ACL 2021 ~ The Top 20 Albums of the Year

If 2020 was the most surreal year in recent memory, 2021 was the runner-up.  A rollercoaster of emotion was supplanted by a mountain of malaise.  And yet, many artists broke through with the finest albums of their careers.  Some of these were direct responses to the world as it was, while others were simply written in unprecedented conditions.  Some composers offered comfort, others reflection, others challenge.  The titles serve as a snapshot of the year: Repetition Hymns, The Quiet Drift, Timekeeper, The Age of Oddities, Detritus, Disintegration, Speechless, Lost Futures.  Could this collection of thoughts have been assembled in any other year?  And yet, the album title that won our hearts was infused with hope: A Visible Length of Light, from NYC composer Lea Bertucci.

The very fact that so many artists continued to compose, or did so for the very first time during the pandemic, is a mark of resilience.  The world is having a hard time putting its thoughts into words, but instrumental music has the ability to speak volumes, capturing the emotions in a manner that prose does not.  We suffered, we hoped, we dreamed.  The vibrancy of 2021’s music testifies to the timbres of our experience.  And if at the end of the day, a visible length of light is all we see, it may be enough, for it proclaims that the darkness has not yet overcome.

1) Lea Bertucci ~ A Visible Length of Light (Cibachrome Editions)
A poetry of landscape without romantic idealization: that’s A Visible Length of Light. It is not about nature unturned, but the ways in which the titular length extends across imaginary borders: from buildings to mountains, from city dwellers to the rolling vegetation of deserts, from the wails of machines to the songs of birds. It is a light that radiates the warmth of instrumental drones and the unexpected details of field recordings, a digital framework with which to see and listen to a landscape that changes every time we attempt to contemplate it. Because it is that contemplation what transforms the horizon: the harmonies that result from this interaction are an intervention in and of themselves. As the skyline shifts, so do our dreams about it, our relationship to the land it mirrors inevitably modified. Like the soft marks of acoustic instruments across the album, this renewed relation suggests something both limitless and restricted, the product of a body that will not last, but that in dissolution will find its way back to the endlessness of the planet’s movement. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

2) Hollie Kenniff ~ The Quiet Drift (Western Vinyl)
It’s difficult to explain why some ambient music grabs our collective consciousness while some (a lot, actually) doesn’t. So what elevates Hollie Kenniff’s work above nearly every other submission we received this year? Is it the none-more-ambient title? Is it the eye-catching cover artwork, which suggests both joy and solitude? Perhaps it is these things. Mostly it is the music itself, beautifully arranged compositions that occupy pop song durations rather than spiralling off into side-long excursions. Kenniff’s guitar carries a sense of longing in its drawn-out reverberation, and the synths billow like sonic clouds. The added dimension is the choir of Hollies that wordlessly provide comfort and calm. As with Julianna Barwick in 2020, so it is with Hollie Kenniff in 2021; our battered psyches need to feel serenaded by an angelic choir of multi-layered voices. Ambient music: easy to make but difficult to do well. Thankfully, The Quiet Drift is just about perfection. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

3) Celia Hollander ~ Timekeeper (Leaving Records)
Memories and feelings tend to fold into each other in non-linear ways. As an art of time, music corresponds well to those dynamics in which the present is obliquely transformed into other moments by our minds; a variety of times emerges from our encounters with the world, a sensory expanse that we sometimes live as sequence, sometimes as a disordered mass of events, sometimes as just a moment without context. Timekeeper effectively collapses all these times into a mix of ambient and minimalistic sounds into works that represent a singular moment each that nonetheless lasts a few minutes at a time. It might seem confusing at first, but these tracks will guide you through soft, quiet meditations on the ways that we think sounds “go forward” or “back”, how a single tone cluster can contain so much and therefore exceed its own time, and how you could play them at random or at an order of your own choosing and still make sense as a fragmentary whole. This openness is ambient music at its very best. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

4) Sarah Neufeld ~ Detritus (One Little Independent)
As Jeremy Bye pointed out in our initial review of Detritus, A Closer Listen can certainly veer towards the superlative in our adoration of instrumental music. In leaving out the mediocre, the ~bad~, or merely the uninteresting, it’s hard to accurately gauge the sheer beauty of a record like Detritus. Certainly, aesthetic or sonic elegance isn’t often a full endgame with music, but Sarah Neufeld has tapped into a well of grand emotion that does earnestly tower over most contemporary instrumental music. Of course, this isn’t a competition (although we do have our fun ranking albums), but it still requires some level of comparison to accurately assess the sweeping grandeur at play on Neufeld’s violin. There is potent intimacy, bombastic splendor, and most every other slightly meaningless positive expression in the confines of Detritus. There is nearly a futility in writing about such expansive beauty. Words spill on the floor and lose and gain meaning in their weightlessness; the strings and swells on Neufeld’s record contrastingly have a concrete, immovable prowess that feels both discernible and impossible to translate. (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

5) Explosions in the Sky ~ Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack for Public Television) (Temporary Residence)
We have gone from reviewing albums that described themselves as ‘imaginary soundtracks’ to having many of our favourite artists release actual soundtracks, for anything from installations and ballets to TV shows and major movies. It might be an opportunity to try a fresh musical approach or reach out to a broader audience – or simply a prudent financial move. Having toured globally for two years (remember bands doing that?), Explosions In The Sky probably needed a chance to recharge their creativity. By shifting away from their familiar tropes, they have found it on Big Bend, which leans less into post-rock crescendos and opts for a series of gentler, more rural melodies – there are acoustic and steel guitars, the drums shuffle along. The track titles tie the music to the natural world, but it is an album that stands alone without recourse to visuals. Big Bend is an understated revelation. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

6) Resina ~ Speechless (FatCat/130701)
The impulse behind this album is a vitalist attempt at grounding modern composition upon the primal energies of social movements, a quest for instrumental tectonic shifts in line with the styles of Ben Frost or Hildur Guðnadóttir. Speechless is a resounding success in this regard, offering classical instruments as expressionist weapons and voices as sweeping soundscape, the cello’s strings audibly assaulted in a manner often parallel to drumming. Classical music is often associated with an ideal world, its instruments the intermediary connection to some higher sphere of existence, to which Resina responds with an avant-garde intent to drag it back into the ground, to deprive it of its pretension to be the ideal language of the individual and grind it back down to affects, to energetic surges of communal experience, to the fundamental excitement of the senses. This music does not speak: it sublimely growls and screams. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

7) Marisa Anderson/William Tyler ~ Lost Futures (Thrill Jockey)
The title gives a strong indication regarding the inspiration behind this collaboration. Having met at a tribute show to the late David Berman (of Silver Jews), William Tyler and Marisa Anderson found themselves with incompatible diaries when trying to arrange further opportunities to work together in 2020. Then… you can guess the rest. Suddenly they had a lot of free time. There is an element of Lost Futures that ponders what might have been and, taking a cue from Mark Fisher, about the hopes and ideals that once felt inevitable but have been interrupted. But if the future is less certain, Anderson and Tyler have a firm hold on our present, where the two guitarists play with a single, resonating voice. Lost Futures is an album that charms and delights. Don’t mistake it for a comfort listen, as the duo can also lock into a relentless groove. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

8) Patrick Shiroishi ~ Hidemi (American Dreams)
A dense, complex, and intense album, Hidemi is a compositional collage for which Shiroishi presents different selves, different instrumental voices that come together not so much as “one”, but as an ensemble of solidarity. It reflects the book of writings and art that accompanies the music, a collection of perspectives on loss and life in the Asian-American experience. The composer’s voices weave together like a historical passage: the suffering of the past renews itself in the present as hope and fear, transforming into the powerful movement of the future, an expressionist collective drive that sometimes sounds structured, sometimes sounds free. A personal story is also the connective tissue of historical events, and so the artist speaks as a multitude but not in its name, his modern jazz compositions an entanglement of communities of rage, of grief, of joy, of solace. This is quite an achievement for an album barely half an hour long, and thus belongs squarely among the year’s best. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

9) Bryce Dessner, Australian String Quartet, Sydney Dance Company ~ Impermanence / Disintegration (37d03d)
Initially conceived of as a response to the Australian wildfires of 2019, Impermanence / Disintegration ultimately came to accidentally signify a stark reaction to the pandemic. Bryce Dessner and the Australian String Quartet’s compositions for the project already represented a metaphorical end of the world through a microcosm of disaster; it’s fitting that their paranoid, restless phrases have become interchangeable signs of fervent distress. Composed for the Sydney Dance Company, this is a record full of violent beauty, where sensations of delight and horror braid and unravel within seconds. Though fully in his own league as a composer at this point in his career, it’s still possible to thread together Dessner’s classical work with his work in The National. He has become a figurehead of quietly devastating, constantly simmering tension, where every moment of a composition sounds as though it is both barrelling into disarray and slowly reaching equilibrium. (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

10) Bell Orchestre ~ House Music (Erased Tapes)
With House Fire, Sarah Neufeld achieves the rare feat of playing on two albums in our top ten ~ this one (recorded in her cabin!), and her solo effort above.  But Bell Orchestre is a collective, and this loose-limbed set marks a triumphant return after years away.  Culling a series of improvised sessions down to a coherent 45-minute jam, the septet embodies the spirit of exuberance.  House Music is what it sounds like to leave one’s home and to venture outside following a long period of isolation or inactivity: a situation to which many could relate this past spring.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

11) Fire-Toolz ~ Eternal Home (Hausu Mountain)
favorite on our site, Fire-Toolz continues to defy logic and expectation on Eternal Home. Each passing record is almost comically fresh in its endless drive to mesh/fuse/smash/destroy genre into a perpetual stew of multitudinous meaning. Symbols are indeed stripped of any initial context, yet Angel Marcloid knows this is not enough, so she filters and digests everything so frequently and thoroughly that all once-possible outcomes of “meaning” dissolve into the air, the internet, the forest. Newness not from what came before, but a rhizomatic entity plugging away at that which does not yet have meaning. Death metal shrieks and Windows 98 keyboards coalesce in a way that hasn’t been done before— so what? Marcloid pushes beyond any compulsory sense of taste or feeling and into a bright, undefined realm that seems as elemental as language. (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

12) Eartheater ~ Phoenix: La Petite Mort Édition (PAN)
Ushering herself into the sonic palette of drone like— yes— a reborn phoenix, Eartheater’s sprawling La Petite Mort Edition of last year’s Phoenix: Flames are Dew Upon My Skin is a heaven-ascending sequence of instrumental tracks that lull together as a single 50 minute composition. In place of crystalline vocals and quivering, processed synths, Eartheater indulges in a wordless cacophony of ebbing, formless voices and long ambient swells that could shatter tempered glass. The record represents a second phoenix after the first rebirth of last year’s record, and it reads as the mercurial, shadow version of that original. To paraphrase her own words, it is quite literally “post-climax” music— a softly melancholic but subtly commanding headspace of revelation. (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

13) KMRU ~ Logue (Injazero)
Logue marks the second appearance in a row for this Nigerian composer on our year-end chart, following last year’s Peel.  The irony is that these tracks were recorded earlier, and collected in the wake of KMRU’s success.  Those unaware of this fact might reasonably conclude that the artist has progressed from electronic to ambient timbres, when the opposite is true.  These early selections ~ perfectly sequenced for a comfortable flow ~ are evidence that the artist has been noteworthy all along, even if it took the world a while to notice.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

14) Havana Swim Club ~ Havana Swim Club (Self-Released)
First “Lagoon” made our chart, Ten Tracks That Sound Like Summer.  Then the full album appeared on The Happiest Music of the Year.  This debut set is a welcome burst of sample-based tropicana in a year in which most clubs were shuttered.  To make up for the loss, Dan Koch invited us to dance on the beach, by the pool, in the backyard, or in our own living rooms.  The venues may be different, but the encouraging, upbeat spirit is the same.  The album is proof that other moods are available, even in the darkest of times.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

15) Godspeed You! Black Emperor ~ G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! (Constellation)
The rulers of the post-rock world returned in 2021, if only to tell us that all of their predictions had come true.  This sobering fact ~ demonstrated by natural disasters, a global pandemic, border wars, political insurrections and religious judgment ~ might have produced a feeling of resignation, but instead iprovoked anger.  The album is violent and volatile, shying away from nothing.  The world has not changed.  GY!BE is still asking, begging, demanding that we take notice.  It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we don’t feel fine, not even close.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

16) GROWING ~ Diptych (Silver Current)
Two is the magic number here: two tracks, two sides of vinyl, best enjoyed blasting through two speakers. Or, if you’re not into the whole disturbing the neighbours vibe, pop those headphones over your ears. The duo of Joe Denardo and Kevin Doria deliver 40 minutes of ‘big amp ambience’ in its purest form. Ushered in on a steadily building hum, the drones and tones circle and swirl around, elements swelling and dissipating over the duration. This is, perhaps, the purest distillation of GROWING thus far. As the pair are geographically separate on different coasts of the US, any work they make together has a sense of occasion, and Diptych rises above the ordinary – it is a singular drone album. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

17) Lucy Railton & Kit Downes ~ Subaerial (SN Variations)
Recorded in the Before Times (2017) in Skáholt Cathedral in Iceland, Subaerial is perhaps the boldest statement yet from Lucy Railton (cello) and Kit Downes (organ). It isn’t just a tribute to their improvisational skills, honed from years of playing with one another in numerous ensembles, but it is also a credit to the craft involved in the editing process. The duo condenses three hours into a more manageable 42 minutes, giving the work structure and form. The result is, at times, otherworldly with the haunted swoops and silences of the cello. The organ provides sympathetic accompaniment, but at the right moment, the swells rise, revealing its full majesty. It is a work that is potentially forbidding in its genesis but remains accessible; those with a curious mind should approach without fear. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

18) Rutger Hoedemaekers ~ The Age of Oddities (FatCat/130701)
The long goodbye to Jóhann Jóhannsson continues with a composer determined to carry his torch. Hoedemaekers not only honors his friend, but is proud to be influenced by him.  An album that starts as a personal elegy becomes a requiem for a way of life, for a world caught in Lord Byron’s age of oddities.  If there is a way forward, the composer seems to suggest, the directions lie in the wisdom of the past: not only fallen composers, but poets, authors, artists of every field.  If we can imagine, we can create, and if we can create, the end is not yet written.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

19) Black Swan ~ Repetition Hymns (Past Inside the Present)
Repetition Hymns is a record that tells you in discrete terms what it is and what it wants to do. In a genre full of obfuscation that sometimes feels like a Yayoi Kusama infinity mirror ping-ponging away from discernability, Black Swan’s latest record is a compassionate song cycle of looped, wordless hymns. There is indeed a lot going on within the warbled, wall of sound static that penetrates the whole album with an all-consuming grace, but the intentionality always cuts through as genuine and uncomplicated. These are attempts at salvation— spiritual numbers that calm but do not proselytize, enliven but do not condescend. There is a curious experiment at play between the unassuming formlessness of the arrangements and the meticulous, hyper-detailed process that is nearly required for such a fluid sound.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

20) Pan Daijing ~ Jade 玉观音 (PAN)
This album represents well the return of one of the most original artists of our times, her voice still the contradictorily de-centered focus of a music that goes nowhere. This non-place is different than last time, however, inasmuch as it does not evidence an absence, but a presence half-formed. Ethereal drones, phantasmal songs, aggressively noisy sections (a music unborn, struggling to become), drifting ambient and melodies torn apart: its elements might read war-like, but the result is opposite, a peaceful observation of inner toil, of a simmering intensity patiently awakening into uncertainty. There’s something gothic in it all, but the references are different, as in the title’s allusion to the bodhisattva of compassion, the “perceiver of sounds” of those in need. The suffering of the world is also the suffering of oneself, and it is a vastness blooming from an innermost depth that, by listening, we now share with the artist. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

 

One comment

  1. Pingback: Reblog – ACL 2021 ~ The Top 20 Albums of the Year — a closer listen | Feminatronic

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