2021 was a strange year, yet there were still moments to cling onto despite the rolling lockdowns, government gaslighting and pandemic fallout that was still in front of us all. Frustrating and yet laced with joy where you could find it, whether that was meeting someone you hadn’t been able to see in months or attending a gig or festival for the first time in a year, lets hope for an even better 2022, fingers crossed! Below I have whittled my longer 2021 playlist down my favourite songs of the last twelve months to a digestible list.
Little Simz – Introvert
‘Introvert‘ is a magnificent clarion call delivered at the crucible of inequality and injustice, the bitter dichotomy of tensions at the heart of society. A visceral essay about lives lived in the cross-hairs of society, fuelled by fear, exhaustion, frustration, but also a kind of white-hot political awakening.
Framed in the grandeur of the strings, brass and military drums the intro has an operatic and cinematic splendour, they’re pierced by Simz’s fearsome and magnetic polemic where she finds the strength to externalise her internal struggle to speak truth to power. (“All we see is broken homes here and poverty/ Corrupt government officials, lies and atrocities/How they talking on what’s threatening the economy/ Knocking down communities to re-up on properties/I’m directly effected, it does more than just bother me.”) The lyrics sketch out the corruption of politicians, gentrification, institutionalised racism that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, religious hypocrisy, gang warfare fuelled by poverty, and the personal impacts it has on Simz and the communities of Britain.
At its heart is Simz holding her head high as a resistance in the eye of the storm, strings and beats vibe and are interspersed with soulful almost garage-like refrains, meditating on the internal and external struggle of being a black British woman in 2021. ‘Introvert’ is a biblical and searing statement, personal, political and bold it strikes to the heart of the broken state of people and the nation and a reassertion of survival through struggle.
Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet
Shifting her sound a notch ‘Be Sweet’ is grooving, electro-pop powered by a funky bassline and illuminating synths. “I want to believe in something” sings Zauna with a glint in her eye; is it a reference to the X-Files or a plea to a lover for better treatment? Whatever the case it’s damn infectious!
Zauner says: “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy. For me, a third record should feel bombastic and so I wanted to pull out all the stops for this one. I wrote ‘Be Sweet’ with Jack Tatum from Wild Nothing a few years ago. I’ve been holding onto it for so long and am so excited to finally put it out there.”
The Bug Club – We Don’t Need Room For Lovin’
Wry, duelling girl/boy vocals that sound like they are wrestling to be on top, skidding guitars and ‘We Don’t Need Room For Lovin‘ from The Bug Club sounds like it could have a party in a cupboard. Clocking in at just two minutes it explodes into a joyous crescendo that leaves you wanting more, it’s an absolutely bloody brilliant riot!
Desperate Journalist – Personality Girlfriend
A bobbing rhythm section, a scorched guitar squeal is invested with perhaps Jo Bevan’s best vocal yet. Here she shivers, piercing each line with a withering deconstruction of the stereotypes women face. She says “‘Personality Girlfriend’ is about my frustration with the world putting women into boxes/on pedestals (delete as applicable, but they are the same thing). The stupid idea that we are either gorgeous airheads with no inner life, or Plain Janes “with a great personality”, is exhaustingly pervasive in the way people talk about relationships, and both “categories” are negging, nasty excuses for not granting respect to the person in question.”
“The song is also a riposte to the tired old cultural trope that in order to be worthwhile or interesting a woman has to be incredibly strong and some kind of paragon of virtue and/or intrigue, when men are rarely held to the same standard and in fact a complex, troubled male protagonist is standard fare (in life as well as art). I had essentially had enough and wanted to just lay my flaws on the table and go “look, I am sometimes a mess and I can be difficult and confusing and I do desperately want to be loved.” The sighs of the chorus are stunning while the spoken word part matches to squealing guitars is a thing of majestic melancholic beauty. Fearless and infectious. The video is great too.
Lonelady – (There Is) No Logic
‘(There Is) No Logic’, has a pinpoint electro groove that marks a fresh direction for Manchester’s LoneLady whose real name is Julie Campbell. Humanity and hardware collide as Pet Shop Boys-like synths and samples tussle with catchy chopped-up vocal samples and are underpinned by a bedrock of machine-funk rhythms, it harks back to elements of R’n’B and electro-pop whilst remaining faultlessly dynamic. In short, it’s fantastic!
UV- TV – Distant Lullaby
Soaring and insatiable, ‘Distant Lullaby’ is a fantastic hit of catchy power fuzz-pop invested with spiralling guitar riffs and a wave of percussion. Rose Vastola’s vocals woven with an “honest proclamation of the inability to let things go unresolved” have a bittersweet yet life-affirming quality, as this catchy melody shoots across the night sky like a bright firework. A cracking tune.
Uffie – Cool
The hooky ‘cool’ is groovy and full of twists and turns and marks Uffie’s first single release on Toro y Moi’s label Company Records, signalling a new chapter for her.
Juxtaposing meditative come down passages with dancefloor-ready funky baselines and synth sweeps laced with Uffie’s twitchy addictive vocals. Initially dipped in wistful doubt it’s snapped out of it by infectious bittersweet refrains, that are infected by the realisation that a whirlwind relationship is toxic: “Temporary love/pockets full of fun/Life’s a disco.”
Hatchie – This Enchanted
Captures the intense rush of love, the way you can plunge into those feelings. Its swirling pool of New Order-style keyboards, shimmering rush of guitars, bubbling beats and layered with Australian artist Hatchie’s infectious melodies that are tinged with bittersweet feelings, yet in the release, these exultant besotted hook-laden refrains soar into perhaps her most pop moment yet. Taking the template of ‘Stay With Me’ from her debut album, and turning the dial up, it expertly melds elements of ’90s and early 00s dance-pop and guitar pop. In short, it’s gorgeous!
The Anchoress – The Art of Losing
Urgent and visceral and encapsulating a grief-stricken time of trauma and loss for Catherine Davies, who consumes her experience and delivers rapier prose over an abrasive pirouetting percussive loop and pointy fingered synth lines. Affecting and dramatic. (BC)
Yumi Zouma – ‘Give It Hell’
‘Give it Hell‘ is a chiming heavenly, weightless soundscape infused with Christie Simpson’s vocals that are equal parts comforting and enveloping and uplifting. The weightless production, ripples like a stone skipping across a river with chiming guitars and gleaming keyboard lines and sparse percussion, it’s like the glacial meeting point between mid-period New Order and the soaring dreamy pop choruses of M83, stuck in lockdowns, it’s an infectious life-affirming cut that taps you on the shoulder and urges you to push through self-doubt and hopelessness and seize the moment.
Carwyn Ellis – Ola
Joyous, brilliant and widescreen ‘Olá‘, that’s bossa nova and samba rhythms and flourishes are framed with gorgeous instrumentation, including strings and an enthusiastic flute solo. While Carwyn’s Welsh language narration captures it all in melody, it’s like a stroll across a Rio beach on a sunny day! Joyous.
Lou Hayter – My Baby Just Cares for me
Previously known for the Mercury-nominated New Young Pony Club, before going on to form the New Sins with Nick Phillips and Tomorrow’s World with Air’s JB Dunckel. This year she struck out solo, skilfully mining a brand of sophisticated and infectious synth-pop that taps into the Jam and Lewis era of Janet Jackson and the knowing suites of pop explored by the likes of Goldfrapp and Pet Shop Boys. Sumptuous single ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me‘ was a confident introduction, funky grooves, knowing hooky refrains, and sparkling synths make this a crafty slice of awesome.
Augustine – Prom
Swedish artist Augustine delivers a crystalline slice of pop that echoes the likes of MGMT and Empire of the Sun. Organs, his glorious falsetto and synth run decorate this upbeat cut, that houses lyrics with a darker edge. “I’m dressed up pretty, real delightful for the night. But I was nearly suicidal before your car arrived.”
He says: “The night before prom came to embody this very tense and juvenile feeling of a life-changing moment. Do you know the feeling that everything will be different tomorrow? There is so much melancholia attached to it, but also excitement. It’s beautiful in a way. You never know how things will turn out, or what choices will make sense in the end.” Catchy yet layered with wistful life-changing moments. Most of all it’s a brilliant pop song.
Erika de Casier – No Butterflies, No Nothing
A gorgeous fluttering slice of elegant R&B that tiptoes between Casier’s effortless sensitive and longing vocal, a sparse sound riven with basslines, pattering drums and twinkles. Capturing that feeling of trying yet and yet again and never getting anything back, heartbreak never sounded so heavenly.
Bachelor – Back of my Hand
Bachelor are the duo of Palehound’s Ellen Kempner and Jay Som’s Melina Duterte, earlier this year they released a superb debut album Doomin’ Sun. Standout track ‘Back of my Hand‘ is about the darker side of fandom, riven with snapping percussion and nimble guitars, while the duelling vocals shift from spoken word narration to a soaring chorus, there’s an artful cleverness to this track that’s both hooky, catchy and underscored with obsessional nature of fans of musicians.
Rodeola – Teenage Situation
Bloomington singer/songwriter Kate Long is Rodeola. Her new album Arlene is a remote collaborative project with producer Ben Lumsdaine. This song from that record is so wistful and reflective and has a superlative melody, homespun vocal and enveloping tone that clings to you like early Phoebe Bridgers or Caitlin Rose. It’s about growing pains and fading summer romances, fumbling in the dark and trying to find your way. This glimmering strum framed in sepia percussion is lovelorn, dreamy and effortlessly bittersweet. Delightful in its simplicity. Utterly gorgeous.
N’famady Kouyaté – Balafô Douma
‘Balafô Douma’ was the first single from N’famady Kouyaté’s fantastic debut EP, Aros I Fi Yna. ‘Balafô Douma’ is a joyous cavalcade of body moving percussion, West African chants, splashes of brass and dappling xylophones.
Art School Girlfriend – Softer Side
Evocative and expansive textures of her longing new single ‘Softer Side’. Described by Mackey as “the most diaristic track on the record”, the single finds her struggling to comprehend her breakup. “I feel like it’s kind of human nature to project an ideal onto new love interests. To get infatuated and fall in love with this perfect person that you’ve created in your head.” Showcasing Mackey’s fantastic vocals and puncturing a hole in your heart, this enveloping track leaves an indelible mark.
Real Lies – Since I
This pulsing and wistful track (released through their own imprint UNREAL) is a “kind of hedonists’ revenge fantasy – finding in its crosshairs the noise complainers who move to cities and insist the nightclubs they discover there are shut down, as well as the shadowy forces that hike rents and bulldoze venues to chuck up yet more posh flats.”
‘Since I’ features the spectral voice of the group’s former and founding member Tom Watson – a hook big enough to incite a rave that could generate enough noise complaints to bring those revenge fantasies to life. Superb.
Lael Neale – Blue Vein
Haunting and isolated ‘Blue Vein’ is Lael Neale’s late-night revelation, her quivering vocal is utterly spellbinding and heartbreaking as her voice trembles upon the nature of living and overcoming the struggle of it. Scratchy sepia-tinged production frames her as the LA artist’s extraordinary vocal is joined by an isolated guitar strum and omnichord motif. A song that would fit perfectly on a David Lynch soundtrack.
Maple Glider – Good Thing
I discovered Naarm/Melbourne-based singer-songwriter, Maple Glider and her brilliant album To Enjoy is the Only Thing late in the year. Maple Glider (A.K.A. Tori Ziestch)’s ‘Good Thing’ is a thing of crushing and haunting beauty, a tapestry of subtle instrumentals threaded with an extroadinary vocal – a song born of that frozen time just before you’re going to hurt someone you have loved by leaving them. When Glider reaches for that sustained note over the subtle bob of bass and guitar its both heartbreaking and absolutely glorious.
Stella Donnelly – If I Could Cry (it would feel like this)
It may be unusual to finish a 2021 playlist with a cover but this is special. Plaintive and haunting, Stella Donnelly returns with a cover of Jens Lekman’s ‘If I Could Cry (it would feel like this)’. This piano-laden and brass swollen rework show off Donnelly’s wonderful tone; resigned and glorious she pushes her vocal to the stunning upper register.
The track was released by Secretly Canadian, as part of a celebration of their 25 years as a label.