotify! He twists knobs so furiously you can practically feel the sweat spraying from his furrowed brow into your face.
In all seriousness, though, Jay can’t blog worth shit, but he can really put together some thought-provoking and emotionally resonant synthesizer music. “The Prince” is just one spiraling hell-ride of a song out of many. He is a genius of creating tones that sputter and decay, and forcing them to croak out gorgeous melodies before they blip out of existence. If you haven’t yet, you should do yourself a favour and check out his synth jam videos on YouTube.
Jay: The trick is to not show my face and all its sweat. (Thanks, Mark.)