Monday, July 05, 2021

The Best Of 2021 (So Far)

The year's halfway point is a good opportunity to take stock of the music that has been animating my year, some of which I haven't had a chance to write about yet. As always, what constitutes the "best" is simply what has demanded repeat listening because of the way it connects to my heart, soul, brain, and body, not necessarily due to a higher level of "excellence" than the other music I've written about. Here goes nothin'!

Previously covered albums are linked to their original review. Click play here or on the playlist below to listen while you read.

1. Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It

3. Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days

4. Elsa Hewitt - Lupa "Rivers and streams feeding my dreams," Hewitt sings in Car In The Sun, a line that captures everything I love about her music. Part of the reality of flowing water is that it's "never the same twice" - but, just as the Thames is always the Thames, Hewitt's music is always an invitation to a universe of wondrously hazy electronic ethereality, familiar from album to album, but never precisely the same. The fact that I'm quoting lyrics when talking about Lupa is one aspect of what makes it a new step for her: eight of the nine tracks have lyrics, when usually the opposite is true. Often any singing she does is wordless, another texture in the layers of gauze she assembles. While she's still swathing her voice in reverb, you can read along with the words either on Bandcamp or within the j-card of the limited-edition cassette. Just as her music maps out a luscious interiority, occasionally defined by beats, her lyrics have the immediacy of conversation and the intimacy of a journal entry, like these opening words from Howl: "What am I up to?/I'm just upstairs, trying to cope with/Heavy wordless love in my chest/How do I continue? How?" In addition to this extra content, the rhythms are often more intricate and defined than they have been, a drift towards the shiny lights of pop music, and one which feels entirely organic. Squirrelex opens with another lyric that feels like a mission statement: "i am warm but not too warm/i am on a journey that i adore/i am like a shaman on mtv/the cameras obstructed by fog." I adore her journey, too, in all its warmth, chill, and fog.

5. Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments

6. Jane Weaver - Flock

7. Domenico Lancelotti - Raio

8. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

9. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

10. Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It

11. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

12. Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void

13. Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny HaHa In my review of her third album, Atlanta Millionaire's Club, I noted that Webster could almost be Natalie Prass's little sister. Now, on her lush fourth album, she inched even closer, recording some of it at Spacebomb Studios and engaging Trey Pollard, their in-house polymath, to conduct some of the arrangements. By leaning further into to her country-soul inclinations she also seems ever closer to her genuine self. One of my favorite songs is Kind Of, which also seems to be a deep cut, at least if Spotify play counts are to be believed. With an organ and pedal steel dueling for the stars and a guiro's ratchet sound driving the rhythm, she ends the song by repeating the chorus, "And I feel kind of tucked away," for over a minute before relinquishing the song to the music. It's as if she casting a spell - and I'm entranced. Kind Of leads into to Cheers, which has a grungy strut yet manages to retain a delirious melancholy, the two songs forming the backbone of her most consistent album yet. And I haven't even mentioned the brilliant Better Distractions, which even managed to attract the attention of Barack Obama, or whoever creates his playlists, when it was released as a single in 2020. I do admit that my devotion to this album is not hurt at all by the fact that Prass hasn't released anything in three years. It's not that one replaces the other - and I hope Prass is OK - but they hit similar sweet spots. And it's one of my sweet spots that needs attention!

14. Mallu Magalhães - Esperança If you want to know what a smile sounds like, listen to Magalhães sing "Chin-chin-chin chin-chin chin-chin-chin" on the chorus of Barcelona from her fifth album. You will soon be smiling yourself, whatever mood you were in when you started listening. As she revealed on Facebook, the album was completed over a year ago, but she just could not see launching it in the midst of the world's troubles. That's a debatable point, but the good news is that we now have this lighter than air confection to propel us through whatever comes next. Recorded in Portugal and co-produced by her fellow Brazilian Mario Caldato, Jr., Esperança finds Magalhães perfecting her sublime blend of bossa nova, fifties-inflected pop, soul, funk, jazz, and folk. Look no further for a direct injection of pure pleasure.

15. Christopher Cerrone - The Arching Path

16. Raoul Vignal - Years In Marble As on his exquisite second album, 2018's Oak Leaf, Vignal's latest finds him generating rainswept bliss with his fingerpicked guitar, hushed voice, and the sensitive drums and percussion of Lucien Chatin. However, Vignal, who also plays bass, synth, sax and bamboo flute on the album, is also coming out of the shadows a bit, with more uptempo songs and an increased dynamism to his sound. To Bid The Dog Goodbye, for example, has flourishes (electric guitar! bongos!) and stopped-tempo moves that evince a subtle drama. But the core of it all is that guitar, which he plays with the off-hand perfection of a Michael Chapman or Nick Drake. After honing his craft for the last three years, Vignal should be top of mind for anyone seeking the finest in contemporary singers, songwriters, and guitarists.

17. Anika Pyle - Wild River

18. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost With 2019's Igor, Tyler arrived at a new pinnacle of creativity and emotional connection, a trajectory he continues with this kaleidoscopic album. His ability to bare his soul while sailing over a multitude of genres, from synth-pop to RnB to lovers rock, with a casual virtuosity is truly remarkable. Similar to Frank Ocean, who makes an uncredited appearance here, Tyler is trying to reconcile where he is now - and who he is now - with where he came from. But he avoids solipsism by letting in the outside world through well-deployed guest spots, which do nothing to reduce the individuality of his achievement. One key feature is a voice memo from his mother describing her devotion in no uncertain terms: "I'd stand in front of a bullet, on God, over this one." Her concern somehow becomes ours and strengthens the bond between listener and artist. The centerpiece of the album is the nearly 10-minute Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance, in which he transforms two well-traveled songs (this one and this one) into a two-part suite of love and loss that dazzles in all directions. As a producer, Tyler is like a painter who chooses just the right color from a polychrome palette. In addition to the transformed samples, he adds RnB singers Brent Faiyaz and Fana Hues as the perfect surrogate and foil, respectively, to illustrate the story. Tyler's ambition is as massive as his talent and, at this point, it's hard to imagine the former outstripping the latter. After Madlib, this is the hip hop album of the year - and number three is not even close!

19. Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves

20. Patricia Brennan - Maquishti

21. Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind

22. Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago

23. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

24. Mndsgn - Rare Pleasure Sometimes an artist has to go backwards to move forward. Or something like that. Whatever the lesson, this third album from the composer, singer, and producer Ringgo Ancheta delivers on all the promise in his first, 2014's Yawn Zen in ways I couldn't even imagine, especially after Body Wash, the disappointing follow up from 2016. Richly immersive from the opening seconds, Mndsgn constructs something like the Muzak from a divine elevator, jazzy, woozy, and soulful sounds that seem to beg you to find a hammock immediately and just sway along. While wonderful, Yawn Zen, was just the bare bones of his heavenly vision. Inviting brilliant collaborators like arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to help realize those ideas is just one reason Rare Pleasure succeeds on all levels - and lives up to its title perfectly.

25. Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince

Keep up with all my listening across all genres in these playlists: 
Of Note In 2021
Of Note In 2021 (Classical)
Of Note In 2021 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2021 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2021 (Jazz, Latin & Global)
Of Note In 2021 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2021 (Out Of The Past)

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020 (So Far)
Best Of 2019 (So Far)
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

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