2021: BEST SINGLES
Our favourite singles from December 2020 - November 2021.
1. ‘1+1=1’ - Lurkgurl
RELEASE DATE: 19 NOV 2021(Spotify) GENRE: FOLK / SPIRITUAL FOLK / PSYCHEDELIC FOLK / INDIE FOLK Lurkgurl has been almost a staple on our lists for the past few years now on Awful Track Record, but in 2021 her musical role in our lives has changed. With 2020’s Deathcare, she was a friend that held your hand in times of loss - resonating and reverberating your darkness back to you in more comforting packaging. But in 2021, ‘1+1=1’ (and the rest of the songs on Infinity Field) sounds more like a guru. It doesn’t just offer consolation. Lyrics like ‘Modernity in moderation’, remind you to reflect upon the utter futility of giving up so much for so little. (“The blur and the burnout”, Lurkgurl eloquently puts it, inadvertently summarising my 2021). This song is a mantra that works on so many levels. And for a singer-songwriter more associated with lo-fi sounds and crackly sonic aesthetics, '1+1=1 'comes off as super raw for a track that’s effectively her most polished. Like a Big Thief cut, but where you know immediately - deep within your soul - what the words are about. They’re about you.
2. ‘Introvert’ - Little Simz
RELEASE DATE: 22 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP / CONSCIOUS HIP HOP / UK HIP HOP The grand symphony arrangement which introduces ‘Introvert’ to the world is gripping and cinematic, yet woven in between the many narrative threads and conceptual tangents in Little Simz’s latest LP is a deeply personal self-exploration. ‘Introvert’ is the highest benchmark of 2021 when it comes to espousing the personal within the universal. Little Simz swap irony and punchlines for questions. The many movements of the song act as both an introductory to a hopeful world in times of darkness while containing within it the year’s best hip hop confession - that we’re all sinners trying our best and our best is found only when we look out for each other.
3. ‘C.H.R.I.S.Y.E’. - Diskoria, Laleilmanino and Eva Celia
RELEASE DATE: 15 JANUARY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: POP / DISCO POP Standing strong since January, this homage to Indonesia’s pop legend Chrisye has been a recurring presence in car rides when I’m searching for endorphins while stuck in traffic. But more than just a perfect encapsulation of retro pop, thanks to the groove and composition of Laleilmanino and Diskoria, elevated by Eva Celia’s coy, saccharine songster prowess - there’s a ‘timelessness’ to the track that can only happen from a song that is effectively a pastiche of many classics rolled into one. Although every line is taken from Chrisye’s repertoire, every line is given new meaning as if existing in a nostalgic past and an optimistic future, all at the same time. It’s what most medley remixes wish it could be - an entirely new sonic environment, built upon homey (and magical) components of pop. The way the strings, synths, and chimes come in the beginning can only be described as a welcome call to the joys in life - even if it sometimes comes with unrequited emotions, absent lovers, and a longing for the past. The ultimate Chrisye summary heralded a better 2021 summer for a godforsaken year. In January.
4. ‘ABAH’ - SECTO (feat. VTVN, Danobita, Mel D, Nxmi)
RELEASE DATE: 9 AUG 2021 MAY CONTAIN: CONSCIOUS HIP HOP / HIP HOP / JAZZ RAP With the line “Bukan mengaruk kami cuma nak reform” on the album art, SECTO somehow embodies the whole spirit of their EP, “KUTIP” - self-effacing, but audaciously political & critical. ‘ABAH’ brings this message home, playing around with jazz rap elements and a satirical radio DJ that doesn’t just represent classic Malay radio DJ tropes, while simultaneously using him as a vessel for sociopolitical critique. Interviews with random members of the public (played by all the featured rappers). While things are kept light, the stories told are unfiltered - the harsh economic woes of Malaysians during the pandemic, and the subsequent anger and emotional negotiation infecting the national psyche.
5. 'Kiamat' - Senyawa
RELEASE DATE: 22 FEB 2021 MAY CONTAIN: EXPERIMENTAL / AVANT-TRADITIONAL / HARSH FOLK Seems a little too easy and on-the-nose to put a song called ‘Kiamat’ (apocalypse) as a 2021 song. The hard trutih is that it had to be Senyawa and no one else to embody the end-of-the-world. The melismatic demonic vocals, the percussive woodwork acting like heartbeats. Senyawa’s brand of abrasive experimentation comes from a very primal centre; not industrial, sulphuric brimstone, but an ancient Lovecraftian monster that lurks beneath the Earth. Best heard as a whole record experience, ‘Kiamat’ serves as a standout cut in their album ‘Alkisah’.
6. ‘Enge Port’ - Arunboii
RELEASE DATE: 23 JUN 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP / TAMIL RAP Through high-octane delivery and concrete substance packed in every line, Enge Port is Arunboii’s klaxon of frustration and anger towards the discrimination that occurs towards the Indian minority in Malaysia - a courageous ode to his Klang roots. With Tamil rap often only limited within a particular niche scene in Malaysia, seeing Enge Port get the recognition it deserves is one of the most correct things to have happened in 2021. Arunboii is truly the voice of a generation, a community and a genre; an artist on the rise.
7. ‘That Funny Feeling’ - Bo Burnham
RELEASE DATE: 27 NOV 2021 MAY CONTAIN: FOLK / ACOUSTIC This has probably been said in one form or another in some Pitchfork or Rolling Stone article somewhere, but for a song that belongs in a standup comedy special about a person being on interminable lockdown indoors, ‘That Funny Feeling’ is the most inadvertently insightful - (substantially and emotionally) song out there about the current state of human affairs. It comes in timid and self-effacing. Bo Burnham’s simple guitar tune lists down a random assortment of things that make up the absurdity of our time. However, this isn’t a self-absorbed post-modern stream-of-consciousness drivel. At the end of it all, Bo brings it home with a way to cope - a cheerful sorta nihilism that pushes us to keep going even as we admit that maybe, as a species, we’ve been on this Earth too long. Maybe this is it.
8. ‘Chaeri’- Magdalena Bay
RELEASE DATE: 30 JUN 2021 MAY CONTAIN: SYNTH POP / ELECTRO POP This is it. The fastest rising new artist I’ve discovered this year that I’ve only started listening to in October 2021, and quickly became my favourite musical duo. Pop geniuses who tip their hats to nostalgic 70s pop, the greatness of 2000s Kyle Minogue (no, Ms. Minogue, time does NOT go by so slow) and, in the case of Chaeri, Croenenberg-esque sci-fi horrors that provoke the mind AND the body. As singer Mica Tenenbaum apologises in song form for being slightly less than compassionate to a friend who underwent dark times, the challenges of empathy stretches out its head so poetically with one of the strongest pop hooks of 2021. (“Chaeri please you’re killing me”). But then because Magdalena Bay are generous, talented people, the track also swells into a breakdown made for rave houses substantiated by the eerily loud refrain of “Better crucified than alone”.
9. ‘VBS’ - Lucy Dacus
RELEASE DATE: 19 MAY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: FOLK / INDIE ROCK The greatest powers of Lucy Dacus’s songwriting is her ability to drag you down into the deepest, seemingly inevitable wave of emotions even though she's talking about something that might have never happened in your life. At least not to the letter. In ‘VBS’, Lucy’s camping trips from her childhood transforms into this excruciating parable about struggles with faith and our complicated relationships with the people that peddle them. Very few lines have hit me as deeply as the ones in VBS. The whole damn chorus starts off with something as trivial as “poetry was so bad it took a look to not laugh” and then ends on “You said that I showed you the light/But all it did was make the darkness darker than before”. And just like that a stranger’s life becomes, mirrors, embodies, the life of millions. So since we're all struggling with our own bouts of faith, of course, it’s on this list.
10. ‘BZD’ - The Filters
RELEASE DATE: 9 OCT 2021 GENRE: FRACTIONAL MATH ROCK / AVANT-GARDE INDIE / ALT ROCK Since their inception, The Filters ability to circumnavigate intensity, math-rock technicality and emotionally pointed tonality (ever wondered how anxiety sounds like? The middle part of this track) has made them a significant presence in Malaysia’s indie circuit even prior to the release of their EP EXHALER. The allure of the Filters isn’t just in their boundary-pushing compositions consisting of crazy time signatures and hefty breakdowns. It is also found in those moments of calm where you can hear the warmth of the guitar tones before it wonderfully unravels into total chaos. ‘BZD’ is a sturdy embodiment of what makes complex music riveting. It’s not just the talent and practice it takes to execute a hard song. It’s when the complexity is used so masterfully as a way to play with emotions and all of the little nuances that come with it.
11. ‘Well Rested’ - Kero Kero Bonito
RELEASE DATE: 22 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: ELECTRONIC / DANCE / ART POP In 2021, Kero Kero Bonito became the DJ and hype-person for a much needed utopia. Amid prophecies of doom and obsessions with destruction & despair, ‘Well Rested’ deflects all of that with a danceable (albeit cult-like) insistence that it will all be okay. At their most experimental, the KKB trio has also found a more primeval and addictive sound that echoes the likes of 90s house music. Much like the Y2K delirium from before, it seems like the Civilization EP is the kind of record that is fated to exist since all of us are experiencing a comparable chaos. But this is no portent of inevitability or a hedonistic chant to forget. It’s a call to persevere, to keep on moving, while always remembering to take a break. The resurrection is here, my acidheads. Let's reconstruct society as long as there's still tomorrow. (I've been brainwashed).
12. ‘John L’ - Black Midi
RELEASE DATE: 24 MAR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: EXPERIMENTAL ROCK / ART ROCK / JAZZ ROCK / PROGRESSIVE When Black Midi debuted with Schlagenheim in 2018, they proved that rock is an ever-evolving beast that can still be gut-busting and caudacious. Rock’n’roll does not have to be relegated to the comfy niches of dad rock, chart-topping templates, or nostalgia-fueled revivals. And then came the single from their latest album where they do the seemingly impossible; catching lightning in the bottle twice. Yes, Cavalcade might not be as groundbreaking as their first, but John L is simultaneously incomparably Black Midi and also like nothing they’ve ever done before. Cameron Picton’s bass and keys sound like ominous drones alternating with explosives made out of pianos; Morgan Simpson’s catchiest (and danciest) drum fills yet, and Geordie Greep once again foretelling something bone-chillingly biblical: “A man is his country, your country is you/All bad is forewarned, all good will come true".
13. ‘Knees’ - Injury Reserve
RELEASE DATE: 12 AUG 2021 MAY CONTAIN: ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP / ART RAP / EXPERIMENTAL I can't writing about ‘Knees’ comes without sighing and choking up. It is - at its very essence - the increasingly difficult process of breathing post-grief - transformed into song. “Knees hurt when I grow” colliding with conflicting confessions,“I’m not growing no more”, ‘Knees’ is exhaustion. On top of Groggs’ premature passing casting casting a long shadow that is hard to discard, there is an artistic structure that breathes through ‘Knees’ found in Morgan Simpson’s stop-go panicky style of drumming and the loud, overbearing synths (which samples samples ‘sweater’ by black midi). It comes off as a choir deconstructed - where the choruses are silences in between lines and beats, made more profound by reflections on addiction and mortality. ‘Knees’ hits a personal note for many in 2021. Where Groggs soul is proverbially displayed during his verse which he wrote before he passed is a profound embodiment of what it's like to suffer substance abuse -always desperately climbing out of isolation for at least touch of sobriety, simultaneously fearing total consciousness. People forget what lockdowns can do to an addict. 'Knees' is an artistic, scathing reminder. Rest in peace, Groggs.
14. ‘Hazard Duty Pay’ - JPEGMAFIA
RELEASE DATE: 1 OCT 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP / EXPERIMENTAL / G-FUNK / SOUL RAP
One of the biggest musical travesties of 2021 is the fact that the sample for ‘Hazard Duty Pay’ didn’t clear so we had to settle for a JPEGMAFIA album without it, and it’s his most beautiful track yet. JPEGMAFIA (or Peggy) is often known for redefining the possibilities of hip hop production, often with the larger intent of disturbing the comfortable or making unforgettably intimidating beats. But this time, the G-funk bass, the Winans vocals, and the spirit of JPEGMAFIA’s flow is almost precious - a moment of clarity and dexterity we all should cherish. Somebody GET THIS SAMPLE CLEARED.
15. ‘Star 星’ - SHELHIEL
RELEASE DATE: 10 JULY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: ALTERNATIVE R&B/ HOUSE-INSPIRED POP / ELECTRONIC SHELHIEL has been coursing the route of electronica, R&B and pop for most of his career as an artist - and ‘Star’ is now the apex of that journey. The hook here is one of his strongest and silkiest, not to mention the clinky, mechanical sounds coupled with well-placed bass-drops and anti-climaxes keep you on edge. The EP it’s from, ‘Superstrobe’, might have come out in 2020, but ‘Star’s position as a single truly sums up Shelhiel’s position as one of the most innovative, danceable voices of R&B and pop in the region. Get sucked in by the tantalising refrain, stay a bit longer for a little manic & ecstatic rave euphoria.
16. ‘PROSPEKTOR’ - Joyberry
RELEASE DATE: 4 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE ROCK / DANCE ROCK / POP ROCK PROSPEKTOR transports you into a realm of early 2010s indie rock, where bands like Two Door Cinema Club and The Rapture were adorning the frontpages of NME and Myspace Music. For Joyberry, it goes beyond reminiscence. Their evolution is what makes the band an exciting venture. It’s as if they improve single-to-single where other bands take entire album cycles. The production of ‘PROSPEKTOR’ is far from derivative dance indie. It has attitude, a large sense of fun and a contained kinda craziness that reminds you there’s so much innovation left to be found even within familiar indie frameworks.
17. ‘Semua Orang Pernah Sakit Hati’ - Lomba Sihir
RELEASE DATE: 11 AUG 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE ROCK / 80s INFLUENCED-POP / ALT ROCK There are so many outstanding singles from Lomba Sihir’s album Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia. Some of them are insightful incisive synth-pop (Hati dan Paru-Paru). Others, more belligerent & satirical rock cuts. But the track that sounds the most like your understanding friend trying to talk you down from your darkest thoughts is the one that won our hearts. Retro warm feels percolate throughout the album, but in ‘Semua Orang Pernah Sakit Hati’ is a lovable, yet gritty reminder that everything will be okay. The song gets a little too real and relatable with cheeky admonitions against drowning your sadness in alcohol, social media anxiety and untenable romanticisation of unrequited love. No other form of optimism in music deserves this accolade this year. It’s like a song that says “We’re gonna have to go through a lot of bullshit, but it’s gonna be fine, my friend”.
18. ‘VIRTUAL CANDY’ - Brandon Liew & Lyrit
RELEASE DATE: 8 FEB 2021
MAY CONTAIN: J-POP / FUTURE FUNK / SYNTH POP / ELECTRO-POP
Brandon Liew’s brand of bright, addictive synth pop manifested itself in many versions with the release of his VIRTUAL CANDY EP and his recent singles CONNECTED & DREAMERS. Yet the ‘VIRTUAL CANDY’ single takes the trophy for being an awesome blend of funky tunes and just one of the best examples of embracing the virtual world in a positive, celebratory manner; a welcome relief when all you get nowadays are just dystopian stories about how we’re all disconnected from reality. Well I want to disconnect from reality sometimes, and I think there should be a VR-positive anthem for it. Virtual Candy more than fits the bill.
19. ‘Pool Hopping’ - Illuminati Hotties
RELEASE DATE: 11 JUNE 2021 MAY CONTAIN: POP PUNK / PUNK / POSITIVE PUNK / INDIE ROCK Like carrying the legacy of both Sleater-Kinney and Sum 41 (yes, Sum 41), Illuminati Hotties don’t just have the best band name, theyalso serve up a great positive punk reminder to have fun and find the simmering silver lining in between breakups and makeups. A rallying anthem for messing around with your friends and doing stupid shit together. ‘Pool Hopping’ is such an effervescent summer track but its effects last significantly longer than 3 months. Snarky and bubbly all at once makes this an undeniable track.
20. ‘Hujan Pasti Berhenti’ - MAFIDZ
RELEASE DATE: 1 JUN 2021
MAY CONTAIN: ACOUSTIC POP/ FOLK POP/ FOLK At the time of writing this, the rain that’s besot the lives of many Malaysians is not just metaphorical. Heck, as if the actual thing the metaphor was supposed to represent (covid) isn’t bad enough, many areas are now experiencing one of the worst monsoons in the country’s history. In my head, ‘Hujan Pasti Berhenti’ alternates between being a prayer, to a cry for hope, to a desperate plea. All of the magic of vocal harmonies and impeccable musical arrangement is here. I don’t know why ‘Hujan Pasti Berhenti’ became the MAFIDZ song that finally captured my attention after several years of dismissing them as bland and dull in its sentimentality. Maybe it’s the timing. All art is timing.
21. ‘day/dreams & tears’ - yams
RELEASE DATE: 20 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: ALTERNATIVE R&B / SPOKEN WORD / POP / INDIE POP / RAP
The title track of the 14-song-album by Singaporean singer-songwriter yams is the pinnacle of drama and innovation in the artist’s discography. Sneaking up at you as a half-rap, half-sprechgesang introspection, the song ascends into a transition that is one of the most satisfying this year - a rock-opera monologue that speaks to the general tumult of dreams in all its form. Whether it’s the ambitions we have, or the unconscious worlds our mind creates, they all just tend to frustratingly slip away. A fitting pop track for a global society still stuck in stasis - unsure whether it’s learned a lesson from a time-bending pandemic.
22. ‘Wet Dream’ - Wet Leg
RELEASE DATE: 29 SEPT 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE ROCK / ALTERNATIVE ROCK I’ve marked the exact point in time when Wet Leg became a thing that broke through the saturated barriers of indie rock hopefuls who want to drive the road of instant catchiness and find their unique streak: the moment the words “Let’s begin” are proclaimed in this track. It’s like the B-52s but instead of flamboyant, extravagant ramblings, it's a determined stadium anthem made to rile people up. But more than just an earworm, ‘Wet Dream’s way of making horny, explicit lines the most hilarious thing makes it unforgettable. I mean, the prospect of picking someone up by promising a Buffalo 66 movie experience? Risky move, but I’ll take it.
23. ‘Chendering’ - Bihzhu
RELEASE DATE: 6 MAY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: SOFT JAZZ / LOUNGE / POP / BALLAD / SPIRITUAL ‘Chendering’ is a Jimmy Boyle classic that owes its beauty to the beautiful beaches of Terengganu. Although that description might betray my bias as a person of Terengganu heritage, it is actually the placeless, timeless element that Bihzhu brings which makes this track song an essential part of 2021. There’s an absolutely transcendental quality to the production, and Bihzhu’s voice makes a whole new world come alive - bridging together memories and histories as she does it. There is so much space in this cover, often deceivingly sparse and minimal, but it’s rich in the type of atmosphere-building which very few songs managed to do this year.
24. ‘Elephant God’ - Sayla
RELEASE DATE: 23 AUG 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP / SPOKEN WORD / ART RAP ‘Elephant God’ is a divine marriage between Sayla’s mode of incendiary braggadocio rap and BAP’s grimey, industrial production. Almost simultaneously with the storytelling and introspection in his bars, the beat gets into grating, ominous territory - hooking you into the satisfying horrorshow (think Flatbush Zombies) while steadily injecting some urumi drum samples in there when Sayla starts talking about the many facets of his identity. Sayla artistically positions himself in the hustle and bustle; of Twitter culture wars, police brutality and the inability to distinguish artifice from reality. I'm still hoping a full album is coming soon.
25. ‘Leave the Door Open’ - Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic
RELEASE DATE: 5 MAR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: SOUL / RETRO POP / POP / MOTOWN-INSPIRED If homages had its own award shows, the Silk Sonic would have bagged it. It’s one thing to pay your dues to the soulful sounds occupying the airspace in the 70s, it’s another to deliver those same sounds now and use it kick every other pop song around in the charts like a timeless god. ‘Leave the Door Open’ is not just a panoply of easter eggs (e.g., the Michael Jackson’s “Shamone” in this track which, in turn, is actually a nod to Mavis Staples), but a fresh take on sexy pop that is able to laugh at itself while serving some seduction. Everything else about Silk Sonic just comes together like a lock and a key of life.
26. ‘Brutal’ - Olivia Rodrigo
RELEASE DATE: 3 SEPT 2021 MAY CONTAIN: POP / POP PUNK / POP ROCK The popular reasoning behind all the critical acclaim for Olivia Rodrigo’s debut is the universality of teen-girl heartbreak. She resonated with everyone. All while resurrecting the 2000s pop-punk angst that’s both raw and inexplicably accessible. In ‘Brutal’ that angst is packed in such familiar riffs, it’s like they jumped out of my adolescent years. But in a twist of perception, ‘Brutal’ is also the song where she inadvertently comments on the burnout and the vitriol that seems to have pervaded the world lately. Nothing is more honest than a young adult outraged at the world she was promised.
27. ‘ Oceanic Feelings’ - Molly Lewis
RELEASE DATE: 23 MAR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: WHISTLING / INSTRUMENTAL / BALLAD Stupidly unaware as I was about Molly Lewis’s internationally-renowned whistling prowess, there couldn’t have been a more magical way to be introduced to her than with ‘Oceanic Feelings’. Like an enchanting jazz lounge in the middle of a mythical garden, the track hits notes of the melancholy and ethereal. You know how you get a kick out of some indie songs with well-placed whistling? Now imagine that that's the whole thing. But instead of being saturated and gimmicky, it somehow doubles in artistry. And then you get to the tenor sax. God, it’s like the instruments are conversing in a secret ritual language only they know. It keeps getting better, is what I’m trying to say.
28. ‘ARE YOU WITH THAT?’ - Vince Staples
RELEASE DATE: 13 JUL 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP Vince Staples' next-level ability to marry dark lyricism with upbeat - and even soulful -production lives in tangible form in ‘Are You With That’. Kenny Beats watery set-up sound-wise serves as a floaty and emphatic background for what Vince recalls as “the same story” he’s been telling his whole life. In the whole context of Vince Staples’ discography, ‘Are You With That’ is built as a landmark tohis growth as his perspective changes from a hesitant, but definitely involved participant of his own life and history, to an even more acute observer of his own music, constantly aware of how people perceive him. The way he asks even the most introspective questions but still churn out bangers though? That’s what makes it special.
29. ‘Blossom’ - Porter Robinson
RELEASE DATE: 23 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE / ACOUSTIC / INDIE POP / LO-FI There seems to be a whole planet’s worth of lyrical music that sounds deceivingly joyful. ‘Blossom’ is the opposite. Although apparently wispy and melancholic, it disguises a balm made for the soul; for grief. It stands boldly on its own in the brilliant album ‘NURTURE” as the only ‘analog’ track in a sea of electronica - armed with acoustic guitar and the truth instead of DJ sets made for festivals. It depicts an honest conversation based upon his own vulnerability and struggles with depression. 'Blossom's resounding simplicity makes it Porter Robinson’s most audacious work yet. It is a message of optimism that doesn’t skirt around the necessary conversations we all must have about death, loss and the fear of it. It’s a song for first loves, and last goodbyes. And when the vocal effects are turned off long enough for Porter to sing “It’s just that I love you” to the song’s main recipient, his partner Rika, it’s like all the romantic songs in the world are contained within one line.
30. ‘Amar Jaan’ - Dameer
RELEASE DATE: 29 JAN 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE POP / DREAM POP
The ancient art of love songs is preserved within ‘Amar Jaan’. The lyrics “Nothing makes sense in this world/But as long as I got my girl/You can all go to hell” might as well be straight from a movie where ideals of young love exist so strongly they can be made into fantasy weapons in facing some Scott Pilgrim-esque adversary. The Bangladeshi indie singer-songwriter places all of this within quaint & romantic productions too - with the type of echoey quality that makes for a great backing track for daydreams or walks down memory lane. The music video - where Dameer uses his parent’s wedding video - adds to the overall adorable and heartwarming experience.
31. ‘Falling Out The Sky’ - Armand Hammer, The Alchemist, Earl Sweatshirt
RELEASE DATE: 2 JUN 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP / ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP When icons of American underground hip hop come together, it shouldn’t be a surprise when they produce something stellar. Yet ‘HARAM’ as an album is all of that and more. A magnum opus combining the production prowess of the Alchemist, the writing chops and the wonderfully idiosyncratic delivery of duo Armand Hammer (billy woods and ELUCID). And then along comes Earl, taking the whole thing to intergalactic proportions. Why these celestial metaphors? Well, in addition to the gripping contrast of a summertime reggae beat and Lynchian lyrics (David Lynch’s voice incidentally is featured), Earl waxes what is probably the best lyrical moment in hip hop in 2021 - emotional, imaginative, and captivating: “My father body swollen behind my eyes, I ain’t cried for him in time the return solar, we on the ride forward, the reverse not working, sometimes we collide, the black sky full of supernovas,the stars that died” In his own words, these truly are “rhymes forged to conjoin us to the cosmic”. Cerebral wonder for many summers to come.
32. ‘Try Not To Be Afraid’ - DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ ((with Delilah Brao, Luke Markinson & Anyela Gómez)
RELEASE DATE: 28 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: ELECTRONICA / PLUNDERPHONICS / DANCE With a name that is as awesome as it is descriptive of her work, DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ has naturally taken on this mantle as DJ Shadow but for a certain strain of pop and sentimentality in media that evokes spending ungodly amounts of time on Star World or FX or whatever the kids are watching these days that pass as YA dramas. Your Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, the OC, etc, all litter the sonic emotions of DJ Sabrina’s work. ‘Try Not to Be Afraid’ absorbs and emanates Hallmark, TLC or lesser-cherished Netflix rom-coms, creating one of the most uplifting house cut I’ve heard in years. This track takes me back so far and so deeply, and it just came out last year. A shining pop-timism in the middle of all the undanceable darkness.
33. ‘Soyuz Menuju Martin’ - Alchemist
RELEASE DATE: 6 AUG 2021 GENRE: SYNTH-POP / ELECTRO ROCK Lush vocal effects, Voidz-esque melodic lines; Alchemist is a wild & novel disruption to a Malaysian indie scene sometimes still overly obsessed with 2000s era garage rock and/or Britpop. The confessional, semi-apocalyptic Malay lyrics feel dastardly but honest. It’s everything you know and love but through the lens of a cartoonish cyberpunk aesthetic that straddles the line of post-punk abandon and cheesy synth sunsets. ‘Soyuz Menuju Martin’ & ‘Babyrina’ both deserve praise for adding this new sheen to the scene, but it’s the former that boasts solid song-writing and a slightly more adventurous electronic soundscape.
34. ‘Go Hard’ - Homeboy Sandman (feat. Aesop Rock)
RELEASE DATE: 5 AUG 2021 MAY CONTAIN: HIP HOP / ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP ‘Go Hard’ showcases the seemingly oxymoronic: that you don’t have to go hard, to go hard. Homeboy Sandman comes into the old-school battle rap- beats with lightning fast switch-ups and pointed references and punchlines. The reason why it’s inimitably badass is the hilariously laidback attitude in the delivery. ‘Go Hard’, along with many other songs in the EP ANJELITU, is packed to the brim with jokes. Yet there’s something oddly motivating about someone objectively explaining why they’re the best as if they’re in a fast-paced job interview. Can’t deny brilliant lines like “I go so hard congress tried to pass a bill/ It didn't pass but still” and Aesop Rock’s production touch packs the right amount of punch, like when he cuts off the beat whenever the song reaches the titular hook. Instant classic.
35. ‘Honey Baby’ - Grrrl Gang
RELEASE DATE: 17 FEB 2021 MAY CONTAIN: POWER POP / INDIE ROCK / INDIE POP The existence of Grrrl Gang is another win for the nostalgia train. Sounding like they come straight from influential British indie label Sarah Records (an influence they wear proudly on their sleeves), Grrl Gang carries with them a spirit of the 90s reminiscent of bands like The Field Mice & Another Sunny Day. But there’s more to their charm than simply being carbon copies of the past. The inherent twee-ness of their sound and their declamations of love in ‘Honey Baby’ is distinctly Indonesian indie. And it’s all wrapped up with a gratifying guitar solo as its proverbial bow.
36. ‘Nongga’ - MonoloQue ft. Aizat Amdan
Nothing connects the past with the present like remaking a traditional song by using it as a vessel for modern commentary. ‘Nongga’ runs the gamut by keeping things broad, while still being a surefire addition to many of MonoloQue’s other songs that references wealth disparity and the unwitting victims of capitalism. With ethereal sounds of the Orkes Gamelan Diraja Pahang and the tasteful vocals of Aizat Amdan, the words against injustice ring true; down with the world where we worship our corporate overlords and condemn the beggars who need our help the most. There’s a lot to be said as well about the subtlety in Nongga’s production, letting the gamelan resonate louder than any of-kilter experimentation commonly found in a MonoloQue cut.
37. ‘When I Ball’ - BROCKHAMPTON
RELEASE DATE: 9 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: R&B / ALTERNATIVE R&B / HIP HOP Falling out of the time machine straight from the 2000s , ‘WHEN I BALL’ doesn’t just carry a genre legacy, but an intimate throwback to some of BROCKHAMPTON’s earlier works. Diving deeper into the past, ‘WHEN I BALL’ is a soulful, heartfelt recollection of childhood memories. Dom McLennon’s verse about growing up with family members in incarceration is one of his best storytelling bars yet. Backing vocals by Zuri Marley, Rex Orange County and Christian Alexander also add another layer of intimacy. The track exemplifies what I love the most about BROCKHAMPTON: the camaraderie and personal nature of their music spills out with such candour that it feels like the kind of special moment where you’re listening to a friend share something extremely personal with you in a corner at a crowded party. In an already great album loaded with experimental acuity, ‘WHEN I BALL’ serves as a beautiful, soulful respite.
38. 'Polite' - Erika de Casier
RELEASE DATE: 13 APR 2021
MAY CONTAIN: R&B / QUIET STORM / POP
Quiet storm’s appearance as a genre has its heyday. These appearances are intermittent, while also oddly seasonal. There’s always some kind of demand for R&B-cum-smooth jazz romanticism - whether it’s Smokey Robinson in the mid-70s (whose 1975 album title gave the genre its name) or Sade just leading the way through the 80s and 90s. Quiet storm’s influence across R&B is evident, but pure quiet storm is hard to come by since the whole sound is built upon the premise of subtlety. What is 'quiet storm'? A whisper cutting across luscious instrumentals with pointed emotionality. ‘Polite’ brings all of this to the table. ‘Polite’ combines TLC attitude with the sensuality of it all is really in how quiet and understated it is. More than a retro whiplash, Erika de Casier might as well be a lost soul that has traversed dimensions to bring us a contemporary closure for a bygone era. A hearth in the middle of confessional R&B obsessed with vocal riffs and trill-filled declarations of “I’m HERE”. De Casier keeps it classy, a flame that flickers but burns.
39. ‘N!N!N!’ - Katfëud
RELEASE DATE: 28 JULY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: EDM / IDM / EXPERIMENTAL ELECTRONICA / ELECTRONIC Part fighting game music, part nocturnal adrenaline spiraling into oblivion, Katfeud’s track has lit up many of my solitary night car rides this year. It doesn’t have the floaty witchiness of ‘Hollow’, but there’s something deeply unsettling and exhilarating about the layers of ‘N!N!N!’ which jams itself into your brain.
40. ‘Caramel’ - Snowk ft. Froya
RELEASE DATE: 30 JULY 2021 GENRE: R&B / NEO-SOUL / EDM POP / HOUSE This collaboration between Japanese DJs & producers, Snowk, and the impeccable performance of Malaysian singer-songwriter Froya is drastically underrated. A perfect mix of smooth silky R&B with infectious house drops, Caramel is just solid proof that there’s still a lot of transcendence you can tap from the voluminous intersection between traditional pop songwriting and the wide expanse of electronica.
41. ‘So Simpatico’ - Villagers
RELEASE DATE: 1 JUL 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE FOLK / BAROQUE FOLK / FOLK With Flaming Lips-like bombast, Villagers folk expressions take the impressionistic and subtly psychedelic and layer it upon a warm refrain. So Simpatico is a simple statement of care and affection. And like The Flaming Lips, there’s a touch of silliness to ‘So Simpatico’. The fact that the song is 7 minutes long and is more of a trance than a fully-written track is one. The fact that the second segment is a rich sax-filled groovy flight of a coda is another. ‘So Simpatico’ eludes analysis to me. It was just that indie song that would adorn photography commercials, but was self-aware enough to fall short from being a shill royalty-free track.
42. ‘Liz’ - Remi Wolf
RELEASE DATE: 2 JUN 2021 MAY CONTAIN: SOUL / POP / POP FUNK / INDIE POP Remi Wolf’s raspy, voluminous voice can transform a room. Into what exactly, is entirely up to her since she spans - with effervescence and pomp - across many moods. Sometimes cheeky and delirious, always funky and soulful. ‘Liz’ was my wholesome introduction to Remi Wolf, and it definitely left an indelible testament that there’s still so much room in the world of vocal chops and indie expression to be filled. Not everything’s been tried and true when you’ve got the grittiness and sincerity to pull it off. Accompanying all of this pop mastery is Solomonophonic’s emotive tug-of-war on the guitar - restrained and expressive all at the same time.
43. ‘HOUSE FULL OF SHIT’ - Night Lunch
RELEASE DATE: 23 MAR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: EXPERIMENTAL ROCK / ART ROCK / NOISE ROCK With graceful professional whistling already on this list, I felt it was necessary to sum up the year with something a little less dainty. Night Lunch captures the absolute grimeyness of the title with a double-stringed diddley bow and drums. It’s just raw, filthy rock listing down all the things that've been shit and probably will be shit for the foreseeable future. Songs like ‘HOUSE FULL OF SHIT’ are one of those tracks that spit in the discourse of what is groundbreaking or truly innovative - sometimes you just feel it in your gut, where the bowels move.
44. ‘Suicide Is Murder’ - Aimee Mann
RELEASE DATE: 5 AUG 2021 MAY CONTAIN: PIANO BALLAD / SINGER-SONGWRITER Anti-suicide ditties come in many colours throughout the history of American pop music. Most of them are public service announcements, others are schmaltzy (yet inexplicably amazing) attempts at reaching out to an isolated Jumper by Third Eye Blind. Some even talk about the perspective of survivors. Suicide is Murder being this large anvil of guilt and remonstrance upon people on the brink of suicide really shouldn’t have worked. But the way Aimee Mann haunts you with every line represents an incorporeal voice that is shaken - not self-righteous or imposing. All the elements that make Mann the great singer-songwriter she is is embodied in this song. Incisive metaphors. Ghostly emotionality. Dry wit. The complexities of a desperate plea wrapped up in song.
45. ‘Sorry Entertainer’ - SASAMI
RELEASE DATE: 27 JUL 2021 MAY CONTAIN: ALT ROCK / INDIE ROCK / NU METAL It’s Daniel Johnston’s detuned ukulele ditty electrocuted to the frequency of nu metal. That means the inimitable caterwauling of young Daniel Johnston about the woes of being a hopeless artist for the people is now given an additional patina of dementedness and anger. SASAMI’s version is not just an extension or a cover with ‘more layers’ like what one expects from old genre-crossover mixtapes; the exhaustion contained in this song is timely and simmers like a headbang-able boiling pus. It’s like "In Bloom" with fewer metaphors, but more teeth-grinding.
46. ‘Tommy’ - Claud
RELEASE DATE: 9 NOV 2021 MAY CONTAIN: INDIE ROCK / INDIE FOLK
It can be quite awkward to project your own emotions onto a song with another person’s clearly fleshed-out experience embedded within it. Yet, in a semi-ironic way, it’s also an indicator of a really great song when it's deeply personal while being devastatingly universal. What might have come from their experiences of gender dysphoria whilst being in love with someone who likes someone else, Claud beautifully conveys the type of self-delusions and eventual disillusionment that one goes through in order to survive a reality where you might never be fully accepted - either by your object of infatuation or a society refusing to see you for who you really are. ‘Tommy’ is a straight cut sad indie folk made for teenage melancholy (straddling the legacies of Dawson’s Creek to Euphoria), but it’s also a poetic masterpiece of entendres carved into a knife made to stab you regardless of who you are: unrequited love - in all its form - can be disorienting.
47. ‘Setinggi Awan’ - Ceryanki
RELEASE DATE: 22 JULY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: LO-FI / INDIE POP
Hailing from Perak, Ceryanki is fresh-out-of-the-oven melancholy. The track carries the sincerity of a city-pop cut from the 80s but disintegrated to its deepest skeleton - bringing you intense flashbacks to moments that probably never happened. Ceryanki’s combination of simple balladry and warm production is a skill, especially because it never overstays its welcome. Self-indulgence is bliss in small quantities.
48. ‘Another Perfect Times’ - Roomie Boys Alert
RELEASE DATE: 19 APR 2021 MAY CONTAIN: NEW WAVE / SYNTH-POP / 80s POP Continuing on the heartbroken wine-sodden legacy of melancholic 80s pop is this solid track by Roomie Boys Alert. Though they dub themselves “shit-pop” on Instagram, the ‘shit’ part seems to come from the general feeling of an inebriated crooner that comes from the vocals of this duo as opposed to a description of their music’s quality. There are so many artists in the past year who have tried to bring back that night-club-in-a-crime-ridden-city-but-pop but these boys from Lampung take the cake for that impeccable 80s singer affectation; theatrical in a campy way, yet so disheveled and wimpy it can’t possibly be scripted. Perfecto.
49. ‘Use Me’ - Ai. Z
RELEASE DATE: 5 NOV 2021 MAY CONTAIN: POP / R&B
It took a while for Aizat Amdan’s rebranding into Ai. Z - a slicker, more neo-R&B persona than his previous cleaner pop works - to find footing. But once it did, you start to see all the inner mechanics and expertise Aizat Amdan has acquired over the years as an artist. "Use Me" is pure soulful pop bliss with a touch of lyricism that is simultaneously quirky and poignant - the way an honest love letter with inside jokes is poignant. Like in the line “Keep the copy of the keys to my heart” Where he goes after this feels like such a broad horizon now, I’m excited what spin Ai. Z has left in store for that Charlie Puth-esque strand of pop and R&B.
50. ‘Already Happy’ - Block J
RELEASE DATE: 6 MAY 2021 MAY CONTAIN: POP / POP FUNK I get these random thoughts in my head sometimes and 20% of them are usually things like: Do people still remember Shakey’s pizza?”, “How many Step Up movies did I actually watch and how do I both know and not remember any of them?” and “How much Chromeo did I listen to?”. Although the electro-pop duo Chromeo is still around, nothing quite scratches the itch of the old funk pop that seems to permeate some corners of the 2010s - and kept alive by Bruno Mars 24k Magic - like Block J’s ‘Already Happy’. There is so much about the choices they make in this track that borders on parody - like they’re trying to stuff every single thing that is exorbitantly cheesy about that era of pop into one song. None of it ever turns out annoying though. They all hit the mark. Pop songs like this being stuck in my head while I contemplate the absence of pizza chains is one of the little blessings of 2021. That synth riff is so familiar, yet so inviting that I can’t even be mad. An homage that is as good as it is fun.