The ten best albums of Q1 2021

OK, so the first quarter of 2021 was really the quarter from post-Brexit hell when it comes to music. When a trade agreement was finally signed between the EU and the UK late last year after much drama and political posturing, I let out a big sigh of relief. As an unashamed anglophile I had been worried that music from the UK would be locked in behind heavy iron toll gates. But now things would be OK.

Thought I.

Instead, the toll gates closed with a little click that was so low that no-one could hear it, rather than slam shut with a bang.

So there I was, happily buying records from the UK on an almost daily basis. A couple of months later, I am still suffering the consequences as some of those records take forever to trickle through corona-impacted distribution and bureaucracy-bloated customs. And for each parcel that gets through, I have to pay a £6.25 (SEK 75) import handling fee plus 25% of whatever value is stated on the parcel. After around 20 parcels, I am taking extreme care not to buy stuff from the UK anymore.

Oh, and even once we get through this pandemic, that guy in the UK who singlehandedly killed music, Boris, has made sure that bands can’t come and play here either, by refusing to negotiate a musicians’ work permit exemption deal with the EU.

But even though shit happens, it seems the show does indeed go on. So here are my favourites from the first three months of 2021, as always in alphabetical order.

Cobalt Chapel – Orange Synthetic

Let us be quite clear from the start: This is a minor masterpiece. The 2017 debut Cobalt Chapel album was already moody and strange, but the strangeness quotient is upped several notches here, such as with the nightmare circus atmosphere of ‘Cry A Spiral’ that leads into the apocalyptic dance of ‘It’s The End, The End’.

Conceptually, the album focuses on Yorkshire. The titular track is about the 1970 Krumlin music festival, which was a complete disaster due to bad, stormy weather. It was staged on a hillside in Yorkshire, and that is also the location of the cover photo; the orange synthetic blankets in the shot replicate those seen on old photos from the festival.

Cobalt Chapel are a duo consisting of Jarrod Gosling and Cecilia Fage. Their music combines psychedelia with folk and touches of kraut. It is inherently rhythmic and primarily keyboard driven – Jarrod is a collector of vintage synths and uses all of them here. But despite the amazingly layered analog sound, the songs themselves sound like the future rather than the past, not least thanks to Cecilia’s stately vocals. Her voice is paradoxically both passionate and somehow slightly aloof.

Compared to earlier albums, ‘Orange Synthetic’ is also closer in style to the sound of Jarrod Gosling’s “prog” band Regal Worm, whose new album is expected later this year!

Cathal Coughlan – Song of Co-Aklan

It has been eleven years since Cathal Coughlan committed his voice to record – and the moment you hear it, you will be painfully aware of how much you have missed it. He has a voice like no-one else, expressive and sullen while somehow not coming across as grumpy.

Although I still prefer his work in Microdisney together with Sean O’Hagan to his Fatima Mansions and solo records, the new album is certainly the best thing he has made since those days. 

Maybe the renewed inspiration is related to the fact that Coughlan was instrumental in reforming Microdisney for a number of concerts, Not only do some of his old mates appear on this record; the songs are great, there is lots of drama in the arrangements, and the intense lyrics are filled to the brim with chaotic pictures expressing the life of alter-ego Co-Aklan.

The high point on the album is probably ‘The Knockout Artist’, what a pop song! It is also great to hear Sean O’Hagan contributing some synth on it. O’Hagan reappears on the closing track ‘Unrealtime’, this time on vocals.

A real keeper.

William Doyle – Great Spans Of Muddy Time

I was never a big fan of East India Youth although that was William Doyle in everything but name. However, his first proper solo album ‘Your Wilderness Revisited’ totally and absolutely floored me, and I included it on my 10 best albums of Q4 2019 list. 

Whereas that was a perfectionist album in every sense, William Doyle is now back with something quite different. 

His hard disc crashed and he then had to piece together the album based on cassette copies that he had made. Or at least that is how the story goes, because who really backs their recordings up on cassette these days? Whatever the truth is, these songs are definitely more spontaneous, and definitely represent something that is a bit muddier timewise. Initially, you don’t notice, as the two opening tracks are crisp and pretty great pop songs. But then you are thrown into something that sounds more like a collage. There are more good pop songs further into the album but there are interspersed with more experimental – or maybe I should rather say unfocused – pieces. 

Apart from the track ‘Semi-bionic’, which literally starts out sounding like a hard disc crashing, the sound quality on the album isn’t muddy or full of tape hiss, but you definitely get the feel that some of tracks aren’t still finished. While that does lend the album an air of spontaneity, it also makes for a somewhat stumbling listening experience. But when it clicks, it is clear that Doyle’s sense for melody combined with ambient drama is intact!

Ed Dowie – The Obvious I

It has been four years since Ed Dowie’s debut album ‘The Uncle Sold’. I liked that very much and although maybe his new album is a little less experimental, I like it every bit as much. With arrangements very much designed to lift Ed’s strong voice to the fore, it plays like a synth pop album for those of us who never liked synth pop albums. It is all here, sampled instruments, blips and blurbs, programmed drums and more. But done with restraint and a sense for the rather straightforward songs on the album.

And while there are many layered sounds here, they never unnecessarily take over the soundstage, allowing for much space between instruments, sometimes even creating a cavernous yet simultaneously clear sound for the vocals to inhabit.

So whereas there are clear homages to the sounds of the 80s here, and the 8-bit cover art had me worried, Dowie has delivered a powerful album of gentle pop that really shines.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

This is continuous piece for saxophone, strings, keyboards and electronics composed by Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, really made me sit up and listen from the get go. There is a luxurious smoothness to this take on jazz symphony that made me feel almost like when I heard Neil Ardley’s ‘A Symphony Of Amaranths’ the first time. Sadly, ‘Promises’ doesn’t continue to develop thematically like that album, but rather tries to sustain its opening magic.

In a way, this album’s strength is also its weakness. Based on joint sessions in the USA with the inimitable tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and Shepherd on piano, the latter has then embellished the tapes with keyboards and strings played by the LSO back home in the UK. The good thing is that Shepherd’s keyboard layers and electronic treatments are masterful and really lift the devotional tone of the composition to the fore – while the bad thing is that it becomes very much Shepherd, and Sanders’ contribution is almost reduced to that of session player. 

And speaking of being reduced, the other 30-40 musicians here comprising the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra feel almost like an indulgence on Shepherd’s part; surely with his synthesiser skills, Shepherd could have done this on his computer using a sample library like Spitfire Symphonic Strings? 

Chlöe Herrington – Silent Reflux

Although bassoon and sax player Chlöe Herington has been active as a recording artist since 2003 when she started out in Angel Racing Food together with Jowe head, this is her first solo album. I must admit that I didn’t buy the Angel Racing Food album until after having discovered her playing with Kavus Torabi in Knifeworld and started tracing her through various bands including the inimitable Chrome Hoof and her more recent and playful VÄLVĒ project.

Her solo album, however, is very much a reflux in the sense that it represents a turn back; not only back to a series of recurring dreams Chloe had as a child, but also back to the feel of a 70s solo album made by someone on time off from an art rock band like Henry Cow. The dream states are surprisingly tangible and as a listener you get the feeling of being moved outside the flow of time. A wonderful album!

Simon McKechnie – Retro

They don’t make prog rock albums like this anymore. So this is the exception that proves the rule. Here we have long songs with many sections, conceptual lyrical themes, guitar solos, instrumental workouts… the whole shebang, in other words. But whereas modern prog groups who try to sound like in the good old days either seem to end up with uninteresting pastiche or with a lifeless modern digital sound that doesn’t fit the style, Simon McKechnie somehow manages to get it all right.

It is hard to think of a more bombastic theme to start out with than ‘The Origin of Species’, a 20+ minute track that lays out the whole story by (at least partly) using the words of the great man himself, Charles Darwin.

We then get the title track which almost sounds like it is belying its title by starting with some 80s synth sounds, but soon reveals its old-timey soul.

McKechnie has made a number of albums before this one, but this is his first on Bad Elephant – and I have to say that I only gave this a listen because I like the label. Glad I did, this is great!

The Milk and Honey Band – Songs From Truleigh Hill

Whereas the Milk Milk and Honey Band have always had a pastoral touch and a a love for acoustic instrumentation, there was also a lot of pop energy in the arrangements. But here, Robert White has stripped down the “band” to a solo effort with only piano acoustic guitar and voice, and slowing everything down to a snail’s pace in the process. The result is beautiful and just what is needed for times like these. As I continue to pass my days in enforced isolation, listening to this album makes the claustrophobia recede and the stillness around me seem much more comforting.

While never explicit, there is a life-affirming warmth to the songs despite the sadness of some of the lyrics. And while the minimalistic arrangements do their best to hide it, there is still a lot of pop in these songs, so while it takes a couple of listens longer than usual, eventually you can’t help but hum along!

Truleigh Hill is one of the highest points in the South Downs chalk hills, and I suppose the slow-mo drama of that place is what the music is reflecting. Robert White certainly has come a long way from his noisy beginnings in Levitation. But, surprisingly, the album really lends itself to be played at really high volume – something which also helps blow away some of the stress of continued lockdown. So tune in, and turn up!

Portable Radio – Portable Radio

The Junipers are one of my favourite contemporary psych pop bands. Unfortunately, nothing has been heard from them since they made their brilliant third album ‘Red Bouquet Fair’ five years ago. Since then band member Robyn Gibson has kept us entertained with his wonderful Bob of the Pops album series of covers. But it is great to see that he is finally together back with a psych pop band that does originals.

The Portable Radio album is one of those that you are almost by default expected to introduce as “nothing new under the sun” while immediately balancing this by saying “but it doesn’t matter, when it is this good”. While that may be an example of pop journalism cliché, it  certainly holds true in this case. 

Already album opener and single cut ‘Hot Toddy’ sweeps you away with a summery feeling of love and beautiful harmonies. The quality is sustained throughout and even though the album was pieced together separately by the members due to the pandemic, it sounds incredibly organic. Colour me impressed!

So here you are, Beatlesque pop, filtered through a love for Brian Wilson but reflected trough a lockdown prism. You know you want it.

TT Reuter – IV

40 years after ‘III’, which was a live album, and 41 years after their masterpiece ‘Sång, Dans, Sex’, ‘IV’ is finally here. Recorded with three of the band’s original members back in 2015, but never finished when guitarist Peter Puders sadly died in 2017, only 58 years old.

A few years earlier, the band had started playing live again and I remember hearing some of the tracks on this album back then mixed in with older material. Back then, I was amazed at how well they fit in with their classic early material. Hearing the studio versions now, they still manage to stand well on their own, and Puders’ guitar playing is heavily featured throughout.

Some tracks in particular shine, namely ‘Vem äger rymden?’ which was released as a single, and the two long tracks ending the album; ‘Cabal’ and ‘Se dig inte om igen’. These tracks alone were absolutely worth the long wait. TT Reuter are back!

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