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Stephen’s Top 10 of 2021

Last updated on December 3, 2021

Since I departed from primarily-folk-pop a few years ago, every year has been an adventure. Last year’s list spanned new age, ambient, jazz, math rock, techno, and Thai funk. This year I range from folk-pop (back to roots!) to piano to Pakistani music to ambient to instrumental hip-hop to funk. Life in the IC listening space is never boring. Here’s to another year of intriguing listening in 2022!

  1. Forever Only Idaho – Harrison Lemke. Easily the most ambitious record I heard this year, Lemke’s deeply felt alt-folk/indie-folk/indie-pop record is a brilliant tribute to the places we’re from. It  investigates and interrogates the invisible forces that push us toward or away from “home.” Standout: “Only Idaho, Forever.” Review.
  2. The Trouble With Wilderness – Ben Cosgrove. A complex yet approachable set of piano compositions with intense presence and voice. Cosgrove’s compositions and performances are by turnings searing, tender, and raucous. Standout: “This Rush of Beauty and This Sense of Order.” Review.
  3. Vulture Prince – Arooj Aftab. Intriguing, beguiling, unclassifiable beauty that draws from Pakistani, neo-classical, folk, meditative, and jazz traditions. There’s nothing quite like this that I’ve ever heard. I couldn’t stop listening to this for weeks after I heard it. Standout: “Mohabbat.”
  4. Crépuscule – Rêves Sonores. The ambient work of Nick Schofield and Stefan Christoff starts off with the thrillingly whirling “Mondial” before settling into a delicate exploration of space, patience, and eerie calm. Standout: “Mondial.” Review.
  5. Ninjutsu – Make Sure. Josh A. Jackson’s outfit has matured from an alt-folk outfit into a full-fledged indie-pop band (with a pit stop as an early ’00s twinkly-guitar emo band in the middle). This album shows off Jackson’s rich compositions (“Is That You Nunjitsu”), evocative lyrical approach (“The Day That I Moved Out”), and powerful control of mood (“Okay Sea”). Wistful, nostalgic, and truly memorable. Standout: “Japanese Bonus Track.”
  6. Shadow Falls – The Paper Sea. The Paper Sea deftly melds the genres of ambient, meditative, solo piano composition, neo-classical work, post-rock, and lo-fi electronica into a transcendently (perhaps transcendentally) beautiful collection. Standout: “Shadow Falls.” Review.
  7. I Told You So – Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. I Told You So was the most fun I had listening to an album this year. This instrumental, organ-led funk was the smile-inducing pop of sunshine I needed this year. Standout: “Hole In One,” but also don’t miss “Careless Whisper.” Review.
  8. Cerulean – Nashville Ambient Ensemble. These lush, rich, full-band tracks bend closer to Andreas Vollenweider-style new age sounds than Brian Eno-style ambient. Regardless of labels, these expansive tracks convey a sense of wonder, reverence, and elegance. Standout: “Breve.” Review.
  9. Departure Tapes – Giancarlo Erra. It was a year for grief, and these ambient pieces feel admirably weighty and grief-laden. They were a companion in hard times. Standout: “A Blues for My Father.” Review.
  10. Water Diary – Good Lee. This lo-fi instrumental hip-hop album snuck up on me; I liked it the first time I heard it, and then I just kept listening to it for months. Its subtlety is its glory. Standout: “Time to Rebuild.” Review.