A selection of standout long-players….
2021 proved to be a strange year, particularly as optimism for a post-COVID-19 world may have got a little bit carried away. Despite this, the return of live events (many having been rescheduled from the previous year) was welcomed by a music audience starved of concerts. Plus, it didn’t seem to slow down the release of new music across the year – also a welcome sign.
The Wavegirl selection from this year has proved to be a diverse and eclectic batch of albums, encompassing pop, indie rock, J-pop, synth-pop and punk. Regardless of your tastes, there’s bound to be a few titles here that are worth your attention.
On that basis, here are Wavegirl’s ten album choices that marked the standout albums for us in 2021…
~ ALBUM OF THE YEAR ~
MARINA – Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land offers perhaps more spirit and more bite than Marina’s previous album, 2019’s Love + Fear (see review previously) evidenced particularly in blunt compositions such as ‘Purge the Poison’ and ‘New America’.
Consequently, the album offered up a timely collection of songs which included the feminist anthem of ‘Man’s World’ and the energetic pop of ‘Venus Fly Trap’. The powerful polemic of ‘Purge the Poison’ sees Marina casting an eye on climate change, #metoo, misogyny and pretty much all points in between. It’s one of the album’s highlights, a driving pulse-pounding pop banger that provides an earworm that’s tough to shift.
Elsewhere, there’s a graceful approach to ‘Flowers’ which is a rumination on the end of a relationship (“With every callous action/You let me slip away”). It’s a raw, stripped-down composition which relies mainly on a tinkling piano melody. ‘I Love You But I Love Me More’ is a similarly more reflective number, but here given a bolder workover thanks to some effective percussion and David Levita’s guitar work.
Album closer ‘Goodbye’ treads similar territory, a surprisingly blunt musing on loss and regret.
“Songwriting has always been a vehicle for me to explore things that challenge me, and things that upset me” commented Marina in a recent interview, “So it’s definitely tricky to organise thoughts on really important subjects, and at the end of the day, whatever people think, that’s just how I’ve been able to deal with that at the time. So you can only hope that it’s received in the way that it was intended.”
The Wavegirl review said: “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is a stunning album and delivers one of 2021’s best pop moments.”
Album Review: MARINA – Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land
WOLF ALICE – Blue Weekend
It’s been a long wait for Wolf Alice to put out a follow-up to their 2017 album Visions Of A Life (see Wavegirl review previously). That album demonstrated that the rock outfit weren’t merely a one album wonder, instead expanding on My Love Is Cool’s solid foundations to experiment with a broader range of sound.
Blue Weekend is certainly an unusual album, with a more mature approach that proves to be more of a puzzle box in its musical approach. ‘Delicious Things’ is easily one of the album’s finest moments – a shimmering slice of moody guitars backing a narrative-led vocal by Ellie Rowsell. The song wrestles with an American setting beset by anxiety and joy, as well as exploring perhaps the journey that the band have taken in recent years (“A girl like me/Would you believe I’m in Los Angeles?”).
One of the album’s true surprises is the simple beauty of ‘Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love)’. The stripped-down approach centred mostly around an acoustic guitar and Rowsell’s harmonic vocals (along with some effective backing vocals from Joff Oddie) gives this composition a folk-tinged charm.
Previously, ‘The Last Man On Earth’ had heralded the album and certainly seems a nod back to the bittersweet ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’. The gentle piano melodies set the tone for an evocative number that opens up into a bigger, more widescreen affair with some nice choral touches and suitable string foundations.
In conclusion, our review said: “Blue Weekend showcases a band that are continually evolving, here offering a more mature, wisened selection of songs, while still maintaining an unescapable Wolf Alice quality.”
Album Review: WOLF ALICE – Blue Weekend
MOGWAI – As the Love Continues
As with many of their contemporaries, Mogwai’s plans had to contend with the COVID-19 crisis. As the Love Continues, which marked the tenth studio album by the Scottish rock outfit, was started in February 2020 and had to deal with the fact that various members had to write remotely during the lockdown period.
Finally released in February this year, As the Love Continues quickly made up for lost time and went on to reach No. 1 in the UK Albums Chart. The album is mostly an instrumental affair, aside from some vocoder-treated effects on some songs. One the album’s finest moments, ‘Ritchie Sacramento’, is the only song that features standard vocals via Stuart Braithwaite. A heartfelt composition with a melancholic quality that references lost friends, including David Berman (Silver Jews) and Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit), its power lingers long after the final note is struck.
Much of the album trades in a fuzzy, shimmering guitar vibe which includes the stark beauty of ‘Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever’ and the crystalline dreampop appeal of ‘Dry Fantasy’. Meanwhile, ‘Ceiling Granny’ is a much harder, beefier effort with snarling guitar refrains and layered effects. Our review concluded: “As the Love Continues is an album that needs several spins to really appreciate, but what emerges at the end is a stunning, emotive work.”
Album Review: MOGWAI – As the Love Continues
PRINCESS CENTURY – s u r r e n d e r
Discussing the catalyst on new Princess Century album s u r r e n d e r Maya Postepski summed it up: “I love pop music and it’s really hard to write good pop songs. So, this winter I locked myself in a studio and I had nothing to do because Corona sucks and I wrote all these songs.”
Perhaps the album’s strongest point is the bittersweet ‘Still The Same’, a composition seeped in longing and frustration matched with sumptuous, sequenced beats. Meanwhile, Postepski’s evocative vocal tops off a narrative revolving around themes of absence and loss (“You’re still the same/But I need you now/I need you more again”).
There’s more bittersweet moments lurking on ‘Desperate Love’, a composition that has a dreamy, languid quality to it with its warbling low-key synths and buzzy, insistent beats.
Obviously there’s also plenty of classic Princess Century at work on the album, including the electronic ruminations of its title track. There’s the beguiling ambience of instrumental number ‘Wanting You’ and also the simple euphoria present on ‘Pleasure Sequence’.
Meanwhile, one of the album’s collaborative efforts ‘Stupid Things’ offers up one of the album’s finest moments. There’s an airy touch here within its downbeat electronics – something which is definitely the purview of long-time friend and collaborator Fragrance.
In conclusion, our review saw s u r r e n d e r as “an elegiac album wrapped in themes of lost love and yearning, but also with a beauty at its heart.”
Album Review: PRINCESS CENTURY – s u r r e n d e r
SPRAY – Ambiguous Poems About Death
In 2019, Spray’s album Failure Is Inevitable was one of our albums of the year. 2021’s follow-up album Ambiguous Poems About Death throws out sharp, electronic pop with a smattering of social commentary, particularly via the COVID-inspired ‘Hammered In an Airport’ and ‘We’ll Look Back On This And Laugh’. Elsewhere, there’s lyrical narratives on public figures, dysfunctional relationships and space cats or, as the duo describe it, “Spray’s tried and tested formula of overblown escapism.”
Nestling away in the album’s tracklisting were the gauzy ‘Blurred in the Background’, a witty zinger of a track whose lyrics allude to those people less keen on having their faces front and centre. ‘Félicette (Space Cat)’, in which Spray’s knack for synth hooks kicks this tune into high gear against a charming little lyrical narrative.
Elsewhere, there was the squelchy disco of ‘Hammered In an Airport’ with Jenny adopting a spoken monologue (a kind of synth-pop Faithless if you will). Here, some odd lyrical couplets are delivered (“We should have cheesecake/We should have heartbreak”) against a deep musical groove.
Ambiguous Poems About Death has a softer aspect compared to Spray’s previous entries, our review concluded indicating perhaps a more mature approach to the pop duo. At the same time, the clever commentary and sharp wit remains present and correct.
Album Review: SPRAY – Ambiguous Poems About Death
HEAVENSTAMP – From the Basement
Signed to new UK-based record label Setsuzoku Records Heavenstamp are a Japanese rock outfit originally formed in 2009. They’ve embarked on co-producing work with British guitarist Russell Lissack (Bloc Party) and US Indie band Animal Collective, all helping to give Heavenstamp more of a global appeal.
With new album From the Basement, Heavenstamp come armed with some formidable songwriting talents on the album that delivers a sound that’s both distinct as well as engaging. Part of the outfit’s major strengths is Sally#Cinnamon’s bold vocal style, which has a confidence and a power (as well as a gobsmacking range). Meanwhile, Tomoya.S brings onboard a sharp ear for harmonies and arrangement that results in some powerful compositions that jump off the new album.
Opener ‘Sail to Heaven’ has a beguiling quality, enhanced by Sally’s mesmerising vocals. ‘Kumonoito’ switches things up a bit with more of an electronic base to its rhythms, offset by some insistent guitar work. The album dives into dirty guitars on ‘Kokoronihiwotsukete’, which has a heavier, brooding weight to it. At the same time, there’s some breath-taking vocal harmonies weaved into this composition that really gives it some power.
There’s a more cinematic element to the bold rhythms of ‘Tokinotabibito’, particularly with some stunning vocal harmonies that will make the hairs on your neck stand up. It’s a smoother production perhaps compared to the other tracks on From the Basement, but there’s certainly no loss of energy. Thrown in as a bonus track, ‘Virtual’ plays around with a synth-driven arrangement whose chiptune sensibility has its own charm.
Our review concluded that the album presented “an accomplished collection of songs likely to find favour with people that have a soft spot for acts such as The Brilliant Green and Supercar. Heavenstamp manage to occupy a similar sweet spot between melodic arrangements and heavier, darker rock territory.”
Album Review: HEAVENSTAMP – From the Basement
LAST OF THE FALLEN ANGELS – Radio Babylon
There are times when an album jumps out at you purely on the basis of the names contributing to it. Case in point is Radio Babylon, a new album courtesy of music collective Last Of The Fallen Angels.
Conceived by Conrad McQueen as part of music collective Last Of The Fallen Angels, Radio Babylon brought together Peter Hook (New Order), Brinsley Forde (Aswad) and Rowetta (Happy Mondays) plus other singers and musicians from around the world to raise money for Musicians Against Homelessness/CRISIS.
The album showcases an eclectic mix of tracks, including ‘Kisses’, which features the unmistakable bass of Peter Hook on a very downbeat, dreampop affair. Beccy Owen’s vocals have a deep emotive allure to them via lines such as “You took my pain away”. Conversely, ‘Ivory Tower’ is a harsher, more aggressive outing care of Tara Tine’s freestyling vocal approach – an energetic, angry outing with some dynamic guitar and percussion.
‘Change Has Gotta Come’ pulls in Brinsley Forde and Rowetta on a smoky, dub-filled outing whose lyrics drive straight to the point (“Sister can you help me/Get the homeless off the street?”). The additional brass elements also give the song an organic, weighty feel. The evocative ‘Bowie In Berlin’, featuring Laura Rickenbacker & Jeff Black, is (as you might expect) a love letter to Bowie’s German period. Dominated by some strident piano tones, it’s a wonderfully engaging composition with a human heart to it.
Radio Babylon boasts the production flourishes of Simon Ellis (Spice Girls, Westlife, S Club 7, Britney Spears), so delivers a polished and warm collection of songs. As our review stated: “It’s also an album that carries a vital message which, as Christmas approaches, seems ever more important.”
Album Review: LAST OF THE FALLEN ANGELS – Radio Babylon
RECLAIM THE NIGHT – Various Artists
Designed as a compilation record to amplify the voices calling out for social reform connected with predatory and abusive behaviour, Reclaim The Night gathered together 26 acts to contribute to the effort. This included the likes of Brazen Hussy, A Void, Girls Like Us, Brasher, Gaptooth and Riviera Kid among others – all representative of a grassroots music community whose focus is mainly on women, nonbinaries and gender queer voices.
Curated by new record label Inner Magic, a statement with the release wasn’t soft-peddling the message: “We stand with you to address the inequality that exists in the reporting of violent crimes. We stand against the detestable practice of victim shaming that has become all too familiar in modern society and we refuse to let a totalitarian state government place more value on statues then on survivors of rape, abuse and other violent crimes.”
Funds raised by the sales of the album went to the charity Refuge to help their vital work with survivors of abuse and violent crime. Music fans responded in kind with the first run sold out in under 24 hours, resulting in a second pressing (as well as a digital release via Bandcamp).
Reclaim The Night had a strong lean-in to punk and indie rock acts, including opening act The Other Ones’ visceral ‘Get Your Hands Off Me’, Brazen Hussy’s raw ‘Swallowed It’ and the Pixies-esque vibes of Slut Magic’s ‘No Loyalty’. Meanwhile, the brash ‘Red Flags’ by Gaptooth utilises some grim humour to deliver its message (“You’re toxic/But not in the Britney sense”).
Also among the tracks is Wavegirl favourite A Void, who contributed the dark and cathartic ‘Complainte’. Elsewhere, there’s the stark ‘Fluent in Misogyny’ care of Brain Anguish, Gender Chores’ tight and effective ‘Territory’ and the euphoric energy of ‘Strawberries’ by Werecats.
PARAGON CAUSE – Autopilot
Paragon Cause demonstrate an uncanny knack for combining twilight electronics and guitar riffs to craft evocative, bittersweet musical moments.
Autopilot, which represents the duo’s third studio album, features the stunning ‘Making Up For Lost Time’, a song which we summed up as “an emotional tidal wave” in our review at the time. The song’s fuzzy layers of guitars gives the entire composition a warm, immersive vibe that’s tough to shake off.
Elsewhere, ‘Two To Play’ has a dirty bass grunge along with some nice synth fills. ‘I’m Not Here’ is a bigger, bolder effort with Opthof’s vocals front and centre with dark synth tones battling with chugging guitars.
The wistful pop of ‘Disconnected’, penned as a statement against the downsides of social media, plays more to Paragon Cause’s strengths: An uplifting exercise which has elements of 60s girl groups weaved into the mix. ‘More Than We Can Handle’ employs a slower approach with its spaced-out guitar and Opthof’s haunting vocal refrains.
Autopilot, as an album, is another example of Paragon Cause’s winning guitar crush approach.
Album Review: PARAGON CAUSE – Autopilot
THE GO! TEAM – Get Up Sequences Part One
Three years on from previous album Semicircle (see Wavegirl review previously), Get Up Sequences Part One saw the return of Ian Parton’s music collective. The album wasn’t without its challenges. Parton was plagued by an ongoing hearing issue that he’s had since 2019 (later diagnosed as a condition known as Ménière’s disease). “The trauma of losing my hearing gave the music a different dimension for me and it transformed the album into more of a life raft.”
The album featured tracks such as ‘Let The Seasons Work’, a brisk shakedown with busy arrangements and brass stabs. The perky ‘Cookie Scene’ is a simpler affair, with its flute melodies and schoolyard chant vocals, which still carry an unusual weight to them (“I’m feeling kinda funny cause life is like a game”), care of guest vocalist IndigoYaj. It’s also peppered with some nice electronic effects to keep your attention.
‘A Bee Without Its Sting’ is a softer affair with its warm rhythms and engaging guest vocals – via Detroit teenagers Jessie Miller and Rian Woods. The album also boasts the great ‘Tame the Great Plains’, a (mostly) instrumental outing with some effective brass out front and centre.
The Wavegirl review stated: “Its breezy mélange of sounds providing the perfect soundtrack for the summer.”
Album Review: THE GO! TEAM – Get Up Sequences Part One