End of the year posts inbound! Starting off with my vinyl selections of the year. I bought a lot of records this year, hey, it was 2021, whatever it takes. I’m restricting choices here to a) records I own and b) that came out this year. I’m too much of a radical, free thinker to go with a top 10, so I’m going with some random categories instead.
Pop is art dammit – Claud: Super Monster. Claud is the type of artist who might have chosen political punk or avant-garde for their outlet, but instead has selected the perfectly crafted pop song as the artistic form of choice. Classified as ‘bedroom pop’ these 13 tracks document teenage confusion, coming of age, falling in love and worrying about your role in the world. But in a dancey, boppy kinda way.
Alternative choice – Self Esteem: Prioritise Pleasure. Self Esteem’s (aka Rebecca Taylor) debut album is a delight. She’s a witty lyricist (“Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive”) & it’s big, brassy pop – no slinking off to a cabin in the mountains for our Rebecca.
Lockdown therapy – Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. Part folk, part jazz, part psychotherapy session, part hippie mysticism, Jenkins album was a soothing balm to the existential dread of lockdown that dominated much of the start of the year. It contains two bona fide classics in Hard Drive and New Bikini, but it’s the album as a whole that will save you hundreds of pounds on therapy. While it may not be the best medical advice, when she softly sings that the water cures everything, it makes you want to get in the car and drive to the ocean and think that maybe it will all be ok.
Alternative choice – Still Corners: The Last Exit. If Jenkins album has you heading to the beach, then the Still Corners album provides the perfect soundtrack for a drive to the mountains. It’s like a Lynchian road movie – deserts, wolves, deserted highways abound. Written in lockdown it provides a cinematic escape to a bigger world when we couldn’t go further than 5 miles from home. It may be a bit cliche in this at times, but when going to the bottom of your garden seemed like an adventure, this was a perfect antidote.
Ridiculously talented multi-instrumental woman – Emma Jean Thackray: Yellow. Thackray is a jazz bandleader and on her debut, her philosophy seems to have been “sod it, let’s include everything”. It feels like Earth Wind and Fire at times, the Mama and the Papas at others, and some drugged out 60s Monterey jazz festival at others. It’s full of mysticism, but don’t let that put you off, it’s a blast. Pitchfork called it ‘supremely impractical’ and, for someone whose favourite Clash album is Sandinista, that sounds like a badge of honour.
Alternative choice – Jane Weaver: Flock. This could also have been a contender in the Pop is Art category. Weaver brings together Prince like funk, psychedelia and cheeky bounce to produce a pop album with edge and charm.
Rock’s not quite dead – Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend. This is an album I would have listened to endlessly as a teenager. It comprises a range of styles from the indie-folky “Safe From Heartbreak” to riot girrl “Play the Greatest Hits” and dreamy “The Beach”. It’s eclectic, but all within their range, and feels confident and mature. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell uses several songs to take elegant swipes at the laddish rock n roll world and creepy guys in the music world.
Alternative choice – The Middle Kids: Today We’re The Greatest. Aussie indie rock band The Middle Kids released an album full of sing along in your car at full voice tunes, including the joyous “I don’t care”. It’s a shame so many festivals were called off, this album would have been perfect and propelled them to megastar status.
Indie attitude – Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg. Featuring the droll, bored vocals of Florence Shaw over Stoogesesque bass lines and discordant guitar, and some of the oddest lyrics this or any year. She sounds like she might die of ennui as she intones about the Antiques Roadshow and eating hotdogs. When she does occasionally sing it’s slightly off key as if singing is for losers. Dry Cleaning would probably be mean to you at a party but they’re so cool you’d want to be their friends anyway. Do everything and feel nothing indeed.
Alternative choice – Snail Mail: Valentine. Expanding on the indie sound of her debut, Lush, Lindsey Jordan’s second album documented heartbreak, anger and defiance (all three emotions captured in the lyric “Why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?”). Snarling and tender by turns it has definite attitude.
Smart and funky – Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert. Being an introvert is not a subject that often features in rap, but in her breakthrough album Little Simz explores different aspects of her identity, including introversion. It has dramatic orchestral arrangements, sweet harmonies, Nigerian rhythms and clever rhymes. Lauryn Hill, with whom she toured, is perhaps the closest comparison, but she’s also very much her own thing. An extraordinary record.
Alternative choice- Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams. Parks has been so lauded and this album has become such an established soundtrack, that it’s easy to forget it was released this year. The 20-year singer songwriter breezed in with an album of all killer, no filler, full of pop culture references (Nikes and Robert Smith). In a roundabout way, her songwriting is reminiscent of early Arctic Monkeys, a form of casual reportage, whether it be about helping a friend with depression, seeing a couple argue in the street or falling for someone who’s a friend (and of the same gender).
We’re all Secretly Canadian – Faye Webster: I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha. In which Webster answers the question “what would someone raised on Marvin Gaye and the Smiths sound like?” It’s on the fabulous Secretly Canadian label for a start and is a mix of alt RnB, with country twinges and indie lyrics. Pitchfork said it was the “sound of the saddest person you follow on social media”, but it’s also mellow, and full of self-deprecating wit. This is the album I tried to force on other, but no-one listened. As she says, it’ll make you want to cry in a good way.
Alternative choice – Le Ren: Leftovers. Also on the Secretly Canadian label was this timeless folk album from Montreal’s Lauren Spear. It could have been recorded any time from the 70s to now and sometimes you just want a woman with a great voice singing some heartbreaking folky bluegrass tunes.
When you get a bit older it’s often the case that people decry the music of today, declaring that it isn’t as good as 1983 or whatever year they hold in nostalgic reverence. But this year has been great for music. I would have loved to have had this array of music when I was 15. So no crankiness and shuffling off to play your Jam albums, revel in the best of 2021…
You can listen to a couple of tracks from the new release vinyl I bought this year (also allowing reissues) on this Spotify playlist.