Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)
Boston Manor – Crocus
Once again, Boston Manor strike with one of the year’s strongest, almost completely out of the blue. To be fair, the harsher industrial sounds they’re building themselves around definitely allow it more frequently, this time with Crocus’ lockstep heave that’s its most ear-catching feature. Elsewhere, the production remains dense and nocturnal, in yet another foray into urban darkness and decay that has Henry Cox attempt to find kernels of light and lucidity within the abyss. It’s wonderfully atmospheric on top on that, in typical Boston Manor style that’s become synonymous with deep soundscapes and a truly captivating aesthetic. Great stuff as always; maybe one of their best?
Dorothy – Hurricane
Beyond any notions of validation that, indeed, a throwback-rock song can be this good, it’s easy to see why Dorothy’s Hurricane hits like it does. It’s fronted by an absolute steamroller of a vocalist for one, as Dorothy Martin batters her way through a queen-sized hook fitting of the most resplendent of stadium-rock titans. It helps that, on the whole, Dorothy are nowhere near as crippled by arthritic classicism like so many of their contemporaries, and so the floor is open for beefy riffs flanked in a gloss that’s strong but not overpowering, and a multitracking job that makes the hurricane sweep either further and wider. There’s nothing profoundly deep or requiring of analysis for why this works; it’s just a kickass classic rock song in every way, and when it’s punching this far up, that can be enough.
Blood Command – A Questionable Taste In Friends
In a year where Blood Command made their most headway with Nikki Brumen as their new frontwoman, it’s difficult to illustrate how good it feels that they’ve hit as hard as they have. Sure, the whole album is great, and the live show only solidifies that, but A Questionable Taste In Friends is the bolt of lightning in a post-hardcore-shaped bottle that represents everything wonderful about this band. The sweltering tempos and volume have appeal on their own, simply through how successfully their vigour is conveyed. Add onto that a dance-punk groove anchored in some killer dark bass and guitars, and Brumen’s slightly unhinged delivery, and there’s a cocktail of hard-edged, insanely potent rock music that fills you up in just three minutes. The fact there’s still enough room to wedge in one of the most locomotive vocal hooks of the year on top of it is just the right amount of extra sweetener to make this go down a treat.
Billy Talent – Hanging Out With All The Wrong People
Maybe it’s not Billy Talent’s unassailable best (the album did shrink a little, after all), but there’s something so addictive about Hanging Out With All The Wrong People that made it an easy highlight right at the start of the year, and one that’s persisted since. The bassline is the obvious focal point for that, a trait that Billy Talent have often been the proud bearers of, but really cycles along here with a lot of detail and energy. It’s the ideal bedrock for a song fixated on sounding cool, in the sharpened guitars and more restrained presentation that leans away from something explicitly punk, and instead into a quasi-‘90s alt-rock mould that, even then, has few direct parallels. It’s also home to an insatiable earworm that Ben Kowalewicz’s howl is the perfect vehicle for, in these weird little vignettes about getting scammed and manipulated that balance ideally between their darker implications, and just an interesting song this band sometimes like to write. It’s a testament to how great Billy Talent are when something a generally low-stakes as this rises to the top in such a way, but the results speak for themselves at the end of the day.
Gregor Barnett – The First Dead Body I Ever Saw
This is the sort of song that clicks immediately on first listen and only ingrains itself more and more each time after that. For one, it’s fronted by Gregor Barnett, clearly not shorn of his songwriting gift within The Menzingers, and allowed to trail off into more personal or evocative stories. Here, Barnett reminisces on finding the dead body of an elderly neighbour, and the spectre that’s haunted both the house and his own memories since. The starkness of it all is what makes it work so perfectly, in how plainspoken Barnett’s language is, but also in a sound that’s so welcome for a song like this. Of course it’s lush and organic, but the reverberations of vocals and the hollow, darker guitars paint something closer to gothic Americana than Barnett’s usual alt-punk, and swirling through the dusty, open room that is this song is a mood that can singlehandedly elevate it by an enormous margin. Again, the best word is ‘evocative’; it’s a slow burn that earns every second of buildup and maturation, masterfully crafted and executed by one of alternative music’s most gifted journeymen. Even for a song (and indeed, an album) that flew under way too many radars, it can handily outstrip pretty much anything stacked against it.
Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)
Deaf Havana – 19dreams
Though they’ve forged paths with other sonic palettes throughout their career, Deaf Havana are masters of the soaring Britrock anthem, their own take on the framework seeped in self-deprecation and pessimism. 19dreams, highlight from this year’s The Present Is A Foreign Land, sees James and Matthew Veck-Gilodi not in a place of familiar apprehension but reflection. They reflect on being thirty-somethings and whether being musicians was the right direction to take with their lives (especially after almost breaking up in 2020), but it’s all delivered in the glorious heart-swelling way Deaf Havana do things that the sentiment does a complete, scream-your-lungs-out 180.
Frank Turner – Fatherless
FTHC saw Frank Turner’s out-and-out punk side make a welcome return, and no moment on the record showed it off more than Fatherless. It’s a part one to the record’s mini-arc surrounding Turner’s tumultuous relationship with his father, centering on being shipped off to boarding school and missing out on having a paternal influence in his young life. The resentment eases off on later album track Miranda, which discusses Turner’s father’s gender transition and the alleviating effect it’s had on their relationship. While that song feels like an emotional core of sorts, Fatherless acts as that essential note of catharsis, bounding and yelling through the intensely, specifically personal lyrics in a way that is categorically Frank Turner.
Nina Nesbitt – Older Guys
There’s been an influx of pop artists releasing songs that reevaluate the power dynamics in relationships they had as teenagers this year, and while Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato and Rina Sawayama condemn their subjects with venom, Nina Nesbitt captured heartbreaking self-reflection on her Older Guys. Nesbitt laments the loss of her innocence with the eloquence of her more mature age, keeping the mood subdued with just acoustic guitar and piano as background. The singer often leans into a ‘big sister’ quality in her songwriting, and Older Guys’ more serious nature really shines a spotlight on her exquisite storytelling skills.
SZA – Kill Bill
Often on SZA’s SOS the singer’s lyrics lean towards the literal side, using her signature wit to directly illustrate the loneliness, regret or lust she’s feeling. On Kill Bill though, metaphor leads the way, the chorus leaving you conflicted when met with news of SZA’s plan to murder her ex and his new girlfriend in cold blood, but through the sweetest, almost lullaby-like melody that immediately embeds itself into your brain. SZA’s confessional style will always be the thing people love most, but Kill Bill’s is a perfect concoction of fantasy and real emotion that we hope she indulges in more in future.
Taylor Swift – Karma
When Taylor Swift is having fun, everyone else is right there with her. Midnights highlight Karma is a revenge song, but one that doesn’t get caught up in snarls and badass alter-egos, instead opting for a bottle-popping celebration of herself and her own success. Her metaphors could cause eye rolls if delivered with any less conviction or personality, but the dash of fun-loving wackiness and ability to get people onside will have listeners saying “you know what? Karma is a cat!”