David Balfe is the creator of my favourite Irish release of 2021 for the For Those I Love album and project, and while he’s been quieter in terms of output this year, Balfe contributed production on ‘Holy’ on the recent Rina Sawayama album.
In a year where I’ve spent less and less time online, almost removing social media entirely, I’m sure to have missed out on monumental amounts of great, powerful, and moving music.
With that in mind, I was surprised by how difficult I found it to whittle my shortlist down to just 10 songs. Here they are.
Sophie Doyler Ryder – Sucker
Witten by Sophie Doyle Ryder, Jake Curran, and Laryn Gaffney
Produced by Seán Behan
Sucker is light, bubbling pop music that teases the listener again and again, both with the infectiousness of the chorus (play it on repeat), and the literal taunt of ‘na na na na’. Sophie’s voice in both verses merges bite and melody in beautiful unison, lighting the way through a spiky but humorous look back at a past relationship. We’re guided through that time only to find ourselves at one of the year’s most fun moments in pop music: that ‘ha ha ha ha’ before the chorus kicks in. It’s radio magic and I can’t turn it off.
070 Shake – Cocoon
Written by Danielle Balbuena, Dave Hamelin, Sean Solymar, Vincent Giovinazzo
Produced by Dave Hamelin, Sean Solymar, 070 Shake
Where Sucker is light, airy pop, Cocoon is weighty sonic hedonism. Rumbling synths that pulse, ping, and punch. All rattling over a soundscape of atmospheric synths. It feels like the beckoning call of a club’s main room as you make your way through the smoke, hands tracing the walls of the tunnel on approach. It is palpable excitement as you get closer and closer to the chaotic euphoria that awaits. And that moment comes, delayed by a beat and breath, before percussion crashes in for one of the most memorable drops in recent times.
It is disorientating, it is haunting, and it is my go to banger of the year.
Skin On Skin – Burn Dem Bridges
Written by Horrid1, M1onthebeat, NatsGotTracks, Sav’o, Skin On Skin
Produced by Skin On Skin
Something so menacing shouldn’t sound so good. Like many, I fell in love with Skin On Skin’s Boiler Room x AVA set earlier this year, the highlight being an early version of Burn Dem Bridges (ripped everywhere at the time as Violent Siblings).
Sav’O and Horrid1’s vocals are a captivating insight into loyalty, violence, horror, and sadly reality, all dressed in swirling melody and gorgeous rhyme. Skin On Skin takes that vocal and uses its complexity as a strength against a repetitious four on the floor hammering that would drive anybody to their feet. It is forward thinking, relentless, and so so smart.
Put your pre workout in the bin and just stick this on instead.
Linda Ayupuka – Annebooy
Written and produced by Francis Ayamga.
Annebooy is pure joy across 6 and a half minutes of mesmerising electro Fra-Fra.
Introduced to me a few months ago by a tip from my uncle Darren: God Created Everything, the album Annebooy is taken from, is a truly special collection of songs.
Produced entirely by Francis Ayamga, his prolific back catalogue sets the ground for what feels like a career apex here as Linda Ayupuka preaches and inspires.
Anneybooy is a clear album highlight, grooving across casio synths, warm but gritty production, and a truly shining vocal performance that would bring life to any room.
Craig Finn – Birthdays
Written by Craig Finn, Josh Kaufman
Produced by Josh Kaufman
It’s likely that The Hold Steady have played in my ears at least every month since I was 15 (thanks again Darren). That kind of long term fandom with a band can set an unreasonably high bar for any solo venture by a member, but Craig’s solo work has always delivered against those markers, and this year’s A Legacy Of Rentals was a true highlight body of work. I was very lucky to spend some time with Craig earlier this year, and blessed all the more to talk a little bit about the album. It is a monolith of anecdotes and insight, a rich tapestry of people and worlds. Birthdays is the stand out pop song amongst a rich variety of sonics. It’s a soft message of common understanding between the commonly misunderstood. It has colour, vibrancy, a sense of place and time, and it has the most beautiful and moving lyric of the year.
“It’s nice to know there’s someone in this world, who’s always known me.”
Big Thief – Time Escaping
Written by Adrianne Lenker
Produced by James Krivchenia
I’m a new member on the Big Thief train, having never fallen for their previous work, I was surprised by how enthralled I was by Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, in particular the hazy, plucky groove of ‘Time Escaping’, a track so audibly disorientating that I still struggle to imagine the recording process.
Instead of doing battle with the ringing harmonics from the prepared guitar on this track, Big Thief embraces the clanging frequencies, layering more and more deadened strings on top of a driving but funky groove, pulling the listener deeper into intoxication.
The only respite from experimentation is the glistening vocal harmonies, adding pure pleasure into the mix. It is a layered, wild listen, that asks for many repeats. Do so.
Cate Le Bon – Pompeii
Written by Cate Le Bon
Produced by Cate Le Bon, Samur Khouja
An early February release, this was the first piece of music I feel deeply in love with this year. Pompeii is a colossus of artpop. A jaunty racket that confronts the commodification of pain and suffering. The production looms large, leaving vast areas of space for Cate’s vocal to settle into. It feels like she’s singing straight from the city of ruins, the architecture of the song a little broken, a little off, but endlessly beautiful and fascinating.
It’s a tremendous achievement and a gold sticker moment from one of the best albums of the past few years.
Billy Woods – No Hard Feelings
Written by billy woods, Preservation
Produced by Preservation
It’d be 10 years since I first experienced the world of Billy Woods, following an instant obsession with 2012’s History Will Absolve Me, evangelising that album to peers relentlessly. That album, so filled with ideas, experimentation, and historical exploration, set the groundwork for a series of incredible records over the following decade.
Those albums peaked with this year’s Aethiopes, a refined sound by a master alchemist. ‘No Hard Feelings’ is a standout. The scent and scene of a tough life presented in vivid colour over a deranged Picchio Dal Pozzo sample. The horror of real life recounted in full. This is an artist at his peak.
The 1975 – Part Of The Band
Written by George Daniel, Jamie Squire, Matthew Healy
Produced by Matthew Healy, George Daniel, Jack Antonoff
Maybe you’re as surprised as me.
‘Part Of The Band’ was an unexpected sucker punch for me. Not at all ready to enjoy it as much as I did, I was shocked and smiling to find such a giddy ambivalence appeal to me.
The staccato strings are instantly addictive, the grand scale immediately evocative, and Healy’s clever and cringey turn of phrase a touch of magic (vaccinista tote bag chic baristas may never leave my mind).
The Antonoff touch brings out the record’s greatest qualities, building up to something that never comes, while never disappointed with what does arrive. It is fun, telling, serious, ridiculous, and pretty, and it’s my favourite pop song of the year.
Soul Glo – Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)
Written by Gianmarco Guerra, Pierce Jordan, Ruben Polo, TJ Stevenson
Produced by Soul Glo, GG, Evan Bernard
“Can I live?”, is there any more poignant moment in music this year than the opening of Soul Glo’s Diaspora Problems? If there is, it’s surely packed somewhere within the three minutes that follows.
Gold Chain Punk is a race through sonic mania at breakneck speed, with more to say than any other song within these 12 months. Musically unafraid of bringing hardcore to new grounds, it’s unrelenting inventiveness is one of its greatest strengths. This is the most vital and urgent music of the year, and for me, the most important song of 2022.