I went to the Williamsburg pier one 2021 summer night. I know it was night because it was dark out, and since it was summer it must have been 8 or 9pm. My phone told me it was going to rain but I really didn’t care because all I wanted was to go to the Williamsburg pier and listen to the waves and the cars and the planes all passing by me while I looked at the Manhattan skyline and thought about nothing at all. It wasn’t raining yet.
Naturally, by the time I got off the subway, the rain had started. I trudged along anyways, accepting that I would be sloshing around in dripping wet sneakers for the evening.
I made it to the pier, soaked. I looked out at the blinking city lights and smiled as the M train jangled across the Williamsburg bridge. See, I had been away from New York for a few months and I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. I actually felt that way when I first moved to New York at the age of 21, just a week after graduating from college. I learned then that mythology about things is just mythology about things: It’s how we find a little bit of magic when it doesn’t seem to be anywhere else.
In my personal music library, 2021 was a fantastic year for piano. I found myself gravitating towards a variety of albums that made use of the instrument’s many capabilities—open lid extended techniques that glisten and shriek, stark simple melodies, reverberant, echoing tones that fill up a whole room. I’ve always enjoyed solo piano, but never as much as I did in 2021. There’s something enticing about hearing a piano shapeshift into something unexpected, breaking out of its typified boundaries and turning into something more special.
That rainy summer night, New York felt new. It was colored by my past and present of living there and somehow I felt like there was more possibility than before. It’s not so far off from the piano, whose sound and shape and texture has become synonymous with classical music yet continuously finds ways to morph into new sounds and styles. Sometimes, removing the myth to find a new glimmer of excitement is more interesting than the myth itself.
Here’s a list of 46 albums I liked in 2021 and a bit about why I enjoyed them. This is not comprehensive, nor is it necessarily a “best of” list. Rather, it’s a space for reflection and discovery. Happy listening.
Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam Records)
Composer and vocalist Arooj Aftab’s Vulture Prince rightly made a splash in 2021. The album, which is Aftab’s third, chronicles the ups and downs of relationships, coloring in the unfinished edges of grief and longing with lush instrumentals and stunning vocals. It’s heartbreaking, yet full of hope and constantly in bloom.
Robert Ames, Change Ringing (Modern Recordings)
On Change Ringing, conductor, violist, and curator Robert Ames takes on a new role—a composer primarily working with electronic music. It’s his debut album as a composer, but the sounds and ideas he harnesses feel fully formed. The tracks on the album each draw from his varied interests, blending the intricate layers of minimalism with gentle ambient tones and hints of dance hall beats, forming what sounds like a true conglomeration of style that reaches across musical barriers.
Blacks’ Myths, Blacks’ Myths I & II [Reissue] (Atlantic Rhythms)
This reissue unites the first two albums from duo Blacks’ Myths, aka bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III, which were originally released in 2018 and 2019. Together, the two powerhouse artists make driving, rhythm-focused music. They often explore spun-out, free spontaneity that employs a range of extended techniques and far-out sounds, but there’s equal amounts of groove on this record, too. It’s a celebration of the rhythm section, highlighting the multitude of possibilities of the foundational conversation between drums and bass.
Olivia Block, Innocent Passage in the Territorial Sea (Room40)
Innocent Passage in the Territorial Sea is Olivia Block’s alien dream quarantine (and shrooms) album. The record is made of deep drones and wafting tunes, driven by a warped mellotron. But it ventures beyond the surface, coloring each moment with mysterious, spliced up rhythms and melodies. The result is an utterly transportive sound that balances both the ominous feeling of lockdown and science fiction fantasy daydreams.
Body/Dilloway/Head, s/t (Three Lobed Recordings)
Body/Dilloway/Head, aka Kim Gordon, Bill Nace, and Aaron Dilloway, make mangled, noisy riffs that ring with wiry grit. Their album, which is to be a series of Body/Head improvised tracks warped by Dilloway’s chaotic touch, sounds as tumultuous and powerful as you might expect it to sound. It’s the best of the perfected sounds of Body/Head and Dilloway, united in one gravelly, electric package.
Patricia Brennan, Maquishti (Valley of Search)
New York-based, Mexican born artist Patricia Brennan, whose work has often been heard in collaborations with other jazz and classical artists, strikes out on her own on Maquishti. The album is a celebration of the capabilities of the vibraphone and marimba, centering Brennan’s interests in both conventional and extended techniques. The sound of the primarily improvised record is inquisitive and otherworldly, embodying haunted atmospheres and vivid, futuristic colors.
Melaine Dalibert, night blossoms (elsewhere)
On night blossoms, French composer and pianist Melaine Dalibert continues to explore his longtime interest in algorithmic composition. And while the pieces on the album may be constructed using code and sequences, the music is far from sounding rigid or scientific. Instead, it’s made of gauzy threads, the thin wisps of nighttime as dusk begins to settle. Every moment is characterized by fluid melodies and rippling currents, drawn together in simple melodic packages.
Julia Den Boer, Kermès (New Focus Recordings)
On Kermès, pianist Julia Den Boer explores the many different possible textures of her instrument. The album features four modern works for solo piano, by composers Giulia Lorusso, Linda Catlin Smith, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, and Rebecca Saunders, each of which exemplifies a different aspect of the piano. Saunders’ “Crimson” showcases striking dissonance, letting prickly tones explode into each other; Smith’s “The Underfolding” ruminates in a series of inquisitive colors, moving in impressionistic swaths of reverberant sound. Each piece seeks to illuminate the different resonances of the piano, highlighting the many facets of an instrument whose sound is so ubiquitous.
Aaron Dilloway & Lucrecia Dalt, Lucy & Aaron (Hanson Records)
Lucrecia Dalt and Aaron Dilloway have known each other for quite some time, but it’s only recently that their collaborations have come to recording. Lucy & Aaron marks the electronic and experimental artist’s debut full-length as a duo; its mix of alien, futuristic humor and mangled, garbled tones instantly compel. The album expertly mixes static electricity with surrealist silliness, filtering reality through jumbled up notes. It often sounds like an otherworldly being, a science fiction fantasy made of a hint of horror and a wink.
JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing (NNA Tapes)
The Clearing finds composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer JJJJJerome Ellis speaking about his life, his stutter, and larger issues facing the world, from a deeply personal perspective that invites us in. The album is a mix of spoken word, serenity, and broken down beats, following the natural rhythm of Ellis’s voice. The music is groovy and meditative, punchy and warm, but it never shies away from its subject matter, nor does it paint a glossy picture. Instead, this is an album that lives in and celebrates what is and the process of living it.
Lawrence English, Observation of Breath (Hallow Ground)
Observation of Breath features composer and Room40 label founder Lawrence English’s longtime organ drone work. Breathy tones waver in glacially slow motion, hanging in full-bodied stillness as pitches change inch by inch. This is music that never moves but is somehow always moving. It’s music that feels simple but is made of infinite sonic layers. It’s transportive drone that illuminates the depth of the organ, uncovering its striking fullness in patient breaths.
Beatriz Ferreyra, Canto+ (Room40)
Beatriz Ferreyra got her start in composition working with magnetic tape at France’s musique concrète center Groupe de Recherches Musicales in the ‘60s. For some time, her work flew under the radar; recently, many of her pieces are getting newfound attention. Canto+, which comes after her 2020 Room40 release, Echos+, presents compositions spanning 40 years, each showcasing different exploratory, otherworldly, and haunted elements of her electronic work.
Mabe Fratti/Concepción Huerta, Estática (SA Recordings)
Cellist Mabe Fratti and multidisciplinary artist Concepción Huerta create engrossing walls of sound on Estática. The two musicians have known each other for a long time through the Mexico City improvisation scene. Estática is their first EP as a duo, and the sound is both pummeling and rich, made of layers of electric sound and glistening melodies. It’s a bit of shoegaze fuzz and static currents, mixed together into one all-consuming package.
Mabe Fratti, Será que ahora podremos entendernos (Unheard of Hope)
Mexico City-based cellist Mabe Fratti plays delicately layered lullabies on her second album, Será que ahora podremos entendernos. The album’s inspiration is the idea of communication—how we miss connections and make them, usually through words. Throughout the record, Fratti’s voice slips in-between looped cello melodies and blossoming synths, humming short phrases of reminiscence. The music shines in its simplicity, finding a way to communicate emotions and memories through the slowest changes and most gentle repetitions.
Les Filles de Illighadad, At Pioneer Works (Sahel Sounds)
At Pioneer Works captures Les Filles de Illighadad’s joy-filled, explosive performance at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works in 2019. The Tuareg group mixes traditional folk singing and striking electric guitar riffs and first came to the fore with their self-titled release in 2016. This live album showcases their rousing spirit, highlighting how immediately their music captivates and thrills.
Gerycz/Powers/Rolin, Lamplighter (American Dreams Records)
Lamplighter embodies the spontaneous by uniting starry-eyed folk melodies with swishing percussion. It’s a style-melding album by percussionist Jayson Gerycz, hammered dulcimer player Jen Powers, and acoustic guitarist Matthew Rolin. Every melody is linked together, despite the potentially disparate sounds the trio is exploring (free improvisation, psychedelic acoustics, drone, shoegaze etc). The beauty of the record unfolds in its many layers and crisp textures that collide and loop together.
Grouper, Shade (Kranky)
Shade, like all of Grouper’s music, finds the sublime in delicate distances. It’s a blend of short songs, field recordings, and fuzzy ambient; it’s music that feels like snapshots of tiny moments in time, blurred out like barely there old memories. What’s most striking about Shade is how it feels so present, yet so rooted in wistful recollection.
Yvette Janine Jackson, Freedom (Fridman Gallery)
Yvette Janine Jackson composes “radio operas,” or cinematic works that paint pictures in sound rather than images we see on screen or on stage. Freedom presents two of her most visceral radio operas: “Destination Freedom,” which chronicles the horrors of Middle Passage and “Invisible People,” which explores queer Black identity. The music flows in swaths of sounds that link together, uniting jazzy instrumentals with spine-chilling found sounds and hollow electronics. Every carefully chosen spurt of sound comes together to create impressionistic pictures that illuminate history.
Amirtha Kidambi & Matteo Liberatore, Neutral Love (Astral Editions)
On Neutral Love, vocalist Amirtha Kidambi and guitarist Matteo Liberatore improvise sporadic melodies and sparse sounds, soaking up silence as much as sound. The album exists in what feels like a timeless space. They cite deep listening-focused artists like Pauline Oliveros as influences on the album, taking inspiration in patience and the minute details of every sound. The result is a contemplative work that unfolds in sporadic spurts of energy.
Catherine Lamb, Muto Infinitas (Another Timbre)
Muto Infinitas is a delicate duet between the unusual combination of quartertone bass flute and double bass. Composer Catherine Lamb’s minimalist, drone-oriented style often explores different tuning systems (such as just intonation) illuminated by gossamer melodies. Here, she continues writing in this style, letting the two instruments’ lines weave together and split apart in patient motion. This is music that comes to life in its haunted crevices, taking solace in muted moments of near-silence.
Leilehua Lanzilotti & Adam Morford, Yesterday is Two Days Ago (self-released)
On Yesterday is Two Days Ago, Leilehua Lanzilotti’s viola becomes enmeshed in Adam Morford’s Marvin, so much so it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the two despite their disparate sonic palettes. The Marvin, an instrument developed by Morford and his brother, is a large metal cowbell with upright bed springs attached to its surface. It’s sound is robust and metallic, unlike the viola’s warm, deep tone. But Yesterday Is Two Days Ago revels in those dissonances and finds common ground in the most unexpected places.
Karl Larson & Scott Wollschleger, Dark Days (New Focus Recordings)
Dark Days, a compilation of miniature, diary-entry type solo piano works, is the product of years of collaboration and friendship between composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson. The New York-based artists originally presented this music live a couple of years ago; on recording, it feels just as intimate, driven by simple, soft melodies that ring with crispness. Every piece feels like a short letter, the sort of inner thought written on little notes that are tossed to sea, left to be unearthed years later.
George Lewis, The Recombinant Trilogy (New Focus Recordings)
New York-based composer George Lewis’s The Recombinant Trilogy features three acoustic solos, on flute, cello, and bassoon, that are each digitally manipulated to form echoey, prickly repetitions. These melodies are often near-copies of each other, but no two moments on the album sound the same. The sounds are sporadic and chaotic, hopping from trilling melodies to sparse dissonances and distant hums, all shrouded in echoes. The idea is to explore the subtle differences between original and clone, letting them intertwine until neither sounds much like the other, becoming an entirely new entity.
Low, HEY WHAT
Since their formation in the ‘90s, Low has continued to reinvent and reinvigorate their musical practice. 2018’s Double Negative saw them grapple with a major change—a more distorted, noisy sound that reveled in blown-out glory. HEY WHAT continues along that path, but takes it into even more abstract territories, relying on staticky bits of noise pulsing beneath anthemic lyrics and singing, never quite feeling steady but always embracing the sheer strength of walls of sound. Lots has been written about this band and this album, so I’ll spare you. I like it because I like fuzzed-out sound of any kind.
L’Rain, Fatigue (Mexican Summer)
On Fatigue, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist L’Rain explores the meaning of change, particularly on a global level in response to state violence towards Black people, the pandemic, and the many other systemic issues facing America. It’s an unpredictable and refreshing record that mixes an eclectic array of song forms. Its melodies and intricate rhythms create endlessly winding paths to travel, each time revealing more layers than the next.
Ava Mendoza, New Spells (Relative Pitch/Astral Spirits)
New York-based guitarist Ava Mendoza’s work can often be heard in collaborations. New Spells features her as a deft soloist, skillfully crafting her own music for electric guitar and playing the compositions of others. Sure, she’s one of the great modern improvising guitarists, but this record is more than virtuosity. What makes it so impactful is the sheer strength and magic held beneath each note she plucks and each chord she plays.
Jon Mueller, Family Secret (American Dreams Records)
On Family Secret, percussionist Jon Mueller makes music that feels like the cobwebs that adorn old, abandoned buildings. Gossamer rhythmic threads interlace to form haunted alleyways. The music is primarily a textural exploration, diving between distant hums and crashing, sporadic moments. It’s as if Mueller is revisiting long gone paths, traversing down roads he’s taken before but aren’t quite the same.
Rachika Nayar, Our Hands Against the Dusk (NNA Tapes)
Our Hands Against the Dusk provides a lovely mix of bleary, midwest emo-style chords, wistful ambient, and delicate improvisation. It’s Brooklyn-based guitarist Rachika Nayar’s debut full-length album and it feels like a full representation of her musical interests. As a whole, the record is made of wistful textures, woven out of nostalgic memories.
Old Saw, Country Tropics (Lobby Art)
On Country Tropics, folk tunes and singing drones come together to form a daydream-style sound. Old Saw hails from New England, a sextet who improvises on pipe organs and bajos, steel pedal, and fiddle. Their music comes to life in earthy tones that manage to transport while staying effortlessly grounded. It’s nothing fancy, but it doesn’t need to be. Instead, it basks in the glow of simple melodies and tones that stretch for miles.
Bill Orcutt & Chris Corsano, Made Out of Sound (Palilalia Records)
Made out of Sound is a quarantine album, recorded across state boundaries. Yet it feels like Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano were right next to each other when they made it, guitar strums fitting seamlessly into percussive beats. There’s something thrilling about the ability to make an improvisation record that feels so in-sync, all things considered. But is it so surprising? Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano have been making music together for years, and here, it’s as if they’re at a point where they can read each other’s minds (or at least, hop into them for a second). Beyond it’s incredible story and sound, this is music meant to be enjoyed, music that’s constantly driving forward in brightness and brilliance.
Pelt, Reticence / Resistance (Three Lobed)
Reticence / Resistance brings together two lengthy tracks from psych-drone band Pelt’s live performances at London’s Café Oto in 2017. Each track encapsulates the style of fiddling-meets-drone-rock music Pelt has perfected in its nearly 30 years of existence. “Diglossia” is my personal favorite track—it’s a spun out journey that feels like a brilliant sunrise exploding into a thousand different colors.
Éliane Radigue, Occam Ocean III (Shiiin)
Éliane Radigue is known as a pioneer in the world of magnetic tape composition, exploring how feedback and lengthy tones can prove transportive. She’s brought these ideas to acoustic instruments in the form of her Occam Ocean series, which features solo and chamber groups in performance. Occam Ocean III presents a string trio that moves through elongated, wavering tones that gently morph into different harmonies and timbres throughout time. It’s a characteristically sublime album from the minimalist composer, one that makes listening feel like drifting away into a vivid fantasy.
Lucy Railton & Kit Downes, Subaerial (SN Variations)
Cellist Lucy Railton and keyboardist Kit Downes have been collaborating for more than a decade. Subaerial is one of their strongest efforts yet, featuring ethereal, intertwined lines that waver in near-stillness. The record is primarily improvised, rooted in both the musicians’ jazz and classical training. They achieve a suspended-in-time, wondrous feeling throughout, despite the uncertain melodies and haunted tones that creep up seemingly out of nowhere.
Brendon Randall-Myers & Miki Sawada, A Kind of Mirror (slashsound)
Brendon Randall-Myers’ compositions usually center electric guitars, but on A Kind of Mirror, he brings punk and metal sensibilities to classical piano. The album’s music is still relentless—especially on tracks like “Cascade,” a rippling current of fast, repeating notes—but it also explores the softer edges of the piano and electronics on tracks like “Bloom.” Miki Sawada’s playing is precise and crisp throughout, yet effortlessly flexible, highlighting the music’s simultaneous rigidity and fluidity.
Real Loud, s/t (New Focus Recordings)
The self-titled debut from New York’s “antiphonal chamber metal band” Real Loud showcases the many ways composers can write for mirrored electric basses, electric guitars, and drum sets. The album features four premieres that each explore a different sonic palette. Pascal Le Boeuf’s “Forbidden Subjects” channels metal currents, rippling with crashing noise, while Jenny Beck’s “Go In Secret” takes on a much more sparse texture, exploring ominous, far away melodies. All celebrate the versatility and explosive potential of a group like Real Loud.
claire rousay, a softer focus (American Dreams Records)
On a softer focus, the deeply personal music claire rousay has become known for crystallizes. The record is a combination of field recordings, gossamer melodies, and auto-tuned vocals. Each element feels intimate, a snapshot of rousay’s everyday life, melodies that need nothing more than their barest bones to create some kind of feeling. Rousay finds the glory in the smallest moments, celebrating the fact that it’s the minutiae that makes life…life.
Saman Shahi, Microlocking (People Places)
On Microlocking, Iranian-Canadian composer Saman Shahi writes short vignettes for a variety of instruments (piano ensemble, electric guitar, electronics) that each primarily explore the dual forces of texture and rhythm. The album comes on the heels of 2020’s Breathing in the Shadows, which featured Shahi’s song cycles. Microlocking draws from similar compositional instincts as Breathing in the Shadows—a penchant for crunchy tones and interwoven rhythms. But it takes on different shapes, too, harnessing the strength of a short solo that packs in a hundred ideas at once, from microtonal motion to melodic fragments to perfectly placed syncopations.
Patrick Shiroishi, Hidemi (American Dreams Records)
On Hidemi, saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi layers and loops lines of his own playing, uniting spun-out, free melodies with punchy rhythmic phrases and winding meditations. Created in memory of his grandfather, Hidemi Patrick, Hidemi’s musical lattice is also a vehicle for exploring the aftermath of Japanese internment camps for those who were released. The music traverses generations of Asian-American experiences, illuminating both dark memories and hopeful futures. The tapestry of sound that Shiroishi weaves is an ever-growing, ever-changing quilt, much like the album’s intergenerational and communal themes.
Luke Stewart, Works for Electric Bass Guitar (Tripticks Tapes)
Washington D.C/New York bassist Luke Stewart’s skill and creativity with his instrument comes to the fore on Works for Electric Bass Guitar. The album highlights his solo expertise in a series of tracks that foreground prickly extended techniques and fast-paced improvisation. Stewart’s work can often be heard in collaborations, with groups like free jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements, but here, he plays all the parts on his electric bass, which takes on a plethora of plucky textures throughout the album. It’s virtuosic, but it’s also a deep exploration, one that searches for the full potential of Stewart’s instrument.
TAK Ensemble/Brandon Lopez, Empty And/Or Church of Plenty (Tripticks Tapes)
Empty And/Or Church of Plenty is made of gravelly, droning, buzzing sounds that interlock in distant, longform tones. While New York’s TAK Ensemble commissioned bassist Brandon Lopez to write the work, the creative process of putting the tape’s two sides together was collaborative. Each artist’s voice mattered equally as much as the composer. The result is a transportive, improvisatory sound that highlights each individual’s voice within the collective, shedding light on every artist’s personality alone and together.
Various Artists, The Harmonic Series Vol. II (Important Records)
Composer Duane Pitre compiled a series of historic just intonation works into a record that surveyed the history of the practice called The Harmonic Series. The Harmonic Series Vol. II is its logical predecessor, again uniting a series of just intonation works into a survey style compilation. But this time, the record centers modern purveyors of the form. Every track embodies a different sound: The dissonant, haunted corners of Catherine Lamb’s works contrast with the effervescent drones of Kali Malone, for example. This variety highlights the infinite possibilities of just intonation, spotlighting how different artists explore the same tuning system.
Wild Up, Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine (New Amsterdam Records)
The Los Angeles-based chamber ensemble Wild Up launched a multi-year Julius Eastman anthology this year with a pristine, brilliantly executed recording of Eastman’s 1974 composition Femenine. Many ensembles have turned to Eastman’s work in recent years, with no shortage of Femenine interpretations. What makes Wild Up’s stand out is its crisp quality and precise attention to detail, which brings to life all of the intricate layers and splashes of improvisation that make Eastman’s work so singular.
Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood (S P I N S T E R)
When Yasmin Williams’ Urban Driftwood came out last year, it took the world by storm. The guitarist’s dreamy melodies and catchy riffs shone a light through much of the darkness of the past year. At her live show at Pioneer Works last fall, in which she opened for fellow 2021 favorite, Arooj Aftab, she mentioned a few of her songs take inspiration from difficult times. Urban Driftwood feels like finding a well-lit path out of those terrifying moments as much as it feels like a vibrant meditation on them.
Yarn/Wire, Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point (Black Truffle)
New York quartet Yarn/Wire and trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point features two recent works by New Zealand-born composer Annea Lockwood, whose compositions often touch on themes of nature, decay, and growth. This album follows along those paths, finding inspiration in both ecology (“Into the Vanishing Point”) and natural resonances (“Becoming Air”). Both pieces feel suspended in time, unfolding in slow motion through tiny details and gentle textural changes. Lockwood is less concerned with virtuosic statements than organic ebb and flow.
Pamela Z, A Secret Code (Neuma Records)
Composer and vocalist Pamela Z has long been known for her groundbreaking work in electronic voice manipulation, but her music has usually lived in the ephemeral world of live performance. Indeed, A Secret Code is only her third studio album—and it’s a much-welcomed release from the always inventive musician. The album, which features Z as well as artists such as Kronos Quartet, is an eclectic showcase of compositions that highlight different facets of Z’s style, from her quintessential, punchy vocal explorations to searching melodic tracks. All center the idea of language, and how words may mean something deep or nothing at all.
Pamela Z, Echolocation (Freedom to Spend)
RVNG Intl’s Freedom to Spend arm consistently releases and reissues many albums that highlight the history of electronic music, bringing to life long lost archival sounds that impact the electronic community to this day. One of those reissues is composer and vocalist Pamela Z’s Echolocation, a 1988 cassette release and Z’s first album. It presents her early work in vocal manipulation, highlighting popping, layered murmurs and unusual vocal echos. Echolocation showcases the range of Z’s work in electronic vocalization, from lush textures to vigorous dissonances, illuminating how groundbreaking her work was in the ‘80s and how its threads still influence music today.