2021 has been an eventful year; not only have I listened to many great records, but It’s also the first year I tried my hand at both writing about and releasing music. I discovered new favorites through writing and broadened my own listening habits. One of my favorite things about starting and running Lagniappe is exploring unfamiliar musicians and labels which became regular fixtures of my musical rotation.
Of course, Hurricane Ida hitting the southeastern coast of Louisiana brought about some hangups. During this time, my priorities shifted; I wasn’t listening to music much as I was glued to the news, eager to see the aftermath. It was Hurricane Ida, though, that jumpstarted my experiment running Lagniappe Exposure as a label. By releasing, Relief On the Bayou, I had the pleasure of releasing tracks by some excellent artists.
Since starting Lagniappe Exposure, I have looked forward to putting an end-of-year list together. I stressed over what I would feature and how the list would look. I went back and forth between 100 and 50, finally deciding on fifty. This means I had to cut out a good chunk of what I was listening to over the year, but I wanted it to be concise. A genuine representation of the fifty most influential records to me, ones I engaged with the most, felt captivated by the most, and of course, listened to the most!
True to my initial goal with Lagniappe, I wanted a list that was diverse but true to representing musicians that I found to be undersung critically, musicians on the fringe of popular coverage. The purpose of this list isn’t to detract from great music made by popular artists or major labels, but as a differing point of view, that beneath the algorithms and repetitive exposure of many major music publications, these artists exists too, some are new to the game while others are genuinely independent, respected in their communities but just outside the scope of widespread attention.
I’m not claiming any records are better or more vital than any other listed, and depending on the day, my opinion changes; they are mainly ordered by how much I’ve listened to them. So here is a rundown of fifty albums that I have enjoyed immensely over the past year.
All releases are linked to their respective Bandcamp pages.
by Bonnie Kane
The Essence of Witches is an arresting synthesis of flute, saxophone, and electronics that engulfs the listener with three long-form expressions that are, at once, eerie, soothing, and stupefying. Moving from one exploration to another with ease, Bonnie Kane shows off her power with improvisation.
by Rural Noise
Rural Noise fills the negative space linking all living things. Listening to There Is No Talk In My Mouth is to hear your cells in motion, the inaudible frequencies carried by the wind through the rustling of trees or the impenetrable decay of a forest floor, the grace of snowfall or the crisp snap of walking on thin ice. It’s an album that hones in on the invisible, realizing that nothing is ever silent.
48. Someday, Wyoming
by Home Learning
Sometimes ambient music doesn’t need to do anything other than lull you with its gentle beauty or perhaps offer a little tension. Home Learning achieves this on the straightforward Someday, Wyoming, a collection of breezy ambient pieces. The album opens sonically in the second half, becoming a bit more adventuresome, still relaxing but a bit more uneasy as the textures become denser.
Armed with only a guitar, WPH builds impressive compositions that twist textural tones with more traditional styles through four minimally titled pieces. It speaks volumes about the dexterity of the guitar as a tool, as II moves from more steadfast explorations of drone, “1” to the moodier, crestfallen flamenco tune of “2.” “4” opens with clearly played strings before fading into a wall of stoic noise before clarity returns approaching the end. Listening to II is like observing the subtle transitions of light on an overcast day.
by Max Stephens
MTMYBS’s five piercing arrangements aren’t the most comfortable compositions to get through, but its understated alchemical mix of complex forms and tones separated by space gives this album the characteristics of a horror film soundtrack.
45. Hey What
Hey What doubles down on what I loved about the band’s last record, Double Negative. The heavy distortion disperses slowly, allowing the elegance of their arrangments and melodies to float through clearly from a band going as long as Low; exploring new strengths is always welcome.
by Rose Riebl
The arrangements here work well to recall the details of memory so precisely, the movement of a hand, a forgotten gesture, the placement of a frame atop a table, a beam of light like a beacon cast upon a floor creating a swarm of dust. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but classical music with an ambient twist always works well when it allows listeners to bring their own ideas to the table. The title can be taken as a warning to let things remain, fully aware that altering even the smallest of objects can unleash a limitless flood of reactions. Or perhaps that our memories are both frail and firm to an equal degree; maybe it’s our perspective that matters.
43. This Abysmal Sea
by The Night Porter
This Abysmal Sea is a great starting point for anyone unfamiliar with Tom Wilson’s work as The Night Poter, playing out like a lost relic, a recording from some mysterious locale. At only four tracks, TAS places a lot of his qualities in a moderately accessible format. Abrasive noise, pseudo-ambient sections, and static sprawls are all available here! Exceptionally prolific in output, any of The Night Porter’s releases could have rightfully taken place here. This Abysmal Sea holds a special place; however, as the release that got me into Tom Wilson’s experimental frequencies.
[Australian Art Orchestra]
by Australian Art Orchestra, Reuben Lewis, Tariro Mavondo, & Peter Knight
A collaborative effort between three musicians, Closed Beginnings, places poignant poetry over improvised compositions that highlight the sharpness of Tariro’s words. Only four compositions comprise this release, but the recording was completed over three years. As a result, it requires active listening but is no doubt thought-provoking.
41. Havuz I-II
by Koray Kantarcıoğlu
A two-part, long-form experiment with loops, Havuz is a slow burner, ever-shifting from start to finish; no loop overstays its welcome, making this an adventuresome exercise in sound.
40. Gas Lit
by Divide And Dissolve
Divide And Dissolve attempt to destroy white supremacist colonialism. The thick churn of sludge metal guitars summons an elemental swell of anguish. While Gas Lit offers one track featuring spoken word, it’s the instrumental’s fury and bombast that speak the loudest; It feels primordial, tethered to the land in its relentless drive. One doesn’t have to strive hard to sense the earth screaming in anguish at the atrocities committed against her. The ideas may be musically abstract but understanding the concept and then feeling the weight of Gas Lit sells the message quite well.
by Don Zilla
A searing album of dark industrial vibes fused with African rhythms. Don Zilla instrumentals have a propulsive quality that drives the record forward, never staying in one place for too long. Anxious and foreboding, the rhythms give the chillier electronics a fervent soul. It’s a strong showcase for an emerging producer.
by Mia Pixley
An abundance of joy is found within Margaret in the Wild, an exuberant release by Austin, TX native Mia Pixley, a compelling artist who fuses multiple genres into something unique. A little jazz, a little classical, a little r&b, stirred with experimentation combined with a love of nature, makes this release an intriguing listen.
by Sunn O)))
Still riding high on their set of excellent releases from 2019, Metta Benevolence is a splendid example of Sunn O)))’s strength and capacity to breathe new life into an older composition. Anna von Hausswolff’s feature gave the first two tracks and added warmth to these live interpretations.
A carefully assembled album of organic tones digitally shaped almost beyond recognition. There isn’t really anything overly serious about MetaConc, but it is a highly fascinating listen. The beats are heady and can become almost trance-inducing, an album where our perception of the organic and inorganic blends together like watercolor.
Perhaps it begins in the club, but by the time Misantrop closes Reproaching the Absurd, we couldn’t be any further from that setting. As sturdy dance beats start the album off, things quickly descend into noisier excursions in sound. This dual nature works well to illustrate Misantrop’s vision. Reproaching the Absurd acts simultaneously builds bridges and tears down the understanding between two separate worlds.
by murder me
Maybe it’s an odd comparison, but Mandíbula plays out like a pop album. Across ten tracks and a forty-five-minute runtime, it’s easily a noise album that’s easy to revisit, and Mandíbula rewards repeated listening. The compositions are on the shorter end, and each time I listen, I hear a new sound, a new beat, a new section of feedback that becomes a hook to my ears, inviting me to hit repeat.
33. This Light
by Stray Theories
That album art really says it all, honestly! A sumptuous array of elegant ambient pieces as delicately beautiful as the painting adorning them. There is a vast expanse to the compositions of This Light, where Stray Theories almost paint striking images that beg to be traversed. The soft textures that curl in and out have an impressionistic nature, always moving, ever-changing.
by Sally Decker
In the Tender Dream is a mesmerizing journey through fragmented sound experiments. Equally haunting and beautiful in its intimacy. The record starts with spoken word and noise before unfurling into dense electronic atmospheres and jagged textures. The lyrics are a somewhat abstract exploration of relationships. Yet, despite the noisier elements layered over, Sally speaks the words with grace, part film score, and private poetry. This dichotomy between the two extremes makes the title so appropriate. You get the feeling that these are the inner conversations, the tender thoughts that flow through your mind and, while maybe not expressed, are no less felt.
[Nyege Nyege Tapes]
by Raja Kirik
Constant movement in repetition evokes a trance-like meditative state where muscle memory becomes a method of survival, a teaching tool to illustrate how strength is found in agility and movement. There is a deep history of colonialism woven within the harsh industrial beats and spastic sprawls of Rampokan, initially released in 2020 and reissued this year in a more complete package. The album carries complex momentum within its richly diverse compositions and moods. There is a lot to contemplate and learn from, but never does Rampokan become routine. Instead, it commands listeners on their toes, compelling you to participate in the dance.
by J Foerster & N Kramer
Inspired by the architectural illustrations of Ettore Sottsass, Habitat’s eight tracks envision the possibilities of imagined spaces not yet made visible. But it’s also just a warmly intimate album that illuminates not only the construction and design of such a space but the emotions that might be held within.
29. For Louisiana
by Rod Gator
Being from Louisiana, perhaps I’m biased, but It’s difficult to understand why Rod Gator isn’t a lot larger than he is. Despite the name, there isn’t anything remotely corny in Gator’s swampy homebrew of Americana songwriting, thick swampy blues, and country swagger. He plays powerfully, and his voice, rough and weathered, makes his lyrics all the more substantial. “Idle Hands” is an excellent showcase for his unpolished bluesy stylings, almost punk in its approach. He can switch it up, though, as, on the tender ode to his home state, the title track is easily the most radio-pleasing offering here as the catchy chorus of “a cypress sunset/And a cool cool breeze” evokes memories of evenings spent on the bayou.
28. Natural Serenity
Sometimes it’s better to keep things simple, as on this expertly crafted ambient debut from Taennya. Natural Serenity doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but its unadulterated mixture of ambient textures, field recordings, and beats makes its title ring true. It’s all a relatively tranquil experience, a bit of a nature hike without the bug bites.
Anxious and angular guitar fill Moot! The abstract vocals add a layer of mystery to this release that shapes out the tracks, and the band plays with a bit of jazz swagger, preventing it from being just another entry in the genre’s endless supply of comparable bands. In a year when acts like Dry Cleaning and Black Country, New Road have earned extensive critical praise, Moin is equally deserving of some recognition. It’s one of the most engaging and fun releases I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this year.
26. Cavern Deep
by Cavern Deep
Eight heavy tracks compose this conceptual album, a doom-metal narrative of an archeological team’s descent. You can feel the team digging deeper as the album progresses, a mixture of 70s guitar antics with the atmosphere of sludge and stoner metal. Each track, a slow-burning plunge into the unknown.
25. In Muted Forms
by Tapes and Topographies
Of the three Tapes and Topographies albums released in 2021, In Muted Forms is the one I have returned to the most. It has all of what this project does well, the ambient textures, the understated elegance. A release where every song is covered in an ethereal fog.
[Ba Da Bing!]
by Sarah Mary Chadwick
An early favorite for 2021, I remember listening to this album and finding Chadwick’s honest lyrics coupled with her raw vocals arresting. The sparse piano arrangements that anchor the songs don’t detract from her trauma as much as they emphasize the point. It’s a complex record to get through because of this honesty, but her conviction and powerful narrative skills kept me coming back for more.
by Tristan Welch
Temporary Preservation is dense and dramatic, nine slow dirge-like explorations of guitar and electronics that capture the theatrically low setting of a funeral procession with electronic music experimentation. Yet, there is a warmth that emerges from the depths.
by The Weather Station
I fought long and hard about including Ignorance on my list as I anticipate it will undoubtedly top many publications’ lists as the best album of 2021. Is it great? Of course, it is, but I felt compelled to save this space for an album less in the public eye. I decided to include it since this list cannot be a true reflection of my listening without doing so. I listened to Ignorance a lot. It was a grower, though, after listening to “Atlantic” and “Robber,” I was initially unimpressed. However, the more I revisited it, the more I loved it. “Parking Lot” is the track that sealed the deal for me. I felt The Weather Station’s lyrics were at their most poetic here; I could feel the pain of watching that bird; I was within the narrative. Every track is equally brilliant, however. This is a rare occasion where popular opinion and my own match up.
21. Sidereus Nuncius
Easily one of my favorite metal releases this year. Hegemon returned with a pummeling, furious scorcher of an album, filled with everything there is to love about black metal, from the searing vocal delivery to the machine-gun drumming to the mechanical precision of guitar bombast. Its melodic chops buried beneath also make it an easy release to sit through, offering a little sweetness hidden underneath.
by Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders (feat. The London Symphony Orchestra)
Cinematic in scope yet small in its display of tenderness, Promises was an unforeseen early favorite coupling a few composers I never thought I’d love to hear together. I don’t think I can expand on the strings from “Movement 6” as enough people already have. Simply inspiring. Though the whole album unfurls so naturally and spectacularly, its sonic grace might be unmatched this year.
[Reel Long Overdub]
A fusion of spiritual influences and our shared isolation, Intimacy explores the meaning of its title through tender ambient forms. As a result of sequestration, Intimacy evokes genuine connections between friends, lovers, and family. The relationships that we saw ourselves yearning to strengthen over the last year. SAH paints beautiful soundscapes that evoke the unspoken security felt in these warmer moments.
by Andrew Heath
Recorded during the early months of the first lockdown, Andrew Heath captures the earth’s purity when stilled. The warm tones and stretched-out compositions paint an almost idyllic impressionist portrait of domestic life. It tenderly beckons you to pause, put aside the stress of daily life, and focus inward.
17. La Deriva
by Carlos Ferreira & Almanacs
La Deriva is an apt title for this album of ambient drone music. The fluidity of the compositions sounds like an attempt to arrest time, to seize the beauty of a passing moment as it decays. Our memories are steadily adrift, never fully realized again but made all the more beautiful because of it, like the paling color of an old polaroid.
by The Ruins of Beverast
Alexander von Meilenwald crafts an excellent black metal record that shifts effortlessly between ear-splitting sprawls and atmospheric passages. The Thule Grimoires builds an entire sonic world in which to lose yourself; like the best fantasy narratives, it’s an engaging work but never gives in to corny theatrics; instead, everything is deeply rooted.
by Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt
I’d never have guessed that Made Out of Sound has not been recorded live in an intimate setting. The album’s production sounds like everything was recorded live, and a first take is the best method. The pieces that comprise this album were recorded separately and pieced together digitally. The arrangements have such an improvisational quality that you feel Corsano and Orcutt were riffing off one another. There’s no sign of this not being the work of two musicians in two different locations. That speaks to their strengths as musicians and Orcutt as an engineer of sound.
Ambienti e Rovine sounds as immense as the oceans; the evocative nature of the tracks intimates the mystery of unknown depths as the melodies play out beautifully, beginning as gentle currents before growing into massive swells, the ruthless extremes of the sea unfold across the album. There is a seriousness to the inspiration here that works well as an analysis of our relationship with the sea as a source of beauty and comfort; unfortunately, we take it for granted. Pluhm reminds us of how quickly the sensitive spirit of the ocean can become a ruiner, a force so compelling that it’s time we take a little responsibility for our mistreatment of it. The addendum of (coda). accentuates the already heavy material from the parent album.
I remember the day I stumbled upon this release fondly! I was scrolling through new releases on Bandcamp, looking for something, anything to get excited about. After setting my eyes on the album cover, I knew I had to give Gussyee a listen. I was excited to hear the brief yet expressive pieces unfold, and it was indeed not what I was expecting based on the visuals. Discovering this release relatively early excites me as I see where Gussyee will go next. After a few other equally notable releases, it’s clear that they aren’t interested in dwelling within the confines of one sound.
by Le Ren
A soulful collection of delicate folk balladry. Leftovers is simply a great release. Each track recalls the Laural Canyon tradition of robust and genuine songwriting. Nothing here is overproduced, and because of this, a track like “I Already Love You” carries an immediacy and vulnerability that matches the lyrical themes. Every song here, including standouts “Dylan” and “Willow,” have soft melodies that soar, like birds, quite gently.
by Mark Solotroff
Not Everybody Makes It is a grim record. Six tracks clocking it at an exact hour play out like a nightmarish funeral dirge, each evoking the remembrances of loved ones lost. Solotroff’s drones become hypnotic in their beauty. It’s easily a record for those dreary Sunday mornings and works well if you’re looking for something to fit the mood or to be embraced by the melancholy.
Rooted in black metal but no doubt influenced by punk, Annihilus captures the spirit of both in their sophomore album. The songs on Follow a Song From the Sky are layered in thick and moody textures; however, the arrangements are never bogged down as each features a propulsive quality that drives the album forward. While cloaked in dense sludge, the melodies still move forward; the dichotomy of these two elements makes this release a transcendent showcase for Annihilus’ punk-inspired black metal brew.
09. Outside Child
by Allison Russell
Outside Child took a while for me to come around to, thankfully I made an effort to revisit and explore its heavy themes. Featuring Russell’s ruminations on her mixed heritage and difficult Canadian upbringing. The songs can be melancholic and dark; however, the album is about resilience and expressing hidden strengths. Outside Child, perhaps more than any other album on this list, successfully captures the complexity and whole of the human experience, from moments of joy to those of loss, relationships, and politics. Allison Russell covers it all.
by Forest Robots
It pays to take the time to read Forest Robots’ track titles; they are as essential to understanding the record as the music itself. Each track reads like an affirmation, The music within touches on themes of spirituality and philosophy. What you take away from the record, I imagine, differs on each person’s background. Forest Robots, however, never outright explain anything in such concrete examples. Instead, he guides us on a journey by incorporating nature into the expansive compositions, perhaps reminding us that like nature, our spirituality and philosophical understanding of the world may change, that we as humans are ever-growing, and that maybe we shouldn’t tie ourselves down to one definition but find that mutual understanding by examining our differences.
by Equal Stones
True to the title, Liberation’s four tracks are free from the confines of traditional arrangement. Unfurling slowly, the tracks here linger in their haunting serenity, almost like fragile pictures taken out of context, never quite sure where one sound is necessarily from but forming a cohesive beauty. Dark and puzzling and light and heavenly, all in equal measure. Liberation never fails to captivate me in its delivery.
[Imploding Sounds / Bent Window]
by Harm Signals
The second time on this list where I cheated a bit. It was rather difficult to separate the two Harm Signals releases. But, ultimately, I felt that since I had discovered them together, I’d include them both. Released within a few months of one another, Moral Failure and Embrace Extinction share a bond in their absolute brutality, severe in the most pleasurable way. A track like “Devoid of Empathy” from MF tests your tolerance for pain as it burns for a solid twenty-five minutes with no hope of comfort, which is something Harm Signals does remarkably well.
[Behind the Sky Music]
by Lisa Bella Donna
An exploration of Moog synthesizers unfolds organically from dazzling celestial elegance displays to complex and tense patterns. Moogmentum covers a lot of ground, and Lisa Bella Donna shows off the breadth of the instrument exceptionally well. In addition to being an exceptional entry in Lisa Bella Donna’s deep catalog, the recording serves as an apt dedication to Moog synthesizer inventor Dr. Robert “Bob” Moog, itself a direct result of his legacy and contribution to electronic music.
Arrowounds continues to masterfully craft highly-detailed recordings that are redolent of a natural environment. This time, there’s a little more light arising in these compositions, but to say the album is free from the anxious foreboding tone of the previous two would be a lie. This quality, no doubt an influence of the times, works well to build the narrative within the song structures. You’re not listening to something mimic the movement of the ocean; it’s an audible manifestation of the deep, the weight and pressure, the unknown, the isolation, the sense of danger; it’s all here and somewhat comforting.
[Mushroom Hour Half Hour / Total Refreshment Centre]
by Mushroom Hour Half Hour
A celebration of exploration, experimentation, politics, racism, and social relationships in a post-pandemic world, On Your Own Clock, was created out of a basic necessity to collaborate. The eleven tracks here are meticulously crafted ruminations on how society functions. There isn’t anything pretentious about this album; however, its heartfelt messages of togetherness are enjoyable and straightforward. The jazz and hip-hop fusion renders it a joyful experience. The simple truth is apparent that humans are meant to connect. On Your Own Clock is a testament to that simple idea. Despite our differences, solutions are not only big ideas but tangible possibilities through dialogue.
02. Repetition Hymns
[Past Inside the Present]
by Black Swan
Fuck Repetition Hymns is divine. The way each loop breathes such emotive passion, Black Swan really makes an album that not only strives skyward but transcends it. Despite the title, the album never repeats itself; instead, it uses the idea of loops and repetition in an almost mantra-like fashion, invoking a serene environment that allows you to surrender to its embrace. The entirety of human emotion can be found within its run time. Without a narrative, the music’s abstract nature allows listeners to bring their own meaning into its nineteen drones. The album is long, but all the better because of it. It plays out with such variation that I honestly wish it were longer. It can be cryptic, it can be vivid, it can be calming, or it can be reflective; I personally feel like it can be everything I need it to be. When I was uncertain and anxious, I played Repetition Hymns.
by Mariel Roberts
Armament really is a call to arms. Inspired by our politicized and weaponized world, Mariel Roberts uses her improvisational skills and ability with the cello to create profound foreboding studies that expand on this inspiration. Across four lengthy tracks, her playing evokes imagery associated with war, the thunderous marching of an army, or the automated qualities of weapons. All of it is layered atop an ominous atmosphere which amplifies the menacing spirit communicated by the instruments. However, it isn’t devoid of hope, as one must strive for the light through the darkness. Thus Armament achieves its goal; it confronts you to make a change, reevaluate priorities, and think twice about the state of the world and your complacency within it.