The sound of 2021: English music of this past pandemic year hasn't been all doom and gloom
If anything, the year has seen albums too short, songs too long, egos too big, and debuts too exciting, spoiling us for choice, and pushing us to redefine our own understanding of an album as we lumbered back onto our post-lockdown lives.
If 2020 was a string of Zoom and YouTube concerts and Facebook Live gigs, then 2021 held the promise of turning a corner for the live music industry. It is another matter that the second wave of COVID-19 drowned out many a possibility of getting back on stage in the first half of the year, forcing artists to see their lockdown creativity to fruition via album releases instead.
Therefore, a lot of the music released this year has found its root in the existential dread that loomed in the face of a seemingly never-ending pandemic. But adversity — as frequently quoted — is indeed the mother of invention. Long-nagging ideas, repressed emotions or just unadulterated helplessness have driven the songwriting for a lot of musicians. Yet, it has not been all doom and gloom as 2021 has also been witness to some unusual collaborations and sonic palettes as artists have been uninhibited in their reach for a new musical experience and expression.
Divorce angst has found an outlet, nostalgic sounds have been capitalised on, and scores have been settled through albums; in many ways a typical year, one would say, in the world of English music. But 2021 has also seen so many artists come out of the woodworks, almost in search of contemporary relevance, and shockingly, many have come on top! If anything, the year has seen albums too short, songs too long, egos too big, and debuts too exciting, spoiling us for choice, and pushing us to redefine our own understanding of an album as we lumbered back onto our post-lockdown lives.
There have also been path-breakers, undeterred by industry norms, who have tested the boundaries of what construes a musical album. HER finally released Back of My Mind, an album with 21 songs no less. Juxtaposed against HER is rapper Vince Staples, who put out an album that spans all of 22 minutes, similar to his previous outing FM!.
Everybody who is anybody has had an album out this year. From Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato to the Foo Fighters, Sting, and Coldplay, from Elton John to Billie Eilish, Drake to James Blake, the releases this year have seen genre-toppers each dropping albums to varying degrees of success.
If over-bloated egos with overdriven social media marketing strategies have tanked critically (think Drake’s Certified Lover Boy or Coldplay’s extra dose of pop, Music of the Spheres), there have also been some debutants who have shaken us from the inertia of album listening, and forced us to have an aural experience strictly on their own terms.
Li’l Nas X’s Montero deserves all the praise it has received; we have come to expect a specific sound profile from rappers, but Li’l Nas X takes all that, and turns it right over its head. This pop-rap album draws influences from a host of genres, as evidenced in the credited collaborators: Elton John, Miley Cyrus, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and more.
Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg is a powerful post-punk album that channelises Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in a world where punk, both in attitude and identity, is dwindling. The experience is even more prolific thanks to frontwoman Florence Shaw completely owning it in a predominantly male setup. Without a care for rock norms, Squid stitches together a musical experience in Bright Green Field that combines soul and jazz with the lyrical and shouty attitude of punk.
A full-fledged classic rock sound came from debutants Dirty Honey, who probably sounded more classic rock than veterans Deep Purple (True to Crime) and Iron Maiden (Senjutsu) this year. Elton John released The Lockdown Sessions, a collaborative effort that had a guest-list as extensive as his house parties; Dua Lipa, Young Thug, Li’l Nas X, Steve Nicks, Eddie Vedder, Stevie Wonder… you get the drift. A great collaboration this year has come in the form of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s Silk Sonic. The album An Evening with Silk Sonic is a nostalgia trip by contemporary musicians to the funky soul of the '70s, complete with inputs from the great Bootsy Collins.
It is not the only trip down memory lane that 2021 has seen. Duran Duran released its 15th studio album Future Past 40 years since their debut, whereas ABBA’s Voyage was widely anticipated given that it had been exactly 40 years since their last album The Visitors. David Bowie’s lost Toy album from 2001, that reworks the music from his 1960s, and has never been officially released, silently made its presence felt in the Brilliant Adventures box set. Its rawness was the perfect foil for ABBA’s over-processed need for contemporary validation even if it is an addictive nostalgia trip.
If falling out of the woodworks was a thing in 2021, then everyone from Cheap Trick (In Another World) and Boy George to Alice Cooper (Detroit Stories) and Sammy Hagar and the Circle (Lockdown 2020) have each put out albums of relevance albeit not each one making the mark.
Kasey Musgraves (Star-crossed) and Adele (30) have channelised the pain of their divorce musically while the not-so-happy Billie Eilish in fact put out a phenomenal sophomore effort Happier Than Ever.
Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift both released two albums this year, and their struggles and triumphs with them have been distinctly diverse. Rey put out two albums of original compositions; not an easy feat, we would say. And then Swift goes and re-records her albums Fearless and Red to create her versions of them so as to cock a snook at her previous record label. How does one take a humongous hit and make it bigger? Call Taylor Swift.
Streaming platform data has driven the commercial music space and its trends this year what with everyone going digital. Against that backdrop has been a most unique effort from legendary actress Glenn Close and musician Ted Nash, who created a philosophical jazz album of disquietude that is as much music as it is about the spoken word.
The year 2021 has been unprecedented around the world in terms of collective anxieties and uncertainties. For those artists who have dared to break the mould, and give such rich sonic choices, thank you for the music.
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