It’s that time of year again! I love to read everyone’s album of the year lists, and I love the self-indulgent, obsessive process of writing my own. We, the ‘music writers’ of the DIY punk rock scene love to have critical debates comparing and dissecting releases and this is the geeky culmination of all that zealous effort.
2021 has been a weird musical mix for me; I’ve learned every word of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, memorised every note of Circadian by Intervals, and I’ve watched the video for FKJ’s Ylang Ylang EP enough times that I dreamt I lived in their studio. My existence is a diet of NPR Tiny Desk Sessions, friendly voices on The Seabin Podcast, and mind-bending instrumental math rock.
My not-so-punk-rock album of the year contenders include Nubiyan Twist Freedom Fables, Little Simz Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Sons of Kemet Black To The Future, Sault Nine, Emma-Jean Thackray Yellow, Joe Tilston Tightrope … but we’re not here to talk about that, are we? I’ve already stretched the definition of ‘punk rock’ beyond recognition with my list below.
I’m excited for 2022. Covid-19 still looms like the sword of Damocles, made double-edged by the frustrating shortage of vinyl, threatening to delay album releases and cancel the events we’ve waited so long for. I’m choosing positivity, but perhaps not optimism. So many bands have been sat on records this year that 2022’s bound to be a belter.
In order of preference to build narrative tension, here are my Top 10 favourite releases of 2021. If you can’t be arsed reading (you lazy bastard), check out my Spotify playlist of this year’s notable releases.
#10: Knocked Loose – A Tear In The Fabric Of Life
This is brutal. Really fucking brutal. Which is, occasionally, exactly what I need to get me out of bed in the morning. This EP has rattled me to my very core and embedded itself in my bones.
Knocked Loose released A Tear In The Fabric of Life as a surprise in October, alongside an animated film full of disturbing pseudo-religious imagery and strobe lights. It is, in fact, a concept album about loss, grief and desolation. The theme resonates with me, but I feel like I’d need to get intimate with the liner notes to understand what’s going on properly. Either way, they’ve embraced the artistry of hardcore with this, creating an intense 20 minutes of emotionally-charged screeching.
Although this was their pandemic-isolation project, I also became a bit obsessed with Mistakes Like Fractures this year (off their 2019 album), and fell into a Knocked Loose hole as a result. They’ve set the hardcore bar incredibly high, and they’re one of the bands I’m most excited to see in the UK in 2022.
#9: Maisonette – PANIC EARTH
Since they quietly disappeared at some stage in late 2018, I’ve been waiting for someone to pick up where Gnarwolves left off. Whilst it’s not quite the lofty heights of Smoking Kills, Maisonette have taken a good run at it with their PANIC EARTH EP.
Humbly named, Maisonette’s a new project from Ryan Mansell (Fastfade, Making Friends). Ryan’s got an annoyingly pure talent for writing memorable choruses – I must have learned the lyrics within the space of one listen, which is a rare thing. Sparky, upbeat skate sensibilities underlie PANIC EARTH musically, but the lyrics are pure emo – “I’m creeping out myself because I’m really losing it,” is an accurate reflection of my own brain whilst writing this article.
Primarily, the EP reminds me of Forever Unclean, which is one hell of a compliment. It feels young and fresh and just a little bit stupid, and that’s why I love it. Four tracks just isn’t enough.
P.S., Why is everyone using all-caps this year? Please stop.
#8: Shackleford – Shackleford III
Some evil genius put Shackleford on ice in 2003 and defrosted them right here in 2021. For a debut album, Shackleford III manages to sound like a release from another era, without sounding dated or especially derivative.
3AM is a work of melodic telepathy, like Shackleford have taken a magnifying glass to my 20s and stuck some harmonies over the top. The fact that lyrically it feels like a disconcerting horoscope just goes to show how relatable Shackleford’s writing it. The Attrition and On Asphodel have a similar affect on me, and the whole album feels like seeing a friend for the first time in 10 years and picking up right where you left off. It’s a little bit of punk rock comfort.
Shackleford are a band that are firmly underrated – a gem waiting to be discovered in a mire of middle-of-the-road pub punk rock bands. I’ve underestimated them as well, I forget how good they are until each time I get to see them live, when I’m bowled over by their harmonies and their irresistible earworm choruses. There’s a little sprinkle of genius in their songwriting – the perfect homage to so many familiar punk rock bands, with a modern twist.
#7: La Armada – All the singles they’ve released this year combined
La Armada put out six singles this year, but their album Anti-Colonial II has been delayed to 2022, in part due to the vinyl crisis (yes, I’m calling it a crisis). If it weren’t for that delay, the album would without question rocket up my 2021 AOTY list. I have rinsed these songs for everything they’re worth over the last couple of months, so I thought it was unfair and/or inaccurate to leave them out.
Six singles: White Jesus, Checkmate Humanity, Opias, All We Know, La Fe No Abasta and Death On Replay. All of them brutally heavy, acerbically political, discomforting listens. La Armada produces music that is tough and dissonant, but there’s this underlying groove in everything they do that makes it irresistible.
If this were a press release, I’d tell you that they incorporate Afro-Caribbean rhythms from their Dominican Republic roots, which they use as a vehicle to deliver lessons about neo-colonialism. This is not a press release, so I’d rather say that I think they’re fucking excellent – that’s a gut instinct that I can’t articulate in words. I feel a magnetic draw towards La Armada’s music and I can’t wait for the whole album to be unleashed.
#6: Animal Byproducts – Attempts At Understanding
If I have one prayer for 2022, it’s that everyone gets to hear Animal Byproducts. This band are wonderful, charming, subtle, delightful and … unique, although they’ll gel well with fans of bands like Fresh and Martha. Listening to Animal Byproducts is a bit like getting followed down the road by a friendly ginger cat, catching a glimpse of a rainbow over terraced houses, and then finding £20 on the floor: a humble, unexpected bit of everyday happiness.
Lyrically, Attempts at Understanding is quite a stark critique of toxic masculinity (“Chuck out shit men!”), a reflection on love, and rejection of societal binaries, all overlaying beautifully intricate and pleasant melodies. Josh Molloy, vocalist and the trumpeter of this lovely parp-punk band, wrote an article about bisexuality in punk rock for us a couple of years ago, and the second track There Are Dozens of Us! explores the same topic. The songwriting here is incredibly clever and relatable.
INiiT Records (run by our favourite guy, Mark Bartlett) have teamed up with Animal Byproducts to do a physical release of Attempts At Understanding in 2022, so hopefully there’ll be the opportunity for everyone to listen.
#5: Sniff – Self Titled EP
I’m in love with Sniff, along with 90% of the current UK DIY scene. Alex Smith from Bobby Funk surprised everyone with this honest, cleverly-crafted solo EP at some stage in September. It exploded across my socials and the second I hit play on Bandcamp, I immediately understood why everyone was so excited about it.
It’s hard to concisely describe how electrifying, how engaging, how enchanting Sniff is. There’s something quite special here in the simplicity of its songwriting, its intrinsic understanding of how to write a pop song, and its raw punk rock energy.
Sniff’s stark and relatable lyrics are big part of why this EP works so well. The lead single Queer outright talks about his experiences of bisexuality in a such concise and precise manner that it’s hard not to understand. Shifting explores Alex’s experiences of getting sober, in a way that relates to my personal experience more than any song I’ve ever heard – it’s like he’s spent some time inside my skull.
Also, it’s got a dog holding a double-ended dildo on the cover. Who doesn’t want that in their collection?
#4: Amigo The Devil – Born Against
This is not a punk rock album. Do I care? Nope. It’s my website and I’ll write whatever the fuck I want.
I’m fairly sure Eliott from Nosebleed has single-handedly managed to spread the love for Amigo The Devil across the entire DIY punk scene. It’s hard not to become instantly obsessed with his self-described unique brand of ‘murder folk’. Lyrically, everything he writes is richly dark, sumptuously disturbing and terrifyingly romantic. It’s also terribly clever.
Highlights from Born Against start with the captivating story of Murder At The Bingo Hall, through the barbed-wire euphemisms of Better Ways To Fry A Fish, and gently plucked banjo refrain of 24k Casket. I include this in the list in the hopes that you go and check it out for yourself.
Yes, it’s country. Yes, it’s folk. Yes, it’s dark and weird as all fuck. But every song Amigo The Devil crafts is pure genius. This is a beautiful, rich record and 2021 would have been a darn slight less interesting without it.
#3: Turnstile – GLOW ON
I can’t overlook Turnstile. When GLOW ON first dropped my overriding thought was, “Fuck, this is well overrated.” The collective internet seemed to be creaming their knickers over an album that had all this weird twinkly guitar that’s trying desperately to sound like a synth, with lyrics that are simple and repetitive … to my ear, it was this very basic-bitch hardcore with the kind of nostalgic eighties flavour that is unnecessarily popular at the moment. And it’s PINK.
At first, I only listened to it because I thought I’d best see what all the hype is about. Then I wasn’t sure what I fancied listening to one day, so I popped it on again. Then I played it again. And again. All of a sudden I can’t get UNDERWATER BOI out of my head, I’m howling the lyrics to MYSTERY at the top of my lungs whilst I do the washing up. I must have listened to it six times on repeat whilst stuck in traffic on the M6. Overrated? Clearly, I just didn’t get it.
Now I’m sat here watching Turnstile’s GLOW ON record release gig on YouTube and thinking that I’m witnessing a fragment of history. GLOW ON has the warm familiarity of a handknit jumper, twinned with the all-caps pastel vibe of the TikTok generation, with a magical wink towards something new, dark and precious blossoming. Like a crystal forming in a cave millions of years ago, pressure and circumstance have brought forth this beautiful, addictive album of modern hardcore. For years to come, there are going to be bands citing HOLIDAY as an influence. It took time to grow on me, but I’m firmly in the Turnstile camp now.
#2: The JB Conspiracy – Beginnings
A strangely titled record for a band that I’ve been stalking since at least 2009, Beginnings is a close-to-flawless slice of alternative rock. One might call The JB Conspiracy a ska-punk band but, personally, I feel that’s a reductive term for a band the calibre of JB. Sure, there’s some ska flavours in there are multiple songs with bouncy upstrokes, but to my ear, it’s intricate, poppy alternative rock with the most interesting instrumentation this side of a full orchestra.
Beginnings is a complex, dynamic musical piece; the album far exceeds the combination of singles, offering a lively ride through hits and breaks and upbeat/downbeat numbers. Starting Again is the standout single, an inspirational anthem-in-waiting. Falling Down verges on sultry, the brass reviving memories of humid summer nights. The whole album ebbs and flows and changes, each song arriving like a breath of fresh air or a hug from an old friend. The production is so polished that it sparkles brighter than Joe Frend’s sax.
I didn’t think it was possible to top 2007’s This Machine, but Beginnings certainly stands strong alongside it. It’s like The JB rewound 10 years and lifted the baton we didn’t know they’d dropped. Beginnings is imbued with musical alchemy, a glimmering diamond of a record in a year of bad news and cancelled plans. The JB Conspiracy might be headlining DIY gigs, but they are woefully underrated: musical genius held in waiting.
#1: Kali Masi – [laughs]
At some point this year, I fell madly in love with Kali Masi. There was a weird night in November where I found myself lying on the floor of my living room with the lights turned out, spinning [laughs] for the fourth consecutive play … I’ve found myself holding back tears to Still Life more times than I can count.
Those I’ve introduced to Kali Masi seem to pass them off as part of the derivative Menzingers/Spanish Love Songs pool, which doesn’t even begin to do them justice. Sure, there’s a flavour of midwest emo underlying a lot of their songs, and there’s certainly a Flatliners influence, but their approach is far more experimental or post-punk. They’ve thrown the rules of standard song composition out the window, telling stories through poetry and unpredictable instrumentation.
Their signature style is swells of tension and softly-picked moments of near-silence; honey-smooth vocals stirring gently, punctuated by crashing bursts of guitars and drums and feelings that you didn’t know you had inside. Lyrically and musically, Kali Masi ebb and flow like a river through a mountain forest: at times ripples, at times a steady flow, at times a cascading waterfall.
They don’t write songs – they write poetic stories and that exist in perfect harmony with the music. Sam Porter’s lyrics are evocative, descriptive and infinitely inkable. All the tracks on [laughs] produce such a melee of emotions in me when I’m listening that it’s no wonder I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole of obsession. I feel moved and mesmerised by this album, intimately involved with its each and every fill, run and crescendo chorus. Nothing short of incredible.
Other notable punk rock releases for me include:
- Dollar Signs – Hearts of Gold
- Descendents – 9th & Walnut
- Grand Collapse – Empty Plinths
- Incisions – BLISS
- Burning Flag – Matador
- Misgivings – Dream Neighbour
- Jeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM
- Actionmen – Supa Baba!
- Drones – Our Hell Is Right Here
And that’s it from me. Here’s to a better time in 2022.
Written by Sarah Williams. Cover image by Jim Taylor.