I used to write pretty lists and carefully crafted summaries at the end of each year, imagining myself into a snowglobe version of the Melody Maker writers’ desk circa 1996. Now that I’m a victim of relentless and debilitating digital distraction, and in all likelihood infected by the creeping fungus of aural nostalgia, the best I can do is this jumble of audio fragments picked up like unusual pebbles on the beach of 2021.
They caught my attention, I put them in my pocket. I’ll forget them in the end. But here they are for now, rescued from the incoming tide of face masks and microplastics. These are just moments; individual tracks and songs born this year. A bag of shells and shiny stones. Tell me about yours in the comments section.
Nation of Language – This Fractured Mind (Play It Again Sam)
Moody, over-dramatic synthpop: Just the way I like it. This trio from Brooklyn seem to have bathed naked in the juices of OMD, The Human League, Japan and Kraftwerk and yet somehow tiptoed out of the ’80s electro-surf sounding fresh and new. The album is A Way Forward. I found them via a Spotify algorithm because, future, I hate love you.
Gemma Cullingford – Wide Boys (Outre)
Pulsing electro that feels handcrafted and unpretentious. Gemma Cullingford’s compositions drive along with a wiry urgency; grabbing you from the curb and then bundling you into a warehouse full up with metallic sounds, eerie whisperings and slivers of acerbic social commentary: look out for the dystopian flashes, they’ll sneak into your mind’s eye. The album is Let Me Speak. I found out about it from a real-life human, albeit one I befriended on the internet. Read Paul Laird’s properly crafted albums of the year list here. And join his Mild Mannered Mix every Thursday, it’s like the Raggy Dolls of music appreciation.
Lonelady – Logic (Warp)
A gloriously squelchy bassline bounces you through this super cool electro track. There is no logic in music in 2021 because if this were sung by Dua Lipa it would be number one. As things stand Julie Campbell, the genius behind Lonelady, can go down the shops in Audenshaw, Manchester, undisturbed. From the album, Former Things. I first heard it on BBC 6 Music.
Saint Etienne – Pond House (Heavenly)
Saint Etienne, they always find the keys to my door. They came back in the autumn with an album of hazy unpop songs – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You‘s dreamlike tracks initially intended as a fan-only album – but were convinced to release it to the masses as a strange kind of ode to “unreliable memories of the 1990s”. As the keeper of many of these, I was sold. The best track is actually Penlop but the video features a boy in the bath with his willy out, so YouTube won’t let me embed it.
Public Service Broadcasting – People, Let’s Dance (Play It Again Sam)
In that strange little window of normal – September to November 2021 – I packed in a run of gigs, some postponed during the pandemic, others like PSB at Brixton Academy, a joyous disco bonus thanks to good friends with spare tickets (thank you, Paul O). Tell me, who doesn’t want to see rollerskaters swooshing across the stage through laser beams? The album is Bright Magic, a mesmerising ode to Berlin which showcases a new, super confident electro swagger from a band I would have created if they hadn’t got there first.
Caribou – You Can Do It (City Slang)
In that same little era of pandemic respite, I got high on life at Caribou’s Brixton show in south London with my friend, Jenny. This, their sole new track of 2021, was a cartoonish highlight with its leaping sense of optimism; its ascending housey chords and its motivational repeat refrain. There’s also a Sega Master System cheapness to the synths, which I love. We were all, on that night, exuberant puppies racing towards freedom. I rambled on about the gig here.
Damon Albarn – Royal Morning Blue (Transgressive)
Damon’s solo work divides opinion among the Blur fanbase, with some not keen on his excursions into melancholia. I am firmly in favour of these more soulful explorations of memory, nature and emotion. Damon was granted Icelandic citizenship in 2020 and this song is from The Nearer the Mountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, which is essentially an album-long hymn to Iceland’s magical horizons. I saw him perform this twice in London in the winter months – once in a small gig in Kingston, the other in the stained-glass surrounds of the Union Chapel. It felt spiritual.
Wet Leg – Chaise Longue (Domino)
The beach at the top of this page shows the twinkling Solent as it stretches across to the Isle of Wight, Wet Leg’s homeland. The photo was snapped as my partner’s dad rowed a small, battered boat into the waves during a family holiday in July. Wet Leg are the very funny creators of this dry-witted indie pop of which we want more in 2022. And funnily enough we all got wet legs that day.
Self Esteem – I Do This All The Time (Universal)
This is so staggeringly smart and funny, I left it until last because I’m pretty sure I can’t do it justice in words. First up, it’s a really shiny pop song with a gospel hugeness. There’s a whiff of Madonna’s Like A Prayer. There’s a dash of Richard Ashcroft’s bittersweet strings. But actually it’s the symphony of all this and Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s lyrics that make it a total gobsmacker. She’s the millennial sage, or something. I can’t wait to see her live in 2022 and I hope she wears her Sheffield Wednesday shirt.
Be very careful out there
Stop trying to have so many friends
Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have
Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun
Don’t send those long paragraph texts
Stop it, don’t
Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life
All the days that you get to have are big
From the album, Prioritise Pleasure.