Didn't read many books, but predictably cried to Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Didn't watch much TV or movies besides toddler-friendly fare (Bluey and Yo Gabba Gabba!), but got sucked into the MCU vortex despite my best intentions (WandaVison, Loki) and giggled as Fast & Furious went to space (F9). Digital comics are my most accessible form of media right now, so here's some favorites old and new that I read: Witchblood by Matthew Eman & Lisa Sterle; The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius; Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Javier Pulido; Luisa: Now and Then by Carole Maurel; Invincible by Robert Kirkman; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin by Kevin Eastman, et al; Revival by Tim Seeley; The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song by David Lasky and Frank Young; Undiscovered Country by Scott Snyder and Charles Soule; Ultramega by James Harren and Dave Stewart; Beta Ray Bill by Daniel Warren Johnson; Resident Alien by Peter Hogan. I'd like to read more comics written and/or drawn by women and non-binary folks if y'all have good suggestions.
I wrote the liner notes to a vinyl reissue of Sixpence None the Richer's This Beautiful Mess, and word has slowly trickled back from the band members how much they loved my words, which means a lot. Produced 18 live events for the Listening Party series on NPR Music, including conversations with Julien Baker, Dawn Richard, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Brandi Carlile on Joni Mitchell's Blue and roundtable discussion (featuring Bonnie Raitt!) for the 50th anniversary of John Prine's debut album. Left Substack out of protest, bought my own URL for the newsletter. Got vaxxed/boosted. Met with folks a bit more freely. Some dear friends left D.C., but we make time to see each other anyway. My daughter's turning into a loving, chatty, goofy kid who loves tea like her papa. Saw a total of 4 concerts: Irreversible Entanglements outdoors at Rhizome, go-go band Proper Utensils in a local park for my D.C. neighborhood's annual reunion, Art Sorority outdoors at Comet Ping Ping, Sweeping Promises indoors at Comet Ping Pong.
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)
But You Were My Mirrored Sky. 2021 in Music, Part 1 (the first part of the thing you are reading)
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)
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.
Hayley Williams, flowers for vases / descansos (Atlantic): This record got forgotten by everyone who isn't a Paramore die-hard, or maybe just the memory of pandemic isolation is too sore and too soon (but still ongoing). Because that's exactly what this is – quarantine-made sad songs strummed on acoustic guitars and plunked on pianos, but also, it should be noted, expertly drummed by Hayley herself. It's a record lost in thought, but scared to escape. I love the kicker that Clarissa Brooks wrote in her essay for NPR Music, which I had the pleasure of editing: "Hayley Williams does not provide a light at the end of the tunnel or a closed door, but a new body, a new tongue, and possibly a new frame of reference to survive and even thrive."
Myriam Gendron, Ma délire - Songs of love, lost & found (Feeding Tube): Don't know if I'll ever write anything more profound in blurb length than what I did in October: "The power of traditional music is that it can preserve and transform time all at once — that's what Myriam Gendron does with these songs. There's an essence of the past, captured in her withered and yearning voice, but also a complex sense of the present, muddied and delicate."
Anika Pyle, Wild River (Quote Unquote): Memory makes us and breaks us – there is a pain there, but also a sweetness. Anika sits inside that space, but like the river in the title, recognizes that memory changes as does the person. A heartbreaking, heart-filling record that broke and filled me.
Old Saw, Country Tropics (Lobby Art): Dust kicked up and suspended in air, slow-motion, never reaching the sky, but glinting off the sun as dead skin and bugs fall back to earth. This is rusted ambient music, droned from fiddle, pedal steel, organs and resonator guitars.
Satomimage, Hanazono (RVNG Intl.): Earlier in the year, whisper-quiet records were crucial to my well being. This one drifts like clouds dripping flower petals.
Lucy Liyou, Practice (Full Spectrum): Here's what I wrote for Bandcamp Friday in February: A "vividly intimate portrait of family and grief. Dialogue is translated as text-to-speech messages as airplanes pan headphones, piano melodies drift in and out of focus, static glitches and slow-moving synths move through the motions."
Natalie Jane Hill, Solely (Dear Life): "If I were a willow, I would sway with every breeze." Natalie Jane Hill is a fingerpicker who sings low and slow, and that lyric perfectly describes her musical way of being. Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell come to mind, particularly the delicately ornate full-band arrangements that decorate Hill's beautiful songs.
Aaron Dilloway & Lucrecia Dalt, Lucy & Aaron (Hanson): Two masters and manglers of tape loops, field recordings and synths who play off and against each others' strengths. Still wrapping my head around this one months later, and I suspect I always will.
Usurabi, 灯の名残り Remains of the Light (An'Archives): This French label (mostly) dedicated to Japanese psych, free-jazz and noise-rock has – along with Black Editions – kept the PSF flag flying with new projects, often featuring younger musicians mixed in. Usurabi skates between flowery psych and doe-eyed accordion (!) jangle, but can't help fuzzing out the outro.
The Stick Figures, Archeology (Floating Mill): Archeology is such a great name for yet another unearthed archival release that I'm surprised no one's used it, yet. The Stick Figures have a frenzied push-and-pull aspect to its ecstatic post-punk that I just can't deny: highly caffeinated bass lines, jagged-yet-jangly guitar riffs, just barely out-of-tune vocals that are nevertheless hooky as heck. This is dorky music, but in the best possible way.
Canary Room, Christine (Bud Tapes): Five quiet songs – recorded outdoors, bird chips left in – that'll make you lean in and sigh. I've lost count how many times I've listened to "Christine" once through, blocking the world outside, and then starting over again.
Bootlicker, Bootlicker (Neon Taste / Static Shock): Paraphrasing myself from June, which holds true at year's end: "Bootlicker makes power-pop that rumbles like a brick in a clothes dryer … Bootlicker’s brusque comes from the Jay Reatard School of Put-Up-Your-Dukes Hooks. The production, too, is heinously blown out, as if to land a leather-gloved punch to the gut with every tallboy-slammed riff.
Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air (Anti-): Camae's always had the delivery – presence, really – but here she's got bars, complementary features and a sequence that demands a front-to-back-and-repeat experience.
L.S. Underground, The Grape Prophet (Lost in Ohio): There are so many woulda coulda shouldas of Christian rock, which, if you haven't been paying attention, was my bread and butter growing up in the '90s. The Grape Prophet snarls and lunges like Nick Cave at an alt-rock Elvis revue, but conceptually, is so up its own ass that only the religiously jaded understood what the hell was going on. But that’s the thing: this is an album about betrayal and abuse of power, shameful evergreens of an evangelical America.
Patrick Shiroishi, Hidemi (American Dreams): Shiroishi as his own World Saxophone Quartet… or trio… or whatever. Wide-eyed compositions that skip like children lost in imagination, stopped in their tracks by reality.
Backxwash, I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses (self-released): We've barely scratched the surface of Backxwash's ability – both as a rapper and a producer – but this record is just id, wrathful and venomous. No room for nuance; Backxwash needs to scream.
Znous, Znousland 3 (self-released): Remember when metal bands made a problematic habit of "tribal" drums to be tough, but couldn't quite swing what makes polyrhythms so sublime? North African percussion and melodies are deeply ingrained in Znous, a chugga-chuggin metal band from Tunisia, but its third album levels up the revolutionary groove.
Don Cherry, Organic Music Theatre: Festival de jazz de Chateauvallon 1972 (Blank Forms): This, The Summer House Sessions and the 500-page book from Blank Forms were crucial editions to understanding an elemental period for Don Cherry and Moki Cherry – a totally holistic approach to creativity, education and life. This concert, recorded at a straight-laced jazz festival, is literally a family affair, featuring puppet theatre, children's songs and a joy that radiates throughout.
Sam Gendel, Fresh Bread (Leaving): Ruffled, muffled and shuffled jazz. Very LA at sundown. Cocktail music from another dimension. In the living room on summer weekends, I'd put on this triple tape and every time, my wife would ask, "Who's this? I really like this."
Turnstile, Glow On (Roadrunner): These proud sons of Baltimore did it: Turnstile crossed over, pissing off every punk who can't/won't admit Glow On finally makes sense of the hardcore band's wall-of-spaghetti jock jams.
"Bonga" Jean-Baptise, Boula (Buda Musique): From the same label that brought us the eye-opening Ethiopiques series, a Haitian Vodou celebration of rhythm with naturally psychedelic properties. An excellent late-year find.
Wendy Eisenberg, Bent Ring (Dear Life): Here's what I wrote for Bandcamp Friday in November: "In constant awe of Wendy Eisenberg's shapeshifting as an artist, yet the thing (that I'm still in the process of naming) that makes their art remains intact. This is the singer-songwriter companion to last month's instrumental Bloodletting, played on the banjo, and contains an intimacy and intent that's drawn me to Wendy's music — to unravel and tangle an idea until it takes form."
William Parker, Migration of Silence into and out of the Tone World (AUM Fidelity): Kept coming back to this box set of all-new (!) compositions during the year, continually finding eureka moments across its 10 (!) CDs. So crucial to have this living legend documented in real time. (Check out the power trio psychedelia of Mayan Space Station, too!)
Oh-OK, The Complete Reissue (Happy Happy Birthday to Me): "Minimalism should be fun!" seems to be the idea that sparked Lynda Stipe and Linda Hopper to start a band in the dissolution of Pylon and wake of R.E.M. Oh-OK's twee in the way the band plays with childlike imagery with equal parts innocence and subversion; Oh-OK's punk in that the way Stipe and Hopper snear as much as they smile. Shouts out to HHBTM, a label leading the charge in the '80s Athens reissue renaissance.
CZARFACE & MF DOOM, Super What? (Silver Age): MF DOOM's death still feels like some cosmic joke and we're all just waiting for the Villain to reappear with the same mask, just a different shade of cloak. Don't know what to make of all the posthumous tracks that have come out since – some obvious tack-ons, others long in the making – but this one had been in the works. And you know what? It's a pretty satisfying close to a multi-issue run: 7L & Esoteric love to mine a retro boom-bap, but don't overdo it; Inspektah Deck remains an underrated Wu-Tang member; DOOM is funny as hell, somehow rhymes Ireland with lion's den.
Duke Deuce, Duke Nukem (Quality Control): Memphis crunk that requires nothing except wilin' out, yet I can't help but nod at the subtle variations in these amped-up anthems. Didn't realize how much I missed dirty south rap like this until Duke Deuce ad libbed, WHAT THE FUUUUUUUUCK, over and over again, causing a moment to reflect and ask myself, "What the fuuuuuck is exactly right."
Illiterates, Illiterates (Kill Enemy): Short, fast, blistering hardcore wreckers from these Pittsburgh punks. 12 songs in less than 12 minutes, including a Replacements cover, and not an ear left unpunched.
Morbo, ¿A Quién Le Echamos La Culpa? (Cintas Pepe / Educacion Cínica): The punk rock and roll record of 2021. Piss-beer guzzled guitar solos, ruddy riffs, speedy drums, slurred and shouted lyrics en español… just an absolute riot.
Madlib, Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion): Madlib's funky wooze all buttoned up, courtesy of Four Tet's incisive editing. This rarely left my turntable's rotation.
Young Stoner Life, Young Thug and Gunna, Slime Language 2 (Young Stoner Life): Couldn't hang with Thugger's Punk, but would love to have been a fly on the wall of this epic hang. Lotta flashy names on this comp, but especially took notice of Karlae who can slink and spit with the best of 'em.
Endless Boogie, Admonitions (No Quarter): I hope Paul Major and these sewer critters crank out cosmic crud and fuzz like this until their senile old men caked in cigarette smoke.
Lassie, The Golden Age Of… (Discos Peroquébien): Crucial collection of various tapes by the Leipzig post-punk party people. Pogoing pop songs from another dimension.
Felinto, Futuro Antigo Perpétuo (Bokeh Versions): It's me, in June, writing up this tape: "Felinto offers a psychedelic lime twist on dub, infused with electro-samba beats, space jazz and a minimalist punk ‘tude. It’s like Arthur Russell found himself in an underground São Paulo club, armed with dub records, synths and some friends jumping on the mix. Members of Deafkids and Ratka contribute percussion and guest vocals, which is honestly reason enough to settle into the dank vibe."
MxPx, The MxPx Vinyl Record Box Set (self-released): Look, the first 5 MxPx albums are pop-punk canon – that was reason enough for me to drop cash on this extremely well-considered and constructed box set (and the only way for me to find Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo on vinyl). But I've loved digging into the albums I don't know as well, like 2003's Before Everything & After, essentially the band's Big Budget Rock Album that takes major swings with a dude who's worked with Talking Heads and Alice in Chains.
Stormkeep, Tales of Othertime (Ván): Members of Blood Incantation and Wayfarer ponder the orb; the orb is full of wizards. Dissection-worthy riffs, grandiose synth/organ arrangements, castle-storming anthems – you know, epic black metal that's actually fun!
Yikii, Crimson Poem 深紅之詩 (Danse Noire): I still don't know what to do with this WTF of a record, which is probably why I came back to Crimson Poem like a horror movie viewed through fingers. Childlike nursery nightmares commingle with microtonal melodies, graveyard keys and stabbing electronics.
Neo Geodesia, 2562 Neon Flames (Chinabot): Here's what I wrote in June about this fantastic tape: An "ecstatic collage equally invested in heritage and the world to come. In its electronic detritus of Cambodian chants, warped karaoke samples and jumpy beats, grief underlies the dream-like 2562 Neon Flames — for Saphy’s mother, for a lost year during the pandemic."
Valentina Goncharova, Recordings 1987-1991 Vol. 2 (Muscut): Don't know how free-jazz made it to Soviet Russia, but damn these jams are icy. The first volume of Valentina Goncharova's archives was largely based on musique concrète, but here the Ukrainian/Estonian musician pivots to fiery improv and minimalist drone. But also, The Sperm's Pekka Airaksinen is in the mix! What a wild find.
Mark Freedman, One Man Posse (RVNG Intl.): Splurged on an unearthed trove of unsold, still-sealed private press LPs by this '80s avant-pop musician and studio owner, but got hip via RVNG's lovingly assembled mixtape. FFO: Arthur Russell, Talking Heads, digital synthesizers, mutant dance music.
Ryley Walker and Kikagaku Moyo, Deep Fried Grandeur (Husky Pants): You know, Ryley put out a killer Chicago Indie Rock Record that could've easily come out on Thrill Jockey in the '90s, yet still has that proggy Ryley stank on it. But how could I not endlessly jam on this primo Chicago x Tokyo psych-rock dream? Just a staggering sense of improvisation and groove.
Giant Claw, Mirror Guide (Orange Milk): Has Keith Rankin been a synthient this whole time? A turncoat sentinel approximating, yet uniquely capturing the human experience in glitched samples, hiccuping MIDI strings and, now, actual human voice. Forever in awe of the Claw.