Looking Back on 2021

by John Amen

Writing – of whatever sort, poems, stories, critical work – has always felt like a compass and a weathervane, providing direction while portending from where the next storm might arrive. This year, perhaps more than others, I was grateful for the practice.

As there are numerous best-of and top-fav lists out there, I’ll keep it short. Here are some artists/projects that struck me as uniquely compelling and that seem underappreciated:

* Animated Matter’s exquisitely languid and ethereally transportive Selkie.
* Anna B Savage’s A Common Turn, with its diaristic yet poetic lyricism, club atmospherics, and small dollops of chamber punk.
* Archie Shepp and Jason Moran’s Let My People Go, surreally tinged, subtly asynchronous, and elegantly discordant jazz.
* Daniel Knox’s Won’t You Take Me with You, a continued reinterpretation of the Sinatra-Scott Walker-Broadway Musical lineage.
* Dean Blunt’s dreampop-y, agit-textural Black Metal 2.
* Kujo’s dystopian, jagged, and disorienting The Rebels Have No King.
* Maple Glider’s To Enjoy Is the Only Thing – melancholy, atmospheric, uber-melodic songs.
* Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8 – trippy, electro-tinged, new-generation jazz.
* Naoko Sakata’s Dancing Spirits, stunning hybridizations of classical structures and jazz improv.
* Paris, Texas’s debut EP (LP?) Boy Anonymous, with its boisterous amalgams of pop sensibility and hip-hop bravado.
* Sadness’s Alluring the distant eye, seamless transitions between delicately sheer and densely apocalyptic soundscapes.

A few other standouts (most of which seem to have been a bit more widely appreciated): Arooj Aftab’s Vulture Prince; Backxwash’s I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses; Beth Lee’s Waiting on You Tonight;Claire Rousay’s A Softer Focus; Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg; Emma Ruth Rundle’s Engine of Hell; Helado Negro’s Far In; Janet Simpson’s Safe Distance; Ka’s A Martyr’s Reward; King Woman’s Celestial Blues; Lil Ugly Mane’s Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern; Hana Vu’s Public Storage; Karima Walker’s Waking the Dreaming Body; Lingua Ignota’s Sinner Get Ready; Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert; and Pearl Charles’s Magic Mirror. Of course, there were numerous other albums that thrilled me at different times throughout the year, many of which I’ll later regret not mentioning.

W.S. Merwin opined in a couplet that I’ve never forgotten since I first read it years ago: “Hope and grief are still our wings / Why we cannot fly.” It’s that second line that fascinates me. Let’s take care of ourselves … and each other.