The Soundboard’s Biggest Surprises of 2021

Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)

5

AJR – OK Orchestra

The reason this is here is twofold; a) it’s a wonder that AJR are still around (though to be fair, plastic does take a long time to decompose), and b) the fact they made an album this year that isn’t shriekingly insufferable is noteworthy enough to mention. OK Orchestra still isn’t good by any stretch, but it’s definitely more manageable than the ‘indie’-pop clangers that have previously been stitched together by this trio. It does feel aided by the context of its release, in how the childish mindset is easier to grasp when one of the central themes of pandemic life has been reversion back to those times. In other words, it’s effectively succeeding by sheer blind coincidence, but for a useless band like AJR, you really do take what you can get. That’s about as far as the surprise goes, mind; this is never likely to be revisited or spawn any sort of deeper reevaluation of AJR, but its harmlessness does it favours that previous albums have never come close to mustering.

4

Times Of Grace – Songs Of Loss And Separation

After a decade, it wouldn’t be unfair to have written off Times Of Grace as simply a one-off. After all, Jesse Leach and Adam Dutkiewicz still have plenty to keep themselves busy in Killswitch Engage, to where an already siloed side-project couldn’t have been high on the agenda. But Songs Of Loss Of Separation was as grand a return as anyone could hope for, again not hoarding headlines for itself, but impressing in how the weight of so much time away could be felt. Sonically, it’s an older, more contemplative album, still occupying a post-metalcore space but weaving in the touches of hard rock and arena rock that continue to embody the grace in their name. It was one of the big emotional grabs to the throat that 2021 had to offer, open and wizened in a way that far surpasses the pejorative ‘side-project’ tag, and hitting a calibre that the year would’ve been worse off for without.

3

Weezer – OK Human

A surprise album from Weezer is probably one of the least surprising things they could do, so how about one coming right in the middle of the promotional cycle for a completely different album? Van Weezer did take a greater proportion of the spotlight in the end (and deservedly so), but the sheer gall of OK Human is worth stepping back for and admiring regardless. The fans were waiting on more classic rock worship, so the only sensible course is to curtail into Beatles-esque baroque-pop, free of any guitars and reliant on a distinctly Weezer-ish take on the all-too-tired lockdown album script. Admittedly, almost a year removed from it now, the shades of novelty shine brighter than ever across it, especially as just another piece of Weezer’s ever-excessive market saturation, but it least it’s something different. As infuriating as modern Weezer can be in every facet of their existence, the fact they’re willing to keep their listeners on their toes is definitely good, even if the weird little oddities they spawn will only end up drifting away in record time.

2

Save Face – Another Kill For The Highlight Reel

It’s less surprising that this is a good album, but more that the journey taken to get to it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Crossing from DIY emo and alt-rock to shameless My Chemical Romance worship is hardly a small gulf to cross, to where the transition feels as though some steps have been outright skipped. That’s especially true when Save Face’s proficiency in this new guise is something to behold; this isn’t the quality you get from a band more or less entirely rebooting themselves. The results speak for themselves though, as Another Kill For The Highlight Reel can both satiate the most unquenchable of nostalgia fixes and sound fresh and frantic with every new move. That comes with the fact that Save Face have always been good even outside of this sound, but this is on another level entirely and that needs to be recognised yesterday.

1

Bears In Trees – and everybody else smiled back

The purest definition of surprise this year came from Bears In Trees’ debut, as an album that came out of nowhere and wound up flooring in every single listen. Perhaps ‘nowhere’ is a bit of an exaggeration—they’re among the crowd of indie-pop acts with an expansive yet defiantly DIY online presence—but it’s exceedingly rare that that kind of hype translates into legitimate excitement like this. At basically every turn, the sound is gorgeous, the writing is intricate and expressive, and the relatability its detail and storytelling exudes comes in absolute buckets. All of that, and Bears In Trees consistently avoid sounding overly twee or maudlin, in just the perfect crystallisation of the exceptional pop prowess this band is already exhibiting. If there’s one band for whom 2022 is theirs for the taking, it’s Bears In Trees, with a near-flawless debut already under their belt, and with the potential to build off it exceptionally.


Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)

5

The Killers – Pressure Machine

Underestimating The Killers feels like a path already trodden plenty of times over; for the most part people come for the indie floor-fillers of the early 2000s and leave when the band do anything else, until they listen to Imploding The Mirage, shrug and say “they’re still alright, aren’t they?”. The Springsteen worship is dialled way up on this year’s Pressure Machine, but it’s much more personal and creative than anything they’ve done before or could even be expected of them, chronicling Brandon Flowers’ childhood in a small Utah town, each song a vignette about a different town struggle or person living there. It’s super organic and steeped in emotion, not something that usually springs to mind when one thinks of The Killers, and something they should definitely keep at the forefront of their sound.

4

London Grammar – Californian Soil

Atmospherics have long been the name of London Grammar’s game, but this year saw them pivot towards a much more pop sound. Californian Soil is an album full of warm, synth-based builds that intertwine perfectly with Hannah Reid’s beautifully powerful vocals and choruses that tether themselves to your brain. The songs on this record are more akin to the likes of Portishead than the more airy and organic songs of old, this time more full-bodied and condensed into three-to-four-minute lengths rather than their usual four-to-six. London Grammar sound great with more to focus on, little instrumental motifs splitting the large share of attention the vocals normally receives. It’s a subtle switch-up that plenty mightn’t have expected due to the richness of London Grammar’s pre-existing sound, but it’s one that’s more than done the job of revitalising what they have to offer.

3

Weezer – Van Weezer

No one ever knows what to expect with Weezer, but with their lawless, meme dad phase of late, it’s safe to say that the much-delayed, classic rock-influenced Van Weezer was an idea that, on paper, filled one more with dread than joy. But inexplicably, the singles leading up to the record were the joyous best case scenario, and the record finally dropping this year gave us even more gems. Van Weezer works because of how fun and carefree it is, plus the brilliantly crafted songs and audible love of the genre it’s inspired by. This concept could have easily been dead in the water before it even came out, but Weezer’s loveable personality adds another hit to their career, complete with riffs.

2

Maggie Lindemann – PARANOIA

The blueprint for Maggie Lindemann’s career was very much bubblegum pop, the singer’s first major breakthroughs being a dance remix of one of her songs and a collaboration with The Vamps. But a traumatic trip to Malaysia was life-changing, making Lindemann realise that life’s too short for her to be putting out music she didn’t love. Enter PARANOIA, Maggie’s self-referral to today’s new breed of rockstars. Her silky, soaring vocals sound so fantastic over guitars, particularly when both singer and instrumental are going at full volume, and she already has enough weight behind what she’s singing for there to be a real fire in the delivery. PARANOIA definitely isn’t the release people would have expected from Maggie Lindemann, but it will be hard to imagine another genre fitting her just as well from now on.

1

Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Halsey was bound to make a leap fully towards the alternative at some point, but no one expected a jump quite like If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. A total shock when announced, If I Can’t Have Love… had no singles or prior information other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross being onboard for production duties. This record was intended to be consumed as a full linear journey, conveying the pregnancy and childbirth narrative through everything from dark synthpop, straightforward rock, shoegaze and everything inbetween. There are no audible boundaries on this record – the cavernous dread in certain moments fills the room and lingers, the guitars pop and add real weight to what’s being said and Halsey themself has room to play with vocal deliveries, exploring uncharted territory in almost every way. Nothing about this record, be it in its release or in the tracklisting when you listen for the first time, is expected, and it’s certainly the best surprise of the year.

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