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[2021 end of year list title]
Farewell the plague year take 2
If 2020 was a hell year, 2021 has been a purgatory year. At every turn everything has felt stuck between the last phase and the next. A more generous description might call it ‘a transition year’ or something. I think transitions require change or movement though, and 2021 felt defined by stagnation. Public health stagnation, personal stagnation, cultural stagnation. Everything has felt stuck in time, and I feel like I’ve Groundhog Day-ing the same shit ever since I got my shots back in the early spring. I think a lot of people feel this way, and like the various delimiters which we use to make sense our the world have lost their meanings. The number of times I’ve forgotten day of the week or acted as if it was constantly 7:30 a.m. hitting ‘snooze’ again and again – only to look at the time and realize that it’s been a full 12 hours and I still haven’t left bed. The constant uncertainty and precarity of every moment precluded routine-making and any sort of planning for even the next moment, much less ‘the future’ more generally. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Obviously it’s been a weird year for everyone, and I’m no exception. While I’ve started a lot of things – recording 2 albums’ worth of new songs, writing my master’s thesis, applying to PhD programs, socializing with new people, etc. – I haven’t gotten closure on anything. And that’s on top of the holdover disappointments from 2020 which still haunt me. My poor, too-online political brain also can’t help but be singed by every failing of the government, despite having low-to-no expectations, and with every new variant begins again the cycle of COVID paranoia. I only hope hypochondriacal anxiety isn’t the disease which becomes endemic at the (non-)end of this, I almost think that would almost be worse. Being stuck in the same room, seeing very few people, while going through all this has made me embody the stuck feeling in a way too. It’s not like I can’t go out, more that there’d be nothing (affordable) to do if I did.
Music, too, has felt stuck for the most part. Albums delayed from 2020 came out, long past the moment they were written in and for. Culture out of its time. 2021’s native music largely rehashed the tired trends of 2019’s possible futures (or was itself delayed by the collapse of the supply chain). It’s been a hard year to listen to music because of that – everything has felt divorced from the context it was made for: past and intended future. Without righteous anger of social movement to propel it or a certain release environment, near everything has felt like a toe dipped in the water. I think some of that is part of a longer-standing, larger trend toward a breakdown in cultural production (which I have another newsletter in-progress outlining), but the exacerbating conditions of our contemporary moment have clearly hastened the increasing fecklessness of cultural output.
Maybe I’m being a jaded hater, but if there was ever a time it was acceptable to be a jaded hater – now’s it! Nevertheless: list season demands sacrifice (and I also liked some things which came out this year.) So, I now present to you my annual unranked, alphabetical list of the albums I liked from 2021.
DJ Seinfeld - Mirrors
While it doesn’t hit the same dramatic emotional beats as its predecessor Time Spent Away From U, Mirrors retains DJ Seinfeld’s intimate vibe – albeit in a little more approachable of a way. Less lo-fi and more French, the house served up here uses a similar palate to DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ’s breakout (which I called, thank you) Charmed, on which “Walking With Your Smile” would feel perfectly at home. But while Sabrina’s work is impressive in its length and decadence, this album finds strength in its tightness. Mirrors is easily digestible, with vocal features and catchy synth leads. It’s danceable but it doesn’t rush to get anywhere. You can put it on in the background, or hit the ‘loudness’ button and really feel the bass hit. While I’m a little over nostalgia-tinted analog synth and piano tropes, Seinfeld employs them well here on tracks like “U Already Know” and “Someday.” And, for those who liked his crier cuts, “These Things Will Come To Be” is sure to please.
Deafheaven - Infinite Granite
Look. I was skeptical at first. I still am, to be honest. But I’ve voluntarily listened to Infinite Granite enough that I don’t think I can avoid putting it in here.
We all know how I feel about shoegaze (or maybe you don’t, and that’s fine too). This is Deafheaven’s soft, easy listening album. Whatever. It’s their best since Sunbather, easily. No dad rock solos. (Almost) no corny black metal vocals. Ever since I saw them a few years back in Richmond (with This Will Destroy You and Emma Ruth Rundle), even their pre-New Bermuda material has been hard to listen to. George Clarke came out on stage, left, and then came back with his hair wet so that he could swing it around while doing the most clichéd eeeeeeyahs I think I’ve ever heard. That kind of image doesn’t really help me get into the emotional atmosphere of Roads to Judah. So, if nothing else this new album helps to assure me that such behavior is firmly behind him.
I don’t think all of the songs on here are perfect, and “Lament for Wasps” in particular is a skip for me, Clarke is still clearly adapting to sung vocals, and almost every song feels like the drums are held back – but I think that Deafheaven’s foray into pop has worked for the most part. “In Blur” is a bonafide earworm, and the explosive climaxes of “Mombasa” and “The Gnashing” give me what I need in that department. It’s a record from a band in transition, but it’s a serviceable one – it’s full-sounding and thought through. Now, can we get Elizabeth Fraser on a track next time?
Lady Gaga - Dawn of Chromatica
“Justice for Chromatica” we said. We cried for it. Now, on my end of year list for the second year in a row, I can praise Chromatica. This time, it’s almost unrecognizable though.
The collection of remixes Gaga has commissioned for Dawn of Chromatica comprises one of the best remix albums in recent memory. I was initially sold on it after hearing Dorian Electra’s characteristic nu-metal inspired hyperpop rework of “Replay,” which really made me wish that Gaga herself explored some heavier sounds in her original work. Across the board the remixes contained here are explosive and experimental, especially for mainstream pop. Dorian’s remix, along with Ashnikko’s take on “Plastic Doll” and Shygirl’s “Stupid Love” really speak to the power of allowing for, even less popular collaborators, to include their own voices on remixes. While the main attractions were hit or miss (hits: Charli XCX & A.G. Cook’s “911” and, to a lesser extent, Rina Sawayama’s “Free Woman”; miss: Arca’s “Rain on Me”), the overall net on this compilation is a positive. Even deeper cuts, while either not as cohesive or not as mind-blowing, are still a fun and interesting listen – bringing Dawn of Chromatica in deep contrast to its pop remix peers. The versions here which are good, are better than, or on-par with the originals; and that’s saying something when the source is Chromatica.
Lone - Always Inside Your Head
Maybe shamefully, Lone has always been my escapist pick. It’s my guilty pleasure, not because I’m ashamed of liking Matt Cutler’s work (who would be?), but because his output has always made me imagine living luxuriously. Traipsing through London’s high-class bars and clubs in an inebriated haze. Sharing chit-chat with the social elite. Taking a tab of acid and going to an invite-only rave. You know, extremely bourgoise things my striaght-edge, socialist brain is repulsed by, and I’ve made peace with that because in the past Lone has simply turned out banger after banger. Always Inside Your Head marks a shift from this trajectory though: favoring cerebral synth-laden atmospheres over complicated drum breaks. In a way it reminds me more of his earlier work on Lemurian and Ecstasy & Friends – but where those felt effervescent and bursting with life, Inside Your Head looks inward, as the title would suggest.
Sprinkled with a couple vocal features from Morgan Diet, this album finds Lone feeling more human than ever before. Tracks like “Undaunted” and “Realise” too are much more etherial and emotional than any entry from his prior albums, even when they pause for more ambient entries. This doesn’t mean there aren’t club-ready inclusions, or that those aren’t equally as good – see the acid-sequences and sharp breaks on “Mouth of God.” “Inlove2” feels like Cutler’s take on a deep house track, filtering his characteristically chilled out drum sound and woodwind hits, combining them with emotional swelled chords, while still remaining danceable. But rather than feeling like a transition to a new sort of vibe, Lone has completely stepped into it with ease – just as he did back in 2014 with Reality Testing. In another year where clubs weren’t an option, Always Inside Your Head is the perfect soundtrack for wistfully imagining clubbing (which is my normal M.O. anyways).
Ovlov - Buds
Remember when people called Ovlov a shoegaze band? If that’s what their breakout AM was (can we get a remaster of that btw), Buds is probably Ovlov’s punk album. Mostly short songs, abandoning the much loved (by me) longer-form Alligator/Crocodile saga, Buds wasn’t something which initially stuck to me the way their previous albums did. Internally I lamented that I wasn’t getting as much Ovlov as I wanted – which I still feel on some level – but the quality of this album is undeniable. Though maybe not as popular among the public as some of their peers from the New England slacker-y scene, the band pulls their weight as the critic’s choice again.
Especially after reading the interview their frontman Steve Hartlett did with Ian Cohen, this album clicked with me more. Self-effacing tracks like “Strokes” and “The Wishing Well” are emblematic of Ovlov’s inversion of this year’s sort of overall musical theme. Rather than fixating and embodying the transient moment of art and society right now, Buds accepts and examines the short lived nature of, well, everything and everyone. It’s easy to use COVID as a cypher for this, but it’s a reflection of more than that. It feels to me, from the title to the cover art to the content, like a call to action: enjoy your time with friends and your passions before they’re gone. Something most artists can appreciate.
Panopticon - …And Again Into The Light
There’s nothing quite like the way that Panopticon’s Austin Lunn blends Appalachian folk with the American black metal sounds pioneered by Cascadia’s Wolves in the Throne Room. It’s more than the instruments that appear, it’s the ethos and compositional sensibility which feels like the soft shapes of our east coast mountains. …And Again Into The Light is easily Lunn’s best, most evocative work to date – seamlessly weaving together and re-imagining the many different inspirations which manifest to make Panopticon such a special project. “Moth Eaten Soul” subverts the expectation of beauty attached to strings and acoustic instruments into harsh, dissonant noise, just as “Rope Burn Exit” raises that beauty to new heights in this context. Lunn’s clean vocals sound the best they ever have on And Again too, especially on the album’s title track opener. While I feel like the production quality in the more metallic sections of this album suffers some, the quality of the performances themselves and the songwriting more than makes up for it.
Pinkpantheress - to hell with it
00’s nostalgia is here officially, I’m not the first to say it. While, to me, most of it has been egregious and…uhh…really annoying, PinkPantheress is bringing back all the best parts and leaving the chaff. Light breakbeats and 2-step with chirpy vocals and confessional lyrics chirped over top, broken up into bite sized chunks – to hell with it knows what it’s doing, but with a sense of genuine innocence that keeps it feeling fresh. PP is also bringing back the nuanced, lower-key elements of 00’s pop and electronic which the similar revivalist (and adjacent) movements in pop-punk, nu metal, and hyperpop have neglected.
Every song on this album is an immediate earworm. “Passion” remained stuck in my head for no less than the full two weeks after I heard it for the first time. And clearly songs like “Just for Me” and “Break it off” have done the same to others. PinkPantheress’ young mastery over resampling and song construction is so impressive, the way she manages to bend instrumentals to her lyrical prerogative so handily is rare – and makes me more excited to see her next output more than almost any other artist currently out there.
Porter Robinson - Nurture
If this list was ranked, Nurture would take the number one spot easily. I don’t think it really hit me just how much this album had impacted me this year until I caught Porter Robinson on tour for it back in the fall. I spent the whole first half of the show trying to keep it in, and at some point I just caved and cried (multiple times). I’m not really much of a lyrics guy, if we’re going to sort ourselves along the lines of the lyrics/music dichotomy, but sometimes the emotion behind them is so undeniable that they get to even me. Part of it is topical, because I’ve struggled a lot around my relationship to music this year – how it fits into the present and future of my life. After the total disappointment of 2020 as a year to release music in, I’ve really been questioning what the future holds for me musically. Combine this with the precarity and scarcity of possibility, and a fulfilling life incorporating music or art in any meaningful way at times feels totally impossible.
Nurture sees Robinson tackling all of his own neuroses around these feelings, abandoning the high concept of Worlds for straight-forward self presentation, while still somehow increasing in coherence. This album finds Robinson worrying about disappointing his family. Worrying about disappointing himself. Feeling lost and unfulfilled by his art. Feeling depressed about what the future holds. Just feeling the all the pressure that comes with growing up through your 20’s, at the beginning of the end of the world no less. So many lyrics from this album have acted as repeatable affirmations to keep me from totally losing it. When he sings, voice modulated, “Look at the sky, I'm still here. I'll be alive next year, I can make something good” on the eponymous “Look at the Sky,” I feel it. Almost every moment has felt totally unsure for the past two years, and the only thing keeping me going has been a self-reassurance that I, that we, would make it. “Get Your Wish” similarly offers inspiration in restructuring art, not just as something to find fulfillment in for yourself, but as a service to be provided to others: “you can make for someone else.”
“Musician” was the lead single for the album, and initially I was skeptical of it. But in the context of the album, it’s really probably the best description of how it feels trying to make music as a young/ish person in any kind of professional capacity right now. The way that it figures the way that judgement which comes with making any kind of art, much less something non-traditional hits home. “Then you sigh, ‘You know I love you, so I think I should tell you, Porter, this life, well isn't it time that you grow up?’” Even unspoken, this sentiment is inescapable in a world so consumed by valuing “productive” labor over artistic creative labor. “Musician” also has probably one of the best choruses of the year – lamenting the contradictions of music as a job, and the way it chews people up and spits them out. While the content of this will be relatable to any listener in today’s totally alienated society, you can’t tell me it’s not a song written for musicians.
Cuts like “Mother” and “Sweet Time” serve as emotional salves to the pent up despair and confusion of “Musician” and “Mirror” – reminding us of the things which are unassailably worth living for: the beauty of the world, the embrace of family. Things which came into reach once again as this album cycle rolled out and people got their vaccinations, once again able to experience those things safely again. The timing for this album has been nothing short of perfect in that respect. Every single dropped at a thematically relevant moment for me. The live show was one of the first I saw when it felt safe to go to shows again (and it’s definitely a top 3 set, even aside form that). Every second of Nurture as an experience feels meticulously planned, and all of those plans landed at the most impactful moments possible. And I haven’t even gushed about the music yet.
Worlds innovated in its own way, combining disparate elements of video game soundtracks, pop EDM, stadium rock, glitch, and more to tell its story – each song had its own specific and different musical profile, which flowed but stood apart from each other. Nurture on the other hand, feels like a true album. Every song shares a similar, but not too similar, sonic palate of dance music, emo, drum & bass, indie pop, and just about anything else you can thing of really (this feels like another example of total genre breakdown). Robinson totally chops and screws vocals, acoustic instruments, and electronic samples across the album in a way which feels totally new. Where these kinds of experiments often feel jarring or harsh, every second of Nurture is inviting in a way that is hard to compare. It feels playful and serious, upbeat and downtrodden, cute and adult. All the muted moments of glitched out harps and guitars and pianos, blended together with Robinson’s glistening EDM production chops feel totally magical. On every listen I still hear some new detail, some layer which I didn’t realize was there.
If Nurture was born out of Robinson trying to square the contradictions in his life, it has balanced them near perfectly. It’s a seamless listening experience which shifts shape depending on your own mood and environment. A psychic chameleon of an album which has truly impacted me this year.
Thirdface - Do It With a Smile
The only punk album I really cared about this year, Thirdface’s Do It With a Smile is a ripper front to back. I’ve always had a hard time connecting to punk punk records, because they’ve always felt a little bit boring to me? I’ll probably catch some flack fo that, but most punk is very by-the-books as an isolated listening experience. At the gig is one thing, but if I’m just driving around I need something more engaging. Thirdface does that. Do It With a Smile is like if Converge and Cloud Rat were egg punks or something. Every single riff is mind bending. The drums grind and stop and grind and stop. The bass punches through. The vocals are absolutely disgusting sounding. That’s another problem I have with a lot of punk, the vocals are weak – Thirdface does not have that problem by any means. It’s also a continuous listening experience, with each song flowing into the next in an unbridled assault on the senses. I’m just going to suggest you listen to the whole thing. It’s short.
…and some honorable mentions
Some real quality remixes on Standing at the Gate, including a Toro Y Moi × Chino Deftones collaboration; plus “Bunny” might be this year’s most infectious pop song.
Daniel Bachman - Axacan
Daniel’s most abstract album to date: a lot noise-ier and less accessible – but then again that’s not a bad thing. Alienating and atmospheric, Axacan is a fully immersive environment which will feel uncomfortably familiar to any Virginia native.
Lil Nas X - MONTERO
Much has been said about MONTERO, and while I don’t think it’s all hits – tracks like “Industry Baby” really pop. The beats often feel a little repetitive to me, but Nas X’s ability to translate unapologetic gayness into pop-rap bangers does bring a smile to my face.
Low - HEY WHAT
While the consensus around HEY WHAT has been that it’s Low’s redefining moment, the mixing on this thing is what keeps it out of my top-top list this year. It’s a beautiful blend of noise and rock (specifically not not noise rock though), but the vocals feel so separate and clean that I feel like a different producer would have done this more justice. Double Negative remains, for me, Low’s best in this new era.
Smashing year for Portrayal. Another incredible screamo record in We Are… and a real deviation from their established sound in CHRISTFUCKER (and their tight split with Chat Pile). Not really what I wanted to listen to this year, but respect where respect is due. I know I’ll bump these in a year when I feel a little less forlorn.
The most sonically wide-ranging tracks from Soul Glo to date – these EPs are a teaser clearly of the new Epitaph LP they’ve been working on. "Rolling Loud” on Vol. 1 might be my favorite Soul Glo song to-date, and “B.O.M.B.S.” from Vol. 2 is gonna be a live experience not to miss once shows are a little more widespread.
Supine – no altar for the company man
Like I’ve said a couple times now, 2021 was not a big year for heavy music for me. This record is incredible thematically and musically though: swampy, sludgy, grindy, screamy, and staunchly anti-capitalist. A piece of well-written pissed-off hate mail for American late capitalism. Shit sounds massive – like it’s from here in Virginia, not from Philly.
My bandmate put out these twin mixtapes this year, and I’d be remiss not to mention them here. Effortlessly transitioning between hip hop stylings, there’s something for (almost) everyone on these two collections: from lo-fi, sample-heavy cuts; to synthy ambient experiments; to hard bass boosters; to TikTok-ready pop. It’s incredible how far yajirobe’s production quality and output quantity has increased in such a short period of time, and he’s bolstered now by his many collaborators who deliver on (almost) every bar.
And with that – let’s hope once again that next year is better than this one. If it happens, I’ll be all over the U.S. in March & April on tour opening for Greet Death. All things going to plan I’ll also be graduating with my Master’s in May, and then I’ll be working on a Ph.D. starting in the fall. Hopefully the new Infant Island records will come out this year too (they’re easily our best work to date). I’m fully prepared for everything to fall through this time though. I hesitate to say this, but very little can surprise me. Stay safe everyone, and have a good 2022.
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