Best of 2021: 5-1

Inevitably, anyone who reads my monthly columns for Clash or scrolls past my turntable shots on Twitter will have a rough idea of what to expect as this list comes to its conclusion. Each year, numerous folk reckon they know what the top spot will be with varying degrees of success. Wonder no more, for here we go…

5. Manic Street Preachers ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Nearly thirty years on from their debut, it is increasingly hard for the Manics to release a record without drawing comparisons to their past. With bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire’s fondness for regularly articulating and updating the mythology around the band, listeners are only too aware when they’re going for pop-rock with strings, as on 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’, or capturing a “harrowing 45 year old looking in the mirror” for 2013’s ‘Rewind The Film’.

‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is a mutation of several different strands of their musical DNA, evoking some of the melancholic textures of 2004’s unfairly maligned ‘Lifeblood’, the angles of 2014’s ‘Futurology’ and even the luscious Bacharachian harmonies favoured on B-sides from the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. Having spent more time at the piano when crafting his 2020 solo album ‘Even In Exile’, frontman James Dean Bradfield foregrounds that instrument in many of these songs and it serves to open up the band’s sound.  

‘The Secret He Had Missed’ is yet another triumphant duet in a remarkable recent run, featuring Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean and wearing the ABBA influence that can be found on a number of tracks especially proudly. Lyrically, it explores the differing experiences of artistic Welsh siblings Gwen and Augustus John, highlighting their preferred subjects and referencing a transformative event on Tenby beach. It is also one of numerous moments on this record where Sean Moore’s dexterity and energy as a drummer is prominent.

‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ is sublime, Bradfield’s performance seeming to pull away from the serene backing vocals as he sings of a nostalgic ache for an undefined but easier time. Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ slowly unlocks a fond memory of Japanese tour in 1993 – “the four of us against the world” – with a taut bass and acoustic interplay nodding affectionately to The Cure, igniting from a reverb-drenched and pared-back introduction.

‘Into The Waves Of Love’ channels chiming, ‘Reckoning’-era R.E.M., guitar and piano almost tripping over each other in the early bars and even daring to go back to Rockville at the end of its chorus. A strident Roxy/Bunnymen hybrid, ‘Complicated Illusions’, is polished without feeling as synthetic as some of the excessively buffed pieces on ‘Resistance Is Futile’.

Not content with one fine guest, Mark Lanegan puts in a generously understated appearance on ‘Blank Diary Entry’, drawing out the ominous sense of emptiness in the lyrics. ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, meanwhile, picks up where ’30 Year War’ left off. “Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten” makes for an emphatic chorus that resonates on plague island. While subtle, this album captures the evolution of a band in their element once more.

As you may have figured from the length, that’s a full review I wrote for Clash. The vinyl cut is excellent, even if the pressing requires a game of GZ roulette. This album has endured through the autumn and it’s sincerely one of their finest. Great sleeve too.

4. Low ‘Hey What’

I have often found myself caught up in conversation with people who are displeased or even aggrieved at a band’s change of sound. I never really understand the logic, given that their catalogue prior to the moment of transformation isn’t wiped out by any shift in approach. If you loved them for a specific thing, continue to love them for it and, if this isn’t for you, leave it alone. As I explored in some detail back in 2018, the noise and moments of oppressive distortion on Low’s more recent work are not effects applied afterwards but fundamental components of the songs themselves. While it took me a little while to click with ‘Double Negative’, eventually my second favourite of that year, I went into ‘Hey What’ fully aware of what to expect and I do think they’ve evolved this alternative way of doing things rather wonderfully.

I’ll admit that I prefer the slightly trimmed version of opener ‘White Horses’ which opens the splendid vinyl cut of the album, reducing the wilfully confrontational ticking, jittering outro, but the song itself is pure Low. Alan and Mimi combine in that alchemical way they’ve been doing now for nearly three decades and the jagged, overloaded riffs are a delight. The ebb and flow of the sonic chopping on ‘I Can Wait’ forms its percussive structure, while the partially submerged vocals of ‘All Night’ perfectly suit the lyrics, “am I on the other side, so blind, so long, goodbye.”

‘Disappearing’ feels like it shares its DNA with some of the more stately processions on 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ – my album of that year, this lot have form – while the fabulous construction of the final track, ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’, with its near a cappella opening which then mutates into a muscular, strident beat for its second half, is a fine demonstration of how this way of working is no less expressive or emotional than their earlier recordings.

And let’s not forget ‘Days Like These’. It’s a stone cold classic of their catalogue, opening with the partial harmonising of Alan and Mimi and somehow distilling the magic that one senses in the crowd at their gigs despite the clear studio impact. The almost ambient wash of its latter phase pushes and pulls individual elements of the early sections in such a way that keeps the listener on their toes, unsure if that soaring vocal line is going to return or not. More immediate than ‘Double Negative’, ‘Hey What’ is yet another superb Low album. Let’s be sure never to take them for granted.

3. Damon Albarn ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’

Seven years after his debut solo album proper, ‘Everyday Robots’, the pandemic ended up causing a follow up. In May 2020, a Boiler Room livestream offered up some stripped back versions of pieces which were designed to be part of a project inspired by his second home of Iceland that he had been due to tour at that time. As the return to live performance got pushed back further and further, the desire to use this writing and move on grew too strong. Always one to have multiple projects on the go, he decided to transform those soundscapes into songs and so, this slow-burning, beautifully arranged and gorgeously sung record came into being.

Named after a line from John Clare’s poem ‘Love and Memory’, which also provides the lyrical inspiration for the title track, it is a wistful, often mournful collection that truly feels like a quest to find beauty during confined, concerning times. That opening piece is a beautifully transparent evocation of grief, not least for the loss of Albarn’s close friend and collaborator Tony Allen in the early stages of the global shutdown. Setting up camp with a number of his regular supporting musicians and skewing towards older, less dependable equipment, this music both reflects recent times and seems to point a way out of them.

While it is often meditative, there are still a number of hook-driven delights woven into this body of work. ‘Royal Morning Blue’ feels in line with Albarn’s more solo-focused ‘The Now Now’ Gorillaz sound. ‘The Tower Of Montevideo’ has the woozy, wobbly wash of sound that harks back to Blur’s ‘Ghost Ship’ but which seems to drift skywards on a synth wash and some driven saxophone. And then there’s ‘Polaris’, which emerges as the sonic clouds disperse, hingeing on a coiled spring of a rhythm that sounds like it’s about to go off at any point. It slowly expands and pulls everything into its orbit, a little like a slightly more mid-paced ‘Souk Eye’, another of his rather overlooked corkers. It’s an album with which I’ve spent a great deal of time these past few months and I imagine that will only develop, given Albarn’s tendency to write songs which never stop growing.

Such majestic music deserves decent treatment and, thankfully, Transgressive have delivered on that front. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the parts for the various vinyl editions were sent to several plants. The standard black edition is a pleasingly silent Optimal pressing, while the rather costly deluxe edition features a white disc pressed at Spinroad in Sweden. This had some light surface noise on a few occasions, but preserved the excellent sonics of Davis’ cut, while the accompanying exclusive 7” of ‘The Bollocked Man’ was an Optimal pressing. For silent playback, go for the black but every edition sounds great.

2. Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

Sometimes the stars align for an artist and sometimes an artist makes it their time. Rebecca Lucy Taylor grabbed hold of 2021 and delivered a record which is often remarkable, full of hooks and possessed of as distinctive a sense of voice as any philosopher, theorist or author. That the wonderful people at YourShelf have also produced an accompanying text that is described as “part diary, part poetry…[a] collection of Rebecca’s thoughts, lyrics, draft and notes” gives you a sense of how important the words are for an album where the messages are clear and necessary.

It’s not always an easy listen, either because of subject matter or sonic onslaught, but that is one of the key aspects of its brilliance. This is lived experience as songs, with noise required to convey the reality of being female in the music industry and, frankly, the world. “It happened lately, as I willed a sunset to go quickly, always thinking what next. Never have I just enjoyed the moment, happening right now. I’ve never known how,” Taylor sings on the album’s title track. The list of actions which follow, each accompanied by the refrain “That’s just for me” act as a clear statement of making decisions based on their personal merit rather than in the context of the expectations of the Male Gaze and how it can make people question their own free will.

The moment at which I knew this record was special was the first play of ‘I Do This All The Time’. It’s a truly incredible track to release to radio and as a preview of an album. The spoken word sections are laced with humour but delivered with pure intent. The mix of monologue and emphatic, euphoric, BIG pop chorus is genius. That melodic expertise is right across ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – try and listen to ‘Fucking Wizardry’ only one – and it makes these songs far easier to listen to than one suspects their inspirations were to live through.

1. Villagers ‘Fever Dreams’

Despite our hopes in January, 2021 proved to be another year which necessitated some musical comfort blankets. Most luxurious of all was Villagers’ majestic album ‘Fever Dreams’. Last year’s tenth anniversary vinyl release of Villagers’ debut, ‘Becoming A Jackal’, made all the more stark the evolution of Conor O’Brien’s songwriting. Its indie-folk charms remain bewitching, but the inventive, hook-laden and soulful incarnation that took shape with 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is fully realised on ‘Fever Dreams’. Having pushed in a more electronic direction with that previous record, using samples and programmed beats, this set of songs found their groove at the hands of his band.

Recorded in the year preceding the original lockdown and then manipulated in those strange months that followed, this is an album of release which attempts to turn away from relentless, oppressive digital connectivity. Early single ‘The First Day’ builds and builds, serving as a hymn to opportunity and a confident statement of intent. ‘Full Faith In Providence’ offers a fragile contrast, guest vocalist Rachael Lavelle gradually weaving around O’Brien and a vintage piano, while the guitar parts on ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ land somewhere between Pavement and Graham Coxon at his most frenetic.

At seven minutes long, album highlight ‘So Simpatico’ gradually expands into a hypnotically beguiling meditation on devotion. Conor O’Brien’s underrated but genuinely remarkable voice has never sounded better than on this album, with this opulent track its highpoint. The effortless mid-paced early-Seventies soul rhythms are irresistible and the sax break – yes, it has a sax break – is a lyrical and affecting intervention, which then continues in the background as if to underline the explosive physical and mental impact of love. “Little did I know, you were here all the time,” repeats O’Brien on a track which manages to be enormous and enveloping without ever becoming bombastic. Tired minds, aching souls and the ever so slightly broken can find inspirational and uplifting balm right here.

Having always enjoyed Villagers’ releases, it was 2016’s acoustic reworking of moments from their catalogue for Domino’s short lived ‘Documents’ series – ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ – that elevated them in my affections. Suddenly, Conor O’Brien’s songwriting made much more sense and I wrote about it at that year’s end. I’ll never tire of recommending that album, which is an all-time favourite, and since that connection formed I have awaited each new release with genuine excitement. 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ was great but ‘Fever Dreams’ is very possibly Villagers’ most ambitious and endearing record to date. Essential.

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