The Top 10
10: Frontierer – Oxidized (Mathcore)
Frontierer have been on the vanguard of a movement pushing the sonic aspect of the metal world for a good while now, but with Oxidized, I think they’ve finally refined their music into something truly special. It is still one of the loudest, proudest and most frenzied mathcore albums in terms of sound. However, the songwriting has finally focused down the atmosphere and melodic aspects of Frontierer’s signature chaos, reducing the fatigue that kept me from being fully invested in their previous work, and finally brought them into the heights of the all-time greats of the genre.
9: Noga Erez – Kids (Pop / Hip-Hop)
It’s got the catchiness. It’s got the style. It’s got the rebellious spirit that ties it all together. This album came out of nowhere for me, but over time I started realising that the earworm effect is here in full force. The gritty, electronic influences (feeling that Billie Eilish influence on a few of these tracks) mesh with a polished pop production to style up a winning formula. Add a little of that middle-eastern cultural influence for some spice, and Erez has the charisma to carry the album far beyond being a mere trend bandwagonner. This is how you make the familiar sound fresh.
8: Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (Post-Minimalism)
An entire album built around a simple motif as it oscillates gently with touches of electronic, jazz and classical. All components of this music work almost reactively in tandem; when one element gains confidence and begins to break off, the rest speak louder to reign it back in. The musicianship here is subtle but incredibly precise, while still feeling improvised and organic; certainly speaking to the strengths of a musician as well-versed in jazz as Pharoah Sanders. Floating Points has crafted a soundscape so delicately woven that takes the best from all of its components at all times, and the result is an atmosphere I could float upon forever, even when the waters are at their most tumultuous.
7: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – God’s Pee at State’s End! (Post-Rock)
(Fan video, but a really good one.)
2021 felt like a resurgence year for post-rock, and nowhere did that feel more obvious than in the latest release of the band which has been synonymous with the genre for decades.
It’s a strange sensation hearing the band who continuously prophesised the encroaching collapse finally expressing amongst a social and political landscape that seems to generally acknowledge that collapse as ongoing instead of distant. And yet the band isn’t flaunting this fact, and in fact sometimes seem just as disappointed and mournful as anyone else (see “Fire at Static Valley”).
They dusted off the shortwaves and have opened up to automated warfare, numbers taking lives, modern codices of violence, the retro-chambers of people whipping themselves and their friends into frenzy over scarecrows in their neighbours’ fields. And the music reflects all of this; cynical angelicism, apocalyptic crevasses left bare to see, and yet, in the midst of all that, still, hope for revolution. And, fittingly, it concludes unresolved. There is still the day after, after all.
There is good reason many are saying this feels like a culmination of GY!BE’s extensive history. Because we are finally seeing the fruits of their messages, the callbacks in style to each part of their history feel earned, from the wondrous to the catastrophic to the devastated remains.
This is GY!BE, beginning to be realised.
6: Lingua ignota – Sinner Get Ready (Avant-Folk / Chamber Music / Singer-Songwriter)
As Kristin Hayter brings her sledgehammer focus towards her religious upbringing, we see the more abrasive industrial elements give way for chamber organs and folksy drones, reflective of the communal isolation of Pennsylvania. The shrieks which dominated and, to an extent, defined her previous works are largely held back this time, giving way to a much wider chasm of emotional inconsistencies to explore, which Hayter treads loudly throughout. This is an album with mythos, with conflict, with both formal religion and folklore, and with the rich beauty and devastating ferocity which all of these entail.
5: Bruit ≤ – The Machine Is Burning and Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again (Post-Rock)
It is amazing to see a band in this day and age release a debut full-length album that could (and should) immediately take its place among the post-rock canon. There is a level of experience and competency on display here that usually takes the best of veterans decades to achieve, and yet here we are, being shown yet again that the best way to bring new life to genres that are somewhat staling in their sound is with the new ideas of new bands.
The subtleties in this album are a sharp contrast to the more painted over minutia of a lot of current post-rock. Guitarwork is crisp, the drumming is stunning, and the strings command attention rather than laying a backdrop. This is an album that brings the ongoing apocalypse to you, instead of displaying it through a window. The subject matter is something oft tackled in the genre, yet rarely with this level of immediacy and boldness. And it makes the thematic draw of the album that much more vivid.
It’s one thing to rival many works of the all time greats on your first try. It’s another matter entirely to surpass them.
4: Death’s Dynamic Shroud – Faith in Persona (Plunderphonics / Glitch Pop / Vaporwave)
While certainly initially satisfying, much like the lo-fi hip-hop craze, the vaporwave æsthetic of music has been largely comprised of milquetoast endeavours amounting at best to mediocrity. Even with a lot of the genre’s biggest names, I rarely felt like much was being done other than trying to get listeners to feel nostalgic for a time most of them never lived in. Style over substance basically defined all but a handful of albums in a mountain of bi-lit, 4/10 retrowave throwbacks, and I burned out on it all rather quickly. And yet here we are…
What dds.wmv have done here is genuinely remarkable. Every sample here is carefully considered, modified and layered, and the throwback nature of the æsthetic is used not just as a glorified filter, but to actually bring emotional complexity to the music. For example, the opener Tear in Abyss is a near-motivational, triumphant piece of music (already incredibly rare in these circles) that weaponises the inherent nostalgia of its style to inject a sense of desperation and longing into that driving rhythm.
It also doesn’t hurt that this is one of the catchiest albums I’ve heard all year either. When Faith in Persona wasn’t making me feel things (and I mean *actually* feel things) it was making it impossible for me not to move my body to its glitched out beats, embracing the best parts of its sources and then making them new again.
This album has everything I’ve wanted the a e s t h e t i c scene to embrace for the longest time. Instead of being a filler soundtrack for looking out the window during long car rides, it’s an album with peaks and valleys, songs that evolve and moments that intersect, collide and conflict with the nostalgia so as to draw out genuine new emotions, rather than the guise of it. It’s a stunning highlight.
3: McKinley Dixon – For My Mama and Anyone Who Look like Her (Hip-Hop / Jazz Rap)
There was no excuse for this album sliding somewhat under the radar. Simply put this is an album that should be heralded alongside the modern pantheon of great hip-hop works. It’s an album that shoots for the quality of To Pimp a Butterfly and succeeds, even surpassing it in some respects.
It’s an album which, sonically, holds a lot of reverence for the entire history of jazz in hip-hop, feeling at once both retro and modern. And it is always moving. Ideas spawn ideas spawn identities. The songwriting is bold and unafraid to shift on a dime should the tone and narrative call for it, and the transitions between each of these ideas are almost always seamless.
Perhaps the reason why the album isn’t catching on as much as I would’ve hoped is the combination of this fast-pace with the dense lyricism. But then again, I never understood why dense or challenging lyrics was a turn-off for many people. Dixon’s exploration of black masculinity is detailed and incredibly evocative, and Dixon doesn’t linger on any one idea for too long to stale the ideas on display. Instead he chooses to broaden his gaze much wider, reaching out into themes of greater death and survivor’s response, and of course, the nebulous concept of blackness itself, for all diverse stretches of people the definition encompasses.
All together, you end up with a modern hip-hop masterpiece.
2: Low – Hey What (Post-Industrial / Noise / Ambient Pop)
On their last album Double Negative, it felt like Low were onto something potentially revolutionary with their grasp of noise. On this album it feels like that revolution is here.
This is an album where the wild ferocity of static and amplified dust of noise is reigned in, harnessed and fully made apparatus. The bleak suffocation that often threatens to smother in noise music has instead been weaponised to artistically draw to and from the emotional core.
And perhaps this is reflective of Low’s stance towards the current times. Double Negative seemed to simply dwell in loneliness and desolation. So much more has happened since then, however, that both Low and their music seem to be grasping for something more within it, be that rebellion, company, hope or simple, cold comfort.
This is a beautiful album, in the purest sense of the word. It pulses with life, even in the chaotic electronic fuzz that continuously threatens to enshroud its purview. In fact, that fuzz is used so effectively that it essentially creates something entirely hybrid, entirely new.
1: San Salvador – La Grande Folie (Occitan Folk / Chant)
This was one of the first albums I heard in 2021, and yet it remained the whole year firmly towering at the top of this list. There was not a moment of hesitation that this wasn’t or wouldn’t be my album of the year.
It’s almost a marvel too, given the base simplicity what this album essentially is. Six people gathered in a semi-circle, singing together, with some of them also playing basic percussion. A couple low toms, a bass pedal, a small pair of cymbals and a tambourine. 6 people, no extra mixing, entirely replicable live.
Yet in that simplicity there is such an intricate amount going on here. This album is a masterpiece of polyphony; harmonies you have likely never heard, all parts shifting around at once, and each one always distinct. Always 6 voices at most, and you can follow any one you want throughout the whole thing. However, these 6 voices give off a sense of power and versatility that even most choirs long for…
Meanwhile, their percussion-work is likewise always keeping things interesting. The group moves rapidly from idea to idea, keeping the music from ever staling while also refusing to leave a motif before it gets interesting. I have listened to this album virtually non-stop for over a year now (it is by far my most replayed album of the year if that wasn’t obvious) yet I still find new subtleties in the performance during my listens.
What is even more impressive about this album, however, is its universality. One may be inclined to think that, with a genre tag of “Occitan folk”, this may be a somewhat niche listening experience, specifically by and for speakers of the Langue d’Oc. Yet this is the kind of musical experience that transcends cultures; in some live videos of their performances, you can see small children dancing along joyfully to the music alongside the cheers of the elderly. The sound, while certainly feeling European at its core, still carries aspects of the near and middle east. It is a sound that feels universally appreciable. A regional dish with global appeal; a tribal music with sophisticated design. This is a quintessential folk music experience. It’s music to lose yourself in, then lose yourself again to the details of.
And it’s consistently good. Where most albums struggle and have at least one subpar feeling song on them, here is an album in which I found not one subpar moment. At its worst, I was still utterly entranced. At its best, on songs like “La Liseta” and especially the second half of the title track, the experience I had could only be described as transcendental.
This is an album that displays excellence across the board. On the base level of connection it is hypnotic, on a technical level it is sublime. The songwriting on display is intricate, yet infectiously catchy, and the performance and coordination of all 6 members to be able to pull it all off so precisely is highly remarkable. This is one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make for an album of the year, and one of the very few albums I would ever score a perfect 10/10.