Into the final five! Check out the full list here, and the Spotify playlist here. (Photo: Edd Horder)
5. For Her – Fiona Apple
It’s incredibly difficult to select a ‘best’ track from Apple’s near-perfect album Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Every song possesses a distinctive depth and quirk – from the chaotic pianos of ‘Shameika’, the mellow-natured titular track or the letting-loose of the final moments of ‘Cosmonauts’. ‘For Her’, however, was chosen exactly for the distinction it holds from its companions. Overdubbed vocals and primal percussion are the only actors in a piece which takes an unforgiving look at the victim-blaming of sexual assault victims, written in response to Donald Trump’s controversial Supreme Court appointment Brett Kavanaugh. Hearing Apple’s harmonised voice in independence and in full reach is an absolute treat. In combination with the sparse drumming it’s, frankly, a privilege.
Tucked into the second half of the album, it’s very easy to miss ‘For Her’ and its wondrous experimentation. Nonetheless, this is a song to be cherished, nurtured, and, most importantly, played loudly.
4. Garden Song – Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers delved further down avenues of quiet melancholia and self-analysis on Punisher, and the endearing beauty of ‘Garden Song’ was the hushed vocal announcement of this new journey. Key to its allure is the elusive being of her backing. The absence of percussion lifts the song to achieve an atmosphere of dreamy release, contrasted by the grounding introspection of Bridgers’ vocals which speak of cerebral weariness and distant optimism. Meanwhile, a plucked guitar line appears and disappears from a soft distorted backdrop amidst a similarly fleeting bassline that introduces itself through subtle, singular murmurs.
In short, ‘Garden Song’ is a three-and-a-half minute psychological hug. It holds no abrasion or jagged edge, only a presence of warmth and grace. On a personal note, excluding the re-visit for this article, I’ve listened to this song 91 times in the last 90 days (yes, really). I think I might enjoy it a tad…
3. Sad Cowboy – Goat Girl
In one song, Goat Girl have exhibited miles and miles of artistic evolution from their eponymous debut album. ‘Sad Cowboy’ is an astute illustration of how to perfectly execute a fusion of influential sounds to create something bigger, more inviting and more vital. This song is just cool. So cool. The rumbling guitars that follow on from the opening synths call back to a no-nonsense ’70s rock sound, brought back to modernity by a dancey groove and pushed further into a pioneering sound of futuristic freshness in an astounding chorus that combines every section in unbelievable class. It’s a track that makes you think, that forces you to nod along, and that makes you yearn for a live spectacle where you can lose yourself to its tones.
Better still, Goat Girl have a new album, On All Fours, out in January. If ‘Sad Cowboy’ is anything to go by, it’s destined to be a belter.
2. Corner of My Sky – Kelly Lee Owens & John Cale
An intense, compelling and rewarding dive into an other-worldly ether of enrapturing sonics, textural innovation and visionary lyricism led by the legendary John Cale and supported by the ever-evolving, ever-growing Kelly Lee Owens. ‘Corner of My Sky’ is not a song that can be listened to apathetically or skipped half-way through. It’s oppressive in nature, something that absorb in totality, to dig into and explore. Cale’s words describe a weary yet hopeful landscape, one in which the rain is a blessing for every inhabitant, human or not. Owens’ bouncing percussion and flattened synths provide the dominating existence of the track – they rise to the forefront with hedonistic force before dreamily retreating back into a more general obscurity. Bring the two together, and you have the centrepiece of Owen’s wonderful Inner Song, one of the most adept compositions of the year, one which displays a dexterity that is almost unparalleled elsewhere.
1. Strong – SAULT
Taking turns in afrobeat, R’n’B, funk, soul, and so many other styles, ‘Strong’ is six minutes of spellbinding grooviness, empowerment and optimism. Every section of this track is as deliciously inviting as the next – the restrained soul beat that kicks it off, the introduction of the swaggering Nile Rodgers-esque guitar, the percussion that imperiously introduces itself half way through to give the track an unstoppable, near-juggernaut presence, and the final culmination of the sounds to conclude with added strings for good measure. This is a rallying cry of utmost hope and pride for the Black Lives Matter movement and its followers, the main inspiration for SAULT’s two albums this year, best characterised by the resilient sentiment of the song’s poetics.
It is simply exquisite. It avoids a sense of trying to achieve too much, trying to fit too much experimentation in genre within one commanding hit. Instead, SAULT have put out a masterpiece that compromises nothing, both musically or lyrically.
Thanks for reading, enjoy the tracks and here’s to 2021!