GoldFlakePaint’s

21 for ’21

~ Albums of the Year ~

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words & curation by tom johnson

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2021, eh?

And so, without further ado, here are GFP’s 21 favourite albums of the year.

Our annual Hidden Gems will follow at some point, but thank you for choosing to be here
and I hope you find something new to cherish.

Happy listening…

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21.

Wes Tirey – The Midwest Book of the Dead

If you’re going to make your 10th record an intimate study of the Midwest then you might as well commit to a sprawling, eighteen track testament to that cherished American land and way of life. Which is exactly what Wes Tirey does here on his poignant, rich, and utterly absorbing collection. These gently decorated stories – delivered via that beautifully rich timbre of his – will last you a lifetime. 

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20.

Fuubutsushi – Shiki

Thankfully Fuubutsushi went to the effort of collating their four-album series into one sprawling epic, saving me the pressure of highlighting just one from this very special body of work released across 2020 and 2021. (Somehow) made remotely, the quartet’s inspired take on ambient jazz feels spirited b human connection, managing to be subtle, moving, and spellbinding all at once.

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19.

Karima Walker – Waking the Dreaming Body

Meditative and meandering, Karima Walker’s long-awaited new album is an exercise in escapism, its eight songs drifting between focused folk-like lullabies and long stretches of ambient passages that are sometimes so quiet you could almost forget where you are.  Written, performed and engineered entirely by Walker – with a beautiful sense of grace – it’s an ode to connection: of the human kind, with the natural world outside our day to day lives. 

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18.

Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

Yasmin, so the often-told story goes, taught herself guitar playing Guitar Hero 2 on the Playstation, however, her second album is as far away from screens and buttons as it’s possible to get. Quietly detailing her own struggles and hose of the country around her, Urban Driftwood also finds its soul in the natural places of respite that held her while she breathed these exquisite songs into life.

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17.

Julie Doiron – I Thought Of You

Doiron’s first solo album since 2012, and the latest in a career that spans some thirty years, I Thought Of You is better than it has any right to be. Led by her signature English/French back-and-forth, it’s filled with a remarkable sense of purpose, wildly energetic in its brighter moments and bursting with passion in ways that it isn’t always easy to capture on a studio recording. A genuine treasure. 

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16.

SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH 

Like nothing else released this year, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH takes the skewed brilliance of previous record Hypnic Jerks and bends it into even more weird, wild, and wonderful new shapes. Now a solid three-piece, here SPIRIT find a way of making even the harshest moments sound utterly gripping – and occasionally, somehow, completely alluring.

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15.

Natalie Jane Hill – Solely

Her second album in the space of a year, Solely finds Natalie Jane Hill bringing other musicians into her fold for the first time including Twain’s Mat Davidson and “several other trusted friends” who gently elevate her striking folk sound to beautiful new heights. Whether dancing through quickly-plucked stories of her relocation to Austin, Texas, or simply holding us in the grip of her mesmerising voice and songs, Hill’s pure craft deserves to reach ears and hearts far and wide.

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14.

Lael Neale – Acquainted With Night

There’s a wry smile flickering at the corners of Lael Neale’s new album that lends the album a playful counter-weight to the heavy-heartedness that leads so many of the songs here. Based around her discovery of, and love for, the omnichord, Neale captivates from the album’s very first second, the poetic nature of her lyricism decorated sublimely by the fascinating shapes her voice is able to take.

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13.

Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind

Perhaps it was the collaborative nature of the recording (or the absolutely wild artwork) that saw Sufjan’s latest sneak under the radar a little but A Beginner’s Mind is a truly beautiful collection of songs, up there with the best acoustic works of his long and esteemed career. The way his voice and songwriting meets Angelo’s own uniquely delicate performance is a thing of wonder and the narrative – each track lifts its time, place, or persons from a movie the pair watched together – makes for a rich and absorbing adventure.

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12.

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

It could have been enough for Michelle Zauner to release one of the year’s best books with the release of her debut, Crying in H Mart, but she doubled-up with Jubilee, the bold and brilliant follow-up to 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. If the hints of a more pop-focused approach initially gave some listeners trepidation, the finished record dispelled all worries, the ten songs here every inch a match for everything that had come before, and – in its boldest moments – better than anything she’d yet committed to tape. 

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11.

Low – HEY, WHAT

Sometimes crawling, and often bursting, out of the darkly skewed world they created on the previous and groundbreaking LP Double Negative, Low’s 13th studio is a meaty and mesmerising display of musicianship and scorched songwriting that redefines their sound once again. Situated within similar experimental folds as the aforementioned Double Negative, this time Alan, Mimi, and producer BJ Burton this time used the voice as an anchor and it makes for a record that is, in its most formidable moments, a gutsy and fiery display of the human soul. 

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10.

Circuit des Yeux – -io

Given the backstory of this album’s origins, the fact it exists in any form is a notable achievement, that it is as spellbinding and powerful as anything released this year is, however, something truly remarkable. Pulled together after a severe breakdown, and informed by great personal loss, Hayley Fohr went deeper and bolder than ever before, conducting a twenty-piece orchestra while committing to tape some of the most astonishing vocals you’re ever likely to hear at the same time. It can be a puzzling and difficult listen, but given that Hayley sees it as the manifestation of her grief in the form of a landscape, that’s to be expected. A career-defining accomplishment in an already sparkling body of work. 

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9.

Hovvdy – True Love

Their fourth album in four years, True Love finds Hovvdy in suitably compelling mood, bringing together the playful nature of their DIY aesthetics with the occasional folk ballad that lingers long in the back of your head. The gentle push and pull between Charlie Martin and Will Taylor continues to work in perfect harmony, and though True Love never tries to push itself to bold new lands, they remain a true gem of a band – and the aching prettiness of ‘Blindsided’ might well be their best song to-date. Long may they continue.

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8.

Sun June – Somewhere 

Those who heard Sun June’s debut LP Years always knew there would be much more to come from the Austin-based and their second record, a co-release between Keeled Scales and Run For Cover, saw them gently blossom into suitably expressive new colours. A subtle document on falling in love, Somewhere is a record full of quiet revelation, eleven songs that bristle with longing and tension and desire, as well as the tense fall-out that skirts the edges of such emotions. Smart songwriting with a heavy heart, Somewhere is one of the years most exquisite listens.

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7.

Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure 

Rebecca Taylor’s journey over the past few years has been one of the most heartening stories of the decade. Bored and lost strumming a guitar in previous band Slow Club, her switch to bonafide pop star has been a remarkable thing to witness and Prioritise Pleasure feels like the proverbial cherry on top of it all; a powerful display of teeth-clenching bangers that breathes even more fresh life into her career. Often agitated and restless, it often feels like a frenzied shedding of the past but it’s done with such charisma, such glorious vigour that your only option is to march alongside her and sing along as loud as you can.

Listen on Spotify here

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6.

Lucy Dacus – Home Video

Home Video, Lucy Dacus’ third album, didn’t have to be this personal. With an ever-growing crowd and platform following on from the success of her Boy Genius project, Lucy could easily have played to the masses. What we have instead is the most engrossing work of her career thus-far, the remarkable growth of her songwriting skills evident from the album’s opening moments. Digging into her scattered and often troubling past which includes her strict Christian upbringing as well as her struggles as a queer person within such parameters. Sometimes wholesome and beautifully decorated, elsewhere stripped back to just her remarkable voice and intonations, this is a personal pop record that always leaves enough room for us to climb right in beside her. 

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5.

Grouper – Shade

There have been occasional mutterings that Shade is “just another Grouper album” but the latest addition to Liz Harris’ discography is a whole new sonic world to explore, and though it’s pulled together from work spanning some fifteen years, it stands tall with the very best work of her career. There is still a lot of abstraction here, ambiguous meanderings that swirl into the night sky, but there’s also just Harris and her guitar, unadorned and completely bewitching. The high point is the album’s closing track, the gorgeous six-minutes of Kelso (Blue Sky) which feels as open as Harris maybe ever has been: “Blue sky on the edges of my mind, how’d I fail to see you?,” she sings, on what might well be the best song she’s ever released. Can’t believe that I don’t get to see you one more time.”

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4.

Myriam Gendron – Songs of Love, Lost & Found

The latest record from Canada’s Myriam Gendron is a sprawling double album of reworked old-timer songs lifted from Quebec, France, and the United States. Gendron plays, tweaks, and even melds different compositions into a new single piece as she wanders through these often mournful, but always spellbinding folk songs. Singing in both French and English, the magic of this album is in the atmosphere Gendron evokes, her sorrowful voice a thing of enigmatic wonder, able to break your heart with a flick of her eyes or else stop you dead in your tracks for fear of breaking the spell that is quietly filling the room. Revealing more with each listen, you’ll still be wishing for more even after the album’s 75-minutes have drawn to a close. A truly life-affirming experience and the kind of soundtrack this year needed.

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3.

L’Rain – Fatigue

That L’Rain’s new album seems to have been the one record to bridge the gap between mainstream press and the more outsider publications is testament to the sheer scope of Taja Cheek’s phenomenal second record. Often sounding like a collage of ideas, these scattered patterns hold enough singular power to never feel truly disjointed, instead the whole thing drags you into its world and takes you on a tour-de-force of inspired songwriting. It can be wonderfully graceful too, strings and synths and samples all used to such a beautiful effect that you have to marvel at the display in front of you, safe in the knowledge you’re in the arms of a genius. 

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2.

Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell

Emma Ruth Rundle, the songwriter originally from LA, has often used her voice as a substantial instrument, as a dense part of her armoury that helped to form a handful of records hulking and layered with sentiment. Where 2016’s Marked For Death and 2018’s On Dark Horses were full-band efforts that exploded with sound, creating cacophonous soundscapes that her voice powered above, Engine of Hell casts Rundle in a completely different light, a murky before-dawn darkness so fragile you can hear it creaking at the seams, so brittle you’re almost expecting it to fall apart before it finds a flicker of peace at its end. Her voice is almost unrecognisable, but within its new form is every scratch, every scuff of dirt collected on the journey that led to its new shape. It can be harrowing but at its heart is something both incredibly real, and incredibly beautiful.

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1.

Cassandra Jenkins

An Overview of Phenomenal Nature

Anyone who has dealt closely with grief will feel a little weight in their chest when Cassandra Jenkins sings “no matter where I go, you’re gone, you’re everywhere” on ‘Ambiguous Norway’, the subtle centrepiece of this truly special album. It’s that idea, that the weightless things we carry with us are often the heaviest burdens, that underpins so much of her writing here, and it makes for a deeply layered album that resonates more with each repeated listen.

Jenkins’ was to be a part of the Purple Mountains live band when David Berman sadly died in the summer of 2019, and there are reflections of his passing scattered throughout the album, as well as some poignant universal truths that elevate the songs to more than just Jenkins’ own story: “Go get in the ocean. If you’re bruised, you’re scraped, you’re any kind of broken, the water, it cures everything” she sings on the tender New Bikini. Sentimentality aside, Phenomenal Nature also bristles with inspired musicianship, the occasional sweep of saxophone, the spoken-word splendour of Hard Drive, resulting in an album that is so much smarter than initially realised; a glowing, miraculous celebration of this funny little thing we call music, of this funny little thing we call life.

BUY An Overview on Phenomenal Nature here

READ our interview with Cassandra Jenkins here

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Introducing…

A MUSIC JOURNAL – ISSUE 10

Our Curious Printed Magazine / Winter 2021

Out Now // order your copy here

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