These pages started over a decade ago. The original intent was for the freethinking movement to sit alongside a club night, operating every week in NYC. My mate Jamison, AKA DJ Prestige, and I kicked it all off and it was a blast. As I sit to compile my top ten albums of 2021 – the twelfth time I’ve done this – I am staggered at how much the world has changed. Parenthood, professional life, a transatlantic move… and now a pandemic. The freethinking movement now just exists in a different place. Music now also plays a different role for me. I’m taking more time with it. I’m ingesting more.
As we enter the new year, I am feeling reflective in general. Maybe this in part helps to explain what’s number one in my list for 2021…
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra – ‘Promises’
I had no clue what to expect. The very concept of this album confused me. Renowned electronic producer, jazz heavyweight and an orchestra – what direction would this take?
The vinyl copy of this album landed and sat in my in-tray for a few weeks. I wanted to be ready to really listen to it, both to get my head around it and to acknowledge that it was new material from Mr Sanders. From the moment that the central motif emerged, I was hooked. The beauty, the power, the introspection, the emotional release – the nine movements combined to balance the component parts into a truly astonishing album. The string-led Movement 6 is rapturous; adding to the subtle beauty is Pharoah’s sax as the piece transitions into the explosive conclusion of Movement 7. ‘Promises’ is an incredible achievement. If you haven’t experienced it – because it truly is an experience – dive in. Let is wash over you. It’s life-affirming and life-changing.
And yet, while ‘Promises’ was such a towering achievement, the other nine in my list could have a shout at topping it in any other year. In no particular order, here’s the rest:
Lonelady – ‘Former Things’
An album which contains a contender for the single of the year, ‘(There Is) No Logic’, ‘Former Things’ is the album Factory Records would pin its hopes on if it still existed. Picking up the cues from New Order, Kraftwerk, A Certain Ratio and The Human League, Julie Campbell has created an intensely personal slab of industrial funk. It’s wonderful. You can practically smell the deserted Manchester cotton mills.
Str4ta – ‘Aspects’
Who knew that the world needed a Brit-funk album from Incognito’s “Bluey” Maunick and DJ/taste-maker/label boss Gilles Peterson? Turns out we did. As an album it also shows that Brit-funk doesn’t have to be confided to the late 70s / early 80s. And it’s great fun.
Emma-Jean Thackray – ‘Yellow’
This floored me on release. Sounding for all the world like Parliament and Herbie Hancock had suddenly unearthed a collaboration from the late 70s, ‘Yellow’ is the real deal. Proper cosmic funk combined with moments of greater depth. ‘Spectre’ is a gut-punch. If you’re looking for something to make you feel excited about the future of jazz, you really don’t need to look any further.
Sault – ‘Nine’
And here they are again. Two years and five albums in, and not losing any of their impact. As a time capsule of London soul, ‘Nine’ captures an exciting time. From the energy of ‘London Gangs’ to the reflective mood of album closer ‘Light’s in Your Hands’, Sault keep on bringing the goods.
Little Simz – ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’
Topping many ‘best of’ lists, and with good reason, this ups the ante from 2019’s ‘Grey Area’ and establishes Little Simz as a singular voice. Cinematic in scope, with more ideas thrown into an album than many artists achieve in an entire recording career – there was a time earlier in the year when I basically had this album on repeat. Every listen giving the opportunity for a new track to step forward and amaze.
Nightmares on Wax – ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’
I really didn’t expect this one. Nightmares on Wax have been on my radar and in my ears since the mid-90s… always good and always worth following. And then this. It’s utterly fantastic, with a depth and warmth that’s often lacking in electronica. Indeed, this lands as North-African tinged electronica which targets the head as much as the feet. Check out ‘Wonder’ and ‘Up To Us’ – they are just sublime.
Jane Weaver – ‘Flock’
She just gets better. One of the albums that’s been on frequent heavy rotation throughout the year, and despite this the impact hasn’t waned one drop. It gets better. Psychedelic, cosmic, trippy pop music. Jane Weaver can’t put a foot wrong. She’s a modern Mancunian hero and I’d follow her into battle.
Matt Berry – ‘The Blue Elephant’
A mod-infused, epic journey through folky funk, 60’s wig out jams and breezy pop. Even Clem Fandango would enjoy it. Acid Jazz keeps on coming…
Cleo Sol – ‘Mother’
After Sault and Little Simz, this is yet another Inflo produced entry on the list… this time pure, proper contemporary soul music. Cleo Sol is the voice of Sault, and here demonstrates that she’s also the soul voice for right now. Just lovely stuff.