During 2021, a year that started with a new national lockdown, I thought I’d revisit some of my favourite albums and write about what makes them great. Partly an exercise in time-filling, and also an excuse to collate some all-time faves into a neat and ever-growing list, with 2021 looking as uncertain as the year that preceded it, now feels like the perfect time to get immersed in music that both inspires and comforts.
Under My Skin – Avril Lavigne
A tempest of teenage angst, Avril Lavigne’s Under My Skin takes the messy business of being an adolescent and explodes it across thirteen superlative pop-rock tracks undercut by scuzzy hooks and razor-sharp vocals. Lavigne zooms in on the tribulations of young adult life and blows them up to apocalyptic proportions, such as on album opener ‘Together’, a seismic blast of anger at feeling abandoned by a disappointing boyfriend. Similarly, on ‘Forgotten’, Lavigne chastises a patronising lover over a deafening crash of electric guitar and drums which, like the rest of the album, is both a ferocious statement of independence and an irresistible singalong anthem.
A spiky, scrappy album, Under My Skin buries its central wish for a happy-ever-after under lashings of irony, sarcasm and cutting brush-offs, Lavigne’s lyrics always upfront and – at times – refreshingly bratty. Though Lavigne greets the world with a snarling exterior, this cracks on songs like the affecting ballad ‘Slipped Away’ and album highlight ‘Nobody’s Home’ about a troubled young girl on the brink of despair. As the album enters its second act, as though the listener has earned her trust, Lavigne bears her feelings more openly, stripping away her guardedness and allowing the jagged guitars to melt into a softer sound.
Under My Skin is a juggernaut of raw emotion, a near-perfect collection of feisty, grungy clap-backs, as well as a declaration of empowerment, Lavigne’s mood switching throughout, but her message remaining consistent: though she may be young, she will never be taken for a fool.
how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX
The first album conceived, produced and released during the first COVID lockdown (now known affectionately as Lockdown 1), Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now is far more than this gimmicky accolade suggests. This is Charli at the peak of her powers on an album that’s at once febrile and urgent, yet also tender and heartfelt. If the two seem at odds, this can only be a symptom of the isolated, frightening period in which the album was made, when emotions could chop and change rapidly, often with little reason. Appropriately, the album is a glitchy, often frantic, record – a fitting reaction to the circumstances – but also a genre-pushing, ambitious and innovative one that positions Charli as a true visionary.
Accustomed to parties and people, crowds and nightlife, Charli at times sounds like a caged animal thrashing against the bars of a cage, demanding to be let out. On tracks like opener ‘pink diamond’ and the belting ‘anthems’, you can practically hear her climbing up the walls, craving the lifestyle that’s been snatched away, opening the latter with the declaration “I’m so bored,” then rattling through a fraught description of her new daily itinerary over a juddering dance beat.
Throughout the album there’s an underlying melancholy, a sense of mourning for what’s been lost. how i’m feeling now is an album of two parts, one of mania, but also of self-reflection. On ‘enemy’, Charli reflects on her closeness to her boyfriend, asking whether this intimacy makes her vulnerable, while on ‘claws’, she immerses herself in her adoration of him with the repeated refrain of “I love everything about you.” Album closer, ‘visions’ dares to imagine a world when the danger has passed, ending with a heady electronic breakdown that emulates the sound of her beloved nightclubs.
how i’m feeling now is – regardless of the context in which it was made – a spectacular experimental album, one that pairs pop hooks with innovative, forward-thinking production, a beguiling and immersive record that reveals more of itself – and its creator – on every listen.
Body Talk – Robyn
Undoubtedly one of the finest pop records ever made, Robyn’s Body Talk is a relentless electro-pop behemoth that never lets up. While much has been said of its lead single – the immaculate ‘Dancing On My Own’, itself one of the greatest pop songs of all time – Body Talk is packed with equally triumphant songs that stand shoulder-to-shoulder, like glittering pop sardines crammed together in a pop music tin.
Often hailed as Queen of the sadbanger, Body Talk is testament to Robyn’s ability to turn heartbreak into something euphoric. From the desperate earworm of ‘Indestructible’ – manifesto-like in its assertion that to love carelessly is better than to love with caution – to the dazzling ‘Call Your Girlfriend’, Robyn keeps her emotions on the surface, at times destroyed by love, and awed by it at others. Whether professing the dangers of a new crush (‘Love Kills’) or overwhelmed by the joy of infatuation (‘Stars 4-Ever’), Body Talk is a wide-eyed, ravenous album that gobbles up love’s soaring highs and crashing lows and spits them out as shiny, sugary pop confection.
Body Talk is an optimistic album, both in its driving, glitzy production and the sentiment at its heart. Because whether she’s the injured party crying alone at the disco or in the role of the other woman, usurping another girl to claim her boyfriend, Robyn suggests that all is fair in love and war – where the crushing defeats only make the victories even sweeter.
Check out another thing I have written here.