It’s a big call, isn’t it? To start the year saying that you’ve already identified ‘the sound of 2021’. Those bastards at the BBC might be getting a little big for their boots.
I’ve never really paid a lot of attention to this list in the past, but when Pa Salieu was announced as the winner last week I was intrigued. I did a bit of reading. And I learnt that, while the poll may well have only chosen one person who went on to have a top twenty hit in the last five years, previous lists have identified future household names such as Adele, Haim, and a personal favourite of mine in the form of Michael Kiwanuka. So maybe there’s something in this after all.
Instead of just having a listen to the winner, I thought I’d do you all a service and check out a song from each of the ten artists who made the longlist and give you my reactions and predictions after just a few listens to that song. There’s not a lot of method to my madness. I’ll be jumping on Spotify, picking what looks like the artists most popular recent release, and then either telling you how good it is or being a total dick about it…
Let’s start with the artists who missed out on the top five positions in the poll.
The Lathums – ‘I See Your Ghost’
The sound of 2021? More like the sound of 2006-2009 Arctic Monkeys. This song could have been lifted straight from Humbug or Favourite Worst Nightmare, although, to be honest, it probably wouldn’t have quite made the cut. None of that is to say that this is a bad song, though. It’s okay. The lead singer has some interesting vocal techniques and the song is catchy and to the point. And with bands like Sports Team bringing the sound of the early noughties back into fashion last year, I can certainly see The Lathums doing well.
Girl in Red – ‘Rue’
Girl in Red is the stage name of Norwegian artist Marie Ulven, and the first band I think of when listening to ‘Rue’ is her fellow Scandinavians Of Monsters And Men. They’re a band who have done multiple singles I have really enjoyed, but have never really grabbed me with an album, and my first instinct about Girl in Red is that she may well strike me in the same way. ‘Rue’ is a more interesting offer than the song from The Lathums, though, and I can imagine it being a very popular song indeed. It’s got a driving drum beat, floating vocals, and an impressive crescendo – shades of Florence and the Machine.
Dutchavelli – ‘Bando Diaries’
‘Bando Diaries’ has the same music video as a million other grime songs that don’t quite make the grade, and I’m afraid there is nothing in the song that makes me feel his music is any more original. A pretty standard beat, no story that grabs me, and a voice that doesn’t stand out in any major way. He’s already got some pretty massive streaming numbers on Spotify, so maybe I’m totally out of touch here. But I’d be surprised if he blows up massively in the next 12 months.
Bree Runway – ‘APESHIT’
Bree Runway’s latest release features Missy Elliot, so I’ve headed to the previous song. It felt unfair to judge a new artist on a song when they come up against one of the all-time greats, although the fact that Missy is willing to jump on a track with her has to be a good sign.
‘APESHIT’ lives up to its title. It’s a full on, lively, intriguing song that mixes hip-hop and r&b and demonstrates that Bree has a really strong flow and a unique and interesting voice. It isn’t really for me, though. But it is a million million times more interesting and exciting than the Dutchavelli song and is the first track I’ve listened to that I can really understand as a ‘sound of 2021’. I’m predicting big things for Bree off the back of this one.
Alfie Templeman – ‘Forever Isn’t Long Enough’
I’ve been warned by another Picky Bastard that I will hate Alfie Templeman, but when I look on the BBC’s Sound of 2021 article I see that they have said that fans of David Bowie should like him. It also says that fans of Ed Sheeran should like him, so I’m a little confuzzled.
My fellow Picky Bastard was very right. I do not like Alfie Templeman. Get that David Bowie comparison out of your mouth, BBC. Revoke my license.
Alfie Templeman is gonna be fucking huge, though. Just you watch.
The top 5
#5: Griff – ‘Love Is A Compass’
We’re into the top 5 now, so this is when things are going to really soar. Right?
Err. No, actually.
Griff’s ‘Love Is A Compass’ sounds like every X Factor winner’s single that I heard before I found the off button on my mum’s radio.
Powerfully not for me. Maybe I just picked the wrong song, and I will say that Griff clearly has some vocal chops, but I wish she wouldn’t do that squeaky little ‘aren’t I cute’ thing at the end of every sentence.
No thank you.
#4: Greentea Peng – ‘Spells’
I’m drinking a green tea while I listen to this, actually. Mango and passionfruit flavoured. It’s extremely pleasant, thanks for asking.
‘Spells’ is also extremely pleasant. And I mean that in a genuine, honest way, rather than in the dismissive tone in which word can often be used. ‘Spells’ is a soulful, floaty little song with a lovely piano lick and a cracking bassline all underneath the silky and inviting vocals. It’s the first song on the list that makes me want to delve into the rest of the artist’s work, and it also makes total sense to me as a sound that could be really big in 2021. The fact that I get a sense this particular song is unlikely to be her best has me pretty excited, too.
A quick scroll suggests that we only have singles from Greentea Peng so far, but I’ll be looking out for an album. I think the BBC have picked a dead cert here.
#3: BERWYN – ‘VINYL’
WHAT’S THIS OBSESSION WITH EVERYONE TYPING THEIR NAMES IN ALL CAPS THESE DAYS? WHY? IS CAPS LOCK THE ‘SOUND OF 2021’ OR SOME SHIT?
Sorry, ignore me. Let’s talk about the song.
It’s pretty gorgeous, to be honest – a great voice with an interesting deep register, a pared back and measured beat, and a real sense of control all the way through. Dare I say it, it sounds like a less boring version of Frank Ocean.
Not sure I’m that into the lyric ‘we’ll be old school like vinyl’, but that’s a minor issue. I’ll be checking out his album and can see him being a popular artist but not one who will go totally massive. He’s a bit too cool for that.
#2: Holly Humberstone – ‘Vanilla’
This is very much a sound that excelled in 2020, and is therefore likely to continue to do well in 2021. Almost sweet-sounding vocals hiding darker meanings while coasting over a skittery, almost glitchy beat – we have seen a host of artists making similar music do very well in recent times. It’s even reminiscent of some of the songs that Taylor Swift put out last year.
I don’t see any reason why Holly won’t be huge and I think the BBC are on to another potential winner with this one. It’s not doing a great deal for me personally, though. After only three or four listens to one song, I won’t rule out my own personal enjoyment of Holly’s music. But this song is a little too sugary for me.
#1: Pa Salieu – ‘My Family’
Pa Salieu certainly has an interesting story, and it was refreshing to see this prize go to a hip-hop artist from outside the capital. On the basis of ‘My Family’, it would be impossible to argue against this being the ‘sound of 2021.’ Grime music will undoubtedly do fantastically well again this year, and it has been the UK’s most exciting genre for close to a decade now.
‘My Family’ is good, for sure. It has all the ingredients and when held up against the other grime act on this list it is light years ahead. But I’m pretty nonplussed personally. Maybe it will make more sense as part of the album, and it’s good enough to make me want to spend some time finding out if that is the case, but it doesn’t feel particularly original or unique. Time will tell, I suppose.
It’s a mixed bag of a list then, at least according to this Picky Bastard. But I am a 36-year-old man, and as much as I try and stay on top of music I can appreciate that some of the ‘sounds of 2021’ will be more accurately addressed and appraised by those with less wrinkles than me.
What I will say is that, after only hearing one song from each, I think that the BBC almost got the right top five from their list of ten. I’d have seen Bree Runway or Girl in Red take Griff’s place, and I’d have pushed Greentea Peng or Berwyn to the top spot in place of Pa Salieu, but then to give the judges credit they’ve probably spent a fair bit more time with the music than I have.
I’d expect to see a few of these artists shine over the next couple of years, though, and I’m going to predict that Bree Runway and Greentea Peng will both go from strength to strength in terms of popularity.
Alfie Templeman like David Bowie, though? Get in the bin.
Words by Fran Slater.