A year ago, when looking back on 2020, it seemed like things could only get better. Hell, they couldn’t get any worse, right? And for a while, things did get better in 2021. Optimism spilled forth as COVID-19 vaccines become available. For a moment, it seemed like things might return to “normal.” Public gatherings — most importantly, shows — returned. But with Trumpian anti-vaxxers in the States ensuring that we would never reach herd immunity, it was only a matter of time before the variants and new surges of coronavirus appeared. For every tour scheduled, there were two being canceled or optimistically postponed.
As such, a new form of the pandemic set in. Where there was panic in 2020, now there was uncertainty and ennui from too many days spent working at home then staying in on the weekend, if not out of fear, then simply because there was nothing to do. As such — just like in 2020 — we needed music more than ever. Below are the records that helped get me through the past 365 days, the ones that for the span of 10 or so songs let me forget the languorous reality. (This list comes a little later than past years as a result of that languor.) No doubt they will also provide some solace in the new normal of the year to come as well.
Expressions of Interest
Heavy Machinery/Upset the Rhythm
Melbourne’s Screensaver works with a palette of dark post-punk hues, but on their debut album, reveal an emotional edge that distinguishes them from other cold wave revisionists. This is best exemplified on leadoff track “Body Parts,” on which chiming guitars and Krystal Maynard’s vocals coalesce in contrast to the gloomier tones elsewhere. There are echoes of goth forefathers, as well as more recent influences like Savages (Meynard’s voice has more than a passing resemblance to that of Jehnny Beth), but Screensaver’s mix of wiry guitar tones, synth gurgles, and cracking beats is distinctly its own. Expressions of Interest occupies its own sonic world and half the fun is coming out the other side.
On Lucy Dacus’ third album, Home Video, her distinctive mix of confessional songwriting and country-tinged rock seemingly came to full fruition. The album, befitting of its title, is imbued with childhood nostalgia, with Dacus recalling nights making out in an unnamed paramour’s basement (“Hot & Heavy”) and snorting nutmeg at summer camp (“VBS”). Even if you haven’t done either, she paints such a vivid picture that it’s hard not to feel a pang of longing for your own misspent youth. In lesser hands, such pining might come off as cheap emotional manipulation, but Dacus, belying her 26 years, comes off as an old salt of sorts and her poignant lyrics lend Home Video a timeless quality.
Neither a waterfowl organization nor a proper band, Ducks Ltd. is a collaboration between a couple of guitar pop enthusiasts that got together in Toronto. Tom McGreevy (lead vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards) and Evan Lewis (guitar, bass, drum programming) have channeled the sound of luminaries like the Go-Betweens, Close Lobsters, and The Bats into a record that sounds like it was made by a band firing on all cylinders and not just two guys holed up in a flat. From the first jangly Wedding Present–esque chords of “How Lonely Are You,” this record hits all the right notes. “18 Cigarettes” strikes a perfect balance between wistfulness and vigor, while “Fit to Burst” sums up the Ducks’ MO in its title. I could use a pun here about ducks being in a row, but let’s just call it a brilliant debut.
Glenn Donaldson understands how much a song can resonate when you’re feeling low. On his second record under the nom de plume The Reds, Pinks & Purples, he sings of “The Record Player and the Damage Done,” challenges “The Biggest Fan,” and tells an unnamed inspiration that “the songs you used to write, they changed my life,” on “The Songs You Used to Write.” But he has similarly transformed feelings into song for his listeners when he taps his own grief on Uncommon Weather. On “I Hope I Never Fall in Love,” he reveals that it’s too late — he’s been there and back — as he sings, “I hope we never meet again… I hope you’re happier a million miles away.” With a charming mix of twee pop and folk tones backing such poignancy, he’s made a record that is all the better for the wallowing.
After releasing a debut that made it to our Top 10 last year, Riki has returned with an album that’s nearly every bit as entrancing. Like its predecessor, Gold is ensconced in electronica that may be reminiscent of the synthetic sounds of the ‘80s, but even more than on Riki, evokes an otherworldly vibe unconnected to time or place. Indeed, “Marigold” could be a pop hit in another dimension, while on “It’s No Secret,” Riki imbues an icy mood vocally to match the cold, atmospheric tones. A record that continuously reveals itself, Gold again shows Riki to be a master of her chosen aesthetic.
Another group of Australians making this list, The Goon Sax has been a favorite for some years now; their sophomore effort, We’re Not Talking, made our Top 10 of 2018. Album number three, Mirror II, is a slightly more ambitious affair, perhaps due to its higher-profile release on the reputable Matador label. Here, the band has eschewed some of the fidgety guitars of its past in favor of an influx of moody synths. As evidenced by the leadoff “In the Stone,” the record’s highlight, those guitars haven’t been abandoned, though here they’re matched with mechanized beats and synth accents. However, it’s Louis Forester’s propulsive bassline that provides the song’s backbone as he asks, “Do you think it’s better not feeling any of this at all?” Overall, Mirror II balances the band’s new ambitions with retaining the quirkiness that has always made their music so damn charming.
Yet more goodness from the land Down Under, the sophomore album from Melbourne’s Flyying Colours is a shimmering mix of shoegaze atmospherics and pop melodies. The end result is a record that ably veers between delicate bittersweetness one moment and bursts of sonic noise the next. This MO is embodied in the leadoff “Goodtimes,” wherein Gemma O’Connor determinedly voices repeatedly, “I just want to have a good time.. I’m going to have a good time,” a want we all can perhaps relate to these days, over a surge of cracking guitars. On the subsequent “Big Mess,” the frantic guitar riffs of O’Connor and her vocal/guitar counterpart Brodie Brümmer are more reminiscent of the Wedding Present, with Brümmer’s deadpan vocal also more than a little Gedge-like, and the cut is just as enthralling. The rest of the record is every bit as amazing, with O’Connor and Brümmer having created an album worthy of its influences.
With its ninth album, German outfit The Notwist has seemingly capitalized on its two decades of refining its innovative blend of electronica, avant-garde experimentation, and post-rock textures. Vertigo Days is an insular record filled with surprises at every turn. Such flux is exemplified on “Into Love/Stars,” wherein Markus Archer sings, “Now that you know how much it hurts, it won’t save you from falling into love again,” over twinkling synths before the track segues into a frenetic breakdown of mechanized beats. It is these constant changes of mood and the juxtaposition of quiet, captivating moments and spirited twists that give the album its gravitas. This is one for the ages.
It’s not uncommon for a band to take on the synthesized sounds of the ‘80s, but where many interlopers simply go for style over substance, Brooklyn’s Nation of Language have captured the innovative spirit of luminaries like OMD, New Order, and Kraftwerk. With its second album, A Way Forward, the band takes its points of inspiration as simply starting points, and have created an album that bristles with ingenuity. From the gurgling notes of “In Manhattan” to the motororik pulses of “This Fractured Mind,” A Way Forward simultaneously recalls the past, points to the future, and feels very much of the here and now.
Arab Strap’s first album in 15 years couldn’t have come at a better time. With a seemingly apropos title, As Days Get Dark was the cathartic salve needed to get through another topsy-turvy year. Though not a COVID-inspired record (it was largely written before the pandemic), Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s knack for exploring dimly lit corners of the psyche resonated when the world had gone to shit. The record begins with the lyric, “I don’t give a fuck about the past, our glory days gone by. All I care about right now is that wee mole inside your thigh,” however Moffat’s lyrical concerns are of a less carnal nature than in the past. Instead, he pokes at emotional scars, both personal and fictional, and even ventures into political allegory. With a macabre musical palette that frequently feels cinematic, As Days Get Dark is a fully realized vision of the human condition, as poor as it may be at the moment.