In the latter part of this year I’ve had HYbr:ID I by Alva Noto on near-constant rotation while writing; it’s the album that most consistently pushes me into a flow state, and because I’ve done so much writing this year, by default I suppose this is my favourite album of 2021. A close contender is 7.37/2.11 by Perila, similarly ghostlike and similarly impossible to describe when not actually listening to it. My other favourite drone albums of the year are Rakka II by Vladislav Delay and Fringe by Felisha Ledesma, and my favourite field recordings are on dawn, always new, often superb, inaugurates the return of the everyday by the always excellent Kate Carr.
Two unexpected delights of this year were also two revisitations of favourites from previous years. Teenage Lontano by Marina Rosenfeld features teenagers singing acapella RnB, snippets of which were previously featured on the wonderful Plastic Materials in 2009. Oren Ambarchi’s Live Hubris is, fairly obviously, a live version of 2016’s Hubris, which was among my favourite albums of that year. I loved The Changing Account by G.S. Schray, which evokes both Tortoise and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Other favourites this year include Harmattan by Klein, Wild Up’s rendition of Julius Eastman’s Femenine, Cracks by Bendik Giske as well as Giske’s untitled collaboration with Pavel Milyakov, both of which stood in nicely for the absence of new Colin Stetson material other than his soundtrack work, and Dog Mountain by Laurin Huber and Antiphonals by the ever-reliable Sarah Davachi.
Weird / electronica / hip hop
One of the most notably weird albums this year was Deep England by Gazelle Twin & NYX, which is at once pagan, folk-horror and decidedly modern. It also features ‘Fire Leap’ from The Wicker Man, which gets extra points. A lot of my favourite electronica seems to be inspired by Dean Blunt’s and Inga Copeland’s muttered, hazy quasi-hip-hop productions dating all the way back to Black is Beautiful in 2012 – from Dean Blunt’s own BLACK METAL 2 to Fast Fashion by Lolina (aka Inga Copeland herself) to the tonally similar SHILOH: Lost For Words by John Glacier, the marvellous Blue Hills by Jonnine, and Equal Amounts Afraid by LA Timpa. Finally, What Is Normal Today? by Not Waving is a total departure from their recent downbeat style, instead dizzying, queasy and propulsive techno.
Indie / rock
At this stage in their long career, it seems unreasonable to expect new things of Low, and yet they seem increasingly intent on burying their angelic voices beneath distortion and sheer noise. I’m happy to say that HEY WHAT is all the better for it, and contains some of my favourite moments of any album this year, and is almost up to the standard of the incredible Double Negative from 2018. Henki by Richard Dawson & Circle came in almost too late to feature on this list, but it’s quickly risen to become an album I can’t stop playing, particular the later songs which indulge Dawson’s hitherto-unknown liking for metal. I returned often to three excellent post-rock albums this year: Bright Green Field by Squid, Cavalcade by black midi and For the first time by Black Country, New Road, all of which owe a debt to other, better bands (notably Slint), but since when did all music have to be entirely original? Another indie album with clear influences was Anything Can’t Happen by Dorothea Paas, at her best when channelling Joni Mitchell jamming with Crazy Horse. My favourite afrobeat albums were Afrique Victime by Mdou Moctar and Kologo by Alostmen. Other notable releases I enjoyed were Half Mirror by Chorusing and CHUCKLE by Alpha Maid.
Pop / vocal
Reason to Live by Lou Barlow is probably his most accessible album, and perhaps sometimes mawkish, but still terrific. If I’d spent more time driving this year, I’m pretty sure I’d have listened to Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent a lot more. Flock by Jane Weaver channels Stereolab pleasingly, Rhinestones by HTRK is an utter joy and was my favourite music for relaxing this year, along with the divine Hanazono by Satomimagae.
Compilations / reissues
My favourite compilation by a country mile was Rocksteady Got Soul from Soul Jazz. Then, in order of preference: Cameroon Garage Funk (Analog Africa), A Little Night Music: Aural Apparitions from the Geographic North (Geographic North) and Two Synths A Guitar (And) A Drum Machine: Post Punk Dance Vol.1 (Soul Jazz). As for reissues, the standouts for me were Kid A Mnesia by Radiohead and Radar of Small Dogs by Stephen.