2021 Ambient — Albums of the Year, 2021
Before I get back to regularly posting on the 2020 Ambient blog, I thought I would do a roundup of some of my favourite albums of 2021. Most of them are ambient, and instrumental focused, while others incorporate jazz, orchestras or house music. There's DJ's, producers, and full-band rock outfits. It's a bit of a mix. This just shows that 2021 was a great year for music, another year where music was not just a distraction, nor a crutch, but an aid for transcending the bullshit. I’m thankful for all these albums for getting me through this year.
I took a break from the blog over December, but I’m excited to get back to regularly 2020 Ambient posting at the end of the month, with a particularly wintery-feeling record. Until then, here’s 21 of the best albums released in 2021. Feel free to listen to this playlist I made containing tracks from each record while you read along:
Fresh from scoring one of 2020’s best films, Calm with Horses, Benjamin John Power released his fifth studio album under the Blanck Mass moniker, In Ferneaux. I saw him perform a punishing live set under Bristol Temple Meads train station, in support of Animated Violence Mild just before the pandemic, and been obsessed since. Everything Blanck Mass releases is solid, and In Ferneaux is no different. Made up of two tracks, titled ‘Phase I’ & ‘Phase II’, In Ferneaux is a frightful mix of hyperpop for a cyberpunk dystopia, industrial techno, and ambience that ranges from blissful to abysmal dread from one moment to the next. Coupled with vague collages of droning synthesizers and field recordings, this record exists as a memoir of Powers’ feelings about the darkness of the present, and the haunting of the past. Faveourite track: N/A
Nils Frahm needs no introduction: he’s at the forefront of modern neo-classical, a keen collaborator and experimenter. His Trance Frendz album, from 2016, recorded in an improvisation session with Olafur Arnalds over eight hours, is one of my favourite albums of all time. 2018’s All Melody is one of the strongest records in his discography, but I just haven’t kept up with his output since, until this record with F.S Blumm. Now I’ll admit, I’ve never properly paid attention to F.S Blumm but 2x1=4 is such a fantastic record that I want to take a deep dive into his back catalogue. While neither are strangers to dub, they find a common ground in which to explore and play. And that’s what this record sounds like — two old friends playing around and not taking themselves too seriously. Faveourite track: Puddle Drop
Mabe Fratti — Serà Que Ahora Podremos Entendernos
As the whole world entered lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in early January, Guatemalan cellist and composer Mabe Fratti was quarantined in an artistic community compound just outside Mexico City, where she began work on her 2nd album, Serà Que Ahora Podremos Entendernos (Will We Be Able to Understand Each Other Now?). It’s a beautiful, artfully textured album of cello, synths, layered vocals, and field recordings. The end result is spacious, often ethereal. Opener ‘Nadie Sabe’ sees Fratti’s soft falsetto over tightly plucked cello, while she uses the instrument to create expansive drones on 'Hacio el Vacío'. The breadth of emotion on the record is complex, Fratti’s lyrics questioning connection, seemingly haunted by questions left unanswered — and will possibly continue to be. Favourite track: Hacio el Vacío (feat. Claire Rousay)
House Music, Bell Orchestre’s first album in over a decade feels like an event. The Montreal-based sextet recorded the album at Sarah Nuefeld’s house in rural Vermont. Over the course of two weeks they would record improvisational sessions that took place every day, ultimately recording House Music in just one day. The members of the outfit were situated in different rooms of the house during these sessions, listening out to each other. While often cacophonous the clarity of mind and forward propulsion of the record is impressive in itself. Combing folk, post rock and improvisational jazz, House Music is spectacular and visionary. Yet another album on this list that celebrates collaboration. Favourite track: III: Dark Steel
Hannah Peel, just one of three Mercury Prize 2021 nominees on this list, finished Fir Wave in lockdown at her home in Northern Ireland, just a two-hour drive from where she was born and grew up during the Troubles, before her family moved to Yorkshire when she was eight. Fir Tree recalls the sounds of women who pioneered electronic and synth-based music, such as Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire — whom Peel has been likened to throughout her career. Fir Wave meditates on the rural environment outside her home, and the memory of her childhood in Ireland. It’s not all soft edges and soothing soundscapes though: there’s hard-hitting techno and glass-sharp beats aplenty that brings Fir Wave into the present, and Peel’s ongoing concern with world government’s lack of urgency in tackling the climate crisis, Favourite track: Ecovocative
Elori Saxi - The Blue of Distance
The phrase ‘The Blue of Distance’ was coined in Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, in which Solnit explores the nature of loss, losing and being lost, in its many forms. Here too, Elori Saxi reflects on loss and losing. Written in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York in summer, and on an island on Lake Superior in winter, The Blue of Distance first began as a meditation on the effect of technology on nature, but evolved into reflections on longing, memory, and yes, loss. The distinction between ‘live’ instrumentation and synthesizers is hardly visible on this record, as is the ecstasy of summer versus the low of summer. The sound of moving water drives the record forward, as memories and ruminations fade in and out of clarity.
Favourite Track: Memory of Blue
The Guiyang/Berlin producer, Pan Daijing, is a master of negative space on her third album, Jade 玉观音. The opener ‘Clean—月’ opens with mechanical spasms, a siren’s operatic voice calling out from some stranded rock in the middle of an incoveivable ocean. There are moments where Daijing is whispering urgent soliloquies directly in the listener’s ear, as if purging oneself of long-kept secrets, such as on 'Goat二月'. The album is a textbook on how to craft songs that fester foreboding, sitting in a room and watching the walls crumble around you. While there are small moments of reprieve, Jade is claustrophobic, often uneasy, and utterly captivating.
Favourite track: Let
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - G_d’s Pee AT STATE END
The seventh studio album by influential Canadian post-rock outfit, G_d’s Pee AT STATES END!, is their best record in a decade, in my opinion. The record is both aggressive and oppressive; it’s grandiose ‘symphonic punk’ (to borrow a phrase from Pitchfork) is sophisticated and powerful. AT STATES END is a march towards progress, but, for GY!BE, actually feels like progress can be reached; it’s within the people’s grasp. It’s also honest about the nonlinear trajectory of progress, and how some things must be lost in order to gain something better. For a band that’s mainly revered for their contribution to post-rock and ‘doom-jazz’ around the turn of the millennium, and who also took a decade-long hiatus between 2002-2012, AT STATES END is the sort of late-career triumph that shows Godspeed You! Black Emperor aren’t going to slow down any time soon. Favourite track: Job’s Lament
deathcrash - People thought my windows were stars
If you’re going to listen to one Slint-obsessed post-rock band from 2021, it should be Deathcrash. Technically an E.P, People thought my windows were stars’ three suites range from 6 minutes to 19 minutes long. Recorded throughout 2020, the record walks a tight-rope of humanity’s fragility and personal inner strength, incorporating hushed spoken word passages, samples, and American Football-esque guitar prettiness. — their music is hauntingly nostalgic. Students of the quiet-loud-quiet school, Deathcrash are less-in-your-face than other bands in London’s post-rock-and-punk scene, such as Black Country, New Road. But they are not to be overlooked. Their eagerly-awaited debut album, Return, is released later in January.
Favourite track: Bind
Members of Vanishing Twin, Tomega, (Valentina Magaletti), Raime and Blackest Ever Black (Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead) came together to create a suite of music that is discordant., aesthetically consistent, and moody. Moot! feels like trying to wade through a heavy current of mud, the only thing to hold onto is Magaletti’s insistent percussion. The terse grooves and textures on every track of Moot! could lock you in ad infinitum. Don’t let the costume of 90’s rock fool you — this record is mainly tension without release. Tracks like ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’, with it’s tweaker-nervy guitar strumming and vocal sample motif, suggest violence could erupt at any moment. I genuinely feel nervous when listening to this record.
Favourite track: No to Gods, No to Sunsets
While the sound of Space Afrika’s second outing is oblique; the emotion is not. Honest Labour reminds me of the slower moments of Burial’s Untrue (tracks like ‘Night Bus’ come to mind). It’s nostalgia and yearning, such as on ‘Indigo Grit’, coupled with the haunting of past experiences, where the two albums are paralleled. Honest Labour is also a homage to Manchester, Space Afrika’s (Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid) hometown. It celebrates Joshua Inyang’s Nigerian heritage, and the sounds their friends were making or listening to growing up — 'B£E' is a close example of the latter. It’s ambient in that it’s the ambience of the place they grew up in, the people they’ve known.
Favourite track: B£E (feat. Blackhaine)
BLACK METAL is, like many Blunt fans, my favourite in his discography — probably one of my favourite records of all time. While his released projects since, including ZUSHI and Roaches 2012-2019 have been ‘interesting’, they haven’t scratched the itch. So, to hear that Dean Blunt was returning to the sound and vibe of BLACK METAL in a new release was extremely exciting — and it doesn’t disappoint. BLACK METAL 2 isn’t just a return to a sound and feeling but a development of it. It’s familiar, although brief, and is ambiguous as is traditional Dean Blunt. But it’s also sophisticated, clear in ambition, and at times such as on ‘DASH SNOW’, it’s really fucking gorgeous.
Favourite track: DASH SNOW
Bicep’s sophomore outing, Isles, is dance music for the living room. While it has its bangers, such as opener ‘Atlas’, it’s not packed wall-to-wall as their debut, 2017’s self-titled, it feels edgier, cagey, almost. It flips between euphoric and isolation-induced aggravation. Titles such as Isles and ‘Atlas’, as well as samples of Malwaian polyrhythms and Bulgarian radio stations, suggest expansive meditations on the world at large, but it’s the domestic feel of the record that is most intriguing. Having moved from Belfast to London over a decade ago, Bicep’s Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson meditate on significance of home: of where you’re born vs where you choose to live, as well as the sounds of multi-cultural London; Turkish pop in a kebab shop radio, Bollywood songs playing from passing cars. Isles makes the city an island.
Favourite track: Atlas
In my opinion, Nicolas Jaar can do no wrong; whether that’s releasing music under his Against All Logic moniker, his own name, contributing to other artists’ records (such as Magdalene by FKA Twigs), or as part of electronic psych-rock duo, Darkside. A lot has happened in the interim between 2013’s Psychic, and new offering Spiral. However, this sophomore effort feels like a continuation of the former; a portal through time, connecting the two records in the universe of Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s discographies. Spiral throws everything at the wall; prog, psych, blues, IDM. This is the sound — not dissimilar from the F.S Blumm and Nils Frahm record — of two friends not taking it too seriously, and surprising even themselves in the process. This is just a really fun record, tbh.
Favourite track: The Limit
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
This album is described by many as a masterpiece — and rightly so. Every year has records that feel like events. In 2020, for example, we had Charli XCX’s forever, Billie Eilish’s debut in 2019. This year, Promises was one such event. Pharoah Sanders, aged 81, revered for his contribution in John Coltrane’s groups in the mid-60s, known for his overblowing techniques on the saxophone, delivers a career-defining performance on Promises. ‘Movement 1’, like midnight under a desert sky is quiet, celestial, Sanders in tight control of his playing yet as fluid as wind. The twinkling, seven-note refrain introduced in ‘Movement 1’ is repeated throughout the record’s 46-minute run-time, which gives the record this sense that it’s conversing with you. This is the sort of record every contributing musician will be remembered for.
Favourite track: N/A
Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet
“In the beginning, there was no word, and no I. In the beginning, there is sound.”
At first, I expected Menneskekollektivet to be another brooding, haunting release from Jenny Hval. But this record, a collective effort between Hval and Håvard Volden, is loose, exploratory, seemingly wandering a path of its own logic. These meanderings never feel egotistical or self-obsessed like records in this vein can sometimes be. Hval’s deadpan vocal delivery on the hypnotic titular opening track over sci-fi synths sounds indebted to Laurie Anderson. The beat that creeps up the mix, gradually replacing Hval’s poetry, is one of my favourite music experiences from 2021. In Jenny Hval’s universe, this record could simultaneously be the soundtrack to one of Hval’s novels, but it’s also entirely its own galaxy.
Favourite track: Menneskekollektivet
This, for me, is one of the most charming records of the year. In the time between Jeff Parker’s solo releases, I seem to forget just how much I love and appreciate his work. Then when he drops an album, it’s pretty much the only thing I’ll listen to for weeks. I want to tell everyone I know about Parker’s music. Forfolks, mainly consisting of guitar loops and improvisations, blends jazz and ambient drone into a warm bath of sound. Although released mid-December, Forfolks is music for feeling the grass on your feet, a cool breeze through the window of a hot car. After two full-band albums, Forfolks is quieter, more tender, without losing any of the impact. Favourite track: Four Folks
Black Country, New Road - For the first time
On paper, BCNR sound like my perfect band: self-professed Slint fans, spoken-word vocals, post-rock guitars mixed with classical instrumentation in the vein of Radiohead and GY!BE. However, when for the first time was first released, I didn't care for it, at all. It felt too close to its influences. Thankfully I’ve seen the light since, and this has been one of my most played records of the year. ‘Science Fair’ and ‘Sunglasses’ track youthful paranoia and anxiety in a time where nothing happens, but everything is overwhelming. The latter I can personally relate to, as someone who is Autistic and gets overstimulated in busy, noisy surroundings. Isaac Wood’s vocals on ‘Sunglasses’ is one of my favourite vocal performances of 2021. God, I hope they reschedule their cancelled Cardiff show soon.
Favourite track: Athens, France
When Arab Strap announced their first album in sixteen years, I could hardly believe it. Although they released their debut the year I was born, they have been one of my most influential bands. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to begin performing spoken word poetry at local open mic nights if it weren’t for Aidan Moffat. I’ve written about Aidan Moffat & Arab Strap elsewhere on this blog (at any opportunity, basically), so I might be biased, but this is a fucking excellent album. Arab Strap returned in full force on As Days Get Dark; a slight nod to the past on ‘The Turning of Our Bones’ (“I don’t give a fuck about the past, of glory days gone by”, but eyes firmly on the horizon.
Favourite track: The Turning of Our Bones, Here Comes Comus!
Low have been releasing music for almost 30 years, but they achieved a flash in a bottle on HEY WHAT. For a band who consistently deals in minimalism, stripping more and more components with each release, HEY WHAT feels like the final thing thrown in the fire. What’s left is just pure sound. Even the dual vocal partnership between Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk get caught up in the wash. The vocals on this thing are perfect, actually. Parker and Sparhawk’s voices cut, slip, and trip over each other, but always in motion. While the album nods towards folk, gospel, noise and drone, its inability to be pinned down is what’s so intriguing. I can’t listen to this without experiencing full-body sensations. HEY WHAT feels like it exists in a physical space, so much more than just sound coming out of a speaker.
Favourite track: I Can Wait, Hey, Days Like This
Home is Where - I Became Birds
Some of the artists on this list have songs longer than Home is Where’s debut full-length. Clocking in just under 19 minutes, I Became Birds is a manifesto for a generation of queer punk kids. It speaks of boundless possibility and inventiveness, while exhibiting confidence in one’s self-identity that is both impressive and charming. This is the sort of record I needed when I was a teenager, confused and angry but not knowing why. This is the only DIY punk/emo record on this list, but I will take every opportunity I can to shout about this record. I can’t listen to it without sing-shouting along, or tearing up, or both. Some of my favourite records are ones that make my skin feel super sensitive to every texture or feeling, that make me feel both present in the moment and rising above it, and I Became Birds is up there.
Favourite track: Long Distance Conjoined Twins, Assisted Harakiri
And there it is!
It’s been a great year for music. There’s a list of honourable mentions below, that I just couldn’t fit in. Every album mentioned here is genuinely special. It’ll be interesting to see what sticks with me from 2021 in the years to come.
For now though I’m just looking forward to continuing the 2020 Ambient blog. More on that soon. Thank you for reading along!
Bring on 2022.
Honourable mentions: Water From Your Eyes — Structure William Doyle - Great Spans of Muddy Time
Slowthai - TYRON
Injury Reserve - By the Time I Get Back to Phoenix
Spirit of the Beehive - ENTERTAINMENT DEATH
Foxing - Draw Down The Moon
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I’m No Longer Afraid to Die - Illusory Walls
Death Goals - The Horrible and the Miserable
The body - I’ve Seen All I Need to See
Virginia Wing - private LIFE
Lauren Auder - 5 Songs For the Dysphoric
Giant Swan - Do Not Be Afraid of Tenderness
cktrl - Robyn
Sofia Kourtesis - Fresia Magdalena
Upsammy - Bend
Click here to read the 2021 AOTY list from the Nawr Magazine music team. I wrote about Japanese Breakfast, some exciting new Welsh acts, and more.