• dangknight

My Top Ten Tracks of 2021

Like every other year, I listened to a lot of music in 2021. As well as revisiting the repertoires of old favourites like REM, Radiohead (whose Kid A Mnesia reissue narrowly missed out on a spot here due to the recordings being two decades old), Bjork, and The Beatles (I finally discovered George Harrison’s solo work this year!), I listened to a lot of new stuff.

Here are—in very roughly the order of preference—the ten tracks released in 2021 that I enjoyed the most, plus a few honourable mentions at the end.

10. Gang of Youths—“the angel of 8th ave.”

I’d be lying if I said I was familiar with the repertoire of Australian indie-rock five-piece Gang of Youths. However, “the angel of 8th ave.” instantly hooked me with its urgent instrumentation, anthemic vocals, and impassioned confessionals (“I wanna join the impossible swing / And fall hard beside you / Screaming at the bowels of everything”).

9. Tyler, the Creator—“MASSA”

One of Tyler’s most accomplished vocal performances, “MASSA” tells his entire story—from the generational effects of slavery to his struggles with sexuality (“tug of war with X and Y felt like a custody battle”) and artistic inspiration—all in less than four minutes.

8. Drug Store Romeos—“Frame of Reference”

Hampshire indie-pop trio Drug Store Romeos’ debut album The World Within Our Bedrooms does exactly what its title suggests, making isolation seem romantic and ethereal. Retro drum machines and Casio keyboards evoke Suicide, while honey-sweet vocals call to mind Mazzy Star at their most lullaby-like—all draped in a warm, soft blanket of dreamy reverb. Magic.

7. Sam Fender—“Seventeen Going Under”

Starting out with a classic indie guitar jangle, the title track of Sam Fender’s second album wastes no time in raising the bar above his promising-yet-patchy debut. A storyteller by nature, the man often referred to as “the Geordie Springsteen” does what he does best, bringing romance and drama to kitchen-sink stories of deprivation and youthful mistakes.

Even before stand-out lyric “I was far too scared to hit him, but I would hit him in a heartbeat now” went viral on TikTok, it was iconic. Regret, rage, and hope abound here, and the saxophone-soaked arrangement makes it urgent and vital.

6. Big Red Machine (feat. Fleet Foxes and Anaïs Mitchell)—“Phoenix”

Comprised of The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and a rotating line-up of collaborators (including names as big as Taylor Swift), Big Red Machine are something of an indie supergroup. Single “Phoenix” is centred around an irresistible piano part that could have come straight from late-60s McCartney, and the simplicity of the song’s melodies is transformed by the scope of its arrangement.

The verses are delivered by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, his voice as captivating as ever, and the Anaïs-Mitchell-sung chorus (“I was trying to find my way / I was thinking my mind was made / But you were making my heart change shape”) will wind its way around your head for days on end.

5. Little Simz—“Introvert”

Militaristic instrumentals are often used in hip-hop as a shorthand for power and defiance, but rarely as effective as in London rapper Little Simz’ “Introvert”. Kicking off with a marching drumbeat, doom-laden brass section, and wordless choral motifs, this intro would be a fitting score to a war epic.

While the cinematic drama may at first seem at odds with the track’s title, to Little Simz it’s all “a war inside”, from “internal wounds” to “corrupt government officials, lies and atrocities.” The sheer expertise and confidence of her vocal delivery earns the majesty of the music behind, and marks her out as one of the finest rappers in the world right now.

4. The Killers—“Quiet Town”

Las Vegas rock royalty The Killers’ latest album Pressure Machine was unexpected both in its release (only a year after its predecessor Imploding the Mirage) and its content—lyrically dark and often musically downbeat stories of broken American dreams in a so-called “quiet town” plagued by the opioid crisis.

“Quiet Town” offers the winning combination of unflinching storytelling (“Parents wept through “daddy's girl” eulogies and merit badge milestones / with their daughters and sons laying there lifeless in their suits and gowns”) and a heart-on-sleeve power-pop sound à la Springsteen. Frustration, loss, hope, and gratitude are all packed into five minutes of prime Killers.

3. IDLES—“The Beachland Ballroom”

You could be forgiven for mistaking “The Beachland Ballroom” for a Motown standard being covered by a punk band. However, this song was written by IDLES themselves—their first foray into the soul genre (unless you count their earlier cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me”).

The violent abrasion of the band’s music and Joe Talbot’s battered vocals works perfectly with the softer, melodic songwriting here, with pounding guitar chords and cymbal crashes punctuating the warm organ and bright piano stabs. IDLES’ back catalogue has no shortage of impassioned screaming, but here Talbot’s howls of “damage, damage, damage” are made even more striking by the prettiness of the music behind them.

2. Bo Burnham—“That Funny Feeling”

Comedian, musician, actor, and director Bo Burnham’s daring feature-length special Inside came out of left-field, depicting pandemic/climate/existential despair both humorously and sympathetically.

Echoing the apocalyptic satire of REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, plaintive acoustic number “That Funny Feeling” lists experiences of modern life from the mundane (“Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul”) to the terrifying (“a gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall”), offering a sobering snapshot of the absurdity of life in 2021.

Although the song soon received the honour of an unsurprisingly-excellent cover by Phoebe Bridgers, complete with a stunning full-band arrangement, for my money the simplicity and (feigned?) lack of confidence of the original is what makes it strike such a chord.

1. Wolf Alice—“Delicious Things”

There are few things more jarring to me than bands who have headlined big festivals and won the Mercury Prize presenting themselves as struggling underdogs, especially when so many smaller artists have genuinely had their livelihoods decimated recently.

However, doing the opposite and writing songs about mixing with VIPs at sunny LA parties usually gets an eye-roll from me, even if the band is one that deserves that success as much as Wolf Alice. After all, a large chunk of their fanbase and musical peers are still “pulling pints” or “cashing tills”—realities which lead singer Ellie Rowsell declares with relief that she has left behind.

Why then is “Delicious Things”, the highlight from Wolf Alice’s third album Blue Weekend, one of my favourite songs of the year? The gorgeous escapism, adventure, and validation conveyed in the music and lyrics certainly isn’t something I, or any other musicians and artists I know, can relate to.

And yet, all criticisms dissolve on contact with this stunning, mesmerising wash of sound. Dreamlike layers of vocals, strings, and guitars swim in and out of focus intermittently, as ephemeral as the lyrical vignettes depicted.

Couple this with the constant sense of self-doubt, vulnerability, and being out-of-place (“I don’t belong here, though it really is quite fun here”), and the experience of living it up “in the Hollywood Hills” sounds positively relatable. Amongst all the grandiose arrangements (and stunning production), Ellie Rowsell sounds as alone and confused as anyone else.

Honourable mentions:

  • Courtney Barnett—“Write a List of Things to Look Forward To”

  • Animal Collective—“Prester John”

  • Bicep—“Sundial”

  • Goat—“Fill My Mouth”

  • Arlo Parks—“Just Go”

  • Graywave—“Like Heaven”

  • Mandrake Handshake—“Monolith”

  • The Mountain Goats—“The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums”

  • Daniel Avery— “Midnight Sun”

  • William Doyle—“And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)”

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