Ah yes, 2021: a year that began with an attack on the capital and just kept getting weirder from there. The pandemic sadly never left but at least Adele came back. Adele not being able to stop the pandemic might literally be the only thing she can’t do and if she could work on that, it’d be great.
In addition to Adele returning, Taylor Swift set out to rerecord her old songs, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak teamed up, the Foo Fighters continued to be as reliable as duct tape and St. Vincent once again reinvented herself. Oh and Weezer released two albums that were completely different and ultimately not that bad, Freddie Gibbs continued to convince everyone he might be the greatest rapper out there today and Kanye West released a new album that I still haven’t listened to and probably never will. AND THAT’S OKAY. To quote the man himself, “I like the old Kanye.”
After COVID shut the world down in March of 2020, one of the questions I had was how it would impact music. How would musicians respond and spend their newly acquired free time with tours and shows being canceled? My hope was that they would all spend that time writing new music and as soon as they were able to, get it on wax and out to the people. And it seems like for the most part, that is what happened as this year featured the release of so many records that were written and recorded during the shutdown. So I guess what I’m saying here was that maybe us slamming the pause button on life maybe wasn’t the absolute worst thing in the world.
Editor’s Note: It was still not great.
Now it’s that special time of year where the reflection begins and we start to take stock and assess the year that was. I thought we did this in December but in recent years I’ve noticed that by mid to late November, the lists start making the rounds. Sucks to drop your record in December, kid. Get with the program.
Since 2013, I have assembled my year-end list based on the idea that some songs are Hey-Oh! songs and while my lists are generally comprised of songs I liked the most/thought were the best, the criteria were slightly different. What exactly is a Hey-Oh! song? I’m so happy you asked.
It’s a song that when it came on incited an unsolicited, deep from the belly & soul Ron Burgandy quality “Hey-Oh!”– as in, “Hey-oh! That’s a damn good song.” You might not have said it out loud, but you definitely thought it. You turned the volume up, you danced, you pressed repeat, and yelled to no one in particular: DJ! ONE MORE TIME!
The “hey-ohs” can be enthusiastic and full of life or they can be more restrained, complete with more stoic appreciation. Ultimately, it’s a song that stops you in your tracks one way or the other when it comes on.
There you go. The 2020 list included songs from Run the Jewels, Royal Blood, Gorillaz, The Strokes, Tame Impala, Fiona Apple, Foo Fighters, and more. This year’s full list can be found here in easily digestible playlist form.
Here are the best of the best.
“Survivor” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were one of a handful of acts that emerged around 2015 that had drenched themselves in an old school soul vibe with a couple of those other acts being a band like St. Paul and the Broken Bones and singer Leon Bridges. They all played a kind of southern soul music that called to mind the best that a place like Muscle Shoals had to offer. It was fun.
However, was it meant to last? It’s hard to kick it old school and it not be considered something of a novelty and in turn, be something that doesn’t necessarily have much in terms of staying power.
Fast forward six years and St. Paul and the Broken Bones have drifted towards a more spacey R&B sound and Bridges has also started to experiment with less soul and more R&B. The results in both cases are fine but you could be forgiven for missing the sound they had when they first entered our lives as it was so pure and genuine. Thankfully Rateliff and company have stayed the course and the result is another great album, The Future. The band stays in the lane they’ve traveled since 2015 yet still makes their music sound fresh with little tweaks here and there. The result is an incredibly enjoyable album anchored by the lead single “Survivor,” which drives in a way other songs of theirs haven’t.
“Skate,” “Fly As Me” Silk Sonic
One of the more enjoyable storylines of 2021 was tracking Silk Sonic updates as the duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak continued to pop up starting in early March with music from their new project, an ode to 1970s R&B. The first track they released, “Leave the Door Open” was cool but the second track, “Skate,” which came out at the end of July had some more life to it and at least for me, grabbed my attention way more than that first track did.
Then the album came out (finally) and I heard track three, “Fly As Me.”
I wish the whole album sounded more like that track and less like the slower ones. There’s a good chance that in about two months I will have forgotten about An Evening With Silk Sonic but will still be bumping “Fly As Me” on a regular basis.
“The Hardest Cut” Spoon
2017 was a long time ago. It feels like it was even longer ago than it was is but that’s because the way time passes these days is a junk show. But either way, the last Spoon album, Hot Thoughts was released that year and four years is too long to go without a new Spoon album. That’s just science, kids.
Thankfully, Spoon announced the release of their 10th album at the end of October, punctuated by the haunting stomp of “The Hardest Cut.” The majority of Spoon songs have always had a distinct bounce and rhythm to them and “The Hardest Cut” is no exception. It feels slightly more menacing though, has an edge to it that other songs of theirs don’t have and that’s cool. The band’s frontman Britt Daniel describes the sound of the new album, Lucifer on the Sofa, as “the sound of classic rock as written by a guy who never did get Eric Clapton.” Interesting.
So if you never “got” Clapton, that means you’ve been able to sit out his ridiculous anti-vax stance as well as his long history of incendiary remarks, huh? Must be nice.
“Weights” Bartees Strange
Strange popped up on my radar at some point in 2020 when he appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers and keeping tabs on him since then has been incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. His music has a spirit and energy to it that feels to have been transplanted from the earlier part of this century. He doesn’t just mess around with garage rock though as a deep diver into his catalog reveals him dabbling in hip hop and R&B.
But it’s rock songs that keep me coming back for more. “Weights,” which was released as part of a deluxe version of his 2020 debut album Live Forever came out this fall. Strange also released a faithful cover of the Richard Swift song “Lady Luck” this year that is worth checking out.
“No Son of Mine” Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters’ first 2021 album, Medicine At Midnight was fine but mostly has its moments, one of them being the vintage Foo rocker “No Son Of Mine.” The album was sold as the product of the band experimenting with new sounds and styles but it’s no wonder that the strongest track off the album is them doing what they do best.
According to an interview Grohl gave back in January, the song originally had “this country swing to it” before the band elected to take it in more of a harder, aggressive direction. Thank you for that, Foo Fighters. Grohl also said the song was a tribute to Lemmy, the late frontman of Motörhead, saying “I wish Lemmy were alive to hear it because he would see how much an influence he’s been to me.”
It should be noted that Medicine At Midnight was in the fact the first of two albums Foo Fighters released in 2021 but I just don’t really want to talk about the other one.
“Pay Your Way In Pain” St. Vincent
St. Vincent (aka. Annie Clark) loves herself a good reinvention. For her last album, 2017’s Masseducation, she went dark and sinister, adopting the vibe of a late-night, industrialized dominatrix. Cut to four years later and she’s going back to the 1970s. On Daddy’s Home, Clark is channeling the after-hours glitz and shine of pre-disco New York City.
The album’s first single, “Pay Your Way In Pain” is equal parts Prince, David Bowie, and a dirty mirror covered in coke residue on the floor of the dingiest green room imaginable. It’s fantastic.
“Big Boss Rabbit” Freddie Gibbs
What do you do when you lose a Grammy that damn near everyone was convinced you win? Well, if you’re Freddie Gibbs you don’t sulk. You don’t wallow or complain. Nah, you get back into the lab and continue to prove why you were robbed and why you were wronged.
Alfredo, Gibbs’s excellent collaboration with The Alchemist was a favorite at the 2021 Grammys to win Best Rap Album but he ended up losing to Nas’ King Disease. No worries though. Gibbs is all about moving forward.
“Grammy after party but we rock it like we won the b*tch” he raps on “Big Boss Rabbit,” which was released as a standalone single in the spring. Gibbs’ flow is unrelenting on the track and he raps something like 4,567 words in three minutes as if he is both on a mission and too busy to really give a shit. And he may actually be too busy. My dude released something like four or five more songs after “Big Boss Rabbit” and is probably primed to release a few more as I write this.
“3 AM” HAIM ft. Thundercat
Women In Music Pt. III was already a great album by Haim but then they just added to their war chest with the extended edition which features remixes of songs that include up and coming singer/songwriter Taylor Swift and bass wizard Thundercat. Thundercat appears on the reworked version of “3AM,” giving the song an extra layer of sultry, smooth goodness. Thundercat’s voice, an unmistakably floating falsetto meshes perfectly with the sisters’ vocals, helping create a song with a vibe as equally sexually-charged as the song’s subject matter.
“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” The War On Drugs ft. Lucious
I am continually amazed by War on Drugs as all of their songs somehow all sound the same but also sound different. I think it’s the overall vibe of the band’s music, how their songs all sound like good driving songs but perhaps good driving songs that each fit different types of roads and terrain, thus changing speeds and how you approach them. This idea of traveling is especially present in the title track from the band’s excellent 2021 album I Don’t Live Here Anymore, a song full of reminiscing and remembering.
Adam Granduciel, the driving force behind the band, said the album’s overall theme is one of change, saying it’s about “growing up, getting older, but also growing out of yourself and into something new.” On “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” Granduciel is making sense of both his past and his present, trying to understand how he got from one to the other. “When I think about the old days, babe/You’re always on my mind/I know it ain’t like I remember/I guess my memories run wild” he sings.
Preach, brother. We’ve all been there, sometimes several times a day.
“Sad But True” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
As the summer of 2021 neared the halfway point, word started to get out that to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their legendary self-titled album, Metallica would be releasing The Metallica Blacklist, a collection of versions of songs from The Black Album recorded by a murderers row of artists. Weezer, Royal Blood, St. Vincent, The Neptunes, Portugal. The Man, Cage the Elephant, Phoebe Bridgers, and Miley Cyrus would all be contributing tracks. Super cool. Maybe.
Two covers stood out to me. First was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s raucous version of “Sad But True.” Isbell takes the tune and runs with it, soaking it up in some good old, shit-kicking southern sunshine.
The other track was Chris Stapleton’s eight-minute version of “Nothing Else Matters,” a song that becomes a different kind of dark and more meditative under Stapleton’s watch.
Beyond that, there are some good songs but don’t tell Lars I said this, in the end, the collection never really lived up to the hype and pre-release billing.
“Broken Horses” Brandi Carlile
You know how there are artists out there that you’re aware of but haven’t ever really listened to them yourself, but even still, you know enough about them to appreciate what they’re doing? That was Brandi Carlile for me. I’m hip enough to the happenings of the Alt-country extended universe to know she’s a force but I’m ashamed to admit that I had never really sat down to listen to her. In my defense, Phish went back on tour this summer and it really threw my daily listening habits for a loop.
Anyway, this all changed when I watched Saturday Night Live recently and Carlile was the musical guest. Carlile’s first song was “Broken Horses” off of her 2021 album In These Silent Days. I was hooked right away. The song soars and thunders, hammers and speeds its way across the desolate plains of days gone by. Is it shit-kicking rock, a personal favorite sub-genre of mine? Yeah, I think it is.
So I’m sorry Brandi Carlile. I biffed it and should have listened to you earlier.
“Sorry I Am” Del Water Gap
I’m of the opinion that Twitter is about 65% positive, 30% negative, and 5% hard to say when it comes to experiences. Part of what sways it in positive’s favor is that you can meet some pretty cool people there. One of those people is this dude Adam Offitzer, a senior writer for Spotify who also has a weekly substack devoted to new music releases and music news. As with anyone in his position, there are stylistic trends to his recommendations and for the most part, I’m up and down with them. But I appreciate the effort nonetheless.
One day I was perusing one of Offitzer’s playlists and came across this group Del Water Gap. As someone who lives somewhat close to the actual Delaware Water Gap, I was intrigued by the name and checked it out. What I found was some easy listening, wistful, earnest folk-rock that kind of reminds me of Rogue Wave and I love Rogue Wave more than I like geographically relevant band names but either way, it was a win/win situation.
“Jazz on the Autobahn” The Felice Brothers
“Jazz on the Autobahn,” the second single from The Felice Brothers’ From Dreams to Dust has a Hold Steady vibe to it, especially with the vocals and how they sound like a combination of beat poetry and barroom story-telling. Musically, the tune is more melodic and softer in spirit than anything from The Hold Steady and comparisons aside, there is an easy nature to this song that makes it a tune you could listen to for an hour straight and not really get sick of it.
Houndmouth and I had a nice little going for a while there and this was before Little Neon Limelight came out in 2015, although admittedly not too before then. I’m not trying to be that guy, the one who knew something was cool before everyone else did. Well, maybe I’m trying a little to be that guy. Whatever, I really liked Houndmouth.
But then I kind of didn’t. The music they’ve released after Little Neon Limelight doesn’t have the same feel and it seemed like the band, following the departure of vocalist and keyboardist Kate Tourpin was moving away from their distinctive pop version of alt-country to more of a general indie-rock type thing. I’m not opposed to indie-rock but you know, it felt like things had changed and while I would always love the older Houndmouth tunes, the new ones were a different story.
Yet “McKenzie” might very well have changed things when it comes to my relationship with Houndmouth because “McKenzie” is a delightful tune. Just delightful.
“justified” Kacey Musgraves
Before I went about getting a prescription for medical marijuana, few things in life relaxed me more than the sound of Kacey Musgraves’ voice. Her voice is like drinking tea when you’re not sick. It just puts you at ease.
And I say that as someone who 100% agrees with Ted Lasso when it comes to opinions on tea.
“Heavy D” Atmosphere ft. Collie Buddz, Felt, Murs
Atmosphere and Murs teamed on “Heavy D” this year, a bouncing reggae-powered track produced by Collie Buddz. The track was featured on Collie Buddz 2021 album Cali Roots Riddim 2021 and you know, I’m sorry. I thought Collie Buddz was one of those bands who tour with either 311 or Slightly Stupid every summer but I was wrong.
It happens at least four times a week for what it’s worth.
“I Need Some of That”/”Grapes of Wrath” Weezer
You can say whatever you want about Rivers Cuomo and Weezer but you can’t say that they rest on their laurels. My dudes have been around for damn near three decades now and they’re still releasing albums at a hell of a clip. Now, are some of those albums instantly forgettable and borderline rubbish? Yes. Yes, they are. But you throw enough shit against the wall and you’re bound to get a waffle every once in a while and no, I know that’s not how waffles are made. I’m not a moron. Although I am someone who once poured gravy into a waffle maker while staying at a hotel in Nashville because I had no idea gravy was a part of a breakfast but I’m not here to talk about the past.
In 2021, Weezer released two albums and they couldn’t have sounded more different. The first release, Ok Human, was orchestral and the “more serious” of the two. The second record was the band’s loving ode to 1980s hair metal, Van Weezer, an album that I feel like they had been flirting with making for at least a decade.
As with most of the albums Weezer has released in the last ten years, each one has a few keepers that make their way onto a Best of Weezer playlist and a few tracks you never want to hear again. Like, ever again.
“good 4 u” Olivia Rodrigo
This year, our oldest daughter really started having opinions on music that went beyond wanting to listen to songs from Disney movies or Sing 500 times in a row. She became a staunch advocate for the top 40 radio station in our area and when driving her around, she was adamant that we listen to it, no matter how many times I tried to sneak in something from classic rock or God forbid, Phish.
It was actually kind of adorable.
Through this, I started listening to Olivia Rodrigo and I have to admit that I love “good 4 u.” I don’t love it as much as I used to, mainly because the aforementioned top 40 station plays it a lot but I still really like it. It’s a great little pop/punk song and who doesn’t love a good pop/punk song, am I right?
“What It Feels Like” Nipsey Hustle, Jaz-Z
Judas and the Black Messiah was a powerful film backed by a powerful soundtrack and the highlight of that soundtrack was the collaboration between Jay-Z and the late Nipsey Hussle. The origin of the track actually goes back a bit, back to 2013, which is when Nipsey first recorded his verses on the track, hence Nipsey talking about Crenshaw in the future tense even though the mixtape dropped in 2013. Hov jumped on the track partially to support the film’s director, Ryan Coogler.
You can read more about how the track came together in a GQ interview featuring producers Larrance Dopson, Nipsey collaborators Mike & Keys, and Jay-Z.
See you next year.