It’s been a year, hasn’t it? I mean if we’re being honest it’s been quite a couple of years; pandemic, nearly a million deaths from Covid in the US alone, protests, science deniers, attempted insurrection, fascism disguised as nationalism disguised as patriotism, and of course the return of the McRib.
But besides all of that, music has been a constant source of release for me. Being locked down could have been worse had it not been for the steady flow of incredible music that came out in both 2020 and 2021. And since most of the music that hit me hardest wasn’t from major label darlings making mad cash, but from independent musicians toiling away at home making art out of a desire to connect. No promise of tour dates, merch money, or really much of anything but the need to make art and put it out into the ether in the hopes someone might hear it and be moved by it.
I want you to know, I have been moved.
Independent artists and record labels are the winners these last two years in my book. You kept my sanity intact and my mind engaged on something other than the irreparable damage to our society and that peek behind the curtain to see the trolls running the show. Thank you for your service.
Okay, onto it. These are my top ten favorite albums of 2021. These are my picks. I’m not saying there weren’t other great albums out this year. I’m sure there were. They just weren’t my favorites. If you were mentioned at all by me these last couple weeks then your art reached me and affected me. So thanks, and I can’t wait to hear what you have coming up next.
10. Ty Segall : Harmonizer
I was on the fence with Segall’s latest for a bit. It seemed he had something in mind with his synth riffs and “sexy time” swagger but I wasn’t really breaking thru. But this robotic funk and chugging guitars finally wore me down and I kind of became enthralled with Ty’s Harmonizer. There was a lot to digest, but once it seeped into my circulatory system I was in 100%. Dark, groovy, and a great mix of organic and synthetic vibes made this my favorite Segall record in quite a while. This is what he’s been working towards since First Taste. – Drag City Records
9. Rob Mazurek & Exploding Star Orchestra : Dimensional Stardust
Rob Mazurek has been making music in the budding experimental music scene of Chicago for nearly 30 years. I first heard him on Black Cube Marriage’s Astral Cube(El Paraiso Records) from 2017. That album was a dense ensemble record that hit on jazz, avante garde, and free-form expression and it took me a few listens to unlock its brilliance. With Dimensional Stardust Mazurek and Exploding Star Orchestra expands on those vibes, making something that resembles what I’d imagine someone like Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, and John Cage might come up with had Philip Glass summoned them from beyond that galactic curtain. This is truly a stunning listening experience. Time to get your mind rewired. – International Anthem Recording Co.
8. Hawksmoor : On Prescription
James McKeown’s 2021 solo release as Hawksmoor is the darkly-lit and personal album On Prescription, a record that delves into the world of oncology(the study and treatment of tumors). Writing from a personal place after a someone close to James dealt with a serious illness, Hawksmoor brings us into a heady sound world that touches on mid-70s Floyd, Alan Parsons, and just the general vibe of 70s deep cuts. Mixing electronics with real instruments gives the proceedings a real tactile feel, something McKeown has perfected(see 2020’s Methods Of Dreaming.) Hawksmoor’s sound world is a unique and all-encompassing one, and On Prescription is further proof that James McKeown is pushing electronic music to new levels, both intellectually and viscerally. – Spun Out Of Control
7. The War On Drugs : I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Adam Granduciel and co have put out yet another engaging set of heart-on-sleeve tunes that range from Springsteen-esque to blurry sound collages. 2017s A Deeper Understanding seemed to go for the more poppier elements that came before and dropped the more hazier aspects of albums like Slave Ambient and Lost In The Dream. It was still a great album, but I missed those hazy aspects. I Don’t Live Here Anymore still stays on a mainstream path, but songs like “Harmonia’s Dream” and “Victim” bring back some of those dreamier aspects of their sound. Granduciel seems on solid footing, but is still questioning who he is and how he fits in the grand scheme of things. I hear that, and I’m here for it.
6. Paul Riedl : Ambient Mixtape Vol. 3
A massive surprise this year was Paul Riedl’s Ambient Mixtape Vol. 3. Dropping relatively late in the year, Riedl’s new age/ambient opus sort of broke open my brain and gave the psyche a much-needed reprieve from the outside world that is seemingly eating itself alive. Riedl’s main gig is in the cosmic death metal band Blood Incantation, among others. But when he’s not bludgeoning ears with chugging riffs and tales of spacial cosmic doom, Riedl plugs into analog synths and lets the circuital tones do the rest. Ambient Mixtape Vol. 3 is one of the best electronic/synth records of the year for me. It came when I needed it and I’m grateful for that. Truly excited for Vol. 4. – SFI Recordings
5. Colleen : The Tunnel and the Clearing
The work of Cécile Schott is built on dreamy loops, strings, electronics, and her wisp of a voice. Schott, aka Colleen, makes music that feels like something you heard in a dream. Melodies work their way up from some other realm, melancholy and covered in tired longing. 2015’s album Captain Of None was my first time discovering her music and from that point I was hooked. 2021s The Tunnel and the Clearing might be my favorite record of hers, as it feels quietly revelatory in its almost simple production. Yet that’s deceiving, as this album seems to come from some very deep, personal place. The Tunnel and the Clearing is an album of deep contemplation; a record about endings, beginnings, and fear and excitement of the unknown. Heavily effected organ gives the vibe of Terry Riley’s work, while the melodies are reminiscent of Beach House. It all comes together in a sweeping dream of an album. – Thrill Jockey Records
4. Jonas Munk : Altered Light
Causa Sui guitarist, electronic composer, and label runner Jonas Munk has learned the value of deconstruction in music over the last few years. A less is more quality has emerged in his solo electronic work(as well as his work with Billow Observatory), which has come to true fruition with Altered Light, his new new age/ambient album on his own record label Azure Vista Records. 2020 saw the direction he was heading with Minimum Resistance, and with Altered Light he continues that sonic journey with heavily-effected guitar and electronics building this crystalline world where melodies swirl like colors on a palate into abstractions and undefined emotional flourishes. Listening is like stepping into the mind of the artist as ideas are forming. It’s an album of contemplation, personal retrospection, and intimacy. One of the finest ambient albums of the year. – Azure Vista Records
3. Mr Eff : Nostalgia Confessions
Mr Eff works in the shadows. He jumps from Giallo to grimy urban decay to shaded dream-like anxiety, all the while producing deeply engaging and slightly disconcerting music. With each release the electronic producer sheds his inspirations and influences and reveals himself as a singular artist. A voice emerges among many and gives us distinct sonic colors and sounds. On Nostalgia Confessions, an album that began in 2019 and sat in 2020s frozen Covid carbonite until this year, the producer and composer Mr Eff finds his identity as a purveyor of sound and mood. Vibes run from street-level funk to seedy horror grime to melodious and dream-like. The songs here tell a story, though that story can be interpreted in a million different ways depending on how they hit your brain.
I heard early versions of this record, and there was a lot more here. If I have one complaint, its that this album should have been longer. Nostalgia Confessions could have been a double album and the world would have been better for it. I can’t wait to hear what Mr Eff does next. – Burning Witches Records
2. Proto Droids : Sequential Dreams
Proto Droids, aka Neil Hale, dropped one of the biggest musical surprises of the year for me. What I thought was just a fun, Halloween musical nugget turned out to be far more for my head and heart. Sequential Dreams, a surprise Halloween release that Hale put out on limited edition cassette felt far more revelatory than just novelty fun. Dark, melancholy, and vintage in vibe, these songs lock into a musical world of 80s horror, sci fi, and back room video rentals. The wobbly cassette effects and subtle Tangerine Dream vibes give these songs the feeling of finding some long lost cassette under the seat of a 1982 Olds Cutlass. This one hits all the nostalgia buttons while still being this amazing set of expertly produced and carefully arranged electronic tracks. I was seriously taken aback by this album. It’s not just an October soundtrack, this is an all-timer. – Proto Droid
Number One : Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk’s Eight Fragments Of An Illusion
With Eight Fragments Of An Illusion it seems Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk have found their sound. Not that what’s come before wasn’t exceptional work, but these two musician/composers found the perfect balance of melody and composition, as well as allowing their own musical DNA to shine through. Bits of dream pop, shoegaze, Komische, and 80s ethereal production all come together in this grand statement of sound, feel, and emotional intent. Synth, guitar, and electronics build these grand halls in the sky for us to get lost in, as Schnauss and Munk walk us through this gorgeous sound world. This is a grand album that feels as if you’ve stumbled upon some great unknown and are revealed secrets of the universe. You can revisit them as much as you want, just hit play on Eight Fragments Of An Illusion and you’ll find them again. – Azure Vista Records
So thanks again for stopping by, both for these lists and for throughout the year. I’d do this regardless if anyone was reading, but knowing I’m connecting with like-minded folks makes this all the more important to me. I’ve got some more stuff to post before the year’s end, so stay tuned.