Listening back: The alternative Arabic albums of 2021 that made a mark

Listening back: The alternative Arabic albums of 2021 that made a mark
Rasha Nahas. Supplied
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Updated 30 December 2021

Listening back: The alternative Arabic albums of 2021 that made a mark

Listening back: The alternative Arabic albums of 2021 that made a mark

DUBAI: Arab News highlights the Arabic indie records you needed to hear in 2021.

Rasha Nahas ‘Desert’


Palestinian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rasha Nahas’ debut album is an artistic coup. The Berlin-based, Haifa-born musician is a powerhouse talent — a classically trained guitarist whose soft-spoken manner is anything but indicative of the tempest of emotion she unleashes with her often-electrifying performances. “Desert” makes it immediately apparent that Nahas has been sculpting her textured, meticulously thought-out sound for years. It oscillates between ethereal ambiances conjured by diaphanous string arrangements and Nahas’ mesmeric performances on the guitar, exquisitely evocative lines like “My heart is bleeding quarter tones,” and theatrically playful cabaret influences. Overall, the record is an overachieving debut by an artist who carries immense promise, depth, and intensity.

Postcards ‘After the Fire, Before the End’

With the exception of the irresistible guitar riff that churns through effervescent opener “Mother Tongue,” the Beirut-based trio spend much of their third LP refining the delicate dream-pop alchemy of their slow-burning, delay-drenched instrumentation and singer Julia Sabra’s crystalline, reverb-engulfed vocals. This is an arresting exploration of a dark night of the soul — a fitting aural backdrop for the event that inspired the songwriting. Sabra was with her partner, drummer Pascal Semerdjian, when he was near-fatally wounded by the catastrophic explosion in the Lebanese capital in August 2020. The deep scars of their collective trauma slither through the album like a glacial wind, punctuated by the uncompromising resilience of survivors determined to keep going. Postcards turn in yet another powerful and defiant release.

Tamara Qaddoumi ‘Soft Glitch’ (EP)

While her 2018 debut EP “Dust Bathing” was a straightforward pop affair that nonetheless struck a captivating chord with its melodic lyrical passages and opulent harmonies, Qaddoumi’s flair for spellbinding work is more evident on this year’s follow-up. The Kuwait-born singer’s intriguing background — she had a Palestinian, Lebanese, and Scottish upbringing, and studied physical theater and drama — is an indelible feature of her multifaceted approach to her art. “Soft Glitch” shimmers with a spectral undercurrent of trip-hop, lush electronic landscapes, and Qaddoumi’s hypnotic vocals. The videos that accompanied the release are also elaborate, imaginative treatments of ideas emanating from a creative mind that ventures far beyond the conventional.

The Synaptik ‘Al Qamar Wal Moheet’

This was a transformational year for Palestinian-Jordanian rapper, singer, and lyricist Laith Al Husseini — aka The Synaptik. “Al Qamar Wal Moheet” (Arabic for ‘The Moon and The Ocean’) is a formidable artistic journal of introspection, soul-searching, and enormous, self-instigated personal change. Finishing his medical degree, moving to Ramallah, and quitting his lifelong use of ADHD medication Ritalin, the rhyme maestro used this record to reconcile the extreme divergence between who he was and the person he has become. The result is a cerebral, nonconformist hip-hop/trap record that ingeniously swivels around elements of R&B, pop, and traditional Palestinian music, while bearing the unmistakable mark of The Synaptik’s distinctive lyrical methodology.

JadaL ‘La Tlou’ El Daw’

Jordan’s Arabic prog-rock veterans bookended the half-decade gap between major studio releases with a thoughtful, elegantly produced record that showcases both the experimentation they have pioneered since 2003, and a penchant for broaching a range of unorthodox subjects. “La Tlou’ El Daw” moves seamlessly from gravelly verses animated by frontman Mahmoud Radaideh’s heartfelt delivery, to intricate, avant-gardist instrumental pieces speckled with accordion and synth, anthemic choruses and majestic, multi-layered harmonies. It’s a triumphant return from one of the Arab world’s most inventive acts. 

Bu Kolthoum ‘Talib.’

The regional rap scene experienced a seismic shift when Mounir Bu Kolthoum dropped his first LP, “Inderal,” in 2015, and has since passionately lauded the Syrian-born music producer, rapper, and singer as one of its mainstays. Influenced by tarab, soul and funk, Bu Kolthoum is now based in Amsterdam, from where he masterminded the release of this year’s “Talib.” — an inspired showcase of flow and versatility. The gifted songwriter wears his heart on his sleeve across 12 dynamic tracks propelled by his inimitable pace and croon, which operate as a reliable compass for his skillful navigation of these memorable tales of youth, rebelliousness, and alienation. 

El Far3i ‘Lazim Tisa’

Since leaving the trailblazing Arabic rock band, El Morabba3, Tareq Abu Kwaik — aka El Far3i – has been prolific, to say the least. The Jordanian-Palestinian rapper, singer, songwriter, and percussionist, who’s also a key member of widely celebrated Shamstep ensemble 47Soul, adds a fifth notch to his belt of solo outings with “Lazim Tisa.” This trap LP is replete with murky, brooding vibes, dissonant synths, ghostly drone notes and viscous beats, all compelled forth by the artist’s tenaciously rhythmic raps and vocal style. El Far3i maintains his remarkable track record as one of the Middle East’s most exciting performers. 

Prefaces ‘Hippodrome’

With an all-star line-up of Postcards’ Pascal Semerdjian, Wanton Bishops’ Salim Naffah (aka Alko B), and Charif Megarbane of Cosmic Analog Ensemble, Heroes & Villains, Twyn Towers and Monumental Detail, to name but a few, Prefaces is a pleasantly peculiar creative beast. ‘Hippodrome’ is just one of four albums Megarbane released in 2021, and one of 80 this inexhaustible musician has masterminded since 2005. His work is a graceful excursion across acoustic-folk, surf-rock, jazz, Saharan blues, soul, funk, and Sixties pop. Prefaces’ mostly instrumental debut falls into the latter category, with minimal, grainy production that often plays like the deep cuts of a Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. 

Various Artists ‘Beirut 20​/​21’

Curated by Beirut & Beyond’s Musicians Support Program, founded to support the country’s independent music scene in light of the systemic crises it has endured for the past two years, “Beirut 20​/​21” assembles a stellar roster of both up-and-comers and established performers. The compilation includes tracks by Tanjaret Daghet’s Dani Shukri, Tarek Khuluki and Khaled Omran, as well as electronic music experimentalists Kid Fourteen (aka Khodor Ellaik) and Liliane Chlela, amongst many others. The anthology is a potent reminder of the innovation and energy that still drive a community of creators that has otherwise been brought to its knees.