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The five best post-punk albums of 2021

Over the course of what has been yet another rollercoaster year of political confusion and unrest under the ever-present cloud of pandemic hysteria, the musical landscape has taken some interesting steps. Some of these steps have been in relatively uninteresting directions, but some have moved towards a sound that hit my ears at the most perfect angle. In times of uncertainty and angst, there are few genres that strike a chord quite like the boisterous, unyielding sound of punk. 

Since the late 1970s, we have been blessed with a wide variety of complex punk styles born from very crude beginnings with founders of the genre such as Sex Pistols. This growth from punk has been named post-punk, and while it is no longer at the forefront of popular music, it is still very much alive. The sounds of post-punk I have heard throughout 2021 have been among the most refined and interesting I have come across to date. 

Taking all of this into consideration, post-punk has absorbed the troubles, chewed them up, and spat them back out in the form of their own noise. Here, we look at the five greatest post-punk albums released througout 2021.

The five best post-punk albums of 2021:

5. Shame – Drunk Tank Pink 

With an early release this year, South London post-punk innovators, Shame, cast the sound they perfected with their debut album to one side to focus on developing something completely organic. Apart from the band’s name, little more can be shown to relate to the two albums. Shame had decided to move in a direction that discards most of the genes of indie music and have taken on a heavier and darker incarnation in Drunk Tank Pink. This is reflected in the dark album cover artwork that shows a shady photograph of drummer Charlie Forbes’s father. 

The enigmatic name used for the album was taken from the shade of pink that frontman Charlie Steen painted his room in and proceeded to use the colour for the text on the sleeve as well as using its name for the album. The colour bears significance due to its historical use in prison cells designed for the inebriated and disorderly due to its alleged capacity to calm down violent detainees and lower their heart rate. The album perhaps doesn’t do what it says on the tin with its choppy rhythm and fast-paced exhibition of thought-provoking themes. However, the album has offered some much-needed pleasure and escapism this year, so in that respect, perhaps Drunk Tank Pink is an appropriate name after all.

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4. IDLES – Crawler 

I see IDLES as the godfathers of the modern post-punk era we fans find ourselves blessed with. Their satirical take on the world and all of its oddities, beauties and pitfalls, has secured the band a place in the top drawer. Ultra Mono released in 2020 was the band’s most critically acclaimed and successful album to date as it captured the anger and humour of a world in the grip of Donald Trump madness and Brexit mayhem. Crawler, in contrast, can be seen as a slight step back from the demeanour of brutal satire that they usually identify with. However, I would argue that Crawler is just as “IDLES” as any of their previous work, but simply a move to channel their art into pastures new to reveal more about themselves in a new chapter of more focussed and refined work.

For this reason, I take my hat off to IDLES for staying true to their craft and refusing to be rooted to the ground. Crawler is an album that took me a couple of listens to fully digest and connect with, but when it finally clicked, it became one of the most rewarding listens of the year. The album shows the artists as naked as we have ever seen them before, most memorably in ‘Meds’ where lead singer Joe Talbot reflects on his recent sobriety as he unpeels a new self-image now he has the clarity that intoxicants once forbid him.

This tone of self-evaluation and earnest artistry doesn’t, however, take from the usual energy and passion we have grown to expect and adore when listening to IDLES. This is a true gem, and for me, it deserves its spot amongst the greatest releases of 2021.

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3. LICE – Wasteland: What Ails Our People is Clear 

LICE broke through as an important addition to the modern punk revival led by Bristol neighbours IDLES in the later 2010s. Over the course of two years, vocalist Alastair Shuttleworth set about extracting lyrics from his unorthodox mind that would later shape out the foundation of an enigmatic narrative. By the time the lyrics were put to the music in the studio, something very interesting had developed. Wasteland: What Ails Our People is Clear had become a beast of science-fiction laden political satire, a concept album that spread its wings beyond the scope of their previous work. 

This debut album is for me one of the most impressive of the year. LICE have managed to channel the trademark sound of their first EPs, It All Worked Out Great volumes one and two, and polish it into a more refined and imaginatively focussed work. The sound is given its identity through Silas Dilkes steely, shimmering guitar riffs violently punctuated with bass and drum tracks from Gareth Johnson and Bruce Bardsley respectively. For the album, the band also made use of their secret weapon, Natalie Pla, who has a multi-instrumentalist background and provided keys and synthesizer tracks for the recording of the album. She has since become a staple member on tours throughout the year.

The album has something for everyone with its heavier headbangers like ‘Conveyor’ and ‘Arbiter’ and its slower respite tracks like ‘Persuader’ or ‘Serata’. Having been lucky enough to see LICE at a gig in November, I was massively impressed by the unique performance as well as the presence of a particularly unique instrument played by Natalie. During the first lockdown in 2020, bassist Gareth Johnson used his ample spare time honing his skills as an engineer to design and build his own incarnation of the Intonarumori, an instrument based on musical experiments of futurist Luigi Russolo dating back to the early 20th century. The strange instrument sports the band’s logo and is an impressive stage feature, but also adds a gravelly, industrial sound that can be heard throughout Wasteland, further adding to the individualism and awe of this most captivating album. I am certainly interested to hear what this group of boffins from Bristol are up to next.

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2. Squid – Bright Green Field

Making up a healthy portion of my soundtrack to what can only be described as a dull and tempestuous year has been the sound of Brighton-born Squid and their debut album Bright Green Field. The raw and unyielding power of a punk-inspired band has been mixed with a diverse range of genres, most notably jazz and funk fusions that at times remind me of early Talking Heads work. I would be surprised if anyone struggled to draw comparisons between Talking Heads’ ‘No Compassion’ and Squid’s ‘Narrator’ for example. That said, Squid have sculpted a spot in the rocky musical landscape of modern punk all for themselves with this fantastic debut album. A foundation I hope will spawn an interesting future for the band.

In a year so fraught with passion and anger, the dystopian feel to this album coupled with its punchy delivery makes for satisfying listening. The band have truly delivered with Bright Green Field. Squid appear to be moving with unstoppable momentum as they have found a way to fine-tune the greater aspects of their earlier work into what has been widely heralded as one of the most important albums of the year.

As a Brightonian myself, it is sacrilege that I haven’t yet been to see Squid at one of their local gigs in my three years here. Without a doubt, I’ll be putting right this wrong as soon as I possibly can in the new year!

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1. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

Dry Cleaning were formed in South London by friends Tom Dowse, Lewis Maynard and Nick Buxton after an inspiring karaoke party they attended in 2017. After piecing together instrumental arrangements for a few months, they decided they needed a singer and welcomed Florence Shaw; by day, a visual artist and university lecturer, by night, a spoken word lyricist. Her vocal style is undoubtedly what gives their debut album, New Long Leg, its unique identity; it communicates cold, real and often unsettling themes that are framed so perfectly by the band’s catchy beat and guitar riffs reminiscent of the likes of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Shaw’s nonchalant delivery juxtaposed with the chaos of sound accompanying it makes for a truly unique style. She said of the new album “the title is ambiguous; a new long leg could be an expensive present, or a growth, or a table repair.” – it is indeed a very appropriate name for such an album with its elusive, stream of conscious narrative. For me, New Long Leg is top of the pile for 2021 because there is not a moment of this album that I don’t have my foot tapping and my mind working. Dry Cleaning have my undivided attention and I am excited for their upcoming tours and new material whenever it might grace our hungry ears.

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