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Nordic Music Central – Singles of the Year 2021

With albums and EPs out of the way for this year ( it’s time to turn attention to the ‘Singles of the Year’.

I was expecting this to be a Herculean task and I wasn’t disappointed. Just about everything I’ve reviewed this year could qualify to be included on this list. I started off by trying to exclude album tracks that were reviewed as singles but not actually released as singles (rather, as ‘sample tracks’), but that still left me with a long list of excellent artists and bands that didn’t quite make the final cut even though the long list was extended from 10 to 15 songs.

Those artists included Bonander, Promise and the Monster, Frøkedal, Husmo Hav, Lena Anderssen, Miriel, Neon Ion, Pools, The Northern Belle, Tomode, Dimma, Von Konow, Brides of the Black Room, Beady Belle, Heidrunna, Tiergarten, Pikes, Falkevik, Chivvy, Solblomma, and a whole load more.

I hope none of them is offended; a couple of them have been winners in the past. When you are drawing up these lists sometimes you have to be brutal.

So the way this is laid out is the 12 long list songs other than the Top 3 first, and in no particular order.

All the countries are represented with the exception of Iceland, which reminds me to put more focus on that country (but an Icelandic artist came second in the Albums of the Year list).

For the most part I’ve chosen videos rather than audio because all these artists have the knack of making, or contributing to, fabulous videos.

First up is:

Annesofie Salomon (Denmark) – All Things

In what is only her second recorded song, Annesofie, who professes to have suffered from numerous mental health issues, sings about her own personal journey of growth, learning and acceptance; and quite delightfully. There’s a clever video to go with it, too.

Astrid Swan (Finland) – Silvi’s Dream

In her first solo release in four years Astrid Swan sings of “an examination of the transient moments of care between mothers and their children”. It’s a delightful piece, beginning its journey as a piano based ballad with pleasant-on-the-ear chords and with some Kate Bush-influenced arrangements following, then half way through it moves rapidly upbeat into a subdued rocker and even benefits from Madness-channelling sax at the end. The usual life-affirming proclamation from a lady who has suffered more than her fair share of chronic illness.

Elina (Sweden) – Love Come Around

Elina (Stridh) is already an accomplished songwriter for artists such as Zara Larsson and Maroon 5. This is her first release as an independent artist and on her own record label. She epitomises the work of several female Americana genre musicians in Sweden right now. It is a dedication she says, “To the people who get up in the morning and fight on despite life’s injustices and challenges we face, especially during this past year.”

The single is released alongside a music video featuring Elina and her mother in the area of her childhood village. I had to watch it three of four times to take it all in. It says more in three minutes than most of the pap coming out of Hollywood does in three hours.

GAEYA (Sweden) – Tide for the Change

GAEYA is a Swedish ‘World Beat’ artist whom I’d previously tipped as an ‘Artist to watch out for’ in 2021. The third single from GAEYA’s debut EP, ‘Awakening’, ‘Tide for the Change’ demonstrates how she has a great voice, writes strong melodies, selects excellent instrumentation that is just right for her songs – both electronic and traditional – and the arrangement is perfect. She sings mainly of cosmological and ecological matters but it doesn’t matter if you aren’t really into that sort of stuff as the music and her voice carry the songs on their own.

Ida Wenøe (Denmark) – Echoes

It’s Ida Wenøe’s voice which is the key to her swift elevation from cafe waitress in London to in-demand artist. It is silky smooth and beguiling, sucking you in like a toothless granny tackling a hard-boiled egg. Lyrically, the song is notable for having arisen out of a self-confessed period of ‘creative block’ in the early part of lockdown; something that few other artists to my knowledge have admitted to.

There is a fascinating video to go with the song It’s just her, in front of a lace curtain, the first part in black and white and the second half in colour; nothing more than that. But her face is so expressive and her eyes will laser into yours almost with the power of those of Sharbat Gula, the ‘Afghan Girl’, for those who remember that seminal 1985 National Geographic photograph of the green-eyed adolescent war child. It’s very seductive.

Memoria (Sweden) – ft. Nicklas Stenemo – Along the Sea

Memoria(Tess de la Cour) is new representative of a darkwave, post-punk, Goth-like tradition in Sweden alongside artists such as Bonander and Promise and the Monster. ’Along the Sea’ is the first single from her forthcoming second album and is a song about loneliness and sadness; a longing to escape to better times, with the hope that people around you could see how you feel. For this one she has co-opted Nicklas Stenemo, of Swedish synth duo Kite, whose tenor to her contralto works perfectly.

With opening bars and a repeating synth bass riff and clamorous percussion that could be straight out of the Erasure song book it has more pop than Goth or punk elements in it but Memoria still manages to create something powerful, intense, ageless even, and which haunts you long after it has concluded.

She’s a dab hand at expressive videos, too. A previous one clearly referenced the film The Blair Witch Project and in which she appeared to levitate over a lake. This one is highly tasteful, evocative and imaginative, and brilliantly shot.

Rural Tapes (Norway) – Pardon My French

Time for some experimental music. This was the debut single from Rural Tapes (Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen) earlier this year, a veteran of several highly respected bands including I Was a King and the bi-continental collective The No Ones with R.E.M members Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck.

It’s a fascinating piece, only four and a half minutes long but like a little alt-rock symphony, a journey drawing inspiration from many sources, tres avant-garde (pardon my French), jazzy, with mysterious synth sounds you’d associate with a sci-fi film as the credits roll, and a melange of instruments including a sax suddenly entering the mix along with strange, ethereal voices.

There’s a recent recording of a live version, which varies somewhat from the recorded song.

Brimheim (Faroe Islands/Denmark) – Call it what you want

What first attracted me to Brimheim, a Goth Soccer Mommy as she describes herself, was an admission that, like Annesofie Salomon earlier, she had experienced some depressive mental issues. She won me over, quickly. It started in the opening bars with an attention grabbing clear contralto vocal which is so Florence Welsh while being a cut above it in substance.  

Lyrically, she is very astute, invoking imagery of cop sirens on Fifth Avenue while she lies in bed fretting about what her partner’s out of town mother would think if she found her wrapped around her daughter. But ultimately, in the most telling and hard-hitting line, “You and I will not be broken by your mother’s broken heart.”

Her debut album ‘can’t hate myself into a different shape’ is available on 28th January via W.A.S Entertainment.

Trentemøller (Denmark) – Dead or Alive

Unlike many of the artists here Anders Trentemøller is hardly a newcomer but he continues to push the envelope, this time with a song that has all the hallmarks of Joy Division and New Order. Stylistically he can shift rapidly, like a Scandinavian M83. This latest song is simple but very, very effective.

I considered the video as a ‘Video of the Week’ post. It fits the song perfectly, holds your attention from start to finish and the imagery is equally simple but effective. The amazingly blue-eyed actress is both ‘dead’ and very much alive as it progresses.

Aldrovanda (Sweden) – The Ichor in your Mouth

Formed by two school friends, Gustav (guitar) and Jacob (bass), Aldovandra’s song concerns “overcoming crippling doubt, fear and addiction, and about finally settling the score with your past experiences while finding back to your true self.” And it features a powerful anthem-strength chorus and a totally unexpected 1980s glam rock guitar solo.

Kate Havnevik (Norway) – Dream her to Life

Kate Havnevik is one of those artists who have the ability to write a pop song which is also chock full of ‘experimental’ sounds and that is no easy task.

In this one, without that associated experimentation I’d have to class ‘Dream Her to Life’ as, well, dream pop; the sort of dream Björk might have. But those experimental sounds are something else. What stands out more than anything though is her vocal work, both solo and when she harmonises with herself. That’s top class.

Her album ‘Lightship’ is out on January 21st via Continentica Records

Frum (Faroe Islands) –Tumbled

We’re back to the Faroe Islands and to (Frum Jenný Augustudóttir Kragesteen), who had two singles this year that I considered for Single of the Year. The one I selected is the more recent one, ‘Tumbled’.

She says, “I wrote this song to process the different emotions I have been through since I released my first single. Things changed right away and the possibilities that opened for me were a bit overwhelming.”

Well she must have been through the mill emotionally judging from the way it turned out. It’s held together by an obscure but striking off-beat rhythm played with the panache of someone like Manu Katché, and there’s a distinct Middle Eastern flavour to the melody line.

Vocally, she has exactly the right voice for this variety of ‘am I happy or sad – you decide?’ song and there’s an ever so slight hint of Regina Spektor in her enunciation.

And so to the ‘Top 3’, in reverse order:

3 Gipsy Power (Sweden) – Holy Water

Gipsy Power is centred on Steven Kautzky Andersson. In 1994 he formed a band to present his “visionary mix” of Jimi Hendrix, gipsy music and heavy rock and the debut album, called ‘Gipsy Power’ was nominated for a Swedish Grammy. Now, 27 years later, Andersson and the band are back, with new music, an album that came out in November (‘Electric Threads’) and some new faces.

‘Holy Water’ is a song written jointly with Ulrika Beijer, who provides the vocals. She’s a seasoned artist who has been involved in the Swedish music scene since the 1980s and has just released her debut solo album, ‘The Lost Sessions.’

 So, a different kind of artist to Mr Andersson but they gel perfectly. If you didn’t know these people or hadn’t just read about them you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a lost, just discovered track on which Hendrix was joined by Janis Joplin. I’m not kidding.

2 Highasakite (Norway) – Autopsy

I was a huge fan of Highasakite until they broke up a few years ago, leaving the original rump of Ingrid Helene Håvik and Trond Bersu carrying that band name forward. While they’ve recorded some very good songs since I didn’t think they carried the same panache as previous ones.

Last month they released some new material in the form of a dual single collection. The second of the tracks is the almost 10-minute ‘Autopsy’, which has a title that would have been appropriate on one of the earlier albums, and is quite different both to the other single, ‘Love him anyway’ and to just about everything else they’ve done since 2019. Perhaps ever.

The song is delivered initially in a ‘Camp Echo’ (album)-style, a sort of amalgam of ‘My mind is a bad neighbourhood’ and ‘Golden Ticket’ and with lyrics strangely reminiscent of that album, too.

Then about halfway through it shifts suddenly into industrial EDM territory with only Ingrid’s occasional, far away plaintive voice for company and you might have strayed into Berlin’s Berghain or Liquid in Faliraki.

Now I’m no expert on EDM but this is one of the most powerful dance tracks I’ve heard in ages. In fact it’s right up there with N-Trance’s ‘Set you free’, the #1 dance track ever in my view, and which was written and recorded about 500m from where I am now. Listen to it with the volume at 11 and be blown away.

1 Auri (Finland) – Pearl Diving

It takes quite a song to top that and Auri’s ‘Pearl Diving’ is just that. This selection is bound to be influenced by my predilection for Nightwish, which has been a favourite band of mine for some time.

Two of Nightwish make up Auri – Tuomas Holopainen and Troy Donockley- together with Holopainen’s wife, Johanna Kurkela.

Auri is described by Holopainen as a ‘prog folk’ band playing “rabbit hole music and celestial metal” with influences from folk music, Celtic music and soundtracks.

‘Pearl Diving’ is a gentle yet powerful piece which, with alternative arrangements, might have been performed by Yes in their heyday. Holopainen is a born composer and can’t write a song without twists and turns along the way and this is no exception. A folk ballad to start with, and with nods to ‘Sloop John B’, it picks up some wonderful harmonies from Johanna Kurkela and a multi-tracked Donockley and then fools you with a false ending around the 3:35 mark.

Thereafter, Holopainen’s ‘cinematic soundtrack’ takes over, he having played a fairly subdued role so far, and rises to a crescendo, quickly eliciting the goose bumps that go with the territory in respect of most of his creations.

The musicianship and arrangement is of the level we have come to expect of Holopainen and Donockley but this is the first time I’ve heard Kurkela other than her spoken Shakespearean part on the unbelievable ‘Shoemaker’ on Nightwish’s ‘Human. :-: Nature.’ and I’m impressed by yet another top-notch Finnish soaring vocal talent.

All-in-all a sumptuous piece of music.

You can read many of the full original reviews on the Nordic Music Central website (some were published elsewhere).

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That’s all folks!

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