As the ‘end of year’ lists roll in, they signify the end of 2021- a stellar year for music considering the circumstances. With albums from Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘SOUR’ to Jasmine Sullivan’s ‘Heaux Tales’ vying for first place on many polls, here are three albums occupying my top spots.
Returning for her fourth album, Little Simz released ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ in September of 2021. Being an acronym for her real name, Simbi, the album aptly delves into feelings of conflict between her public and private personas and the struggles of craving solitude within a world of fame. Many of the tracks are filled with sweeping orchestral arrangements, providing a centre stage for Simz’ brutally honest lyrics and earnest storytelling.
We’re thrown straight into the deep end with the opener ‘Introvert’, with its ominous and imperial brass section and gospel choir before the strings glide in and make way for Simz’ sermon. On this track she begins to delve into the presentation of her seemingly outgoing public self compared to feelings of introversion that she feels at heart; ‘I hate the thought of just being a burden/… Simz the artist or Simbi the person?’, successfully setting the tone for the entire album.
Similar orchestration is used on the candid ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ which gives us a glimpse into Simz’ family dynamic and the absence of her father in her life, whilst simultaneously offering an empathetic take on her frustration; ‘He was just once a boy, I seem to forget’.
The lyrical highlight for me is ‘Little Q Pt 2’, as Simz writes from the perspective of her cousin who was hospitalised after being stabbed. In an interview, she comments on this experience and the way it impacted her family but also how her cousin’s story has only become another statistic about those affected by knife crime, rather than being a catalyst for real change. Her raw emotional commentary shines through with the words; ‘Not the mental scars/ the physical’s all you see/ but the boy that stabbed me is just as damaged as me’- words that are contrasted with the use of children’s voices in the hopeful chorus; ‘Mama told me my sun will shine/ … I knew that I was strong inside, but we all cry sometimes’.
The album flows into a change of pace with ‘Woman’, that makes use of a simpler arrangement of samples and soulful organ, as well its first feature with Cleo Sol’s angelic harmonies entering on the chorus, echoing the sounds of Lauryn Hill, who Simz cites as an important influence on her music growing up and later supported on tour.
Her preferred introversion returns on the disco-funk hybrid ‘Protect My Energy’, a catchy song where she praises the comfort that can be found amongst solitude; ‘Total silence is my therapy/ don’t disturb my inner peace’.
The second feature on the album, ‘Point and Kill’, with Nigerian artist Obongjayar sees the two team up to create Simz’ favourite track on the album – and it’s not hard to see why. Infused with catchy hooks and the use of sparse instrumentation, it provides a change of pace on the album but exhibits Simz’ musical versatility.
Simz leaves us with the final track ‘Miss Understood’, the play on words accurately encompassing the irony of her worldwide recognition but also the subsequent distance from family members, hindering her ability to communicate with those around her; ‘I write words for a living and still can’t communicate’. It’s worlds away from the grandeur of the heavy orchestral tracks on the album, but it serves as the perfect exit- representative of Simz’ quiet brilliance and true genius.
Being a long-time fan of Wolf Alice since their debut album in 2016, I expected to enjoy ‘Blue Weekend’ as much as their previous work. However, this album sees the band expanding beyond their normal rock routes to create a wider theatrical experience, proving this to be by far their best project to date. The term ‘Blue Weekend’ encompasses the experience of doomed nights out; the album and its accompanying music videos for each track, swallow us up into a world of heartbreak and self-reflection.
The use of synths is the most notable addition to the album, creating an expansive climax in tracks ‘Feeling Myself’ and ‘How Can I Make it Ok?’ – as drums, vocals and guitars all clang together. Vivid storytelling is evident on the track ‘Delicious Things’, as the song follows a girl from the UK making it big in LA as she gets swept up in a world of creepy men, drugs and an eventual loss of self; ‘Feel like I’m falling, dreams slowly stalling/ Extravagance disguised as elegance is boring/ I don’t belong here, though it really is quite fun here’.
Lead singer, Ellie Rowsell, is able to showcase her voice more on this album, as seen in the folky fifth track ‘Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)’, with the male members of the band joining her in the second verse, exhibiting they can collaborate on vocals. They return to their Punk Rock routes on ‘Play The Greatest Hits’ and ‘Smile’, the latter adding funk-metal to the list of genres explored on the album.
Similarly, the lead single ‘Last Man on Earth’ takes on a prog-rock persona with its opening piano chords, eventually culminating into heavy percussion and bursting with overlapping guitar and strings as Ellie sings about the song’s narcissistic protagonist, whose self-entitlement is repeated in the chorus; ‘When your friends are talking/ You hardly hear a word/ You are the first person here/ You are the last man on the earth’.
The entire album feels encompassed in its last track ‘The Beach II’, bookending the album with parallel songs about reuniting with old friends that represent parts of our past. The song immediately sounds nostalgic and almost echoes their old style from previous albums, acting as a token of their past. Ellie reminisces on the female friendships that remain important to her; ‘The tide comes in, as it must go out/ Consistent like the laughter/ Of the girls on the beach, my girls on the beach/ Happy ever after’. Its accompanying music video depicts each band member leaving one by one after a long night out, eventually leaving only Ellie remaining as she drives off into the distance and into the inevitable future, fraught with many more ‘blue weekends’ to come.
After a period of intense grief after losing her mother in 2014, Michelle Zauner returns for her long-awaited third album under the artist Japanese Breakfast. However, the album immediately detracts from any feeling of loss as it is seemingly bursting with colour, full of bubble-gum-pop sentiments that represent Zauner overcoming this period of grief and entering a stage of acceptance and new beginnings.
Larger arrangements and wider instrumentation- full of warm brass and string sections, make the album far more spacious and expansive than anything that we have heard from her before. The opener ‘Paprika’ illustrates this beautifully, its instrumentation uplifting Zauner’s lyrics; ‘I awoke from untying a great knot/ It unravelled like a braid’ – poetically describing waking up from a period of sadness and the ‘rush’ of entering a new stage of her life.
‘Be Sweet’ is a tribute to 80s synth-pop, a sound that reappears throughout the album with its jangly guitars and overlapping synths, Zauner citing Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson as direct influences on this sound. Contrastingly, ‘In Hell’ hides its sad lyricism through its pentatonic melodies on staccato synths and bright guitar, but underneath Zauner deals with the loss of a partner; ‘hell is finding someone to love/ and I can’t feel you’, with its disturbingly sad imagery ‘no one ever tells you just how clinical death looks/ and I can’t unsee it’.
One of my favourite tracks on the album, ‘Kokomo, IN’, provides a break from electric pop and is instead a guitar strummed ballad with whirling strings, telling the story of a suburban teen lamenting the departure of his high-school-sweetheart from his small town. Zauner’s lyrical imagery of the narrator ‘popping wheelies’ and ‘kicking round this flyover state’ sets the scene. Furthermore, her ability to explore raw emotion from the perspective of others is refreshing with the lyrics; ‘Though it may not last/ just know that I’ll be here longing’.
She experiments with other sub-genres on ‘Slide Tackle’, returning to a synth-infested pop song but with notable math-rock guitar features and jazzy saxophone interludes between choruses. The sixth track ‘Sit’ is a looming grunge song about lust, singing behind swelling synths, ‘Hear my name in your mouth and I’m done for’. Its gritty guitar in the verses is contrasted by the angelic chorus, with its echoed twinkling piano and echoed drums as she gets to the centre of her obsession; ‘Caught up in the idea of you/ That’s gone too soon’.
An album highlight for me is ‘Savage Good Boy’. Co-produced by slacker-rock legend Alex G, Zauner writes from the perspective of a male billionaire with ‘five-year plans’ and a ‘billion-dollar bunker for two’, entirely disregarding the ‘necessary strain’ of raising his kids, viewing them as ‘stakes in the race to live’ as he hungers for more money and power. It leaves the listener with a distorted guitar solo, lingering on the uncomfortable ambitions of the narrator. This satirical take from Zauner offers another twist within conventional pop music. Providing a brilliantly cynical commentary, as well as a song to dance to.
The final track, ‘Posing For Cars’ is a simple love song spanning almost seven minutes in which Zauner beautifully articulates feelings of neglect. The sole use of her voice against a contained guitar line emphasises this sense of isolation as she sings; ‘I am just a woman with loneliness/ I’m just a woman with needs’. The latter half of the song crescendos as strings enter and the guitar expands into a boundless solo, fading out into the final echoes of the album.
As we wait in wonder to see what 2022 has for us in terms of music, I hope these 2021 albums will tide you over until then.
Written by Adele Fennessy
To listen to our Spotify playlist of the recommended albums, please click here.