Best new music 2021

Hand-drawn picture of a reindeer by "Cora"
Hand-drawn picture of a reindeer by “Cora”

A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of the afternoon, someone enthusiastically rang our doorbell and then knocked several times. Unfortunately, we were both on Zoom calls so couldn’t rush to the door to see who was there. Usually it’s just a delivery of course, and no-one really expects doors to be opened during these pandemic days. Ringing and knocking typically just means it’s an exuberant new gigwork driver whose employment on the front line hasn’t ground him or her down yet.

This time turned out to be different. Later that day in our mailbox, we found a lovely hand-drawn greeting card showing a reindeer emerging from a gift box labeled “Merry Christmas” and signed by somebody named Cora. We know barely any children in our new neighbourhood let alone anyone named Cora, so we think that Cora perhaps misremembered a friend or family member’s address and inadvertently delivered to us what was meant for someone else. Still, a terrific if accidental gesture, and we very much appreciate the spirit in which people in our small town try to maintain social bonds during nearly twenty months of varying degrees of social distancing.

A confluence of fortuitous factors such as being double vaccinated and the pandemic retreating ever so slightly during the warm months allowed me to visit my mom in Germany this past summer. In her family archives, she has copies of every single annual Christmas newsletter my family sent out to friends and relatives all over the world, from 1978 — the year we left Germany and moved to Namibia — until 2009. They were typed — initially on a typewriter, later on a PC — and contained sections penned by my dad (politics, economics, the family business) and my mom (family, kids, household, community). A crucial part that I had forgotten (perhaps “repressed” would be more accurate) is that as of our early teenage years, my sister and I were encouraged to write our own contributions. It’s a strange experience to read the precocious ramblings of my former self, confidently informing readers about school trips or how I was planning to become a journalist. I’m not quite ready to perform a deeper exegesis on these letters, but perhaps one day I might attempt to translate and publish a few of the more interesting bits. As a compendium of one immigrant/settler family’s experience in southern Africa, it is a treasure trove of how subjectivities are constructed and how what one sees is at once completely clear and entirely clouded by who one is or would like to be.

These small introductory missives I prepend each year to my annual “best new music” blog post have taken on a similar function to those annual newsletters. Yet because “we’re all in this together,” I feel disinclined to recap any broader highlights or lowlights here.

What interests me at the moment is that our world is clearly in the process of changing fundamentally and permanently in a number of different ways. There is no going back to a pre-pandemic “normal.” Work, social life, housing, travel, shopping, the arts — everything is experiencing seismic and irrevocable change. It is breathtaking to observe, to the extent that one can take it all in. My ongoing sense is that whatever amount of permanent change we may intuit will result from the pandemic, we should “double” it and that might not even come close to how it will eventually shake out.

On the personal front and outside of my ongoing consulting work, I have been putting time towards a number of personal projects. In the course of 2021, I mentored several anthropology graduates (PhDs and MAs) through the process of finding work in the private sector, an enjoyable and (I think) useful activity. I’m also working with an as of now very small core team of people on developing an idea for a museum in Brooklyn, New York that would showcase noncapitalist futures in ways that foreground life and play rather than technology or economics (i.e. stealing back from “startups” and “founders” what we have learned about “innovation” because we can do better than that). And in daily defiance of algorithmic curation, I’m in an ongoing Discord correspondence with two friends on the West Coast — taking turns selecting favourite tracks old and new and widening each other’s musical horizons, and in the process creating an incredibly eclectic playlist that’s now nearly 20 hours long.

Life may be highly unusual and constrained right now, but as long as we keep threads of care, solidarity and (dare I say) optimism alive, we will be okay.

Stay safe & healthy.

Happy holidays,

As before, if you’d like to listen to this year’s best albums in series (21 hours in total), I have added them all to a Spotify playlist. Each individual album title below links to the album on Spotify. I chose Spotify not because I particularly agree with their business model but because the “free,” ad-supported version makes the music available to anyone.

Bell Orchestre — House Music: Deeply interesting instrumental post-rock from a Montreal collective consisting of people who variously also play in other bands such as Arcade Fire. Playing like a connected suite of rock, electronica and jazz, this is not background music but rather challenging in all the best ways, expecting focused listening and rewarding it mightily. Despite the sustained assault of fullness, there is also dynamic variation here, ushering in flow states.

Big Red Machine — How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?: A project whose sound I really enjoy. In comparison to their previous outing, this time Aaron Dessner (The National) and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) enlisted several guest vocalists to sing in addition to (previously mostly) Vernon’s vocals. The music increasingly sounds like a super current version of The Band’s late 60s anthems. “Phoenix (Feat. Fleet Foxes & Anaïs Mitchell)” strikes me as basically a perfect song.

Charlotte Day Wilson — Alpha: Charlotte Day Wilson’s voice is amazing. Deep, resonant, powerful and seemingly incapable of leaving me unmoved. Her debut album has been long in the making. Also a gifted producer and bass player, these carefully crafted compositions live on an axis that spans contemporary Toronto R&B, gospel (sonically only), and the kind of amber “folk” Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) makes sometimes. The overall sense of this record is at once autumnal yet celebratory — it’s very warm and strong. I find myself drifting back to this often. It speaks to a facet of my temperament.

Darkside — Spiral: One of the very best albums of the year. Darkside is a psychedelic vocal electronic music project by Nicolás Jaar and Dave Harrington, and this is their second record. Apart from memorable songs and incredible sounds of all kinds, perhaps its most amazing accomplishment is to make it all sound so organic — in the sense of hearing a “real band” playing instead of something carefully constructed or assembled. It’s both strange and melodic at the same time, like a 21st century version of early Pink Floyd, or a mellower Underworld ca. 1996.

Eliza Shaddad — The Woman You Want: New record from a Scottish-Sudanese singer/songwriter who writes and performs fine songs in an indie idiom — sometimes gentle as folk, other times with the coiled intensity of PJ Harvey. Whenever I return to this (as I have done a lot), I think this is some of the best indie rock I’ve heard all year. You should hear it too.

Emmylou Harris — Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert: In the early 1990s, Emmylou Harris took a break from touring. Her comeback after this hiatus was with a new band, The Nash Ramblers — essentially, an acoustic country ensemble comprised of legendary veterans. The material they toured for the ensuing two or so years was bluegrass-adjacent classic country and folk (or versions of more contemporary material played as bluegrass). One live record appeared at the time (Live at the Ryman), and it has been a favourite of mine since that time (it’s also widely credited with prefiguring the late 90s “newgrass” revival by a few years). Now, a second full live show has been unearthed from the archives, and the material is quite different but no less amazing. Truly a terrific band of fine musicians, and Harris is at her vocal peak (voice still entirely intact but also mature and savvy, schooled by years on the road).

Erlend Apneseth Trio — Lokk: Erlend Apneseth is a Norwegian musician who specializes in the hardanger fiddle, a fretted version of the violin (similar to a pre-Baroque viol). The trio makes a version of that specifically Scandinavian brand of “jazz” (a non-blues based kind of atmospheric instrumental music that spans classical, experimental, folk and — indeed — jazz). It’s always a delight when old instruments can be both idiomatic and cutting-edge without being a gimmick. One thing I particularly enjoy is how acoustic and electronic instruments are each other’s sonic equal here, an artifact of thoughtful audio engineering (but also clear vision). Favourite track: “Impedans.”

Gabriel Akhmad Marin — Ruminate: Improvisations for Fretless Guitar and Dutar: Terrific instrumental record from a virtuoso guitarist. Alternates between tracks improvised on electric guitar hooked up to a full midi synth rig (sounds like beautiful synthetic drones with appealing overtones) and others played on a dutar, a traditional two-stringed Persian lute. (As an aside, I’m very fond of the branded yellow title emblem on the cover, carefully constructed as it is to closely resemble Deutsche Grammophon’s classic design.)

Griff — One Foot in Front of The Other (EP): Griff is a young British singer, songwriter and producer whose work far eclipses most new pop music I’ve heard in years. Many of her songs have the simple grace and magical, Tetris-like fit of Taylor Swift’s, Robyn’s or Vince Clarke’s best work. Her steady ascent to justified fame in Britain is sure to be followed by equal recognition on the international stage. This too-short EP was followed by a single later in the year (“One Night“) that was just as brilliant. High hopes for an album soon. (Favourite track is “Shade of Yellow,” a stunning morsel of electropop perfection with production so dense and well-judged it has to be heard to be believed.)

Juçara Marçal — Delta Estácio Blues: I have no background on this Brazilian singer other than what I’ve gleaned from write-ups of this album. But I love everything about this. It’s radically inventive, thriving on sharp contrasts between distorted electronic production and more traditional Brazilian pop and folk melodies. I hear Einstürzende Neubauten, Tom Waits and David Byrne on one hand and Astrud Gilberto on the other. It’s occasionally confrontational and discordant but never unpleasant. Strong political energy on this one, justifiably so given what is going on in her home country.

Lorde — Solar Power: On her third album, Lorde sounds like a witty, sometimes sardonic, sad hippie. Her unique mix of observant irony and heartfelt sincerity are always a treat — she’s one of the sharpest lyricists of her generation. Many of the reviews described this as a retreat of sorts (presumably from club-focused electropop) and panned the music as either boring or, worse, 90s Sheryl Crow. I disagree. I hear a subtle but innovative blend of electronic pop with the more radio-friendly side of hippie-folk from the late 60s, like the Mamas & the Papas, or even the 5th Dimension; also, perhaps, echoes of the long-forgotten first album by Nelly Furtado (basically, an event only in Canada) which attempted something similar — fusing a hippie sensibility with “trip hop” (at the time). Of course, Lorde is much more than just a great lyricist, she also has a sure hand when it comes to turning out specifically Lorde-like melodic phrases. So many good songs, but sample “Mood Ring” and “Stoned at the Nail Salon.” (Hat tip for also releasing five of these songs as a separate EP sung entirely in Māori. Extra hat tip for Solar Power being one of the best-sounding records of the year.)

Low — Hey What: For the first time in a long time, this made me appreciate the transcendence that can come from abrasiveness in music. People report quasi-spiritual experiences when listening to acts like Sunn O))) but I rarely see why. What makes Low different is the juxtaposition of the members’ voices harmonizing perfectly, as if singing pastoral folk or mystical incantations, while the music around them literally sounds like it’s disintegrating and shattering your headphones. Supreme beauty alongside supreme distortion. Celestial harmonies somehow rising from the densest clouds of pulsating white noise. Produced by BJ Burton who was instrumental in designing the strange electronic processors underpinning Bon Iver’s phenomenal transformation circa 22, a Million, a record I love deeply. This is that but taken to a whole other level, possibly its logical conclusion. Bracing but magical. Favourite track: “Days Like These.”

Lump — Animal: Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay’s second album as Lump features brilliant, angular alt-rock with wonderfully weird and highly intelligent lyrics. Harnessing the best of Marling’s literary language and odd turns of musical phrase but powering them with music that’s more “rock” than folk results in something much higher energy and upbeat (contrasting with Marling’s solo work which can be quite withdrawn to the point of occasionally being maudlin). I am occasionally put in mind of krautrock’s “motorik” rhythms in the best way. Standout tracks, for me, are “Animal” and “Paradise.” But there’s nothing weak or filler here.

Nathalie Stutzmann, Orfeo 55 — Contralto: For this year’s instalment of pop music from the Baroque, here’s the final release from Nathalie Stutzmann with her (now disbanded) orchestra Orfeo 55. Stutzmann is a French contra-alto whose burnished amber voice is only half the attraction: she also conducts her period ensemble. This collection of fine Baroque arias for contra-alto and countertenor should make anyone’s heart sing, provided they are somewhat open to beauty in music regardless of era.

The Notwist — Vertigo Days: The Notwist are a German experimental indie band with at least 25 years of history. Their latest, Vertigo Days, is another brilliant record, combining their unique turn of musical phrase with somewhat surreal (but also quite philosophical) lyrics. If I had to give you a “sounds like” reference, I’d maybe say Radiohead but more whimsical. The vocalist’s German accent, after some time, becomes less of a hindrance and instead an essential signifier of an overall sonic intent. I appreciate how contemporary German indie bands reference Germany’s own rock history — in this case, the “motorik” rhythms of Krautrock (though presumably programmed here). The Notwist’s instrumentation can be kaleidoscopic, almost conjuring up a kind of Orff palette.

Parcels — Day/Night: Expansive double album from an (originally) Australian group (now based in Berlin) that makes music somewhere along the spectrum of disco, electropop and a kind of late 70s “yacht rock,” the sort of music that sounds like early Toto. Parcels got their earliest breakthrough from a one-song collaboration with Daft Punk, and the shadow of that still lingers here, pleasantly. It’s clear that these are excellent musicians. While the track “Somethinggreater” is certainly standout, I’ve become particularly fond of the ballads (e.g. “Outside”) which are tender, vulnerable and, at the same time, not cheesy — a difficult thing to get right.

Spell Songs — Spell Songs II: Let the Light In: Second album from a Scottish folk collective that got together to set to music Robert Macfarlane’s poetry about the lost words for nature (background via this). I really liked the first record, but this second is a significant advance in terms of composition and group cohesion. Lovely, thoughtful, grown-up folk — mostly based on Celtic and English traditions but also incorporating a singer and kora player originally from West Africa, thus suggesting (again) how well the two musical traditions can connect. The best part, as The Guardian says, is the singing.

Steve Earle & The Dukes — J.T.: Steve Earle, alt-country troubadour extraordinaire and always worth hearing no matter what, makes an album celebrating the music of his late son Justin Townes Earle who tragically died from a drug overdose in August 2020. I won’t speculate about others’ motivations or sentiments here but will say that this is superbly played by Earle’s veteran band, The Dukes, with a terrific, raw, almost punk-y energy, perhaps a deserving and honourable way of channeling a father’s grief and respecting J.T. Earle’s unruly modern outlaw country.

Teke::Teke — Shirushi: Brilliant debut album by a collective from Montreal that plays its own take on “Japanese psychedelic surf-rock.” I know this doesn’t really make any sense but it’s quite brilliant. It’s very much unlike anything else you can hear right now. Sometimes I think I hear a distant kinship with Khruangbin. Perhaps it’s the strong Asian signifier coupled with the far eastern crate-digging inception story that underpin both acts. But here, unlike there, we encounter no sleepiness whatsoever — it’s all quite combustible. On balance, I much prefer Teke::Teke.

Tune-Yards — Sketchy.: Angular and strange, Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus writes songs a little reminiscent of Talking Heads’ best work — somehow whipping funk, art pop, world music and rock into something bigger than the sum of its parts. I appreciate that this is self-aware, often truly weird and also pleasurable.

Also worth hearing:

Ashley Monroe — Rosegold: Departure from country in a “country-tronica” direction. I’m always a sucker for this under-explored combination. Not everything here is mind-blowing, but much is very, very good.

Ashwarya — Nocturnal Hours (EP): What Billie Eilish’s second album should have sounded like? Mashes dry, focused electronic production into Indian influences while never straying from a clear vision of electronic alternative pop. Talent to watch.

Celeste — Not Your Muse: A very, very good R&B vocalist with excellent phrasing and really good ideas. It’s not very cutting edge (i.e. perhaps does not move the genre needle at all), but at the same time it’s very satisfying.

Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg: This is cool — nervous new-wave-y post-rock paired with a deadpan female vocalist basically reciting poetry. Reminded me of the band Life Without Buildings from the early 2000s.

Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee: Punk-reared feminist indie rocker makes joy-seeking pop record. Very literate, quite varied yet all sounding of-a-piece. Often very beautiful songs.

Kynsy — Things That Don’t Exist (EP): Young Irish singer’s first EP. Sounds like indie pop from the 90s — and as such, similar to Beabadoobee in the best way. Kynsy’s worth keeping an eye on.

An honourable mention for “song of the year” should go to ABBA’s “Don’t Shut Me Down,” the “b-side” to the first and only single from new album Voyage. The album itself unfortunately proved to be really thin (that might be the best way to describe it), but it did yield this one spectacular song, a worthy extension of the legacy of brilliant autumnal sad disco tracks they started to make circa Super Trouper. Just like I could listen to “The Day Before You Came” on repeat all day, this one also feels timeless. So, we’ll forget the album that was 40 years in the making and hold on to this one song. In another 40 years, the by-then entirely virtualized, AI version of ABBA will surely make another spectacular song.

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