For this list, these are my personal preferences on releases this year. They won’t always necessarily be the best, but they are the ones that stuck with me or impressed me. Basically, what I wound up listening to the most. 2021 was quite a great year for music for me personally, and for the first time in quite a while made narrowing down a list rather difficult. After some internal debate, this is what I finally narrowed them all down to.
I’m sure I’ll think this is wrong in a month, anyways.
Clinic – Fantasy Island
While this album is never going to win any awards, it was a fine return to form and weirdness from a personal long-time favorite. The Liverpool act has steadily been releasing albums for over two decades, producing classic albums such as 2001’s Walking With Thee, and 2004’s Winchester Cathedral. Fantasy Island uses more electronics than are usually prevalent, and the overall sound and feel benefits as a result. It’s a slinkier, dirtier feeling album from the usual claustrophobic, and manic sound the band has used in the past. I’d almost written them off after a few less than stellar albums, but I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong.
Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
Kristin Hayter is about as close to a performer to Diamanda Galas as we’re ever going to get. This release is a full-out exorcism on display, and it takes no prisoners. Sparse instrumentation allows Hayter’s every screech, howl, and moan to have full reign over the material. It’s rare to have an artist who is more than willing to put all of her demons on display in such a brutal and direct manner, and it’s an admirable trait. This album will emotionally drain and break you, but the resulting catharsis makes putting the pieces back together the best part of the journey.
*Edit* I had written this before her statement regarding Alexis Marshall came out, and the brutal and sad nature of this album takes on a whole different meaning. I only hope creating this helped bring her a little inner peace regarding the horrific ordeal that birthed the album.
Marissa Nadler – The Path Of The Clouds
The fact that one of the biggest influences on this album was binge-watching episodes of Unsolved Mysteries makes perfect sense. The album is full of murder ballads and true crime stories, from the D.B. Cooper heist to the Alcatraz escape. The narratives are captivating, and the music is elevated by her collaborators Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, and harpist, Mary Lattimore, among others. You can get truly lost within the results, as the music is every bit as engaging as the tales she’s telling.
Darkside – Spiral
Anything Nicolas Jaar touches I’m going to listen to. Darkside just happens to be one of my favorite projects of his. Alongside multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington, they released Psychic, in 2013. That album was on constant rotation for me, and I also got to witness one of the last concerts of that tour. Eight years later, I couldn’t have imagined another release would be in the works, and yet here we are. Jaar’s painstaking attention to detail ensures every single sound you hear is fully intentional, and just where it needs to be. Swirling compositions dripping with atmosphere, this is a perfect listen for a dimly lit night where you just want to be enveloped by sound.
Hana Vu – Public Storage
I’ll be honest, the cover art alongside the fact that she’s signed to Ghostly International completely threw me off. I was expecting some dark, experimental electronics. Thankfully, I was wrong. The work of 20-year-old singer/songwriter Hana Vu — this is well crafted Indie Rock. Inspired by the storage unit her parents had growing up that they used from move to move, she likens albums to being like the individual units themselves. Every one of them contains its own sense of being, stories, and memories. It’s a great concept, and her personal storage space, in this mindset, is one well worth unlocking and exploring.
Mogwai – As The Love Continues
I’ve been a longtime Mogwai fan since Come On Die Young came out, so, seeing them finally get a number one album with As The Love Continues was very well deserved. They’ve been consistently releasing solid albums since 1997, and this is a perfect amalgamation of all the techniques they’ve been using along the way. They’re one of the absolute best Post-Rock acts, and I will forever look forward to what they’ll release in the future.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine Of Hell
When I heard the first single for this album, it took me by complete surprise. It’s was just a drastic sonic shift for her, and yet also so entirely expected. A far more stripped-back album that is anchored by piano and acoustic guitar, it really showcases her abilities as both a songwriter and lyricist. There’s aching beauty, and utter emotional devastation hand in hand in a really haunting co-existence. I’ve always been a huge fan of when artists step outside of their existing comfort zones, and in cases like this, it’s a reinvention that is beyond welcomed.
LTO – Daear
Ambient is a genre near and dear to me, so when an album like this comes along that manages to combine beautiful instrumentation with an almost world music sound, I take notice. It’s like taking a sampling of the 4AD roster, adding some William Basinski, and a bit of Lustmord for darkness. It’s a fantastic listen that I have often put on before bed, and the dreams it inspires never, ever disappoint. Well worth your time, especially with a good set of headphones.
Squid – Bright Green Field
I really don’t know what’s in the water in England these days, but there’s definitely an additive that’s inspiring the right people. I’m a sucker for Post-Punk, to begin with, but the sheer brilliance of so many debut albums that have made it out of there has been staggering. Great use of a horn section and the sarcastic bite of the frontman, Ollie Judge’s, delivery alongside the Kraut-Rock-inspired groove is one hell of a winning combination.
Daniel Avery – Together In Static
Coming off an excellent collaboration with Alessandro Cortini on last year’s Illusion of Time, I had high hopes for his next solo release. This is a well-paced, hazy, and almost Boards of Canada-like release in terms of the whole thing having a distinct emotion running through the entire album. His normal beat-driven tracks take almost a back seat to the ambiance, which is something I enjoyed about Illusion of Time. His time with Cortini sat well and is perfectly reflected here.
Spirit Of The Beehive – Entertainment, Death
I’ve never had a prolonged fever dream whilst tripping on acid, but I could easily imagine this is what it would sound like. Jumping from song to song, style to style is effortless here. Extremely impressive, but it took me a few playthroughs to really take it all in and appreciate it. Once it clicked, it locked on. Don’t let the utter insanity of it put you off, it’s insanely rewarding once you get through the shell.
Steven Wilson – The Future Bites
I’ve honestly never been much of a Prog-Rock fan, so it makes sense that this would be the first Steven Wilson release I’ve truly enjoyed. After seeing it blasted by so many people online for being overly Electronic, my interest was piqued. What everyone else had issues with is my absolute favorite part of this album. Turns out I dig his songwriting and vocals as well. Who knew? Time to go back and give the rest of his body of work another shot with fresh ears. I have a feeling I’ll appreciate it a lot more at this point in my life.
Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark
You cannot understate how thrilled I am that Arab Strap decided to rejoin and make music again. The second it was announced, and The Turning Of Our Bones dropped, it was clear that they had not lost an ounce of what made them great. Thankfully, the rest of the album followed suit (not that I had any doubt). Aidan’s lyrics are just as hypnotic, if not more so than ever, and Malcolm’s instrumentation, as always, perfectly accentuates the tales. Definitely one of the reunions I was hoping the most for, and it truly wound up delivering.
The Armed – Ultrapop
Summed up, this album is what happens when you really can’t decide on what particular genre you want, so, you say screw it and throw them all together. Pop music…if you asked people who only listened to Metal, Experimental, Hardcore, and Noise to write Pop songs…when they only really had maybe a vague understanding of what that was in the first place. It really works incredibly well and to its advantage, as its uniqueness, and charm really glue the whole thing together.
Lord Huron – Long Lost
This came as a complete surprise to me. I’ve never really been an Alt-Country guy, but I was aware of Lord Huron. When you go to a lot of record stores, you kinda see Strange Trails everywhere. Randomly heard a track on a daily streaming playlist, and it struck me enough to find the full album. Two complete playthroughs in a row later, I went out and picked up the record. I’m always eager to admit when I’m wrong, or if I misjudge an artist, and hoo-boy, am I glad I was wrong with these guys.
And yes, I own Strange Trails now, as well.
Black Midi – Cavalcade
As the debut was only recorded in a little over five days, you can see how they really utilized the newfound studio time to build on their already eclectic sound. The palate they use here ranges from the schizophrenic mania of John L to the relaxed Lounge music of Marlene Dietrich. “Hogwash and Balderdash” evokes Mr. Bungle with the horn breakdowns and genre-bending, and is a personal standout. These guys just exude creativity, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
Madlib – Sound Ancestors
I’ve always been aware of Madlib without really much more than dipping my toe into his back catalogue with the likes of Madvillainy. I was first drawn to this due to Kieran Hebden’s, better known as Four Tet, involvement. Listening, you can immediately tell he’s more of a caretaker of the material rather than the architect. Excellent beat and production work, and as a bonus, I now have an entire body of work to listen to and explore. Funny how that works out sometimes.
Grouper – Shade
I kinda thought this would wind up being just an OK release, as it’s comprised of older songs. Instead, it turned out to be an utterly stunning collection of Liz at her best over different periods of her career. I keep coming back to this album, again and again, marveling at how she can make such simple compositions sound so full and complex. This is the perfect late-night headphones listen. A very worthy addition to her already stellar body of work.
Tirzah – Colourgrade
To say this album blew me away is an understatement. I’d enjoyed her first album OK enough, but didn’t know that she had this in her. Experimental R&B, almost feeling bare-bones or demo-like at times. All of which work together as a very cohesive whole, with her vocals being the real star on tracks like “Send Me,” and “Sink In.” This has gotten better with every listen, and the experimental or minimal nature never feels forced or gimmicky, as it could in others’ hands. This is genuine talent, and genuinely an engaging listen.
The Bug – Fire
The Bug seriously went above and beyond with this one. The fact that I read about how he’d send tracks to other artists, and friends for opinions because he wasn’t really sure if it was any good baffles me. Everything about this album is top-notch, and every collaborator really blows the doors off their respective tracks. It’s the icing on the cake that he also is so humble and genuinely appreciative about its reception, and always takes the time to respond when people tag him while discussing the album. Class act.
Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Anyone who didn’t see this sonic shift coming I fully believe wasn’t paying attention. Deafheaven has slowly been moving their albums away from the Black Metal sound they’re known for a more Shoegaze-inspired vibe. They took the training wheels off here, and it proves they’re more than what they’ve long been pigeonholed as. Lush melodies pair extremely well with George’s singing voice. It saddens me how many people wrote this off due to it being “Not the Deafheaven they know.” This album is a solid reminder, and proof that artists going outside of their wheelhouse is a sign of true creativity, and with albums like this, the rewards are breathtaking.
Low – Hey What
Alan and Mimi have evolved so much over the twenty-six years that they’ve been releasing music under the “Low” moniker. What’s even more impressive than the longevity is how they can utterly reinvent their sound with such ease and perfection at each turn on the last few album cycles. After the cold bleakness of Double Negative, I wouldn’t have figured their next release would be overblown noisy near-Gospel, or just how hypnotic and perfect it could be. Their work never feels anything but utterly inspired.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
First off, I’m really not a Jazz guy. I’ve TRIED to be a Jazz guy over the years, and constantly go back, and listen to the greats to see if this is the time they’ll finally click. Some albums just transcend the genre entirely, and cannot be ignored. This masterwork is one of them. A completely enveloping joy to listen to (as is all of Floating Points work), but the star here is Pharoah Sanders, who turns in a stunning late-career performance for the ages.
Black Country, New Road – For The First Time
Juuuuust edged out from number one. “Sunglasses” wound up being probably my favorite music moment of the year. The whole album from top to bottom was so well crafted, and I’m a sucker for any band that can utilize a horn section as creatively and effortlessly as they do here. As I said on the Squid entry, whatever is in the water in England is creating the best Post-Punk albums I’ve heard in years. Really looking forward to their next release, which, if even half as good as this, will be well worth my time.
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
I went back and forth with this and Black Country, New Road as number one several times. Even considered a tie, but that’s just a cop-out, honestly. This one really had something that resonated further and was a little more original. Florence Shaw’s deadpan delivery really nails this down and seals the deal for me. I can easily say I listened to this more than any other album this year, which cemented my choice. Again, my list is not what is artistically better or more impactful, and is simply what kept me coming back again and again. Without question, this stole the year for me in that regard. Well done.
Dig this? Check out the full archives of Left of the Dial, by Keith Kowall, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/left-of-the-dial-archives/