Last year, when the world turned on its head, many of us found salvation in music. Be it the cherished albums that we’ve loved for years or the new releases that penetrated our defences, while everything else went crazy, music kept us grounded and inspired. This year has been a little different though. As winter melted away into spring, the real world started to become more, well, real. Then as we hit the summer months, something else miraculous happened – live music returned.
What remained the same though was a steady stream of brilliant artists creating music that moved us to tears, brought joy to our hearts and made us dance in sweat-drenched glee. As is often customary, we’ve compiled a list of the music that has connected with us the most this year. Rather than an arbitrarily ranked set though, we’ve once again allowed our contributors and some friends tell us about what they loved the most.
So here it is – Secret Meeting’s Albums of 2021…
Chris Hatch (writer)
Wild Pink – A Billion Little Lights
The vast, textural sweep of Wild Pink’s album hits you on the first few listens – those billion little lights fill up the night sky and tug on your soul, encouraging it to depart from your body and rise up into the ether. But the swathes of pulsing synths, humongous drums, and soul-searching vocals tell only half the story, because the real success of A Billion Little Lights lies in John Ross’ attention to detail. Each twinkle has been intricately crafted – from the vocal flutters on Amalfi, to the soaring saxophone that cuts through Pacific City. A Billion Little Lights is a record that has the power to make you completely and utterly forget yourself.
Armlock – Trust
Armlock’s debut record, Trust, really doesn’t belong on an End Of Year list. It’s not a straightforward record – simple acoustic songs are transformed into something less sweet. Glitchy, brittle production, and moody, half-sung vocals add a bitterness to what could have been forgettable songs. Instead, Armlock have managed to create an atmosphere and subtle intensity that makes Trust a record that pulls you back in time and time again. It’s a record that somehow manages to be simple, uncompromising, hummable, and bleak all at the same time. One listen and you’ll be hooked.
Vanessa Valentine (Writer)
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
In a year that has been difficult for so many, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was my personal antidote. The soul-baring record and fourth album by Little Simz, makes challenging subjects – youth violence, systemic racism, familial rifts – more manageable. The rapper bounces sonically between spoken word, classical, trap, R&B and electronic with ease, each track complimented by a narrative style that could stand against some of the greats.
Madi Diaz – History of a Feeling
Worlds apart but still relative in listenability is History of a Feeling. From when the record landed in my inbox back in June, it has been on repeat. Nashville’s Madi Diaz covers themes of heartache, heartbreak, anger and passion, making an album full of gut wrenching hits.
Check out our interview with Madi Diaz here.
Alanah Williams (writer)
Griff – One Foot In Front Of The Other
Storming onto the scene with the release of energetic and melodramatic, Black Hole, GRIFF has gone from strength to strength with each release, processing her grief and heartache with every line.
Her debut mixtape, One Foot In Front Of The Other, is teeming with euphoric contemplations on modern relationships and the drifting apart of family. Inciting joy through delectable vocalisations and delicately placed intonations, GRIFF has more than perfected her craft.
Totally flawless and featuring fistfuls of wonderful instrumentation, this short and sweet offering from GRIFF has more than earned its place as one of the best releases of the year.
Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
Combining spoken word poetry and sultry instrumentation, Arlo Parks has created her own unique blend of genre-fluid music. Releasing her debut studio album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, January this year, Parks stapled herself as one of the most versatile musicians of 2021. Fusing self-introspective lamentations with raw and heartfelt insights into mental health, Parks’ cool and sentimental demeanour lends an honest take on modern society.
LUMP – Animal
My weirdest dreams are made off of this year’s LUMP material. The association is perhaps not that surprising, given Laura Marling admits to having pulled plenty of imagery from her wonky dreams such as her mother in a pool with red snakes, or her therapist feeding her cucumber sandwiches while writing the album. Her homiletic, witty, straight-up strange yet oddly relevant lyricism is layered on Mike Lindsay’s patchwork sonic universe: the result is a psychoanalytic fuzz ball they named LUMP. The super-duo’s second album together crafts an epic journey of curious collusions and provocative premonitions.
With the title track, Animal, resounding like a pop VH1 teaser of Scissor Sisters or The Cardigans to teleport you back to a cereal morning, the whole album grabs you with various its cold-blooded stellar choruses. Sophisticatedly translated into the iconic pitch-shifter Eventide H949 Harmonizer, LUMP’s messages are of the future and the past, and for us all: ‘You lived inside your telephone/A place you could be alone’ sings the track Paradise as bits of memory revisit in stripped key words at the end over the raw and pulsating bass line. Hair on the Pillow happens to be a perfect interlude with its horror movie-toy box hybrid of glassiness reserved for an organic yet distorted folk modality — only to build up to what I deem the star of the whole album: We Cannot Resist. (Because, my object of choice is the oil that forms on a well-strung voice.) Indeed irresistible.
The instrumental palette of the album is as colorful as the tulles of LUMP (who communicates with us at the end of Gamma Ray), the pastoral flutes that land over a warm bed of vocal harmonies on Climb Every Wall, followed by wobbly contours of shifting French-retro chords are just one example. Animal is an odd pop album full of whimsical poetry found in Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay’s playfully dystopian cosmos. I cannot resist.
Check our our thoughts on Tendertwin’s single, Absolute Nobody, here.
Jay Singh (writer)
G. Brenner – Brushfire
This is an album that completely took me off guard. Across visceral electronic soundscapes, spectral ambiance and soaring gospel, Brenner muses on grief, gender and the state of our world with such incomparable vulnerability — every ounce of their spirit is felt throughout this record. From the strobe-lit catharsis of Dee Dee to the immediate, harsh comedown of Malignant and the overwhelming isolation of Caustic, Brushfire is a transformative record from a truly singular artist.
Arlo Parks – Collpased in Sunbeams
This has been a welcome and frequent companion this year, providing me with the soundtrack to a lot of life’s simple pleasures. Her soothing blend of indie pop and neo-soul is imbued with a captivating ease, while her carefully-penned words tell stories of hurt and hope, spilling over with lessons to learn. With every listen I can feel the warmth of a sunny day, an uplifting breeze and a friendly, familiar presence — it’ll stay in rotation for years to come.
Charlotte Croft (writer)
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
London quartet, Wolf Alice boast BHE (Big Headliner Energy) with their third release, Blue Weekend. Listening to the LP for the first time is an exhilarating experience for all the senses. Highlights include ethereal epic, How Can I Make it OK?, where Ellie Rowsell’s vocals ricochet against searing guitars and a goosebump-inducing synthline that merge to create a contemporary dream pop sound. Acoustic ballad, Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love), is a saccharine strum offering adorned with melodic mantras to be shared with the listener, while Play the Greatest Hits, brings the noise and accelerates with Rowsell’s enraged screeching and guttural instrumentals.
Listening to the LP for the tenth time still evokes the same thrill. It’s like those first moments after getting off a rollercoaster; satisfyingly stunned and itching to be catapulted into adrenaline-filled soundscapes once more.
Nation of Language – A Way Forward
The Brooklyn trio have certainly had a less than ordinary start having released not one but two albums in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and lockdowns-a-plenty. Despite not being able to tour any of their material initially, this thankfully hadn’t affected the synth-pop outfit too much, with their music still travelling across the globe via the airwaves and other virtual realms.
Their sophomore release, A Way Forward, is an electric dream filled with 80s synth arpeggios which channel the likes of New Order and The Human League and bejewelled with addictive melodies and driving basslines. With the release of the LP taking place towards the end of 2021, it signifies hope that their sounds can not only fill ears and hearts but venues once more.
Joey Cobb (White Flowers)
Dean Blunt – Black Metal 2
Dean Blunt’s latest LP, Black Metal 2, the sequel to 2014’s Black Metal, is the strongest realisation of his vision to date. The often scattered and difficult avant-garde arrangements, sound collages and field recordings of Blunt’s numerous mixtapes and side-projects have here been distilled into a coherent, affecting whole. At just 24 minutes in length, the album plays out like a short-film score, aided by haunting orchestral arrangements on SKETAMINE and the rot. Contributions from frequent collaborators, Joanne Robertson and Mica Levi, add an other-worldliness that reels you in deeper each listen.
Check out our review of White Flowers’ album, Day by Day, here.
Craig Howieson (writer)
Current Joys – Voyager
Each year there are a handful of records that sneak up on me. A cursory listen leads to further investigation which in time often develops into a full blown obsession and I find I have listened to that record more than any other. That record for me this year was Voyager, the seventh full length from Nick Rattigan under his Current Joys’ moniker. A bold statement, it shares a similar feeling of artistic intent with Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus. It is a record that not only draws a line in the sand for Rattigan but stamps it into the earth. Within its chambers of baroque alt rock are anguished pleas, forlorn longing and sincere acceptance. Grand, cinematic and larger than the sum of its parts, Voyager is simply a stunning collection from a gifted writer.
Charlie Martin – Imaginary People
It may seem odd to pick Charlie Martin’s solo record as a favourite of a year in which we have again been blessed by another album from his full time band, Hovvdy. But such is the beauty of Imaginary People that I feel it would be a disservice to this list not to include it. Martin and Will Taylor have long proven with Hovvdy that they are true masters of the game when it comes to melodic structures and layering sounds. But on Imaginary People, we can hear the truly mesmerising mechanics of Martin’s process. The record is abound with ear worms and uplifting chordal modulations that make it an album worthy of any year end list.
Chris Jopson (Adventures In New Music podcast)
The Boys Of Perpetual Nervousness – Songs From Another Life
What a year 2021 has been for music. It feels like we have well and truly caught up, and been treated to some fantastic releases that had previously been delayed due to this never ending pandemic. Looking back through the sixty albums we have featured on the podcast over the last year, it’s an almost impossible task to pinpoint one album as a standout, but let’s give it a go eh!!
Our podcast, Adventures in New Music, is all about discovering and listening to new music, so it only seems right to highlight an album by a band that I hadn’t previously heard of, and an album that came as a lovely surprise when it was released back in February. That album is Songs From Another Life by The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness.
This album is the second LP from the Scottish/Spanish duo of Gonzalo Marcos and Andrew Taylor (I’ll leave you to guess which is from where…), and is jangle pop at its finest and most upbeat. Recorded separately in two different countries, this album harks back to the likes of The Byrds and The Beach Boys, but sounding like it’s been covered by Belle and Sebastian. It’s Rickenbacker-tastic and became the soundtrack to most of my year – the perfect album to pull you out of the dark, depressing lockdown at the start of the year, and equally a great album to throw on at a sunny BBQ. Its runtime of just 27 minutes makes it one of those albums that you can easily stick on repeat and enjoy over and over.
And I recommend you do just that! Songs From Another Life by The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness – my album of 2021.
Check out the Adventures In New Music on your preferred podcast provider.
Isobel Wise (writer)
William Doyle – Great Spans of Muddy Time
So rarely does an album and its artwork seem so perfectly paired. The Dutch oil that graces the cover is one of meticulous detail, with its winged creatures stripped of all movement, even frozen mid-flight. Lingering upon a journey of bewildering cognisance, Doyle himself gives the impression of one stuck, here pondering the how rather than the what. Nothing At All – a track for all its delightful synth pop, details the difficult, elusive and seemingly perpetual journey of putting feeling into words. It’s a journey I found myself relating to, finding comfort in a shared – ironically, spoken – experience. With its melodies, introspection, and wordless soundscapes, Great Spans of Muddy Time quickly secured its place as one of my AOTY.
Anna B. Savage – A Common Turn
I came across A Common Turn by Anna B Savage after seeing her for the first time at End of the Road. As tracks from her latest record tore through the crowd, her set was an essay in devastating beauty, reducing many to tears and captivating all within earshot. Relistening to the album now, this performance maintains a lasting impression on me, being one of the best introductions to an artist I’ve ever had. Eloquent without ever feeling overstated, A Common Turn charms with its humour, self-reflection and honesty, with the added touches of William Doyle’s production culminating in a work of sheer brilliance. Not since Carrie & Lowell have I felt so moved by an album; it’s not only a favourite of 2021, but perhaps of all time.
Philip Moss (writer)
Mega Bog – Life, And Another
Born in a cabin in New Mexico. Part recorded on gas station car parks while on tour. Mega Bog’s Life, And Another is a world all of its own. Jazz inspired flurries, experimental meanderings, brilliant pop hooks – stylistically a sonic sibling in so many ways to Cassandra Jenkins’ also wonderful An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. I also can’t think of a more poetic – or addictive – chorus this year: ‘So, take me for the music / Take me for a human / The flower of the song’ A beautiful image. A stunning record.
Lael Neale – Acquainted With Night
My second pick could so easily have been Lucy Dacus’ Home Video, or my most played in recent weeks, Steve Gunn’s Other You. Or even, having finally unleashed it into the world, White Flowers’ Day By Day. But Lael Neale’s second album, Acquainted With Night, has been a firm favourite all year. As autumn turns its back, Blue Vein’s snapshot of wintery isolation is the perfect soundtrack for the creeping dark nights. While Every Star Shivers in the Dark’s timeless chorus shimmers like magic amongst the fuzz. So often records released in the early part of the year (Acquainted With Night) get lost when it comes to end of year lists, but this a special LP that can’t be forgotten.
Anjali DasSarma (writer)
Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
The first time I ever heard Sufjan Stevens, I was laying with my face pressed into my then-friend’s comforter, brimming with all of the emotions that come with the first year of college – autonomy-related mostly. He, of course, had to soundtrack the moment, and turned on Death With Dignity. With those first melodic notes, my life was forever changed. They swam into my head and I remember tearfully looking up at him and asking him: Who is this? And of course, as only Sufjan Stevens could do, his music permeated every moment of my four years of college, to the point where my roommates would hear Carrie and Lowell from underneath the crack in my closed door and would tentatively knock and inquire on my well-being. That same semester, after I became obsessed with Carrie and Lowell, my best friend and I sat in her car, taking in the waterfall of noise that is Impossible Soul, watching the torrents of rain shower down on all four sides of us, while Sufjan made good on his promise to whisk us away into 25 minutes of bliss.
I could go on and on about my love and tenderness for Sufjan, from Age of Adz to Seven Swans, to my favourite, Carrie and Lowell, but this is all important background knowledge for when I turned on A Beginner’s Mind. Tears filled my eyes as I realised that in the four years since that moment, Sufjan had been holding my hand the entire time. Without a doubt, my favourite from the album is Reach Out, which is based upon of the film Wings of Desire, in which an angel becomes mortal to feel what humans feel. For that reason, Reach Out felt like a cosmic reminder that there is, in fact, a moment, a pocket, for each emotion we find ourselves wrestling with. A Beginner’s Mind feels like the ghostly, floral sister to Carrie and Lowell’s almost macabre subterranean nature, and Angelo De Augustine could not have been a better choice of collaborator. The two are a perfect pair, and for me, personally, this album is a beautiful callback to the darkness and the acknowledgement of growth, bursting through, without forgetting all that got me here.
Dave Bertram (writer)
Sun June – Somewhere
Both of the records I’ve chosen are hardly wildcard picks in a year of wonderful releases. I’m sure they feature highly on many of the SM team’s lists and the artists we’ve worked with. But they landed at a point when I had barely listened to anything for almost three months and had little intention of doing; and they pushed the floodgates open.
The delicate, expansive sound of Sun June’s Somewhere is incredibly addictive; infectious clean, reverb-laden guitar melodies sit wonderfully with Laura Colwell’s soft patter, maybe no better than on Everything I Had and Once in a While. But Karen O steals the show. It aches and yearns. A reflection of an important moment – cemented through a connection to music (that be seeing Karen O live in a basement in Brooklyn) – that simmers into a crescendo with great restraint. The open chords that fill the sound are just fucking wonderful.
Wild Pink – A Billion Little Lights
I found the same addictive softness of Sun June’s Somewhere in Wild Pink’s third record, A Billion Little Lights. It trades the semi-emo and War On Drugs threads that run through Yolk in the Fur for something a little lighter, but without losing any of that jaded americana. Any keen fans of The Kissaway Trail will notice the similarities in the opening bars of The Wind is like a Train, which pulses along with a blend of keys, slide guitars and choral voices. And the Springsteen undertones are palpable throughout, particularly on the folk-driven verses of You Can Have it Back.
Jo Higgs (writer)
Jpegmafia – LP!
From the signature snapping of do you think you know me? in the first seconds of LP!, peggy is in form and ready to go. There’s enough in common with Veteran and Cornballs for it to seem like a progression spurred out of the same mind, but with each twist and turn, or each increasingly melodious cut, the opening question becomes more insistently teasing. There’s plenty of constants to each jpegmafia record, in a sense that keeps it all recognisably peggy, but recognising isn’t knowing and both the production and lyrics on this project ensure so many surprises that the peggy you thought you knew at TRUST! is far from the peggy you know come BALD! REMIX.
Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
The explorative vocoder that 17 opens with acts as a mission statement for Any Shape You Take, a ballsy clarification of De Souza’s intention to make more noise, or certainly more noises. Its predecessor, I Love My Mum, is a wonderful project in its own right, but after signing to Saddle Creek and finding herself with greatly increased means to record, De Souza took the opportunity to record music that she outright couldn’t have before. The melodies and lyrics are as infectious and loveable as ever, but with a vicious bite to the sonic side of them, ensuring Any Shape rings out hard and strong, always begging for another listen.
Neil Riddell (writer)
Allison Russell – Outside Child
Flying solo for the first time, outstanding Canadian singer and musician, Allison Russell, tackles one of the most harrowing of topics – the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at her stepfather’s hands. Yet this is no plea for sympathy; the inner strength, dignity and grace required to turn Outside Child into a cathartic, life-affirming and frequently joyous artistic statement is hard to fathom: ‘My petals are bruised but I’m still a flower,’ she sings. Long may she bloom.
Valerie June – The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
There is a captivating, otherworldly quality to Valerie June’s voice befitting the astral imagery she frequently deploys. In this planet’s terminology, the album is a lushly-produced melting pot of soul, country, pop, gospel and R&B. And while it often sounds like she’s been beamed in from elsewhere, lyrically she’s all about showing resilience and bringing joy to earth. With songs as jaw-droppingly great as the piano-led Why the Bright Stars Glow, her mission is definitely succeeding.
Joseph Purcell (writer)
Anna B. Savage – A Common Turn
My first selection is from the early part of 2021, in the shape of the wonderful A Common Turn by Anna B Savage. An album so compelling and expansive, it has kept me returning throughout the year. Packed with internal monologues of strife, centred around the artist’s own struggles, I found it a beautifully haunting creation, typified by the majestic broody air on standout Corncrakes. Savage throughout builds her storybook to epic crescendos, while melding the different sounds of so many influences in such an awkward yet thrilling unison.
Hovvdy – True Love
At the mid-point of 2021, my second choice would have been the delightful Imaginary People by Hovvdy’s Charlie Martin – a record full of optimistic disposition, boundless and unconstrained. It is a real treasure. However, come October, Martin was back under the Hovvdy moniker with bandmate Will Taylor on their incredible record, True Love. Packed with the whispering lo-fi and choral landscapes of sound that epitomise the Hovvdy experience, tracks such as True Love and Blindsided are as close to perfection as anything I’ve heard for a long time. Every time I play the record, I hear new subtleties that excite me once again – a career highlight from the Austin pair.
Phil Scarisbrick (writer)
For Those I Love – For Those I Love
Driven by a soundtrack more akin to nineties trance than a lot of what we hear from modern electronica isn’t something that would normally turn my head. After hearing Chris and Andy talk about it so enthusiastically on the Adventures In New Music podcast though, I had to dive in.
That first listen was a transformative experience. The earnest, heartbreaking unravelling of David Balfe’s grief for the loss of his friend and former band mate, Paul Curran, who died from suicide. The tracks are littered with audio clips of Balfe, Curran and their friends adds to the already visceral depiction of working class youth in Dublin. The album starts defiantly with Balfe stating ‘I have a love, and it never fades’, before the album’s final lyrics, as the weight of the whole situation is unveiled throughout , concede ‘ I have a love, and it’s full of pain.’
Figure of Speech – Figure of Speech?
I knew absolutely nothing about this album or artist until I saw Billy Nomates – and later former Portishead and current BEAK> man, Geoff Barrow – retweet its release information on a recent Bandcamp Friday. After deciding to take a complete punt on it, I dropped the needle a few days later on record that is full of the anger, frustration and pain that still inhabits many people’s lives in 2021.
Written in the aftermath of the murder of Geroge Floyd, it tackles the issues of racism that momentarily hit the top of the news agenda, until the performative displays of solidarity and gesture politics faded away to be replaced by some other bullshit, solving nothing. Written from a deeply personal perspective of the lived experiences of a black man in Britain in the 21st Century, and delivered over some perfectly weighted beats composed by Boca 45, it is not only a sonically gripping album, but also an essential one educationally.
Tobias Moore (Writer)
Blood Wizard – Western Spaghetti
A true storyteller and not the kind to need to sit you around a fire when doing so, the nomadic narrations of Blood Wizard has been a real favourite of mine this year. As we follow him across sand and soil, Cai Burns aka Blood Wizard brings vigour to the day to day musings of life through the ghoulish glow of debut record, Western Spaghetti.
Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Buck Meek and the Keeled Scales crew in this modern day renaissance of ‘country’ music, Burns not only seems at ease within the genre, but also interjects a distinctive flair and originality to separate him from those within that sphere.
And it’s not just his distinctive aesthetic that sets Burns apart. Embracing a playful surrealism in both look and production, the works of Blood Wizard have an endearing timeless quality about them. It’s a record that despite its, at points, cosmic soundscaping, it would not feel out of place in my Grandad’s vinyl collection.
Burns’ ability to blend the eccentric with the everyday is also something that deserves applaud and the spiralled fleetings of conversation that close out Halo show just that. The songs of Blood Wizard take you on a trip of time. Bob’s Big Arms invokes a melancholic romanticism of the past while tucked away from the gothic tinged country sounds lies Somehow I knew – a song that despite its difference in sound feels so at home within the album. And the huge hooks of Burns’ chorus’s indicate a songwriter far from limited to just the one genre.
An album that encourages you to embrace the present as well as to reflect on the past, Western Spaghetti has a real driving force behind it. And perhaps that’s why it resonated with me so much, because it was on the roads that I listened most to this afore mentioned ‘driving force’. Be it a late night trip to the supermarket or an early morning long haul, there was a certain comfort and optimism that blossomed from the sounds of Western Spaghetti. The music of Blood Wizard really holds the power to transport you, and in my case it did that both physically and metaphorically.
Check out our An End of Year Review 2021: Songs here.
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