It is that time of year again – the air is crisp with a chill, people are out buying their Christmas trees, and, for my Jewish friends, their menorah is lit a little early (Happy Hanukkah, guys and girls!). One thing that everyone is looking for, however, is ideas for presents. I have come up with a list that, just as a coincidence, also happens to be my picks for some of the best CDs that were released in the past year. There is something here for everyone, so take a look at the roster of albums I’ve selected and perhaps you’ll be able to take someone’s name off your list!
(As an aside, I DO NOT receive any money for these selections, even though you will find a link to how to purchase these items – these are truly some of the CDs that I have enjoyed over the year and think very highly of them.)
Let us get it started, shall we?
Up first we have a brand-new band that hit the scene like a hurricane in 2021 (no insult to Nita “Hurricane” Strauss intended!). Plush is a band that came together rather quickly in 2021, with all four of its members UNDER the age of 21 – that’s right, they cannot legally drink when they are out on tour! Singer/guitarist Moriah Formica, lead guitarist Bella Peron, bassist Ashley Suppa and drummer Brooke Colucci blew people away with their first song “Hate,” and followed it up in October with their self-titled debut CD.
This CD rocks from start to finish, but I came to a discovery. While listening to the song “Athena,” it finally hit me who Formica reminds me of as a vocalist. She is quite comparable in style, quality and strength to Ann Wilson of Heart. Add in the virtuosity of Peron, Suppa and Colucci on their respective instruments and they offer us a relived glimpse into the future of what rock music might look like. Plush just finished an opening tour set with Lzzy Hale and Halestorm and Amy Lee and Evanescence – if you are opening for bands like that, they also think you have got some talent!
I will be honest on this one…I was not initially sold on Wolfgang Van Halen, the only son of the late Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli. His work with his father and uncle Alex in the revamped Van Halen really did not show much of what he could do, thus I was skeptical when I heard he was coming out with his debut CD following the passing of his dad in late 2020. Let it be said now that I have been converted.
Mammoth WVH (Mammoth was the original name of Van Halen that Wolfgang asked if he could use for his group) was completely the work of the younger Van Halen, who played EVERY instrument on the record. Over six years, he slaved over the album and the time taken was well worth it. The self-titled debut is a perfect record, from the strains of “Don’t Back Down” to the tune that Wolfgang wrote for his father, “Distance.” The ONLY issue I can see is that this record sets the bar EXTREMELY high for Wolfgang when he comes down to doing the follow-up.
This list is not all about established artists. Through my work, I have been exposed to some independent artists that are putting their blood, sweat and tears into their music and trying to work their way up to multi-platinum albums and stadium shows. One of those groups that I have found is Austin, TX’s The Metal Byrds, who put out arguably their best effort in their fourth career album, naturally titled 4.
Vocalist Suzanne Birdie and guitarist Sly Rye both carry full time jobs (Rye is a first responder, Birdie works with an airline) while they pursue their dreams of musical glory. They write about many different issues on 4, from paying tribute to a young fan on “Spitfire Pete” to enjoying their time away from their “day jobs” with “Life of the Party.” The download can be found on Bandcamp (a GREAT place to find lots of new music), where you can also pick up some of the other music from The Metal Byrds. These guys deserve to get that major label deal – they have the talent, they’ve got the drive, and they’ve got the substance from their catalog.
Up next might be a surprising choice from me, at least to those that know me. During the pandemic shutdown, Americana legend Lucinda Williams did shows called “Lu’s Jukebox” where she performed music that has shaped her musical stylings. Those pandemic recordings have become a six-part series of CDs, with five of them already out and the sixth, a tribute to The Rolling Stones, coming out in 2022.
Of the efforts, my personal favorite has been Williams’ tribute album to the late Tom Petty. Running Down a Dream: A Tribute to Tom Petty took Williams a bit outside her comfort zone, especially when attacking such rock classics as Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “You Wreck Me.” But she did an outstanding job throughout the album, which was the first one released of the series. You would be well advised to pick up ALL of the CDs, but especially Williams’ tribute to Tom Petty (in the series she also covers country music tunes and Bob Dylan).
OK, just suggested six CDs in that last segment, so I am going to name two in this one because the ladies are quite similar in their approaches. First up is the return of 90s spitfire Liz Phair, whose 2021 CD Soberish deserves a place on every “top album” list for the year. After a decade away from the game, Phair showed that she had not lost any of her prickly nature, nor her ability to craft a song. The title track in particular was outstanding, as was her ode to Lou Reed, “Hey Lou.”
The tandem partner to the Phair CD would be another discovery I found during my radio work this year. Tamar Berk’s the restless dreams of youth (yes, Berk is a Rush fan!) was simply an excellent demonstration of crafting an album. With turns of phrase that remind you of Phair, Berk still makes her music her own, especially on tunes like “Socrates and Me” and “Shadow Clues.” This is an artist that deserves more attention for her efforts – get to Bandcamp and give Berk’s work some love.
As Monty Python used to say “And now for something completely different…”
The band Ice Nine Kills carved a niche out in hard rock three years ago with an album called The Silver Scream. The 2018 album was Spencer Charnas and Company’s interpretations of classic horror and slasher films in a musical context. They did such an excellent job with it that it deserved its own sequel, as horror and slasher films are wont to do – hence, Welcome to Horrorwood: The Silver Scream II makes an appearance on our list.
You might think they would run out of ways to do these songs, but INK continues to produce inventive and entertaining ways to interpret these compositions. On The Silver Scream II, most notable are “Hip to be Scared” (an ode to the movie American Psycho), “Rainy Day” (taking on the Resident Evil franchise) and even the classic “The Shower Scene” (yes, about the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho). Can Charnas and Ice Nine Kills continue with the sequels? As they say, let’s tune in a couple of years down the road.
You cannot put together a “best of” list for 2021 without including Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters. Just when you think they are getting too old to play this game anymore, they come up with one of their best efforts in years in Medicine at Midnight. It has been a fantastic year for the band, with their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and other accolades, and the success of Midnight is well deserved.
This is another group that I found through my efforts in radio, coming out of Canada. Sumo Cyco is like No Doubt and Slipknot had a baby, and the resulting album this year, Initiation, was perfectly crafted to display the skills of the band. Such tracks as “Vertigo” and “Bystander” should have gotten much more airtime from mainstream radio – that they did not is a huge crime.
We are going to wrap this up with a couple of bluesy acts.
First up is the Jamie Porter Band, who released their latest CD MMXXI just last month. The band often gets lopped in with the NWOCR category (New Wave of Classic Rock) that is quite popular in the United Kingdom, but I think that Jamie Porter and his entourage just do some damn great blues rock. “Save Me” and “You Can’t Bring Me Down” are the best efforts off this CD, but the entirety is a joy to sit back and listen to with a drink in hand.
Finally, we have guitarist Samantha Fish, who released her newest CD Faster in the final quarter of 2021. Fish has already gained acclaim for her guitar prowess, and she is taking that talent to the next level in working with differing sounds and genres. She caught a little flak from the blues community for working with Tech 9ine on one of the best tracks on the album, “Loud,” but Fish was stubborn in her insistence on collaborating with the rapper. “All Ice No Whiskey” and “Crowd Control” further demonstrated that Fish is continuing to expand her world beyond just the blues box.
While these are the “best of,” I would be remiss if I didn’t name a few “Honorable Mentions” to the roster. Check these albums out too:
Lilith Czar, Created from Filth and Dust
Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Black Veil Brides, The Phantom Tomorrow
Garbage, No Gods No Masters
With that, go forth and do your shopping! Oh, and while you are doing that, what were some of your choices for the best albums of the year? It is always good to hear what others might think!