5. Squirrel Flower – Planet (i) [Full Time Hobby / Polyvinyl]
If the music that Boston-bred songwriter Ella Williams, aka Squirrel Flower has a flair for the apocalyptic, it’s perhaps a reflection of her release schedule. Her debut album, I Was Born Swimming, which topped my list of 2020’s finest albums, was released just weeks before Corona-virus hit, throwing her plans into disarray. With touring on hold, Ella took to her bedroom and set about demoing a series of tracks she had actually written pre-pandemic, which would become her new album Planet (i). After connecting with producer Ali Chant over a series of long-distance international calls, Ella made the decision to make a dash for UK soil, flying into Bristol to record at the Playpen Studio. There the pair set about drawing the life out of Ella’s song sketches, working with a small band, and a very large guest cast of remote backing vocalists, including the likes of Tenci’s Jess Shoman, Tomberlin and an array of Ella’s family members. Deciding against delaying proceeding, Ella released Planet (i) into the world in June, once against teaming up with both Full Time Hobby and Polyvinyl.
Although we often speak of an artist creating a musical world of their own, few records took that quite as literally as Planet (i), a loosely conceptual musing on the idea of a second Earth, somewhere humans, “would inevitably settle and destroy after leaving Earth”. That said, if you’re expecting earnest reprimands on the dangers of climate change, you are possibly in the wrong place, instead, Planet (i) seems to almost revel in this sense of chaos and planet-sized demise, memorably described as, “a love letter to disaster in every form imaginable”. Despite its grand themes, the record actually has its roots in deeply personal human emotions, a study in recovery following a series of concussions and attempt to overcome a fear of elemental dangers, by embracing the chaos Ella can confront her own fears, as she sings on Desert Wildflower, “I’m not scared of the storm, I’ll be lying on the roof when the tornado turns”. Whilst thematically fascinating, Planet (i) was also a record that drew Squirrel Flower’s music into new territory, stepping away from crafting the record from live performance and laying down instruments separately, creating an almost sculptural approach that feels daring and experimental. The resultant record showcases everything that was already great about Squirrel Flower, while also stretching her music into new territory. An eclectic affair, it goes from the beautifully delicate intimacy of the Iowa 146 through to the Mad Max-like intensity of Flames and Flat Tires, a song so atmospheric you can almost smell the petrol and burning rubber. A particular favourite of mine arrives towards the record’s close in the shape of To Be Forgotten, it’s a song that blows open the cracks and lets the light of self-assurance come pouring in, starting off with a wavering delicacy before exploding into life on the pounding drum beat as Ella sings, “to be alone, what a feeling, to be forgotten, what a feeling and I won’t feel again”. To be forgotten? With a record this wonderful, there’s little chance of anyone forgetting about Squirrel Flower anytime soon.
4. Sweet Nobody – We’re Trying Our Best [Relief Map Records]
Initially pencilled in for a release in the Summer of 2020, Sweet Nobody’s second album, We’re Trying Our Best finally arrived in September. It was just another challenge in a record that set out to explore an array of them, much of the record’s inspiration came from vocalist Joy Deyo’s experience of chronic pain, exploring the reality of living with it, the trauma of feeling damaged and crucially the joy that the love and support of those closest to us can bring. The title may have begun personal, yet by the time it arrived, it had taken on a certain global resonance, feeling naturally unsettled and unsure as we tip-toe back towards normality, we’re all trying our best and sometimes that’s something worth celebrating.
It feels only right at this moment to make the point that We’re Trying Our Best is a record that sounds nothing like you’d imagine from its themes, as the press release states this is record is, “no ponderous goth dirge”. Instead, this is very much a late-Summer album, a record of long evenings, joyous sonic rushes and sweet, indie-pop harmonies. Recorded between Hurley Studios and producer/engineer, Joel Jerome’s garage, We’re Trying Our Best is a record that fizzes with life, a refreshing reminder to live in the moment and reach out into the world in search of connection. The record opens with the urgency of Not A Good Judge, the prominent bass and bright guitars bringing to mind Rilo Kiley as Joy laments the voices of self-doubt lurking within. Elsewhere, the ’80s tinged Why Don’t You Break My Heart is the under-explored middle ground of The Strokes and The Human League, while the one-two punch of the rapid jangling Five Star Diary and the crushingly beautiful ode to heartache Young In Love was surely one of the year’s great double-headers. A year late, but entirely worth the wait, We’re Trying Our Best was quite possibly one of the year’s quiet triumphs, an underrated gem just waiting for more people to discover its undeniable charms.
3. Shannon Lay – Geist [Sub Pop]
Back in 2019, Shannon Lay first caught my ear with her fantastic album, August, which crept into my round-up of that year’s favourites. That album was a delightfully hopeful record, celebrating creativity as Shannon quit her day job and threw herself into music full time, a decision which, having lived through the subsequent two years, feels even more thrillingly bold. Approaching the follow-up, Shannon teamed up with Jarvis Tavinere, of the band Woods, laying down the bed-rock of the songs in his studio, before embracing remote creativity, by sending the record on to collaborators Ben Boye and Devin Hoff, trusting their musical instincts to add a sparkle of magic. The result is Geist, a record of consolidation and gentle progress, a reminder of who Shannon Lay is, and a glimpse of the endless possibilities as to where she goes next.
The record’s title Geist is lifted from the German word for spirit, hinting both as the presence of an unspoken other, and yet also of the possibilities held within all of us, as Shannon said when discussing the record’s title track, “we are so much more amazing than we know ourselves to be”. Positivity has always been rife in Shannon Lay’s music, and here she seems to be urging us to find that within, to look in the mirror and see the undiscovered possibilities lurking inside, as she sings on Awaken and Allow, “do not stop change in favour of comfort, a bud cannot resist to bloom”. Elsewhere, A Thread To Find feels like a friend singing out from the speakers, with the repeated refrain, “you’re on your own but not alone”, while the title track has the feel of a warm embrace, similar to the tones Guy Garvey brings to Elbow’s most sedate moments, as Shannon sings of, “a smile on my face thinking of you”. Particularly wonderful is the record’s opening track, Rare To Wake, where to a backing of intricate guitars and layered vocals, Shannon introduces the record’s winding thread of embracing change, “I will miss my home but I’m longing to grow, I will miss my pain, I have to make way for something better”. In lesser hands, Geist could feel like a self-help book, yet throughout Shannon doesn’t seem to be preaching to anyone, instead, she offers an open hand, coaxing us to follow our dreams, embrace our individuality and hopefully along the way leave the world a little brighter than we found it.
2. Wednesday – Twin Plagues [Orindal Records]
Back in 2020, Wednesday burst onto the scene when Orindal Records released their debut album, I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone, a record that felt delightfully out of step with any musical trends, creating a textured landscape of chaos and serenity, via the medium of brutal, beautiful guitar noise. Just eighteen months later, the Asheville, North Carolina based quintet were at it again with the release of their latest collection Twin Plagues. The record was introduced by a fantastic essay by Hanif Abdurraqib, reflecting on the record and themes of nostalgia and reflections, it was a suitably cryptic introduction to a record that seemed to live in the shadows, offering glimpses of meaning, before retreating into the comforting cover of beautiful noise.
Fittingly, Twin Plagues opens with a wail of feedback, before the title track takes a turn for the ominous with a gigantic guitar-riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by Deftones. As the song progresses, through the visceral sludge, Karly Hartzman’s vocal emerges intense and pained like Kristine Leschper from Mothers, “you are fearless, you defy death. Flies are zapping in the bug light”. It’s an intense scene-setter, less a tune and more a soundscape of jet-black noise, it draws the listener in, yet is in some ways not reflective of the record that follows. For all the praise I will throw their way for their ability to make damn fine noise, what’s evident listening to Twin Plagues is that Wednesday have become better at harnessing it, there’s a new focus to these songs, a greater understanding of structure and dynamic. Take a track like Cliff, it begins with a muted strum of guitar chords, Karly’s vocal almost gentle, before it suddenly hits what one could loosely call a chorus, and everything instantly ramps up, the drums clatter, the guitars howl and the vocal spits, “honey I shrunk the kids again, the days drip by until I can go back to bed”. That sense of a band growing into themselves is present throughout, never more so than on the wordily titled country-ballad How Can You Live If You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do, laced with slide-guitar and raw emotional honesty, “rooms would look much better if they had you standin’ in them, jealous of the rooms who’s floors can feel your weight upon them”. It’s moments of respite like this that serve the flow of the album so well, the light serving to make the shade even darker, whether it’s the shoegaze wail of Toothache or the thrashy-punk of Three Sisters. Twin Plagues was a leap forward a band with limitless potential coming good on it and then some – plus if they’re half as good live as it sounds like they should be, well Wednesday might just be the sort of band I could fall head over heels in love with.
1. Karima Walker – Waking The Dreaming Body [Keeled Scales / Orindal Records]
On Reconstellated, the opening track of Waking The Dreaming Body, Karima Walker sings, “I know where I am but I can’t tell where I started”. It’s perhaps a fitting introduction to a record that found its creator in a state of uncertainty, always questioning her place in the world at large, asking who we are when the things that root us feel in a state of flux. Karima’s first album since 2017’s Hand in Our Name, Waking The Dreaming Body wasn’t the album Karima ever planned to make. Originally planning to record in New York with Melissa Dyne, first illness, and then lockdown caused a change of plan and Karima instead set about writing, recording and performing the record entirely on her own from her home studio, fully enveloping herself into the creative process.
Throughout Waking The Dreaming Body, Karima’s meticulous production adds to the record a sense of both control and claustrophobia, it’s an album that seems to bleed out your headphones, engulfing the listener in a gorgeous dream-like fog. With each repeated listen, it is an album that seems to offer a new detail, like walking through a forest, taking a slightly different route with each visit, slowly learning how the paths converge, creating a map in your mind. The album seems to oscillate between musical worlds, organically flowing between ambient soundscapes and the wistful poetry of her more traditional songwriter pieces. Karima admits she considered separating the two, however, the record would lose so much if it had been arranged like that, the album is a journey, not a destination. Sometimes even within a single track we see both sides of her musical personality, Window I starts in the lyrical frame, “I couldn’t tell if the window in my head when it’s clear, might be a mirror“, before, as the words ask us to throw the windows wide, the track plunges the listener into a soundscape, full of distant cars rolling by, and just a whisper of synth that seems almost to blow in on the wind.
While very much an album to be taken whole, Waking The Dreaming Body is still a record littered with highlights, take all thirteen plus minutes of Horizon, Harbor Resonance. It is a track inspired by Karima’s obsession with water and waves, an ambient masterpiece, all gentle ebbs and flows, slowly distorting the passage of time and the way you view the world. The brilliant flow of the record is showcased by the way as the piece fades out, it replaced by the record’s most straightforwardly lovely moment, the gentle folk mastery of the title track, it’s like leaving a Brian Eno show and finding Shirley Collins outside, singing a beautifully poetic verse, “the earth it is shaking, she’s taking a breath while the rest of us hold it“. Yet for all the magical moments the album contains, I still find myself always drawn back to that first track, “reconstellating the ground beneath our feet, reconstellate the stars inside of me” – quite simply, for me Waking The Dreaming Body was as good as music gets.
As this list seems a natural endpoint to the year that was 2021 I’d just like to offer a brief thanks to all of you that read this site. To the bands, labels, publicists, fellow bloggers and everyone else out there in the music industry who in difficult times are all trying their best. 2021 offered an array of challenges to anyone trying to exist and make music, and the fact that so many amazing records found their way out there is a testament to the talents, flexibility and commitment of the many people involved in making that happen. With that in mind, it seemed entirely fitting that my album of the year was released by not one but two, truly tremendous, independent record labels. As someones wiser than I once said, not all superheroes wear capes.