Friday, December 3, 2021

Top Songs of 2021

The beginning of this year looked incredibly different from today: Since January, we've watched the world unfurl after having been caught in gridlock for months. As the wheels of society start to turn once again, nature might just be healing. After all, in the last few months alone, anti-vaxx spokesperson Nicki Minaj's cousin's friend became impotent after his COVID vaccination, Mariah Carey took over literally the entire McDonald's menu, and Kristin Stewart delivered a legitimately brilliant performance as Princess Diana. Crazier things have happened, my friends!

As artists focused on returning to the road and Tik Tok continued to pull songs out of relative obscurity and back into public consciousness, this year certainly won't be remembered for its quantity in music releases. These fifteen artists, however, delivered some incredible new material.


“Justified” captures a pivotal moment in Kacey Musgraves’ fourth studio record, Star-Crossed – the moment when she accepts an impending divorce and begins to process how it all went to shit. In many songs before it in the track listing, she tries to mitigate the threat; in most after it, she digests and moves forward. Despite what the Grammy Award determined in their arbitrary ruling, the song is a progressive spaghetti western of sorts, layering a solid beat over a sizzling steel guitar.


We owe quite a bit of gratitude to whoever inspired Avril Lavigne to recommit herself to pop-punk. Even as someone who very much admires her 2013 record, I can admit that "Bite Me" is the most spirited and determined she seems since The Best Damn Thing. "Hey you, you should've known better, better than to fuck with someone like me," she declares in a sucker-punch chorus. (Hell yes!) The song barrels through its short runtime, but every second is exhilarating.


When Halsey announced a rock record in collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, I managed my expectations – and dare I say, I underestimated what the group of musicians could accomplish. Though somewhat uneven, If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power ultimately exceeded assumptions of Halsey's capabilities. Slathered in distorted guitars and delivered like a self-confrontational conversation, "You Asked For This" is among the best on the record. It faces Halsey's then-impending motherhood and morphing celebrity: "Well, go on and be a big girl. You asked for this now. Go on and be a big girl, or everybody's gonna drown you out."


A divisive song by an even more divisive artist, “White Dress” isn’t for the meager listener. Residing right along the line of her chest and head voices, Lana Del Rey nearly teeters her way through the torchy midtempo. Painting a fantasy self-portrait of herself as a young waitress at a music business convention, she exercises her underutilized falsetto against the fuzzy guitar and distant piano behind her. Blurring what could be reality and fantasy, it exemplifies the songwriting that keeps Lana Del Rey an intriguing artist as she continues to transform into a much different artist than we met almost a decade ago.


“Maybe it’s a fantasy, maybe it’s a bad attitude. But anyone can be Bunny, at least for three minutes and seventeen seconds,” Caroline Polachek told Pitchfork upon the release of “Bunny is a Rider.” Perhaps its universality is the key to its success – or, more likely, it’s that fact in combination with a fat bass riff. Polachek jolts between notes with a robotic churn as she transforms into Bunny herself. Does that mean Bunny gets to claim responsibility for the first good whistle hook since 2015? Hell yeah, she does.


As each chorus of “How Can I Make It OK?” swells into a bigger moment, Wolf Alice begins to realize the power of repetition. As each chorus buzzes with fuller production than the one before it, Ellie Roswell performs the same call and response with herself: “How can I make it OK? I just want you to be happy, nothing else is as important as that to me.” Wolf Alice step away from their original home in fuzzy post-grunge rock with the big synth-rock track, but the result is well worth the voyage.

9. "FAR CRY" • WET

American alternative band Wet and short-form video app Vine began their careers around the same time. Since 2013, both Wet and Vine fell apart – and while Vine would never recover in a Tik Tok era, Wet has been restored. Produced by Toro y Moi and Wet band member Joe Valle, “Far Cry” seems to trace the steps to their reconstruction. “Always forever, I’ll relive your effort. You could have told me to stop. I should have told you, but you never listen. Now we’re just left here to pick up the pieces,” Kelly Zutrau repeats through song, tracing over the scars of the past and learning how to move forward.


Charli XCX and Caroline Polachek make a powerful combination. Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens make an even more powerful combination. But all three at once? A trio hasn’t been this effortless since Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstandt. (But could you imagine those three on “New Shapes”?) Borrowing from the ideals of both hyperpop and '80s dance music, the song is tailored down into a shiny and sharp juggernaut, like a brand new sportscar. The three singers run full throttle, both figuratively and literally, through some supercharged delivery: "But sometimes I need all night, all day. We could fall in love in new shapes, new shapes. And when the morning comes, I'm sorry I stayed," Charli sings in the first exclamation of noncommitment. 


Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan knows how to deliver her notes just slightly off-kilter – maybe even a little exacerbated – over her blend of fuzzy rock music. Frankly, the pieces never all fit together quite right to me – until “Ben Franklin,” when her instrumental could finally loosen up and unhinge itself in a way that enhances Jordan’s vocal abilities. She smacks her notes then bleeds down the bass notes and guitar riffs on this song. "Sucker for the pain, huh, honey? But you said you'd die. You wanna leave a stain like a relapse does when you really tried, and damn, this time I really tried," she slides through the chorus.


When I spun The Weather Station’s Ignorance for the first time, I had to replay the opening number, “Robber,” at least five times before moving onto the next song. "I never believed in the robber. I figured everything he took was gone. Nothing to do, nothing to be done," Tamara Lindeman weaves between a drum kit and brassy scribbles. Through the moody slow burner, she navigates a self-destructive society through a dark, cool lens. Splashes of jazz inspiration are painted atop the track’s drum and vocal bedrock: A brass ensemble and an organ hum add color, foreshadowing a minute-long instrumental jam session of a finale. Sure, the song dropped last year as a single, but it resonated with me too strongly on this year’s album to ignore in this setting.


In early September, I liked a quote tweet of news coverage on a Phoebe Bridgers performance. It read, “huge day for annoying people.” Three days later, MUNA would release “Silk Chiffon,” a further extension of their years-long winning streak… featuring Phoebe Bridgers. So by way of another stellar MUNA song, I am now an annoying person. Oh, how cruel life can be. But oh, how fun it can be, too – or so we're told in the song. Though "Silk Chiffon" found popularity as an ironic meme on Tik Tok, it beams with a newfound happiness as the band delivers a cheerleader chant about the soft caress of a new flame.


Chvrches’ fourth studio record Screen Violence is a 21st century crash course in ‘80s horror cinema and synth rock: Bulky guitars and booming drums pad the group’s native synthesizers and compressed vocals. “How Not to Drown,” however, continues well beyond Chvrches’ homage to rock music, featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith on a spiraling synth rock centerfold: “Tell me how it's better if I make no sound. I will never escape these doubts. I wasn't dead when they found me, watch as they pull me down,” Mayberry and Smith duet in the song’s chorus. The track is sickeningly hypnotic – a perfect singalong of a chorus, it has – yet boldly gory, just like the films that inspired it.


As it came to us last year, What’s Your Pleasure? was a nearly flawless disco record without peaks and valleys. Humid and heat-warped, the record congeals into a singular vision. The Platinum Pleasure, meanwhile, picks up the top and bottom ends that were dropped out of the original pressing, starting with “Please.” A fat baseline and Jessie Ware’s plea drive the song: “So please, show me you know to be sweet. Don’t you be too good to believe. I could be the girl of your dreams,” she asserts over that bubbling bass and some perky high-hats. The song is the upfront demand from which What’s Your Pleasure? shied – a perfect addition to an already bold disco reinvention. 


The first track from St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, “Pay Your Way in Pain” releases an unmatched manic rush from which she comes down across the rest of the record. What seems like an ordinary diary of quarantine-era complaints is delivered with an intensity that captures a woman nearing a detachment from reality. The store shelves are empty, the bank lost her money, her lover walked out on her… “Oh no!” Annie Clark yells, her voice melting down the drain as normality collapses around her. As on the nose as it may be, the song magnifies a horrible day into a velvet-covered ‘70s psychedelia implosion.


A career-redefining statement piece, Aly & AJ’s “Pretty Places” traces coastlines and mountain ranges – the open landscapes into which the sisters can retreat. Acoustic and electric guitars lay out a sepia tapestry over the scene to pull listeners into the song's orbit and inspire them to sit in awe with each listen. An unexpected upward chord change then cracks open the song into a panoramic experience by its chorus, emphasizing the song’s (and by extension, its respective album’s) thesis statement: “All the pretty places pull us away from where the pain is. These open skies, leaving the past behind, I would for all the pretty places.” The song washes over, and the worries fade away.

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