Adele – 30
Whatever you make of it, Adele’s 30 was the musical event of the year. I can’t have been alone when barely an F-chord into lead single “Easy On Me” I’d queued, and queued again, her whole back catalogue in weepy anticipation. And then, when the album dropped, what followed were the biggest first-week sales for a record since 2017, an ITV special watched by millions and Spotify’s default shuffle feature removed just because she asked nicely. Such is the power of Adele with her great big power ballads. But I liked this album because it’s small too, not exactly stripped back, but tender and unflashy. Come for the ecstatic chorus on “Hold On”, but stay for the tinkly jazz piano on “All Night Parking”. There’s Adele for the shower (“I Drink Wine”), Adele for the sofa (“Woman Like Me”), Adele for snivelling over the washing up (“To Be Loved”). And best of all there is Adele for Adele’s sake: the sense (though I cringe to say it) that this divorce album was “for her” before it was for everyone.
Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)
Comedic singer-songwriter Bo Burnham produced a stunning musical film for Netflix during the pandemic from within his Los Angeles home. Using a keyboard, a guitar, his voice and synthesised audio, Burnham borrows from various genres to explore loneliness and social anxiety, troubles fuelled in equal parts by lockdown and society’s insatiable internet addiction. Burnham offers an astute social commentary on modern life, from the superficiality of Instagram culture to the insincerity of corporate virtue signalling and frustrating Zoom calls with tech-confused parents. Eighties synth-pop track “Comedy” is a self-deprecating dig at white, male comics who have delusions of grandeur about their contribution to the world, while jazz-inspired “Welcome to the Internet” delves into our reliance on Google in harrowing yet hilarious detail. “Inside” is as inward as it is outward-looking, serving as a sombre biopic of Burnham’s life, which has been defined – and damaged – by viral YouTube fame. Despite being best suited for screen, this album is so shrewd that you will find yourself listening on repeat, feeling seen.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnage
For many, lockdown proved to be a time of unfulfilled potential. Nick Cave was an exception: he played a stunning isolated show at Alexandra Palace and recorded Carnage with his most prized collaborator Warren Ellis. Cave’s two preceding albums, Skeleton Tree (2016) and Ghosteen (2019), were meditations on personal grief (his 15-year-old son Arthur died in 2015). Carnage shifts the focus to collective grief. “We won’t get to anywhere, darling. Unless I dream you there,” he sings on the emotive ballad “Albuquerque”, words that are at once personal and universal. Carnage is imbued with the richness of the film soundtracks Cave made with Ellis – a majestic multi-instrumentalist – but also breaks new musical ground, from the techno-infused “Hand of God” to the industrial “White Elephant” (“The statue says, ‘I can’t breathe’. The protester says, ‘Now you know how it feels.’”) Few artists ever produce an album as good as Carnage. That Cave’s 18th is one of his finest is testament to his singular talent.
Chvrches – Screen Violence
In 2018 the Scottish trio Chvrches released Love Is Dead. It was a straight pop album, and it was fine. Their latest, Screen Violence, is so much more, a return to form and an innovation. The album draws its inspiration from horror films, and the band engages with scary movie tropes (the song “Final Girl” takes its title from the slasher flick trope of the lone surviving girl who, after enduring the trauma of seeing her friends picked off one by one, must confront the killer by herself). The album soars with punchy lyrics and the singer Lauren Mayberry’s defiant vocals. “No one ever tells you there’s freedom in the failure,” she sings on “California”. There is a certain irony in that lyric – because the album is a resounding success.
Lana Del Rey – Blue Banisters
Lana Del Rey’s eighth studio album was a neat reminder of her status as one of America’s most consistently brilliant singer-songwriters. Blue Banisters, unlike her previously nostalgic work, sits squarely in the present, with references to Zoom, Target car parks and iPhone 11s. The production is sparse and Del Rey’s voice is the star. Indeed there are moments, such as on the grotty Miles Kane duet “Dealer”, where her pipes hit the highs of a peak-era Linda Jones. “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to give you nothing, ‘cause you never give me nothing back,” she howls, her voice so fierce it’ll have you reaching for the rest of that rich back catalogue.
Dijon – Absolutely
Of the records I’ve listened to in 2021, Absolutely is like no other. The debut album from the American singer Dijon is a collection of mesmerising alt-R&B from an uninhibited artist contemplating heartbreak in its rawest form. Just head over to his YouTube channel for proof: acoustic performances of the stirring opener “Big Mike’s” and the raucous lead single “Many Times” are sung with desperate, haunting beauty. Make your way back to the studio version and “Rodeo Clown” contains actual tears. It’s not a note-perfect offering, but when has that ever mattered? As Dijon’s voice rasps, rises and storms its way through the record, we are allowed to witness the intense pain and stifling pleasure of every note.
Dinosaur Jr – Sweep It Into Space
Perhaps surprisingly for a band that released its first album in 1985, Dinosaur Jr has in 2021 produced a record that feels of the moment, from the opening refrain – “I ain’t good alone” – to the countrified quitting anthem “I Ran Away”. Few bands can keep doing the same thing without becoming tribute acts to their former selves, but J Mascis and Lou Barlow – with some help from Kurt Vile – have pulled it off, playing the big riffs, wimpy vocals and fuzzy solos that have characterised their sound since they were at school together, without it becoming stale.
Drake – Certified Lover Boy
Since 2020 I have found myself craving signifiers that time is moving forward. This year, Drake’s sixth album, Certified Lover Boy, was one of these anticipated seasonal events. In the end, the record arrived months late, keeping his usual summer-soundtrack slot. And yet, like the changing of seasons, his annual pop album was still a hug of nostalgia; reminiscent of the Drakes of 2011 and 2016, when Take Care was Tumblr poetry and Controlla played on repeat in university halls. While Certified Lover Boy is one of the rapper’s least memorable albums, puerile tracks such as “Girls Want Girls” and “In the Bible” remind us of how we felt in summers long past – of how we felt before 2020.
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
“I think of myself as a hardy banana with that waxy surface and the small delicate flowers/A woman in aviators firing a bazooka.” Thus Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning introduces herself on “Scratchcard Lanyard”, the first track of the London trio’s superb debut LP. Backed by angular post-punk guitar, restive bass riffs and clockwork drums, Shaw offers a deadpan voiceover to daily life: changes to “the pace of the Antiques Roadshow”, the need to eat “an old sandwich from my bag”, and a “feeling of bees’ legs on my face”. The band has a rousing spontaneity, expertly captured by the producer and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, but it’s the witty, perceptive, kitchen-sink surrealism of Shaw’s lyrics – the “banging pasta bake” that precedes the “smear test blues” – that lodges itself inside your brain.
Easy Life – Life’s a Beach
While sitting outside a pub in the coastal town of Broadstairs on a family holiday, I quietly hummed along to what would soon become my favourite record of the year, which had been released that morning. The album Life’s a Beach by the alternative indie-pop band Easy Life is a hopeful yet sombre journey to the British seaside that merges laid-back R&B beats with moments of sadness. The album feels similar to a trip to a town like Broadstairs: everything is bright to begin with; there are glimmers of sunshine with songs such as the groovy “Skeletons” and the lively “Have a Great Day”. Then the rain and the mundane start creeping in: “Lifeboat” and “Homesickness” explore depression and loneliness, snapping us out of our daydream. But after several of these dreary seaside trips, I know that’s life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
When an artist hits the big time they inevitably shed the everyday influences that made their initial work so universally understandable. Arctic Monkeys’ first record was about going out in Sheffield; their latest is about a hotel in outer space. Billie Eilish’s rise to fame and the strange world of celebrity is the haunting theme of her beautifully sad second album Happier Than Ever: “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now,” she sings on the opening number, “Getting Older”. The album’s most-discussed track “NDA” –in which Eilish contemplates asking someone to sign a non-disclosure agreement before she has sex with them – describes an experience most of us won’t have. But other tracks, such as “I Didn’t Change My Number”, still feel like they could sit comfortably on Eilish’s debut EP Don’t Smile At Me. Who among us hasn’t once wanted to say, “I didn’t change my number/I only changed who I reply to” at the end of love? Eilish’s world is unimaginably different from most of ours, and Happier Than Ever is a more melancholy record than what came before it. But Eilish’s undeniable creative strengths haven’t gone anywhere.
For Those I Love – For Those I Love
Dubliner David Balfe’s tribute to his friend and former bandmate Paul Curran, who took his life in 2018, isn’t easily categorised. Equal parts scratchy Burial tribute and uplifting synth house, with spoken-word poetry and clips of WhatsApp voice notes, For Those I Love is a paean to inner city Dublin – and to youth – too. But it’s Balfe’s feelings for Curran that run like a golden thread through the album – and no more than on the magnificent opener, “I Have A Love”. Loose hand claps and house piano rise to a fourth wall-shattering chorus: “I have a love and it will never fade, and neither will you, Paul.”
Lil Nas X – Montero
When Lil Nas X, aged 19, released his breakout 2018 track “Old Town Road”, he had all the markings of a one-hit wonder. In the three years before his heavily hyped debut album appeared this September, he released only one other single. But Nas wasn’t stalling and scrambling. In this time he was creating not only one of the best albums of 2021, but one of the most unique hip hop-pop records of this century. The album is a perfectly woven mesh of bangers and ballads – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and “Tales of Dominica” are standouts – exploring Nas’s sexuality, his rise to fame and upbringing (and featuring some of hip hop’s biggest stars: Jack Harlow, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat). Montero could be considered remarkable because of the age of its creator, its queerness, and the fact it topped a seemingly un-toppable start to Nas’s career. But really it’s noteworthy because it is meticulous and intense. Its depth and playfulness indicate decades of experience that Nas has not behind but in front of him.
Lump – Animal
That the folk singer Laura Marling’s other musical project Lump takes inspiration from the subconscious and is fronted by a faceless, yeti-like creature may evoke an eye-roll or two. But Animal isn’t pretentious. Marling’s second collaboration with Mike Lindsay is an exhilarating experiment in what happens when you don’t think too much about what you’re doing. The pair’s spontaneous process – Lindsay composes the music and then Marling, listening to the songs for the first time, responds on the spot with her lyrics – has resulted in a fun, vivid record. On the title song, a hallucinogenic dance track, the very English Marling rhymes “Red brick/Covering cheap trick” with “Came here to swing dicks”. At a solo concert at London’s Roundhouse in October, Marling performed a new song that challenged a shoddy 2020 campaign in which the government suggested a ballerina’s “next job could be in cyber”. The song featured the refrain “Can you believe I used to suck dick for free?”. Her fun-loving work with Lump, it seems, is seeping into her solo output too – and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Mogwai – As the Love Continues
Unlike the creatures they are named after, Mogwai emerged in the mid-Nineties fully formed: spare instrumental post-rock, founded on mesmeric, sinuous repetition and outbreaks of speaker-shredding noise at turns violent, ecstatic and serene. Their tenth album, As the Love Continues – Mercury-nominated and an unlikely UK number one – is testament to the strength and possibilities of their method, and their gift for a melody that bears repeating. This record, produced remotely during lockdown, showcases the other staples that have crept into their sound – vocoder, drum machine, John Carpenter-esque keyboard – but ultimately Mogwai still write like a band that really, really like stomp boxes. Highlights include the stately “Dry Fantasy”, the cheery, roiling thrash of “Ceiling Granny” and the Atticus Ross-arranged strings of ”Midnight Flit”. Most of all, there is “Ritchie Sacramento” – a soaring ode to lost friends that joins “Cody”, “Take Me Somewhere Nice” and others as a great vocal-led Mogwai song.
Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed
Kacey Musgraves rifled through the dissolution of her marriage and returned with a story. The lyrics are more straightforward than those on her Grammy Award-winning 2018 hit Golden Hour, marking something of a return to country for Musgraves. The music is her most ambitious and interesting yet. There are, of course, standout songs, which pack an emotional punch outside of the context of the album: the slow and sonically simple “Camera Roll” captures the feeling of scrolling back through your phone and revisiting memories that once were happy but now are torturous, while “Breadwinner” is a boppy takedown of a man who thinks he wants, but actually cannot handle, a strong, successful woman. But what I really like about this album is that it rewards being listened to from start to finish. Yes, you know how the story – promoted as a Shakespearean “tragedy in three parts” – is going to end. But the real experience is in hearing Musgraves figure out how to tell it.
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Arlo Parks’s first album is simultaneously innocent in its lyricism and mature in its sound, as she explores coming of age in London through serene melodies, soft vocals and spoken word poetry. Parks peppers the record with references to her own life, including discovering her bisexuality, her love of Sylvia Plath and her fondness for Peckham Rye. The album, which won this year’s Mercury Prize, is full of contrasts: “Hurt” is about alcoholism, apathy and depression, the content echoed by its heavy bassline, slow tempo and Parks’ effortless voice. “Too Good”, a sunny track about the early throes of love, is very unlike “Hope”, a forlorn, pandemic-inspired song about isolation in which Parks reassures, “You’re not alone like you think you are.” Collapsed in Sunbeams is a glorious, self-reflective debut.
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
If you need any evidence that minimalism is passé, look no further than Self Esteem’s second album, Prioritise Pleasure. Rebecca Lucy Taylor belts, screams and howls like a dog over addictive pop beats and expansive choirs, blending hedonism (“I’m breathing in/One two three/Prioritise pleasuring me”) with introspection and defiance (“No, not me/I won’t rein in my need to be completely free”). But beyond even the basest of emotions that these songs stir, Prioritise Pleasure pulses with a sort of collective rage: for women scared to walk home, victims of assault and abusive relationships. Through brazen sexuality and the fearsome thunder of pop, Self Esteem pushes back against anyone who’s made her – and women everywhere – feel small.
St Vincent – Daddy’s Home
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Daddy’s Home, the sixth studio album by Annie Clark – stage name St Vincent – is a story about man’s capacity to hand misery to man. It takes as its central inspiration the incarceration of Clark’s father, Richard, who a little under a year after the release of St Vincent’s 2009 debut album, Actor, was sent to prison for fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. The art-rock record is a two-fold allusion to the marks our parents leave on us. It takes its musical influences from both Richard Clark’s record collection – “Hello, on the dark side of the moon,” St. Vincent sings on “The Melting of the Sun” – and from the consequences of his absence: a reminder that the inheritance we receive from our parents is always and inevitably mixed.
Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s Version)
Each time Taylor Swift re-records her catalogue she throws in a couple of surprises. When Red was first released in 2012, the intimate break-up ballad “All Too Well” quickly became a fan favourite. The song – like the rest of the album – is peppered with autumnal motifs such as a lost scarf, the changing colours of Swift’s emotions, and the falling of leaves “like pieces into place”. In the re-release Swift increased the song by five minutes, and added yet more lyrics that craft her most private moments into poetry: “And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?/Just between us did the love affair maim you too?”. Much of the re-record is almost the same as the original, but Swift’s vocals are more mature, and here and there, there are moments of further reflection, some sharp-elbowed and some self-effacing. For those of us who have loved Swift for a decade or more, Red (Taylor’s Version) is a souvenir that transports us back to our first heartbreak, when we wept in our childhood bedrooms.
Third Son – Retrograde
The most effective cover versions often involve an element of genre transplantation – think of Johnny Cash’s open-hearted acoustic renderings of Nick Cave and the Nine Inch Nails. So a collection of instrumental electronic covers of electronic tracks seems, frankly, unlikely to spark fireworks. But the second album from the British producer and DJ Joseph Thomas Price, AKA Third Son, is just that – and the effect is both surprising and addictive. Beginning with a deconstructed version of “Roygbiv” that turns Boards of Canada’s trademark dreamy sound into a pacy pocket symphony, Retrograde takes in Radiohead, Giorgio Moroder, Aphex Twin and Brian Eno, employing what seems to be a legion of analogue synths to give each track new textures, and always bringing melody to the fore. The success rate is not 100 per cent (Price struggles, understandably, to do anything particularly interesting with Moby’s “Porcelain”) but this is a lovely, diverting record – a sonic love letter to electronic pioneers, made not just with knob-twiddling, but with feeling.
Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost was lauded by fans and critics charmed by its slick bars and mature production. But it was a live performance that ultimately convinced me: a cyclonic headline set at Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival this past summer. Dressed in a baby pink bellhop uniform, the rapper performed the record atop a mahogany Riva limousine boat, undulating as if at sea. A rush of serotonin almost passes through the screen as the crowd bellows the opening bars of “Wusyaname”. The song features a guest verse from YoungBoy Never Broke Again so perfect that it very nearly steals the entire record. But Call Me If You Get Lost is undeniably Tyler’s album – his best one yet – cementing his status as modern rap’s creative savant.
Virginia Wing – Private Life
Private Life, the sixth album from the Manchester-based group Virginia Wing, to me encapsulates the very best of pop: these songs are catchy, provocative and melody-led. They’re also pretty off-kilter, and more likely to be categorised as “alternative”, or at least given an “art-” prefix. But get comfortable with the chaotic electronics, birdsong samples and Alice Merida Richards’s deadpan Sprechgesang and you’ll find stellar songwriting here. Best of all are Richards’s questions. She uses her lyrics to probe: “Am I standing in the right place?”; “Are you still awake?”; “Was it as hard as you thought?”. As the group’s interest in challenging timbres and throbbing percussion expands the remit of pop, so too do these lyrics swell the possibilities of how to tell a story. Curiosity, not declaration, is what’s important here.
Weezer – Van Weezer
This ode to big-haired heavy metal is not going to win any prizes for intelligence or subtlety. There is not much of a defence against anyone who thinks Rivers Cuomo, who is 51 years old, should have grown out of singing things like “you got me cryin’ like when Aslan died” (yes, Aslan the talking lion from Narnia). But like a hammered uncle dancing at a wedding, the unself-conscious joy of Van Weezer cannot fail to raise a smile.
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
It was hardly a surprise when Wolf Alice released Blue Weekend in June and its drifting melodies and fiery choruses seeped into every fibre of my being. The band had, with their first two albums My Love is Cool and the (Mercury-winning) Visions of a Life, already shown that they were firmly embedded into both the British indie scene and my own musical rotation. But in its deft navigation of the complexity of emotions and its blistering assuredness, it was still a shock to the system. From the gentle confessional shuffle of “Delicious Things” to the stormy transcendence of “Smile”, this album digs deeper than Wolf Alice have dug before, showing the lead singer and writer Ellie Rowsell at her sharpest and rawest. Blue Weekend pulled me out of my reverie after lockdown, and continues, every time I listen, to be an awakening.