Thursday, December 02, 2021

Favorite records of the second half of 2021

Rather than doing a firm "best records of 2021" post, consider this the continuation of a list I began in the middle of the year. Again, I'm not necessarily trying to offer a firm or definitive ranking, as the fact that I'm not reshuffling those earlier entries among these for a definitive numbered order should indicate. There are small sub-sections based around genre for the sake of aiding a reader trying to understand what parts of this list they will agree with enough to explore further.

However, right up top, before discussing anything else, I have to acknowledge an archival release, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live In Seattle. It might be easy to lose track of how good John Coltrane is, if you live in record-collector-head-land, where obscurity is a virtue. If you're used to appreciating tapes released by Alice Coltrane during her ashram days, being reminded of the monumental quality of A Love Supreme takes a different set of ears, almost. Like, by being attuned to the small and quiet, the large and forthright announces itself in such a way that you don't feel the need to engage with it. The way jazz works within the moment so often resists the album statement that the existence of a great album, while it might be useful to the uninitiated, almost seems besides the point. Recasting A Love Supreme as something more far out, one is reminded of some very fundamental truths about the power of music. 

I hesitate to use language to characterize any of those powers, besides to suggest that they're beyond genre, as the rest of the list should indicate.

Lil Ugly Mane - Volcanic Bird Enemy And The Voiced Concern. Totally different sound and vibe than what listeners have come to expect from this artist, coming closer to trip-hop or nineties alt-rock. It's interesting that these influences come from roughly the same chronological period as the Memphis rap sounds on Mista Thug Isolation, like the idea of "progression" as a linear path is being resisted, in favor of a sideways or serpentine movement. I get why people are disappointed in this or didn't vibe with it, as it forsakes impressive technical rapping and storytelling for an almost sentimental approach that always defuses itself with irony, self-loathing, and aggression, but for me it's a very comforting record.

NTsKI - Orca. I am not familiar enough with contemporary J-pop to say how close or how distant this is from the genre's mainstream. I know Miharu Koshi, who gets a song from the eighties covered here. There's an atmosphere being conjured here, and it's immaculate. The attention to production detail that's a hallmark of the Orange Milk label is present, though this is certainly more accessible than most of what they release.

Damiana - Vines. Whitney Johnson from Matchess/Simulation, in a duo with Natalie from TALSounds/Good Willsmith. One thing I hope to never do again is livestream a concert, an entertainment option that emerged over quarantine. However, one of the best sets I saw in this genre was performed by Damiana -- not even in the same room, rather, the two of them had separately recorded music they imagined would sound good with what they thought the other person would do. Obviously this is more doable when you are doing sort of droney/loop-based stuff than any other kind of music, but still the fact that it succeeded so well seems to suggest a telepathic bond between the two ladies. Both play as backing band on the new Brett Naucke record (which I have no strong feelings on), as well as...

Circuit Des Yeux -io. I almost went up to New York for the record release show for this album, but couldn't find a place to stay or another person who would want to go. Anyway, I did a lot of explaining what this music is like, in a way I thought would intrigue the uninitiated. An artsy balladeer, sorta like Scott Walker, voice sorta like Weyes Blood. It was the record label Unseen Worlds (on Twitter) that compared this record to Portishead's Third which is maybe the best comparison point though. The show would've featured orchestral arrangements and probably would've been sick as hell.

Sylvie Courvoisier/Mary Halvorson - Searching For The Disappeared Hour. Piano and guitar duets by two of the best in the game, fully adept band leaders on their respective instruments. I don't really have the time for solo instrumental records but a duo twisting shapes atop each other really engages close listening.

Don Cherry - The Summer House Sessions and Organic Music Theatre. Two more archival releases, coinciding with an exhibit of Moki Cherry's visual art at Blank Forms I regret not making it up to. (I was supposed to go with friends, plans fell through.) Don Cherry's music in this era is some of my favorite music of all time, and these two records, from 1968 and 1972, delineate that Cherry was moving so much in his own direction it's not really fair to characterize these works as being from the same era. Both approach the late-sixties communal utopia ideal in different ways. In 1968 he's stepping beyond "free jazz" to create a global music, and in 1972 he's gone several steps beyond that, to something closer to a folk music that's not beholden to a particular skill level but is incredibly moving. There's a handful of jazz musicians who have worked in radically different contexts and redefined genres through their sensibility a handful of times. It speaks to an openness and vision which is instructive and inspiring, and I'm truly grateful for works like this, that both fill in the portrait of a man now deceased and point to still unexplored landscapes.

Artifacts - ...And Then There's This. Great jazz trio, featuring Tomeka Reid on cello and Nicole Mitchell on flute. Mike Reed plays drums. The drumming is so restrained as opposed to most jazz drumming, which I often find a bit much. Mitchell is an incredible flautist, which maybe gets lost when she's leading big bands through concept albums about Octavia Butler. I love Tomeka Reid in most contexts, a student of Abdul Wadud who seems specifically interested in the in-the-pocket grooving of his work on the first two Julius Hemphill records, she holds down the lower end like Charles Mingus while also positioning the work in this chamber music space. The combination of restraint and melody makes me hear it almost like rap instrumentals or something, like the space being created is open to wherever your imagination wants to take you. Other tight records to be put out by Astral Spirits this year include Strictly Missionary's Heisse Scheisse. I interpret the band name as a Black Eyes reference, which it probably isn't, but they work a sort of jazz-funk-rock register with Wendy Eisenberg on guitar and it's not completely impossible one or two people in the mix might be fans of the weirdest band ever signed to Dischord. I also liked Equipment Pointed Ankh's Without Human Permission, which was co-released by Sophomore Lounge, and features Chris Bush from Caboladies, members of Tropical Trash and State Champion, and Shutaro Noguchi, who put out a proggish ECM meets indie rock solo record on Feeding Tube a few years back. That's from a sub-imprint of Astral Spirits that handles non-jazz, as the presence of synth and persistently rockish drumming marks it maybe a little bit closer to an instrumentals-only Faust or something.

Black Dice - Mod Prog Sic. One of my favorite bands, who are not just a "they need no introduction" proposition,  but actually an oft-returned-to reference point for the type of noise I like, that which does not present its overpowering qualities in monochrome black, but in variegated bright collage palette. They played a show in Philly I actually did go to, and while it is sad/weird/unsurprising they are still raging and playing incredible dance music while their audience is mostly men now aged and self-conscious to a point where they no longer elect to engage the music physically, the band themselves are doing all the right things, in an unforgiving culture of listening.

Hairbrushing - Unlisted Natural. One of the best solo "noise" or synthesizer records from an act previously unknown to me I've heard in quite some time. Not really sure how to be articulate about it besides saying it sounds like there's more than one person playing! And while there are guests it's not specifically on the tracks where they're present this effect takes place. How about: Like if Black Dice's "Beaches And Canyons" went spelunking instead. Or I think of a lot of these sounds as emanating from electrified slinkies, or microphones in the beaters of a stand mixer. Hailing from Louisville, much like Equipment Pointed Ankh, whose record this exists in the same universe as. I should also point out the new Olivia Block record, which I've only just begun spending time with but really enjoy.

Heta Bilaletdin - Nauhoi. It's easy to forget about Fonal records, and their documentation of Finland's psychedelic music scene, because so much of the work they release is of a high quality, but it exists in a world all of its own. This record, with its bubbling electronics, rich with rhythm and incident, is continually a "what am I listening to again?" experience. I'm not sure if the vocals on this are singing words in a language I don't understand or if they're genuinely wordless, or if they're electronically processed and cut up in a way where they'll deliberately unintelligible. There's a mystery to it certainly but it never becomes completely abstract, always remains rooted in the fundamentally approachable. Sort of comparable to those algorithmically generated images that look like photos of a living room that are slightly blurry that on closer inspection don't show any recognizable objects, but if they were a real space you could hang out in and have an OK time.

Stice - Satyricon. Duo of electronic production and vocalist, a la VVAQRT, but far more antic, both musically, and in terms of the performance style of the vocals. Songs are short, somewhat aggressive, but moving through a lot of territory - Maybe the most relevant reference point I can drop is that the vocalist was once romantically involved with and in a band with Machine Girl. I bought this in part because it came with a minicomic that's an illustrated lyrics sheet. Lyrics discuss piss, cum, shit, etc. Wire's "Mr. Suit" is momentarily interpolated, maybe accidentally. There is a sort of cultivated obnoxiousness to this that I can imagine aging poorly but I had these songs and their plentiful hooks running through my head a lot.

Boldy James/The Alchemist - Bo Jackson. I listed the Armand Hammer record The Alchemist produced on my first half of the year list. I truly hate that I'm at a point of alienation or disinterest from rap where the stuff I like within the genre falls within such narrow parameters. The other rap I enjoyed (from Ka, Mach-Hommy, Benny The Butcher, the Aesop Rock/Blockhead collab) is all pretty close to this small spectrum where Griselda's on one side and Backwoodz is on the other. The exception being when I got excited about RX Nephew's ten-minute song "American tterroristt" and texted a bunch of friends about it. Maybe this is fine for a dude of my age and ethnic background, and at least I'm keeping track of rap by checking in with Passion Of The Weiss and not The Needle Drop. The rapping's good, the production's good.

King Woman - Celestial Blues. Others will call it doom metal, but to me this feels like the heavier end of nineties grunge, like Soundgarden or something, to me, but with a lady singing. I don't mind it though, I'm on board. Still others call it shoegaze, which the band objects to on a "there's just reverb on the vocals" basis. That does temper the occasional screaming.

The Body And Big Brave - Leaving None But Small Birds. Two of the only heavy bands I routinely engage with and enjoy, who both made their own records this year of note, make a collaborative record together, but in an unexpected twist, it's a folk record, bordering on the sort of thing you could imagine playing at a coffee shop. Goth-toned, crows on bare branches, vocals slightly shrill, rhythms the sound of drummers used to hitting hard.

Mega Bog - Life, And Another. I think I hung out with this lady in college a little bit? I might have given her my copy of the Bone omnibus. The person I'm thinking of was definitely better friends with my friend Evan, who has since gone on tours with Mega Bog. Anyway, I didn't keep in touch, she may not have been making music when I knew her, and the intervening years' earlier Mega Bog records didn't connect with me, (I definitely talked with Evan through her doing a a solo set until we were told specifically to stop) but for whatever reason this clicks. This has some orchestrations, but it remains rooted in a Slapp Happy fandom of the lowkey freakout.

Macie Stewart - Mouth Full Of Glass. You might know Macie from Ohmme, one of the best live indie rock acts currently around, or you might know the name from various improv contexts, like these weird Astral Spirits tapes in duo with Lia Kohl. This is an orchestrated indie folk tape, maybe not too far off from the Mega Bog record but a bit more inclined to the overtly pretty. Peaceful spring day music, with finger-picked guitar and the percussive qualities of hand on instrument captured with engaging daylight clarity.

Insides - Soft Bonds. Was unfamiliar with this band, who've been around for quite some time. Before Insides, they were two-thirds of a group called Earwig, who put out a record in the early nineties on a sub-imprint of 4AD designed for more abstract music. Pretty sure the two members are a couple, this record has a certain intimacy/sexiness to it, that seems rooted in the atmosphere of the winter... The feeling of being in bed with someone while a blizzard rages outside your windows. Skin-to-skin contact even when not actually fucking music. A record to turn to when you want to relax, that's also the threshold of a discography one can explore when one wants to hear new music that explores similar territory.

1 comment:

Antonio said...

Happy new year! Just a quick note from the void to say that I appreciate your lists of music.