I’m back at it. In 2020 I was occupied with other projects and wasn’t in the proper mindset to be evaluating the world of music; I’m still not even sure what 2020’s album of the year was (but it was probably NNAMDÏ’s BRAT). Simultaneously it had become so unhip to claim that anything was better than anything else, it drained all the enthusiasm out of me for doing these. More people listen to me on the radio than ever read anything I write, so radio seemed to be the most constructive way to promote the music I love. Luckily, I don’t do any of it for the fame, much less the money, so this year when I got the itch, I remembered that I don’t care what any of you might think.
Anyway, on behalf of all music writers, let me just say that we had a blast pretending for a few years that mainstream pop music is as good and worthy of consideration as music made by people who have to work, but I’m glad that’s over with. It’s not that we don’t realize that that shit all sounds the same; it’s just that, despite pervading trends, writers gotta get paid too, and when all the paying gigs get absorbed into fewer and fewer media conglomerates, it’s almost impossible to make a living unless you kowtow to the artists that generate clicks. Also, a lot of formerly-independent/respectable publications spent years if not decades denouncing mainstream music, so there needed to be a backlash, or else the chances of Janet Jackson being exonerated in the court of white people’s opinions would be even smaller than they evidently still are. So I played along and it led to my watching the video of Beyoncé’s entire Coachella 2018 performance, which I otherwise probably wouldn’t have done, so no regrets. Sillytime is over though. Besides, you don’t need music critics singing the praises of music that’s already forced down your earholes, do you? From now on I’ll only be focusing on actual good music unless someone’s paying me.
I’ve said it countless times before; let me say it again: the math doesn’t matter. At least, not to anyone but me. It’s who I am, though. Besides, if you’re a music critic and you refuse to tell people what you think the album of the year is, what the hell good are you? It’s endlessly fun for me. Let’s just have fun with this, shall we?
This section was for artists whose records I bought and loved but they didn’t include download codes, and artists who put their whole shit on spotify but only let you listen to three tracks on their bandcamp page. Only I’ve decided that calling these artists out or giving them props is a bad idea. But I’m still up here on this soapbox. So, screw you, (redacted), I’m pretty sure I would’ve liked your albums a lot more if I could’ve listened to them more, and raspberries to your record labels who can’t be arsed. Where would independent labels be without record stores, that they feel the need to actively steer business away from them? I don’t know how many emails I’ve gotten via bandcamp (note: I love bandcamp! this isn’t their fault!) from labels saying ‘thank you for buying directly from the artist’ and it’s like…what? Isn’t this supposed to be a community? Have we completely lost the ability to care about anything other than our own personal bottom line? I’m so sick of it.
An unrelated honorable mention: The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings. It’s unfair of me not to like this album more. I have a pathetic excuse. I put on the first track, “Blackstrap”, and immediately I get that old familiar Besnard Lakes feeling. Ahhhhh it’s so good. And I’m waiting and I’m waiting and I’m bracing myself for the moment…and it just never comes. It’s a lovely song, it’s more of a slow burn, it’s not as though it doesn’t reach a proper intensity. I have no actual complaints about any of the songs on this album. Is it wrong to want to be punched in the gut by this band? Then I don’t wanna be right.
One more thing to mention before we get on with the list: easily my most-listened-to artist of the year, Juana Molina. Her live album ANRMAL came out last year and changed my whole life—thank you to the proprietors of the Five And Dime Show on WMSE for spinning this and sending me spiraling through her entire back catalog of near-constant brilliance. A reissue of her classic second album, 2000’s Segundo, came out this year as well and it’s been a constant companion ever since. I’ve heard almost everything she’s released now and I’ve yet to come across a single moment I didn’t like and my goal for 2022 is to teach myself Spanish one Juana Molina song at a time.
__THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2021 I ACTUALLY GOT TO SPEND PLENTY OF TIME WITH__
These are listed in precise reverse order of greatness. I’m not even sure how many there are. I thought, maybe if I don’t put the numerals in, if you really care you can count, and everybody’s happy? Rrrright. Also, please note that I’m not able to put links to these albums into this blog platform any more for some reason. You will have to google them. I know, it’s like one whole extra step. In most instances, if you google “bandcamp” also, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for and you can stream away.
Los Èsplifs, Estraik Back
A curiosity I received as a promo, this is an album I don’t know how to rave about except to say I never could shake it from my rotation. The duo (Saul Millan and Caleb Michel, who’ve both played with groups you’ve probably heard of) conjure what their bio refers to as the “Tuscon Sound”, which at least in this instance is a mixture of lo-fi cumbia and minimalist psych. The result is highly danceable in a quirky way, its palette a hybrid of almost kitschy retro and modern, never busy but capable of swerving randomly into mildly disorienting sonic side-trips. Mainly, it’s just very pleasant, infectious music to kick back to.
1000 Bone Cylinder Explosion, Bind
As time goes on I think more about how Opeth got out of the metal game at the right time; death-prog reached its zenith with their Ghost Reveries album and needed to die out for a while (not that it did mind you). There are new signs of life now, though, one being, against all odds, a band called 1000 Bone Cylinder Explosion, really more on the thrash-prog tip in case that matters. Noooooo I’m not going to look into where they got the band name, it’s too late in the history of the species to care about bad band names any more. Listening to this among other albums this year it occurred to me that although plenty of bands these days, particularly in metal, do the genre-hopping-within-songs routine, there’s still nothing out there actually like Naked City or Mr. Bungle. Everyone’s doing a great job and I’m not saying you’re even trying to be like Mr. Bungle, don’t put words in my mouth. But these guys do have this lil’ ska section in “Aporia” after all. Anyway Bind is at least similarly dizzying and irreverent and heavy, at least somewhat self-awarely Bunglesque, you can’t deny that one or two of the eight dozen or so riffs in “Pillars” sound a little like ancient Spruance relics. The album is a relentless good time, and amazingly, kinda beautiful when it occasionally lets up, in a lesser-tier-Buckethead sorta way. Try getting anything done while listening to this besides listening to it.
snag., Death Doula
I’m pretty sure snag. embraces the “screamo” tag, a genre I’ve generally not gravitated towards—emo and its subgenres have never been in my wheelhouse, an embarrassing admission for a Milwaukeean to make but there it is. It’s certainly not that I don’t like screaming or hardcore; it’s just that as music writers we all have to weed out certain genres or styles broadly if we ever want to feel like we have a handle on anything. After spending time with Death Doula I feel the urge to put out a request for people to point me in the direction of music in this genre that’s as good as this, only I’m not sure what the criteria are that make me like this album so much more than most. For all I know it’s been the superb cover artwork that’s drawn me to snag. Regardless, this record is ferocious and indignant in the ways that I find proper and says everything it needs to say in 18 minutes and there’s not a second wasted.
Toby Oler, Hillbilly Mind Eraser
This guy puts out a lot of music and I know I’ve let a few releases slip through the cracks, but this album is somewhat of a new frontier for him as far as what I’ve heard. As a staunch banjo hater (THERE ARE RARE EXCEPTIONS OF COURSE) I can’t think of a banjo album this weird and inventive since like the early days of Béla Fleck’s career. It actually reminds me at times of Tarek Sabbar’s 2019 analog synth album Water Creatures, a wistful ambient work that I’ve gone back to a lot; both these records give me the sensation of being pleasantly submerged in water or maybe something a little more viscous, and it is a lovely feeling even though I hate taking baths. I also get a strong Colma vibe from some of these pieces, paving the way for me making the argument that Oler is the Buckethead of banjo, but no I wouldn’t put that on him. Forget I said that. Just focus on the “Mind Eraser” portion of the title and understand that Oler keeps it mysterious and beautiful throughout. For my part, I forget that there’s even a banjo involved for long stretches. Hooray!
Juçara Marçal, Delta Estácio Blues
This album will almost certainly take a few listens to properly digest, just so you know. It is busy and in-your-face almost throughout; sometimes you might have to let your body decide which rhythm your head should follow. This may be a regular feature of Música popular brasileira (MPB); I don’t have enough background in the style to say for sure. Do you have any idea how many genres there are? What I can say is that hearing songs like “Ladra” and “Oi Cat” I can’t help thinking…this music could not have existed if it hadn’t been for Sophie. And that’s a sincere compliment to Juçara Marçal and producer Kiko Dinucci; what Sophie brought to pop music needs to be kept alive. We need those kaleidoscopic lightning bolts to the brain, and this is a full-length party in that vein, though not without its atmospheric and heartfelt moments; you will have a few opportunities to breathe.
Krallice, Demonic Wealth
I can’t mention them every year, but I could. They remain the most reliable and invigorating band in their range of what might be termed nondenominational black metal. Practically every year they put out an album and I listen to it like ‘wow how do they keep doing this?’ not like it’s the same, every time I say something along the lines of ‘this one’s a little more death-y’ or ‘this was rawer in terms of production but more technical’ and blah blah blah. There’s no question in my mind that Mick Barr and Colin Marston will go down as one of the most formidable songwriting guitar-playing duos in the history of metal. Some day, when we give up on staying caught up and start thinking about our place in all of it.
Yes!! The moody prog/ambient Enslaved side-project continuum strikes again! We submit! We surrender! This time around it’s Arve Isdal, and he’s joined by Ivar Thormodsæter of Ulver, hard to go wrong there. I don’t love DROTT as much as Bardspec; it’s more of a lurching, eclectic affair whereas Bardspec was a groove. Now that I think about it, Orcus somewhat scratches one or two Ulverish itches that Garm has been neglecting as he’s ventured further into drone and synthpop. That’s not to say there aren’t some driving beats on this album; “Katabasis” is an absolute jam, and “Arch Of Gloom” despite its title would get feet moving at a show. My favorite part, though, is the mid-album pairing of “The Strait”, a hallucinatory stroll you wouldn’t be surprised to hear as a Wildflowers-era Tom Petty b-side (trust me!), followed by “Psychopomp”, a mad post-rock gut-churner. And the sax-haunted doom of “The Marauders”, come on. So many flavors to sample on this record.
Negură Bunget, Zău
First things first, much love and respect to Hupogrammos Disciple and Sol Faur, former core members of Negură Bunget whose band Dordeduh finally released a followup to their 2012 debut Dar De Duh (yes yes I laughed too back in the day but come on maybe learn a little Romanian) called Har (I’m not joking!) and it has also given me much listening pleasure this year. At the same time, it makes clear why they had to part ways with Bunget in 2009, as founding drummer Negru’s vision for the band was a far cry from this. I rejoice at each fleeting opportunity to bathe my ears in that vintage Hupogrammos ripping guitar tone, and I salute Dordeduh for some of these incredible hooks and grooves (“Descânt” in particular could almost be a radio hit and gets stuck in my head a lot) and the overall adventurousness of the album. It’s an incredible journey, and it does not give me any kind of Negură Bunget vibes whatsoever, and that’s as it should be. Oddly enough, Zău could’ve been an even tougher sell to Bunget fans, as Negru tragically suffered a fatal heart attack in 2017 at age 42, leaving this final installment of his planned “Transylvanian Trilogy” unfinished. However by some miracle, Negru had recorded drum parts for the album prior to heading out on what would be his final tour, leaving the remaining members of that incarnation of the band to attempt to finish the work in what they deemed the spirit of Negru’s intentions to be. I’d hardly deign to judge whether they succeeded at that specifically but they made a beautiful album in tribute to one of the greatest artists in the history of black metal. When you take the whole narrative of this band into account, stretching all the way back to 1995, it’s madness to think their swan song could be so lush and gentle—not entirely, you understand—yet given Bunget’s essential ties to Romanian folk music from day one, it’s perfectly fitting, particularly for a band that helped to bust black metal wide open in the first place.
dolor, ‘til next year
Thank you dolor for abandoning the vaporwave stylization; I think I’ve been screwing it up all this time. Also thank you for continuing to churn out thoroughly engaging collections of beats like this, collections that take you in and make it a whole story in short bursts. There are words but good luck making them out most of the time; the impossibly distorted vocals serve to frame the music, and they’re creepy enough when combined with some of the darker passages that you could almost make a case for this being dungeon synth music (keep your pants on, I wouldn’t actually go that far). It’s been this gradual movement over the course of his career, collaborating with artists of various styles, that to me, whether intentional or not, constitutes a peaceful breaking-down of barriers between hip-hop and EDM/IDM. It’s not really necessary to draw the line; the more music like this I hear, and I also think about a lot of the beats coming out of the Ruby Yacht collective, the harder it gets to define, and I have no problem with that. Deep, emotional beats; that’s what I hear on ‘til next year, and maybe that’s all that needs to be said.
For the benefit of people who know stuff about things, I found this, courtesy of Michaelangelo Matos in The New Yorker, regarding the Conclave sound: “…steeped in Afro-Latin jazz and disco, in the vein of Osunlade and Nuyorican Soul”. I believe it! The truth is I’ve heard a lot of vocalists over the years who sounded like Cesar Toribio but even if he never develops a singing style of his own, he made one of 2021’s most infectious dance albums. I can’t get enough of it. As cliché as this sounds, it’s all over the place stylistically, yet it’s got a totally cohesive feel; after a while you start to take the tempo and mood changes in stride, and the record becomes this massive heady swirl of the various influences described above which I could not necessarily pick out individually myself. Sure, if you haven’t figured this out by now, I’m all about merging cultures and styles; it would take longer than humanity has left for some hypothetical bland homogenization of music to wipe out all semblance of culture (despite the best efforts of Khruangbin), and this is one of the group party records of the year that everyone’s invited to and dang I wish we could all be dancing together to this music tonight.
Fog Lake, Tragedy Reel
When I first put this album on, the vintage synth beat that introduces “crystalline” sounded like any old retro gimmick. When I put it on today, it causes an immediate emotional response, like the beginning of NIN’s “Closer” or Weiland’s “Barbarella”. That stems not from ingenious use of technology or nostalgia but from the resonance that Tragedy Reel has achieved for me. There’s no denying that Aaron Powell’s lyrics remind me of a younger me; this is the type of poetry I always used to wish I could write. The realm of bedroom pop is another one I don’t usually venture into deeply; it seems like a lot of mediocre songwriters get by on aesthetic, and Fog Lake’s strong lyrics and occasionally striking melodies are a clear exception. While the album is as lo-fi as possible for most of its runtime, these songs would survive an upgrade in production; some (I’ll single out “Crocodile” as the most obvious) have a Bradford Cox-like quality that evokes a sympathetic weariness I think most of us can relate to these days. The minimalist approach makes “pity party” hit like a ton of bricks if it catches you right, and then the album closer, “june”, the only word is ‘devastating’. (Surely you weren’t anticipating a happy ending.)
Devin Drobka Trio, Resorts
This record makes me wish I enjoyed taking baths. I feel like there could be nothing better than immersing oneself in soothing hot water with Resorts on the speakers, if one were a baths sort of person. I used to put it on in the morning a lot as background to other stuff I was doing, but once I got more familiar with it I began to find it too riveting. Whether the piano (courtesy of Matt Blair) is washing over you in arrhythmic cascades, or the drums (Drobka) are filling almost all the space, or it feels like ages since Aaron Darrell has played a note on the bass yet the last piano strike is still just barely audible, there’s almost constant suspense, and once you get to an understanding of this, it becomes an almost-constant serenity. That’s where I’m at with it currently, anyway. You could twist almost any record, particularly an instrumental one, into an allegory for the pandemic; for me it’s the cycles we go through of forgetting and remembering that the ongoing trauma affects every one of us, just different aspects in different ways. No one is unscathed. This isn’t comforting but it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we shouldn’t be pitting our pain against anyone else’s; let it instead be an entry point to communication and empathy. Whoops, this turned into something other than a description of the Devin Drobka Trio; rather than executing a brilliant tie-in right here, let me just recommend that you listen to Resorts and see where it takes you.
Credentials, Why is my arm not a lilac tree?
In a year of disappointments, this album was the one thing I knew wasn’t going to let me down, because I’d already heard most of the songs two years ago and they were amazing then and let’s face it they’re even more amazing now and let me tell you about seeing them live some time. When I first heard this band I wondered whether a genre, however codified it may be, that never hits the mainstream can ever go out of style, because math rock never sounds recycled to me. It all hinges on the distinct styles of the players, and in the case of Credentials you’ve got foremost the radically soulful singing of Sevan Arabajian-Lawson, whose um credentials span the gamut of very-far-from-math-rock genres. Between their striking poetry and the impeccably tight rest-of-the-band, you can hardly ask for a better combination of hooks, tense subtle space, and judicious ferocity. Now could somebody pleeeease get Sweep The Leg Johnny to reunite and play a show with Credentials thank you.
Backxwash, I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES
I sort of wish I hadn’t already been introduced to Backxwash before this album came out, so I could’ve been properly bowled over by these violent pieces of work. The fact that she won the 2020 Polaris prize for God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It still boggles this United Statesian mind; all the same, her songs don’t come at me caustically any more, for the most part, and I remember that initially they did. (Come to think of it, Guerrilla Ghost fandom has probably done wonders, to say nothing of Dälek…) Still, the digestibility is an asset; not only are her lyrics clear and vehement, there are hooks! On the lyrical side, “TERROR PACKETS” takes the cake for me; it’s harrowing in terms of delivery but that’s nothing compared to the imagery. “SONGS OF SINNERS”, on the other hand, could be a goll dang hit single in a timeline not too far removed from this dimension, and then juxtapose the Sangoma chanting in “666 IN LUXAXA” with the banshee wails of “NINE HELLS” and boy it all comes together in the end doesn’t it? Not as much of a wallop as GHNTDWTLHOOI but arguably a more enduringly rewarding listen.
Fudgy, The Now End of the Universe
In appreciating this mind-bending 88-minute ordeal of a record, I’ll admit that it probably helps if you have some idea of the back story that inspired it. Unfortunately I have no idea what that might’ve been so who the hell knows why I even like it, but it sure feels like a lifetime’s worth of something. Ah wait, it’s probably because of a subconscious connection via those damn Judy Blume books. Oh wait, and I had a cat named Fudge when I was a kid! She lived in the barn and the fur would get so matted on her back in the summer that it would turn into like a turtle shell and the swallows would swoop down at her when she walked across the lawn like ‘what the fuck is that’.
Olson, Van Cleef, Williams, Unleash The Hoof’s Revenge
If you’re a fellow fan of Earth’s The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull then my friend you will love Unleash The Hoof’s Revenge. This album, one of at least ten that Tanner Olson released this year with various configurations through his Electric Relics imprint, is more ragged and jagged than Earth tended to get, more steeped in dirty twang, and the songs don’t generally take as much time to develop, plus you have a wider range of tempos and textures. Yes, it was inevitable that I’d have an Olson release on this list, and no, there wasn’t a new Across Tundras album this year; any other questions? Okay, the runner-up Tanner Olson release of the year goes to T.G. Olson’s S/T, which gives the impression that Olson parked his truck at the foot of a mountain somewhere around sundown, started a nice campfire, plugged in his guitar and whatnot (hey it’s the ‘20s) and sang and played old cowboy songs (which he wrote of course) for 36 minutes. Just as you’d hope.
Max Devereaux, Album Title
Pandemic pathos seems a natural fit for Max Devereaux. He’s been even more prolific than usual, releasing four solo and three collaborative albums in 2021 alone, and although we can glean some of his typical humor gleaming through here and there, these have been fairly dark efforts where lyrics are concerned (applicable to only two of the aforementioned seven releases). While Ain’t Nothing Forever is the more eclectic release and features the incredible “Living On The Promise Of Death”, the more stripped-down Album Title is the more arresting collection of songs. The best ones—“Expensive Lessons”, “It’s Not Fine Anymore”, “The Weight Of The World”—wormed their way into my head after a single spin. Devereaux likely fields plenty of Beck comparisons; with Album Title (no I didn’t forget to fill that in or something) he proves that he can pull off the sad-sack folkie bit better than Beck ever did.
Bríi, Sem Propósito
What an astounding year for black metal. Preposterous how much great stuff I’m leaving off this list, and you can tell I’m a Phishhead by the ones that made it ‘cause most of them feature 20-plus-minute songs hahaha. I think Sem Propósito (English translation: “no purpose”)is my favorite example this year of what I guess can only be called post-black metal. For the first five minutes you’d think it was a trance record or something, and there are more mesmerizing stretches like this too, as the album moves through many different styles, transporting you right out of anything resembling a black metal mentality for lengthy excursions, the music never truly stopping. It’s only two songs, each one lasting 28 minutes and 12 seconds. Each one is its own version of Captain Picard living for 40 years in that one alien probe beam. I’m sorry but you’re just going to have to sit still for the full 56 minutes. Gimme a break! you say. They do, it’s precisely halfway through the album, not that the music stops at that point, but there is a natural lull there. Go ahead ya pansy, hit pause, go get a glass of water. You probably went to see Gettysburg at the multiplex and left at intermission. You probably rip the end off your Cousin’s sub and toss it. I bet you fast-forward through the Greatest American Hero theme song. You only tell people you stayed awake through all of Barry Lyndon. This album’s probably not for you.
Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air
It’s been a busy pandemic for one of Earth’s greatest living poets. Having released at least seven albums with various projects in 2020, Moor Mother’s output slowed to two this year, neither of which could possibly be excluded from this list. As the title perhaps suggests, Black Encyclopedia of the Air features different collaborators on almost every track; it also showcases Camae Ayewa’s versatility as a vocalist—not a singer, sure, but if you’re used to her as primarily a spoken-word artist you’ll get a lot more variety out of this album. It strikes me as a very personal record all the same; the opening track, “Temporal Control Of Light Echoes”, comes across like a defining statement of artistic purpose, and from there Ayewa allows many other voices and influences in, making it universal. It’s a bold suggestion, but I feel like Ayewa can speak for a broad swath of people; there’s nothing divisive about her words from where I’m sitting, and her delivery is especially hypnotic over some of these moody beats, although people calling this album “accessible” must be solely focusing on rap being catchier than poetry. This isn’t going anywhere on any chart; we’d have to evolve a little more as a society before Moor Mother could even have an opportunity to sell out. All the same, I don’t mind having a relatively stress-free, dare-I-say soothing time listening to a Moor Mother album.
Large Print, Summer/Fall 2020
The follow-up to their equally wonderful 2020 album Winter/Spring 2020, Large Print’s Summer/Fall 2020 again features 26 songs each about a minute long. I would of course suggest listening to the two releases as a single album; major props to the band for coming up with 52 different song titles! It’s this type of project that forces you to think about how you value songs; are these mere fragments that deserve fleshing out or is the essence of a pop song (for the sake of this argument, any sub-four-minute song featuring at least a verse and a chorus and a discernible hook melody?) merely the repetition and tweaking of a single key musical idea or two? If the latter point is true then this album is littered with hits. Either way, Large Print has always seemed to place importance on the non sequitur, and the beauty of both of these collections is that whether or not you love the immediate idiom, there’s another one right around the corner. You have little to lose by checking this out; I have loved this band’s approach to alt-rock since the first time I heard it and I still do. The only reason I’d want any of these songs to be longer is so it wouldn’t be such a challenge to play them on the radio.
Who told me to listen to this?? Easily my favorite Eritrean/Italian/Swiss/Bulgarian/Moroccan release of the year (the group is based in Geneva), and what I’d love to do is head down a rabbit hole into each of these musicians’ traditions and explore it all, in a fantasy world where there are 60-some hours per day. Lately I’ve taken to categorizing more music simply as ‘dance’; that is definitely the intention in the case of Soleil, a ludicrously infectious and propulsive album, pulsating with love and light if you want to boil it down. Between the title track, “Dangerous Flowers”, and “Fresh”, I want to be back in a late-night tent at a festival somewhere so bad. So yes I have danced around my office to this late at night; with your eyes closed it’s not so hard to imagine.
Grupo Pisse y las hermanas Martinez, Los alemanos pueden bailar
Ugh it hurts any time I listen to Pisse, any time I even think about Pisse, due to their having been introduced to me by my cousin-in-law Jens who passed away suddenly a few years ago and whose absence remains a colossal void in my life. In this same sense, every new Pisse release is a lifeline; this latest (title in English: “Germans Can’t Dance”), in conjunction with the Martinez sisters (as far as I can tell this is their debut recording) is one of the best things they’ve ever done. Whether you feel they’ve left punk in the dust or reinvented it entirely, you can’t possibly feel left in the cold by this EP if you were a Pisse fan before. If they were ever strictly punk it’s been years, and this is one of the most infectious and irresistible projects they’ve ever released.
illuminati hotties, Let Me Do One More
Are people not gaga over this album? Why? These songs are amazing, every bit as good as the ones on last year’s FREE I.H: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For, which at least some people were gaga over. I mean, between “Pool Hopping”, “Knead”, “u v v p”, “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth”, hell the last three songs too, I’m almost tempted to poke around for reviews of this album to find out what’s not resonating. I do struggle to determine whether or not this is purely retro in sound; you could plop this album into 1996 and aside from some puzzling lyrical references no one would bat an eye, but haven’t people been sort of making this kind of stuff all along? Although really, these levels of buoyancy and joy are more like that early-‘90s, So I Married An Ax Murderer/Benny & Joon-soundtrack vibe. Which admittedly is a mega sweet spot for me. Not that the album is lacking for angst; it’s got everything. If jukeboxes were still a legitimate thing and I owned a bar this would be in there for life. (CD jukeboxes I’m saying. Or if they put out 7-inchers of all the best songs, then we could do that, but you know how it is with the vinyl pressing delays and all.)
When did I say all mainstream pop music was bad? SHOW ME WHERE I SAID THAT. Although the sound of 333 is about as mainstream as pop music can be, Tinashe made the album, just like 2019’s Songs For You, in her home studio and put it out on her own label; as far as I can glean, Tinashe Music has no distributor or parent company at all. What a coincidence that when The Reckoning arrives at year’s end, this immaculate record gets passed over in favor of St. Vincent or Adele or whatever. Even a cursory glance at Tinashe articles around the internet will bring up Janet Jackson comparisons; it’s interesting to think about, because on one hand, Jackson had the strength of the industry behind her and was hands-on inventing the next evolution of pop music, and on the other hand, Tinashe is just making songs in her house. Could her melodies somehow become indelible? Well sure, but how does that happen nowadays?? Shit, am I writing this too late? 333 isn’t even a concept album to some day be rediscovered, what was she thinking?? At this time I’d like to point out that once upon a time, critics considered the very idea of a concept album to be pretentious, while nowadays they seem to insist upon cohesion or a grand message or something in order for an ALBUM to even be worth consideration. In the immortal words of Jerry Garcia, I think I’d rather have fun.
Irreversible Entanglements, Open The Gates
On Open The Gates we hear Camae Ayewa venture much closer to song lyrics than I’m previously aware of. And we need that. She reaches out immediately to connect with the world: “It’s energy time”, she insists on the title track; it’s an invitation. And while there is plenty of hope in her words on this record, there’s more anger and more sorrow. This time around, the words are less confrontational as delivered than on the group’s last album; still, the words remain center stage even when whispered, and the full ensemble is more comfortable shifting and contorting around them. And the music as is would be brilliant without the words, but it also wouldn’t exist. To me, the crowning achievement is the 20-minute “Water Meditation”, the very embodiment of spiritual flow, a patient piece in which Ayewa intones some of her lines as if in a trance. We’re well past the soothing early goings of the album, yet this song offers positivity in defiance, the way knowledge itself can occasionally be a comfort. The group evokes the vastness of space as Ayewa ruminates on The One. Then we ascend the mountain of sound. Define it all however you please.
Autarkh, Form In Motion
I was randomly listening to NPR the other day, I don’t remember what show it was, some kind of roundtable where all of the guests were talking about the therapeutic benefits of masochism. Although the experience of physical pain has never brought me any particular arousal or pleasure, it occurred to me that there are sonic ordeals that are demonstrably painful that I willfully subject myself to and enjoy, and I would say this Autarkh album is one. Familiarization in this sense can open up entire new worlds, people. It’s like maxing your brain out on the multitude of ideas existing simultaneously in each millisecond, definitely in the vein of Sigh but less esoteric and devoid of cheese, and obviously more clinical what with the percussion being all digital. Form In Motion is a sonic embodiment of a technophobe’s most dystopian nightmare; there’s not a moment of serenity here, not a shred of organic material to cling to. This is the music that’s playing constantly in the collective consciousness of the Borg. I’m not insisting that you use headphones but at least get your head properly positioned between two stereo speakers. You will be astounded at what you will hear. It’s not especially heavy even, except in very brief spasms; “Lost To Sight” is perhaps the best entry point if you crave some semblance of accessibility, and that’s no slight; this is also Michel Nienhuis’ most impassioned vocal performance of the album and…these riffs, what can I say. I hear echoes of all the industrial pioneers in this album, taken not in vain but in tribute, and only in brief. It’s not as though Nienhuis sounds like he’s striving to live up to anything, but if this is the future of industrial metal I’m in.
R.A.P. Ferreira, the Light Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures
Nothing against bob’s son; I like this one better, the deliberate slowness, the attitude, the way he lets the wordplay stand on its own, the occasional blatant Dumilesqueness even. Rory Ferreira is at the stage in his career where he has imitators starting to taste success, and any Ferreira imitator will be almost automatically more palatable to the masses by virtue of being dumbed-down. If anything, this album is Ferreira doubling down on everything he’s known for, and that includes beats across nine different producers—I mean, you can’t tell me that “brother mouzone library card” (brainweight) and “wedding cake eighths” (gibbsfreelance) don’t sound like beats Rory himself might’ve made. Note that this isn’t what I mean when I say ‘imitators’; Ferreira has a way of using his voice to make the music his own, and that’s a big part of it, but the minimalism, the mellow organ tones, the skittering drums, we are nowhere if not inside the Scallops Hotel. As for the raps themselves, Ferreira makes previous versions of himself sound like they were trying too hard. I don’t think he ever made an album that flowed this well before.
I’ve been leery of this artist (Caio Lemos) in the past. I am no black-metal purist but Kaatayra has historically struck me as contrived or at best half-baked. Folk-black burnout may have been partially to blame; perhaps now that we’ve had somewhat of a respite from the glut of U.S. and Scandinavian hybrids I can appreciate the Brazilian take more. I’m not 100% sure but I don’t think I hear any electric guitar on this album; there are synths, but for all practical purposes this is acoustic music that sometimes gets noisy and feral in metal cadences, featuring screams and chants and singing all across the board. Whereas many bands on this tip pay homage to nature often in a purely symbolic “pagan” sense, Inpariquipê (google comes up empty trying to translate this one) transports you directly into the jungle and forces you to endure whatever aspects of it you might find unappealing. I obviously underestimated Lemos; this is not only his most sublime creation, it’s another testament to the unlimited possibilities of black metal in an age when most other metal subgenres are on their third or fourth wave of the same old shit.
They said ‘we finished our new album, any label who wants to release it, let us know’, resulting in 44 different editions of Alkisa, different artwork, different mixes, a free-for-all. I got the Belgian version on Les Ateliers Claus, which from what I can tell is one of the basic as-is presentations. A person of means could probably spend many happy weeks tracking down and listening to every version; the music of Senyawa doesn’t get old. Sometimes it’s percussive, sometimes more of a drone. Sometimes it’s very vocal-centric; most of the time only the players know the names of the instruments. Alkisa could almost serve as a primer; it showcases a restless version of Senyawa, covering many motifs they generally dwell longer in. You would have to work at convincing me that you listened intently to it and weren’t moved.
Wednesday, Twin Plagues
Every time it gets to “Ghost Of A Dog” I’m like ‘fuck it’s over already’. The song is a “My Mummy’s Dead” for generation z(?) and they’re lucky to have a somewhat less narcissistic songwriter in Karly Hartzman than John Lennon was. After this torrential rock and roll record you need that sendoff; it may be more deadpan than primal scream therapy but it’s deeper and more scathing than anything from back when they were inventing emo. I cannot pick a favorite song off Twin Plagues and every day until the vinyl arrives at my door is painful. This is the best rock and roll record of 2021 I’m pretty sure.
Kenny Segal, Indoors
This was easily my album of the year basically from when it came out until October. If you want to accuse me of recency bias (valid for all I know) feel free to call this the album of the year. Of all the people who sat at home the whole pandemic and created something out of whatever they had on hand, Kenny Segal used his time most wisely. The feeling when I put it on for the first time continues to deepen as these grooves become more and more familiar. That first track, “lollllbye”, hits like an accepted classic from a more formative time in my life. I feel certain that on another timeline every one of these songs is iconic. I’m not saying it’s too late for us. There are still turntables, there are still parties.
McKinley Dixon, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her
This came in last summer as a recommendation on social media I assume, and I listened to it on bandcamp a couple times, bought it, and then in that particular flurry of bandcamp-Friday purchases, totally biffed on downloading it. And if it weren’t for bandcamp’s AOTY piece (don’t call it an AOTY piece tho) I might’ve completely forgotten it! But thank God/oh my God! How could I have forgotten about this? It happens every year, and a single tear runs down my cheek for all of us trying to stay current and still give our all to the things we love. And now it’s like my endtimes jam, if the world ended at midnight tonight, at least I could say I got to ride it out on a reunion with this glorious music, making up for months of lost time when I was y’know ruling out other shit? Maybe the world could end during the peak of “Never Will Know”. Maybe even better, at any point during “make a poet Black”. The flow is P-Funkish in the sense that it’s unafraid to touch on cheese and almost incidentally psychedelic; that’s kind of a red-herring comparison, though, because although there’s plenty of lightheartedness, there’s also aggression and explicitly dark personal and political themes. I could nitpick a few minor but noticeable production gaffes, a couple fleeting instances where Dixon sounds a little too much like someone else, and maybe one ill-advised guest verse; these are insufficient excuses to justify this album’s relative lack of praise though, that’s like downgrading Dixon for not being rich or connected enough. There are lyrical and musical turns that still completely turn my neck and all the propulsion and suspense I crave from, I dunno, a concept album? Or just any fully-realized musical odyssey. Better with each listen.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
Most of the albums I was most excited about for 2021 do not appear on this list. This particular one, though, I’ll never forget when I got the email announcement about it from bandcamp; I just stared in disbelief. I barely had time to get excited about it before it was already in the world! Now here we are and it’s on all the lists, in a year when all the critics’ picks are otherwise so mainstream they might as well be on the Sony payroll, and I feel SO HAPPY FOR THEM, everyone involved in creating this incredible thing. It’s a rare feeling of vindication when something this weird resonates with so many. And critics are like ‘omg this takes care of electronic, jazz, and classical with just one album, I’m so well-rounded!’ Everyone’s happy. Every time I put it on I get that slow rush in anticipation of the journey; every time it enters its final reprisal of that simple life-affirming theme I feel like there are days ahead of us that most of us will agree are better than these days. It’s only poets who can predict the future and this record is poetry of the spirit.
Voices, Breaking The Trauma Bond
Can we at least agree on one thing: David Gray’s is the drumming performance of 2021. It’s not like we didn’t know he was capable of the drum-n-bass beats, but if you listen back to the first two Voices albums you will be blown away by the evolution, and now we’ve sort of covered that one style in his arsenal. I don’t tend to get overly excited about metal drummers but this man is a true artisan. And y’know, the emotional ordeal that this album is, it’s cruel of me to mention the drumming first. I think about what Porcupine Tree could’ve become if Steven Wilson weren’t so obsessed with the past. I think about what Opeth left behind. (I think there are obvious (hopefully?) sly nods to both bands on Breaking The Trauma Bond.) (and Pink Floyd, and Queen, and and) I also think about black metal bands I once loved that turned out to be racists, and it sucks, and I try to remind myself that Voices, as far as I know, can be black-prog saviors right now just by being decent human beings. Because this album is ludicrously brilliant. I would still say they haven’t eclipsed the best subversive hooks from their 2014 sophomore album London; I don’t begrudge them the increased syrup on this album, though, they do it with so much heart or else I’m a cretin. The full scope of styles and emotions is a dream for anyone turned on by the pushing of envelopes and the paradoxes of extremes; you might walk away realizing you hate something you formerly loved, or vice versa. What does that even mean?
Circuit Des Yeux, -io
As one would hope, -io sounds nothing like anything Haley Fohr has done before, except for the singing. Given the fact that it’s her debut release for Matador Records, we might’ve expected something significantly more accessible than what we’ve heard from Fohr in the past, but that’s not what we got. In fact everything about this album foils our expectations; it begins with a quick burst of orchestral din reminiscent of those orchestral dins The Beatles conjured up in “A Day In The Life”, raising the hairs on our necks. The next thing we hear is…uhhhh, the string section playing Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”? I gotta admit it still doesn’t sit right with me when I put it on; this song, “Vanishing”, is almost caustic in its cleanliness—only for a little while, I just can’t seem to get used to it. The rest of the album is such a wide-ranging, mind-expanding journey, the orchestral elements so well-integrated with the whateverness of the rest of the instrumentation, I always forget quickly. It’s not hard to reconcile; Fohr’s music has always confounded, to varying degrees, and the balance between beauty and unease is what defines most of her music, so it’s fitting that I get hung up on something. Woulda prolly been the AOTY if I could’ve gotten over that one bit…
Ben LaMar Gay, Open Arms To Open Us
In 2018, I first heard of Ben LaMar Gay, and thus the International Anthem record label (as a funny aside, International Anthem does not give download codes either and yes it’s maddening) his debut release was on, and you might say that was a life-changing moment. This is the first label I’ve come across that could probably sell me a subscription package if it tried. So there was the hype of that first compilation, Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun, and then some more archival releases from a supposed vast archive of unreleased material, and I’ll be damned if every Ben LaMar Gay release I’ve heard isn’t absolutely enthralling. In the back of my mind, though, I was still waiting for an album that Gay created as its own purpose, if that even makes sense beyond a silly secondhand intellectual conceit. Either way, here it is, everything I hoped for. Gay’s music was uncategorizable to begin with and remains so, though particularly on the longer, more involved songs on Open Arms To Open Us, the style is distinctively his own, instantly recognizable beyond the sound of his voice. That said, the record is a massive group effort featuring many mainstays of the ever-burgeoning Chicago experimental scene, all united to bring Gay’s vision to life. The result is both defiant and gentle. It comes at me like a plea for connection; I know you could twist practically any song you hear these days into that framework, but this I feel in my bones. The artist and label are known for challenging music; personally I dunno what’s so challenging in this case. Maybe when it comes down to it, most people do just want to sit still.
I have more words for you, but I’ll have to publish them in a separate post, as I’ve reached the character limit for this blog platform. This year continues to suck; see ya next.