Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)
Black Country, New Road – For the first time
As tempting as it is to buck against the critical consensus, sometimes it can’t be avoided. With Black Country, New Road’s For the first time, this is one of those occasions, for a weird, alive experimental rock album that pulls out all the stops to keep investment to the max. Throwing them in with the current post-punk crowd does no favours to an album that’s liable to splinter off down angular, off-kilter avenues, littered with Sprechgesang metre, spasmodic instrumental shades, and an impending spiral that crams so much into just six extended tracks without being incoherent. More music needs to be this daring and boundless, though it probably wouldn’t end up as immaculately composed and self-assured as Black Country, New Road.
Rivers Of Nihil – The Work
The Rivers Of Nihil renaissance continues, with the previously acclaimed Where Owls Know My Name providing the foundation for an equally terrific metal experience in The Work. Giving more to their progressive side lends Rivers Of Nihil an expansiveness that most death metal is severely starved of, and that isn’t at the expense of a crushing listen either. This is everything that technical death metal should be, especially when some of the production issues of its predecessor have been ironed out for an experience that’s graceful and devastating in equal measure. Moreover, it’s an even more profound leap into metal’s upper echelon for Rivers Of Nihil; it wasn’t just a fluke last time, and they truly are among the best that the genre has to offer.
MØL – Diorama
It’s been another inescapable year for MØL and for good reason. The heirs apparent to blackgaze and post-metal have once again pulled out all the stops with Diorama, in a more refined way than ever before. At the eye of the swirling cataclysm of beautifully hypnotic atmosphere and deep, rich bleakness is an indisputable knack for tunefulness that’s at its best here. Its highs are totally spellbinding, metallic while still making room for gentleness, and not marginalising the melody that elevates the best of black-metal. And make no mistake, Diorama is a direct inroad to that, as MØL continue to redefine and advance themselves with a dazzling success rate that, right now, appears utterly untouchable.
Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
Pour one out for all the bands looking to claim even a crumb of hype for themselves, only to have that stymied by Spiritbox singlehandedly becoming the buzziest band on the planet. Not for nothing though, as Eternal Blue showed, affixing the aesthetic firmness of tech-metal that most bands never even get past with a fluidity and pop lucidity that works so much more effectively. The small matter of Courtney LaPlante being one of the best vocalists in the game works in their favour too, but the pristine finish that Eternal Blue showcases without fault really encompasses a new band who are already the genuine, finished article. That’s not to say that Spiritbox aren’t going anywhere though; quite the opposite, in fact, given that this is a name that’s going to be just as omnipresent for the foreseeable future, guaranteed.
Slaughter To Prevail – Kostolom
In the year when deathcore got its groove back, one band had the honour of ushering in that age more so than anyone else. An unrelenting slugfest of the highest standard came from Kostolom, the album where Slaughter To Prevail parlayed every drop of their newfound clout into a tentpole album for their genre. This is power personified, in every monstrous growl that comes from superstar-in-waiting Alex Terrible, and every thunderous instrumental section engineered to destroy anything in its path. No expense was spared in making a thoroughly modern, thoroughly vicious body of work, the likes of which deathcore rarely gets. A true kiss of life for a notoriously stagnant genre, and a clear fast track to becoming one of the most vital names in heavy music.
Whitechapel – Kin
If The Valley was Whitechapel’s biggest step away from deathcore into a grimmer, grittier metal world, Kin was the moment they dug in their roots to grow into something almighty. As a continuation to the harrowed story of neglect and abuse begun with its predecessor, it hit all the right notes, but the palpable further growth of Whitechapel into this style of metal can’t be ignored. The embrace of melody is more noteworthy in how harrowed and deliberate it can feel, which in turn facilitate the aggression into something that burns far more deeply. It also just happens to be fantastically produced to accentuate a rawness that the traditional deathcore skillset just couldn’t do justice to. Far more than just a mere experiment, Kin turns Whitechapel’s most prosperity-filled era yet into something spectacular. They’re the best they’ve ever been, and it’s not even by a small margin.
Save Face – Another Kill For The Highlight Reel
A year after My Chemical Romance were supposed to make their grand return, Save Face did the charitable thing by taking some of the pressure off and slapping their own name on a new MCR album instead. Of course, it’d take a Herculean effort to capture the same lightning in a bottle that Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge did, but you won’t find much coming closer than this. Visceral, electrified and doused in a bloodthirsty sensibility, this was a reinvention that paid off immeasurably, not only in setting Save Face apart from the DIY crowd, but plying them with their best ever collection of songs that only become deeper ingrained with every listen. Far past the point of homage and landing more directly on excellent stylistic adoption, Another Kill For The Highlight Reel was a much-needed blast of energy for which the sparkle is still nowhere close to wearing off. Those MCR support slots still need filling, just sayin’.
Trash Boat – Don’t You Feel Amazing?
Don’t You Feel Amazing? represents the end point in Trash Boat’s evolution that’s been borderline miraculous. Where once they were yet another run-of-the-mill pop-punk band cribbing from The Story So Far’s cheat sheet, they’re now their own beast completely, fuelled by post-hardcore with teeth gritted and fists clenched ready to come out swinging. The rawly personal bent of the writing does plenty on its own, but that’s only exacerbated by a tension that’s far beyond the majority of the mainstream rock space, on an album that’s so laser-focused on delivering the most consistently raw thrills possible. It’s leaps and bounds ahead of where Trash Boat began—that goes without saying—but Don’t You Feel Amazing? stands as a self-evidently gripping listen completely on its own merits, separated from where it came from. For rock music fluent in melody, reality and hard-bitten tenacity, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Bears In Trees – and everybody else smiled back
Accusations of ‘recency bias’ can certainly be made here, sure, but that’d be to ignore the fact that Bears In Trees’ debut is indie-pop at its most transcendent. Taking a formula that’s been around forever and mastering it on the first try, and everybody else smiled back captures a weight that most in this camp really struggle to hit. The balance between hyper-earnest twee and the brutal, impactful vignettes about young struggle and self-discovery is in perfect sync, held together by a lush, perfectly produced instrumental palette that never fails to hit its intended sweet spot. Not once does it feels cloying or saccharine to degree it’s unable to pay off; Bears In Trees assert such a profound sense of dominance upon this style, and do it with an overwhelming approachability and affability. Chiefly of all, it’s simply a joy to listen to for every moment, and a sure fire sign that this will be one of the dominating names of 2022.
Press To MECO – Transmute
Press To MECO have always been impressive, but Transmute is the culmination of a grind that sees them arrive for the first time at something utterly special. For a start, no body of rock music this year has been as simultaneously catchy, heavy and littered with euphoric expanse as this. Just in the confines of the band, this is the purest crystallisation of their brand of alt-rock, cranked up to its highest extreme and skyrocketing past the competition. But in a grander context, it highlights a poignancy in how much more this works compared to basically everyone else. It has the expected Britrock emotionality and scope, but through the lens of the forward-thinking rock that’s come to overtake it in recent years. Bass presence alone sees Press To MECO wipe the floor with the competition, but the extent to which Transmute can soar and shine with an iridescent glow feels more heightened and powerful. In what can be largely pigeonholed as ‘straightforward alt-rock’, it’s been a long time since that’s spawned an album as deeply arresting as this. This is Press To MECO’s magnum opus and a watershed release within melodic alt-rock; everyone else, just try and top this.
Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)
Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
It’s a given that a project by old pros Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon is going to be of quality, but the experience that is How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? proves that Big Red Machine is a collaboration that’s meant to be. It’s a gorgeous hour of rich song crafting and curating the featured artists (collected from all over Dessner and Vernon’s cinematic universe) to ensure they’re really adding to the soundscapes instead of being tacked on. It works too, giving Taylor Swift a folklore-esque indie-pop track to work with, Ben Howard a moody slow build and Fleet Foxes and Anaïs Mitchell a campfire singalong duet that all feel natural. The music of How Long… feels expansive but the intent and method organic and intimate, and that concoction is infectious, impossible to not find something to love and appreciate in.
Maggie Lindemann – PARANOIA
If one of the many artists who’ve turned to making pop punk in the last year was born to do it, it’s Maggie Lindemann. Her debut project PARANOIA is filled to the brim with rock anthems, fuelled by the visceral trauma of being imprisoned on a trip to Malaysia in 2019. Different and Knife Under My Pillow delve into the emotional impact of this in detail, the subject matter a perfect fit for this new genre shift Lindemann shows she’s an emotional chameleon elsewhere too, Crash and Burn and It’s Not Your Fault angsty vents of frustration about stagnant relationships, while Loner and Love Songs are more intimate and vulnerable. Even GASLIGHT!, the one misstep on the record, hints at an ambition and desire to change up the formula she’s perfected on PARANOIA and not stay in one place, which can only be commended. Pop punk is in good hands if artists like Maggie Lindemann are at the helm.
Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
Arlo Parks’ debut record from this year revels in its innate softness, the singer’s style of writing pure poetry that delicately speaks of taking a depressed friend out to go and buy fruit or buying another books to help her with her difficult home life. One-liners here are simple but effective, more time going into painting a picture vivid enough to place the listener at the side of Parks witnessing a breakup at a bus stop or going through her own heartbreak, falling for a straight girl and quietly resenting the boyfriend that keeps her love unrequited. The instrumentals are appropriately toned down and pretty, energy not as much a focus as building an ethereal world where the words can thrive, and it works. One of the prettiest records of the year.
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
Olivia Rodrigo’s debut record SOUR is about a heartbroken person, scrapbooking her own personal seven stages of grief as she heals from a breakup. She also scrapbooks her musical influences, chameleoning through chart pop, pop punk, bedroom pop, and what are sure to be her signature ballads, all of which fit Rodrigo’s talents like a glove. She excels at lyricism, conjuring up secondhand heartbreak then leading a feverish mob to point their pitchforks at the ex she’s singing about without batting an eye. Above all though, these songs, as polished and old hand-esque they seem, are given that extra magic by coming from the heart of a teenager—they’re not always perfect but sell raw emotion in a way no one other than a teenager feeling all of these emotions for the first time, completely unfiltered, could.
Teenage Wrist – Earth Is A Black Hole
Earth Is A Black Hole marked a change for Teenage Wrist, not just in personnel (it’s their first record with guitarist Marshall Gallagher on lead vocals) but in attitude. The pessimism that defined their previous releases has turned to a cautious hopefulness, the songs here always self-aware and intuitive but instrumentally carefree and loveable as a result. Difficult subjects are always addressed head-on but never dwell on the negatives that can’t be changed. Gallagher’s vocals are clean and soaring, always elevated over the fuzzy guitar tornadoes and adeptly bridging the gap between Teenage Wrist’s ‘90s influences and the now. With Earth Is A Black Hole, Teenage Wrist have crafted not only songs that will stick around for a long time, but an ethos too.
CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
You often know what you’re getting into with a CHVRCHES album, their last three releases all a consistent level of synthpop quality. This year’s Screen Violence saw them take on a horror movie theme, lots of their lyrics noticeably darker whether it be directly relating to final girls and killers or something more personal like the death of a loved one in Covid times. But even though that turn is taken, the joy that goes so hand-in-hand with CHVRCHES hardly feels diluted, songs like California and Violent Delights dreamy and pretty, then Good Girls and Asking For A Friend punching-the-air triumphant. Screen Violence is CHVRCHES excellence packaged in a new, interesting way while still never compromising who the band are, and that’s one that we are lucky to have.
Zara Larsson – Poster Girl
Zara Larsson was in a strange position at the start of 2021. It was coming up to four years since her first, momentum-building record So Good (a lifetime in pop circles), and plenty of stop-starts for the release of the follow-up put whether it’d ever come into existence up for debate. Poster Girl, for the most part, is much more cohesive than Larsson’s debut, honing in on a specific set of sounds rather than experimenting so much to find what fits. There are warm, bouncy synths (Talk About Love, Right Here), bass-led disco tracks (Need Someone, Poster Girl) and jumps into completely carefree Europop (Look What You’ve Done, FFF), all of which Larsson is malleable and charismatic enough to fully embody. Singles like WOW and Love Me Land turned up the ambition when it came to what Zara Larsson could create, but the rest of Poster Girl adds all the unadulterated joy, showing an all-killer-no-filler album is well in her wheelhouse.
Griff – One Foot In Front Of The Other
The best debut projects from new artists are unequivocally them, not consciously trying to fit into any pre-existing mould or sing about any feelings that aren’t really there. One Foot In Front Of The Other, the debut mixtape from 20-year-old Rising Star Brit Award winner Griff is just that, four of the seven tracks solely written and produced by the singer herself. It’s impressive on paper and even more impressive when you hear the songs. Bubbly, immersive production is combined with a wise-beyond-years lyrical perspective – songs like Shade Of Yellow and Heart Of Gold are pure vulnerability while still being colourful and lovably sincere. It’s all topped off by lead single Black Hole, that setup channeled through a full-on pop superstar lens that feels like a completely natural transition. It’s an incredible project for Griff, the one she needed to make at this point in her career and one that will guarantee her sticking around for a long time.
Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was not a trio anyone saw coming, but they made magic this year on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. A album that explores all of the wonderful, terrifying feelings that come with pregnancy and childbirth, the theatrics are turned all the way up, leaps into industrial synths and walls of distorted, fuzzy guitars providing an unexpected but completely appropriate backdrop for Halsey’s unique pop vocal. Songs like Easier than Lying and Girl is a Gun are assaults on the senses in completely different (and brilliant) ways, while honey and Bells in Santa Fe show real talent for rock and dark, atmospheric synthpop that is hopefully brought back in future. Halsey says they are a writer above all and If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power shows that in abundance, intelligently, viscerally and tenderly putting into words an experience many wouldn’t know where to start. That, combined with the risk-taking and passion behind this genre shift has made for a very special, career-defining record indeed.
Aly & AJ – a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun
Aly & AJ’s first full-length record in 14 years and away from the Disney machine sees them create their own version of Americana, blending ‘60s and ‘70s soft rock, synthpop, folk and everything inbetween. It’s all sundrenched and glorious, whether it’s the warm, enveloping glow of Pretty Places or the full-on technicolour euphoria of Symptom Of Your Touch and Don’t Need Nothing. On paper, this sounds like something anyone could do, but there’s an untouchable nature to these songs that are only clear when you listen to them, one that’s difficult to bottle up for anyone else to recreate. It’s likely that comes from the bond between Aly & AJ themselves, both as sisters and musical partners. Their harmonies are sublime, and their dynamic makes the sentiments behind Pretty Places and Don’t Need Nothing even sweeter and fully palpable. a touch of the beat is the whole package, and it’s so good to have Aly & AJ back like this.
Holly Royle (Writer)
Imminence – Heaven In Hiding
The metalcore outfit have undertaken a new direction with their music. The recognisable traits: violin, aggressive harsh vocals, and djent tones, still remain but are fused with something new. Surrender features a catchy chorus hook, leaning towards popular music styles, while tracks like Enslaved really delve into the avant-garde experimental musicality. Imminence have built on their previously releases producing a powerful album in Heaven In Hiding.
The Browning – End Of Existence
The Browning grow stronger with every release enhancing and developing their electronicore sound. The ethereal aspects of tracks including Cataclysm brings vast synth pads and atmospheric moods. The heavier instrumentation thunders through the tracks but not in an invasive manner. Every musical genre or style influence is aptly used to explore the themes of the album.
Ad Infinitum – Chaper II – Legacy
Ad Infinitum have followed their incredible debut with a fantastic sequel. The opening track Reinvented aptly summarises the album in many respects. Their sound has developed while clearly being recognisable from their beginnings. Orchestral and metal instrumentation are perfectly balanced, and vocals combine perfectly. Both harsh and cleans are strong and are well placed to emphasize particular aspects of the music. Inferno is a great example of Ad Infinitum’s lyrical narrative, use of melodies across the instruments and rhythms that ground their sound.
Duncan Evans & Wilderness Hymnal – Until Liars Fear You
This collaboration is a fantastical journey through dark folk soundscapes. Progressive and ethereal qualities are found in the tracks from Wilderness Hymnal, while Evans’ delves into the contradictions of the mundane every day and the existential notably in No Exit. Electronics, folk instrumentation and powerful vocals combine beautifully through both artists’ tracks creating a distinctive sound. They combine together seamlessly on their joint song Three Tempers.
Annisokay – Aurora
Releasing early this year, Aurora landed at the perfect moment with many themes reflecting the feelings and situations of us all. I’m sure many have listened to STFU in a cathartic manner, I certainly have. They bring the heaviness perfectly blended with energetic synths that elevate the rhythms and momentum of the music. The pop edge does bring an extra danceability; it’s an uplifting aspect in many ways. The harsh and clean vocals complement each other and work really well to tie in the two extremes of metal and electronics.
Orbit Culture – Shaman
Orbit Culture’s previous release Nija received high acclaim and yet, the outfit have managed to follow up with another killer release. With the focus on song writing for live performances there is always the risk that something will be lost through the studio recording. This is not an issue for Orbit Culture. They have captured the sense of the mosh pit and unleashed it in recorded form. Balancing anthemic aspects with deliciously heavy breakdowns each track holds its own, from the marching rhythms of Carvings to the powerhouse that is the title track.
Akiavel – Væ Victis
Landing just a year after their debut album, Væ Victis explores dark themes of the human psyche. It’s an intense assault of all consuming sounds. Powerfully executed, musically and lyrically, Akiavel present a compelling offering that is unafraid to unveil the morbid and macabre, particularly in Comrade and The Lady Of Death. With melodic elements enhancing the heaviness, Akiavel weave their own distinctive identity throughout. Væ Victis is a fantastic display of their art.
Epica – Omega
The symphonic metal giants continue to deliver incredible soundscapes, cohesive tracks and compelling melodies. Omega is a powerful mixture of haunting symphonic with intimate, emotive tracks such as Rivers, while Skeleton Key combines ethereal qualities with heavy support and melodies that stick around in your mind afterwards. Their stoic, philosophic themes are hugely appealing, and now a signature element of the music. It’s wonderful to see their evolution with each album. Omega is fresh and intense symphonic metal that is delivered beautifully.
Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
Despite releasing a number of tracks as singles ahead of the album, Spiritbox’s Eternal Blue still feels fresh as the tracks are woven effectively into the narrative of the album. The variety of styles running through the album explores multiple sides to their sound. From the utterly extreme of Holy Roller to the serenity of Eternal Blue. Sun Killer is a stunning track and opens the album with a sensational sound.
Vildhjarta – måsstaden under vatten
The sheer heaviness of Vildhjarta is utterly iconic. There is something about their progressive take on extreme metal that is deeply alluring. The dissonance and eerie sounds resonate with a strong impact. Almost evoking a primal aspect with their rhythms and ludicrously low tones, they never fail to make a dynamic impact. The latest album just shows that they are continually evolving and growing. From lavender haze to paaradiso, måsstaden under vatten is an epic experience.