Hicks' Music of 2021

A collage of all nine album covers

That was, a truly shit year. It started with the continued global pandemic, our lovely dog Olive and then my Dad dying, all our children now away at university, as well as some very tough and exhausting situations. I'm left feel drained, delicate and still dealing with the loss. I know many people going through the same.

Even so, there have still been a few positives this year. One was the heartwarming reaction to the 'Bryan' font I made of Dad's handwriting. It's now included in the excellent iOS app Linea Sketch. It feels like he will live on, at least in Open Type form.

Another has been meeting and working with the lovely people at Truck Music store. Shortly after my post on buying vinyl again they contacted me to do some branding and website work with them. I'll be writing a case study post about my work with them early next year.

Fortunately, 2021 has been an incredible year for music, these are the tunes that have kept me going in 2021…


Albums of the year

Infinite Granite - Deafheaven

A generated cover of blue specks against a black background

BandcampSpotify Apple Music

I've been following Deafheaven with interest since 2014's Sunbather. Their brand of 'Black gaze' (a mixture of black metal and shoegaze) has always sounded like something I would enjoy, except I'm just not a fan of screamo vocals. There were hints that they were heading in a more shoegaze vocal direction on their previous album 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love', but the complete switch to singing on this album is the one that's won me over.

Usually an album has three, maybe four standout tracks, but there is absolutely no filler here. Every track has been added to my playlist of the year. In the few months since its release, I've probably played this more than any other album in the last decade, I just never tire of listening to it.

The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings - The Besnard Lakes

An oil painting of an approaching thunderstorm

BandcampSpotify Apple Music

My love for Montreal's The Besnard Lakes has been documented in this Journal before, particularly in the episode of Troika that I spent weeks putting together. A new album from them is real event for me, but after leaving their record label Jagjaguwar, it wasn't certain there would be another one.

Conceived as one continuous piece of music, this double LP is thematically divided into four sides: Near Death, Death, After Death, and finally Life. Clearly, death informs much of the album. This is a result of Jace Lasek's father dying in 2019, along with his musical heroes, Prince and Mark Hollis (Talk Talk). In no way is this a completely downbeat album though, as the refrain in "With love there is no death" in "Father of Time Wakes Up" testifies. No one ever truly dies while we still remember them. The album's title (and final) track gives me goose bumps every time I listen to it.

HEY WHAT - Low

An abstract cover of broken and decaying vertical black lines

Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music

Low have been on an incredible experimental trajectory for the last few albums. HEY WHAT is perhaps slightly more upbeat than 2018's Double Negative, but no less creative or atmospheric.

This is a great example of an album that particularly suits being on vinyl. Not only enhancing the other-worldy sounds, but the epic title track HEY ends the first side and goes into a locked groove to make it last forever. I really hope I get to hear this album performed live.

Isles - Bicep

Isles by Bicep. Features an image of an arm repeated in a flowing line on an orange background

Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music

I've spent more time listening to Drum n' Bass (Klute, High Contrast) and electronic music in general this year, and Belfast duo Bicep have been my favourites of the latter. Isles was released in January, and provided a much needed escape from the monochrome drudgery of a post-Christmas locked-down winter. It's also the best designed vinyl package.

One of the tracks 'Sundial', was featured in Troika #37, along with Meg Ward and DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ.

All Thoughts Fly - Anna Von Hausswolff

Anna Von Hausswolff is just visible, standing at a doorway shaped like a large open mouth. Carved into the wall around it are eyes and a nose, giving a very sinister feel.

Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music

This is an absolute gem that I'd missed from 2020. Anna Von Hausswolff normally writes and performs as part of a band, but for All Thoughts Fly, she goes it alone with a pipe organ played to dark and haunting effect. Recorded in a church in her Gothenburg hometown, she coaxes all sorts of sounds and rhythms out of a baroque instrument but makes it sound modern. The experience is intoxicatingly all-consuming.

Beachy Head - Beachy Head

An illustration of mid century blocks of flats, with a hand holding a bleeding human heart in the sky

BandcampSpotify Apple Music

Slowdive's Christian Savill formed this supergroup, with members of Dreamend, The Soft Cavalry and The Flaming Lips. Fellow Slowdive bandmember Rachel Goswell also lends her distinctive vocals on a few of the tracks. I've heard this sneerily referred to as 'Slowdive Lite' but this is nothing of the sort. The influences are more electronic, and was the perfect soundtrack to what little summer we had in the UK.

(Beachy Head is a chalk cliff in Sussex. It’s one of Britain’s most popular beauty spots but also a notorious suicide spot.)

I Was Born Swimming + Planet (i) - Squirrel Flower

Ella Williams wearing a metallic boiler suit standing on coastal rocks. The whole image has an orange hue

Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music

This was the year I discovered the wonderful Squirrel Flower, first by catching up with 2019's I Was Born Swimming, and then with the latest, Planet (i). Inhabiting a similar-ish sound space to artists like Mitski, Ella Williams is someone who can make you hang on to her every word and note. Powerful stuff indeed.

Crumbs & Remnants - Nine is the Level

A photo of a bright white fenced balcony, contrasting against a dark coastal background at night
A black and white photo of small moored boats at the coast

Crumbs:
Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music

Remnants:
Bandcamp Spotify Apple Music

These two dark ambient/drone EPs by local 'sonic explorer' (not his words, but those of the local Truck Music store ;) ) Doug Tolley (Nine is the Level) have been my companion through the hard times this year. Both EPs use recorded voice as its basis. While Crumbs uses audio diary recordings from Doug's late Grandfather, Remnants samples long forgotten dictaphone messages, featuring a particularly eerie rendition of 'You are 16, going on 17'. One for headphones!

Vanity - Starflyer 59

A cover made with beautiful letterpress typography, and radiating sun lines, in a 30s/40s American style

BandcampSpotify Apple Music

Despite Starflyer being one of my favourite bands of all time, I haven't enjoyed recent releases as much. Jason Martin has been repeating a theme of "I'm old and irrelevant - the young folks don't want to listen to me" for some time now, particularly on the last album 'Young in my Head'. While, there's still traces of that outlook here, it's not to the same degree. It's a real return to form, and Jason even allows himself a bit of fun with the track "New Guitar".

Honorable Mentions

There's been too much good music this year (or catching up from last year), that I have to mention the fantastic albums that didn't quite make the top 9:

Lucid Express - Lucid Express
Seeking New Gods - Gruff Rhys
Elsewhere - Hammock
Everything and you - Dreams we had
Dead Kids R.I.P City - Soft Kill
Meditate EP - Meg Ward
In Waiting - Pillow Queens
Which Way to Happy - Penelope Isles
Invisible Cities - A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Overflow - Rival Consoles
some kind of peace - Ólafur Arnalds

What? A Hammock, or Winged Victory for the Sullen album that hasn't made it on to my top 9 list?! Maybe that shows the strength of the competition this year.

Promises - the album I should've liked but couldn't get into

I feel at this point I should mention the album Promises by Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & London Symphony Orchestra. SO many people recommended this album to me - even my postman was telling me evangelically that it was the best thing released this year. I don't like that feeling of missing out on something, but no matter how much time I gave it, I didn't click with it. I'll keep trying though!

Gigs

Covid continued to spoil plans for live music, but Leigh and I did manage to get one: Suede at London's Alexandra Palace, and it was an absolute sweaty belter!

So far, in 2021 I've got tickets lined up for King's X, Besnard Lakes, Tool and Crowded House. I'm crossing everything that they're not delayed again.

Now all that remains is to leave you with my playlist of 2021. Until next year!

Contact

Call Jon Hicks on +44 (0)7917 391536
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Hicks Design
Hexagon House
Avenue 4, Station Lane
Witney, OX28 4BN
United Kingdom