To Space + Back Again: A 2021 Playlist

First Aid Kit. Photo by Frida Marlund.

As we enter 2022, I thought I’d share 20 of my most-played tracks from the year that was, including selections from melodic techno DJ Luttrell and synth-pop star Roosevelt and a ballad from rock band The War on Drugs. Some are new releases, some are classics. Some are for deep concentration at night, brooding and dark; others are more suited for a lunchtime walk in my neighborhood. Others are songs perfect for basking in the sun on a rooftop. All of them, however, tell a story and are examples of superb melodic and lyrical talent. This symphonic journey across genres, borders, cultures, and styles will make you feel like you’re listening to tracks made just for you — here’s to always expanding our acoustic boundaries. Enjoy, Happy New Year and here’s to better days ahead. 

Listen to the full playlist on Spotify. 

Alpha Blondy, “J’ai tué le commissaire”
Alpha Blondy is the stage name of Seydou Koné, a musical artist and producer from Côte d’Ivoire. I  discover this track on DJ Kid Hops’ 90.3 KEXP “Positive Vibrations” shows, where he spun this cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff,” sung in African French. It’s excellent.

Califone, “Funeral Singers”
Chicago-based indie rock band Califone’s combination of cryptic lyrics, folk guitar and sampling from their accompanying film makes this an intriguing track. Califone frequently performs living room concerts in the houses of fans — talk about front row seats.

Emily Barker, “Sleep Australia Sleep” off her upcoming 2022 album “Room 822”
Emily Barker reminds me of a modern-day Joan Baez…reedy voice and slow guitar with a heavy dose of warbling, ’60s folk charm. What I wouldn’t give to hear her cover Baez’s 1970 “Sweet Sir Galahad.”

The New Students, “Charlie and the MTA”
Growing up, my dad played LPs of the Kingston Trio, and we’d listen together to tracks like “Coo-Coo U,” “Tom Dooley,” “Raspberries, Strawberries” and “The Everglades.” The New Students effectively evoke an oldies spirit with their cover of the Kingston Trios’ “Charlie and the MTA,” a 1959 social-justice ballad about the injustices of the Boston subway system. I appreciate that they saturate the track with their own idiosyncrasies and style while also retaining the qualities that made the original such a hit. 

Leftover Salmon, “Places”
After 22 months, it’s nice to think about the California sunshine, the rocky coast of Maine and the Arizona desert — and folk band Leftover Salmon takes us there. A modern-day take on Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Places” reminds us of where we’ve been and where we’ll be going (and long to go). Also, it’s nice to have warm thoughts in the winter.

Citizenn, “Lacefront”
British DJ and videographer Citizenn burst onto the house scene with debut album “Human Interface,” dropping in 2015. Infusing a combination of soul, machine music and trance, “Lacefront” assembles a deep baseline, layered with vocals, electric drums and repetitive synths that crystallizes the bridge between digital and analog music. Perfect for a set at D.C.’s Flash.

Lin000, “Lin002”
The product of DJs Freddie Dixon and Statl, this fresh 2021 North Quarter record release takes me back to the late ‘90s growing up listening to Black intelligent drum and bass masters like LTJ Bukem and MC Conrad. The prominent reverb mixed with the snare and melodic drops is a perfect exploration into a time of innovation and groundbreaking music. 

Kiphi, “Light Grid Forms”
I call this upbeat ambient track “circuit poetry.” High in structure, listening to it feels like you’re watching electric signals course through a grand, complex machine, full of lights, gears, motors, relays, and switches, all moving in concert to their own rhythms and for a singular purpose. Oddly, it’s perfect for background music as I do the dishes. 

Susumu Yokota, Genshi”
Genshi, off Yokota’s 1999 album “Sakura” is a hopeful, soft electronic composition that combines percussion with layered tones. This clear-as-a-bell track draws a steep contrast to other ambient music that relies more on less-structured notes. I can’t help but smile, listening to this track over my morning coffee.

Loscil, “Clara”
Speaking of less-defined, Canadian ambient artist Scott Morgan (as Loscil)’s 2021 release “Clara” relies on long, drawn-out tones…like the drone of an orchestra playing in slow motion. Slower and deeper than his earlier work, this sublime piece is perfect for relaxation, concentration and contemplation.  

Carbon Based Lifeforms, “Stokhos”
Ambient master CBL’s September 2021 album release, “Stochastic,” blends celestial, dreamy electronica punctuated by filigrees of high notes and deep drone. Stokhos, in particular, pairs these galactic soundwaves with deep, rhythmic pulses that remind one of the world’s largest cat, purring, or the giant mechanical pulse of a starship’s warp drive. I particularly love listening to this track when brainstorming ideas for my next short story.

Ela Minus, “El cielo no es de nadie”
Full of Millennial sass, the Colombian-born Ela Minus is a darkwave virtuosa with a solid command of the synthesizer. Mixing breathy lyrics with buzzy synths and pounding percussion, she’s an under-the-radar star. Her track “el cielo no es de nadie,” off the 2020 album “Acts of Rebellion,” is a danceable hit. She’s slated to perform a late show at Flash in February, and I’ll naturally be there.

Luttrell, “Twin Souls”
I had the pleasure of seeing this mustachioed, bespectacled EDM artist perform live at 9:30 Club in September. “Twin Souls” is a more subdued example of deep house, deep melodic notes cabled with high moments of energy. It’s a great track for working out and perfect for fans of the electronic act Above & Beyond

Populous, “Roma”
Like most of Italian-born Populous’ music, this track off his 2020 record “W” combines field recordings, spoken word samples and a guest vocalist. Exotic, flowing, and shimmery, listening to “Roma” is like walking down a crowded street in Rio de Janeiro during the Carnival parade — there’s so much going on, so many colors, sounds and sights, it’s tough to take it all in at once. 

EchoDroides, “Ursa Major”
High-energy dance tracks are the bread-and-butter of this Chicago space-synth duo, who are inspired by Italo disco pioneers like Giorgio Moroder. “Ursa Major” delivers sunny and bright disco that’s great on repeat.

Roosevelt, “Night Moves”
Last month, German-born Roosevelt kicked off his North American tour here in DC at the 9:30 Club with his neo-disco “Polydans” album release, coupling his new music with tried-and-true hits like “Night Moves,” Sometimes called “glo-fi,” Roosevelt’s light electronica and early-2000s pop style is a track that’s perfect for a party playlist or day at the poolside.

Jamie Lono, “My, My, My”
More lumbersexual than hipster, Jamie Lono is a modern bluesman with no fear of combining socially-uncomfortable themes with classic blues and rhythms. His 2012 single “My, My, My” might just be the sociopolitical, anti-work anthem for 2021: sharp, unforgiving and powerful. It’s also a smashing song that showcases Lono’s vocal range and skill with the electric guitar.

The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place
Coming to The Anthem next year, The War on Drugs is a Pittsburgh-based rock band led by lead vocalist (and fellow Dickinson College alumnus) Adam Granofsky. From their 2017 album “A Deeper Understanding,” this wistful and deliberate track explores themes of love, uncertainty and hope — a message that rang true through our ongoing dark times. I especially like the melodic, willowy synths and focused vocal presence of Granofsky.

Lhasa de Sela, “La Frontera”
American-born artist Lhasa de Sela grew up in Mexico and lived in Canada and France, and as a singer-songwriter, performed in English, Spanish and French. “La Frontera,” a Spanish-language track off her 2003 album “The Living Road,” explores the push-and-pull of daily life. She drew upon Earth symbolism, connecting life events with geographical features such as the sky, the beach and borders — both physical and imaginary. Lhasa passed away in 2010 at the age of 37, and I find this is one of her most haunting and relevant songs. 

First Aid Kit, “Emmylou”
The sunny, spirited performance by Johanna and Klara Söderberg, sister-duo of First Aid Kit, is inspired by the American country-folk music of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. I enjoy hearing the music of younger artists as they both emulate, and diverge from, the artists that molded their careers. In this case, the duo sings about the enjoyment they get from performing together, viewed through the lenses of Parsons, Harris, and Johnny and June Cash. The live version, performed before Harris herself at the Polar Music Prize, has both the eponymous muse brought to tears and the King of Sweden swaying to the music. 

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