Some of Jon Mooneyham’s favorite records from 2021
Jon Mooneyham, host of Everything All At Once Forever, shares some of his favorite albums of 2021.
Tracing Anika from her eponymous debut album (mostly of cover versions) through work with her Mexico City-based band Exploded View to now reveals a slow and steady refinement of musical ideas. Changes still maintains a postpunk aesthetic, but sounds far glossier and more general audience-accessible than before. In exchange, the subject matter of the lyrics dives more into social and political concerns, delivered with a bit more passion than Anika’s usual Nico-esque vocal delivery.
The Armed: Ultrapop
Detroit’s semi-anonymous The Armed fuse together a confounding collision of metal and punk styles with remarkably compressed and harsh industrial production, topped with a layer of (gasp!) out-and-out pop vocal styles and melodies. Combined with some very attractive packaging, they’ve laid a unique trap for unsuspecting folks (like me) to happily tumble into headlong—their mix-and-match stratagem resulting in a soundworld unlike anything I’ve heard before.
Beautify Junkyards: Cosmorama
Emanating from Lisbon, Portugal, Beautify Junkyards have steadily evolved their approach, combining aspects of early ‘70s progressive acoustic folk with vintage synths and modern sampling. This fourth album sums up that idea gorgeously, with hummable melodies and alluring vocals. Along with a subsequent single release—a cover of The Incredible String Band’s “Painting Box”—Beautify Junkyards rehabilitate these nigh-abandoned folkish sounds with singular style.
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio: I Told You So
A callback to the halcyon days of organ jazz—think Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Richard “Groove” Holmes, even Booker T and the MG’s—DLO3 drags that sound to a nearby alley and roughs it up, with a looser, dirtier approach incorporating hiphop-influenced drumming and contemporary guitar techniques. Overlaid with a palpable vibe of improvisation (including an off-the-cuff version of George Michaels’ “Careless Whisper”), this is a perfect greasy, rhythm-heavy late night groove delight.
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg
One of a horde of newer English bands (including Squid, Black Country New Roads, The Cool Greenhouse, and Wet Leg) drawing influence from Mark E. Smith’s more-spoken-than-sung vocals and abstract lyric constructs, Dry Cleaning’s songs are invariably anchored by Florence Shaw’s coolly distanced recitations of day-to-day minutiae. This leaves the emotional shading of the songs to the guitar/bass/drums part of the band, who deploy a variety of postpunk techniques with confidence and verve. But don’t approach Dry Cleaning with expectations of easy singalong verse-chorus structures—their game’s far more challenging and complicated, and ultimately more rewarding.
Gong Gong Gong: Phantom Rhythm Remixed
I missed the boat when this Chinese duo released Phantom Rhythms a couple of years back, though their pared-down, austerely reductivist guitar/bass/vocals songs hit me right in the sweet spot when I finally heard them. And it’s rare to champion a remix set, but the various Beijing-based producers on Phantom Rhythms Remixed add drums and other elements to the songs without sacrificing the band’s essence (no Aphex Twin shenanigans here), perhaps providing a tiny toehold for listeners perplexed by the otherwise minimalist approach.
Orquestra Akokán: 16 Rayos
If you’d told me at the first of the year that two of my favorite records for 2021 would be by a nominally “new age” artist (see Pauline Anna Strom’s album) and a huge Cuba-via-NYC mambo ensemble, I’d’ve laughed ’til I threw up in my facemask—yet, here we are… On their second album, Orquestra Akokán continue mining mambo (and other Latin rhythms) with both an ear to traditional aspects (with lush, sophisticated arrangements and unabashedly passionate vocals) and an exploratory edge revealing the influence of mambo pioneer Perez Prado (I could swear I hear elements of Charles Mingus’ melodies and Sonic Youth’s more dissonant guitar work in certain sections). If one sign of a great record is the urge to hit ‘play’ again as soon as the last song finishes, this album qualifies in all its hip-swaying glory.
Nolan Potter: Music is Dead
Created while in pandemic isolation, this Austinite’s second album for Castle Face is an impressive one-man-band effort akin to similar early ‘70s works by Todd Rundgren and Emmitt Rhodes. Stylistic modes range from classic singer/songwriter pop numbers to weird proggy workouts, and Potter has the technical chops to pull all of it off effortlessly (with enough flute workouts to make Lizzo jealous).
Snapped Ankles: Forest of Your Problems
On their third studio record, these anonymous costumed oddballs push their fused primitive analog synth/tree log inventions (no, really) even closer to the dancefloor than before. There’s a conceptual storyline that threads through the songs, but it’s a distant second fiddle to the bubbling grooves herein. High on the list of oddball dance records for me.
Pauline Anna Strom: Angel Tears in Sunlight
“New age” music is far from my bailiwick—the few recordings I’ve given a try generally seem to be chewing more than was bitten off, so this is happily the exception. After a celebrated series of notable ambient albums in the ‘80s, Strom sold off her synths and leaned into her work as a healer for decades. But she was coaxed back into making music by RVNG International’s Matt Werth, resulting in this album in January 2021. Switching over to modern digital tools, Strom picks up where she left off, with an even stronger sense of rhythm, and few wooshy synth washes to be heard. In fact, I’d safely categorize this as exploratory electronics alongside Klaus Shultz, Pete Namlook, and even Brian Eno. Sadly, Strom died a month before this album was released.
Vanishing Twin: Ookii Gekkou
The latest from an outfit that I’ve favorited before, here Vanishing Twin add improvisation and a dollop of free jazz to their already-heady mélange of krautrock, psychedelia, space-age funk, Sixties pop, and various international influences, reflecting their diverse backgrounds. But as eclectic as their music can get, the overall vibe is one of utopian positivity—made even more remarkable given that it was made during the extended pandemic lockdown. In fact, if I have one cavil, it’s that goofy album cover—yikes!
Below is a recent show featuring some of Mooneyham's favorites:
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