As the world begins to put the chaos and uncertainty of the last two years behind it, there's no greater proof that rock has kept rolling than our round-up of the best albums of the year so far.
While it's been a quiet year in some respects – no new albums from big hitters like AC/DC, Aerosmith, Iron Maiden or Metallica – there's plenty to savour, and the fact that our list features the opening act on the already-fabled Stadium Tour alongside one of the headliners suggests that new bands are capable of breaking through at a time when the old guard are still producing the goods.
So here they are: young bucks and old stagers, guitar wranglers and prog noodlers, blues greats and faux-gospel cult rock misfits. All life is here, and it sounds good.
Ann Wilson: Fierce Bliss (opens in new tab)
The album’s opening track, Greed, is a gritty, riff-driven rocker with a stinging lyric, of which Ann Wilson says: “I think I write better when I’m angry.” Black Wing is a slow-rolling, darkly atmospheric number with a heavy 70s feel. And in Angel’s Blues – featuring guitarist Warren Haynes, and developed by Wilson from an instrumental jam by Haynes’s band Gov’t Mule – there is what she calls a “blues song on steroids”, on which, as a singer, she digs as deep as she has ever done
Big Big Train: Welcome To The Planet (opens in new tab)
Opener Made From Sunshine is as effervescent as its title suggests, with David Longdon singing of Cloud 9 and blooming magnolia trees while horns parp cheerily. It’s almost ludicrously upbeat. The Connection Plan is similarly euphoric, with sawing violin and Greg Spawton’s Chris Squire-like bass ushering in a chorus that soars merrily into the progosphere. When the band have ‘done happy’ in the past, it has often sounded forced, but here it just sounds right.
The Black Keys: Dropout Boogie (opens in new tab)
While it’s the most committed The Black Keys have sounded since 2011’s El Camino, the second half of the album applies the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Applying the backwoods feel of 2021’s Delta Kream to their own material, it’s a master class in light-and-shade dynamics. Happiness is as swampy as the bayou, Auerbach’s vocals drenched in Lennonesque reverb, while Baby I’m Coming Home is stadium-shaking blues worthy of Led Zeppelin in their pomp.
Bonnie Raitt: Just Like That (opens in new tab)
The title track most poignantly intersects love and loss, through a bittersweet story of survival through organ donation. Down The Hall concludes the album with an achingly touching yet unflinching reflection on terminal care. Bonnie Raitt has once more demonstrated her ability to distill the essence of human emotion down to its most potent form.
Bryan Adams: So Happy It Hurts (opens in new tab)
For four decades, Bryan Adams has been the master of boy-next-door, chorus-led radio-friendly rock. He has occasionally deviated from that path, but just when you think that might mean he’s acting his age (now 62) he’ll snap back into the groove. The stand-out is Kick Ass, a knowing homage to himself (and AC/ DC) begun with a 90-second spoken-word intro by John Cleese. What’s not to like?
Church Of The Cosmic Skull: There Is No Time (opens in new tab)
British faux-gospel prog rockers Church Of The Cosmic Skull return with this splendorous fourth album. It’s an entirely enigmatic project led by singer/ guitarist Bill Fisher, and the band’s mystical origins and white-robed stage attire carry all the trappings of an early-70s hippie sex cult, but their sound is rooted firmly in crunching classic-era arena rock. It’s like Ghost and the Polyphonic Spree proselytising in some high-watt megachurch.
Classless Act: Welcome To The Show (opens in new tab)
Blame Guns N’ Roses, or Steel Panther, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell genuine sleaze-rock contenders from ‘hilarious’ spoofs. Class Act dress the part, they feature Vince Neil and Justin Hawkins as guests, so who knows? That said, when they rock as hard as this, who cares?
Dan Reed Network: Let's Hear It For The King (opens in new tab)
Guitarist Brion James is, as ever, the lynchpin, mixing it up with riffs that span from dancefloor magnets (Pretty Karma, Supernova, Homegrown, Stumble) to the super-heavy (The Ghost Inside, Starlight – written by Dan Reed as a homage to AC/DC – and Unfuck My World). I See Angels (credited solely to James) takes a mellower turn, while the title tack has some dub-step elements plus brass. Rest assured that Dan Reed Network are close to the top of their game here.
Def Leppard: Diamond Star Halos (opens in new tab)
As on 2015’s self-titled predecessor, Phil Collen and Joe Elliott provide the lion’s share of the material. Rick Savage is the only other band member’s name in the writing credits, and the album opens with his brilliant Take What You Want (co-credited to Elliott). It’s classic Leppard that soars on a killer-diller riff. Thereafter all the band’s earworm signatures are present and correct. Especially strong are SOS Emergency, All We Need, Open Your Eyes, Gimme A Kiss and Unbreakable – stadium pleasers in the grand Leppard tradition.
Diamond Dogs: Slap Bang Blue Rendezvous (opens in new tab)
Some might accuse Diamond Dogs of being locked in an eternal 1973, endlessly recycling the riffs of Mott, the Faces, T.Rex and Slade. However, their unshakeable spirit and dedication to their craft brooks no argument. As Sören ‘Sulo’ Karlsson growls on Rock It & Roll It: ‘I know that we’re a hopeless dying breed/In the end you might find out there’s everything you need.’ Slap Bang Blue Rendezvous is an album for full-time dreamers everywhere.
Dorothy: Gifts From The Holy Ghost (opens in new tab)
Starting strong, Beautiful Life and Rest In Peace are powerful watersheds. The former through its soaring, anthemic chorus, while the latter is a darker personification of addiction, yet remains ambiguous enough to be the world’s most cathartic send-off to a hellish ex (‘No one’s laying roses on your bones’). Dorothy’s place in the echelons of rock is secured with an ode to resilience, rooted in the deepest strength and bookended by triumph.
Eddie Vedder: Earthling (opens in new tab)
Vedder’s third solo album proper is no less surprising, but for entirely different reasons. Where Ukulele Songs seemed designed to keep the singer’s A-list fame at arm’s length, Earthling finds him fully leaning into it. This is a mainstream rock record by a man who has spent a career signalling his discomfort with being a mainstream rock star, a set of songs that willingly embrace the middle ground. The list of guest appearances alone reads like a Prince’s Trust Charity gig: Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ringo Starr all chip in
Eric Gales: Crown (opens in new tab)
His charismatic vocals channel heartfelt musings on racism and sobriety, over well-crafted songs in varied hues of blue. His masterful combination of feel and technique reaches frequent peaks, with rousing, Jimi Hendrix-inspired rocker Death Of Me and slow burner I Found Her showcasing his fluid, emotive playing at its best.
Fantastic Negrito: White Jesus Black Problems (opens in new tab)
On a purely musical level, it’s all over the place in the best possible sense, from the opening clatter of Venomous Dogma, which twists and turns like Prince covering Muse, to the closing Virginia Soil with its ‘freedom will come’ mantra. They Go Low, the possible standout, begins with cascading piano, before banks of massed vocals kick in on the way to an irresistibly catchy chorus, while the unfortunately titled (to those who remember Frank Spencer), but super-tight Oh Betty is built around an distinctly Doorsian keyboards squall.
FM: Thirteen (opens in new tab)
With more hooks than seems strictly fair, up-tempo numbers like Shaking The Tree and the euphoric Turn This Car Around are all charm and elegant impact, while the shuffling pop-rock of Be Lucky and wistful ballad Long Road Home are as good as anything these enduring legends have written. Still the best, then.
Ghost: Impera (opens in new tab)
With Impera, Ghost have gone several steps further, serving up the greatest arena rock album since the invention of the permed mullet/slashed denim jacket combo. The glorious, arms-in-the-air approach of its predecessor is ramped up a hundredfold here. Every chorus is bigger, every backing vocal is stacked to the heavens, every booming drumbeat makes Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me sound like a pensioner absent-mindedly tapping on a pile of wet bog paper with an out-of-date sausage roll.
Halestorm: Back From The Dead (opens in new tab)
Those eternal hard-rock standbys of good and evil, sin and salvation, Heaven and Hell are recurring motifs. Already familiar as a standalone single from last year, the title track is a prime example: a booming, diabolical, flame-grilled beast of a tune. The mighty, goth-tinged Wicked Ways and the pummelling, glam-infused My Redemption play on similar angel/devil imagery, both sounding majestically huge. The Steeple crystallises all this quasi-religious imagery into a fiery church ‘where God and the Devil call home’.
The Hellacopters: Eyes Of Oblivion (opens in new tab)
Any fears that a 15-year absence between Eyes Of Oblivion and their previous album may have blunted The Hellacopters’ sonic blade are quickly dispelled by the opening wall of sound that has two guitars feeding back in harmony before ushering in the slashing chords of Reap A Hurricane via an obligatory string scrape. And what quickly becomes apparent is that The Hellacopters have never sounded as full and fizzing as they do here.
Jack White: Fear Of The Dawn (opens in new tab)
Unlike Jack White's early work with the White Stripes, Fear Of The Dawn sounds like the work of a studio boffin rather than a wannabe garage rocker, with effects screeching and guitar sounds processed to well beyond their natural limits. What hasn't changed is the simple power of White's songs, and the unfettered commitment with which they're performed. This album is thrill-a-minute, and packed full of excitement.
Joe Satriani: The Elephants Of Mars (opens in new tab)
Joe Satriani has been making his ‘strange, beautiful’ instrumental music for nearly four decades now, and his niche yet sizeable audience is in for a treat with The Elephants Of Mars, his nineteenth album. His strongest album since 1998’s Crystal Planet, The Elephants of Mars is 14 compelling tracks with Satch totally in the zone – his playing is at its most beautiful, experimental and fiery, with tones other guitarists would give an index finger for.