Sounds of 2021

With more time to spend listening this year, I have made twenty selections for my ‘Sounds of 2021‘ playlist.

Unwrapping‘ my musical tastes thanks to a music algorithm is not really my way. Last year I was told that the genre that best typified me was ‘Seattle Indie‘? This year, I’m told that ‘Chamber Psyche‘ and ‘Art Pop‘ were amongst my best fits. I have no idea (!)
A large debt is owed to a number of broadcasters on BBC Radio who have displayed great taste and indecent good sense in helping me discover the breadth of music that has helped me through the year.

In no particular order these are: late night BBC Radio 3 (Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Hannah Peel on Night Tracks; Elizabeth Alker on Unclassified; Verity Sharp and Jennifer Lucy Allan on Late Junction); Mary Anne Hobbs and Don Letts on BBC Radio 6 Music; Janice Long on BBC Radio Wales; and Jo Whiley on BBC Radio 2. As well as the signposts, they have helped me disappear down rabbit holes; and comforted, excited and challenged me throughout the year. A huge ‘thank you’ to each of them, and to Adam Walton (BBC Radio Wales)and Roddy Hart (BBC Radio Scotland) who I also tuned into more this year.

Here are the tracks, in no particular order. I will include the YouTube video for each of the twenty that I want to share with you, + a bit of blurb, and at the end, both a YouTube and Spotify personal playlist containing all twenty.

Manic Street Preachers ft. Julia Cumming: “The Secret He Had Missed”

It is apt that Nicky Wire tipped his cap to Abba when explaining the influences behind ‘The Secret He Had Missed’. I should probably have made reference to Abba’s triumphant return in 2021 in my list, particularly with ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, but I felt the sheer size of this track did justice for both of them. I fell in love with it because the theme that inspired it was the inner dynamics between family relationships, in particular, that of the Welsh painters Augustus John and Gwen John at the turn of the 20th Century. I’ve been spending a lot of time doing family history research during the course of the pandemic, and at the time I first heard it, I had just tracked down a great, great uncle thanks to prison and court records, and the fact that they confirmed he had half a finger missing on one hand, and the names of his brothers and sisters tattooed on his hands. His criminal record began at the mere age of 15 years old, and he had a flurry of birchings, and was in and out of prison in Leeds for up to 18 months at a time for the slightest of crimes. These included stealing two napkins; another time stealing a hen; another time stealing an overcoat, as well as a number of convictions for warehouse breaking. By the age of 35 years old, this young man’s life has been blighted for the sake of a few relatively silly wrong turns. It made the lyric, “The secret he had missed, was lying at his fingertips” all the more poignant. I am also a huge fan of Sunflower Bean, so to have Julia Cumming singing on it is huge too.

Samantha Crain: “Bloomsday”

This is a beautiful song which was a perfect fit in the first quarter of 2021 when I first heard it. The pandemic seemed to be throwing up lots of darkness. I’d lost friends. The isolation was creeping. ‘Bloomsday‘ offered some light in the darkness, and encouraged any small flame which might be there to shine.

The Chemical Brothers: “The Darkness That You Fear”

This was my ‘out in the summerhouse, windows all open‘ tune, which I think I remember first hearing played on Mary Anne Hobbs‘ show in the late Spring/early Summer. It owned that space. I was still feeling anxious with everything that was going on, but this track gave me hope.

John Grant: “Rhetorical Figure”

John Grant is a personal hero. When I was teaching, I made a ‘land grab’ on my course to resuscitate the reputation of the art of ‘rhetoric‘, and attempt to spread a greater understanding of the possibilities of its uses despite the best attempts of politicians to smear its good character. It was a no brainer that ‘Rhetorical Figure‘ would be in my ‘Sounds of 2021’.

Sorry: “Cigarette Packet”

I am completely baffled why more people have not discovered this. A relentlessly good tune.

She Drew The Gun: “Class War”

I think this group are single handedly responsible for the ‘psych-pop‘ handle being attached to me on Spotify. The lyrics are a perfect encapsulation of our politics at this very moment – I urge you to read them and rise up. Breathless, brash, punky, but out and out pop. Again, I can’t believe more people have not discovered this – but when I first heard this on Janice Long’s show, my heart skipped a beat. By listening, I had finally found a way of making a statement about my politics that no other form of participation currently can. A lot of fun, but deadly serious. Go, go, go!

Hamish Hawk: “The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion, 1973”

A perfect 6Music outfit. Sophisticated lyrics, smart execution, with a delivery that evokes elements of Scott Walker, Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker, but with a style all of their own. Of all of their tracks that I’ve heard, this was the one that has stuck out for me.

HAAi: “Keep on Believing”

And now for something completely different! Hold tight. So playful.

jackie: “Leaving Tomorrow (Figure It Out)”

I reckon this is probably one of my three favourites on this list of twenty. That’s why it surprises me that more people have not discovered this Canadian band. It’s become a real friend and ally during the year – and I’ve got Janice Long to thank for that.

tstewart: “Buena”

This melodic, uplifting track is typical of the kind of find from Elizabeth Alker’s late night Thursday show on BBC Radio 3, Unclassified. tstewart is also better known as Machinedrum.

Tonstartssbandht: “What Has Happened”

Another late night BBC Radio 3 discovery thanks to Unclassified. This is probably the second of my three favourites on this list of twenty. I love everything about it, including the feel of the video. And the lyric sums up perfectly where I am – “What has happened to me?

Dean Blunt: “the rot”

Another discovery thanks to late night BBC Radio 3, and Unclassified. You read that correctly – this is the kind of music played on late night BBC Radio 3, and I would be lost without it right now.

Nwando Ebizie: “I Seduce”

This more experimental sound left me more breathless on Unclassified on late night BBC Radio 3. As The Wire put it, “Suspended somewhere between reclaimed pop exotica and Afrofuturism, it’s perhaps with Ebizie, in the intimacy of a confined theatre, that the elusive claim to a new sort of live music-theatre hybrid gains ground.” Just stunning.

The Gentle Good: “Revival”

Otherwise known as Gareth Bonello, his release, ‘Adfywio‘ in Welsh, is simply beautiful. I was captivated by it when I first heard it on Janice Long’s show on BBC Radio Wales.

Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 with BBC National Orchestra of Wales: “Y Bywyd Llonydd”

A beautiful collaboration born of the pandemic – a Welsh language cover of producer Kassin’s masterful song, ‘A Paisagem Morta’, it heralds from an album where the music constitutes ‘a heartfelt love letter to Rio, and to better times for us all‘. Oh yes. Thank you once again to Janice Long for helping me find this!

Lucinda Chua: “Torch Song”

As I face the prospect of another sleepless night, and the days, weeks and months ahead weigh heavy on my mind, this discovery on late night BBC Radio 3 thanks to Unclassified has been just what I needed to reassure, and set me fair for the immediate hours ahead.

Eve Adams: “La Ronde”

There’s something of another era about this sound. Don’t let my description put you off, but there’s a touch of folk meets jazz in the nicest possible way about this sound, which I first heard on late night BBC Radio 3.

Peter Broderick: “Let It Go”

This is the third of my three favourites of the twenty on this list. I am baffled that I had yet to discover Broderick before hearing “Let It Go” on Janice Long’s show during 2021. Described as ‘experimental bedroom folk/pop‘, it literally makes me curl up and ache inside for simpler times, and is a door into a deep dive for considering big questions and cradling bruised emotions. I love this track very much, and I don’t care who knows it.

Matthew Dear: “Hikers Y”

I remember being stopped in my tracks when I heard this on Mary Anne Hobbs‘ show on BBC 6 Music. “I’m through with all the conversation” goes the refrain. When you hear so much of the crap coming out of people’s mouths, and on social media, the line is so true. Perhaps a period of silence is called for – apart from having this track on heavy rotation.

Afrodeutsche: “Can’t Stop”

Afrodeutsche is very much an artist of the moment. There is so much I could have chosen from to put on the list – I very much felt she is part of the Sound of 2021. As the notes explain, “Like a modern update to the Logan’s Run soundtrack, her contribution to the 30 Years of Tresor Boxset conjures visions of a late-night train ride around a futuristic megacity; beautiful and awe-inspiring. This is enhanced with a slight undertone of danger and unease as the string parts are manipulated to sound like a record or tape being slowed slightly.” Beautiful. She is a 6Music resident, and favourite on BBC Radio 3.

So, that’s my twenty. Here are each of the playlists in full on Spotify and YouTube.

Full Sounds of 2021 playlist
Full Sounds of 2021 playlist
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