Pop music is still suffering from the minor issue of being the absolute worst it’s ever been in all of human history, but don’t lose heart. Finding good music just requires that you dodge recommendation engines and trends, and put in more work than should be strictly necessary. Modern living is the pits.
Good news: I’ve done the work for you! Or I’ve tried to, anyway. You’re welcome, mom.
Below you will find my personal favorite 20 tracks from 2021, as well as their placement on other lists (if any) and a bit of commentary. There should be something here for pretty much anyone. Except you, probably.
#20. Objectively Cheating
I’ve decided to start off my list with a 34-way tie for the #20 spot, which is probably infuriating for somebody. Sorry, guy. But these are all of the songs I considered, and any one of them could potentially have made it onto the list if I was in a slightly different mood or something.
It’s a lot, so I offer it in the form of a Spotify playlist in alphabetical order. Note that this list also contains my picks for #19-#1, but since it’s alphabetized, you’ll have to read on for the ordering.
#19. Hiatus Kaiyote – Red Room
Starting off the list proper, we have a song and a band that didn’t get a mention on any other of-the-year lists that I saw, which is kind of surprising. Hiatus Kaiyote has a really unique sound that brings jazz and funk out of your audiophile uncle’s dark listening room and into the light, most often with a kind of carnival atmosphere. It’s cool. It’s different. The song I chose is their simplest and probably ~ViBe-ieST~ offering from Mood Valiant, but I also considered the very Halloweeny Canopic Jar.
#18. Tierra Whack – Body Of Water
Tierra Whack is one of the most interesting and creative people in hiphop, and ain’t nobody give a fuck. This is one of her most straightforward kinda boom-bap head bangers. She comes with a completely different flow and sound on every track, which I really appreciate, and tends to go hard on whatever motif she’s trying to build. It’s refreshing, exciting, and obviously none of her singles this year made any other lists. I also considered Stand Up and Heaven.
#17. Radiohead – If You Say The Word
I don’t want to keep complaining that my picks aren’t on other best-of lists, so I won’t, because it absolutely makes sense in this case. I should probably feel a little bad for putting a 20-year-old song on a 2021 list, but it absolutely did come out this year, and it fits in remarkably well alongside the best music being made today. The production is pristine and delicate and makes me think it might actually have been worked on a lot more recently than the Kid A sessions.
#16. Magdalena Bay – Secrets
I fucking hate the way Mica Tenenbaum sings, and I fucking hate the idea of insufferable 20-year-old dipshits abusing my precious 90s and 2000s Internet culture and aesthetic. But people kept telling me to give Magdalena Bay a chance, and eventually I got over my hateful biases and accepted that, actually, these 20-year-old dipshits kind of get it. They might even be pretty cool, and I would totally invite them to my Discord server to play N64 games.
#15. James Blake – Say What You Will
James Blake has been at this a while. Retrograde is one of my favorite songs of all time. He’s always been a critical darling, but he’s never really seen the commercial success one might expect of a dude with his talent and songwriting ability, and, appropriately, he seems to have written a whole album about how unfair it is that he’s not more famous. This track is about accepting his role as a moderately successful, underappreciated musician for music nerds, which is a great gig to have. It’s a sleepy stroll through those feelings, and ends with some big, beautiful flexing of his vocal range and agility. ‘Famous Last Words‘ is also really good, and I went back and forth a lot on which one to list here.
Other lists: TND #6
#14. Black Country, New Road – Track X
Everyone I talked to about my picks for this list told me to put Concorde here, not fucking Track X. “Track X is boring,” they said. “And isn’t that album from 2020?” No, it isn’t, and no it isn’t. But hey, this is about me, because I am the editor of my magazine, so you can all go fuck yourselves. This is the song that got me into Black Country, New Road, and it’s still my favorite.
#13. Mother Mother – Stay Behind
I have mentioned before that I really appreciate Mother Mother, I think they’re super underrated, and I accept that I might just be biased toward local bands. But listen: This song is p good though.
#12. Little Simz – Introvert
This song was as high as third on the list at one point, and I removed it completely for another draft. Giving that a little more thought, I realized that the song, on its own, comes across a whole lot differently than it does as a part of the album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. On the album it’s a boxer stepping into the ring, about to take on every social and economic issue a young person in 2021 could think to name, and it’s got some real emotional power behind it. But even on its own, hey, it’s at least the best song Kanye West wishes he had written in a while. when I took it off the list, I replaced it with I Love You, I Hate You.
#11. Archive – Shouting Within
This song is nice. All of the other words for every one of them. What a nice little song.
#10. Wiki – Roof
#9. Japanese Breakfast – Posing In Bondage
#8. Spellling – Boys at School
I wasn’t sure how to put my feelings on this song into words, so in a stunning plot twist, I got Gen to do it for me in what is her first appearance on my blog since like 2007.
Can you write the blurb for this song:
What in the fuck
This auto played on Spotify for me today
Well, it is music.
I just never heard of them before
And there they were
And here they are again
You are destined to write everything I don’t want to write for the rest of your life
An almost haunting piano melody (complete with lasers!) introduced the track and is quickly accompanied by vocals (think Kate Bush circa The Dreaming). This down-tempo song is fairly stripped down until the last third, with a relatively unchanging melody, but it isn’t short on spacey vibes & echo.
A fitting key change halfway through, and the use of horns to usher in a dramatic finish both keep this track from being among the forgettable.
It’s everything I could have ever hoped for
I just need to make it a chatlog so it’s not so short and unfunny
But other than that it’s the best
If you want long and hilarious I mean I can just whip out my dick
#7. Glass Animals – Space Ghost Coast To Coast
God I hate glass animals. Why did I put them at number seven? That’s all I’ve got.
#6. Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – Like I Used To
A friend of mine, a few years ago, sent me an Angel Olsen song. It was alright. I think he wanted it to be romantic, although it was not.
#5. Mitski – Working for the Knife
#4. Lizzy McAlpine ft. Jacob Collier – Erase Me
#3. Low – Days Like These
#2. black midi – John L
#1. Lingua Ignota – Pennsylvania Furnace
This wasn’t a difficult decision. This song has had an exceedingly rare impact on me, resonating in a way that only a few pieces of music ever have in my life. The most recent example would probably be Codex by Radiohead, which I put at #1 on my top 50 songs of all time. So, Pennsylvania Furnace could very well be near the top of that list, too, but I should probably give it a bit more time before I make an edit.
The most important reason I’m choosing this song is that it feels devastatingly genuine, start to finish. Lingua Ignota has an almost theatrical, operatic singing style, which normally wouldn’t lend itself toward authenticity for me, but when she says “I watched you alone in the home where you lived with your family”, I believe her. And when she wails “above all others” for the umpteenth time, I have the most unlikely sensation of empathy (I am usually a sociopath).
It’s also just a great piece of music. Very minimalist, but whenever an instrument does come in for a brief appearance, it holds nothing back. Every note in this song has an emotional purpose, and for me, it is always successful. Strings that bend and warp into sad and subtly sinister shapes, and mournful brass. There is a lot of power in the song’s patterns of restraint and release.
Whether the song is about God—which it is—or about the man who traumatized her for two years—which it is—or any number of less obvious things, the masterful centerpiece of Lingua Ignota’s SINNER GET READY is not just my favorite song of the year, but probably one of the most important pieces of art I’ve ever really let myself really take in.