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.
Tangled Up – Girls Aloud
Cracking the formula for a top-tier girl band is notoriously tricky – like reinventing the wheel – but Girls Aloud perfected the recipe. A tantalising synth-pop smorgasbord, their fourth studio album is a testament to their collective powers, a treasure chest of pop gems whose shine has only grown brighter with time.
Tangled Up – just like Girls Aloud themselves – revels in subverting expectations. Hooking us in with the addictive ‘Call The Shots’, we’re immediately initiated into Girls Aloud’s universe, a quirky electro-pop landscape that sizzles with strangeness, courtesy of Xenomania’s idiosyncratic production and eccentric one-liners that call to mind the wit of the Pet Shop Boys. Lead single ‘Sexy! No No No…’ is a futuristic slice of frantic, lustful pop, a track that feels like it was beamed in from another planet, its bizarre structure ripping up pop’s rule book and delivering an anthem that both innovates and mesmerises.
Elsewhere, the campy ‘Cant’ Speak French’ showcases the group at their most playful, espousing the communicative properties of ‘the funky music’ over a seductive guitar riff, while ‘Girl Overboard’ is a head-banging electro-smash decorated with borderline bizarro lyrics that point to Girls Aloud’s penchant for wordplay that’s often odd and off-beat. By the time ‘Control Of The Knife’ has served us a reggae-lite jam and ‘What You Crying For’ has steered us into a dubstep detour, we’re so submerged in their off-the-wall world that even the most left-field lyric suddenly makes perfect sense.
Tangled Up could easily have been a failure. Instead, by staying true to their pop principles while challenging what a modern pop hit should sound like, Girls Aloud triumph with a slick, inventive record that positions them as true visionaries – and an archetype for every girl band who dares to follow in their footsteps.
Rid Of Me – PJ Harvey
A cracked, deranged record, PJ Harvey’s blisteringly raw Rid Of Me is the sound of a nervous breakdown in action. Unhinged and utterly uninhibited, Harvey’s sound has never been so ugly and discomfiting, the bluesy guitars intended to disorient, the pounding drums designed to aggravate. It’s only fitting for a record that plumbs the depths of human depravity, whether revelling in fantasies of imprisoning a lover who wants out (‘Rid Of Me’) to simply amputating their limbs (‘Legs’).
Rid Of Me is a breakup record at heart, one that sees Harvey both pining for and despising an ex-lover with equal zeal. There’s a skin-crawling intensity to it, perhaps seen best on the screeching strings of ‘Man-Size Sextet’, but also in the baseness of her subject matter – such as on ‘Rub ‘Til It Bleeds’, in which Harvey laughs at her lover’s impotence. But more than that, this is a scream of rage that’s distinctly female, seen best on the rollicking ‘50ft Queenie’ in which Harvey toys with gender expectations, asserting her own independence as “King of the world”. It serves as a righteous affirmation just when it’s most needed, a gasp for breath before she’s pulled under the surface of her own desolation.
Rid Of Me is like a festering wound, one that’s grown infected and blistered, refusing to heal. It’s a record punctuated by howls and screams, Harvey unleashing herself over the distorted wheeze of her band, stripped of the gloss of studio production and recorded live and unadorned. It’s simply a sensational record, one that doesn’t so much cut to the heart of human desperation, as seize the heart and devour it whole, pulling sinews from its teeth with a snarling grin. Rid Of Me is a one-of-a-kind – unlike anything we’ve heard before or since – a record that searches for the most unpalatable aspects of the human psyche and finds them in abundance.
Make a Scene – Sophie Ellis-Bextor
The rarest thing – a dance pop album without a single misstep, on Make a Scene, Sophie Ellis-Bextor pulls off the mean feat of delivering a record that – despite its 50-minute run time – is lean to the bone, succeeding in serving up a killer pop feast without a morsel of filler in sight. A tipsy, high-energy album, Make a Scene is a record that titillates and disorients, one designed to be blasted from night club speakers and soaked up in a state of inebriation, every track a paean to fickle, dizzying, dance floor infatuation.
Originally intending to make a greatest hits compilation, with such a bounty of material, it’s easy to see why Ellis-Bextor instead opted to record a full album. On the intoxicating ‘Bittersweet’, she coos over a sparkling dance beat, her melancholy vocals a sumptuous counterpoint to the track’s surging underbelly. The similarly longing ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ sees Ellis-Bextor lusting after a potential partner over a full-throttle house throb, while ‘Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)’ enlists Freemasons to deliver another undulating club smash, a track that soars towards a huge, balls-to-the-wall chorus.
Ellis-Bextor excels as a dancefloor queen, her trademark tone – stylish, knowing, and posher than Posh Spice – lends the album a sense of elegance, and she remains a commanding presence throughout, never swamped by the fervent electronics, but buoyed by them. Only at the end of the album does she take her foot off the accelerator, with the softer, unfurling tracks ‘Synchronized’ and ‘Cut to the Heart’ creating the satisfying impression of stepping out of the club and into the burgeoning early morning sunlight. After an album of night – one of passion, desire and yearning – Ellis-Bextor ushers us politely back into the day, leaving us counting down the hours until we can return.
Alright, Still – Lily Allen
A gutsy, feisty album, Alright, Still is Lily Allen’s no holds barred debut, a record that sees her at her most scathing, but also her most playful. Packed with wry one-liners and withering putdowns, Allen’s lyrics are like a slap to the face, packaged in cheerful – at times, almost nursery rhyme like – melodies and feel-good ska beats, a sugar-and-salt combo that pops time and time again. Take the glorious ‘LDN’, for instance, on which Allen sing-songs about her beloved hometown over jazzy horns, her lyrics about pimps and mugged grannies delivered in delectably nonplussed style.
‘LDN’ is no one-off, with Allen’s knack for savvy – often hilarious – lyrics evident throughout, whether she’s brushing off a former lover, taunting him where she knows it’ll hurt most (‘Not Big’) or making enemies on a night out (‘Friday Night’). And while the lyrics are the album’s focus, it’s their pairing with quirky, idiosyncratic arrangements that brings them to life. On the outstanding ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’, Allen deadpans over a track that’s more elevator music than pop song, bemoaning consumerism, her bad credit and her desire to eat plates of spaghetti bolognaise while remaining supermodel skinny. The result – Allen’s bland indifference reflected in the faux muzak – is an earworm that’s as smart as it is catchy.
While Allen makes easy work of her disappointing boyfriends and the pitfalls of 20th Century life, she also manages to find romance in the mundane. On ‘Littlest Things’, the album’s only ballad, she reminisces about a former flame, painting a picture of domestic bliss from snapshots of mornings in bed, wearing her boyfriend’s boxers and – the peak of modern romance – shopping for trainers. It’s a tender moment on an album that’s otherwise full of put-‘em-up bravado and shrugged shoulders, Allen batting her eyelashes one minute, then giving the finger the next. But there’s a running smirk throughout Alright, Still, a knowing wink in the toy-like, sometimes pastichey arrangements, that tells us that while she has many axes to grind, Lily Allen finds more than a little joy in grinding them.
Everybody Down – Kae Tempest
A gripping narrative told through astute, vibrant rap, Kae Tempest’s Everybody Down is a masterclass in storytelling, the gritty tale of three young Londoners unfurling across twelve impeccably written, fast-flowing tracks. From the opening bars of ‘Marshall Law’ in which Tempest describes a wrap party crawling with “industry slime balls” and “pitiful, posturing pop stars and idiots,” it’s impossible to tear yourself away from this volatile, desolate world in which even an exchanged glance is enough to light up the sky.
The lives of Tempest’s protagonists – Becky, Harry and Pete – explode across the album, their lives intersecting across a narrative that tackles sex work, drug pushing and violence against a backdrop of an increasingly gentrified London. Throughout the album, their innermost secrets are laid bare, Tempest hopping across multiple voices with ease, always authentic, the seamless rhymes at once savage and brutal, but also brimming with empathy. Amidst the drama, Tempest finds time to throw in the standalone ‘Circles’, a spunky track that hums with restless energy, juddering to the tune of hectic London life, Tempest’s lyrics at their most smirkingly playful and wildly inventive.
Everybody Down spotlights Tempest’s immense talent for words, illuminating them with electronic beats that provide a sparky foundation, underlining Tempest’s wit without ever overpowering it. The combination makes for a whirlwind of an album that sends us hurtling towards ‘Happy End’, the high-drama closer that leaves you feeling like you’ve just binged an addictive TV series. And that’s the triumph of Everybody’s Down. It hooks you, throws you into the chaos, then hauls you back out, gasping for breath, exhilarated by the thrill of it and hungry to dive back in for more.
Homogenic – Björk
A vast, expansive album, Björk’s Homogenic heralds a homecoming, a return to her native Iceland after a prolonged period abroad. Full of renewed wonder, Björk stares glassy eyed at her home’s prehistoric landscapes and searches for her place within them, reflecting Iceland’s surroundings in crunchy electronic beats and grand, sweeping strings. You can almost hear the icecaps on ‘All Neon Like’, the volcanic eruptions on ‘Pluto’ and the sprawling, rocky plains on the outstanding ‘Joga’, on which Björk’s “emotional landscapes” are paralleled by the vertiginous backdrop of her homeland.
Homogenic sees a newly emboldened Björk on a quest for adventure, eager to throw herself into the arms of new people and experiences with care-free aplomb. On opening track ‘Hunter’, Björk sets off into the wilderness, eager to embrace whatever she may find, while on ‘5 Years’, she chastises a lover for their cowardice, for resisting her desire to jump headfirst into a reckless love affair. Conversely, the irresistible ‘Immature’ sees Björk turn her frustrations on herself, scoffing at her juvenile assumption that another person could ever make her feel whole.
Homogenic is an album of self-discovery, an untameable and wildly innovative record that asks how one can make sense of themselves and their place in the world. The closest we get to an answer comes in the album’s closing track, the spellbinding ‘All Is Full Of Love’, on which Björk suggests that love and connection can be found all around, even from the most unlikely sources, when one is open to receiving them. As she takes in the ancient landscapes around her, by Homogenic’s end, there’s a sense that among the mountains and the glaciers, Björk has finally found something that feels like peace.
200 km/h In The Wrong Lane – t.A.T.u.
Brazen and electrifying, the debut English album by Russian duo t.A.T.u. is a cocktail of teenage emotion, bubbling with rebellion, defiance and nascent sexuality, all of which boil over on this firecracker of a record. While the public image of t.A.T.u. has been pored over since their inception, listening to 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane – a smart, rip-roaring record that’s full of surprises – it’s impossible not to be drawn in.
In part a direct translation of their 2001 Russian language album, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane is a delectable blend of Slavic and Western styles. The result is something fizzy and exciting, at once familiar and yet pleasingly foreign. Perhaps this is exemplified best on juggernaut lead single ‘All The Things She Said’, a headrush of queer panic wrapped up in a frantic pop earworm, as well as the blistering ‘Not Gonna Get Us’, a suckerpunch of a track about young lovers on the run.
Absent from the Russian counterpart is ‘How Soon Is Now?’, a ballsy Smiths cover that somehow sits perfectly at the album’s centre, Yulia Volkova’s desperate shriek of “You shut your mouth” carrying all the weight of Morrissey’s original, and then some. Elsewhere, Lena Katina’s silkier vocals shine on the mesmerising ‘Stars’, another track that feels cinematic in scope thanks to evocative, superbly written lyrics that, throughout the album, conjure a sense of longing, desperation and fleeting euphoria.
200 km/h In The Wrong Lane is – regardless of its context – a queer album, one that plants itself at the peak of adolescence and dares to ask ‘What if…?’ Propelled by its teenage protagonists – who play their roles with gusto – t.A.T.u.’s English debut is nothing short of astounding.
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.