The Zaw Towers Review of 2021

2021 started and looks like it'll end the same sort of way: with pain. A long lockdown at the start of the year and a gradual release which meant I got time to enjoy a few good things, especially with The Love In My Heart, and be able to also enjoy a few things a bit more. But no doubt that survival and being able to carry on working has been key, and being able to be together at least has kept the mental health side fine. But what did make me smile and give me reason for delight for this year? Let's find out.

Best Single/Track of 2021 - "True" - Danny Elfman and Trent Reznor
Imagine if Danny Elfman made a dark, brooding Industrial sounding soundtrack of the current situation and what we're all in, and then just for good measure teamed up with Trent Reznor to make the standout track from the Big Mess album even darker? Do all that and you get this - not just a duet for the times, but a perfect meeting of musical minds and ideas distilled into five minutes of the uncomfortable sound feeling comfortable, plenty of killer riffs and piano throughout with the two of them on superlative vocal form. My, it's impressively awesome.

Also recommended:
"Invisible Monster" - Dream Theater - Certainly if you wanted to distil everything about what's great about progessive metal, and put it together into one piece, this shows it off perfectly. James LaBrie's vocals haven't sounded better in a long while, complete with some power chords, a superb chorus riff and plenty of beautiful melodic metal, and you can have a perfect sample of what's an impressive work from the band.
"My Favorite Distraction EP" - The Francine Odysseys - A superb four track from Gretchen de Vault (formerly of The Icicles) and her new venture. Take all the best bits of the New Order guitar sound from the 1980s, add a smattering of some reflective lyrics and beautiful vocals, and a great promise of things to come. Second With You from this EP is a highlight, showcasing that more mellow sound perfectly.
"How Not To Drown" - Chvrches - Lauren Mayberry’s vocals have never sounded better, with a pounding dark electronic mood emnating throughout. Add to that there’s also the added bonus of having Robert Smith from The Cure guest vocal and add a slightly darker feel to everything and keeping all of its pop sensibilities at the same time.. It's just a beautiful thing to behold and a perfect introduction to their album Screen Violence.
"The Creeps" - Garbage - Shirley Manson's vocals haven't sounded this good in ages, and a real powerful driving anthem of rock follows, with a sense of foreboding and having the creeps, with the quiet bit loud bit opening reminiscent of peak Pixies, giving way to that lovely wall of guitars and synths merged perfectly for a modern day Garbage sound. So much fun to bounce around to!

Best Album of 2021 - "Exotic Monsters" - Penfriend
All the great parts of when Laura was She Makes War have been distilled carefully into this Penfriend album, and then somewhat improved. There's a reflective sense in the songwriting, exemplified by I Used To Know Everything and the dark Black Car, and also plenty of powerful sensibility and controlled anger in Cancel Your Hopes and the magnificent Seventeen with its gorgeous ending. More than that, it feels like a whole journey into a mind and mood that somehow seems to look back as well as forward at the same time. A brave but wholly justified move for the name change and musically, it's the best thing that she has ever done.

Also recommended:
"Intruder" - Gary Numan - Brooding, moody and altogether uncompromising, there's a real sense of awareness of the world and the lyrical reflection throughout here. The Chosen has a suitably powerful line, the title track showing off an epic soundscape, and A Black Sun, co-written by daughter Persia, has a more slower and dramatic mood being set. As Numan gets older, he seemingly gets even better with age, and an album for the times this one.
"Connectivity" - Grace Petrie - Grace's ninth album shows plenty of growth, but no less uncompromising in the words and the vocals. We've Got An Office In Hackney has a perfect dig at the "trendies" in the music industry, and The Last Man On Earth is a sideswipe delivered with gusto to those who go back to men despite being wrong. Storm To Weather also shows off all the great bits about Grace and as an opener, sets the tone well. Folk delivered with added attitude and sensibility.
"We Are Stardust" - Lukhash - Although more known for doing remixes of Commodore 64 songs, the synth lines and themes lend themselves well to this. It's a throw back to the 1980s but in instrumental form, with gorgeous synths and melodies and clean production giving it a real punctuated more Industrial sound. Code Veronica exemplifies this, but Final Boss has some killer bass lines and rhythms, and Dying Breath sounds like modern day KMFDM, with Coin-Op Hero having nice arcade nods throughout. Thoroughly enjoyable.
"Dekadrone / BN9Drone" - Cabaret Voltaire - Two albums really that share the same theme and the same mood, so had to nominate both together. They're both one track each and symbolise the more classic, awkward, found sounds of Industrial music that the Cabs had when starting out. In what turned out to be the final two CV albums before Richard Kirk passed, they're uncompromising and brutal in the drone like approach, and need to be listened with an open mind to get it, so won't be good for some.

Best Concert of 2021 - Remembering Denise Johnson, Gorilla, Manchester
It was long overdue that I got to see A Certain Ratio live, and this all evening event, remembering the Mancunian vocal legend that was Denise Johnson, was a perfect opportunity. Lots of lovely musical tributes happened throughout the night, including some impromptu groups put together to showcase Mancunian talent with suitable aplomb. ACR came on and absolutely blasted out a superb show, with all the necessary funk and groove required to make you feel happy and remember Denise at the same time - it was a triumph of love and joy in the room and a positive vibe that will live long in the memory for me.

Best TV Programme of 2021 - CSI Vegas
Up until the Autumn, this year's series of Line of Duty would have won this. But then came this, a comeback of one of my favourite series of the early 2000s, and 21 years to the day since the original CSI. Those of us who loved the original were overjoyed to see both Grissom and Sara back of course, but having Brass and Hodges on there too in different scenarios was something else. The whole ten episodes had a main arc of a corrupt lawyer attempting to discredit the whole crime lab, but the new team led by Maxine Roby (superbly played by Paula Newsome) with great new CSIs such as Josh Folsom and Ally Rajan, also really fitted well into the new look lab and the way things had moved forward. Ten quality episodes right up there with the original, and I can only hope for more next year.

Best Sporting Moment of 2021 - The Olympic and Paralympic Games
Considering all the behind closed doors and protocols that had to be observed by the athletes and officials alike, the fact that a games even got to take place was nothing short of a minor miracle to be perfectly honest. I was pretty pleased that in fact it inspired so many to go above and beyond their level of performances, with surprise gold medals across the board: see the likes of mountain biking, BMX (track and freestyle) and triathlon stepping up the plate magnificently where some other sports, rowing especially, was a failure. This carried on wonderfully in the Paralympic Games too where the British team also did well, records were broken and legends such as Sir Lee Pearson and Dame Sarah Storey cemented their iconic status. Had the England football team won Euro 2020, they'd have had this, but it was so near and yet so far...

Best male of 2021 - Andy Burnham
The Mayor of Greater Manchester has been on the right side of history more times than I could mention, but his stepping up to support business in late 2020 was not unnoticed when it came to mayoral re-election, where a massive win was secured. The King of the North, as Mancuians and Scousers alike call him, wasn't ending there. He's got the buses back under local control with a plan to get better integrated transport and a proper system working, including cycling and environmentally friendly walks, and on top of that spoke out superbly on the issue of male violence, proclaiming any statement starting with "women should..." was wrong and needs to be called out. The recent Is It OK educational campaign to attempt to educate men and boys into why such violence is wrong shows care, consideration and compassion, some of many reasons why us Mancunians are so lucky to have him being our leader.

Best female of 2021 - Nicola Sturgeon
Say what you like about Scotland going their own way or doing their own thing, but even with devolved Government, leading from the front has been key, as Jacinda Ardern and Tsai-Ing Wen proved last year. Nicola has been consistent, ensuring that a public health message is delivered properly, and keeping some mandates on such as face coverings in public transport and shops, which proved to be right - certainly when The Love In My Heart and I visited Edinburgh we felt a lot happier and safer. It's also significant to note that unlike the Westminster Government mess of mixed messaging, having empathy and consistent messaging brings compliance and understamnding, which is key in a pandemic that we're very much still in. If Scotland do go independent, they can do so with heads held high and a leader who knows how to lead.

Personal Moments of 2021 - Completing Walks and Exploring Northumberland
Once out of the initial lockdown in early 2021, I wanted to set myself a goal of completing the London Loop and all twenty four sections. In fact, it was good to get back out and walking with exercise and fresh air being a good reason to do so, as well as mental health. It was an immensely satisfying feeling reaching Purfleet and the end of the the walk, and some 150 miles completed, goal achieved. The Thames Path is now underway and another goal to complete in early 2022. And indeed, spending some quality time with The Love In My Heart on the Northumberland coast and exploring what this beautiful county had to offer was a definite plus point - we had a lovely apartment in Amble and to be able to explore all of the area, see many castles and have a marvellous beach day in Alnmouth thrown in was just a special week, and a holiday the two of us hugely deserved and enjoyed. Plans on hold for next year of course, but I can hope for something lovely.