Mx. Zoe! is a really cool noise musician who has made great effort to share 33 very interesting albums, many of which I had not heard myself until putting up this article. From microtonal black metal to rap and a bunch of stuff I can’t accurately genre. Check out their twitter for a good follow.
I’m really grateful that the incredibly kind people at Noob Heavy asked me to submit a year-end list. This year yielded an embarrassment of riches, to put it mildly. So much had to be left off this list, just for practical purposes. Each choice felt like a major sacrifice, several decisions will most likely haunt me for years–not to mention the albums released so far this month that we simply don’t have the bandwidth to become intensely familiar with before year’s end. Anyway, in no particular order, here are the 33 albums that I found myself listening to most regularly during this past year, because I simply could not narrow it down any further. So without any further ado, in no particular order:
33. Plague Organ – Orphan
Consisting of a single 40-minute track, this epic of experimental kraut-metal is simply massive. A monomaniacal slab of pounding blast beats and chugging guitars, this album conjures a windswept, witchy doominess that I haven’t heard anywhere else. It’s eerie and oddly inhuman, even as the drums and guitars bend and creak and the tempos warp and instruments shift out of time with each other in a clearly human way. It adds up to a unique album that may not immediately make an impact with deft tunes and riffage, but which makes up for it with a single-minded focus on the pounding ur-beat rarely seen outside of ritual music.
32. Full of Hell – Garden of Burning Apparitions
Absolutely vicious, a 21-minute burst of blistering vitriol and bile. This is gorgeously twisted, an epic of guitar wreckage and frenetically burst musician spleen. They rarely unleash full electronic devastation, preferring to keep it on the grind side of things–however, that only serves to underscore the carnage when they use it, as on “Asphyxiant Blessing,” “Non Atomism,” and the furious “Derelict Satellite.” This album packs a ton into its short lifespan, with an unrelenting density that few of their peers possess, a true distillation of what makes this band the crushing force of nature that they are.
31. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Dry Cleaning may have cornered the best lyrics of 2021 with absolute gems like “do everything and feel nothing” and “someone pissed on my leg in the big Sainsbury’s”–vocalist Florence Cleopatra Shaw has a delivery that straddles the line between the arch and sincere so effortlessly you’ll go cross-eyed. Guitarist Thomas Paul Dowse has a wonderfully curdled, dissonant tone, part Adrian Borland, part John McGeoch, but all his own. There’s a glam-y sleaze to his playing that gives Shaw the perfect platform from which to taunt and coo the listener into confusion. Tense, tight, and utterly thrilling.
30. DIMMER – midREM
Commence zooted drones and burbles: you’re going to sleep. Sleep is the big ticket here, the main event. But this is the kind of sleep Steven Stapleton must have, sounding like a slow descent to the ocean floor in a shark cage, with lots of menace and the occasional precipitous drop. By the time it gracefully crescendos to its end, you feel strangely empty, sucked dry by some foreign process with unclear aims. It’s all the more unsettling that this communication does not at all dare you to decipher it or even bear witness, but taunts you into looking the other way. Like some sort of peripheral phantasm mocking the very idea of liminality, gently prodding you to chortlingly inform you that no, you aren’t in on the joke.
29. Pili Coït – Love Everywhere
Another Dur et Doux project, the brainchild of Guilhem Meier and Jessica Martin Maresco (both are involved in numerous other projects on the label), Pili Coït sounds simple enough: Meier on guitar and vocals, Maresco on floor tom, oil can, synth drum, and vocals. However, that belies the hypnotic, layered structures that these two create. Skittering beats, ringing guitar and insistently chanted vocals make up most of these tunes, but with a looming sense of void that threatens to overtake at times. This is a striking contrast to the group’s last effort, a decidedly more gentle affair that sounded almost balearic at times. This on the other hand sounds like a barely contained urban panic attack: sprawled on the pavement trying to crawl inch by inch back to safety and comfort, being hectored by the crowd and pelted with stones. It is very, very good.
28. Flying Luttenbachers – Negative Infinity
Brutal prog, as the name implies, is meant to have a savage weight to it that most prog does not, marked by an intense noisiness and nauseous dexterity of rhythm. Weasel Walter’s long-running Flying Luttenbachers helped pioneer the genre, forming over 30 years ago, so it’s particularly appropriate for them to return with a heaping platter of insanity this year. Full of trademark odd-time beats, stinging guitars, and squalling saxes, this is everything the Luttenbachers have always done best, in a thrillingly-sequenced arc that builds with furious intensity during 19-minute climax “On the Verge of Destruction,” which very much lives up to the destruction promised in its title.
27. Karen Constance – Old Scar For New Nose
Karen Constance is part of the UK’s insanely talented Chocolate Monk crew, and along with the Junk Merchant, this makes up her output for 2021. Consisting of a single, 25-minute piece built out of assorted indecipherable sonic ephemera, this builds a gorgeous, hypnotic surround-sound slush, slowly accumulating layers as it goes, and shifting scenery every few minutes. This is definitely from the more academic end of noise: not attempting to jar or sublimate the listener, but instead building sonic associations through the continued introduction of new sounds. That it has cohered and communicated anything by the time of its choking, gurgling, gasping conclusion is no small feat, even if we’re left unsure of what exactly was communicated. Like a roadside picnic where the aliens came, feasted, revelled, and departed, leaving us to sort through their detritus searching for meaning.
26. L’Rain – Fatigue
I’m really glad this album dropped as early in the year as it did, cuz I’ve needed a very long time to process it–in fact, I’m not completely sure I have yet. On first listen, it’s apparent what a wildly intense, inventive, and fun listen this is, but there are further layers that hesitate to reveal themselves beneath the seeming chaos. This carries a meditative mood, which has led me to throw it on when I’m feeling my most pensive or unresolved. The woozy production on the ethereal vocals, electronics, piano, woodwinds, and percussion create mirages that seem to suggest something new every time I listen to it, retaining some of the wonder of the initial listen while also yielding familiar elements. It simultaneously highlights the intimacy of certain textures–the woody grit of a saxophone, human breath–while creating distance through subtle processing and a muted caution. That state of constant unresolvedness, that tension, keeps me spellbound in a way I’ve experienced with very few works of art, a glittering prism holding many further works within its facets, different angles revealing shimmering, hallucinatory depths.
25. Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
While this group received a large amount of hype, this album should remove any doubts that they are quite capable of delivering on their own promise: very understated post-rock that builds when you least expect it to. It snakes, weaves, and contorts to match vocalist Isaac Wood’s bilious observations on modern life, with no one trying to bloat the proceedings by taking center stage. While many groups could find this territory difficult to exist within for any sustained length of time, BC,NR seem to manage by having developed a sound that isn’t really any particular sound at all. It’s the spidery, elusive sound of potential snaking off away from any potential labels. While they wouldn’t be the first group to sustain this feat, so far they’ve done so in an entertaining way, and the advance singles for their second album don’t hint at any signs of letting us down.
24. Squid – Bright Green Field
The Brixton Windmill scene truly delivered this year, with kickass full-lengths from black midi, Black Country, New Road, Dry Cleaning, and this crew. While all of the others deserve plenty of plaudits, this one particularly caught my ear with its kinetic, off-kilter beats and frantic vocals. Incorporating several increasingly-strong leadup singles, tracks like “Narrator,” “Boy Racer,” and massive closing track “Pamphlets” all have an anxious energy to them that propels them along in a bouncy post-punk-y way that certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but delivers solidly with a full-album arc that brings the listener full circle and demands repeated sittings.
23. Peter Hammill & Isildur’s Bane – In Disequilibrium
Another year, another intimidating collaboration from Peter Hammill and another artist. For the third time in a row (the second time with Isildur’s Bane), we get a “what-if” collection that posits what it would be like had Van der Graaf Generator never lost momentum (twice) in the 70s, and become a sort of side project to Hammill’s solo career. This album features two side-long suites, but still offers plenty of variety and surprisingly little of the sort of conceptual bloat to which these types of projects lend themselves. And this is on top of the absolutely incredible Hammill solo album that also dropped this year, so just consider this a ringing endorsement for both (it’s a covers album, or it would be on this list, too: an absolutely brilliant refutation of Brexit consisting of reinterpretations of classic European songs).
22. Mother of Sighs – Mother of Sighs
There is a seance-like power to this material, it oozes ritual violence in a way that few artists ever manage. Ostensibly the solo project of Erica Burgner-Hannum (but bolstered on this release by husband Terence Hannum), this is some Industrial-strength dungeon synth with a serious noise edge that overpowers in the best sort of way. As I never grow tired of mentioning, these two also play dream pop together in the Holy Circle, however this is a very far cry from that project. This utilizes the full-on hopeless wailing that made early Pharmakon such a stand-out project, only here it’s not in the service of full-on obliteration, instead suffocating and lulling and gently-yet-firmly pressing you down, down, down…
21. Jeff Surak – All Those Born Must Die
Jeff is one of the leading lights of the DC-area noise/free improvisation scene, this is his first release for the venerable Helen Scarsdale label. It finds him somewhere between early 80s Portion Control, early 00s Yellow Swans, and the more recent sort of academic atmospherics we’ve been seeing from the likes of Twig Harper, Aaron Dilloway, and Evicshen. All very good places to be, however Jeff knows how to balance texture against narrative, and push things just far enough past the comfort zone to allow for a truly bracing ride without sacrificing relistenability. This makes a perfect companion for those cold, overcast days where it feels like the world outside is slowly crystalizing.
20. Blectum from Blechdom – Deepbone
The reunion album I didn’t know I desperately needed. Blectum from Blechdom have always had a beautiful sadness deep at their goofy core, and previous albums only hinted at the depths revealed here. It’s weird to call something “mature” that’s this silly, but it truly demonstrates a level of craft that has clearly evolved greatly from the duo’s early days. The cover of Jacques Brel’s “Jackie” is both laugh-out-loud audacious and legitimately poignant, and the cover of Mary-Kate and Ashley’s “Noise About Boys” (featuring none other than Oxbow’s Eugene S. Robinson) bizarrely gentle and pretty despite sounding like elastic doowop hyperpop.
19. Carcass – Torn Arteries
How do you get this far into your career and still kick so much ass? I have no fucking clue, but I’ve been listening to this and taking notes. This dispatches with the riffs with a deftness that belies the heaviness of the material; there are massive amounts of swagger to be found herein. This displays a truly jaw-dropping amount of musical maturity and memorable tunes, packaged with just enough juvenile attitude to keep it actually fun, which is by far the most important thing in the end.
18. Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air
Moor Mother has been at the front of the pack for years, but this album is in a class of its own. Moor Mother’s low, sinuous voice warns of chaos to come and the prices to be paid. The flames grow hotter and the claustrophobia tightens. This is the most recent development in an ongoing evolution in her sound, toning down the tempos if not the intensity, bringing a soul jazz sensibility to experimental hip hop. The lush textures are another impressive development, like a merging of Offering’s glitchy live electronics and Circuit City’s purring jazz poetry. This is a brilliant starting place for those unfamiliar with Moor Mother’s catalog, as it capably synthesizes all of her different sides and displays her strengths beautifully. For those already aware of her charms, this is another satisfyingly adventurous entry in a very consistent catalog.
17. The Armed – Ultrapop
On paper, The Armed sound like the kind of early 00s silliness that pervaded Indie rock, like a punked-up Broken Social Scene or Polyphonic Spree. But there’s obviously something else at work here, because this is more than just my-band-is-bigger-than-your-band posturing, by golly there’s actual content here! It hits with such momentum immediately, and barely lets up throughout, with a spacious, airy production that manages to make the band sound smaller than their gazillion members, focusing the sound and ensuring that the propulsion never takes a backseat to the shattering guitar noise and layered group shouts. The Armed have sounded conceptually cool for a long time, but this album finally manages to harness their energy in a way that pays off both sonically and viscerally.
16. Hiro Kone – Silvercoat the Throng
Nicky Mao’s fourth album under the Hiro Kone moniker hovers somewhere between ambient, drone, glitch, post-industrial, and progressive electronic, sounding at times like an orchestra tuning up to soundtrack the apocalypse, at other times like a packed club spontaneously combusting. I am such a sucker for the textures on this album. It shimmers like the fluorescent oil slick color palette of the cover, and dances on the periphery of identification in a maximally uncanny fashion. The dark, fractured sound palette used herein is immaculately corroded, and serves the ominous-yet-ethereal compositions so beautifully.
15. Black Dice – Mod Prog Sic
Nine long years after Mr. Impossible, here come Black Dice once more, a-bleepin’ and a-bloopin’ their way back into my heart. This doesn’t represent an evolution of their previous material so much as a refinement. It sounds pretty well-informed by Eric Copeland’s solo material, which makes sense considering he’s been the most active during the group’s hiatus-tho to be fair, that material itself was an evolution of Black Dice’s aesthetic beginning around Broken Ear Record. Anyway, this blends lots of clunking, clumsily-overlapping tones, Hawaiian guitar, and deranged vocals sounding like they were ripped from a possessed Speak & Spell. This is a truly fun set of gumby dancefloor originals, proving that this trio can still deliver the goods.
14. Twig Harper – Two Variations for the Shadow of the Absolute //// Classical Electronics
Baltimore’s Twig Harper never disappoints, in 2021 he dropped two excellent releases that see him treading new territory. Classical Electronics is what it sounds like: manipulated orchestrations that granulate and shift and drift and turn themselves inside out. Whereas Two Variations for the Shadow of the Absolute is an even looser trip still, perhaps less about the classical elements as it is about a balance between the two sides. This brings the drones and bleeps alongside more subdued material that gets full-on ambient at times. Both are tremendous and should not be overlooked.
13. Gonemage – Sudden Deluge
Maybe I’m just not the most culturally-cognizant person, but the prospect of black metal meets chiptune did not seem to me like a recipe for great music on the surface level. However, I could not be more wrong: this album kicks serious ass, and with a similarly high level of whimsy to those folks over at Dur et Doux–like a more lighthearted, zippy counterpart to Anna Pest’s album, or like FNU Ronnies with the psych rock substituted for something a little harder. There is something really delightful and playful about this album, it regularly brings a smile to my face while it rearranges my insides just the way I like them.
12. Anna Pest – Dark Arms Reach Skyward With Bone White Fingers
There is so much going on in this intense, incessantly shape-shifting thrill-ride of an album. The sheer amount of technical riffage packed into each song is truly jaw-dropping, and there is a dizzying amount of diversity, while still containing a unique voice all its own. This hits my sweet spot hard: lots of chaotic rhythmic interplay, extreme, processed vocals, and guitars that squeal in agony and promise vengeance. The level of intensity throughout is also noteworthy: this album comes at your head in a way that little music does, maybe Cardiacs and 5uu’s for starters: it’s brutal prog/tech metal with a sharp, savage edge to it and tons of curveballs. 11-minute album centerpiece “Of the Black Moon and the Red Earth” is particularly insane from start to finish, and caps the album off in beautiful fashion. Masterful.
11. Darkthrone – Eternal Hails
Darkthrone are such an institution that it’s easy to forget why they’ve earned such status: by making extremely kickass music. This album isn’t anything that will necessarily rear its head as a career highlight, but it nonetheless very capably kicks acres of ass. Honestly not a ton to say here: it’s Darkthrone, so it’s great–even if it rarely rises above midtempo, there’s a level of power and finesse here that’s just in a class of its own, which the corrosive, muscular production brings that to the fore quite capably.
10. NYX & Gazelle Twin – Deep England
A truly amazing album that is somehow hallowed and harrowing in equal measure. A radical reinterpretation of choral music that distends vocal textures into new shapes both frightening and wonderful. Deep England is an extension/reinterpretation of Gazelle Twin’s 2018 album Pastoral, and takes that album’s theme of an epic meditation on old/new England’s contrasting values and their core sickness/beauty, and mirrors the sonic distortions by further exaggerating the already warped take on British culture. The music itself is ominous and massive, mostly rhythmless, consisting of processed vocals and drifting electronic drones. Yet somehow all that processing just serves to underscore the vulnerable humanity beneath the voice: the stark disparity between its grandeur and the petty, paranoid, xenophobic values it exhorts.
9. Victory Over the Sun – Nowherer
Blistering, remarkably mature, Oscines in particular is absolutely demented. Vivian Tylinska’s one-woman black metal project leapt out of the gate with this entry back in April, and stayed heavy in my listening rotation throughout the year. This is the sort of project (similar to Anna Pest or Jute Gyte) that really makes one’s jaw gape at the extremes to which a one-person project can go without sounding indulgent or uncanny. There is an effortless, studied jaggedness to this that moved it to the top of the pile early on. The first three tracks would be enough to make the album a formidable contender on their own. However Oscines is something else entirely, 20+ minutes of intensely avant-prog-y microtonal black metal with all sorts of bizarre and delightfully soul-shattering detours throughout (and one marvelously epic finale that kickstarts seemingly out of nowhere 19-and-a-half minutes in). One of those albums that goes further than you think might be possible, and then somehow manages to bring something back. And now that Vivian’s discovered Cardiacs, who knows what wonders await?
8. Serpent Column – Katartisis
It’s the year of the one-person black metal projects. This is another slice of seriously demented black metal that shifts, bends, crackles and falls apart, only to reanimate and attack even more wildly than before. While most of the cuts are short enough to arrive, lay waste, and depart before establishing anything resembling any sort of traditional form, there are a couple of longer tracks like “Disobedience,” “Cold Fires,” and the title track that build up some serious steam through a series of sections with corrosive guitars and a powerful rhythm section bashing out tricky compound time signatures. It all culminates in “Edelweiss,” a six-and-a-half minute track that uses this command of complex rhythms to cover some seriously prog-y territory without losing any momentum whatsoever. It’s that command of dynamic form matched with a delicate balance of energy and ferocity that really keeps me coming back to this: repeated listening hasn’t dulled the feeling of potential chaos lying just beneath the surface that gives these compositions such a bracing feel.
7. Jute Gyte – Mitrealität
Another entry in the microtonal black metal sweepstakes, this manages to dazzle with its wide variety of sounds and extreme experimentalism. While the lengthy moments of ambient indulgence may throw some, it builds a gradual tension that is expertly released across the other, more grounded tracks. Each of its five tracks goes somewhere incredibly unique, far away from the superficial similarities that this project might bear to Victory Over the Sun, such as the second track “Prometheus Ends in Onan,” which features furious, Zach Hill-style drumming, layers of Boris-like droning noise guitars, and growling gang vocals before lapsing into tribal drumming, drifting pitch-shifted guitar and bass belches–a completely different world from any other track on the album, yet part of a cohesive whole. And the truly unique production style allows for a wide array of textures to act as a bed underneath such amazing seethed esoterica for lyrics as ‘we are the relics of our ruined past, the rotting of the base material, the yliaster sphere turned porphyry, the everlasting pitiful “too late.”’ Of the five tracks here, only one falls below the ten-minute mark (and even then, barely), giving some mild sense of the marathon proportions we’re talking about here. Considering that length, some ebb and flow is completely essential.
6. SEC – Est-ce que ce monde est sérieux?
I’ve heard friends complain that musically this year wasn’t particularly great. They’re wrong for a number of reasons, but this album is perhaps the best evidence I could offer. Dur et Doux is a fantastically whimsical label, releasing intense avant-prog like this one moment, noise rock the next, and maybe french folk after that. It’s all excellent, but belies just how fucking heavy some of their material can get. PoiL, Ni, and Chromb! all make music that sounds like the universe imploding, so SEC may not exactly be unprecedented territory for the label, nonetheless there is a punishingly exacting nature of much of the material here that brings in a rock vibe, making it less about atonality and deft rhythmic turnarounds, and more about the metronomic swing of the locked-in grooves.
5. गौतम बुद्ध – पुनर्जन्म भाग १
Coruscating Indian Buddhist black metal of the highest quality. Across four cuts, each around nine-and-a-half minutes, this album rarely lets up on the full assault except to occasionally flip over into extremely post-punk-y goth territory, featuring ominously chiming guitars and everyone throwing shapes like classic Bauhaus devotees. The vocals are so thoroughly distorted that they become just another texture, like an angry horde of wasps floating above the fray.
4. Aaron Dilloway & Lucrecia Dalt – Lucy & Aaron
Intricately textured, immersive and disturbing. This isn’t the first time Lucrecia Dalt and Aaron Dilloway have worked together, but something seriously gelled this time around, making for an oddly empty-yet-visceral listen. The restraint herein is masterful, every sound is chosen and paced perfectly, and the sense of discomfort that slowly grows throughout is :chef’s kiss:. By the end, it has sucked the listener into its own space, where our rules don’t apply, and situations play out over their own, elaborate patterns.
3. Kayo Dot – Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike
This somehow manages the delicate balance of pushing the Kayo Dot sound forward from where it was on Blasphemy, and also harkening back to maudlin of the Well. I’m a huge Kayo Dot fan, but I admit that sometimes their music lacks the intensity that I crave. It’s intense in its own hushed, harrowing way, but not sonically in-your-face–this, on the other hand, brings that intensity in a wonderfully direct way. Progressive yet never outstripping the needs of the material, psychedelic yet grounded, this is an artful, nuanced record that demands many relistenings.
2. Fire-toolz – Eternal Home
Endlessly changing, surging, pan-genre sound-rock, Angel Marcloid delivered the double-album she’s been threatening to drop for a long time. Tracks constantly shape-shift across sound palettes and often seem to consist of as many radically disparate fragments as possible, while somehow retaining a core aesthetic throughout. This album earns its length by treating each vinyl side as a separate plot arc, allowing for themes to assert themselves and also give the listener several points of entry to an impeccably dense sonic mass.
1. The Body – I’ve Seen All I Need to See
In a word: excoriating. This album sounds like utter desolation, which has felt kind of appropriate throughout the year. Many lists have opted to include this year’s more life-affirming collaboration between The Body and Big Brave, but if I’m being totally honest, I’ve listened to this one way more. It features the scorching production that The Body does so well, with a tight set of material, and a heavy focus on rhythm, adding up to a greater focus on Industrial/noise textures than on past albums. Tracks like dual centrepieces “A Pain of Knowing” and “The City is Shelled” sound so deliciously crunchy they could almost be early 00s Wolf Eyes or Black Dice, built less out of standard rock elements and more out of an intricately woven tapestry of squeals and gurgles.