2021 got off to a terrible start with Tier 4 restrictions imposed in Glasgow for the best part of four months. Things began to revive in April and by May I had finally met the people on my course for the first time in real life. From there, things began to open up properly again and I got into bouldering for a time and there was a semblance of a tourist season at Glasgow Cathedral, although much muted.
It was mid-August before I had my first gig back post-Covid. I went to see Black Country, New Road at the Edinburgh festival, a band whose debut single ‘Sunglasses’ I had covered during my tenure as Music Editor at The National Student. Although it was quite surreal, taking place effectively in an open-sided tent where everyone was seated and socially distanced, the gig was a great return to live music – one of the things I had missed most throughout the pandemic times.
The band’s debut album features on this short list of records I have enjoyed this past year. For whatever reason, I have not been as interested in contemporary albums this year. My top Spotify artist was Stereolab, whose 1997 album Dots and Loops I looped throughout 2021. King Gizzard appeared again as my number two, a band who this year re-explored microtonal music on KG and LW neither of which in album form made it into my top records but each containing some standout singles like ‘Straws in the Wind’ and ‘K.G.L.W’. Eyedress, a Filipino artist who makes lo-fi, moody punk was my third and Slowthai, who released a double-album this year was my fourth. Unknown Mortal Orchestra again made my top five with songs like ‘That Life’ and ‘Weekend Run’.
Aside from that though, here is a list of albums that I liked the most in 2021:
5. Daddy’s Home by St Vincent
On this album, St Vincent explores the textures of 1970s soul, jazz and soft rock with her typical warped and glitchy twist. I preferred this record to MASSEDUCTION, despite the latter’s singles such as ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘New York’, because it had more replayability from start to finish. It also seemed to have a more cohesive aesthetic and natural recording style that leaves space where appropriate, such as on the title track, in marked contrast with the appropriately claustrophobic and compressed ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’.
St Vincent brings back the electric sitar on ‘The Melting of the Sun’, which I think showcases why the album is worth listening to through its bizarre blend of gospel and Eastern vibes.
4. Juno by Remi Wolf
Remi Wolf’s type of music is not the genre I’d usually go for, but sometimes pop hooks just can’t be denied. Juno has these in abundance. If I were to describe the closest thing to Remi Wolf I listen to, it would probably be Kero Kero Bonito. Juno has the same sort of hyperactive energy, colour and charm as KKB. Its use of samples is often hilarious such as on the standout track, ‘Front Tooth’ which plays the cackle of a dolphin as an auditory illustration. Sometimes the talky bits in tracks get slightly grating, but Wolf more than makes up for that with her ear for melody.
There’s not an especially strong thematic thread through this album, which is more a kaleidoscope of singles than anything. It’s exceptionally well produced and an extremely strong debut from an artist who seems to have shot to popularity from nowhere. There aren’t many people making records like this at the moment, although it’s not like Juno is particularly new sonically, drawing heavily from 90s R&B and pop. The thing that seems to set it apart is how upfront the songs are – they demand your attention and aren’t content to be background music.
A favourite track is ‘Anthony Kiedis’ (yes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers singer), but an honourable mention has to go to ‘Sexy Villain’ about the morbid contemporary fascination with serial killers.
3. For the First Time by Black Country, New Road
As I mentioned in the intro, I have been following BC, NR for a couple of years now and went to see them live at (literally) the earliest opportunity. I think the main thing that was apparent in their songs is how impressive their dynamic range is. It’s not all about the softly-softly to a dramatic crescendo in their songs, however, like some contemporary post-rock bands. You can actually enjoy their quiet patches in and of themselves and not just an interlude between face-melting. In fact, there is actually not a huge amount of that on the album, and where it appears it is “tasteful” if that makes sense as a description.
I haven’t taken quite as much to their quickly released follow-up Concorde that just came out. For me, For the First Time’s appeal is in the odd simplicity of their music for being a seven-piece band. The textures never feel too busy and the extra instruments augment and complement the sound rather than overcomplicate it. My particular favourites are ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Track X’.
2. Bright Magic by Public Service Broadcasting
I love what Public Service Broadcasting do. They can communicate things no other artist seems able to articulate. On previous albums, they have used archive recordings of 20th century moments and built characterful, emotive and thoughtful instrumental tracks around them whether describing space exploration, the heroism and tragedy of the coal industry or the wonder of the postal system. Bright Magic takes a step away from this approach and into the more abstract. Dedicated to the city of Berlin emerging from the despondency and total destruction of losing two world wars, it features many original vocal performances and poetry mostly in German.
It may not have the quirkiness of previous albums, but Bright Magic has some seriously beautiful peaks of emotion. Because of its abstraction, it can take some time to fully get into, but once you do find an interpretation that seems to work for you it can really transport you. One of my favourites is ‘Der Rythmus der Maschinen’ as an ode to re-industrialisation after the disaster and a desire to create an automated workers’ republic, the product of material self-forged material conditions.
Equally powerful, however, is the track ‘Blue Heaven’, featuring Andreya Casablanca of Gurr, whose massive coda features the line, “Ich bin mein Produkt, ganz von mir gemacht”. It is a huge tune apparently inspired by Marlene Dietrich going her own way in Weimar Berlin.
- Bright Green Field by Squid
My top album of the year is also by the band whose gig at SWG3 was my highlight of the year, Bright Green Field by Squid. Again, I covered their first singles, such as the angsty ‘Houseplants’, at The National Student. Like BC, NR they have truly smashed it out of the park with their debut record. There are so many crunchy tunes on here from ‘Narrator’ to ‘Paddling’ and ‘Pamphlets’ each having unhinged energy that is somehow under complete perfectionist control.
Their songs aren’t really about anything in particular and the lyrics are quite abstract (or possibly, read another way, matter-of-fact). One doesn’t listen to Squid for the words though. It’s about the jam, the groove, the mosh-ability of their music. These are the musicians at the top of their game, and they have something to say! You probably won’t hear it in their lyrics though.
Pingback: Better than the last one | Flett-cetera