Feature: Records Of 2021

Like all end-of-year lists, there’s nothing definitive about this one. Neither is it in any particular order. Essentially, here’s a selection of records that pop into my head when I think about the music I’ve enjoyed throughout 2021. I’ll probably end up adding a whole bunch more over the coming week or two.

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Dawuna – Glass Lit Dream
This one’s gradually uncurling like a morbid flower. I saw Kevin Martin (The Bug) post about Glass Lit Dream as part of his “album of the day” Instagram series: intricately sculpted electronic soul, hushed as though conscious of waking anyone in adjacent rooms. The opening trio of pieces connected immediately – particularly “The Lighthouse”, with static that sounds like a microphone set at full gain to capture the raw sound of the night. Ian Mugerwa apparently recorded this one while working a night job, and I’ve not heard many records that so potently capture the circadian estrangement of working through the small hours.

Charmaine Lee – KNVF
The artwork encapsulates this record nicely: 12 self-portraits, each defined by both changes in facial expression and digital editing. Similarly, Lee melds the raw capability of the voice with the possibilities afforded by equipment (microphones of varying fidelities, the application of distortion, sparing reverb, modular electronics), on KNVF they hybridise into a single instrument. What’s great is that you can hear Lee responding to her own output, repeating certain whistles and vowels as if to scrutinise them, pressing hard into certain amalgams of distortion and vocal croak. She wrote a fabulous article on Wet Ink Archive where she reflects on the development of her practice, and more than anything KNVF feels like it documents that process of inquisition, self-critique, adaption – albeit in nano-second cycles.

Obay Alsharani ­– Sandbox
Inspired by Boards Of Canada, Colleen, C418’s Minecraft soundtrack, the Swedish landscape and the Northern Lights, the beautiful lo-fi constructions on Sandbox partly act as an antidote to a particularly turbulent few years for Alsharani, who fled his home country of Syria and spent an extended period in refugee accommodation in Sweden before finally being granted residency. His use of interference is beautiful, ranging in texture from light rain to cotton-ball-head-fog, out of which melodies bloom like strange coloured rectangles on a detuned TV screen – much like the album art, created using stills from Alsharani’s video feedback experiments.

Eiko Ishibashi – Tokyo 2021 Variantic
This one sounds like driving through a mountainous countryside, alternating between picturesque views of dwindled villages and sudden plunges into pitch-black tunnels, where lights pulsate and refract off the windscreen and side mirrors. The combination of elements is just perfect – muffled voices, flute, somersaulting generative synthesisers, collapsing beats and what sounds like a processed rainmaker – and the whole thing runs on this very vibrant kinetic energy, like a glitchy VR rollercoaster.

hyacinth. – Hold Onto Love
14 pocket infinities: fade in, loop for 1-2 minutes, fade out. It’s a record that captures the contradictory allure of hold music – the sense of being connected to a non-zone, evoking nostalgia for its use of certain synth sounds and phased delays, yet also trapped outside of time in how it cycles round forever. Analogue and digital degradations combine exquisitely: the faltering of a well-worn cassettes that’s been entombed in the hold music machine since the 90s, and the ultra-compressed bitrate of the telephone line.

Dalibor Cruz – Riddled With Absence
Partly inspired by the polyrhythmic energy of Honduran punta music (Paolo Paz is a Honduran-American producer), these beats were made on the fly and it shows – in the very best way. Motifs drop out and drop in, distortion cuts in and throttles back, entire tracks drop to half-speed, whirl into reverse…it’s got a ferocious flow, chock full of percussive samples and Paz’s own contributions on Darbouka and mini Pakhawa. I imagine smoke pouring out of the mixer when these pieces really get going. My two-year-old boy got particularly into the track “Gool” and would shout “Yo! Yo!” until I put it on, at which point he’d start spinning endlessly on the spot. He knows.

Immortal Nightbody – Sublime Objects
It feels like this one is blasting out of a small boombox in a dark corner, cutting between funky hip-hop and airs of gloom and fatigue. That opening track “Aufhebung” is an absolute beaut. I love the drum samples, the rhythm, the chorus, and especially love the relationship between the main track and the coda. The fact that this one was mixed so quietly/muffled feels like a beautiful act of a self-sabotage – these songs could get the room shaking, yet when rendered so low-key they seem to emanate a desire to be left alone. I’ve been enjoying that push-pull all year.

Jap Kasai – OWN ℃
OWN ℃ is based on looped samples of Japanese Minyo folk singers, often with Jap Kasai singing over the top (which is the most charming thing) with sparse decoration from MIDI brass and synths. Beats and melodies are applied like blobs of bright paint, evoking a bubbly minimalism I associate with something like Sun Araw’s Belomancie. The slow, often swung tempos require a very specific sort of dancing: go big with your gestures, swing your limbs, then hold your pose during the silences.

ex.sses – RELIC
The contradiction here is that RELIC manifests as both hard persistence and cryptic whispers: thumping rhythms stripped to the chassis, peripheral synthesisers, words smeared into indistinction by breath and FX. It’s an emotional urgency without object – a feeling that floods the body, heart pounding, breath quickening, yet ultimately inarticulable. Each listen leaves me with the sensation of an unclosed loop, the two ends almost touching. With each listen I feel like they’re getting closer, although that’s an illusion for sure – RELIC is fated to remain eternally undecodable.

Lavender Blood – Lake Pier / Total Noon
The first of these two gorgeous drone pieces was recorded in 2016, with the second being captured in 2020. Both are centred on looped melodies played on retro Yamaha keyboard from the 1980s. The blurred fidelity of Lake Pier / Total Noon articulates the triangulated void between these times – the hyperslept in-between, the ellipsis. Vapours emanate from all corners, coalescing into something that belongs to all zones and yet none of them specifically. There’s a beautiful fade-out/fade-in partway through the first track, which always leaves me wondering what happened during that implied space between the two passages.

lauroshilau – Live At Padova
Beautiful trio improvisation (sax, electronics, drums) that seems to skirt the periphery forever, like a dance conducted at a distance and depending more on eye contact and implied gestures than coordinated moves. There’s an astral glisten to the whole thing – largely thanks to those synth tones, but also due to the trio’s affection for expansive emptiness. A cathartic surge by one player results in the other two throttling back, mutually ensuring that the all-out crescendo never comes.

Cecilia Lopez – RED(DB)
Sitting somewhere between installation, graphically-notated composition and improvised performance, RED(DB) pitches Lopez’s electronics alongside drummer Brandon Lopez and bassist Gerald Cleaver, with Julia Cavagna providing what’s termed as “movement”: pushing gigantic fishing nets made out of speaker cable, containing double basses in one instance and drums in another. Not only are the performers engaging with eachother, but they’re also teasing out the resonant frequencies of these hanging nets – not to mention Lopez’s live processing of Cleaver’s bass. The lines of interaction criss-cross in every direction. Lopez’s affection for brash and serrated tonalities is a highlight as always, mimicking an old lawnmover one minute and unoiled factory machines the next.

White People Killed Them – S/T
Scratching, crumpled, electronically-sabotaged guitar tones – courtesy of Raven Chacon and John Dieterich – bouncing against the scattershot percussive reflexes of Marshall Trammell. These two improvisatory pieces spilled out of the recording sessions for the latest Endlings record, and where the latter forefronts chrono-scrambling studio experimentation, White People Killed Them is fiercely real-time. The slow decline of the final 10 minutes is my favourite conclusion to an album in forever.

Watkins / Peacock – Acid Escape Vol. 3
Transcendent jams for drum machine, rubberised synth loops and zoned-out interferences at the edges. Each repeat seems to drive the energy inward towards a psychedelic core, gathering intimacy with its own melodic motifs by pitching them down, pitching them up or fragmenting them. The record is wonderful mixed too, and I love how those tones feel inside my head.

Other records I’ve enjoyed this year:

Olivia Block – Innocent Passage In The Territorial Sea
Lauren Sarah Hayes – Embrace
MIKE – “Disco!”
Dean Blunt – BLACK METAL 2
Robert Curgenven – Beyond Enclosures
Ziúr – Antifate
JJJJJerome Ellis – The Clearing
Jana Rush – Painful Enlightenment
Jen Kutler – Sonified Physiological Indicators Of Empathy
Akira Sileas – Ito
Grouper – Shade
Sarah Haras – Mirage
Midwife – Luminol
Palberta – Palberta5000
Dagar Gyil Ensemble of Lawra – DAGARA – Gyil Music of Ghana’s Upper West Region
Yuko Araki – End Of Trilogy
Music Research Strategies – Eleven Postures
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!