Our 2021 Annual Report continues with our Top 30 Metal & Hard Rock Albums list. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.
After a rough 2020 that saw a global pandemic take over our lives and the concert industry shut down, 2021 was hopefully primed to be the year of the comeback. While live music has returned to a certain degree, it’s been a bumpy ride thus far, as bands deal with COVID outbreaks amidst their camps and fans enter venues with extra caution. One thing we can all still count on is new albums to get us through difficult times, and while 2021 may not have been super prolific as far as new releases, it still proved to be another strong year for the heaviest genres.
The legendary Iron Maiden were perhaps the biggest metal band to release a new album in 2021, and they did not disappoint, unleashing the epic Senjutsu, which holds its own among the band’s iconic LPs. Modern-day metal torchbearers Gojira and Mastodon both delivered strong efforts, as well, while veteran prog masters Dream Theater once again displayed their stunning musicality.
Hardcore had a year to remember, with bands like Turnstile, Regional Justice Center, Every Time I Die, and Thirdface all unleashing thought-provoking and dynamic new efforts. And extreme metal was also alive and well in 2021, with Carcass, Cannibal Corpse, Rivers of Nihil, and others giving us new music to melt our faces.
Finally, a few newcomers came out of the gates swinging, with Wolfgang Van Halen’s Mammoth WVH and Spiritbox among the acts offering up very strong debut albums.
As we head into 2022 hoping for things to open up a bit more, we look back at the Top 30 Metal & Hard Rock Albums of 2021, as picked by the Heavy Consequence staff.
— Spencer Kaufman
Managing Editor, Heavy Consequence
30. Wardruna – Kvitravn
Pagan Folk band Wardruna, who received international attention after contributing music to the TV show Vikings in 2016, released their fifth album, Kvitravn, featuring guest appearances by traditional folk singers assembled by Norwegian scholar Kirsten Bråten Berg. Kvitravn may have an expanded production, but it still maintains the ghostly harmonies and traditional instrumentation the band is known for on songs like “Kvitravn” and “Skugge.”
Wardruna’s fascination with ancient culture remains relevant, whether it’s Norwegian, “Slavic, Siberian, or African.” As the band explains, “If you go back in time far enough, you’re going to see all these similarities, how we are connected.” — Colette Claire | Listen on Apple Music
29. Red Fang – Arrows
When we dubbed Red Fang’s fourth studio album “feel-good” metal, we weren’t kidding. The Portland, Oregon, band hones in on an upbeat, raucous brand of stoner sludge that is perfectly complemented by some hilarious music videos. If we were doing a list of the best heavy videos of the year, Red Fang would be a shoe-in for that list, as well. We’ll not only remember Arrows by its joyous music, but for clips like the faux self-eulogizing funeral for “Rabbits in Hives.” — Jon Hadusek | Listen on Apple Music
28. Myles Kennedy – The Ides of March
Whether he’s singing leads for Alter Bridge, Slash or his solo project, Myles Kennedy has proven himself to be one of modern rock’s strongest vocalists. While his debut solo album, 2018’s Year of the Tiger, showcases his softer side with a collection exclusively unplugged tunes, Kennedy switches gears with his sophomore solo record, The Ides of March. On the latter, Kennedy displays his electrified side, including some impressive lead guitar skills, with songs that are introspective but still pack a punch. — Anne Erickson | Listen on Apple Music
27. Wolves in the Throne Room – Primordial Arcana
Brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver, who record at their home studio in the middle of the Washington woods, add an American flavor to the traditions of black metal music. Wolves in the Throne Room’s seventh album Primordial Arcana is no exception. Moving away from previous experimental phases of the band, Primordial Arcana harkens back to second-wave atmospheric black metal bands like Emperor on songs like “Spirit of Lightning,” “Primal Chasm,” and “Through Eternal Fields.” On this latest effort, Wolves in the Throne Room stick to what they do best, creating crushing riffs and otherworldly soundscapes. — C.C. | Listen on Apple Music
26. Evanescence – The Bitter Truth
After emerging with their mega-selling alternative metal debut, Fallen, in 2003, and becoming one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century’s first decade, Evanescence returned in 2021 with their first album of new material in roughly 10 years. The Bitter Truth offers a collection of rock anthems that signal to the world that Evanescence are here to stay despite the long wait between albums. The haunting vocal melodies of Amy Lee work well with the dark and catchy rock riffs on songs that also feature political and emotional lyrics. — C.C. | Listen on Apple Music
25. Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate
Greta Van Fleet expand their aural palette considerably on their second full-length album, The Battle at Garden’s Gate. Working with a new producer, eight-time Grammy award winner Greg Kurstin, the quartet stays true to the earnest bombast and frantic blaze of its previous work but add prog-like layers of musical exploration, including orchestrations on several tracks and a full-on sonic sojourn in the nearly nine-minute closer “The Weight of Dreams.”
It’s a dynamic assault that’s grounded as much in composition and arrangement as songwriting — a Battle victory that’s well-earned, and on the band’s own unapologetically ambitious terms. — Gary Graff | Listen on Apple Music
24. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined
Cannibal Corpse’s 15th album, Violence Unimagined, marks the introduction of Hate Eternal frontman Erik Rutan as their new guitarist (although he produced five of the band’s albums). After over 30 years, Cannibal Corpse can still deliver aggressive and technical death metal. They keep it from getting stale by adding plenty of heavy grooves and riffage. Songs like “Follow the Blood,” “Bound and Burned,” and “Surround, Kill, Devour” harken back to Cannibal classics like 1991’s Butchered at Birth and 1994’s The Bleeding. — C.C. | Listen on Apple Music
23. Between the Buried and Me – Colors II
Colors II is the official sequel to Between the Buried and Me’s 2007 breakthrough LP, so it truly needed to exceed fans’ expectations. Luckily, it did by ingeniously referencing Colors while fusing the approachability of 2015’s Coma Ecliptic with the madcap chaos of 2018’s Automata LPs. In particular, “Fix the Error” is a typically carnivalistic treat, “Stare into the Abyss” is a cosmic juggernaut, and closer “Human Is Hell (Another One With Love)” is precisely the epic finale you’d desire. Of course, we predicted nothing less, since BTBAM are the absolute best at what they do. — Jordan Blum | Listen on Apple Music
22. Dream Theater – A View From the Top of the World
Musical trends may come and go, but you can always count on the Dream Theater lads to not stray far from the style of music for which they are world famous: prog metal. And on the veteran band’s 15th studio effort overall, A View from the Top of the World, the quintet continues to fine-tune their complex sound and approach. Once again produced solely by DT guitarist John Petrucci, an album’s worth of musically complex tunes are provided, including the standouts “The Alien” and the epic album-closing title track. — Greg Prato | Listen on Apple Music
21. Rivers of Nihil – The Work
Each new release sees progressive death metallers Rivers of Nihil becoming more adept at mixing their trademark heavy and soft personas. The Work is no different, as it’s calmer and less zany than 2018’s vibrantly bombastic Where Owls Know My Name. Piano ballad prelude “The Tower (Theme from The Work)” is a great testament to the record’s introspective and reserved essence, as are the touchingly dense “Wait” and the tunefully rhythmic “Tower 2.” Above all else, though, The Work excels because of its consistently brilliant tonal balance and weighty cohesion. — J.B. | Listen on Apple Music
20. BIG | BRAVE – Vital
One of our first encounters with the post-metal of BIG | BRAVE was catching them supporting Daughters back in 2019. BIG | BRAVE won our attention with their massive sound design — equally lush and extreme (in a volume sense), recalling acts such as Boris and Chelsea Wolfe. The Canadian trio have sharpened their focus on 2021’s Vital, further embracing drone and atmosphere while retaining enough skeletal, structural song elements. Therefore, the individual tracks remain slightly distinct from one another despite the album’s blanketing cohesion. — J.H. | Listen on Apple Music
19. Ministry – Moral Hygiene
It’s not very common to be able to pinpoint one artist who is mostly responsible for a sub-genre of rock music. But Ministry are one such band, as they spearheaded and popularized industrial metal. And on the band’s 15th studio album overall, Moral Hygiene, Ministry — still led by the ever-fascinating Al Jourgensen — sound as ferocious as ever, as evidenced by such tracks as “Sabotage Is Sex” and “Alert Level.” The album also finds Uncle Al and company joined by several renowned rockers, including Jello Biafra, Paul D’Amour, and David Ellefson. — G.P. | Listen on Apple Music
18. Cerebral Rot – Excretion of Mortality
The Pacific Northwest has become a hotbed for old-school death metal in recent years. Emerging from the filth-ridden underground of Seattle, Cerebral Rot are among the best of the lot. Making the most of the locale, the band tapped famed producer Jack Endino to capture its sophomore album, Excretion of Mortality.
Bolstered by a cavernous production that enhances the already infectious source material, Cerebral Rot spew forth riffs in the vein of early Morbid Angel but with a distinct sense of swing and rhythmic timing that’s deceptively catchy. It also makes the band stand out among the heaps of OSDM acts that have emerged as of late. — J.H. | Listen on Apple Music
17. Mammoth WVH – Mammoth WVH
For years, we had been hearing that Wolfgang Van Halen was working on a solo album… but no such album ever appeared — until 2021. But now knowing what we know (that the son of the legendary Eddie Van Halen opted to hold off launching his solo career to spend time with his ailing father), it all makes sense.
Several months after Eddie’s passing, the self-titled debut from Mammoth WVH was finally released. Wolfgang plays on all the instruments himself and handling the vocals, and such standouts as “Don’t Back Down” and “Distance” positively prove that the VH musical torch has been passed. — G.P. | Listen on Apple Music
16. Every Time I Die – Radical
Frontman Keith Buckley is characteristically, and perhaps moreso than ever, pissed-off on Every Time I Die’s ninth studio album, Radical — which was actually written and recorded in front of the pandemic and the social strife of 2020 that some of its 16 tracks seem to reference. There’s no denying the message or the music this time out, from the killer opening triplet of “Dark Distance,” “Sky” and “Planet Shit,” to the nimble expansiveness of “We Go Together.”
There are also collaborations with ’68’s “Josh Scogin on the ferocious “All This and War,” and with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull on the melodic “Thing With Feathers.” Above all, Radical proves that ETID lost nothing during the five years between albums and is as potent now as when it debuted two decades ago. — G. Graff | Listen on Apple Music
15. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Deafheaven’s latest transformation — from biting blackgaze to pure shoegaze — on Infinite Granite is incredibly successful. Specifically, opener “Shellstar” evokes 1980s synth pop and indie rock with its atmospheric warmth and encouraging melodies. Elsewhere, both “Villain” and “The Gnashing” are highly engaging rhythmically, and “Mombasa” offers the sort of multifaceted closure that virtually all album finales should provide.
From start to finish, Infinite Granite oozes peaceful instrumentation, glittery textures, and soothing singing, so it’s Deafheaven’s most articulately reflective and radiant sequence to date. — J.B. | Listen on Apple Music
14. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
Spiritbox’s debut album, Eternal Blue, was one of the most anticipated of 2021, and it certainly delivered as one of the year’s standout efforts. Following several months of critical praise and radio love, the Canadian metal band finally unleashed their first full-length to the world in September. Powered by Courtney LaPlante’s haunting voice and a batch of infectiously heavy songs, SpiritBox show their penchant for mixing tuneful melodies with deep, dark screaming on Eternal Blue, making it a release that gets fans excited for the future of the band. — A.E. | Listen on Apple Music
13. 1914 – Where Fear and Weapons Meet
Named after the year World War I began, Ukraine’s 1914 have been waxing metallic about the horrors of trench warfare for seven years. Their first album with Napalm Records levels-up their sound with lush production and guest musicians to deliver an ambitious, cinematic album that never loses the gravitas of its subject matter and delivers riffs to match the mood. On Where Fear and Weapons Meet, they sweeten the pot with guest vocal slots from Nick Holmes of Paradise Lost and Sahsa Boole of Me and That Man, not to mention samples, bagpipes, and accompaniment from Yuriy Siryi and the Dead Kaisers Orchestra. — Joseph Schafer | Listen on Apple Music
12. Thirdface – Do It With a Smile
A few bands on this list hit the Zeitgeist spot-on with their 2021 efforts, Thirdface’s blistering debut Do It With a Smile being an example. The collective rage of a society verging on dystopia, in the middle of a pandemic, is harnessed in these 12 songs. Call it what you will — powerviolence, hardcore, punk rock — this is pure sonic vitriol, with the LP’s empowering title alluding to a genuine self-awareness that seems to be lacking in the contemporary hardcore scene.
This isn’t just about slamdancing in the mosh; it’s more thoughtful. The band’s ability to play spacier atmospheric material also alludes to a broader songwriting spectrum, unbound to hardcore’s fundamentally rigid formula. — J.H. | Listen on Apple Music
11. Jerry Cantrell – Brighten
True to its title, Jerry Cantrell’s third solo album is an uplifting, shimmering acoustic rock album. Fans of Alice In Chains’ unplugged sound will find much to appreciate here. Surrounded by a host of friends and collaborators, including Duff McKagan and Greg Puciato, Cantrell worked on Brighten before and during the pandemic.
As the singer/guitarist told us in an extensive interview this year, the LP represents “a journey up through darkness to light.” (That can’t necessarily be said for his previous two solo efforts, Boggy Depot (1998) and Degradation Trip (2002) — the former made during uncertain times for Alice In Chains and the latter under a haze of alcohol, which Cantrell has long since given up.) This new material is far more optimistic, while remaining directly honest. And, as expected, the guitar tones are impeccable throughout. — J.H. | Listen on Apple Music
10. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
While not a heavy album in the sonic sense, Lingua Ignota aka Kristin Hayter’s latest masterpiece Sinner Get Ready weighs a conceptual ton. Gone are the industrial trappings of Caligula in favor of an avant-folk sound that borrows elements of Christian liturgical music and Appalachian folk. A mesmerizing listen front to back, Hayter creates a kind of apocalyptic religious music that both examines (with scrutiny) Christianity orthodoxy while acknowledging the haunting and beautiful elements that comprise religious song and traditional folk… what some would call primitive styles. Hayter renders them with majesty, transporting us to the rural Pennsylvania setting that influenced the LP. — J.H. | Listen on Apple Music