Now that I’ve thoroughly eviscerated everything I disliked about the music of 2021, I’m going to get marginally more positive. Here’s a look at the state of alternative music and various observations I made about songs and albums throughout the year and really should have written down as they came.
- The most obvious trend that slunk to the forefront in 2021 is the groovification of alt-rock. Suddenly everyone became a soulful lounge lizard, disfiguring the crystalline atmosphere of early 2010s “indie R&B” with garish nods to the mellowest parts of the 70s. Everything that artists like Active Child, SOHN, How to Dress Well, and Autre Ne Veut built was mined and turned into derivative junk by the likes of Chet Faker, Black Pumas, Bakar, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Alt-J and to some degree Bastille. All artists that are entirely capable of different styles, but insistent on releasing boring, flatline singles to fit in. It was all flange guitar and falsetto by some chud who has no business singing in falsetto. If you want the perfect example of everything I’m describing, you can find it in this song.
So who do we blame for this? The road leads very plainly to the breakthrough popularity of Glass Animals and “Heat Waves”, but like I said this genre has been simmering for a long time, morphing slowly over the past 10+ years into its current state. Lo-fi Hip-Hop Beats for Studying compilations are also a culprit as much as they are a meme, although every artist that steals them seems to ignore the interesting parts of them and only focus on the poorly produced guitar, microphone hiss and muffled beats. It’s all style and zero substance. Much like another central figure in this map: James Blake. There are very, very few artists that I’ve completely written off as unlistenable but this guy is one of them. From his annoying falsetto to his laughably predictable drawn-out pauses between single piano chords, Blake has become a sort of godfather to all these acts, despite never once writing anything other than banal dirges.
- SYML and LANY are virtually identical artists. Not only are their names very similar, but they both deal in the above derided style with a few tweaks. They throw in a little 80s, a little sad emo-rapper crooning, and they’re both incredibly boring.
- I’ve harped on this incessantly over the years, but now that they’ve essentially become gospel for mainstream artists, I will once again express my massive dislike for the 2-minute song and the clipping/analog recording sound. Take Billie Eilish’s “NDA”, which features both of these trends. What could have been a massive hit ends up as some sort of truncated interlude that stops as soon as it starts to get interesting. Not only that, but it weirdly features the clipping on every other beat in the chorus, giving the impression that the dummy producer very intentionally distorted the drums like that.
- That same style of distorted drums showed up in so many songs this year that I won’t even bother trying to list them all. Modest Mouse’s single “We Are Between” uses the effect subtly, but it’s enough to irritate the ears with its dryness. CHVRCHES cranked that same effect up to the max on their single “How Not To Drown”, rendering it unlistenable. The blown-out drums totally overtake guest vocalist Robert Smith’s wilted orchid of a voice and waste a decent melody. Smith attempts to fix the issue with his own remix of the song, but the florid, sprawling arrangement causes an inverse problem. His voice is perfectly suited to his remix, but Lauren Mayberry ends up sounding shrill without the wall of synths behind her.
- You know who didn’t distort their drums to unsalvageable levels this time around? The Districts, who have thrown producer David Fridmann out on his ass and brought in Joe Chicarelli for their new album. The first two songs are promising – standard song structure, polished production – so fingers crossed the rest of the record follows suit. Have I ever written about how horrible that last Fridmann produced record was? Three songs with incredible potential ( “Hey Jo”, “Cheap Regrets” and “Velour and Velcro”) wasted with either horrible production or weird, anticlimactic structure. These could have been massive hits but Fridmann ruined them, just like the last Interpol album he produced.
While we’re talking about The Districts, check out this snippet of an article about their new album:
The Districts have a “usual guitar style”? Not really. Also, if they were to – why would you not describe it? As well as describing these mysterious “other textural elements” and “emotional lyrics”. Music journalism is dead.
- Gary Numan – the new-waver who did “Cars” in 1979 – is older than my dad, and also just released a heavy industrial rock album. That in itself is pretty cool, if a little strange for someone nearing their mid-60s. What’s really weird about it though, is that Gary Numan also seems to be very emo. His lyrics are about broken shadows and betrayal and darkness and make me feel sad that someone at that age feels emotions so painful that he has to express himself with teenage poetry. I hope life gets better for you soon, Gary Numan.
- Cold War Kids have now become a second-string version of OneRepublic, which doesn’t affect me in the least bit but it delights me to no end thinking about the reactions of the idiot hipsters who loved them back in 2007. “ThEy SoLd OuT!!!!UgHH I CaNt LiStEn tO tHem”. Except in a dryer, more ironic way.
- Royal Blood very obviously want to be the world’s biggest rock band this decade, a position for which they have absolutely zero competition and are still failing to achieve. Every one of their songs falls flat, coming across like Muse and DFA1979 had an anemic child.
- I remember when I first heard “Wrecked” by Imagine Dragons this year, I had this massive urge to run home and write a whole post about how even though they’ve had scorn heaped upon them since the very beginning, at least they’ve stuck to their Gatorade rock formula faithfully over the years. Then I heard the rest of the album and it’s a disparate mixed bag of genres just like everyone else, including their (even cornier) acolytes X-Ambassadors. In fact it almost sounds like the polyglot mess that was Mikki Ekko’s debut album, which I will forever consider one of the worst albums of all time. Stick to the leg day anthems, Imagine Dragons.
- Meanwhile, in Canada, “rock throne” heirs-apparent Arkells continue to release their utterly flat and unmelodic yell-fests at an unprecedented rate. Every song is just a manic 9000-volt track stuffed to the brim with lazy hooks. Listen, I know, we’ve all heard that they’re super-swell guys and are all really talented. OK, even if that’s true, they will never be the Hip. Although it appears that after years of rock radio domination, they’re finally starting to influence newer bands. This year alone saw new releases from Ferraro and Lost in Japan, both of whom are madly vying for that opening slot on an Arkells tour. Because they sound identical to Arkells.
- We have entered an era of music so bleak that Vance Joy’s “Missing Piece”, with its verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure and pleasant dynamics sounds like a pop masterpiece.
- I feel very old when listening to the music of some newer acts. Songs by artists like ELIO, guccihighwaters, and Glades are written from a worldview so different from my own that I cannot relate to them at all. It’s a very subtle thing – mostly implicit – but the trials and tribulations of the zoomer are things that I simply don’t understand. I am relieved to report however that I still do not enjoy Matt Berninger’s terminally dull dad rock.
- Another thing I like about myself is that I don’t hold unwavering loyalty to my personal tastes. While I have loudly and repeatedly talked about the singular importance of melody in music, I can also admit that there is such a thing as being too melodic. That’s a strange trend I’ve noticed in newer releases from new wave artists like OMD, New Order, Simple Minds, and most recently Duran Duran and Tears for Fears. All bands I very much enjoy, but also bands that have gotten a little saccharine with their tunes in recent years. It’s pleasant music, but fleeting as well.
- It took me years to figure out the deal with The Glorious Sons. I just didn’t understand who they were as a band. It wasn’t until I saw them live that most of the puzzle pieces came together and they stood before me, the northern trailer park version of Imagine Dragons. The final few puzzle pieces fell into place this year with their song “Hold Steady”, a hair-metal anthem made to be used over NHL play-by-plays. “Oh,” I realized, “they are the Hockey Band, and they make Hockey Music”.
- Amy Shark is happily married and yet she is still writing songs about being obsessed with past crushes and sloppy mistakes that infatuation led her to. Which I just find weird is all.
- The Lumineers “Brightside” is OK, but there’s something off about it that doesn’t quite let it be as big as the band thinks it is. It’s very obviously modelled after lead singer Wesley Schulz’s Sheryl Crow cover from last year, but with a lesser hook. I think I just don’t like the rough, coarse guitar.
- The pop-alternative crossover universe seems to have coalesced into two camps: the Matt Berninger/Bon Iver camp, and the Travis Barker camp. The latter has essentially become a zone of sickly sounding emo-rappers like YUNGBLUD, Machine Gun Kelly, Grandson, Yelawolf, KennyHoopla, and Powfu.
- Sam Fender’s new record has hints of greatness on it, but ultimately every song falls just a little bit short of being a hit. The next album will be a make-or-break situation for him.
- I’m about as far as someone can get from being a fan of goof-poppers AJR, but if there was any justice in this world then their collaboration with indie duo Daisy the Great would be a worldwide mega-hit. This is the kind of song the music industry should be pouring buckets of money into. The “haunted carousel in a fun house” vibe is quintessentially 2021, and the endless hooks are tailor made for TikTok loops.
- I saw ROMES open for Silversun Pickups many years ago and after the concert checked out their music only to be disappointed by their bland hooks. I think I may have checked them out one more time in the following years and was similarly disappointed. Then suddenly they released the song “supaglue” and it sounds like a song Foster the People should have released in the past 5 years.