Arts review of 2021: Fiona Shepherd on the year in pop

After a slow start to the year in which music was mostly confined to the internet, the easing of restrictions in the summer saw live shows come roaring back, writes Fiona Shepherd

Mogwai scored their first UK Number One with their album As The Love Continues, as well as picking up the Scottish Abum of the Year Award PIC: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Mogwai scored their first UK Number One with their album As The Love Continues, as well as picking up the Scottish Abum of the Year Award PIC: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If 2020 was a year like no other in rock and pop, then 2021 was a year of two halves, kicking off with the same grim uncertainty and determined creativity which had defined the pandemic to date and ending with audiences revelling in the power of live music once again.

With musicians confined to barracks through winter and spring, the contingency of online concerts and livestreamed sessions continued. Some venues benefitted from the international showcase provided by the global streaming of festivals. Did Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall or Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy look so inviting because they remained shuttered to audiences or because Celtic Connections and the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival did such a beautiful job of filming performances for their online festival programmes? Certainly the opportunity to watch sunrise over Jodhpur in early 2021 was only possible thanks to Celtic Connections’ streaming collaboration with the Rajasthan International Folk Festival.

Other festivals adapted, bided their time or emerged in accordance with the ongoing social distancing guidance. Capers In Cannich was a new addition to the scene. Conceived as a boutique glamping event in the Highlands, it was the first festival off the blocks as live music was permitted in front of socially distanced audiences.

Liam Gallagher headlines Saturday on the Main Stage at TRNSMT PIC: Lisa Ferguson / JPI Media

The Edinburgh International Festival responded to restrictions by majoring on music. Three tented pavilions were erected around the city to allow for social distancing and the unpredictable Edinburgh elements, with a commendable rock and pop programme running on a brownfield site in Edinburgh Park. While the time-honoured “festival atmosphere” was elusive, the visceral basslines of electronica artist Floating Points were felt, alongside emotional concerts by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and the rib-rattling black midi.

The organisers of Scotland’s largest outdoor music festival, TRNSMT, hedged their bets, moving from the regular July slot to early September in the hopes of staging the event at full capacity. The gamble paid off to the “is this really happening?” elation of 50,000 fans. Old hands The Courteeners, Liam Gallagher and The Chemical Brothers headlined the main stage but the festival honours belonged to singer Becky Hill for testing the King Tut’s Stage capacity to its limits and to rapper Little Simz for the most soulful set of the weekend.


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A month later, Paisley’s Spree festival returned in the more intimate setting of the Spiegeltent with a bill of Scottish stalwarts The Bluebells, Arab Strap and The Rezillos, while larger venues and theatres welcomed a full autumn complement of shows and adapted to the new normal of Covid passport checks.

Even with the return of live music and renewed opportunities for many musicians to actually earn a wage once more, the Scotsman Sessions continued to showcase artists from and in Scotland throughout the year, from rappers Bemz and Ransom FA to soul man Joseph Malik to singer/songwriter Dot Allison. Colin Hay beamed in from a hotel room in the US, Colin MacLeod performed under a big blue sky on his croft on Lewis, sea shanty sensation Nathan Evans sang from his back room and Sharleen Spiteri of Texas delivered the 250th Session from a recording studio in Glasgow.

Sharleen Spiteri and Tony McGovern peforming their single Hi for The Scotsman Sessions

Albums which had been held back during lockdown were released blinking into the light of day and so Texas said Hi again while their Scotpop peers Del Amitri made Fatal Mistakes. Many of their peers spent their furlough time making new music. Deacon Blue were Riding on the Tide of Love, a new collection recorded in lieu of being able to tour their 2020 City of Love album, and Biffy Clyro sought to counter the pre-pandemic positivity of A Celebration of Endings with companion piece The Myth of the Happily Ever After.

Wet Wet Wet released their first post-Marti Pellow album, The Journey, and Teenage Fanclub returned without Gerry Love on Endless Arcade. It was the end of an era as Bay City Rollers frontman Les McKeown passed away and the dawning of the new guard as Whitburn quartet The Snuts topped the charts with their debut album WL. Respected post-rockers Mogwai also scored a Number One album for the first time in their 25-year career, and scooped the Scottish Album of the Year Award, having been nominated five times, with As The Love Continues.

Across the pond, Lana Del Rey produced two albums, Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Banisters, and Taylor Swift continued doggedly re-recording her back catalogue in a dispute over ownership of master tapes, releasing Taylor’s Version of Red.


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Among a slew of lockdown reflections, Covid sceptic Van Morrison offered some blunt grumbles on the sprawling Latest Record Project, Volume 1. The Gerry Rafferty and Prince estates raided the vaults to release the timeless Rest in Blue and Welcome 2 America, while country legend Loretta Lynn, queen of rockabilly Wanda Jackson, soul diva Diana Ross and spring chicken Suzi Quatro all decided retiring was for wimps and released celebratory new albums.


The big guns came out for the pre-Christmas market. Coldplay released cosmic concept album Music of the Spheres and Ed Sheeran continued to mine the mathematical symbols with his fifth album = (Equals). But both these releases were dwarfed by the return of Adele with her divorce album, 30, and the news that ABBA had reunited to record their final album, Voyage, and would perform a 2022 London concert residency of the same name in ABBAtar form. Emerging from some of the darkest times ever for musicians, we can only say thank you for the music.

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ABBA PIC: Ludvig Andersson