Our label owner Harry Towell has finalised his top 20 list of favourite albums of 2021, complete with a mix. See below a few words from Harry on his year in music, followed by the top 20, each with a link, a brief commentary and artwork. You can check out the mix Harry created by clicking the picture above, which counts down with a track from each of his favourite albums. Alternatively, there’s a player below and you can click play whilst you read on…
“2021 has been a year of forging onwards, back ‘to normal’ after the pandemic, returns to work, business as usual etc. However, it doesn’t feel completely the same, with climate change, destruction, scandal, social and political unrest all around us and the constant shadow of a pandemic that’s still very much here to stay. That’s before we even talk about Brexit, in particular the challenges it has brought to running the label. All that sounds pretty negative, but the year for me has been positive on so many fronts and all the while, the year has been soundtracked by some fantastic music the whole year through.
I think this year, I may well have explored more music than ever before, with a mixture of homeworking, commuting and leisure-time listening which covered a wide range of genres. I focused on a few scenes in particular; in the summer I went mad on Deep House music again, as I launched my Wallofhouse blog. Then I’ve been fascinated by Modern Classical music and the volume of sheer quality that is emerging from this scene. And Ambient, drone, electro acoustic styles, being the focus of Whitelabrecs, also dominated my listening.
This year my wife and I welcomed our second daughter Emily, into the family and so we’ve turned the music studio into a little bedroom for her. My physical music collection is in storage for now and so my listening has been much more digital than ever before. I know there’s a lack of a fair deal for musicians with Spotify in particular, but it has enabled me to cast the net much wider as I search for albums to indulge in. I still can’t help but feel that ‘liking’ an album on Spotify so I can scroll through some menus and stream it again on demand, is more than a little soul-less. But for the time being, it has suited our circumstances and I have committed to buying physical versions of the music I feel will stay with me forever. I.e, albums that make my best of list!
Onto my best of lists, and Bandcamp followers or my Spheruleus Mixcloud followers will have seen my historic best-of list mix shows being uploaded. This summer I added an iPod playlist of all the mixes I’ve made each year and I was bowled over by the nostalgia each one brought to me. Listening to the music literally transported me back in time, so I decided to get them all uploaded to Mixcloud, add them to a playlist and I’ll maintain this going forward. As of today, we have 12 years of listening to tons of records, whittling them down to a list, and recording a show to listen back to.
Below is my final list then – my favourite 20 albums of the year each with a few thoughts and a link where you can find out more about an album for yourself. Then there’s mix show featuring a track from each album, which I’ve made as a countdown with the help of my wife Beth who recorded the numbers a few years back. The cover artwork this year was taken on our holiday in Tenby, Wales, our first as a family of four. We love Tenby, a family-favourite holiday destination and it was particularly beautiful on the morning I took the photo. I woke up to the sound of the sea, which was less than 100 meters away from our apartment. I looked out of the window and saw the sun rising impressively over the sea and had to take a walk along the promenade to take photos. Of course, with the sepia polaroid effect I’ve added, you can’t see the sun…
“Towards the second half of a year it’s not unusual for me to put out a social media message, asking people to recommend albums for me to check out, as I begin to refine my end of year list. I did so this year and Brian from Stationary Travels recommended Miscellany, by Origamibiro. I’m familiar with the artist’s work from several years ago and within very little time, this moved its way to the very top of my list. And stayed there. It’s experimental, playful, good fun and full of ideas, moments of satisfying calm, moments of decaying, clanking rhythms.“
“Over the last ten years, there’s been a real wealth of quality modern classical music and talented composers are springing up each year. Some countries have a knack for producing a greater percentage of these and Iceland is at the top of the list. The latest name to appear is Eydís Evensen and it’s been on heavy rotation this year, and a record that I can easily listen through from start to finish. The thing I’m finding with modern classical these days, is that there’s so much of it, that the works managing to really stand out need that added magic. Bylur is one such example; there are rich strings against which the piano is more sparse, and then more piano-led pieces. Overall, the mood really is magical and this is at its peak in the vocal track ‘Midnight Moon’.“
Save Me Not
“Argentinian cellist Sebastian Plano is an artist I’ve been following since enjoying his album Impetus as well as his collaboration with Ben Lukas Boysen, both of which I own on vinyl. I jumped on this record as soon as I became aware that it was out and it’s right up there with the best, this year. I can’t really call it between the top three of this chart, and this could/should be higher given that it soundtracked some dramatic walks along the high promenade of the Tenby cost, as I walked to fetch breakfast on our holiday in September. Plano may be a cellist, but I have always seen him as an all-round composer; this one’s beautiful, rich, melancholy and imaginative.“
“In the warm summer of 2020 I made a dub techno mix and discovered how beautiful this genre of music sounded in the sun. This year I set up a blog called Wallofhouse and spent a few months scouring for House music in all its guises. Yet my best (very loosely linked) ‘House’ discovery of the year is this dub techno/ambient record by Addex. ‘Eko’ is a spacious hour and a half of blissed-out, poolside chill and I found myself reaching for this record over and over this summer. The album also sounds great when the sun is well and truly down, late at night, with its minimal techno micro beats and lush, infinitely cascading pads.“
“In 2019 i became aware of Mikael Lind’s work through his album for Archives and I’ve since been lucky to welcome him to Whitelabrecs with his album Give Shape To Space, followed by an EP with S.hel. His album this year for Dronarivm hasn’t left my car CD player and the packaging from this top label makes Geographies an all round spectacle I’m only to glad to appreciate time and time again, on my long commutes.“
“I’ve followed Padang Food Tigers for many years now, since their EP ‘Born Music’ on Under The Spire. I am less familiar of Andrew Tuttle’s work, although I was aware of him as an artist – I’d just not explored his work before now. In this record, Padang Food Tigers’ signature folk sound combines into beautifully warm electro-acoustic drones; a record that I’ve had towards the top of my list all year.“
“A record I returned to throughout autumn this year is Parisian cellist Gaspar Claus’ debut album Tancade. When you think of grand, stirring modern classical music, you think of the cello. Its deep, rich texture and bass tones are so satisfying and powerful. But it can also sound excellent when the limits of conventional playing are stretched. Here, Claus uses bowed strings alongside plucked and rhythmic patterns and I’m led to believe the entire compositions are made purely from the cello. This is quite incredible given the detail and fully orchestrated pieces of music on offer.“
“LA based Brazilian Fabiano do Nascimento was a discovery I made last year and his last album Preludio made my chart, after sound-tracking walks in a sunny pandemic-stricken UK. I was eager to check out his new album ‘Ykytu’ and this one is somehow even better than last year.“
“I’ve been following Valgeir Sigurðsson’s music and Bedroom Community label for many years now and was excited to learn of his film score release KVIKA, used in the film MALÁ RÍŠA which features various musicians including violinist Daniel Pioro. The album’s title is the Icelandic word for magma, which is fitting given the eruption at Fagradalsfjall which began in March, when this record was released. This record is sprawling with a wealth of orchestral timbres, through the multiple musicians that performed in the score but there are also plenty of electronics and effects that underly the mix, which help make this a fascinating listen all the way through its 21 tracks.“
“Seil Records have been storming it this year and I could have had a few inclusions from their catalog this year, that didn’t quite make the list in the end, notably albums by Jogging House and Thme. But the stand-out for me and my favourite electronic ambient album is Sanctuary by The Lifted Index. I’ve been working with artist Tom Tebby this year and he recommend I check out The Lifted Index, and this one really stood out. There’s no clear concept, it’s just seriously good ambient/post rock, created with synths, guitars and pedals.“
“I’ve enjoyed Balmorhea’s work for many years and ‘The Wind’ was eagerly anticipated, and did not disappoint. Contemporary classical music befitting of Deutsche Grammophon but some folk moments and guest musicians, including Clarice Jensen, give this record a variation that makes it easy for me to enjoy in one sitting. The artwork is minimal, classic and striking and a loose theme around the natural world provides food for thought as you listen.“
“The high bar that is classical music is something I’ve already touched on and this is another example, of yet another talented composer, Mantova, Italy’s Olivia Belli. She says that dawn is her favourite time to compose and intended for this album ‘Sol Novo’ meaning new sun, to be filled with light. A further example of an artist inspired by the world around them and the result, is some exquisite modern classical music, centered around the piano, joined with gently stirring strings.“
“There were some excellent guitar-driven records this year, that nodded back to post-rock from the early to mid 2000s in particular. I discovered this one by Schreel Van De Velde in the summer and whilst in reminded me of Tape with its use of guitar instrumentals, it has a sound of its own. Schreel Van De Velde is a Belgian duo combining the surnames of Lucas Schreel, who creates the melody in this project and Casper Van De Velde, who provides percussion.“
“I’ve been in touch with Andrew now for over a year, working with him for his release for Whitelabrecs, a collaboration with Anne Chris Bakker as well as having him help with our label’s design work. We have more planned from Andrew in 2022 but also this year, he had been sending me his other releases. All are unmistakably excellent but New Eden stands out as the big one for me. I’ve listened to this over and over towards the end of 2021, a truly complete listen, urging the listener to search for a purer, more natural world; a better place. It works well as a sleep album but also, there is so much detail in the drones, electric piano and superb field recordings, that you can turn this up to a reasonable volume and allow your ears to explore.“
“Last year I listened to a lot of Jazz music and this year, less so. I think it may be due to listening to Jazz FM less and also, I didn’t go out searching for as much in the genre. However, I did stumble across this debut album by 17 year old Danish musician and composer, Teis Ortved. He comes from a musical family so you can expect a degree of competency in his approach to his first album. But listening to this album, I have been repeatedly bowled over at the talent oozing from the production of every beat, every synth and every sound. It’s such an accomplished first step into releasing an album that I’m excited to track Teis’ future career.“
“I have been following American composer Philip G Anderson’s career for a couple of years now and instantly jumped on his self-released album Figment, when it came out in June. His album ‘Wilderness’ was a firm favourite Modern Classical discovery last year and I’m sure it would have made my 2019 chart had I discovered it at the time. Figment does not have a clearly stated concept other than a single line talking about it being a personal reflection of struggle, growth and evolution. The album artwork shows the composer casting a downward glance, but these grand, technically brilliant, sonically fascinating compositions show that any struggle is paying off, if it relates to his musical career. His work is exceptional and I’m sure he’ll go far.“
“Many years back during my early ‘ambient years’, when I’d first got into 12k, Seaworthy was one artist in particular that really got into a more acoustic version of ambient music. 1897 was out of this world for me back then and shortly after, Cameron Webb did a collab with Matt Rösner called ‘Two Lakes’, another exceptional piece of music on 12k. Several years on, the duo made a follow-up which I instantly took to exploring. Exotic field recordings, plaintive guitar and acoustic drones make for a truly compelling listen. And as always, beautiful artwork too from 12k.”
“I’m a follower of Spitfire Audio, a quality company offering sample libraries for musicians and composers. I watch a lot of their videos and one of the video presenters is Oliver Patrice Weder, who unveiled the immersive Pool Project, in which an album was recorded inside an indoor swimming pool, at a beautiful location. Guests were involved in the process and Weder pulled everything together into this fantastic ambient/cinematic album, full of warmth and an airiness. Not to mention an accompanying and affordable sample pack available through Spitfire.“
“Another discovery on the advice of a friend; James Armstrong dropped me a note to let me know I might want to check out this record. He knows I’m a fan of vinyl-crackle and ‘vintaged’ sound aesthetics and he was right on the money. I’ve had these snoozy, antiquated piano and orchestral loops on a lot this year – an exquisite record on Richard Chartier’s LINE imprint.“
“I went mad on House music again this year after setting up a new blog, Wallofhouse. Posts have been sparse in the last 6 months but during the summer, I was scouring new releases daily. What I’ve found over the years is that in the House music genre, albums are often geared towards retrospectives, or a collection of dancefloor tracks. The best albums contain a concept and here with this one by Prequel, it joins an impressive Rhythm Section catalog and already stands out. It’s a record I can listen to from start to finish; lots of deep loops, dusty samples and percussive breaks.”