Words by Tim Anderl
Tim Anderl is Off Shelf‘s Shadow-Plays columnist and has also had his writing published in Alternative Press, Strength Skateboarding, Ghettoblaster, New Noise Magazine, among other alternative weekly newspapers, magazines and online publications/blogs. He’s the former host of the Sound Check Chat podcast and runs a boutique PR firm, Sweet Cheetah Publicity. Growing up in the rich culture of the ’80s lead Tim to a life-long love of music, including post-punk, new wave, darkwave, goth, dream pop.
Aeon Station – Observatory (Sub Pop)
Nearly two decades since the Wrens’ lauded indie rock classic The Meadowlands, the New Jersey band’s co-founders Kevin Whelan and Charles Bissell finally reached an impasse. Rather than rehash what has already been reported in music press far and wide, I’ll just say it’s a heartbreaking and seemingly contentious situation. All that aside, this collection of songs features three-quarters of the Wrens, including Greg Whelan and Jerry MacDonald, are at once unmistakably familiar and unsurprisingly lush, climactic, epic. It’s both a fitting final chapter in the post-Meadowlands mythology, and a satisfying first pillar in the emerging Aeon Station story.
Alien Boy – Don’t Know What I Am (Get Better Records)
As their Wipers-inspired moniker suggests, Portland’s Alien Boy, comprised primarily of songwriter Sonia Weber, drummer Derek McNeil, and their rotating cast of comrades offer guitar-heavy pop that harkens to the ‘80s with its brash charm, heavy use of chorus and distortion pedals. The group’s strength comes in its genuinely impactful, introspective lyrics and penchant for writing starry-eyed, hooky anthems. Although they don’t yet seem to have caught fire in the Midwestern circles I’m running in, I’m pretty certain that their tour with Soft Kill and Topographies that is already scheduled for 2022 will change that.
The Armed – Ultrapop (Sargent House)
Ultrapop is the third album from enigmatic Detroit-based art weirdo collective The Armed, but also my first exposure to the group. The ease with which these folks – 19 musicians is what I’ve read — conjure their chaotic and muscular racket will surely produce gooseflesh in any self-respecting hardcore musician or fan. But Ultrapop is more than that – its layer upon layer of texture and melody, pop nuance, twinkling synths, and discordant fuzz. This is undeniably elevated art and musical mastery at its finest, and any 2021 best-of list that misses this just isn’t to be trusted.
CHVRCHES – Screen Violence (Virgin)
The Scottish trio, now with four albums under their belts, deliver a horror-movie concept, and personally, it doesn’t feel ironic that they’ve chosen 2021 as the right time to do it. After nearly two-years of pandemic, I suspect we are all still feeling a little trapped, brutalized, victimized, horrified. The irony emerges in that the band can’t help themselves from exuding a joyfulness despite their concept. Simply, this is festival ready, synth pop at its most unapologetic. The album also offers a well-placed cameo from the Cure’s Robert Smith, a move that is always going to garner a smile and nod from this writer.
Kills Birds – Married (Royal Mountain Records)
The Los Angeles trio are another group that combines elements of punk, grunge and art-rock for a volatile, sonically ferocious sound. Nina Ljeti, whose family was displaced from Bosnia during the ‘90s, has seen some shit, and its apparent she’s exorcising a lot of demons as she delivers a cathartic performance, both vocally and lyrically, that is at once painfully relatable, if not a bit triggering. The band already counts Kim Gordon, Hayley Williams and Dave Grohl amongst their cheerleaders, which will surprise exactly no one that hears Married.
Massage – Still Life (Mt St Mtn / Tear Jerk / Bobo Integral)
Los Angeles-based, Pains of Being Pure at Heart-connected Massage operate at an interesting crossroads; harmonious, melodic in their melancholy, and with a breezy, yet confident understanding of pop songwriting, the group is as sweet and endearing as they are authentically cool. The praise other (probably more astute) writers, have heaped on the band is well-deserved, and comparisons to The Las, Stone Roses, New Order, the Creation, Sarah and Flying Nun Records catalogs are, n’t wrong. Believe the hype. [disclosure: Massage is a client of Sweet Cheetah Publicity]
Oh Condor – Emergency Psychic (Blind Rage Records)
Oh Condor juxtaposes an amalgam of rock influences in a perplexing, but satisfying, way. One moment the band is a hyperactive mathy guitar band, the next they’re tense jittery art-punks, and others they’re blissfully fuzzed out in shoegazers. Simply, they create a hard-to-classify cacophony that studious in its understanding of the indie rock playbook, but with a creative, rule-breaking swagger all its own. If the band had been old enough to benefit from the ‘90s indie rock signing frenzy that some of their Ohio forefathers enjoyed, I’m confident they’d have been 120-Minutes staples. Lucky for you they can be the 2021 discovery you boast you already knew about when the tastemakers and critics finally catch on. [disclosure: Oh Condor is a client of Sweet Cheetah Publicity]
The Raging Nathans – Waste My Heart (Rad Girlfriend Records)
The Raging Nathans are quickly becoming one of the most important and talked about bands on the punk rock landscape and for good reason, they’ve fought for it tooth and nail. They’ve pushed their creative limits with each subsequent release, subverted the handicap that come with being a working-class band from Dayton, Ohio, by touring as much as they can, and they’ve carried the responsibility for and ownership of their recorded output by funding, producing and distributing their own records on their own label. It seems to be working because they’re always doing cool shit, like splits with the Dwarves! Waste My Heart isn’t just a great record, it is a testament to hard work and the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat and tears. That, to me, is punk AF.
Rid of Me – Traveling (Knife Hits Records / The Ghost is Clear)
There is no shame in the game of noisy, Philadelphia punk quartet Rid of Me. Comprised of former and current members of a bevy of the city’s other powerhouse heavy acts – Fight Amp, Low Dose, Soul Glo, etc. — and boldly adopting the moniker of PJ Harvey’s most celebrated album, the group churns out powerful, ferocious, grungy alt-rock. The muscular clamor benefits beautifully from Itarya Rosenberg’s gritty bellowing and unflinchingly honest lyricism. My fingers and toes are quadruple crossed hoping that the working-class band receives the attention they deserve despite the late 2021 release date. [disclosure: Rid of Me is a client of Sweet Cheetah Publicity]
Soul Glo – DisN****, Vol 1 & Vol 2 (Epitaph)
Although these releases didn’t officially constitute an LP, sorry, not sorry. In my opinion, Philadelphia’s Soul Glo is arguably one of the most compelling, fierce and important bands going right now, and I’m frankly pretty shocked they haven’t garnered the kind of accolades Turnstile (who is great too) are enjoying this year. The band blends rap, hardcore, thrash, post-rock and more precisely and seamlessly it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be top of their genre if they concentrated on just one of these sounds exclusively. Mark my words, these dudes are postured to be one of the greatest underground bands of all time. Look out for a proper LP via Epitaph Records and tons of touring in 2022.