Regardless of what was going on in the outside world and the fragile live music industry, 2021 will still be remembered for some stunning music. Whether it's the sheer glee and unrestrained joy at the arrival of Wet Leg, the politically powerful work of Little Simz, or bands like Self Esteem and Yard Act capturing the zeitgeist — this year saw a host of stellar work hitting the airwaves. Here is just a selection from another fine year for music.
Little Simz - Introvert
After a timelessly cinematic intro that’s powerful enough to warrant its inclusion on this list alone, Introvert then erupts into a gloriously propulsive and politically charged anthem about the battle that Black women fight every day. Both a battle cry and a rallying anthem, as well as a peerless example of the magnificent Little Simz, this track would be amongst the highlight of any year.
Arlo Parks - Hope
2021 was the year when everyone woke up to Arlo Parks. Collapsed In Sunbeams is a stone-cold classic of a record (and fully deserving of its Mercury Award win), and Hope hits close to home like a warm hug in these pandemic-times, with its prescient message of reassurance to anybody feeling isolated.
Wolf Alice - The Last Man On Earth
For all of the beautiful noise that Wolf Alice can summon at will, it is often their quieter moments that hit the hardest. This beautiful opening single from the all-conquering Blue Weekend manages to be both vague enough to avoid total definition and yet contain enough power to crack the hardest of hearts wide open. Their Glastonbury headliner era has begun.
Wet Leg - Chaise Longue
The song that became impossible to escape, though not many wanted to. Infectious, ridiculously catchy, it breathed new life into classic furniture and introduced the world to the Isle of Wight duo. Follow-up Wet Dream repeated the trick, making for one of the most impressive and exciting debut single releases for many a long year.
Self Esteem - I Do This All The Time
A song so good that it seemed to instantly elevate Self Esteem to the Indie A-List and fired the starting pistol of her entry into the Brits lists — it might feel like it is inspired by Baz Luhrmann, but it is altogether its own beast. Brutally honest pearls of wisdom are dispensed by Rebecca Taylor as the world collectively falls in love — and that’s before the euphoria of its crescendo.
Yard Act - Land Of The Blind
Proof that success doesn’t always come, or even second time round, Yard Act have had what can only be described as 'a very special year.' With an appearance on Jools Holland before their debut album was even out, their string of ridiculously catchy singles — all casting a sideways and knowing glance at the world around them — have marked them out as the indie band most likely to cross over into the mainstream in 2022.
TV Priest - Lifesize
A band that had only ever played one gig before lockdown, TV Priest have wasted no time since live music returned, and have already quietly got a second album in the bag for release next year. Lifesize isa stepping stone between the raw post-punk of debut Uppers (which, let’s not forget, also came out this year) and what seems to be a more experimental edge to come next.
Walt Disco - Selfish Lover
One of the UK’s most thrilling bands visually and sonically, Walt Disco have smashed down every barrier this year on the way to bagging a ridiculously prestigious Duran Duran support slot. This New Wave-influenced single is like all of the best bits of the '80s poured into three and a half minutes of unadulterated joy and instantly elevated the Glasgow band above many of their peers.
Lime Garden - Pulp
Brighton’s Lime Garden are starting to get a lot of people very excited, and it’s no surprise when they’re capable of top-tier indie banger tracks like Pulp. A stupidly funky beat, punctuated with a killer guitar riff and a punch-the-air chorus, this is a fine way to announce yourselves to the world.
Squid / Martha Skye Murphy - Narrator
A dazzling mix of post-punk, synthesizers and twin vocals, Narrator showed Squid at their best — right down to the choice of releasing an eight-minute long song as the lead single from their debut album. Seeming to reach its natural end halfway through, it builds itself back up from the ground upwards to a thrilling climax.
Black Country, New Road - Opus
Opus is eight and a half minutes of carefully constructed chaos, where the London seven-piece summon up some form of avant-garde jazz madness before wrestling it back to earth. Famed for their live shows, this was a thrilling example of just how far the band could also push the envelope on their debut record and was a constant reminder of how thrilling music can be when it enters new territories.
English Teacher - R&B
One of the hottest young indie bands around, Leeds’ English Teacher are coming to the end of a busy year of breaking through with a string of high profile support slots with all the right bands, culminating in a BBC Introducing show at the start of December. This spiky angular post-punk track drips with tension, finally exploding into a glorious cacophony at its end. A truly exciting start.
Drug Store Romeos - What’s On Your Mind
A gorgeous moment from one of 2021’s most captivating records, the dreamy What’s On Your Mind is the perfect encapsulation of Drug Store Romeos as Sarah Downie’s ethereal vocals float above the precise and clear-cut electronic backing — very much a case of science meeting nature to create something higher in form.
Lola Young - Together In Electric Dreams
The artist behind this year’s John Lewis advert soundtrack, Lola Young can also add being shortlisted for the Brits Rising Star 2022 Award to her growing list of accolades. This cover of Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder’s '80s classic drips with emotion and Christmas cheer, and is worth its place on this playlist for making us want to wrap up with a glass or two of mulled wine.
Adele - Oh My God
With that voice over some cutting edge pop production, Adele has managed to live up to all the hopes and expectations facing her fourth album, and surpassed them yet again. It’s hard to pick out a standout track from 30, but Oh My God was a real O.M.G. as the pop superstar stretched herself in ways that — let’s be honest — she really didn’t need to any more.
Holly Humberstone - Falling Asleep At The Wheel
The hype and excitement are real with this one. Having never played a headline gig before this summer, it is stunning to see how quickly Holly Humberstone has adapted to life in the fast lane (title track aside). Effortlessly cool, every track so far has cemented her position as one of the surest of bets as the UK’s next pop superstar. This slow-burning dance anthem is magnificent, and shows her at her very best.
Baby Queen - Wannabe
With a spot on the BBC Sounds of 2022 longest and a hugely coveted support slot for Olivia Rodrigo on the horizon, Wannabe is another fine example of Baby Queen’s uber-cool brand of anti-pop. Standing up to the bullies and bi-phobes from her past, it’s an infectious rallying cry for all the underdogs she represents.
Joy Crookes - Feet Don’t Fail Me Now
A song that was born out of the political upheaval of the last couple of years, Feet Don’t Fail Me Now is an anthem and call-to-arms for all those afraid of standing up for the right thing when it is easier to stand back. This gorgeous neo-soul classic has Joy Crookes marked out as a real star in the making and made Skin one of the albums of the year.
Alfie Templeman - 3D Feelings
Fresh from being long listed in the BBC Sound of 2021 award, Alfie Templeman has gone from strength to strength over the last twelve months. Rapidly building a fine collection of indie guitar pop anthems, the jangly dance floor favourite 3D Feelings could be his finest yet — even provoking an invitation to come and jam at Abbey Road from one Nile Rodgers. With his debut album now locked and ready to fly in 2022, things are going to get even more exciting for this one.
Sam Fender - Seventeen Going Under
In a huge year for the North Shields superstar, Seventeen Going Under marked the exact moment where Sam Fender crossed over into festival headliner territory. A ripper of a track with a killer chorus seemingly custom-made for a big crowd singalong, this was the year — and the album — where Sam proved he was here for the big stages and for the long-term.
Sports Team - Happy (God’s Own Country)
The one track from their rarities LP Plant Test to get a single release, this was the perfect appetiser for next year’s follow-up to the Mercury-nominated Deep Down Happy. With a zippy, ever-so-slightly chaotic and frantic chorus, it is another fine addition to a collection of moshpit bangers that have Sports Team down out as one of the country’s best live bands.
IDLES - The Beachland Ballroom
The only thing more unexpected than IDLES suddenly returning with a new single just a year after their number one album Ultra Mono would be if it was a slowed-down yet beefed-up Motown track. Of course, that’s exactly what they did with The Beachland Ballroom — a track that heralded the dawn of a more experimental and introspective record than the Bristol band had previously hinted at.
Pa Salieu / Slowthai - Glidin’
Glidin' is the perfect collab between two of UK hip-hop's biggest characters — built on a beat that could topple cities and drenched in personality, angst and charisma. Pa Salieu has perfected his mix of afrobeats and grime (being recognised by The Ivors for his debut), and this is just further proof of his game-changing ability.
ENNY - Same Old
There’s something both timeless, and very now, about ENNY — her mix of classic R&B and hip-hop strikes a perfect chord with this track about the ‘same old’ issues faced by Black British people in 2021. Songs like this, as well as last year’s Peng Black Girl, are very much the reason why ENNY is one of the hottest names to watch going into 2022.
PinkPantheress - Just For Me
Coming in under two minutes to capitalise on the all-important TikTok market, this is another banging track from one of the UK’s most fascinating artists. PinkPantheress has effortlessly become a viral sensation over the course of 2021, and it is tracks like Just For Me, a song that seems to exist in several different genres all at once, that have made her irresistible.
Central Cee - Obsessed With You
The quintessential 2021 track, based as it is on a sample from PinkPantheress’ viral TikTok song Just For Me (see above). Gaining 1.5 million likes and 7 million views on TikTok within the first 24 hours of its release, it is the perfect summary of how the music industry has been disrupted and transformed by the social media app, and acts as the perfect introduction to the west London rapper’s upcoming mixtape.
Bree Runway - HOT HOT
The first single to be released from her upcoming debut album, HOT HOT drips with self-confidence and sees Bree Runway striding valiantly into the realms of global pop sensation in the making. Deceptively simple, it teases and drops harmonies over a beat that acted as the perfect soundtrack for the world opening back up in summer.
Nubya Garcia - The Message Continues (Mark de Clive-Lowe Remix)
While the original came out in 2020, this thrilling remix and new arrangement of our latest cover star Nubya Garcia’s stunning piece of work makes it far too easy for us to include it again. Her soaring saxophone solo now meets its match in de Clive-Lowe’s stunning keyboard work, pulling jazz even further onto the floor. A superb example of a remix elevating what is already an incredible track.
Sons of Kemet / Kojey Radical - Hustle
An ominous and brooding collision of jazz and hip-hop — with added Lianne La Havas backing vocals for good measure — this is a superb example of both genres at their best as it explores Black pride and eventually ascends to some further astral plane. Hustle is one of those songs that it’s nigh-on impossible not to dance to — this is glorious.