You likely recall that 2020 was a real bad time, everything-wise. A year that imploded beneath already weary limps. But 2020, for all its horror, at least had some definition. 2020 definitely happened and I know that it definitely happened because I remember the terrible. 2021, by contrast, feels wholly amorphous. An unwavering exhausted wheeze of a year.
It’s not that things didn’t happen in 2021. Some of them, in contrast to its nightmarish predecessor, could even be considered good things. And yet, I’ve been so fucking tired all the fucking time, that even where things might’ve been a relief in the moment… my ability to reminisce feels impaired by white noise crosstalk. I wasn’t fully aware of this total mental dullness sensation until I came to compile this post. What records even came out in 2021? Did any? Did I just spend the entire year playing indie rock from 1999 as a coping strategy? Is Feeder’s Yesterday Went Too Soon actually the dark horse album of 2021? With its plaintive title track and banger single about all-too-familiar Insomnia, it would be unsubtle but hardly ill-fitting for the present circumstances. I could just abruptly end this post right here.
My point, perhaps, is just to acknowledge that 2021 sucked in a markedly different way from 2020. For me, it was a discombobulating blip. I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of trying my best, yet falling so short. A weary collapse into melancholic self-preservation. You know how at the end of Empire Strikes Back, it’s all a bit fucked and everyone is sad and they’re just floating off into space? It’s not like that, because you know our adrift Jedi heroes are promised a comeback. (Although perhaps being encased in carbonite until the whole thing blows over would be desirable.) I think it’s perhaps more like Dune (Part 1), which pretty much ends with the same mood as Star Wars, except you don’t know yet whether Part 2 has been green-lit by the studio, so maybe that's just it. And then if it does, you don't know whether it’ll discretely end at book one with a conventional hero's journey arc, or carry on to the bit where everyone’s enslaved by a sandworm. It kinda feels like it could go either way.
Anyway. While this year’s list required a lot more basic research to get the neurons firing, I do feel pretty good about the outcome. It’s an emotionally fitting accompaniment to the year, and I hope if you’re not already familiar with these records, that they bring you some joy.
“The Turning of Our Bones” was highlighted in last years list as the stand out single of the year, pre-empting the album that followed. That track remains as exhilarating and essential now as it was upon release, but “As Days Get Dark” as a whole meets and exceeds the high expectations. It could have been tricky to meet the hype when the first single for a project (and, in this case, first new music after a decade hiatus) is such a huge banger. “As Days Get Dark” turns out to be a quite complex record, and all the better for it. Aidan Moffet’s witty, intricate, tales of world-weariness and rain-soaked sleaze are compelling throughout. Musically it shifts from disco-beat laced indie, to more maudlin intricacy, and the record paces itself absolutely perfectly.
There’s a transcendent standout on the album in “Fable of the Urban Fox”, a tragic allegory for immigration in post- (and to be real, also pre-) Brexit Britain. Not only is it a highlight for Moffet’s lyrical skill, it’s the single-track combination of Malcolm Middleton’s more delicate folk guitar inspirations, shifting into the synth-bass backing, and a breathtaking strings break. Absolute perfection late in the record, sustained then by the intensely moving Sleeper. The record is triumphant, and an incredibly satisfying achievement for a band coming back together after 10 years.
Contrary to the above, perhaps one reason why my 2021 wasn’t entirely soundtracked by 1990s indie rock is this record of absurdly tight earworms. Michael M of Slime City and We Are The Physics leapt into my awareness through a plug in the B3ta newsletter for “Normalise This Very Niche Confession” and the bold declaration of having recorded “an album of bangers”. Utterly irreverent, very funny, extremely online songs, backed by an acute ear for a punk tune and an astonishing, sometimes infuriating restraint to keep the songs absolutely no longer than they conceptually need to be. “…Niche Confession” climaxes in the kind of melodic satisfaction that you could bounce around to indefinitely, but no! It’s done. M also immortalises the phrase “Flesh Tweet” in song, which might be the most iconic act of internet culture-crossing of all time.
The record nails the delicate art of writing a humorous record that is also actually good. He writes flippant, witty songs that don’t outstay the welcome by even a second. So, riffing on cyberbullying the internet’s balloon meme guy, recognizing that surviving the apocalypse is going to be a huge drag, or delivering a high concept anthem about deep-faking an apology when you get cancelled is all delightfully specific. Infectious riffs, and lyrics lurching between the absurd and outright nihilistic. “When The Bomb Drops (I Will Fucking Run Into It)” and “Mortality Maths” makes this a perfect venting of infuriation during a year where frustration has been relentless. Maybe not every song here will hold up forever, but it perfectly hits the spot right now in a way I deeply needed. Put it on, turn it up, enjoy the chaotic catharsis.
Public Service Broadcasting made a career out of craftily setting crackly monologues and old documentary voiceovers to soaring, danceable indie rock. Their ear for the anthemic took them far, but, I think it’s fair to say, there’s a point where a gimmick becomes a crutch and maybe sounds a little tired. “Bright Magic” is therefore a pretty glorious statement from the band, demonstrating afresh what they’re capable of, building a still robustly thematic record out of more subtle parts than their previous sample-heavy works.
It’s a record about urbanism, communities, people. Most directly inspired by time spent in Berlin, and embrace German language vocals throughout. Producing anthemic rock music (think Doves, Sea Power) laced more explicitly than ever with Germanic influences from Krautrock to Kraftwerk’s electronic innovations. In places, a beautifully moody accompaniment to misty days wandering alone through the grey, at others full of sonic defiance, lens flare through darkness (particular the punching, crunchiness of “Blue Heaven”; surely one of the singles of the year.) It’s a thoughtful, spacious record, accommodating big anthemic moments and also taking space with the three-part “Lichtspeil” composition near its close. It’s well paced. In a year that’s again kept us heavily housebound, and required forging new relationships with our places, with our environments, with our cities, it’s beautifully evocative.
Regular No Magic listener and sometime guest host Laura raved to me about Anna B Savage’s early releases, and holds up as one of the strongest new artist recommendations I think I’ve ever received. “A Common Turn” is a record that takes root in your mind, a reservation for something of greatness. As circumstances dictated in 2021, that plot in my mind was held open for longer as I couldn’t quite find the right moment to plant it. From the outset, this record carries weight, complexity, and class. It demands attention and a little focus. Attention that honestly, I didn’t have the capacity to give during a lot of the year. New music in 2021 has been really hard in that way for me. With everything so fragile, it’s sometimes hard to give a record the space it demands, and so you recoil. This is a record that could knock you flat, it’s so emotive, so moving. Under the present circumstances it’s not unreasonable to fear that you might not be able to get up again.
But, when it finally came, holy hell was it worth taking the time. This is a record of tremendous craft. A record that strips you bare early, moves you with its tremendous, intimate songs, and also lifts you euphorically with moments of expressive production. Working with William Doyle (see below), “A Common Turn” is filled with bird themes and achieves the same sense of alignment with nature that Doyle’s own records excel in, and also enjoy moments of his enthralling slides into the electronic.
Exquisite minor chords, small synth glitches in one moment, warm organs in another, songs shaped to be just what they need to be. Patient restraint to let Savage’s distinctive alto sing solo in a vacuum… it’s a record of incredible talent, ambition and expression. It maintains a feeling of being a small and intimate production. Yet within the small space these songs occupy, there’s real exhilaration in the shape of them.
Where Anna B Savage’s songs might delicately occupy the smallest of spaces, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s second Self Esteem album peaks on widescreen moments of bombast and scale. A record packed with lyrics of empowerment, made independently by someone making exactly the sort of music they want, and that music being substantially huge pop bangers. The whole package is opinionated, powerful, and mesmerizing.
The title track’s heart-stopping chorus pulls on the futurepop-driven trend for compression-glitching production, combined with a more conventionally huge choral backing. “How Can I Help You”’s pounding drum line and distorted vocals. The record goes for the jugular with intensity to match Taylor’s lyrics recoilling against abusive and self-sabotaging relationships alike.
At the other end, “I Do This All The Time” has been called out as a career highlight. An intricate monologue through regrets, bad decisions and relationship red flags that seem so obvious in retrospect. A self-described riff on the format of Baz Lurman’s “Sunscreen”, it’s a song writing pinnacle for Taylor whose ability to focus the intensely self-reflective has been on glistening display since Slow Club’s “Sorry About The Doom”.
There was a lot of other great stuff this year worthy of honourable mention.
As well as working with Anna B Savage as producer, William Doyle released his own album “Great Spans of Muddy Time”, full of wonderful, Eno-esque composition. Mogwai’s “As The Love Continues” is a great continuation of form, including the ongoing “Krautrock-Mogai-is-Best-Mogwai” “Richie Sacramento” (further exhibited by the total New-Orderification of the track by The Other Two remix.) Maxïmo Park showed themselves far from diminished as as a 3-piece, with “Nature Always Wins” filled with wonderful jangly indie delights. Hannah Peel maintained her prolific streak with “Fir Wave”, turning old Delia Derbyshire and Radiophonic Workshop recordings into instruments to compose a record packed with moody synth atmosphere and one absolute tune in “Emergence in Nature”. Low released “HEY WHAT”, a third album in their series working with producer BJ Burton, pushing the limits of musicality with the glitchy, compression-led production. It’s a worthy followup to previous album-of-the-year “Double Negative” (if perhaps less of a surprise.) I also really enjoyed Graham Coxon’s SuperState project (particularly opening jam “Yoga Town”).
I saw very little live music, for fairly obvious reasons. I know a lot of people have taken different approaches as things opened up a bit in the summer, but generally I’ve still erred away from big gatherings. San Francisco’s vaccine and mask mandate has made gathering somewhat more comfortable (pre-omicron, at least), and I’m incredibly grateful to this state and city for the consistent approach they’ve mostly taken throughout. Enabled by that, what little moments of live music I have seen have been precious. Of particular note has to be Kelly Lee Owens, whose delayed US tour reached the Starline Social Club in Oakland back in September. Her approach to techno is beautifully euphoric at the best of times, and the mix of ethereal floating and hard beat aggression that makes up her set was, simply, exactly what I needed. After everything, in a little moment between outbreaks, I couldn’t have imagined anything so perfectly, evocatively restorative as this set was. A bath of sound for your parched bones and soul. A feeling that I’m going to hold close as we continue into 2022 with all this exhausted trepidation.
What will 2022 bring? Who knows, really? Hopefully better things. But I hope you’ll keep listening to No Magic on Tuesday nights while we figure it all out.