The Top 21 of 2021

by coldwarnightlife

For a while, it looked like things would open up in 2021. Heaven 17 finally had a chance to stage their Human League shows. Bands like Duran Duran were able to get back in front of live crowds. Bjork finally revealed her symphonic shows. Even Dave Gahan left his Battery Park apartment for a run of shows in London. And then reality set in again: the mismanagement of public health was a continuing debacle. Covenant’s UK upcoming tour was cancelled. Other bookings were pushed out. The end of the year saw infection rates skyrocket and venue takings plummet. As winter set in, the prospects for live music became as dark as the sky.

At least the year in recorded music offered some redemption. From Karin My’s Silence Amygdala to Rational Youth’s late entry, Wavelength, there were some outstanding releases to make up for the lack of live events. Curiously, few of them came from the larger, more established, acts. Perhaps the lack of touring prospects encouraged them to hold back releases; or maybe it was just too hard to get into the studio to record during Covid conditions – in any case, the year belonged to the independents. Of course, Spotify didn’t care, because they would collect their monthly fees irrespective of which monkeys were grinding their organs.

In the end, we had a unique challenge selecting the releases for this year’s list. The biggest was the appearance at year end of several productions that couldn’t be ignored. After the rotating door of lockdowns and openings, it was a nice problem to have.

21. Men Without Hats – Again (Part 1)

Kicking off our year-end chart is an EP from Men Without Hats. The Canadian pop group have survived for four decades, but they are still best known for “The Safety Dance,” which they have reworked and matched with covers from some of their influences – Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie.

As with everything the Doroschuk brothers touch, all of the tracks are upbeat, infectious versions. The danger is that you will never hear the covers without Ivan’s vocal style again.

20. The KVB – “Unbound”

There aren’t many British acts worth opening the seal on the CD for these days. The KVB are an exception. Their new album, Unity, offers a combination of electronic pop and shoegaze that soars miles above the basement laptop no-hopers who fill most of the local festivals. “Unbound” signals there is still hope for music on Boris Island.

19. Various Artists – The Ultimate Remakes of Substitute 46

When Andreas Noreen turned 50, some friends got together to remake the sounds of his former band, Substitute 46. Pouppée Fabrikk, Octolab, Strikkland and Jäger 90 each contributed new versions for a limited run, cassette-only release. Each of the covers excavated something new from the source material, paying tribute to its authentic EBM roots. The tapes quickly sold out, but the tracks can be found on the artists’ own pages.

18. Andreas Catjar – The Mainz EP

Much of Andreas Catjar’s work can be described as theatrical, and The Mainz EP contains two tracks specifically composed for the stage. Originally prepared for a 2018 production of “Die Nibelungen” at Mainz Staatstheater, they were retooled for release only this year. “Song for Freya” is a soaring piece that draws on Eno’s ambience and Krautrock’s deconstructions to create a compelling and dramatic impression.

17. Hannah Peel – Fir Wave

Sampling the sounds and textures of the 1972 album, Electrosonic, Hannah Peel has ripped and reassembled them into a palette of her own. The original album, composed by Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and Don Harper, was prepared as library music for radio and television. Peel’s take is rather more particular and better suited to listening in that space on a Sunday evening when there is nothing to be done and the lights can be dimmed.

16. Actors – Acts of Worship

At some point, Vancouver’s Actors decided to stop hiding their love of Roxy Music. Acts of Worship, their second album, opens with “Love U More,” in which lead vocalist Jason Corbett channels Bryan Ferry in front of chugging guitars. The rest of the collection is infused with 80s influences from the alternative side of the dance floor, but it never becomes derivative. Acts of Worship is a keeper.

15. Dlina Volny – Dazed

Minsk is closer to Chernobyl than Moscow, but both locations exert more influence over the Belarussian city than they should. We imagine that the weight they add to life helps to shape the dark wave of music coming from the East; compressing it into diamonds like Dlina Volny’s new album.

Dazed is a pop-flecked, post-punk creation that shines in places like Polina Malinovskaya’s highlights and fades into glamorous pain in others with the style of Linea Aspera.

14. Psyche – “Cry Little Sister”

Released for Halloween, Psyche’s take on the theme from The Lost Boys, “Cry Little Sister,” is a new spin on a Gothic classic. The song has been covered by dozens of artists, as wide ranging as Tangerine Dream and Marilyn Manson, but we prefer Darrin Huss’ take.

13. Leathers – Reckless EP

The latest EP from the solo project of Actors’ keyboardist, Shannon Hemmett, features a collection of smooth, elegant dreamwave and pop songs in different tempos. There is an album being recorded for release in 2022, which we can only hope will be to the same standard.

12. William Orbit – Starbeam EP

William Orbit needed some time off. He returned in 2021 with an EP full of the classic Billy Bubbles vibes. The title track opens proceedings with the kinds of sounds we fell in love with at the time of “Water from a Vine Leaf.” Scroll down a little, and Lido Pimienta appears to collaborate with Orbit on Aguilas. It is good to have him back.

11. Hante. – Morning Tsunami

In recent years, one of the dominant forces in alternative music has been Hélène de Thoury. In her Hante. solo project and Minuit Machine collaboration, de Thoury has been responsible for breathing new life into dark wave. She has also managed to keep producing top quality material, despite the pressures of the pandemic – we submit Morning Tsunami as proof.

10. Minuit Machine – Sainte Rave

Recorded at the end of 2020, Sainte Rave is from a streamed performance by Minuit Machine, the duo of Hélène de Thoury and Amandine Stioui. From the opening of “Don’t Run from the Fire” to the closer, “Prey/Hunter,” the show was a glorious reminder of the power of live shows. Now available in digital and physical formats, it is also a reminder of the strength of Minuit Machine’s songs.

9. Rohn-Lederman – Venus Chariot

The project of Jean-Marc Lederman (The Weathermen, Kid Montana) and Emileigh Rohn (Chiasm) topped the German alternative music charts this year. Their Venus Chariot album combined cinematic sweeps, piano and strings with Rohn’s delicate vocals in a collection of songs fit for screens or earphones.

8. Sunroof – Electronic Music Improvisations Vol. 1

For many years, Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller have worked together on commercial projects and for their own interest. As they have gone deeper into the unfillable well that is modular synthesis, the two legendary producers have also spent time together teasing sounds from their equipment. EMV1 is the product of some of those sessions; prompted by Jones’ suggestion that they get a recording out together before time runs out for either of them.

The result is a throwback to the type of experimental album that used to have its own section at the local library. There are blips, bloops, wobbles, and clicks that were generated either incidentally or purposively by the two men on an improvised basis. Like AMM, when Cardew and Rowe were involved, everything depends on the ear of one performer picking up the sounds of the other. You can’t dance to it, but you will have fun trying.

7. Strikkland – “Gone Swimming”

Sweden’s love affair with EBM has been reinvigorated by the emergence of Strikkland, who combine the heavy duty beats and chunky sequences of body with the more melodic merits of pop. “Gone Swimming” provided an excellent reason to put on the Dr Martens again.

6. Dubstar – Tectonic Plates

Geology is just a theory, but Dubstar have some ideas about the way the flow of lava impacts boy-girl relationships. Produced by Stephen Hague, “Tectonic Plates” brought singer Sarah Blackwood and guitarist Chris Wilkie back for another single that should have rocked the radio all summer.

5. NNHMN – Tomorrow’s Heroine EP

From Berlin comes another great release from dark wave favourites, NNHMN. The duo of Lee Margot and Michal Laudarg give us another five slices of fried gold to motivate dancefloors. Our favourite is the title track, which features Lee’s voice drifting like vapour across a bouncy bassline. Inhale deeply and surrender completely.

4. Zanias – Unearthed

Alison Lewis has an uncanny way of connecting the organic with the synthetic. With Unearthed, the second album from her Zanias alter ego, she marries field recordings with acoustic instruments, before processing them electronically. The showstopper, as ever is Lewis’ incomparable vocal, which weaves through staccato synth lines like water through a forest of kombu.

3. Rein – Reincarnated Dub Mixes (Vol. 1)

Rein’s Reincarnated was one of the top albums of 2020. This year finds Boys Noize putting two tracks, “Reincarnated” and “Release Me,” through the mixing machines for some added dancefloor oomph. The result is a fusion of Kraftwerk, Invincible Limit and The Anti Group that could have kept the rave in the second Matrix movie going all night.

Rein is on tour with Front Line Assembly in May-June 2022 across the US. Don’t miss out, if you are on one of the stops.

2. DAF – Nur Noch Einer

The passing of Gabi Delgado in 2020 marked the end of an era. A child of the Rattinger Hof, Dusseldorf’s legendary venue, Delgado had voiced the transition from the chaos of punk to the sleekness of the digital domain without losing his provocative edge. The band he founded with Robert Görl shed its rock wrapper at the beginning of the 1980s, creating a minimal, electronic sound that turned from the Anglo-American stereotypes.

Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft was founded in defeated Germany but reinvented in victorious Britain. From the floor of Daniel Miller’s house to a basement flat in Philbeach Gardens, the DAF sound was peeled back until it was just a basic sequence accompanied by Görl ‘s drums and Delgado’s semi-menacing purr. The children of the vanquished made a sound that was the creation of EBM, the inspiration for techno, and the beginning of a complicated journey that bound the two men for decades.

Nur Noch Einer was created by Görl following Delgado’s untimely death, drawing upon the materials and memories of this time. An album had been planned, based upon fragments from their archives; but, in the end, Görl was left to complete the project alone. A DAF album without Delgado was impossible, so Görl worked with archive material; weaving the vocals into new songs while maintaining the band’s punk spirit. The results are both a tribute and the culmination of a friendship.

1. Rational Youth – Wavelength EP

In a year when billionaires took themselves to space–filling the atmosphere with toxic gasses–before flying to eco-summits by private jet to pose as world saviours, someone has to ask why they don’t just stay up there. Cue the return of Rational Youth with a new song that takes the rich to task for having laid the planet to waste for their profit. “Kepler 48” is the lead track on the Wavelength EP, and it shows that Tracy Howe has lost neither his sense of melody nor his socialist instincts.

The other three tracks on the EP are remakes of classic tracks from Rational Youth’s first major label release. “The Man in Grey” is a song that was bizarrely coopted by American rightists who didn’t understand its critique of CIA dirty ops. Howe slapped them down from his position north of the US border and updated the sound together with this partner, Gaenor.

Together, they have also refreshed “Latin Lovers” and “In Your Eyes,” two of the greatest pop songs to escape from the land of April Wine and Glass Tiger. Tracy Howe never lost his ability to forge a hook, and Wavelength should be required listening for a generation raised on Melodyne and Beatport.

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