Public Service Broadcasting – Bright Magic
[Play It Again Sam]
When your last album was a concept record, detailing the decline of the British coal industry, your next release should probably be a nice light sorbet to clear the palate, right? Not if your Public Service Broadcasting. They’ve turned their Pathé News-inspired, documentary-rock attention to the cultural and political metropolis that is the Hauptstadt of the Federal Republic of Germany – Berlin. The mood is as chilly as you would expect it to be.
The writing and recording of Bright Magic took place in Kreuzberg’s Hansa Tonstudio recording complex, where David Bowie recorded the glacial “Heroes” and Low albums. But no one ever goes to Berlin to knock out a hatful of feel-good ditties, do they? Even on a tune called “People, Let’s Dance”, the title sounds more like a command than an invitation for a shy bop on the dancefloor. Blixa Bargeld has a cameo as the voice of Berlin’s industry on “Der Rhythmus der Maschinen” – you don’t need to be a polyglot to work out what that tune is about.
Bright Magic is probably the most German-sounding record ever made. It makes Autobahn sound like The Beach Boys Christmas Album. Fortunately, it’s pretty great. Public Service Broadcasting have welded a Teutonic sense of order to a bunch of great tunes and made a cold but refreshingly icy blast of an album. Maybe their next record will be inspired by the life and work of Little Jimmy Osmond, recorded live in Hawaii, entirely on ukuleles. If it’s half as good as Bright Magic, it’ll still be essential. – Ian Rushbury
Damon Albarn – The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows
Damon Albarn has never before released an album like The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, as should be obvious from its lofty title, lifted from a 19th-century nature poem by John Clare. He’s done Britpop with Blur, hip-hop with Gorillaz, and Mali music with, well, his Mali Music collaborators, while frequently showing his melancholic side on tracks like “This Is a Low” and “El Manana”. But he goes deep into reflective, poignant, and downright mournful mode on this sublime collection of 11 tracks that defy classification. All from seemingly gazing out of the window of his remote recording studio in Iceland. During lockdown, and during a climate crisis.
Just try getting through the opening title track without a tear in your eye, and escaping the fallout of one heck of a first line. “You were gone, the dark journey there / Leaves no returning.” For this, indeed, is a heartfelt rumination on loss and isolation, against a cinematic soundscape of plaintive piano notes and howling electronic effects. Go further, and there’s plenty of wobbly-voiced soul-searching and heartfelt expression of human fragility to be found, though not without an excursion into classic, radio-friendly Albarn in the form of “Royal Morning Blue”. There’s additionally a noisy jazz interlude on “Combustion”, and pure romance on “Darkness to Light”. But it all leads to the magnificent finale of “Polaris”, and “Particles”, two of the most beautiful songs the man’s ever recorded. – Adam Mason
Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
Having endeared herself to the extreme metal crowd with a pair of astonishing albums that felt equal parts black metal, doom metal, and neoclassical, artist Kristin Hayter redefines “heavy music” on Sinner Get Ready. Recorded in rural Pennsylvania using largely traditional Appalachian instruments, Hayter delves into what Greil Marcus once called “the old, weird America”, stripping her compositions of anything resembling modern and throwing herself fully into the more disturbing corners of rural devotional music. Incorporating samples from evangelists and their fanatical followers, Hayter paints a harrowing portrait of the vengeful god of the Old Testament.
The fervor with which she sings feels unsettling and sometimes shocking, but that’s the point: she is skewering religious hypocrisy just as passionately as she eviscerated toxic masculinity on 2019’s masterful Caligula. In a year as trying as 2021 was, hearing Hayter sample an evangelical woman boasting that she’s immune from Covid-19 because she is “covered in Jesus’s blood” on “The Solitary Brethren of Ephrata” is an absolute gut-punch. Humanity would have a hopeful future, it seems Hayter is hinting if it weren’t for people. – Adrien Begrand
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
Wolf Alice have the foresight of a doomsday prepper. With their most ambitious and commercially accessible album, Blue Weekend, the band anticipated the backlash from day-one fans. The satirically prudent “Play the Greatest Hits”, tucked between agreeable radio-friendly indie pop, is their get-out-of-jail-free card. Anytime the orchestral sweeps of “The Last Man on Earth” or the somber bass thrums of “No Hard Feelings” are subject to criticism, they can point to its distorted wails and pummeling drums and say, “We’re still that band, but we can be this one, too.”
Blue Weekend arrived just in time to soundtrack a post-pandemic summer of freedom. The love letter to Los Angeles hedonism “Delicious Things”, the wide-mouthed delirium of “Smile”, this is a record with some of their most ebullient songs, smooth-edged but energized. The Smashing Pumpkins-inspired guitar fuzz of preceding releases is subjugated by creamy string arrangements and arena-filling vocal harmonies, catapulting the band to legendary status in the UK and raising their presence overseas with a sold-out North American tour in November 2021. It’s the sound of the London quartet exuding confidence as they hit their stride. – Hayden Merrick
Loraine James – Reflection
Reflection wholly obliterates any qualms about the genre’s potential for emotional austerity. Loraine James recorded the album in lockdown-littered 2020, and across the course of its vibrantly alive 11 tracks, her soul soars across space and time, sifting through memories and yearning for a better world. The album shifts its compositional tone and emotional axis with the skill of a master craftswoman, moving between melancholic longing, seductive romanticism, and hopeful optimism with deft, controlled ease.
The tracks that are most IDM-ish, such as the angular “Let’s Go” and the lengthy head-scrambler “Change”, show that James can produce works of cerebral, mechanical genius. Yet what’s so brilliant about Reflection is that James chooses to forge her own identity, embracing drill, R&B, and numerous other sounds to create a work that’s as rife with emotion and observations as it is technical virtuosity. It’s a complete package – a work of seductive, heartfelt brilliance by an artist at the absolute peak of her powers. — Tom Morgan
Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
If Magdalena Bay band members Mica and Matt feel any unease at being trapped in a cycle, they hide it behind pop’s glimmer and the similarly gilded armor of youth. Mercurial World treats the world’s wonders and tragedies with the same inquisitiveness to uncover the through-line between all things. There’s no god particle discovery, but there’s a different, unexpected solution unearthed – the best route for our own bodies to travel through this mortal coil. As “Chaeri” demonstrates with its high-velocity second chorus, the chaos is much easier to bear if you let yourself get swept up in it – when you do, don’t close your eyes. Demons are not exorcised but adorned (“Dawning of the Season”) and breakdowns occur under the brightest of melodies (“Hysterical Us”).
The album’s grand finale of “Dreamcatching” and “The Beginning” exemplifies their sense of amazement, the former a skittering, restless demand to see the world and the latter a masterful class in getting immersed within the world. As another 2021 favorite says in its own LP title, playing with the shifts in life gives you the chance to ride its tides. Mercurial World utilizes pop music and youthful exuberance, both universally understood qualities, to help explain, and even enjoy, the entropy that soundtracks our day-to-day lives. – Mick Jacobs
The Bug – Fire
Kevin Martin (aka the Bug) frequently speaks of his fascination with the physicality of sound. The UK producer’s work has long explored the monolithically material qualities that sound and music can express. His career has taken several disparate turns in this search for intense material soundscapes and has culminated with his highly successful Bug project. Fire is his latest full-length to be released under the moniker and might be his most incendiary synthesis of stomach-quaking bass, savage rhythms, and captivating MC collaborations.
Fire’s tone is, aptly, one of pure, scorching heat. Its cover depicts a sheet of flames, which makes for a potent parallel in a summer defined by news of wildfires and heat waves decimating countries across the world. Along with the climate crisis, Fire also comments on our planet’s increasingly volatile socio-political climate. If London Zoo and Angels & Devils each spoke to their own urban psychogeographies, then Fire reflects the urban landscape of the last 18 months – a place that has become defined by broiling tension and explosive anger. – Tom Morgan
Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days
Pop albums don’t tend to be built on humility and gentleness. Even if they are, they don’t tend to deliver those characteristics with fire and verve. On In These Silent Days, Brandi Carlile does just that. Her continual refinement of her always strong songwriting skill pays off with a set of smart memorable cuts that don’t quite settle in any genre. Her vocals continue to be astounding whether in the grandness of “Right on Time” or the more conversational “You and Me on the Rock”.
What separates this album from everything else around it, though, is Carlile’s heart. In lyric and delivery, her confidence allows her to feel uneasy, to ask for help even as she lends support. She knows when to stand up and argue, backed by guitars, and when to seek centered security. By blending frailty and strength, surety, and questioning, Carlile creates nuanced art that makes powerful statements while inviting listeners to come closer. Neither prayer nor a confession, the album makes room for holy exploration. – Justin Cober-Lake
Pepé Deluxe – Phantom Cabinet, Vol. 1
As you go through year-end album writeups, some records might be called “most surprising”. Yet what about just “the most?” Without question, Phantom Cabinet, Vol. 1, the fifth full-length from the ever-eccentric Finish duo Pepe Deluxé, is the most album you’ve heard this year. Every single second is crammed sonic details, every layer EQ’d for maximum pop impact, featuring every outrageous instrument the duo of James Spectrum and Paul Malmström could find.
One song has a pyrophone, one 1800s device uses human ear cartilage to make noise, and at one point, the clunk the world’s largest cowbell. Yet these sonic curiosities would mean nothing if the songwriting wasn’t in place, and thankfully every track on Phantom Cabinet contains an entire album’s worth of melodies. It’s almost intimidating to take it in all at once, but we’d recommend the absurd guided house tour of “Halls of Kalevala” to get a sense of the size, scale, and insanity of one of the most outrageous, delightful, and memorable albums of the year. – Evan Sawdey
St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
For her sixth studio album as St. Vincent, the remarkable Annie Clark crafted a transformative song cycle set in 1970’s New York City. The album’s title, Daddy’s Home, is a reference to Clark’s father’s release from prison, which she addresses in the title song. On the other hand, Clark’s fetching pose on the album cover and her downtown-blonde makeover suggest coquettish come-hitherness, so the doubleness of “daddy” in the title is of a piece with the self-contradictions throughout the album. She yearns for love, but she will take you down. She longingly watches children play, but when it comes to actual motherhood, she might just want to play guitar all day instead.
Musically, Clark pays explicit homage to seventies antecedents, including fellow shapeshifter David Bowie (the “Fame”-nicking “Pay Your Way in Pain”), Pink Floyd (the space-drift Dark Side simulacrum “Live in the Dream”), and, surprisingly, Sheena Easton (“My Baby Wants a Baby”). By blending musical blessings of the past with modernist sonic embroidery (co-production again by Jack Antonoff), Daddy’s Home is a sublime shower of gorgeous melodies, nimble singing (aided by backups Lynne Fiddmont and Kenya Hathaway), sophisticated aural architecture, and tough, imagery-stuffed poetry on vignettes and meditations that provide St. Vincent’s deepest psychological cuts and highest musical peaks yet. – Steve Leftridge