A CLOSER LISTEN weekly #1
Looking back at 2021
Welcome, Listeners! Joseph here. We at ACL have been discussing doing a newsletter for years, and I almost got it going in the early days of the pandemic. But now, in 2022, the time finally feels right. I can use the additional structure of committing to putting this newsletter out every two weeks, and it will serve a repository from some of the content on our site, such as our Upcoming Releases, which we periodically purge and update. This space will also feature exclusive writing and the occasional interview not published on the blog. But it will also be an experiment, as we’ll see where it takes us.
ACL launched in January of 2012, which makes us officially a decade old! In late 2011, Richard, Jeremy, and myself were dissatisfied with the blog we’d been contributing to for years, and were ready for a change. We decided to ditch scoring, and to focus on reviewing music we like, to be a friendly and positive beacon dedicated to covering corners of the music world that don’t receive much (or any) press elsewhere. And we’ve slowly built up a large network of dedicated readers and listeners. Thank you all for listening with us all these years. While the pandemic still makes organizing an in-person gathering unfeasible, we do have some celebrations planned. More on that next time.
We’ve never monetized ACL, eschewing advertising and other revenue streams in order stay true to our mission. But we do incur some costs, not to mention time commitments, and any financial support would be much appreciated. You can support Sound Propositions on Patreon if you are so inclined, or send a one-time donation via PayPal. This helps cover our costs, including our Soundcloud (the repository for hundreds of hours of mixes). Or just share with a friend.
The Sound Propositions podcast will return shortly for its third season, featuring Maria Chavez, Patrick Shiroishi, Jessica Moss, The World According to Sound, and much more. *Press A*, our videogame soundtrack column run by international collaborators and avid gamers Chris Redfearn-Murray and David Murrieta Flores, will also return shortly with their Tasty Leftovers, covering some 2021 soundtracks that weren’t included in their 2021 list. And of course Richard and the rest of our staff will continue reviewing everything we can manage. From all of us at ACL, Happy Listening!
Next time, I’ll compile our 2022 previews and our 40 Best Winter Albums of all time!
For now, let’s look back on 2021.
ACL 2021 ~ The Year In Review: Your vinyl will be delayed and other pandemic adventures
Blame Adele. That’s what many retailers said when the popular artist placed an order for 500,000 copies of her November album to be pressed six months in advance, tying up production across the board. But it’s not just Adele; it’s also Coldplay, Abba, and other crossover artists; it’s the fact that one of the world’s few pressing plants burned down; it’s the paucity of such plants in the first place, paired with the cost of replacement parts; it’s COVID; and of course, it’s the increased popularity of vinyl. Some plants are now estimating a 9-12 month lag between ordering and arrival; others are taking orders for 2023. If any of our readers have an intense love of vinyl along with a lot of money and are willing to play the long game, taking a loss for years before making a profit, please open an Amazon-sized vinyl pressing plant!
ACL 2021 ~ The Top 20 Albums of the Year
If 2020 was the most surreal year in recent memory, 2021 was the runner-up. A rollercoaster of emotion was supplanted by a mountain of malaise. And yet, many artists broke through with the finest albums of their careers. Some of these were direct responses to the world as it was, while others were simply written in unprecedented conditions. Some composers offered comfort, others reflection, others challenge. The titles serve as a snapshot of the year: Repetition Hymns, The Quiet Drift, Timekeeper, The Age of Oddities, Detritus, Disintegration, Speechless, Lost Futures. Could this collection of thoughts have been assembled in any other year? And yet, the album title that won our hearts was infused with hope: A Visible Length of Light, from NYC composer Lea Bertucci.
The very fact that so many artists continued to compose, or did so for the very first time during the pandemic, is a mark of resilience. The world is having a hard time putting its thoughts into words, but instrumental music has the ability to speak volumes, capturing the emotions in a manner that prose does not. We suffered, we hoped, we dreamed. The vibrancy of 2021’s music testifies to the timbres of our experience. And if at the end of the day, a visible length of light is all we see, it may be enough, for it proclaims that the darkness has not yet overcome.
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Ambient
This year’s picks emphasize the variety of ambient music through poetry, field recordings and home diaries, featuring children and cicadas, time and seasons, dedications to loved ones and even a celebration of those who do nothing.
This year, many of us felt like “grass eaters.” For at least the early part of the year, we were stuck in our homes, working remotely or not working at all; we were worried about our prospects and the health of those around us; we had too much on our minds and too few outlets. Ambient music was a reminder of gentler times and a soundtrack to staying at home. Here is some of the peaceful music that calmed us, soothed us and saw us through the storm.
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Drone
Drone is the music of suspension: a constant underpinning of sound graced by modulation. The music was perfect for a year in which things seemed to move very slowly, as if through molasses. Many of the artists on this year’s list were inspired by isolation or political impasses. Others found patterns in the weather or created their own loops.
While we reviewed less drone this year than in prior years, the albums we covered made a big impact, and their emotional range was wide. Some albums were sullen, others angry, others filled with awe. A curious aside: the first and last drone albums we covered this year each appear here. We hope that you enjoy our selection of the year’s best drone albums!
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Electronic
Due to lockdowns and quarantines, most of us have not gone clubbing for years. Thankfully, electronic artists have kept making music during the pandemic ~ although not all of it for dancing. They can imagine an alternate universe in which our bodies are moving to their music while mingling with others. This has made the electronic field the most hopeful of genres, one that draws energy from the past, looks forward to the future and offers encouragement for the present. The fact that these albums are not being played out has freed composers to be creative, often eschewing beats for long stretches or experimenting with off-kilter rhythms. In 2021, more than ever, electronic music became music for the ears more than the feet. This being said, when you hear that funky rhythm, feel free to dance wherever you may be!
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Experimental
Our Experimental section boasts the widest dynamic contrast of all the fields we cover. From near-silence to curdled wails, children’s classes to looped drums, every nook and cranny is explored and excavated. Where else might one discover an examination of the Torah’s patriarchs next to a treatise on the internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War?
While these composers may look to the past for inspiration, their sound is intensely futuristic. By making unexpected choices, they break boundaries and set new standards for creativity. With apologies to Ecclesiastes, there is something new under the sun. To take a trip through this musical multiverse, start streaming the releases at the link above!
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Field Recording & Soundscape
The natural world existed long before the creation of instruments: music made by wind and waves, birds and beasts. During the pandemic, many people have rediscovered the aural joys of nature: music that is always playing, and that can best be heard without headphones. Field recording artists capture these sounds like others do photographs, and share their sonic souvenirs with the world.
This year’s picks travel from the heat of a volcano to the frigidity of Antarctica, with pit stops in between: rainforests, greenhouses, hidden islands and rivers. Some of these sounds exist a long plane ride away; others have been lost forever; still more wait just outside our windows, waiting to be heard.
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Modern Composition
This year, we reviewed more modern composition albums than those in any other genre ~ not because more were submitted, but because their overall quality was so high. We read this trend early in our Spring Music Preview, and it continued throughout the year. The backstories were intriguing as well, from Australian wildfires to the passing of a friend. Could it be that the break from touring and concert performances made room for an inordinate amount of inspiration? Whatever the reason, we were glad to have so many to choose from at the end of the year, though this also meant that many worthy recordings were left out. We’ve listed only the best of the best, the albums that moved us, inspired us and made an impact on our souls.
ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Rock and Post-Rock
Sorry, friends, no folk or jazz made our top ten this year ~ 2021 was the year of rock and post-rock! With almost every major post-rock band releasing an EP or album in 2021, even some of the top performers fell short of the final cut. In light of all we went through this year, we needed the catharsis of guitars, and these artists came through in a big way. Blasting these albums, one could feel the cares of the world melting away ~ or in some cases, being blown away by a bank of bass, guitar and drums louder than the shouts of the evening news. If rock was able to make such a major impact without the benefit of festivals, imagine how loud, raucous and joyful their return will be! As we enjoy these energetic entries from 2021, we look forward to a brighter and more communal 2022.
ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Labels
Lawrence English’s Room40 has landed an amazing five releases on our year-end charts, spread across three genres. The Australian imprint is our Label of the Year, followed by Temporary Residence and PAN, who each land three. All three labels are new to this year-end feature!
By any barometer, Room40 has had a stellar year, releasing dozens of albums in the midst of a global pandemic. Now well into its third decade, the label (which is also home to Something Good and A Guide to Saints) continues to be a leader in forward-thinking music, willing to take risks in order to expand musical horizons. Ambient, drone, electronic, experimental and field recordings all feature strongly on the site, represented well by English himself, who somehow still finds the time to record his own productions. We reviewed over half a dozen Room40 releases in 2021, but it didn’t feel like enough; there was always another fantastic release right around the corner. We introduced a dozen in our Fall Music Preview, and more kept coming; in fact, the label has already announced a slew of releases for 2022, proving that it is on top of its game.
ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Album Covers
Album covers were never more important than they are today. In the old days, one might peruse the bins at the local record store, seeing if something caught the eye and hopefully the ear. Now most people buy their music online after scrolling through hundreds of images and short descriptions. Without name brand recognition, a generic cover has no chance.
The best album covers make us want to hear what is inside. They signal that an artist is a maverick, an originator, an auteur. If someone has paid this much attention to the art, the music must be worth hearing, if only to satisfy our curiosity. The ten releases below back up visual art with aural treasure. Together, they represent 2021’s best pairings of sight and sound.
ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Packaging
Paper shortages, vinyl delays and broken supply chains, added to the pre-existing shift to the digital format, meant a continued decline in physical formats in 2021. And yet many small labels continued to buck the trend, demonstrating the enduring appeal of the tactile: boxed sets and hardback books, colored vinyl, collectable ephemera. Sometimes it was worth paying the same amount in shipping as for the product itself. Ironically, for all the perceived lack of demand, many of the best packages sold out in as soon as a day, never to be reprinted ~ leaving fans with a feeling of regret after not signing up for the mailing list! Here are ten highlights of the year in music packaging, a testimony to the creativity and devotion of the creators. A few may even still be available ~ happy hunting!
ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Winter Music
Over the past decade, we’ve experienced a shift in the tone of winter music. In more innocent days, winter music was the sound of snow, children skating and sledding, gorgeous piano miniatures that mimicked the patterns of flakes. This type of winter music still exists, but has become overshadowed by the music of the disappearing north. Due to climate change, snow is absent from regions where it was once common and present in areas where it was once rare. As the glaciers melt and the oceans rise, composers capture the sounds of regions as they vanish. Their warnings are cold and dire, but possess an awful beauty. Our year-end picks convey a swath of winter tones and demonstrate the breadth of the blended genre; they are listed in recommended listening order below.
ACL 2021 ~ The Happiest Music of the Year
Few would call 2021 a happy year, although it was graced by moments of hope: a (short lived) political shift, a vaccine, a summit on climate change. But somehow, without warning, any day could bring a whiff of happiness: a reunion with a friend or family member, the reopening of a cherished location, the simple pleasures of sun and surf.
Music is itself a source of joy. Even dark music has its own appeal, offering solace and empathy in times of darkness. But happy music is written specifically to spark feelings of warmth and hope. 2021’s selection crosses multiple genres while sharing an overall tone: shimmering like the sun breaking through the clouds, good news borne over the mountains, the first good day after a series of sorrows.
ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Film Scores
We didn’t publish this list in 2020, because so few movies were released. While Hollywood has been slow to recover, streaming services and film festivals (virtual and in person) have made up the slack. We’re pleased to return with some early picks for the best film scores of 2021, knowing that some of the year’s best films have yet to be released. This being said, we’re pretty confident in our picks!
One of 2021’s top instrumental music stories is the continued expansion of the artists we cover toward the cinematic world. Years ago, many film composers were known only as film composers, but now the lines have been blurred. We’ll begin with our top five nominees, followed by five honorable mentions.
*Press A* 2021 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks
2021 represents the beginning of a relatively slow path toward recovery, with an ever-more-populous list of VGM releases relative to the prior year. Our list this year is again testament to the sheer diversity coming to define the game soundtrack panorama, with (as usual) indies leading the charge. AAA will usually strong-arm its way onto our lists in one shape or another, however, and this year’s sole representative, Battlefield 2042, certainly suggests these big-budget productions are beginning to take note of the experimentalism beneath them, with leftfield artists commissioned who can articulate richer, multifaceted soundworlds for game experiences usually accompanied by forgettable film-like music.
A most welcome confirmed trend from 2020 is the phasing out of the synthwave/darkwave OST. With 30XX our sole entry in the “Retro” category, it hints at new possibilities for mining the musical references of the past in order to craft soundtracks no longer tied to the straightforward resignification of 80s electronics. We hope new retro music emerges from this wave; arguably, for example, Chicory has remade many a stylistic construction of historical VGM into something innovative and ambitious. The same could be said of Axiom Verge 2, which uses old chip sounds for purposes other than recreating a type of musical environment, its compositions becoming progressively complex and vast. In the end, we believe the community is more than ready to move on, and to completely reformulate what it means to make something sound “retro” in the context of VGM.
ACL 2021 ~ The Year’s 10 Best Music Videos
When music videos migrated from television to the internet, they found a brand new audience thirsty for innovation. This year’s crop includes live action and animation, split screen and stop-motion, scripted and choreographed: a cornucopia of sight and sound. If there was any doubt about the strength of the video industry or its potential for growth, these directors dispel it. We’ve been collecting the best of the best throughout the year, and now we’re eager to share them with you: many appearing on this site for the first time!
ACL 2021 ~ Pandemic Playlist
A year ago, we hoped we would not have a pandemic playlist in 2021. But COVID stuck around. The music we listened to was informed by isolation, illness and a bout of premature hope, chased by a secondary, more muted optimism as the curtains began to draw back once more.
So much music was inspired by the pandemic that it soon became a sub-category of its own. We reviewed dozens of albums that spoke directly to a time of crisis or were inspired by loss, lockdown and disconnection. We’ve chosen a cross-section of these releases below to demonstrate a wide variety of approaches. Will we still be listening to pandemic albums after COVID-19 has run its course? We suspect so, as these albums now serve as historic documents.
The heart of winter has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, sending some outside to winter sports while others gather around their fires. Fortunately, whether indoor or out, there's a wide variety of new music to enjoy. We even see some spring releases on the docket already as labels and artists make plans for the season of sprouts. We look forward to checking our in-boxes every day as announcements pour in, ready to share the excitement on this page. We wish you the warmth of good music, good company, and good spirits, and hope you find your next favorite album right here!
Salome Voegelin ~ Paint your lips while singing your favourite pop song (Flaming Pines, 27 January)
aircode ~ Grounded (Alien Jams, 28 January)
Alicia Lee ~ Conversations with Myself (New Focus, 28 January)
Armbruster ~ Masses (Dear Life, 28 January)
Babau ~ Stock Fantasy Zone (Discrepant, 28 January)
Ben McElroy ~ How I Learnt to Disengage from the Pack (The Slow Movement Music Label, 28 January)
Blutch ~ Terre Promise (Astropolis, 28 January)
Christina Giannone ~ Zone 7 (Room40, 28 January)
Christof R. Davis ~ Entanglement (28 January)
Iannis Xenakis ~ Electroacoustic Works (Karlrecords, 28 January)
Jim Perkins ~ Immersed in Clouds (Bigo & Twigetti, 28 January)
Joane Hétu ~ Tags (Ambiances Magnetiques, 28 January)
Julia Gjertsen ~ Formations (Moderna, 28 January)
Lawrence English ~ 'Oseni (Room40, 28 January)
Letters from Mouse ~ Tarbolton Bachelors Club (Subexotic, 28 January)
Long Island Sound ~ First Contact EP (Hammer, 28 January)
Maya Shenfeld ~ In Free Fall (Thrill Jockey, 28 January)
Roedelius & Story ~ 4 Hands (Erased Tapes, 28 January)
Roman Angelos ~ Music for Underwater Supermarkets (Happy Robots, 28 January)
Simon Grab & Francesco Giudini ~ [No] Surrender (~OUS, 28 January)
Steamboat Switzerland ~ Terrifying Sunset (TROST, 28 January)
Tyler Mitchell feat. Marshall Allen ~ Dancing Shadows (Mahakala, 28 January)
Volruptus ~ Pyrolatry EP (Tripalium, 28 January)
V-Stók ~ Liminal (28 January)
Yair Etziony / Oberlin ~ Farben #1 / A Sunday's Silence (Handstitched*, 28 January)
zakè & City of Dawn ~ Agape (Azure Vista, 28 January)
Alexandra Spence ~ Submerged Tape Loops (Canti Magnetici, 29 January)
Andrea Penso ~ Oh! Uomo (Canti Magnetici, 29 January)
Emmanuele Holterbach ~ Le rêve, l’ombre et la vision (Canti Magnetici, 29 January)
Joshua Bonnetta & Judith Hamann ~ Re-Recorder (Canti Magnetici, 29 January)
Strië and Scanner ~ Struktura Revisited (A Strangely Isolated Place, 31 January)
Carate Urio Orchestra ~ Cosmos (Klein, 1 February)
LeVirya, The Hidden ~ Quiet Earth (Aviary Bridge, 1 February)
Piotr Kurek ~ World Speaks (Edições CN, 1 February)
Seigo Aoyama ~ Prelude for the Spring (Audiobulb, 2 February)
Albert van Abbe ~ Nondual (raster, 3 February)
Casey Golden ~ Smaller Worlds (solo piano) (4 February)
Ale Hop ~ Why Is It They Say A City Like Any City? (Karlrecords, 4 February)Alejandro Morse + Cyan ~ Einath (Dragon's Eye Recordings, 4 February)
Amotik ~ Patanjali (4 March)
bvdub ~ Violet Opposition (n5MD, 4 February)
cerrot ~ iteritax (trip, 4 February)
Charbonneau/Amato ~ Synth Works Vol. 2 (Backward Music, 4 February)
Cooper Moore & Stephen Gauci ~ Conversations Vol. 2 (577 Records, 4 February)
Delay 45 ~ Flux (Earshift Music, 4 February)
Goodbye Meteor ~ Metanoia (4 February)
Guillaume Gargaud and Patrice Grente ~ Intuition's Days (Open Systems, 4 February)
iVARDENSPHERE ~ Ragemaker (Metropolis, 4 February)
MAbH ~ Unnamed Vagabond (Cruel Nature, 4 February)
Mac Gollehon ~ The End Is the Beginning (Nefarious Industries, 4 February)
MYMK ~ Crack a Light (Sounds et al., 4 February)
Nate Scheible ~ Fairfax (Warm Winters Ltd., 4 February)
Oroboro ~ NOVOID (Gin&Platonic, 6 February)
Ross Gentry ~ Apparitional (American Dreams, 4 February)
The Royal Arctic Institute ~ From Catnap to Coma (Already Dead Tapes, 4 February)
Saint Abdullah ~ Inshallahlaland (Room40, 4 February)
Satorian ~ ARBOR (4 February)
Steve Roden ~ stars of ice (Room40, 4 February)
Swoop & Cross ~ Les Fauves (piano and coffee records, 4 February)
Molbury Medical Research Centre ~ The D7 Project (5 February)
Mark Harwood ~ Offering (Penultimate Press, 6 February)
Drifting in Silence | E J R M ~ Pathways (Labile, 11 February)
Endless Dive ~ A Brief History of a Kind Human (Luik, 11 February)
Kinbrae & Clare Archibald ~ Birl of Unmap (11 February)
Läuten der Seele ~ S/T (Hands in the Dark, 11 February)
Lucy ~ Lucy Plays Wanton Witch (Stroboscopic Artefacts, 11 February)
Luke Gajdus ~ In Breath (11 February)
precenphix ~ Autumn Fragments (Not Yet Remembered, 11 February)
Recent Arts ~ Hypertext (REITEN, 11 February)
Rob Burger ~ Marching With Feathers (Western Vinyl, 11 February)
t'Geruis ~ Slow Dance on Moss Beds (Lost Tribe Sound, 11 February)
Benoît Delbecq ~ The Weight of Life (Pyroclastic, 12 February)
Crush String Collective ~ Aeriform (Barkhausen, 14 February)
Nite Fleit & Umwelt ~ Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Rave or Die/Newflesh, 14 February)
Aperture Duo ~ S/T (Populist, 18 February)
Bézier ~ Valencia (18 February)
Brecon ~ Fore (With Bells, 18 February)
Dana Lyn ~ A Point on a Slow Curve (In a Circle, 18 February)
The Howard Hughes Suite ~ High & Lonesome (18 February)
Orange Crate Art ~ Contemporary Guitar Music (Somewherecold, 18 February)
Pan-American ~ The Patience Fader (Kranky, 18 February)
Rosales ~ Woven Songs (Polar Seas/Home Normal, 18 February)
Staffan Bråsjö ~ Stratosfär (18 February)
totsouko & lily ~ AT (To Pikap, 18 February)
V/A ~ all his decisions (trip recordings, 18 February)
The Vex Collection ~ S/T (18 February)
Ordos Mk.0 ~ Sisyphean Audio Therapy (21 February)
Depht Mod ~ Catch the Blue (Tripalium, 22 February)
VA x BY ~ Dual (raster, 24 February)
The Allegorist ~ Blind Emperor (25 February)
Benedicte Maurseth ~ Hárr (Hubro, 25 February)
Damian Dalla Torre ~ Happy Floating (Squama, 25 February)
Domotic ~ Descriptions of an Unfolding Event (Kythibong, 25 February)
Eric Wubbels / Charmaine Lee / Weston Olencki - Field of Action / contraposition (Out of Your Head, 25 February)
Francis Harris ~ Thresholds (Scissor and Thread, 25 February)
j.doursou ~ Choreographies of Decay (American Dreams, 25 February)
KYOTY ~ Isolation (Deafening Assembly, 25 February)
Mazen Kerbaj ~ Sampler / Sampled (Morphine, 25 February)
Park Jiha ~ The Gleam (Glitterbeat, 25 February)
The Quietist ~ Hidden (Audiobulb, 25 February)
Robert Haigh ~ Human Remains (Unseen Worlds, 22 February)
sanr ~ ramak (Lost Tribe Sound, 25 February)
Test Card ~ Patterns (25 February)
Whettman Chelmets ~ Joan (Flaming Pines, 25 February)
Woo ~ Paradise In Pimlico (Quindi, 25 February)
Monopoly Child Star Searchers' ~ Prince of Parrot Shooters/Aqueducts of Channel Island (Discrepant, 26 February)
Duncan Marquis ~ Wires Turned Sideways in Time (Basin Rock, 28 February)