Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)
Without The Eyes
To be perfectly honest, this spot was in contention between this and the self-titled album from Dream Nails, to the point where a coin flip was what ultimately decided what would go here. Call Dream Nails an honorary number six pick then, but when thinking about it, it does make a bit more sense for CLT DRP’s Without The Eyes to be here, the sort of daring, forward-thinking album that sounded like nothing else released this year. Even further than that again, there was such a volatility to this album in both the harsh electronic timbres and unbridled punk spirit beneath the hood, to where it’s been on regular rotation simply as the soundtrack to a year that’s been equally dense and unpredictable. It’s a bit of an unconventional listen, to be sure, but one that’s well worth looking into, because there’s a lot of great work here.
Forever Blue was the moment where A.A. Williams hit the peak she’d always been threatening but never quite managing to reach. Her solemn, engulfing gothic folk had always been capable, but there was a sense of equal refinement and expansion on this debut full-length that really sealed it as a huge leap forward. At really impresses about it is how replayable it’s turned out to be, as a lot of the intricacies and lush production details begin to come more into view, and the hazy, sylvan mist of Williams’ songwriting opens up and shows how the built-in effectiveness has been put to good use. What’s more, it’s not the sort of impregnable, avant-garde work that a lot of alt-folk can be; rather, this has crossover appeal, and yet is still wary of how much of its hand it’s willing to show in utilising it. That’s the sign of really great balance on an album used to its advantage, probably the best way to sum up what Forever Blue gets very, very right.
There’s a certain degree of bias here, mostly because Local Honey felt like the first time on Brian Fallon’s solo work that he was really able to hit the nail on the head with regards to what he’s capable of in that solo setting. Rather than stepping into the same well as The Gaslight Anthem again, Local Honey drew on more of the insular folk and country sides of Fallon’s repertoire, with the earnest, humble presentation that he’s always been excellent at delivering, and glazed with a predictably wonderful grasp at emotionality. It’s a bit too short to go over the top, but for what is offered here, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Fallon shines at, given more of an identity that was so desperately needed among his work. A low-key and rather simplistic gem, but a gem nonetheless.
It’s difficult to praise Superbloom to the fullest extent without hinging so heavily on the circumstances of its existence, but that fact alone does a lot to justify its spot on this list. It’s a 5 Seconds Of Summer side-project, for God’s sake, and yet it’s more detailled, intricate and unique in its vision than anything they’ve ever done (and most likely ever will do). Perhaps it’s the lowered expectations those ties had burdened upon it that’s seen it fall behind, but it’s also worth noting how this feels distinctly like a passion project that hasn’t been overly tailored for a mainstream audience. It’s coated in rock tones that stem back to the ‘90s and arranged in ways that arguably haven’t been done since then, with a very personal lyrical focus that’s never soul-rendering, but feels remarkably mature considering the origins of its creator. Again, it might be unfair to paint Superbloom with that brush all the time, especially considering Irwin’s clear aptitude for rock music that’s on display, but when that’s a key part in why this album works so well and why it deserves more attention, if only on the basis of marking how sharp the contrast is, it’s worth pointing out when the end product is this great.
When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Few albums have grown in value this year as much as Svalbard’s When I Die, Will I Get Better?, and while it was a great album to begin with, that growth has only seen it rocket up to being one of the absolute best of the year. A bit of a spoiler for another list there, but the power and enrapturing presence of this album deserves every bit of praise awarded to it, especially when it feels as though nowhere near enough has been given to it. As a blend of caustic yet melodic hardcore and the most titanic of black metal, it’s a triumph in almost everything it tries, with the writing being as vicious and relevantly pointed as ever, the performances having a rawness that never gets twisted in its own delivery, and the sort of enormous sound that always hits the right spot. Few albums this year felt as well-composed and arranged as this one did, and to have that never be a detriment to the heaviness and vitality of it as a hardcore album is a testament to how Svalbard have evolved into one of the very best the scene has to offer. Absolutely exceptional stuff from a band that have wholeheartedly earned it.
Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)
Having a ‘sad girl’ persona as part of your brand is probably enough to spark eyerolls from plenty of people, but Sasha Sloan makes it work. Her debut record Only Child is a gentle one, never in your face and deeply confessional about the most normal things. Poor body image, loneliness, love and things she hates are all laid bare, the album feeling like a raw, diaristic snapshot into Sloan’s brain. It’s incredibly chilled, the pace constant and the musical intensity only upping from minimal instrumentals a few times – it’s the perfect showcase for Sloan’s super pretty voice. Although Only Child isn’t trying to grab attention, it’s a great first big statement for an artist, one sure to earn Sasha Sloan the buzz she clearly deserves.
Making a whole world around your inner demons is how most artists write albums these days, but the one Vukovi crafted on second record Fall Better is a more engrossing concept than what plenty of others could do. Fall Better is an evolution for Vukovi, keeping their usual catchy melodies at a high, but counterbalancing the sweetness with trademark meatiness, hefty guitars laced with heavy vocal effects and scattered synths. Combine the sharpening of their pre-existing sound with the aforementioned world-building centred around singer Janine Shilstone’s OCD which feels more genuine and thought-out, and you get one of the most exciting prospects in British rock at the moment.
Sorry For The Late Reply
Playful, politicised and punk as hell is an easy way to describe Sløtface. They make sweaty ragers that are empowering and relatable in equal measure, this year’s Sorry For The Late Reply galloping through tracks about living in a social-media-helmed world, how women and immigrants have to work twice as hard to get anywhere, as well as pyjama days and tough breakups. This record does nothing except build on the sound Sløtface had on debut Try Not To Freak Out – it sounds fuller, like an even more tangible prospect. Sometimes, just being really good at what you do is enough to set you apart from everyone else, and that’s exactly the path Sløtface seem to be on. All that’s needed is for other people to sit up and listen.
The Naked And Famous
They’ve been very good at what they do for quite some time now, and even though the technicolour synths of their youth have muted themselves into more mature pastels, The Naked And Famous can still run rings around many of the players in the synthpop boom today. A record of beautiful statements on love, loss and healing, this year’s Recover never feels pretentious or detatched from the listener, enveloping you in rich, warm tones that feel like a tight hug from a close friend. It’s not new or groundbreaking, but a super easy to love natural evolution of a band who make music from a very real place. Any fans of synthpop who haven’t dug into The Naked And Famous should change that immediately.
Aly & AJ
We Don’t Stop
After a ten year unasked-for break from releasing music, it’s understandable why Aly & AJ’s audience dipped in size and intensity. That said, since coming back in 2017 their output has been both constant (hence the name of this year’s compilation album) and stellar, and it’s frankly amazing they haven’t followed the path of a Carly Rae Jepsen cult star or even a Selena Gomez Disney slow burner. We Don’t Stop shows a duo as adept as out-and-out ’80s bops as they are moody club bangers, as compelling detatched as they are warm and wholesome. We Don’t Stop feels like the bookend to Aly & AJ’s four-year period of releasing singles sporadically, so if their upcoming 2021 album continues this streak, surely people will have to pay attention.