The pandemic has left us all with vast reserves of time.
For fans, it's been a period of Joe Wicks, banana bread, and soaking up new music; for musicians themselves, the acres of space left by cancelled tour schedules has been filled by home recording, studio dates, and songwriting sessions.
As a result, 2021 brought a plethora of new projects. We collated our favourite albums of 2021, but much of the best music we absorbed over the past 12 months lay outside this format – from one-off singles to EPs, mixtapes, and sundry other endeavours, it was a year that saw artists twist the method of release to suit their own creativity.
With that in mind, the Clash team have nominated their favourite tracks from 2021. It's a non-numbered list – who could truly rank such diverse songwriting? – but we wanted to give a flavour of the music that has stuck with us throughout this strange, challenging year.
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UNIIQU3 – Microdosing
Jersey club queen UNIIQU3 seemed to have a real moment in 2021. Perhaps it was the sudden release of energy after clubs re-opened, or perhaps it was simply recognition of the work she’s done in a pivotal sub-culture – whatever it was, UNIIQU3 seemed to soundtrack huge chunks of 2021.
‘Microdosing’ was a full-on club assault, matching stunning electronics to her preening, pirouetting vocal; a hallucinogenic embrace, the track represented a sudden rush, a splash of cold water to the face. Bold and arresting, it was so much more than a mere DJ tool – ‘Microdosing’ was finessed to an infinitesimal degree, a miniature masterpiece in club-focussed electronics. (Robin Murray)
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Johnny Marr – Spirit Power And Soul
Johnny Marr’s immaculately nurtured association with guitar music spans decades. Yet a quick look back in time shows the legendary musician’s passion for a range of different music, and how it has made him pursue numerous projects throughout his career.
The dark, seductive energy of ‘Spirit Power and Soul’ sees Marr reclaim core elements of his past as well as acquire vibrant, novel influences that look to the future. A close listen not only reveals the sonic complexity of the song, it also calls for curiosity and makes you consider the origins, is this electro, rock, or is it actually gospel?
Embracing the widest range of genres including disco, electro, and soul, the guitarist sets out to reinvent sound components in a passionate bid, focusing on creating his own winning electro-soul formula in the process. Addictive and enthralling, it makes you want to keep playing it, night after night, week after week. (Susan Hansen)
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Lancey Foux – Steelo Flow
An amazing Lancey Foux track vividly outlining the fact that his style will go unmatched, a feeling echoed by the futuristic visualizer for the song.
With ‘Steelo Flow’ being the second promotional single to Lancey Foux’s sixth studio album ‘LIFE IN HELL’ (expected to arrive in 2022) it gave us a taste of braggadocious rager sound he would go on to present within his ‘First Degree’ mixtape in March 2021 which would be followed up with LIVE.EVIL Lancey Foux’s second 2021 mixtape in November where he experiments with a different sound but the same braggadocious rager energy can be seen within tracks such as ‘RESPECT’ and ‘OUTTAMYMIND! (ft. Lil Yachty)’. (Sean T. Kiilu)
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Wiki – Roof
New York rapper Wiki has been carving his own lane in hip-hop since the early days of RATKING, back in 2011. After low-key Bandcamp releases and collaborative projects, the self proclaimed‘lone mutt’ has released his third studio album ‘Half God.’
Buried within a Navy Blue produced track-list, Wiki writes a love letter to his sanctuary – a track called ‘Roof.’ Telling the retrospective tale of years spent on his fortress, whether that be getting up to mischief or simply watching the passers by, the track ruminates on the year ahead. Filled with questions around the return of live music and the progression of his career, Wiki finds solace in his concluding lines, observing from his roof. “And then the wind hits, filling me with endorphins, And now I know what’s really important…” (Ana Lamond)
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Villagers – So Simpatico
Despite our hopes in January, 2021 proved to be another year which necessitated some musical comfort blankets. Most luxurious of all was ‘So Simpatico’ from Villagers’ majestic album ‘Fever Dreams’. At seven minutes long, it gradually expands into a hypnotically beguiling meditation on devotion. Conor O’Brien’s underrated but genuinely remarkable voice has never sounded better than on this album, with ‘So Simpatico’ its highpoint.
The effortless mid-paced early-Seventies soul rhythms are irresistible and the sax break – yes, it has a sax break – is a lyrical and affecting intervention, which then continues in the background as if to underline the explosive physical and mental impact of love. “Little did I know, you were here all the time,” repeats O’Brien on a track which manages to be enormous and enveloping without ever becoming bombastic. Tired minds, aching souls and the ever so slightly broken can find inspirational and uplifting balm right here. (Gareth James)
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Mr. Mitch – In The Hills
Piecing together end of year lists has been a unique experience. Plenty of songs provided the soundtrack to 2021's darkest early months, but some also helped me make my first tentative steps back into everyday life and, ultimately, the club. They laid down the beat as my world exploded from desolate grey into vivid technicolour. While undoubtedly joyful, it's a time I also remember as overwhelming, slightly surreal and nervy.
Nothing captures that time better than Mr. Mitch's ‘In The Hills’ for me. Does it possibly resemble the funky theme tune of a 90s cop show? Is it too understated for peak time in the club? Who cares. The juxtaposition only makes it more appealing. Its endless groove is conjured by some meticulous elements – a handful of vocal snippets, jagged guitar licks, that bassline – yet it totally dominated my year. I'll be humming ‘In The Hills’ long into 2022. (Lee Wakefield)
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Joviale – Blow!
On the lead single from their ‘Hurricane Belle’ project, Joviale elevated the moonstruck feel of 2019’s ‘Crisis’ EP into a tale of turbulent rapture. From the inspired ska-infused sophisti-pop sound design, to the elemental expression of paramours falling in and out of synergy, ‘Blow!’ moved Joviale from obscurity into the spotlight.
The real strength of ‘Blow!’ is that primal and personal devastation is matched by a smouldering sensuality. When Joviale sends the line “sous le soleil” soaring, coiling at the centre of their choreographed struggle, they proved once again how transcendent emotional torment can be. (Shahzaib Hussain)
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Corbin – Tell Me
When Corbin drops music time stands still. The former stand4rd member is something of a cult figure after viral fame as Spooky Black and the release of the excellent ‘Mourn’. On ‘Ghost With Skin’, his most recent release, Corbin explores paranoid, gothic worlds through slurs and screams – it’s basically dark alt-R&B for loners and it delivers on so many emotional levels.
‘Tell Me’, the opening track on the album, sets the template for a hyperreal trip through the artist's most dark and inward thoughts, managing to give us the Corbin we know while at the same time leaving room for vocal variation to create its own character-like world through moans, mumbles and cries for help. Corbin might be one of the most distinctive voices in this alt-pop subculture, and ‘Tell Me’ is him at his most beautiful and devastating. (Andrew Moore)
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Renegade – Big Red Machine (ft Taylor Swift)
The day Renegade dropped, I listened to it approx 20 times and the rate hasn’t really slowed. There is crack in Taylor Swift saying ’get your shit together’, I swear. Her collaborations with Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner constantly provide me with new favourite songs that will undoubtedly haunt my Spotify wrapped for years to come. 'Renegade' is no exception.
Managing to be both lyrically sparse and oddly savage for Taylor, the rhyming of the chorus feels like a whole new flow for Taylor and is undeniably the high peak of a brilliant album of collaborations. She just keeps getting better and better, but I love that 'Renegade' levels up in such a surprising way. More cruel Taylor in 2022, more Taylor saying swear words. (Lucy Harbron)
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Koreless – Joy Squad
It's all about anticipation for Koreless. The Glasgow-based producer has been releasing music for more than a decade; a series of critically acclaimed singles and rare live performances with the likes of Mogwai, James Holden and Caribou cementing his reputation as one of the UK's most revered electronic musicians. But just as his music demands the listener to wait for its payoff rather than provide instant gratification, Koreless also demanded his fans wait until 2021 for his debut album.
Lead single, ‘Joy Squad’, was the first we heard of the long-awaited record, and it didn't disappoint. Initially teased on features by both TNGHT and Caribou's Radio 1's Essential Mixes, it's a brooding and dramatic masterpiece – foreboding strings and carefully designed soundscapes come to mini-crescendos, before an immaculate beat takes you through a spectral journey of spliced vocals and dripping synths. A four and a half minute piece of shimmering beauty that perfectly represented the album, it was certainly worth the wait. (David Weaver)
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Gang Of Youths – The Angel Of 8th Ave.
When Australian five-piece Gang Of Youths returned with ‘The Angel Of 8th Ave.’ in June, it quickly became apparent that this one was going to end up on near-constant rotation – and it did. – The group’s first release in four years, ‘Angel’ felt like a renewed statement of purpose for a band that have spent the best part of a decade crafting their own distinct brand of rock. Having relocated from Sydney to London in 2019, their adopted home serves as the basis for this poetic take on starting anew in a different hemisphere.
Described by vocalist David Le'aupepe as a song about falling in love and finding a new life in a new city, ‘Angel’ builds on the foundations that have made Gang of Youths so dependable – a punchy, celebratory anthem with genuine heart and soul. Le'aupepe’s gorgeous stripped-back piano rendition released in September is well worth seeking out too. (Paul Weedon)
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Karen Nyame KG ft. Mista Silva – 'Koko'
KG, an unfaltering presence in music for the best part of a decade, deftly distilled the diasporic spirit of Afro-infused rhythms into a song for a summer we never really got to experience. Ushering in the sweltering heat of solstice with a dangerously addictive amapiano-highlife amalgam, she enlisted fellow British-Ghanaian musician Mista Silva to complete a steamy lover’s parade. If Carnival returns next year, let this be the definitive soundtrack. (Shahzaib Hussain)
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KEY – Helium
Of the vignettes devoted to love on Key’s sophomore solo record, Bad Love, ‘Helium’ is its most playful: A part coy-part camp, retro space-age-inspired romp whose lyrics put a clear figure in their crosshairs, only for the song’s euphoria to be reached through a private act of craving alone.
It’s this nebulous, internalised desire that allows ‘Helium’ to be fabulously, ravenously greedy in its longings and Key is the effortless shapeshifter within those cinematic imaginings; the silver-tongued lover, sidling up close in the dark to murmur “Judy Jetson, take me off to space” over pulsating bass and panting breaths; teetering between faux-indifference and teenage awkwardness on the one-sided conversation at the song’s centre; and deliriously yearning on the chorus, his falsetto like bursts of silver confetti over an empty dancefloor.
Whether Key’s fiery, heartfelt declarations are realised or remain fantasy is cloaked in a delightful ambiguity but the ultimate target of this pop-funk belter, gilded by a surprisingly taut emotional edge, is you. Prepare to fall, and fall hard. (Taylor Glasby)
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John FM – February
The Detroit-based singer and producer brought his brand of “Hi-Tech Soul” into sharp focus on the first single from his EP, ‘American Spirit’. Opening with the pitter patter of rain and a rhythmic invocation from a local elder commanding that “we burn the wicked with the real hot, hot fire”, ‘February’ crackled with feverish intensity.
Collaborating with mentor Detroit DJ and producer Black Noi$e – keeping it a homegrown affair – the track served as both an honorific love letter to the ancestral seat of techno and a ruptured break-up song for a new age. (Shahzaib Hussain)
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Wet Leg – Chaise Longue
Undoubtedly one of the year’s most impressive debut singles, ‘Chaise Longue’ was the filthy, tongue-in-cheek opening assault from Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg. An irresistible ear-worm, it’s lyrics alternated between the self-aggrandising and the absurd, with those half-spoken lines providing some of 2021’s standout phrases amid a toying guitar line that refused to dislodge from your cranium for days on end.
Live, the pair are a joyous mixture of precocious songwriting and reserved, almost shy stagecraft; a full album follows in 2022, and few would bet against Wet Leg making the year their own. (Robin Murray)
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Joy Orbison – better
Joy Orbison described his impressive ‘still slipping vol. 1’ mixtape as “a soul record” earlier this year, a reference to the emotional nuance and personal tone – voices of his own family are sampled across its span – he employs on what must be his broadest, most in-depth project to date.
‘better’ is a key aspect of the project’s journey, and one where the “soul record” title can be taken at its most explicit. Gorgeous, finessed electronics topped off with Lea Sean’s immaculate vocal, it skirts the opaque edges of house production while asserting its own distinctive, enormously individual approach. (Robin Murray)
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