While we helplessly look out of our windows and watch the world falling to pieces from our homes, one form of relief shared by many has been the music of this year. Some has been topical, some emotional and some transcendental. Below are the first of my 50 favourite songs released this year (with a one song per artist rule), and here’s to the hope that we might experience them live, up-close and personally next year. (Photo Jenn Five/NME).
50. Harold – Blanketman
A euphoric hit of autobiographical post-punk from the Manchester-based group, who are one of the hottest prospects of 2021 with their EP National Trust coming out in March.
49. Helios – Rival Consoles
Gently effervescent and warm, ‘Helios’ is a number of subtle vibrancy and growth which develops astutely over its five-minute stay.
48. If I Had My Way – Osees
Hedonism rules the waves on this buoyant number, which was the second single from their acclaimed album Protean Threat.
47. Figure It Out – Anna Shoemaker
A lovely track from the Brooklyn vocalist’s EP Everything is Embarrassing that calls upon the mellow-pop sounds of Haim to achieve an empowered sound.
46. Grit – Phoebe Green
Green’s EP I Can’t Cry For You saw her delve into darker atmospherics, with ‘Grit’ leading this evolution.
45. Most Modern Painting – Sinead O’Brien
In a prolific year for the Irish punk-poet, ‘Most Modern Painting’ found the perfect blend between instrumental tunefulness and vocal discord.
44. Another Lover – Little Dragon
New Me, Same Us exhibited a more introspective side to Little Dragon’s work, spearheaded by the softness of ‘Another Lover’.
43. LAUNDRY – R.A.P. Ferreira
An excellent combination of subtly combative sounds led by Ferreira’s muted vocals and a piano-led beat.
42. About Minerals – The Leaf Library
Bubbling, floaty ambience at its most assured, layered with enticingly mysterious voices and brought to life by ascendant synths.
41. Take Me Shopping – Tricky
A simple but effective composition which provides an arresting backing for the tender quietness of Marta’s singing.
40. CUTIE PIE! – JPEGMAFIA
An illustrious piece that effortlessly showcases the artistic growth of JPEGMAFIA in less than two-and-a-half minutes.
39. Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
Laura Marling in her absolute element. Beautiful acoustic bliss awaits, supported by sweet harmonies and even sweeter strings.
38. I’m Not Your Dog – Baxter Dury
The opening track of Baxter Dury’s album The Night Chancers set in stone his move into classier realms of sound and delivery, and is an infectious listen.
37. Leaves Against The Sky – Actress
Anchored by a forceful pulse, Actress revitalises IDM of the late nineties to give it a fresh buzz and presence.
36. Summertime The Gershwin Version – Lana Del Rey
If ever there was evidence for the stylistic confidence of Lana Del Rey, look no further. A staggeringly gorgeous track.
35. Cactused – Wire
Further proof of Wire’s ability to swing between challenging and accessible listens with utter ease, even forty years after their hey-day.
34. Sleek Form – PVA
Synth takes charge on a path of oppressive force, complimented by powerful percussion and seductive vocals.
33. Four American Dollars – U.S. Girls
Grooving anti-capitalist messaging taking influence from 1970s funky-soul sounds at peak danceability. Get moving.
32. Black Dog – Arlo Parks
A guitar-led song of grace from, arguably, 2020’s most consistent artist. Tracks like this make you yearn for an album next year.
31. Dorothea – Taylor Swift
Tonally, a more upbeat track than its company, ‘Dorothea’ is a charming track from Swift’s second album of the year, Evermore.
30. Peach Stone – Indoor Foxes
An extremely satisfying blend of pop and rock with razor-sharp words from the Scottish soloist. One of 2021’s most promising acts.
29. Physical – Dua Lipa
Big-hitting and punchy, this epitomised the 80s-influenced sound of her album Future Nostalgia.
28. Mirrors – Rejjie Snow
A delicious blend of discordant synths and hushed groove which has been frequently overlooked.
27. Blonde – Roger Eno and Brian Eno
‘Blonde’ was a standout moment of Harold Budd-esque softness in their album Mixing Colours, which called back to the sonics of Eno and Budd’s Plateaux of Mirror.
26. Something To Rap About – Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist
Led by carefree sliding guitars, this is an easy and gentle number that is utterly, utterly seductive. Trippy and classy in equal measure.
25. No – Billy Nomates
A stripped-back number of defiance and minimalism from one of 2020’s most acclaimed acts.
24. pink diamond – Charli XCX
A musical punch in the face. Followed swiftly by a kick. Then another punch, for good measure. The unforgiving opener of her lauded album how i’m feeling now.
23. How – NewDad
Dream-pop-meets-grunge-meets-early-Cure in this elusively ethereal number. Only NewDad’s second single of the year.
22. yankee and the brave (ep. 4) – Run The Jewels
Percussively devastating and lyrically vital, this opened the excellent RTJ4.
21. Comet Face – King Krule
Anchored by a creeping and discordant bassline, ‘Comet Face’ was a hit of post-punk hyper-realism.
20. Alpha Venom – Sophie Hunger
Hunger takes no prisoners with this vibrant and elegant synth-led powerhouse.
19. My Candidacy – Pom Poko
Following their 2019 debut Birthday, ‘My Candidacy’ sees Pom Poko delve into heavier sounds and hectic arrangements.
18. Living In America – Fontaine’s D.C.
Five power-filled minutes of joy. A showcasing of how to deliver punk simplicity at its most dangerous.
17. The Steps – Haim
A track of acoustic buoyancy and buzz. From their best album yet, Women In Music Pt. III.
16. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Document
A daring, chilling composition, layered with merciless guitars and shouted, urgent vocals. A stunning track.
15. Snow Day – Shame
Next year’s album Drunk Tank Pink is looking to be one of the most promising releases for a long time, and ‘Snow Day’ exhibits a greater maturity and depth in the group’s sound wonderfully.
14. Club Cougar – Nadine Shah
The stylish, authoritative opener of Shah’s album Kitchen Sink which sets the tone of defiance and empowerment.
13. So We Won’t Forget – Khurangbin
Khurangbin struck a perfect note of artistic complexity and accessibility with their album Mordechai, with ‘So We Won’t Forget’ being one of the most-loved tracks of the year.
12. No Flag – Elvis Costello
Costello sounds fresh, invigorated and, most importantly, angry, on the phenomenally destructive ‘No Flag’.
11. come – Adrianne Lenker
An acoustic track of pure delicacy and comfort. A moment of wonder on Lenker’s beautiful album songs.
10. Dragonball Durag – Thundercat
It’s become clearer and clearer that Thundercat’s most addictive tracks come when his dynamic bass is the headline act. While some moments of his acclaimed album It Is What It Is experimented in sparse electronics, ‘Dragonball Durag’ comes straight from the Thundercat playbook; swaying, gentle grooves, lustful words and iconic, compelling basslines that seem to lose no allure across his discography. ‘Dragonball Durag’ is further evidence, if any was actually needed, that Thundercat is still a vital and inventive artist, and rightly one of the most sought-after producers of cosmic sounds in the business.
9. I Contain Multitudes – Bob Dylan
Of the three singles to Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, the seventeen-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’, both for its immense duration and quality, has garnered the most attention from critics and found itself in the upper echelons of countless end-of-year lists. Though, this has undeservedly left the beautiful ‘I Contain Multitudes’ in the dark. A reflection of the roles Dylan has played over his near-sixty year studio period (social commentator, hopeless romantic, Nobel Prize winner etc.), it floats in acoustic tenderness and vocal maturity as Dylan chronicles his embodiment of and associations with artists (“them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones“), poets (“I sing the songs of experience like William Blake“) and even Indiana Jones in a gorgeous illustration and poignant contemplation of his life.
8. Waving, Smiling – Angel Olsen
Despite continuing the themes of lost love from one of 2019’s most acclaimed albums All Mirrors, Angel Olsen displayed an astounding confidence in taking a stripped-back approach that echoed the sounds of her early releases in ‘Waving, Smiling’. It’s considered and collected, exuding an atmosphere that is irresistibly delicate, with the main pull being the endearingly solemn tones of Olsen which work in wonderful harmony with the smoothly-plucked strings. ‘Waving, Smiling’ works thanks to its simplicity, the candour and vulnerability of the conversation between Olsen and the listener that is seldom found today.
7. Crystallise – Kelketela! and Coldcut
While the collaborative album Keleketla! saw an astute fusion of jazz, funk, afrobeat and a whole host of other styles, its best moment came from a more minimalist composition. ‘Crystallise’ saw Coldcut given licence to truly imprint their identity onto the music. The unmistakeable sharpness of their electronics, that have endured a vitality rare over the last thirty years, sound fresh and mysterious, and are brought to life further by the direct realism of Yugen Blakrok’s rap which tell of existence in “prison cities” where “life is sweeter in the presence of death“. ‘Crystallise’ is a perfect blend of dark jazz, intense grooves and hard-hitting rap that will enchant any listener.
6. Aries – Gorillaz (Feat. Peter Hook and Georgia)
A song that epitomises exuberance and release, and who better to call upon for the anchoring riff than Peter Hook to deliver such a sound? ‘Aries’ is defined by its hopeful character – dreamy, elusive synths are called upon to provide a shimmering quality to the track, Georgia’s percussion is urgent and liberated, while Albarn’s (2D’s) lyrics ooze of an optimism that fights against the increasingly troubling backdrop of our times. Lines like “‘Cause I feel so isolated without you / I can’t play a happy tune on my own / So stay by my side” appeal to the most innocent, humane urges of compassion and togetherness, lending this track a dazzling allure that is musical, emotional and transcendental.
5. For Her – Fiona Apple
It’s incredibly difficult to select a ‘best’ track from Apple’s near-perfect album Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Every song possesses a distinctive depth and quirk – from the chaotic pianos of ‘Shameika’, the mellow-natured titular track or the letting-loose of the final moments of ‘Cosmonauts’. ‘For Her’, however, was chosen exactly for the distinction it holds from its companions. Overdubbed vocals and primal percussion are the only actors in a piece which takes an unforgiving look at the victim-blaming of sexual assault victims, written in response to Donald Trump’s controversial Supreme Court appointment Brett Kavanaugh. Hearing Apple’s harmonised voice in independence and in full reach is an absolute treat. In combination with the sparse drumming it’s, frankly, a privilege.
Tucked into the second half of the album, it’s very easy to miss ‘For Her’ and its wondrous experimentation. Nonetheless, this is a song to be cherished, nurtured, and, most importantly, played loudly.
4. Garden Song – Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers delved further down avenues of quiet melancholia and self-analysis on Punisher, and the endearing beauty of ‘Garden Song’ was the hushed vocal announcement of this new journey. Key to its allure is the elusive being of her backing. The absence of percussion lifts the song to achieve an atmosphere of dreamy release, contrasted by the grounding introspection of Bridgers’ vocals which speak of cerebral weariness and distant optimism. Meanwhile, a plucked guitar line appears and disappears from a soft distorted backdrop amidst a similarly fleeting bassline that introduces itself through subtle, singular murmurs.
In short, ‘Garden Song’ is a three-and-a-half minute psychological hug. It holds no abrasion or jagged edge, only a presence of warmth and grace. On a personal note, excluding the re-visit for this article, I’ve listened to this song 91 times in the last 90 days (yes, really). I think I might enjoy it a tad…
3. Sad Cowboy – Goat Girl
In one song, Goat Girl have exhibited miles and miles of artistic evolution from their eponymous debut album. ‘Sad Cowboy’ is an astute illustration of how to perfectly execute a fusion of influential sounds to create something bigger, more inviting and more vital. This song is just cool. So cool. The rumbling guitars that follow on from the opening synths call back to a no-nonsense ’70s rock sound, brought back to modernity by a dancey groove and pushed further into a pioneering sound of futuristic freshness in an astounding chorus that combines every section in unbelievable class. It’s a track that makes you think, that forces you to nod along, and that makes you yearn for a live spectacle where you can lose yourself to its tones.
Better still, Goat Girl have a new album, On All Fours, out in January. If ‘Sad Cowboy’ is anything to go by, it’s destined to be a belter.
2. Corner of My Sky – Kelly Lee Owens & John Cale
An intense, compelling and rewarding dive into an other-worldly ether of enrapturing sonics, textural innovation and visionary lyricism led by the legendary John Cale and supported by the ever-evolving, ever-growing Kelly Lee Owens. ‘Corner of My Sky’ is not a song that can be listened to apathetically or skipped half-way through. It’s oppressive in nature, something that absorb in totality, to dig into and explore. Cale’s words describe a weary yet hopeful landscape, one in which the rain is a blessing for every inhabitant, human or not. Owens’ bouncing percussion and flattened synths provide the dominating existence of the track – they rise to the forefront with hedonistic force before dreamily retreating back into a more general obscurity. Bring the two together, and you have the centrepiece of Owen’s wonderful Inner Song, one of the most adept compositions of the year, one which displays a dexterity that is almost unparalleled elsewhere.
1. Strong – SAULT
Taking turns in afrobeat, R’n’B, funk, soul, and so many other styles, ‘Strong’ is six minutes of spellbinding grooviness, empowerment and optimism. Every section of this track is as deliciously inviting as the next – the restrained soul beat that kicks it off, the introduction of the swaggering Nile Rodgers-esque guitar, the percussion that imperiously introduces itself half way through to give the track an unstoppable, near-juggernaut presence, and the final culmination of the sounds to conclude with added strings for good measure. This is a rallying cry of utmost hope and pride for the Black Lives Matter movement and its followers, the main inspiration for SAULT’s two albums this year, best characterised by the resilient sentiment of the song’s poetics.
It is simply exquisite. It avoids a sense of trying to achieve too much, trying to fit too much experimentation in genre within one commanding hit. Instead, SAULT have put out a masterpiece that compromises nothing in its pursuit for justice, both musically and lyrically.