So there we have it – yet another year, in which songs were written, albums were released and music was heard. It is customary, at this late point in the year, for publications to do annual rankings of all the new music that has come out over the last 12 months, and whittle it all down to an arbitrary simplification, based on common consensus and which albums garnered the most attention critically and commercially.
This is not that kind of ranking.
It is intended as a more personal recollection – the music that I and I alone was listening to in 2021, both new and old. I will pass some judgement on the state of the music industry as a whole, and try to put this year’s releases into some context; but music is much simpler than that, and much too important to be dissected in this way. People listen to whatever they listen to, and personal tastes are much more fragmented and eclectic than year-end lists can ever allow for.
To reiterate, if you want an exhaustive and impartial view of music in 2021, look elsewhere on this site. This is music in 2021, as seen by one listener from his rented room and his laptop, with all his flaws and biases.
In the past my main way of listening to music has been: read about an album on the Internet, hear it on Youtube or Spotify (I would like to say at this point: ARTISTS DESERVE FAIR PAY), like what you hear, buy the CD, rip it to your phone. This year has seen me delve more into the weird and wonderful world of independent BandCamp releases from the likes of Scandisk7, Nilamox and 90s Irish hip-hop group ScaryEire – but CD is still my main go-to format.
This is why I get annoyed when people suggest that vinyl is killing off CDs – firstly because it isn’t entirely true (even though vinyl is making more money, CDs are still shifting more units in this country), and secondly because the concept of ‘format wars’ is ridiculous – people should have the choice to listen to music however they want. CD, downloads, vinyl, cassette, minidisc, whatever.
I have tried vinyl but it is twice as expensive and doesn’t suit my listening habits. Plus there’s the current situation with vinyl backlogs – in the Internet age, where albums can be made public instantly, it is simply preposterous that artists have to allow many months for album releases just so the vinyls can be ready in time along with other formats. It is equally absurd that we still abide by vinyl’s limitations – there is something pleasing about a concise 40-minute record, but this is not always artistically convenient. Most importantly, when I see new albums being sold as Collector’s Bundles – three copies of the same album on different colours of vinyl for £80, only for people to complain on Discogs about surface noise rather than the actual music – I am forced to conclude that the whole thing is simply a money-making scam that has less to do with the art itself.
That said, technology is evolving, the world is changing, and with talk of a climate emergency there are environmental implications to consider. I was somewhat perturbed by Lorde’s attempts this year at rectifying this problem, when her album Solar Power was not released on CD so as to be ‘environmentally kind’ – but the album was still made available in 8 different variants of vinyl. Instead of the CD, you get … (drumroll) … a box with some postcards and a download card. Highly original, and fully making use of physical product. I think not.
Perhaps in this climate, downloads will ultimately have to win out. They have less artistic restriction in terms of time and resources, and while I would miss the tangibility of my CD collection, at some point I will not have room to keep buying them at the rate I do!
We must also ask ourselves – are albums still relevant? My personal feeling is sometimes yes, when you want to tell a complete story, and sometimes, when you just have a collection of songs that don’t fit, probably not. It’s nice to sit down for an hour and listen from start to finish. But streaming formats, shuffle playlists and increasingly busy work lives…these all mean we must perhaps find alternate methods of musical communication.
Over in Australia, former Severed Heads band member Tom Ellard provides a good example of exploring how best to present music in a post-album age. His current project, nilamox, is hard to pin down – at first, I thought it was a BandCamp-only label, but Ellard recently announced he is likely to not make any more albums, because people aren’t buying them. Instead he is working on presenting music as an online ‘in-flight server’ that you can dip in and out of. No start, middle or end. It can be background study music or you can devote your whole attention to it. You can see it work at ms.nilamox.com.
This is partly a shame, as his albums this year have been genuinely splendid. ‘Her Human Is A Poet In NYC’ is a collection of famous classical pieces (e.g. Bach’s ‘Toccata & Fugue in D minor’) spectrally altered to sound like an acid trip, and is apparently designed to alter at various unspecified points in the future – download the album on Bandcamp every few months and you’ll get subtly different versions. Tom goes into more detail here if you’re interested. As he said in a BandCamp community update, “Perhaps ‘albums’ are living things?”
His more conventional work, a collaboration with two friends from Clearwater, Florida under the name ButchCrutch, is much more upfront but is equally fun and worthy of recommendation. Tom sings – or as he self-deprecatingly states, ‘yelps’ – over dense backings of analogue synths that range from lush and pretty to brutal and urgent, but always with a sense of fun. Make no mistake, EBOLABALL is a great record, an effective antidote to common pretentiousness in music – and it even has catchy pop hooks.
The New Nostalgia
The year kicked off very suddenly indeed with the surprising return of the KLF, who made a selection of their music available to listen to on Spotify for the first time. Partly for practical reasons involving sample clearance, but mainly for the fun of it, the KLF’s music cannot be heard digitally as the albums that it originally came out on, but on new retrospective collections that will make more sense to today’s listening generation.
I recommend this interesting article by DJ Food on the whole affair – it’s a trend I’ve noticed happening elsewhere this year, perhaps in a kick back against endless nostalgic faithful re-runs of ‘Deluxe Editions’ and ‘Remastered and Expanded’ versions of past glories, which is starting to get tiring. Examples I spotted included Severed Heads scrapping four of their albums in favour of a much more accessible compilation, which I reviewed earlier in the year, and of course the high-profile re-recordings of Taylor Swift‘s albums, which, predictably, some people find hard to adjust their ears to because they’re so accustomed to a work that defined their childhood. But if albums must be reissued and rereleased, perhaps this way is more interesting – after all, when a theatrical play is performed, no-one ever complains that the actors aren’t the same or certain lines have been dropped… because ultimately, these things become less relevant and exciting than the fact we have a whole new interpretation of a work.
In short – purism is on its way out. Things are in flux, and will change over time. Get used to it.
Up The Women
This year has seen a lot of great releases from female artists – Olivia Rodrigo has had a string of much deserving hits (I always enjoyed ‘Good 4 U’ whenever it came on the van radio during my summer job!), Billie Eilish continues to bring an infectious enthusiasm, which melded nicely with FINNEAS‘ creative production on the album Happier Than Ever. Their chemistry as siblings AND musical partners, ruling the world yet still recording in their bedroom, is one of the most iconic collaborations in music right now. (Goes to show how important bedroom pop is coming, with Billie being joined by Girl In Red and Art School Girlfriend, and their collective lo-fi sound being embraced by the public for its authenticity.)
I would like to say that the song ‘Happier Than Ever’ is a song that could have only come out in our current postmodern age – it seamlessly blends 90s grunge with old-school balladry care of the likes of Peggy Lee and Joni Mitchell… Of course it works, and is a particularly obvious exhibit of how genre boundaries are becoming less relevant in an age where all music is readily available via streaming and the Internet and so on. The distorted ending is equally tied to our current age – I can’t imagine technicians in 60s and 70s recording studios pitching that, let alone getting away with it. They would have been fired straight away! But most importantly, of course, the song is a good song.
Wolf Alice are worth mentioning, because Blue Weekend was nice enough, though I personally felt it got too loud at times and worked better the quieter it got.
Then there’s Arlo Parks, whose music may be somewhat lightweight café fodder, I suppose, but screw it, I’m a sucker for 90s trip hop, she has a good voice, and her lyrics are decent – so I will say I enjoyed Collapsed In Sunbeams, while my cousin enjoyed Orla Gartland (and with good reason). Halsey‘s offering, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, wasn’t as satisfying for me, but it was at least trying to tell a cohesive story from beginning to end – and ‘Lilith’ is a great song.
I even pre-ordered a signed CD of ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’. Buying such a high-profile release felt weird, even though I know it shouldn’t. But Taylor is at an all-time artistic high, and even I was enthralled by folklore when I got round to it (and I normally find soft indie to be trite).
The baby on the front cover of Nirvana‘s 1991 Nevermind album has suddenly realised he doesn’t want his c*ck on full display in HMV stores, and sued the band this year for child exploitation. A summary of 2021 in music cannot leave this unmentioned. (Does however present a nice creative opportunity for the band, going back to what I said earlier about the fall of purist album reissues.)
Pop Goes The Cynic
I took modern pop music seriously for the first time. I’ve always been aware of it, but always bought into the lie that it was getting progressively dumber. This is of course nonsense – there has always been, and always will be, both good and bad mainstream music. Just because you only like edgy obscure weird releases from some indie label does not make you a better music connoisseur, and just because something is mainstream doesn’t immediately make it bad. I bought my first pop record – Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, and it’s great. It’s sprawling (clocking in at 16 tracks), and I personally could have done without a few tracks, but that’s part of the fun of digital copies – make your own track sequences, while the artist’s overall vision remains uncompromised, which wouldn’t have happened in the old days of vinyl. Then I bought a Taylor Swift record. What is happening.
My favourite new albums this year:
- LoneLady – Former Things
- Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
- Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
- Hartnoll & Young – The Virus Diaries
- Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram
- ButchCrutch – EBOLABALL
- Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)
- Solar Woodroach – Her Human Is A Poet In NYC
- LUMP – Animal
Vintage albums that I heard and bought in this year include:
- Kraftwerk – Ralf & Florian
- Alan Price – O Lucky Man!
- Joy Division – Closer
- Kate Bush – The Dreaming
- Art Of Noise – Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?
- Severed Heads – Come Visit The Big Bigot
- Miles Davis – Doo-Bop
- Morrissey – Southpaw Grammar
- Bowery Electric – Lushlife
Can any be drawn?