33 1/3 for 2021
(01) Lucy Dacus - “Hot & Heavy”
Let me remind you all that Lucy Dacus was the best songwriter in boygenius. And I would gladly die on this hill, but I won’t have to because Dacus’s body of work will exterminate all opposition! This was the first song I heard from the new album, and it's still my favorite. The lyrical part of the song has a crescendo of sorts but it’s not any kind of resolution. “It’s bittersweet to see you again”—that’s obvious from the start. So Dacus glides into an instrumental that ties it all up. There are two or three other tracks on this album that rival this one, and I’m not going to bother to include them in this list, they might all be tied for second. That’s what happens with her albums, she so fucking good at writing songs. I know there will come a day when I don’t fall for the new album from Dacus, but I’m psyched for a good long run until that happens.
(02) Morgan Wade - “Wilder Days”
This is such a perfect country song, I can’t understand how it didn’t make a bigger splash, especially with Jason Isbell rooting her on. I guess it’s not “family friendly,” but good country usually ain’t, amiright? Basically this is a why-don’t-you-get-drunk-and-kiss-me song. Maybe a little splash of awkward age-difference. Anyway, “You say I am too young for you / You're scared I'm too right for you” is hardly explicit for popular music these days. “What were you like when you were a little wilder? / Why don't you show me? / Why don’t you show me / What you were like when you got a little higher? / Just for tonight …” That’s just so good.
(03) Torres - “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head”
Any song that is this great to listen to and delivers this powerful of a message is a keeper (one member of the household thinks it should be on the top of *every* list). I remember after this song came out I listened to it for weeks. Then I sent Aaron one of those “dude, this track SO rocks!” emails. He said he might see her show while on a trip home … and my God I’m so sorry about what happened. But I didn’t know about that awful turn, and I just kept listening to this track and smiling. Mackenzie’s voice used to turn me away, and even on this album it often doesn’t inspire me. But her distinctive tone turns out to be exactly perfect to deliver a line like, “I know promising forever’s not your thing / but girl if you don’t want me to go dreaming …” It’s just magic. This is one of those songs it's hard to believe hasn’t been done before. If you told me Willie Nelson did this 40 years ago I might believe you.
(04) Cherym - “Listening To My Head”
Cherym are girls from Derry who look and sound exactly like what should have been season 2 of Derry Girls. Impossible not to be a fan of this.
(05) Lunar Vacation - “Shrug”
This track is like chili con carne for me. It’s not an intellectual experience. Is it groundbreaking, or even novel? Can’t say so. Do I love it just the way it is? Absolutely yes. More, please!
(06) girlhouse - “knuckle tattoo”
Simple with a capital S, but it comes together perfectly. I wouldn’t have expected to like a mix with these guitars right in front and the vocals phased out, but it works great here. The internet says this is “bedroom pop” and I have not a damn clue what that means. Another track I could listen to for lunch every day with a smile on my face.
(07) ME REX - “Galena”
I understand why there’s a lot of talk about how this single was put together from the “album,” if that is the right word for it. Whatever the reasoning behind the refusal to add any kind of transition between the four or five separately recorded pieces in this, it works well enough. We (or I should say “we old timers”) grew up on radio edits of ten minute rock songs. So even if I’m a generation past these folks, I’m on board.
(08) girl in red - “Serotonin”
In the universe of songs about depression this stands out as brutally frank and hyper-informed. I appreciate that. Other than deciding you just can’t have pop songs about depression, it seems worth it to get past the initial shock of how explicit it is. I mean, some folks have intrusive thoughts that are really bad. That’s why it’s a dangerous disease. It can’t all be lyrics like “I have intrusive thoughts / like, what if he doesn’t text back?” There’s a YouTube version where she just sings it acapella in an atrium, and it is probably better that way. Regardless, I’m going to classify this as “bedroom pop” because it could also be sung in a bedroom.
(09) Wet Leg - “Chaise Lounge”
If this list was the wittiest songs of the year, here’s your number one. Bonus points for showing up for Popscene and HOLY SHIT I ACTUALLY SAW THEM LIVE THIS YEAR (in what now looks to be trough between delta and omicron, ugh). No, the crowd did not chant along to “I went to school and I got the big D” so that’s a little disappointing, but typical for San Francisco.
(10) Arlo Parks - “Too Cool”
This year my go-to chill album was Arlo Parks. There is nothing not to like about this track.
(11) Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen - "Like I Used To"
For indie music fans this is a generational anthem. Every time I heard “Under Pressure” this year I thought of this. OK, I’m not comparing them to Queen and David Bowie, just saying that their collaboration instantly seems like destiny.
(12) Kynsy - “Happiness Isn’t a Fixed State”
I was a little conflicted about the Strokes-centric sound here, until Ciara Lindsey said, in effect, she was going for that feel because she is a big fan of the Strokes. I guess liking this track is flattery of the Strokes, too. But consider, dear reader, this is far better than 90% of what the Strokes have put out this decade.
(13) Mannequin Pussy - “To Lose You”
There were months this spring where I was obsessed with Mare of Easttown. This led me to think that everyone was intensely following the minutiae of the show, including the wonderful Mannequin Pussy cross-promotion. In hindsight, this was one of those “everyone I know was so excited about this, how did all those other artists win the awards?” situations. OK, so Mannequin Pussy is not the new Taylor Swift. Probably not the new Phoebe Bridgers, either. Fine. They still put out some great songs this year!
(14) Something for Kate - “Cardigan (Triple J Like A Version)”
I have a point to make here, so tuck in. Taylor Swift is a great songwriter, but if she joined a band, it could be the greatest band on earth. Consider: Something for Kate is a *competent* Aussie indie band (yes, that is faint praise but appropriate). This is a “live in studio” recording, no reworking, no reimagining, and nothing beyond the grasp of a competent, veteran group. It’s just, hey she did this song, here’s us playing it. And it KILLS. When I imagine how many of Swift’s recent songs could have turned into all-time great recordings, if she just had to work with other players who would make independent contributions to the arrangement … And instead, she has moved in the opposite direction. For example, she dropped the producers who used to push her a bit and turned to Jack Antonoff, the Mr. Smithers of contemporary music. John Lennon was a fine songwriter. When he joined a band, it became the Beatles, for Christsake. I’m saying Swift could give us a new Beatles, but won't. This is probably capitalism’s fault. Fuck capitalism.
(15) Orla Gartand - “You’re Not Special, Babe”
“Everyone else wants to get right back to the chorus.” What a genius line, what a killer chorus.
(16) Olivia Rodrigo - “good 4 u”
I think the first time I heard this was when she performed on Saturday Night Live. How curious to see this teenage princess decked out in immaculate brand names perform in front of five older studio musicians. It’s like the *least* punk thing that could ever happen. I turned the corner on this track by making fun of it—telling a friend it sounded like David Geffen decided to make the ultimate Avril Lavigne album. But when I had a moment to reflect, I thought, “What would I do if, like David Geffen, I had 10 billion dollars and every contact in the music business?” Well for one thing I might say, “Sign up one of those Disney girls, I want to make the greatest Avril Lavigne album ever!” So yeah, I shouldn’t disparage this. I learned that her parents are big fans of Green Day and boy, does that ring true. Separately, this track has about 1.2 billion listens on Spotify. How do such numbers make sense? That’s roughly the number of English-speaking humans currently alive.
(17) illuminati hotties - “Pool Hopping”
Our favorite tenderpunk has a real album out this year, with lots of new directions. To be honest though, it’s this, the least surprising track on the album, that I like best.
(18) Grrrl Gang - “Honey, Baby”
My favorite band from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, AFAIK. Bonus points for proving my thesis that the premise of the “indie” genre(s) is that if you can write good songs, you don’t need virtuoso technique or novel production tricks. Wishing all the best for Angeeta, Edo, and Akbar, wherever you are.
(19) dodie - “Cool Girl”
This is dodie’s first album for a label (she’s a YouTuber), and I’m not sure there’s any justification for that, other than that she’s so popular why not have a label pay to do it in a studio? Does sound great, though. To me, dodie sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel. She’s from Essex, the east side of London; he’s from Surrey, the west side. I wonder if that’s like saying to someone from Queens that they sound like they’re from Newark. Probably should have kept that all to myself.
(20) Brandi Carlile - “Broken Horses”
Our ROCK portion of the list begins with a masterclass from Brandi Carlile.
(21) Citizen - “I Want To Kill You”
This might be a guilty pleasure. Pardon the laziness, but we’re in need of pleasures so I can’t be bothered to decide whether to be guilty about it.
(22) Iron Chic - “Catgut”
This track might never have made it on my contenders list but for the fact I visited their bandcamp page, which reads: “Iron Chic is a decent band from Long Island, NY. They play songs that are acceptable.” You automatically earn five listens just for that. That’s how I grew to like this.
(23) Pom Pom Squad - “Drunk Voicemail”
In a similar way, “produced by Sarah Tudzin” gets you five automatic listens, too.
(24) PONY - “Couch”
Sometimes folks write on this blog about bands they’ve been aware of for years and then finally put a new track on a year end list. Well this is my example where I can say that. I think Toronto would be a fun place to visit, if we ever resume cross-border travel without spacesuits.
(25) Bartees Strange - “Weights”
It’s so impressive when an artist who absolutely cannot be put in any genre sees some success. Thanks to Lucy Dacus for helping me find this one. Unclear to me whether this truly counts as a 2021 track. Maybe it is a version of something released earlier? Well it’s new to me and I enjoyed it a lot this year, so I’ve not much motive to find a reason to disqualify it.
(26) Bachelor - “Back Of My Hand”
It was touching to hear about two artists who wanted to work together and so they simply got together in the same place and did it. Not by Zoom, not using Dropbox, just actually in the same space. It seems like such a luxury. Happy with the result, too.
(27) Arlo Parks - “Hurt”
I could (did) just very quietly groove to this album all day long.
(28) bikini - “Clay Pigeon”
Earworm. That’s the only justification. These lyrics are so sloppy it must be hard to perform them. Maybe he can just improvise them live or whatever. My favorite “who cares?” performance of the year.
(29) The Mountain Movers - “Flock Of Swans”
If I had picked five of my college friends who were the most serious about being in a band, and gave them the ability to put together their ultimate performance, it would sound just like this. It’s like 1990 in a time capsule, only more 1990 than 1990 could ever have been. How this was released in 2021 is a mystery to me. Did all of my college friends have kids and raise them specifically to be in this band? In any event, good to see more folks recognize that The Verlaines are the blueprint.
(30) Samia - “Show Up”
In 2021, it seemed like every single person was thinking “why can’t I just *not* show up?” about once a day. This year, the line “Nothing could ever stop my ass from showing up” rang out like a declaration of defiance. Even if, literally, it was never true at all.
(31) dodie - “Hate Myself”
For a minimalist like dodie this track is a stadium rock anthem. Tough to choose between “Cool Girl” and “Hate Myself” but “Cool Girl” was out first so I listened to it more.
(32) Amy Shark feat. Travis Barker - “C’MON”
Amy Shark writes these songs that I don’t really understand, and I keep listening to them thinking there’s got to be some narrative or subtle resolution zooming over my head. But I can’t find it. “Here are some bad feelings I had. I arranged them in a song!” It’s like the whole album could be called It Sucks To Be Amy Shark. I’m starting to think maybe she wouldn’t disagree—that’s her voice and she’s not forcing anyone to listen to it. Anyway, this is what I think about when I’m listening to Amy Shark.
(33) Allison Russell - “Nightflyer”
The more I listen to this, the darker it seems. Not sure why I wanted this to be edifying or liberating or something, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t. What a perfect soulful voice though.
(33 1/3) Taylor Swift - “State Of Grace (Taylor's Version)”
I agree with Aaron that Swift’s re-recordings are not really in the spirit of this list, but I wanted to make a gesture of appreciation that they exist, so I awarded this a 1/3 spot on the list. Fearless and Red are such good albums and these recordings are fantastic. This year I really enjoyed listening and reminiscing.