Before we come together to usher in the new year, it’s time for one last look back in the rear-view mirror at 2021. It’s a year that has both flown by and felt like a lifetime all at once. The ongoing pandemic dragging its feet has left us feeling more tired and weary than ever, but a few rays of sun have managed to break through the clouds in the past twelve months. We’ve seen a return of live music, alongside some stunning releases to cling on to when times got hard. Here are some of the moments that most defined our 2021.
Album of the Year: The Killers – Pressure Machine
Continuing the band’s recent winning streak, The Killers dug deep this year to produce a cohesive and compelling concept album. One which captured the plights of small town life with remarkable insight and sincerity, alongside excelling at feeling like a quintessential, genre-defining Americana record. (Full Album List)
Song of the Year: Maisie Peters – Funeral (feat. James Bay)
Of all the addictive earworm tracks that Maisie Peters has released this year, this delightful duet is the one which has lived on repeat for me the longest in 2021. Impossible to listen to “just once”, I could have this overlooked gem running through my head all night long without ever tiring of it. (Full Song List)
EP of the Year: Zach Wood & Hollan – Cowgirland
This gorgeous collaborative project is packed to the brim with a sense of wonder and wanderlust. It has all the beauty of walking through the stillness of an unspoilt wilderness, and a personal touch which feels like sharing just such a moment with someone you care about. There are plenty of releases that deal in nostalgia, but this to me feels like a record for actually making memories to rather than merely remembering. (Full EP List)
Video of the Year: Iron Maiden – The Writing On The Wall
Such an unexpected delight. The brilliant animation style, the epic scope and attention to detail, the stunning and memorable action set-pieces, all come together to make one of the most fantastic videos in recent memory. Not to mention the deeper allegories and self-referential nature that make it unmistakably Maiden. (Full Video List)
Album Cover of the Year: Daniel Donato – Cosmic Country & Western Songs
This spectacular sci-fi landscape is so detailed and imaginative that it feels less like a picture and more like a window to another world. (Full Artwork List)
Best Male Solo Artist: Sam Fender
With his second album Seventeen Going Under, Sam went from being a promising upstart, to stepping into the shoes of being a voice of a generation. Whether he’s the last of a dying breed or the vanguard for a new class of much-needed working class heroes, the fact remains he’s like no other artist in the country right now, saying things that no one else will with real sincerity and conviction.
Best Female Solo Artist: Olivia Rodrigo
There were some strong contenders for this category in Griff and Maisie Peters, but if anyone can lay claim to 2021 being their year then it has to be Olivia Rodrigo. Starting the year as a nobody from some obscure Disney Channel show, she went on to smash streaming records, release a dazzling debut, and bring home armfuls of awards, ending the year as a household name. I’ve never known a rise like it, and what’s more it feels well deserved.
Band of the Year: Manchester Orchestra
No one else has shown such consistent brilliance this year, with their spectacular new album The Million Masks Of God and it’s associated tracks gathering more mentions in our “best of the year” lists than any other band prior. Manchester Orchestra feel like they’re at the peak of the creative powers, and I’m loving every moment of their golden age.
The Spotlight! Award for Best New Artist: Billie Flynn
There’s something about Billie’s airy gossamer vocals that just makes the world stand still. Every entrancing track from her debut EP Hey Stranger leaves you subconsciously holding your breath so as not to disturb the carefully crafted atmosphere of bittersweet bliss. Incredibly keen to hear more from her, and to spread word of her brilliance far and wide as best I can.
Soundtrack of the Year: Life is Strange – True Colors
Though traditionally a category saved for films, a new Life is Strange game calls for an exception. After all, their soundtracks are practically a subgenre unto themselves, with “song worthy of a Life is Strange game” being among the highest praise I can offer. My favourite outing of the series thus far, True Colors (and it’s Wavelengths DLC) boasts original tracks from Novo Amor and Angus & Julia Stone, selected songs from such Belwood favourites as Keaton Henson, Phoebe Bridgers, Gabrielle Aplin and Local Natives, as well as some simply iconic performances from mxmtoon as the singing voice for protagonist Alex Chen.
The Forgotten Gem Award: There’s A Light – For What May I Hope? For What Must We Hope?
While I leave my best of the year lists as late as possible to make sure not to miss anything, this December release still landed just a tad too late to get the attention it deserves. While it luckily arrived just in time for a well earned spot in our artwork awards, there’s was no time for a proper review while in full list mode. The least I can do therefore is to give their superb new record a shout-out here so it doesn’t fall through the cracks for anyone else.
Discovery of the Year: Gang of Youths
As much as I wish I’d found these lads sooner, perhaps they arrived in my life precisely when I needed them most. There’s a spirit to their music that keeps a flame of hope and joy alight and flickering in spite of the dark storm clouds that threaten to extinguish it. The gritty vocals, erudite lyricism and uplifting anthemic hooks have made Gang of Youths my go-to band for banishing the gloom this past year.
The White Feather Award for Disappointment of the Year: Steven Wilson – The Future Bites
All the cringeworthy campaign material promoting this release touted it as being a bold and exciting new direction, as well as being Steven’s best work yet. Neither are the case. Everything here has been done before numerous times in his career, and what’s more they’ve been done orders of magnitude better. There’s no metric by which The Future Bites outshines literally any release in his vast back catalogue. For the first time in his long and illustrious career it feels like Steven has taken a step backward. However, at least we can look forward to a Porcupine Tree reunion in 2022 to make up for it!