2021 Playback:
Selected Earworms

MF DOOM — Mm.. Food

As we planned the 2021 edition of For k-punk back in January, it was announced that MF DOOM had passed away. Passing mixes back and forth, my ears turned to his back catalogue, as they did for many.

“Deep Fried Frenz” became a fixation, both scathing and joyful, with DOOM’s production cutting Ronnie Laws’ vibrant jazz-fusion with the cold hip-hop minimalism of Whodini. It’s schizo sentiment of friendship and suspicion felt appropriate to weeks spent organising a Covid party to be attended alone and held entirely online.

aya — im hole

When we moved to Huddersfield in late 2020, I started my usual habit of exploring the local area’s cultural history. There was a real thrill in reading Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath or Wuthering Heights or Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole in the environments in which they were set. At the same time, I was kind of missing the experience of this kind of transhistorical exploration in London, wandering around listening to jungle and reading Virginia Woolf. The psychogeographic tension of different cultural moments existing on top of each other was something I really missed. But Aya came to the rescue.

The cover of her 2019 EP, and departt from mono games, would greet me every time I looked out the bedroom window in the morning, as the Emley Moor Mast towered over the city. When her debut album im hole was released in 2021, her Yorkshire poetics connected this poetic region (and Plath especially) to now. For an album recorded entirely in the area of London I’d just left, im hole felt like it constantly evoked a linguistic landscape that I was now getting to know intimately. A tongued cartography for West Yorkshire rambles.

Proc Fiskal — Siren Spine Sysex

Proc Fiskal’s second album was another perfect soundtrack to a year of post-London decompression and viral mutations. It is a sonic palette that blurs city and country, folk and modernity, with an impish ease. Coming off the back of an obsession with Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleaknesswhich I’d transcribed in late 2020 for the vinyl record release, telling the story of some kids on the Wirral finding a fairyland under an underpass — Siren Spine Sysex feels like the sort of music those kids went and made after the fact, still buzzing, back in their bedrooms, city life stalked and infringed upon by an occulted wilderness. That’s the vibe of my 2021 in a nutshell.

Clairo — Sling

Clairo’s Sling was a revelation earlier this year. She’s surely the underdog of a generation of female singer-songwriters who have been lumped together for their collaborations with Jack Antonoff — think Lorde and Taylot Swift. But just as the attention paid to their producers earlier this year only serves to dilute their own voices, it has to be affirmed that Clairo’s second album sounds like nothing else. She has carved out a sound all her own on this record. Following her rise as a viral bedroom pop queen, Sling embraces a kind of Steely Dan decadence, with some of the catchiest and ornate instrumentation you’ll hear on any pop record this year.

But amidst the Seventies soft-prog studio layering, we’re invited into the same confessional songwriting that deals frankly with interpersonal problems for the 21st century, with “Blouse”, in particular, feeling like a scathing analysis of performative male friends and allies in the #MeToo era, all of its power coming from the understated disappointment of catching yourself in a friend’s gaze. It feels like Clairo has inaugurated a new subgenre all of her own on this record. This sort of deeply intelligent songwriting upends and adds significant weight to the cool studio decadence of your average Adult Contemporary record. There’s a fury here and a youthful dissatisfaction that makes it more of an Adolescent Contemporary outing. And I’m into it.

Space Afrika — Honest Labour

Blackhaine’s drawl got on “B£E” gets under the skin. It’s the centerpiece of an album that bounds back from the criticism often thrown at more “ambient” records in recent years. It’s usually Twitter’s grumpy techno boys who go on about this predilection for quietude and ambience in an age of social dissolution and injustice. But Honest Labour undermines their tautology between peace and quiet. On the contrary, it violently simmers. At a time when the most vocal protests are organised by mindless anti-vaxxers, with the heat of eruptive Black Lives Matter protests dying down, there is no sense our discontent has gone away. It’s music for the skeleton crew. “There’s a grave inside your mouth I press against.” There’s something about leaning against the void that disturbs in its absence, affirming the negativity of negative space.

Low — Hey What

Low have consistently been one of my favourite bands over this last decade. With a sound entirely their own, which is always serene, they nonetheless know just how to shake up their sound in really exciting ways. The degraded grunge of Double Negative felt like the defining album of the Trump years, which was both a beautifully orchestrated and punishing listen. (Seeing them at the Barbican just before the pandemic made the album all the more astounding, at it was clear they had purposefully destroyed some of the most beautiful songs of their career to date — but this destruction was no less of a pleasure to listen to.)

Hey What is an appropriate follow-up for the Biden years. No less nihilistic, no less furious, no less beautiful, no less serene… No less of a paradox. The songs are able to breathe a little bit more here, but for what? The negativity of the present has never been rendered so poignantly.

Graham Dunning — Mindscape from the 7th Level

So much of what got stuck in my head this year was a reflection of the stuckness all around us. Everything is a little woozy, haunted, long-drawn. Not this. Dunning has seemingly done the impossible by making a set of “bedroom recordings”, presumably the product of lockdown, that are, despite everything else, utterly propulsive.

This was my go-to driving album this year. It’s perfect for taking country roads a little too fast…

THE ANXIETY — Meet Me At Our Spot

That TikTok song… “When I go to sleep / I can’t even fall asleep / Something’s got a hold of me / Feel it taking over me.” For many nights this year, it was often this song’s chorus for me. A sleeper hit, first released in 2020, it became inescapable in 2021. It’s rapid-fire staccato syllables are like a woodpecker against that part of your brain that loves a musical hook. It’s a song that most people have heard seconds of, but which only lasts two and a half minutes as it is. It begs repeated listening.

What’s strange about it, and all the more enthralling to me, is the paradox of the vibe its talking about. The live rendition above presents the song with all this strange set dressing. It’s underpasses and nu-metal trouser chains and grunge rips. It’s a 90s vibe that the kids singing weren’t alive to see. But the song’s theme seems to know it runs in reverse, talking about being excited to be younger. There’s a weird death drive to the whole thing, knowingly striving for a cultural moment that was only ever, for them at least, in utero.

The set dressing is what makes it for me. The ubiquitous underpass. Is this a Mark Leckey set? Once again his O’ Magic Power of Bleakness haunts, catching the vibe, the zeitgeist.

But this is a vibe about disconnection, surely? A song that begins with a drunk text and then dreams of disappearing into a suburban wilderness and getting high off the grid. An attractive sentiment these days, and one that has the magic of a pre-online adolescence scrawled all over it. But it’s still a song catapulted into the hit parade by the libidinal trap of TikTok loops and endless scrolling. It’s as if the kids want out but can’t be heard. Their complaints are smothered, emerging as sleeper hits through the algorithm, which doesn’t care what the vibe is, so long as it circulates.

But the vibe is a desire to get out. Meet me at our spot.

Emma DJ — Godrime

It’s hard to imagine any album sinking deeper into the urban depths than Space Afrika’s siren call, gliding over the surface of Manchester’s canals like the river Styx, but Emma DJ’s Godrime comes up behind it like a drowned beat cassette dredged from the very bottom of the Seine. I drown in it.

Still — { }

I tend to have a hard time keeping up with Hull’s music scene when I’m not living there, but I try to. There are probably few things the city itself is prouder of than its bands, but few make it to the ears of non-residents if they haven’t moved to London and adopted it as their point of origin in their band bio. (Lots of bands do this, but Hull bands have long had an aversion to it, ever since the release of the Housemartins’ debut.) I see this not to temper my own compliments, as if to let you know they’re probably down to hometown pride. On the contrary, Hull’s music scene, as much as I love it, is frustrating for how rarely it impresses me. For that reason, it fills me with a special kind of joy to be able to say that Still’s { } is easily one of the best albums of this year. A black metal post-hardcore power house record that is probably one of the best albums from that genre I’ve heard in many years, never mind just the last one.

It’s still winter. Crank it loud.

Klein — Harmatten

Gentle with a twist. This is an utterly enchanting record. There’s something about the kind of percussive piano playing here that I’ve always adored. It’s like you start off thinking you’re listening to a Dollar Brand / Abdullah Ibrahim performance, and then someone tells you he’s dead and what you’ve got there is some haunted piano and it won’t let you leave, but you sort of don’t mind about all that because it’s pretty good company. And before you know it, he’s got his mates round. Vangelis is coming too, and he’s promised to do his Blade Runner routine…

Of course, at some point, playing sonic allegories with a record this singular starts to become insulting. This is a Klein record. ‘Nuff said.

Les Mouches — You’re Worth More to me than 1000 Christians

Owen Pallett’s oddball project Les Mouches was a peculiar Limewire discovery for me, back in the 2000s. First released in 2004, it was past around internet forums like this scrappy, rarified object. The MP3s I had at the time were all out of order and incorrectly labelled, but I was obsessed with it regardless. I have a distinct memory of getting the train from Hull to Bridlington with friends one winter weekend, for a pointless day in the rain and an ill-advised sprint into the sea. Then it faded away into the depths of an old hard drive.

I rediscovered it this year, some 15 years later, and have listened to it constantly. It has been a special aural experience this year, becoming reacquainted with an album that might be one of my favourites of all time, lost to memory for so long. It is rare to rediscover an album after that long and to find it has lost none of its shine. A real treat.

SOPHIE — Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

When SOPHIE passed away at the start of this year, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides was back on rotation for months on end. Her death was announced the same day as our For k-punk night, and the Discord chat was filled with memories and love for her. But with all the sets pre-recorded and planned weeks in advance, there was no sonic presence to be had.

As if to make up for it, she soundtracked lots of long drives in the aftermath. In the spring and early summer, as lockdown began to ease slightly, we visited Oxford and now, every time I hear “Immaterial”, I’m back behind the wheel of our car, flying down the motorway, going on something resembling a holiday. A lot of pop records want to convey a sense of abandon and liberation, but few songs manage it and embody it as completely as “Immaterial” does. That’s the sound of unbridled and unrestrained joy.

Lee Gamble — Flush Real Pharynx

Lee’s EPs have felt like a constant presence throughout this whole pandemic, with the first being released in 2019. But the culmination of this trilogy gave the entire suite a new lease of life. It’s an incredibly ambitious project and one that is feels sprawling in its final form.

Lee’s music has always been amazing driving music for me, with KOCH staying in my first car for about two years. It felt like it was made to be listened to that way. The album’s quieter moments would merge with the hum of my car’s battered old engine and I wasn’t sure what was Lee’s sound design or the spatial soundscape of the rust bucket I was hurtling along within. At first, it annoyed me. It was clearly too dynamic a listen for the car. But I grew to love it.

Flush Real Pharynx feels made for that experience. It acts as a counterpoint to the noise surrounding it. It interrupts the urban semioblitz but also complements it, engendering a kind of sonic red-shift to the sounds around it. Everything sounds displaced through Lee’s aural prism, denaturalising our denaturalised world. It might just be his best work yet.

Bo Burnham — Inside

In a defiant embrace of my own whiteness, I must admit that Bo Burnham’s Inside brought me a lot of joy this year as well. The comedy album released alongside his Netflix special has been a go-to when I just want to lift my mood. At times, it’s an oddly disjointed listen. It’s neurotic self-awareness occasionally trips up the sense of escapism it simultaneously provides, but for a show about being stuck inside during the pandemic, it’s hard to be too mad at the album’s conceptually consistent, if internally inconsistent, Covid pathologies.

More often than not, the track “Comedy” has proven to be the most insistent earworm, to the point I’ve tried to completely wipe the album from memory, driven to near-madness by its ever presence. This is less hyperbole that a genuine concern at one point. In peak lockdown mania, I would wake up with the song in my head, like an alarm clock I couldn’t turn off. It had imprinted itself on some short-circuiting part of my lockdown brain. But it was the album’s more morose “That Funny Feeling” that has felt like a genuinely affecting lockdown anthem, speaking to the hole in your chest where some now-mythical old life used to be and giving it a tickle.

David Kauffman and Eric Caboor — Songs from the Suicide Bridge

Burnham aside, David Kauffman and Eric Caboor are responsible for this year’s most melodramatic lockdown earworm. The sluggish delivery of “Kiss Another Day Goodbye” feels like an almost phenomenological peon to depression, written and recorded in the depths of things. Mumbled to myself throughout a year-long plunge into Foucault’s oeuvre, I thought repeatedly about his insistence that madness has to be understood from within. It cannot be comprehended through a scientific objectivity, that others and removes it. You have to enter into it. Songs from Suicide Bridge is a tribute to this. Every song feels like a postmodern bard’s tale of inner city pressure. For better or worse, it’s the perfect album for urban lockdowns.

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