The Best Music We Heard In 2021

In randomized order, here is the best music Howie heard in 2021.

Abul Mogard, “In Immobile Air” – The varieties of ambient music continue to surprise me. Mogard (a pen name, almost certainly) combines simple pitches and noise like sculpture, crafting installations I seem to approach, wander around, and gently walk away from.

Nala Sinephro, “Space 1.8” – Sax and synth sound like they were made for each other in Sinephro’s cosmic, jazz-inspired explorations.

Nao, “And Then Life Was Beautiful” – Nao’s singular unification of vintage and modern R&B styles. Taking her debut EPs together she’s one record away from acing the Five Album Test, and I don’t doubt she’ll get there.

Dosh, “Tomorrow 1972” – Minneapolis’ favorite multi-instrumentalist returns with a fresh set of jazzy, Steve Reich-y loop jams that both hit the old pleasure centers and explore new territory.

Reach, “Life’s One Valid Expression” – Listen to Reach’s episodes of The Long Play Listening Party to hear me stumble over the combination of craft and raw truth I hear encompassed in L.O.V.E.

Kowloon Walled City, “Piecework” – KWC put themselves through a crucible with every effort, refining their barely-controlled chaos further each time. Incredible heaviness achieved with a surprisingly small amount of actual distortion.

Bummer, “Dead Horse” – After the cacophony of the first couple listens passes, you’ll notice that KC’s Bummer are doing next-level noise rock composition. How they keep their riffs straight, I’ll never guess.

Hieroglyphics, “3rd Eye Vision” (1998) – The Souls of Mischief documetary “Til Infinity” (watch it free on YouTube!) sent me down a lot of rabbit holes this year and I haven’t yet reached the bottom, but “3rd Eye Vision” is a standout.

Bonehunter, “Dark Blood Reincarnation System” – Non-stop pedal-to-the-metal blackened thrash riffs that sound… fun! Bonehunter blend the joy of Maiden with modern agression. Killer mix, too.

Snail Mail, “Valentine” – Deceptively sophisticated writing. If the vocals aren’t your thing I get it, but I like them. It seemed to be a banner year for singer-songwriter indie (which I, admittedly, don’t listen to a lot of any more) and Snail Mail led the pack.

Stik Figa, “East of MacVicar Ave.” / “Joyland” (w/ Conductor Williams) – Stik, DJ Sean P, and Conductor cover a wide swath of hip-hop territory on this year’s releases, from the summer sidewalks of Topeka neighborhoods to the twisted reflections of funhouse mirrors. After meeting Stik through my podcast, listening feels like hanging out with a friend.

Dark Satellites, “David The Gnome’s Adrenochrome Thunderdome” – Within the limitations of my bias and involvement, I can’t stress enough that Drew earns this place on my list, album after album. There’s no better song in his catalog than “Well Hell.”

The Hold Steady, “Open Door Policy (Live)” – What if Craig Finn made a solo record with his band, and it was awesome? Great songs that truly unfold when the horns enter in “Spices” and roll on from there. “‘Cause they’re never going to love you that one specific way that you want them all to love you.” < dead > “This coffee’s cold / This toast is gross / I no longer see the romance in these ghosts.” < deader >

Ulla Straus “Tumbling Towards A Wall” (2020) – I’ve struggled to find words for how warm this record makes me feel. It’s not comfort food, though; it’s a new amalgam of gauzy synths and woozy beats. A little like… Kid A?

Milkdrop, “Thirty Eight” / “Wet Paint” – To my ears Milk arrives at the place he’s been driving toward for a decade and a half with these releases. Don’t let the fact that they go down easy distract you from their depth.

Lnrd d$stroy, “Snacks V.1” – Camping in the center of the Venn among producer beat tape, rap album, and lo-fi beat playlist, “Snacks V.1″s channel-flipping vibes hit just a little different than anything else. Oozes freshness.

Asterales, “So Easy f Royce Diamond” – My friends hit me right in the feelings with this one. I don’t know how you’ll hear it but it’s extra deep to me, knowing the guys behind it.

Medicine, “Shot Forth Self Living” (1992) – I don’t remember what prompted me to check out this old ’90s band for the first time this year, but their debut stands up alongside classics like “Loveless” and “Doppelgänger.”

The Best Music Cory Heard In 2021

Joe Hisaishi, “Spirited Away” score (2001) – Because of What Happened, I’ve been able to see SO many movies on my “Watch Before I Die” list. This Japanese animated kids’ movie from Studio Ghibli kept appearing at the top of “Best Movies Ever” lists, and I finally found out why. It’s a brilliant and breathtaking film that gets you right in the groin of your heart, in no small part due to its score. It somehow made me feel nostalgic the very first time I heard it.

Emitt Rhodes, “The Emitt Rhodes Recordings” (1969 – 1973) – The ’60s and ’70s were absolutely jam-packed with bands making astounding pop music, but because we already had The Beatles and The Beach Boys and The Kinks, many of them were lost to time. Emitt Rhodes wrote, performed, and recorded these songs by himself in his parents’ Hawthorne, CA garage (no small feat, especially at that time!). In another universe, he’d have topped the charts, but we live in this one.

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, “Soul” soundtrack (2020) – I watch a LOT of Disney movies now. Most of them are excellent. Soul is the story of a middle-aged NYC band teacher who finally gets his big break, then promptly falls into an open manhole cover. I am not sure which Disney exec loved The Social Network enough to get the NIN dudes on board, but they got it right. The guys made the perfect Disney movie score without compromising any of their values or becoming any less terrifying.

The Stranglers, “Golden Brown” (1981) – Their larger discography is OK, but “Golden Brown” doesn’t sound like any of it. It’s a harpsichord-driven psychedelic pop song about heroin from a band that mostly played new wave and punk music. According to the band, the song was a fluke that came out of nowhere and became their biggest hit by far. Maybe it was all leading to this song. It’s unbelievably good and pretty weird. I can listen to it every day.

The La’s, “The La’s” (1990) – Unlike The Stranglers, The La’s made records where every song stands up to the single. Which is incredible, considering how good “There She Goes” is. It might be perfect. I think it probably is. So when I listened to this record and found that all the other songs held their weight, I was pleasantly surprised. They are simple, catchy, and absolutely unique. They might have raised the bar too high for their own good with this record; since it was released, the main songwriter has recorded and shelved more records than most bands have released. Maybe one day!

Honorable mentions

My honorable mentions are really strong this year. Personally, I love them as much as the “best” music I heard above. I’ve listed them separately because their appeal may be more niche; the choice does not reflect my thoughts on the merits of the work below! It has been a phenomenal year for new music. -Howie

Czarface, “Super What?” – Like Wu-Tang crossed with actual Silver Age comics, pure old head fun.

Big|Brave, “Vital” – Genuinely mean this; I really like the song that Big|Brave continues to write.

Katatonia, “Dead Air” (2020) – This live-in-studio set was my introduction to the band’s vast catalog of goth metal, featuring more drum polyrhythms than you can shake a stick at.

Casual, “Fear Itself” (1994) – Another highlight from my Souls of Mischief-related sonic journeying.

Backxwash, “I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES” – Backxwash follows the Polaris prize-winning “‘God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It” by bashing out some noise-rap bangers without worrying too much about them; an ideal response.

Ghostmind, “Trill” (2020) – Until the next Ghostmind LP “Dark Blonde Light Brown” arrives I’ll content myself with this hazy collection of immaculately-played funk-soul-rock.

Umwelt, “Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation” (2007) – After deciding that Orbital Debris vol. 1 was an electro record (after making it, that is) I started a deep dive through electro history and found Umwelt, one of the hip-hop-meets-Blade-Runner genre’s most accomplished modern practitioners.

Wode, “Burn In Many Mirrors” – More arty black thrash fury. Hell yeah.

Selvedge, “Folk Physics” / “Circle Inside” / “Thresholds” – Excellent additions to the rapidly sprawling Selvedge Cinematic Universe.

Van Ripper & Galactifader singles – When Cory sent me a rough mix of “Extra Virgin” I thought it was a lark. An awesome one, but a lark. Subsequent singles have proved VR&G have legs, and I can’t wait to have 40 minutes of whatever this is to bang. Makes my list for the total transformation it contains and represents for Cory and Mike, as well as for the songs.

Jon Hassell, “Vernal Equinox” (1980) – I haven’t found a way to explain how ambient trumpet and congas can sound so cool and unique.

Kill Lincoln, “Can’t Complain” (2020) – I’m not sure if there’s any direct influence between early-aughts Lincoln ska-punk and this, but Kill Lincoln inspires the same level of jump-kicking with 12% more metalcore.

Tasha, “Tell Me What You Miss The Most” – Calling this “favorite-pants-core.”

Killer Be Killed, “Reluctant Hero” (2020) – In a better universe this would be mainstream, widely played hard rock.

Suckapunch Records, “Hit ‘Em Where It Counts” (2002) – Fun to randomly discover that Nick (or somebody) put the Suckapunch comps on Bandcamp so I could complete my collection. JV Allstars, Fatty and the Twins, Same Old Crap, Anchondo, Cuterthans; all the old Lincoln punk is here.