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Rum Music

Rum Music: The Best Out Music Of 2021
Jennifer Lucy Allan , December 15th, 2021 07:42

Jennifer Lucy Allan looks back at a stop start year and rounds up a grab bag of feral favourites from The Zone

Antonina Nowacka by Marcelina Pieniazek

At the beginning of the year here in the UK, lockdown was hard but the prospect of vaccines delivered hope. At the end of the year, as restrictions are brought in again, I don't know what to think. The darkness of 2021 has been dotted with some extremely bright stars: I rediscovered the thrills of live music; did some really special interviews; found a renewed sense of community; published a book on a subject I've been immersed in for about eight years.

However, feelings of professional pride and personal happiness have been somewhat tempered by going far too hard, too soon. In the space of five weeks I went to Unsound in Poland; to Le Guess Who in Utrecht; did a book talk in the Outer Hebrides, and went on a couple of other trips to do talks between. Perhaps predictably, this made me run down, emotionally numb and a bit confused, but more worryingly, just not sure what I wanted to listen to. Most of the day now, I'm not sure I want to listen to anything at all. This has never happened to me before. Have I lost my mojo?

It's early days – I'm guessing I'm just suffering from the combined effects of disjoint and overload, and am grateful that's probably all it is. There was a difference between what I wanted a return to look like, and what it actually looked like: partial, temporary and precarious. Audiences have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, but are we all running on empty after a brutal 18 months? As the year closes and a wave of cancellations come in, the mood is wobbly. So let us look to what was good.

Releases. It was a stellar year, as it always is, (despite pressing plant hold ups). There is no such thing as a year where no truly brilliant music was released. I am in agreement with tQ that my favourite album of the year is The Bug's Fire for its assured ferocity and pinpointed catharsis – nothing else comes close, but lots of other releases clocked up the same listening stats. The theme of 2021 was confusion and disruption, and the music I loved reflects this. My picks are often music that is not good in the technical sense; that is often only vaguely hanging together through force of will, ferocity, naivety or just some sort of bloody-mindedness. My favourites leant away from anything too nice, as I detailed last month.

Additionally, there have been many highlights in the wider ecosystem of shops, labels, promoters, venues, and everyone else that keep the ship afloat. I felt an unfettered joy in returning to browsing a record shop racks – flicking through felt like correcting a nutrition deficit. A special shout out to Russell et al. in Monorail in Glasgow for amazing selections, and especially for their patience as I whittled down a haul, umming and ahhing over a boxed cassette reissue of Maher Shalal Hash Baz's first albums.

Probably the best record I bought this year was Sista Ruby's Woman DJ from RWD FWD in Bristol (it is now sold out because I told everyone I know to buy it). Their stock has strong showing in the edgelands of dub, dancehall and reggae, and is tailor made for mindblowing discoveries. Tom at All Night Flights in Stockport has the most curious and interesting picks of new and secondhand records in the UK. I visit his site even when skint to find something I didn't know before. Soundohm remains a solid favourite, Fabio is a hero, but don't sleep! I just missed out on a bundle of France LPs. One of the few times I stumped up for Swedish postage costs was for CD-Rs from Discreet Music. It paid off – Etherwink & Larwott's lo-fi vignettes propped up cold evenings inside. Labels also oriented me when I got lost. If my job wasn't writing about music other people hadn't found, I could be satisfied with just the output on Phantom Limb, Black Truffle, Bokeh Versions and Discreet Music, plus everything by and associated with the Equiknoxx crew and La Novia collective. Room40 also had a killer year.

Despite the fact the doors to the vaults were flung open many years ago, the churn continues to cough up absolute essentials, both known and unknown. This year the finest was a short run of Phew's 1981 self-titled album, produced by Conny Plank. Reissues of Les Rallizes Denudes stepped up, with a fancy box set of Double Heads plus a run of Live '77, and I unearthed news that they will be followed by official reissues of the Rivista albums in the coming years. The heavy metal swagger of 'Trouble' on Chrissy Zebby Tembo's My Ancestors on Mississippi was one of my top tracks of the year, and I also had Grauzone (40 Year Anniversary) box set on repeat. The translations of Kan Mikami's lyrics in the reissue of I'm The Only One Around revealed an unsurprisingly crude and bawdy lyricist, which remade my relationship with this most feral folk singer.

1. Leather Rats – No Live ’Til Leather '98
(Bokeh Versions)

Realising that it wasn't a real crowd was one of my favourite listening moments of 2021. I said it was like "Hasil Adkins on tour with Suicide when Craig Leon was on the desk; Lux Interior and Keith Hudson for On U Sound". I stand by it. I listened to Leather Rats non-stop for months, trying to peel back the layers of fact and fiction, to work out what was actually going on – who were these people? What in god's name made them make music like this? Why on earth would you paste in a large audience? My Christmas wish is for more 'archival' recordings of Leather Rats to be 'unearthed' in 2022.

2. My Bloody Sex Party – Volume 2
3. My Bloody Sex Party – Volume 3
(Zoomin' Night)

There was a portion of the year where we ate dinner to the sound of MBSP every night. It is perhaps anti-music, of a sort that makes Maher Shalal Hash Baz sound like Steely Dan. Filled with the idealistic urgency and infectious energy of teenagers playing together, it is totally unburdened by self-consciousness. Because of this, volumes two and three of their triptych of tape releases are my most essential releases of the year. It is real, it is technically incompetent, and it is brilliant. They are perhaps the most literally experimental band to be featured in this column, in the proper sense of the word, because these albums are the sound of them experimenting (even that means there's a series of basslines cribbed from pop hits like 'Sir Duke', played as if in a YouTube tutorial).

4. Senyawa – Alkisah
(various labels)

Alkisah is a high-water mark for Senyawa. Its menacing percussion and apocalyptic vocal deliveries represent the zenith of their sound, but this album also put their music where their mouth was, politically speaking. It was released by a massive collection of labels all over the world, all of whom could put their own artwork to the release. A bold action that challenged the establishment practices of how music should or could be released and distributed.

5. Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks – Keiji Haino & The Hardy Rocks

All you need to know about this is that it's Keiji Haino and his Hardy Rocks band doing covers of rock & roll songs. Haino yelping and growling through an 11-minute-long molten dirge rendition of 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' is my aural ambrosia.

6. Shizuka – Paradise Of Delusion

This incredible live set by Shizuka, recorded in 2001, documents the ecstatic misery and funereal psychedelia of this lesser-known band from the 1990s Japanese underground. The sleevenotes described it as 'existential exhaustion'. It hit a nerve.

7. Antonina Nowacka – Vocal Sketches From Oaxaca

On this record there is a sense not that you are listening to Polish vocalist Antonina Nowacka, but listening in. These vocal sketches, made in churches when on a quest around Mexico to find some organs, are more than the sum of their parts. There is something in her rhythms and melodies that feels synchronous with the processes of my brain or body, in a way that is unknowable and magnetic.

8. Reducer – Reducer
(Bokeh Versions)

This 1980s album by Northampton dub-punk band is really horrible. But I fucking loved hearing it. I loved hearing it so much I bought their really horrible merch (designed by Alan Moore, no less). Its fuck you attitude and chaotic industrial dubs creates a frisson, if not a blasphemy, when considered alongside traditional strains of dub and reggae, so it's best to not think if them in the same vein at all. It's so rude, so grimy, so goddamn awful I didn't play or recommend it to anyone, but its energies have me trapped.

9. Moon Reflecting – Non GMO Rain Dance
(Goaty Tapes)

Sometimes I am caught unawares. Cynthia Montross a.k.a. Moon Reflecting's Non GMO Rain Dance was my most listened to album of the year, which I never expected. There is a jaunty, stumbling feel to these new age keyboard pieces and a hesitancy in their pace. The keys sound as if they're from a 1980s Japanese major label ambient pop release, something I don't usually like, but in the context of this tape's suspended mood was deeply pleasurable. The last one in my list, this album always offered safe haven.

10. AOB

As one year passes into the next and I reflect on what has been, there are always artists, albums or labels I want to return to or catch up on, that haven't made it into the end of year list because I simply can't go backwards when writing a column. Here's four I will return to: