My favourite songs of 2021. Check out the gratuitously long Spotify playlist of basically everything I liked this year (with the best first, more or less), or carry on reading for some explanation of why I liked them.
This year’s algorithmic sidetrack I’ve been shunted down seems to be slightly fussy disco revivalism. Molly Burch’s “Emotion” is my favourite (although sadly not really representative of her album). “Only for Tonight” by Pearl Charles is also very good (as is the rest of her album, although it’s more Abba-does-country than disco). I also like “Sideways” by Lxandra.
I haven’t listened to much country this year; arguably, depending on how strict your definition is, I haven’t listened to any country at all. I have been listening to Ashley Monroe’s Rosegold a lot, although it’s more like 90s dance-inflected indie. Kacey Musgraves Star-crossed is officially not country, and also sadly mostly not very good, except for a couple of tracks, particularly “What Doesn’t Kill Me”. The Staves are English and therefore by definition not country, although pace Wikipedia they’re not really folk either; there’s a lushness to their production which is fundamentally more pop. Amy Shark is definitely pop despite a collaboration with Keith Urban (which anyway isn’t as good as “You’ll Never Meet Anyone Like me Again”).
Terror Jr appear to be back on their R&Bass bullshit, which I for one am very much in favour of.
Definitely a development of their sound on I’m All Ears (as opposed to the massive leap from I, Gemini), but I’m All Ears is fantastic, so it’s hard to complain about that.
Chvrches’ indie synthpop seems like exactly the sort of thing I would like, so it’s always confused me that their records leave me kind of cold. It somewhat relieves my cognitive dissonance, then, to find that I do like their new album Screen Violence, though I do think “He Said She Said” is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the record (maybe it’s the clear conceptual through-line that makes me like this album more? And “He Said She Said” does have the clearest conceptual through-line…).
Other synthpop I’ve liked this year includes the Italians’s Do it Better Madonna covers compilation, of which Sally Shapiro’s version of “Holiday” is the standout for its sinister reworking of the song’s bassline. “Songs that sound like ‘It’s a Sin’” is probably it’s own subgenre of synthpop, and “Piece of You” by Valdis is an excellent entry in that subgenre. Youha’s “Abittpipsy” might be the best k-synthpop song I’ve heard since T-ara’s “Roly-poly in Copacabana”.
I saw Georgia supporting Carly Rae Jepsen right at the beginning of 2020, and she was great, but especially great was how she tacked a bunch of massive rave codas onto the Seeking Thrills tracks. So I’m very much in favour of her new direction of making dance bangers, or remixing other people’s tracks into dance bangers.
Accidentally wading into leftist music fan discourse by listening to shoegazy/dreampop-y records. This is very poppy; Hatchie’s “This Enchanted” is more dreamy. Winnetka Bowling League is one of the worst band names I’ve ever heard, and not really shoegaze at all, but I’m going to link to their song “Barcelona” here because of the great reverb-y guitars.
I don’t know that 2021 has been the vintage year for sadbangers that 2020 was, and perhaps in a global sense that’s a good thing. Gracey’s “The Internet” has the intensity of baseline and lyrics that mark out a classic of the genre (“I want to talk / but if I talk I’m going to cry / and if I cry / I’m going to have to tell them why / and then I’ll overthink the conversation all night” hits).
I haven’t listened to huge amount of jazz this year, but I did see Theon Cross in concert. Intra-I on record maybe doesn’t quite reach the heights of the improvised intensity of the live show, but it’s still very good, as is Sons of Kemet’s Black to the Future.
I’ve been listening to a lot of serene dance music this year. The lockdown at the beginning of the year was sound-tracked by Bicep’s Isles, Sofia Kourtesis’s Fresia Magdelena, Octo Octa’s She’s Calling and Pauline Anna Strom’s Angel Tears in Sunlight. As things got a bit more back to normal over the summer, my music choices got a bit more energetic, turning to Elkka’s Euphoric Melodies, Doss’s 4 New Hit Songs, and Peggy Gou’s “I Go”.
I’d ignored Alro Parks because of my habitual prejudice against artists who appear on the BBC Sound of… poll, which I think is usually justified, but was very wrong in this case, because Collapsed in Sunbeams is really great. It’s really enveloping; her lyrics do that great thing of connecting in specificity – the details connect to the concept of experience even if they’re not your experience; and the production loops and builds around that experience, pulling you in.
I was surprised to discover that Zyra’s shtick of massively compressing her vocals so it sound like she’s yelling at you doesn’t pall over the course of a whole album, it just gives the whole thing a beautifully over the top energy (I suppose it’s the logical evolution of what dubstep did to synths).
The world-weary acceptance of Mariah the Scientist’s vocals combined with the fuzziness of the track is so soothing.
Hyperpop but laser focussed on the prettiest elements of the sound.
Erika de Casier’s Sensational is even better than her first album, the rhythms more complicated, the production more spacious, and the lyrics sharper.
More spacious, intricate R&B, Charlotte Adigéry’s “Bear with Me (and I’ll stand bare before you”), and the triumphant return of the don of the style, Abra.
MC Boing’s tracks on Harlecore are the most dumb rave-ups of the year, although they’re given a good run for their money by the happy hardcore vocals on Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s “Don’t you Worry about Me” and the house pianos on “Local Newspaper” by Dusky.
As Fredric Jameson remarks somewhere, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than having a decent nap.
The way the creaking echos of the intro are picked up by the vocal fry in the verses and the bassline in the chorus is just gorgeous.
“I tried to wear the world like / some kind of garment”
Interesting how in terms of the melody and lyrics this is a pretty faithful cover, but the production transforms big beat bombast into sleazy Scandinavian disco.
I’m slightly disappointed Maisie Peters hasn’t continued with her Peter Sarstedt-esque lounge direction, but this move to incredibly catchy pop is also good. “Psycho”’s poppiness isn’t particularly representative of the album it’s from, but a lot of the rest of the album is also good, particularly “Villain”.
Linking to this live version, because the official video is the radio edit, which seems a bit counterproductive for a song called “Raw Thoughts”.
Anyway, this is clearly Baby Queen’s best song, but I actually want to talk about “You Shaped Hole”, because it represents a stealth 2021 trend, songs that sound like mid-90s Saint Etienne. The most Saint Etienne is Rose Gray’s rave-pop; King Princess’s “Pain” is also very on brand. Lou Hayter’s “This City” is admittedly maybe a bit more of a stretch.
I know myself well enough not to be surprised that one of my favourite albums of the year is a goofily sincere EDM concept album about depression that kind of sounds like Perfume.
For Those I Love’s self-titled album has been compared to The Streets, understandably (he even references a couple of Streets tracks), but what it makes me think of more is Arab Strap. Or, the Arab Strap promised by “The First Big Weekend” but which never quite existed, one which was more ambivalently quotidian rather than intensely miserabilist. Although For Those I Love is… intensely quotidian, I suppose; it’s largely about the death of a friend, and its obsessive circling around those everyday moments that make up a friendship builds almost unbearably.