Friends, if we’re being honest, I probably spend less than half of my overall music listening time with heavy metal. (This is what they might call a “reverse straw man,” whereby I provide you with legitimate reasons for disputing or dismissing my claims.) It’s that old tension of balancing breadth of exposure and depth of expertise, and it’s just as easy (and just as self-defeating) to convince yourself you have to hear either some of everything or all of one thing. This is one of the many reasons I love this time of year when people start thinking about lists.
Sure, I get more worked up than I should about lists that are stuffed with things I think are bad and dumb, and I also get that vicarious thrill when I see someone else has listed some of the same precious ores I’ve spent the year dredging from the earth. But for me, it’s too easy to fall back into thinking about list-making as a linear narrative of our year. “Here is an enumeration of the music I heard.” “Here is a procession of the books I read.” And yes, I keep those lists for myself. (The brain, she ages…) The real joy comes, though, when I stop thinking about the list as an “first a then b” logic exercise and start seeing it as what it really is: an entirely foolish and yet wholly sympathetic attempt to map our inner selves.
On the level of real, deep personhood, of course I can’t really know you by understanding the art through which you process the world. Maybe you love Iron Maiden and Autechre and Low and Yanni just as much as I do, but you’re also an arsonist. Who knows! But when I sit each year as the daylight dwindles and look back at the things that moved me, that confused me, that challenged me, that held me, that stuck with me, I’m really having a conversation with myself; I’m sketching a map that maybe nobody else will follow.
The thing about a map is, it’s not a commandment. Anyone creating a map necessarily imposes a certain type of order on the world, and that order is tethered to the perspective of the mapmaker, but it doesn’t tell you where to go. It traces the outlines and labels a few coordinates, but then? Then it is no longer owned.
This map I’ve made feels pretty good to me today, and I think we could all use more feeling pretty good. It can’t ever be an Objective And Canonical And Eternally Locked In Place Reckoning, because none of us is any of those things. This year I looked for comfort and familiarity and I also looked for strangeness and undreamt-of dreams. I found things that I liked and I will try to hold onto them, but even with the best of maps, you can’t always find your way back to where you thought you came from.
That’s where the future is, anyway: bleeding just off the map’s edge. Be with me here a while, then draw your own map and let the pen wander where it may.
HEY HOW ABOUT GETTING ON WITH IT ALREADY
Because I am constitutionally incapable of true restraint, here are 30 honorable mentions listed in alphabetical order. The world is truly full of wonder.
Ænigmatum – Deconsecrate; Atvm – Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless; Biomorphic Engulfment – Incubation in the Parallel Universe; Boss Keloid – Family the Smiling Thrush; Cannibal Corpse – Endless Violence; Cradle of Filth – Existence is Futile; Epica – Omega; Fractal Generator – Macrocosmos; Fyrnask – VII – Kenoma; Ghastly – Mercurial Passages; Grima – Rotten Garden; Halluxvalgus – Reflections of Distant Dreams; Helloween – Helloween; Leprous – Aphelion; Mesarthim – CLG J02182–05102; Mortiferum – Preserved in Torment; Obscura – A Valediction; Panopticon – …and Again Into the Light; Pharaoh – The Powers That Be; Pupil Slicer – Mirrors; Qrixkuor – Poison Paligensia; Seven Sisters – Shadow of a Fallen Star (Pt. 1); Skepticism – Companion; Thorium – Empires in the Sun; Tribulation – Where the Gloom Becomes Sound; Vaelmyst – Secrypts of the Egochasm; Void – The Hollow Man; Wampyric Rites – The Eternal Melancholy of the Wampyre; Warrior Path – The Mad King; Wharflurch – Psychedelic Realms ov Hell; Yoth Iria – As the Flame Withers.
HEY HOW ABOUT SOME METAL RECORDS
20. Divide and Dissolve – Gas Lit
Music can serve as a cry of rage, a desperate tumult raised in protest and refusal. It can also serve to build community. Neither of these requires words, and that is the pre-linguistic heritage that Divide and Dissolve honor on their powerful third album Gas Lit. The intercontinental duo summons a heaving, devastatingly heavy sludge/noise edifice somewhat similar to Jucifer or Melvins (but with absolutely none of the wryness of the latter). Layered saxophone occasionally lends the character of a threnody, keening in lament like the strings in SubRosa or even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. At the core of each song is a concrete block of guitar slowly eaten away by the thumping corrosion and noise of the drums, echoing the churn of destruction with a fierce defiance, a lonely insistence that things might be otherwise.
19. Hooded Menace – The Tritonus Bell
First things first: yes, of course Hooded Menace still sounds like Hooded Menace. This is stately, deliberate doom/death that isn’t afraid to get deep-down in the filth and gloom. Over time, the band has shed various temporary elements of its sound, from the somewhat too-over the top horror vibe of their earliest material to the nearly funeral trudge of Darkness Drips Forth, but the core sound of Lasse Pyykkö and his unmerry men has remained stable. On The Tritonus Bell, the new shading around the corners comes from a slightly more epic tinge of doom of the Candlemass variety, plus an injection of an additionally darkly melodic Mercyful Fate classicism. The result is a chewy, cavernous sound that overflows with leads, elegiac motifs, and archly pretty cadences.
18. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
Some things… well, some things just sound exactly like they look. The hotly anticipated full-length debut of Stormkeep ticks exactly all the right boxes for this particular flabby-limbed rapscallion: atmosphere-oozing synths out of both the Emperor and Summoning playbooks, scything, frost-tinged melodies in the finest post-Dissection tradition of ‘blue cover black metal’, careening blasts, stirring clean sections, and an overall immaculate sense of pacing. Stormkeep is one of those relatively rare instances of a band doing almost entirely nothing new, and yet coming out the other side as a gleaming exemplar of pitch-perfect execution and honest devotion. If you like your black metal melodic and teeming with atmosphere, Tales of Othertime is a real thing and a true thing.
17. Steel Bearing Hand – Slay in Hell
You ever run into one of those albums where if you really wanted to, you could tease apart the influences, describe the components, talk about what subgenres it pulls from, and all that, but ultimately the most important thing is that it just screams “THIS is what heavy metal is”? Texas’s Steel Bearing Hand make precisely that kind of noise on their ferocious second album Slay in Hell. Does it thrash? It thrashes. Does it lean in for blasting and pull back for dooming? Does it shred and stomp and rampage like hell and damnation? Does it kick you in the teeth with boots the size of a u-boat? Verily, it doth.
16. Obsolete – Animate//Isolate
Obsolete’s technical death/thrash hybrid is so stop-on-a-dime precise that it sounds like the inner workings of an enormous clock made of glass shards and magnetized shrapnel. The album is fast, sharp, and mean, but the compositions are incredibly tight and each transition is almost impossibly fluid. Some ridiculous hambone had this to say: “More than any other qualifier or comparison, though, Animate//Isolate is just one goddamned hell of a lot of fun. Each and every member of the band plays with an overwhelmingly technical command of their instrument, and yet the songs never feel like exercises in academic abstraction. Job one throughout Animate//Isolate is to rip and shred like hell, play as fast as you can and then try to push it faster still, and then get out before overstaying your welcome.” All the more impressive is that Animate//Isolate is the band’s debut full-length; this is a band to watch.
15. Dream Theater – A View from the Top of the World
At this point, there’s a good chance you already know where you stand on Dream Theater, and the progressive metal standard bearers have not undergone any, ahem, dramatic turn of events for album number fifteen. However, perhaps the most striking thing about this wonderful album is just how relaxed the band sounds. Even when these songs stretch out to near the ten-minute mark, they feel organic and tightly composed, and James LaBrie sounds more comfortable than ever in his slightly lowered register. The real one-two knockout of the album is the glorious Rush worship of “Transcending Time” followed by the nervy, aggressive “Awaken the Master” (likely one of the heaviest things they’ve done since Train of Thought), but even at 70 minutes, the time flies by with these old friends.
14. Morbific – Ominous Seep of Putridity
The thing about death metal is, it can be almost anything. I mean, maybe not Burt Bacharach tunes played by a handbell choir, but… pretty much almost anything. That malleability is a true asset, and yet sometimes it’s every bit as satisfying to hear a band pay true devotion to the ramshackle sounds of the genre’s bloody midwifery. Finland’s Morbific hit the fleshy nail on the quivering head with their debut full-length, cruising through 32 minutes of ribcage-rattling carpet bombings of Autopsy and Obituary-styled death metal. There’s horror, there’s gore, there are riffs and clattering drums and diaphragm-busting belches, and exactly 0.0% bullshit. It’s gross, it’s greasy, it’s gooey – it’s great!
13. Mystic Storm – From the Ancient Chaos
Despite its stature as one of the first of heavy metal’s genres to truly take speed and aggression to the next level, I’ve had a peculiarly lukewarm relationship to a lot of straight-ahead thrash. (Translation: I am a no-account doofus.) But give me something that lands on the feral side, or that trots out an atmosphere of arcane menace, and I’m happy to buy the drinks. Russia’s Mystic Storm is precisely the kind of raw and ragged thrash that flubs my jubblies, and From the Ancient Chaos is one hell of a fun, nasty, whiplash ride. That thrash attack is balanced out by a jagged sort of epic trad sturdiness, and the vocals of Anya nearly steal the whole show in their evocation of past greats like Sentinel Beast and Detente.
12. Wheel – Preserved in Time
A pair of seemingly contradictory admissions: I am disconnected from the broader music writing community and genre politics, and I am sick to death of lazy-ass sludge masquerading as doom. If you look up ‘doom’ in the encyclopedia, Germany’s Wheel should be plastered right up top next to Candlemass, Solstice, and Solitude Aeternus, and most tone-humping burnouts should be found in “can, garbage.” That gives away the game a bit, because the story with Preserved in Time is doom of the classicist, epic variety, slightly higher on the musty and mysterious scale like some imaginary midpoint between Sorcerer and Pagan Altar. The most important thing, though, is that there’s an almost baroque internal logic to the majestic riffs on this album, as each song unfolds solemnly but with enough galumphing power to topple a castle’s battlement. Fanciful music made by entirely unostentatious people, yet packing the gravitas and emotional heft of all the tragedies of a history book.
11. Nekromantheon – Visions of Trismegistos
Razor-sharp and rampaging black/thrash is Nekromantheon’s business, and on Visions of Trismegistos, business is good as hell. Some inveterate nincompoop had this to say about the album: “Every last element of these songs flows together so perfectly, so seamlessly, so intuitively that my inner self kept imagining the song “Everything In Its Right Place” by the band Radiohead, except in this fever vision, the radio looks like the tank from Voivod’s Rrröööaaarrr, and the head looks like the blood-dripping skull from Sodom’s Obsessed by Cruelty, and the only song on the radio sounds like a junkyard dog stuffing the Noise Records catalog in a blender while gnawing a power line as if to suck out the marrow from a whale bone.”
HEY HOW ABOUT EVEN MORE METAL RECORDS
10. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
It’s likely not intentional homage, but the way Tide Turns Eternal’s intro track “Entrance” chimes in immediately makes me think of the opening to My Dying Bride’s “Your River,” the first ‘proper’ track on Turn Loose the Swans. Dream Unending may be a new band, but this startlingly good album has 1993’s fingerprints all over it. Though not quite as gothic as some of the earliest imaginings of death/doom from the Peaceville 3 (although the organ on “In Cipher I Weep” makes a good run at it), Dream Unending follows the same general playbook: slow, morose, desolately clean sections interwoven with claustrophobically heavy doom riffs and deep, guttural vocals. The cherry on top of this particular misery sundae, though, is the huge amount of absolutely gorgeous solos and guitar leads littered throughout this economically sprawling album. Equal parts elegant and brutal, Tide Turns Eternal is so magnificently confident that it almost seems to dare the listener to stand it toe-to-toe with the classics it so ably glorifies.
9. Empyrium – Über den Sternen
The members of Empyrium are not, in all probability, mythical spirits of the woodlands who lure wayward travelers deep into the pine stands for transformative encounters with nature, and yet listening to their truly beguiling album Über den Sternen, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Each song on this patient, darkly resplendent album is imbued with a reverential calm, even when the band’s downcast, doom-tinged neofolk occasionally tilts into near-black metal intensity. The frequent use of dulcimer gives the songs an otherworldly edge, and Thomas Helm’s bell-tone clear vocals suffuse the picture with a golden light. Über den Sternen is marked by the same abiding respect for and channeling of the natural world that animates such similar signposts as Ulver’s Bergtatt, Agalloch’s The Mantle, Opeth’s My Arms, Your Hearse, and the entire catalog of Tenhi. If you listen, you can hear the vast wilderness beckoning.
8. First Fragment – Gloire éternelle
The musicianship throughout First Fragment’s latest monument to shred is at such an absurdly, outrageously, ass-shakingly high level that it almost threatens to become the only thing you hear about. And while it is true that there may well be more notes in these 71 minutes than there are atoms in your average grizzly bear, Gloire éternelle actually succeeds much more because of its overall atmosphere than due to its taps per capita. The integration of flamenco and other virtuoso non-metal flavors is not without precedent – see Impvreza, Krisiun on The Great Execution, and Gorod on A Perfect Absolution – but First Fragment weave each element together so seamlessly that if you forget about the amplification, you might convince yourself you were hearing echoes of Django Reinhardt or the Gipsy Kings. Gloire éternelle is the kind of album that it seems impossible to listen to without cracking into the widest smile your busted-ass heart can muster, and the added bonus is that it features perhaps the single wildest fretless bass performance on any metal record ever. If you like fun (and I hope you do), please sit a spell with these wizards.
7. Herzel – Le Dernier Rempart
Herzel’s full-length debut is a perfect example of how careful craft and obvious passion can turn a seemingly simple formula into a deceptively rich and memorable album. Herzel plays sturdy, galloping, epic-leaning heavy metal that retains a certain roughness around the edges which infuses the whole thing with a crackling electricity. The vocals are an impassioned croon with enough power that they occasionally overshoot their mark, and the interplay between the stirring vocal melodies and stoutly insistent riffs is a sheer delight. The occasional addition of the bombarde, an instrument that sounds like a cross between bagpipes and an oboe, lends the songs a somewhat medieval flair, but the heavy metal that runs through these proud veins would be just as much at home in 1983 as in 2021 as in 2344. An absolute triumph.
6. Dold Vorde Ens Navn – Mørkere
Some outrageous dingdong had this to say about Mørkere: “Dold Vorde Ens Navn’s debut album Mørkere is…a brilliantly realized, wide-ranging album clearly steeped in the lineage and divergent traditions of Norwegian black metal without ever feeling tethered to them… Mørkere is so self-assured in its mix of styles, so powerful, polished, and professional, that it almost has to have come from seasoned musicians comfortable in their own skins. Each song is a self-contained universe of riff and mood, with Vicotnik’s vocals forming an essential narrative thread throughout. His vocals are a wild, gripping array of different sounds – and truly, of entirely different voices, from snarl to bellow to croon to whisper to chant.” I think he might have been onto something! Mørkere is classy and sophisticated even as it lunges for the jugular.
5. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu
It is this rickety asshole’s humble opinion that Iron Maiden is the Greatest Heavy Metal Band In The History Of The World, and as such, there’s always the risk that new music from these young whippersnappers will be viewed through rosy-colored lenses. Compared to its immediate predecessor Book of Souls, Senjutsu has a brighter, richer production, but even more important, the songs are given fresh space to stretch out and breathe. Sure, the overall feel is as expected for the re-Bruce era, but one of the beauties of Iron Maiden is that each album has its own niche. Senjutsu has some wild strutting (“Stratego”, “Days of Future Past,” the insane breakdown on “The Time Machine”), an affectingly emotional ballad (“Darkest Hour”), dense, knotty prog sections (pretty much all of the closing trio), and plenty of triumphant, fists-in-the-air rabble-rousing (pretty much… well, all of it). Only a fool would argue that Iron Maiden in 2021 is making the best music of their career, but only a damned fool would argue that Iron Maiden in 2021 is anything but vital, inspirational, and essential.
4. Fluisteraars – Gegrepen Door de Geest der Zielsontluiking
Each one of the 35 minutes of Fluisteraars’s magnificent album is driven by two important and complementary factors: a fluid, seamless composition style and an emotional urgency bordering on desperation. The richly textured guitar and persistently busy drumming place the listener in a curious state of suspended animation that nevertheless feels in constant motion. That driving, propulsive feeling makes it seem that the music describes stark, violent processes of the natural world: a hawk cutting across the wind, rainstorms lashing the lowlands, time-lapse photography of rivulets of water gouging away at limestone. The album feels like a complete journey, culminating with an absolutely gorgeous and triumphant riff that pops in just before the 13-minute mark of the closing song. It eventually burns out in a glorious squall of noise, leaving ashes and deep furrows for the future to follow.
3. Worm – Foreverglade
Worm’s second album Gloomlord landed in the number 4 spot of this cantankerous hooligan’s best albums of 2020 list with its seething murk and sly melody, but for all that album’s many fetid strengths, Foreverglade takes that same rough template and cranks it up by approximately one billion times. This is still a hulking, ill-tempered death/doom affair, but there are hints of the more funereal edges of Disembowelment or Evoken, and it is absolutely littered with jaw-droppingly tremendous guitar leads and solos. The miserablist early doom/death of Winter, Cathedral, and Paradise Lost is all well and good, but Worm has tapped into an immeasurably more colorful palette here, and their muck-dripping habitat is all the richer for it.
2. Thy Catafalque – Vadak
Some uproarious chucklehead had this to say about Vadak: “Thy Catafalque is music possessed of a polyglot zeal – a desire to speak whatever musical language is necessary to chase a particular feeling. This means that diving into a new Catafalque album requires a sense of trust – trust in the integrity of the process, which allows the openhearted listener to ride the wild joy of every unanticipated twist and return. The opening track flirts with some of the heaviest material of the album, and yet it’s not a feint, particularly as the seemingly straightforward guitar leads splinter unexpectedly and the chorus opens up into a booming, infectiously choral chant that sounds like Moonsorrow via Paradise Lost at their synth-poppiest… Even when Kátai reaches for seriously heavy sounds, there’s a fleetness to his instrumentation that lends a lightness of spirit even to the most punishing intensity.”
1. Diskord – Degenerations
Some incorrigible jag-muffin had this to say about Degenerations: “This is an album that doesn’t so much rumble along as it clatters, needles, tumbles, hammers, and whinnies. Despite the strangeness baked into the formula, this is exactly a regular-ass death metal album in at least the sense that it spews out riff after riff like the esophageal lining of a Carolina Reaper-eating contest winner. And yet, the riffs are abstruse, interrupted, jagged, and prone to circle back around just when you thought they were done… This is one of those albums where it’s just as easy to find yourself thrown bodily around the room as it is to sit quietly and get lost in all of its perpendicular intricacies.”
This album might be one of those tales that, like Tolkien’s opus, grew in the telling. There is so much going on in this glorious, ridiculous, endlessly satisfying album that it might very well take years to unlock all its secrets, and yet that challenge never feels like a chore. There’s an inviting angle to the aggressive strangeness of Degenerations, one that draws the ear closer and makes the listener an active participant in co-creating a thoroughly uncanny experience. Diskord is truly out there.
HEY HOW ABOUT SOME EPS
5. Abhorration – After Winter Comes War
You like getting sassed relentlessly by thrashing mayhem, right?
4. Ancient Mastery – The Chosen One
You like soaring yet martial atmospheric black metal, right?
3. Ebony Pendant – The Garden of Strangling Roots
You like De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, right?
2. Cult of Luna – The Raging River
You like rich, pensive, rumbling, controlled emotional explosions, right?
1. Cirith Ungol – Half Past Human
You like Cirith Ungol’s patented blend of bluesy rocking, fantasy riffing, alien caterwauling, and overall triumph and exultation, right?
HEY HOW ABOUT SOME NON-METAL
“Non-metal” is, admittedly, a horrible way to gather together approximately 98% of all the world’s music under one lumpy umbrella. But hey, I’ve also got a separate jazz list even further down, so can we at least agree that this is less of a mouthful than “everything that’s not metal but also not jazz”? Whatever: here is another selection of music that coaxed, calmed, and comforted me this year.
25. Agusa – En Annan Värld
Sweden’s Agusa play a delightfully pastoral form of prog rock that sounds like it could have been teleported directly from 1973. Their fourth album stretches out across two sidelong tracks that meander through folky, psych-inflected melodies and knotty full-band workouts, with significant space given to organ and particularly flute leads. And hey, they don’t even need vocals to paint a picture of sitting on a park bench!
24. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Fiery, psychedelic guitar heroics are the order of the day on this thoroughly engrossing album from Niger’s Mdou Moctar which reimagines the Tuareg guitar tradition through a sideways lens that respects the past while fusing it with various rock and roll idioms. Hypnotic percussion and polyrhythms are the bedrock for Moctar’s free-ranging curiosity on the guitar, so prepare to sit back and be mesmerized.
23. Rosales – Still, Tomorrow
Still, Tomorrow is a lilting, twilit collaboration between two pillars of the ambient community: Ian Hawgood (of the UK’s Home Normal label) and Brad Deschamps (of Polar Seas Recordings, and otherwise known as the artist Anthéne). For the uninitiated, this lovely album offers a fine entry point for both artists, as the tones shift and sparkle like sunlight glistening over shallow waters. The album’s closing track “Lapis” is one of the most gorgeous ambient pieces of the year. (I also highly recommend Anthéne’s Away from Your Shadow from early this year.)
22. Steel Tipped Dove – inside.outside.inside.outside
Brooklyn’s Steel Tipped Dove is one of the best instrumental hip-hop artists/beat makers currently out there, and a good reason for that is his slippery, chameleonic shifts in style and approach. Inside.Outside.Inside.Outside is on the more abstract side of his productions, and features four 20-minute tracks intended to accompany inside/daytime, outside/daytime, inside/nighttime, and outside/nighttime. These are murky, hallucinatory collages that nevertheless remain inviting rather than off-putting, as if to say, “yeah, shit’s been weird for me too, and here’s how I’ve shaped some of that sensory overload.” You may just recognize yourself in these rubbery grooves and uncanny juxtapositions.
21. Field Works – Maples, Ash, and Oaks: Cedars Instrumentals
This instrumental counterpart to Field Works’s Cedars (also released in 2021) is more like a complete reimagining of the source material, with new instrumentation and an even more beatific atmosphere. Sparse piano, distant strings, pedal steel, and other instrumental voices mingle with equally present field recordings of birds and other sounds from Welsh forests. A stunningly beautiful meditation on the life-sustaining spirit of trees.
20. Bryan Rahija – Timber
Timber is an instrumental album of finger-picked acoustic guitar with occasional bass and percussion, but the focus is squarely on Rahija’s deliberate, unhurried melodic sensibility. Each of the songs on this generous and welcoming album feels humble and earned through honest labor. The recording itself is also particularly sumptuous, with the deep resonance of each pluck and strum mic’d so closely that you can almost imagine yourself inside the body of the guitar looking out at the world it creates. (If Timber resonates, be sure to also investigate Yasmin Williams’s Urban Driftwood and Chris Schlarb and Chad Taylor’s Time No Changes.)
19. Moss Covered Technology – Seafields
Many ambient artists have seemed to treat their music as both a reaction to and a balm for the intense stresses felt across the globe in the past few years. Moss Covered Technology’s Seafields is dotted with twinkling synths and chiming tones, but the rich undercurrent of low, droning sound beds is evocative of the restorative calm of the sea. The low end of the songs is sometimes dappled with distant ebbs of static and noise, drifting very near the threshold of recognition like the churn of the tides felt from miles away.
18. Johanna Hedva – Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House
Some big ol’ dummy had this to say over at Bandcamp: “Fascinating, beautiful, disturbing, and mesmerizing ritualistic blues. Imagine a meeting point of Diamanda Galas’s La Serpenta Canta, Jarboe’s Sacrificial Cake, and Boris’s Amplifier Worship. A riveting document of grief which is all the more affecting for its relative restraint.”
17. Sailcloth – Woodcut
Sailcloth’s debut full-length Woodcut is a collection of rich, exploratory miniatures that span the distance between contemporary classical, ambient, acoustic, and experimental jazz. The instrumental core of the album is founded on exploring the deep, resonant textures of the upright double bass, but the mournful, reedy bowing is joined by other sounds from guitar, drums, synths, and other unidentifiable shadings. Picture a long walk through unfamiliar woods, and open your ears to what it might be speaking.
16. Zakè & Marine Eyes – Unfailing Love
Unfailing Love is a wrenchingly beautiful piece of longform ambient from Past Inside the Present boss Zakè and Marine Eyes. Each song shifts at a glacial pace, with deep, comforting drones and gentle synth textures complemented by the wordless, distant vocals from Marine Eyes. The effect is something like Julianna Barwick colliding with a slow-motion Tangerine Dream, and the cocoon of sound here is an attempt to create peace and healing in a world where both can be vanishingly rare.
15. Illuvia – Iridescence of Clouds
Ludvig Cimbrelius, the artist behind Illuvia (and other excellent ambient projects such as Purl and Eternell), floats into rarefied space with Iridescence of Clouds. In principle, the two elements at play on this album – wispy, heavenly ambient and classic, hyperactive mid-90s drum and bass – should not work well together, but in practice, the way the drums roil beneath and are subsumed by the vaporous ambient textures produces a magical effect, like daydreaming a perfect future so vividly that you can carry that intention into wakefulness. (Also worth investigating on ASIP from this year is the Bvdub alter-ego Earth House Hold’s Daybreak Basements and Broken Hearts.)
14. Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
The Nashville singer-songwriter’s debut album is a charming, playful trip through bluegrass, country, and other classic idioms of folk and Americana. There’s a bit of gypsy music and New Orleans jazz present (“At the End of the Rainbow”), as well as near-flamenco flourishes (“Far Away Across the Sea”), but the focus throughout is on Ferrell’s pinpoint-fine voice, which twists and swerves through unusual phrasing with a tone that seems to be always holding back some secret. (Also recommended: Maria Muldaur & Tuba Skinny’s delightful Let’s Get Happy Together.)
13. Kompakt Records – Pop Ambient 2022
At this point, I should just carve out a permanent spot on these year-end lists for Kompakt’s annual compilation of ambient gems. The Pop Ambient series is usually released late in the fall, as the nights in the Northern hemisphere get shorter and the weather gets colder, which is the perfect time to get cozy with a book and a cup of tea and these rich, blanketing sounds. This year’s installment is particularly strong, with excellent contributions from Triola, Andrew Thomas, and (relative) newcomers Blank Gloss, but front to back this is the kind of deeply tactile experience I look for in ambient, and the perfect balm for anxious times. (Also excellent is Blank Gloss’s debut full-length, Melt.)
12. Spectacular Diagnostics – Natural Mechanics/Ancient Methods
So yes, maybe it’s cheating to put these two 2021 albums together in one slot, but they play perfectly back to back, and Chicago’s Spectacular Diagnostics is making some of the trippiest, most satisfying beat tapes out there right now. Come for the rich grooves and occasional guest MCs, but stay for the profusion of sci-fi and other out-sound samples. Sometimes the beats skew soulful and jazzy like something out of Guru’s Jazzmatazz series (and hell, “Fly Mechanics” almost could have wandered out of LTJ Bukem’s Journey Inwards), but on Ancient Methods in particular, sometimes they flirt with the eerie, sparser feel of RZA’s early Wu-Tang productions.
11. Matt Robertson – Enveleau
Enveleau’s opening track, “Enoughness,” fades in and builds like a sunrise symphony, its simple, persistent synth melody gradually matched by a growing chorus of granular texture and buried percussion. Neither a wholly ambient nor full-on techno album, Enveleau inhabits a compelling middle ground of electronic and contemporary classical-leaning music that will be familiar to fans of Kiasmos or Jon Hopkins, with perhaps an additional touch of modular synth. It’s a captivating, holistic album, with a natural peak in the mid-album duo of “Syntropic” and “Kalimba” before the arc winds back to sunset with “Want.”
10. Joanna Gemma Auguri – 11
Joanna Gemma Auguri’s 11 is the sort of album that transfixes you exactly where you stand. Dark, pensive folk-leaning songs with an instrumental backdrop made primarily with accordion (and additional texture/harmony from zither and cello). The opening song “Confession to a Future Lover” sounds like a carnival funhouse mirror version of a Yann Tiersen soundtrack, while “Childhood Days” could almost be an acoustic rendition of a SubRosa dirge. Auguri’s voice is a haunting, almost gothic instrument, with a wide, sighing range, sometimes reminiscent of Nico or Genevieve from Menace Ruine. Rare is the album that might remind the listener equally of Joni Mitchell and Dead Can Dance, but 11 is just such a remarkable work.
9. Hendrik Weber – 429 Hz Formen von Stille
The most recent Pantha du Prince album, 2020’s Conference of Trees, already pointed the way, but Hendrik Weber’s new album under his own name dives even more headlong into ambient suspension and textural abstraction. As the title suggests, this is music very focused on frequency and stillness; the label says “The music wants nothing more than to calm and heal, especially in the midst of the pandemic.” Across the nearly 90 minutes of delicate, sculptural sound, Weber plays entirely acoustic instruments in such a way as to create chiming overtones and undercurrents of gentle drone. This is perhaps one of the purest examples you will find this year of Brian Eno’s original description of ambient music (i.e., that it should be as “ignorable as it is interesting”).
8. Chvrches – Screen Violence
Chvrches has always excelled at maximalist and surprisingly dark synth pop, and Screen Violence is likely the finest of their albums to date. This is the case not because of any significant change in their sound or songwriting style, but simply on the bulletproof strength and immaculate production of these ten songs. Screen Violence does not particularly sound like Ray of Light-era Madonna raised on Nine Inch Nails, but that might give you a sense of the general vibe. Lauren Mayberry’s acidic lyrics continue to cut surprisingly sharply due to the contrast with the jewel-clear purity of her singing. Robert Smith sings an excellent guest spot on “How Not to Drown,” but it actually might be “Final Girl” that feels most like a Bloodflowers outtake.
7. Bicep – Isles
Bicep’s second album Isles is an ebullient, playful trip of surprising depth, because the surface-level brightness and trance-adjacent tones reveal a somewhat more ruminative vibe underneath. A song like “Cazenove” is a bit reminiscent of Ellen Allien’s collaboration with Apparat, while “Apricots” flirts with dub and shuffling garage before following its vocal sample into rave territory. Even when there’s a hint of harder edges, as on the shuffling drumkit on “Sundial,” that roughness resolves into openness and guarded optimism. It’s more for home listening than the club, but it will still get your feet moving to a new energy.
6. The Weather Station – Ignorance
Ignorance is a beautiful, mostly low-key album of indie rock/folk from Tamara Lindeman’s Weather Station, which will likely resonate with fans of both Laura Marling and Aimee Mann. Lindeman’s voice is close to the ear, mostly low and casual, but with a falsetto-ish ability to flit high without straining. Despite the full range of instrumentation present across the album, the production and presentation are refreshingly no-nonsense, and even when things get slightly busier or propulsive, there’s always an intimate hush. These songs, initially so direct and unassuming, will bury themselves in your subconscious, and as such they have kept me company throughout the year in ways that continue to surprise and reward careful listening.
5. Giant Sky – Giant Sky
To be honest, I don’t feel particularly qualified to analyze and dissect Giant Sky’s swirling, intoxicating debut album. As a side project of Soup’s Erlend Viken, Giant Sky naturally lands in vaguely similar modern progressive rock territory, but there is enough emphasis on electronics, space rock, folk, and psychedelia that it fully inhabits its own universe. So yes, you may hear Pink Floyd or modern Anathema or even Fairport Convention, but ultimately the more you sink into its rich atmosphere and beautiful vignettes, the more it will sound like nothing but Giant Sky.
4. Skee Mask – Pool
The way in which Skee Mask’s Pool was released with little warning or fanfare this spring belies the massive scope and breadth of this brilliantly detailed triple album. Ambient, breakbeat (“Dolan Tours” is a percussion workout), IDM, acid (“60681z”), and more clang into each otherand then dissolve into separate, ahem, pools. The squelching bass on “Nvivo” feels like a vintage Squarepusher move, while “CZ3000 Dub” sounds like a music box or calliope being shouted down by an alternately pounding and shuffling techno beat. The sheer diversity of styles on offer might be overwhelming if Skee Mask didn’t infuse everything with a warm, playful precision that makes Pool feel something like a spiritual cousin to Aphex Twin’s Syro.
3. Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
Vulture Prince is an album that I can describe for you, but that can’t be fully understood without simply sitting and letting it pool all around you. It is an absolutely stunning, deeply melancholy album anchored by the arresting power of Aftab’s voice. The instrumentation is sparse but rich, with harp, strings, piano, bass, and guitar playing languid phrases to frame the vocals. Much of the album spends its time in small ensemble classical mode, but on “Last Night,” the mood shifts to a sort of late-night jazz club version of drone-dub. Vulture Prince travels between world music, ambient, jazz, and acoustic aspects, but as it was written in memory of Aftab’s younger brother, it has the feeling of a deeply shaded meditation on grief and longing. The only vague similarity I can muster is with Elina Duni’s Partir, but Vulture Prince is more singular, and almost wholly preoccupied with exploring all the possible facets of a very specific mood. Perfect music for late nights and quiet mornings.
2. Reptant – Return to Planet X’trapolis
Reptant’s debut full-length Return to Planet X’trapolis is escapist electronic music of the absolute highest caliber. The closest touchstones for Reptant’s sound here are the early British pioneers, particularly at the time when acid and rave were producing the leftfield offshoot of IDM most associated with Warp Records (and in particular the Artificial Intelligence compilations). Autechre’s Incunabula, Black Dog Productions’s Bytes, B12’s Electro-Soma, and even FSOL’s Lifeforms are all useful signposts, but Reptant overflows with modern production techniques that repurpose old sounds for new stories. The detail and depth across the entire sound field on these immaculate songs is also reminiscent of Yosi Horikawa, plus with the album’s concept centering on a sort of exobiological/pulp sci-fi archeological story about ancient lizard cultures, what in the hell is not to love?
1. Low – HEY WHAT
Some albums take you to a very particular space; others meet you wherever you are. Low’s previous album, Double Negative, was the former, a perversely beautiful exercise in studio manipulation that forced the listener to pull in close to follow the sound as it vanished into negative space. HEY WHAT is cut from roughly similar cloth, but the effect is far less starkly ascetic, and is crafted so that you can enter through its jagged highs and whispered softness, through its rhythmic insistence or its lilting vocals. However you need to be with this album, there’s a space for that.
Low’s songwriting is as patient and transparent as ever, and while there’s still significant production wizardry in chopping Sparhawk’s and Parker’s vocals (and even more in treating Sparhawk’s guitar), the songs are given more space to radiate as themselves. Lead single “Days Like These” was a fitting preview, opening with relatively little adornment before the subsequent verse becomes more and more distorted, the human voice fighting to maintain its dignity above the increasing din and chaos.
Low’s greatest asset has always been their ability to make simple, often glacially unfolding musical statements seem like revelation and bedrock truth, and on HEY WHAT they do so with eruptions of brutal noise (the savage and hugely satisfying guitar hook of “More”) meditative ambient calm (the plangent back-half of “Hey”), and soulful pleading (the gorgeously unhindered and plainspoken devotional “Don’t Walk Away”). The most stirring song, though, might be “Disappearing,” where the guitar is panned and faded in such a way as to mimic the lapping of waves against the shore. Parker and Sparhawk join for a wordless chorus as the instruments crackle and threaten to overwhelm, before the final verse paints the perfect image of how to take solace in the recognition of our utter smallness:
“That disappearing horizon / It brings cold comfort to my soul;
An ever-present reminder, / The constant face of the unknown.”
The final downbeat of the closing track chimes like a bell dissolving into digital noise and floating back into the universe that birthed it. This album is a blessing.
HEY HOW ABOUT SOME JAZZ
I sure do also love a lot of that squeedly-dee and shoo-be-dee-bop and rat-a-tat-a-ma-tat noise they call jazz, but I sometimes get the impression that is not an experience shared by all. If you don’t much care for jazz, that’s fine! But also, think about it like you might think about heavy metal (since you are a fine and cultured reader of this fine and cultured website): if somebody tells you flat-out they don’t like any heavy metal, you’d likely think, “Okay, but have you tried this?” There’s a shoe for every foot is my point, and just like you don’t need to give your niece who heard a Pantera song on Sirius XM a list of the 75 industrial black metal albums she needs to hear immediately, I don’t need to cram a whole syllabus of swing down your gullet. Here are 15 jazz albums from this overflowing year that might point the way, so take a dip wherever you like and see if anything fires up the ol’ noggin. And if not, that’s fine!
15. Terence Blanchard – Absence
Absence is dedicated to Wayne Shorter (an easy pick for any list of greatest saxophonists of all-time), and Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective (alongsidethe Turtle Island Quartet) pays tribute through a selection of Shorter pieces and original compositions inspired by Shorter’s life and work. This is a thoroughly modern sort of jazz album, so in addition to plenty of hotly blown and squealing trumpet from Blanchard, it also pulls in elastic funk and R&B moves alongside expansive, relaxed pianoscapes. A shapeshifting, often rhapsodic tribute to a titan of the form.
14. Patricia Brennan – Maquishti
The risk of a solo jazz album based on a single instrument is that it can lock the player into a limited tonal range. Maquishti, however, sees Patricia Brennan explore a dizzying array of sounds of styles on the vibraphone and marimba, coaxing out expected chiming overtones but also curious suspensions and electronic treatments. It’s a beautiful, mysterious, evocative, exploratory album that approaches jazz as deconstruction, though not so much just to take it apart as to imagine the other ways it might have been built. (For another album exploring the many possibilities of focused instrumentation, try Susie Ibarra’s Talking Gong.)
13. Julian Lage – Squint
Squint is Julian Lage’s debut album as a leader on Blue Note, but the guitarist (though still a tender 33) has been playing at jazz’s highest level for more than two decades. Here in a straightforward trio format with Jorge Roeder on bass and Dave King (notably of the Bad Plus) on drums, these eleven pieces are often loving nods to tradition while squiggling off in unexpected directions. Lage can be fiery or focused, but some of the most satisfying moves come from sitting deep back into the blues and finding new paths out.
12. The Cookers – Look Out!
The Cookers have a large enough lineup to sound as powerful as a big band, but their charts are fully in thrall to bop. Two trumpets, two saxophones, bass, drums, piano, and enough swinging, duck-and-jiving swagger to fill several dance cards, The Cookers are a group of seasoned veterans playing with such force of will and close listening that you could almost mistake them for recent conservatory grads playing for their first paycheck. “Somalia” and “Traveling Lady” are some of the finest rhythm curves, but front to back this one… well… [sigh] it really cooks.
11. Jennifer Wharton’s Bonegasm – Not a Novelty
As a former jazz trombonist myself, an album like this was always going to hit a sweet spot. Bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton leads this excellent ensemble with a frontline of four trombones alongside piano, bass, drums, and additional percussion. Despite being such a brass-heavy album, these arrangements move with significant lightness whether featuring close, composed harmony lines or individual solos. “Union Blues” digs its heels in way behind the beat, while the opener “BonGasmo” is a shuffling Cuban workout. The ballad arrangement of Tori Amos’s “Twinkle” is nearly unrecognizable, and the closing take on Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried to Live” is just the opposite: a lovingly straight take featuring Kurt Elling on vocals.
10. Mathias Eick – When We Leave
Yes, ECM Records has a type, so if you know that type and dig that sound, rest assured that When We Leave is absolutely worth your time. This is largely hushed, immaculately recorded Nordic jazz that features delicate interplay between Eick’s trumpet and particularly Håkon Aase’s violin. The ensemble features two drummers, but their effect is more to provide a broader range of texture than to fill the screen, and the occasional coloring of pedal steel furthers the sense that this is music glinting and gliding over newfallen snow. (Daniel Herskedal’s Call for Winter is another winner from this year in a somewhat similar vein.)
9. Balimaya Project – Wolo So
Yes, This Is Probably Sort Of Cheating, Part 1. London’s Balimaya Project are rather far removed from anything resembling a ‘pure’ jazz tradition, but what they are instead is an unstoppable force of rhythm and joy. Bringing together the polyrhythms and instrumentation of West African music with London’s already wide-listening and diasporic jazz community, Wolo So is an infectiously fun album bristling with energy and capped by a horn frontline that sounds large enough to staff up several New Orleans brass bands at once. Bandleader Yahael Camara Onono’s djembe often leads the way, but this is fully communal music, of and for all the peoples. (For another look at jazz’s sympathetic intersection with other local music traditions, be sure to check out the Brazilian carnaval fusion of Thiago França’s The Importance of Being Espetacular.)
8. Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
Sons of Kemet’s fourth album is every bit as propulsive and rhythmically infectious as we’ve come to expect, with a continued and sustained focus on intensity not so much out of fiery individual solos, but laser-honed collective grooves. Theon Cross’s tuba brings the low-end funk, and Shabaka Hutchings’s tenor is just as likely to stutter around the multiple-percussionist beat as it is to spiral off into mini-fugues. This is proudly polemical music whose righteous indignation does absolutely nothing to blunt the sheer enjoyment of it.
7. Amanda Whiting– After Dark
Amanda Whiting’s tenure playing as part of Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra carries into After Dark, a beautiful oasis of calm and nocturnal atmosphere. Whiting plays the harp primarily as an unfussy melodic instrument, so After Dark has the character of a classic piano-led jazz trio. There are some moments of slightly more modern-leaning omnivorous jazz/soul/funk, but overall the album falls on the plaintive, classicist side of the more spiritual tendencies of a precursor like Alice Coltrane. I reached for this album again and again this year when I needed to slow and steady my breathing. (For an even broader fusion of harp-led jazz/R&B/kitchen sink, don’t miss Brandee Younger’s Somewhere Different.)
6. Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo – El Arte del Bolero
The notion of the ‘great American songbook’ or ‘jazz standards’ is pretty well baked into the general cultural understanding of jazz in the US, but Miguel Zenón’s and Luis Perdomo’s beautifully sympathetic El Arte del Bolero can be viewed through a similar lens. This is a live recording of the alto saxophonist and pianist recorded in September 2020, running through a set of classic boleros (roughly speaking, Latin American ballads with origins in Cuban music) that are as much a part of their pre-cognitive musical vocabulary as “Autumn Leaves” or “In a Sentimental Mood” were to another generation. These are wonderfully lyrical versions, with Zenón often taking extended, unaccompanied passes at the melody, but Perdomo supports and offsets him wonderfully. This is a conversation between two musicians at a point in time, but it’s also a conversation with history (as, one could argue, is always the case with jazz).
5. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels – Tone Poem
On his third album with the Marvels, Charles Lloyd opts to avoid any vocals, but the album is hardly any less lyrical as a result. Lloyd’s saxophone (and occasional flute) are alternately playful and contemplative, leading the group through refreshingly light takes on Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Leonard Cohen pieces, among others. Bill Frissell’s guitar and Greg Leisz’s pedal steel trade effortless melodicism as well, and the whole ensemble locks into free-spirited, open-hearted conversation. Simply a balm.
4. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
Yes, This Is Probably Sort Of Cheating, Part 2: Sure, you can trace plenty of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio’s sound back to a certain lineage of jazz organ that includes names like Shirley Scott and Jimmy Smith, but there’s a whole hell of a lot more funk and soul than there is jazz in this rowdy, endlessly danceable brew. But if there’s one thing jazz excels at, it’s collecting influences from wherever convenient and fusing them back into its DNA. The trio’s sparse personnel means that deep grooves carry the day, allowing Lamarr’s organ or Jimmy James’s guitar to spin out a solo or lead, but there’s plenty of vamping across the board. It ain’t exactly jazz and ain’t exactly rock, and it might appeal to fans of the Daptone stable or even Khruangbin, but whatever you call it, get this elixir into your ears as soon as possible.
3. Dopolarians – The Bond
The Bond is… a lot. Over two lengthy, roiling pieces (and a third ‘briefer’ 9-minute closer), this six-person ensemble kicks out a free jazz ruckus every bit as simmering, soulful, tradition-agnostic, and joyous as the Southern cities that informed it (Memphis and New Orleans in particular). The Dopolarians’ original drummer, Allan Fielder, Jr., died in 2019, but his shoes are filled (spiritually as well as literally) by the outrageously talented Brian Blade, who gels telepathically with bassist William Parker (truly one of the giants of free jazz, having long played alongside Cecil Taylor, Peter Brötzmann, Matthew Shipp, and so many more). Churning blues, manic, skittering flights, late-night haze: Dopolarians speak in probably two dozen dialects across this remarkable album.
2. Ill Considered – Liminal Space
Liminal Space is a perfectly joyful noise, top to bottom. The UK-based trio of Idris Rahman (saxophone), Liran Donin (bass) and Emre Ramazanoglu (drums) plays in a very free jazz space, but interweave other tendencies such as spiritual jazz and hard-hitting fusion sprawl. (It’s not for nothing that this is the second album on this list to feature Theon Cross on tuba.) “Dervish” is an aptly named neutron bomb of destruction, followed up by the orchestrated noir hush of “Pearls.” Late-album highlight “The Lurch” hints at some of the same heady rhythms that inspire Sons of Kemet and Shabaka and the Ancestors, while resolving into a towering bluesy stomp that shows how aptly named a song it is. The album is a fully absorbing hour, but it’ll take barely a quarter of that to blow your mind.
1. Renee Rosnes – Kinds of Love
Kinds of Love is, in some ways, a refreshingly old-fashioned kind of jazz album. That’s not to say it feels stodgy or outdated, but it’s a five-piece outing of all original compositions between people who sound like they have known each others’ instrumental voices for years. Rosnes, the Canadian pianist and composer, is joined by longtime collaborators Chris Potter (saxophone and other reeds) and Christian McBride (bass), as well as Carl Allen on drums and Rogiero Boccato on percussion. Rosnes and Potter have some of the most high-flying interplay across the album, but it’s very much a full group give and take, with Allen and Boccato’s complementary styles a wonderful focal point. “Passing Jupiter” hits on a sort of space race optimism, while “In Time Like Air” pulls in some wordless vocals for a very Brazilian mood. “Swoop” is one of those great swinging showcases for every single player (and in particular for a marvelously fleet-fingered solo from McBride late in the tune), while “Blessings in a Year of Exile” makes explicit the sentiment that radiates from the entire album: it has been hard to be away from each other, and it is good to come together.
If you’re still here, thanks for reading. Be well, and be kind to each other.