In retrospect, 2021 was hard. I mean, I knew it was hard when it was happening, but looking back it has become clear just how difficult I found it. I don’t want to separate myself off as some kind of special case, obviously – I know there can’t be many in the world who’d volunteer with any enthusiasm for the chance to live it all again, but, y’know, I’m writing this so what else do you want me to say? A combination of wearying Long Covid symptoms; the ongoing nightmare that was my day job (thankfully since dispensed with after twelve increasingly unpleasant years); the often overwhelming responsibility that bringing a family up brings; and the resultant decline in my mental health as it all ground on inexorably meant time to listen to music (let alone enjoy any of it) was extremely hard to come by. And of course that too – the feeling I wasn’t achieving with the site anything like what I’d set out to do – that was just another sharp stick to the side of what felt like dying embers.
It’s reflected below, all of it. It’s there in my mainstream choices (relatively speaking), demonstrating an exhaustion that stopped me delving far beyond the surface; it’s clear in the tone of what I picked, from the screaming fury of The Body’s latest onslaught to the everlasting darkness of Midwife’s pavor nocturnus; and it shows in artists like Grouper and Daniel Bachman that when in need we instinctively reach for what comforts us.
So that’s enough whinging. 2022 is already off to a better start – I have a new job, my senses of smell and taste are slowly reappearing after almost 18 months, and I have a new house with a fantastic garden in which my whole family is incredibly happy. Things are looking up! But before I get too carried away with hysterical glee… let’s look back. Here, in no particular order, are my favourite albums from 2021.
The Body, “I’ve Seen All I Need To See”(Thrill Jockey)
To me The Body are one of the most consistently brilliant bands going, so any year they have an album out is going to practically guarantee them a place on this list. In truth, the first time I heard I’ve Seen All I Need To See I was underwhelmed, but it should stand for something that a release I thought was slightly-less-than-outstanding for the best part of a year is still near the forefront of my mind. Time has passed, of course, and today I consider it perhaps their best work to date: I’ve Seen All I Need To See is a thrilling distillation of The Body’s established sound, eschewing the curious sampled flourishes that simultaneously elevated and dated I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer and stripping right back to the unreasonably powerful noise of two gentleman playing their instruments and screaming as loud as they possibly can. The album is relatively light on collaboration, too, which marks a departure for a band whose many releases with Thou, Uniform, Full of Hell et al pepper the last decade, and who regularly bring guest vocalists onboard for The Body albums proper (they’re responsible for introducing me to the next artist on my list). Although I’ve Seen All I Need To See is by far the most accessible release the band has yet issued, it powerfully encapsulates their unique sound, reigns in the repetition that could occasionally sludge up their earliest releases and hits with a purity of force like no other album I heard last year.
Lingua Ignota, “Sinner Get Ready” (Sargent House)
Kristin Hayter had already endured more than most of us could handle in several lifetimes by the time she revealed last month that Daughters’ Alexis Marshall had sexually and physically abused her over the course of a two-year relationship (Marshall refutes the allegations), so the fact she is capable of continually releasing such outstanding works of art is testament to her magnificent resilience and bravery. Where CALIGULA screamed for Satan’s support, Sinner Get Ready evokes the darkest corners of fervid Christianity, dispensing with the eviscerating electronics that tore through the prior album’s vocal violence and replacing them with a haunting sense of creeping menace in the shape of traditional Appalachian instruments such as animal skin drums, zithers, penny whistles and banjos. It’s Mountain Gothic, made where snakes are taken up, tongues are spoken and hellfire flows dangerously close to the surface, as ferociously obsidian in its take down of pious venality as Old Nick could ever wish to muster.
Midwife, “Luminol” (The Flenser)
A slow, repetitive anxiety dream whispered through thick clouds of humming distortion, Midwife’s unnervingly intimate third album summed up the year for me like no other. Although “Enemy” and “God is a Cop” offered perhaps the bleakest psychological insights, it was “2020” that hit closest to home, reflecting on the first year of the pandemic with its refrain of “it feels like / heaven is so far away” drifting over building waves of shrieking guitar with disarming ease*. Midwife plays the ghost at all our tables, blowing on our spines as we laugh off the day and slope dumbly into the next, pushing as hard as we can against the dark thoughts only she has the strength to vocalise. And don’t underestimate that strength: for all the vulnerability in her lyrics (“how much more death can one person take?” she asks in “Colorado” before admitting, “no, I’m not OK”), these 6 racking confessionals must have taken a huge amount of courage to pen and put on tape. Her bravest move comes within the album’s closing moments. For “Christina’s World” she positions herself inside the titular painting, dragging herself uphill and, at odds with both the recognised interpretation of Wyeth’s picture and her own self-flagellation, finally asking for someone to haul her out of the darkness. “Show me the way,” she repeats. “Show me the way.”
Prolaps, “Ultra-Cycle Pt. 1: Vernal Birth / Ultra-Cycle Pt. 2: Estival Growth / Ultra-Cycle Pt. 3: Autumnal Age / Ultra-Cycle Pt. 4: Hibernal Death” (Hausu Mountain)
I don’t think anyone truly knows what the hell Prolaps do or how to classify them beyond “fucking amazing” but in the end I thought it futile to choose between their 4 releases for Hausu Mountain last year. Is it noise? Is it rave? Is it drum ‘n’ bass? Is it gabber? Is it techno? Is it… is this black metal? Well, it’s actually all of those things and way more, usually all at the same time. Every individual instalment is enormous in depth, scope and imagination; taken as a whole, I believe it to be a genuinely important work pretty much unmatched in it’s fevered field since the early days of R&S and Warp, with the particular touchstones being the aural onslaught of Classics-era Aphex, the heaviest-hitting Speedy J brain-tweakers, and the most unsettling ambient strains of Boards of Canada. But to reduce such an enormous work to base comparisons is to do it a serious disservice: the Ultra-Cycle series stands alone as a complete masterpiece. The beats are massive, frenetic and unforgiving, the surrounding scenery violent and claustrophobic, and the vocal samples (particularly on Hibernal Death) absolutely throat-ripping. You will have a headache after you’ve listened to any of these albums for a few minutes, and you’ll probably be highly agitated too, but you’ll also be smiling your arse off and nodding your head uncontrollably. Seminal.
Bummer, “Dead Horse” (Thrill Jockey)
Mysteriously overlooked by so many, Dead Horse was probably the most flat-out entertaining album I heard this year. Undoubtedly indebted to Mclusky (and by extension The Jesus Lizard, Big Black et al), it’s not the most refined or adventurous thing on my list by a long shot but the disillusioned dick-punchers in Bummer sure as shit know how to turn unbridled nihilism into a grand old time. Dead Horse screams apace from start to finish, never really changing style or tone until it reaches “Magic Cruel Bus” – for all intents the Kansas City band’s attempt at a “pop” song – but when you hit on a winning formula, why change? Listened front-to-back as loud as it’ll go it’s an obnoxious riot, which was exactly what I needed on the reg last year.
The Reds, Pinks & Purples, “Uncommon Weather” (Tough Love Records)
It took a couple of months for this one to hit me, which makes sense when you see it was an April release and the music within is of the unashamedly fresh and summery kind best enjoyed with your head out of the car window as you escape through Californian expanses on a head-clearing post-break-up road trip. For all the sleepy yearning in Glenn Donaldson’s lyrics and his wistful, breathy croon, there is something so life-affirming in the purity of his art: who else could deliver a chorus like that of “Sing Red Roses For Me” without sounding like a hopeless sap, for example? Instead, you believe wholeheartedly in Donaldson’s songwriting. Brittle melodies jangle through gentle washes of fuzz and hiss, flashing like light caught in the misty Bay Area waves before crumbling back below the surface and, although individual tracks float by like a refreshing breeze, there’s a characteristic wryness to Donaldson’s outlook that grounds any threat of cloying sentimentality. Recorded at a kitchen table, it still manages to hit radio pop heights: an outlier in my listening last year, that’s for sure, but I just kept coming back to it. Oh, and the new album is already here.
Daniel Bachman, “Axacan” (Three Lobed Recordings)
There’s always been a sense of homeliness to Bachman’s work, a kind of kitchen sink, back porch intimacy that is amplified by the fact his live performances often come from small or down-home spaces: living rooms, reading rooms, porches and firesides where people and their pets can come and go freely, the music simply becoming a vital element in the atmosphere as opposed to something that demands rapt focus. As mesmerising as Bachman’s fingers are, the times I’ve had the privilege to experience his presence have been notable for the audience’s preternatural tendency to either close its collective eyes or gaze dreamily at the surroundings, not out of disrespect for a master at work but because his music demands that kind of deep contemplation. In recent years, Bachman has taken several left-turns, sometimes dispensing with the fingerpicking altogether in favour of deep, meditative field recordings and drones. His latest, Axacan, is his darkest yet, but no less redolent of home for it: whereas earlier albums, such as his Tompkins Square breakthrough Seven Pines, describe spiritual experiences upon a return to home comforts, Axacan in particularly seems cowed to even leave the stoop. But this is a different kind of home. Perhaps due to the looming darkness that has threatened to engulf the planet this past few years, Bachman’s worldview is no longer one of wide-eyed wonder but of gnashing anxiety. The title itself refers to an early Virginian settlement lost (like so many others) to bloody violence, and tracks are accordingly titled to reflect both the grim history of Bachman’s local area and his own current concerns. It is a spellbinding album, full of location-specific field recordings as well as incidental interventions like the car engine being sparked in “Ferry Farm.” “Blues in the Anthropocene” encapsulates the atmosphere right from the off: even as Bachman’s beautiful guitar rings out clearly, clouds of fizzing insects close in all around. In a year we all were afraid of going outside, Bachman saw the umbra dance in his own backyard.
Grouper, “Shade” (Kranky)
Another artist for whom release = inclusion on any “best of” list I make, Liz Harris nevertheless appealed to my longing for a return to her lo-fi roots with Shade, which reopened dusty treasure chests containing music from way back in the Way Their Crept and Wide days and layered them with more polished productions from recent years. Despite the years and many releases separating songs here, the album flows beautifully, casting light on a surprisingly clear path through Grouper’s extensive catalogue. Guitar-led folk songs like “The way her hair falls” progress haltingly, replacing the familiar grit and hiss of “Disordered Minds” and “Followed the ocean” with false starts and sections of nervous silence, thus binding the project in its own gorgeous imperfections.
Larry Wish, “Sometimes I Kimberly Myself” (Bumpy)
Originally recorded almost a decade ago, and featuring at least one song that’s cropped up on other Larry Wish releases in the interim, Sometimes I Kimberley Myself nevertheless represents what Wish himself admits is the “best bedroom prog album” he’s ever put together. It followed Stardust & Hurt, his excellent EP of country covers (Wish likes a cover – his take on “Laura Palmer’s Theme” is perhaps my favourite version of the composition), which wore full-sleeve the giddy, almost childish, sense of tenderness and romance you can even find in some of the daftest tracks in Wish’s lengthy catalogue. For all his quirks, bastardisations and hilarious titles, what strikes me most about all of Wish’s art is the amount of pleasure he seems to get from creating it and the unfiltered joy that sharing it provides him with. His voice weaves in and out of the saturated sonic scenery like a backstage phantom trying to make you jump (his singing voice is something like a cross between Howling Mad Murdock and Brian Eno – deep, wavy and slightly zany) if only the scenery itself would stop changing for a second.
Instituto Bangara-Rossa Internacional, “An Introduction to Bangara-Rossa” (Strategic Tape Reserve)
By far the most puzzling release in Strategic Tape Reserve’s new Learning by Listening series of “instructional” tapes so far, and for that reason the most interesting, this intro to a purportedly widely-played card game is in fact good ol’ Simon Proffitt up to his old tricks. So witness the unlikely sound of a Welsh chap explaining rather drily the rules to a game of uncertain origin that is still supposedly popular in Monte Carlo and Jaipur over a series of brief, twinkly synth pieces. That is until we get to “The Wound Phase,” or the game itself, for which everything but an eerie drone drops out and the narrator begins to explain the format of play in terms that make it sound quite violent (and completely nonsensical). The result is something like an extended Blue Jam sketch and, as far as actually learning anything goes, it’s completely useless – “phases” repeat over and loop back upon themselves, dispensing players as they go. The longest track on the tape, “The Burial Phase,” in which the closing moves of the game are described (and players receive “fatal wounds”) is one of the most confusing things I’ve ever heard. “Good luck” exclaims the narrator at the close, an audible smile on his face.
Spirit Skinned, “Spirit Skinned” (Edelfaul Recordings)
This incendiary combination of noise, hardcore and grime makes for a fittingly volatile sonic reflection of the artists’ base of Tel Aviv, as described in my original review. It hasn’t grown any less powerful with time, either, with Spirit Skinned in my mind taking their place as 2021’s Duma for sheer force and fury. At its harshest, such as the squealing “The Root,” lead man Ben Ronen yelps and barks like he could rive his own throat out in indignation, whereas on the ritual “Hatuli” he comes across like Clay Ruby got possessed by a witch doctor. Coincidentally – and I’ve only just realised this as I write – the pulsating “Leaving Room” is actually a cover of Grouper’s “Living Room.”
Dead Neanderthals & Aaron B. Turner, “Corporeal Flux” (Self Released)
Released when most other publications’ year-end lists were long-since filed and published, this crushing collaboration between the mighty Dead Neanderthals and ever-living metal doyen Aaron B. Turner shows it’s always worthwhile hanging on. A New Year’s Eve gift (something of a Dead Neanderthals tradition), this long and fearsome blast of pummelling black metal waves a fittingly gruesome goodbye to the unbridled hell that was 2021.
Angel Olsen, “Aisles” (Jagjaguwar)
Obligatory. I’d include her even if she hadn’t released anything.
* Slightly embarrassing admission, here, several months after writing the above list. I’ve just been on a weird Offspring-related nostalgia trip (sounded great, actually) and realised that Midwife takes the refrain from “2020” from the Ixnay on the Hombre track “Gone Away.” Don’t know how I missed it, because that album was a big one for me and my mates in school.