2021 albums

Editor’s Picks: 2021 New Music Albums

I think this is finally the year where I knowingly sacrifice I CARE IF YOU LISTEN’s SEO, because I can no longer accurately call my annual round-up of outstanding recorded projects “contemporary classical albums.” 2021 was the first full year of ICIYL operating as an editorially-independent program of American Composers Forum. Through this partnership, we’ve interrogated our mission, our values, and the language we use to describe our work. We’ve brought new contributors on board, and we’ve expanded the scope of the artists and music that we are covering on the platform. Through an anti-racist lens, “composer” and “contemporary classical” — words steeped in predominantly white Eurocentric practices — start to feel too restrictive. By advocating for living music creators from multiple perspectives, our hope is to draw the circle wider, expanding our community and inviting more people in.

So here are the ten albums that have resonated with me this year, and thank you all for your dedicated readership. If you’ve enjoyed reading ICIYL this year, a gift of any size to ACF helps support our work and makes a significant impact.

America Will Be (Aerocade Music) – Tonality

Artists and art leaders wishing to engage in meaningful social justice programming should look no further than the Los Angeles-based choir Tonality. Founded in 2016 by Alexander Lloyd Blake, Tonality has been modeling the way with projects that reach beyond the concert hall and empower audiences to make a tangible impact in their communities. Featuring genre-crossing music by Blake, Joseph Trapanese, Cristian Larios, Shawn Kirchner, Paul Simon, Roman GianArthur, Sam Cooke, Alex Wurman, Joel Thompson, and Melissa Dunphy, America Will Be (Aerocade Music) combines an array of vocal styles and spoken word. The album is as much education as it is art, covering the prison industrial complex, immigration policy, mental health advocacy, climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, and LGBTQ rights. By stripping away America’s glossy exterior and speaking transparently about our deep-seated systemic issues, Tonality aims to foster a place of community and belonging for all.

The Computer Room (New Amsterdam Records) – Phong Tran 

At the center of Phong Tran’s The Computer Room (New Amsterdam Records) is a reverence for the room in the house where that endearing, bulky desktop computer lived. There was a certain allure — not just from the faint glow of the monitor, but because it represented a portal beyond our physical reach with endless possibilities for community and connection. Drawing inspiration from the sounds of early synthesizers, Tran’s ecstatic lo-fi electronics evoke memories of 8-bit platformers in all their pixely glory. Expansive, cinematic sustains ring out over percolating arpeggiations. The album pulsates with nostalgia and the ghostly echoes of now abandoned online spaces from the early days of the internet. Over the course of the album’s nine tracks, Tran creates something that feels entirely fresh and of a bygone era at the same time.

Count to Five (innova Recordings) – Recap 

One of the most remarkable stories to come out of this year was the debut of Recap, an all-women of color percussion quartet. Friends since elementary school, Arlene Acevedo, Alexis Carter, Tiahna Sterling, and Aline Vasquez joined Mantra Youth Percussion in high school and are now forging their professional paths together with the release of their first album. Count to Five (innova Recordings) is an outpouring of generous mentorship and collaboration, with the six featured composers (Angélica Negrón, Allison Loggins-Hull, Ellen Reid, Lesley Flanigan, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Caroline Shaw) each extending an open hand to the next generation. Throughout the album, the voices of women resonate, with several of the composers lending their literal voices to the ensemble. From found objects to pounding toms and delicately plunking marimba, Count to Five is a timbral kaleidoscope that showcases excellent performances from this young ensemble. 

Enigma (Sono Luminus) – Anna Thorvaldsdóttir & Spektral Quartet 

A chilling sense of place resonates within the music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, and her first string quartet, Enigma, is no exception. Performed brilliantly by Spektral Quartet, it seems especially fitting to recognize them on this list as Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust, and Russell Rolen conclude their final season together. On Enigma (Sono Luminus), Anna Thorvaldsdóttir foregrounds texture and timbre as organizing principles, employing monolithic block chords, whispery gestures, melting glissandi, rattling col legno battuto strikes, harsh pizzicato snaps, and glassy harmonics. Inspired by the notion of in-betweenness, the three-movement work evokes Iceland’s dynamic landscapes shaped by both fire and ice, from barren black sand beaches and lava fields to crystalline ice caves and glacier lagoons. Cheers to Spektral Quartet for 10 wonderful years of adventurous collaborative projects and advocacy for living music creators!

Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine (New Amsterdam Records) – Wild Up 

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of performers, researchers, and friends, the genre-fluid music of Black queer luminary Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is finally beginning to receive the widespread recognition it deserves. One such advocate is cellist Seth Parker Woods, who leads Wild Up on Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine (New Amsterdam Records), the first in a planned series of recordings aimed at anthologizing Eastman’s compositions. Throughout the 70-minute work, the metallic sounds of shimmering bells and vibraphone launch into something of a revelation. Declamatory unison statements diverge into new textures, and the tessitura gradually unfurls while remaining grounded in the major second interval established at the outset. Improvised solos weave in and out of the dialogue, and voices sing out with a combination of raw energy and soaring reverence. Transformative communality and radical joy drive this immersive minimalist experience.

The Recombinant Trilogy (New Focus Recordings) – George Lewis, Claire Chase, Seth Parker Woods, & Dana Jessen

For albums of electroacoustic music — especially works that involve live electronics that sample the performer in real time — it often becomes impossible to discern between the performer and the electronics without the visual aid of live performance. But on George LewisThe Recombinant Trilogy (New Focus Recordings), this ambiguity is almost the point. With a creative concept that shares a certain kinship with Jordan Peele’s Us, Lewis creates electronic “doppelgängers…that blur the boundaries between original and copy, while shrouding their origin in processes of repetition.” The three works for solo instrumentalist and electronics are performed by the ever-exceptional Claire Chase (flute), Seth Parker Woods (cello), and Dana Jessen (bassoon) and shroud the listener in soundscapes that exist in the liminal space between acoustic and electronic sound. 

A Secret Code (Neuma Records) – Pamela Z 

Pamela Z is arguably one of the most innovative artists of our time. Considering her prolific output, it’s difficult to believe that A Secret Code (Neuma Records) is only her third studio album. Encompassing two decades of work, Pamela Z leverages live electronics, sampled sounds, and myriad vocal styles to bring to life emergency flares on the road, an encounter with a TSA agent, melodies plucked from the cadence of everyday speech, and the intoxicatingly spatialized clacking of a typewriter. Part of the allure of a Pamela Z performance is the physical choreography, watching her loop and manipulate sounds in real time with wireless MIDI controllers, but the audio-only album creates a different kind of magic, allowing the listener to submit to her riveting soundscapes and humorous storytelling without distraction.

Sweet Land (The Industry Records) – The Industry 

Sweet Land, the latest ambitious undertaking from The Industry, has gone through a number of transmutations since its March 2020 premiere. The live immersive experience ran for two weeks before being shut down by Covid. Scrambling to document and preserve the critically-acclaimed work, the cast gave one final performance for a camera crew to create an on-demand video. And now, the opera has been released in its audio-only format on The Industry Records. Sweet Land presents a two-track narrative where audiences, by design, were only intended to experience half of the story. But the video and album versions of the work both afford listeners the luxury of hearing the complete narrative. From the creative team of composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun, librettists Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney, and directors Cannupa Hanska Luger and Yuval Sharon, Sweet Land is a harrowing operatic allegory of global indigeneity, settler colonialism, genocide, displacement, erasure, and the blurred ways in which resistance narratives surface. 

Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam Records) – Arooj Aftab

Arooj Aftab has a voice that instantly transports you. Her dreamy soundscapes are an exercise in the simplistic beauty that can arise from being patient and allowing things to develop organically. On her GRAMMY-nominated album, Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam Records), the seven tracks, sung mostly in Urdu, are rich and melismatic but gentle at the same time. Aftab spends minutes contemplating a single sentence, requiring us to slow down and focus our attention. Every note, every syllable, is held with profound weight and its own precious significance. The middle of the album expands in vocal range, language, and tonal and rhythmic complexity only to tenderly fold back in on itself again, like the perfect arc of a full inhale and exhale. Expressing loss, heartbreak, and above all, the resilience love, Vulture Prince is a balm for our isolated and grief-ridden pandemic lives. 

White People Killed Them (SIGE Records) – Raven Chacon, John Dieterich, & Marshall Trammell

One of my first encounters with noise music was a set by Raven Chacon, and I honestly had no idea what to think. It was caustic, visceral, and loud. It was an almost uncomfortable sensory overload, and it has taken me time to learn how to listen in these types of sonic spaces. But perhaps this lesson of sitting in one’s own discomfort is an important one for white people in America, especially in light of the recent public discourse about critical race theory. With a seeringly provocative title, White People Killed Them (SIGE Records) models a democratic exchange of ideas: from the chaotic din of electronics (Raven Chacon), guitar (John Dieterich), and drums (Marshall Trammell) emerges an ebb and flow of voices, each cycling to the front before receding to make way for new concepts. The trio communicates with a relentless immediacy and urgency of message. The music resonates with the echoes of centuries of colonial violence — this is American history unfiltered.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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