What’s there to say about 2021? It was the year we were supposed to get back to “normal,” only for us to realize that “normal” might never look like it used to ever again.
We still see folks double down on fear, ignorance, and selfishness in response to a global pandemic that has claimed over 800,000 American lives. We’re still dealing with the fallout of an insurrection that tried to overthrow our democracy at the behest of a narcissist who would probably be OK with an entire country burning to the ground if that protected his fragile ego.
Our nation refuses to make any sensible decisions even after school kids are killed in cold blood. People who love to call others “snowflakes” want to ban books because they’re terrified that their kids might learn that our nation’s history isn’t as triumphant or wholesome as they’d like it to be. Meanwhile, the ultra-rich keep on getting richer while the rest of us hang on as best we can.
That’s a downer of an opening. But I’ve always been a pessimist, and let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of crap happening right now.
For me, music provides, if not an escape, then a method for coping with, and making sense of, the ever-encroaching madness and darkness by offering glimpses of truth and beauty that help put things back into a proper perspective. Some of these songs were joyous, some were contemplative and pensive, and some were filled with rage. Whatever the case, they all provided me with much-needed comfort over the last 12 months — and I’m sure that I’ll continue returning to them in the months and years to come.
Johan Agebjörn is probably best known for his work with italo disco chanteuse Sally Shapiro (who also released some new music in 2021). His work on Artefact, a collaboration with Mikael Ögren, bears some similarities to that work, namely in the shining, immaculately polished synth work. However, as befitting its title, “Space Travel” isn’t meant for the dance floor. That would be too limiting. Rather, this is cosmically minded dance music, the sort of music you listen to on headphones while staring up at the night sky, and imagining yourself soaring past nebulae and other cosmic phenomena at the speed of light.
Daygraves originally had a very different direction in mind for the Imperishable EP. But when he fell ill and was left bedridden throughout the summer, he decided to make an EP about, in his words, “what it’s like to be a person of faith that has a chronic illness.” The result is a blackgaze juggernaut. Yes, “Less Human” has all of the unearthly screams, punishing beats, and searing guitar riffs that you’d expect from the genre, but its emotional heft and pensive lyrics — borne out of real personal struggle — makes them all the more impactful.
And speaking of blackgaze, Deafheaven — one of the genre’s earliest popularizers — returned with a new album that actually saw them downplay the black metal aspects of their sound. The result might be the most straightforward and accessible music in the band’s catalog, but as “Great Mass of Color” makes plain to see, it’s no less beautiful for that. Indeed, I daresay it’s so good precisely because it’s accessible without sacrificing any of the band’s intensity.
Johan Levin has been crafting compelling dark ambient music for over two decades now under the Desiderii Marginis moniker, and his latest, Bathe in Black Light, certainly stands as one of his finest efforts. “Night Grasping at Day” is the album’s opening track, and immediately sets the stage with its desolate drones and haunting mood. Listening to Levin’s soundscapes is like exploring a vast and stark wilderness dotted with ancient, ivy-covered ruins: ominous and otherworldly, sure, but also utterly enthralling.
With “Salome (Suffer Me),” the Parisian duo known as Echoberyl have crafted a near-perfect slice of coldwave. The song’s synth arpeggios are so sharp, they could be wielded in a back alley knife fight. The beats conjure up strobe-lit dance floors where wannabe ghouls and vampires sway the night away. And Cecilia Dassonneville’s vocals add the appropriate femme fatale touch; they’re cold as ice, and all the more sensuous for it.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear that an electronic producer is collaborating with a jazz legend and an orchestra, I get a little worried. That just seems like a little too much, y’know. But Promises — a collaboration between Floating Points, the London Symphony Orchestra, and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (who once played with John Coltrane) — proves me wrong, and I couldn’t be happier. Promises is an incredibly graceful album. On “Movement 6,” all of the album’s various elements, from the swelling strings to Sanders’ breathy, explosive saxophone, come together in a most sublime manner.
Chihei Hatakeyama recorded Void XXIII while living alone in a small apartment during Japan’s rainy season, and that sense of isolation and intimacy pervades his drone-oriented ambience. Recorded entirely with guitar (and no doubt a copious amount of effects), “Falling Asleep in the Rain I” feels like the sonic equivalent of drifting through rain-thick clouds: murky, chilling, and refreshing all at once. This is music to listen to when you want the rest of the world to fade away, until all that remains is you and the sound itself.
Heligoland works very closely with Robin Guthrie on their albums, and it’s easy to see why. The Cocteau Twins are an obvious influence, so why not work with the source? More importantly, though, Guthrie’s knack for sonic beauty is perfect for bringing out and accentuating the various details in the band’s music, e.g., Karen Vogt’s rich voice, the duo’s glassy guitars, and their melodramatic atmospherics.
Natalie Jane Hill’s acoustic guitar picking and rustic voice immediately make you feel like you’re wandering about some ancient Appalachian forest trail, surrounded by trees that were ancient when your grandparents were newborn babes. Hill’s music is surreal yet comforting, and her poetic lyrics (e.g., “I know of a comfort in the delicate threads/Entangled in limbs just over my head”) speak to finding comfort, solace, and wonder in the patterns and rhythms of nature.
Hong Kong Express has been one of the leading lights in the vaporwave scene, thanks to his own music and running the Dream Catalogue label. But on L.Y.F, he leaves behind the genre’s reliance on nostalgic cut-ups of city pop and muzak to craft something darker and more cinematic. As befitting its title, “When the City Is Dreaming“ ‘s eerie atmospherics place the listener in the rain-soaked streets and alleys of a cyberpunk city — be it Blade Runner’s Los Angeles or Ghost in the Shell’s New Port City — where mystery and danger lurk behind every corner.
When vocalist Heike Langhans left ISON, the band’s sole remaining member, instrumentalist Daniel Änghede, decided for forge ahead with a new album. But instead of simply replacing Langhans, he collaborated with a number of female vocalists from the metal and goth scenes. “Celestial” features the expressive voice of Aeonian Sorrow’s Gogo Melone, and it pairs wonderfully with Änghede’s epic, cosmically oriented blend of metal, shoegaze, post-rock, and electronics.
The title of Illuvia’s 2021 album — Iridescence of Clouds — is actually a much more accurate indicator of its sound than any genre tag. Technically, you could file Ludvig Cimbrelius’ music under “drum n’ bass” or “jungle,” but he blends his breakbeats with lush ambient textures that are by turns meditative and melancholy. “Veil of Mist” is a perfect example of this; the song’s dubby beats echo for miles while waves of ethereal synths drift by like clouds across a sky of deepest blue.
2021 was a banner year for Velvet Blue Music, thanks to new releases from stalwarts like Starflyer 59 and Ronnie Martin as well as newcomers like Isla Visible, who kicked off the label’s year with their second EP. The New York trio create dreamy pop music in a vein similar to The Sundays, highlighted by pinwheeling guitars and Rebecca Adorno’s effortless voice, and “Estranged” shows them at the height of their powers.
After years of releasing critically acclaimed albums, 2021 was the year Japanese Breakfast broke big. How big, you ask? Their latest album, Jubilee, received a Grammy nomination for “Best Alternative Music Album” alongside the likes of Fleet Foxes and St. Vincent. And one listen to “Be Sweet” proves why. It’s a perfectly joyous-yet-reflective pop song buoyed by a funky bassline and Michelle Zauner’s yearning vocals. Oh, and the song’s X-Files-inspired video is the pièce de résistance.
A spellbinding chill pervades the electro-darkwave of Iceland’s Kælan Mikla. From the forlorn flute melody drifting over the band’s icy synth arpeggios, to Laufey Soffía Þórsdóttir’s haunting vocals, “Stormurinn” conjures up nocturnal journeys across the gorgeous Icelandic countryside while the Northern Lights shift and flicker high overhead.
This year’s HEY WHAT found Low continuing on with the same beautiful deconstruction of their vaunted “slowcore” sound that began with 2018’s Double Negative. “Deconstruction” is a scary word, but in Low’s case, they manage to rip apart their sound with slabs of ugly, distorted noise while still distilling the beauty at the heart of their music. The first part of “Hey” is all bruised and rumbling electronics that threaten to overwhelm the duo’s vocals. Once the rubble has been cleared away, however, Mimi Parker’s gorgeous voice is left free to drift unencumbered amidst heavenly ambience.
When you think of Lycia, there are certain words that automatically come to mind, like “gloomy” and “spectral.” But probably not, say, “groovy” or “catchy.” And yet, here we have “Galatea,” easily one of the most accessible songs in the band’s estimable catalog. The usual Lycia-isms are there (e.g., Mike VanPortfleet’s sinister whisper) but they’re wedded to crystalline melodies and snappy beats guaranteed to get even the oldest, moodiest goths swaying to and fro out on the dance floor.
The synth-pop maestro returns with his first new music in years, and released under his own name (as opposed to, say, Joy Electric). To be honest, I hesitate using terms like “synth-pop” here, lest you think this is a mere ’80s throwback. The truth is, this song could’ve been recorded in 1984 or 2284. It would sound just as timeless, regardless of era.
The enigmatic ambient composer known only as oliviaway is nothing if not prolific; they put out around 50 releases in 2021 alone. Oliviaway’s releases are all cut from the same sonic cloth, i.e., blurred out synths conjuring up half-heard melodies overflowing with sadness and nostalgia. But a few releases manage to stick out from the rest, and Thunderous Heights is one of them. On the title track, the composer’s tried and true aesthetic manages to tap into still-deeper wells of emotion that resonate more strongly with the listener. As is the case with the aforementioned Chihei Hatakeyama, this is music for making the rest of the world fade away.
Confession time: Aisles is the first Angel Olsen release that I’ve really checked out, and it’s an ’80s covers album to boot. But Olsen’s covers are absolutely spot on, especially her take on Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” I’ve always loved the original, a surprisingly pensive ballad from the sneering rocker. Olsen ups the synth quotient for her take, making the song even more atmospheric and otherworldly, while her voice rings with the requisite regret. In other words, a perfect cover that makes the song Olsen’s own while still remaining faithful to the spirit of the original.
Opus Science Collective’s Yume No Machi is a celebration of all things “city pop,” that genre of slick, ultra-produced pop that emerged from Japan in the early ’80s and has experienced a cultural renaissance in recent years. On “Tōchaku,” OSC absolutely nails the genre’s effervescent sound, with glassy synth melodies, a funky bassline, and a pensive undercurrent that imbues the music with some surprising poignancy. My only complaint: I keep expecting to hear Toshiki Kadomatsu or Tatsuro Yamashita make a guest appearance. Maybe on the next album…
With their languid, tropicalia-influenced psych-pop — think Broadcast or Stereolab, but on a warm, sunny beach — Pearl & the Oysters conjure up an alternate version of Florida. One where it’s certainly sunny and pleasant all the time, and you spend your days lounging on the beach with a cool drink in your hand. But lurking just below the sunny textures lies an otherworldliness not unlike what you hear from the Ghost Box label, albeit with a sunnier disposition.
They might hail from Kansas City, but on a song like “Astral Body 2 Body,” Redder Moon channel sleek, synth-driven Euro pop that suggest some place far more glamorous, like Berlin or Paris. Jill McKeever coolly asks the listener “Don’t you wanna be right?” while her bandmates concoct a slick blend of snappy rhythms and serpentine synthesizer melodies that remains as catchy as the first time I heard it.
The short musical vignettes on Nick Schofield’s Glass Gallery were inspired by the interplay of light and space in Ottaway’s National Gallery. Not surprisingly, a song like “Mirror Image” is airy and elegant, its shifting tones and atmospherics suggesting shadows dancing over abstract sculptures like Ulysse Comtois’ Column, or a time-lapse video of the sunlight dappling the gallery’s floors. Composed entirely on a vintage Prophet-600 synthesizer (presumably carved out of solid glass, if these tones are any indication), “Mirror Image” is certainly abstract — but also playful, contemplative, and beguiling.
Trance to the Moon is the latest ethereal/dreampop/darkwave project from guitarist Ashkelon Sain, this time with vocalist Monet Alarie. Alarie’s powerhouse of a voice is a perfect counterpart for Sain’s evocative guitar-work and production. This alchemical pairing really shines on the darkly churning “Antarctic Twilight III.” Sain’s instrumentation goes all Cure-y while Alarie’s voice soars high overhead in an operatic style reminiscent of Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. The result sends shivers down one’s spine.
I previously included this song in my “Favorite Songs of 2014″ list, but seeing as how Hugo Manuel officially released his Turks & Caicos debut in 2021, I’m just going to go ahead and include it again. (Call it editorial privilege.) And if you listen to it, I don’t think you’ll blame me. Manuel’s production is equal parts lush and funky, and taps into an irresistible Balearic groove. The song’s various samples — Freddie Jackson, Stevie Wonder, The Gap Band, and most importantly, Marvin Gaye — only sweeten the deal. There was period this past summer when I was pretty sure that “Nice and Slow” was my favorite song of the year, again.
Earlier this year, the fourth and final Evangelion movie was released, completing Hideaki Anno’s efforts to update and relaunch his classic ’90s anime for a new generation (read my review). “One Last Kiss” closes out the final movie in a triumphant manner — which, if you know anything about Evangelion, is a big deal. But even if you know nothing about Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley Soryu, et al., there’s no denying that Hikaru Utada’s single is a J-pop banger of the finest sort.
Post-rock continually seems like a played out genre to me. Even the old guard (Godspeed, Mogwai) fails to excite me as much as they once did on albums like Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and Rock Action. But thankfully, there’s always someone else to breathe some life into the genre. Which brings us to France’s Year of No Light. On paper, “Alètheia” possesses the same slow-burning intensity that one expects from instrumental post-rock, but Year of No Light brings a sense of foreboding to the proceedings that makes the eventual — or inevitable, if you will — climax of roaring guitars and pummeling drums all the more satisfying and cathartic.
Note: I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that contains most of these songs. (Some of the artists in my year-end mix have not made their music available on Spotify.)