Music I loved in 2021
I’m not a very adventurous music listener. The music I like seems to fall quite consistently into just two categories:
- Good songs: Well-crafted songs (often on guitar) that make me feel things.
- Cool sounds: Noises and beats (often electronic) that intrigue me.
Still, I spend a decent amount of time thinking about what it is I love about the music I listen to so I thought I’d share some of my favourite albums and songs that I loved this year* with some brief thoughts on what it is I love about them.
*Not necessarily released this year, though most were. I often discover music from years ago that‘s new to me and why not celebrate that too.
Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
I was late to this album (see every end of year album list in 2020) but it absolutely deserves all the hype and you should not make the same mistake I did by waiting any longer to listen to it all the way through. Dark, beautiful, life-affirming songs that really capture the moment we’re all (still) in.
“The billboard said, “The end is near”
I turned around, there was nothing there”
Favourite track: I Know The End
Typhoon — Sympathetic Magic
A slower and more introspective album from indie/baroque-rock outfit Typhoon. The song-crafting on this record is exquisite. ‘Motion and Thought’ would be my choice for a song that best captures the stillness and confusion of lockdown:
Told you you could call me
Anytime you want
It’s not as if I got anything going on
I’m just hanging in the shadows
Between the motion and the thought
Where there’s no telling what is real and what is not
Always nervous in my habits
Always glancing at my watch
Yet somehow I didn’t notice the time had stopped
Favourite track: Motion and Thought
The Staves — Good Woman
A crunchier, drier and rockier release from one of my all-time favourite groups. I didn’t love all the production on this one (that’s plenty of snare drum, thanks) but the songs are good and that’s what it’s all about. The harmonies are, as ever, one-of-a-kind.
Favourite track: Waiting On Me To Change
Valley Maker — When the Day Leaves
I could listen to Valley Maker all day. The melodies are winding, the beats marching, the production excellent and his voice makes me want to stare at a large field of cattle and contemplate my existence. My friend actually emailed Valley Maker to say thanks for making great music and he came back with a very nice reply which makes me like him even more.
Hold on, day, don’t drown away
The sound I love, the life I’ve made
The branch I bend, but do not break
It’s all in a day’s work
Favourite track: Branch I Bend
Dodie — Build a Problem
I didn’t want to like this album as much as I did - Dodie’s online presence is mildly irritating and I find it hard to feel as sorry for her as her eyes want me to. But her voice is incredible and the songs are impossibly delicate and soft and very, very good.
Favourite track: Cool Girl
The Innocence Mission — Everything they’ve ever released
My housemates discovered this band at the start of this year and then we had them playing in our house for almost a month after that. I’ve yet to find a song of theirs I don’t find endearing and well-crafted.
Favourite track: Keeping Awake
Ben Howard — Collections from the Whiteout
I unashamedly love everything Aaron Dessner touches (he produced this album) and this is no exception, especially since I’ve been a big Ben Howard fan for over a decade now. The songs are rich and rewarding, framed by delightful it-can-only-be Dessner production. Another great lockdown partner too, e.g.:
Our hands clawing
Up against the light
Where does all the time go?
Favourite track: What A Day
Do Make Say Think — You You’re a History in Rust
On one sunny evening in May, a good friend told us he had been listening to one song all afternoon. We all sat around as he put on Do Make Say Think’s “A Tender History In Rust”. After well over a minute of confusing noises and mutterings, you’re greeted by a warm, enchanting, and, indeed, tender acoustic guitar sequence that seems to stretch out for miles and years. We sat and listened to the full 5 minutes in total silence and then sat in that silence for another minute after that. The soundtrack to a strange and unforgettable spring.
Favourite track: A Tender History In Rust
Porter Robinson — Nurture
No music has made me happier and more grateful to be alive this year than Nurture. The pitch-shifted voice and jittery sampling can seem off-putting at first but, below this glitchy surface, it is a pure, distilled, unbridled joy. The production and arrangements mean an instrumental version of this album would make for an outstanding release on their own. But it’s the meaning of these songs that make this record truly stand out for me.
Porter went through a long period of depression in c. 2015, driven by feelings of inadequacy as an artist. This album is the answer he wrote to himself. “I realized I shouldn’t write music with the expectation that the productivity or achievement will fix my problems, but instead with the hope that my honest expression will move people the way music moves me”. This makes for some deeply poignant and powerful songs. Count me moved.
Shouldn’t it come to you naturally?
And everyone knows
You’re losing your gift, and it’s plain to see
But then something must have changed in me
I don’t fear it anymore
Now I’m sure
Look at the sky, I’m still here
I’ll be alive next year
I can make something good, oh
Favourite track: Mirror
Big Thief — U.F.O.F.
This is my most played album of the year. The songs are perfect, Adrianne Lenker’s voice is inimitable and captivating, the drumming is so clever. You can almost hear a wistful, summer breeze floating through a wooden cabin in every song. I love the way ‘UFOF’ effortlessly transitions between the mysterious and the sublime in the verses. The way ‘Cattails’ stomps on endlessly. The way I can’t predict the beat in ‘From’. A stunning record that I now regret not listening to for 2 years.
Switch to another lens
The last sunlight
I don’t need any other friends
The best kiss I ever had is the flickering
Of the water so clear and bright
To leap in, my skin and I could feel the reaction
Favourite track: UFOF
José González — Local Valley
A warm embrace of an album from one of my favourite singer-songwriters who is still, somehow, wildly underrated. This album felt especially important because José is inspired by many of the ideas that inspire me. He cites Toby Ord’s The Precipice, a book about the challenge of existential risks and how humanity must join together to tackle them. The song ‘Visions’ is my new favourite anthem for this cause:
Avoidable suffering and pain
We are patiently inching our way
Toward unreachable utopias
Enslaved by the forces of nature
Elevated by mindless replicators
Challenged to steer our collective destiny
Favourite track: Visions
Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine — A Beginner’s Mind
Strumming Sufjan is finally back. The songs on this album are very good; Sufjan and Angelo’s voices blend perfectly and the instrumentation behind them is fantastic. The bridge in Reach Out always makes me stop in my tracks.
Home is where you’ve called my name
I’ve gone as far as the eye can blame
You said love may have lost its way
Favourite track: Reach Out
(I’m not going to post the album artwork because I find it disturbing, why did they do this)
The War on Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore
The soaring choruses and the non-stop road-trip drum lines of the boys on drugs continue to lure me in. Not quite as dreamy or memorable as their more recent stuff but some great songs nonetheless.
Favourite track: Harmonia’s Dream
Adrianne Lenker — songs
If it isn’t already apparent, I’ve been obsessed with the songs of Adrianne Lenker all year (she’s the frontwoman of Big Thief) so I was delighted to discover the album “songs” by Adrianne Lenker. A magical, soul-soothing collection of songs.
Favourite track: Anything
Good songs (Singles)
A shimmering, joyful, bright pink glow of a song from one of my favourite bands, accompanied by one my favourite singer-songwriters. An absolute bop.
Big Thief — Little Things
Probably my favourite track of the year. Endless, heart-wrenching, I get completely lost in it every time it comes on, which is approximately daily since it came out. There’s something about the simple chord sequence, which loops and evolves, the parts crossing over and blending with each other, that is just irresistible.
Onto some cool sounds — the dance/electronic/ambient/experimental albums and tracks, that just sound cool.
An immersive and gentle record from a band I’m very glad I discovered in the darkest depths of the January lockdown. Listening to Múm is like being dropped into a little pixie cave in a forest and then helping them make breakfast. A perfect escape.
Favourite track: Sunday Night Just Keeps On Rolling
Lyra Pramuk — Fountain
A mesmerising collection of songs, all recorded by one voice, pitch-shifted, slowed and blended. Fascinating.
Favourite track: Tendril
Cella — Lockdown Essentials
Producer Cella creates the most pristine and meticulously arranged dance music I’ve heard in a long time. The beats are inventive and fresh and every single synth, click or bass tone comes through the mix incredibly cleanly.
Favourite track: Imperfection
Kelly Lee Owens — Inner Song
Kelly Lee Owens makes thumping, glistening techno layered with icy, ethereal vocals. I get goosebumps every time the new bass line kicks in on ‘Night’.
Favourite track: Night
Burial — Untrue
I discovered Burial this summer and I now regret all the years I didn’t know about him. All the hype is real. Dark, mysterious but somehow deeply poignant beats. This video describes how dance music lovers experience listening to Burial and I completely get it. The end of the track ‘Shell of Light’ has to be one of my musical moments of the year.
Favourite track: Shell of Light
Polo & Pan — Caravelle
My housemates and I attended and tore up several dance floors over the summer almost purely on the basis of discovering the eclectic disco duo Polo & Pan. Surprising, delightful, the sound of the summer.
Favourite track: Nanã
Geotic — Various/Singles
Geotic is another moniker of Will Wiesenfeld, who also releases music under the name Baths. I’ve never understood why Geotic isn’t his main project — it’s beautiful, textured and magical ambient/dance music. I first heard this album on a flight so floating above the clouds isn’t an inspired metaphor but that’s exactly what it feels like to listen to Geotic.
Favourite track: Petals
DJ Seinfeld — Mirrors
Tight, polished, emotional dance music. I had “She Loves Me” on repeat for a week.
Favourite track: She Loves Me
DjRUM — Portrait with Firewood
A bewildering mix of dance, jazz and ambient. I listened to Blue Violet 5 times just to understand what’s going on with the rhythm and 10 times more because it’s gorgeous.
Favourite track: Blue Violet
Rob Clouth — Zero Point
Disorienting, mind-expanding, mechanical experimental music that sounds like it was sent by an advanced AI system from the year 2200. The beats are unpredictable and every little synthetic sound feels characterful and unique. The videos for his music are also exactly what you’d expect.
Favourite track: Emerging From
BlankFor.ms — Memory
Beautiful ambient/experimental landscapes formed by routing tracks through various tape machines. The end of ‘Memory’ is perhaps the most wonderfully jarring ending to an ambient song I think I’ve heard.
Favourite track: Memory
Cool sounds (singles)
Pêtr Aleksänder et al.— Fireworks in G
An incredibly moving modern classical piece. The moment the strings are isolated about halfway through the song can make any daily scene feel like the ending to a sad movie. Stunning.