2021 Music in Review

Somehow it’s been a year since I posted on here, and for exactly the same reason: it’s year end music list time.

Yes, your social feeds were flooded for a day or two with the autogenerated Spotify wrap-up lists and metrics. That started about a month before the end of the year because, well, traditionally new music releases have gone into stasis in December, as everyone tends to switch over to full-on holiday mode. I’m guilty of this as well (as my unholy huge HOLIDAZE playlist bares witness), but something feels wrong in writing this list in November. Also, as a paying user of Last.fm, I feel validated that my year end report literally only shows up in January.

With all that crap out of the way, let’s get to the music.

Flock, by Jane Weaver

With record collection pushing closer to 1,000 than 500, I like to think I’ve heard a little bit of everything, but every year I’m surprised by established artists I’ve never heard of dropping excellent albums. Among them, nothing this year blew my mind from start to finish like Jane Weaver’s Flock. Spacey yet funky, Weaver oscillates between Stereloab-esque psych-electronic-lounge and fuzzed out Prince-inspired bop. She has an extensive back catalogue, but Flock held me so captive that I was well into November (the album dropped in early 2021) before I felt like I should even try to absorb more. While her other releases are excellent, Flock has a special flow that just keeps me captivated.

Due North, by Liam Kazar

As a member of the Tweedy Show family, I was aware of Liam as a family friend and touring member of Jeff’s band. A little later I realized he was Sima’s (of Ohmme) brother. Okay, so cool by association, right? But I’d never heard him play anything solo, nor anything he’d written, when I got a frantic recommendation from a friend to pick up his debut album. I pre-ordered the LP, and promptly forgot to even listen to the single that was available (I trust my friends, okay). Fast froward several months, and the shiny yellow disc arrived, and I have never had an impulse buy been more validating. Funky in a way only a bass player can imbue, yet surprisingly tender, with a touch of twang and soul, my first impulse was to feel like Liam had grown up alternating between Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, and the Staple Singers. I am overwhelmingly excited to hear what Kazar has in-store for us in the coming years.

Everything released in 2021 by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

So I’m a completist when it comes to the Aussie psych sept sextet’s releases, which is a bit of a wild task, as they are quite prolific (I’m currently at 24 vinyl releases by the band). In due course, it makes sense to just lump all the year’s releases together (I’ll stick to physical, since there were also several live digital-only releases).

L.W. (Explorations into Microtonal Tuning, Vol. 3)

Last year gave us K.G., the second trip into microtonality, and while it was fascinating (“Intrasport” is one of the most unexpected “Turkish Electro House” singles of 2020), it seemed like everything clicked together as a cohesive album (instead of a compilation of experiments) with L.W. If I’m honest, I probably overplayed this album the first half of 2021, but it just flows from a loose, disjointed groove in “If Not Now Then When?” and builds into a thunderous finish with the 8 and a half minute “K.G.L.W.” joining the microtonal sounds with the metal sounds from Infest the Rats’ Nest.

Butterfly 3000

One of my biggest fears when I first got into Gizz was having them get “blissed out” like Tame Impala and lose the weird originality. I was calmed when their first dip into an electronic sound was the entirely analog synth “Cyboogie” and the aforementioned “Intrasport” was electronic dance music… but it was still so clearly Gizz that it didn’t matter. After two microtonal-only albums, I was pretty sure the boys could do anything they felt like and I’d like it. Combined with the worldwide existential dread, an oddly excited and cheerful announcement of another new album, with no singles, no previews… well, the excitement was infectious. When Butterfly 3000 dropped (along with vinyl releases that had a Google Translate pass to make the titles and liner notes localized… I personally own the Germanized Schmetterling 3000), the band did a weekly release of a music video for every track. You could argue there is a “blissed out” vibe, or maybe the boys were just happy—and most likely very high—but there was a lighthearted weirdness that is infectious. And at this point, wouldn’t you rather be catching some of that instead?

“Catching Smoke” music video

Live at Levitation ’14/’16

In a wonderful end of the year surprise, Reverberation Appreciation Society dropped a double live album of Gizz playing at Austin Psych Fest (2014) / Levitation (2016). The first LP is literally the first time the band played in the United States, and the second was the triumphal return for the renamed Levitation festival in full-on Nonagon mode.

Bittersweet Demons, by The Murlocs and CAVS, by CAVS

2021 was also a solid year for music from members of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in their own projects. Ambrose Kenny-Smith and Cook Craig are in the Murlocs, and Bittersweet Demons is the most solid, shockingly mature (for a party-garage band) release yet from the band.

Not to be outdone, Mickey Cavanaugh (aka Cavs), the remaining (and admittedly most talented) drummer from the Gizzverse released a solo drum/percussion fest entitled CAVS. The album was announced with a short film featuring Cavs playing the entirety of the nearly 8 minute “T2JD” in one shot. The man is a beast.

“T2JD” short film / performance

Haze, by Death Stare

Okay, so this one is personal. Death Stare is the solo project of Matt Wigham. I first saw Matt play drums in local bands around Salt Lake City in the early 2000s. Turned out we were both web designery nerds, and his wife had the on-air slot right before me at the college radio station. Fast-forward far too many years, and Matt is dealing with a medical condition that creates prolonged states of vertigo. He decided to channel the anxiety and confusion into music, and we are all better off with this EP of instrumental post-rock, in the vein of Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky.

Crystal Bullets / King Tears, by White Denim

Austin favorites White Denim announced a confusingly expensive two song 12″ vinyl-only release around mid-year. I am a huge fan and own most of their releases, but $20 for two songs seemed kind of steep. I sucked it up and figured I was supporting artists while they couldn’t tour. Fast forward and word gets out when the first shipments start that this is actually a surprise full length LP, with only the two announced tracks available on streaming platforms. People gobbled the records up quickly after that, causing the album to actually chart in the UK vinyl sales charts.

Crystal Bullets music video

Other standout releases

Sunshine Radio, by Tommy Guerrero

So good I bought the LP twice.

Electrically Possessed (Switched On, Vol. 4), by Stereolab (compilation)

If you’re going to invest in a mixed bag of tracks from a legendary band, it’s hard to get better.

As the Love Continues, by Mogwai

Any year with new Mogwai is a year worth surviving.

Music City USA, by Charley Crockett

A country/blues/soul crooner you should be listening to.

“I Won’t Cry” music video

Flat White Moon, by Field Music

The brothers Brewis are back at it and bringing the angular tones along.

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