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10 Favourite Songs of 2021

10. The Hold Steady – Unpleasant Breakfast:  The mid tempo track appears midway through the latest release from The Hold Steady, on an album that welcomes Franz Nicolay back to the fold. It’s a minimal track that gets amped up with “Woooo” in the chorus before adding a piano swing towards the end.

9. Chris Miles, Lil Xan – MISS ME:  When Lil Xan teamed up with Chris Miles, they managed to cross numerous musical boundaries including rap, trap, rock, emo, pop, etc. Lil Xan turns in a vulnerable second verse and it’s hard to deny the simple hook of Miles yelling “like yeah”.  An unexpected end of year favourite.

8. Japanese Breakfast – Paprika:  The lead track from Michelle Zauner’s critically acclaimed third album was all sweetness and light. It is hard to top the joy when Zauner hits the high notes in the chorus and her exclamation that “it’s a rush” just before the horns pour in.

7. Lana Del Rey – Dealer:  With two albums of songs to choose from in 2021, this Miles Kane duet is not the most obvious. Driven by bass and drums, the lazy 60s vibe builds as they sang “I gave you all my money” before Lana belts out the anguished chorus.

6. Wolf Alice – Delicious Things:  The second track on Wolf Alice’s excellent Blue Weekend album, sees the Ellie Roswell wondering whether her move to LA was the right decision.  Over an atmospheric chorus, Roswell ponders a feeling that many of us have felt while living in a new city – “would you believe I’m in Los Angeles?”

5.  Chvrches (Featuring Robert Smith) – How Not To Drown:  Another UK band that saw members move to LA, Chvrches second single added Robert Smith to the proceedings. A pounding piano breaks through the densely layered track. Even with a legend singing with her, it’s Lauren Mayberry that delivers the powerful opening line “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown”.

4. Wet Leg – Chaise Longue: When readers on Instagram were asked by BBC6 what  their favourite new bands were, an overwhelming amount of commenters mentioned Wet Leg. The duo delivers hilarious lyrics in a monotone, deadpan style over one of the catchiest musical beds of the year. A few more excellent singles have followed making Wet Leg’s debut scheduled for 2022, one of the most anticipated of the new year.

3. Damon Albarn – Royal Morning Blue: A highlight off of Albarn’s first solo album in seven years, “Royal Morning Blue” rides a simple electronic drum beat but also adds swirls of sounds. The atmospheric track draws much heft from Albarn’s singing and hits an emotional note when he says, “…and nothing like this had ever happened”

2. The Felice Brothers – Jazz On The Autobahn:  The upbeat track from New York’s The Felice Brothers tells the story of a woman speaking of what the apocalypse will be like. A terrific drum beat moves the track along as it reaches the infectious chorus declaring the end of times will sound/not sound like “jazz, jazz, jazz…”.  If the end of the world sounds like this, I’m ready!

1. Middle Kids – Today We’re the Greatest:  Like the year before, 2021 was a rough go much of the time.  Still battling a pandemic, cut off from friends/family, endless fighting online, employment lost, travel plans cancelled. But Middle Kids breaks through the doom to declare that, “someday we’ll be gone, but today we’re the greatest”. It’s a poignant sentiment that we’ll all disappear and be forgotten about but just for today – we can be heroes. A hidden gem that will hopefully be discovered by more people needing a lift.

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Favourite Distant (Re)Discoveries 2021

5. Ela Minus – they told us it was hard, but they were wrong (Song): Originally I had this all teed up to be in my top 10 songs of the year then discovered it came out in 2020. This has all the good things we appreciate in a dance track – dark, moody, mysterious, atmospheric, incessant beat, buried vocals, etc. The Brooklyn based Colombian, knocked us out with one of our favourite tracks that we heard in 2021.

4. The Tragically Hip – Saskadelphia (EP):  Growing up as a teenager in Canada in the early 90s it was practically a prerequisite to like The Tragically Hip. They are not a band I normally put on the stereo as their music is ubiquitous around these parts but when they released this EP of music recorded around the time of the Road Apples album, I was all in. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to hear them until I did. Another great entry into their legacy and hopefully not the last.

3. Limp Bizkit – Break Stuff (Live at Lollapalooza 2021) (Song) :  I was never a Limp Bizkit fan, not even as a guilty pleasure. This video appeared soon after the heavy handed Woodstock 99 documentary that cast the band as having ruined the hippie esthetic. Looking like your dad (if he was one of the Beastie Boys), singer Fred Durst was in fine form by making fun of the documentary before tearing up the crowd. The music seems better with humour and nostalgia than it did in the late 90s as a lifestyle.

2. Oasis – Knebworth 1996 (2CD + Documentary):  25 years on from the legendary Knebworth weekend; the band released a documentary, concert films of both nights, and an album. Mainly featuring tracks from the first two albums + B-sides, the performance catches the band at their peak. The documentary starts off a bit slow but continues to build with each song with one highlight being John Squire joining the lads for a guitar solo on “Champagne Supernova”. Acting in stark contrast to the Woodstock 99 doc, this was all peace and love with plenty of cigarettes and alcohol.

1. The Beatles – Let It Be/Get Back (2CD edition + Documentary) – One of the most anticipated releases of the year was Peter Jackson’s extraordinary Get Back documentary on The Beatles making of the Let It Be album and sessions leading up to the famous rooftop concert. Remarkable to see classic songs written in just a few weeks with the highlight being Paul McCartney creating “Get Back” on the spot. While the Let It Be album is the lesser of the last few releases by the band, the second disc of alternative takes were helluva lot of fun to listen to and explore. Much more to be heard for those willing to spend the extra cash on the super deluxe edition.

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Favourite Albums of 2021

Blue Banisters (2LP)

5.  Lana Del Rey – Blue Banisters:  Lana Del Rey put her work foot down in 2021 and released two fine albums. Her second release, Blue Banisters, gets the slight nod for favourite of the year. What Lana does very well is create a vibe and feeling. Mixing new songs with older recordings, this was an album to sink into while drifting away.

Screen Violence (Vinyl)

4.  Chvrches – Screen Violence:  A few members of the Scottish band have relocated to LA but the band has continued through the travels. Lauren Mayberry’s voice adds a human element to their often dense, electronic sound. Robert Smith shows up on “How Not To Drown” and it’s a testament to the band that he adds to the track instead of overshadowing the younger Glaswegians.

Open Door Policy (Vinyl)

3.  The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy:  The Hold Steady’s first album with keyboardist Franz Nicolay was welcomed with open arms. The wordy wordplay of Craig Finn is punctuated with horns and flourishes that add an extra dose of excitement. It was an album to make some of us fall for the band all over again after not listening for a few years.

The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows

2.  Damon Albarn – The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows:  The blur and Gorillaz leader returns with his first solo album in seven years. The influence was Iceland but also his home in Devon and the lockdown. Paranoia and danger mixes with beauty and wonder on the minimal album that is not perfect but one that we returned to time and time again.

Blue Weekend [Softpack]

1.  Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend:  Right from first listen it was going to be hard to knock Wolf Alice off our list as the album of the year. The London band mixed many alternative rock styles from the last 30 years to create a memorable ride through their eclectic world. While, “Delicious Things” was the highlight, several other songs shone such as the blast of “Play The Greatest Hits” and the much softer “No Hard Feelings”. It all hangs together terrifically well as the band looks equally to the oil filled water in the gutter as they do the bright stadium lights.

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Favourite Albums of 2020

Women In Music Pt. Iii

5.  Haim – Women in Music Pt. III:  Released in the early summer, it took another six months before I really listened to the third album from the Haim sisters. Employing a number of musical styles, the band released another set of great songs including their three stellar singles from 2019. Highlights include first track “Los Angeles” and the pop rock of “Don’t Wanna”.

A Hero's Death

4.  Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death:  The fiery rock of the band’s debut Dogrel was our favourite album from last year. The band further expanded their sound with added atmosphere and nuance particularly on “Living in America” and “Love is the Main Thing”. Second single “I Don’t Belong” was a highlight as the minimal instrumentation allows singer Grian Chatten’s weariness to shine.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters

3.  Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters:  Fiona Apple’s first album in 8 years was a staggering accomplishment. It caught many ears when it came out to a locked down world reeling from the early throws of the pandemic. The lyrics are raw as Apple recounts terrible dinner parties, arguments with bandmates, and the fury of “For Her”. “Shameika” is the standout track for it’s uplifting childhood story one liner told over a rollicking piano.

Miss Anthropocene (Vinyl)

2.  Grimes – Miss Anthropocene:  Over the past few years, Grimes has been in the media spotlight due to her relationship with billionaire Elon Musk. Not always putting her best boot forward, it’s not always easy being a Grimes fan. But then the latest album drops and all is forgiven. An atmospheric and cinematic delight, the highlights are many. After a few dense soundscapes, the acoustic guitar of “Delete Forever” is standout as is the club beats of “Violence” and pop chorus of “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around”. Grimes is an enigma and truly wonderous musician.

folklore

1.  Taylor Swift – folklore:  Famously in the summer of 2019, pitchfork.com went back and reviewed all the Taylor Swift albums they had otherwise ignored over the years. A year later, Swift released a surprise album in July. She once again worked with Jack Antonoff but also with new collaborator Aaron Dessner from The National. This news was catnip to introspective 40 year old rock fans the world over. At 17 tracks, the album might be a tad long but jumping around, it’s hard to find a wrong note anywhere. Swift makes it sound easy on a run of tracks from “Mirrorball”, “Seven”, the pop of “August”, and the heartbreaking “This is Me Trying”. Then right at the end of the year, Taylor Swift released yet another surprise batch of songs that once again sent music fans scrambling to download and endlessly listen to while parsing through the lyrics.

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10 Favourite Songs of 2020

10. Jessie Ware – Spotlight:  One of the most surprising tracks of the year was hearing the first single from Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? album. As Ware sings the intro, suddenly the beat comes in and moves the song in an unexpected disco direction. A revitalized Jessie Ware was a joy to listen to in 2020.

9. The Fiery Furnaces – Down at the So and So on Somewhere:  The Fiery Furnaces have always been a bit hit and miss but their first song after being gone for 10+ years was all hit.  Simple keyboards and beats that hit in all the right places. At times it sounds like an accomplished 12 year old put it together which made it all the more charming.  “Don’t you remember we were happy there?”  We do!

8. Gia Margaret – body:  A late comer after hearing it on the excellent Cillian Murphy BBC6 Radio show. Set over the sound of twinkling white lights, this beguiling track uses a speech from philosopher Alan Watts that is beamed in from a different era. It is beautiful, sad, and inspiring all at once. Regardless of what Watt says, I feel the feelings.

7. Justin Bieber (Feat. Quavo) – Intentions:  One of my favourite beats of the year, hearing Bieber sing – “picture perfect you don’t need no filter” is a lyric tailor made for the social media age. The top 5 single is a winner with its laidback groove and positive vibes.  Not to mention the Raptors shoutout.

6. Bad Child – HI DEF:  Randomly found this one while listening to the Adult Alternative Channel on Stingray music. One of the few rock songs on this year end list, it’s a great one to jump around to as the girls in the video do. After this 2020 BS is over, looking forward to once again being “…wasted with my friends”.

5.  Fontaines D.C. – I Don’t Belong:  Besides Bieber, this is the only other returning artist from 2019. The first guitar lick sounds like it was airlifted from a Lil Peep track while Grian Chattan sounds tired but also manages to expand his vocal delivery. “I don’t belong to anyone, I don’t want to belong” is surely an anthem for those locked in their bedrooms after a rough break-up… or breakdown.

4. The Blaze (Feat. Octavian) – Somewhere:  There’s a few tracks that come out of nowhere and just stay as a favourite all year for no discernable reason. This year it’s The Blaze which rides a groove that builds then comes back down to earth. This is for the dark corners of the club, where the people move “quick like Ferrari” when the lights come up again.

3. Z Berg – Into the Night: The track appears on the 2020 solo debut from Elizabeth Anne Berg that feels like stepping into a fantasy world.  The cinematic song sounds like a fairy tale showing both the light and dark as she sings, “as life got too heavy, so I got too light” before she disappears from sight and back into the night.

2. Keeley Forsyth – Start Again:  The second song released by the actress turned musician is the oldest track here having appeared in January 2020. The minimal arrangements are not much more than a beat a few synth stabs but are nonetheless haunting, like a disturbing dream as she searches “over and over and over and over”.  Leave the lights on.

1. Fiona Apple – Shameika:  Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters received ecstatic reviews upon release in June. The basis of this standout track is a childhood acquaintance that tells Apple that “she has potential”. The clattering beat and piano form the backing track that all comes to a stop as Apple delivers the “potential” line before the drums and piano bang back in to drive the point home. To hear the positive message delivered by a teenager from about 30 years ago is disarming in this era where people spend hours fighting online.  It’s an amazing track on an excellent album that is hard to get out of your head once it’s in there.