An End of Year Review 2021: Songs

Following our An End of Year Review 2021: Albums, it is now the time for us to share some of our favourite songs from this year. At Secret Meeting, it feels extremely important to share and support the new music that we love. Given our wide range of contributors, it would be wrong for us to try and create a list of songs that we feel is definitive. So, instead, let our writers explain why these songs have felt so vital this year:

Ada Lea – Damn

by Tobias Moore

On damn, Ada Lea highlights her skill at narrating the often overlooked elements of day to day life.

With poetic vocal wandering, and the, at points, raw intimacy and vulnerability of her voice, it makes damn almost feel like you’re scrolling through a diary, or, at the very least their digital equivalent – late night phone notes. Yet, although this shows the song’s softer side, as it develops and spirals into its climax, Lea underlines the vast array of her talents: an ability to combine her compelling vocal power with the initial tenderness, which runs throughout second record, one hand on the steering wheel, the other sewing a garden.

Much like we heard on her debut, what we say in private, the aptly named perfect world being a perfect example, Lea’s experimental manipulation of texture almost mirrors the states that our minds wander to. However, despite this theme seeming apparent in all of her songwriting, it would be incorrect to say her new work is cut entirely from the same cloth. As from the outside, damn seems to be a track of transition. Showing a numbness, an almost removed perspective for the most part of the song, it is only as it enters its final stages that the raw chaos that Lea so brilliantly controls appears once more.

Order a copy of Zine 11 to read our exclusive interview with Ada Lea here.

Andy Shauf – Spanish on the Beach

by Craig Howieson

New music from Andy Shauf always feels like an invitation into a new world, or at least a chance to walk the streets in shoes that are not your own. Shauf has a unique eye for the intricate delicacies that day to day lives are built upon. He zooms in on moments the majority of us may miss or take for granted – a modern day Hemingway or Proust – and his resulting records and songs become shared experiences of mini snapshots in time.

Taken from album, WildsSpanish On The Beach, Shauf twirls us by the hand through the sweetness of a holiday break, where everyday trials and grievances are forgotten, perfection is abound and foolhardy dreams of embarrassing wedding proposals don’t seem too silly an idea. Set to a minimalist backdrop of soothing soft rock, propped up by woodwind, arpeggiated guitar and wobbling bass, Shauf’s quivering yet controlled lilt provides respite from the knowing dread that all good things must pass. This holiday, and potentially even this relationship will end, but Shauf is making hay while the sun shines. ‘I wished it could be permanent,’ he sings as the song closes. Don’t we all.

Read our interview with Andy Shauf here.

Armlock – Power of a Waterfall

by Chris Hatch

There’s a duality that runs throughout Power Of A Waterfall – its rudimentary, boxy guitars, and dry, distorted drum track make up a sense that, musically, it’s an unfinished demo. Its chorus comes by as an almost imperceptible change in chord structure – there is no production trickery to raise it up, or to make it soar. Instead, Armlock press home their melody with a hypnotic persistence – their grip on you tightens gradually – slowly – so much so that by the end of the track that boxy drum track is thudding with anger, that simple acoustic guitar sounds gigantic, and a blotch of white skin on your wrist marks out the inverse shadow of where they’ve held you – shackled.

Lyrically, the Melbourne duo address a distaste for the idea of a modern masculinity, or of modern life in general. Inter-cutting inconsequential, petty concerns with moments of abstract philosophy (‘Iron the crease/Truth is a virtue/Blood in the water/Burn off the thought/PAYG’) – it feels like pages torn from business manuals and self help books – snippets of the monotony of daily life are laid out against an existential search for identity. Its chorus wrestles with the frustration of needing to inhabit multiple guises – lover, breadwinner, carer – ‘You’re a man that’s what you said/Put food on the table and put sheets on the bed/pull yourself up/Get something to prove/Your foot on the shovel and your hands on the book.’

The modest production, and clipped, pieced-together lyrics are a trick of misdirection – you barely notice that its hypnotic, meditative structure and melody have wound their way tight up against you. Harnessing the power of subtlety, taken from album, Trust, this is a uniquely coaxing debut single.

Read our interview with Armlock here.

Ashley Shadow ft. Bonnie Prince Billy – Don’t Slow Me Down

by Phil Scarisbrick

Before the release of her second album – Only the End – Vancouver-native, Ashley Shadow put out the first taste via lead single, Don’t Slow Me Down. A duet with Bonnie Prince Billy, the track is a country-tinged folk ballad that celebrates experience, and the ability to push back on the inevitability of missing out on something.

A gently strummed electric guitar provides an anchor for the lush sounding slide guitar and the intertwining voices of Shadow and Will Oldham. With the former taking the first verse, before passing on the baton, it is when their two voices come together that the song really takes off. As they sing the eponymous hook, they invert the dynamic as Oldham swings from taking the low melody to the high in the space of four words.

‘Uncertain tomorrow would be here at all / We outran the darkness and shook off the cold / Taking back feeling from all it controlled,’ they sing, defiantly usurping what is expected of life in search of happiness.

Bleach Lab – Real Thing

by Phil Scarisbrick

Bleach Lab’s A Calm Sense of Surrounding EP explored the all-encompassing shroud that grief can impart on a person. Drawn from personal experiences, the exploration of loss showed incredible depth, not only lyrically, but in the musical palettes over which they’re delivered. Taken from the Nothing Feels Real EP, single – Real Thing – the group once again use their music to process the complex emotions that our connections with others instil in us.

Though not strictly about the anguish of loss that directed their previous release, the impact of such events is imbued in this new track. Rather than focussing on the past though, Jenna Kyle’s intentions are forward-facing. Using everything that has gone before to consciously do better for herself, and build positive relationships, rather than meandering into the new still scarred and unable to trust.

The soundtrack mixes electronic beats with a bright, infectious guitar riff. Kyle’s vocals sit somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor’s on Massive Attack’s Teardrop, and Roxette’s equally anthemic – though wholly different – It Must Have Been Love. In fact, there is a real nostalgia to the whole feel of the track, which juxtaposes with future-orientated theme of the lyrics. The knack for combining these familiar, though not derivative melodies with deeply affecting words is clearly not an accident, and with legendary producer, Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur), now on board, Real Thing being their most accomplished track to date.

Order a copy of Zine 11 to read our exclusive interview with Bleach Lab here.

Career – Microwave

by Chris Hatch

‘My head feels like a microwave meal!’ is the repeated lyric on the latest single from Bingo Records’ career, and it doesn’t take long for that hypnotic phrase to work its way to your core and radiate the image of an endlessly rotating, disembodied head.

If previous single, Natural Energy, saw career barrel out of the traps with an upbeat hit of hyperactive post-punk, their new single finds them exploring the abstract. Over a spiky, slowly ascending guitar line, lead singer, Joe Leppard, envisions his mental state as that of a microwave meal – ‘hot on the outside, and cold in the middle’. Its chorus, a scattergun of barre chords akin to the more traditional punk of The Damned or The Buzzcocks, is sandwiched between verses that have the odd, jerky qualities of Primus or Devo – a little bit like The Fall playing some rockabilly over a two-step drum line.

Microwave’s barbed guitars, off-kilter lyrics, and joyfully absurd sensibility is a pretty accurate reflection of career’s EP, Letting Out The Slack – a mixture of roving post-punk, unexpected twists and turns, and strange, sideways-looking lyrics.

Carpet – Burnt and Cold

by Philip Moss

Running a recording studio can be an ‘around the clock’ job. And the chance to work on your own material can get lost in the blur of time, as you focus your energies into the work of others. But having been part of the team that runs Greenmount Studios in Leeds, Crake drummer, Rob Slater, has dived head first into the introspective on Burnt and Cold – using studio down time to his advantage for the first release from his new venture, Carpet.

Drawn back to the spirit that first allured him to four track, bedroom recording – alone and committing his ideas straight to tape – Slater’s first release as Carpet has all the lo-fi spits and splutters to suggest that his upcoming EP is a slacker classic in the making. His ear for arrangement sends your brain up the snakes , and down the ladders – when it feels like it should kick in, it doesn’t, and when it feels like Slater’s voice will launch into a yelp, it still doesn’t. But the beauty here is in the restraint, and this is a very exciting addition to the US-Alt (via Yorkshire) section of your local record store.

Companion – How Could I Have Known

by Ben McLellan

Exploring the fragile and transient nature of existence and love through the prism of personal experience, How Could I Have Known both fears loss, and embraces it as a necessary element of life.

Heartbreakingly poignant – folky and intimate – this debut single subtly builds into a lush, ethereal soundscape of tight, familial harmonies from twin sisters, Sophia and Jo Babb. Feeling immediately accomplished, confident, focused and cohesive, we await what comes next with baited breath.

Dan Wriggins – The Diner

by Stewart Cheetham

Over the past five years or so, Dan Wriggins has been quietly affirming himself as one of the most unique songwriters and frontmen in alternative music with his Philadelphia based band, Friendship.

Wriggins is known for his distinctive, almost spoken word voice, delivering witty observations and the relaying of intimate conversations. Just fourteen months on since Friendship’s last record, Dreamin’The Diner – the first solo offering from the songwriter – sees the instrumentation distilled to just an acoustic guitar, sparse drums and the violin of Lina Tullgren, which adds a whole new weight to his contemplations – summed up by the song’s crushing final line, ‘I’m still learning from you, I’m still realising the value.’

Gruff Rhys – Loan Your Loneliness

by Phil Scarisbrick

It would probably be accurate to say that Gruff Rhys has made a career out of revelling in the unconventional. Though his art is often lazily labelled under any number of over-saturated genre tags from ‘psychedelic’ to ‘space-rock’, it would be remiss to merely dismiss his music as any of these. The reason his music can be described as unconventional is because it mines deep into the catacombs of subjects that have largely remained dormant from the steely eyes of creatives previously. From delving into the life of explorer, John Evans, on American Interior to the combination of African music and his native Cymraeg on Pang!, Rhys’ work is always abundantly interesting.

New record, Seeking New Gods, is no different. Originally conceptualised as an autobiography of an East Asian active volcano called Mount Paeku, it evolved into a more expansive study of the relationship between geological permanence and the fleeting existence of people and civilisations. Sonically and melodically, Loan Your Loneliness feels like ELO, The Beach Boys and Queen have decided to dispense with the bombast and meld their respective talents for a soundtrack that is overflowing with hooks. A phased guitar line makes fleeting appearances throughout, before completely taking over the track for the sprawling outro. While the accompanying video is a series of layered monochrome images that have colours seep into frame during the concluding third of the track, the song itself is packed with vibrant colour from the outset.

Though its six minute length may feel like a bit much for a lead single on paper, it certainly doesn’t feel like it outstays its welcome.

Read our interview with Gruff Rhys here.

Hovvdy – True Love

by Tobias Moore

Brimming with the understated optimism that Texan two piece, Hovvdy, have become renowned for, True Love sees the duo yet again escape from the paces of real life, as they encourage you to believe eternal summer is upon us. Still scattered with field recordings, True Love‘s upbeat core makes it a song that seems destined to welcome them into ears beyond their current cult fanbase.

Now coupled with producer Andrew Sarlo (Big Thief, Courtney Marie Andrews), his influence cannot be underestimated, as the textural spontaneity associated with his work with Justin Vernon shines through. But as much as Sarlo’s skill is apparent, so too is the feel of lead singer, Charlie Martin’s recent release, Imaginary People. Possessing the ageless warmth of last year’s Runner and the sing-along qualities of Cathedral, True Love is a song that, while still distinctively Hovvdy, offers something much bigger and brighter than anything we’ve heard from them before.

Read our interview with Hovvdy here.

Indigo De Souza – Kill Me

by Craig Howieson

It’s no stretch to say that we are all a little messed up in our own way. We view the world through our own uniquely cracked lens, and strive for and submit to a set of expectations that of course makes seamless interaction with the world at large a difficult proposition. Kill Me, the lead single from her Saddle Creek release, Any Shape You Take, provides a glimpse back into her world and the fraught despondency that comes from hanging on to something (or someone) we maybe shouldn’t.

Following on from her debut I Love My Mom, which received its own reissue on Saddle Creek earlier this year, Kill Me loses none of the immediacy of her songwriting, but doubles down on the intensity. Beginning in the eye of the storm, a gentle electric guitar and De Souza’s free roaming vocal line do little to warn of the imminent cyclone of grunge to come. And the track continues in this vein with brief moments of sweetness and melodious bass lines disintegrating into monuments of guitar – picture a Pixies for millennials and you are getting close.

It is as if you have capsized in the storm and are only just managing a rescuing breath of air before the next wave hits – with each one bigger than the last. By the outro, it seems obscene that De Souza can build the track more, but she does, and it is at this point you realise that, in fact, you are not drowning, but all that baggage and negativity you have been holding onto is being washed away.

Kill Me sounds like a mere taste of what is to come from De Souza, which makes the fact that at one point – hidden among layers of distortion – she sings ‘no one’s hearing what I’m saying’ all the more endearing. There will be plenty of people listening now.

Read our interview with Indigo De Souza here.

Le Ren – Dyan

by Philip Moss

No matter how hard you squint, the line on the horizon where folk and country music meet remains a blur. And if you look ‘into the centre of the sun’ as Le Ren aka Lauren Spear does on new single, Dyan, the distinction won’t become any clearer – just as it doesn’t throughout the first taster lifted from her debut album, Leftovers.

There have been other nuggets from the Montreal songwriter that have whet the appetite for her first long player – a Sub Pop released double A side, last year’s four track Morning & Melancholia EP, and the cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain that featured Buck Meek from February. But Dyan feels like a step up. Timeless. A self portrait splashed with Spear’s deep, rich melody, which gently two steps above her Leonard Cohen alike guitar picks. She sings a gentle ode to the space that has grown between her and her mother – a feeling emphasised by the pandemic – and the everyday triggers that crop up to remind her of the importance of familial love.

Order a copy of Zine 11 to read our exclusive interview with Le Ren here.

Little Kid – John Arnott

by Dave Bertram

There’s something about an obscure inspiration behind a track that makes you listen that bit closer. John Arnott, the stand alone single from Toronto’s indie four-piece, Little Kid – their first material since the band’s last record Transfiguration Highway ­­– takes its cues from the aforementioned Pastor who spearheaded a Christian revival in the city more than two decades ago.

And intriguing it is. Heavy, looping guitars and metronomic, booming drums circle around a four-note riff throughout – interspersed with distorted vocals that recall a less direct and less fiery Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) on his sophomore record, Good Morning Spider.

But for all the energy of the instrumentation, the pace holds a comfortable sway that gives the track a dreamy, airy and spacey aura that even at just under seven minutes still feels a little short!

Lou Roy – Valkyrie

by Gemma Laurence

Vivacious, energetic, and more than a little tongue-in-cheek, Lou Roy lives by the mantra ‘joy is king!’ And it tracks – the Californian alt-pop artist makes music that is filled to the brim with joy; it overflows from her lyrics, her poppy sonic palette, and her energetic storytelling. It seeps into every line and measure, creating a carefree listening experience that allows listeners to forget about their worries altogether. And her latest single, Valkyrie, (the artist’s first release off of Balloon Machine), is no exception.

If Fiona Apple were to collaborate with Sylvan Esso on a song about Norse mythology, it might sound something a little like Valkyrie. Quirky, upbeat, and a little sassy, it’s an off-kilter alt pop jam inspired by (in Lou’s words) ‘the female figures in Norse mythology who ride horses through the sky with big, long swords and are very sick,’ who she summons ‘to slay all those fuckers who have hurt me in the past.’ Iconic much? Just listen to the track – the playful twist of comedy and wit adds an extra layer to the otherwise irresistibly catchy indie pop jam. Combining breathy harmonies with catchy synth melodies, found sounds, and an eclectic variety of textures, the world of Valkyrie matches the many moods of the song.

Co-produced by Lou Roy and Sarah Tudzin (Illuminati Hotties), the song is not all fun and games; using humour to tackle the trauma of her past, Roy delves into deeper matters with an uplifting lilt. Tackling trauma and rage with a lighthearted touch, Loy Roy’s latest single hits the perfect balance between levity and depth.

Mr Ben & The Bens – How Do I Get To You?

by Philip Moss

How does Mr Ben do it? Dug from the same rich soil as Life Drawing, the Lancaster native’s allotment keeps on giving, as he returns with Melody Shed EP – the first harvest, How Do I Get to You?, sprouting just nine months after the release of his 2020 long player.

The opening, Nuggets-alike guitar hits like the zing of a pack of salt and vinegar crisps – with its narrative finding our protagonist on a journey through his usual haunts. The ‘how’ of the chorus soon turns to an optimistic ‘when’, and by the time the victory dance of trumpets enter in the middle eight, How Do I Get to You? is already a winner.

How does he he do it? Because Mr Ben really is a special songwriter – and despite not needing How Do I Get to You? to confirm this, it certainly furthers the claim. 

Read our interview with Mr Ben here.

Natalie Bergman – Shine Your Light on Me

by Philip Moss

What is ‘light’? A word that conjures a spectrum of interpretations, to Natalie Bergman, it is entangled in the connotations of childhood faith. A faith that, when told that her father and stepmother had been killed as she was about to step onto the stage at New York’s Radio City Hall, was tested beyond what she could ever have imagined. But for the songwriter, ‘light’ also meant hope. And the outcome of this faith and hope combining is Shine Your Light On Me.

If Bergman’s voice sounds familiar, that is because – for the last decade – she has fronted the duo, Wild Belle, with her brother. But Shine Your Light On Me presents her vision through a different prism. Born out of the deepest possible hurt, the songwriter has conjured a message of warmth. Its choral refrain is the perfect display of when heartfelt words and earmworm melody combine – tonally landing somewhere between Lee Hazelwood’s work with Nancy Sinatra, and Duffy’s Rockferry. But this second single from her debut LP is rooted in the gospel framework, and the outcome is an uplifting show of strength and resilience – which was found in the worst of moments.

Read our interview with Natalie Bergman here.

Shannon Lay – A Thread to Find

by Philip Moss

On A Thread to Find, Shannon Lay searches for the real and finds it, as she hones in on the ways in which humans can grow – regardless of the circumstance.

If previous album, August, released almost exactly two years ago to the day, was a celebration, then A Thread to Find is a realisation – emphasised by its weightless contentment. ‘You’re on your own, but not alone,’ Lay sings as the song floats to its conclusion – denoting the positivity in her outlook, which is present in both in lyrical and musical tone. She understands that she won’t get everything her own way, but has no expectations of this – as her voice modestly soars with a confidence and a crystal clarity that’s only aided by the host of musical friends who back her both on this offering and long player, Geist, alike – with Woods’ Justin Tavinere (Purple Mountains) on production duties, as well as Ty Segall and Ben Boye (Bonnie Prince Billy) also amongst the credits. Another splendid single to be lifted from her fourth solo album, Geist.

Squirrel Flower – Hurt a Fly

by Philip Moss

Songs can often be born from a moment. A solitary event that spears enough emotion that the only way it can be released is onto the page, and combined with chords and melody. But the real special ones don’t just speak about that ‘one time’ – that moment – but about wider, relatable situations.

‘I tried to be lyrical, but lyrics failed me, so I gave up poetry,’ Ella O’ Connor Williams sang on I-80, the opening track on her debut album, I Was Born Swimming. But poetry isn’t needed here. More immediate, Hurt a Fly is a song conceived from an instance. Taking on the persona of manipulative lover, it is the outpouring of feelings to a circumstance that, even in occurring once, it is once too much. it doesn’t require any flowery language. And like the leap from early folk leanings that Sharon Van Etten made on Tramp, there is a growl to Ali Chant (PJ Harvey, White Flowers, Perfume Genius)’s production on the first release from album, Planet (i): the percussion is throbbing and hate filled, the guitars are purposeful and mimic her lyrical tone, and the chorus digs in its teeth without having to lift an octave.

If her debut album’s title related to the symbolism of being carried and protected in the womb, Hurt a Fly is Williams ditching the arm bands, and coming out fighting – not just for herself, but for anyone who’s ever had to endure the injustice. Williams isn’t looking to ask questions here; she is making a statement.

Read our interview with Squirrel Flower here.

Tendertwin – Absolute Nobody

by Philip Moss

There is an irony to Bilge Nur Yilmaz’s second release under her Tendertwin moniker. An ode to a character that wants to blur into the background – to get lost even in rooms where she is the only focus – Absolute Nobody is far too special to keep a secret.

A songwriter clearly versed in the art – the craft – of what it means to connect emotion, words, chords and melody as one, yes, Tendertwin’s journey is just beginning. But backed by the same spring filled textures that adorn The Antlers’ Green to Gold, and with a voice that dances somewhere between the gothy leanings of Anna B Savage and the chamber calls of Bedouine, the influences become almost irrelevant when the summation is of such beauty. The quiet moments draw your ear closer. The soaring climaxes leave your mouth agape. ‘How could you think I’d miss the chance to lose?’ Yilmaz sings, as Absolute Nobody floats to its conclusion. The irony indeed. Yilmaz, it seems, is already on her way to mastery.

The War on Drugs – Living Proof

by Phil Scarisbrick

It’s been some four years since The War On Drugs released A Deeper Understanding – their Grammy-nominated fourth album. The intervening period has been spent traversing the United States with more than a dozen sessions undertaken to create its follow-up, I Don’t Live Here Any More.

The album’s opener is also the first single, and Living Proof already moves The War On Drugs into territory that they haven’t delved as deeply into on their previous records. Although not a solo record by any stretch, it is the most introspective piece of writing we’ve heard from Adam Granduciel. Waltzy acoustic strums launch the track, and they remain constant as other instruments build around them. Granduciel is seemingly grasping for something that has left, or perhaps was never even there – ‘I went down to the corner, they’re building at my block / Maybe I’ve been gone too long, I can’t go back,’ he sings, as the vocal melody-driven piano builds around his voice, joined by loose sounding drums, before falling away into a more conventional rhythm as he concedes, ‘But I’m rising / And I’m damaged.’

A quintessentially War On Drugs’ guitar solo brings the song to a close – adding some familiarity – but the real star of the track though is Granduciel’s voice. Weathered and broken, it’s the same familiar voice, but different. Like an old painting, cracked and faded by time, but still full of the vibrant character that holds the essence of what has always hooked you in.

Order a copy of Zine 11 to read our exclusive interview with The War on Drugs here.

W.H. Lung – Pearl in the Palm

by Philip Moss

For a long time, W.H. Lung were Manchester’s best kept secret. With their identities shrouded, it gave the band time to mould their debut album, Incidental Music – a collection of rambling lo-fi indie that unfurled its charm on repeated listens.

But Pearl in the Palm is a different beast. Immediate – with an irresistible groove – front man, Joseph Evans (no longer the anonymous Joseph E), is quite literally front and centre with his strongest melody to date. But the best music is layered – emotionally, as well as in sound – and underneath the LCD Soundsystem infused surface level is a whole other world to explore. ‘Johann Strauss in the closet composes a waltz!’ Evans sings before the song hits the first chorus – and, clearly influenced by the Austrian composer, there is a whole symphony of its own at play that creeps in and out of the mix for those that want to find it. A special return – Manchester’s best band in a decade just got even better.

Order a copy of Zine 10 to read our exclusive interview with W.H. Lung here.

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