20. Let’s Set Sail – Enzo [Self-Released]
19. La Loye – To Live Under Water [Self-Released]
18. Firestations – Melted Medium [Lost Map]
17. Gold Baby – Rabbits [Self-Released]
16. Bleach Lab – A Calm Sense Of Surroundings [Self-Released]
15. Tōth – DEATH EP [Northern Spy]
14. Pansy – Pansy [Self-Released]
13. Nisa – Time To Plant Tears [Self- Released]
12. Molly Linen – Days Awake [Lost Map]
11. Soot Sprite – Poltergeists [Specialist Subject]
10. Broken Dreams Club – The Party [Intersphere Records]
A songwriter based out of Bristol, Amy, aka Broken Dreams Club, was previously best-known as the bass player and harmony vocalist in The Travis Waltons. A few years back, she made the decision to pursue her own musical vision, and with a moniker lifted from a track by the US band Girls, Broken Dreams Club was born. When touring in Germany in 2019, Amy caught the attention of Intersphere Records, who in May this year released her EP/cassette, The Party EP.
The Party EP opens with its de-facto title track, Pool Party. While its title might conjure up imagery of Spring Break pursuing American teens, in reality, Pool Party starts off as a slightly cloudier affair, as Amy sings, “if I went to your pool party, I’d wish that I was dead because you would just flat-out ignore me and everything I said”. From there, the sun seems to start to shine through as if Amy realises across the song’s three minutes that pining for the past isn’t allowing her to move forward, ultimately concluding with a shrug, “you can come to my party if you want”. It’s a spectacular start to an EP that doesn’t let up from there, with the regretful Cars, resplendent with fizzing electronics and driving rhythms, and the majestic layered vocals of Love Letters. Despite being the record’s shortest track, Finished is also possibly its finest moment, as meandering keys give way to an ominous wave of distortion that seems to bleed out from the guitar and then before you know it has coated the whole track in a layer of delicious fuzz, before departing to an almost ecclesiastical finale. It might not have been quite as rambunctious as its title suggested, yet The Party EP was still something to celebrate, an open-hearted and intriguing collection that’s a seasonal must-listen for anyone planning a headphones party for one.
9. Raveloe – Notes And Dreams [Olive Grove Recordings]
2021 was a busy year for Kim Grant, the songwriter behind the musical project, Raveloe, with the February release of Notes And Dreams, via Olive Grove Records, bookended with her fantastic recent single, Catkins and a headline show at The Glad Cafe in her home city of Glasgow. Notes And Dreams was, possibly more by necessity than desire, home-recorded during the first lockdown of 2020, yet also features a cast of multi-national adornments courtesy of collaborators piped in from locations as diverse as Melbourne and Dumfries, which lend a collaborative feel that seems to overcome rather than embrace isolation.
Across just five tracks, Notes And Dreams manages to explore a diverse array of sounds, from the urgent piano flourishes and soaring vocals howls of Post It through to the driving closing track, Steady, which sounds like surf-pop if it was born on the West Coast of Scotland rather than America. Particularly excellent are the two tracks that Raveloe chose to feature as singles of sorts, Abalone and Sunday Service. The former walks the lines of dream-pop and atmospheric alt-folk, all the while creating a stunning slice of escapism, as staring at a shell Kim’s mind wanders to distant places and distant memories. Sunday Service is a more intense affair, as the initial slacker-rock strains of the guitar-line shift into some driving and soaring, walking the line between bedroom-pop perfection and the sonic ambition of shoegaze. A product of isolation it may have been, yet Notes And Dreams seemed to reach out a hand to the world and say whatever you’re feeling, you’re not alone.
8. Sister Lucy – Big Girl Pants [Self-Released]
One of the later arrivals on this list, Sister Lucy’s excellent titled EP, Big Girl Pants, only arrived in the middle of November, yet instantly made an impression. The project of Abi Sinclair, a Devon-native now based out of South-East London, Abi describes the signature Sister Lucy sound as, “Country-Grunge headbangers you can scream-sing along to”, and that’s certainly a pretty great jumping-off point.
The EP was recorded over an eight-week writing and recording session in the Summer of 2020, Abi embracing the limited options of home-recording, to produce an EP that was surprisingly musically dextrous. The record opens with the Best At Being Sad, a track Abi describes as, “my internal monologue with unhappiness”, that comes across like the middle ground of Martha Wainwright and Julia Jacklin, as Abi’s lyrical struggles are set to the contrasting swagger of the guitar and rhythm section. Elsewhere on the EP, Dream used moody grunge textures to explore, “our darkest desires and insecurities”, while She Loves To Hate slowed down the tempo and upped the melodies as it lamented a friend lost to their inability to see the best in anyone. Best of all this EP felt like it was just the beginning for Sister Lucy, a songwriting talent with every chance of making a real splash in the years ahead.
7. Zelma Stone – The Best [Self-Released]
Zelma Stone is something of an EP wizard, having topped this poll last year with the critically lauded, Dreamland, a record she described as, “a backward glance at fresh grief”. Ostensibly the solo project of Bay Area native Chloe Zelma Studebaker, Zelma Stone took a stride into the future in August with the release of her latest EP, The Best, a record that still looked at grief, yet dragged it into the here and now, asking how we move on from looking backwards and embrace the new chapters that allow us to move forward.
Working with producer and long-term collaborator Maryam Qudus, it wasn’t just thematically that The Best was striding forward, musically too it was an exciting departure for this most intriguing of songwriters. The evolution is evident from the very start, as opening track Gift Horse comes strutting into view with a touch of Anna Calvi or Aldous Harding, Chloe accompanied by a sinuous guitar-line and gorgeous lurching bass, as she questions her own ability to let love in, “I’ll be a friend and you could call me your kin, I guess it takes a little longer for the love to set in”. Elsewhere on the record, You’re Now 2 recalls the desert-country tones of Howling Bells with its meandering bass-pulse and prominent slide-guitars, while Come Back might be the best pop song she’s ever written, with its earworm of a guitar line and lyrics that seem to plead to be seen, “don’t you love me for who I am? Not who you want me to be, I’m just trying to feel free”. Perhaps the record’s finest moment is the gorgeously sedate Money Honey, where to a guitar line, perfect in its sheer simplicity, Chloe’s voice is allowed to carry both the melody, and crucially the emotion, of the track, as she sings, “I am fine now, I am fine now, I am fine, yeah I’m alright, I’m alright, I’m alright”, as if she’s trying to persuade herself more than anyone else. As the EP draws to a close on the choppy stop-start rhythms of the title track, it ends on a mantra not just for the record, but perhaps for the entire planet, “we’re all just doing, the best, the best we can”, once again Zelma Stone shows us all that her best is more than good enough.
6. Hannah Jadagu – What Is Going On? [Sub Pop]
A teen-sensation originally from Mesquite, Texas and now residing in New York, Hannah Jadagu’s new EP, What’s Going On, started life on her iPhone 7 and ended up being released on one of the biggest independent labels on the planet, Sub Pop. Released back in April, What’s Going On is five tracks of bedroom-pop perfection, belying its home-recorded quality to sound utterly blissful in its unhurried wonder.
The EP’s centre-piece, and first single, Think Too Much is a perfect introduction to the record, a masterclass in musical layering, the steady click of the processed beat, adorned with an array of manipulated vocals, warm synths and bright, jagged guitar chords. While Sundown, a song Hannah wrote when she was still in high school, is a perfect reflection on the pressure society puts on all to be constantly switched on, set to a luxuriously layered back-drop that’s distinctly modern and equally timeless. Arriving towards the record’s close, the title track might also be its most exquisite moment, recalling the likes of Hazel English or Fazerdaze it’s a perfect amalgam of dreamy melodies and fuzzy production that engulfs the listener in a wistful warmth akin to watching the sun go down on the first sunny day of Spring. Sometimes an artist seems to emerge and just makes songwriting look delightfully natural, Hannad Jadagu does just that, a rare talent at the start of something really quite special.
5. Ailsa Tully – Holy Isle [Dalliance Recordings]
A Welsh songwriter now based out of South London, Ailsa Tully is a talent very much on the rise. Signed to Dalliance Recordings, home to the likes of Gia Margaret and Common Holly, Ailsa has been packing out increasingly large venues across the UK, with her blend of folktronica and bedroom-pop. After a series of well-received singles, Ailsa made the move to a longer format at the start of September with the release of Holy Isle, a four-track musing on finding contentment in the face of endings.
Holy Isle opens with the driving Greedy, while perfectly accessible, it’s a song that’s quite wonderfully odd. The whole track is built largely around the solid blocks of the rumbling bass-line and a jarring drum-beat, yet everything else is quite weirdly wonderful, from the playful textures of the cello through to the choppy backing vocals that sit somewhere between a play-ground chant and a full-blown choir. It’s a trick Ailsa pulls off throughout the record, taking your expectations for where a song is going and warping them to the point where you’re not even quite sure you recognised where you are anymore. Take Sheets, at its heart, is a marching drum and a two-note bass-line, yet around that Ailsa throws in two vocal melodies that sit just apart throughout creating a strange echoing quality, dissonant blasts of cello and clarinet and the sound of a washing machine. What makes Holy Isle stand out is that for all its questioning experimental qualities, it is, at its heart, the work of a songwriter who feels wonderfully comfortable in her own skin, take the closing track Your Mess, there’s an almost meditative quality, the sound of bird-song at the tracks beginning mirrored in the playful instrumentation that gradually engulfs and replaces it. The song, and indeed the entire EP, ends with an intriguing sound, the rural idyl interrupted by the sound of a car rolling by, it feels a very deliberate decision, to pull the listener out of tranquillity and back into the reality of modern living. It’s as if she has created a journey for us, only to leave us back where we started, as if to say this record is a headspace you can visit, yet not one in which you can exist forever, for a while you can shut out the world, yet reality eventually comes back into focus in all its intriguing complexity.
4. Blackaby – Everything’s Delicious [Hand In Hive]
When the gig nights I put on with Scared To Dance made their long-delayed return back in July, Blackaby were the first band we put on, and we couldn’t have picked a better band for the job. The project of London-based songwriter Will Blackaby, the band are a joyous prospect in that quintessentially wistful, distinctly British way. They write songs about everyday characters, minute details and the gently life-changing moments that shape who we are as human beings. It was back in the Spring that the band shared their most compelling statement to date, in the shape of the five-track Everything’s Delicious EP, released by the ever-excellent Hand In Hive label.
Throughout the EP, Blackaby treat us to a complete master-class in classic songwriting, take the opening track Stevenson, an ode to a playground bully, the track enters on a lilting acoustic guitar, William’s lyrics perfectly painting the fear of schoolyard torment. The twist comes ninety seconds into the track when the whole thing suddenly collapses into a wave of noise, the drums suddenly picking up to an anxious run, urging us all to flee this oppressive regime of teen terror. Elsewhere the fabulous Warm And Sweet perfectly recalls the simultaneous anxiety and excitement of becoming an adult and set it to a wiry The Strokes-like guitar-line and lyrical reminiscences of watching Homes Under The Hammer while wondering what you’re doing with your life. Particularly great is No Long Grass, it’s a rumbling rollick of a song, all racing drums and chugging guitars that are far more fun than you’d expect for a song about religion and social anxiety. The record closes on Lee, a deliciously simple Beatles-like ditty that ends with the subtly heartbreaking refrain, “don’t you think it’s strange to say goodnight when you’re lying on your own”. There’s a certain elegance to William Blackaby’s songwriting that shines throughout Everything’s Delicious as nothing is over-complicated, no note wasted, no word more floridly poetic than it needs to be to make these stories come to life and make this record the perfectly understated masterpiece that it is.
3. Babehoven – Nastavi, Calliope [Self-Released]
Babehoven are a band who know the joys of an EP, back in 2020 they shared the excellent Demonstrating Visible Differences of Height, and then in January they shared another, Yellow has a pretty good reputation. Best of all though is Nastavi, Calliope, a seven-strong collection, it saw Maya Bon, the songwriter behind Babehoven, team up with regular collaborator Ryan Albert for a record of re-connections and ancestry. The EP was heavily influenced by Maya reuniting with her father in Croatia after a sixteen-year absence, an experience that allowed her to explore her family history and international roots. The title is a combination of the Greek word Nastavi, which literally translates as beautiful voice, and is a word given to the organ at the centre of a Merry-Go-Round, and Calliope, the name of the beloved family dog.
Regular readers of this site will likely recall I’ve waxed lyrical on Nastvai, Calliope’s opening track Bad Week several times this year, yet I make no apology for doing so again now. It opens the record, yet feels simultaneously like an ending, as if we’ve arrived at the end of a monumental storm and find Maya picking over the rubble, yet in that moment of collapse there’s a steeliness a commitment to rebuild a life, “I don’t have the energy, I don’t have the stamina to keep on fighting, but I’ll keep on fighting, I’ll do it”. It’s an opening scene that steals the whole show, which is not to say the rest of the record is in any way a disappointment, Crossword is a crushingly honest recollection of the conflicting emotions that came with reconnecting with her father, while Annie’s Shoes slips efforts from a moment of existential crisis to an electronic-beat laden celebration of the absurdity of life. The record closes on the swirling glory of Alt. Lena and in the same way that Bad Week seems to pick up the story at an ending, Alt. Lena ends it with a beginning, Maya sending the record sashaying off into the setting sun as she learns to trust her gut and follow her dreams, “we shouted at the moon our intentions for what’s to come, I became a full flower, Lena said I was brave”. This record felt like a real step forward for Babehoven, a more straight-talking and truthful streak runs through it, Maya taking the deeply personal and creating from it something universally relatable and really quite magical. Where will we pick up this adventure next? I for one can’t wait to find out.
2. Carpet – Self-Titled [Self-Released]
Leeds-based musician and producer Rob Slater actually appeared on this very list back in 2019, when his band Crake (set to return with new music on Fika Recordings next year) released their EP, Dear Natalie. Back in September, Rob shared his first solo music, a self-titled EP under the moniker of Carpet. The record was the result of several years of working, “carefully and casually”, in his own Greenmount Studio, often stealing hours in and around other band’s sessions and recording in almost complete solitude. The resultant EP is almost a celebration of the recording process, the sound of someone falling back in love with making music for the sheer joy of it, and returning to the creativity Rob initially found in a teenage bedroom with a four-track cassette recorder.
The EP opens with the anxious energy of Terror Tear, while in some ways it harks back to the end-days of grunge, there’s an urgency here that goes against the genre’s traditionally rebellious shrug, as Rob keeps coming back to the track’s key self-doubt laden line, “what if I can only follow?” From there the record slides into the first-ever Carpet single, Burnt And Cold a song that wears it subtle angst like a badge while striving for the seemingly uneasy sensation of hope leaking back in, “one day all of this won’t feel so strange”. There’s a mood that runs throughout the EP, a sense of growing older and trying to come to terms with the difference between how we pictured our life and its reality, it’s present on the chugging thrills of Landslide, where Rob even lightly pokes fun at his own melodrama, “so shameful, none sadder than I”. Particularly wonderful is Rose Ephedrone, its regretful reminiscence of overindulgence and self-destruction, set to a particularly fantastic guitar-line that seems to hold back from ever reaching a real resolution, feeling instead always on the verge of letting loose. While much of the record seems to exist within a certain melancholy, it ends with a certain positivity on Unreasonable Doubt, where Crake bandmate Rowan Sandle adds backing vocals to Rob’s optimistic closer, as he sings, “just in time for the rest of our lives”, like a mantra that wherever we were, it doesn’t have to change where we’re going next. There’s a sense listening to Carpet that this was a record made not necessarily for the world at large, but instead to cure a certain itch that for Rob nothing else could scratch. That he’s shared it with us at all is a joy, as if Rob has thrown open the studio doors and invited us with a smile into his fantastic musical process, its a privilege to listen to and one extended to anyone willing to give this record their time.
1. Dan Wriggins – Mr. Chill [Orindal Records]
A songwriter from Philadelphia, Dan Wriggins was best known up until this year as the front-person of the acclaimed alt-country band, Friendship, who I last heard from back in 2019, when they released the acclaimed, and really quite majestic album, Dreamin’. While Friendship was always a vehicle for Dan to express himself, it was also a democracy, and Dan had long planned to release solo music, a process that was undeniably accelerated by a pandemic cutting touring plans and isolating Dan from his bandmates. After releasing the fantastic stand-alone AA-single, Dent/The Diner in January, Dan teamed up with Orindal Records for the release of his debut solo EP, Mr. Chill, in March.
The EP was recorded at Big Nice Studio in the Rhode Island town of Lincoln, Dan working with engineer Brad Krieger and his Friendship bandmate Michael Cormier. The result is a record that sounds both delightfully paired back and sonically spacious, the result of recording stripped back songs in a big room. Through the EP, it seems to creak and sigh, coming across as if you’ve walked into a huge concert hall and found the only people there are you and the band, and thankfully they’re just getting started.
The mood of the EP is instantly set on the opening track, All Things Being Equal, where gorgeously subtle percussion and wavering organ accompany the percussive twang of the acoustic guitar, and Dan’s lyrics seem to explore the illusion of fairness, “between you and other people, nothing’s ever equal”. In a record littered with great one-liners, perhaps the best are saved for the centre-piece, Lucinda On June Bug, it’s a reflection on the lure of artistic familiarity, the way that in our hour of need we often reach to those artists we know for comfort, “while I’m healing up, let me stick with what I know. Lucinda on june bugs, Prince on crying doves, read my salty lips, no new love”. The record closes on the title track, Mr. Chill, a song about the double life of the mildly successful musician, where days labouring (nonchalantly described as “picking up heavy things and putting them down”) blur into nights on the road and your entire existence is, “hanging on by a thread, that could be cut in an instant”; it’s a testament to Dan’s ever whirring mind that he’s suggested the song is also both a Christmas song and influenced by a ride at Disney Land. It might have a title that suggests a certain lack of commitment, yet Mr. Chill is a record that deserves your attention, it doesn’t shout from the rooftops it just gently buries itself into your mind and refuses to leave, a subtle triumph, a quiet masterpiece and for me, the finest EP 2021 had to offer.
If all these EPs have got you in the mood for some long-players, check out the list of my favourite albums of 2021 HERE.