Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2021’s New Releases, Part One

As we head into the Best List home stretch with a shift of focus onto the new, it bears repeating that the sheer number of potential candidates for inclusion was even larger than it was for the box sets and reissues, and with a mountain of interesting releases still unheard. Considering how the decks are currently stacked against musicians in so many ways, the perseverance is downright inspiring. So are the ten records listed below.  

10. Alicja-Pop, Howlin’ (Black & Wyatt) & Deerhoof, Actually, You Can (Joyful Noise) From a standpoint of a music reviewer, one reliable yardstick of high quality is when you keep a record in heavy rotation for a week or two (or more) after the review has posted. The problem of course, it that this situation is never evident until…well, you’ve probably figured it out.

But it just dawned on me that I could mention this circumstance in relation to Howlin’ by Alicja-Pop, the solo endeavor/ group venture of the extremely musically active Alicja Trout of Memphis, TN, because I’d already sussed that this self-described compilation of several years of songs was a solid effort while reviewing it a few months back. That Trout’s forte on Howlin’ is modestly scaled pop-rock likely solidified my initial level of assessment, but after soaking up “Vines B” for the umpteenth time and for the sheer hell of it, the depth of her talents became clear. And so here we are.

Modestly scaled isn’t an accurate description of Deerhoof. On Actually, You Can, their music is as thunderous and agile as ever it was before, but the nine tracks are also notable for being built with the intention to be reproduced on live stages. A goal, taking it (safely) out on the road, that’s thoroughly understandable, with the record effectively unwinding as enticement to witness them playing live. A handful of the tracks are certain to trigger pockets of fan frenzy as they begin, particularly “Scarcity is Manufactured” and its air of joyousness. A little joy is something we could all use right about now.

9. Van Dyke Parks & Verónica Valerio, “Only in America–Solo en América” (Modern Recordings) & Okuté, S/T (Chulo) As was mentioned earlier this week in part one of 2021’s best reissues, rarely do singles and EPs make these lists, but there are exceptions, as is the case this year with the repress of Maximum Joy’s debut 12-inch (which inspired the observation), as so it is with this 4-song 10-inch.

“Only in America–Solo en América” is a collaboration of uncommon richness, though that’s not especially surprising, as Van Dyke Parks is handling the orchestrations, and he’s near the very top of his game. This is immediately apparent in the opening version of Agustin Lara’s “Veracruz,” and it continues through the three original compositions by Valerio. Make that three vibrant compositions by Valerio. Whose singing (and speaking) elevates this EP to a special plateau. And the cover art by Klaus Voormann? Mighty nice on the eyes.

This S/T album from Okuté is also the Havana, Cuba-based band’s debut. That’s lead vocalist Pedro “Tata” Francisco Almeida Barriel on the cover, joined in the group by percussionists Machito, Ramoncito, Roberto Vizcaino Sr. and Roberto Vizcaino Jr, trésero Juan “Coto” de la Cruz, and bassist Gaston Joya. They tap into the essence of rumba and other Cuban styles, with ties to the African root and guitar playing that has a familiar edge to it. Produced by Jacob Plasse, who plays trés guitar in Brooklyn’s Los Hacheros along with running Chulo Records, Okuté has virtuosity to spare but is never slick. At times, like during the killer guitar solo in “Gaston’s Rumba,” it gets downright raw.

8. Les Filles de Illighadad, At Pioneer Works (Sahel Sounds) & Innov Gnawa, Lila (Daptone) Les Filles de Illighadad translates to “daughters of Illighadad,” which is the name of their village in central Niger. Formed in 2016 by guitarist Fatou Seidi Ghali and renowned vocalist Alamnou Akrouni, with guitarists Amaria Hamadalher and Abdoulaye Madassane joining later, Les Filles’ sound draws from ancient village choral chants and desert guitar. Recorded live in the fall of 2019 in Brooklyn, At Pioneer Works is a fantastic representation of their sound, a live set without flaw.

Innov Gnawa is a group of Moroccan expats led by Ma’alem Hassan Ben Jaafer, with Lila their debut album, produced by Bosco Mann and recorded at Daptone Record’s House of Soul through the invitation of the label’s co-founder Gabriel Roth. Jaafer plays the three-stringed African bass, the guembri, and is accompanied by Amino Belyamani, Ahmed Jeriouda and guests, all playing metal castanets called the qraqeb. The music, often described as Sufi Blues, is distinctive, party through the incessant qraqeb, but it’s the vocal exchanges and the guembri, which sounds similar to an upright bass, that bring the expressiveness.

7. Aaron Dilloway & Lucrecia Dalt, Lucy & Aaron (Hanson) & Body/Dilloway/Head, S/T (Three Lobed Recordings) Electronics specialist Aaron Dilloway is noted as a former member of the excellent industrial noise outfit Wolf Eyes, but he’s been active in solo mode for a while now, releasing material on his own Hanson label. Lucy & Aaron is his first LP in collaboration with Lucrecia Dalt, who also works with electronics and like Dilloway has a predilection for loops. Together they’ve created a batch of 12 surreal atmospheres, with a couple, like “Niles Baroque,” even cohering into something resembling song shape. Wonderfully bent song shape.

Body/Dilloway/Head finds Dilloway having three conversations, two extended and one shorter, with Kim Gordon and Bill Nace, who together comprise Body/Head. Where the pieces with Dalt on Lucy & Aaron are unified by a relative concision (only one track breaks four minutes), on this LP “Body/Erase” breaks 17 and spans the entire first side. Starting out fairly calmly with stretches of silence and gradually traveling into the deep weeds of abstraction before inching into industrial territory near the end. The other tracks lean more heavily on loops, although the atmospheres retain a tangible mysteriousness.

6. Emma-Jean Thackray, Yellow (Movementt) & Jessica Ackerley and Daniel Carter, Friendship: Lucid Shared Dreams and Time Travel (577) Thackray’s record is not only one of the year’s best, but also one of the bigger surprises, specifically in that it landed in my lap from out of nowhere (well, technically I first read about it in my email inbox). There’s a lot going on in terms of influences across Yellow, but for starters, I dig the combination of spiritual jazz expansiveness, soul groove catchiness, electro infusions, and sharp instrumentation. Yellow is a record as ambitious as it is pleasurable.

577 Records landed two entries in part one of our Best Reissues list and now here’s this wonderful duo record making the rundown of newly released material, featuring guitarist Ackerley, playing acoustic, with multi-reed man Carter, playing saxophones, flute, trumpet, and clarinet. Three list spots might seem like a lot, and it is, but please understand that the label has been celebrating their 20th anniversary with a release schedule that’s truly prodigious. In so doing, it’s become apparent that 577’s year beats many label’s decades.

Carter’s brilliance as an improvisor is well-established, so in many ways the spotlight here is on Ackerley, though she is far from an unknown player on the scene. What was a bit unexpected, and utterly fulfilling, was the inviting and occasionally even gentle nature of the dialogues.

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