A lot of things about 2021 somehow managed to be worse than in 2020. Not the music, though. The music has been terrific. We have been spoiled by releases - both from old favourites and new kids on the block. Riding out in front, as ever, were the singles, each proudly proclaiming, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Well, we did, and we liked what we saw. Or heard. Whatever. You know what we mean. These were are favourites.
10. “John L” // Black MIDI
‘He sees something else, man,’ said a guy I ended up chatting to after seeing black midi this summer, referring to the enigmatic Geordie Greep who heads up this darling band of Rate Your Music and the like. Whether he really sees through a third eye or not, he does a damn good job of pretending he does, and “John L” is as good an example as any of how great that pretence can turn out.
The track is a chaotic hellscape of blaring brass, scratching guitars, bounding percussion, and feverish lyricism; it makes no sense and total sense all at once. There’s so much energy and excitement in here, but it’s also arch and foreboding — a Bond theme for a film that sees 007 take ayahuasca and wonder desperately if the world really has left him behind. I’m still not entirely convinced by black midi, and I found that Cavalcade struggled to be as interesting as its opening track, but it’s hard not to crack your jaw on the ground any time this rampage bursts back into your life.
9. “Smile” // Wolf Alice
While much of Blue Weekend saw Wolf Alice go in a new direction, “Smile” was a raucous throwback that wouldn’t seem out of place on their debut, My Love Is Cool. It kicks off with a bit of distortion and gritty electric guitar before Ellie Rowsell’s sultry vocals come in with a girlish husk and playfully biting enunciation, bringing a certain ’80s pop-rock charm that I can’t quite put my finger on but absolutely love.
“Smile” is about self-confidence and not taking any shit from anyone (‘I am what I am and I’m good at it / And you don’t like me? Well that isn’t fucking relevant’), and the dichotomy between Rowsell’s softer vocals on the chorus and the rest of the band’s growling rock instrumentation plays to the same strengths that Wolf Alice have exhibited consistently over the years. I don’t think we heard anything that new here from Wolf Alice, but that doesn’t stop “Smile” from being an incredibly cool track.
8. “Woman” // Little Simz
From the first few bars of “Woman”, you know what you’re in for — a silky, sexy, self-assured, and powerful track which, combining Little Simz’ melodic bars with Cleo Sol’s honey-smooth vocals, is dripping with the kind of confidence and talent that Simz is celebrating in Black women in its lyrics. The refrain, ‘Ain’t nothing without a woman though / Woman to woman, I just wanna see you glow’, gets to the heart of the track’s message: a celebration of women of colour around the world, championed by Simz through the traits of Miss Sierra Leone, Miss Tanzania, Miss Ethiopia, and more with their “ocean full of knowledge”, “intelligence and elegance”, and “sun kissing [their] brown skin, looking like money”. The soft drum beat blended with soulful backing vocals is the perfect backdrop to Simz’ flow with her characteristic London accent, culminating in a track that’s smooth, jazzy, poetic, and — naturally, it’s Little Simz — so much fun too.
7. “Lumberjack” // Tyler, the Creator
Sometimes it’s hard to square the Tyler, the Creator of 2021 with the persona that made him famous some ten years ago. Who’d have thought the same wanton shock artist would end up being one of the most dynamic artists of his generation, shrugging off a fetish for offensiveness in favour of being purposeful without forgetting to be fun.
“Lumberjack” is the kind of track that keeps this unbelievable talent rooted to the Earth, blending his sharp-edged sense of humour and love for threatening to smash up the world to create my personal track of the year. ‘Rolls Royce pull up, black boy hop out/Shout out to my mother and my father, didn’t pull out’ hasn’t lost its lustre some 100 listens later, the tongue-in-cheek braggadocio of this thing being weighted expertly against his iconically crass-yet-deft jokes. It all comes, of course, over the top of some incredibly addictive composition and production.
He’s still the same guy who was banned from the UK in 2015 for being ‘a threat to public order’, he’ll still make you laugh without ever turning his music into a joke. Even on a bruiser like “Lumberjack”, the intelligence and self-awareness shines through between the winks and nudges. Ultimately, it’s just so satisfying to lose yourself in the world of someone who’s so unashamedly and unabashedly self-assured.
6. “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” // Joy Crookes
Joy Crooke’s debut, Skin felt like that moment in western films where the hero kicks in the tavern door and is briefly silhouetted by brilliant sunlight while the local scum (or music reviewers) cower in their presence. The record had a dynamisn, the swagger of someone new in town and ready to take names. “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” captured that pep especially well. The track itself has that ‘here goes nothing’ leap into the unknown that precedes audacious success. Vibrant and dynamic, yet also a scathing comment on fairweather activism, it builds up a brilliant head of steam as it clatters towards its end. Crooke’s wordplay and delivery is the icing on the cake. She has the pristine sharpness of a head chef’s kitchen knife. You’re cut to pieces before you even realise what’s happening.
5. “Pennsylvania Furnace” // Lingua Ignota
Good god. Sinner Get Ready was a mesmerising, horrifying record, and I’m not sure any track represents its stomach-churning credentials better than “Pennsylvania Furnaces”. While much of the record is infused with religious fervour of the hellfirish variety, what makes “Pennsylvania Furnaces” so unsettling is its heavenliness. Hymns wished they soared and swept and shook your soul like this track does. It makes you understand Ignota’s disgust is underpinned by a perfect clarity of thought and purpose, which makes it all the more powerful. Now that the experiences behind it have been revealed my awe has only increased.
4. “Neshorn” // Drongo
Drongo’s debut album was one of the year’s most unexpected delights. I’ve had a brilliant time with 1 since its release in April. The first half of the record is a true delight, expertly showcasing a multitude of musical styles with relative ease. True to form, my personal favourite moment is the most noisy and abrasive.
“Neshorn” begins with weird staccato guitars, eventually finding momentum alongside a driving rhythm section. After almost three minutes of buildup, the track suddenly locks into an irresistible groove. Strange guitar sounds dwindle in and out, whilst ferocious percussion keeps the whole thing in check. “Neshorn” is menacing yet joyous - a real head-bopper that also manages to strike a level of drama to match post-rock titans Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Quite frankly, I’m itching for more. Fortunately, it sounds as though we won’t have to wait too much longer…
3. “The Beachland Ballroom” // IDLES
Like most of IDLES’ best work, “The Beachland Ballroom” hits me like a ton of bricks. The way in which it occurs, however, is mightily different to previous efforts. After suffering some slight IDLES fatigue with their last album, Ultra Mono, this was the perfect way to draw me back in. Not as pumelling as we’d come to expect, but still emotionally powerful.
Joe Talbot refers to “The Beachland Ballroom” as a ‘soul tune’, and you can hear how far he wanted to go with the range of his voice here. His singing is soft, gentle, yet utterly commanding. The pained cries of ‘damage’ in the chorus never fail to hit home. The song is a superb showcase of the band’s versatility; a perceived punk band essentially writing their own waltz. Who knew THAT would be the thing to pull me back in? Magnificent.
2. “Pay Your Way In Pain” // St. Vincent
St. Vincent is one of a select few artists whose releases I truly anticipate. She goes all in. What’s she going to transform into this time? What dream has she woven? I struggle to think of any other contemporary artist with such a Bowie-like gift for self-reinvention. “Pay Your Way In Pain” was the perfect stage setter for Daddy’s Home. Kooky, off-beat, full of swagger, it dances between the ‘70s and present day like, well, like Annie Clark in the music video.
I love the confidence of an atypical lead single. Rather than coming out all guns blazing, “Pay Your Way In Pain” takes its time, easing you into a sonic world approximately four million miles away from the pill-popping West Coast latex daydreams of Masseduction. A blazing hot slow burning track, it remains one of my favourites on the record.
1. “Narrator” // Squid
UK guitar music is cool again. Thank the heavens. Squid’s debut album Bright Green Field is a bold statement that showcases enormous potential for the future, and lead single “Narrator” is the greatest example of what the band are capable of. A sprawling sonic adventure that travels through post-punk, psychedelia, and krautrock, with tension-building sections drawing comparisons to the likes of Radiohead and Arcade Fire. That’s not to say “Narrator” is derivative in any way, more so a splendidly cohesive mix of influences.
The songs climactic peak is a stunning, spine-tingling moment; an avalanche of sounds that tumble alongside Ollie Judge’s hypnotic cries of 'I play mine’ and Martha Skye Murphy’s haunting wailing. Spellbinding. “Narrator” was released way back in January, and it’s been a constant favourite of mine ever since. Groovy, freakish, and utterly sublime.
Ricocheting from post-punk to psychedelia via a little bit of funk, Squid have created something utterly unique in “Narrator”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it. A deliciously varied track that makes its eight-and-a-half-minute runtime seem too short, Ollie Judge’s erratic vocals contrast with haunting backing from Martha Skye Murphy, both culminating in a spine-tingling climax of screeching, wailing and shouting that flits between deranged distress and abject glee.
Despite having so much going on, “Narrator” is never jarring — at least, not in a negative sense; while the vocals are certainly what carry the track, the steady drums and groovy guitar backing keep a consistency that stops it going too far into absurdity. For me, the rest of Squid’s debut album didn’t quite live up to “Narrator”, but that doesn’t matter: this track is so damn good I could listen to it 15 times over and never get tired of it.