Needle In The Groove’s Top 10 Albums of 2021

My top 10 albums of 2021.

Well grapple fans (an up to date reference for the kids!), here we are at the dying embers of 2021 and thinking at the same time last year we were all predicting we would all be back to normal, everyone fully vaccinated and living like to the full. Well thanks to Covid-19 mutating like, well Covid-19, here we are a year down the line, all pretty much locked up as we were last Christmas. Gigs opened up for a couple of months and I snuck in 3 before the UK government made it pretty much impossible to go see a gig from Boxing Day onwards.

Thankfully bands didn’t let this affect them and it was a very strong year for releases. Most of the bands on this list were albums purchased in 2021, so there will not be a review on the site for further details. Where there is a review I will attach a link. It’s far from me to criticise, so if you have brought an album out in 2021, well done to you all.

It was also good to hear only yesterday that vinyl sales were up in the UK, with them making up 23% of all sales, which is 14 years of continuous growth, and CDs seeing the lowest number of sales since 1984, just one year after they were introduced to the UK. This increase is probably down to two factors – Adele and Abba. I don’t think my haul of over 200 albums bought in 2021 made a dent in the numbers.

I’m sure vinyl sales would be a lot higher were it not for manufacturing issues, PVC shortages and the fact that demand is outstripping supply by 2:1. If you have a spare couple of million lying down the back of the sofa, build a vinyl pressing plant. You can’t fail. For some reason, probably because they were part of a ‘bundle’, over 190,000 tapes were sold in 2021, their biggest selling year since 2003. When compared to the streaming monsters however, its bugger all as the likes of Spotify, Amazon, Deezer etc etc had an 81% share of the market.

Anyway onto my top 10 albums of 2021……

10. Lifesigns – Altitude

I was new to the Lifesigns party in 2021 but even from the first listen I was hooked. Its a really great album, and John Young is now a firmly established name in the Chesworth household.

9. The Dead Daisies – Holy Ground

The Dead Daisies were good, then they became excellent. Why? Well Glenn bloody Hughes only went and joined them. The ‘voice of rock’ added his Glenn Hughes-ness to TDD and the result is the fab. The man is the Tinkerbell of rock, adding a drop of fairydust to take TDD up a notch above anything they had done before this point

8. Thunder – All the Right Noises

Considering I was at their last ever gig a few years back, Thunder’s return and resurgence has been a great one, with ATRN sitting nicely near the summit of Thunders best works. It’s that good.

7. Dirty Honey – ST

Dirty Honey hit the ground running with their cracking EP. Their debut album picks up where the EP left off. Self produced and financed, they want to take care of their own destiny. In Mark LaBelle they have a singer who can challenge some of the greats. 70s rock is alive and well. (Fun fact – their single from the EP ‘When. I’m Gone’ was the first ever single from an unsigned band to top the Billboard Rock Chart). My only gripe is the album is too short! I’ve had longer shits.

6. The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II

If your idea of melodic rock heaven is parpy keyboards and songs that sound like they were written and performed in the 1980s, then look no further. TNFO make every song sound like it was written for the Rocky film franchise and 80s B movies when the likes of Paul Sabu, Lion and Stan Bush were regular contributors.

5. Myles Kennedy – The Ides Of March

This is the album I waited 11 years for. Myles’s debut was good and all, but with TIOM he came out of the blocks like a stabbed rat. More power and welly, and in the title track, he has a song that is a close second to ABs Blackbird. ‘The Ides Of March’ track is completely all over the place. No wonder he hardly plays it live, but when he does…..its a thing to behold.

4. Leprous – Aphelion

Leprous is another bands that I came to the party late with. Having heard ‘Pitfalls’ first, I was smitten. With ‘Aphelion’, the feeling was identical. I can see why fans are not too hot when comparing the 5 albums before ‘Pitfalls’ to the latter two new ones, but for me ‘Aphelion’ is a brilliant album. OK its all about Einar Solberg and he clearly holds the keys to the castle, but the performances of all the guys is something to behold. They are brilliant, and they bloody well know it.

3. Plush – ST

I’ve been a fan of Moriah Formica’s ever since she appeared on a Michael Sweet album back in 2016. She is a very talented singer/songwriter and when someone of her age can tackle Ann Wilson songs with ease, you know they are special. She is surrounded with some amazing talent in Plush – Brook Colucci, Ashley Suppa, and Bella Perron. Considering they were all under 21 when the album dropped in October, the results are stunning. A band so young shouldn’t be this good with their first album.

2. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

OK its another dinosaur of a band up at the sharp end of the poll for the second year running. After a 6 year gap Iron Maiden didn’t need to ever make an album again. But they did, and its a belter. OK, its no ‘Powerslave’ or ‘Piece Of Mind’. Its about as diverse as Steve Harris and Iron Maiden get, and that is a good thing indeed

  1. Nestor – Kids In A Ghost Town

This album simply ticked all the boxes for me – great gongs, great vocals, set in the 80s and some of the best videos this side of Van Halen and David Lee Roth. A lot of bands try to recreate the 80s heydays but few succeed. Lets face it, some of the lyrics are corny, but they are delivered in a style and knowing nod to the past that you are just swept along for the ride. The sign of a good album is one you can’t stop playing, and with KIAGT its hardly been off rotation. They even roped in Sam Fox for the best ballad I’ve heard in a number of years, ’Tomorrow’. I can’t wait for album No.2

Lifesigns – ‘Altitude’ Review

Certain prog bands have a tendency to make me feel wonderful, and Lifesigns have just been added to my list.

Lifesigns – Altitude

In 2016 Oxford Dictionaries conducted a worldwide survey to find out what was the worst word in the English language. That word was ‘moist’. Other frontrunners were ‘Hello’, ‘no’, ‘panties’, and ‘hate’. Is it pure coincidence then that this is most hated sentence in the world….’I hate moist panties?’ Anyway, what I’m getting to is the word ‘Prog’ when describing music. In most instances it covers a band that the PR companies and labels don’t know where to pigeonhole the band in question. Progressive rock is based on fusions and styles, approaches and genres involving a continuous move between formalism and eclecticism. Steven Wilson hates the term, and I’m not far behind him.

One thing I do know is that certain prog bands have a tendency to make me feel wonderful, there’s a calmness and emotion that sweeps over me whilst I enjoy the various facets of the music. That is what Lifesigns ‘Altitude’ has given me on the very first listen. Not many bands do that to me. In fact Lifesigns is in great company – Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, Spocks Beard, Ostura and Tilt are such bands of the club that Lifesigns have just acquired a lifetime membership to.

Opening number ‘Altitude’ is a 15 minute piece that sweeps by in a matter of moments. Time is irrelevant, quality is utmost. From the opening few bars the feeling is one of soaring through the clouds, the quality of musicianship is second to none. It’s the first time I have heard John Young, and similarly to Wilson, he doesn’t have a soaring range, but what he does, he does ever so well and the tone fits the piece perfectly. There’s a string midsection that could accompany a Chinese ancient history movie, before the song drifts with some wonderful backing vocals and amazing guitar playing from Dave Bainbridge (who again is new to me, but won’t be for much longer!). The final act of ‘Altitude’ again pulls you back to the soaring atmosphere of the beginning. All in all it is a wonderful opening and an introduction to Lifesigns that I’ll not forget in a long time. ‘Gregarious’ draws on influences like ELO and Supertramp, and is a close to a pop song as Lifesigns get, I suspect. It’s built around Young’s keyboard and Poole’s base and features another fine solo from Bainbridge. I feel as if I could be repeating myself for the rest of the album here!

‘Ivory Tower’ is one of two Young songs given a reboot and a place within the Lifesigns catalogue. Robin Boult plays a guest role playing acoustic guitar. Midway the rhythm section is again impeccable and closes with ‘I fall….’. I can see this being a particularly great live moment with the crowd yelling….’DOWN!’

Three songs in and there is nothing to criticise. ‘Shoreline’ starts with a jazzy feel, making you wonder where the song is going next. With the highlight being Czorsz’s drumming. Young’s delivery on Shoreline evokes early Genesis and his phrasing is very Gabriel with a touch of Neal Morse. I also am a fan of the female ‘choir’ that’s been adopted on here. I’m running out of superlatives, so I’ll just settle on it being great. ‘Fortitude’ is yet another highlight, especially the sounds and textures being built from keyboards, and Taurus pedal and Moog. They are as important as Young’s vocals. More importantly every member gets their chance to shine, without anyone jockeying for position or domination. The counterbalance between keyboard and guitar is really something else. Played live, this will be a stunning piece to be expanded upon. ‘Arkhangel’ is a short keyboard appetite whetter before entering into ‘Last One Home’. It’s the second Young song that been give a new like. It’s a ballad where Youngs vulnerable vocals come to the fore, before Bainbridge’s guitar solo is one to behold and bow down to. I’ve found a new guitar hero to add to my list! There is a final reprise of ‘Altitude’ and its just enough to wind down and reflect on the majesty of the last 50-odd minutes.

I also have to give kudos to Steve Rispin (sound and production) as he really is the bonafide fifth member as the whole album sounds fantastic.

I love it when a band I’ve not heard before sweeps me off my feet. Its one of the reasons I still like reviewing for the opportunities like Lifesigns and John Young have given me in listening to this today. For that I will certainly be digging out the other albums and count me in as a fan!

This is a wonderful, wonderful album.

Track listing –
Ivory Tower
Last One Home
Altitude (Reprise)

John Young – Vocals and Keys
Dave Bainbridge – Guitars and Keys
Jon Poole – Bass and BVs
Zoltan Czoesz – Drums
Steve Rispin – Sound and production