My 2021 Favorite Albums I've Reviewed

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

I always struggle to pick favourites out of the music that I’ve reviewed in a year. There’s so much superb, well-crafted music being produced by the incredible #synthfam that my list could have been much longer.

I chose the favourite albums that I reviewed in 2021 because each of them had qualities that I found irresistible in some way. I haven’t tried to rank my favourite albums in any way, they’re all too good for me to do that.

Instead, I just want to share my views on the albums with you and acknowledge the great talent of all of the artists and creators involved. Without further ado, here they are:

“Boardwalk Arcadia” by Pat Dimeo and guests

“Boardwalk Arcadia” radiated the emotionally complex sensation of youthful dreaming regarded through the lens of adult nostalgia. The songs explore the synergy and contradiction between teenage idealism and the demands of growing up.

A strong reason for my enjoyment of the album was Pat Dimeo’s skill as a melodist. He creates melodic content that walks the line between tragedy and uplift. The melodies exist in a world that knows youth has gone but yearns for the feelings it generated to persist regardless. I enjoyed how they became an integral part to the album’s atmosphere.

Pat Dimeo put in a masterful vocal performance on Boardwalk Arcadia. His voice was tremulous when expressing pain and full of dynamic power as he sang out about hope. I was especially drawn to the way he expressed hurting, gentle nostalgia as he sang. He interpreted the emotion in his lyrics well.

The fact that Boardwalk Arcadia featured live instrumental elements was another reason I especially enjoyed the album. The drums, saxophone, keys and percussions were all played live which added a strong feeling of connection to the music for me.

“Memories” by Coastal

Coastal’s “Memories” embodied the complex emotions, both thorny and gentle, that come as part of nostalgia for me. The way in which the vocalist Aaron Hetherington expressed deep and conflicted emotions, the pained and wistful music created an intense atmosphere, and the lyrics wove tales of sorrow and bittersweet joy.

The powerful emotional atmosphere of “Memories” was an integral part of why I was strongly drawn to it. The musical elements, the vocals and the melodies were all suffused with intense feelings of loss, dreaming, hope and happiness. The way in which Coastal captured and conveyed nostalgia was so pure and direct that it made my heart seize.

Aaron Hetherington’s vocal performances were another factor that made this one of my favourite albums to have reviewed in 2021. His voice has a deeply emotive quality that enhanced the power of the messages that were inherent in the song lyrics.

The guest singers on the album also contributed their unique voices to the emotional strength of “Memories.” Cymatica’s Terena Armstrong added her smoky, rich voice and Oblique’s Sonja Huerta Comes lent her bright, breezy vocals to “Kyoto.”

I was also pulled in by the poetic lyrics that Coastal wrote for “Memories.” The words are all carefully chosen for maximum impact and are full of evocative images and emotional truths. I found many of the songs truly moving and impactful in their honesty.

"Time Driven" by SkelOne (and Guests)

SkelOne’s “Time Driven” featured superb melodies, textured synthscapes and powerful percussion. I found it especially enjoyable for the way that it reinvigorated classic synthwave through SkelOne’s passionate energy and attention to detail.

One of the strongest elements on “Time Driven” was the quality of SkelOne’s melodies. He skillfully created melodies that clearly and expressively delivered fitting emotional impacts for each track. I also enjoyed his ability to colour even the most dynamic tracks with a hint of melancholy.

The collaborations with other artists were another impetus for my enjoyment of the album. Each of the collaborators brought their own unique sound to the table, adding more depth to the music. I was also inspired by the willingness of members of the #synthfam to pitch in and help a fellow creative out.

I also was drawn to the ways in which “Time Driven” showcased a deep well of synths textures, timbres and tones that SkelOne deployed to produce aurally complex, ear-catching synth tapestries. I felt that he smoothly integrated all of this luscious sound into one interlinked whole.

"Summers in Anniston" by Splash '96

I found Splash 96’s “Summers In Anniston” to be an airy journey through a nostalgic summer landscape of hazy pink clouds, jazz-inflected melodies and an abiding feeling of caressing warmth. I felt as though I was being transported through a sun-dappled landscape of poolside daydreams.

There was an undeniable draw for me from the funky, jazzy influences on Summers In Anniston. I was attracted to the smooth jazz riffs and the groove of the funky bass lines. These elements added to the abiding feeling of “cool” that oozed from each sonic pore of this music.

Another aspect of “Summers In Anniston” that I found pleasing was the easy flow of the synths that Splash ’96 used on the album. They created an atmosphere that was full of caressing sounds that shone like a glowing sun in a sky crossed by cotton candy clouds. The synths covered sounds from shimmering light to flowing turquoise water, painting auditory images in my mind.

This album was also one that I enjoyed due to the way in which Splash ’96 harked back to the cooler end of the retrowave spectrum. He had nods to jazz fusion, electro-funk and smooth jazz that enhanced the easy-going, summery vibes exuded by the other musical elements of the track.

"Wild Imaginings" by Frisky Monkey

Frisky Monkey’s “Wild Imaginings” was one of my favourite albums of 2021 for the way in which it contrasts shadow and brightness, the respect for New Wave music so evident in its sounds and the expressive vocal performances from Juan Cezar and Seersha that deliver razor-edged lyrics.

Juan Cezar’s voice was a centrepiece of Wild Imaginings for me. There’s a dark shading to his delivery that I enjoyed, and I was respectful of the way in which he was able to imbue all of the songs with powerful emotion. I was also impressed by Seersha’s vocal range and ability to inject her voice with expression as she sang with Juan Cezar.

I was also drawn to the incisive lyrics and their unambiguous emotional honesty on the album. The songs all make their point with clarity and their emotions are heartfelt. There’s nothing vague about them but they still possess poetry.

The musical backing for the lyrics and vocals on Wild Imaginings was skillfully constructed by Doug Pettus. He chose a varied and interesting palette of synth colours and wove them together into a cohesive, ear-catching whole.

"Dream Tether" by Infra Violet

Infra Violet’s Dream Tether was one of my top albums of the year for the way that it powerfully expressed emotion, both lyrically and vocally. It blended that expressiveness with strong music and a balance between more dynamic songs with inward-looking explorations of the challenges of being human.

One of the major reasons I considered this one of my favourite albums of 2021 was Bethany Munroe’s vocal performance on it. Her voice has distinctive tonal and timbral qualities that made it well-suited to conveying the powerful lyrics on the album. Her range and emotive powers allowed her to gently touch the ears or send the heart soaring.

I was also pulled in by the lyrical content on Dream Tether. The songs journey through the rough ground of human relationships and examine our lives and where we find ourselves in them. I felt that great care and attention were devoted to weaving words together on this album.

The way in which Toby Campen and Bethany Munroe brought their musical skills to bear on the album was also impressive for me. Toby Campen skillfully combines synth colours and textures that clarify the imagery in the songs while Bethany Munroe’s guitar playing is deft and smooth. I also enjoy the way in which the drums and bass on the album created shape in the music.

“EP II” by Draven

Draven’s “EP II” was one of my favourite albums to have reviewed in 2021 because of the miasma of shadow-struck terror that permeated every aspect of the music. I also enjoyed how Draven (and his guests) balanced aggression, fragility and nervousness in the music on the album.

One of the factors that made EP II a favourite of mine for the year was the balanced nature of the varied sonic elements on the album. Lurking fear forms an omnipresent backdrop, conveyed by the use of heavy bass rumble. Serrated synths tore into the tracks along with massive drums to increase the sensation of danger waiting to leap out and attack.

There was also a thread of tension that thrummed in the music which I deeply enjoyed. Draven used synth sounds that were high-strung, worried and taut to produce a feeling of nagging anxiety. The guttural scream of the elevated synths added drama to the music, only intensifying the horror inherent in it.

Another reason I was so interested by EP II was the way that Draven created contrast with the darkness of the music with more delicate, trembling sounds. The piano carried gently wandering melodies that added feelings of loss and pain and the Theremin’s ethereal sound added a haunted sensation to the music. I found that the more tragic elements served to raise the emotional tenor of the whole album.

"Spellbound 2" by Wraithwalker

Wraithwalker’s Spellbound 2 seized me with pleasurable terror while still serenading me with beautiful melodies. I enjoyed the combination of existential dread and musicality that unfolded through a complex synth palette. There was a mingled feeling of darkness, aggression and occasional flashes of light that held my attention as I listened.

One of the elements that held me in thrall on “Spellbound 2” was Wraithwalker’s melodic writing for the album. The melodies he created were clear and deep as they struck a balance between different sonic elements. The end result was melodies that conveyed powerful emotion as they painted intense auditory pictures.

Those audio paintings were the most effective part of “Spellbound 2” for me. Wraithwalker produced trembling tension in the elevated synth parts while cosmic darkness rumbled from the bass and the percussion generated a feeling of terrified haste. Adding the quality of the melodies to that atmosphere only made the auditory imagery clearer still.

I was also intrigued by the richness of Wraithwalker’s instrument choices on the album. He explored the tones and timbres of pipe organ, harpsichord and electric guitar along with clarinet and violin on “Spellbound 2.” The end result was a textured, vivid evocation of fear, danger and pain along with distant hope and intense tragedy.

"Nobody From Nowhere With Nothing" by Chatterless

Chatterless’ “Nobody From Nowhere With Nothing” was one of my top albums of 2021 because it took me on an adventure through celestial spaces on a tide of unique, carefully considered synth sounds. I also enjoyed how it strayed outside of the usual boundaries of synthwave music.

The superb production values on the album were a strong reason why found “Nobody From Nowhere With Nothing” so enjoyable. There was crispness and clarity to the music as it flowed through the openness of the album’s sonic spaces. It had a laid-back quality that showcased the detailed nature of Chatterless’ music.

It was that intense focus on creating detailed audio on the album that also drew me to it. The music was detailed on a minute scale in the way that the nuances in tone and timbre all interacted to create a deeply layered audio environment. The way that Chatterless combined the different synth elements was meticulous.

“Nobody From Nowhere With Nothing” had a subtle synth palette but the album took advantage of the potential of those synths to create richness within the restrained palette. Chatterless created a sense of unity out of the synths to form filigreed interactions. I found the final product quite addictive as a listener.

I was also attracted by the clean drums and strong bass on the album. The music benefitted from having a compelling pulse that helped knit all of the different parts together. The massive weight of the bass and the sharp drums created a stable base for the other auditory components in the music.

“Furbidden Planet” by Cat Temper

Cat Temper’s “Furbidden Planet” was an album that I found deeply satisfying on many levels. I enjoyed the vast feeling of its sonic star fields that echoed with diaphanous sound as he took me on a galactic quest. I felt that Cat Temper utilized the tremendous range of tonal and textural qualities available from synths to paint vivid images as the tale unfolded.

One of the most compelling elements of “Furbidden Planet" for me was the complex, layered and richly interwoven synthscape that Cat Temper created on the album. He skillfully utilized his knowledge of synths to generate music full of different colours, timbres and contrasts that grew into an enchanting final result.

The atmospheric nature of the album was another major draw for me. Cat Temper blasted me across endless cosmic vistas with his approach to the music. He combined a cavernous sound environment with rumbling bass that pulsated through the tracks to evoke the velvet void. On top of that, he layered sparkling synth light to fill the imagination with pictures of slowly whirling galaxies.

I’m a sucker for a well-constructed melody and “Furbidden Planet" was overflowing with them. In keeping with the mingled aspiration and trepidation inherent in space exploration, the melodies often combine melancholic feelings with intense hope. I also felt that the majestic nature of many of the melodies was an accurate reflection of the sublime awe in the face of the universe’s incomprehensibility.

”Starset” by Vulkari64

I chose Vulkari64’s “Starset" as one of my favourite albums of 2021 because he evoked cosmic beauty and drama through a complex, interwoven synth (and guitar) palette that created engaging imagery and feelings of melancholy and longing. I found myself drawn deeply into the album’s sonic world.

One of the reasons I was so intrigued by “Starset" was the sensation of pained melancholy that radiated from the album. It flowed through each track, even those that were more energetic, imbuing them with palpable feelings of loss and yearning. I was impressed by how emotional Vulkari64 was able to make his synths feel.

The use of guitars on “Starset” was another factor that led me to consider this album one of my favourites of the year. The way that Vulkari64 deployed guitars into the music gave it a textured, undulating feeling with added warmth and fullness from the acoustic guitar parts. I enjoyed the musical contrast and depth that the guitars brought to the album.

There was a detailed, filigreed feel to the synth palette on the album that also contributed to it being a favourite for me. Vulkari64 deftly wove each of the different tones and timbres around one another to produce a cohesive, sonically diverse album.

“Forerunners” by SHIKIMO

I chose SHIKIMO’s “Forerunners” as one my favourite reviewed albums of 2021 because of the grand galactic quest that it took me on as I listened. It was an album that combined a broad range of fascinating synth sounds with a massive drum and bass heartbeat to generate auditory paintings.

The most compelling element of “Forerunners” for me was the atmospheric nature of the music on it. I was carried through expansive star fields and past towering galactic structures as SHIKIMO unfolded his musical tapestry. There was a flowing feeling to the music along with the deep contrast to the more ethereal synth elements provided by the drums and bass.

Another reason why I chose “Forerunners” as one of my favourite albums that I reviewed in 2021 was the way SHIKIMO explored musical dynamics on the album. Most modern electronic music avoids major dynamic contrasts, but SHIKIMO made good use of them. The tracks reached crescendos and fell down to diminuendos which added greater interest to the music.

The strong melodic content of the album was another reason why I enjoyed it so much. He wrote melodies that could lift my heart to the stars and others that were full of tragedy, but he always created ear-pleasing and soul-touching tunes that kept me listening.

“Alconaut” by Klet

Klet’s “Alconaut” was one of my favourite albums of 2021 because of the mournful, almost overwhelming sense of loss and desolation that it radiated. It poured out feelings of yearning and emptiness that were occasionally touched with more positive emotions.

Klet’s soundscapes are expansive, and they serve as a backdrop for heartrending, affecting melodies. The album was an auditory reflection on times that are gone and will never return.

The sensation of overwhelming planetary wastelands that Klet created on “Alconaut” was one of the factors that drew me to it. The way in which the musical elements were suspended in a cavernous sonic void helped to make me feel as if I was roaming across bleak desolation as I listened.

The melodic content was another strong feature that I found compelling on “Alconaut.” The melodies that Klet crafted were thick with feelings of bereavement, isolation and plaintive longing. He also turned his hand to more hopeful, positive melodies and the contrast with the tragedy of the rest of the melodic content only made them more impactful.

I also found the way in which synth textures, timbres and tones were interlinked on the album to be skillfully accomplished. Klet has a talent for choosing the correct synth sounds and combining them to draw vivid mental pictures in musical notes. The end result held me in its thrall.

“Looking For The Sound" by eLxAr

I chose eLxAr’s “Looking for the Sound” as one of my favourite albums I reviewed in 2021 because it transported me musically through different dimensions in space and time. The vehicle for this journey was an intricate synth palette and beautiful melodies that created intense imagery in my mind.

The craft on display in eLxAr’s melodies was one of the reasons I was attracted to “Looking for the Sound.” They kept emotion at the core of the melodies which were direct and often full of touching hope. I felt that keeping the feelings in the centre of the music gave it power.

The attention to detail that eLxAr showed on “Looking for the Sound” was another reason for my interest in the album. The sonic palette was skilfully deployed as it moved from trembling fragility to rougher edged sounds and from energetic dynamism to aching sadness. The detail in the interactions between the different synth layers created lush harmonies and interesting sonic textures.

Another reason why I chose this album as one of my favourites was the way in which all of the different elements interacted to delineate the mental imagery it created. The auditory paintbox was used to splash clear, intense sound pictures across the listener’s ears and transport us to another world.

Follow Karl Magi on Twitter here: Karl Magi (@CulinaryCdn013) / Twitter

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