20. Fauvely – Beautiful Places [Self-Released]
Splitting their time between Chicago and Savannah, Georgia, Fauvely began life in 2016, initially as the solo project of songwriter Sophie Brochu. Having settled into their current four-piece lineup, back in April the band shared their debut album, Beautiful Places, a record Sophie describes as inspired by, “the moments in which I’ve found myself holding my breath”.
Fauvely’s name is lifted from the Fauvist art movement, a style that eschewed realism for bold colours and wild brush strokes, a style mirrored in the rich musical tones of Beautiful Places, a record of dramatic contrasts, and a distinct separation between light and dark. The record opens with the fabulously scene-setting instrumental, Welcome, it begins with a wavering guitar, yet soon swells to a bold, vivacious slice of post-rock, reminiscent of Dirty Three or Do Make Say Think. It takes almost a minute of the second track, Always, for Sophie’s vocal to emerge, and thankfully it’s worth the wait, it’s a frankly magnificent instrument, powerful with a stunning hint of vibrato, as she lays her anxieties out for all to see, “self-esteem, a losing bet”. Elsewhere, the title track adds a certain country-lick to proceedings reminiscent of Neighbor Lady, while the angsty Palinode adds a bassy stomp to Sophie’s crystalline soaring vocal, bringing to mind early-Mothers. Whilst Beautiful Places is unquestionably a record that exists in some dark places, it is underpinned throughout by a thread of hope, never more so than on the driving-pop of In The Dark, where we find Sophie, “down by the river in the full moonlight, we’ll be fallin’ in love in the middle of the night”. On Beautiful Places, Fauvely span a spectrum, from the darkest hours to the brightest sunrises, and finds the beauty in all of them, a truthful soundtrack to life in all its glorious variety.
19. Knomad Spock – Winter Of Discontent [Hinterland Creative]
Knomad Spock is something of a one-man record collection, his music swaying wildly from rap and spoken-word through to atmospheric indie-folk. Born and raised in Hull, Knomad’s familial roots are in Somalia as well as Britain, and on his debut album, Winter Of Discontent, he set out to make sense of that dual heritage, and the combination of alienation and alignment he feels to both countries. The resultant record casts Knomad as an outsider yes, but also an observer, viewing the complex nature of humankind through his own distinct lens.
A life of travelling is writ large across Winter Of Discontent, even its recording process had an element of adventure about it as Knomad descended on a remote Scottish island and hauled up in a cottage to bring his ideas to life. Musically it offered an eclectic pallet of influences, from the Nick Drake-like folk of the opening track Papillon, through to the atmospheric Know and the urgent flutterings of Gift, which seem to add a Southern European flourish similar to Leonard Cohen’s Greek adventures. While all that variety could, in a lesser songwriter’s hands, sound somewhat disjointed, the record is held together by its creator, a man whose viewpoint and stories are every bit as fascinating as his music. On Winter Of Discontent, Knomad Spock shared that most precious of gifts, a piece of himself, and frankly nobody could ask for anything more than that.
18. Holiday Ghosts – North Street Air [Fat Cat Records]
On their previous album, West Bay Playroom, released in 2019, Holiday Ghosts retreated into their home town of Falmouth, exploring the process of growing up through a nostalgic haze. Two years on things had changed somewhat when, back in May, the band released North Street Air, an album that found the band relocated to the relatively heaving metropolis of Brighton, the title lifted from one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. Thematically the album seemed considerably more rooted in the here-and-now, a reflection on capitalism and the pace of modern living, which seemed to seek to ask questions, rather than necessarily provide the answers.
If North Street Air’s themes were a step forward, musically too it was a record that seemed to push Holiday Ghost’s forward. While the band have always had a certain retro-swagger, here they felt fresher than ever, whether it was on the stomping Landlord-admonishing opening track, Mr. Herandi or the glam-swagger of Bathing Suit, which wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Bowie record. A particular favourite of mine is the atmospheric 3rd Dream, the lo-fi fuzz and straight-shooting vocals akin to contemporaries like Terry or The Goon Sax. North Street Air wasn’t just a reminder of Holiday Ghosts’ place as one of the UK’s most intriguing bands, it was a perfect evolution, without going over old ground they have lost none of their charms, their best record to date deserves to be the album that takes Holiday Ghosts to new heights.
17. Sara Bug – Self-Titled [Egghunt Records]
When Sara Bug wrote the songs the make-up her self-titled debut album, she originally had no plans to share them. Written over seven years, Sara saw the songs as diary entries, an attempt to make sense of a period of her life that defined the person she would become. As well as the usual trappings of stumbling into young adulthood, the record also attempts to make sense of tempering your ambitions, Sara moving from the teenager who thought she was going to be a multi-national pop sensation, to someone who was just making music for the joy of it.
The album starts on beautifully murky emotional territory, with Die With You, an expansive symphony of a song that perfectly walks the line between romantic and creepy as Sara tenderly sings, “my whole life through, I want to die with you”. Elsewhere, as you’d perhaps expect for a record crafted over a number of years, the album is something of a journey for Sara Bug, in places quite literally, with the stomping Rosebank celebrating the emotional release of riding a motorcycle, with an intensity so real that it has you begging her to slow down! Throughout the record, Sara showcases her fascinating musical range, whether on the stripped-back Purgatory, where a bossa-nova beat is an intriguing addition to an emotive folk-song or on the closing track, Back In Nashville, a straight-talking “cheesy country song”, that walks the line between loathing and love for the city she calls home. Perhaps best of all is Ride On Sundys, it’s a classic pop song given a modern make-over like Martha Ffion singing Marvin Gaye. From a period of questioning if this world was even for her, Sara Bug has counter-intuitively discovered the freedom and clarity of creative thought that hammers home the fact that making music is exactly what she should be doing, and she’s doing it brilliantly.
16. Tré Burt – You, Yeah You [Oh Boy Records]
It’s been a pretty wild few years for Tré Burt, it has seen the self-professed working-class musician go from a string of menial jobs and swapping them for the life of a touring musician. With his keen-eyed observations of modern-day America, Tré seeks to dissect both the faults and deep wells of humanity possessed within the countries borders. Tré’s break-out moment came with the release of his protest song, Under The Devil’s Knee, his reflection on police violence, which caught the ear of both music fans and scholars alike. His new album, You, Yeah You continued Tré’s attempt to capture the wide-ranging creativity to be found in the sometimes limited portrayal of the Black Experience, Tré speaking of his desire to, “claim the space of artistic weirdness”, normally monopolised by non-Black artists.
You, Yeah You is a collection of narratives, as Tré invited us to meet a series of invented characters, be they heroes, villains or the always most intriguing people who fall in between. There’s certainly something timeless about Tré’s songwriting, a song like By The Jasmine wouldn’t sound out of place on a Travelling Wilbury’s record, while Ransom Blues is a classic-country song Hank Williams would be proud of. Despite those retro influences though, Tré re-invents the classics, injecting them with a dose of the modern world, take a track like Carnival Mirror, it’s a reflection on a broken system, “cruel by design”, a very 2021 reminder that folk music has always played a role in the fight for change. That isn’t to say it’s an entirely political album, indeed most of the politics exists in the background of the personal, it is a lingering spectre in the greater battles for happiness and hope, feelings very much to the fore on the records’ beautiful stand-out, Sweet Misery, where Tré sings of the battle with sadness itself, “sweet misery you can follow me down to the end of my path but you still gotta go through me”. At its heart You, Yeah You is a record that celebrates those who keep on going, a reminder to never be silenced by fear or fatigue and to strive for the world you want to live in, at some point this year we probably all needed someone to whisper in our ear and inspire us to carry on, for me, Tré Burt was that voice.
15. Lunar Vacation – Inside Every Fig Is A Dead Wasp [Keeled Scales]
Based out of Atlanta, Georgia, Lunar Vacation started life as the project of childhood friends, Grace Repasky and Maggie Geeslin. As soon as the pair were old enough to drive, they were hitting the road, initially playing venues around the suburbs of their home city. Following the release of a pair of acclaimed EPs the band found themselves touring across America, sharing stages with the likes of Remo Drive, Sidney Gish, and SALES. Along the way, the band caught the ear of the fabulous Keeled Scales label, and at the end of October they released their enigmatically titled debut album, Inside Every Fig Is A Dead Wasp.
The album was recorded with producer Daniel Gleason, of the band Grouplove, after a chance meeting at a record store where Maggie sold him a copy of the latest Bruce Springsteen album. Listening to Inside Every Fig Is A Dead Wasp, the evolution in the sound this collaboration has brought is instantly evident, there’s both a clarity of recording and a sense of playfulness that has been coaxed out of the band as if the record was made with no rules or expectations, just an entirely open mind. Take a song like Shrug, at its core it’s a straight-up dream-pop song in the mould of Alvvays or Sweet Nobody, yet there’s also a playful oddness to the track from the unusual rhythms of the backing vocals through to the way layers of guitars seem to arrive in waves of noise, ebbing and flowing across the rhythm section throughout. Across the record it seems to constantly take the path less-trodden, whether it’s shuffling banjo-led Making Lunch (Not Right Now) or the shimmering chill of the synth-led Mold. Inside Every Fig Is A Dead Wasp was a reminder that the best pop songs are always just the right amount of weird, for Lunar Vacation this was blast-off and the stars are the only limit for just how far this talented bunch could go.
14. Jessica’s Brother – Just Rain [Fika Recordings]
It was back in 2017 that Jessica’s Brother first appeared with their self-titled debut album, a sparse collection of alt-folk that drew comparisons with the likes of Jason Molina and The Silver Jews. Comprised of songwriter Tom Charleston, The Wave Pictures’ Jonny Helm on drums and Charlie Higgs on bass, the band returned last month with their new album, Just Rain, released via Fika Recordings. A more expansive and intriguing affair, the album explored the simultaneous tumult of, “the disintegration of a long-term relationship, coinciding with a global fracturing”.
The change in Jessica’s Brother is evident from the very start of Just Rain, as the title track greets us not with muted Americana, but a slice of rambunctious slacker-rock, that seems the perfect contrast to a lyric so British it includes the word, “woopsie-daisy” and compares emotional turmoil with a particularly rainy day. It’s a perfect introduction to a record that find’s Jessica’s Brother expanding their musical scope like ripples on a pond pushing out in all directions at once. Boat Song simultaneously sounds like a lullaby while referencing Veils disease, while Little One is the surprisingly effective middle ground of Jamie T and Eels. Best of all is the bruising duet Darling I Wanted To Know, it’s the sound of a relationship breaking down, with Tom’s self-pitying remark, “I’m sick I think my pain is unique”, met with a wearisome response, “you’re a dick, you know you just need some sleep”. The track ends with a touch of the Moldy Peaches as the two voices come together in unison and sing, “why won’t you just come back to me?” with a mixture of sadness and pride blocking any hope of reconciliation. It arrived late in the year and maybe flew under the radar for some, yet Just Rain was a real step forward for Jessica’s Brother and the sound of a band finding their voice.
13. Sun June – Somewhere [Run For Cover/Keeled Scales]
Although originally spread across the United States, it was on settling in Austin, Texas that the members of Sun June found their musical inspiration, enamoured with the cities vibrant music scene resplendent with bustling venues and a seemingly endless stream of like-minded musicians. In 2018 they released their debut album, Years, via Keeled Scales, a collection for which they coined the only slightly tongue-in-cheek descriptor, “regret-pop”. Three years on, and now being co-released via Run For Cover Records, the band returned in February with their ambitious second album, Somewhere.
In many ways Somewhere is a record of changing circumstances, while Years reflected on loss, Somewhere is instead a record about the evolution of love. The band have spoken of it as their, “prom” record, a record about living in the moment and accepting love when it comes your way, even if that’s as likely to leave you, “crying in the bathroom” as revelling in that magical first kiss. Beautifully produced throughout, Somewhere is a distinctly luxurious listen, Laura Colwell’s vocals in particular are so wonderfully rounded, they feel almost decadent, the aural equivalent of the darkest chocolate and the finest red wine. Somewhere flows so effortlessly that it’s hard to pick out highlights, yet special mention should go to the fantastic Karen O and the sonic perfection of Bad Girl, while Everything I Had is possibly the record’s thematic heart, with its gentle longing for simplicity in a world that seems to rush by in a blur. This record feels like a blossoming for Sun June, a band hitting their stride and ready to take the world by storm.
12. Skirts – Great Big Wild Oak [Double Double Whammy]
Born in Dallas, Texas, Alex Montenegro, aka Skirts, was always destined to do something in music. Alex grew up surrounded by music, whether it was her dad teaching her how to place a needle on a record, or her teenage years working in a record shop and embracing the vibrant local music scene. In 2018, Alex released her home-recorded EP, Almost Touching, and decided to throw herself into the life of a touring musician, sharing stages with the likes of LVL UP, Snail Mail, and Spencer Radcliffe. Three years on, this summer saw the release of the debut Skirts album, Great Big Wild Oak, via the ever-reliable Double Double Whammy label.
Described by its creator as a “Frankenstein album”, Great Big Wild Oak is a record made across a number of years, recorded in various Dallas studios, yet feels so much more coherent than that would suggest. The record is tied together throughout by its subtle re-invention of Southern-folk sounds, Alex seeming to take a multitude of influences from her home state and then shape them into her own, understated image. Take a track like the majestic Easy, it rides in on the ticking of an Iron & Wine like guitar-line, before woozy woodwind and processed percussion arrive to create a fusion of musical worlds that is quite staggeringly unique. Elsewhere, Swim, a track that went through many re-records before Alex settled on this version, is a woozy piano-track that offers a warm-hearted invite to let yourself in, “whenever you’re wanting or needing to be somewhere other than homestead”, while the de-facto title track, Sapling, finds a similar musical pallet to Tenci as Alex reflects on the passing of time, “I’m told that I’ve grown into a great big wild oak, and I’ll always be a sapling to my mother”. There’s something distinct about Skirts’ music, an amalgam of a time and place, like flicking through a photo album of its creator’s life, until the songwriter in front of you suddenly comes into focus and you realise just how lucky you are to get this glimpse.
11. Ada Lea – one hand on the steering the other sewing a garden [Saddle Creek/ Next Door Records]
On her new album, one hand on the steering the other sewing a garden, Alexandra Levy, who releases under the name Ada Lea, set out to explore her home city of Montreal. The follow up to her 2019 debut, what we say in private, Ada has described each track on the record as, “a dot on a personal history map of the city“, the vinyl release even included an actual map! If it was a record that looked back on its creator’s history, it was one that strode musically forward, Ada working with producer Marshall Vore and embracing a recording approach of letting the songs fall into place rather than putting any restrictions on where they could go.
There’s a certain literate quality to Ada Lea’s songwriting on one hand on the steering the other sewing a garden, as if the tracks are a series of short stories, initially they feel disconnected, yet with repeat listens the style of their creator starts to shine through, in the same way that the unique brush-work of a painter gives away that a piece couldn’t have been made by anyone else. The record takes a seasonal approach to its narrative, starting with damn, a recollection of a cursed New Year’s Eve Party, its winter writ large via the medium of soft-rock, as the darkness descends and the visions get increasingly blurred. From there things rapidly evolve presenting an ever-shifting scene, can’t stop me from dying is a hazy summer-fog, and then suddenly we’re at the autumnal splendour of oranges before we pick up again on New Year’s day with partner, which references the excess of the opening track, as we find Ada, “still reeling from last night’s activities too many friends, too much wine”. If it all sounds a little too complex, don’t worry, because while you can take the deep dive if you like, there’s also the option to just let the album wash over you, and when it sounds this good there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. A record simultaneously complex and beautiful, it offers so much already, yet feels like there’s still so much left to discover, and when you’ve listened to it as many times as I have that’s high praise indeed.
Head into the top 10, in the second part of my Album Of The Year rundown HERE.