Top 10 Global Music Albums of 2021
Meetings are always at the heart of music. Taking place sometimes between individuals or between groups, sometimes between whole nations, it is through human contact that we learn to play and listen. We combine old ideas; new ones appear. Just about anything taped for the commercial market today could be hybrid, but no less genuine for that.
Speaking of music as whole, it is even more critical to understand movement as part of it. The albums on this list are all products of global musical encounters. Some of these encounters are transnational, with artists crossing land and sea borders to record together. Guy Buttery crossed the Indian Ocean to make A morning in Gurgaon with Mohd. Amjad Khan and Mudassir Khan, and the chance meeting of Lakou Mizik and Joseph Ray at a concert led to the electro-roots sounds of Leave the bones. Many are cross-generational and contemporary expressions of long-standing practices often layered over more contemporary popular styles, such as Gájanas’ prog joik on Cihkkojuvvon or Farhot’s sampling of vintage Afghan media on Kabul Fire Vol. 2.
Others feature artists constructing movement-based sound art through more local environments, such as Satomimagae’s Hanazono or Ani Zakareishvili Mtirala. Many are a combination: Yndi’s Black Brazil appeals to his Afro-Brazilian ancestry, Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra bring out lines through space and time in Korolenand the Kasai Allstars Black ants fly together, a bracelet makes no sound is the culmination of decades of cross-continental collaboration while being specific to the Congolese pop aesthetic in new ways. Yet others speak of the remnants of encounter in times of isolation, as with the austere steppe melodies of Yat-Kha. We will never die.
In 2021, the question of movement has been charged as people relearn what dating is safe, healthy and worthwhile. The music models for its audience of listeners the rewards of coming together across geographic and genre boundaries.
ten Guy Buttery, Mohd. Amjad Khan and Mudassir Khan – A morning in Gurgaon [Riverboat]
The spontaneous collaboration produces dreamlike melodies on A morning in Gurgaon, a recording of a single session between Durban-raised fingerstyle guitarist (and mbira player on the track “I Know This Place”) Guy Buttery, master tabla player Mohd. Amjad Khan and sarangi player Mudassir Khan. Transcontinental streams of popular, folk and classical styles fuel a seamless blend, all mostly done in one take to save time. They’re nimble players negotiating melody swaps on tracks like the melancholic “December Poems,” then splitting and coming together again in the modal pools of long improvisations “Raag Yaman” and “Raag Kirwani.” They adopt upbeat verse and chorus structures on “Bakithi” with equal virtuosity. The chemistry between the three is crystal clear and a joy to behold throughout this uniquely inspirational record. A morning in Gurgaon is truly international music that stimulates the imagination and delights the senses.
9 Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra – Korolen [World Circuit]
Recorded in 2008 at the Barbican Center in London, Toumani Diabaté Korolen is a suite that weaves traditional Mandé music and Western classical sounds together in sublime and new ways. A kora player from a long line known for his many cross-genre collaborations, Diabaté brings with him the vital voice of the late Kassé Mady Diabaté and balafon player Lassana Diabaté. Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner work with them to arrange the London Symphony Orchestra (here under the direction of Clark Rundell). Together, they represent modern continuities of ancient musical forms – “kôrôlén” means “ancestry” in Mandé – as they bring cinematic and theatrical touches to radical compositions. Korolen is serene but always exciting, blissful for its rolling rhythms and the cascading strings of Toumani Diabaté. It is not a surprise; every musician involved is a consummate professional, playing with soft, skilled hands. Korolen is dynamic from start to finish, passionate, pastoral and a vibrant example of the freedom of even the most complex art music.
8 Satomimage – Hanazono [RVNG Intl./Guruguru Brain]
The singer-songwriter Satomimagae makes neo-folk with breathtaking delicacy Hanazono, his first album on the psych-rock label Guruguru Brain. Each element seems ephemeral: hazy background buzzes, wispy electric and acoustic guitars, birdsong and whispering voices form a concrete sound garden that is both haunting and heartfelt. The progression from opening and eerie (“Hebisan”) to melodiously loud (“Uchu”) is so gradual that it is easy to forget how profound the difference is between the beginning and the end of the song. ‘album. It’s a masterfully produced arc that helps this album stand out from the discographies of its most distinguished stylistic peers, artists like José González and Nick Drake. The intensity that Satomimagae brings to Hanazonoas with all his albums, is most powerful for its subversion of the softness so often associated with similar acoustic projects, as it embraces simmering tensions. Hanazono is an exquisite piece of dynamic stillness, and Satomimagae firmly rooted in the eye of the sonic storm.
7 Ani Zakareishvili – Mtirala [CES Records]
Named after a national park in western Georgia, Mtirala is the feature debut of young Tbilisi-based producer Ani Zakareishvili, an album that samples local folk ensembles to create a sonic portrait of the falls and mountains of the park. In resonance with experimental electronics, Mtirala is modern sound art awash in morning dew. Amid evocative soundscapes, Zakareishvili knows precisely when and how to shake his listeners with a scorching sun or an electric crackle. In a ghostly “Opening”, Georgian bagpipes pierce a soft fundamental melody. Later, “Babo” cuts out vocal samples to match distinctly minimal beats. The soothing cadence of “Nanaskani”‘s lyrics belies a background dissonance that leads to the smooth pebbles and buzzing synths of “Last Path”, culminating in the colorful strings of “Lutra Lutra”. Among the CES Records crowd, Zakareishvili’s work for the label so far, as heard on showcase album Sleepers Poets Scientists, was among the boldest. Nevertheless, Mtirala is an exciting freshman outing that exceeds expectations.
6 Farhot- Kabul Fire, Vol. 2 [Kabul Fire]
Hamburg-based producer Farhot is fully invested in the hip-hop-centric second installment of his Kabul fire series. The structure of the album is proven: a few lyrical tracks, a few stand-alone instrumentals and more interstitial experiences. Everything comes together to build a world of stories, different voices coexisting in the same realm. In this case, the domain in question is an Afghanistan Farhot pieced together from an archive of stories captured in words, films and songs and a repertoire of personal experiences that inform his creative choices probing his legacy. This album acknowledges the diversity of Afghan culture, going beyond Euro-American media portrayals of Afghanistan as a nation defined by war. Instead, it seeks stories from the field, drawing samples from local media and other migrants, among others. Kabul Fire Vol. 2 is an endless stream of artfully stitched together different viewpoints, and Farhot is a vital creative voice.