In hindsight, I’m surprised we never talked about it.
Or maybe we did, but no one remembers anymore.
Either way, I can imagine exactly how it would have happened:
It’s late, the pre-dawn hours of another long Minnesota night, the promise of a new day just as brutally cold as those that preceded it, winter stretching out to infinity.
We’re in a nondescript room. If it’s notable for anything, it’s the sheer number and variety of stolen bar signs on the walls. Somewhere in Central Minnesota, Miller High Life tall boys are only $1 on Thursdays, but no one knows it.
We’ve been drinking for so long that we aren’t really drunk anymore, just exhausted, but still restless. At least one of us has an early morning class that probably isn’t going to go well.
Mike is drifting in and out of the conversation, absent-mindedly tinkering with some world-building video game no one else really understands.
Elliot is scrolling though his WinAmp library, mentally sequencing tracks for the next in his ongoing series of painstakingly curated mix CDs.
I’m flipping through an old issue of Spin, trying to figure out what trip-hop is and whether it sounds like something I would enjoy.
High Fidelity is on in the background for the hundredth time, sad sack Rob Gordon, our patron saint, whispering to the camera:
“Songs at my funeral: "Many Rivers to Cross" by Jimmy Cliff, "Angel" by Aretha Franklin, and I've always had this fantasy that some beautiful, tearful woman would insist on "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" by Gladys Knight. But who would that woman be?”
We still haven’t realized that Gordon is meant to be a cautionary tale, not a role model. Impossible. He’s too much like us: convinced that music holds the answers to all of life’s fundamental questions, equally convinced that we’re the only ones smart enough to realize it.
One of us, not even looking up: “What songs would you want played at your funeral?”
Elliot and I immediately take the question far too seriously. We suggest obscure songs no one else has heard. We immediately force each other to listen to our picks. We half-heartedly mock each other’s choices as either “sad bastard music” or “sentimental, tacky crap” depending on exactly how far into High Fidelity we are at that point.
Mike’s first answer is a joke, but he follows it up with a more well-known song, and we all agree that it’s actually a pretty solid choice.
Elliot and I then go right back to trying to one-up each other with the perfect answer, and under the right circumstances this debate could have preoccupied us for days.
A conversation like so many others; interesting in the moment, lost to history. Who even remembers? It meant nothing. Until it did.
This September, Mike died suddenly. It was a random, senseless death caused by the horrible, inherent fragility of the human body. There’s really no other way to contextualize it. It was monumentally, infuriatingly unfair.
That moody, directionless teenager I had met more than two decades ago would have been unrecognizable to anyone who knew Mike at the time of his passing. Grown-Up Mike had cracked the code. He was one of the few people I have ever met who seemed truly happy.
From a distance, his life looked like many others: a suburban dad working a nondescript office job. You know guys like that. A lot of them are huge bummers: bitter, resentful, trapped, and looking for any excuse to complain to anyone who will listen about their wife, their kids, their job, their lot in life, the cosmic unfairness of it all. Mike could not have been further removed from that tired stereotype.
This was the life Mike had always wanted, and he knew how lucky he was to have it. He loved his wife, adored his two sons, and wouldn’t have traded his home in suburban Minneapolis for anything. He knew every single one of his neighbors and always had time to grab a beer and talk.
You wanted to live next door to Mike. You wanted him in your fantasy football league. You wanted him as a co-worker. You wanted his kids to be friends with your kids. You just wanted him around.
Mike’s memorial service was held in a cavernous local megachurch, which seemed odd since he wasn’t especially religious, until I realized it might be the only place in town big enough to hold everyone who wanted to pay their respects.
I arrived in Minneapolis two days before the service and immediately took up residence at Elliot’s house, along with Adam, the fourth member of our inner circle and the one who had kept in closest contact with Mike over the years. I just needed to be around them. If we were together, Mike was still with us.
We told stories and tried to make sense of a senseless event. We called back to old jokes, revived old arguments, and tried to fill in the gaps of each other’s fading memories, reminiscing and laughing until someone’s face suddenly dropped, that terrible recurring moment when one of us remembered exactly why we were doing this. It was a gut punch every time.
At that moment, other people were doing the real work: preparing the church, printing the programs, cooking the meals, entertaining the kids. Out of that seemingly endless to-do list, Mike’s wife Kristi had asked us to do exactly one thing, and eventually, we set ourselves to the task we never thought we would actually have to undertake: choosing the music for Mike’s funeral. We decided to start at the beginning.
I met Mike (and Elliot, and Adam) during our first week of college. The fall of 2000 was a strange time for a group of young music obsessives, especially in a cultural backwater like St. Cloud, Minnesota.
I would have bet anything that the No. 1 song in America on the day I moved into the dorms was “Who Let The Dogs Out?” by the Baha Men. It wasn’t, but don’t tell that to literally every person on campus with a working stereo. (Our school mascot was the Huskies. Do you get it? Do you?)
This was a town where the pop radio stations edited rap verses out of R&B songs, where the big on-campus concerts were always fading bands several years past their primes.
I wanted more, and I took pride in surrounding myself with people who felt the same way. We knew that the music we were searching for was out there somewhere, but we also knew it wasn’t going to find us. Not here.
So we built our own world as best we could from the materials at our disposal.
We stayed up until dawn watching music videos on those weird cable channels that only seem to exist on college campuses. (I just googled The Box to make sure it was a real thing and not just a hallucination caused by excessive pizza roll consumption).
We devoured every garbage music magazine they carried at the campus grocery store. (Of course we needed to buy every issue of Blender, why wouldn’t you take your musical cues from the guys who brought you Maxim?).
We quickly mastered every new file-sharing platform in the post-Napster era (KaZaa, Limewire, Soulseek, and the greatest of them all, Audiogalaxy).
We searched dark corners of the internet and found leaked albums months before their release dates. We also found plenty of fake and mislabeled albums that we treated as genuine for far too long.
We stood in line in the cold to buy a new Dave Matthews Band album at midnight. (It was, even at the time, a massive disappointment).
We posted shamelessly over-dramatic song lyrics as AIM away messages, the kind more commonly associated with tween girls, and we eventually learned to differentiate between the times when the right response was, “Hey man, are you okay?” and when it was “Honestly, can you take that nonsense down before someone sees it? It doesn’t make you sound profound, just pathetic.”
In those days we lived in an eternal present, clueless about the future, expecting that one day it would simply announce itself. We spent so much time waiting for life-changing moments to happen, unaware that they were already happening constantly. We were making ourselves into the people we were always destined to be, but we were also making each other into the people we were always destined to be. And somehow, like, Jurassic 5 was also involved, and Zwan, and Vanessa Carlton, and hundreds of artists and thousands of songs that we never would have considered “life-changing” except that they were. They all were.
We loved music together, and in doing so, we learned to love each other.
Does that sound like a crutch? An indictment of the failures of modern male intimacy? Listen to me very carefully: I do not care. You can define love however you want. This was ours. If love languages are a real thing, mine is just different variations on “hey, have you heard this?”
Our only audience was each other, and there was a near-perfect equality among us. I trusted their opinions, and if I liked something I wanted them to like it too, but if they didn’t, it didn’t mean I had to stop liking it. It was just a fun argument, one that never ended and no one ever won. I could be my authentic self in those moments, even though I had no idea what my authentic self was, and in fact it seemed to change on a near-weekly basis. We never had to keep up appearances. We weren’t doing any of this because we thought it made us look cool. We knew it didn’t. We just really loved music.
To his great credit, Mike maintained this attitude for the rest of his life, and extended it to matters well beyond music. He truly did not care what anyone else thought of him. He was not using music as a vehicle for impressing people. He was never interested in the critical consensus, or the historical canon, or whatever new underground act all the cool kids were into this week. If anything, his natural inclination was to push back against all of that, to puncture anything he saw as overly pretentious. He listened to music because he liked music. Some of it was great. Some of it … wasn’t. So what?
For years, I fantasized about making the ultimate college playlist. Every few months, like the changing of the seasons, I would email Mike and Elliot with some new idea of how it would work. It was going to be chronological. It was going to be broken down by genre. It was going to be divided between songs we loved unanimously and songs we argued over. It was going to be songs we associated with different friends, different houses, different activities. Nothing worked. I spiraled. I abandoned the project only to pick it back up again, with a new concept that would be even more difficult to execute. With each passing year, memories faded. I’ve tried to put those memories into words and it’s never worked. I thought maybe I could express them through a perfectly curated, perfectly sequenced playlist, but somehow I couldn’t do that, either. It was always just fading memories that only a few people ever shared, and now there was one fewer person to share them.
It was this desperate energy that I brought to the task of choosing the music for Mike’s memorial. I wanted a perfect collection of songs that would take this jumble of half-forgotten memories out of my head, organize them into a coherent narrative with Mike at the center, and then broadcast that message to the world in a way that transcended every possible communication barrier. I will show you who Mike was. These songs will show you. Just listen.
We had so many songs to choose from, and maybe that was the problem.
We had this giant pile of puzzle pieces, but most of them didn’t fit together, and those that did weren’t forming the right picture. We could talk about the music Mike loved, and hated, for hours, but we struggled to find anything that fit this particular moment. Not the way it was supposed to. We needed weighty, poignant songs dripping with gravitas and deep, profound meaning.
Well, here’s what we had:
- Mike was at the center of countless inexplicable inside jokes. I can tell you that I smile whenever I hear Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities” or At The Drive In’s “One Armed Scissor” or even Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass.” But I can’t really tell you why.
- Mike never smoked marijuana once in his entire life, and he was weirdly proud of that fact. In spite of this, he loved every intro-level Stoner 101 band who ever existed: Dispatch, O.A.R., Rusted Root, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper. All of them.
- Mike loved Third Eye Blind. He loved “Semi-Charmed Life,” but hated the radio edit. Was it important that the gathered mourners understood that Mike believed that a twenty-five year old song about crystal meth should be longer?
- Mike appreciated the production genius of The Neptunes, and their godlike run of hits that lasted all through our college years, but I wasn’t going to be the one to suggest we play “Frontin’” or “I Just Wanna Love U” or “Lap Dance” in a church.
- Mike’s love of the Dave Matthews Band extended to just about any band who sounded anything like them. We spent far too much time plotting impossible road trips to the mid-south to see a cult regional band called Virginia Coalition, and we never missed a performance by our local DMB clone, Fade 2 Shade.
- Mike loved Ryan Adams. We all did. We were sad white boys in the early 2000s. It’s really too bad Adams turned out to be a garbage human being. I’m still not sure how we’re supposed to process that fact moving forward.
- Mike sincerely, without a drop of irony, enjoyed the music of the Barenaked Ladies.
None of it fit. The music of Mike’s life wasn’t the soundtrack for a funeral. Of course it wasn’t. Yours isn’t either. We could have put together a killer playlist for Mike’s 40th birthday party in minutes. This was so much harder.
Eventually, we cobbled together a few songs that seemed both appropriate for the setting and representative of Mike’s personal taste: Wilco’s “Jesus Etc.,” Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic,” Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere,” Sean Lennon’s “Home,” David Gray’s “Babylon,” Badly Drawn Boy’s “Once Around The Block.” (We also added a few of those questionably appropriate songs mentioned above. Jesus would understand.)
I’m proud of how it turned out. I’m also proud to have friends who would seriously consider the question, “Can we play ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ at a funeral?” and I’m even prouder to have friends who ultimately decided that, no, we should not do that.
As the mourners slowly filed out of the sanctuary, the church speakers lit up: an electric guitar jangling out a rapid series of chords, a background hum of distortion elbowing its way to the front of the mix, and, finally, a clattering rush of drums: Gaslight Anthem’s “The ‘59 Sound.”
It was a song we all loved, one of those post-college discoveries that kept us connected, one of those “stop what you’re doing and listen to this right now!” texts that it was just as much fun to send as it was to receive, one of those unexpected moments when, out of nowhere, the world suddenly got a little bit brighter.
I don’t even remember whose discovery it was. Every new song immediately belonged to all of us. And if those overdriven guitars may have seemed out of place in such a somber setting, the lyrics met us right where we stood: It’s a song about death, sure, but more than that it’s a song about songs, a song about music as one of life’s constants, as a comfort until the very end:
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?
In a sea of people who all loved Mike in different ways and for different reasons, it was a tiny moment just for us.
I can’t tell you the first thing I said to Mike, or the first thing he said to me. That’s probably okay. We met playing touch football outside the freshman dorm, so it’s unlikely to have been anything especially profound.
I can, however, tell you the last thing I said to Mike. It isn’t especially profound, either.
We didn’t talk every day. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from him for a few weeks. Then, out of nowhere, several hundred messages trying to determine that year’s official “Song of the Summer.” Then nothing for a month.
In the days leading up to his death, however, Mike and I had been in constant contact. I had been planning a trip to Minneapolis, my first time back in Minnesota in more than two years.
I was going to arrive on a Thursday. We had all made plans to hang out on Friday.
Mike passed away on Monday.
Still shell shocked and grieving, I took stock of my weekend itinerary, still packed with events that, in any other context, would have been fun. I had relatives to visit, other friends to see … and I had tickets to two concerts: Pinkshift and Torres.
Even then, I had a pretty strong suspicion that Torres’ “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head” would end up as my Song of the Year, and I had been so excited to see it performed live at one of my favorite venues in the Twin Cities, 7th Street Entry.
So I can tell you the last thing I said to Mike, because it’s the last message before the group text went dark:
Certain facts hadn’t changed, but they had. I still had tickets to see Torres, but now I had tickets to see Torres the night before Mike’s memorial.
As the day drew closer, I only felt more confused. Should I go to the show? Could I go to the show, or would I just melt into a puddle of grief the second it started? Was I being selfish? What would Mike want? What would honor his memory? Was I making this all into a bigger deal than it needed to be? Was obsessing over it just deflecting the pain I was feeling?
I went to the show. I told myself it’s what Mike would have wanted, and that’s probably true, but that’s not why I went. After a year and a half of lockdown, I was starving for live music, for the rush of its immediacy, the comfort of its community.
And I went because it seemed like Torres might have the answers to some big questions I didn’t know how to ask.
A brief introduction for the uninitiated: Torres is the creative vision of a Florida-born, Georgia-raised, New York-based musician named Mackenzie Scott. I had been a passive admirer of Scott’s work as Torres for some time (“Cowboy Guilt” came it at #27 on 100 Songs for 2015), but it had never fully resonated with me. She was unquestionably talented, but her music just seemed to be made for someone else. A word cloud created from reviews of previous Torres albums would likely include some combination of: “raw,” “stark,” “jagged,” “chaotic,” “brooding,” “stripped-down,” “introspective,” “dark,” and, as if required by law, “PJ Harvey.”
That all changed in 2021. Almost overnight, everything Scott touched seemed to glow as if lit from within. She announced a new album, and its lead single was “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head,” an endorphin rush of a song pulsating with shimmering optimism. She gave starry-eyed interviews where she talked about conjuring deep joy and radiating that joy outward to others. She fawned over her longtime partner, the artist Jenna Gribbon, and spoke of how they had built a home and a steady foundation, how their love was changing the way she interacted with the world around her.
With each giddy new single (first “Hug From A Dinosaur,” then “Thirstier”), Torres seemed to fall more and more out of step with the prevailing global mood of crushing despair. The world hadn’t changed. If anything, its harrowing descent into darkness had only intensified. But, somehow, Scott had changed. She and her partner built a home in a kingdom of joy, then threw open the doors to anyone who wanted to enter.
I wanted to know how she did it, and I wanted to know if I could do it, too. “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head” is an incredible song, full stop. But it’s even more incredible because it’s a Torres song. In the midst of a global pandemic and a climate change nightmare and everything else, an artist previously known mostly for dark, moody introspection woke up one morning and chose joy. Not Carly Rae Jepsen, not Lizzo … Torres. For Mackenzie Scott, this was a step into the unknown. I wanted to take that step, too.
I don’t know what I thought would happen at the show, what it would mean to experience these joyous new songs in such a raw, fragile state, in the city where I was born, a city that inspires deep, conflicted emotions in me even on my best days.
This was not one of my best days.
I asked so much of Torres that night. I wanted to leave overwhelmed with her deep joy, ready to properly mourn and celebrate my friend. I didn’t get anything like that.
The show was a mixed bag. Even in a tiny club, it didn’t sell out. Masks were required, as they should have been. Still, there is no getting around the fact that wearing a mask is a constant reminder that something out there in the world is still very wrong. Yes, you may be at a concert, and that’s nice, but this concert is a single good thing in an ocean of bad things. And I thought about Mike pretty much the entire time. How could I think about anything else?
The band sounded pretty good. The new songs crackled with energy, and the old songs felt reinvigorated in a live setting. The show was as bright and loud and immediate as any other show, but it felt flat, like we were out of shape as an audience, like we didn’t know what to do with this performance taking place literally inches from our faces.
The band played “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head” early in the set, and I stood in the front row and tried to call down transcendence. I had to settle for excellence, a great song performed capably by talented musicians. It wasn’t enough. Given the circumstances, nothing would have been. I felt myself giving in to disappointment. I had been looking for something that one song, even a great song, couldn’t possibly have been expected to deliver.
Except, somehow … it did.
I don’t know if Mike ever heard “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head.” It seems unlikely. I think he probably would have liked it, but that’s because I can’t imagine anyone not liking it. It wasn’t one of those songs where I immediately thought, “oh man, Mike is gonna love this.”
Still, thanks to a combination of horrible tragedy and random chance, this song that he probably never heard will always make me think of him.
It doesn’t really fit, just like none of those memorial songs really fit, either. (I mean, it’s a song that references calling off a funeral in the first line.) It’s a song about romantic love, about expectation and hope and uncertainty and the electricity of daring to believe that the future you want may finally be within your grasp.
But on another level it’s about choosing joy in a world crumbling around you, building a life around the people who love you no matter what else might be out there lurking in the darkness, and in that sense it’s a song that fits Mike perfectly.
When I think of Mike, no single image comes to mind, because so many of them were so similar: a cheesy grin so big that the veins in his neck stuck out, a smile that looked ridiculous, a smile that he knew looked ridiculous, and that’s why he did it, because once you saw him like that, you couldn’t help but smile, too.
I don’t know how, exactly, he turned into that person, or when. I can’t claim that a lightbulb went off for him late one night, sitting on a second-hand couch, picking at stale pizza crusts, listening to me trying to convince him that Rings Around The World by Super Furry Animals was a modern masterpiece while Elliot provided the counterpoint that I was a hipster doofus who couldn’t help but fall in love with any overhyped band I read about in a British music magazine. (Both opinions are correct.)
All I can say for sure is that those nights helped turn me into the person I am today, and for that I will always be thankful.
I think Mike became the wonderful human being he was in the same way Mackenzie Scott found a way to conjure her deep joy in the midst of a world-historically awful year: by choosing to build his life around the people who cared for him the most. It makes me so incredibly happy to think that I was a part of that.
Tell your friends you love them, everybody.
And then force them to listen to a song you suspect they’ll probably hate.
I can’t stop thinking about that conversation that might never have happened, what I might have said back then and what I would say now. There’s a part of me that still identifies with Rob Gordon whispering in that church, convinced that the right song at the right time can remake the world. So:
Songs at my funeral: I just want that one perfect song to close the ceremony. I’ve narrowed it down to two options:
If I want people to leave in a state of pure emotional wreckage, it’s Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl.”
If I want people to leave on a more resilient note, heartbroken but focusing on the good times, I want the DJ to slowly fade in on Spiritualized’s “So Long You Pretty Thing” starting at the 4:00 mark so it hits full volume at 4:17, and then just loop the last three and a half minutes for about an hour. You won’t get sick of it. I never have.
100 Songs for 2021: Notes on the Process
- Only 2021 releases are eligible.
- Singles released in 2020 from albums released in 2021 are eligible if they weren’t on my 2020 list (Katy Kirby’s “Traffic!” is eligible, Bleachers’ “Chinatown” is not).
- I went back and forth on the (Taylor's Version) re-releases. They are great. I love them. For me, they are not 2021 songs.
- I have imposed a limit of two songs per artist. Almost every artist who hit that limit had more than two deserving songs, but special mention here goes to Torres (“Thirstier”), Camp Trash (“Weird Carolina”), Lucy Dacus (“Hot & Heavy”), and Olivia Rodrigo (“Driver’s License”).
- Even beyond that two song limit, I used artist diversity as a tiebreaker for making tough cuts. There are quite a few artists who probably deserved a second song, but I think a more diverse list is more representative of my year. Those especially squeezed this year include Wolf Alice (“How Can I Make It Okay?”), Japanese Breakfast (“Savage Good Boy”), Tigers Jaw (“New Detroit”), Manchester Orchestra (“Keel Timing”), Wet Leg (“Wet Dream”), and Snow Ellet (“Brick”).
- I generally avoid covers and live material, though I will make exceptions. Spanish Love Songs’ take on Death Cab For Cutie’s “Blacking Out The Friction” came closest to making this year’s list, but Worriers’ cover of New Pornographers’ “Letter From An Occupant” is also great.
- I included release dates and album titles because I did that last year, and I am a creature of habit.
- I’m repurposing some of the content from my Monthly Mix posts and my reviews over at The Singles Jukebox, so if you’ve been following the blog all year, you might not get quite as much new material as previous 100 Songs posts.
- Finally, as I did last year I tried to shut everything else out and make this a list of my favorite songs, nothing else. I chose album tracks over singles if those were the songs I liked the most, and I tried to avoid making this a Year In Music survey. Plenty of interesting, important work by talented artists didn’t make the cut if, for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate with me personally. Apologies to Jazmine Sullivan, Snail Mail, Turnstile, The Armed, and Halsey. I guess you’ll have to settle for near-unanimous acclaim from publications that people actually read.
- As always: Thanks for listening, thanks for understanding.
(1) Torres - “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head”
Release Date: May 12
What else can I say, it’s a . Also, I think we’ve exhausted every possible argument about whether Spotify Wrapped is good or bad, but it’s definitely not wrong.
(2) Wolf Alice - “The Last Man On Earth”
Album: Blue Weekend
Release Date: Feb. 24
I was so obsessed with this song when it came out that I actually wrote two different reviews. This is the one I submitted to The Singles Jukebox. This is other one:
“The Last Man on Earth” premiered on February 24 at 7 PM. It was a Wednesday. It had been a hard day. I don’t remember why. There have been a lot of hard days. Covid. Winter. Darkness. Isolation. I hadn’t moved from my desk in hours, and I hadn’t been outside since before sunrise. I listened to “The Last Man on Earth” for the first time, thinking about how badly I wanted that light to shine on me, seething about just how far away that light felt. Before I fully realized what had happened, I was out the door, and I wandered the dark, empty streets of Amsterdam listening to this song on repeat for almost an hour, slowly realizing that it was not meant to provide any easy comforts. Lyrically, Ellie Rowsell pulls no punches, and there’s no obscuring the song’s message: Get. Over. Yourself. Musically, though, the song’s intimate-then-anthemic structure recasts Rowsell as a concerned friend and softens the message to something more like “you need to get over yourself because that would be better for you.” Somewhere in those repeated listens it dawned on me that my ambient anger about the state of the world and my conviction that I somehow deserved better was actually pushing me further away from that light. The unspoken optimism at the heart of this song is that we can choose to let go of that feeling of unearned entitlement at any time. Whether any of us will, though, remains to be seen.
Yes, I voluntarily cast myself as the song's villain. It's been a long year. Either way, it’s a .
(3) Julien Baker - “Hardline”
Album: Little Oblivions
Release Date: Jan. 13
For me, depression manifests itself as darkness, either a darkness slowly closing in around me or the light draining from whatever is directly in front of me. This is sometimes literal (winter is hard), but it can also be figurative (feeling that darkness on a bright, sunny day can be hardest of all). I’m drawn to artists who also see the world that way. There’s a point in Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, where one of the characters says that “We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness,” and that line has haunted me ever since. Equally haunting is the closing stanza of “Hardline”:
Say it's not so cut and dry
Oh, it isn't black and white
What if it's all black, baby?
All the time
That one hits home. It’s a .
(4) Camp Trash - “Bobby”
Album: Downtiming (EP)
Release Date: Jan. 15
I'll be honest: despite the existence of the t-shirts, I did not actually believe that Camp Trash was a real band. I really thought it was just some kind of weird inside joke for a small corner of music Twitter, that Keegan from The Alternative was in this band that no one had ever heard but that was secretly awesome. Then they started putting out songs (real songs!) and every single one of them was amazing.
I know we all beat the word "parasocial" to death this year, and I know I'm not actually friends with the people I follow on Twitter, but I'm just so proud of them. Camp Trash Is A Real Band And They Are My Favorite New Band Of 2021.
(Also, it would be great if I wasn't the only person who spent the year mashing up "Bobby" with Taylor Swift's "Betty": "Bobby I won't make assumptions about why you crashed your Trans Am but I think it's 'cuz of me." We all did that, right? That's normal.)
(5) Illuminati Hotties - “Threatening Each Other re: Capitalism”
Album: Let Me Do One More
Release Date: Sep. 8
This is the last blurb I have to write. I’ve done the other 99 and I’ve finally come back to this one. There’s something about this song I can’t quite explain, something profound and heartbreaking, something personal and universal at the same time, something that lays bare the horrors of capitalism better than any catchy slogan.
You can hear it in the way Sarah Tudzin doubles her vocal on the second half of the line “Maybe before the year ends, I'll catch up on fashion.” It sounds like exhaustion, like resignation. It’s a line sung by someone who knows, beyond any doubt, that she will never actually catch up on fashion, that she will always have to worry about how other people see her, even on a simple deli run. It’s that weariness, that knowledge that the conveyor belt will never stop, that we will always have to keep up with some new trend, navigate some new challenge, process some new information.
I’m still not explaining it right. I’m tired, too. It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m already thinking about work tomorrow, the job I can never quit, the rent that will always be due, the expenses that will keep accumulating, the knowledge that I will also never catch up on fashion, or technology, or the stack of books on my nightstand, or anything. And, in exchange, as compensation for that feeling of constant not-enough-ness, capitalism will occasionally grant me minor conveniences. Isn’t that genius?
(6) Katy Kirby - “Traffic!”
Album: Cool Dry Place
Release Date: Feb. 19
Just a delightful shape-shifting song where I constantly find myself thinking "This is my favorite part! ... No, wait, this is my favorite part!" "Traffic!" was a late 2020 single, but I missed it until hearing it as part of Kirby's consistently magical 2021 full-length Cool Dry Place. A significant amount of the best music of 2021 is being made by people trying to overcome the trauma of growing up deeply religious, homeschooled, or both.
(7) Brandi Carlile - “You And Me On The Rock” (feat. Lucius)
Album: In These Silent Days
Release Date: Oct. 1
Tempted to run a quick command-C, command-V on the blurb above because hey, another great song made by someone trying to overcome the trauma of growing up deeply religious, but Carlile deserves a long reflection all her own.
In These Silent Days seems like a record that exists outside of time. It’s as comforting in 2021 as it would have been in 1971 (if Carlile meant for the album to function as a 50th anniversary tribute to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Carole King’s Tapestry, mission accomplished). “Right On Time” might be getting the Grammy love, but for me the standout has to be “You And Me On The Rock,” a Bible story tweaked to focus on the real-world relationships that truly form the foundation of our lives.
(8) We Are The Union - “Make It Easy”
Album: Ordinary Life
Release Date: May 20
Adorable, aggressively queer ska revival from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Now that you've read that description, you already know whether you love or hate this band. I am firmly in the former camp.
(9) Telethon - “Positively Clark Street”
Album: Swim Out Past The Breakers
Release Date: Jul. 22
Telethon (from Milwaukee) enlisted Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris (from Minneapolis) and Franz Nicolay (from NYC, but has honorary Minnesotan status due to his involvement with The Hold Steady) for a song about how Chicago kinda sucks sometimes. This song is so Midwestern it absolutely has some leftover hot dish in the fridge if you're hungry.
Also, Telethon have now become pioneers in the field of using classic 90s song lyrics as album titles. I've spent way too much time thinking about this, and my favorites so far range from Man It's A Hot One to Ambition Makes You Look Pretty Ugly, but I would love to hear your suggestions.
(10) Strand of Oaks - “Jimi & Stan”
Album: In Heaven
Release Date: Aug. 6
If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve met my dog, Ginger. She has probably snarled at you and then, seconds later, flopped onto her back to demand belly rubs like “oh, who even remembers all of those past unpleasantries.” Since we adopted Ginger as an adult dog, we don’t really know how old she is, but we can say with some certainty that she is between twelve and one thousand years old. I know that she won’t live forever. I know this. And I’ve tried to prepare myself for this eventuality, but I know I’m not ready, and I have no idea what form my grief will take. If I’m lucky, it will be something like Strand of Oaks frontman Tim Showalter’s, who honored the passing of his beloved cat by (a) imagining a world where Stan meets Jimi Hendrix in heaven and the two proceed to have a series of wholesome, low stakes adventures (“making friends, going to shows”), and (b) writing a soaring tribute song so breathlessly anthemic that you’ll feel like you’re ascending to paradise right alongside Stan.
On one hand, this is a deserving candidate for Song of the Year. On the other hand, this is the highest I can possibly rank a song that makes me choke up every single time I hear it.
(11) Torres - “Hug From A Dinosaur”
Release Date: Jun. 16
I thought long and hard about giving Torres the top two spots this year. It would have been deserved. I'll let Ilana take the lead on explaining what makes this one so thoroughly delightful, but just a suggestion to all the indie bands out there: why not write more glam-rock songs?
(12) Me Rex - “Galena”
Release Date: Jun. 2
Every year, The Singles Jukebox runs what they call Amnesty Week, where each writer can suggest a previously unreviewed song for consideration. This was my selection. It hasn’t run yet, but here is my review:
It's only a gimmick if it doesn't work. From distortion to scratching to Auto-Tune, artists have consistently found innovation in taking the emergent technology of the day and twisting it to their own creative ends. It was only a matter of time before someone took on our all-streaming, all-shuffling Spotify overlords, and in 2021 this task fell to South London upstarts ME REX. After a series of promising EPs whose dense, melodic confessionals borrowed the best bits of Los Campesinos! and Frightened Rabbit, the band swung for the fences with Megabear, a cinematic collection of fifty-two vignettes (most around thirty seconds long) made to be experienced on shuffle. From that swirling soundscape emerged "Galena," the album's nominal single, created by piecing together five representative sections. I think I could probably come up with a better five-song sequence (there are more than three hundred million possibilities, but consider "Crystal Palaces" - "Tin" - "Pulled Apart" - "Reclaimed From The Water" - "Moon Rising"), but that isn't a criticism; that's the whole point. 
(13) Lucy Dacus - “VBS”
Album: Home Video
Release Date: May 19
Someday, Lucy Dacus is going to write a novel that I will truly never recover from. Because this song is three minutes and fifty-seven seconds long, and I feel like I have lived with these characters for years.
(Also, please listen to the Greatest Podcast of All Time.)
(14) Japanese Breakfast - “Be Sweet”
Release Date: Mar. 2
Chuck Klosterman used to do a bit about the difficulty of comparing art across disciplines:
This is the opening line of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “You are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time of the morning.” Think about that line in the context of the novel (assuming you’ve read it). Now go to your CD collection and find Heart’s Little Queen album (assuming you own it). Listen to the opening riff to “Barracuda.” Which of these two introductions is a higher form of art?
Which of these two introductions is a higher form of art?
The fact that you can ask a very similar question about two works of art released by Michelle Zauner just this year makes my brain start to melt down: This is the perfectly realized album Jubilee. This is the perfectly realized memoir Crying in H Mart. Which of these is a higher form of art? I don't know and I don't care.
(15) Mitski - “Working For The Knife”
Album: Laurel Hell
Release Date: Oct. 5
Every so often, I'll be writing a review for The Singles Jukebox and realize that I'm just using the song as a pretext to write about myself. I usually don't submit those. Here's what I had for "Working For The Knife":
Years ago, during a particularly intense period of self-doubt, I dropped out of the MFA program I was attending, “temporarily” shelved my dream of pursuing writing full-time, and began the process of acquiring a “real” job. As decisions go, it actually turned out pretty well for me. I don't think I'd take it back, but I still think about it almost every day, that I took the easy way out, that other people were writing the books I should have been writing. It makes me feel a little bit less lonely to know that other people struggle with similar thoughts, but to know that even Mitski does (Mitski!), and that she struggles with them while turning them into haunting, layered (Is that a mandolin in there?) instant classics like "Working For The Knife" is almost too much to process. I guess the knife comes for us all. 
(16) Tigers Jaw - “I Won’t Care How You Remember Me” (feat. Andy Hull)
Album: I Won't Care How You Remember Me
Release Date: Mar. 5
(17) Manchester Orchestra - “Telepath”
Album: The Million Masks of God
Release Date: Apr. 27
These two bands will always be linked in my mind, and not just because Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull sings on the Tigers Jaw record. Both bands debuted in 2006 and built cult followings without me paying them the slightest bit of attention. Both bands broke through for me, personally, in 2021, and I have thoroughly enjoyed digging through both of their back catalogs. Both bands were in heavy rotation for me when I returned to California at the end of April to get vaccinated, and in that sense they are the sound of the darkness starting to clear, just a little bit.
(18) Olivia Rodrigo - “Brutal”
Release Date: May 21
I turned 40 this year, and I think that means I’m supposed to transition to that point in my life where I start saying that everything was so much better when I was a kid, but I just can’t do it. Because sure, back in my day we also had manufactured, corporate, Disney-spinoff teen pop stars, but they most definitely did not open their debut albums with thrash-along tenderpunk anthems attacking the very system that created them. It turns out that parts of the future are okay after all.
(19) The Hold Steady - “Me & Magdalena”
Album: Open Door Policy
Release Date: Feb. 19
It seems like the critics have settled on "Spices" as Open Door Policy's standout track, but I'm going with non-single "Me & Magdalena" for a few reasons.
One, I can see very clearly how this song will be performed live: Craig will do this kind of exaggerated sputtering, confused look during the "first they're into KISS, then they're into Crust" section, which will transition into a halting, bad-on-purpose dance break for the "the record that the DJ played, they didn't move us like thе way the used to make us movе" section.
Two, the way all of the angular rhythmic elements smooth out when they get to the "told her she should probably prepare to be let down" section is one of those "black and white film turns color" moments that always feel like magic to me.
Three, like so many of the best Hold Steady songs, it's told in the first person but about someone else. There's a Me, for sure, but this song is about Magdalena, and that kind of present-but-removed narration always adds a fascinating element to the storytelling.
(20) Cassandra Jenkins - “Hard Drive”
Album: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Release Date: Jan. 20
I can't describe this song in a way that doesn't make it sound absolutely horrible: it's got, like, a smooth jazz vibe, and a heavy reliance on spoken word sections, and the title turns out to be a kind of play on words, and ... look, you'll just have to trust me that, despite everything I just said, this is a great song.
(21) Camp Trash - “Weird Florida”
Release Date: Oct. 20
I just love these weirdos so much. While we're here, let's all try to manifest this into reality for 2022:
Camp Trash write Weird Minneapolis ft Craig Finn challenge— just Dave (@davelebies) November 26, 2021
(22) Remember Sports - “Sentimentality”
Album: Like a Stone
Release Date: Apr. 23
For years, I felt like I didn’t enjoy Remember Sports as much as I was supposed to (their Fans Also Like section on Spotify is pretty much just a list of all my favorite bands), but ... wow. I get it now. This is a great pop song that just keeps adding layers of guitar effects.
(23) Snow Ellet - “Wine On The Carpet”
Album: Suburban Indie Rock Star (EP)
Release Date: Jul. 27
Eric Reyes has eight original songs to his credit, and every single one is great. With a little luck, that album title won’t be tongue-in-cheek for much longer.
(24) Wormy - “Hungry Ghost” (feat. Samia)
Release Date: Apr. 22
Several unrelated thoughts about "Hungry Ghost":
This is a backhanded compliment, but it is a perfect Better Oblivion Community Center impression, with Samia in the Phoebe role, singing about pissing her pants, while Noah Rauchwerk channels Conor Oberst, throwing out fake proverbs like "Well I think there's only one constant / That's nothing is for sure."
It's position here also serves as belated recognition for Samia, who has been on quite a roll lately but has never appeared in 100 Songs ("Show Up" was very close this year).
I love when songs reference other songs. Here, the line "I think they got it right in that country song / That you're better than your past" is a nod to Jason Isbell's "Elephant," and if you're going to stand on the shoulders of giants, those are some good shoulders to pick.
(25) Church Girls - “Separated”
Album: Still Blooms
Release Date: Aug. 18
The most Philadelphia band on this list, which you know I mean as a massive compliment.
(26) Alex Lahey + Gordi - “Dino’s”
Release Date: Feb. 12
It’s East Nashville’s oldest dive bar! Anthony Bourdain went there in 2016! Bon Appetit named it one of the Top 3 Burgers in the country! And now there’s a great song about it!
Every detail in this song is fun, but I think:
There was a greatest hits on the stereo
There was a nun drinking her doubt
There was a young boy making promises
To a Dolly Parton cardboard cutout
Is just a perfect little vignette of dive bar life.
(27) Bleachers - “Stop Making This Hurt”
Album: Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night
Release Date: May 18
Jack Antonoff walks down the street. It's a street in a strange world. Maybe it's the third world. Maybe it's his first time around.
Now that I think about it, we were due for a "You Can Call Me Al" update, and I'm glad Antonoff was able to take time out from his busy schedule of producing literally every song in the entire world to make that happen. (My money was on Ezra Koenig.)
(28) Caroline Polachek - “Bunny Is A Rider”
Release Date: Jul. 14
It's in the Burn Your Hits bylaws that I have to declare a Song of the Summer (if no winner is chosen, it defaults to "Steal My Sunshine"), but I don't remember a single thing about this summer. Did we have a summer? Did I go outside? Stereogum gave the honor to "Be Sweet," but that doesn't feel right to me.
So, congratulations Caroline, it's yours. (And, while we're here, congratulations on the whole "Pitchfork Song of the Year" thing.)
(29) Little Simz - “Introvert”
Album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Release Date: Apr. 21
Simbiatu Ajikawo’s sprawling, orchestral vision is a lot to take in all at once, but it’s worth your time to put in the effort. Her Tiny Desk is also fantastic.
(30) Elle King & Miranda Lambert - “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”
Release Date: Feb. 26
This isn't the best song of the year, but it's the song that best accomplished what it set out to do. This song is drunk, and it does not want to go home. It's a .
(31) Pillow Queens - “Rats”
Release Date: Sep. 16
It is almost impossible to capture the energy of a live performance in a recording studio. (For instance, Phish has released fifteen studio albums and they still haven't done it.) Pillow Queens absolutely nail it here. This is the sound of getting a beer spilled on you and not even being mad.
(32) Bad Boy Chiller Crew - “Don’t You Worry About Me”
Release Date: Feb. 18
Every year there is one song that I fall in love with despite knowing that every single person I play it for is going to hate it. This year, it’s BBCC. I have never been more sure that I was going to be the high score on The Singles Jukebox, possibly by a wide margin. It still puts a huge smile on my face. It still makes me want to go out and crash an ATV.
(33) Spanish Love Songs - “Phantom Limb”
Release Date: Jul. 14
I don't know if it's possible for lyrics to cause physical pain, but:
We sat in front of the TV
As the news report came in
Another fucking manifesto
I polished off the vodka, you dug for some Vicodin
Our phones lit up at the same time
You said the body count don't phase you
You're still terrified to die
Just not as much as you are used to
(34) Home Is Where - “Assisted Harakiri”
Album: I Became Birds (EP)
Release Date: Mar. 5
It’s not just chaos for chaos’s sake - frontperson Brandon MacDonald has described the album as the retelling of their gender transition - and maybe that’s why it works so well. There is a small pocket of Twitter that absolutely would not shut up about I Became Birds, and I'm thankful for them because this didn't grab me at first, but now I love it. It's more abrasive than I normally enjoy, but the hooks are there. Would be incredible live.
(35) PUP - “Waiting”
Release Date: Nov. 9
One of the biggest choruses of the year, and a fun opportunity to break out Google Translate:
Sunday mornings, coffee with your friends before your French lessons
And me, I je ne sais pas, I'm still working on that passive aggression
200 bucks a week to talk about my lack of direction?
I've got a bit of a complex, in case that wasn't clear from the last three sessions
(36) Mdou Moctar - “Afrique Victime”
Album: Afrique Victime
Release Date: May 21
As a kid growing up in Agadez, a desert village in rural Niger, Moctar built his first guitar from wood and bicycle cables. Decades later, globally recognized as a virtuoso on par with the all-time greats, Moctar still plays with the joy of that kid who just wanted to make noise however he could.
(37) Magdalena Bay - “Chaeri”
Album: Mercurial World
Release Date: Jun. 30
In which I spend way too much time talking about geography.
(38) Olivia Rodrigo - “Good 4 U”
Release Date: May 14
Great song. Great Switched On Pop. Please stop giving away your songwriting credits, you are only making a broken intellectual property system even worse. Great Tiny Desk. Great Instagram Live with Phoebe Bridgers.
(39) Wet Leg - “Chaise Lounge”
Release Date: Jun. 15
In June, DORK magazine heard “Chaise Lounge” and, on the basis of that one song (the only Wet Leg song in existence at that time), declared Wet Leg “QUITE CLEARLY THE BEST NEW BAND ON THE PLANET.” The band has more songs now, and I don’t know if DORK’s claim is correct yet, but it’s definitely not wrong.
(40) Teenage Sequence - “All This Art”
Release Date: Jun. 1
Every time I listen to this I bump it up about five spots in the rankings, so let's lock it here before it ends up as my Song of the Year and just confuses the hell out of everyone. Let me be the millionth person to compare this to LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge," but let me also add that this is better (and funnier). If you're the kind of person who might not appreciate music that Stereogum referred to as "twitchy," I still suggest you go read the lyrics.
(41) Lil Nas X - “Industry Baby” (feat. Jack Harlow)
Release Date: Jul. 23
This was originally supposed to feature Nicki Minaj, and it would have been a fun experiment to see if Lil Nas X’s charisma and accumulated cultural goodwill could overcome the negativity surrounding both Nicki and Kanye. I say yes - there’s really nothing he can’t do right now.
(42) Alien Boy - “The Way I Feel”
Album: Don’t Know What I Am
Release Date: Jun. 15
Don't Know What I Am, the band’s fantastic new record, has been described as both "Galaxy 500 meets Blink-182" and "Guided By Voices meets Gin Blossoms." If neither of those descriptions piques your interest, you probably aren’t going to find much you like on this list.
(43) Signals Midwest - “I Used To Draw”
Release Date: Mar. 23
Frontman Max Stern describes it as "a two-and-a-half-minute punk rock song about making space to immerse yourself in things you loved before you had to grow up and figure out how to monetize your time," which is either inspiring or demoralizing depending on how successful you actually are at making that space.
(44) Rosie Tucker - “Barbara Ann”
Album: Sucker Supreme
Release Date: Apr. 20
The singular joy of hearing a song for the first time, thinking "yeah, this is a pretty good chorus," and then slowly realizing "wait ... this is just the pre-chorus, here comes the real chorus." It's like that little pause at the top of a roller coaster. Happens between 1:00 and 1:10 here, and I still get chills every time I hear it.
(45) Slaughter Beach, Dog - “Do You Understand (What Has Happened To You)”
Album: At The Moonbase
Release Date: Dec. 24 (2020)
I have come full circle on this, and I now have a grudging respect for bands who release albums at what seem to be the worst possible times. Releasing your (consistently wonderful) album on Christmas Eve, when no one is online, after every year-end list has been published ... It's a power move. Who cares about strategically positioning your album. If it's good enough, people like me will find a way to shoehorn it into their lists anyway.
(46) Future Teens - “Guest Room”
Album: Deliberately Alive (EP)
Release Date: Feb. 5
"Bummer Pop" is just such a great fake genre name, I wish I'd thought of it. Future Teens make great, original music, but you already know that if you're reading these blurbs as you listen to the songs. They are also masters of the cover song. Deliberately Alive ends with a layered indie version of Cher's "Believe" and last year's Sensitive Sessions EP included an appropriately plaintive take on Smash Mouth's "All Star."
This makes sense, as the members of Future Teens are also part of a collective called Something Merry who curate indie cover compilations for worthy charities. 2018's EMO*TION reimagined CRJ's masterpiece to raise money for Immigration Equality, while 2019's ReRed beat Taylor to punch by two years, raising money for the Equal Justice Initiative. ReRed is an especially fascinating compilation, as it includes six bands who also appear on 100 Songs for 2021 (Wild Pink, Weakened Friends, Hit Like A Girl, Adult Mom, Future Teens, and Telethon), as well as two others (Chris Farren and Dan Campbell from The Wonder Years) who have appeared in the past.
(47) Kitner - “Beth Israel”
Album: Shake The Spins
Release Date: Jul. 29
Every so often, listening to new music makes me think about roads not taken, the kind of person I would have been if I had heard specific songs at specific times. This happens most often with emo. I mean, I was a lonely white boy who lived in the upper Midwest and read too many books. If someone had handed my teenage self Something to Write Home About by The Get Up Kids instead of, like, Dark Side of the Moon or whatever, I am confident that I would be a completely different person today.
As a band, Kitner proudly wears their influences on their sleeve, and if their music sounds like a bunch of guys who love The Get Up Kids made a record that was mastered by a guy who also worked on Japandroids records, well, that's exactly what it is. And, at this point in my life, Shake The Spins is just a really good record that I enjoy listening to. But it's so easy for me to imagine a much younger version of myself hearing this album and thinking everything is different now.
(48) Harmony Woods - “Good Luck Rd.”
Album: Mar. 12
Release Date: Graceful Rage
Back in March a few in-the-know people I follow on social media started talking about this secret album that was about to drop, and how incredible it was. People started speculating on what big-name indie band it might be. It turned out to be Harmony Woods' Graceful Rage, which was a slight disappointment to me since I had never heard of Harmony Woods and so, by definition, any album they put out was a secret album to me. That disappointment lasted about ten seconds into the album opener, "Good Luck Rd." It's a fantastic record from start to finish. (And if, like me, you are not an expert in hyper-local Philadelphia geography, you should know going in that "Rittenhouse" is about a local park and not, y'know, the other guy.)
(49) Rostam - “4Runner”
Release Date: Mar. 2
Rostam's music always has a dreamy quality to it, and it's interesting how often he matches that with lyrics explicitly about falling asleep ("Bike Dream," "Osaka Loop Line," etc.). It's not boring, just deeply comforting.
(50) Ratboys - “Go Outside”
Release Date: Mar. 1
This was apparently written pre-Covid, but it is truly a song for our lockdown age, when "I wanna go outside again" and "I wanna float off with the angels and pick a fight and win" seem like equally lofty ambitions. I am by no means the first person to say this, but I hope "Go Outside" is the precursor to Ratboys just going full country on their next album.
(51) Semler - “Thank God For That”
Release Date: Apr. 23
Over time, the phrase “doing the Lord’s work” has come to mean “doing something I like,” but Grace Baldridge placed two EPs at the top of the iTunes Christian Music charts this year, bookending a single whose first line is “I’m fuckin’ gay” and which sounds like Rilo Kiley. They are truly doing the Lord’s work.
(52) Flight Mode - “Sixteen”
Album: TX, ‘98 (EP)
Release Date: Jun. 25
In 1998, sixteen-year-old Sjur Lyseid moved from Norway to Texas and immersed himself in a very specific emo-adjacent scene. Almost twenty years later, he recorded a four-song EP in an attempt to capture the feeling of that time and place. After another four years, he finally put that EP out into the world. While Lyseid calls nostalgia "the most destructive, most overused and most poetic emotion I know," his EP says otherwise - in the right hands, it can be a force for good.
(53) Fresh - “My Redemption Arc”
Album: The Summer I Got Good At Guitar (EP)
Release Date: Apr. 19
Like many of my favorite artists, Kathryn Woods has consistently found a way to turn blinding rage into sing-along pop songs. If we're still just projecting things into the world: Fresh/Martha Tour 2022.
(54) Hit Like A Girl - “Monsters” (feat. Bartees Strange)
Album: Heart Racer
Release Date: Mar. 16
Sort of the house band for a transgender non-profit called No More Dysphoria, in that frontperson Nicolle Maroulis runs both of them. Hard to pick a favorite from Heart Racer, but "Monsters" is an especially good intro to their sound. If you like this one as much as I do, go check out the full album.
(55) Pinkshift - “Mars”
Release Date: Apr. 2
Since I attended a grand total of two concerts in 2021, and we've already talked about the other one at some length above, I think it's fair to say that Pinkshift was my Concert of the Year. (Congrats, you guys!) Ashrita Kumar continues to set the entire world on fire, and the fact that they are opening for PUP next year makes me legitimately fearful for the audience's safety (in the best way possible).
(56) Telethon - “House Of The Future, Pt. 4”
Album: Swim Out Past The Breakers
Release Date: Aug. 20
This is a great song from start to finish, but there's a tiny moment of reflection in here that comes closest to verbalizing a feeling I've had a lot this year but haven't been able to explain. The song's protagonist reflects on the view from his window: the lights of an airplane hangar in the distance. There's nothing especially notable about it. But then he pauses before delivering the verse's final lines:
And I don’t know why that thought broke me down
But long story short, it did
If I could sum up 2021 in a single mood, it would be that one: suddenly being overcome by emotion and having absolutely no idea why. It's great.
(57) Phoebe Bridgers - “Kyoto” (Glitch Gum Remix)
Release Date: Aug. 19
I fully expected the novelty of this one to wear off midway through my second listen, but if anything I have only become more fascinated with it over time. If I ever buy DJ equipment, as I've been threatening to do for some time now (pretty sure it's part of the citizenship process over here), this is absolutely going to be in my set. I would listen to Glitch Gum remix all of Punisher.
(58) Jessie Ware - “Please” (Single Edit)
Album: What's Your Pleasure?: The Platinum Pleasure Edition
Release Date: Apr. 28
Officially the ninth single from What’s Your Pleasure?, and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch, but the fact that “Soul Control” still isn’t one of them is legitimately shocking.
(59) Charli XCX - “New Shapes” (feat. Christine and the Queens, Caroline Polachek)
Release Date: Nov. 4
Your move, Carly Rae, Clairo, and CL.
Or, I don’t know, Claire Boucher, Cardi B, and Chappell Roan? There are a lot of possibilities here.
(60) The War On Drugs - “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” (feat. Lucius)
Album: I Don't Live Here Anymore
Release Date: Sep. 15
May we all love one thing as much as Steven Hyden loves The War on Drugs.
(61) Sun-El Musician - “Higher” (feat. Simmy)
Album: African Electronic Dance Music
Release Date: Sep. 17
It’s over eight minutes long, and I kinda wish it was longer. Do I finally understand dance music now?
(62) 2nd Grade - “Favorite Song”
Album: Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited
Release Date: May 18
In which the band’s press release pretty thoroughly summarizes every word I’ve written on this blog over the past thirteen years.
The stories we tell ourselves through pop music often fail to square up with the facts of our predicaments, but sometimes they can make us feel a whole lot better.
(63) Fortitude Valley - “All Hail The Great Destroyer”
Album: Fortitude Valley
Release Date: Aug. 27
As a place, Fortitude Valley is a suburb of Brisbane, Australia. The official Brisbane tourism website refers to it as “a contradiction in itself – raw, yet sophisticated […] where elegance and style meet grungy and offbeat.” As a band, Fortitude Valley is the creative vision of Brisbane native Laura Kovic, who enlisted half of the best band in the world (Martha!) to write and record a collection of summery indie pop songs, including this one, an ode to her rescue cat, Maggie.
(64) Little Simz - “Point and Kill” (feat. Obongjayar)
Album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Release Date: Sep. 1
The Duality of Little Simz. While "Introvert" was a sprawling, orchestral masterpiece, overstuffed with ideas and always moving in several directions at once, "Point and Kill" is a model of simplicity, with Simz and Obongjayar riding a minimalist groove so smooth it feels like it could go on forever.
(65) Weakened Friends - “Tunnels”
Release Date: Nov. 1
I'll keep saying it until someone suggests a better answer: The Best Band In The History Of Maine.
(66) Dim Wizard - “Believe In The Magic”
Release Date: Oct. 7
Exciting side project from Bad Moves’ David Combs, it’s a long-distance writing project where Combs works with a completely different cast of characters for each song.
(67) Evan Greer - “The Tyranny Of Either/Or”
Album: Spotify is Surveillance
Release Date: Mar. 31
On the one hand, it's exciting that so many trans artists are vocally standing up for their rights. On the other hand, it's horrifying that they still have to do that. Until things improve, we're lucky to have Greer, whose Spotify is Surveillance is nothing but hooky rage, complete with awesome song titles like "Emma Goldman Would Have Beat Your Ass." "The Tyranny Of Either/Or" kicks off with a Sylvia Rivera sample and then immediately takes the fight to the transphobes. As if the music wasn't enough, Greer is a powerful writer and the deputy director of a digital rights non-profit. Rivera would be proud.
(68) MUNA - “Silk Chiffon” (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)
Release Date: Sep. 7
Part of me hopes that they were actively pandering for a spot on a future CVS Bangers playlist.
(69) Adult Mom - “Breathing”
Release Date: Mar. 2
Splits the difference between Waxahatchee and Imogen Heap, which is right in the sweet spot for me. What should have been a victory lap after the March release of Driver was cut short in July when Adult Mom founder and frontperson Stevie Knipe announced that they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Based on their Twitter feed, it seems like Stevie is hanging in there (and, as of this writing, ranking their favorite lyrics from evermore) but not totally in the clear yet.
(70) Lucy Dacus - “Brando”
Album: Home Video
Release Date: Jun. 8
While the recovering Jesus kids like me will naturally gravitate toward “VBS,” I totally get why the recovering A/V Club kids go with “Brando.” If I had to pick a Lyric of the Year, I think I’m going with:
You called me "cerebral"
I didn't know what you meant
But now I do, would it have killed you
To call me pretty instead?
(71) Illuminati Hotties - “Pool Hopping”
Album: Let Me Do One More
Release Date: Jun. 10
We focused on the softer side of the IH project above, but songs like “Pool Hopping” still represent what Sarah Tudzin does best: evoking a fun, cool, creative version of Los Angeles that almost definitely doesn’t really exist.
(72) The Hold Steady - “Heavy Covenant”
Album: Open Door Policy
Release Date: Jan. 8
There is a quote, which I now cannot find and possibly just made up, that the definition of "cool" is the ability to be dropped into a strange city and immediately find drugs. The protagonist of "Heavy Covenant" doesn't sound especially cool (He sells software made for offices! It increases their efficiency!), but at least he's doing his best to satisfy my one possibly invented criteria.
(73) Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen - “Like I Used To”
Release Date: May 20
*runs through town ringing bell* SPRINGSTEEN-OFF! IT'S A SPRINGSTEEN-OFF!
(74) The Mountain Goats - “Mobile”
Album: Dark In Here
Release Date: Apr. 19
In putting this list together, I have learned that John Darnielle and I have the same favorite Bible verse, Jonah 4:11,
And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?
although I'm not exactly sure we interpret it the same way. If any of you would like to have a long, emotional conversation about the Book of Jonah, well ... it's a very short book, and I have a lot of thoughts.
(75) Gregor Barnett - ‘Don’t Go Throwing Roses In My Grave”
Album: Don’t Go Throwing Roses In My Grave
Release Date: Nov. 9
It was a big year for punk frontmen turning to quieter solo projects, with Barnett (The Menzingers), Dan Campbell (The Wonder Years) and Brian Fallon (Gaslight Anthem) all experimenting with different forms of introspection. Barnett's Decemberists-inflected folk turn is my favorite of the bunch so far, and I'm looking forward to the full album next year.
(76) Hiss Golden Messenger - “Hardlytown”
Album: Quietly Blowing It
Release Date: Apr. 20
Meanwhile, M.C. Taylor has been providing consistent folk excellence for more than a decade. If he's been holding to some raw punk demos, I say now is the time!
(77) Downhaul - “Standing Water”
Release Date: Apr. 13
Frontman Gordon Phillips put together a really touching photo essay breaking down every line in this song, so I think I’ll just defer to him on this one.
(78) Dave - “Clash” (feat. Stormzy)
Album: We're All Alone in This Together
Release Date: Jul. 9
It doesn’t matter who you are, Stormzy is going to steal your spotlight.
(79) Dazy - “The Perfect Crime”
Release Date: Aug. 20
Like many of my favorite albums this year, it’s a collection of big loud fuzzy songs that some guy just recorded in his house. We’ve given every bedroom genius the tools to realize their vision, now we just need to give them a way to get paid for it.
(80) Agnes - “24 Hours”
Album: Magic Still Exists
Release Date: May 21
In 2005, Agnes won Swedish Idol. In 2009, she finished eighth at Melodifestivalen, the yearly contest that determine's Sweden's Eurovision entrant. In 2021, I gave her a  for this song. These are all roughly equivalent accomplishments.
(81) Charli XCX - “Good Ones”
Release Date: Sep. 2
The discourse around this song makes me feel insane, because pretty much everyone else thinks this is one of the best choruses Charli XCX has ever written, whereas I think it's the weakest part of the song. The synths, the drums, all awesome. The chorus ... is okay. (Also thought about swapping the original out and replacing it with the Perfume Genius remix, which is fantastic.)
(82) Wild Pink - “Family Friends”
Album: A Billion Little Lights
Release Date: Feb. 19
A Billion Little Lights is such a warm, comforting record. It’s lack of a standout single (apart from “The Shining But Tropical,” which made my top ten last year) hurts its positioning on lists like this one, but it has been a real calming influence on me this year.
(83) Grrrl Gang - “Honey, Baby”
Album: Honey, Baby (EP)
Release Date: Feb. 17
(84) Mo Troper - “The Expendables Ride Again”
Release Date: Sep. 30
Troper's Dilettante somehow crams twenty-eight songs into just under fifty minutes, and even that doesn't really capture the sheer density of hooks on the album. Just about every song leaves you wanting more.
(85) Mannequin Pussy - “Control”
Album: Perfect (EP)
Release Date: Mar. 23
Earlier this year, Rolling Stone updated its list of the 500 best songs of all time, a process in which they ask several hundred music-adjacent people (artists, writers, critics, etc.) to submit a personal list of fifty songs. Some individuals chose to make their lists public, including Mannequin Pussy frontwoman Marisa Dabice. Her list starts off with:
- Rage Against the Machine - "Bulls On Parade"
- Mariah Carey - "Heartbreaker" (feat. Jay Z)
- Selena - "Dreaming Of You"
I can't imagine any of those would make my personal list, but that might be the fastest I've ever looked at part of a playlist and thought, "yes, I would enjoy hanging out with this person."
(86) Pom Pom Squad - “Drunk Voicemail”
Album: Death Of A Cheerleader
Release Date: Jun. 25
Sarah Tudzin should just produce every song. I will keep saying this until it happens.
(87) Johnny Football Hero - “Sister Hellen”
Album: Complacency (EP)
Release Date: Apr. 23
TELL HIM HE PLAYED A GREAT GAME! TELL HIM YOU LIKED HIS ARTICLE IN THE NEWSPAPER!
(88) Hurry - “How To Cope”
Album: Fake Ideas
Release Date: Jun. 25
From my favorite record label press release of the year:
“With their previous two full-lengths Guided Meditation (2016) and Every Little Thought (2018) the band earned praise from critical fixtures like Pitchfork, NPR, Stereogum, and more, as well as more unusual accomplishments like having one of their songs in heavy rotation in Gap stores. “It wasn’t even an upbeat song,” Scottoline says. “It was a pretty somber one. Why would people want to shop with that on?” Gap Inc. has subsequently closed a majority of its stores. There is no data showing the two are linked.”
(89) Yasmine - “Pega Nha Mon”
Release Date: Aug. 13
Currently the second-highest scoring song of the year on The Singles Jukebox. I didn't review it, but wow do I get it. Yasmine is a Portuguese artist working in a tradition that can be traced back to Angola and the Cape Verde islands, but which also has infiltrated a lot of Brazilian dance music. This song is the entire world.
(90) Indigo De Souza - “Hold U”
Album: Any Shape You Take
Release Date: Jul. 21
Nothing delights me more than bizarre stories about the making of an album. Reading that “around the same time that she recorded her upcoming sophomore record Any Shape You Take, De Souza left her adopted hometown of Asheville, North Carolina and moved to a nearby church in the woods” just makes me love it so much more.
(91) Gang Of Youths - “The Angel Of 8th Ave.”
Album: Total Serene (EP)
Release Date: Jun. 15
Band moves from Sydney to London, writes a song about, as far as I can tell, New York City. There are elements of just about every over-the-top, stadium-rock-anthem band of recent decades: U2, The National, Arcade Fire, The Killers, Gaslight Anthem … how many more influences can you spot?
(92) Kacey Musgraves - “Justified”
Release Date: Aug. 27
Star-Crossed isn’t the masterpiece that Golden Hour was (or, I don’t know, maybe it will grow on me, who am I to question Kacey?), but it certainly has its moments.
(93) Prince Daddy & The Hyena - “Curly Q”
Release Date: Oct. 21
Several years ago, I saw Prince Daddy open for Oso Oso upstairs at Paradiso. They were fun but sloppy, and it seemed like they were more about bringing non-stop energy than actually writing songs. Well, they have absolutely proved me wrong. This is beautiful.
(94) Maggie Lindemann - “Crash And Burn”
Album: Paranoia (EP)
Release Date: Jan. 22
The easy sell is that Alex Lahey co-wrote this and it sounds like The Veronicas. Done. I am in.
The more complicated, psycho-sexual sell is that Lahey co-wrote it with her current partner, Gordi, and it's absolutely savage. Just imagine you and your partner, sitting at the kitchen table on a lazy weekend afternoon. One of you suggests the couplet "In a web of your lies / Didn't give me a good reason why." The other suggests "Felt a knife in your back / Yeah, you thought I was the killer / You're lookin' in the mirror." You talk about updating some of the furniture in the guest room. Just normal couple stuff.
(95) Foxing - “Go Down Together”
Album: Draw Down The Moon
Release Date: Apr. 15
In which I get basic facts wrong about an album I called an "instant classic."
(96) Bachelor - “Stay In The Car”
Album: Doomin' Sun
Release Date: Mar. 24
Melina Duterte of Jay Som and Ellen Kempner of Palehound team up to bring back The Pixies. The year’s best song about falling in love with a woman you saw yelling at her boyfriend in a parking lot.
(97) Pale Waves - “Easy”
Album: Who Am I?
Release Date: Jan. 13
In the same way that you'll always view your younger siblings as kids long after they've become adults, I will alway think of Pale Waves as a band you see at a tiny club, or an insultingly early festival slot. Meanwhile, in the real world, their new album debuted at #3 on the UK charts. I still want Heather and the gang to take over the world, but it's going to feel really weird when they do.
(98) Beabadoobee - “Last Day On Earth”
Album: Our Extended Play (EP)
Release Date: Mar. 24
As Bea explains it, "'Last Day on Earth' is about all the things I would have done had I known we were going into a lockdown." It begins with lyrics about killing someone and burning down a church, so ... let's maybe keep an eye on her once things finally open up for good.
(99) Noods - “Donkey Kong”
Release Date: Feb. 2
Further evidence for my theory that great new bands are giving themselves the dumbest possible names in order to keep me from listening to their music. This seems counterproductive and I wish they would stop doing that.
(100) Kitten - “American Football”
Album: Personal Hotspots
Release Date: Feb. 26
Somewhere in our multi-verse, there is an alternate timeline where Chloe Chaidez is the biggest pop star in the world, not just the girl from Charli XCX’s fake Making The Band project who seemed to be there against her will.