The music that gave us hope in 2021
This year we may not have been solely at home in our rooms, but that doesn’t mean music has been any less integral to our comfort.
23 Dec 2021
I always liked the image of Pandora’s box. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Greek myth, a woman called Pandora is created (the first human woman!) and presented with a jar as punishment from the gods, after Titan god Prometheus stole fire from them and gave it to humans. Pandora unwittingly opens it, unleashing badness onto the world: death, sickness, fear. Funny how many origin myths place blame on women for the world’s ills, but I digress. The one thing that’s left in the box, which Pandora and the rest of humankind can hold onto? Hope.
Hope is not easy. In 2021, as a pandemic ravages on and climate grief tolls over us, calls to be hopeful can feel glib. But it is also essential to believe the best of one another, to dream of other possible ways to live: to hope is to care.
“In times where despair feels easier than hoping, music can comfort us, let us wallow a little, sure, but ultimately helps us come back energised and fighting”
Unlike 2020, this year we haven’t solely been in our rooms – but that doesn’t mean music has been any less integral to our comfort. There is power in singing along with your eyes closed, embracing a new mate on the dance floor and soaking up the energy, in remembering how you felt the first time you heard a melody, in feeling seen in a lyric that describes a sentiment you had thought was unique to you. In times where despair feels easier than hoping, music can comfort us, let us wallow a little, sure, but ultimately helps us come back energised and fighting.
There’s a quote by 19th-century German philosopher Nietzsche that goes, “Without music, life would be a mistake”. I’ll admit I’ve never really read Nietzsche, but that sentence of course was one I copied out multiple times over in my various past lives as a MySpace kid, a yearning Tumblr teen, a music blogger. But in recent years, I realise more and more how much that is true, for me at least – I could not get through the heftiness of existence without the decoration of time that songs offer us. Who knows, maybe music was in Pandora’s box, too.
And so, I asked the team for the music that gave them hope this year. As life trudges along, it can feel tricky not to thread things together, one piece of bad news to another: ideally, these songs might help give you some calm, some joy, and, of course, hope to hold onto through it all. – Tara Joshi, music editor
Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘In the Aeroplane over the Sea’
I had somehow not actually listened to Neutral Milk Hotel before this year. I knew the US band had that kinda cult classic status in the late 90s, and that Jeff Mangum basically became a recluse and stopped releasing music after their success (which, to be honest? Kind of aspirational in a world that teaches you to only value yourself through career achievements!). But upon hearing this song, I felt opened up. The first time I didn’t clock he was singing about Anne Frank, which is a little surreal, but I quite like that idea of non-linear time, where we are all existing and connecting on that same plane in some way. As he contemplates our mortality and how funny and bizarre and random our existence is (“Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all!”), I feel a bit calmer, like horizons of possibilities are awaiting us – “And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly / From the aeroplane over the sea / But for now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see.”
Letta Mbulu – ‘Normalizo’
Letta Mbulu is a South African jazz singer who makes you feel like the main character. ‘Normalizo’ first came on my Discover Weekly Spotify playlist when I was leisurely cycling around London on a beautiful summer’s day; the wind was blowing through my hair, the sunshine was melting on my skin and Mbulu’s dulcet vocals in English and Xhosa became a soundtrack to my journey. I felt all the stress in my shoulders soften and dissolve. The 1983 classic has the ability to make you temporarily forget your worries and the world’s Big Problems, even if it’s just for five minutes.
- Diyora Shadijanova, First Person editor
Mort Garson – Mother Earth’s Plantasia
There’s something so painfully heartwarming about an album dedicated to houseplants. While I’m a bit late to the party (it was released in 1976), just the concept alone of Plantasia makes me feel all warm, squishy and hopeful. Musician and composer Mort Garson writes 10 weirdly relaxing synthy tunes perfect to play to your plants. There’s ‘Symphony For A Spider Plant’, ‘Rhapsody in Green’, and even ‘You Don’t Have To Walk A Begonia’ to name a few. I’m not used to hearing music that decentres us humans – but treating plants, and by extension nature, as tenderly as we would each other, feels like a poignant message right about now.
- Niellah Arboine, Life editor
Labi Siffre – ‘Bless the Telephone’
In many ways, 2021 has been a year of making my world smaller. Being plugged in constantly, during a period where UK politics is in severe and deadly decline, is exhausting. I’ve had to seriously pull back and re-evaluate where my energies are best placed to actually provide support to the people and communities I care about. ‘Bless the Telephone’, a tiny, delicious scrap of a song by Black British musician Labi Siffre is hard to describe through the written word; it feels like being bathed in sunlight. A deceptively simple ode to a loved one, listening to it this year has been a respite and touchstone. It reminds me that stripping everything back can be just, if not more, powerful than bombastic actions and statements. Bless Labi Siffre.
- Moya Lothian-Mclean, Politics Editor
Adele – ‘I Drink Wine’
I assume that all of us spent the morning of 19 November crying thanks to Adele. The lyrics “they say to play hard, you work hard, find balance in the sacrifice / and yet I don’t know anybody who’s truly satisfied” were harrowing – especially as someone who spent much of my twenties in the hellhole of ad-land without the wisdom and support of productivity-is-a-scam tweets and infographics. But despite this, the lyrics were a haunting comfort. I turned 31 this November, and while I am slowly growing into myself, it’s taking a little longer than TV and film would have had younger me hope for. But, I guess, now that Adele has said all this, that’s ok? Everyone’s journeys have been stalled a little, and while I’m not saying I’ll settle for dissatisfaction, I’m actually not alone in feeling a fair bit of it at this age. Yes – it’s melancholic and sad, but I’m a water sign and this is Babylon. It’s OK, I’ll just keep trying, trying, trying.
- Mariel Richards, CEO
Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s Version)
The year is 2012, a young Bij is going through her second year of university and teen fave Taylor Swift drops Red – another album to cry to and to turn a new age to (22), but most importantly, wield as a weapon against anyone who wants to break your heart. Fast forward nine years, Taylor re-drops Red and many of those feelings resurface. We get a 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well’ and a whole bunch of songs from the vault. It’s bittersweet. I like imagining being that age again. I think of the old boyfriend a lot and laugh about how easy it is to be dramatic over the same songs I listened to as a fresh 19 year old. I enjoy Taylor’s re-drops for the nostalgia and support in wailing away for past lovers, even if you are okay now. So here’s to everyone in arrested development every time you pour your heart out to an old, but new, Taylor Swift song.
- Bijal Shah, Creative producer
Rina Sawayama – ‘Cherry’
In the first few months of this year, when things were still pretty bleak here in the UK, upbeat, escapist bangers were my soundtrack to repetitively pounding the pavement on my daily walk to escape the monotony of the indoors. On a longer walk I did weekly, there would be an incline on the way back, and I’d make sure ‘Cherry’ was queued up, ready to go, for that extra bit of motivation. The song didn’t just get me up the hill with Rina’s soaring vocals, playful lyrics, and melodic hook; it helped me imagine a future where I could sing along to Rina, Gaga, Britney and more, in a hot and sweaty club somewhere amongst bodies celebrating being together once again, dancing without a care in the world.
- Suyin Haynes, Editor-in-Chief
Ana Libia, Everardo Ordaz Y Su Piano – ‘Veracruz’
This song is a remake of the original by Mexican singer Toña La Negra. Veracruz is a city in Mexico, and through this song, the singer tells of how her soul relates to the hustle and bustle of the city and her longing to return. I chose this song because its remake encapsulates the Cuban genre Bolero. Bolero originated in Cuba from its counterpart Trova – these genres are known for romantic lyrics and guitar notes. It’s a sound that gives me immense hope and gives me butterflies. When you see people crying to music, that’s almost me. I feel it in my chest – a deep connection to my culture, the instrumental, with the passion in the singers’ voices you can see the passionate love and adoration. It gives me hope every time I listen to any song within this genre, no matter its tempo.
- Estie Hooper, Junior commercial producer
Octo Octa – ‘Can You See Me?’
This eight-minute track by Octo Octa starts off with a single melody line and progresses by adding a layer of sound on top of another layer; it’s synthy, it’s dancey, and it makes you feel like you’re in a video game (like all good electronic songs should). It’s the type of song you want to rush to, when you’re euphoric in the middle of the dancefloor, thinking about what the future will bring or the things you need to deal with that you’ve been putting off. The layering of the energetic drums with the vocals: “I know exactly how you feel” juxtaposed with “Can you survive?” four minutes in fills you with the confidence that indeed, you can survive whatever is heading your way. Something about the melody and the layering of the sounds feels very Electric Counterpoint-y (Edexcel Music GCSE survivors will know exactly what I mean).
Skinshape – ‘I Didn’t Know’
‘I Didn’t Know’ by Skinshape will restore the emotions of words unspoken, a lost connection and a deep-rooted sense of heartache all at once. Despite triggering the achy-breaky teenage heart that I thought I had mended years ago, it manages to soothe me in a ‘there there, let it all out’ type of way. When I play it through my speakers and lay slumped on my bed, I can’t help but think it sounds irritatingly familiar – like a song connected to a buried memory I’ve lost – even though I only discovered the track last year.
It’s a candle, smoke and fairy lights moment that I need to have every once in a while, you know? The indie stimulation ends with a prolonged melancholic outro at 2:24 and feels like enlightenment or a break for tears that I’m truly grateful for.
- Arlette Moyi, Filmmaker
SZA – ‘I Hate U’
I really want to just write, “Because. SZA.”, but that wouldn’t be following the brief lol. All jokes aside, it’s been a while since we’ve had a solo release from SZA and this song is making me so excited for another album from her. The music itself has so much room in it, which allows for her vocals to ring through the entire track. The chord progression is complementary and supportive of her narrative, which I really appreciate. And the ly-ri-ci-sm is…perfect. The chorus is so relatable, particularly “lost in the lie of us”, because who hasn’t been completely lost in the idea of love, as opposed to the person? “Treat me like corduroy, wear me out” feels both personal to SZA, but also who hasn’t felt like they’ve been depleted, worn out and used by a partner?
- Obsidian Adebayo, Head of Commercial
Anz ft. George Riley – ‘You Could Be’
This track from longtime gal-dem favourite Anz effervesces pure joy. In a year where we tentatively returned to dancefloors and embraced each other (even if that all ended up being a little short-lived), this song’s sugary catchiness helped me forget my anxieties and just let go. It got many wheel-ups this year and reminded me of the collective power music can hold: long may it continue.