But You Were My Mirrored Sky. 2021 in Music, Part 1
If I could, I would write a 300-album year-end list. Music consumes my every day: from checking my Bandcamp feed in the morning to emails from artists/publicists to tips from friends IRL/online to living room turntable spins and (more frequently) CDs jammed in the car on errands/road trips. It can be all-consuming, too – even though it's my day job, when music becomes an obligation, I become a shell of myself, lost like a little kid not knowing where to go or what to do. (Usually, I just regress to my teenage years as a '90s Christian punk.)
But know that if I bought a physical (or digital) copy of your album, it's in the year-end list of my heart. That's corny as hell, but true. Out of retail therapy or enthusiasm or stupidity, I think I bought more music than I have in years; for many of the same reasons, I couldn't keep up with it all (see also: toddler). So how do I put together a reflection of a blurred year gone by? Mostly just the music that stuck, or a single experience that continues to ripple outward.
Because I like to write a little something about each album, let's do this in two parts, and divide everything into categories. Not by genre or theme, but how the albums resonate with my favorite lyrics of 2021. There are links out to Bandcamp where available, and a BNDCMPR playlist of songs from the list, where available.
Some other year-end writing/listing/talking by me:
Viking's Choice 2021: Cassettes rule everything around me (via NPR's All Songs Considered podcast)
NPR Music 2021 Staff Picks: Lars Gotrich (top 10 lists submitted to the day job with little context)
You Can Fingerpick Anything! 2021 in Guitar Music (a roundtable convo with Yasmin Williams, Daniel Bachman and Sarah Louise)
Screamed from Pits and Office Chairs! 2021 in Metal (37 metal albums; no ranks, no masters)
We didn't know each other well
But you were my mirrored sky
—Circuit Des Yeux, "Vanishing"
Circuit Des Yeux, -io (Matador): Haley Fohr found an avalanche inside of me.
Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood (Spinster): To paraphrase what I wrote earlier this week, the way Yasmin communicates with the guitar, builds structures and techniques that serve her work is absolutely thrilling. And in Urban Driftwood, there's a light-ness that I had been missing in fingerstyle guitar music.
The Alchemist, This Thing of Ours 1 & 2 (ALC): Dude's had a serious production streak of late – high-level collabs with Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James and Armand Hammer all in the past two years – but this pair of EPs has The Alchemist on some David Axelrod-type beat.
Arushi Jain, Under the Lilac Sky (Leaving): Arushi Jain shares a label with Laraaji, explores the tenderness of the modular synth like Suzanne Ciani, and reinterprets Hindustani classical music as both a singer and composer. Yes, these ambient synth ragas were tailor made just for me.
Les Filles de Illighadad, At Pioneer Works (Sahel Sounds): Les Filles de Illighadad moves me in ways I find difficult to describe. This is Tuareg music that undulates like a wisp of smoke that never dissipates.
I'm usually happy in the morning time
Because the day's problems fill up my nights
—Starflyer 59, "Sunrise"
Starflyer 59, Vanity (Velvet Blue Music): I had the good fortune of chatting with Jason Martin about his 16th (!) album as Starflyer 59. In a plainspoken language that hits harder the older you are, with songs that drip and dream with existential ennui, Vanity has entered my personal top 5 Starflyer 59 albums… and reminded me why this band continues to speak so deeply to me.
Low, HEY WHAT (Sub Pop): Three of my favorite artists of all time (Starflyer 59, The Microphones/Mount Eerie and Low) released late-career highlights in the past two years. HEY WHAT sets the glitched noise of Double Negative in hi-def, but brightens the corners of an alternative doo-wop reality. Where DN anguished, HEY WHAT lingers in distorted beauty.
Khemmis, Deceiver (Nuclear Blast): The headbang is as much a motion of triumph as it is an escape from sorrow. Khemmis' mournful doom, now fully entwined with ripping death-metal riffage and classic heavy metal guitarmonies, will leave your battle jacket tear-stained.
Claire Rousay, a softer focus (American Dreams): What's left of absence, that sound.
---__--___, The Heart Pumps Kool-Aid (Orange Milk): Once someone told me what Seth Graham and Mari Maurice's (more eaze) unpronounceable name meant (no, I can't share what), it put the project in perspective. Seth's discordantly drawn-out arrangements are gently tugged into Mari's ambient textures and AutoTuned sadness. You think you understand where the music is going, then you are pulled into its emotional sphere, floating.
I swore vengeance in the seventh grade
Not on one man, the whole human race
—Armand Hammer, "Indian Summer"
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist, Haram (Backwoodz Studioz): billy woods and ELUCID already got me in their back pocket, but add Alc? A tipsy-swervy balance of inside-out raps and LA-lush production that comes together in a late-night haze of brown drinks and deep blunts.
Daniel Bachman, Axacan (Three Lobed): To paraphrase what I wrote earlier this week about fingerstyle guitar in 2021, this is Daniel's masterwork after a decade of them. Axacan's an audible reaction/retraction/reworking of the roots still inside him… a distance through dark noise and muck, untangling melodies far more sparse and alien than before.
Panopticon, … And Again into the Light (Bindrune): Spent a rare night to myself in the basement, black metal cranked with beer in hand. The music soared with a ravaged grace, seeking light in bleak times. Wife texts question from toddler: "What papa doin?" "Papa is listening to black metal. I'll be right up, kiddo."
Cara Neir, Phase Out (self-released): Here's what I wrote on Bandcamp Friday in February: "Black metal is for video game nerds, so might as well lean into it, right? I don't know when Cara Neir traded in its crusty post-black metal for high-concept, screamo-seared black and roll, but each track does feel like a new level to beat up some baddies, side-scroller style. There's a little chiptune here, some chopped-and-screwed crunk there, but also blackened surf-punk a la Man… Or Astro-man?"
I've been nothing
I've been yours
I've been down on all fours
—Mannequin Pussy, "To Lose You"
Mannequin Pussy, Perfect (Epitaph): Look, mostly I played "To Lose You" – a swooning shoegaze-punk ballad dripping with a desperate romance – over and over again; it's my No. 1 song of the year, by a mile. But this EP is pretty, well, perfect.
Pays P., Ça v aller (Peculiar Works): Folks always trying to tell me that rock is dead have given up… on life, on lovers, on something because freakin' Pays P. is right here, slamming sublime riffs up against carnal desire, sung and swung like a battle hammer en français.
Maria Elena Silva, Eros (Big Ego): What if Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, but sung with the breathiest heartbreak. That's the shorthand to get you in the door, but Maria's voice will knock you out, as will these spacious songs that wander lost at the golden hour.
Dawn Richard, Second Line (Merge): Every era of her artistry, every movement of her body, every word that uplifts and challenges – Dawn is an inspiration to me. Next-level pop music without genre… just Dawn.
Well, I wasn't looking, my heart wasn't open yet
—Julie Doiron, "The Letters We Sent"
Julie Doiron, I Thought of You (You’ve Changed): They don't make 'em this way much anymore… at least not this well. A ramshackle rock and roll record with a pickup band cruising and crunching through songs in the midst of turning the corner – except we're turning with Julie, and it's glorious.
Fuubutsushi, Yamawarau (Cached Media): I think, of the three albums (and 25-minute "Good Sky Day" for Longform Editions) released in 2021, Fuubutsushi's meditation on spring best articulates the ambient-jazz quartet's mode: blooming melodies and rhythms drift, recede and pass on, but like a distant memory, return with fuzzy, bittersweet purpose. That everything here was recorded remotely just speaks to the trust and friendship Chris Jusell, Chaz Prymek, Matthew Sage and Patrick Shiroishi forged over the pandemic.
Kississippi, Mood Ring (Triple Crown): Zoë Reynolds went to the Carly Rae Jepsen Institute for Pop Songwriting and it shows. These songs understand the power of a perfectly placed synth pad, a decorative sparkle of guitar and a lyric that yearns, but doesn't give everything away.
Sarah Louise, Earth Bow (self-released): To paraphrase what I wrote earlier this week about fingerstyle guitar in 2021, Earth Bow is earthly synthesis, formed and modulated from nature. You may ask yourself while listening, "Is that even a guitar?" And that’s sorta the point.
Collapse the waveform
—Zao, "Ship of Theseus"
Zao, The Crimson Corridor (Observed/Observer): Zao's reignition and reassertion as one of metal's most fierce – but also most thoughtful – ravagers has been heartening to witness. The Crimson Corridor almost plays out as Zao's own version of Times of Grace by Neurosis – slow, considered and spacious, but devastating.
Maraudeur, Puissance 4 (self-released): Alien synth squiggles, muddy guitar doodles, multi-lingual UFO beams, rubber band rhythm section. A post-punk album in reverse; thus, a punk post?
Irreversible Entanglements, Open the Gates (International Anthem): One of the few concerts I saw in 2021 was Irreversible Entanglements outdoors at Rhizome in D.C. Don't know if the tunes between that show and this album cross over, but Open the Gates does share the psychedelic noir of that night – deep free-jazz grooves smeared in suitcase synths, gritty trumpet and sax, and Camae's exasperated truth-seeking.
Abominable Putridity, Parasitic Metamorphosis Manifestation (Inherited Suffering): Brutal slamming death metal from Russia, now with an American blergist! Everything about Parasitic Metamorphosis Manifestation rules: world-devouring riffs, bowel-gurgling vocals, thick-as-a-steel-brick production, robo-apocalyptic artwork. All hail Abominable Putridity!
Juçara Marçal, Delta Estácio Blues (Mais Um / QTV): Juçara Marçal comes off like a Brazilian Bjork – both have a thing for upside-down, electric roots music – but Delta Estácio Blues is far too funky, twisted and discordant for a perfect match. Which is why this Bandcamp Friday discovery has lingered so long.
小本生灯 xsgacha, 冇有形狀 (Qiii Snacks): My physical copy of this gooey trip-hop record came completely bent from Hong Kong, yet the warbled boom-bap matched the warped wax in a synchronous flow.
Moin, Moot! (AD 93): Instead of rock musicians making electronic music (see: 2021's nostalgic return/rehash of Kid A/Amnesiac), what if electronic musicians rocked? And not, like, electronica… but brought their trance-inducing toolbelt and razor-cut rhythms to Shellac'd riffs and Unwound-y bass lines? That's Moin; this rips.
Dummy, Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble in Mind): Broadcast is a genre; Dummy, which is basically the Baltimore dream-pop band Wildhoney transplanted to LA, gets that. Mandatory Enjoyment wildly improves on the band's two EPs, electrifying drone-pop songs with motorik hypnosis and joyous jangle.
Emmanuelle Parrenin, Jours de Grève (Versatile): Age has no limit on creativity. Emmanuelle Parrenin – who released avant-tinged folk music en français in the '60s – returned as hurdy-gurdy playing trance mystic. Featuring contributions from producer Detlef Weinrich (aka Tolouse Low Trax), the late Ghédalia Tazartès (something of a French mystic himself) and several others, it's like Talking Heads made a dance record with '70s-era Don Cherry.
Pink Siifu, GUMBO'! (Field-Left): A sweaty meat and three that slinks and slides. OutKast and Erykah Badu's Southern freakery comes to mind, but Pink Siifu's blasted noise and wobbly funk is very much his own.