This year’s rock round-up is filled with legacy talent, but no one’s talking about the death of guitar music anymore. The other categories in our end of year polls – from pop/funk to metal and progressive – have been filled with original young players remoulding the instrument into different forms.
However, even the most innovative, tech-savvy new guitarist will acknowledge that it’s hard to beat the wail of a tube amp and the thud of the kick drum. As one of the artists below once put it, ‘Hey hey, my my, rock ’n’ roll will never die…’
1. Best rock guitarist, 2021: Jake Kiszka (Greta Van Fleet)
The Greta Van Fleet guitarist stretched his wings on 2021’s The Battle At Garden’s Gate. Kiszka is a player who still treasures his classic rock influences, but he has broadened his reach, incorporating bits of Rush- and Journey-like melodic complexity alongside his previous knack for Jimmy Page-esque pentatonic histrionics.
2. Steve Vai
It’s been a year of experimentation for Vai. He debuted his insane Hydra guitar build, injured his hand while holding a chord for 20 minutes (thankfully, he made a full recovery) and appeared on a a killer track, Diamond Ring , with Dirty Loops’ Jonah Nilsson and Quincy Jones. Meanwhile, he’s prepping the release of his 2022 album Inviolate, with the release of new single Little Pretty.
3. Dave Grohl, Chris Shiflett, Pat Smear (Foo Fighters)
2021 was the year that Foo Fighters released their 10th record Medicine At Midnight. Enjoying the disco influences that fed into it, they then put out their covers collection, Hail Satin, under the alias of the Dee Gees, schooled Westboro Baptish Church in disco outfits and made us all welling up when they finally played live with Nandi Bushell. No! YOU’RE crying…
4. Tom Morello
Morello hit a rich seam in 2020, paradoxically finding a focus and creative freedom in the lockdowns of 2020. It led him to a huge range of off-the-cuff collaborations. The result was a star-studded double album drop in 2021, with Morello’s Atlas Underground records featuring everyone from Bring Me The Horizon to IDLES and Rodrigo y Gabriela.
5. Jerry Cantrell
The Alice In Chains man released his third solo record, Brighten, in 2021. It is, like much of Cantrell’s best material, dark and melodic, beautiful and ugly all at once. He’s also been busy working with Gibson on a run of signature models, including the stunning Wino Les Paul Custom.
6. Peter Frampton
For his 2021 album, Frampton compiled sumptuous instrumental covers of a diverse array of influences and musical passions, including Radiohead’s Reckoner, Bowie’s Loving The Alien and Bryan Ferry’s Avalon. Despite battling the degenerative disease inclusion body myositis (IBM), he has not lost his touch.
7. Wolfgang Van Halen (Mammoth WVH)
Following the illness and eventual untimely death of Eddie Van Halen in Autumn 2020, the young Van Halen threw himself into a solo album in the truest sense – writing and recording all the instruments on Mammoth WVH self-titled debut. He's since fleshed out the band but the writing is deeply personal. Distance – a heart-on-its-sleeve gut-punch of grief – floors us every time.
8. Neil Young
Barn is Young’s 41st album. It seems remarkable that any artist has 41 albums in them, but perhaps it makes sense that with 40 prior attempts, Young can produce something of this quality in 2021. Rustic, tender and melodic – it’s bruised and whispering at points, but the eight-minute Welcome Back reveals a powerful spirit still at work.
9. Lindsey Buckingham
Buckingham has looked like he’s been having a lot of fun in 2021. He finally released his delayed self-titled solo album (appropriately named, given he handled all the instrumentation); leant his stunning fingerstyle playing to Halsey’s hit Darling; and went on the road for his first tour since undergoing heart surgery in 2019.
10. J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr)
Kurt Vile jumped in the producer’s chair for Dinosaur Jr.’s latest, Sweep It Into Space. It’s a nice pairing, but Mascis is Mascis – he has a sound like no other. His consistency as a guitarist, vocalist and writer is all the more remarkable for its apparent fragility.