10. Esther Rose – How Many Times [Full Time Hobby / Father/Daughter Records]
Esther Rose is making a habit of appearing in the top ten of this list, having done so back in 2019 with her fantastic second album, You Made It This Far. Two years on, Esther returned back in March with her latest offering, How Many Times, released via both Full Time Hobby and the US label, Father/Daughter Records. Written over the course of two years, the album found Esther working through a period of flux, with house moves, relationship breakdowns and an awful lot of tour dates, all resulting in an awakening of thoughts, as Esther put it, “it’s not really just about feeling better, it’s about feeling it, whatever it is”.
The opening title track is a fabulous scene-setter for the entirety of How Many Times, it finds Esther stretching her musical pallette, taking the country-licks she was previously known for and adding textures of rustic Americana and fireside folk. Lyrically too it is a track that instantly anchors the record, Esther asking why her heart keeps on breaking as she sings, “thought I hit the bottom but I’m falling fast, tell me why is it so hard to make a good thing last”. That initial blast of adversity is in many ways a constant throughout the record, as Esther, without ever even hinting at self-pity, winds a path through heartache and out the other side. Ultimately it’s a record not about anyone else, it’s a record of self-examination, as evidenced on My Bad Mood, a track where Esther finds her ex-moving on and rather than cursing his good fortune, she looks the mirror right in the eye and promises to learn about herself. If lyrically intriguing, How Many Times is also a showcase of some wonderful musicians, throughout the record Esther and her band never sound anything short of stunning, whether it’s the shuffling urgency of Good Time or the stripped-back, starry-eyed romanticism of Song Remain, as Esther’s stunning vocal concludes, “I am glad it was you who broke my heart”. While Esther Rose has always been a songwriter compared with the country-greats, and that comparison is justified, How Many Times is the sound of a songwriter who is increasingly carving out her own path, a unique and intriguing musical journey all of her own making.
9. Cedric Noel – Hang Time [Joyful Noise Recordings/Forward Music Group]
Now based out of Montreal, Cedric Noel’s roots are distinctly multi-national. He was born in Niger, before being adopted by Canadian and Mozambican/Belgian parents, and spent his youth travelling the world before settling at University in Fredericton, Canada. There Cedric embraced the local music scene, where, as one of the few black musicians around, he found himself, “both seen and unseen in complicated ways”. Released in November, Cedric’s latest album, Hang Time, was recorded away from the glare of Montreal’s scene. Cedric returned to his family home and set about a period of introspection, exploring the puzzle pieces that make up the man he has become and how they fit into the wider world, as Cedric himself explained, “I hope that this album can contribute to the reimagination of what is understood as ‘black music’ and help remove the boundaries that term currently encompasses”.
Hang Time opens with the compelling Comuu, an expansive piece of songwriting full of soaring, atmospheric synths, complex marching drum rhythms and Cedric’s compelling vocal, an instrument simultaneously powerful and delicate, like an intricately decorated sonic monolith, capable of easily carrying the weight of his lyrical message of ancestry and allyship. Throughout the record, Cedric creates songs of great texture, reminiscent of bands like Low or Mew there’s a great dynamic throughout with the likes of Headspace or Stilting shifting rapidly from vast cacophonous noise to the most minute, pretty melodies. While being a record of potentially heavy topics, be it racial injustice, adoption or alienation, Hang Time is also one of real beauty, whether it’s Bass Song, an intimate duet with Squirrel Flower’s Ella Williams or the warm-piano sliding into a world of noise that is the deeply personal Born. Even in its most overtly political moment, the Malcolm X sampling Allies, Hang Time doesn’t forget to add the personal flair of its creator, Cedric atop an increasingly frenetic backing repeatedly asking, “are you on my side?” In a year when many of us found ourselves questioning the structure and lack of fairness in our society, Hang Time was a reminder that at the heart of all those discussions we are not looking at statistics, but people full of tenderness, pride and dreams, Cedric Noel asked difficult questions and did it in his own stunning way.
8. Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place [Keeled Scales]
A musician I already had an eye on prior to 2021, Katy Kirby made her splash early on with the February release of her fantastic debut album, Cool Dry Place. Released via Keeled Scales, the album found the Texas-songwriter in many ways rebelling against her musical background. Katy was born, raised and home-schooled by two former cheerleaders, and her earliest musical exploration came via the church choir and, “the pasteurized-pop choruses of evangelical worship”. After growing up on this diet of, “dependably uncool” music, Katy perhaps unsurprisingly set about rebelling against it. The resultant album is one that loses none of her hook-laden pop tendencies, yet re-imagines them through an alternative lens, creating a musical vision entirely her own.
In some ways, Cool Dry Place is an archetypal debut album, recorded over several years it’s a trip through Katy Kirby’s journey into adulthood. A record that finds its creator seeking out a place in the world and adorning that process with thoughts on heartache, capitalism, religion and a healthy dose of small-town boredom. Alongside the variety of themes the record touches on, it’s equally a musical pick-and-mix, take a track like Traffic, it starts with a tropical-strut and processed distinctly pop-vocals, before suddenly finding itself in a church choir, as Katy calls out the self-obsession of an unidentified other with the repeated line, “nobody has it better than you”. It’s a sign of just how brilliantly odd Katy’s musical vision is that the baffling pop song is followed by Tap Twice, a delicate and delightfully straight-forward indie-folk number. The record’s killer moments are intriguingly saved until right near the album’s close, with the one-two punch of the single Portals and the masterful title track. The former is a country-tinged piano ballad re-imagined with unnerving distortion and manipulated string-backing, as Katy digs into the open wound of a relationship just ended, asking “if we peel apart, will we be stronger than we were before?” The title track is particularly wonderful, musing on ideas of tenderness and freedom, courtesy of Katy’s magical vocal performance and the slowly unfurling guitar-line reminiscent of Big Thief or Angel Olsen’s masterpiece, Sister. Cool Dry Place is ultimately a record of brilliant contradictions, it is fiery and tender, confident and unsure, pop and experimental, and yet it all makes sense, because it is also fabulously honest and true to its creator, a fascinating new voice in the musical landscape, Katy Kirby is a star in the making.
7. Claire Cronin – Bloodless [Orindal Records]
Claire Cronin is both a musician and a writer, who the world heard from most recently on both her 2019 album, Big Dread Moon, and her 2020, “horror memoir”, Blue Light On The Screen. Claire and her partner, and sometime collaborator, Ezra Buchla, relocated to Berkeley shortly before the pandemic struck, and the California Wildfire season left the air, “so toxic that we couldn’t leave the house”. Feeling in her own words, “trapped and hopeless and terrified”, it was in this state of slow-moving panic and time-distorting isolation that Claire crafted her latest album Bloodless, released in November via Orindal Records.
Bloodless is a record that finds Claire Cronin taking the sound of her previous material and expanding it, the trademarks of her prominent guitar and spectral vocal remain, yet somehow this feels denser, at times almost claustrophobic, as if the walls are closing in around her. Take the title track, it builds around a guitar part that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy record, yet as it builds becomes engulfed in wavering synth-like atmospherics as Claire’s lyrics depict a spirit coming to terms with existing outside of the body it lived within. That sense of spirituality is present across the record, as in Feel This, when Claire sings, “I don’t want to be in my body, what I want is to be beyond me, floating like God”. Throughout Bloodless, any sense of theism is always rooted in the human experience and human doubt, used as a metaphor to better understand who we are as living beings and what we go through along the way. There’s an intensity and a menace to the songs, not least in Claire’s vocal, at times, such as the beautiful No Forcefield, it’s delicate and inviting, then suddenly it turns menacing, as on Through The Walls, when the repeated mantra, “I’m rid of you, I’m rid of you, I’m rid of you”, gives way to controlled, haunting laughter. In a record that seems to always be attempting to make sense of the world, it’s fitting that any conclusion is saved for the closing track, Now I Don’t Leave, yet even that is no grand conclusion, more a reminder that when things are bad, you can’t always have the answer, as Claire sings, “those who persevere will be destroyed and I am not the destroyer in this story”. In a year where so much felt chaotic, Claire Cronin has produced an album bristling with life, death, fear and anger, and in doing so wrote the soundtrack 2021 so thoroughly deserved.
6. Clever Girls – Constellations [Egghunt Records]
Although it finally saw the light of day in March this year, Diane Jean, the songwriter behind Clever Girls, actually started working on Constellations back at the start of 2018, before they had even finished recording what would become their first full-length album, Luck. The album was crafted in the downtime between tour dates, influenced by the peaks of exhaustion and the journey towards self-discovery. The record coincided with a period where Diane came out as a queer and gender-nonconforming person and combines the vast array of emotions that experience conjured up with the escapism of Science-Fiction and the desire for personal autonomy.
When the album was announced to the world back in January, it was with the fabulous single Baby Blue that Diane decided to introduce it to the world. It’s a song that replaces loneliness with joy, taking the euphoria of reciprocated love and setting it to a luxurious backing of wiry ’80s influenced guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Stranger Things soundtrack. Throughout the record, Diane seems to battle against their own instincts, as on the atmospheric Stonewall, a rebellion against Diane’s desire to always please others, perfectly captured in the weary vocal, which was recorded directly from Diane’s sleeping-bag in one take after a particularly gruelling all-night recording session. A record that’s sonically difficult to pin down, Constellations is delightfully eclectic, from the bright soft-grunge of Lavender through to indie floor-filler Remember Pluto, and the bassy strut of Saturn a song about rebirth and learning to knock down the defensive towers we build when trying to hide from the world. Sometimes it felt like every record in 2021 was a rumination on society at large, and perhaps Constellation stands out as a result, a deeply personal collection in its makers own image, despite their name, Clever Girls seemed to forego the head and hit you right in the heart with this joyous celebration of ongoing self-discovery.
Check out my five favourite records of 2021, and find out what was crowned my album of the year HERE.