2021 in Review: Highlights of a Headphone Commute

As I am sure many of you dear readers are already aware, Headphone Commute is an online resource of candid words on electronic, experimental and instrumental music that has long been setting the bar to which many independent blogs aspire to including this one. In fact, it was my own early encounters with and lessons from HC that sparked the very idea of launching Stationary Travels and provided a template to follow. In recent years, they have very generously added Music For Your Stationary Travels to their best music of the year round-ups, featuring selections from these pages. I thought it was about time to reciprocate and so here are my ‘Highlights of a Headphone Commute’ with a dozen albums culled from HC’s own Best of 2021 that represent roads not taken that I was happy to get a second chance to go back and explore during the month of January.

Arovane – Reihen


There are microstructures created. Noises between the tones. Raw, intermodulated oscillators amplified and distorted, rushing and crackling, silence and erupting cascades of sound. That was the foundation of the album.

One of the electronic music scene’s most dedicated stalwarts, Uwe Zahn, aka Arovane, makes his first appearance on 12k which came about in the spring of 2021 as he was experimenting with a particular set of small devices and effects to create asynchronous loops with no specific tempo. And a beautiful experiment it turns out to be, an understated gem molded from arenaceous sonic materials into a journey of nuanced introspection.

Released digitally and on vinyl LP by 12k

Ed Carlsen – Grains of Gold


It was nice to reconnect with the music of Ed Carlsen after featuring his debut solo album back in 2016 here on the blog. Now on the exciting XXIM label alongside such artists as Olivia Belli, Lambert and Hugar, Carlsen, who was once on track to become a career pilot, soars instead through his music as he takes us along on a kaleidoscopic journey to Layra, a city that appears in his dreams and served as the inspiration for the record.

Released on CD, LP, and digital by XXIM Records

Francesco Guccione – Muqatea


Muqataea, which means county in Arabic, is my personal journey to rediscover my hometown, Modica, observed with the eyes of the imagination; a city that was just a county for several centuries. In fact, the record describes a day spent in this imaginary place that takes life from the places of my land, in a horizon where if lost it confines between reality to the imagination.

Composer Francesco Guccione blends synths, beats, and audio samples with her vibrant compositions to present a vision of her Sicilian hometown seen through the lens of memory and imagination. On one level she seeks to capture “the dialectal idiom” of the region while on another she deploys powerful minimalist themes that resonate with the inspiration drawn from its considerable geography, architecture, and folklore.

Released digitally and on limited edition CD and vinyl by Whales Records

Idlefon – Coldstream


Electronic music producer Hesam Ohadi aka Idlefon returns with his first full-length album in 7 years, bringing back memories of two fine releases on Tympanik I had the chance to cover in the early days of the blog – Intensive Collectivity Known as City (2014) and follow up EP Submarine (2015). His debut on the n5MD label is a potent blend of dark ambient, drone, glitch, and even industrial motifs that manages to be as cerebral as it is viscerally engaging.

Released digitally and on limited edition vinyl (dark green with black marble ) by n5MD

Jonas Munk – Altered Light


Altered Light is another sublime outing from one of the masters of guitar oriented minimalism as he unfurls “eight sonic poems for the dark season”. A beautiful evocation of stillness and introspection drawn in long, slow arcs against a backdrop of muted colors and vaporous textures.

Released digitally by Azure Vista Records

KMRU – Logue


Under the moniker of KMRU, Nairobi-based electronic musician & sound-artist Joseph Kamaru has quietly been taking the ambient scene by storm in recent years. Having only thus far listened to his more abstract soundscapes, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy and pure musicality of Logue which comprises nine tracks written from 2017 to 2019 in which he weaves field recordings from his native Kenya and the surrounding countries of East Africa into a kinetic tapestry of melody, rhythm, and texture. An album that manages to sound playful and joyous while remaining introspective at its core.

Released digitally and on black and clear vinyl LP edition by Inajzero Records

Marconi Union – Signals


We were quite inspired by various players like Jaki Liebezeit, Clive Deamer and Tony Allen and tried to imagine what our music would sound like with them playing on it.

This Manchester-based trio may be best known for creating “the world’s most relaxing song“, but the dozen albums they have released over the span of nearly two decades reveals them to be a group of intrepid musical explorers who persistently push the boundaries of their sound in new and creative directions. The driving shuffle of the unaccompanied drums that opens Signals announces that it will be something of a departure from their more atmospheric peregrinations, and so it proves to be as the band weaves pulsing bass lines, shimmering synths, and clean guitars over snappy percussion informed by the bands’ admiration of many different drummers.

Released digitally and on CD and 2xLP vinyl by Just Music

Masayoshi Fjuita – Bird Ambience


With Bird Ambience, Japanese vibraphonist, multi-percussionist and composer Masayoshi Fujita breaks the walls of his own creative silos to create a brilliantly multi-faceted album. Previously confining the use of electronics to his El Fog alias and engaging in improvisational exercises primarily in a collaborative context, he incorporates elements of both while broadening the range of his acoustic instruments beyond the vibraphone to include marimba and drums. Fujita creates a sound world that is organic, free-flowing, and uniquely his own while subtly referencing a broad swath of genres from classical to jazz to ambient.

Released digitally and on CD and 2xLP clear vinyl edition by Erased Tapes

Max Richter – Voices 2

Film by Yulia Mahr


The second part of Max Richter‘sVOICES project, which was inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can almost be seen as a quiet afterword to the expansively scoped first volume. It is much more succinct and introspective but as such it becomes effortlessly endearing. Richter’s gift for minimalist expressionism is peerless and these pristine, understated arrangements frame his compositions beautifully.

Released by Decca on CD and both black and clear vinyl LP editions – see official store for exclusive and signed edition options

Otto A. Totland – Companion


Companion completes a trilogy of personal solo piano compositions by Norwegian composer & pianist Otto A. Totland. As with 2014’s Pinô and 2017’s The Lost, the album was recorded at one of Nils Frahm‘s Berlin studios (this time the historic Studio 3 at Funkhaus) which is ideal for letting the eloquence of his simple, heartfelt melodies resonate with warmth and sincerity. There are 14 delicately crafted pieces here to savor, but I found my own heart strings being tugged at especially hard by the tender beauty of the title piece.

Released by Sonic Pieces in a standard vinyl edition and limited editions on both CD and vinyl with handmade textiled artwork

Stimming + Lambert – Positive


We share aesthetics and tastes, but have a very different way of working to get the music where we want it to be. So we went back to our studios, encouraging each other to leave the safe spaces of our sub-genres, even to explore production techniques far from our usual habits.


Three and a half years in the making, Positive is a full-length encore collaboration by the enigmatic masked pianist/composer Lambert and techno artist & sound designer Stimming. Building extensively on their 2018 debut mini-album Exodus (Kryptox Records), the duo create a sophisticated and entrancing fusion of electronica, ambient, jazz, downtempo, and classical with a dash of the avant-garde. Interestingly, the pair were never in the same room during the creation of the record, but you would never know from listening to its cleverly interlocking pieces.

Released by XXIM Records on CD, digital, and vinyl LP

Warmth – The Darkest Place


Spanish sound artist & producer Agustín Mena continues to demonstrate his mastery of deep ambient drone music as Warmth. In keeping with the title, the album is steeped in somber bass lines, opaque textures, and shadowy oscillations but there is a glowing serenity at its core that keeps feelings of desolation and gloom at bay. Think of it as the sonic equivalent of a weighted blanket.

Released by ARCHIVES on digital as well as limited edition CD or cassette tape