Best of 2021: Perhaps it's the inevitable burst of activity that followed last year’s music restrictions, but our 2021 prog poll feels unusually stuffed with big names. That doesn’t mean there’s not room for a few surprises, but let’s just say that this year’s winner feels like he’s booked a residency at the top of this poll…
1. Winner, 2021: John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
2020’s champion maintains his crown – and it shows no sign of slipping. Dream Theater released their 15th studio album, A View from the Top of the World, in 2021. Petrucci has said some of the material was inspired by the process of revisiting Images And Words (1992) and Metropolis Pt2: Scenes From A Memory (1999) for anniversary tours, but far from the snake eating its own tail, he continues to push himself as a player, experimenting with eight-strings and composing 20-minute epic, Summersault.
2. Steve Hackett
The prog guitar icon has celebrated a landmark year, with 2021 marking 50 years since he joined Genesis. “And I’m still a sprightly young lad,” remarked Hackett.
He’s certainly writing and playing like one, releasing two studio albums this year, in the form of Surrender of Silence and the acoustic Under a Mediterranean Sky - the latter the result of the pandemic leaving him at home with just his acoustics.
3. Steve Howe (Yes)
Another veteran prog warrior who, ever true to his progressive instincts, refuses to stop pushing. Yes returned in 2021 with The Quest – their first album in seven years – and Howe is still experimenting, weaving in new instruments and more of his classical influences to the band’s writing process.
4. Brent Hinds, Bill Kelliher (Mastodon)
Mastodon’s Hushed And Grim was created following the death of the band’s longtime manager and mentor Nick John. It is a suitably epic tribute – their first double album and longest record – yet Hinds and Kelliher don’t waste a note, creating an album of intricately woven heaviness that never feels flabby.
5. Alex Lifeson
Despite the sad reasons behind the decision, we’re pleased to see Alex Lifeson enjoying the freedom from Rush’s mega tour cycle.The guitarist has spent much of 2021 indulging experiments and new collaborations. Whether it’s releasing instrumentals, collaborating with Tom Morello and Kirk Hammett or his Envy Of None side project with Andy Curran, Lifeson is keeping busy.
6. Steven Wilson
The contemporary progressive icon knows how to keep his fans guessing. His delayed electronic prog pop album The Future Bites finally landed in January 2021, and represented probably who is starkest departure from the dark, heavy progressive sound that stalked his early material. Within the same year, though, has come the surprise announcement of a new Porcupine Tree record - Closure/Continuation – the band’s first in nearly 13 years.
7. Paul Waggoner, Dustie Waring (Between The Buried And Me)
For Waggoner and Waring, 2021 was the year of Colors II – the sequel to 2007’s Colors. Like its spiritual predecessor, the album finds the band of forward-thinking genre misfits re-examining their place among the wider metal landscape. It’s a buoyant, restless record – a technicolor bruising, if you will.
8. Tor Oddmund Suhrke, Robin Ognedal (Leprous)
The Norwegian prog magnates seem to go from strength to strength. 2021’s Aphelion is complex yet un-calculated. Entwining string arrangements, spacious dynamics and mountainous rock crescendos, it was recorded in a more off the cuff manner but feels focussed and full of life.
9. Roine Stolt (Transatlantic)
Prog super group Transatlantic called their 2021 record The Absolute Universe – and given it has a complete runtime of 90 minutes that seems about right. The album was originally completed in September 2019 but, stuck at home for 2020, Stolt and the gang had time to tinker and eventually gave fans the option of the abridged The Breath Of Life edition, or an expansive none-more-prog Forevermore edition, which really gives Stolt room to stretch.
10. Sithu Aye
Aye’s third instalment of his Senpai releases is an exercise in instrumental world building. The guitarist is deeply inspired by anime culture and has reportedly written an accompanying novella for his 2021 release. A true otaku’s take on progressive music.