2021: A Music Odyssey

Hi everyone, it’s Ryan. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember, because it has been a literal trip around the sun since I have posted here last. I’d like to tell you that this will be the “post to end all posts”, my magnum opus, or a transcendent Pulitzer-winning work that justifies the long absence because it is the fruits of a whole year’s worth of labor (a labor of love). It won’t be any of those. However, I have been giving it the old college try to bring you guys some good content. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Best 50 Songs of 2021

To avoid holding anyone in suspense, I’ll first give you the playlist: the 50 best songs I heard this year, each from a different artist.

Because I have a lot of free time on the holidays and don’t have any productive use for it, I made a simple histogram tracking the distribution of number of streams each of these songs had on Spotify.

[these are as of the date 12/20/21]

I realize it’s crude, but this is work that is exactly at my pay grade. What I thought was interesting was that 13 songs I thought were the best of any song I heard all year had only been streamed 500,000 times or less, whereas a mere 5 songs had over 7.5 million plays. The majority (32) of songs fit somewhere in between 500,000 and 7.5 million.

The low numbers may be a product of simply the songs have not been out for that long. However, Taylor Swift’s 10-minute song “All Too Well” (at the time of writing) has garnered a big ol’ 140 million streams since being out for only 38 days. So inescapably, I did not select the most popular songs as the best.

There are a lot of potential reasons for this. 1) I could be horribly out of touch with society, and the songs I picked are nothing close to the best, meaning that streams is an appropriate barometer of quality. 2) I could have an accurate gauge of the “best,” and the people only appreciate hot, hot trash and don’t listen to the “best” music.

3) It could be that I actually do have good taste, but society would also like it and reward these songs with streams if only they knew about it, and it is purely marketing and lack of information that keeps these songs from Taylor Swift-level stream numbers.

I think the obvious answer is that all 3 apply to varying degrees, but part of the reason I do this is because I genuinely believe in phenomenon 3); that these artists deserve a little publicity because they are doing great, great things and are underappreciated. That is not to say that I try to lean towards songs with low streams to be altruistic. I do actually think they are the best in their own right. Especially so because me advocating on their behalf is not going to move the needle for their popularity literally at all.

Genre du Jour

In compiling all of the best music this year, I have noticed that there are some genres of music that are especially en vogue this year as compared to others. Whether that is more a reflection of my tastes, general industry trends, or some combination of the two, is up to you. I thought I would highlight them.

Post-Punk

Correct me if I’m wrong, but in my mind, post-punk as a genre really came into its own in the late seventies. It’s kind of a blanket term to describe alternatives to the general raucous punk acts of prior years (Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc.) and so there’s not a very specific sound. To me, it’s kind of a spectrum that ranges from Joy Division (a la “Unknown Pleasures”) to Talking Heads.

On the former end, it preserves the angst of punk but without the energy: bass melodies, guitar rhythms, and vocals closer to talking than proper singing.

On the latter end, punk was taken to it’s more exuberant side. It’s not as angsty, the beats are bouncier, and (like Joy Division) it’s talk-singing; but it’s in a better mood.

Jump to 2021, we’ve got acts who are implementing a combination of the two to good effect. They’re incorporating the buoyant melodies, talk-singing, and irreverent humor of the Talking Heads, but with some of the social malaise and angst that Joy Division provided. Here are the main offenders:

Yard Act

The new group out of Leeds’ best song, “Dark Days,” is driven with thumping drums and a disco-leaning guitar riff reminiscent of Talking Heads’ “Making Flippy Floppy.” However, frontman James Smith’s blunt and sardonic talk-singing disassociates them from David Byrne’s group. Their social commentary on paper reads as cynical, but the wry delivery from Smith lets you know they’re in good spirits regardless:

Copper’s ‘copters / Stopped us and shook us up and down / We know the graph too, we know the due process / They started discussin’ whether to let us off for doing nothin’ or / Maybe pop us for luck, like we might be hiding something and / The radio buzzed in / “They can’t come here man, we’re full up” / Thank fuck I bought you enough time not to get shot

shame

Hailing from South London, shame bring less of the of the languidness in some post-punk, and more of the brazen confidence that’s the calling card of irreverent youth. The melodies are boisterous and the singing is at a yell. However, it has a certain catchy funk that makes the aggression inviting too.

Dry Cleaning

Dry Cleaning, another London group, brings out bass-driven melodies with understated vocalism that makes lead singer Florence Shaw seem unbothered, even apathetic to even be singing. Add the left-of-center lyricism, Dry Cleaning’s songs are emotionally unavailable words with afflicting melodies. A groove for the jaded. The words themselves reflect this dichotomy:

“I’ve come to learn how to dance / I’ve come to join the knitting circle”

“Do everything and feel nothing”

Viagra Boys

These Swedes might be a bit closer to plain punk as opposed to post-, but I had to get them in here. This song just feels like one big joke, and there’s nothing more punk than taking down the establishment of sincere songwriting. It’s crass, it’s unmannerly, and we love to see it.

New Wave

That’s right; get your legwarmers on and your Tab soda out, we’re getting tubular with the synth, 80’s inspired songs that came out this year. I think this genre trend, more than others, has commonly influenced music that his come since it was “in.” However, this year it seems that acts are really giving full-blooded tributes to the era. And nothing is more 80’s than fully committing to the bit.

Mitski

Mitski, Japanese-American singer-songwriter, historically creates more analog indie rock, with folk or pop tendencies. However, with 2018’s album “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski starting utilizing synthetic sounds in the song “Washing Machine Heart.” That song went pretty well for her (with over 167 million streams on Spotify) and now she’s back with her second single from the upcoming album “Laurel Hill,” “The Only Heartbreaker.” Her sound most reminds me of Kim Wilde, singing over fast-paced, crescendo-ing electric riffs that are songs of heartbreak you can dance to. (The Spotify sample will only show the chorus for “Kids in America” – and it only really sounds similar in the verses. I recommend the full song so you don’t think I’m crazy.)

It also has some of this magic:

Mitski more or less follows this melodic framework, but lyrically and vocally distances herself from the passionate gravitas and gives us a cooler, more emotionally-detached performance.

Nation of Language

Nation of Language are a Brooklyn-based band who really lean into the 80’s aesthetic. Their sound heavily leans into the new wave milieu with an electronic, atmospheric sound. What really brings it into nostalgia is lead singer Ian Richard Devaney’s melodramatic, croon-y voice that captures new wave staples such as Morrisey, Simon Le Bon, and so many more. Influences that come to mind are the energetic, sharp synth beats of Devo, as well as the atmospheric, anthemic quality that Tears for Fears has.

“Across that Fine Line” really melds these two dynamics in their new wave homage, and doesn’t skimp out on the impassioned lyricism that makes the 80’s hit different. Here’s that sappy chorus:

And I’m watching you walk
Across that fine line
I died a hundred times
I reckon you could
Let it bleed
‘Cause I’m resigned

Beach House

Beach House has been making acclaimed electronic indie pop for over 15 years, and thankful for loyalists they did not overhaul their sound for the upcoming album “Once Twice Melody.” The Baltimore duo capitalize on their hugely successful hit “Space Song” and make another shoegaze-y, galactic track that could score your LCD trip to the Milky Way. In my mind, “Superstar” sounds like these slow-burn, new wave hits courtesy of Kate Bush and ‘Til Tuesday. The sounds differ in that they are more rock-based, but it’s more a mood thing. These songs make you feel like your life is a movie in the same way.

Beach House creates a similarly majestic or cinematic sound with their 6 minute track “Superstar,” however it gets there in a slightly different way with orchestral strings to create that expansive, dramatic feeling.

Sam Himself

Sam Himself, a Swiss transplant living in Brooklyn, embodies the new wave with the single “Nothing Like the Night” off of his debut album, “Power Ballads.” An aptly descriptive title, as Sam Himself delivers powerhouse songs through a combination of his Bruce Springsteen baritone and montage-ready, swelling arrangements. Here are two songs that, in my mind, are surely direct influences on Sam Himself and “Nothing Like the Night”

Alternative Rock Anthems

Some songs are just made for arenas: songs with the slow build-up, inspirational lyricism, and vocals that start soft but end in impassioned balladeering. They’re the kind of songs that are made with 10,000 swaying lighters (or more modernly, iPhone flashlights) in mind. And no matter what point in history, there’s always a place for a song with dry ice and light beams that brings the house down.

I’m sure I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a song that embodies the rock anthem as we know it today before The Who did it with Baba O’Reily.

Now that the genre has been established, enter Bruce Springsteen. The Boss made his brand on the kind of uplifting, heartland rock that Gen X’ers still get teary-eyed over.

Fast-forward to the 80’s: rock has died, pop dominates the charts. With synthesizers, disco, and the impending dominance of rap, rock has been relegated to the “alternative.” However, U2 is about to make the alternative mainstream with the worldwide sensation, “Joshua Tree.”

Into the 90’s, grunge and slacker culture dominate the rock scene and “the lost decade” doesn’t see enough action to inspire much of the glamor of arena rock. However, the 2000’s came along and The Killers with it. After initially making polished garage-rock for their debut album “Hot Fuss,” the group changes their sound for “Sam’s Town,” bringing back the anthem to the masses like it never left.

Now, today we’re seeing a little revival of acts picking up the mantel of where these stadium-fillers left off.

Sharon Van Etten &
Angel Olsen

Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen are two established rock stars in their own right. Long-time friends who formerly collaborated for a cover track on the recent Velvet Underground tribute album, the two team up again and recreate the vintage anthem. The song is a heavy dose of nostalgia, both in theme and in genre. There’s this tinkly music-box piano which creates a childhood-memory, reminiscent effect and there is the overt rose-tintedness of the lyrics:

Lighting one up like I used to
Dancing all alone like I used to
Giving it up like I used to
Falling in love like I used to

Open my heart like I used to
Making out long like I used to
Holding hands openly, rights to
Taking what’s mine like I used to

TORRES

TORRES, the stage name of Mackenzie Ruth Scott, embodies the sweeping emotion of an anthem song but with a different emotion. While “Like I Used To” was a dichotomy of the good times then and the bad times now, “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head” is about the love of someone who won’t commit to you. It’s romantic, but resentful; hopeful but defeating. Here’s the chorus:

I know promising forever’s not your thing
But now, if you don’t want me to go dreaming
Don’t spend your mornings and your evenings in my bed
If you don’t want me believing that you’re never gonna leave me, darling
Don’t go putting wishes in my head

Sam Fender

“Seventeen Going Under,” the title track of Fender’s second album tells of his experience attempting to financially support his mother after she couldn’t work due to illness. Having a tumultuous childhood, Fender takes that strife and flips it, making a cathartic ballad of identity and lessons learned. Fender cites Bruce Springsteen as a direct influence, and it’s evident.

Best Albums of the Year

While it’s one thing to make a single hit, but these artist put together cohesive albums that keep their zest through 9-12 songs. These are the albums of 2021 that are all rippers, no skippers.

1. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
On their third album, the London group doesn’t transform their sound so much as enhance it. With lush arrangements, overlaid vocals and slow-burn crescendos, Wolf Alice’s sound here is cinematic and simply big. While some songs are mosh-ready, hot and heavy punk songs (see “Smile” and “Play the Greatest Hits”), the album really shines with its emotional confessionals. Whether the songs are about taking back a cheater (“Lipstick on the Glass”) or a scathing attack on a man’s ego (“The Last Man on the Earth”), Ellie Roswell’s incisive lyrics and balladeering match the occasion of the dramatic compositions.
Favorite Track: The Last Man on the Earth
If you like: Alvvays, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

2. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
Annie Clarke with this album (and subsequent tour which I saw a show of) earned herself a spot on my list of “People Who I’d Thank for Punching Me in the Face.” Her sixth solo LP, Clarke reinvented her persona and look with a blonde shoulder-length bob and 70’s style; and the music matches. With inclusion of funk, soul and jazz to her typically experimental repertoire, Daddy’s Home is nostalgic but fresh at the same time. There is a distinct mood to the A-side versus the B-side, as Clarke starts the album with swaggering, sexy songs (see “Pay Your Way with Pain” and “Daddy’s Home”). However, the B-side is my personal favorite part of the album (maybe even because of the juxtaposition to the A-side) because it is more intimate and lounge-ier, with minimalistic instrumentation. This way, you’re more confronted with the lyrics of the song, such as Clarke’s reservations about motherhood (“My Baby Wants a Baby”) and a vignette about a 60-70’s transgender icon (“Candy Darling”) that are affecting.
Favorite Track: My Baby Wants a Baby
If you like: Weyes Blood, Alexandra Savior

3. Lunar Vacation – Inside Every Fig is a Dead Wasp
Lunar Vacation is a four-piece indie rock band from Atlanta, and IEFIADW is their debut. Though they have been releasing music since 2017, this is their first full-length album. The delay has served them well, as the album distinguishes itself from the typical indie rock album with it’s polish and eclectic-ness. Some songs have pop-sensibility (see “Mold” with a groovy bassline running through it, and “Cutting Corners” with a fast indie pop riff akin to heyday Two Door Cinema Club), while others are chill and contemplative (see “Making Lunch (Not Right Now)”).
Favorite Track: Mold
If you like: The Greeting Committee, Sjowgren

4. illuminati hotties – Let Me Do One More
What’s to love about Sarah Tudzin’s second album under the illiuminati hotties moniker is that you never get the impression that she is compromising or making any concessions (one song is titled “Mmmoooaaaayaya”). Every song you know is unabashedly her. Because she takes risks with every song, I don’t think they all hit; but the majority do and are a ton of fun. Tudzin makes high energy, irreverently humorous indie rock that is influenced by 00’s pop-punk (self-proclaimed “tenderpunk”). Some songs are more straight-forward pop-punk archetypes (see “Knead,” “Pool Hopping”) but some are more experimental. “u v v p,” featuring Buck Meek adds some Americana elements, while “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth,” a tribute to the idyllic “cool girl,” is a blistering shredder of pure punk. There’s even time to calm down with a slower track, “The Sway.”
Favorite Track: Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth
If you like: The Beths, Beach Bunny

5. Snail Mail – Valentine
Snail Mail, A.K.A. Lindsey Jordan, follows up her self-titled debut (which came out when she was 18) with “Valentine.” Jordan says she titled it “Valentine” because there’s “nothing more tender and innocent” than referring to someone as a valentine in a “love-lost” way. It is an apt way to title it, as Jordan relies almost exclusively on romance thematically. However, Snail Mail shows more range musically this time around. With R&B beats (“Ben Franklin”), Orchestral strings (“Light Blue”) and Synthesizers (“Forever (Sailing)”), Jordan graduates from lo-fi indie rock to good effect.
Favorite Track: Madonna
If you like: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus

6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Japanese Breakfast (A.K.A. Michelle Zauner) releases her third album in the wake of having written a New York Times bestseller. “Jubilee” as a title sets the tone for the buoyant, polished indie pop album. “Be Sweet” is the obvious radio hit, with catchy hooks and bouncy arrangements. It’s more subdued tracks still radiate charisma, equipped with toe-tapping melodies under Zauner’s intimate singing. (see “Slide Tackle,” “Savage Good Boy”)
Favorite Track: Be Sweet
If you like: Alice Phoebe Lou, Clairo

7. Remi Wolf – Juno
Wolf’s debut album is a fresh introduction. “Juno” is a slick pop album injected with humor, making it contagiously fun. “Sexy Villain” is basically a string of jokes about being hot and bad, “Grumpy Old Man” about being emotionally unavailable akin to curmudgeonly geriatric, and “Quiet On Set” is a self-assured homage to 00’s hip-hop (think “Run to the Sun” – N.E.R.D). It’s evident Wolf is enjoying herself in making these, and it’s infectious.
Favorite Track: Sexy Villain
If you like: [I dont know; what can I say – she’s one of a kind]

8. Durand Jones and the Indications – Private Space
Durand Jones’ group is exclusively his only by title, as it is really a two man co-ownership. In addition to Durand Jones’ Sam Cook-esque soulful vocals, there is also drummer Aaron Frazer, who released a solo album of real quality himself this year. Aaron Frazer joins in on lead singing on a couple of tracks (see “The Way That I Do” & “Ride or Die”). They make a complimentary pair, as Jones’ deep, scratchy vocals are juxtaposed by Frazer’s smooth falsetto, keeping every track interesting. The group follows what seems to be the natural progression for neo-soul groups: initially a 60’s Motown sound, and then progress into a 70’s funkier, sexier, disco-inspired album (see St. Paul and the Broken Bones & Leon Bridges). However, just because it’s been done doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t be appreciative.
Favorite Track: The Way That I Do
If you like: Leon Bridges, Black Pumas

9. Art D’Ecco – In Standard Definition
Art D’Ecco, hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, is a glam rocker that has a knack for hook. Derivative of acts like T. Rex and Sparks, D’Ecco’s debut album is a piece of 80’s nostalgia that is brazenly confident and danceable. Which is only expectected from an artist that has songs titles like “I Am the Dance Floor” in his debut.
Favorite Track: Head Rush
If you like: T.Rex, Sparks (redundant, I know)

10. Nation of Language – A Way Forward
Nation of Language’s second album isn’t really very different from it’s debut, but hey – when it works it works. The Brooklyn band isn’t really reinventing the wheel here, but it’s a damn good wheel. It’s synthetic, new wave 80’s pop, and although filled with artificial sounds, lead singer Richard Devaney’s empassioned croon adds the humanity to make all of these tracks welcome advancements on the sounds of groups such as New Order and Devo.
Favorite Track: Wounds of Love
If you like: Future Islands, Black Marble, machinegum

New Artists to Watch

Again I also wanted to highlight a couple of artists that are new on the scene, and I think we should expect some exciting stuff from them in the future.

Wet Leg

Wet Leg chose their name by simply toying around with different emoji combinations, and the water droplets and leg combined stuck for them. This is the kind of nonchalance that makes the duo from Isle of Wight, UK so compelling. They blew up immediately after releasing their first single, “Chaise Longue” which typifies their unbothered, self-assured humor. With post-punk guitar riffs like The Strokes but with the attitude of No Doubt, “Chaise Longue” is an emphatic introduction to the scene.

Wet Leg follow it up with their second released single, “Wet Dream.” Another bona fide hit that alternates between grooving and rocking out, it’s bounce-around fun that is suited for both the garage and the big stage, somehow.

Their self-titled full debut is released April 8, 2022.

CMAT

CMAT has made a liar of me to all the people I’ve told “I don’t like that modern, pop-country.” To be fair, no one has done it the way Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson (thus CMAT) is. Dublin-born, and never yet having been to Nashville, CMAT makes what she calls “basterdized” country music, describing her style as “Dolly Parton meets Weird Al Yankovic, mixed with Katy Perry.” It’s goofy but sincere, extravagant but down to earth. And most of all, it’s catchy. CMAT first came to my attention with the 2020 single, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!” which earned my ear by being based on an ICONIC vine:

“Oh, I wanna be a cowboy, baby

I wanna be a cowboy, baby

Spin round on the playground”

CMAT followed that up with “I Don’t Really Care for You,” a genuinely funny pop song about loathing both herself and the ex in the wake of an ended relationship.

I just spent seven hours looking at old pics of me

Tryna pinpoint where the bitch began

Somewhere after the Passion of Christ

And before I had an Instagram

In her latest single, CMAT warns herself against dating any more Virgos because they’ve all been bad news. Over 80’s synthesizers, she departs a little from the country genre but there’s no complaining from me.

Watch out for her full length album debut, February 25, 2022.

4 thoughts on “2021: A Music Odyssey

  1. Really great stuff here Ryan, thoroughly enjoyed it! You got a knack for these descriptions where you are able to make these foreign musical concepts understandable to a non musically inclined person as myself. Graphics look great, cool stuff with the big white font in front of an image of the artists. Also liked the inclusion of the “if you like” in the top 10 artists. Some great laughs in there as well, got an audible chuckle with ““People Who I’d Thank for Punching Me in the Face.” Looking forward to more content!!

    Like

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