Gray Days and Gold: Best music releases of 2021

Hello, friends. In case you’re new ’round these parts, here’s the 4-1-1: Gray Days and Gold is a monthly, hour-long streaming music show devoted to highlighting artists who reside outside the bounds of easy genre classifications—where pop, jazz, folk, modern rock, tropicalia, electronic, psychedelic, contemporary classical, chanson, etc. all recombine in unexpected ways.

New music discovery is much like the weather: everyone loves to complain, but no one seems to do anything about it. That’s especially true when one’s musical tastes run beyond the pale, and it’s why two years ago I decided to devote all my spare time to hunting (primarily on Bandcamp) for world-class, independent music which would otherwise go mostly unheralded. Unsubsidized and unbeholden, Gray Days and Gold is strictly a labor of love.

Songcraft—melodic, inventive, yet timeless—is king here. (Lots of musicians build careers on writing riffs, grooves, and/or moods, but good songs are surprisingly rarer.) Equally, emphasis is placed on artists whose aesthetics, instrumentation, composition and arrangements defy adherence to tradition or orthodoxy because, simply, I like to be surprised.

As mentioned last year, there’s no ranking and rating in my year-end list. Every artist featured on the show in the past year is someone I’ve considered remarkable, and there are many excellent albums, EPs and singles that aren’t represented here. These are just the artists whose work, for entirely subjective reasons, took my breath away at every listen.

Herewith, 33 (and, for good measure, 1/3) of the best releases of 2021, accompanied by a Spotify playlist. For the sake of variety, I’ve deliberately chosen different tracks than the ones originally featured on the monthly episodes of the show. And as is always the case, a few items are missing from Spotify’s library; perhaps try the Apple Music version instead?

If you like what you hear, there’s all of this and more in the archives. More importantly, please consider supporting the artists; you’ll find buy links to all the releases below.

Gray Days and Gold: Best of 2021

Mouth Full of Glass by Macie Stewart

Macie Stewart — Mouth Full of GlassBUY

On her bewitching solo debut, Chicago-based Stewart (of the group Ohmme) sets aside indie rock and opts for a more acoustic and orchestral palette. The result is full of gorgeous arrangements and compositional surprises.

Strange Time by MF Tomlinson

MF Tomlinson — Strange TimeBUY

His 2020 EP signaled a soul-pop sound from this London-based Australian, but his pandemic-era debut album is another direction entirely: psych-folk-singer-songwriter, languid in tone but rich with texture.

Sweet Silence by Yani Martinelli

Yani Martinelli — Sweet SilenceBUY

The latest in a long string of utterly charming releases by this Madrid-based Venezuelan, her DIY new album is full of breezy sunshine-folk that rises above the pack. Since it’s not on Spotify, here’s a video for “Melody Friend”:

Patterns Various by Samuel Sharp

Samuel Sharp — Patterns VariousBUY

The concept is simple: a solo saxophone, augmented by multi-tap delays and pitch-shift. It might sound self-limiting, but the result is surprisingly varied and something that I never tire of listening to.

Reviresco by AstroMike Gordon

AstroMike Gordon — Reviresco EPBUY

Joyous, organic pop from Sweden, held aloft on the mellifluous croon of group leader Cristoffer Csanady.

Eau de Bonjourno by Bernice

Bernice — Eau de BonjournoBUY

The instrumentation is electronic, but the forms are deconstructed and subverted by this Ontario group into something much more experimental, spacious and tranquil than much electronic music, warmed by the layered vocals of Robin Dann and Felicity Williams.

Two-Minds by Sheep, Dog & Wolf

Sheep, Dog & Wolf — Two-MindsBUY

A stunning tapestry woven from dense layers of orchestral instruments, unexpected rhythms and lush harmonies by one-man-show, Auckland, New Zealand-based Daniel McBride. Dark and difficult subject matter born of pain and anxiety, but such a compelling and rewarding listen.

Still You Answer by Pablo O'Connell

Pablo O’Connell — Still You Answer EPBUY

The debut EP by this young Juilliard multi-instrumentalist is like a Renaissance David statue: beautifully-realized, exhibiting both delicacy and strength, and already with nothing left to prove.

A Quiet Madness by William Susman

William Susman — A Quiet MadnessBUY

San Francisco-based Susman is quickly becoming one of my favorite modern composers in the realm of rhythmically-complex, melodic minimalism that should appeal to fans of Reich and Glass. This album brings together six pieces composed for piano, violin, flute and accordion between 2006 and 2013, sequenced in a dynamic flow that belies the compositions’ disparate origins.

The Bewildered Mind by Astral Brain

Astral Brain — The Bewildered MindBUY

It was a long wait—the first singles heralding this project appeared in early 2019—and now, two and a half years later, the full album exceeds expectations. A timeless, psychedelic sunshine-pop dream—put it on and float away.

Cover art of Alex Pester’s Lover’s Leap

Alex Pester — Lover’s LeapBUY

This double-album is the most ambitious undertaking yet by the young Bath, UK songwriter with an old, romantic soul. Imagine a White Album sprawl with a Canterbury-folk bent. Simply, one of my favorite contemporary artists, in whom I see unlimited potential. Read our recent interview here.

Sunfrost by Pneumatic Tubes

Pneumatic Tubes — SunfrostBUY

In less than a month Jesse Chandler (of Midlake) will release, via Ghost Box, his second album as Pneumatic Tubes—which makes this a great time to remind you that his independently-released debut album from April is one of 2021’s biggest highlights. Sumptuously orchestrated, psychedelic retro pop with not a duff moment. Since it’s not on Spotify, run, don’t walk, straight to Bandcamp via the BUY button above.

The Idea of You by Admiral Fallow

Admiral Fallow — The Idea of YouBUY

There’s spacious, slow-burning, unpretentious elegance in this Glasgow group’s fourth album.

My New Head by Fredo Viola

Fredo Viola — My New HeadBUY

Years in the making, this is what what all pop music should be: catchy and melodic, but also intricate, textured and cinematic. Right down to the artwork, a feast for the senses and full of surprises even on the nth listen.

Singled Out by Fate by Milder PS

Milder PS — Singled Out by FateBUY

Probably the most Grey Days and Gold thing to ever exist: jazz orchestra interpretations of Prefab Sprout songs. Diehard fan, Swedish saxophonist Joachim Milder, presents his second collection of Sprouts covers, lovingly reinvented in ways that serve to underscore the timelessness and flexibility of Paddy McAloon’s compositions and melodies.

Olivier Rocabois Goes Too Far

Olivier Rocabois Goes Too FarBUY

Exuberant, elegant, old-school baroque pop. The sense of joy is so palpable, one gets the feeling that this Parisian spent the sessions with a permanent grin on his face at the sheer delight of making great music.

Penny Novelettes by The Cleaners from Venus

The Cleaners from Venus — Penny NovelettesBUY

Newell’s prodigious output continues apace, putting to shame those who wait years between albums. A cheap guitar, drum machine and keyboard are all he needs or has time for, but the songs—from portraits of local characters to sociopolitical situations around the globe (“Statues” hits about a half-mile from my own home here in Charlottesville)—are, as always, keenly-observed and compassionate.

Next Level Soap Opera by Nina Savary

Nina Savary — Next Level Soap OperaBUY

Each song is better than the last on this excellent second album by multidisciplinary French artist Savary, joined here by a who’s-who of GD&G-featured collaborators like Marker Starling, Laetitia Sadier, Astrobal, and Julien Gasc.

Joseph Mihalcean

Joseph Mihalcean — Joseph MihalceanBUY

The first solo album by Montreal artist Joseph Marchand (of the group Forêt) is rich in subtle drama and beauty.

Ark by Craig Fortnam

Craig Fortnam — ArkBUY

Nominally rooted in an English folk tradition, this solo album by the North Sea Radio Orchestra composer is a sweeping, expansive collection of both instrumental and vocal tracks that know no bounds.

Fisher King by Furrows

Furrows — Fisher KingBUY

Shimmering, intimate, propulsive indie pop from Brooklyn-based Peter Wagner. The sonic equivalent of the sun glinting in your eyes during a solo, cross-country road trip. RIYL Real Estate (the band, not the… land).

All That I Care For by Alex Rand

Alex Rand — All That I Care ForBUY

For the second year in a row, this Montreal artist has made my Best Of list with his unique approach of deconstructing and reinventing what a pop song can be. Always fascinating.

Course In Fable by Ryley Walker

Ryley Walker — Course In FableBUY

The tools he’s using are common enough, but what he’s making with them is unique. Somewhere at the intersection of progressive-acoustic-chamber-singer-songwriter-whatever, this album is soft-edged and inventive but never in a showy way, the embroidery enhancing but never overshadowing the terrific songs.

Mirror Reel by Stefani Bondari

Stefani Bondari — Mirror ReelBUY

With only one unadorned voice and a piano, this New York artist pulls you forcefully into her world and holds your rapt attention. The presentation might be immediately reminiscent of Joni ca. ’71 but that comparison soon fades into the background as Bondari’s utter fearlessness and power assert her as a force unto herself. One of the most enthralling debut albums ever.

Flying Dream 1 by Elbow

Elbow — Flying Dream 1BUY

The masters of melancholy elegance, in their pocket and delivering exactly what I always want from them: impossibly lovely, achingly wistful observations on love and loss.

Cosmorama by Beautify Junkyards

Beautify Junkyards — CosmoramaBUY

From this Lisbon, Portugal group, immersive, cinematic, cosmic psychedelia that never loses sight of solid songwriting and evocative melodies.

A Reckoning Bell by The Magic Lantern

The Magic Lantern — A Reckoning BellBUY

The arrangements, like singer Jamie Doe’s lilting voice, stay light and uncluttered but peppered with enough twists and turns or unexpected time signatures to create complexity in the relative sparseness. Originating in some sadness, as the singer watched his father slip into dementia, the result is tender and uplifting.

Mr. Candle by The Carmelittles

The Carmelittles — Mr. Candle EPBUY

A brief but glorious follow-up to last year’s debut album (which made my Best of 2020 list), Chicago-based Henri Poilevey’s specialty is pop songs rich with unexpected ideas and ornate orchestration.

Fever Dreams by Villagers

Villagers — Fever DreamsBUY

Fans of Elbow or Badly Drawn Boy should enjoy this latest, most elegant and luxuriously textured release from Irishman Conor O’Brien.

True Correction for a Bright Future by Landslide Purist

Landslide Purist — True Correction for a Bright FutureBUY

A winning combination of piano-led songwriting full of arpeggios and interesting rhythms, wry humor, and singer Sam Wisternoff’s conspiratorial-whisper delivery which verges on sinister. Since it’s not on Spotify, please enjoy the sublime absurdity of their “Caroline Futures” video:

Le cie est au plancher by Louis-Jean Cormier

Louis-Jean Cormier — Le ciel est au plancherBUY

Lyrically a tribute to the Montreal artist’s deceased father, this album has a firm pop songwriter’s sensibility and liveliness while adding a more haunting, intriguing atmosphere than found on his previous record.

Geist by Shannon Lay

Shannon Lay — GeistBUY

Acoustic alternative folk layered in harmonies and beautifully embellished with subtle washes of orchestral and electric tones. Warm, spacious and comforting.

Canyons to Sawdust by Bryan Away

Bryan Away — Canyons to SawdustBUY

Thirty-three entries into this list, both my musical sweet spot and my limitations as a writer are surely on full display as I must again trot out words like “richly orchestrated”, “inventive”, “densely-woven harmonies”, etc. Chicago-based Bryan (real name Elliot Korte) deserves better. How about, “Give it a listen—you won’t be disappointed”?

What about that mysterious 1/3?

Ok, that’s just my gimmicky way of acknowledging Covina, CA-based Zach Silva’s “Too Long” (from the album Hindsight), a song whose melody is so indelible that I haven’t stopped singing it to myself (once a week at minimum) since first encountering it almost a year ago. Zach is someone to watch.

Credit, as always, is due to my favorite Chris Evans in show business—neither the Captain America actor nor the ex-Mr. Billie Piper on Virgin Radio, but the host of The Curve Ball, broadcast weekly on Cannock Chase Radio FM from northern Wales. Chris was an inspiration for my show, and the only other person I know whose musical curation aims to hit a similar target to mine (which occasionally results in a bit of overlap between our respective shows, for anyone who religiously listens to both). My list contains a handful of artists I learned about from his show. You can tune in to The Curve Ball via internet radio every Thursday (1p PT / 4p ET / 9p GMT), and join the discussion group on Facebook.

Happy new year, and I look forward to more music discoveries with you in 2022. If you have questions, suggestions, opinions, etc. please feel free to contact me. And if you’d like to receive these posts via email, you can sign up for my newsletter here.

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    Gray Days and Gold