Roundup, December #3: Albums of the year
2021 has been a year for dance and electronica quite like no other. Coming out the other end of a pandemic where isolation became the new normal and online party Club Quarantine became the new Berghain, the future of a form inherently rooted in human connection and our instinct to move has never felt so uncertain. Unsurprisingly, the year has given us some of the most memorable and eclectic releases in recent memory. Suddenly unbound by the trends of the club, artists began exploring their work in new ways and formulating versions of familiar sounds that suddenly felt entirely original. From the rise of young stars like Sherelle to the return of legends like Hybrid, the year has seen incredibly diverse electronic music informed by an incredibly unique moment in our history. In reflection of what has come to pass and in preparation for what’s next, here are our top albums of the year, according to rating:
Desire Marea – DESIRE (Mute Recordings)
The inaugural vinyl press of South Africa’s Desire Marea’s debut album DESIRE suddenly thrust the record back into the cultural conversation, and begged the question why it had ever left the chat in the first place. Exploring black queer identity by way of the nightclub as place of worship, DESIRE is easily one of the most triumphant and immaculate debuts in recent memory. Marea pulls from motifs both cultural and inherited, fusing traditional Zulu folk melodies with buzzing eurodance synths and throbbing techno. These are entirely recontextualised through experimental and multifaceted sound collages that focus on dissecting Desire the human as much as the Tavern Kween. The album is a statement of identity that finds its voice in spaces of otherness, liminalities and halfness; the femme and the masculine, the Eurocentric and the African, the club kid and the prodigal son. These themes are carried by Marea’s impeccable performance across the album, their voice akin to witchcraft as it shifts from conjuring to pop star to siren song. The sheer brilliance of DESIRE cannot be understated, a stunningly realised debut that turns its influences on its head and carves for Marea a path that is entirely their own.
Listen to: Tavern Kween
Lotic – Water (Houndstooth)
With Water, Lotic emerged from the depths quite like never before. Whereas her debut LP Power found itself occupied with harnessing the elemental force of the earth, Water plunged into the abyss with bass as deep as the Mariana Trench and sonar like beeps and echoes that recalled bioluminescent sea monsters twisting in the fathoms. Most significantly is Lotic’s voice, which takes the form of a siren and sings spell-songs that look to wreck the ship of the patriarchy upon her rocks. Recalling the iconography of Mami Wata and sea enchantresses, Lotic’s use of the mermaid as a symbol for queer identity and otherness washed up her most intricate and tide turning work to date.
Listen to: Come Unto Me
Arca – Kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii (XL Recordings)
No one else this year broke the internet quite like Arca did. The Venezuelan producer completed her Kick Cycle by releasing five consecutive albums in the span of a week, with each exploring one of the complex multiplicities that inform the Arca identity. Themes of transformation, queerness, sexual desire and spirituality inform the direction of what is an elliptical self-study into the various parts that make up the whole ‘she.’ From the reggaeton heat of Kick ii to the mutant vogue beats of Kick iii, Arca’s most intimate parts were revealed across the stunning Kick iiii & iiiii, albums which stripped away the syncopation and chaos and looked toward the cosmic ether of the universe that Arca has imagined for herself. It’s a sprawling, impossibly gargantuan self-portrait that also serves as a dissection of Arca upon herself; recognising herself at her most self-actualised moment of being.
Listen to: Crown
Arushi Jain – Under The Lilac Sky (Leaving Records)
In Indian classical music, Ragas are pieces composed to be listened to played during various phases of the day. On Under The Lilac Sky, Arushi Jain trades the harmonium for modular synthesisers to create a record that serves as a tapestry of the threads that inform South Asian diasporic identity. It’s her scholarly approach to the music on Under The Lilac Sky that makes the album feel groundbreaking. Unequivocally Indian Classical, Jain uses modern instrumentation to recreate the sounds of her cultural ancestry to stunning effect. Her instance on interpreting the antiquate by way of the contemporary conjures a kaleidoscope of experiences and ideas. Full of glowing phrases of ambience and serene chants of bhajans and am mantras, Under The Lilac Sky is a deeply moving exploration into the complexities of what it means to be two things at one.
Listen to: Richer Than Blood
Space Afrika – Honest Labour (Dais)
Space Afrika’s Honest Labour plays out more like a contemporary ballet than any kind of dance record, but that’s what makes this quiet interrogation into post-collisional black British identity so shatteringly complex. It’s necessary to approach the album from the point of view, but then Space Afrika have always focalised their work on these convolutions, arriving at genrefluid soundscapes that are as much manifestos as they are music. Honest Labour is a sprawling collection of abstractions and frequencies, meshing the ambient chatter of everyday life with otherworldly and alien distortions that are designed to make you question what is being heard as much as you listen to it. Nestled between the snapshot of life moments like Indigo Grit or trip-hop interludes in the vein of NY Interlude are seemingly more straightforward tracks like Girl Scout Cookies. But even these never quite settle. Instead, Honest Labour keeps you moving, never lingering quite long enough to be understood. Devastating and entirely challenging, it’s easy to understand that that is exactly the point.
Listen to: Preparing The Perfect Response
Jana Rush – Painful Enlightenment (Planet Mu)
2021 was a year quite like no other for footwork. From the return of icons like RP Boo, to the R&B romance of DJ Manny, and the chaotic formulations of Jlin, footwork poised itself to become the most promising genre in terms of crossing over into the rest of dance and IDM. But it was Jana Rush who really demonstrated the potential for footwork to be so much more than drills and battle beats. Painful Enlightenment is as much an operetta as it is footwork; a record inspired by the trauma of Rush’s mental health struggles and used as a conduit for the processing thereof. Phrases from jazz improvisation like the wailing motif of a saxophone imbued Painful Enlightenment with deft and tangible human emotion, and the new directions Rush pushed the polyrhythms and breaks of footwork to sketch a sonic template of her mind made for a record that is at times perplexing but the most future focussed footwork has ever sounded.
Listen to: Mynd Fuc
Lady Gaga, Bloodpop / Various – The Dawn Of Chromatica (Interscope Records)
For all the outward idiosyncrasies, Gaga the musician has always walked the tightrope between the experimental and the accessible. Even through the camp theatricality of Government Hooker or Venus, she’s maintained a sound rooted in Top 40 appeal. Her and Bloodpop’s new remix album, Dawn of Chromatica, breaks this boundary at last. It’s Gaga’s most distinct somersault into full on outré pop maximalism, and the closest she’s come to connecting the music to the meat dress. Featuring the current It-list of hyperpop and underground club music, Dawn is not so much a traditional remix album as a companion piece, reimagining Chromatica’s songs by bridging what began at Gaga with the subsequent lineage of left-field pop artists who are destined to succeed her. It’s a celebration of the new guard of pop provocateurs and queer creative forces who owe it to Gaga, and mainstream pop’s most ardent embrace of the underground in recent memory.
Listen to: Replay (Dorian Electra Remix)
Native Soul – Teenage Dreams
Like footwork, amapiano exploded to new levels of notoriety in 2021. The sound first synthesised in the townships of Johannesburg and Pretoria, once shared exclusively on WhatsApp group chats, was suddenly taking over the world. UK veterans like Scratchclart began a dalliance with the genre, as did DJ Polo and of course, the definitive compilation Amapiano Now curated by London’s Shannen SP and Joe Cotch. But it was Pretoria duo Native Soul who really broke through toward amapiano’s future. Teenage Dreams respects and retains the genre’s roots, but throws all sorts of textures, ideas and influences into the mix without straying too far away from authenticity. Pulling from the darker (or dustier) parts of the South African underground, Teenage Dreams largely eschewed the pop tropes that have come to dominate mainstream amapiano in favour of long-from log drum booms, ominous synth riffs and throbbing chords. The result is amapiano that sounds distinctly innovative and simultaneously grassroots, with a sense of atmosphere other producers have looked toward vocals to fill that make for a remarkably immersive listen.
Listen to: The Journey
The Bug – Fire (Ninja Tune)
The return of UK legend The Bug was hotly anticipated, and with good reason. Renowned for his hard-edged and demented grime and dub ideations, perhaps nothing could quite have prepared us for what The Bug presented with Fire. His most aggressive and outwardly violent work to date, Fire blazed with an angst fuelled by ruminations on a failed system and inherent distrust in the state. Fire quite literally rages, burning with a ferocity that is at once jarring until it feels like a sort of manic catharsis. At the end of the acrid maelstrom is the album’s ignition spark. The Missing, a spoken word piece by Roger Robinson which recounts the tragedy of the 2017 Grenfell Fire is emblematic of the pile of ash The Bug denotes as the system. At its most powerful, Fire is an exorcism of national frustration but at its most deft, it’s a look into humanity’s capability to destroy itself.
Listen to: The Missing
Cookie Kawaii – Vanice
The most fascinating thing about Vanice, the debut album from Cookiee Kawaii, is how it defied the expectations placed on Kawaii by the rest of the world. While undeniably a veteran in her field of Jersey Club, it was a Tik-Tok trend that shot Kawaii to instant stardom and many expected Vanice to repeat the formula of Vibe (Back It Up). Instead, Kawaii totally rewrites the rules of Jersey Club for herself, pulling from not-so-distant cousins like Harlem ballroom and Chicago house. The result is a record that not only redefines what ‘jersey club’ is or could be, but reveals Kawaii as a multifaceted visionary that is so much more than a 30 second trend. She is the undeniable queen of the Jersey dancefloor, and Vanice was her reclamation of the throne.
Listen to: Cookiee & The Monsters
Overmono – BMW Track / S U Kno (Poly Kicks)
While so much in dance music had seen artists grapple with the paradox of making dance music for empty dance floors, from Lorain James’s elliptical and pensive sound sculptures to Dam Funk’s exploration of sonic architecture and ambient music, Overmono looked to the past to remind the world how to dance. While not an album per-se (the tracks were eventually released on Overmono’s compilation for fabric presents) it would be impossible to ignore the impact that BMW Track, and more significantly it’s B-side So U Kno, has had this year. The latter in particular has been heard on dance floors and livestream sets across the world, with its relentless break pattern and looping, helium high vocal hook. And who could blame the world for embracing this track so ardently? Having just started coming out of lockdown, the world was relearning how to dance again. Overmono’s backtrack to the sound of their origins was the exact sort of nostalgia needed to fuel the fire; a familiar, propulsive sound that reminded people how to move together again.
Listen to : So U Kno
Wanton Witch – Wanton Witch (Stroboscopic Artefacts)
Working in broad strokes of bold and boundary pushing aesthetic choices, the eponymous debut LP from Bangkok producer and founder of NON NON NON collective’s Wanton Witch was a severe and disarming body of work that ruminated on themes of trans identity by way of industrial chaos. Foremost a concept album, Wanton Witch is a journal of sorts with each track presenting an intense view into Alegria’s journey and struggles with identity that arise from her isolated upbringing within a small island community. Following in the linage of provocateurs like Arca and SOPHIE who translated the complexities of transness through pieces of disjointed and amorphous sound design, Wanton Witch executes its post-club queer dystopia with a distinct edge informed only by Miriam Alegria herself.
Listen to: Daddy’s Girl