Andy’s top 10 local releases of 2021

Here are the albums by Columbus musicians that this writer returned to most often throughout the past year

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Giant Claw

1. Giant Claw: Mirror Guide (Orange Milk)

Keith Rankin, who records and performs under the name Giant Claw, talked earlier this year about being struck by a particular chord he heard as a child, and more particularly the sensation it stirred within him. “It was a shock to the system, almost like your consciousness being flipped online suddenly,” he said. Rankin has consistently chased this feeling in the years since, building a deep, unpredictable musical catalog that includes the richly cinematic Mirror Guide, which centers on a MIDI cello and builds into something gently immersive, like stepping inside a lush alien landscape. It’s an easy world in which to get lost, and one I returned to repeatedly in 2021 as a way of escaping the madness these times.

2. Gerycz/Powers/Rolin: Lamplighter (American Dreams)

Even passive Alive readers should already be familiar with Jen Powers and Mathew J. Rolin, our 2021 Best Musicians and the improvisers behind a stream of great records released under the umbrella of the Powers/Rolin Duo, including Strange Fortune, from 2021 and also wholly deserving of a spot on this list. But while I logged countless hours with the various Duo albums, as well as Rolin's solo recordings, it’s this, the pair’s second collaboration with Cleveland-based drummer Jayson Gerycz of Cloud Nothings, that I returned to most often, drawn in by the natural interplay between the three musicians. In trio form, they're capable of crafting pastoral vibes (“June” mirrors the feel of a spring meadow awaking to the early morning sun) or shaking the walls with unexpected noise outbursts, such as the one that falls near the close of the otherwise patient “Jars of Glass,” an absolute epic of a track and the standout on an album packed with highlights.

3. Soulucien: This Makes Me Feel Better (self-released)

Soulucien’s new album can be a harrowing listen. He rhymes about experiencing a mental breakdown, shares how anxieties can mirror the weight of a cinder block sitting on one’s chest, and, on the jarring “i exist pt. 2,” briefly contemplates suicide, rapping, “I put the gun to my head today.” “When I said [those words], it was like, ‘OK, that feels like a weight off me,’” Soulucien, born Lucien Wright III, said in a February interview. “Me being so honest with my worst moment, I hoped it could do something for someone else who’s in that world, because I’m still here, and I didn’t want to be at some point. If somebody can hear the place I was in, and recognize that in themselves, maybe it could inspire a change.”

4. Joe Peppercorn: Darkening Stars (self-released)

Joe Peppercorn seems to enjoy setting goals for himself, whether it’s running at least three miles a day for months on end or performing the Beatles' entire catalog in a marathon concert supported by a cast of Columbus musicians. The singer and songwriter’s most recent full-length has its roots in a similar feat of endurance, its 14 tracks culled from a stretch in 2017 when Peppercorn wrote 52 songs — one a week over the course of a year. The results are gorgeous, recalling the pop majesty of Peppercorn’s band the Whiles, but with an added sense of maturity and a weight that comes from being a father in a world that appears to be falling apart at the seams.

5. (tie) P.A. Flex: Sleeping Giant (North City Music); Co City: Coming to Grips (North City Music)

OK, so it’s a bit of a cheat to include a tie, but if any albums deserve to share the spotlight it’s these twin releases by brothers P.A. Flex and Co City, who grew up competing with one another on the baseball diamond but now take their biggest swings on record. Flex struck first on New Year's Day with Sleeping Giant, which deftly balanced the political (“Spartacus”) and the personal (the album’s title track), while Co followed in April with Coming to Grips, a comparatively intimate turn that traces his steady maturation. “I been through the dark, I’m trying to find the light,” he raps on the shadowy, percussive “Barry Larkin,” which opens with the rapper falling to pieces at the site of his grandmother’s casket. Expect big things when the two come together for the Bridlington Brothers full-length, which should surface sometime in 2022.

6. Sam Craighead: OK Computer Room (Head2Wall)

There’s a lot to unpack on the new Sam Craighead album, which addresses everything from racial inequality and the injustice surrounding the police killing of Casey Goodson Jr. (“Two Subways”) to toxic masculinity (“The Toughest Guy”) and the musician’s own growth as a human, which has involved developing a comfort level with the embarrassment almost everyone feels to some degree about the person that they once were. “As I’m getting closer to 40 … my 20s are now far enough away that I can be like, ‘Oh, that was funny that I did that,’” Craighead said in November. “And part of the whole thing about therapy, too, is being able to be kind to myself not just now, but also to myself as a young person. So, things that felt embarrassing, or things that felt painful or that I felt ashamed about, like, ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that,’ I can now go back and be like, ‘I was 18 and I was just learning how to try to be 19.’ I’m having a better appreciation of myself becoming an adult as I became an older adult.”

7. Twoaym: Unsolicited (self-released)

“Black” is 92 seconds of loping, subdued fire, rapper Twoaym, born Tiara Hill, calling out the evils of white supremacy in her casual, ever-reclining flow. Elsewhere, the MC looks both inward (“Passion”) and out, eviscerating the deeply unbalanced criminal justice system on “Blood Shed, Self.” “I’m just trying to be in a different lane than everybody else you hear,” she told Alive in February. Mission accomplished.

8. snarls: What About Flowers? (Take This to Heart)

Amid the lows of a pandemic-marred couple of years, the members of snarls retreated to Seattle where they recorded alongside famed producer Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists). The results are as good as expected, with Walla highlighting the band’s knack for crafting memorable hooks on songs such as “Fixed Gear,” a tune about learning to drop one’s guard that’s somehow sad, sweet and instantly hummable all at once. “With these songs, I’ve been looking into my interpersonal relationships, which is something I was never open about," singer Chlo White said in March. "But on this record I’m being more open about my trauma history and just navigating life and love as a young woman, specifically. So, yeah, it’s definitely emo.”

9. Kneeling in Piss: Types of Cults (Anyway)

Alex Mussawir’s mutating band released a trio of EPs in the last couple of years, the best of which, to me, was this minimalist gem, highlighted by the effortlessly urgent “Return, Return/Types of Cults.” As on previous EPs, songs dwell on ideas like distrust of technology and the increasing political and social divisions that have been further amplified by the ongoing pandemic. “I only write about three or four different things, really,” Mussawir joked in an April interview. Even if that were wholly true (it’s not), he does so with such skill that it’s a pleasure to revisit these subjects even when they infuriate, which they often do.

10. Delay: Songs for Money (Salinas)

There was a time when twin brothers Austin and Ryan Eilbeck doubted they’d reconvene for another Delay album. But allotted time by the pandemic and fueled by the songs Austin had been writing over the last few years, none of which, he said, could live anywhere else but Delay, the band regrouped, bashing out another collection that swings between effortless pop-punk jams and more patient turns like the gorgeously ramshackle “Doin’ Mints.” “At least for me, I’m more invested in Delay as a life passenger. This thing is going to be with me my whole life, in a good way,” Austin said earlier this month. "But now, instead of saying, ‘This thing needs to go somewhere,’ it’s more like, ‘This thing doesn’t need to go anywhere. It just needs to bring us joy.’”