In the second year of a global pandemic, there were several themes prevalent in music, but most of all sincerity and earnestness seemingly took the center stage. During the transitional period from full lockdown, to the brandishing of vaccination cards, many artists took their time away from touring to begin a deeper exploration of all the elements that go into the music they create. This perhaps led to some of the best songwriting we have heard yet throughout the singles, EPS, and albums released in 2021. These excellent collections of songs have utilized introspection and perseverance to celebrate new beginnings with their expansive array of emotions—creating an experience perfect for listening alone in a bedroom, or on one of the slowly reopening dancefloors worldwide.
One of the best things about nearly all the records on our year-end list for 2021 is that they are free of any pretension. This is perhaps why so many of these songs so perfectly capture the spirit of the 80s, a decade with music unabashedly lacking in self-consciousness yet wearing its heart on dayglo and pitch-black sleeves.
Nuovo Testamento’s Italo Disco meets Danceteria synth-pop revival on their first full-length LP is the epitome of this. Harkening to the days where multiple genres coalesced under the unified iridescence of one shimmering disco-ball, Nuovo Testamento’s New Earth is the perfect dancefloor soundtrack and my choice for album of the year. From the opener “Michelle Michelle”, to the closing track “Intuition”, every song on the album could be a single. New Earth is a mesmerizing blend of synth-driven dance music and post-punk, almost necessitating there be a Top of the Pops revival with dancers from Hot Gossip and Zoo swaying to each track like those post-lockdown clubgoers featured in the video for “The Searcher”.
Xeno and Oaklander continue the Italo theme with an album that showcases why Liz Wendelbo and Sean McBride (Martial Canterel) are the premier duo of analogue synth-pop, and how much the international music scene owes to their unrelenting genius. “Poison”, “Afar”, and “Infinite Sadness”, are ensnaring with their euro-pop authenticity, feeling as if on a Wierd Wednesday night at Home Sweet Home in NYC, you got lost in the copious fog enveloping the dancefloor and suddenly found yourself in a French disco circa 1982-84.
It’s always telling when your favorite songs on an album are not the singles, and such is the case with Kaelan Mikla’s Undir Köldum Norðurljósum (Under the Northern Lights). While their collaborative track with Alcest, “Hvítir Sandar” is a spellbinding shoegaze ballad, amazing in its own right, and “Stormurinn” is thunderous and bewitching with its dark alt-rock cohesiveness, I personally find tracks like “Örlögin”, and “Halastjarnan” as opalescent gems shining bright on an album that demonstrates why that these super cool queens of coldwave are naturally from Iceland.
RIKI’s second album Gold takes its inspirations from luminaries like Bowie and Bryan Ferry and transmutes them through Jungian alchemy into the shimmering “Florence and Selena”, one of the best-written and performed songs of the year. The album’s lead single “Marigold” isn’t shy about evoking the pop-sensibilities of Strawberry Switchblade, and “Viktor” gets all the post-punk cred in the world, being a love letter to the legendary Viktor Tsoi of Russian band KINO. A personal favorite is the LP’s midpoint, “Sonar”, a synth-driven track whose disarming vocal melody and sorrowful lyrics feel like the bridge between Gold, and its vastly different self-titled predecessor.
I would say that Veil of Light’s fantastic new album Landslide is the culmination of a nearly decade-long career, but the way this Swiss duo gets better with each progressive album, that statement could very well be false in a year or two when their next full-length comes out. “The Prayer Wheel” in particular is the standout track from a record you turn to when everything falls apart.
Below, in addition to the above top 5, is my full list for Best of 2021, followed by the top picks from our Senior editors Frank Deserto, and Andi Harriman.
1. Nuovo Testamento – New Earth
2. Xeno and Oaklander – Vi/deo
3. Kaelan Mikla – Undir Köldum Norðurljósum
4. RIKI – Gold
5. Veil of Light – Landslide
6. Pink Turns Blue – Tainted
7. The KVB Unity
8. Ploho – Phantom Feelings
9. Actors – Acts of Worship
10. Traitrs – Horses in the Abattoir
11. Creux Lies – Goodbye Divine
12. Glaare – Your Hellbound Heart
13. Odonis Odonis – Spectrums
14. Motorama – Before the Road
15. Sculpture Club – Worth
16. Kraków Loves Adana – Follow The Voice
17. Aurat – Zeher
18. Catherine Moan – Chain Reaction
19. Whispering Sons – Several Others
20. Wingtips – Cutting Room Floor
1. Kontravoid – Faceless
2. Ritual Veil – Keep Looking Down
3. Minuit Machine – Basic Needs
4. VR Sex – Cyber Crimes
5. Leathers – Reckless
1. Second Skin – Eyes Closed
2. Double Echo – The Bairn
3. Soft Kill – Cicero
4. Deathsomnia – Akinesia (She Past Away Remix)
5. Pulsations – Of Vultures And Sickles
This year felt brighter, bolder, more confident than the last. The world still burns, but I reckon we all did a lot less doomscrolling and a lot more celebrating as the year unfolded and live music began to fill the air once more. Music flourished, with longstanding projects coming out of hibernation with their strongest work to date while many new, inspiring artists melded genres and came out of the gate swinging, eager to carve out space in the musical wilderness.
Every artist on my list simply knocked it out of the park this year, whether it be the c86-flavored UV-TV‘s third offering (which clocked the most listens of anything on my list thus far), new projects from familiar faces such as Meridiane or Aeon Station (both albums which will be released in full shortly after this list is published, but I promise they’re excellent), or solid singles from bands such as Soft Kill and Deserta, which pave the way for what should be an equally incredible 2022. I’d like to give a special shoutout to Bitumen, a project I just discovered on our site one week ago, but have become a recent obsession of mine, tapping in an early 90s 120 Minutes soundscape that sounds both familiar, yet exciting.
Either way, I always find myself hopping genres between ambient, dark synth, italo, dream pop, EBM, jangle, and good ol’ classic guitar-driven post-punk so much in my day-to-day listening, it’s no wonder my list is equally expansive, showcasing all the cross-genre pollination and highlighting how expansive this scene truly is.
Much love to everyone here on this list and all the artists we’ve covered this last year. See and hear you all in 2022
1. Xeno and Oaklander – Vi/deo
2. UV-TV – Always Something
3. Nuovo Testamento – New Earth
4. Kaelan Mikla- Undir Köldum Norðurljósum
5. Desperate Journalist – Maximum Sorrow!
6. Aeon Station – Observatory
7. Meridiane – To Walk Behind the Sun
8. HTRK – Rhinestones
9. Odonis Odonis – Spectrums
10. Bitumen – Cleareye Shining
11. John Carpenter – Lost Themes III
12. Zanias – Unearthed
13. ESSES – Bloodletting for the Lonely
14. Low – Hey What
15. Last Ice – Last Ice
16. Rosegarden Funeral Party – In the Wake of Fire
17. Glaare – Your Hellbound Heart
18. Pink Turns Blue – Tainted
19. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
20. Kanga – You and I Will Never Die
1. Lycia – Casa Luna
2. 149 – 149
3. Kontravoid – Faceless
4. Minuit Machine – Basic Needs
5. Ritual Veil- Keep Looking Down
1. Soft Kill- “Cicero”
2. Just Mustard- “I Am You”
3. Vain Warr- “Fuck In the Fire”
4. Deserta – “Lost in the Weight”
5. Ships In the Night- “First Light”
This year felt different. As the residual to the tragedies and terrors of 2020, the music that was released this year had a new spirit—there were no boundaries in style or genre. Everything fused together: EBM and punk, deathrock and synthwave, industrial and pop all merged to create exciting music that didn’t feel overplayed. And as a continuation of last year, the prominence of EPs remained, leaving its succinct format to both emphasize and constrain (in the best way possible) an artist’s vision. Further, Second Skin’s series of singles were bold and unlike any other music this year with their lush and glittering new wave productions. It was a gutsy move but it paid off: “Eyes Closed” was, without a doubt, my favorite song of 2021 and it kept me wanting more.
However, layered and high production was not always at the forefront: the simplistic EBM of Deutsch Amerikanische Fruendschaft’s Nur Noch Einer once again proved why Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl’s legacy will remain for many decades to come. Forty years after Alles Ist Gut, DAF’s final offering to the world is raucous punk at its very best but, at the same time, also retains a purity dipped in synth melancholy. DAF never followed rules and never desired to do so—rest in peace, Gabi.
This idea of a give-no-fucks attitude that defied borders became noteworthy in my list. From Italo-disco created by deathrockers, Nuovo Testamento, on New Earth, to the melodic aggression of Un Hombre Solo’s Rotundo Fracaso EP, that element of surprise is what, ultimately, stood out for me. 2021 was genreless: it bred a romantic and diverse new world, one that we can all revel in.
1. Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft – Nur Noch Einer
2. Nuovo Testamento – New Earth
3. Veil of Light – Landslide
4. Blu Anxxiety – Plaay Dead
5. Riki – Gold
6. Zanias – Unearthed
7. Male Tears – Trauma Club
8. Aurat – Khaar
9. Mvtant – Gore + Mirrorshade
10. Pink Turns Blue – Tainted
11. Affet Robot – Fiyasko
12. Pixel Grip – ARENA
13. Nox Novacula – Ascension
14. Esses – Bloodletting for the Lonely
15. Front Line Assembly – Mechanical Soul
1. Un Hombre Solo – Rotundo Fracaso
2. Kontravoid – Faceless
3. Cabaret Voltaire – Shadow of Funk
4. Minuit Machine – Basic Needs
5. ¿LA PREGUNTA? – S/T EP
6. PC World – Order
7. Été 97 – Far Away
8. Rogelio – Love Pig
9. Ritual Veil – Keep Looking Down
10. Newboy – Newboy
1. Second Skin – “Eyes Closed”
2. Double Echo – “The Bairn”
3. Second Skin – “Colder”
4. Boy Harsher – “Give Me A Reason”
5. O/X – “Falling Into”
Listen to tracks from all our picks on our Post-Punk.com Best of 2021 Spotify Playlist below:
*Article artwork by Pasha Smith Designs