I am wicked fuckin depressed yall. The list was thiiiis close to not happening because I have’t been doing a goddamn thing besides losing myself in video game worlds, binge watching videos of people playing Super Mario Maker 2, and hiding from every single human, friends & family included. I feel like I barely listen to music anymore and when I do, I rarely feel anything.
But I have listened to some music, and I did have some emotions when listening, and there were a few records that got stuck on repeat, some of which were actually pretty helpful. I needed to make this list. No lie it was a pretty monumental effort. But it’s here. I’m not looking for accolades or anything, just trying to be real and not make it seem like everything is ok because everything is definitely not ok.
As always: Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for making incredible music.
There were 3 records in particular that I listened to a ton that are pretty droney but not quite droney enough to join the list. They deserve recognition.
Mother Of Sighs – Mother Of Sighs (Deathbomb Arc)
A debut of a new project from Terence Hannum and Erica Burgner-Hannum, horror music about a miscarriage and the pain of motherhood. Read the description on the Bandcamp page and lose your faith if there’s any left to begin with.
Gazelle Twin & NYX – Deep England (NYX Collective)
A self-described “electronic drone choir” re-interpreting Gazelle Twin’s album Pastoral. It’s kind of like if Shirley Collins scored a remake of The Wicker Man directed by Ben Wheatley and it was piped into The Haçienda’s dance floor.
Midwife – Luminol (The Flenser)
Midwife’s debut, Like Author, Like Daughter, lead me to make a separate list in 2018 just so I could put it in the number 1 spot. LA,LD was and is masterpiece. There is no record I’ve listened to more in my entire life. Luminol is better. LA,LD still holds a special place in my heart, but Luminol is actually a better record. I never even thought that could happen. If you somehow haven’t hopped on the Midwife train yet, now is the fucking time.
And now onto the proper Top 16 Drone Records of 2021.
16. C. Lavender – Transient Seclusion (Longform Editions)
Longform Editions is one that you should be paying attention to if you’re not already. They put out batches of 4 releases every few weeks and every single one of them is brilliant ($6 AUD/$4.30 USD per month gets you access to the whole catalog). This one from C. Lavender is my pick of the crop, though. Her drone here is exquisitely textured with some rhythms and grit that veer into industrial territory. Also, it crams a full album’s worth of material into its 17 minutes, which is more than can be said of some records three times as long.
15. Of Thread & Mist – Static Hymns to No One (Gizeh)
This is the debut of a new moniker for Richard Knox (from A-Sun Amissa, head of Gizeh Records) and I knew I needed to hear this as soon as I saw the album title. It doesn’t disappoint with its somber tape loop decay and foggy elegies, and at first glance you might think you’ve got the standard two side-long pieces, but look again and you’ll see the “B side” is actually 32 minutes long, a huge swath of bittersweet beauty and cinematic mourning that will make you wish you had a box of tissues nearby.
14. R. Keenan Lawler & John Krausbauer – Spinnan (Debacle)
These two are mostly new to me, with Lawler’s name being super fresh whereas I kind of know Krausbauer but only through his work with the perpetually underrated Tecumseh. On Spinnan, they weave a 34 minute raga using steel resonator guitars, banjos, bells, and oscillators, definitely not your typical raga instruments but these guys make it work, and it is one transcendent fucking jam. And this all came about because the two toured together with solo sets and ended up joining each other on stage for some longform acoustic zones. Side note: Debacle killed it with incredible collaborations this year with Spinnan obviously but also Andrew Weathers & Hayden Pedigo and Ashley Bellouin & Ben Bracken, not to mention the new beast of a Chord record. Seek them all out.
13. Milieu – Improvisations For Hylian Horn & Pipe Organ (Milieu)
Brian Grainger is easily one of the most prolific folks in the experimental scene with something like 40+ releases this year alone. It’s really hard to keep up. But when he drops 3.5 hours of Zelda drone (on Zelda’s 35th anniversary), you drop what you’re doing and listen immediately. So this technically isn’t made with a Hylian horn (those aren’t real) or a pipe organ, but that’s irrelevant. This is fucking amazing, some “impressionistic pieces” of Hyrule, great & small. You’ve got 3 minutes of reedy wobble on “Hymn To The Goddess” and you’ve got almost a half hour of chiptune-esque electronics and ethereal echoes in enormous empty halls on “The Ballad Of The Continental Flood.” If 3.5 hours of this isn’t enough for you (and honestly, it shouldn’t be), Grainger released Improvisation For Hylian Piano And Woodwinds in 2018 and the ancient, long-forgotten but nevertheless magical splits with Millipede (RIP) on volumes I (OG AGB review) and II (stream it!) of Play Ancient Hylian Folk Songs.
12. Catherine Lamb, Rebecca Lane & Jon Heilbron – Muto Infinitas (Another Timbre)
This is some of the most minimal stuff on this list. Lamb composed this hour-long whisper for quartertone bass flute and double bass, performed by Lane & Heilbron, and while I’m tempted to say it’s relentless, it does have brief moments of silence, as if pausing for 5 seconds of a deep inhale before slowly drawing out the tones for the next 5 minutes.
11. Hellvete – Voor Harmonium (Aguirre)
I try my best to keep repeat offenders off my drone lists but there will always be exceptions. Glen Steenkiste’s Hellvete project is one of them. This dude just does it for me and Voor Harmonium is no exception. Two side-long harmonium-based pieces that entrance and hypnotize, these are super dense drones but with a twist, they’ve got some rhythms, the first piece starts out 100% solid, impenetrable, but slowly over the course of the next 18 minutes, a beat emerges, like some sweet techno melody, enough that you might start bobbing your head, and then the B side reverses it, kicks off with a lonely helicopter beat that eventually brings in the monolithic drone and next thing you know you’ve got yourself a fuckin dance party.
10. Walt McClements – A Hole In The Fence (American Dreams)
Have I ever mentioned how much I love reed drone? The drone scene is pretty big on the organs and harmoniums but I think we could use some more accordion drone. Three cheers for Walt McClements and his solo debut outside of his Lonesome Leash moniker, this is some wonderful stuff, dramatic and rich, ebbing and flowing with the tide, traditional accordion sounds looped and layered to make beautiful melodies that blur into a smoothed out smear of euphoric heartache.
9. Judith Hamann – A Coffin Spray (Superpang)
Judith Hamann made A Coffin Spray after her friend died. It’s not a eulogy per se, but it feels like one. Just Hamann and her cello making slow, deep sounds that resonate in your bones for 28 minutes straight. It kind of hurts listening to this. It sounds like the way my eyes feel when I’m about to cry. It comes in waves and my eyes get fuller each time. A Coffin Spray never reaches that breaking point, though. And that’s exactly how I’ve felt these past couple of years, dealing with so much death and grief and mourning, being overwhelmed with emotion but not collapsing and having it wash over me. I wish I could let that happen but for some reason it never does.
8. Various Artists – The Harmonic Series II (Important)
This is the first time I’ve ever put a compilation on a year end list. They typically get the cold shoulder when it comes to “best of” lists and I’ve obviously contributed to that problem. However, I’ve never heard a compilation that was a true favorite for me, so I haven’t been intentionally ignoring them. More like they just don’t usually compare to traditional records. Duane Pitre, this compilation’s curator, and Important Records have broken the mold with this one though. The Harmonic Series II is a 3xLP with 6 side-long pieces by Kali Malone, Catherine Lamb, Tashi Wada, Byron Westbrook, Caterina Barbieri, and Duane Pitre himself. 6 artists that are at the forefront of minimalism in the 21st century, pushing drone its limits. This is a breathtaking, massive fucking record. There could be doctoral dissertations written about this thing. There’s no way I could cover all this has to offer in this space, so you’re just gonna have to trust me, trust Important, trust the artists on the record, and trust Pitre because he’s the brains behind this.
7. Terence Hannum – Dissolving The Bonds (Flag Day)
While you’re waiting for the next Locrian album to drop, you should be losing yourself in Hannum’s solo work (be it here or under his power electronics work as Axebreaker). Everything Hannum touches is golden, but Dissolving The Bonds is his best solo work by far. It’s arguably his most droney, which is why this is the first time he’s appearing on a drone list, but it’s also pretty heavy and noisey, bleeding into industrial, darkwave, and metal arenas. I mean the track “I Am Still Here” is 100% definitely not drone. But! “Tender Resignations” has some ghostly Dan Barrett wailing and reminds me a bit of the ambient Have A Nice Life songs, and the 16 minute closer “Everyone Has Gathered Here To Destroy You” is an absolute fucking Drone Beast, starting out all innocent before smashing the world to pieces with a caustic wall of static. It’s so so fucking good.
6. Mary Lattimore & Growing – Gainer (self released)
I’m pretty sure no one had Lattimore & Growing on their collaboration bingo card but the world is a better place now because Gainer is here. I had a hard time imagining how Lattimore’s harp could stand up alongside Growing’s thick hum but the pairing is a shining example of how seemingly disparate sounds can enhance each other. Somehow Lattimore’s tender caresses and Growing’s buzzing minimalism co-exist simultaneously, neither commanding space over the other but rather embracing the other, a beautiful marraige that I hope lasts beyond this one record.
5. Beth McDonald – Densing (self released)
I first found out about the drum/tuba duo Korean Jeans from their 2019 record No Trust. It blew me away. If it was just a bit dronier, it would have been on my year end list. The tubist, Beth McDonald, went off on her own and made this magnificent solo tuba record and it is suuuuper minimal and as droney as it gets, dark glacial reverberations that evolve over millennia and engulf everything in their path.
4. Marine Eyes – Idyll (Stereoscenic)
Marine Eyes is the debut solo record of Cynthia Bernard (from Awakened Souls) and she made it “with one intention—to create a peaceful, gentle place.” She 100% succeeded. But if I (accurately) described this as some guitar-based new agey ambient with some field recordings and vocal loops, I feel like that might turn some people off. Trust me, this is the real deal heavenly drone that turns everything white and lifts you up out of the grave you accidentally dug for yourself this year. The final track is something I’ve kept on repeat ever since I heard it, it’s just a simple guitar melody with breathy Midwife-y singing but it is absolute fucking bliss.
3. All Hands_Make Light – All Hands_Make Light (Constellation)
AH_ML is the duo of Ariel Engle (aka La Force, from Broken Social Scene, AroarA) and Efrim Menuck (from GYBE, A Silver Mount Zion) where Engle does “voice” and Menuck does “noise” and holy shit this is special. Engle’s voice is effortlessly passionate, with harmonic delays and choral layering that elevate you, reminding me of Elisa Ambrogio’s solo work, and Menuck’s sounds are similar to those found on his collaboration with Kevin Doria as Sing Sinck, Sing, dense and homogenous, but dynamic and seamlessly intertwining with Engle, making for somewhat traditional song structures unlike anything else on this list that are dramatic and truly fucking beautiful.
2. Charlatan – Eventually Rising (The Jewel Garden)
Y’all should know Charlatan by now, the king Brad Rose who’s been involved in more things that you can count, I’m not even going to bother name dropping. This year alone he’s released music under at least 5 different names. Like fellow drone lister Brian Grainger, it can be hard to keep up. During one of my Jewel Garden journeys this year, I came across Eventually Rising and gave it a spin because a Rose record with two side-long pieces isn’t an every day occurrence. I found this when I was in dire need of drowning in drone, bright white drone that would blind me and obliterate everything in sight, something that would make me feel full, make me feel good, make me feel something other than crippling depression and despair. Rose made that happen. The B side, “Third Moon,” is 22 minutes of warm pipe organ-y shimmer that makes me forget that China is committing genocide against Uyghurs and that there are humans who willingly throw babies into fire pits. I want to live in those 22 minutes forever.
1. Hathor’s Rose Choir – Hathor’s Rose Choir (Golden Ratio Frequencies)
This is it. This is the one. The 70+ minute improv vocal drone record you didn’t know you needed and now can’t live without. Hathor’s Rose Choir is led by Lani Rocillo, where she sat with a handful of others (mostly women) in various sacred spaces and sang in holy harmony while their voices reverberated throughout the building, this is the epitome of ritual music, where people commune with themselves, each other, their voices, and their surroundings to create something wholly sublime and incomparably distinctive. I know I’ll never reach the heights of pure transcendence the Hathor’s Rose Choir members achieve, but if listening to this record is as close as I get, I’m more than happy to settle here.