Feature: Best Songs of 2021 (Spectrum Culture)

Black Midi: “John L” [Rough Trade]

Those seeking traces of Empirical wisdom in the newest work from Black Midi, everyone’s favorite tribe of super-ambitious British noise-makers, need not look deeply into the ephemera of song titles when so much evidence surrounds you. Bearing a reference to ol’ Ulysses Grant instead of a Beatle with familiar nomenclature, the track “John L” opens the band’s cataclysmic 2021 gem {Cavalcade} with bravura and aplomb, messing with senses of time signatures and rhythm that have been drilled deep over years into listeners’ cerebellums. It’s a mighty fine bit of tumult and frenetic energy, and the band is so razor-refined – the sax, guitar and drums often stopping, crashing, and spinning on the head of a dime – that its efforts to drum up a sense of madness seem almost technical in nature.

Guitarist/vocalist Geordie Greep sounds like he’s having the grand old time of his life as he unfurls rhymes for “vermillion” over the band’s descents and ascents, and someone should give drummer Morgan Simpson a five-spot just for holding together this thing as it threatens to fray at the seams. The most explosive track on {Cavalcade}, “John L” also is the one that sets the stage for what follows: Black Midi isn’t here to be your friend in this age of pandemics and political decay, the track boldly declares. The group is here to disorient you, and, maybe, yeah, knock you right onto your ass.

Jimbo Mathus/Andrew Bird: “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain” [Thirty Tigers]

The relationship between Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird dates to Squirrel Nut Zippers’ heyday in the 90s, when Bird was still slinging melodies with the Bowl of Fire. But, listening to {These 13} – the duo’s masterful mix of folk, Mississippi Delta blues, Americana and gospel – it sounds like these two have known each for several musical lifetimes. The record, top to bottom, is that frighteningly good and bizarrely authentic in this streamable, digital, downloadable age of daze.

“Three White Horses and a Golden Chain” closes the record – and for good reason. It is the most emotionally performed and assured track on the disc, with Bird offering a lulling base of violin over which Mathus rusted-ly croons and sways his acoustic guitar. {There’ll be three white horses/ when you’re going that way,”} Mathus offers, before the two trade turns with plaintive wails. {“You’re gonna need somebody when you come to die”}

The man stealing the show, though, is Bird. While he flirts with showman-Romanticism with occasional swells of violin throughout the song, he takes over in the jaw-dropping close, multi-tracking wailing strings over a distant whistle as the song fades into oblivion. Bird often deploys a musical Asperger’s, piling on details and codes but not always getting deeply in touch with the heart that throbs beneath the surface. As the violin soars here, you’re witnessing a different Bird: raw with his emotiveness, wearing his heart – instead of his cleverness – on his sleeve. It is something to behold! — Justin Vellucci, Dec. 17, 2021

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About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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