Making any predictions in these most volatile of times might seem like a fool’s errand. But in fact, the Covid crisis and social upheavals of 2020 have set in motion some cultural shifts that show no signs of slowing in the next year – and that applies to music too. So with that in mind, here are six areas of the music world which we strongly recommend keeping a close eye and ear on in the coming months. While we may yearn for quieter and less “interesting” times on occasion, there’s no doubt that there is a renewed urgency for many artists. Look for some truly glorious sounds to be made this year.
Advanced Global Electronics
One of the biggest stories in electronic / club music of the 2010s was the huge explosion of club music from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s been a radical shift, with international networks forming that bypass the traditional centres of Berlin, London, New York etc – but even when using regional sounds, the music has often still been beholden to western forms like grime, techno etc. Maybe, though, we’re reaching a tipping point. Established Beijing electronic pioneer Howie Lee, for example, has flipped his sound on one of 2021’s most important albums so it is “Chinese first” with any jazz and dubstep elements acting in service to that. Indian-born Arushi Jain is using her Hindustani classical training to completely reinvent modular synth techno. Honduran-American producer Dalibor Cruz has built a version of Honduran punta rhythms with outsider electronic tonalities. And South Africa’s own amapiano dance sound is rapidly taking over the UK. Could this be the year when global electronic artists establish a norm of working completely on their own terms?
Digging Back for Folk Roots
If there’s one thing that lockdown has showed us, it’s that intimate musical performances are particularly suited to the live-streaming format. The fine details in raw voices and acoustic instruments really shine, even if the recording is lo-fi. Back in April last year we reported on the Folk On Foot Festival, which exceeded expectations for its fundraising goals, and touched a nerve for those in isolation with its friendly family vibe. In popular culture, the ever-canny Taylor Swift tapped into nostalgic, bucolic yearnings with her stripped down folklore and evermore albums – while a bizarre surge of interest in sea shanties via Tik Tok and Twitter took us quite a long way further back in time. Expect this wave to massively benefit existing folk and folk-inflected musicians, whether that’s Beth Orton collaborator Ted Barnes, whose upcoming album 17 Postcards will be his first album in 12 years,or veteran Frankie Armstrong, whose new album of politically charged a capella songs released this month on her 80th birthday. And most recently there’s the beautiful Future Folk; Friendly Faces; Different Spaces compilation by the Portuguese Slow Music Movement label, which captures just how vital folk is just now.
Hyperpop Gets Noisy and Ambitious
The absolute diametric opposite of folk would be hyperpop. It’s not new – the combination of extreme processed voices, shrill pop accelerationism and radical electronic noise began in earnest in the early- to mid-2010s with the PC Music label and affiliates. Since then, it has just kept growing, and looks set for major breakthroughs in 2021. Charli XCX’s 2020 album how I’m feeling now was a milestone, as were her collaborator AG Cook’s various sprawling releases – while the much loved (and hated) 100 Gecs collaborated with major US rock names like Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park. The tragic death of scene leader SOPHIE was a blow, but it also galvanised a lot of the musicians who’d been inspired by her. Where this goes next, and whether the next superstar is d0llywood1, BABii or a complete unknown, is anyone’s guess, but with all the most marketable genres – EDM, emo, trap, even country – proven to be fair game for being thrown into its blender, hyperpop could go in literally any direction, or even eat the mainstream as a whole. Expect bigger, louder, faster, stranger, and just more hyperpop throughout 2021.
Ambient Offers up its Healing Powers
Another music genre that benefitted from lockdown was ambient music. Dozens of heavyweight electronic producers like The Bug, Elysia Crampton, patten, Tech Itch, Iceboy Violet and The Soft Pink Truth, deprived of dancefloors, turned their hands to more or less beat-free production. Meanwhile established names like Juliana Barwick, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Sarah Davachi and newer talents like Flora Yin-Wong, Ana Roxane and Emily A. Sprague delivered embracing, comforting, and meditative soundscapes that stood up against the year’s best records. A lot of this music was expressly therapeutic, with the likes of Soft Pink Truth, Barwick, Smith, Roxane and Sprague referencing healing and growth, while Richard Norris’ Music for Healing series, and a whole sequence of expressly therapeutic records by Kevin Richard Martin, all recorded in lockdown, proved to be another 2020 highlight. A remarkable album themed around safety and sanctuary from Syrian multimedia artist Obay Alsharani is one of this year’s best, and the public’s appetite for these rich, nourishing ambient pieces well and truly piqued, this is something that is only going to grow through 2021.
Soul Bares its Radical Heart
We’ve remarked on the rise of conscious soul music in France and the UK through 2020, and this is certainly something that shows no sign of stopping. Noting the way D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Solange’s A Seat at the Table soundtracked the early years of the Black Lives Matter moment, and looking back to Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s politicised records, blending anger and reflection with impeccable poise, a new generation of artists are truly letting their voices be heard. Given their prolificacy, we can certainly expect more from the SAULT collective and associated artists like Michael Kiwanuka and Cleo Sol. The remarkable Greentea Peng has been making waves with her brand of spiritual soundsystem rebellion, and has her debut album due very shortly. On a more avant-garde tip, the IKLAN collective just put out their second album, blurring trip hop, gospel, punk, soul and more with fierce lyrical messaging. And Joel Culpepper has already given us some rousing, but celebratory, political anthems with “War” and this month’s joyous “Black Boy”, and his debut album this summer looks to be a perfect crystallisation of soul’s ability to combine the personal and political.
UK Basslines go Global
It’s been the weirdest time for club music, of course, with raves, clubs and festivals shuttered across most of the world. But that hasn’t diminished the sense of community, nor the appetite for high energy beats. If anything, there’s a heightened sense of solidarity, and the sense of an anticipation for the time when people can dance together again feels explosive. That return to the dancefloor is going to require some high energy sounds, which is where the resurgent sounds of UK rave in different forms come in. The ‘90s mania of jungle is undergoing a renaissance: there were high profile albums from High Contrast and Chase & Status in 2020 – but the name to watch out for is superstar DJ Sherelle, who has updated the sound in her sets and on the Hooversound label she runs with colleague Naina. Watch out too for the sound of bassline house: originally limited to the north of England in the 2000s, it too has come back big time as the sound of university towns across the UK. The Lengoland collective who championed it have just begun branching out internationally. As clubs reopen, expect the warping sub-bass of both bassline and jungle to infiltrate any place on planet Earth where EDM is already popular.
Cover Image: Official Record Label
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs