In a format identical to previous lists (2020, 2019, 2018), here are my ten favorite albums that have been released during the first half of 2021. As always, the order is of little importance.
Fievel Is Glauque – God’s Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess (la Loi, Jan 1)
This irresistibly charismatic little tape came out literally right at the beginning of the year, so I don’t blame anyone who missed it, but luckily it seems to have been getting the attention it deserves. The newest and best work from eccentric songwriter Zach Phillips, the various ensembles of talented musicians bring to life some of the purest and most earnest pop music you’ll ever hear.
Wind Tide – Journal 2020 (self-released, Mar 14)
It’s always a great feeling when less than a minute into an album you already know it’s just what you need. Journal 2020 has been my go-to outdoor reading and walking music this year; its subtle yet always ragged and rough-hewn augmentations of nature are in turn a perfect over-layer for any other environment. Ever wonder what it sounds like inside a tree? Original review
Michael Barthel – Vollmacht (Regional Bears, Jan 13)
Every single one of Michael Barthel’s audio works defy verbal description in some way, but that is especially the case for Vollmacht. Described as “an acoustic and poetic inquiry into authority and power in human relationships,” the ten-part suite is a harrowing, abstractly narrative experience bolstered by the poet’s trademark ferocity in both vocal delivery and musical performance.
Bryan Day & Seymour Glass – Crooked Doppler (tanzprocesz, May 27)
Two well-established virtuosos of collage, cobblecore, and clutter-clobber come together for this delightful tape full of tactile toybox sound-worlds, warbling electronic transmissions, and surreal environmental invasions. The combination of Day’s audio-mechanical sensibilities and invented instrument arsenal with Glass’s idiosyncratic ear and insatiable bent for the bizarre is one for the ages.
Cities Aviv – The Crashing Sound of How It Goes (Total Works, Apr 16)
Words like “sprawling” and “ambitious” aren’t unique to The Crashing Sound of How It Goes when discussing Cities Aviv’s discography, but this newest album does feel like a sort of culmination of the Memphis visionary’s distinct sound. It’s not perfect, but that imperfection is a large part of what makes it beautiful… and perhaps it’s off set, because whatever “Higher Up There” is, it might be something more than perfect.
Daniel Iván Bruno – Brazo (TVL, Mar 5)
In the process of fully deconstructing the sonic profile of the harmonica, Daniel Iván Bruno also discovers some of the most piercing, strident sonic frequencies ever recorded. Sounding like a passive AI-generated grotesquery, a strikingly adept pedal-chain assault, and a shrieking mass of dying circuit boards all at once, Brazo is an unmissable ordeal. Original review
Monnier – Monnier (Hardcore Detonation, Jun 6)
For those of us who fell in love with extreme music via the heavyweight technicality of Chang, Marton, Witte, and co., Japanese–Belgian project Monnier may be the second coming. Featuring the vocal talents of Makiko (of Flagitious Idiosyncrasy fame) and multi-instrumentalist Jasper Swerts covering everything else, this collection of two stellar EPs presents what is by far the best grind to come out in the last five years.
All Ords – Sources and Methods (Index Clean, Feb 14)
With an impressive list of research citations and an ambitious conceptual basis, the first recording by Mark Groves and Joanna Nilson’s All Ords duo is a multifarious indictment of humanity’s current trajectory. Sources and Methods steps carefully through a shadowy garden of societal contexts, imposing its critical voyeurism on manifestations of patriarchy, public surveillance, decaying domesticity, and other salient signs of our distant but no less inevitable doom. “I spent years learning to speak with my mouth closed.”
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR (Geffen, May 21)
A delicate balance between escapism and relatability is often the name of the game in pop songwriting, and what makes SOUR so amazing is that it offers both without even seeming to try. Formidable newcomer Olivia Rodrigo discards subtlety so markedly that it’s not even a factor anymore, and invites listeners along for her rollercoaster ride of disillusionment and heartbreak over some truly stellar production.
IT IT – Two Squirrels Fighting Each Other at the End of the World (self-released, Feb 19)
Even some of the most primitive experimental music remains timeless because of the palpable, wide-eyed curiosity with which it was approached. With their eclectic sample-scapes and intricate instrumental arrangements, enigmatic Pittsburgh ensemble IT IT exude that aura more profoundly than the overwhelming majority of their contemporaries. Two Squirrels… is a fitting new entry in their quickly expanding canon of creativity. Original review