Have we now arrived at cliche when referring to the uncertain and precarious moment we seem to each (and all) be dangling from, day to day? Whether “yes” or “no” to only say that music played its usual central role as an escape is nothing short of gross understatement. However, when I sat down to wrap my mind around what albums released in 2021 most profoundly impacted me, or pulled me out of persistent moments of existential dread, I struggled; my intention to amass a top ten pared down to half that. I felt myself pondering “why” more than the music I had listened to this last year; so prepare thyself for an atypical year-end top albums list, courtesy of your friendly, (digital) neighborhood podcast goblin.
As I have neither the willpower in the last week of 2021 or the drive to list these albums in order of my preference, I will instead list them according to their release date. I will, however, meander through why each of these albums impacted me in 2021. I hope that whether you find some overlap in your own listening or you find yourself in completely new sonic territory, there is something to be gleaned from this list about how we exist in these new times, or how we remember existing and how that may influence how we will exist.
This list contains two artists which I have been faithfully listening to for years, two which are relatively—if not altogether—new to me, and one which lands somewhere in between. I also found myself wondering if the release dates of these albums had something to do with my own preference: two in April (typically the height of my wife, Sarah’s, Mojave Desert Tortoise survey season) and the remainder in, or close enough to, November (this year defined as the most demanding month of Sarah’s first semester of her Master’s program). During these periods, I was spending much more time alone, more than I typically had in years: either because of the pandemic and the background noise of isolation living in a small college town in Arizona, or with my wife being away. This gave me the opportunity to completely immerse in pieces of music that appeared during these points in time.
G_d’s Pee at State’s End – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – April 2, 2021
GY!BE was my introduction to post-rock sometime in the first five years of the 2000s and I never quite escaped the gravity of anything they have released in their decades-long run. They were one of a small swath of artists I had resigned to “will likely never see live” and I’ve been fortunate enough to see them twice. Interestingly enough, the first occasion almost “wasn’t”—among moments I won’t ever forget. Sarah and I were at home in Flagstaff, making dinner, existing within any other weeknight when one of us got a reminder alert for “our tickets to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Crescent Ballroom” thinking the show was the following evening—how we made the 2+ hour drive from our home to Downtown Phoenix without missing a single minute of GY!BE is beyond me…but perhaps that speaks volumes more to how significant this ensemble has been in my life.
G_d’s Pee at State’s End sort of manifested from nowhere. GY!BE, as an ensemble and a collective of creatives with strong opinions on the role of the state, capitalism, consumerism, et al, wholesale reject the idea of the “album promotion cycle” and I’m fairly certain that this album was announced a whole couple of weeks before its release; a live stream, pandemic-friendly event the only discernible promotion for the new LP beyond the inevitable chatter among post-rock web outlets and blogs. Ironically, I would miss the live-stream due to not accounting for delta in timezones; maybe it’s just part of my experience of this band—to often almost not get to experience them.
As for the album itself, it opens with a hallmark of GY!BE’s recordings; nearly indecipherable radio transmissions that seamlessly melt into a guitar so broken by fuzz it comes across first as some horn or esoteric instrument unearthed from a dusty basement somewhere in Kanada. The presence of these radio transmissions and snippets of found sound recordings in all GY!BE’s music has long appealed to my nostalgic side; growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania listening to NOAA broadcasts tracking that winter’s latest lake effect snow on my parent’s radio scanner (my mother was an EMT for most of my childhood and this scanner was often used when, as I recall it, she was on-call with the local volunteer ambulance service). My fascination with the aesthetic quality of radio transmission and found sound has persisted to this day: each fall when the weather turns, I find myself compelled to tune in to the weather service out of Bellemont and listen to loops of the weather transmissions, sometimes for hours. It’s a strangely comforting experience which has frequently made it into my own creative endeavors.
The album unfolds with all the familiar enthusiasm for subtle nuance that crescendos to sonic walls reaching far into the sky. Perhaps though, with some subtext of optimism not-so-frequently heard from GY!BE; interesting for the concept the album’s title seeds in one’s mind “at state’s end”—which, for me, presented a compelling thought experiment: how much of what we have built as a collective society is worth keeping? Certainly not our propensity to relive the errors of our mothers and fathers. Standing in the face of GY!BE’s revelry for the dissolution or death of “the state” reminded me that there are precious few people I feel I can truly rely on and it is those relationships that are enriching my short time here.
Favorite track: Fire at Static Valley
Ultrapop – The Armed – April 16, 2021
Ultimately, all that needs to be said about ULTRAPOP, leaving all of the clandestine yet simultaneously shiny face-value impressions of The Armed or their latest LP aside, is that it exists somewhere somewhat new. The high-velocity collision of genre that The Armed has made a name for themselves leveraging is on full display on ULTRAPOP; in all its glittery confusion. It’s almost as if they endeavored to create a single sound that embodied the current moment and generation in music; something like Missy Mazzoli’s Primordial Chord (there is also this interesting take on the Primordial Chord from Concordia Music). Instead they stumbled perpetually forward and that single sound uncoiled into 38 minutes and 51 seconds of an album that both exhausts and exhilarates the listener. Creating an album that exists in such fragile balance, to me, is brilliant; regardless of it was an accident or completely intentional. The DIY-crap aesthetic of punk—trying its best to sound like anything but in its ethos just becoming a indiscernible mess of pitch and volume, the antithesis of tone; the polish of a multi-million dollar pop studio, infinitely at war with the previous; the fervor and energy of rock (and all its derivative genres); the just-for-the-hell-of-it fringe genre alchemy (mathcore, noise). ULTRAPOP kind of sums up life right now for most of us: unbelievably fucking punishing—the payout, however small, makes it all worth it.
Favorite track: AN ITERATION or BAD SELECTION
Obsidian – Jonsi – October 30, 2021
Another 2021 album that just slunk into my field of view with little promotion or fanfare (unlike the previous selection, which perhaps in some random coincidence, The Armed shares their symbology with at least one large marketing firm and, as such, have unleashed such a glut of marketing and promotion in 2021 between ULTRAPOP, Live at the Masonic and their appearances at events like the Adult Swim Festival that I can hardly tell where the music starts and where the self-promotion ends) was Jonsi’s (Sigur Ros, Jonsi & Alex, Liminal) third solo full-length offering “Obsidian.”
Perhaps part of the allure of this album is I had no idea it was coming. Jonsi’s solo offerings have often fallen somewhat flat for me, or, at least only served in a capacity as background noise. Which is pretty characteristic of my relationship with the artist or their projects. A close friend, who I’m excited to share will be joining us in Season 2 of the pod, had long attempted to get me into Sigur Ros with no success and it wasn’t until I was introduced to Kveikur by Sarah and saw Sigur Ros perform in support of that album that I was able to crack into their broader discography, though, this did little to dislodge my lack of interest in Jonsi’s solo material. Somewhat anecdotal and predating Kveikur by at least three years, another friend shared Riceboy Sleeps with me; an album which I instantly fell in love with for all it’s chaotic yet soothing textures. As this was the “pre-Spotify” just-dump-it-on-an-iPod days, I had no idea there was any connection between Jonsi and long-time collaborator Alex Somers. Pure experience, I suppose. I wouldn’t connect these dots until 2013 seeing a copy of Riceboy Sleeps in Sarah’s record collection. We’d later see Jonsi and Alex perform this album with a full orchestra in Los Angeles just days after we were married. I have definitely not cried in public as much as I did on October 15, 2019. Fun fact: we were seated just a few rows from Brandon Angelides (Eskmo, Welder) and for those unfamiliar with this human’s discography; treat yo’self. A second opportunity to be irreversibly changed by Jonsi et al presented itself just a year earlier at the FORM music festival at Arcosanti, near Cordes Junction in central Arizona. Jonsi, Alex Somers, and Paul Corley brought their evolving ambient experiment “Liminal”, born of much of the Riceboy source material, to the FORM event in 2018.
Much in the way Riceboy Sleeps works as a beautiful and thoughtful collection of sonic moments, Obsidian functions as a more polished counterpart. I understand Jonsi created this collection as a partner to an exhibition of the same title at the Tonya Bonakdar gallery in New York, which was ultimately inspired by the recent eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland. Obsidian clicks for me in a particular way because it is inspired by nature, which in turn inspires feelings of: sublimity? Our insignificance in the face of our own collective self-obsession? The natural world and our place in it, especially when considering a concept like the anthropocene, has long inspired me; just as a human, not even necessarily as a creative, though I deeply appreciate this opportunity as well. Anymore, I feel that most of what I create is directly inspired by nature or how I or others interface with it. Which brings me to my next two selections.
Favorite track: Pyralone
Twin Dream – Glassing – November 5, 2021
While less obvious than the LP that follows, Twin Dream, the third LP from Austin, Texas triplet/quartet Glassing stabs into territory well trodden by metal and all its sub-genres while sounding, much as in ULTRAPOP, like the alchemical fusing of a dizzying array of influences. Metal no doubt forms the core of Glassing’s sound, but within can be found elements of shoegaze, post-rock, punk, ambient, drone, doom, post-hardcore—to name just a few.
Twin Dream also grapples outwardly with the dread of the moment, tackling ideas like “what do we do now that we’re on track to ruin the only place we can currently call home.” Cue Carl Sagan. As I am sure with many of you reading this, some degree of “holy fuck, is this it for us (as humans)” has persisted in my mind: growing social/political/cultural divisions, the climate, the cancer that is social media, a pandemic that for all the best efforts of what still in my mind feels like the majority has persisted for going on two years. Motivating one’s mind to wrestle with what reality is right now; a herculean feat in itself. A piece of music like Twin Dream reminds me that I am human, that there are others like me, that we all experience suffering and that, in a way, is what defines our humanity most consistently, that I am never alone. I know for some, a dark and dismal 45 minute listen hardly seems the right medicine (I know I have seasonal affective disorder, something fierce and some days can barely drag myself out of bed when it’s pitch black outside) but it’s in the aforementioned shared experience that I find particular catharsis.
And then there is the small element of “something familiar and something unknown” that is especially palpable on Twin Dream. The entirety of this album reminds me of the last two LPs from Colorado ensemble Fear Before the March of Flames or, later, Fear Before. Despite intermittent static about new material as recently as the last five years, nothing materialized. Somehow, Fear Before’s quiet dissolve into the static broke my heart more than even news of one of my favorite ensembles disbanding: The Mars Volta. There was something about where Fear Before was going with their sound (and having been along for the ride since 2004’s Odd How People Shake) that echoed where Black Gaze and newer synthesized genres of metal and rock would be here in 2021. Fear Before’s final LP came in 2008; 13 years before Twin Dream. If you remove the black metal influence, you have damn near what was produced on Twin Dream and I could not be more elated at that.
Favorite track: Absolute Virtue
Spring Island – Delta Sleep – November 12, 2021
Alright, here we are, the home stretch! While I promised myself that I would not assess any qualitative value on these selections and that they would exist upon a lattice of balanced preference, in a way time has “saved the best for last” on my behalf. While Spring Island was not my favorite album of 2021, per se, it does represent some of my favorite moments in my life to date: teasing my wife infinitely over the fact that she poo poo’d this band big time when I first shared them sometime around Twin Galaxies release in 2016. In Sarah’s defense, I likened the heavier moments of Management and Twin Galaxies to Hot Water Music; a comparison she rejected and a band she still hates—Delta Sleep, however, has become one of her favorite ensembles. In 2018 we traveled through EnNgland and Wales; a trip we made almost exclusively to see Delta Sleep “on their home turf” at a music festival called ArcTanGent (yes, it hasroots as a math rock festival and yes, math stuff). The downstream impact of that trip was to wholly redirect our listening habits to the evolution of some earlier preference. This was a sum-positive, no shade thrown at Sonic Bloom, Symbiosis, or the electronic music scene. Not my vibe, despite my attempts to be a chameleon. Perhaps a story for another day (see “Connor and my brush with ‘wookdom’”).
Spring Island marks a return to the sound that made me fall in love with Delta Sleep and, in my humble opinion, the sound that makes this band so damn great. Technical, rhythmic, light, airy, fun with forays into heavy, even for just for brief moments. Lyricism that weaves tapestries that, when you close your eyes not quite all the way, you swear you can make out their intricate patterns and color.
On their sophomore offering “Ghost City” and the follow-ups: an EP titled “Younger Years” and a collection of acoustic renderings of previously released tracks produced from the road called “Softer Sounds” Delta Sleep experimented with the softer, pop side of math rock, much to perhaps my own chagrin…and my chagrin alone. I’d liken it to every Circa Survive tour I caught since 2010’s “Blue Sky Noise”—it didn’t matter what album they were touring in support of, tracks from BSN dominated the set list all the way through to their now twice-delayed 10-year anniversary tour in support of the album. It’s not that I don’t like the album (or Ghost City, Younger Years, Softer Sounds for that matter) it’s just that they are not what I, individually, came to love about the ensemble or their sound. And I say this at the peril of raging against the very stand Connor and I are taking about absorbing artists for all their contributions, regardless of my own preference. This is exactly why Spring Island works so damn well for me: it represents an evolution that also is referential in all the right ways without being impersonation. Delta Sleep is a newer ensemble, I wouldn’t say they have yet entered the territory where they risk playing covers of their own sound on each new release, but Spring Island gives me hope that they have the chops and creativity to sidestep this danger. Last thought on this: I’d not be doing my duty as a gear (specifically pedals) nerd if I didn’t mention that, despite within the Ghost City promo cycle Delta Sleep casually mentioning the abandonment of the delay freeze effect that became a hallmark of their sound in Management and Twin Galaxies, it appears to have returned on Spring Island. I rejoice! As for the piece of gear, I’ve had limited success with the Boss DD-6 however, I know Devin Yuceil to have used both the Boss DD-6 and the Electro-Harmonix Freeze.
I also cannot conclude this ambling ramble without underscoring that in Spring Island, as in previous recordings (namely Ghost City), Delta Sleep also appear to be grappling with the real, substantial, and potentially disastrous impact we humans are having on the world. What’s nice about Delta Sleep’s approach is that they balance it with an optimism born on the back of the reflection that this random accident called Earth, all of nature, and all that we have created can be pretty fucking amazing. That we all can rally around the realization that we are already on the common ground necessary to make the change required to preserve it: for ourselves, and for posterity. “I know you’re going through a little darkness. Your mind bracing for impact from the fall. Forget the story lurking at the surface. When summer comes the sun will cure us all.”
Favorite track: The Softest Touch
So, that does it. Thanks for white-knuckling through that with me; I say it with sincerity that compiling this shortlist was indeed much more challenging than I ever would have anticipated it being. Send us your top fives in 2021 on Instagram, AT VIRGIN EARS PODCAST or via email SPICY BOYS AT VIRGIN EARS PODCAST DOT COM. As always, be sure to check out the artists linked or referenced in this content and I hope it, in some way, informs the way you listen and the way you exist in the world.
We’ll be launching our second season in just a few weeks, opening with a guest both Connor and I were incredibly honored and excited to have on. See you then.
Honorable mentions (beyond 2021):