Year End Music Countdowns #20: 2021

If I may be perfectly honest with you, this was a very easy list to whittle down. 2021 was a bad year for music and some of these songs are only on here by default; a better year would see them nowhere near the top. So some of these entries are going to read as less-than-rapturous hosannas even though these are technically my favourite songs of the year.

Dire times indeed.

The Top 25 Songs of 2021

 

25.  I’m There – Haelos —  

This song would be a lot higher if the choruses weren’t so short and sparse. It’s very well written and haunting, but for some reason the band decided to go with a “less-is-more” approach that doesn’t help in this case.

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24. Waves of Blue – Majid Jordan —

Since featuring on Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” eight years ago Majid Jordan have stayed largely under the radar, and it seemed like they were resigned to become “Nathan Phillips New Year’s Eve Concert performers” – a fate even more grim now that live music has been shuttered once again. Majid Jordan have breathed new life into their career in the meantime, and although “Waves of Blue” sounds like The Weeknd singing over an instrumental from Super Nintendo classic Donkey Kong Country, it’s solid enough to buoy them through the rest of the pandemic and allow them to play to worldwide audiences.

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23.  Pretty Blonde Boy – Joseph of Mercury —

Borne of tragedy, “Pretty Blonde Boy” is written about the loss of Joseph Salusbury’s two close friends. Rich and orchestral, it’s buoyed by Salusbury’s croon that carries shades of Morrissey without the baggage that comes with the ex-Smiths frontman’s controversial statements of late.

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22. West Hills – The Killers —

Every year The Killers or Brandon Flowers release music I hesitate putting them on my countdowns in fear of coming off as a superfan that automatically loves everything they make. I mean, yes, they are my favourite band, but I am fully capable of criticizing them. I didn’t let 2013’s “Shot at the Night” anywhere near my Top 25 of that year, and 2019’s “Land of the Free” was super embarrassing.

That said, their “pandemic project” album ended up being pretty great, and I am recognizing that. Pressure Machine, Brandon Flowers pledged, would be a more low-key, rough, uncompressed collection of songs that didn’t fit with the rest of the band’s catalogue. The thing is, Flowers cannot help himself when it comes to all his trademark quirks. A lot of Pressure Machine does hew closely to the trends of 2021; Analog recording, clipping distortion, organic instrumentation all appears on the album. But each of those is eventually overwritten with the usual Killers sound. “West Hills” is most definitely not a quiet B-side as Flowers would lead you to believe. It’s all bombast and grandeur and though there is a bit of irritating rough guitar towards the end, it’s half-hearted and quickly drowned out by the symphonic gloss Flowers and company build around it.

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21. Love U More- ACTORS —

Honestly, this song doesn’t really belong here. It’s a very standard post-punk song that sounds like many others and is only on here because of my personal penchant for mechanical drums, angular guitars, disco bass, dramatic vocals, and synth hooks. It’s done well, but it’s been done nonetheless. An entirely subjective pick.

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20. Jitterbug – Fog Lake —  

On my first listen I thought this was a new project of Trevor Powers, formerly known as Youth Lagoon. Similarly named bands aside, this is actually a Canadian band totally unrelated to Powers. You’d be forgiven for mixing up the two. They both deal in quiet, plaintive bedroom pop meant to evoke grainy film and sepia tones. Youth Lagoon would go on the evolve in ever more complex directions- it’ll be interesting to see if Fog Lake takes the same trajectory.

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19. Rockstar Sea Shanty – Nickelback & The Lottery Winners —

It’s at this point that anyone reading will assume I’m trolling. “Oh, this isn’t a REAL list. It’s one of those gag lists,” they’ll muse. After all nobody in 2021 has Nickelback on a best-of list. Not rock stations, not hard rock magazines, likely not even their most ardent fans. But I am not being contrarian here. I legitimately enjoy listening to this song, and although in a stronger year it may have not made my list I would have enjoyed it just the same. It’s a very simple reason: the song is fun. Something that not only does the world need, but that hasn’t been associated with Nickelback ever. They are not a “fun” band. They’re dour post-grunge juggernauts. So to hear them repurpose one of their hits to jump on the sea shanty meme that was popular early in 2021 can’t help but bring a smile to my face.

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18. Duplex – Small Black —

I’m still not the biggest fan of Josh Kolenik’s insubstantial voice, though it has gotten marginally stronger since the early 2010s. That said, “Duplex” is a very pleasant piece of new wave.

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17. Helicopter – Ora the Molecule —

I don’t have much to say about this song other than I saw Ora the Molecule referred to as “avant-garde art pop” online and I have to laugh at how basic someone has to be to consider very straightforward synth-pop as “avant garde”. Reminds me of when I was on the train once and a group of millennial girls were teasing their friend Kaylee for listening to “weird” bands like Foster the People. The public is really that simple, huh?

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16. catch-22 – guccihighwaters —

The pop, alternative, and hip-hop scenes are all awash in Post Ma-clones right now. It’s very much en vogue to be a messed up teenager with one or several substance abuse problems. guccihighwaters fits right in alongside the rest, but the guy is a considerably stronger songwriter than many of his peers.

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15. Afterglow – Ed Sheeran —

A completely random release, “Afterglow” seems to have been written solely to remind audiences who Ed Sheeran was and what he was good at. It was not part of an album of an EP, he just threw it out into the ether in the thick of last winter. I’ve been mostly indifferent to his work over the years, but this Bon Iver-esque ballad is honestly a very well written tune and far stronger than his two official singles from 2021.

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14. rom com 2004 – Soccer Mommy —

2019 saw an influx of disaffected, dry, 90s-influenced singer-songwriters, including but not limited to: Florist, Frankie Cosmos, Snail Mail, Snarls, Cyberbully Mom, Adult Mom, Mothers and Soccer Mommy. (The scene seems to be big on moms). Two years later the paths have begun to diverge and leaders are starting to emerge from the pack. Soccer Mommy is one of the first to climb out of the buzz bin and into the public eye, appearing on things like….a DC comic book event soundtrack?? She also released this aptly titled track that very much exudes the spirit of the early 2000s, particularly Rilo Kiley and The Postal Service.

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13. Jimi & Stan – Strand of Oaks

Strand of Oaks is quickly becoming one of my favourite new acts. Tim Showalter figured out a formula that works for him, with his pinwheel hooks acting as a central platform he builds everything around. “Jimi & Stan” does this extraordinarily well, a heartfelt tune about the loss of a pet that remains uplifting even as Showalter’s voice is audibly affected by sadness. 

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12. Yosemite – Lana Del Rey —

Rustic folk is a good look for Lana Del Rey.

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11. Creator – Ora the Molecule —

See #17.

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10. Ben Franklin – Snail Mail —

From the same graduating class as Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail’s opted to go down a slicker, alternative pop route reminiscent of both 1987 and 1997. The result is a very singular sounding track, and a solid first mainstream offering.

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9. Thirstier – TORRES —

Think Sharon Van Etten but instead of using Springsteen as a foundation it’s Alanis Morrisette.

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8. chinatown – Bleachers feat. Bruce Springsteen —

Speaking of Springsteen, he featured on not one but two songs by his disciples this year. The first was The Killers reworking of their 2008 track “A Dustland Fairytale”, which was basically an ode to the Boss himself. The second was this song from Bleachers. Now I know I spent the past two entries ragging on Jack Antonoff but I fully admit that when he hits he hits hard. “chinatown” is up there with Antonoff’s best work, featuring an instrumental hook, a classically dynamic song structure and loads of pathos. And a near-perfect 4:00 runtime. Wow, it’s almost like all those things result in good songs.

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7. Billy Goodbye – Franz Ferdinand —

How do I describe this song? I think the closest approximation would be “supremely silly 70s prog-pop hoedown”, or maybe “of Montreal co-writing a Franz Ferdinand song”. This new track fits in perfectly with the band’s best work, all conveniently captured on their upcoming greatest hits collection. Best work including album cuts like “Love Illumination”, “Lucid Dreams”, and “Glimpse of Love”, which I would like to point out were never hit singles. Yet I picked them all out of the pack as my favourite songs from those albums (two of which had nearly zero airplay). Basically what I’m saying is you should never doubt my judgment when it comes to recognizing good hooks.

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6. Lilys – Warpaint — 

I can’t remember how long it’s been since Warpaint were indie darlings. In fact I can’t even remember what genre they originally dabbled in, but I’m pretty confident it wasn’t the dark trip-hop of “Lilys”. The fingerprints of late 90s electronica are all over this track, from the spacious reverb to the the spindly guitar weaving in and out between the atmospheric synths.

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5. Seeing Things – Charlie Hickey —

I had already begun to assemble this countdown when I first heard this song in early December and may have even let out an audible gasp listening to it. “Stop the presses immediately, this needs to be on my chart,” I thought. I didn’t think anyone would write music like this ever again. Ripped straight out of an episode of The OC, Hickey sounds like a cross between Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes in their wistful glory days. He knows the power of hooks, and his melodies are some of the strongest I’ve heard in years. Compare any one of his tracks to that horrendous “Infinity” song that became popular in December and you’ll see just how remarkably talented Hickey is. His entire EP is one classic after another and makes me legitimately excited for what he’ll release next.

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4. I Don’t Live Here Any More – The War on Drugs — 

It would be a fascinating experiment to upload this song to a classic rock station’s playlist with no acknowledgement that it was recorded this year. In fact, don’t even allow the announcers to mention its existence. Play it in the middle of a stop set between Bryan Adams and Colin James and see what the reaction from listeners is.

The production on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” is immaculate. It sounds like how you think 80s rock tracks sound, but don’t actually (unless they’ve been remastered). There’s a fullness behind every instrument, a meticulously recreated soundscape that must have taken months to perfect. This isn’t a kid throwing together a drum machine and some pirated synth patches. This is a painstakingly loving homage to the heartland anthems of 1985, broadcast in high definition.

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3. Silver Lines – TRACES —

For a long while I considered this song for the top position on this countdown. By all accounts it’s a good song, one that not only checks all my boxes but would comfortably fit on both pop and alternative stations. But it also reminds me of my favourite song of 2016, “Lawless” by Colours – something I haven’t listened to since 2016. Even though “Silver Lines” is eminently listenable, I’m not sure it’s a song I’ll go back to in the years to come. Also the guy – I’m guessing Mr. TRACES himself – on the cover seems like someone I would not get along with. Mustache and beanie combo is usually not a good sign.

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2. Sleepwalker – The Killers — 

If there’s one song on this countdown that still has the power to stir any sort of emotion in me, it’s “Sleepwalker”. Just like “West Hills” eventually gives up on the raw distorted guitar, “Sleepwalker” finds Brandon Flowers throwing out his promise to keep this album feeling unproduced. Halfway through the song the drums become fully compressed and suddenly everything blooms even brighter than it had been up until that point. Flowers’ songwriting also shines here, really and truly proving him to be one of the best at his craft in today’s alternative scene. There’s no way “Sleepwalker” won’t make its way into future setlists.

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AND THE BEST SONG OF 2021 IS…

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1. Chemtrails Over the Country Club – Lana Del Rey — 

10 years ago Lana Del Rey released the jaw-dropping “Video Games”. In the decade since she’s experimented very little, so comparing that song to this one may be a moot point. Much of her work is in the exact same vein, something I applaud even if her albums occasionally blend together into one cinematic blur. But there is a closer link between “Chemtrails” and “Video Games” that makes the two feel spiritually connected, with both being in the upper echelons of Del Rey’s work. Where “Video Games” appealed to the base desires and elements of a relationship, “Chemtrails” is about the deeper connection between two people – perhaps even the same two people from the first song.

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The 5 Best Albums of 2021

 

5. [The Science and Artfunkel Victory Lap]– USS

(Choice Cuts: “Belladonna Killz”, “Ode to Joyride”, “Why Am I Like This?”) 

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4. [Seventeen Going Under]– Sam Fender

(Choice Cuts: “The Last to Make it Home”, “Long Way Off”, “Better of Me”) 

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3. [In Heaven]- Strand of Oaks

(Choice Cuts: “Jimi & Stan”, “Galacticana”, “Slipstream”) 

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2. [Pressure Machine]- The Killers

(Choice Cuts: “Sleepwalker”, “West Hills”, “In Another Life”) 

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1. [Count the Stairs]- Charlie Hickey

(Choice Cuts:“Seeing Things”, “Two Haunted Houses”, “Ten Feet Tall”) 


THE REST OF 2021

See here.

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Anyway, that’s it, bye.

Author: D-Man

Hey, I don't know what to say. Ok, bye.

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