(some) favorite albums of 2021

Here are some of my favorite albums that were released this year. This isn’t a complete list — MusicBee shows I have 54 of them. 54! Um, 7 of them were by me, but still, that was a lot of supporting artists on Bandcamp.

These are in no particular order alphabetical by album title. I’m not going to try to pick “the best” because they are all different, and maybe some other 2021 albums I’ve listened to are “better” in some ways. But these are the ones that stand out in my mind and I enjoy listening to them.

Buchla Now

Some of the tracks on this compilation are just okay — the sort of abstract, too-random noodly things that “West Coast” synthesists often indulge in — but many of them are brilliant and beautiful. I feel like it generally gets more engaging as it progresses, but honestly, I really love Suzanne Ciani’s “Empty Skies” and that’s just the third track. Overall, I can confidently list this as one of my favorite West Coast albums. Even if I kind of don’t like the term “West Coast” anymore.

Nathan Moody: The Damage Diary

The first Nathan Moody album I encountered — still one of my favorites! — was Etudes I: Blue Box, an exploration of a small, focused Eurorack synth he had put together featuring Mannequins modules and a touchplate keyboard. He has since released many more synth works on various interesting systems, a fantastic album entirely made with self-built electroacoustic instruments, and has been moving in a sort of hybrid direction with acoustic and electronic instruments. I was honestly not into A Shadow No Light Could Make, but whatever he is doing on this one, works. It’s emotional and complex and just overall excellent. I’ve had this less than a week and have listened to it at least three times. I do hope he’s not done with pure synth works like Blue Box or Chrysalis — but I suspect not.

Trifecta: Fragments

Back in the 80s I got into jazz, and more specifically, jazz fusion with synths: Spyro Gyra, the Yellowjackets, etc. This is like that but for 2021, with an unbelievable bass player, a fantastic drummer, and a keyboard player who is absolutely no slouch and makes some interesting sound design choices. When I’m in the right mood, this album is a total joy. Even when I’m not, it’s hard not to be impressed at how good they are at what they do and how tight their groove is.

Dream Division: Legend of Lizard Lake

I’m guessing this is “dungeon synth”? Retro style, lo-fi, low-budget rock/synth stuff good for exploring dungeons without leaving your basement. It’s definitely reminiscent of somewhere between D&D 2nd edition and NES adventure games — in one of the tracks you can practically hear the slimes/oozes bopping along with cartoony squeaks. Anyway, it’s charming and weird and yet it kind of rocks. I’ve been into the general genre of retro, synthy soundtracks for horror/”mysteries of the unexplained” style stuff, and this one seems the most authentic of them all, in its way.

Thanos Fotiadis: The Light Ark

That other Thanos couldn’t be more wrong, but this one is right. The mood overall is darker and heavier than the album and track titles might suggest, but there’s a kind of positivity in it. More contemplative than brooding, as such. An acknowledgement that this is where we are, and we accept it.

Chaz Knapp: Organ Drunes

This album is a series of performances wringing beauty and truth from a not particularly beautiful Yamaha organ picked up in a yard sale. It’s… no particular genre, it’s its own wonderful and unique thing, and it moves through a variety of emotions but mostly I would call it both playful and sensitive.

Leisure Prison: Sustained Tones

A set of synth drone pieces, with rhythmic elements wending through some of them, most of them constantly under emotional and almost physical tension. It really makes one wonder how an obviously completely sound can seem so creepy and ominous just because it is, as the title says, a sustained tone. Something relating to liminal spaces maybe? At any rate, this simultaneously feels like the study of a phenomenon and a strong musical statement at the same time, plus it just sounds cool.

Ryou Oonishi: Tokyo Rain

Rain plus some chill electronic music. Maybe technically ambient, but kind of lives in a place between “chill lo-fi beats to study to” without the beats, the kind of ghostly, sun-faded, warbly tape music that a lot of people (yes me too) like, loneliness and peacefulness. And yes, rain. Probably in Tokyo, but at 3 AM and not particularly close to any cool clubs or whatever. It’s not particularly weird, maybe not even that original, but not boring either — and effective. I have put this album on many times.