It looked a lot more promising than 2020, but 2021 proved to be bumping along at the bottom for most of the year before giving us one last hurrah with Omicron. One thing that did help us face up to the disappointments of 2021, as it does every year, is music… it had the power to lift, to make us forget, to dance.
As with every year, we present our annual round-up of the music that did just that in 2021. Remaining closed for the first few months of the year, we’ve managed to stay open ever since… both online and in Soho, we’ve also experienced the longest ever delays in pressing & manufacture of records which is only starting to ease now.
As the year draws to a close, and we may go into tougher restrictions, there is still some hope of warmer days, busy dancefloors and exciting music. We want to thank all of you for your continued custom and support and we will see you in 2022!
Just a note on how we compile these charts – you will have noticed we haven’t ranked them this year, although we would say that our preferred choices are at the top! The lists are compiled from both the staff picks, customer and DJ charts, and our bestsellers – all records must have had a vinyl release in 2021! There may be some we have missed as we had to restrict the numbers somewhat – but please see it as a way of illustrating what we like, what you like, and some things you may have missed. It doesn’t mean these are better than anything else. So enjoy our round-up of 2021 and feel free to share your thoughts.
As you might expect, it is the discovery of new, exciting records that makes our life more rewarding at Phonica, even in the depths of the lockdown and quiet streets in Soho. The pandemic and its ups and downs has made this more important than ever. The excitement of not knowing what we are going to hear as we open boxes from far-flung labels and distributors from all over the world who keep on finding us mind-blowing music.
Albums are a little easier to choose for a year best-of than singles & tracks, there is some consensus as to what constitutes a ‘good’ album and there was far more agreement here than in other categories. Here you will find staff favourites, bestsellers and those records we just couldn’t get enough of, both in appetite and physically, no doubt, due to the huge delays at the pressing plants.
Sitting at the top of many Best of 2021 round-ups, and rightly so, is the outstanding collaboration of Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra’s on Luaka Bop. ‘Promises’. Utterly sublime from start to finish, the soaring strings on this spellbinding release make it the album of the year!
It’s been great to see the popularity of Bicep continue this year after January’s release of ‘Isles’ – the two Northern Irish DJs and producers returned with their second album,the breadth of music they’ve been exposed to in London during this time informs “Isles’” massive sonic palette; both cite the joy of discovering Hindi vocals overheard from distant rooftops, snatches of Bulgarian choirs drifting from passing cars, hitting Shazam in a kebab house in the vain hopes of identifying a Turkish pop song.
The debut album Black Acid Soul from Lady Blackbird is also one of the standouts for 2021. Think Nina Simone, or as Gilles Peterson described her “the Grace Jones of Jazz”. Niko Tzoukmanis gets its vinyl debut in 2021 (and the reason why we don’t class this as a reissue!). Originally out only on CD, the album taps into a rich vein of sequencer romanticism, from Tangerine Dream-obsessed-‘Berlin School’ daydreamers to the whole nebula of music inspired by Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series. It also looks forward, prefiguring the return today, in troubled times, to the comforting inner space of ‘90s-worshipping ambient techno.
Rather than focus on particular tracks, we prefer to focus on entire singles here at Phonica, be they 7inch, 10inch, or 12inch – there has to be a physical release for it to be included in our chart. It’s the hardest chart of all to compile, as these short tracks or EPs are far more subjective than an album and far less consensus amongst us. So here, we are looking at those singles or tracks that made an impact, that provided us with the soundtrack to nights out that either did or did not materialise due to Covid, those that sold a lot at the shop, and, most importantly, those loved by our staff members here.
The dancefloor may have tentatively come back in 2021 before undoubtedly being whisked away again in the next few days, but no-one caught that euphoria quite like Overmono with their XL or Poly Kicks limited 12inch releases or remixes. Other dancefloor highlights have been Willow’s deep and hazy house release of Lowtec’s Workshop label, Youandewan’s consistent output and one of our biggest sellers, Voodoos & Taboos ‘If We Were’ on new Phonica imprint, Phonica AM. Or how about some proper feel-good house music with Lea Lisa’s ‘Keys of Life’, Shindo’s ‘Yotogi’ or our other bestselling Phonica release, the Italo-house inspired ‘Easy Tiger’ from Harrison BDP.
Disco-wise, Alex Kassian’s ode to Yes’s ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ on ‘Leave Your Life’ was the sleeper of the year as more and more people discover its catchiness whilst the Gabriels became the big anthem of the year, whether in its original or Kerri Chandler remix.
Although there are far fewer compilations around these days, those vinyl compilations that do get a full release have been elevated: lavish artwork, extensive histories, and sleeve notes all showing off the hard work put into the art of the compilation.
Playlists and mixes have become the standard way for DJs to show off their sets, so these days, there is no need for a commercially produced mixed CD with only the established series such as Fabric, Late Night Tales and DJ Kicks still releasing mix CDs these days. Highlights this year include the third volume in DJ Harvey’s ’The Sound Of Mercury Rising’ series and Plessow aka Motor City Drum Ensemble’s eclectic ‘Fabric Presents’
Outside of these mixes (and their unmixed vinyl versions), the true art of the compilation lies in expertly curated collections around a ‘sound’, a ‘scene’, a historical period or a looser concept.
Our recommendations this year include those two Berlin stalwarts of Berlin club life, the Tresor club which celebrated 30 years this year with a lavish and beautifully packaged box set and Ostgut, based around Berlin’s infamous Berghain, which celebrates 16 years with an excellent box set including the debut track from Roi Perez with Avalon Emerson!
Eiji Taniguchi and Norio Sato’s Japanese ambient, jazz and new-wave focused ‘Heisei No Oto’ was the highlight of Music from Memory’s continued excellent output this year. Heisei No Oto delves into a world of music released almost exclusively on CD and brings together a fascinating selection of discoveries from a little-known and overlooked part of Japan’s musical history.
Other recommendations are the Young Marco-compiled guide to tasteful early trance: ‘Planet Love’ on Safe trip, the astonishing rare independent soul compilation ‘Swave villi Us’ on Backatcha and the Sam Donnison-compiled second volume of Lovers rock ‘For the Love of You’!
Reissues continue to shine a fresh spotlight of records that were overlooked when they first surfaced or were so limited that they instantly became sought-after. In 2021, we are back with another collection of outstanding singles, lovingly re-issued and repressed, saving us from those Discogs sharks or listening to these records only on YouTube. The number of quality reissue singles doesn’t seem to be abating despite the pandemic, and across many genres. Here, we highlight those reissues that now shine a new light on underrated obscurities such as The New Age Orchestra’s sought-after 1989 classic ‘Let’s Dream Together, which originally only ever had 50 copies made and was almost lost to obscurity before Young Marco & Amsterdam’s Red Light crew rediscovered it and created a huge demand. Luckily, Music For Dreams’ Kenneth Bager (and the original producer) not only found the original but now gives us a full epic suite in 5 parts to reveal its full glory!
Originally released in 1983, Earl Young’s sought-after and ultra-rare Gospel disco-soul treasures ‘Take Them In Prayer / Let Him Be Your Everything’ got a reissue on the excellent Athens Of The North label – such a beautiful record that until this year, was only known to a select few.
One previously unreleased collection of instrumentals that should definitely be heard are those by the Nassau Track Authority – disco, reggae, funk & punk sensibilities are fused in these classic recordings from Sly & Robbie – these Compass Point recordings became the bed for some iconic songs but the backing tracks were missing in action. Washed up on a distant shore, the original tapes have revealed these previously unheard Instrumentals, showcasing the talents of Shakespeare, Dunbar, Badarou & crew.
Only arriving in the store the week before Christmas, Psychedelic Research Lab’s ‘Tarenah’ was a collaboration between Scott Richmond and John Selway from 1993 and never released on 12inch vinyl. The tune has been elevated to legendary status in certain circles – due to it being a firm favourite of “The Godfather Of Chill-out”, the late DJ Jose Padilla.
Reissues continue to shine a fresh spotlight of records that were overlooked when they first surfaced or were so limited that they instantly became sought-after. In 2021, we are back with another collection of outstanding albums, lovingly re-issued and repressed, saving us from those Discogs sharks or listening to these records only on YouTube. The number of quality reissue album doesn’t seem to be abating despite the pandemic, and across many genres. this list features everything from hip-hop classics by the late great MF Doom to shoegaze masterpieces from My Bloody Valentine, as well as techno classics from Kenny Larkin and sought-after, previously unreleased jazz gems from Don Cherry.
More than once Jay Richford and Gary Stevan’s Feelings has been described as the greatest library record ever released. Insanely rare and immensely sought-after, it’s a tough funk, street jazz masterpiece. Groove-laden bass, irrepressible horns, sweet flute lines, warm Rhodes, lush string arrangements, blaxploitation-styled wah-wah guitars and so, so much more make this one of the finest instrumental soul LPs of the 70s, if not of all time.
At the start of the year, we were saddened to hear of the death of MF Doom at the age of only 49. He had died at the end of October. His untimely death led to a renewed appreciation of his work and discography from his collaboration with Madlib as ‘Madvillainy’ to his opus,’ Operation Doomsday’, an underground classic.
Other gens worth highlighting are the 2002 electro classic from Arpanet, Arthur Russell collections in the form of both ‘World of Echo’ and ‘Another Thought’ and, the stunning ‘Likemind 06’ – A true unsung hero of mid 90’s techno, Nurmad Jusat aka Nuron helped cement the UK sound that became synonymous with labels like Likemind, B12 and A.R.T With his original releases long out of print and selling for serious money on Discogs, Likemind finally gave fans what they were asking for – 8 of his most sought after tracks, remastered and repackaged in the form of a 2 x 12″ compilation. For a truly breathtaking snapshot of 90’s UK electronica, look no further.
Aside from our favourite releases and highlights from 2021, we have also reached out to a bunch of our favourite DJs and producers to find out what’s been doing it for them this year. Contributions from Daniel Avery, Paramida, K-Lone, Facta, Priori and many more to be found. Enjoy!
Each of our team members has their own unique tastes in music, covering more-or-less every possible genre. Take a look at our staff members’ individual highlights from 2021. You will almost certainly find a few secret gems amongst these charts that didn’t make it into our overall selections. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank all our customers who have supported, and continue to support us, through this difficult year by buying some records – we’ll see you in 2022!
We have also pieced together two Best of 2021 Spotify playlists for you to enjoy – one for home listening and another focused more on dance music.