Features Reviews Year End

Vehlinggo’s Favorite Releases of 2021

Rather mercifully, 2021 is nearly over. While it’s been a year riddled with various challenges, the art has been extraordinary. The films and music, in particular, have been rather stunning. What you see below is just a sampling of what will make future generations respect at least some element of this year.

As with 2019 and 2020, this year’s end-of-year post features the favorites of some of your favorite artists. Some people — Le Matos, Graham Reznick, Mecha Maiko, and Highway Superstar (and me, of course) are returning — while frequent Vehlinggo contributor Rachel Reeves and composer Ben Lovett (The Night House) are participating for the first time.

You’ll notice that we don’t follow a lot of rules with this, other than recommending scores, soundtracks, compilations, singles, and studio albums we loved this year. Some chose their Top 5 and others went a bit more wild with it. Furthermore, the lists are in the order the participants sent me, which could mean they’re just in alphabetical order, sequenced by preference, or in no particular order at all. (And you might see some of the same releases across each participant’s lists.) Some people explained their reasoning and others didn’t. Again, it’s just about the fun of it all.

Anyway, let’s check out the gems from 2021.

ben lovett
This is Ben Lovett.

Ben Lovett

(composer of The Night House, The Ritual, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, Synchronicity, The Wind, and many more)

  • Blake Mills & Pino Palladino – Notes With AttachmentsWithout question, the most-played album around my house all year. It’s quickly becoming a solid “desert-island” contender, as I simply never get tired of hearing it. It’s brilliant, sturdy, unpredictable, and completely reliable. Just put it on, and press play.
  • Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant — The second-most played album of the year around the crib.  I stumbled upon it knowing nothing about the group, and largely still know nothing about them, but I keep going back and listening to this impressive, inspired work of bewildering talent.  It’s a little bit of everything, often at the same time, and they do all of it really well.
  • Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club — All this gal does is put out one killer record after another, and this might be the best among them. She also has one of the more interesting careers of anybody out there, for various reasons — not the least of which is how many people just don’t seem to get what she’s doing. The pairing with producer Jack Antonoff on the past couple records has been a revelation, and while Norman Fucking Rockwell! might be their pound-for-pound masterpiece, Chemtrails builds off that momentum and better showcases her extraordinary talent.
  • Nicholas Britell – Succession, Season 3 OST — I may be cheating, because the soundtrack is probably not out yet, but it will be and Nick’s music for this show is unquestionably one of my favorite things of the year. Besides my usual fist-pump-while-standing-on-the-furniture reaction to the opening credits track each week, the show’s score is a masterclass in the art of creating variations on a theme, and the sheer mileage and ingenuity Britell gets out of his core ideas and motifs for these characters are the secret sauce of what makes this show so great.
  • Pastor T. L. Barrett & The Youth For Christ Choir – I Shall Wear A Crown — Ever since the folks at Light In the Attic reissued an obscure regional gospel album from 1971 called Like A Ship… Without A Sail, the music of T.L. Barrett has been in regular rotation on my Sunday morning turntable for over a decade now. This release, a four-album barn-burner-of-praise jams, kicks off with that first album and continues to throw down for 40 tracks of nonstop hallelujah fury. What they’re singing about often feels less relevant than how they’re singing about it. It’s genuine, enthusiastic, passionate, rough around the edges, often not fully in the right key, and just, perfect.
  • Daniel Hart – The Green Knight OST and Jonny Greenwood – The Power Of The Dog OST — Each of these are deserving of their own spot on this list and all the accolades and praise that’s been thrown at them this year. It’s outstanding stuff from two of the most imaginative and consistently great composers working today. Both of these scores are of the highest currency for me: they simultaneously inspire and intimidate me all at once. Somehow they get me excited to write a new score, and at the same time, convince me I have no idea what I’m doing.
  • Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes – Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar More Songs and Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises — My percentage of picks that prominently feature a saxophone are surprisingly, high I’ll admit, but there’s no arguing the outstanding work on these records or how much I enjoy listening to them. The former is a completely enjoyable head-nodder from two dudes brimming over with talent, and the latter, an unpredictable combination of an 80-year-old former member of John Coltrane’s band, a 30-something electronic musician from the UK, and the London Symphony Orchestra in a singular work that is patient and intimate and moving, expanding into an absolutely celestial experience when played top to bottom.
graham reznick
From the cover art for Graham Reznick’s ‘Suspicion/Don’t Go.’

Graham Reznick

(Shudder’s Deadwax; releases on MONDO/Death Waltz and Burning Witches Records, and others)

Hello, and welcome to the list of my favorite new music from 2021. Except, what is “new” music in a year when vinyl is delayed by six months to a year or more?  Some of what came out on vinyl this year was released digitally in 2020. Some of what I’ve been listening to digitally lately isn’t going to be released for another few months. So, in that spirit, ALL RULES ARE OUT THE WINDOW! Well, just some rules. But which ones? That’s a secret. Read on and find out! (There is no order to this list — unless, of course, you discover the hidden order. In which case, please let me know, because I would like to take credit for thinking of it.)

Justin Sweatt – Say Your GoodbyesSee, right off the bat, I’m a cheater: I got the vinyl of this album several years ago, but the fancy new cassette edition was just released (via the excellent SFI), or is just about to be released. This record from Sweatt (who also releases excellent synth work as Xander Harris) has been in constant rotation on my table since the day I got it. Just listen to the first track and you‘ll be hooked. It’s somewhere between Neu!, Harmonium, Eno, and …ambient Suicide? I genuinely don’t know how to describe it.  It makes me feel calm. I’m on a plane right now for the first time in two years and this track is about as good anti-anxiety as it gets. 

Lee Baggett – Just a MinuteOK, so yes, for the second choice in a row, I’m picking an album that was (self) released several years ago. This year, however, Baggett’s incredible chillzardry gets the royal treatment vinyl release from the phenomenal label Perpetual Doom (in their second year, still pitching a perfect game!). I first heard Bagget back in the early 2000’s on his split Harvest Joy/Octember Sketches with frequent collaborator (and a wizard himself) Kyle Fields aka Little Wings. For 20 years the mysterious charm of Baggett’s voice has been hovering, in the back of my mind, as the pinnacle of a very certain type of remarkable singing that no one else has been able to come close to. It’s so far laid back his feet are up in the air. It has a hazy air of “I just can’t be bothered,” and yet, at the same time, it gives so much more of a shit than anyone else. Maybe the right phrase is “Passionate Ennuizardry.”  

Grauzone – Limited Edition 40th Anniversary Box SetYes, this is 40-year-old music, but much of it wasn’t available (I think?) until this set. If you’ve never heard Grauzone, check out “Eisbar,” which literally translates to “Ice Bear.”  It’s post-punk, new wave, minimalist synth, and brutal shrieking noise guitar. It’s one of my favorite tracks of all time — I’ve been trying to reverse engineer the guitar sound in Eisbar for 20 years — and finally getting to hear the full album and additional live material is amazing. Everything on this set is top notch. 

Mainliner – Dual MythsMAINLINER MAINLINER MAINLINER MAINLINER MAINLINER. This experimental noise rock/thrash/psych freakout album from Japanese legends Mainliner is as loud and insane as all the frantic rage fighting its way out of all our bodies after these past two years. Put this on as loud as your speakers can go and then put it on louder and blow out your eardrums and break your walls and jump on the lawn.

Peter Stampfel – Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In 100 SongsMega-legend, folkfather, acoustic warrior, and one-half of the Holy Modal Rounders duo (along with the late Steve Weber), Peter Stampfel invites you along on a tour of the 20th century — in 100 songs! One for each and every year! The choices to represent each year are just as fascinating as the performances themselves, which showcase Stampfel’s rapturous musical exuberance and highlight a broad array of both well known and lesser known tunes of the times. (The extensive liner notes also provide a lot of insight.) The songs were recorded (out of order) over a number of years. While it’s slightly jarring to hear, and enjoy, the finely aged growl in Stampfel’s voice in one track and then back to relative youthfulness in the next, the joy is consistent, and it becomes almost like a Peter Stampfel Quantum Leap — bouncing through time, putting Stampfel what was once not so Stampfel. Also, haven’t you always wanted to hear Peter Stampfel cover “September Gurls”???!!  I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”?!??  Loser”??!! “Common People”?!??  WANNABE” BY THE SPICE GIRLS?!???  Well, now you can. Come for the 60s-90s covers, but stay for the incredible songs from the 00s-50s you may have never heard — and you’ve definitely never heard like this.

John Cooper ClarkeNow the ultimate cheat: something that is simply new to *me* this year. And, while I’m very, very late to the party on John Cooper Clarke, I got KO’d by his music earlier this year and I still haven’t got up from the mat. In my defense, it seems (from Discogs sleuthing at least) that much of John Cooper Clarke’s work was never released in the States in their initial vinyl runs in the ’70s and ’80s. If you’ve never heard him, check out the track “Beasley Street.” It’s one-part New Wave, one-part pulp detective fiction, one-part psychedelic, unrelenting lyrics — all sung-spoken by Clarke (a poet) over ridiculously engaging arrangements and production. On paper, a poet reciting their work over instrumentation seems like it could be hit or miss, but, holy moly, with Clarke it’s HIT — and perfect nightmare fiction for our super strange days.

highway superstar contraband
Highway Superstar (AKA Alex Karlinsky). Photo by Ofir Abe.

Highway Superstar

(Kung Fury soundtrack artist; St. Lucia remixer; Rosso Corsa Collective artist; Vehlinggo Presents contributor; just released Contraband)

Le Matos is Jean-Nicolas Leupi (left) and Jean-Philippe Bernier (right).
Le Matos is Jean-Nicolas Leupi (left) and Jean-Philippe Bernier (right).

Le Matos

(the geniuses behind Join Us and Coming Soon; and composers of Turbo Kid, Summer of 84, Ninja Eliminator, and Exode; releases on MONDO/Death Waltz, Kitsuné, Vehlinggo Presents, and more)

Jean-Philippe Bernier (Top 5 electronic releases, plus Top 5 remixes)

Jean-Nicolas Leupi (Top 5 electronic releases)

Mecha Maiko Let's review
Hayley Stewart is Mecha Maiko. Photo by Duncan Foy.

Mecha Maiko

(AKA Hayley Stewart; has released on Oro Records, NRW Records, and Vehlinggo Presents; formerly of the Dead Astronauts)

  • Hyperlink Dream Sync – Hyperlink Dream SyncSferro + Neil Scrivin = hellllll yes. One of the most unique releases I’ve heard in recent years. Is it a conflict of interest that I put them on this list? Yes, probably. But these lists are subjective so YEEEEE-HAW!
  • Rodion & Mammarella – Sierra MadreReinventing the acid bass and a very interesting take on dance music.
  • Antoni Maiovvi – La Ruta En RuinasThis guy is a machine and I am here for it. Danceable beats that go down smooth.
  • Raw Takes – Funked OutI recently discovered NOSERVICE and have been perusing their discography for booty jams. It’s one of my new favorite label discoveries, and this release is one of my favs so far.
  • Nuovo Testamento – New EarthIt may be a cliché to say by this point, but it sounds straight out of the ’80s, and I’m not mad at it at all. I was delighted to see that the lead vocalist, Chelsey Crowley, has worked quite a bit with Riki a.k.a. Niff Nawor, who I’m a big fan of too!
britt khamai lion
Cover art for the Burning Witches Records release of Britt’s ‘Khamai Lion.’

Rachel Reeves

(Writer for Vehlinggo, Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Consequence and more)

Aaron Vehling

(Founder, publisher, editor-in-chief, and lead writer of Vehlinggo; weird guy)

BTW, here’s last year’s.

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