The first item I bought on Amazon was a portable CD player. It was a muted pomegranate with glittery speckles strewn across the top and a hard black bottom and I needed both my tiny hands to lift its clunky plastic frame. I remember pressing its silver buttons, shuffling through albums to get to my favorite tracks, or replaying my favorites, obsessively.
My portable CD player became the object that was soundtracking my childhood, much more than the lawnmowers and schoolyard chatter of suburban America. It’s Michelle Branch’s Hotel Paper while I doodled at my grandma’s house, or Haydn’s string quartets while I waltzed to my locker, that still color my rosy memories of a time long gone. Through my portable CD player, music became part of my storyline, the rhythm beneath every step.
Music has transformed from a soundtrack to a salve for me over the past year. I find myself spending more time looking for music that makes me feel something, rather than music that provides a thoughtful underscore for my daily life. As the incomprehensible stress of a global pandemic and climate collapse loom over every minutiae of existence, I find myself looking for art that reflects what it means to be an emotional being—and, much to my delight, there’s quite a bit of music out this year that I believe truly speaks to that instinct. This is the music I find myself turning to in 2021 and the music I’m thankful is being given to me nearly every day.
Here’s a list of 21 albums I’ve enjoyed perusing this year, between January and the end of June. For the most part, they’ve inspired me to thoughtfully listen, to feel deep, and to examine my understanding of the world. There’s not much more that I can ask for out of the music that I hear.
Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam Records)
On Vulture Prince, vocalist Arooj Aftab paints a lush picture of the ephemerality of life. The album, her third, is dedicated to her late brother, Maher, and unites texts and sounds from her Pakistan heritage with jazz and classical influences to mine the impact of heartbreak, nostalgia, and joy. The result is a lucid, cinematic album made of delicate vignettes that wither and bloom, much like the phases of life.
Robert Ames, Change Ringing (Modern Recordings)
Robert Ames is possibly most known for his work as the Artistic Director, Principal Conductor, and Co-Founder of the London Contemporary Orchestra, but Change Ringing sees him step out as a composer. It’s a wavering and serene debut, but details and inspirations bubble just below its placid surface. Ames brings his knowledge and passion for many different musical scenes into Change Ringing—minimalist composition and electronics, for example—and the result is a mesmerizing album of balmy sounds.
anrimeal, Could Divine, Remembered (Demo Records)
Could Divine, Remembered is a remix of anrimeal’s 2020 album, Could Divine, but it feels like its own entity separate from its original source material. Anrimeal is the recording project of London-based artist, Ana Rita de Melo Alves, and it’s her voice that becomes a primary tool in the music, layering and interlocking in rhythms and patterns, words losing and regaining meaning as they fall into and away from each other. Combined with wafting harmonic textures, the album creates an immersive, meditative atmosphere.
Mabe Fratti, Será que ahora podremos entendernos (Unheard of Hope)
Cellist Mabe Fratti’s Será que ahora podremos entendernos feels like cello rock ‘n’ roll to me in some ways—her music is catchy and rhythmic trance-inducing and head-banging jams at once. Each track offers something different: Some are straight vocal ballads, while others explore spun-out melodies and feel like they’re stopped in time. She allows her various influences to coalesce into one, creating an undeniably stunning and mesmerizing sound.
Judith Hamann, Hinterhof (Longform Editions)
In 2020, cellist and composer Judith Hamann settled down in a home in Berlin, her first time living in one place after spending much of her life touring from city to city. Hinterhof reflects on this domestic existence, both featuring recordings of the sounds that roll through her apartment and cello musings that take inspiration from them. The music is soft and made of piecemeal snippets that click together into a lucid thought that continues to tumble out over time.
Adam Holmes & Desdemona, Music for a Small Shelter (slashsound)
Composer and percussionist Adam Holmes brings his work to string quartet and hammered dulcimer on Music for a Small Shelter, which is a three-movement album that gradually moves through melodies, often hanging in near-stillness. It’s inspired by the stasis of quarantine, but it isn’t hopeless. Rather, Holmes seems to make his peace with inactivity, gently unearthing the small joys that emerge even in the slowest, darkest times.
Yvette Janine Jackson, Freedom (Fridman Gallery)
Composer Yvette Janine Jackson’s Freedom presents two of her radio operas—Destination Freedom, which chronicles the horrific Middle Passage, and Invisible People, which explores negative reactions to the 2015 approval of marriage equality. Jackson’s radio operas seek to encourage audiences to create their own meaning from spliced together texts and sounds, letting the stories unfold in pointed, detailed sounds so listeners can piece together images of what’s happening “onstage” in their own minds. The pieces that comprise Freedom are both highly evocative of their historical settings by splicing together a variety of found sounds and recorded musical snippets, allowing sound itself to do all the talking.
Amirtha Kidambi & Matteo Liberatore, Neutral Love (Astral Editions)
Neutral Love, an album for guitar and voice, is a slowed-down free improvisation. Amirtha Kidambi’s voice seeps between Matteo Liberatore’s prickly strums, echoing in an unhurried call-and-response. The two exercise great restraint in the pace of their music—notes are held and pondered rather than jumped through, creating a haunting and introspective musical experience. It’s listening made of unexpected sound and silence, causing us to listen deeper to the sounds we hear, uncovering their every kernel of potential.
Catherine Lamb, Muto Infinitas (Another Timbre)
On Muto Infinitas, composer Catherine Lamb pairs her signature slow-growing, often mathematically driven music with the rich tones of bass flute and double bass. The hour-long piece hums and wavers between airy dissonance and muted consonances, gracefully flowing through tonal shifts. It feels like it pushes and pulls time, ever-expanding and contracting, stopping and starting, until its tones begin to feel like they’re lost in eternity.
Adam Morford & Leilehua Lanzilotti, Yesterday Is Two Days Ago (Self-released)
Composer and violist Leilehua Lanzilotti met percussionist and instrument builder Adam Morford after learning about his metal percussion creation, the Marvin. The Marvin, which Morford named after his grandfather, is a massive cowbell with bedsprings that shoot out of the top of its surface. The contraption can make all sorts of sounds—from resonant bellows to airy scratches—and on Yesterday is Two Days Ago Lanzilotti and Morford make the most of its capabilities. The improvised album obscures its sounds so much so that it becomes impossible to tell what instrument made what sound—questioning our preconceived notions about which tools make music and which don’t.
Rachika Nayar, Our Hands Against The Dusk (NNA Tapes)
Rachika Nayar makes her full-length debut with Our Hands Against The Dusk, an album made for late-night nostalgia. Nayar uses swaying electric guitar and electronics to craft small vignettes of long-lost memories, of abandoned homes and flickering street lights. Her understated sound is a perfect companion for contemplation, a balm for both bittersweet recollection and rebirth.
Powers/Rolin Duo, Strange Fortune (Astral Editions)
Strange Fortune, Powers/Rolin Duo’s four-track Astral Editions debut, brings a sunrise sound that feels like a slow awakening on a brisk day. The best part of the duo’s music is how the hammered dulcimer and acoustic guitar slowly morph into one over time, yet maintain textural integrity so the music never becomes a soupy mash. On Strange Fortune, that textural prowess is on full display—tracks like “Tea Lights” build layers from a poignant acoustic guitar, allowing each sound to swirl around the others, gently unfolding in detail.
Real Loud, Real Loud (New Focus Recordings)
Real Loud is, yes, you guessed it, REAL LOUD. The New York-based chamber metal band unites composed music with the untamed, thrashing sound of rock and roll’s greatest hits, harkening back to artists like no wave icon Glenn Branca. Each piece on the album explores a different aspect of this sonic universe, ranging from haunted desolation to pointillistic rhythm to the pinnacle of cathartic, noisy release. That range makes the album compelling—it shows how many ways there are to explore a combination that never seems to get old.
RES, Strife of Permanence (American Dreams Records)
On Strife of Permanence, RES makes electric, dark-hued drone music inspired by artist Robert Stokowy’s overlapping interests in sound art and doom metal. In fact, the album feels like it exists at the meeting point of the two genres: He never shies away from static interference and feedback, instead layering each gritty sound into one constant, ever-evolving patchwork of a meticulously woven sonic quilt. It’s music that’s relentless—driven by layers upon layers of distorted sound.
claire rousay, a softer focus (American Dreams Records)
claire rousay is known for making highly personal field recordings that illustrate both the minutiae and broader emotional strokes of life. A softer focus exemplifies that practice, allowing tiny details to unfurl into something larger. Some of the best moments of the album come when those everyday recordings meld into impressionistic melodies, mixing blunt realities with delicate sound to create a subtly transfixing record.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny, Degrees of Freedom Found (Unseen Worlds)
Albums like the massive Degrees of Freedom Found help to further codify “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s wide-ranging work, especially after his passing in 2020. A pianist and composer who spent much of his life working in New York’s downtown scene, his practice ranged from tonal harmonic explorations to explosive jazz to introspective piano improvisations. On Degrees of Freedom Found, a three CD box set, you can find all of these sounds—and more. Because of its scope, Tyranny’s spirit can be felt on Degrees of Freedom Found, his eclectic musical path illuminated by its twists and turns.
Various Artists, The Harmonic Series Vol. 2 (Important Records)
On The Harmonic Series Vol. 2, composer Duane Pitre unites several composers to explore the concept of just intonation—a tuning method in which the intervals of a scale are all whole number ratios. It’s a follow up to 2013’s The Harmonic Series: A Compilation of Works in Just Intonation, which featured pioneering drone composers like Pauline Oliveros and Ellen Fullman alongside a younger generation of drone artists. This second venture highlights some of today’s stars in the current drone composition scene, like Kali Malone and Catherine Lamb, showcasing how each artist approaches the technique from a different viewpoint. Some tracks ripple with dissonant fervor, while others float with consonant pleasantry, highlighting the variety of modern day just intonation composition.
Wild Up, Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine (New Amsterdam Records)
Many recordings of Julius Eastman’s Femenine have been popping up over the past couple of years, but Wild Up’s version stands out for its polished and enrapturing nature, bringing light to Eastman’s vivid compositional style through a mix of crystal clear precision and a warm embrace. Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine marks the first in an anthology of Eastman recordings Wild Up will be releasing throughout the coming years.
Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood (S P I N S T E R)
Urban Driftwood unfolds like rays of sunshine, spinning through silky acoustic guitar melodies that delicately layer and intertwine. It’s bright-hued music, made of lilting melodies that sing and breathe with a buoyancy that feels like a balm for our stressful times. This is the kind of music that sweeps you up into a trance, lifting you with its rolling drones, driven by Williams’ crisp guitar playing.
Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson, Dark Days (New Focus Recordings)
Dark Days is the culmination of years of friendship and music making between composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson. The album is made up of miniature vignettes that feel like diary entries, where sound holds as much weight as silence, centering a haunting simplicity as a way to convey a sense of hidden introspection.
Pamela Z, A Secret Code (Neuma Records)
On A Secret Code, Pamela Z’s signature vocal exploration takes on many forms, morphing and transforming until words and sounds all feel like one. Her music is intricately layered to form tightly woven textures that unravel at equal speeds into haunted dissonances and sparse melodies. A Secret Code is full of that push and pull—exploring both clarity and the gradual decay of meaning.