My favorite music of 2021
It was another rough year all around, and yet the musicians kept us all going. Lots of great stuff this year. I largely stayed in the same rabbit holes of ambient music and underground metal subgenres that I fell into last year. Some year-over-year consistency aside from the never-ending avalanche of bad news was needed.
My December 5th episode of Sad Songs for Happy People on WXNA includes several tracks from these albums. Please do check that out.
Low - Hey What
Their 2018 album Double Negative, also produced by BJ Burton, was a staticky, noisy affair that I still play the hell out of. So, when this one came out, I knew I was in for another treat. The balance of calm, chaos, and glacial delivery of thoughtful songwriting creates a ton of breathing room to catch every nuance, without ever becoming boring or predictable.
Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince
I've only occasionally dipped into Middle Eastern styles of music via Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, via Jeff Buckley, so I surprised myself with how much Aftab's neo-Sufi Pakistani music resonated with me. Her voice is strong and calming all at once, and her musical collaborators are world class. She's made it clear in interviews that she's a Nusrat and Buckley fan, too, and a modular synth enthusiast and ambient music composer to boot. Probably my most-played album of the year.
Walt McClements - A Hole In the Fence
Ambient music performed primarily on an accordion. An idea that could be amazing or terrible depending on the execution, and McClements nailed it.
Full of Hell - Auditory Trauma
I've had a serious Full of Hell obsession all year, so a set of live-in-studio recordings of songs that I was already familiar with was a welcome surprise. They get labeled as grindcore, hardcore and powerviolence, but it's really all and none of those things. Overwhelmingly brutal in all the right ways.
Full of Hell - Garden of Burning Apparitions
Again, obsessed with Full of Hell. (Real talk: I'm wearing a Full of Hell longsleeve tee I got for Christmas as I write this.) Their studio albums don't miss, and this is no exception.
Viagra Boys - Welfare Jazz
I caught on to Viagra Boys late last year via their music video for "Research Chemicals" so getting some new material just as I was settling into their catalog was a nice treat. Sarcastic, darkly humorous post punk, plus a John Prine cover featuring Amy from Amyl & the Sniffers.
The Body - I've Seen All I Need To See
I knew when I heard the first single late last year that this one was going to leave a mark. I've been enjoying The Body's nightmare-inducing screams of terror layered with static-laden guitars and sludgy rhythms for a few years, but the flawless production on this one was especially satisfying.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END!
It's a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. Of course it's on my list.
Josh Landes/Sore Dream - Soured Ambrosia In The Presence Of Suffering
I've had a growing fascination with harsh noise over the past couple of years, and this split release caught my eye because Sore Dream is (shocker) a side project of a couple members of Full of Hell. The real surprise is that it's the tracks by Josh Landes (aka Limbs Bin) that sold me. I ended up buying the entire Outsider Art digital discography because they had a Bandcamp deal, and so now I have enough harsh noise to blister my ear drums for years to come.
Orla Wren - The Blind Deaf Stone
I was unfamiliar with Wren until a friend shared this with me, and it's magical. According to the liner notes, he recorded this entire ambient record "with and from one monophonic synthesizer and a pair of stereo binaural mics, in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, an analog study in radical reductionism." That commitment to minimalism produced a delicate collection of four twelve-minute songs that sound as much like documents about the spaces where they came to life as they do music. I hope to hear more like this from him soon.
Fucked Up - Year of the Horse
A four-part rock opera about a horse from Toronto's best art punk troupe. I always look forward to twists, turns and surprises they use to fill out their Zodiac series. This is the ninth installment, and gives me great hope for how the final three will turn out.
Lucy Dacus - Home Video
A lyrical gut punch of an album.
You say that I showed you the light. But all it did, in the end, was make the dark feel darker than before.
You two are connected by a pure coincidence. Bound to him by blood, but baby, it's all relative. You've been in his fist ever since you were a kid, but you don't owe him shit even if he said you did.
Turnstile - GLOW ON
Pitchfork said it best:
[Their] genre fusion and their belief in its transformative power are equally responsible for frequent comparisons to Rage Against the Machine, 311, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and maybe even Incubus—bands far outside the purview of hardcore. Turnstile are “alternative rock” by the literal, ’90s definition where no style of music is incompatible with punk if it’s played with speed, force and a genuine respect for its originators.
Even if you like none of those bands, the injection of hardcore's immediacy and energy into whatever genre of music you want to call them is undeniably catchy.
P.S. Make sure to check out hate5six's filming of their record release show.
Sunn O))) - Metta, Benevolence BB6 Music: Live on the Invitation of Mary Anne Hobbs
A live-in-studio album from my favorite drone metal band of all time, with the approval of BBC's Mary Anne Hobbs. There's nothing not to like here.
Body Void - Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Void
Probably my favorite recent product of the Bay Area sludge metal scene. Somewhat in the same vein as my obsession with Full of Hell, albeit with the tempo slowed down significantly. Frontperson Willow Ryan injects a lot of social issues, especially related to gender identity, into the lyrics, giving the whole project an extra jolt of 2021 energy.