In the first month of 2021, things we took for granted before 2016 made a comeback – e.g. presidents caring about what Americans think; domestic terrorists being treated as criminals; 3 Doors Down not getting the call to perform at a globally significant event. As my cynical, traumatized brain struggles to process this Common Sensory Overload, listening to new music has helped. From idiosyncratic indie-rock to wistful instrumental hip hop to chart-baiting country, artists around the world continue to remind us that, no matter how beaten down we might feel, human beings are still capable of harmony.
1. Tune-Yards – “Hold Yourself”
Having just plowed through Lydia Millet’s hilarious and harrowing novel A Children’s Bible – where older generations get their comeuppance for doing jack squat about climate change – I was primed to fall in love with Tune-Yards’ latest single. “Parents betrayed us / Even when they tried,” sings Merrill Garbus over gently syncopated bass and drums. She’s not mad. She’s just disappointed.
2. Kiwi Jr. – “Maid Marian’s Toast”
Effervescent jangle-pop goodness from this Toronto quartet’s endearing second LP, complete with a simple-as-pie, inhale/exhale harmonica solo.
3. Yasmin Williams – “Sunshowers”
This acoustic guitar virtuoso uses innovative tunings and percussive taps to create the sonic equivalent of running water. “Sunshowers” is an intricate construction of flowing melodies, eddying bass notes, and sprays of string squeaks – a tributary from the artist’s soul to our ears.
4. Rhye – “Helpless”
“I knew it from the start / I’d grow with you,” coos Mike Milosh on yet another feather-light, Sade-inspired ballad about the miracles of human intimacy.
5. Pom Poko – “Like a Lady”
This Norwegian pop-punk outfit captures the liberating thrill of rejecting society’s definitions of womanhood – when the guitars kick in, so does the visceral joy.
6. Madlib – “Road of the Lonely Ones”
Madlib doesn’t just sample the heartsick Philly soul ballad “Lost in a Lonely World.” He invites it to haunt his house.
7. Loony – “Raw”
An R&B ballad that captures the vibe of a long, romantic morning, lit by sunlight filtered through curtains.
8. Eric Church – “Heart On Fire”
Eric Church is a Nashville star with a heavy classic rock habit. (I saw him open a show with a scorching cover of “Back in Black.”) His latest single nails that blue-collar blues-pop stomp that Petty, Springsteen and Mellencamp buffed to a sheen in the ’80s – three huge guitar chords, twinkling right-hand piano accents, and snare drums that burst like fireworks.
9. Crystal Canyon – “Pollyanna”
This Maine shoegaze outfit celebrates the few remaining sunshine-and-rainbows optimists of the world, encouraging them to not lose hope over a slow, sun-soaked riff that feels like a chopped & screwed homage to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.”
10. Bill MacKay & Nathan Bowles – “Joyride”
This guitar and banjo instrumental might have a title that brings “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to mind. But this isn’t car chase music. It’s bike riding to the lake on a warm spring day music.
11. Shovels & Rope (feat. Sharon Van Etten) – “In My Room”
By enlisting Sharon Van Etten to belt with all her might, and backing her with stereophonic ’60s production, the folk duo Shovels & Rope have successfully answered the question “What if Roy Orbison covered The Beach Boys?”
A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.
Happy listening, and happy new year!
25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”
In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.
24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”
“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.
23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”
Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”
22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”
Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.
21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”
This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”
Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.
18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love“
In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.
17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.
15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”
Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”
14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”
13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”
Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.
12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”
The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.
11. Charli XCX – “Claws”
This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.
10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”
I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.
9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”
The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.
8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”
Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.
7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.
6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.
5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.
4. Laura Marling – “For You”
At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.
3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”
1.Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.
A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.
But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:
Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line
As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.