How do you sum up the year that was 2021 in music in just ten albums? In truth, you can’t because everything we listen to or like is subjective. Now, I’m no moron, I occasionally read nearly all the best and influential music blogs and websites from around the world and every single one of them has a strong opinion which albums are the best. While I respect their opinion I don’t always believe they are right. That said, you won’t find Adele, Olivia Rodrigo or Tyler, the Creator here. What I hope you will find is an honest appraisal of some great music that has moved me this year. Interestingly, many of the biggest names I absolutely adore released albums in 2021. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say, the likes of Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent and Lorde didn’t even get a look in this year. Those that did make it, offered me an escape from the pandemic but also reminded me of some of the most important things in life. Anyway without further ado, I invite you to check out the ten most influential albums I’ve listened to repeatedly this year.
10. Martha Marlow – Medicine Man (Independent).
Martha Marlow’s debut is one of those albums that had slipped under our radar this year. It’s not to say that it wasn’t a good album. In fact, it is a stunning album that received a nomination for an Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Award for Best Blues and Roots Album this year, despite the seemingly lukewarm response from music listeners everywhere. (If it is any consolation Medicine Man peaked at number six on the Australian Independent Record Labels association chart.) Earlier this year I read how the landscape painter, illustrator and songwriter was diagnosed with rare auto-immune disease midway through recording the album. It makes this album seem real maybe even more vulnerable than it should be, especially lyrically as Marlow tackles real life issues. In short, Medicine Man falls somewhere in-between indie-folk and pop with an array of orchestral arrangements throughout that serve to elevate this album into a colourful listening experience worthy of our attention.
9. Joy Crookes – Skin (Insanity Records).
While everyone else was going gaga over Olivia Rodrigo’s debut Sour, I was instead more interested in getting to know musically the Bangladeshi-Irish south Londoner named Joy Crookes. Baring all with raw storytelling, Crookes takes us on a journey of life and hardship growing up in south London on her debut album Skin. It’s fair to say the sweeping pop stylings, modern soul and R&B elements will have you in a trance. But if the beats don’t get you Crookes lyrics will, with thirteen tracks that candidly touch on issues of identity, race, class and even that dirty word called Brexit. Fans of Amy Winehouse and Solange will find much to like here.
8. The Killers – Pressure Machine (Island Records).
The Killers have been around for some twenty years since forming in 2001. Their catalogue is crammed full of oddities, styles and homage to the great acts of the past such as Oasis and Bruce Springsteen. Crucially, the new album is another successful step in a different direction, one which sees them tread an Americana feel. Pressure Machine is a concept album born of lockdown seclusion according to frontman Brandon Flowers. The album reflect upon the nature of small towns, its people, outsiders and ideas of isolation. Arguably the coolest thing about the album are the audio soundbites you hear at the beginning of songs that captures the real-life stories of locals from Nephi, Utah. While it’s a lot less indie rock than you’d expect, it is nonetheless a great listen. What makes it great is the empathy we hear in its lyrics something that is synonymous with Americana and heartland rock. From the opening track of West Hills to Runaway Horse (which features indie darling Phoebe Bridgers), you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
7. Foo Fighters – Medicine At Midnight (Roswell Records).
Foo Fighters have repeatedly shown a genuine desire to press forward, to keep creating the type of rock music that made them famous the mid ‘90s and early 2000’s. While it might appear to be utterly at odds with huge swathes of what is going on in mainstream music nowadays, they are not oblivious to the change that is occasional needed to stay relevant. When Foo Fighters decided to give us their new album Medicine At Midnight earlier this year, seemingly carefully constructed to appeal to the faithful and new fans, I was thrilled by the result. If you ever wanted to dance to a Foo Fighters record now was your chance! Its highlights like Shame Shame, Cloudspotter and Medicine At Midnight achieve some wonderful results with elements of rock, funk and dance that match their ambition. But to those who feel like their best moments fall short like The Guardian, it’s not for want of trying. At a time when a lot of Foo Fighters peers aren’t trying to do much more than tick boxes, I take my hat off to them for being ballsy enough to shake it up a little. Come on, these are great songs and the album itself is infectious.
6. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha (Secretly Canada).
Atlanta’s Faye Webster gave herself a nice birthday present this year. She self-released her fourth studio album I Know I’m Funny haha. Not bad I say for the twenty-four year-old who first came to fame as a sixteen year old in 2013 with her debut Run and Tell. Anyway, Webster has produced another gem this year, which blends a smorgasbord of different musical styles, notably Americana, Indie country and R&B. In short, I Know I’m Funny haha is dramatic in execution as Webster offers herself up with a full and open heart to her listeners. She subsequently leans into each song with her characteristically melancholic nature and wit. Her beautiful vocals and guitar work, something that I am drawn to on every Faye Webster record, also gets a big tick here.
5. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (4AD).
What I love about London-based art-rockers Dry Cleaning and their debut New Long Leg is their straight-out unconventional manner to merge kick-ass guitar riffs and spoken-word lyrics into some of the coolest post-punk music I’ve heard in a while. There is a sly charm to how Dry Cleaning go about their business that is admirable. Of course, it maybe might not have worked out so well if not for the inclusion of lead vocalist Florence Shaw, who once said, “I’ll just learn how to sing later”. Her spoken-word delivery while seemingly deadpan is quite funny at times, especially as she blurts out her own everyday truths about anything and everything. Standout tracks include Unsmart Lady, a song about body image; Scratchcard Lanyard, which is incidentally one of my favourite tracks, a song about finding your own purpose in life; and strong Feelings, a song about contradictions built around an amazing baseline.
4. Joan As Policewoman (with Tony Allen and Dave Okumu) – The Solution Is Restless (PIAS Recordings).
I honestly sound like a broken record when I say I often feel alone in my admiration for Joan As Policewoman aka Joan Wasser. I find it hard to believe she hasn’t got a bigger audience. I know there are loyal fans out there who have supported her career since 2007. I’m pleased to say I’m one of them. I’ve always loved Joan’s soulful rock-pop energy and songwriting and after having heard her latest release, I have to say it’s one of her best. This new project is a collaborative album with the late great Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and Dave Okumu. There are so many wonderful elements to The Solution Is Restless that it’s hard not to be impressed by it. From Allen’s West African beats, Owumu’s ‘70s inspired funk baselines and Wasser’s superb musicianship and soulful voice, it’s no wonder I find it intoxicating.
3. The Weather Station – Ignorance (Fat Possum).
I remember back in late 2018 I posted an amazing short essay by Tamara Lindeman on climate change. It was a call to arms that eventually led Lindeman to write Ignorance. As Lindeman seemingly poured her soul and anger into writing a collection of new track, out of it came a revelation of new sonic arrangements – synths, strings and percussions – something that is a far cry of the acoustic arrangements of previous albums. Interestingly, Lindeman gentle foray or progression into pop or even soft rock territory was timely to say the least. The themes of heartache strewed across the album but also her loud new voice in support of protecting our planet against climate change should be something that is foremost in all our minds. All her songs in essence on Ignorance are all the result of her questioning everything inside of herself and the world around her. In short, this is an album that we will revisit several times over in the years to come.
2. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Dirty Hit).
A band like Wolf Alice is hard to ignore. They are one of many exciting bands to come out of the UK in the last ten years. But not everyone has their class of sonic exploration. There’s a sense of overwrought energy on their third album Blue Weekend that makes this an exciting listen. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell is never afraid to let her guard down. Moreover, Wolf Alice’s ability to confidently swing between sparse compositions (No Hard Feelings), playful pop (Feeling Myself) and their ability to belt out rousing punk rock (Play The Greatest Hits) is a skill only few have. No stone is seemingly left unturned in Wolf Alice’s creative bag of tricks. To put it simply Blue Weekend exists as a reminder to all what rock pop or guitar-pop can be in the 2020s.
1. The Pretty Reckless – Death By Rock And Roll (Century Media Records).
Back in October I said to a friend, “The Pretty Reckless know exactly who they are and where they stand in rock’s orbit.” I was making the comment in relation to their fourth studio album Death by Roll and Roll. It was released back in February a week after the Foo Fighters released Medicine At Midnight. Before long Death By Rock and Roll gained so much traction it almost toppled Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters’ new album on the charts. For many of us this was the proper rock album we were all waiting for this year. The fact that it arrived so early meant we had all year to revel in its unflinching incendiary collection of hard rock tracks.
A few years ago, I had no idea who The Pretty Reckless were. Upon hearing songs from their 2016 album Who You Selling For I fell in love with front woman Taylor Momsen. While “Lzzy” Hale from Halestorm might be the biggest female frontwoman currently in rock, Momsen is hot on her heels. This is a young woman at 28 who made a leap from Gossip Girls to rock and understands the price she’s payed to get there. And if you know anything about Momsen and her band mates, it has been a journey fuelled by grief, turmoil and heartache. What I love about Momsen, besides her freewheeling spirit and her kick ass vocals, is her strong appreciation of rock’s past. For instance on the next to last track on Death By Roll And Roll, on a song called Rock And Roll Heaven, Momsen reminisces how “Freedom found me / When I first heard the Beatles sing” with raspy sincerity. Even in the chorus she manages to pay tribute indirectly to Pink Floyd: “In rock and roll Heaven / The great gig in the sky…”
Interestingly, Death By Roll And Roll as a whole, whether its full throttle rock (My Bones) or an acoustic ballad (Got So High), manages to capture something special here, especially in these unprecedented times. And while some of it like Broomsticks might sound completely off-the-wall, there is no denying what we still have is one hell of an album.