That’s a wrap for November, so — unless SZA decides to surprise-release her new record during the holidays — it’s also pretty much a wrap for albums in 2021. Time to make up my goddamn mind on which ten records stuck around the most into my psyche.
Of course, this is just another snap of what I’m enjoying at the time but’s always fun to reflect on what certain music means to you, regardless of rankings and other superficial shit. I can tentatively say, contrary to 2020, this has been a year of strange flux. Less 12 Monkeys/The Road/The Walking Dead- stark dystopia, more Requiem For A Dream/Brazil/Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind type of delirium. Oh, and the records I liked in 2021 did kind of reflect that cautious, transient confusion, all in their own unique ways. Okay, here we go.
10. Circuit des Yeux — -io
Each song on Haley Fohr’s new opus feels like entering a new, totally different room. To me, this record talks about our most desperate survival mechanisms, and how deep we have to sometimes reach within our very nature to find some kind of redemptive light. Depression, trauma, and grief are being depicted as these immovable cosmic forces: inherently mysterious, unavoidable and utterly devastating. But therein lies the comfort: to navigate these forces, one has to acknowledge being part of that natural force all the same. Fohr recently tweeted: “When it’s raining and you’re crying, it’s like the world is with you.” And that’s just one example.
Read my interview with Circuit des Yeux for Beats Per Minute.
9. Lost Girls — Menneskekollektivet
We’re led to believe records are engineered carefully from a specific experience from either one or several individuals. But this gorgeous debut by Lost Girls — the project of Jenny Hval and Havard Volden — kind of captures a more conversational type of music that emphasizes the act of creating itself over some kind of desired result. Menneskekollektivet is glorious, life-giving music, it’s as if imagining later Talk Talk type of music in a rave setting. A sonic primordial soup of experiences converted to sound: acutely intimate, secularly spiritual.
Read my interview with Lost Girls for Under The Radar.
8. SPELLLING — The Turning Wheel
Records that chronicle cyclical life processes seem to be my thing this year. SPELLLING’s The Turning Wheel and the next entry on this list both address the endless course of endings and beginnings. Though this premise might sound a little pompous and weighty, The Turning Wheel actually sounds delightfully fun, uninhibited and otherworldly: kind of like Andrew Lloyd Webber meets Betty Davis meets Dario Argento? Whatever: these songs make me want to embrace the Bohemian lifestyle, take magic mushrooms and go out on some kind of Mystery Van kind of adventure. Escapism at its finest, all while showing it’s still possible to create highly original music out of familiar touchstones.
Read my interview with SPELLLING for Beats Per Minute.
7. Rats on Rafts — Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths
This one hits a little closer to home. Rats on Rafts are a band I’ve associated with my city ever since I’ve moved here, so where they are at creatively has always been a valuable primer. So where are we at? Due to a pandemic-induced estrangement from both people and scene, it’s hard to even tell. Life right now feels like a constant tape loop: each time feels more deteriorated than the last, and fittingly working with tape machines has been one of the Rats’ main obsessions. So yeah, leave it to one of this rock’s best post-punk bands to try and make sense of it all with their most panoramic, sonically ambitious record to date. I’m as lonely and alienated as when I first had my growing pains in Roffa: everything I chronicled in my book now feels like a treasured dream. But nevertheless, just a dream. And for better or worse, the Excerpts feels symbiotic to that very sentiment of having to start anew again.
I reviewed the Rats’ film ‘Visions Of Chapter 3’ for Beats Per Minute.
6. Mariah the Scientist — RY RY World
When the world opened up again, I plummeted into a pit emotionally like a doomed to fail Wile E. Coyote scheme. The lack of live music caused me to deviate into looking for love, and despite my best efforts, I was pretty horrible at finding it AND dealing emotionally with it in a mature way. RY RY World is the soundtrack to my short & misguided tryst with romance in 2021: first of all, the album art is cathartic as fuck. Mariah is seen smiling with an arrow through her heart, as the life slowly drains from her eyes. That’s love in a nutshell: you’re laying down your soul in a Squid Game kind of scenario. Nevertheless, RY RY World makes these heavy tides feel light and fun. It may not be as ambitious sonically as other high-profile R&B-releases (H.E.R., Cleo Sol, Snoh Aalegra, Tinashe), it has heart and guts in abundance. Plus, the vibrant, bubblegum arrangements are fantastic and stunning, not to mention decidedly less ‘adult contemporary’.
5. Backxwash — I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND DRESSES
After Lido Pimienta last year, this year another Polaris Prize winner makes it into my list. As many other artists were releasing albums gridlocked by corona-induced logistics, Ashanti Mutante jumped ahead of the pack with a more urgent spur-of-the-moment LP. Forging a highly innovative, electronic synthesis of black metal and hip-hop, I LIE HERE sounds like a frantic panic attack, excavating Backxwash’s most anguished, darkest thoughts in real-time. As grim as that sounds, I’ve hardly interviewed artists expressing so much joy in their creative process as she does.
And that joy, through the record’s pummeling, unrelenting heaviness, is super palpable on this record. From Black Dresses’ Ada Rook acing the death growls on the main hook of the title track, to Backxwash integrating an entire fucking drone set by Lauren Bousfield into the beat of IN THY HOLY NAME, there’s a volatile, violent sense of rejoicing that underpins all that doomsday-spelling. Backxwash made powerful, inspiring art out of both her own darkest moments and the more universal perils, and that brings a silver lining of hope to anyone dealing with similar disenfranchised situations.
Read my interview w/ Backxwash (in Dutch) for Front.
4. LUCY — The Music Industry Is Poisonous
Honestly, I have tried. Maybe this stuff is akin to these vaporwave cats, or maybe this wave of hyper pop producers following the slipstream of 100 gecs. Or perhaps this is a contemporary lo-fi bedroom prodigy abiding by the legacy of Arthur Russell. But eventually, I gave up. LUCY really is his own thing, his own world, his own genre. Plus all those aforementioned things and none of those things at the same time. Mostly he is just too pure: unintentionally hilarious for just being himself, both deliberately and accidentally brilliant, yet always supremely entertaining. In a way, LUCY is all of us: just another mortal soul on this planet having no clue what the hell he’s doing and rebuffing that crystal-clear realization into something he knows how to do really fucking well. And that something is that goofy thing LUCY does, whatever the fuck it is.
Read my essay on LUCY.
3. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee
‘I’m Every Woman’ is probably the best header I’ve ever come up with as a music journalist, and of course it was for a feature on Japanese Breakfast. It seems Michelle Zauner has taken that very notion to heart: she’s become a New York Times bestselling author, a video game composer and a Grammy Nominated artist in 2021. All that acclaim is well-earned: few indie rock artists are as hard-working and as good at world-building as Zauner. Jubilee is all-killer-no-filler: the sweet and sentimental Kokomo, IND, the sensual crepuscular slow burn Posing In Bondage, the Michael Gondry-ish hyper-realistic splendor of ‘Tactics’. ‘Slide Tackle’ is a small miracle of a song with several layers of tension, the missing link between ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and ‘Dashboard’. Indeed, Jubilee is already a modern classic.
Read my Japanese Breakfast feature for Front.
2. Clairo — Sling
Every year there’s that one line, that one hook that haunts me. Last year, it was Kehlani’s “I got you way too open to be open”. This year, it’s Clairo’s turn: “Show up to the party just to leave”. ‘Amoeba’ has been on repeat a lot this year, because it feels emblematic of life just falling short: just as situations seemed to flirt with normalcy, another rude awakening slammed the door right in our face. ‘Sling’ has been my safe space through it all: every time I made a foolish jump into something, this record was the cushion breaking the fall.
This seemed to have been a year lacking in fist pumpin’ pop romps in the vein of ‘Love Again’. Billie Eilish and Lorde made albums peculiarly bereft of meaty pop bangers more introspective about the individual’s exact place in the world. Clairo has taken a similarly organic approach as well: I love how the aforementioned line seems to be delivered almost in passing. I connected with the context as deeply as ever: I feel I’ve shown up to the party more than ever, doing more reviews and interviews than I’ve ever done in a single year. But concurrently, I have less to show for it than ever before as well. I think ultimately this year has been a big trial on how to be kind to oneself. I feel ‘Sling’ captures that inward-looking process, and sonically, gives ample room to let the said process run its due course.
I reviewed Sling for Beats Per Minute
- Low — HEY WHAT
The first time I heard ‘White Horses’ I openly, loudly cheered. It was like cheering for my favorite NBA team, honestly. I knew that Low raised an impossible bar with Double Negative, yet somehow, they’ve raised it again with HEY WHAT, and it blew my mind. The moment those staccato noise stabs vibrated my very windows, I knew: I knew they did it again. The sonic dynamics are stretched into even further unmapped frequencies and textures, while at the same time, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker left most of their achingly intimate, decisively gorgeous vocal harmonies uncorrupted by digitized decay. Even when used texturally, like on ‘Don’t Walk Away’ the voices still sound like voices. That song is one of the most staggeringly beautiful moments in a record brimming with them: it’s one thing to add these volcanic, cascading beats, another to pepper in sporadic silly-sounding bleeps that sort of express our helplessness in a soothing way.
I’ve never heard a love song that expresses what love does to our silly brains so candidly: it’s that first sip of wine after a taxing day, allowing your thoughts to tumble over each other like a perverted game of musical chairs. HEY, WHAT has so many galaxy-brain-worthy moments rife with hope, care, and possibility. Somehow, Days Like These is both Ben Frost-level noise assault and Disney soundtrack at once, delivering a brand of pop banger I haven’t really heard yet. The transition between the forbidding ‘White Horses’ and ‘I Can Wait’, how the music softens and turns luminous, is simply indescribable. And the most telling thing of all is how Low has described this entire process as an act of surrender instead of an act of control. My mind was blown when the band said they were live-tracking most of these songs: are you kidding me!? Goes to show that mutual trust, comfort, and understanding go a long way, even when facing the greatest of unknowns. Adrift in their most supernatural sonic landscapes, Low has never sounded more human.