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the year of 2021 (not music + music)
No homework here—we are trying to catch some fizz and get light. I suggest you put on my playlist of good songs from 2021 and scroll. Not everything here is music. For those who have time to go slowly, the final section is all lists.
In this fabulous summation of Joan Didion’s work, Parul Sehgal writes that Didion famously drank “Coca-Cola first thing in the mornings.” This reminded me of something that came up at the Christie’s auction of James Brown’s belongings. I went back to my 2008 report for The New Yorker and recovered the bit that haunts me:
It’s not the Daddy stuff—it’s the Corona beer, in the morning, on the outside furniture inside. Unshakable.
Sonance for the Precession, by Neil Leonard, is an electroacoustic composition he created to be played from the dome of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College. The piece, made of low saxophone breaths and sprinkly electronics, is apparently representative of the relationship between the harmonic series and the equinox, a connection I trust only because this music makes my living room tilt.
I will only add to the appropriately loud and happy L’Rain discourse that Fatigue hit me instantly. I think I said, “Ah, she went for it!” when it started playing. Check out my interview with Taja from a few months ago if you haven’t already. She is the real deal in the way that few ever are.
Last year, Chris Corsano sent drum parts to Bill Orcutt, who recorded two separate guitar tracks for each bit of drumming. The result was Made Out of Sound. In the liner notes, Orcutt writes, “I didn’t edit [the drum parts] at all. I overdubbed two guitar tracks, panned left/right. I’d listen to the drums a couple times, pick a tuning, then improvise a part, thinking of the first track as backing and the second as the ‘lead’, though those are pretty fluid terms. I was watching the waveforms as I was recording, so I could see when a crescendo was coming or when to bring it down.” This is a great way to use the constraints imposed by the pandemic as a prompt for new ways of listening and working. You cannot see the waveform in real-time improvisation, which is neither bad nor good. Corsano and Orcutt seem to bounce off each other, like feathers, reacting to the force between them, which is undimmed by physical distance.
Lucy Dacus writes lyrics the way Lucinda Williams does, counting every beat and making every line do the lifting of a whole song. The chorus of “VBS” acts like a bridge, changes meter conversationally, folds in on itself with each line, simultaneously raises and lowers the stakes, and was not bettered by any other chorus.
Tierra Whack’s TikTok account is like a one-woman sitcom. I love her rapping but I need her routines.
Eileen Myles taking Patti Smith to the woodshed on Instagram felt like being at the Holiday Lounge in 1983.
Try “American tterroristt” by RXKNephew, a rapper who cannot not say whatever comes into his mind. This song is almost ten minutes of conspiracy theories turned into small talk converted back into shit talk and then thrown out of a moving car.
Eiko Ishibashi has been on a tear with her solo work and came into larger view this year with the score for Drive My Car. Amidst all this, few noticed Live at Mandako in Kumamoto, performed with Jim O’Rourke. If you buy the Bandcamp version (recommended), you get a private link to video of O’Rourke and Ishibashi sitting at their laptops in an empty industrial space. For much of the time, Ishibashi also plays flute. The combination of pitched breath and agricultural hubbub and silvery feedback makes something like processional music for an adventurous despot, stately and distressed. This is a fully formed sound world.
Is this all taking too long? Maybe try the Google doc of 2021 events compiled by Paige Skinner. Six million ways to slice a year:
Jan. 2- bean dad
March 22- shooter kills 10 people in boulder
Feb. 8- gorilla glue responds to gorilla glue girl
Sept. 30- will you commit to ending finsta/ boars attacked shakira
Nov. 5- house passed infrastructure bill
Nov. 8- bari weiss college
Dec. 29- ghislaine maxwell guilty/ CDC satire tweets
Neil Young has lodged many different objections to the digital rendering of music. His dissatisfaction led to the Pono project, a high-end digital music device that lasted in the market for roughly two years. That was a learning experience, it turns out, because now he’s come up with a fantastic streaming archive that makes use of the advantages digital formats offer. $20 a year is way low, considering that the streaming quality is better than average and you get access to everything Young has ever recorded. (If there are exceptions, I haven’t found them.) You can spin the skeumorphic file cabinet all the way back to 1963 or start with the 2021 release Barn. (Here is my review of that album.) “Country Girl,” from 1969, by CSN&Y? Completely forgot that one. The unreleased “Pushed It Over The End,” from 1974? Wow. The interface isn’t smooth and for some reason you can’t shuffle the entire catalog, but this is such a pleasure to get lost in.
My favorite interview moment happened on the computadora. When I reached Maxine Funke by email and asked if she would be OK with an interview, she said yes—if I paid her $16.25 an hour. Legend! If you like people like Sybille Baier and Nick Drake, you need to get with her latest album, Seance. Fantastically simple and strong.
My favorite interview that had nothing to do with me is Alan Licht’s Invisible Jukebox with Greg Tate, conducted in January of 2004. It’s wide-ranging, loose and dense. If you don’t know Tate, start here. If you do know his work, enjoy.
My favorite quiet album, other than Seance, was Moreno Veloso’s Every Single Night. During the pandemic, Veloso sang songs to his kids every night, almost all of them other people’s songs. This album is just that, recorded straight to his laptop. Absolutely perfect.
I don’t know who Civilistjävel! is but I do know he’s roughly my age and makes spooky as hell music that’s a little tough to find. About a month ago, he made this screwed up murder spa choir mix for NTS and it’s sublime.
Dunk Murphy was part of Ambulance in the aughts and now releases electronic music as Minced Oath and Sunken Foal. (You can find the music at Countersunk.) We had a good Zoom chat this week. He told me the Minced Oath pieces start with drones, assembled tone by tone and then combined with one or two elements (often a Buchla synthesizer). The idea of building a sound from disparate parts came from how 10CC made “I’m Not In Love.” To make those ghostly chords running through the whole song, 10CC recorded multiple voices singing each note of the chromatic scale and then combined those tapes to make something like a voice-based Mellotron drone.
Superstrate is gorgeous, and a good place to start. The two 101 Beats Per Minute compilations are both name your price and represent the Irish electronic scene pretty well. Where else can you find ELLLL, David Donohoe, and Amanda Feery all in one place? My favorite Murphy album right now is With Happiness, by his Civic Edits alter ego. It’s his variation on the beat tape and it is also pay what you like.
Another beat tape that killed was Beats from the Vaults (2008—2021) by Grup Ses, a producer from Istanbul. True fire!
Maybe my favorite beat producers this year were Two Shell, a duo who did a great livestream (not archived) dressed up like two hazmat-suited workers making a strudel. They have a habit of dropping songs that stay up for only 48 hours, so stick with them. Really joyous stuff.
I haven’t begun to really grapple with the death of Robbie Shakespeare. My musical teens were little more but learning his basslines and trying to imitate him. This Jon K mix is two hours of Shakespeare, and better than the three other tributes I heard.
And maybe the least-discussed great album of the year was Leon Vynehall’s Rare, Forever, a magnificently smeared thing. It’s distantly related to iterations of hip-hop and jazz, somewhere between Burial and Sam Wilkes, foldings horns and drones into little cubes and letting them float in the gel.
I asked people on Twitter to fill out this Google spreadsheet of 2021 music. You can add to it, and I’d love it if you did. Here are other lists worth checking out:
The Wire (unpaywalled list compiled by AOTY)
Jeremy Larson’s best little moments in music 2021 video, which is not something I’ve seen anyone else do.
Have a safe night, ya filthy animals! Stay home!