We asked some of our regular music writers to tell us about their favourite albums of the year. First up is Cathy Brown with ten of the best of 2021.
10. Bowerbirds – becalmyounglovers
becalmyounglovers marks Phil Moore’s return to music, after nine years. The album deals with the break-up from his artistic and ex-romantic partner Beth Tacular who has now left the band. The result is a melancholic and introspective slice of folk-pop featuring playful songwriting which eschews self-pity despite the subject matter and features warm arrangements and irresistible tunes.
9. Lou Hayter – Private Sunshine
Lou Hayter rose to prominence as part of the Mercury-nominated electro-pop band, New Young Pony Club and on her solo debut Private Sunshine she embraces the synth sounds of early 80s pop without ever resorting to mimicry. Powered by smooth dance-floor beats, cool vocals and consistently tight arrangements, Private Sunshine is a polished, effortless slice of shimmering pop.
8. Gruff Rhys – Seeking New Gods
Seeking New Gods is another gloriously idiosyncratic concept album from Gruff Rhys, this time loosely exploring the mythology and history of Mount Paektu, the North Korean active volcano that is feted as the birthplace of Kim Jong-un’s father and considered a sacred place in Korean folklore. Filled with catchy choruses, psychedelic dreaminess angelic harmonies, warm piano and lush arrangements, this latest release proves that Gruff Rhys is one of a kind.
7. Pearl Charles – Magic Mirror
Pearl Charles delves deep into her ‘70s influences on this breezy pop-infused album that calls to mind Fleetwood Mac, The Carpenters and Carole King. At times some of the songs here can veer too far into sweet sentimentality, but the ABBA inspired opening track Only for Tonight is worth the price of admission all on its own and has been my most played song of the year.
6. The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here
Dark in Here is John Darnielle’s twentieth album and his release during 2021. Written and recorded in just six days at the height of lockdown, there is an expansive atmosphere throughout. The arrangements here are loose and confident, bringing a sense of immediacy and vibrancy to these 12 songs, which flirt with jazz, blues and alternative rock.
5. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes
Country music queen Miranda Lambert teamed up with friends and fellow country musicians Jack Ingram and Jon Randall and headed to Marfa in West Texas where they recorded these 15 acoustic songs sitting outside a ranch in the desert. The result is intimate and vital, with stunning guitar playing and beautiful triple harmonies. Lambert is worlds away from her usual pop-country sound and a spirit of authenticity and conviviality suffuses this album.
4. Hampshire & Foat – The Upturned Glass
Multi-instrumentalist and Mercury Prize nominee Warren Hampshire (The Bees) and prolific jazz musician Greg Foat returned this year with their fifth concept album as Hampshire & Foat. An instrumental suite based on a day in their home town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, The Upturned Glass features their unique mix of neo-classical, folk and chamber jazz and features local musicians and field recordings of bird song and pubs, perfectly capturing the essence of life in this seaside town.
3. Clairo – Sling
A ‘70s vibe shows up again on Clairo’s beautifully arranged album Sling. Crystal-clear production and arrangements featuring flutes, strings, steel guitar and vocal harmonies create an album that echoes the warm, rich tones of ‘70s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. With elegant melodies and a quiet confidence, Sling is an intimate, warm delight of an album.
2. The Weather Station – Ignorance
Tamara Lindeman’s fifth outing as The Weather Station has an epic quality, taking her music to a new level. In collaboration with Marcus Paquin, a Montreal-based engineer and producer who worked on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, Ignorance still centres on Lindeman’s cool vocals and pop melodies but is given depth with layered keyboards, subtle electronic shadings and striking arrangements for woodwind and strings. The result is a complex yet accessible sound, reminiscent of Talk Talk at their best.
1. Floating Points, Pharaoh Saunders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
This one-track, nine movement album is a complete masterpiece. Promises is a three-way collaboration between electronic producer Sam ‘Floating Points’ Shepard, legendary jazz musician Pharaoh Saunders and the London Symphony Orchestra which was recorded over five years. Organized around one recurring otherworldly riff, Promises is an unclassifiable melding of jazz, classical and ambient influences that transcends genre to become something utterly unique.