It’s been an absolutely gigantic year for music in 2021!
Despite all the chaos that surrounded much of the year, there were a fantastic array of music releases shared by both Australian and overseas artists to keep us mentally sane during this challenging time in our lives.
To see some of the Music Team’s favourite records of the year, feel free to keep reading below.
Rylan Blanch Selections
Top Australian Record: Springtime – Springtime
Honourable Mentions: Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram, Argo Nuff – annebolyn, Spirit of the Beehive – Entertainment, Death, and Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & London Symphony Orchestra – Promises.
Yautja – The Lurch
It’s unfortunate that “mathcore musician” might not ever be on the radar of high school career advisors as they guide mathematicians into the future, even if slabs of utter complexity like The Lurch present a phenomenal need for minds in the upper echelon of rhythm and timing. It cannot be understated the complete mindmeltery of Yautja’s mutant, ever-morphing sludge, which, on The Lurch, expands from their previous forays rooted in the crusts of punk into a percussion-led exploration of an idiosyncratic, bludgeoning brand of mathcore heaviness.
Recorded and engineered at Albini’s legendary Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, Yautja’s maximalist sound earns a proper balls-to-the-wall treatment, making these three fellas feel as confronting and enveloping as they’ve ever been. A guitar tone almost as violent as the infamous “Gacy’s Place”, bass that thunders and heaves in the muck, guttural vocals dripping with angst and simply unparalleled drumming from bloody-snared Tyler Coburn (of Thou and Inter Arma) transcends the dry mixing associated with many Electrical Audio projects into a vast, multifaceted realm.
The first three tracks king-hit you into oblivion with unrelenting speed and spiralling riffs, time-signatures circumventing headbangability for maximum no-strings-attached psychedelia. Even as the chugging riffs slow down into unbridled sludge on “Wired Depths”, Coburn’s double-kick onslaught leaves no prisoners. The two 7+ minute departures, droney “Undesirables” and the cathartic closer “Before the Foal”, dip into dissonant, anxiety inducing territories, handling an incredible weight in their plummeted speed. Though it’s the sheer intensity stacked within the middle of the whiplashing journey that is The Lurch that exemplifies the electrifying range of these musicians, with 6th gear rager “Tethered” breaking the speedometer in a fit of untethered angst, and the massive time/rhythm distorting splice of blastbeats and down-tuned chuggery “Catastrophic” boldening a highly original sound crafted only by Yautja.
The Lurch is an amalgamation of all points of angular metal stepped up in magnitude with the sharp accuracy of a marksman. Its warping atmosphere is commandeered by Coburn in a way so mandating and gripping that Yautja’s deafening weight should simply not be overlooked or compared. Prepare to be trampled.
Aesop Rock – Garbology
Aesop Rock and Blockhead hand-in-hand is a tale as old as both of their incredible careers, two iconic voices and beat-makers that have made an immense mark on the verbose and philosophical vibrations of the hip-hop underground. Garbology, however, is no throwback to the days of yore, of the overly dense wordplay and sparse instrumental environs of sparkling early-Y2K debut projects Appleseed and Float, it’s instead an unexpectedly playful and bouncy boom-bap escapade with considerably milder abstraction than what has become usually characteristic.
I say mildly less warped wordplay, but it’s still Aesop, and he has never skimped on a tongue-twister deconstructing the day-by-day with a healthy streak of mistrust and paranoia, so it’s not really much different on Garbology. Although this lane has admittedly been well and truly carved out over the last 20 years, his social observations remain phenomenally fresh in the turmoiled present as he pastes together an eclectic scrapbook that reflects a world in unprecedented disorder. Meanwhile, Blockhead seems to have reached a jiving splice of his stop-start minimalism of those initial Aesop Block collaborations and the deep, coffee-stained, crate-digging jazz reverberations of his recent tee-ups with underground new-waver Billy Woods. The result is a true two-man show where Blockhead’s heavily sampled aesthetic does as much talking as Aesop himself. They let each other breathe, and the resultant space allows for Aesop to minimise the lingo cramming (that got a bit much on last year’s Spirit World Field Guide) and deliver some of his most clear and poignant verses in recent times.
“I know every black crow in the city by its first name / And its surname, and its bird call, and its birthday / Look, I’m cursed”
From the psychedelic single “Jazz Hands”, to the brooding bass-clarinet, horn-echoing “Difficult”, and the fat boom-bap of spiralling standout “Fizz”, Garbology proves that Aesop and Block show no signs of slowing down. As you explore their earliest explorations together alongside this new era you’ll realise they’ve had this unbridled energy and synergy from the get-go, and with each decade and every evolution of both of their sounds, they’re still prospering and belting it together.
Squid – Bright Green Field
Working at a bustling beer bar in Sydney city, I’ve realised just how much the music within a particular space translates into a general mood and attitude amongst guests and staff. Manipulating the playlists I struck gold with the danceable punk of Parquet Courts and Talking Heads, Material and LCD Soundsystem, it seemed to nail that upbeat, boogieable noisiness that sets the venue weather to 27 degrees and sunny regardless of the fact it’s well past midnight. After a casual listen, Bright Green Field seemed to fit the bill with its jiving energy and unparalleled vocal bombast, and so “Narrator” found its way into the mix.
I can’t really describe the disastrous level of angst that seemed to pour over the bar, jump from person to person and instil deep looks of jittery uneasiness between stouts and sours as the bloodcurdling, cracked-voice screams of lead vocalist Ollie Judge and guest Martha Skye Murphy shot like barbed arrows from the Sonos. My boss gave me the look whilst he poured a shaky schooner for a customer who seemed to regret locking themselves into even a single beverage at a place like this. A dive into the emergency afrobeat playlist eventually evened out the evening and Bright Green Field was cast onto the musical blacklist.
So there’s Squid in a nutshell; pure, foot-tapping, art punk anxiety. Bright Green Field, their debut, lays down a very distinct brand of apocalyptic surrealism rooted strongly in the depths of driving krautrock with energy and maturity seemingly well beyond a first record. Amongst the dissonance on tracks like “G.S.K.” also emerges grooves so infectious that your gyrating hips are forced to counteract the raised hair on the back of your neck. Odes to James Chance’s no-wave fierceness is simultaneously ever-present and I can see Judge’s incredibly idiosyncratic vocal style becoming one of similar infamy looking forward.
It’s been a phenomenal year for experimental/art punk leaning records with Bright Green Field shearing a bursting pedestal of forward-thinking deconstructions of rock from bands such as black midi and Black Country, New Road, yet I keep returning to Squid’s first crack again and again in awe. Turns out, anxiety can be a ton of fun if you’re only inflicting it upon yourself.
Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8
An avant-garde jazz project protruding from Warp’s extensive catalogue of left-field sonic tours prematurely sells a experience worthy of a thorough exploration, so it’s no surprise that Nala Sinephro’s debut Space 1.8 thrusts you deep into a spiritual abyss allowing nothing else other than an earthly departure. Put simply, it’s a meditative foray into atmosphere building jazz-ambient unafraid to meld synth sensibilities of the now with soaring saxophone and glittering harps, moody percussion and keys that gently stitch together a surreal, borderline psychedelic pallet.
As the interesting choice of single “Space 3” sets in stone with its drumming sourced from Sons of Kemet percussionist Eddie Hick, Space 1.8 is not only a measured foray into calming ethereality, also diving into the somewhat chaotic, heart-on-the-sleeve rawness of what you’d expect from the likes of Alice Coltrane. “Space 6” exemplifies this fast-paced dimension with hairy, sometimes dissonant synths and driving drumming laying the base for Sinephro to dissect every inch of her horn in a stunning display of spasmodic virtuosity. Alongside the cool jazz fusion departures of tracks like “Space 2” and “Space 4” that neighbour consuming ambient voyages “Space 1” and “Space 7”, the record displays the incredible forms that jazz can morph into. Records such as Davis’ In a Silent Way and, more contemporarily, The Breathing Effect with their synthesiser-driven fusion Mars is a Very Bad Place for Love sit comfortably on either side of Space 1.8 as similar taps into jazz-ambient.
Opus “Space 8” closes the record in a stunning bid to lower the heart rate and smother the listener in a carefully constructed soundboard of warmth and otherworldly expansiveness. 17 minutes of spaced-out synth airiness and layer-treated sax paint a canvas with images of high altitude, meditation and neutrality. Its calmness is not dull, instead pulsing and lively in the fashion of a long hug as the horns ascend, circle and make slow splashes of unbridled emotion.
Space 1.8 is no less than something special, leaving you content and free of headnoise within a time period that seems to produce nothing but.
Skee Mask – Pool
The paths leading to the established manors that house the sounds of breakbeat and techno are well-worn. Decades of common time-signatures and floors beaten by the characteristic kick have only thrust the concept of a major evolution into a cupboard with a forgotten key. That is, until subterranean, subaquatic, simply submerged ventures off the dancefloor are forced by records and atmospheres such as Skee Mask’s Pool that prove that, maybe, the revolution is not a ticketed, wide-eyed, 5am finishing affair, but a surreal vibe crafted for the nocturnal individual at home, alone.
Over 100 minutes, Skee Mask renovates the groundwork initially crafted in his icy explorations of ambient breaks on 2018’s Compro, now diving headfirst into jungle speeds with a mindset concreted in dub ambiance. Delay, echo and reverb drench this dense IDM excursion, glitching into prominence with the stunning front-end trio “LFO”, “Rdvnedub” and “CZ3000 Dub” to chiefly substantiate Pool’s grip on sonic movements beyond the breaks. On that note, ambient passages viscerally connect each 150+ bpm jaunt in ways that do not feel like interludes, instead emitting a calming yet simultaneously electrifying tension between the skittering handclaps, snares and footwork tendencies of tracks like “Testo BC Mashup” and “Dolan Tours”. Other numbers dare to dip into the tasteful dubstep warble and some into hypnotic modular exercises, but all tread that phenomenal line of an armchair and a CDJ.
To continue to highlight the paths of electronic music that Skee Mask wanders down and reinvents on Pool would be simple, as it acts as an exploration and culmination of all until this moment, even leading beyond those tattered chateaus of the past to unpretentiously shape inward dancefloors and bedrooms alike to come. 100 minutes will almost always be too long for a singular chunk of listening, unless it takes you on a journey like this.
Lachlan Stevens Selections
Top Australian Record: Kcin – Decade Zero
Honourable Mentions: Remi Wolf – Juno, DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ – The Makin’ Magick II Album, Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost, Porter Robinson – Nurture, Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee, and Wiki & Navy Blue – Half God.
Snowy Band – Alternate Endings
Snowy Band totally smashed 2020 with the release of their debut record Audio Commentary, and only a year later, they were back again with an exceptional follow-up record Alternate Endings. Behind the band lies its figurehead in many respects, Liam Halliwell (also known as Snowy), who is an artist much like Sufjan Stevens in that he is always fascinated in exploring something “new”.
At the start of the year, I found myself deep-diving into Snowy’s enormous discography on Bandcamp, which included a range of fascinating projects ranging from drone sounding compositions, electronic/club driven tunes, extremely distorted folk tracks, and psychedelic pop bangers. There’s always something “new” to be found when listening to Snowy, and through Snowy Band, Snowy channels in some of his most wholesome material.
With Alternate Endings, there is a remarkable flow from start to end that makes the entire record feel incredibly interconnected. Indie rock anthems such as ‘Living With Myself’ and ‘Bitter Pill’ are contrasted by truly intimate tracks such as ‘The Last Thing’ and ‘Already Left’. There are also loads of epic moments on the record where the “band” aspect of Snowy Band is made very apparent. Take for instance the second song off the record ‘Whatever You Want’, which is full of these beautiful and luscious string layers, providing the song with almost a warm blanket of audio layers to snuggle in. To sum up, Alternate Endings is an album made for those Sunday afternoons sitting around with friends enjoying the happy moments in our lives. What else could you want from an album?
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
If my streaming habits reveal anything, it’s that I am a huge (and proud) Sufjan Stevens fan. He’s an artist which I’ve been aware of for quite a few years now, thanks to the film ‘Call Me By Your Name’ (2017). However, it has only really been the last two years of my life that I have transformed from being merely aware of Sufjan Stevens to being a gigantic Sufjan Stevens fanboy.
As a music listener, one thing that I find super exciting is when an artist is unpredictable. Sufjan Stevens may have one of the most diverse musical discographies I’ve ever heard, ranking up there with artists such as Miles Davis and The Beatles. He’s released pop music that is epic in scale, folk music that is quiet and ambient sounding, and music that is heavily glitch-pop/art-pop inspired. He is always brimming with ideas, and always testing new ground.
Ironically, in saying all this, A Beginner’s Mind is in many ways a return home for Sufjan to his early career, drawing on many stylistic ideas explored in Illinois and Michigan. For me at least, what makes A Beginner’s Mind so enjoyable is the fact that Angelo De Augustine comes as the leading collaborator on the record. Together, Angelo and Sufjan work perfectly across fourteen outstanding tracks and I am convinced I could listen to the pair forever. It’s also fascinating how this album came about, stemming from a sabbatical in upstate New York where Sufjan and Angelo watched numerous films together and used that as a means to create each and every song on the album. So as a fan of both Sufjan and Angelo, it was really no surprise that I’d love A Beginner’s Mind.
Blu – The Color Blu(e)
A close contender for my album of the year has to be the truly phenomenal release The Color of Blu(e) from the extraordinarily talented, and at times understated, hip-hop mastermind Blu. He’s no new face to the hip-hop scene, and many hip-hop heads are likely well versed on Blu’s collaborative project with his long-established producer friend Exile. Since 2007, Blu & Exile have teamed up to create multiple projects together. Outside of this, Blu has worked on countless other records with artists such as MED, Madlib, Sirplus, Oh No, and quite a handful of other notable talents in the hip-hop scene. However, I’ve tended to find many of these projects somewhat lacking in the charm and spirit that is instantly present on any Blu & Exile record, and even then, there has always seemed to be something missing in all of Blu’s projects, even those with Exile. Maybe, just maybe, it has simply been the fact that it has rarely been Blu, and only Blu, behind each and every song.
Thankfully, The Color Blu(e) stands to be Blu’s “bluest” album to date, and because of this, it excels above all the many records he has released in the past. Each and every song weaves in some kind of concept of what it means to be “blue”. “Blue” means to be confident in yourself. “Blue” means to be proud of one’s black heritage. “Blue” means we can be united together as humans. Blu simply speaks to our humanity like no other rapper (at least from my experience). The Color Blu(e) speaks to my soul, reminds me of my own humanity, and asks me to share my love with each and every person. It’s Blu’s strongest release and a true highlight of the year!
Kcin – Decade Zero
Despite being a year that continually surprised me with amazing new releases, one release has managed to outlast any change from the top position of my 2021 album ranking; that release being, Kcin’s ground-breaking album Decade Zero. Ever since this record was announced back at the end of 2020, my excitement for Decade Zero could not be contained. Single after single demonstrated that Kcin was about to drop a release that would obliterate my mind with its industrial heavy production and its engulfing sound design. When April 7 came and the album was out, my expectations were totally exceeded beyond anything I had ever hoped.
From start to finish, Decade Zero reminded me just why I invest so much time listening to new music. It’s not because I need to share what I listen to or tick off the fact that I’ve listened to every new major music release. It’s for records like Decade Zero, those which come every once in a while and make an impact that is impossible for me to dismiss. I’ve never heard an album like this before, and maybe I never will again. The fact that it exists is something I am ever so grateful for and all I can do is recommend that you give it a listen, as by doing this, you’ll hopefully understand just why Kcin is one of Australia’s true masters in electronic music.
Julie Anne Keast Selections
Top Australian Record: Baker Boy – Gela
Honourable Mentions: Crowded House – Dreamers Are Waiting, The Killers – Pressure Machine, Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth, Morgan Wade – Reckless, and Jetty Bones – Push Back.
Baker Boy – Gela
This was a tight go, I nearly did give this slot to Smiling With No Teeth by Genesis Owusu (consider that one an honourable mention) but Gela stole my heart with its story telling of Baker Boy’s upbringing and rise to prominence in the music industry that combines sounds found in pop, hip hop and even in traditional Aboriginal culture. An album very much aimed at shattering perceptions about his people with Gela being at the very centre of celebrating himself and his rise and his ‘mob’. It’s a hip hop/pop album that shows that hip hop doesn’t need to be dark and moody to tell a story and for that, Gela deserves all the praise.
The Pretty Reckless – Death By Rock ‘n’ Roll
This is by far the Pretty Reckless best album with everyone including lead vocalist Taylor Momsen on form, it’s a tight album with plenty hard rock riffs and bringing a blues twist to songs like “Rock and Roll Heaven” and “Harley Darling”, it’s also probably the most mature album the Pretty Reckless have ever released especially with everything the band have had to deal with the death of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (The Pretty Reckless had been touring with Soundgarden at time of Cornell’s death…the song “Only Love Can Save Me Now” is very much a nod to him) and the death of the band’s much loved producer Kato Kandwala (the song “Harley Darling’ is a tribute to him). If you love rock and post grunge (think the likes of Soundgarden) then this is an album I highly recommend you give a chance to.
Carly Pearce – 29: Written in Stone
In a year where the country mainstream in Nashville seemed to going back to the bro country of the 2010s in some ways (I am worried about where country music is heading), Carly Pearce’s 29: Written In Stone was like a diamond in an oasis of burgeoning rubbish where she writes about the end of her marriage with a brutal honesty as she confronts what happened and looks to take lessons from the end of the marriage into the future helped along by warm and rich neo traditional country music with the twang of the guitars and even pedal steel where necessary, this is probably the album to have a good cry to.
Silk Sonic – An Evening with Silk Sonic
An immaculately Bootsy Collins produced album that quite often feels a lot shorter than its run time of 31 minutes thanks to how much fun it is to listen to. Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak bring the joy, humour and charisma for a throwback to 70s soul, funk and disco and it absolutely works in the best way possible with Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak bouncing off each other effortlessly without ever feeling like either of them are forcing it with Bruno bringing the vocals and Anderson bringing the charisma and fun to the songs like “Smoking Out the Window” plus I doubt there’s anyone else in music who could have the suave and cheekiness to pull off a song like “Fly As Me”.
Declan Gray Selections
Top Australian Record: Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
Honourable Mentions: black midi – Cavalcade, MindSpring Memories – Soul Visioning, Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix, death’s dynamic shroud.wmv – Faith in Persona, dodie – Build a Problem, Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic, and 👁🗨📲 (Eyeclick) – 01-999-6363 拨号上网 sexxxline.
Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
Genesis Owusu’s debut album is an absolute treat, a slurry of creative, witty and charming neo-soul with experimental ideas and confident rap passages, all brilliantly structured at an hour-long runtime, from its already off-the-wall opening tracks to the peaceful and whimsical tracks that close off the record, Genesis is an artist to keep a firm eye on for the foreseeable future!
hyphyskazerbox – Headache Bait
hyphyskazerbox is one of the most underrated and overlooked electronic producing talents of the past decade, and she proves that yet again with her most career-defining record to date. An hour-long barrage of hardcore breaks, footwork, wonky and more, an intense marathon of relentless bangers and an avalanche of incredibly creative sample chops all summarise this package into a ball of relentless chaos.
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Little Simz’ metamorphosis into one of the most conscious and impressive rappers of recent memory finally pays off with SIMBI, an absolutely gorgeous and captivating narrative evaluating all of her life and traumas from political to personal as she breaks down conventional barriers and gives us an orchestral hip hop record to be remembered for the rest of the decade.
NYSE – MILLENNIALISM
My favourite vaporwave album of the year, NYSE’s sophomore album is an absolutely engulfing display of samples suffocating like a humid summer day in the city. Themes of corporate business and capitalist populations are brilliantly captured here, with absolutely thick beats and a blast-from-the-past array of samples perfectly collaged on display to be seen through a shop window.
Black Country, New Road – For the first time
This is one of the best debuts of the decade so far. A massive British experimental rock act, topped with people on synths, brass and strings, bring together an immersive collection of suites that satirise modern culture while also talking biting intimate forms of storytelling through that same satire, with some of the most intense builds of the entire year and some of the most beautiful and serene passages to boot.
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