Music Saved Us During Another Crappy Year: Just My Best Songs of 2021
A very close friend of mine said to me — via text thread — after The Grammys wet the bed last week yet again with their predictably baffling nominees last week: “We were never the Grammy target market.” After I continued a rant about all the nominees that were omitted (I’ll namedrop them in a bit), he texted, “when did Jon turn into an 80-year-old man who acts like someone shit in his pudding?” I fixed his grammatical errors there as a courtesy since he probably was voice-to-texting, but I guess the sentiment wasn’t lost on me. The Grammys have never mattered. They rarely get it right yet each year I hope they do. But they don’t. So this is where I start talking about those lousy awards, and focus on the music that lifted my spirits — and likely many others — and in now way made me feel like anyone pooped in my food.
The best album of the year is easily, for me (who the hell else would it be), is Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. If you would’ve told me a year ago that the pop singer would’ve topped any list of mine I would’ve laughed. I mean I always liked her songs, but never enough to listen to a full album but her effort with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a revelation in every single possible way. Lyrically, there isn’t a better album. Raw. Brutally honest. With Reznor and Ross producing and arranging songs, those damn lyrics, and her vocal prowess, this album doesn’t have one weak link on it. It would’ve also fit in perfectly in the golden era of alt-rock of, say, 1994 or 1995. It’s not surprising that The Grammys nominated her for Best Alt Rock album. It’s also not surprising they shit the bed and left her out of all other categories. Anyway, there were plenty of other albums I fell in love with (CHVRCHES, Lorde, Bo Burnham, Garbage — to name a few) but I’d rather salute the songs that resonated for me. Since six people really wanna know, I’ll start…
Ten Best Songs for a Nasty Pudding Year
“All Eyes on Me” — Bo Burnham: Probably the best thing to come out of the arts this year is this masterwork — rock opera, anti-comedy special from one of the greatest minds. There are so many songs that resonate an encapsulate the pandemic, but none better than this one. The intensity of the song and how it’s presented is bone chilling, and you can’t take your eyes off of him, and when you listen to it, you’ll want to listen it over and over again. You won’t ever get it out of your head nor will you want to.
“1121” — Halsey: This is a close one because “Whispers” and “Bells in Santa Fe” are up there as is the majestic album ender “Ya’aburnee” but this song is aesthetic Nine Inch Nails. You can actually picture Reznor singing it, but the lyrics are definitively feminine. The title is a reference to the date in which Halsey discovered she was pregnant.
“Taking Me Back” — Jack White: I know Dave Grohl gets all the press, and he’s swell and all, but White is the real King of Rock and Roll for our times and I won’t listen to anyone else who disagrees. This track, which will appear on one or perhaps both of an upcoming double album (I’ll explain in a sec), is the best thing he’s put out in years. He released two different versions — one rock your socks off and one twangy folky — and they both just leave you wanting more.
“How Not to Drown” — CHVRCHES with Robert Smith: The Glasgow pop trio returned to form with arguably their best album yet — Screen Violence — and this banger featuring The Cure legend is not surprisingly the best cut. Come for the killer chorus, but stay for the gloriously drawn out ending that’s sublime.
“Godhead” — Garbage: Shirley Manson has never held us by the balls more than she has with the band’s latest album No Gods No Masters, the band’s best album since their classic 2.0. The nostalgic cut here is “Flipping the Bird,” which fits right in with any of their 1990s classics. I love it to death, and it belongs here, but this song is just so fierce — a feminist anthem that deserves so much more than me just calling it a “feminist anthem.”
“Mood Ring” — Lorde: Her latest effort Solar Power is a beautiful escape — a hippie daydream filled with melodic masterpieces. It’s not for everyone but then again neither was her last album, Melodrama, which I consider to be the best pop record ever. This song, for me anyway, is the best album. Hauntingly beautiful. All of it.
“Latter Days” — Big Red Machine featuring Anais Mitchell: This track off the indie rock outfit AKA Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon has kind of a Bonnie Raitt vibe but Mitchell has sort of a Kate Bush vibe and when you throw Vernon on the chorus and the simple yet poignant lyrics — it takes you to heavenly places. The album is a bit uneven — though “Renegade” with Taylor Swift will forever remain my favorite by T.Swizzle.
“Nothing Else Matters” — Phoebe Bridgers: Metallica released The Blacklist, and I’m pretty sure it featured 1078 covers of their 1991 self-titled album. This is the best one. This is the best song the band ever wrote, and the words have never been heard so clearly than in this version. Bridgers has never sounded better either, and the arrangement is simply beautiful.
“Interstellar Love” — The Avalanches featuring Leon Bridges: This unlikely pairing between the Australian duo and Bridges also includes an unlikely sample of Alan Parson Project’s “Eye in the Sky.” The song as well as The Avalanches’ album We Will Always Love You is said to be inspired by Carl Sagan and his wife’s love story, which they captured on tape and sent to space. Bridges vocals (reverb and no reverb) are a perfect pairing with the band, and the song is just so upbeat and makes you just remember how damn good “Eye in the Sky” is.
“Paprika” — Japanese Breakfast: I’ll drink that Grammy Kool-Aid. Not really, but the awards did shine a light on this wonderful band and I sure do like this song. Such beauty here, and it’s moving — you don’t even know it’s hitting you over the head until it’s over.