Not only have I run out of thought-provoking intro material, I’ve also used up all of my “clever” bits of subversion that I use when I’m too lazy to write actual copy. So have this obnoxiously self-aware and meaning-null series of words instead. Happy new year.
I’m sorry for the formatting for the honorable mentions is a bit weird on both desktop and mobile. I really have no idea how to fix it but I’ll keep trying.
Also, sorry about the links. All fixed now—I think. Ugh.
UVC – Broken Phonemes of the Unconscious(ness) Grid (Regional Bears, Oct 10)
UVC has always been an artist to whom I attribute brevity as one of his main strengths, so I’ll admit I was the tiniest bit skeptical when I saw that this Regional Bears tape was a C46 (less “will this be bad?”, more “how in the hell will this work?”). But as soon as the A side–spanning first track on Broken Phonemes of the Unconscious(ness) Grid settled into its “groove”—an innocuous yet wholly singular sound-universe of tape whir, noisy blankness, and trivial mundanity that defines not even the loudest of UVC tapes, but other memorable one-off BPF projects like Winston 1 and Bill Lewis Medicine Cabinet as well—it was like coming home. There’s something so intensely fascinating about the null-zone between instantaneity and retrospectivity that this “music” occupies, a place where sounds are both “here” and “there.” Throughout the humble opus, closely recorded scrabble/shuffle and analog-grimed tedium drones inexplicably harmonize and congeal into unperceivable, impossible currents that activate stuttering loop churns and other structural destabilizers; plucky junk-electronics pinch and ping into the dusty void; distant domestic clatter both coexists with and contradicts claustrophobic DI noise. I swear, it’s like he made this specifically for me.
Billy Strings – Renewal (Rounder, Sep 23)
Michigan-born, Nashville-based songwriter Billy Strings (a.k.a. William Apostol) is a name that’s unfortunately unfamiliar to many, but ubiquitous to few (both this record and the one prior to it easily hit #1 on the Billboard bluegrass charts), but if anything can change that it’s his sprawling, ambitious third solo effort Renewal. Fans who discovered his music via 2019’s Home, such as myself, may have expected him to delve even further into jam-heavy electric psychedelia on subsequent releases, but the 70-minute, 16-track double LP is a thoroughly acoustic outing, with the classic lineup of banjo, mandolin, double bass, and violin (performed by Billy Failing, Jarrod Walker, Royal Masat, and John Mailander, respectively) rendered in sublime, spacious clarity alongside Apostol’s trusty six-string and additional contributions. Every single song is a self-contained, mesmerizing masterpiece: beautifully ragged group harmonies and infectious solo exchanges power straightforward foot-stompers like “Secrets” and “The Fire on My Tongue”; expertly applied tension-and-release bolsters longer jams on “Heartbeat of America” and the spellbinding “Hide and Seek”; and it’s all rounded out by flawless nods to the deepest roots of this music in the form of the Walker/Ward-penned “Red Daisy” and “Running the Route.” It gets better every single time you listen, I’m not joking. Thanks Billy.
___ Duo – Music (music. dot. com!!!, Jan 16)
When I first heard Music it was called ., an even more evasive and inconvenient title that nonetheless represents well what the musicians behind the various ___ collective projects are going for. Completely formal or serious (or even worse, “academic”) electroacoustic improvisation has become utterly boring in this new age, and thus I’m finding myself drawn to subversive music created using even more unlikely sources and combinations thereof. Music certainly fits the bill with its credits of synth, sequencer, turntable, cello, sampler, and guitar to one unnamed performer and tapes, flute, voice, and live processing to the other, but ___ Duo doesn’t just obstinately oppose any sort of conventional instrument selection—they also refuse to make anything remotely conventional with them either, an approach that paradoxically leads to crude, asymmetrical lumps of misplaced convention amidst dense abstraction. I once again feel obligated to bring up the short-lived but legendary Sunshine Has Blown ensemble, whose once-untouched uniqueness I see reflected in the sluggish, sun-cracked swathing of “hr9%$KtQP#jedpVW” and the shabby loops of “fSvvbsg_6M97zj@A.” This is the future, unfortunately.
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR (Geffen, May 21)
It’s not often that I appreciate an album so deeply for being not just a pop-culture juggernaut, but also essentially a voice of an entire generation, so when it does happen, I make sure to value it. At just 18, Olivia Rodrigo has handily met that tall order with her first full-length album, and thus, beyond the strength of the music itself, SOUR feels nothing less than important. It’s as much a love letter to the artists that made Rodrigo the artist and songwriter she is today as it is an incendiary teen-pop reset: “brutal” feels very much in the vein of early- to mid-00s bad girl pop rock, but with a decidedly Gen-Z supply of frankness and impatience; “1 step forward, 3 steps back” incorporates a piano melody from a Taylor Swift song; and, of course, “good 4 u” is a not-so-subtle tribute to you-know-what by you-know-who. But unsurprisingly it’s the sleek, deftly produced, newfangled cuts that I’m personally most partial to: the unruly percussion, soaring melodies, and gloriously cringeworthy youthfulness of “deja vu”; the endless replayable and sing-alongable “drivers license”; the unapologetic and stiltedly propulsive “jealousy, jealousy.” I have no doubt that SOUR won’t take long to be seen/heard as a product of its time, and I also have no doubt that I will love it even more for it.
Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates (International Anthem, Nov 12)
I wasn’t exactly coy about my love for east coast super-quintet Irreversible Entanglement’s last record Who Sent You?, so their first double LP being featured here shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but I’m also sure I speak for both myself and many others when I say that Open the Gates is even more spectacular than I ever could have anticipated. Though much of the album’s appeal comes from its lengthy instrumental sections and the way they steadily progress while both intertwining with and springboarding off of Moor Mother/Camae Ayewa’s reverberant spoken mantras, the brief opening title track is one of the band’s best yet, featuring a quite-distinctly Luke Stewart bass groove and an invigorating rhythmic energy that carries over even into the patient, slow-building haze of “Keys to Creation.” As a whole the record feels at once like a smooth-seamed suite of continuous collective imagination (it was recorded in a single day back in January) and like a jewel-studded “best of” compilation due to each cut’s heaping helping of memorable moments—Aquiles Navarro’s vivid trumpet that lays the groundwork for centerpiece “Water Meditation,” for example, or Tcheser Holmes’s fluid groove-trades with both Ayewa and Stewart on “Storm Came Twice.” Consistently awe-inspiring, mind-warming, and life-affirming.
Georgia (Rodent Tapes, Oct 6)
One of the first albums I discovered when I was just beginning to learn all the things music could be was Bugskull’s Phantasies and Senseitions, a scuzzy outsider lo-fi classic that puts on display both the uncanniness and the comfort that “poor” recording quality can frame so fittingly. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has ever come so close to evoking the same unsayable things as Georgia does. The Toronto duo’s eponymous debut, despite being digital-only as far as I can tell, is pretty damn close to the same sort of obscurity that invariably complements this type of music; no one (not even me—yet—I’m ashamed to admit) has bought it on Bandcamp, the band itself is nigh-unGoogleable, and the label that put it out doesn’t seem to have much information to offer either. But the loose collection of thirteen tunes speaks for itself. “Ottawa” sets the stage with its ramshackle collage of bright, naïve guitar noodling and textural soup like the song of a small army of malfunctioning radios; “Souvenir” is a breathtaking bit of simple singer/songwriter drift complete with soothing dual-vocal coziness; and “Condensation” is a noisy, Pumice-esque mass of overblown beauty that’s nothing less than magic. It’s like being slowly wrapped in an impossibly soft, warm blanket with just enough scratchiness to remind you how soft and warm you are.
SZSZRZ – No Trees Were Harmed During the Process of Making These Recordings (self-released, Sep 3)
Few other musical works in 2021 are as profoundly calming as this first album from the Polish method-trio of Tomasz Pizio, Jędrzej Siwek, and Łukasz Suchy, an exercise in sonic subtlety that can serve as both reminder and soundtrack to stop, sit, and take more than just a few deep breaths every now and then. Comprising seven tracks of both raw and processed/arranged recordings of creaking branches, No Trees Were Harmed During the Process of Making These Recordings focuses on the familiar yet captivating ambience of the serene outdoors, and it seems to me that the roles of at least the just-creakers (Pizio for numbers one, two, and three; Suchy for four and five) being essentially equivalent to breeze-assisting acolytes is no accident; this music is about simultaneously inserting and removing ourselves, appreciating the natural rhythm, sway, and stasis that surround us while acknowledging and fulfilling our limited place within it all. In this way, Siwek’s “Reworks” are simply another level or plane of reserved interaction, an auditory realization of the invisible but beautiful connections we frequently take for granted.
Lifelost – Punitive Damnation (Onism Productions, Dec 10)
The year’s best black metal release took its sweet time revealing itself, but we were finally given the gruesome gift of Lifelost’s second record Punitive Damnation earlier this month, and it was worth every second of the wait. I hadn’t heard the first declaration from this solo project by Spanish multi-instrumentalist Phlegeton, 2018’s Dialogues from Beyond, before I discovered this one, but either is certainly a sufficiently harrowing introduction to the bleak, twisted world conjured up by the astral auteur’s equally bleak, twisted mind, a world “where time, words and human hierarchies lack meaning, where a supernatural pain underlies as punishment.” Pain (more like agony), despair (more like desolation), fear (more like terror), and god knows what else are all innate to these oppressive, labyrinthine assaults; breakneck blasts burst into supercharged sludge-doom like rotting-planet supernovas, plodding gallops wrapped in pitch-black noise both hypnotize and pummel, the barest hints of some semblance of triumph emerge at the farthest edges of anguish. Actually wait, no, that was just your brain finally granting you the small mercy of shutting itself down.