I hate end of year lists. I don’t get the obsession with it all. The commitment in print to a lasting opinion that hinges on something so flimsy and arbitrary as personal taste. The judging. The being judged. The whataboutery in the below-the-line comments. I hate it all.
But then 2021 was such a brilliant year for new music, it deserves some effort on my part. Time to suck it up and make some choices.
The twenty songs here have just one thing in common. They each stopped me in my tracks when I first heard them. Whether they made me smile like a massive music-nerd, or planted an emotional boot in places I thought had become totally numbed by the relentless grind of bad news, I felt something new.
I hope you find something among this lot that does the same for you.
Babehoven – Bad Week
Going in for the sucker punch, ‘Bad Week’ is the epitome of 2021. Drenched in sadness, it’s like Julia Jacklin‘s ‘Crushing‘, but Maya Bon keeps piling on the grief and before you realise it there’s nowhere to go. “It takes a train sometimes to pull me out / And I don’t have the energy I don’t have the stamina / To keep on fighting / But I’ll keep on fighting. I’ll do it.”
Dan Wriggins – The Diner
I loved the simple, honest alt-country songwriting of The Diner, one of two songs released early in the year by wiry Philly-based Friendship frontman Dan Wriggins. The violin hook in the chorus will draw you deeper into Wriggins’ narrative style as he looks back with bittersweet affection on a time and a special place when life was care-free and everyone had each other’s backs. Everyone has had a ‘Diner’ in their life at some point.
Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen – Like I Used To
There are no words for how excited I got about this song when it came out. Enough said.
Sweet Nobody – Other Humans
This Bandcamp find turned out to be a real grower that I just kept coming back to. ‘Other Humans’ is curious. It’s fairly standard breezy jangly pop, but it just arrived at exactly the right moment. Joy Deyo’s voice sits in a charming niche between Nina Persson and Alvvays‘s Molly Rankin. Look out for their latest album, ‘We’re Trying Our Best’, a tasty pick ‘n mix mix of indie rock and pop.
Circuit des Yeux – Vanishing
I gushed about Haley Fohr’s latest album a few weeks ago. With her singular voice and remarkable vision, ‘Vanishing’ is a dramatic highlight from one of the best albums of the year. Sing it loud: ‘Zero axiom is our hero’.
Dear Laika – Black Moon, Lilith
With comparisons to Julia Holter, Katie Dey, Lyra Pramuk or perhaps Ben Frost’s soundtracks, the diverse musical strands that make up Isabelle Thorn’s debut Pluperfect Mind emerge and fade and re-emerge in a constant process to become concrete and permanent. She mixes classical piano, synths, treated sample textures and found sounds in a seamless mesh. Album centrepiece, ‘Black Moon, Lilith’ is a magical incantation, full of warmth and emotional honesty cut through by Thorn’s otherwise cool, crystalline vocals.
Modern Woman – Offerings
Tender folk vocals (with just enough weirdness) meets improvised jazz and noise, played on possibly harmful, home-made musical machinery. Imagine Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge with PJ Harvey, Tom Waits and Merzbow‘s Masami Akita. Only better. End Of The Road created a record label just so they could release their music.
Horte – Vaïsty Tieltä
The dark elves of Finnish post-rock, Horte’s second album is a psychedelic journey through the boggy, snow-laced forests of their homeland. Riikka Pekkala’s precise, mesmerising vocals weave in and out of the mix on ‘Vaïsty Tieltä‘ (“Give way”), against a hazy backdrop of MBV-like off-kilter guitar distortions.
King Woman – Morning Star
I could have picked any song from Kris Esfandiari’s latest King Woman album, Celestial Blues. I’ve racked up about 2000 scrobbles this year, which doesn’t include the amount of vinyl play this album’s had. Ostensibly a concept album about Lucifer, Esfandiari extends the metaphor of the fall from grace to the relatable darkness within all of us. As she reminds us on Morning Star: ‘You know it could have been you / So don’t you dare judge the things that I do’. Forceful, feminist doom metal that pulls no punches.
Nation of Language – Across That Fine Line
This month Tim’s Listening Party helped bring Nation of Language’s second album A Way Forward to a bigger audience, with all their UK tour dates selling out in the process. The first time I heard this Brooklyn trio I thought I’d stumbled across a long-forgotten 80s new wave act. Ian Devaney’s swoon factor aside, his soothing, mahogany vocals play with melody and rhythm in a way that grabs and keeps your interest through the whole track.
Water From Your Eyes – Track Five
I’ve followed Nate Amos and Rachel Brown since their first, semi-serious, self-released EP in 2016. One thing they’ve done consistently is make music for themselves, with no care for the critics who insist on nudging them in a particular direction. The blistering acid burn of ‘Track Five’ comes off their new album, Structure, an anti-concept album full of ideas and subversive humour. They reference Scott Walker’s Climate of the Hunter and Mark Rothko as influences, but don’t take them too seriously.
audiobooks – The Doll
‘Comfort zone’ is not a phrase you would associate with this odd, visionary art-dance duo. This song, from their second album Astro Tough commands your attention from the first count-in right through to the beat-smashing, filter-panning rhythmic outro. Evangeline Ling’s plummy affectation as she narrates a story about a girl losing a doll is one of many characters she pulls out of her warped imagination. The awkwardness is so delicious, I just can’t turn it off.
W.H. Lung – Pearl in the Palm
Album of the year, Vanities, is packed with similar pop bangers but Pearl in the Palm was where it began for WH Lung’s return after a year in isolation. Their irrepressible energy and positivity was manifestly what we needed earlier this year. Go and see them live if you can.
Beige Banquet – Wired/Weird
With mototrik repetition and vitriolic vocals, is this yet another band that channels the spirit of PiL, early Fall and Gang of Four? There seems to be a lot of them about, but music is forged by the times and we do seem to be spiralling back into the bleak black hole of depression that hit at the turn of the 70s/early 80s. London’s Beige Banquet are somewhat different though. Theirs is a bandwagon I’d gladly jump onto as it careens recklessly into the whiteout.
KEG – Farmhands
Brighton 7-piece KEG are fun. The antithesis of the anxiety-driven, existential crises peddled by some contemporaries, ‘Farmhands‘ is a chaotic, brassy art-punk ditty about post-apocalyptic rural culture clashes. With a sing-along chorus of “everybody’s screaming”, this is the kind of madness I can get behind. Expect odd things from their debut album.
Lips – Heave Ho!
Another Bandcamp discovery which led to repeat listens of LIPS brilliant album I don’t know why I do anything. It’s a true gem of DIY pop, rnb, torch songs and scattergun punk, like ‘Heave Ho!‘ From Auckland, New Zealand, their blurb says ‘Lips is a girl with giant lips for a head’, which conjures maximallist Frank Sidebottom vibes. Well, both singer Steph Brown and Frank made me belly laugh this year, which is a massive achievement.
Dorothea Paas – Anything Can’t Happen
With a beautifully ambling vocal style and exploratory lyrics to match, Canadian singer-songwriter Dorothea Paas released a long-awaited debut album in 2021. ‘Anything Can’t Happen‘ soars and glides, wings outstretched tilting toward the purest thoughts. With nods to Joni Mitchell you can seriously lost in Paas’ musings as she gently unravels her experiences.
Maple Glider – Good Thing
You can’t get close enough to this song.
“But I guess that’s how we learn
By setting fire to things that bring us life
Before we’ve got to watch them burn”
Ada Lea – hurt
‘Hurt’ is Ada Lea’s incredibly moving counterpoint to the emptiness, negative self-talk and indecision experienced by survivors of abuse. Her low tones pace across its surface avoiding the cracks while swooning strings work hard to lift the ever-increasing weight of her words. ‘Hurt‘, a defining point on her second album, is a track that attaches itself on first listen and never lets go.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Return
This is what vulnerability sounds like. On her new album ‘Engine of Hell‘, Emma Ruth Rundle mostly ditches noisy guitar and renders her demons through the most intense and haunting acoustic compositions. ‘Return‘ is gripping and raw. Rundles’ stunning exposed vocals and restrained piano face down fear and pain, leaving an odd sense of helplessness and defiance.
Obligatory Spotify playlist link below. Did I say I hate lists? Just short ones. I’ve compiled a much longer list of my favourite tracks of 2021