January is often regarded as a slow month for new releases, but this year we’ve been treated to an absolute treasure trove of quality albums. Here are some of the very best I’ve found.
WARNING: All albums and their accompanying videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain bad language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, and/or political commentary that may offend some.
Album of the Month
Norvik – The Drawing Board II (Ambiet/Modern Classical, Norvik Music)
The The Drawing Board II‘s rise to its place as my inaugural album of the month was an unexpected development, one which presents me with something of an amusing contradiction. I’ve set up this site to try to advocate for the very, very best in new music, yet I’ve gone and picked an album that sounds, to some extent, like it could plausibly have been composed at any time in the past couple of hundred years.
Norvik is, in the words of its creator Gabriel Chan, a project where “piano, synthesizers, strings, field recordings, noise and stories blend to form a cinematic amalgam.” For The Drawing Board II, however, much of that list is conspicuously absent or reduced. There are occasionally elements of field recordings and hints of light percussion, but they’re often only revealed on a set of good headphones in a quiet room – in any other setting they’re so gentle as to be practically inaudible. There are little to no synthesizers, strings, or noise, nor are there any voices to tell any stories Chan might want to share.
What we have here, then, is an album that relies solely on the interplay between two hands and the creativity of the mind directing them in order to work magic, mining an instrument that humans have been playing and perfecting for some three hundred and twenty years to tell those stories and produce something new and incredible. A daunting task, but Chan’s remarkable compositional talents are clearly more than capable of meeting the challenge and have produced a breathtaking record which fully merits Album of the Month.
The spectrum of moods and emotions conjured here with just this one instrument is extraordinary. Tracks like Grass and Festival display a spellbinding fragility. Certain passages in Fences are comparable with the solo piano pieces that indicate a brief moment of tranquillity and respite from a chaotic storm in Joe Hisaishi’s soundtracks. Room begins as a sombre dirge until a playful melody alleviates some of the gloom in the second half, like a well-timed piece of humour to raise spirits at a wake. Fireplace is the sound of content acceptance after years of searching. Letterbox exudes a quiet, emerging optimism that would fit comfortably in Kathryn Joseph’s From When I Wake The Want Is.
The highlight of the album is melancholy waltz City. With the faintest of tapping as a subtle percussive complement to the rhythm of Chan’s playing, its descending chord progression, hypnotic mid-register loop, and wandering higher-register melody conjure images of a bittersweet farewell scene. It’s one of many magical moments in The Drawing Board II in which Chan’s love of “creating soundtracks to non-existent films” is fully realised.
So, congratulations to Norvik and The Drawing Board II, the first winner of The Baying of Kazak’s Album of the Month award. It’s set a very high bar for the rest of the year to play catch-up to, and I can’t wait to see how it stacks up at the end of the year.
2. Bicep – Isles (Dance/Electronic, Ninja Tune)
The skinny: Isles is a gloomy and relatively subdued record, at least by modern dance music standards. It’s an intentional artistic decision informed by the unexpected circumstances under which the album was created and the ascendant Belfast-born, London-based duo’s realisation that ultimately it would be judged by its ability to engage listeners outside a club setting. Rather than feeling like a reluctant compromise, however, Isles is a triumph, the sound of great artists relishing the opportunities produced by unforeseen circumstances. Its compelling mix of ethereal vocal samples, plaintive synths, and captivating sense of lonely space suggests that Bicep ought not to forget the magic made here once the clubs finally reopen.
In their own words: “The breadth of music they’ve been exposed to in London during this time informs Isles’ massive sonic palette; both cite the joy of discovering Hindi vocals overheard from distant rooftops, snatches of Bulgarian choirs drifting from passing cars, hitting Shazam in a kebab house in the vain hopes of identifying a Turkish pop song.“
Standout tracks: Sundial, Apricots
For fans of: Burial, Fatima Yamaha
3. Pom Poko – Cheater (Indie Rock, Bella Union)
The skinny: A wondeful second album from the Norwegian indie rockers that’s scrappy, energetic, and brimming with youthful ethusiam. The entire band are on top form, equally capable of producing moments of skittish delicacy as well as hugely satisfying rackets. But it’s the eccentrically-delivered vocals and inventive guitar playing that separates Pom Poko’s from the pack. The latter in particular is an absolute masterclass, the kind of guitar-hero performance that has become increasingly rare as indie rock has evolved (mostly for the better) over the 2010s.
In their own words: “It’s very accurate to say that we wanted to embrace our extremes a bit more. In the production process I think we aimed more for some sort of contrast between the meticulously written and arranged songs and a more chaotic execution and recording.”
Standout tracks: Like a Lady, Cheater
For fans of: Pixies, Sløtface
4. Observe Since 98 – Le Dernier Royaume (Rap, Loretta Records)
The skinny: Producer and Loretta Records founder Observe Since 98 continues his “Savage” series by digging even further into his crates of classy Francophone tracks for samples. The result of these efforts is a luxurious set of unique beats (some of the finest you’ll hear all year) formed into a remarkably coherent world in spite of the involvement of more than twenty(!) rappers showcasing their diverse talents. C’est formidable.
In their own words: “While fans feared that Observe was preparing to hang up his hat… he had finished sculpting his magnum opus, “Le Dernier Royaume.” This themed project is packed with loops and soundbites off obscure French records[,] while the guest line-up includes a mix of established and up-n-coming emcees such as Planet Asia, Knowledge the Pirate, Pounds, MAV, Ankhlejohn, Juga-Naut, Jay NiCE, All Hail YT, Sully Nomad, Jamil Honesty, Midaz the Beast, Napoleon Da Legend, Monday Night, Ru$h, Bubu the Prince, and more“
Standout tracks: Conspiracies, Clyde Drexler
For fans of: Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist’s Alfredo,
5. Goat Girl – On All Fours (Alternative, Rough Trade Records Ltd)
The skinny: This sprawling indie rock effort from South London incorporates a number of disparate influences that look incongruous on paper (prog synths and Spaghetti Western soundtracks, anyone?). Yet somehow it all works, magnificently so in fact. One or two tracks fewer and it may well have claimed album of the month, but even with this excess it remains a magical record.
In their own words: “Goat Girl’s frequent use of sci-fi synthesisers, off-beat chord progressions, analogue drum machines, diverse vocal styles and distinct, gritty guitars fuse a musical language that expresses both former characteristics and newer developments of the band’s sound and vision“
Standout tracks: Sad Cowboy, Badibaba
For fans of: Warpaint, Lonerism-era Tame Impala, Porridge Radio
6. Shame – Drunk Tank Pink (Post-Punk, Dead Oceans)
The skinny: The London band Shame return with an impressive record that builds on their explosive, wiry post-punk with more expansive musical ideas (see the extended outro of closer Station Wagon, for example). Those that usually dread reports that their favourite young band has “matured,” however, need not worry – there’s still plenty of energy and punch here.
In their own words: “When you’re exposed to all of that for the first time you think you’re fucking indestructible… You become very aware of yourself and when all of the music stops, you’re left with the silence. And that silence is a lot of what this record is about.“
Standout tracks: Water in the Well, Born in Luton
For fans of: Preoccupations, Interpol, Fontaines D.C.
7. Binaural Space – Karel Čapek’s RUR (Electronic, Binaural Space)
The skinny: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R was composed and released to celebrate the centenary of the 1921 world premiere of that hugely influential Czech play R.UR (where, amongst other things, we first encounter the word ‘robot’). Prague-based artist Binaural Space retells the story through clips of a 1937 American radio adaptation of the play set to gorgeous ambient and Kraftwerk-ian synths.
In their own words: “For me personally R.U.R. is the most significant and important play written in the 20th Century for us today… If [this album] inspires anyone to think about AI in a different way, my mission with Karel Čapek’s RUR will have been accomplished.”
Standout track: Helena, Annihilation
For fans of: Kraftwerk
8. Kiwi Jr. – Cooler Returns (Indie Rock, Sub Pop Records)
The skinny: Jangly, highly-melodic indie rock from Toronto, Canada that features sometimes cryptic, sometimes unashamedly smartarse lyrics. Cooler Returns is a more consistent record than promising debut, Football Money, but the highs are still just as high – the harmonised backing vocals and guitar solo in Only Here for a Haircut, for example, are perfection.
In their own words: “Cooler Returns materializes as a sprawling survey from the first few bites of the terrible twenties, an investigative exposé of recent history buried under the headlines & ancient kings buried under parking lots.”
Standout tracks: Undecided Voters, Only Here for a Haircut
For fans of: Real Estate, R.E.M, Pavement
9. Insides – Soft Bonds (Electronic/Ambient, Further Distractions)
The skinny: Ambient pop duo Insides return after twenty years with a bewitching collection of slow-burners. Soft Bonds‘ sparse and unnerving tracks create a palpable tension and downcast mood which are only occasionally broken through by a glimmering guitar line or splash of melodic synth to great effect.
In their own words: “Soft Bonds is about the past haunting the present and gripping onto your crumbling sense of self. It’s informed by the spirit of This Heat / This is Not This Heat, Patty Waters, Annette Peacock, Eartheater, Mhysa, Arthur Russell, Hailu Mergia.”
Standout tracks: Undressing, It Was Like This Once, It Will Be Like This Again
For fans of: Eartheater
10. Tamar Aphek – All Bets Are Off (Alternative, Kill Rock Stars)
The skinny: For an artist dubbed “Israel’s guitar goddess” (Timeout Tel-Aviv), Tamar Aphek doesn’t seem prone to the self-indulgent playing one can often encounter with canonised guitarists. Instead, All Bets Are Off shows off Aphek’s talent as a diverse songwriter, where the abrasive, almost guitar-less clatter of tracks like Crossbow or Russian Winter sit alongside retro rock jams and noirish intrigues like Show Me Your Pretty Side.
In their own words: “The freedom to improvise was essential to creating the incredible ups-and-downs expressed on her solo debut… Commenting on jealousy and surveillance, love and compassion, anger and escape, and countless more challenges unrevealed, it’s no wonder Aphek hoped to capture “the feeling of a rollercoaster.”
Standout tracks: Crossbow, Russian Winter
For fans of: Jack White
11. Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams (Soul/R&B, Arlo Parks under exclusive license to Transgressive Records Ltd.)
The skinny: One of the most eagerly-anticipated albums of the month, Collapsed In Sunbeams ought to cement Parks’ status as one of 2021’s brightest emerging stars. Its warm R&B sound is a perfect compliment to Parks’ observational and compassionate lyrics. This one is likely to be trending upwards all year.
In their own words: “My album is a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it. It is rooted in storytelling and nostalgia – I want it to feel both universal and hyper specific.”
Standout tracks: Black Dog, Eugene
For fans of: Lianne La Havas, Raveena
12. Chris Garneau – The Kind (Singer-Songwriter, Creepy Crawler (BMI) / Rough Trade Songs)
The skinny: The Kind is an emotionally-weighty album, created in a period which saw Garneau’s father pass. The themes of grief and devastation explored in the lyrics are accentuated by a raw, highly-exposed sound often comprised of just piano, drums, and Garneau’s voice, frequently conjuring moments of vulnerable beauty.
In their own words: “There is a gathering of all the various personas he has embodied throughout his life and a return to the grounded and pared-down composition of his debut album Music For Tourists. Throughout The Kind, Garneau feels his way through layers of shame and grief, of performing other peoples’ projections of who he could or should be. The album evokes a palpable liberation from the impacts of this resistance to being seen.“
Standout tracks: Old Code, Telephone
For fans of: Perfume Genius, Sufjan Stevens
13. Grandbrothers – All the Unknown (Electronic, City Slang)
The skinny: There’s a sad grandeur throught All the Unknown. Synths bubble and jitter as the album’s dominant component, the piano, drips with drama and a sense of noble resignation. It’s not the type of record you’d put on at a beach party, but, played in the right conditions, All the Unknown can transport you to another, more beautiful place.
In their own words: “The album maps out a wide-open soundworld of compositional possibilities for pianist Erol Sarp and producer / electronic engineer Lukas Vogel, who have been putting their modern and unique electronic spin on prepared piano since first forming in 2012.”
Standout tracks: Unrest, Shorelines
For fans of: Sébastien Tellier, Nils Frahm
14. R.A.P Ferreira & Scallops Hotel – bob’s son: R.A.P. Ferreira in the garden level cafe of the scallops hotel (Rap, Ruby Yacht)
The skinny: R.A.P Ferreira (F.K.A Milo) follows last year’s acclaimed Purple Moonlight Pages with an album of typically thoughtful raps crammed into disjointed but engaging musical sketches. Each track comprises two separate, extremely brief, and entirely unrelated pieces of music thrown together seemingly at random, but Ferreira’s intelligent musings and observations continue to weave throughout, undisturbed by the abrupt changes around them.
Standout tracks: Yamships, Flaxseed, Diogenes On the Auction Block
For fans of: Quelle Chris, Open Mike Eagle, A Tribe Called Quest
Cheekface – Emphatically No. (Indie Rock, New Professor Music)
Mason Lindahl – Kissing Rosy in the Rain (Instrumental/Flamenco, Tompkins Square)
Th1rt3en & Pharoe Monche – A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism (Rap, Fat Beat Records)
Tha God Fahim & Your Old Droog – Tha Wolf on Wall St (Rap, Mongoloid Banks)
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