And so to the end of the year and my end of year musical retrospectives. Over the next twelve days, I’ll be updating this post with one song each day, leading to my number one song of the year on Hogmanay. These are of course my picks; they might not be the biggest songs of the year, but they are the songs that I keep coming back to.
I’ll be updating this post and the playlist every day until we reach the number one pick
12. Una Canzone D’Amore Buttata Via, by Vasco Rossi
Let’s start the 2021×12 countdown with something classically Italian (and have looked through my final list, it’s very international, but Italy is going to feature a lot more than Sweden).
Vasco Rossi’s ‘A Love Song Thrown Away’ was released on the first of January, debuted at the top of the Italian charts some seven years after Rossi’s last visit to the top. It’s such a world-weary voice with a haunting song of loss that brings in just enough lightness at the end to lift the mood and see the way forward. The video, with Rossi standing in an utterly empty Piazza Maggiore in Bologna just adds to the atmosphere. And who hasn’t indulged in a little bit of air guitar when nobody is watching?
11. Ben Vardim, by Fatma Turgut
Long ago, I played the track ‘Mey’, by Turkish band Model on an almost continuous loop. As luck would have it, I found the band pretty much as the band decided to split up. Fast forward to this year; I find the former lead singer Fatma Turgut is pursuing a solo career with a nice back catalogue to explore.
And then there’s this year’s release of ‘Ben Vard?m’. It twists and turns around the Turkish lyrics, there’s a smoky sway driving the song, and orchestral strings complementing the classical guitar. This is a song of pauses, rather than pace, with different layers driving the emotion rather than any one instrument building the intensity.
10. Sul Finale, by Ultimo
Setting up his own record last year, and releasing the first single (‘22 Septembre’) from his album ‘Solo‘ put Ultimo back on my radar following his second place in Sanremo 2019. It took until early this year for ‘Sul Finale‘ to work its way into my head.
This album track is a wonderful blend of the classic Italian male ballad, with distinctive but delicate hip hop rhythms coming through Ultimo’s voice. From the delicate piano opening, through the rising intensity, to the emotional drop at the end, it showcases the sort of genre smashes that make Italian music so engaging to me right now.
9. Super Trouper, by The Baseballs
What makes a good cover version? Well the first is to have a really good song as the starting point, and then have a band utterly confident in their own sound that can possess an original song. In ‘Super Trouper‘ we have the former, and in The Baseballs we have the latter. This German Rock and Roll band have been turning their hands to classics for nearly fifteen years with their version of ‘Umbrella’ their breakout song.
Long before Abba’s little update (which brought joy to so many), The Baseballs spin on the lead single of my favourite Abba album delivered some classic doo-wop along with a clap-along earworm.
8. Specchio (Mirror On The Wall), by Elisabetta Lizza.
Turns out Italy didn’t win everything this year. The idea of an Italian rock number winning Junior Eurovision was just one step too far for a nation that has lifted everything else of note.
Anyway, anyone who’s been paying attention will not be surprised by the inclusion of ‘Specchio (The Mirror On The Wall)’ on this list. It’s powerful message song, Elisabetta Lizza has buckets of attitude on stage, the driving bass line and guitars pull the song along, and of course there’s just a touch of orchestra in the mix. It’s my musical catnip.
I’m expecting Lizza to show up at Sanremo Giovani in a few years time. Until then, we have the layered, delicate, and impactful ’Specchio’.
7. Portales, by Dani Martin
Here’s a song that came out of nowhere are utterly enchanted me. Dani Martin’s voice is intense and haunting, and his ability to tell a story of pain and loss is one of the best I’ve heard this year, perhaps in many years. It’s also the definition of a slow burn of a song (a quick diversion to an acoustic version with just Martin and a piano).
There was something here on the first listen, but nothing that immediately demanded I hit replay. But it drew me back again… and again… and again. In a world of songs striving to grab you instantly (the aforementioned ‘Specchio’ took about 20 second for me to utterly love), ‘Portales’ quietly worked its way into my heart. Now it’s there, it’s never going to leave.
6. Kilimanjaro, by Wig Wam
Sometimes music can be challenging, sometimes it can address complicated issues, sometimes it can cause you to reflect on choices both individually and by society. And sometimes music can be nothing more than a comfortable old jersey that reminds you of another time.
Cue Wig Wam, who reformed in 2019 with a view to touring in 2020 (ahem). It also lead to ‘Never Say Die’, their new album released in January this year. It’s the second single that has become my comfort food of the year. You can read a lot into the lyrics, and there’s certainly a message in here. But for me, ‘Kilimanjaro’ offers a smile for my face and something to scream into the void.
Sometimes that’s enough.
5. Zitti E Buoni, by Mâneskin
It didn’t have to be here – just because a song wins Eurovision doesn’t mean it’s an automatic inclusion in the songs that I keep listening to through the year – but it’s here because it’s fantastic. I listened to ‘Zitti E Buoni’ for a ridiculous amount of time in the first half of the year as the band rose from a little known name on the Sanremo roster to a raft of international awards and recognition 12 months later.
No matter where they showed up, no matter where they are going in 2022, that guitar slide in the opening still sets my heart a flutter and the emotional roller coaster still follows. With so many performances to choose from, there’s still one that stands out that I’m going to link to. The first night of Sanremo they stepped out as this small band who had busked on the streets of Rome. Five minutes later…
It’s the sort of song that comes along once in an age that needs the perfect mix of circumstances to become a legend. Mâneskin became legends.
4. Biancodolce, by Nanowar Of Steel
If there’s any song that earns an ‘allora!’ this year it’s ‘Biancodolce’.
Known for shreddingly accurate heavy metal parodies, Nanowar have moved towards a more traditional Italian pop sound and collecting some solid viral hits along the way. While ‘Biancodolce’ wasn’t actually entered into Sanremo, the heartfelt ballad to the Italian music industry and the sort of songs that do enter Sanremo was released in Sanremo week; a clear statement of intent.
And they’ve delivered something to savour. There is emotion drenching every lyric, the pain and suffering returns each time the chorus comes around, and the weight of the world is showcased as only the likes of Nanowar can. You can’t be this accurate with your parodic epee without having the musical chops to back it up.
I suggest you watch the video for the music’s emotional story, and turn on the english subtitles for your second listen. This definitely works on multiple levels.
3. Dirty Money, by Ida Maria
Just put the foot on the amplifier, grab the microphone, kick it all off, and let’s rock!
That’s pretty much Ida Maria’s EP ‘Dirty Money’ from early in the year. Frankly I could have picked any of the five tracks for my ‘best of’ list and I would be happy. It’s all distortion, muddy bass lines, giddy riffs, and voices that punch through any lethargy you might have. This is the sort of energy that you can only find in frankly primal rock and I can’t imagine just how electrifying this set would be live.
Shout over the amplifier, I’m really I’m picking out the entire five track EP.
2. Pretty Songs, by Bob Vylan
In the modern musical world the ‘second difficult album’ is actually the ‘second difficult single’. What happens after you release the single that in decades to come will likely be seen as your high point?
Last year’s ‘We Live Here’ from Bob Vylan was such an intensely angry portrayal of racism in the United Kingdom that it’s never going to leave me. This year’s ‘Pretty Songs’ is a little bit more subversive while remaining just as hard hitting. It takes a little bit more time to fully understand where ‘Pretty Songs’ is going… once you get there you realise the anger of ‘We Live Here’ never went away, it’s still here and it’s stronger.
1. Now Disappear, by Matt Berry
A sudden burst of zeitgeist saw Matt Berry trending on Twitter in the last days of 2021, but he’d made my year back in May with the release of his ninth album, ‘The Blue Elephant.’
This is arguably Berry’s most accomplished album, It’s a heady mix of jazz, late sixties psychedelia, mid-seventies concept albums, and experimental blues, all brought together by a master musician. That Berry is playing all bar one instrument on this lockdown creation is a testament to his skill.
The album is a suite designed to be listened to in one sitting, it’s that sort of an album. So I’ve picked out one representative track for this list. ‘Now Disappear’ stands alone as a taster of the whole experience as well as being part of the collective. I’d urge you to seek out the whole album and put some time aside to just… luxuriate.
With so many layers, so many instruments, different approaches to transitions, and a huge amount of inventive production, you’re going to find more to love on each listen. It’s the musical gift that is still giving. So much as I have said ‘Now Disappear’ as my number one track of the year, that’s because it’s the gateway into ‘The Blue Elephant’, my number one album of the year.
(Why 2021×12? Because it’s one song, per month, per year, and that looks and sounds a bit like 20×2).