Click here for Live4ever’s Best Of 2021: The Tracks
The last 12 months have been, if nothing else, a year of extremes.
Although the first three felt like a year – the usual January blues maximised and extended to an intolerable degree with lockdown for a whole season – as the spring arrived, society began to slowly re-awaken.
But it wasn’t until late July that music fans could finally get to a full-blooded, cheek-to-jowl sweaty gig. Sadly, some real heavyweights didn’t live to see them, with the sad passing of Charlie Watts, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Don Everly amongst the fallen.
Since the summer it’s been about making up for lost time as venues have struggled to accommodate a backlog which includes the cancelled tours from 2020 and shows from acts with albums released during the pandemic. While the venues were surely happy just to make some money again, there is a real risk that some burgeoning creatives have been stifled.
Yet, compared to where we were a year ago, it’s a nice problem to have, albeit less so for the artists themselves who struggle to make a living without playing live.
The Broken Record campaign has made some real inroads in 2021, with parliamentary debates and actions following a report into the allocation of profits, which is nothing less than excellent news. (Note to Tom Gray: if you could get a ban on Spotify Unwrapped while you’re at it, that would be ace.)
Sadly, the other main revenue for artists (merchandise) is also suffering because of a backlog, with delays at vinyl manufacturers of approximately six months as the format’s revival stutters.
Which makes it all the more frustrating when there is so much great new music around, as our Best Tracks list is once again testament to: The Lounge Society picked up the accolade of our song of 2020 with Generation Game, and feature highly once again with the marauding glam-rock of Cain’s Heresy. Their debut album, when it arrives, should be something special indeed.
Speaking of debut albums, Yard Act’s lands in January 2022 and the Leeds band are virtually guaranteed to be the first guitar group to make waves next year.
First single The Overload continued to blur the lines between indie and dance music, as frontman James Smith delivers his already-distinctive stream of consciousness verse before a memorable chorus. They’ll be pushed hard by Dublin’s Sprints, whose fuzz How Does The Story Go? was simple but naggingly insistent that it was going to lodge into your brain, regardless of your opinion.
If you want further proof that the Emerald Isle is the place to be right now, not satisfied with producing the best bands, they’re also taking over electronic music. To Have You (For Those I Love) took the current trend for speaking rather than singing and put it against crackling, yearning electronic sounds to righteous effect.
It wasn’t just the new breed who made an impression on the list, with some elder statespeople holding their own. Along with co-collaborator Jehnny Beth, Bobby Gillespie made his most interesting album since,well, since the last Primal Scream album, but that was a few years ago now. Chase It Down feels like a great lost Bond theme, with repetitive acoustic chords poleaxed by devastating and urgent strings. Like the album as whole, Beth’s urgency and Gillespie’s languidness compliment one another beautifully.
UNKLE keep twisting the Mo’Wax sound to find new variations, and Do Yourself Some Good was a moody slice of sci-fi house jazz, rivalled only by the shimmering Hazel And Gold by Daniel Avery, a Balearic rainstorm of a song.
Meanwhile, Noel Gallagher stepped back from the ‘cosmic pop’ of recent years and accessed his inner Burt Bacharach for the first time in decades on the cinematically lavish Flying On The Ground. A reminder that very few do romance better than him.
Elsewhere, The Horrors signalled yet another exciting phase for their band on the monstrous Lout – brutal, industrial and frankly terrifying – and so Trent Reznor can sit back knowing his sonic aggression is in safe hands. Less gnarly but equally haunting, I Am You by Just Mustard was hypnotically and ominously slow but by necessity, so as not to cause a heart attack. Like a waking nightmare, but in a good way.
The Coral are arguably the most consistent band in the UK, but delivered a career-best album on their tenth attempt. Lover Undiscovered was perhaps the most direct hit into their sweetest spot, breezy British psychedelia on an album crammed with gems. James Skelly also found time to produce The Lathums’ debut album, unquestionably the breakthrough indie hit of the year, and Oh My Love is just one of numerous melodic treats contained within.
Elsewhere in the indie sphere, Pip Blom announced their return with Keep It Together, fusing a glorious verse melody with a scuzzy rock chorus. Both dark and light in one song, with Blom’s uplifting voice splitting the difference.
Black Country, New Road are infamous for their meandering arrangements, but the standout song from their debut, Track X, sees the septet attempt something more restrained. The economical use of brass ensures the track simpers elegantly, and the subtler style suits them, while on the craggy My Blue Suit, Matt Sweeney and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy offer their case as to why AI can and will never replace the intimacy of men and wood making music.
Similarly, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National), under the guise of Big Red Machine, took their bands’ respective strengths for a multi-layered, purposeful shuffle of a song in Mimi, which goes straight for the heart, as ever. Anne Leone’s Once had a similar effect, but kept things simple with a majestic, operatic vocal delivery, acoustic guitar and tasteful strings.
The epic, spotless Americana of I Don’t Live Here Anymore saw The War On Drugs clean away the fuzz while removing the shackles. Adam Granduciel’s most unashamed tug of the heartstrings to date, and most epic.
Less experienced but equally as emotive, Wings Of Desire’s Choose A Life poised existential questions but sweetened the pill with glistening, driving, shoegaze-pop effects to create a beautiful noise.
Meanwhile, IDLES continue to develop their own sound in impressive and unexpected ways. Rock do-wop as a genre isn’t an obvious path to follow, but on The Beachland Ballroom a slower tempo and some simple piano added a whole new dimension to the Bristol band, with singer Joe Talbot able to go deeper and deeper into himself to find lyrical inspiration. Likewise Courtney Barnett, who was forced to observe the world from afar but put her own unique spin on self-isolation.
In contrast, Manchester’s W. H. Lung found both their feet and the dancefloor on their second album, and the brooding euphoria of Gd Tym drips with sexuality and desire. As if to emphasise the point, the accompanying video rejoiced in the freedom of expression that only dancing can provide.
Indie discos saw their own dancefloors fill up when Wet Leg’s Chaise Longue commenced, one of those meaningless, gonzo indie-pop songs that catch fire infrequently. A reassuring smash that has set high expectations for their debut album next year, while Oscar Lang can look back on 2021 with pride – 21st Century Hobby was nothing if not gargantuan in sound and chorus, and deserved a wider audience.
As one would expect from her name, Billy No Mates has perfected the sound of loneliness, most specifically in the title-track from her Emergency Telephone EP, with a mid-section of rain falling against despondent tones with pitch-perfect percussion, to create a vibe of isolation set to music.
Orlando Weeks also sounded aquatic on Deep Down Way Out with a spacious, dreamy sound that is fast becoming his trademark, but with added Rodgers-esque guitar that make the track something that David Bowie would associate himself with.
Bronx Slang’s Copy That was written in 2020, although sadly its messages of social injustices remained prevalent, but its monstrous beat and firebrand wisdom were timeless.
Meanwhile Tyler, The Creator added another classic to his canon in LUMBERJACK, on which he sinisterly understates his delivery against the core elements of the genre; tough bars and a sparse minor-key beat. Dave’s collab with Stormzy too was everything the hype wasn’t – content in understatement, a low-key energy never allowed free from its leash.
Little Simz took the opposite approach on the quasi-title track from Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, with a huge step-up in theatrics revealing the extent of her ambition without compromising her whipcrack flow.
However, there can only be one Number 1 and, in a year full of diverse sounds across all musical genres, Dry Cleaning’s Scratchyard Lanyard stands apart.
A truly unique voice, Florence Shaw’s disaffected vocals are always interesting as she insouciantly throws out references to bazookas and knitting circles. Yet amongst her stream of consciousness tirade about small-scale escapist experiences, one message resonates: ‘Do everything and feel nothing.’
Her bandmates aren’t found wanting in Shaw’s slipstream either, with echoing glam guitar giving way to a garage guitar solo and a prominent bass looping and twisting back on itself then out again in a busy but brilliant four minutes. Just one highlight in another life-affirming year for music.
‘Without music you are all dead; with music you are alive. There is nothing music can’t do.’ – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.