For our first look back at the best music from 2021, Diego found himself so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of incredible records he couldn’t do anything else but put together an enormous non-stop mix of choice tracks to accompany his twenty-one album run-down.
Taking in everything from UK black metal, South African dance music, solo violin and acoustic innovators, to dirty Colombian punk, glitzy space rock, murderous modems and, er… sewing machines, this epic collection of last year’s finest music is going to take you all over the map geographically, sonically and probably bodily (fairly certain shapes of some kind will be thrown during El Dragon Criollo, at least). The mix is right there below so you can listen as you read, but feel free to close your eyes and zone the fuck out to Andromelos2 or thrash around the room to Thirdface if it gives you a choice.
Better get on with it actually, because this is a lot to get through..
DJ Black Low, “Uwami” (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
This one is just banger after banger after banger after banger after etc.
Track choice: “Vule Vala”
El Dragon Criollo, “Pase lo que pase” (El Palmas Music)
Two different translations of the album’s title offer a synthesised understanding of Paul Olarte Toro’s haunting, mellow cumbia – the Colombian producer’s page says “Whatever Happens, Happens” though it could just as easily apply to a more foreboding phrase in English: “Come what may.” So which is it, a lackadaisical shrug to the fickle whims of fate or the courageous shake of one’s fist before the storm? Naturally, you’re bound to approach it with your own balance of these moods, and your cumbia two-step will have some degree of shrugging and/or shaking. And for this past year, I can’t think of a better dance than a staggering oscillation between surrender and redoubt.
Track choice: “Mientras unos mueren”
Simona Zamboli, “Ethernity” (Mille Plateaux)
Lush and spacious yet austere and laconic. Zamboli only needs a few choice elements – a microscopic piano loop here, a distorted hi-hat there – which she drops into a cavernous resonant chamber to discover intelligent patterns on their own. Each harmonic and rhythmic element gradually grows from primordial sludge on the walls of her sonic caves until they emerge as swarms of insects that float out into the sky.
Track choice: “Let it drain from your all”
Pan Daijing, “Jade” (PAN)
Upon hearing her voice for the first time, a drummer I know said Pan Daijing’s latest sounds “like a demon [who] chained Aphex Twin and Throbbing Gristle down in a dungeon and tortured them to death while forcing them to compose an opera.” I would only slightly amend that by adding that the album sounds very much full of life, not in spite of but enhanced by its funereal moments.
Track choice: “Dust”
Headboggle, “Digital Digital Analog” (Ratskin Records)
I thought I should follow that up with one of the goofiest and most upbeat albums I’ve ever heard, which I argue is best represented by the immaculately cheerful “Skywriter.” Headboggle’s inimitable flair for 70’s krautrock synth jams and ragtime piano will turn anyone’s 2021 frown upside down.
Track choice: “Skywriter”
Yasmin Williams, “Urban Driftwood” (SPINSTER)
Virginia-based Yasmin Williams is easily one of the most innovative guitarists of this century so far. In terms of sheer technical mastery, there are countless death metal luthiers wanking on microtonal nine-string guitars and whatnot, but rather than indulging in flashy maximalism, Williams is just reinventing the good old six-string acoustic guitar into a fount of incomparable beauty. Using fairly simple techniques like two-handed tapping, playing the kalimba thumb piano on top of it, wearing tapdancing shoes, or just treating the guitar like a hammered dulcimer, Williams makes the instrument blossom into a whole orchard of musical wildflowers, a veritable bluegrass orchestra of the future. Even if Jordan Tice were to jam with Animals As Leaders in your living room, you still couldn’t imagine the unexplored galaxies opened up on this extraordinary record.
Track choice: “Jarabi”
Cynic, “Ascension Codes” (Season of Mist)
Cynic has been around so long as pioneers of progressive metal that lately they’ve been evolving with the influence of younger generations of bands who followed them. While Paul Masvidal’s soulful robot-crooning still sounds as ethereal as in 1994, the metal riffs and jazz-fusion complexities take on a tighter, funkier edge thanks to new synth-bassist Dave Mackay. With tasty nuggets of drum & bass and electro grooves sprinkled throughout a dense space-metal devotional album, singing cryptic praises of alien computer deities who design the codes of the universe, there are enough forward-looking hints to make us hungry for the rest of their path-breaking legacy.
Track choice: “Diamond Light Body”
Andromelos2, “Electric Reincarnation” (Self Released)
A new side-project by Acid Mothers Temple’s chief axe-slayer Kawabata Makoto, the Andromelos2 trio manages to sound even more “space-rock” than anything the Mothers have produced, by virtue of more ambitious synthesizer/theremin soundscapes. These infinitely long jams are the kind of stuff that 70s krautrock bands like Guru Guru and Heldon were trying to make, but didn’t quite yet have good enough technology or drugs to fully realize. The wait for our astral ascension is finally over.
Track choice: “Space Prisoner 305”
William Parker, “Mayan Space Station” (AUM Fidelity)
Speaking of space, jazz bassist William Parker’s new trio with guitarist Ava Mendoza and drummer Gerald Cleaver launches into some far-out galaxies while being rooted firmly in a recognisably human jazz tradition. A pinch of Mingus, a simmering of Sonny Sharrock, an infusion of Terje Rypdal and you’re cooking in some familiar lipids and aromas.
Track choice: “Rocas Rojas”
White People Killed Them, “White People Killed Them” (SIGE Records)
The trio of Raven Chacon (synth), Marshall Trammel (drums), and John Dietrich (guitar) is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts – an unbelievable whirlwind of noise, tension, and ecstasy. Driven by the unstoppable pulse of Trammel’s meter-less percussion symphonies, the guitar and synthesizer elaborate the foreground of a decolonising, pre-linguistic improv dialogue that inverts cause and effect, stretching time and sensation to their conceptual breaking points. It’s fucking wild.
Track choice: Side B (but Side A is also really good)
Victory Over The Sun, “Nowherer” (Self Released)
Guitar innovation was the name of the game in 2021, and no genre was left unscathed. The solo black metal project Victory Over the Sun dropped an entire album composed with a homemade guitar, custom-fretted to fit 17 equal divisions of the octave. Where fingerstyle virtuosos like Yasmin Williams are turning guitars upside down, Portland-based Vivian Tylinska is just slicing the instrument up into an entirely different monster. With harmonic divisions completely unfamiliar to our puny mortal brains, the riffs on this album feel like they’re emanating from the bowels of a demonic alternate dimension, carving up your human flesh with non-Euclidean sonic blades.
Track choice: “Nowherer”
Unidad Ideológica, “Unidad Ideológica” (La Vida Es Un Mus)
Colombia has a long history of vicious hardcore punk, but this new Bogota outfit is informed just as much by the global underground. There’s blistering d-beat clearly influenced as much by Japanese bands as by Finns and Brits, but the urgency and desperate screams are informed by and directed toward… well, just this whole shit world in general, yeah?
Track choice: “Tiempo Salvaje”
Thirdface, “Do It With A Smile” (Convulse Records)
Meanwhile in Nashville, this quartet dropped one of the most jaw-dropping hardcore punk albums these trembling ears have yet endured. With whiplashing tempo changes and driving basslines reminiscent of Die Kreuzen on fast-forward, I predict some brutal moshpits coming soon to a basement near you, herd immunity permitting.
Track choice: “Legendary Suffering”
PlasticBag Facemask / Mazakari, “PlasticBag Facemask x Mazakari” (Sad Goblin)
A meeting of the minds between a math-grind-metalcore duo from Fresno, California and a, um… roughly the same thing but by one guy with a drum machine from Lincoln, UK – how could I not indulge? Each song has an absurd amount of riffs, screeches, and blastbeats, perfectly calibrated to piss off not just your elder relatives at Christmas dinner but the snobbish music scenesters who turn their nose up at anything with too many breakdowns, pig squeals, or other sounds that hint at too much fun. It’s a blast.
Track choice: Mazakari, “Endless Growth”
Gnod, “La Mort Du Sens” (Rocket Recordings)
We’ve covered this Manchester-based musical atrocity here before, so I’ll just add that their latest is maybe the heaviest, darkest shit they’ve released so far.
Track choice: “Great Town”
gabby fluke-mogul, “threshold” (Relative Pitch Records)
Here’s a solo violin record that screams and scrapes at the firmaments of music itself until all the conceptual underpinnings of sound come tumbling down. Don’t miss it.
Track Choice: “kairos”
Yotzeret Sheydim, “The Book of Secrets” (Doughgirl Tapes) Your dial-up modem is probably trying to kill you in your nightmares…
Track choice: “There Will Never Be Enough Distance”
PMNT | Chia Chun-Xu (Self Released)
A Brazilian and Taiwanese noise musician walk into a cassette…
Track choice: PMNT, “Blue & White”
Natalia Beylis, “Variations On A Sewing Machine” (Beartown Records)
It’s variations on a sewing machine, what more do you need to know?
Track choice: “No. 5”
Lawrence English, “Observation of Breath” (Hallow Ground)
They say meditation is the practice of death. If death feels at all like how Lawrence English’s ambient dirges sound, I feel pretty well prepared.
Track choice: “A Binding”
Ustad Saami, “East Pakistan Sky” (Glitterbeat Records)
Saami’s multilingual, microtonal prayers for inner and outer peace are slow, elegant, haunting and triumphant reaffirmations of universal harmony. Indeed he seems to be singing to something much deeper than language within us, at the lizard-brain level of saluting the divine within you and I, “I and I”—even, hopefully, a “we.”
Track choice: “Prayer for Peace”