Best of 2021: Metal music was both salvation and catharsis in a year that has stuttered and started, progressed and regressed and felt filled with hope and heaviness all at once.
It’s a good sign that the balance of this year’s poll leans away from simply naming the legacy acts and giants of the genre. In many cases, your votes went to contemporary names – bands like Gojira and Trivum who have released what will likely go down as landmark albums in 2021.
That said, our winners only put out a single, but as ever, they remain hard to ignore…
1. Mick Thomson, Jim Root (Slipknot)
We said goodbye to founding member and former drummer Joey Jordinson in July and Slipknot spent much of this year out of the spotlight. However, they are not a band to do things by halves and when they made their live return in September, they went in feet first. Raging return single – their first new music in two years – The Chapeltown Rag – also drew a line in the sand: questioning the insidious role of social media in our lives, against a backdrop of industrial, machine-like riffing. Protective equipment required.
2. Matt Heafy, Corey Beaulieu (Trivium)
The US metaller’s released their 10th album, In The Court Of The Dragon, in 2021. They marked the milestone with a record of epic scope: melding mythological inspirations with contemporary questions of power and control. Musically, it’s a riff tapestry: weaving in elements of thrash and tech metal with melodic lead work in some awe-inspiring arrangements.
3. Mike Stringer (Spiritbox)
Spiritbox’s Eternal Blue was quite possibly the most exciting metal debut of 2021. The inclusion of Mike Stringer on this list of established names shows the strength of their impact. Stringer seems to breathe pit-friendly riffs but seems equally at home on the electronic and synth sections, manipulating pick scrapes and ultra-low tunings into fluid new forms.
4. Joe Duplantier, Christian Andreu (Gojira)
Following up a breakthrough like 2016’s Magma was always going to be fraught, but on 2021’s Fortitude Gojira once again fearlessly embraced change. Whether they’re riffing to tribal throat singing, slipping in major key progressions, or stacking delays, the result is a record that is heavy, expansive and yet joyfully open to new possibilities.
5. Mark Tremonti, Eric Friedman (Tremonti)
Tremonti, like most of us, experienced a palpable shift of perspective in 2020 – one compounded by the experience of becoming a father again, against a backdrop of upheaval and uncertainty. His fifth Tremonti record documents this thought process, expressing it sizeable themes through material that is more sprawling and progressive, yet still maintains that Tremonti tightness.
6. Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, Janick Gers (Iron Maiden)
Sometimes in life, you just need Iron Maiden to drop a new album in your lap and say, ‘Yes. Things are messed up. Here’s why, with riffs.’ 2021’s Senjutsu did just that. Eddie donned the samurai armour, while ‘Maiden took the sword (and Smith, Murray and Gers’ three axes) to politics, corruption and world leaders.
7. John 5 (Rob Zombie)
If at the end of 2020, you asked the fan on the street which veteran artist was likely to release a Billboard number one in 2021, few would have said Rob Zombie. However, on The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy he did just that. A catchy, weird and contemporary blend of John 5’s encyclopaedic rock guitar style and Zombie’s psychedelic processing of trash culture.
8. Sean Long, Mat Welsh (While She Sleeps)
The Sheffield metallers fifth album Sleeps Society was the sound of the hard-grafting band hitting a point of critical mass. Created in a year rife with personal struggles and isolation, the messages of the record – unity, self belief and defiance – connected, and all across a dynamic musical bed that has evolved way beyond the metalcore template.
9. Diamond Rowe, Josh Fore (Tetrarch)
As with the likes of Code Orange and Loathe, Tetrarch are taking the monstrous melodies of nu-metal and mixing it up with a dose of contemporary heaviness. Rowe has mastered of unsettling lead tones of James ‘Munky’ Schaffer but found her own voice, in the process.
10. Martin Larsson, Jonas Stålhammar (At The Gates)
The death metal maestros’ latest album The Nightmare Of Being was inspired by horror novelists and philosophy. It captured a sense of lurking threat, existentialist dread and humanity’s dark side that proved an ideal soundtrack for life on earth in the early 2020s. The playing and arrangement is spectacular and it is cathartic in its bleakness. Otherwise, there is no upside. Just “labyrinthian nights”, “the black depths of the cosmos itself” and “the white hands of death”. Happy new year!