My favourite albums of 2021

If I’m honest, the majority of records I buy and listen to are invariably not of this time. If asked, “What are your favourite records this year?” I hum and ha. Yet, ask me my favourite records of 1981 and I could write you a (small) book. Music hasn’t gotten worse per se but being the age I am, I do feel that I’ve heard most ideas many times before and thus, the things I like now are either a) reminiscent of my favourite bands or b) comforting. I’m not quite ready for slippers yet though – I love the incendiary energy of this new wave of British bands, Idles, Sleaford Mods, Dry Cleaning, etc and I’m still genuinely excited about what might be just around the corner.

In no particular order :

David Boulter ‘Lover’s Walk’ (The Spoken World)

David Boulter ‘Lover’s Walk’ (The Spoken World)

Given that I was born and raised in the same geographical area, vaguely during the same era, I was already heavily invested in David Boulter’s ‘Lover’s Walk’ before I even dropped the needle on the record. Its setting, the once-scenic, though now somewhat tackified parade of Matlock Bath in Derbyshire, is a mere 30 minutes drive from my childhood village. ‘Lover’s Walk’ is a deeply emotional, nostalgic tale of adolescent love and (adult) loss. The music, alone, perfectly evokes a very specific time on our sad, little isle, one of twitching net curtains, Hillman Imps and Angel Delight. Vladimir Secky’s flute, in particular, is beautifully forlorn throughout. It’s a rare, rare record that leaves me with my heart in my mouth but this is one of them.

Mücha – ‘Fall’ (Frequency Domain)

Mücha – ‘Fall’ (Frequency Domain)

Though she’s been prolific of late, ‘Fall’ by Mücha, aka London-based multi-instrumentalist/DJ/sound artist, Amanda Butterworth, has been a good four years in the making. It’s clear not a moment was wasted. There’s a lot going on here, both electronically and melodically – the programming is complex and innovative, though never overbearing and there are nods to a vast array of influences, from deep house to Warp to drum and bass. But for me, it’s that voice that really takes it somewhere else, a lush, luxuriant thread that weaves amongst these jittery beats, fizzing hi hats and velvetine keys.

RAP – ‘Junction’ (Jolly Discs)

RAP – ‘Junction’ (Jolly Discs)

These guys just don’t want to be found. Google can only do so much with a name like RAP and it doesn’t feature on their record sleeve either; no catalogue number, no barcode. Hence, it’s fortuitous that this album was playing whilst on a recent visit to the wonderful World Of Echo record shop. My ears were pricked by a passing resemblance to the skittery electronics of latter years Hood but there’s a deeper, darker demon at play here. The combination of icy synth pads, ethereal voices and cronky beats tick many boxes with me but it’s when the more human elements, vocals and guitar slip in, that my attention peaks. There’s a beating heart amongst these frozen landscapes.

Pauline Anna Strom – ‘Angel Tears In Sunlight’ (RVNG Intl.)

I arrived at Pauline Anna Strom’s work far too late but what a record to arrive at. Though her first album in over 30 years, announced just a month before her unexpected death, it’s not only difficult to date but to compare with anyone else. As anyone with a synth will tell you, there’s a point at which you realise you might be merely the conductor – it’s the machine writing the score. Strom’s brilliance is in seeking where that organic crossover might occur. It’s easy to get lost in this album – time becomes irrelevant and you may well find yourself transported deep into Strom’s inner worlds. “I honestly couldn’t say how I did it, I just did it…I went into a different space…I’d start at six at night and I could go until six in the morning”* You may well do the same.

Western Edges – ‘Dependency’ (Sound In Silence)

Western Edges – ‘Dependency’ (Sound In Silence)

The monochrome motorway sprawl and distant pylon on the cover of this album are, obviously, a magnet for any Hood fan. Richard Adams and his brother, Chris, cornered the market on the thin line between Britain’s rural and industrial landscapes long ago and this, Richard’s solo electronic project, further cements that, hmmm, cement. These sparse, often dystopian, sonic Polaroids at first seem desolate but once befitted with their track titles (‘The Wall You First Kissed Her Against,’ ‘Love Is Contagious,’ ‘Still Think About It Now And Again,’), you realise that, behind all this, is a nostalgic romantic.

Jo Johnson & Hilary Robinson – ‘Session One’ (9128.live)

Johnson & Hilary Robinson – ‘Session One’ (9128.live)

This 9128.live label release, originally aired as part of the duo’s set from April of this year’s CALMA in Madrid, is a mesmirising slowburn of harmonic drones and manipulated piano. Jo Johnson and Hilary Robinson embrace this minimal palette, pulling and stretching it, to form evermore fascinating variations on a theme. Each time it ends, I’ve found myself going back to the start.

Dry Cleaning – ‘New Long Leg’ (4AD)

Dry Cleaning – ‘New Long Leg’ (4AD)

Is there anything new to say about Dry Cleaning’s ‘New Long Leg?’ Its place in the top ten of any end of year list is thoroughly deserved. It’s a sharp, dynamic, often hilarious record that perfectly evokes not just the arse end of London but the highs and drains of contemporary culture. At its centre, Florence Shaw’s unflinchingly monotone vocal, invariably spoken but the perfect counterbalance to a fantastic band seemingly lost in an altogether separate room. It’s a consistent, absorbing, remarkable debut.

* Erik Davis (November 25, 2017). “Expanding Mind: Trans-Millenia Consort” (Podcast)

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