2021 has been a wonderful year, thus far, for new albums. But we’ve also loved a whole host of singles from both new and old acts alike. So, off the back of our Album and EP Mid Year Reviews, here are some of our favourite songs of 2021 so far:
Armlock – Power of a Waterfall
The modest production, and clipped, pieced-together lyrics of Power of a Waterfall 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, this is a uniquely coaxing debut single.
Bonnie Prince Billy & Matt Sweeney – Make Worry For Me (Drag City/Domino)
Matt Sweeney’s sleazy guitar line underpins Make Worry For Me, and provides the perfect aesthetic for a Will Oldham lyric and melody line that – if it were to appear on his Songs of Love and Horror collection – certainly falls closer to the more macabre end of his spectrum – ‘If I come to your streets, make worry for me…’ The middle eight provides room for a blast of unbridled guitars from the former Zwan member, Sweeney, which is not so much a solo, as an unleashing of torment – and is perfectly in line with Harmony Korine’s unsettling artwork. However, it’s the intertwining of the pair’s voices that is more prominent than on previous works, and most striking about this rekindling.
career – Microwave (Bingo Records)
If previous single, Natural Energy, saw career barrel out of the traps with an upbeat hit of hyperactive post-punk, Microwave 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.
Carpet – Burnt and Cold (self-released)
Drawn back to the spirit that first allured Rob Slater to four track, bedroom recording – alone and committing his ideas straight to tape – his 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 Burnt and Cold is a very exciting addition to the US-Alt (via Yorkshire) section of your local record store.
Clara Mann – Thoughtless (Sad Club Records)
Like its predecessor, I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today, Thoughtless, feels almost alien in modern society – Mann’s reflections seemingly out of place, as she sways mournful pigments across her latest masterpiece. Backed by the purest of gentle, fingerpicked guitar and muted strings, it is Mann’s voice which dominates the canvas – falling somewhere between the classic tropes of Joanna Newsom and Erin Durant, and the Gothicism of Jason Molina and Claire Cronin. ‘I may live a long life – time may go quicker when we both keep quiet,’ Mann sings less than a quarter in, and laying her vulnerabilities bare, it’s this nakedness that makes her music so rawly addictive.
Dan Wriggins – The Diner (Orindal Records)
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 is the first solo offering from the songwriter, and the instrumentation has been distilled down 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.’
Gina Leonard – Hard Time (Nothing Fancy)
Stripping away the lo-fi production of her work with Mumble Tide, and the overt pop stylings of her recent release with Rampton Prom, Leonard’s Phoebe Bridgers’ alike voice is very much the beating heart of Hard Time. ‘I’m never gonna give it up easy,’ she sings – a tale of perseverance, defiance and the overcoming of hardships, Leonard states that the upcoming EP is a chance to hear how songs begin for her. But by presenting her songwriting as the bare roots, the shoots of what makes emotive songwriting so wonderful are presented here in bloom.
John Myrtle – Get Her Off My Mind (Sad Club Records)
Myrtle has a knack for simplicity – his lyrics are literal, his songs are straightforward, and with an organic, natural production, you often wonder how they haven’t been around for years. On Get Her Off My Mind, however, he takes the first tentative steps towards tweaking his take on things – structurally and musically, this is some of his best work yet, and lyrically it contains an early contender for couplet of the year – ‘I really shouldn’t care that she follows me everywhere/From the cobbled streets of Rome, to the cotton sheets of home’.
Lady Dan – I Am The Prophet (Earth Libraries)
Anchored by the talents of Tyler Dozier, I Am The Prophet reflects a melange of its creator’s eclectic influences. Where previous work has been steeped in country roots, with a touch of folk, this first taste from her upcoming LP of the same name is dug from the same indie rock soil as Julia Jacklin’s Crushing. But the lyrical content here is littered with biblical references, and the ever frequent changing emotional states within which we find ourselves, as she rails against the acceptance of unrealistic expectations.
Check out our interview with Lady Dan here.
Lizzie Reid – Been Thinking About You (7476)
Been Thinking About You employs a deep, jazz-inspired instrumentation and rhythm to tell Reid’s new story of love, loss and longing, pouring out wants and needs that are beautifully emphasised by orchestrated pauses – ‘You are so done, I flew over your fence; So I better run, for I’m quite done making sense.’
Maja Lena – The Keeper (Chiverin)
Inspired by the way in which we, as humans, view ourselves, and the unspoken parley we make to trust in our own thoughts and self-identity, there is an almost exacerbated quality to Maja Lena’s new single, The Keeper. Joined on backing vocals by Memphis Industries’ folk-artist, Rachel Dadd, Lena’s voice feels at times as if it is metaphorically grasping for a foothold, as she exclaims, ‘I asked the keeper of my dreams to let it be’.
Martha Skye Murphy – Found Out (self-released)
Dismantling her songs like an audible jigsaw – Found Out is led by an enchanting melody and her soft voice. But it is also uncomfortable – a metaphor for the way in which Murphy tackles her arrangements: bass notes covered in tar like distortion treatments growl against the immovable chime of a repetitive acoustic loop; John Parish-like backing vocals drone against moments of total clarity that could be lifted from Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave. But it feels trite to compare Murphy to anyone else – even greats such as Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave and Aldous Harding who all come to mind. She is unequivocally herself. A unique artist who is slotting the jigsaw pieces into place – her way.
MJ Lenderman – Gentleman Jack (Dear Life Records)
Landing perfectly in sync with the fluttering of windscreen wipers, MJ Lenderman’s hands punctuate a rhythm on Gentleman Jack that somehow makes life feel like a drive where the landscape rolls past your car windows in slow motion – as Asheville, North Carolina songwriter welcomes you into his fuzzy little world.
Michael Cormier – Degradation (Dear Life Records)
When Degradation – the lead single from his forthcoming album, More Light!!, begins with a wiry guitar criss-crossing Cormier’s inconspicuous vocal, you’re fooled into thinking this is going to be an extension of those first two records. When the programmed drums arrive, however, the rug is pulled from under your feet – revealing an electronic soundscape that wouldn’t feel out of place on Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz. On the album cover, he’s surrounded by a coterie of junk that could have been plucked from a yard sale – and the randomness of these objects perfectly represents the eccentric, ramshackle style we’re introduced to here.
Check out our interview with Michael here.
Mr Ben & The Bens – How Do I Get To You? (Bella Union)
Taken from the Melody Shed EP, 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.
Check out our interview with Mr Ben here.
Ohtis – Schatze (Saddle Creek)
Less than two years on since the anecdotal debut, Curve of Earth, songwriter, Sam Swinson, has tightened the emotional screw even further. Featuring Stef Chura – who plays the sweary Juliet to Swinson’s bad tempered Romeo – Schatze sees us slap bang in the middle of the feuding pair, as they trade insults and complain about each other’s idiosyncrasies. As funny as it is honestly brilliant – this is not so much just a single of the week, as the best single of 2021 to date!
Rachel Sermanni – Swallow Me (self-released)
Two years on from So It Turns, the Scottish songwriter in a different place. Written in the final weeks of pregnancy, Swallow Me details her preparedness for the welcoming of her first child. But despite the internal questions, nervousness and doubts, there is a contentedness. It is rich in spirituality: ’You can see I’ve been working hard, Lord.’ And that honesty and openness brings a calmness. It’s there in her voice. It’s there in the light brushing of her acoustic guitar. And it’s there in the way the strings and subtle country motifs grow, as the song builds to its subtly resplendent conclusion.
Check out our interview with Rachel here.
Ryley Walker – Rang Dizzy (Husky Pants)
The crazy world of Ryley Walker. Having parted company with long time label, Dead Oceans, Course In Fable is the Chicago based songwriter’s first long player on his own imprint, Husky Pants. A record that sees Walker collaborate with Tortoise’s John McEntire, it is a collection of songs that puts to bed the Nick Drake comparisons as he heads off into proggier horizons. Rang Dizzy is just one stand out from the album. The acoustic guitar swirls, and shuffling percussion are restless, but never unsettle Walker’s perfect melody. Another real highlight here is Nancy Ives’ cello, which swims in and out of the mix – before taking centre stage. Things haven’t been easy for Walker over the last few years – but when he sings, ‘Fuck me, I’m alive,’ it is a reminder of how lucky we are to witness the continued growth and musical exploration of his unique mind.
Roddy Woomble – Architecture in LA (A Modern Way)
Architecture In LA, the second single to be released from of new full length, Lo! Soul, finds him roaming once again, and is quite unlike anything we have heard from him to date. A parade of horns herald in a track of sun-glazed electro-pop as Woomble’s sing-speak vocals – something he has adapted to great effect on spoken word pieces in recent years – trip over an impossibly catchy chorus. It will come as a surprise to some, but paired with the sweet balladry of previous single, Lo Soul, it points towards another record of brazen eclecticism that will untie with each listen.
Check out our interview with Roddy here.
Runnner – Awash (Run For Cover)
With its narrative adaptable, there is a journey present in Awash, but it’s not clear as to which part of the arc it may be – that’s part of its charm. As fitting for an introduction, as it is a farewell or anything in between, the single is just as important for Runnner as it is for the listener. And whether you’re aware of Weinman’s work already, or only just stumbling across him for the first time, Awash is an experience that feels just right.
skirts – Always (Double Double Whammy)
On her 2018 EP, Almost Touching, Montenegro was firmly of a lo-fi, bedroom aesthetic, but despite being recorded across a number of home studios, Always sees the Dallas’ songwriter widening her scope. The trill of heavy strummed acoustic guitars still runs through the heart – but there’s a warm ruffling of the fur wrapped up in its dreamy synths, soft, double tracked harmonies and the brief passing of sliding country motifs. Always is another example that the Texas’ music scene is burning – and skirts is its newest star.
Tendertwin – Absolute Nobody (self-released)
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.
Tiiva – Collide (self-released)
‘The disguises we wear fall onto the pavement / such a feat of desire to hold on this tight,’ Tiiva sings over swelling synths – letting down her guard to allow us access to her neuroses. There is visceral imagery throughout Collide, as the Charli XCX-evoking soundtrack builds around this world where ‘One single ice cube sits patiently waiting,’ and there’s ‘a husk of fragility tasting the pain’. The hook of ‘It’s all we’ve got’ circles, building in intensity, before the backing breaks away and a myriad of voices exclaim it at the track’s climax. An oral demonstration that our narrator isn’t alone in experiencing these feelings.
W.H. Lung – Pearl in the Palm (Melodic Records)
Pearl in the Palm is a different beast to debut album, Incidental Music. 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.
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