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Iron's 2021 - Throwbacks And New Frontiers


A selection of music I listened to enough to have an opinion about.

As the title suggests, my year seems to have featured a lot of throwbacks: a new Stereolab compilation of archival material; a glorious Helloween reunion of all things; Sleigh Bells actually making a great album again; and Pearl Charles channeling first ABBA and then Fleetwood Mac like it's 1977. (And that's not including the ABBA comeback which, unfortunately, won't make it to this list.)

At the same time, many great albums seem to be pushing the envelope or not quite sounding like anything: Low keeps reinventing themselves, Betcover!! is a delightful mix of influences hard to pin down, and when has shoegaze and emo sounded as fresh as the trio on Downfall of the Neon Youth and their respective albums?

Created by: IronAngel | 16.11.2021

1. Low - HEY WHAT (Ambient Pop/Glitch Pop/Slowcore. Not only have Low never made a bad album, they've also hit peaks steadily throughout their career: the flawless debut (1994), the ripened Things We Lost in the Fire (2001), the rocking The Great Destroyer (2005), the lush and exuberant C'mon (2011) - not to mention the best Christmas EP ever (1999). This latest stage in their career may be the biggest shift in gears, and it's a triumph. A lot like Double Negative (2018), HEY WHAT's celestial melodies are drenched in pulsating reverb. It's is harsher and louder than DN, and the clear vocals stand in stark contrast pretty high in the mix. Headphones mandatory. Highlights: White Horses, Hey, More. 4,5/5.)
2. Richard Dawson & Circle - Henki (Prog/Krautrock/Avant-Folk, or whatever. This is an excellent collaboration of one of the freakiest folkies and the most reliably interesting Finnish rascals. A concept album about plants, with Richard Dawson's laconic storytelling and hollering falsetto over Circle's pulsating, proggy groundwork. It is constantly engaging, surprising, and wonderfully organic. The opening track Cooksonia is a sombre ballad, and Ivy begins on a similar solemn note but soon grows bigger. More layers and dimensions get added, and the frantic Methuselah is a full-blown prog rock track. Bigger fans of Dawson have claimed it sounds more like his album than Circle's, but especially the last three tracks could be straight from some other Circle-related project, like Rättö & Lehtisalo or Eleonoora Rosenholm. The last track, Pitcher, is actually a reworked Circle song (Termostaatti) from a few years back. Unexpectedly, the collaboration seems to scale back both Circle's and Dawson's own eccentricities, making most of the album sound fairly normal, but it's no less effective for it. Fantastic songwriting all around. Highlights: Ivy, Methuselah, Lily. 4/5.)
3. Pearl Charles - Magic Mirror (Soft Rock/Countrypolitan. The piano chords on the opening track, Only For Tonight, borrowed straight from Abba's Dancing Queen (1976), announce a shameless return to the late 70s. The rest of the album pays homage to Fleetwood Mac's holy trinity (1975-1979), and there's also echoes of Dolly Parton's pop/countrypolitan album Here You Come Again (1977). So it's a very specific sound, pretty much the opposite of cool in the popular music canon, with soft and clean guitar, lush strings and harmonising backing vocals. At first I thought the first track was a lucky fluke, but eventually the rest of the album clicked. None of it is as bombastic and in-your-face, but the songwriting turns out to be really good. It starts with a perfect 3-track run, settles into a comfortable pace with one or two weaker ballads, and finishes on a one-two-punch of excellent songs that reveal yet a new side to the sound. Grower of the year. Highlights: Only For Tonight, What I Need, As Long As You're Mine. 4/5.)
4. Litku Klemetti - Kukkia muovipussissa (Art Pop/Synthpop. Litku Klemetti has been my favorite new Finnish artist of the last 5 years, and she keeps up her streak with a fifth great album in a row. What started as garage-inspired indie rock band and turned into anthemic schlager, The Doors-esque psychedelic rock and progressive pop, has now turned to synthpop inspired by Italo-Disco (and, it has to be said, the pop rock of legendary Finnish PMMP). The production is sleek, the songs are more straightforward than ever, but the inimitable sense for melody and quality lyricism is instantly recognisable. So far, the band peaked with Taika tapahtuu (2018) and Ding ding dong (2019), but this is still mostly as good as the first two albums. Highlights: Google Earth Rock, Kaikki mitä oon halunnut, Tour de France. 4/5.)
5. Stereolab - Electrically Possessed (Switched On Vol. 4) (Art Pop? Fourth installation in a series of compilations that wrap up rare, sold-out or otherwise fragmentary releases of their back catalogue. Stereolab have gone through many phases in their career. The material on this compilation is all (I think) from the 2000s, sort of spacey, loungey electronica and art pop. It's not the band at its most visceral, and the quality is a little uneven, but there's an album's worth of stellar material here. Stereolab is a band that works well on compilations, the drawn-out, hypnotic jams bouncing from one style to the next in the background. It's hard to rate this as an "album," but it's almost two hours of Stereolab. Highlights: Solar Throw-Away (original version), Dimension M2, L'exotisme interieur, Outer Bongolia. 4/5.)
6. Parannoul - To See the Next Part of the Dream (Shoegaze/Emo. Not sure what exactly about this album made blow up the way it did: at the end of the day, shoegaze and emo revival bands are dime a dozen. And yet: Parannoul does his thing so well. The opening track has the oomph of Sunny Day Real Estate’s In Circles combined with the dreamy fuzz of a shoegaze nerd making music in his bedroom. I think there’s a nod to Fishmans there too, in the great synths. A bit on the long side. Highlights: Beautiful World, Analog Sentimentalism, Age of Fluctuation. 4/5.)
7. Spellling - The Turning Wheel (Baroque Pop. Baroque also in the sense of sprawling abundance. I’ve seen so many names dropped as points of reference, but the album moves from style to style so rapidly that comparisons can’t capture it. Yes, there’s Kate Bush in the vocals of the title track, Tori Amos in the chorus of The Future, Vespertine-era Björk in some of the dramatic string arrangements and electronics. She is like Weyes Blood in writing ambitious anthems that deliberately tap into a formless nostalgia, and her plucky, whimsical irreverence is kin to Joanna Newsom. Her voice can be a bit jarring, and not all the experiments work as well, but the album’s treasure trove of fun ideas. Highlights: Turning Wheel, Awaken, Boys at School. 4/5.)
8. Midwife - Luminol (Slowcore/Ambient Pop/Shoegaze. Desolate, fuzzy, minimalistic and gorgeous. The dreamy vocals and sparse melodies might appeal to fans of Grouper, but most songs are built around plodding guitar riff that rather reminds me of Codeine or True Widow. The riff on Enemy could, in fact, be on a classic doom album. There's not a lot going on in a given song, but it's not-a-lot with conviction. Highlights: Enemy, 2020, Promise Ring. 4/5.)
9. Squid - Bright Green Field (Experimental Rock/Post-Punk. Squid trade in experimental rock that owes to post-punk, math rock, even krautrock. Their angular riffs and almost spoken word vocals invite comparisons to fellow Englishment Black Country, New Road and black midi (below), but Squid have a clearer rock sensibility. I even saw them compared to late King Crimson, and it clicked: they do groove like Elephant Talk and sear like Indiscipline. While the aforementioned two bands have a sound I like better, in theory, the songwriting on Bright Green Field is just plain better. Highlight: Narrator. 4/5.)
10. Fievel Is Glauque - God's Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess (Jazz Pop/Progressive Pop. A delightful and playful hodge-podge of influences. Clearly they draw from the same well of psychedelic pop and yé-yé of the sixties that Stereolab channel, but with a jazzier and catchier touch. There is something unfinished and amateurish about the whole thing, from the murky production to the short songs that are almost sketches of a single idea, which adds to the charm but makes me uncertain about its rating. Highlights: Decoy, Bring Me to Silence, Unfinding. 3,5-4/5.)
11. Darkside - Spiral (Experimental/Art Rock. Another project from prolific Nicolas Jaar (aka Against All Logic). Where AAL is rooted in the clubbing scene and albums under Jaar's own name lean towards ambient electronic, this is an organic and ritualistic album, built around looping guitar riffs and vocals rooted in psychedelic art rock - but it's rock only in the sense that AAL is house, e.g. a deconstruction and reshuffling of the genre's core elements. Jaar's trademark is close attention to detail, and these tracks, too, are highly textured, hypnotic and abstract pieces. I'm torn between ratings: the songs themselves are 3,5, but the sound is well worth 4 stars. Highlights: The Limit, Lawmaker, I'm the Echo. 3,5-4/5.)
12. Namasenda - Unlimited Ammo (Hyperpop. Namasenda is on the more conventional side of PC Music, with emphasis on sugar-coated melodies and a clean, glittering sound, rather than any abrasive experimentation. This is the utopian futurism that I like about early hyperpop: unapologetic focus on the essence of pop music. On average, it's a bit patchier than her 2017 EP hot_babe_93, but it's also over double the runtime. Great album that leaves room to improve. I think it's between Namasenda and Hannah Diamond to release the definitive hyperpop album that so many projects have teased but not delivered. Highlights: Steel, Unlimited Ammo, No Regrets, Shots Fired. 3,5/5.)
13. Helloween - Helloween (Power Metal. As good as you could reasonably expect from a nostalgic reunion album: it sounds like Helloween and has several cuts that could be on a best-of compilation. The collaboration of vocalists works really well. Especially Kiske is incredible shape, and Deris complements him. (Hansen is sadly past his prime, but we knew this already.) Out For the Glory opens the album with a riff and vocal melody that could be on Keepers, while some of the songs (Rise Without Chains) could be off The Dark Ride. The album is unquestionably too long, with some mediocre tracks (e.g. Down in the Dumps). If I listen to power metal these days, it's almost exclusively a few old favorites, but this just might make it into rotation. Highlights: Skyfall, Out For the Glory, Fear of the Fallen, Rise Without Chains, Robot King. 3,5/5.)
14. Dordeduh - Har (Progressive/Black Metal. I guess there was no point trying to beat the debut in its own game, so they decided lean harder into modern prog. The sound is a little too sleek for my tastes, but the songwriting is still excellent. 3,5/5.)
15. Kayo Dot - Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike (Avant-Garde/Progressive Metal. Toby Driver returns to metal after a few spins at synth-laden art rock. It's got moments of straightforward metal, atmospheric passages and sweeping proggy melodies. At times it's as heavy as Hubardo, but just as often it's as pretty as Coffins on Io. 3,5/5.)
16. Torres - Thirstier (Alt-Rock. Torres' debut was really important to me, with its combination of fuzzy indie rock, hearbreaking Americana and shimmering slowcore touches. The ferocious sophomore Sprinter was a more focused indication of where she wanted to go, but every subsequent album has moved farther from that first magic. As she's gained confidence and found her place and ballsy voice (musically, and in real life), some of the fragility has also gone. This is a cocksure, straightforward rock album and a sort of return to Sprinter-esque form, but not quite as good. Better than the last two, though, and some powerful rock anthems alternating with weaker tracks. Highlights: Don't Go Puttin Wishes in My Head, Thristier, Are You Sleepwalking? 3,5/5.)
17. Sleigh Bells - Texis (Noise Pop/Electropop. Over the years, their debut Treats has evolved from a guilty pleasure to a cult classic that anticipated the PC Music/bubblegum bass fad by half a decade. It's still top shelf stuff for sticky, sweet and abrasive pop. Texis is more middle-of-the-road electropop (with distorted guitar), but the songwriting is finally almost up to the debut's standards and bursting with joy. Their second best album. Highlights: Sweet75, Locust Laced, Hummingbird Bomb. 3,5/5.)
18. Natalia Lafourcade - Un canto por México vol. 2 (Mexican Traditional Music. Lafourcade has been on a streak of recording traditional Latin American music. (Well, I say "traditional", but I guess this is the equivalent of Tin Pan Alley in the US, i.e. early popular music.) There's strings, brass, accordion, acoustic guitar of course, and a bunch of collaborators. The arrangements, performance, recording, everything is top quality. I recommend the entire series (Musas vols. 1-2 and these two), but this is as good a place to start as any. Highlights: Nada es verdad, Tú sí sabes quererme. 3,5/5.)
19. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises (Third Stream. Mostly a Floating Points album, with Sanders providing sax improvisations (I imagine) and LSO bringing, well, the orchestration. The album is a single piece separated into movements, all connected by a childlike piano motif that repeats throughout while other instruments develop the theme and come into dialogue with it. The arrangements are top notch, the sound is pristine. Ultimately, I feel like the composition is little bit ho-hum and drawn-out: it works well enough both on the background and on closer inspection, but if it wasn’t Pharoah Sanders on the album, I’m not sure it would have stood out among all the ambient, modern classical and jazz hybrids out there. Lovely album, but no Journey in Satchidananda. 3,5/5.)
20. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END! (Post-Rock. I mean, it’s more GY!BE. It… does all sound pretty similar, doesn’t it? Expect the usual drones and field recordings before getting down to business. That said, this feels more memorable than the last few albums, once it gets to the small transitional piece, Fire at Static Valley. It’s gorgeous (although I swear it’s plagiarising Find Your Way from Final Fantasy VIII). The rest of the second half is great too, but the first half is boring. Highlight: Fire at Static Valley. 3,5/5.)
21. Black Country, New Road - For the First Time (Experimental Rock/Post-Rock. Creeping and angular music clearly inspired by Slint, but that skeletal frame is layered with horns, satisfyingly crunchy guitars, and a bombast and dynamism foreign to the math/post-rock pioneers. Sound is fantastic, while the songwriting falls slightly short of greatness. Highlight: Opus. 3,5/5.)
22. Danny L Harle - Harlecore (EDM/Trance. This a ridiculous concept album: four fictional DJs with their own styles host their own rooms in the Harlecore club, and they’re all playing some kind of unironic 90s re-enactment. I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for eurodance and Scooter, but fuck this is good. This is exactly the kind of stuff I’d hear as kid in the 90s or turn of the millenium. Highlights: like half of the album, but On a Mountain, Do You Remember, and the hilarious Car Song. 3,5/5.)
23. Erika de Casier - Sensational (Contemporary R&B. This is one of the sleekest, classiest, most consistent and collected chillout R&B I’ve heard. It feels silly to criticise de Casier for showing too much restraint, because that’s clearly her thing. The songs are all very similar, and that’s part of the charm. Still, I’m left yearning for a rough edge to latch on to, some cross-genre curiosity, a moment of letting loose. Trying to analyse the album, I feel like I should rate it lower, but I’ve listened to it a LOT. Clearly it fills a niche. Highlights: Someone to Chill With, Better Than That, Make My Day. 3,5/5.)
24. Pom Poko - Cheater (Noise Pop/Indie Rock. Noisy and upbeat Norwegian pop/rock with punk energy and a mathy edge. The songs move somewhere between Charly Bliss (Like a Lady, My Candidacy) and Sleigh Bells (Andy Go to School, Look), and the girly vocals also invite those comparisons. Highlights: Like a Lady, Look. 3/5.)
25. Sturle Dagsland - Sturle Dagsland (Experimental. Possibly the weirdest album of the year. Vocals that are equal parts intriguing and off-putting, a blend of genres from avant-folk to electronica. The first track could be Igorrr, and the second might be sampling Enigma for all I know! There's also some Björk and Sámi joik. The tracks are mostly too short and it lacks some cohesion or central push, but there are highly moving moments amid all the novelty value. Highlights: Harajuku, Waif. 3/5.)
26. otay:onii - 冥冥 (Míng Míng) (Post-Industrial/Electronic. Ominous pieces of abstract horror and frustration, otay:onii features influences of Chinese traditional music, droning ambient and mechanized industrial passages, and fragments of actual songs. No single comparison could explain it, but I can see fans of late 90s Swans or Lingua Ignota digging this. The dark ambient/post-industrial is nice, but it's the most successful with the "proper" songs. Highlights: Child No.22, Blackheart Breakables. 3/5.)
27. Fuubutsushi - Setsubun/Yamawarau/Natsukashii (ECM/Chamber Jazz. Three albums in a seasonal quartet. (The first, fall album titled Fuubutsushi, dropped in 2020.) As you might expect, the albums get progressively livelier and lusher as the year progresses to summer. If you’re into the ECM-style jazz drawing on classical and fusion in equal measure (e.g. Pat Metheny and Eberhard Weber), you could do worse than this series. Where ECM acts are often very cool and urban, this series is (as you would expect, thematically) more organic and closer to nature, whether due to nature samples or just the instrumentation (violin, guitar, different brass and woodwinds, and spare vocals). Each album is a holistic experience, difficult to pick highlights from. 3/5.)
28. Rochelle Jordan - Play With the Changes (Alternative R&B/UK Bass. Burial meets Aaliyah. Clearly, this should be dance music for sexy London clubs, but something about its mood calls for headphones and night time. There could be a 4-star EP in here, but half of it is filler. Highlights: All Along, Dancing Elephants, Love You Good, Next 2 You. 3/5.)
29. Laura Mvula - Pink Noise (Synth Pop/Dance Pop. 80s-inspired, bright and stadium-sized pop anthems. Sort of a bad bitch vibe. Mvula's powerful voice exudes confidence; even when there is sensuality and sexuality in there, it is a challenge issued. Visual references to Grace Jones, but musically closer to Dua Lipa. The album feels coherent, from musical style and production to visuals and lyrics. Doesn't quite cross the treshold of greatness, but a worthy addition to the recent 80s pop/disco revival. Highlights: Remedy, Magical, Got Me. 3/5.)
30. Sweet Trip - A Tiny House, in Secret Speeches, Polar Equals (Dream Pop/Indietronica. Catchy sonic candy. For all its apparent futurism (glitchiness, cross-genre exploration), it feels a bit like something that could have been done 10 years ago. It's got that same twee, hipster nostalgia that M83 (Saturdays=Youth) and Beach House trade in. I'm usually not one to complain about this (because I'm a twee hipster), but something about the aesthetic feels dated. A few brilliant upbeat bangers though: Tiny Houses, Chapters. 3/5.)
31. Vylet Pony - Cutiemarks (And the Things That Bind Us) (EDM/Electropop. This is a weird phenomenon: brony music from the awkward corners of the internet hitting the top of RYM charts with a splash before getting rating bombed. If you can get past the extra-musical trappings (or if you just rly love My Little Pony), there is some brilliant stuff hidden here. Stylistically, the album goes from hyperpop to alt-rock and pop punk to drum and bass or whatever, and not all of it works. Honestly, at least half the tracks on this bloated album are filler. But the best tracks are among the best pop of the year. Doubt I'll ever listen to this in full again, but dem highlights: Antonymph, Lesbian Ponies With Weapons, Wayfarer, Nonexistent Meet-Cute. 3/5.)
32. dltzk - Teen Week (Hyperpop/Digicore. Obnoxious internet music by a teenager that I should have no business understanding (well, I guess that applies to most of hyperpop/bubblegum bass). The few best tracks, which are when he comes closest to letting loose like 100 gecs or w/e, are absolute bops though. Highlights: homeswitcher, 52 blue mondays. 3/5.)
33. Radio Supernova - Takaisin (Shoegaze. This is some nice, old-school shoegaze in Finnish. Instead of the dreamy, shimmering dream pop end of the spectrum, they lean toward post-punk with a cold, echoey sound and a driving rock energy. Highlights: Tammikuu, Väkivaltaa. 3/5.)
34. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Carnage (Chamber pop. This is a very low-key affair with typical modern Cave reciting his lines over Ellis’s atmospheric backgrounds. As a big Nick Cave fan, I needed to include this, but honestly it kind of just washed over me. After the terrifying grip of Skeleton Tree, Ghosteen felt very meh, and I couldn’t muster interest for this one either. The time and mood was not right. It’s very sleek, pretty and professional, though. 3/5.)
35. CFCF - memoryland (Electronic Dance Music/Indietronica.)
36. black midi - Cavalcade (Avant-Prog.)
37. Zutomayo - Gusare (J-Pop/Rock.)
38. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Singer-Songwriter/Chamber Folk)
39. Betcover!! - 時間 (Art Rock.)
40. Tokenainamae - タイムマシンが壊れる前に (Shoegaze/Noise Pop.)
41. Lucid Express - Lucid Express (Dream Pop/Shoegaze.)
42. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - Candy Rancer (J-Pop.)
43. Grouper - Shade (Ambient Folk)
44. Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (Hip Hop)
45. Parannoul/Asian Glow/sonhos tomam conta - Downfall of the Neon Youth
46. Yukika - timeabout, (K-Pop/City Pop.)
47. Virginia Wing - Private Life (Indietronica/Neo-Psychedelia/Art Pop.)

Disclaimer: All top lists are unofficial and do not represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
[ More lists by IronAngel ]


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Comments: 3   Visited by: 9 users
21.11.2021 - 12:14

Gradually dumping stuff here from my playlist so as to get it done before Christmas. Three metal albums moved so far, clearly I'm in the right place!
27.11.2021 - 20:45

I'm very happy to see you making lists again here, as your lists were great sources of musical discovery a few years ago.
As for the albums, I am not familiar with 95% of them, which just makes the list more interesting and useful.
Giving my ears a rest from music.
28.11.2021 - 13:38

Written by mz on 27.11.2021 at 20:45

I'm very happy to see you making lists again here, as your lists were great sources of musical discovery a few years ago.
As for the albums, I am not familiar with 95% of them, which just makes the list more interesting and useful.

Thanks! I have a bunch of stuff waiting for verdict on my Spotify playlist, but trying to rate and describe the first batch before I add more.

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