Hardcore came back big in 2021. Of all the genres whose livelihoods were dampened by the no-show era of the pandemic, the one that's premised on chaotic live connection was down bad for a minute there, but as soon as bands started to get the green light to start performing again back in the late spring, the enthusiasm to attend hardcore shows and support hardcore music seemed like it was far exceeding pre-pandemic levels.
Fortunately, a large swath of fantastic new releases happened to coincide with the return of stage-dives and side-to-side's. From scene leaders like Turnstile and Knocked Loose reinforcing their grip on the genre, to loads of new bands like Dying Wish and Scowl who entered the fray with formidable debuts, 2021 was a terrific year to be a hardcore fan on every side of the aisle — heavy, fast, noisy, etc. Below are our picks for the 10 best hardcore albums of the year.
It would be an immense disservice to talk about hardcore in 2021 without mentioning the fruitful scene that's popping off in Denver right now, which is largely being facilitated by the local label Convulse Records, an imprint who specialize — though not exclusively — in the faster, noisier, punkier side of the hardcore spectrum. This year, they've had a hand in releasing great projects by Militarie Gun, Gel, Cell Rot and more, but the cream of their crop has been the outstanding debut by recent Revolver Artist You Need to Know Candy Apple. Sweet Dreams of Violence is a spitting, blown-out and deceptively catchy batch of tracks that evoke the tongue-burning act of eating chocolate chip pancakes drenched in Sriracha sauce. At once sickly sweet and painfully spicy — in a good way.
Scowl make tell-off hardcore. How Flowers Grow, the debut from the Santa Cruz band fronted by the fuming Kat Moss, is stuffed with no-nonsense power chords, sprinting punk rhythms and barked commands like "immolate yourself" and "fuck around and find out." Moss' grim snarl and Malachi Greene's chunky guitar tones would serve just as well in a more metallic band, and the mosh parts on "Roots" and the title track are ripe for windmilling, but there's something supremely refreshing about the way Scowl delivers aggressive, modern-sounding hardcore without having to rely on a big breakdown in every song to prove their toughness. They'd rather stick in a no-fucks-given flex like "Seeds to Sow," an unforeseen punk-pop jaunt with dreamy croons and a tuneful saxophone line.
Good crossover thrash isn't hard to come by these days, but Dead Heat's sophomore LP is a rare glimmer of greatness. The Oxnard, California, group proudly wear their regional roots on their back patches — Slayer, Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies are obvious references — but World at War nods congenially to NYHC sensibilities, as well. Songs like the galloping title track and the bouncy "2 Cents" are tasty chum for the heshers, but the album really picks up during its second half when songs like the swinging battle cry "Age of DH" and the chugging "Deathwish" provide both the tempo variation and the heaviness to make this a compelling and refreshingly unpredictable listen from front to back.
Following two terrific 7-inches and a two-year gap since we heard from them, Ekulu proved that lightning can strike three times with Unscrew My Head. The New York troupe's nine-song LP begins with an epic instrumental that would be hubristic fluff if it didn't pay off, but quickly earns its triumphant stature by cleanly sliding into the sublime "Proven Wrong," a damn-near perfect hardcore song with a syncopated thrash part that it should be illegal not to headbang to. "Half Alive" and "Pick Your Fight" nail the equilibrium between groove, melody, shreddiness and mosh, and the album's production is punchy and crisp, allowing the bass to rattle and the guitars to buzz without the vocals muddying the mix from too much reverb. Chef's kisses all around.
God's Hate, the California wrecking crew fronted by professional wrestler Brody King, and featuring current/former members of Nails and Twitching Tongues, sound like they're fueled by an IV drip of Merauder's Master Killer, vengeful action films like Hobo With a Shotgun and that one scene from Kingsman. Their gloriously heavy self-titled LP provides simple solutions to complex problems. Life is hard? "Be harder" they roar over pounding chugs. Their answer to the ongoing rise of white supremacy? "Finish the job, kill them all/Bullet to the head, watch them fall," King booms with seething rage. From the war-metal chants in "Six Feet Deep" and "Eternity of Hate," and the spliced-in TV and movie clips that reference their disgusted worldview, God's Hate will make you a believer.
As frontman Adam Vallely told us in our exploratory profile, the Armed's methodology for their bombastic fourth album was simple: Every single element of our culture has been turned into "pop," so why not draw from everything — hardcore, industrial, alt-rock, bubblegum pop, death metal, electrogrind, post-modern art theory and more. From the rousing "ya-ya-ya" punk chants of "All Futures" and nail-scraping guitar solo on "An Iteration," to the floor-pounding churn of "Big Shell" and the ominous Mark Lanegan guest appearance that closes out the whole show, Ultrapop's holistic approach is brazenly overwhelming but also strangely cathartic.
At this point in the game, metalcore has a lot of history behind it, and Dying Wish are reassuring proof that taking influence from the past doesn't have to sound like carbon copy regurgitation. The Portland band's ferocious debut, Fragments of a Bitter Memory, is a graduate of Y2k metalcore — the melodeath riffage of Killswitch Engage, the pained hooks of Poison the Well, the ornate breakdowns of Bleeding Through and the hardcore energy that those bands and their many peers were directly channeling. That said, Emma Boster's bladed screams and vengeful lyrics are wholly her own, and the rest of Dying Wish are simply an air-tight band who make banger metallic hardcore that's as hard-hitting as it is listenable.
Knocked Loose arrived on the other side of lockdown opening for Gojira and playing major rock festivals, so it wouldn't have been surprising if their new music was situated for a wider audience. Instead, they did the opposite. The Kentucky bruisers' A Tear in the Fabric of Life is a concept EP (and animated film) about grief that features their heaviest, most traditionally inaccessible material to date. Songs such as "God Knows" and "Permanent" move up into the death-metal weight class, while cuts like "Forced to Stay" and "Where Light Divides the Holler" have enough decimating breakdowns to convince any OG fan that Knocked Loose aren't interested in ceding the mosh champ title to anyone else anytime soon.
Part of hardcore's nature is that bands typically peak within their first decade, but Every Time I Die are intent on defying their genre's trends. Radical, the Buffalo band's ninth album and first since their also-fantastic 2016 LP, Low Teens, ranks among their greatest achievements. Channeling personal turmoil and political outrage, Keith Buckley delivers his sharpest lyrics yet, and his bandmates have never sounded tighter. The entire group's blood is hotter than ever on heavy standouts like "A Colossal Wreck" and "Planet Shit," while lighter moments such as the Mastodon-ish "White Void" and the tender "Thing With Feathers," an affecting duet with Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull, suggest that they're one of the only 'core bands in existence with a killer rock & roll album in their future.
With their third LP, Baltimore's Turnstile have done more than just stretch beyond hardcore. Instead, it feels like they've picked up the once-rigidly-barricaded genre and are taking it with them wherever their curious ears may travel. That could be a soulful ballad with R&B innovator Blood Orange ("Alien Love Call"), fistfuls of percolating analog synths, giddy grunge chords ("Mystery"), hymnal funk caroling ("Wild Wrld") or a sticky hook at the heart of every ass-shaking track that's delivered with the ballistic joy of a kid who just landed their first stage-dive. Whether heavy music is only an occasional treat within your musical diet or all you have is two-stepping on your one-track-mind, Glow On has something for you. Turnstile are for everybody.