And so here we have it, the (theoretical) culmination of yet another year’s worth of coverage of Our Thing. As always, it’s our hope that this exercise serves more as a means to put folks into contact with great music they might not have checked out yet more than a declarative arbitration of objective aesthetics, and in that spirit we’d like to leave the floor open to any and all who’d care to petition for records not included in our Year End coverage by leaving a comment on this post. We’ll be back tomorrow with a podcast flagging some honorable mentions and discussing overarching trends from the year that was, but until then we offer you I Die: You Die’s Top Five records of 2021.
The Practice of Freedom
There is basically no novelty left in the idea of techno artists drawing from or referencing industrial music in their productions: the wave of harder edged dancefloor cuts and body-music hybrids has been cresting for a half-decade or so, the once fresh and bracing crossover now an established subgenre of its own, complete with soundalikes and micro-trends of diminishing returns. Maybe that’s why Louisahhh’s The Practice of Freedom felt so distinct; no one on either side of the techno-industrial divide ever made a record that sounds like this. Having already established her reputation as a big personality (leading to her being dubbed “the Patti Smith of techno” by some outlets), Louisahhh’s approach on the record marries her own persona to the forceful roll of programmed drums with crashing and crushing sound design that crackles around the edges of every song – “Love is a Punk” charges forward on a menacing arrangement of kicks and rumbling bass while Louisahhh demands the listener’s attention and action, “Numb Undone” reverse engineers rhythmic noise’s relentless impact, but shot through with a desperate and vulnerable vocal that rises above the fray.
Truthfully, it’s often Louisahhh’s own presence that sets the songs apart, changing a slow industrial grind like “Chaos” into a litany of resistance and the jumped up electro of “Corrupter” come across with low-key soulfulness. That she can manage that without alternately screaming herself hoarse or becoming lost between the saturated and distorted drums and synthlines is a testament to both her natural presence and how to position herself within her compositions, so that they can scarcely be imagined without her voice pushing them. It was a big swing for her to make an artist album like this in 2021, but one that lands squarely and devastates on impact. Like she intones on one of the album’s countless underground dancefloor killers, no pressure, no diamond. Read our full review.
Few producers have been able to shift so effortlessly back and forth across the border between the past decade of dark music (however one wants to define or delineate that) and broader club sounds as Cameron Findlay. Listen to just about any Kontravoid track and you could spend hours trying to decide whether it’s an homage to classic 80s electro breaks or a particularly niche strain of EBM, but the more important point is that Kontravoid has evolved into an entity so enveloping, so immediate, so perfectly framed that even anoraks like us can’t be arsed to suss out its provenance.
And why would we when we had an EP like Faceless to enjoy this year? Representing the purest distillation to date of the range and power of sounds Kontravoid has been pursuing, each of Faceless‘ six tracks strikes out with its own strengths, like the hexagonal skills graph of a dangerously over-buffed video game character. From the full-court, throwback rave assault of “Nitrous” to the operatic darkwave peaks of “Judgment” to the thudding kick patterns of “Recoil” which echo in the void, Faceless had such finely-honed quality control that it effectively blew every other EP out of the water this year, and had hooks for days. Absolute top-tier stuff, no matter how you’d care to classify it. Read our full review.
3. Odonis Odonis
Odonis Odonis’s 2021 LP is a tour de force with the emphasis on both tour and force; the Toronto duo make their way across numerous genres on Spectrums in powerhouse fashion. That alone wouldn’t be enough to make them standout on a year full of potent style-bending releases; the real obvious appeal of the record is how incredibly good every single song on it is. Sometimes a band’s appeal really is as simple as that – you don’t need to be conversant in the history of EBM to feel the 16th note bassline and metallic percussion of “Trust” hit you square in the sternum, or be an expert or be able to parse where the squall of noise rock collides with the clangour of industrial rock on “Salesman” to air punch along. Indeed, the average listener is going to be too busy moving their body to care about subtle gradations of style and execution. The songs are that good.
Still, just a list of each song’s considerable appeal wouldn’t totally capture the record’s caustic charms in full (although here’s two more for the purposes of this write-up; “Shadow Play” perfectly threads synthpop minimalism and squelchy electro-rock, and “Laced in Leather” is an addictive slice of crunchy continental darkwave as poised as it is poisonous). It’s how all the songs move together in aggregate, leading the listener from moment to moment, peak to peak in efficient order. There’s an efficiency to the mechanized rhythm of the LP, never losing momentum and maintaining a dynamism that doesn’t allows for dips in interest or loss of focus. It’s simply one of the best records to just listen to this year, even as its individual songs stand on their own. If the album is not a terminus for a band that’s been promising to deliver something this good for years, then it’s a testament to how much they honed their craft getting to it. Read our full review.
2. Sturm Café
It is written: ‘Man shall not live by anhalt alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of Gabi Delgado.’ To wit, we love traditionalist styles of EBM as much as the next rivethead, but the parameters placed on the genre by its strictest purists can’t help but become limitations at a point. And it’s precisely those limitations which Sweden’s Sturm Café have always disregarded, adding a range of melodic influences to EBM fundamentals which have earned them fans from well outside of the genre’s usual listenership, while still maintaining the loyalty of even the stodgiest of Guile-shorn Familientreffen die-hards. But even keeping that open approach to EBM in mind, Fernes Land was a riotous and ultimately joyous trip.
Could any other band this year have found the missing link between Prince-styled synth-funk and Canadian synthpop in “Spielzeit”, or presented as a florid reimagining of Neue Deutsche Welle and minimal synth sounds as “Discolied”? Perhaps, but certainly none who’d be able to keep one foot firmly in the domain of oomphy EBM while doing so. And certainly no one else could have created the compulsively danceable “Funkbereit”, a bare-bones Italo disco/house slammer which was as funky as gym socks, as hypnotic as a dream, and simply one of the best tunes we heard this year, full stop.
None of this is to say that Sturm Café need to go on that sort of madcap genre bending in order to hold one’s attention. With the addition of just a subtle lilt in Jonatan Löftstedt’s vocals or a single pad, songs seemingly made up of a minimalist range of core EBM elements like “Männer Gegen Männer” and “Fernes Land” become stirring anthems. The presence and intensity of “Schauspiel” and “Die Schreckensinsel” lent emotional drama to a style which is often impassive to a fault. A Swedish Swiss Army Knife of a record which contained multitudes within a relatively short run-time, Fernes Land was a masterful and welcome reminder of just how funny it is how your body works. Read our full review.
Escape From Planet Devours
Surviving The Game
Jeff Cancade might not have written the bulk of his third Devours LP during the pandemic, but Escape From Planet Devours was fated to become its soundtrack for many. He might have, as he told us, written it to reckon with very personal break-ups and mental health issues, but evidently he couldn’t help but create something which preternaturally resonated with those in far calmer straits, whether through his lyrics (by turns devastatingly witty and just plain devastating) or through the eerie but comforting soulfulness which winds through the record like a clear sylvan stream on a moonlit night.
Musically, Devours’ manic blend of chiptune, synthpunk, and electro-pop ran roughshod this year, bursting out of the headphones, turntables, and Twitch-compressed setlists of goths and the indie cognoscenti alike. The bubbling, rapid-fire programming of half of Escape From Planet Devours couldn’t have been further removed from its wistful pastel ballads, yet something united both dimensions of Cancade’s songwriting, even as deeper listens revealed so many subtle distinctions between tunes with matching BPMs. It’s that same everything and the kitchen sink approach which thematically allows Devours as a project to touch upon everything from regrettable sex to video games to the comforting velvet crypt of nostalgia, the former described in exquisite detail on “Death Is A B-Side” without ever deviating from the honesty which is immediately apparent upon one’s first contact with the record, no matter the track.
The emotional impact of the songs beyond their obvious catchiness really can’t be overstated; we’ve seen people burst into tears while listening to “Two Kids” and laugh uproariously at Cancade’s deadpan one-liners (“You were only a fling because I’m in love with your dad” is arguably 2021’s most quotable song lyric). But it’s the genuine feeling that Cancade places in them that makes them resonate with people. His lost love doesn’t just remind you of your own, it summons it back with astonishing clarity, and his frustration when he intones “I’ve never been more lost within my own life than I am right now” feels like a summation of our own frustrations at, well, everything in this blasted hell-world. As stated it’s a highly personal record, but the ease with which Cancade’s longing, uncertainty, and finally defiance in the face of those things get their hooks into you is almost supernatural. “I refuse to live my life as a victim” he sings, and you don’t doubt it for even a moment.
Picking our record of the year is never a process of objective determination of what the “best” album released in a given twelve month period was. Moreover the answer to the question always arrives with a sense of inevitability – you just know it. Whether we admitted to ourselves immediately or not, we knew Escape From Planet Devours was that record for us in 2021, through laughter, tears, living room dance parties and long late night walks by yourself, it has been there, always impactful, never losing an ounce of its unique charm. Contrary to what the record’s name suggests, in 2021 Devours was inescapable. Read our full review.