A few weeks back Mercury delivered the shortlist for their 2021 prize which, although a good list, we felt it was a tad predictable, and, as is traditional, it was missing some of our favourite records released in the period. Maybe the entry fee alone is enough to put some artists off from even entering? Others may never be considered because they don’t have the industry contacts? Also the lack of Welsh releases was particularly stark to us.
Today, we present our annual alternative, the Neutron Prize champions twelve British records from the last twelve months, that didn’t make the shortlist, that excited us! Read on.
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Dry Cleaning’s guitarist, bassist and drummer had been at it for the last 12 years, making music in various bands. Thanks to a mutual friend they were introduced to Florence Shaw, a visual artist and drawing lecturer who started contributing her words to the project, reading them out as poetry in her eerie, funny, inimitable way. They sensibly made her frontwoman. With Shaw, Dry Cleaning has become not just an itchy, melodic post-punk act (which is enjoyable in and of itself) rather something totally distinct from their contemporaries. (Richard Wiggins)
Anna B Savage – A Common Turn
Anna B Savage has a voice that could stop traffic. Finely exhibited half way through ‘Corncrakes’ where everything drops away, there is nothing but silence, the world stops turning and you could hear a pin drop and then Anna comes in A Capella. The world starts up again. Maybe this is a metaphor of my own design for 2021 allowing the human race to start moving again, to begin seeing each other and for us all to converge in a room and listen and watch and live again.
A Common Turn delivers everything promised by the singles and that EP six years ago. It was worth the wait.
The stresses and strains have allowed for a work of pure art, that for the listener is a stunning cacophony and elixir for the ears. Hopefully Anna now reaps the rewards. An emigration away from life as a fledgling to become a fully grown bird, wings outstretched and ready to soar. (Jim Auton)
Fenne Lily – Breach
Bristol born twenty three year old Lily released her brilliant second record BREACH last Autumn. At times an intensely personal, reflective and frequently sardonic record at others propulsive, dreamy and infectious. BREACH grapples with the philisophy of being human and the catharsis of entering your 20s and trying to find peace while being alone.
Vaster, more layered and more intricate than Fenne’s debut, On Hold, which was a streaming success, it offers a more urgent streak to her songwriting in places, yet houses a clever empathetic intimacy that peers at the tenuous nature of life. Ripe with her effortless unfiltered tone that’s at points like a sighing breath on your neck at others stops you dead in your tracks, Fenne’s voice is at once knowing, soothing and weighted with the depth of the duality living. Wrapping itself around you as the subtle swelling instrument sweeps that envelop you in clipped percussion, lucid guitar lines and bittersweet melodies. If you are looking for rough comparisons then the diaristic and redemptive sound of early Daughter or the brittle melancholia of Elliot Smith might be a shorthand but it’s all just Fenne Lily. Its wonderful. (Bill Cummings)
Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
‘On’ starts out as a cool, low key electropop song with Owens’ marvellous, softly spoken vocals over tappy, whirring and percussive synths. It then breaks down into a completely different, techy and bouncy second half. The transition is impressive. The unassuming way she incorporates vocals on this cut is a world away from the great whoosh you get from the choruses of ‘Re-Wild’ where Owens’ haunting layered harmonies are to die for. The pulsating percussion is brilliant and peculiar. This is the most naturally hooky song on the LP.
Lead single ‘Melt!’ goes all in on loud, bolshy beats and touches of bright, oscillating synths. She combines a couple of powerful bass drum sounds, one of which resonates like someone trying to knock in your kitchen ceiling.
On Inner Song, Owens reaffirms her abilities as a top flight ambient electronic artist and delivers several distinctive, emotionally charged tracks.(Richard Wiggins)
The Anchoress – The Art of Losing
Welsh songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Catherine Anne Davies, The Anchoress, released her second studio album this spring and it deeply captured our hearts.
Inspired by loss and trauma, this is a collection of songs that are masterfully affective. They take grief and traumatic experience by the shoulders, shake it, pin it back, and ultimately look it deep in the eye. With the darkness though also comes beauty, with gorgeous melody simultaneously offering a balm for the heart as it cuts deep. Tracks such as ‘Unravel’, ‘5am’ and ‘The Heart is a Lonesome Hunter’ particularly made an impact on me. The production of the album, by The Anchoress, is particularly impressive, teasing out the layers of each song, with the overall soundscape beautifully Inspired by music from Scott Walker, Tori Amos, Manic Street Preachers (James Dean Bradfield is a guest vocalist on the album), and David Bowie. This is an astonishing record that stays with you long after each listen. Audacious, compassionate, and breath-taking. (Lucy Bennett)
Idiac – Part Idiot
Idiac‘s debut long-player is most certainly is a journey, in the same way that The Future Sound Of London‘s classic 1994 album Lifeforms is one. Not that Part Idiot sounds remotely like it. After all, there was little in the way of melodic hooks on that work of genius, focusing more, as it did, on the feeling of being outdoors and at one with nature. Part Idiot sounds more like the soundtrack to a blissful dream sequence on a train, through beautiful, panoramic countryside. But the one thing that ties those two records together is the romance. It’s there in spades.
Not that I’m saying this is a completely ambient album. It isn’t. In fact, by the time ‘Guffley‘ reaches its dramatic conclusion, it’s as though Aphex Twin has boarded the carriage, pushed the driver out of their seat and taken everyone on a detour along death-defying mountain trails and at high speed through magical tunnels. It’s really quite thrilling.(Loz Etheridge)
Jane Weaver- Flock
After the impressive double of The Silver Globe and Modern Kosmology cemented Jane Waver as one of the most compelling and singular talents around, she returned in March with her finest album yet. The ethereal psychedelica of those albums remained and has the same hypnotic multi-layered pull of bands such as the mighty Broadcast and Stereolab.
Flock stands out in a strong year for albums thanks to the irresistible groove of songs like ‘Sunset Dreams’ and the gorgeous dream pop of ‘Heartlow’. Best of all is closer, ‘Solarised’ which is Weaver’s big cosmic disco moment. Full of evocative bubbling synths and a catchy vocal hook that glides so beautifully, it sounds like Goldfrapp at their poppiest or even peak Kylie. Flock manages to be Weaver’s loosest set of songs as well as being her most commercial. It’s an immaculate album from someone who is working at an extremely high level and is long overdue a commercial breakthrough. (Jonathan Wright)
Goat Girl – On All Fours
On All Fours is one of those excellent second albums where the band have firmly built on the potential of their debut. Whereas their self titled debut was full of short sketches and ideas, this time round the songs are fully fleshed out and burst with innovation. Songs like, ‘Sad Girl’ twist and turn, beginning with layers of swirling synths and moody motorik rhythms before giving way to a dark trance breakdown in the last couple of minutes. Album highlight, ‘Anxiety Feels’ is a devastating tale of depression and anxiety where lead singer Clottie Cream sings such heartbreaking lines as, “I don’t want to be on these pills” and “I find it hard sometimes“. Her willingness to be this open makes this an easy album to connect with and feel invested in.
Goat Girl have quickly become a unique and special band who combine tales of darkness with eerily beautiful melodies that demand repeated plays. The added electronic flourishes and confidence in songwriting make this one of 2021’s most alluring releases. After such a leap in quality, it’s exciting to think of where they’ll lead us next. (Jonathan Wright)
Desperate Journalist – Maximum Sorrow
In a similar vein to their third album, Desperate Journalist have named their fourth release after a phrase borrowed from a visual artist – this time Internet artist Kevin Bewersdorf. Bewersdorf’s work was dominated by images of corporate branding, seeming intent on sucking you in, beguiling you into maxing out on screen time and cybergawp – the modern sorrow industry.
Desperate Journalist frequently hammer you in the places you really don’t mind being hit, with tracks like ‘Hollow’ on Grow Up or ‘Jonatan’ on In Search of the Miraculous. Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of life’s baleful maelstrom here. The first single from the album, ‘Fault’ provides full-band turmoil, Jo Bevan acknowledging, “Teenage hang-ups are hard to beat/ When your closet’s piled up with defeat.” Rob Hardy wrings maximum sorrow out of a single guitar. Simon Drowner’s bassline and Caz Hellbert’s drumline are both relentless, like the inner and external world they portray. Throughout, the rhythm section excels.
‘Utopia’ couldn’t feel much more dystopian if it started telling us that we’re living in The Truman Show. ‘Poison Pen’ is a tide of ire that asks of the privileged, “Oh, you venerated writer/Could your knighthood be much whiter?” Beneath the crossfire of Bevan’s wail and the turbulent instrumentation, we hear the spoken word – a new addition to Desperate Journalist’s composition.
This truth-telling cuts through at moments when we could get lost in the sonic sorrow and adds an extra level of directness to their message. We find it on ‘What You’re Scared Of,’ with its beautiful melancholic Björk ‘Birthday’ stylings and on ‘Personality Girlfriend’. There’s a wee bit of Britpop in this one, but not 1996 Britpop – more like what Britpoppers probably feel like twenty-five years on: far more careworn. A bit like Sleeper, but Sleeper after taking a sleeper, and still having had a particularly bad night’s sleep.
As exclamations go, Maximum Sorrow! feels like it’s laced with that ironic, sardonic sense of ‘Yay! Thanks, universe! What next? Can’t wait…’ There are no phrases about ‘difficult’ fourth albums, but there’s always a question about what a band can do differently with a winning sound. The answer, for Desperate Journalist, is to ramp up the emotional reverb to the max. Winningly. (Jon Kean)
Che Lingo – The Worst Generation
Che Lingo’s debut album, The Worst Generation more than vindicated the belief that Idris Elba’s 7Wallace label showed in signing him. Although the name ‘The Wizard of Wando’ has become a term of reference for the rapper, there’s a down-to-earth magic in force in his work, with a sense of artistry and craftsmanship to the fore. There’s nothing arcane; the wonder can all be grasped in the everyday world.
There’s a density and there’s a lightness. The words are so tightly packed. You’re getting enormous syllables-per-minute value for your investment of time and money. There’s weight in the thematic content and the poetic skill. But the flow is sinuous and utterly unforced, from which the lightness ensues. The social criticism, which can sound more combative and aggressive elsewhere in rap, sounds calmly assured, assertive and persuasive.
There’s vocal dexterity in his ability to switch from rap to a smooth R&B vocal, allowing for variety even within a single track, so that he can pay glowing tribute to where he grew up and the people that helped nurture him on ‘South’ yet also recount being mugged there at thirteen. It’s subtlety like this that makes the album feel so balanced and emotionally astute.
‘Screw Face’ and ‘My Block’ offer a perspective on prejudice, racism and police brutality that truly makes you aware of the duality of the album’s title. Are those being treated as ‘the worst generation’ simply the victims of the misrule of the current establishment – the bona fide worst generation – and the attitudes they encourage? The bristling, animalistic tensions of 21st-Century living comes through in ‘Hunch’ with “I already know who I can’t trust,/ I can smell it in the air like musk.”
Che Lingo’s embodiment of modern masculinity sets a strong example for any listener. London’s neighbourhoods may necessitate a survival mentality at times, but he also portrays and accepts his own vulnerability on tracks like ‘A Bit Insecure’ and ‘Perfect Wounds’, acknowledging that there’s “So much toxicity lingering in my history,” from which he is committed to stepping away. Che Lingo’s humble self-respect is endearing.
When you can enlist the collaboration of such luminaries as Ghetts and Kojey Radical and they are clearly your peers rather than your guest stars, you’re clearly speaking a language that people understand and want to hear. (Jon Kean)
Carwyn Ellis and Rio 18 – Mass
‘Mas’, is the follow-up to Carwyn Ellis and Rio 28’s 2019’s Welsh Music Prize shortlisted ‘Joia!’.
As with the much lauded ‘Joia!‘, the songs are sung in Welsh, blended with distinct pop and musics from across Latin America to create a delicious infusion of Tropicália, bossa nova, samba and cumbia.
Having recorded the bulk of ‘Mas‘ in Rio de Janeiro in late 2019, the album was completed and perfected over the last few months during Carwyn’s not quite so fallow year.
‘Mas’ means “out” in Welsh, “more” in Spanish, and “but” in Portuguese: these meanings filling that single syllable with promise, potential, but also the subtle edge of a warning. It takes on global and universal concerns thematically; the drowning of villages, climate change, migration and the rise of mega cities. (Cath Holland)
Knomad Spock – Winter of discontent
‘Winter of Discontent’ is the mysterious, devastating debut album from British/Somali poet, rapper and neofolk singer-songwriter Knomad Spock.
Born and raised in Hull and now residing in Cardiff (following brief spells in the Middle East, Bristol, London, Thailand, East Africa and Andalucia) he takes his name from the restless spirit that drives him and fuels his creativity, curiosity and artistry.
Recorded in Scotland at the idyllic, isolated St Mary’s Space studio, his debut album is an exploration of alienation and fluid identities, bridging gaps between forms, cultures and musical genres.
Produced by Jamie Smith, the album melds many different influences and textures – sounding at various points like Kid A-era Radiohead, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Elliott Smith, contemporary classical, and Portishead – but always sustaining its own unique mood and voice.
It’s a meditative, minimalistic, other worldy piece of work that’s shrouded in Sufi mysticism – a sincere dream-search for love and meaning that seems to capture something of the prevailing cultural mood of our times. In fact, it’s probably one of the best and most intriguing albums of 2021 so far. (Tom Emlyn)