We’ve made it to another year-end list of my favorite songs of the past twelve (-ish) months.
Usually I start working on these rankings in early October. This year I didn’t put any real work into it until after we returned from Hawaii on December 1. Some of that was because my working list was about as tight as it has ever been. I don’t know that it ever got over 40–42 songs, and I was able to trim many songs before I began giving it serious consideration. When it came to do the real work, I was already under 30 songs, and it was a pretty easy process.
I was still moving songs around and making my final decision on whether to have one or two Torres tracks yesterday (Dec. 15). I’ve looked at them long enough. Here they are: my 21 favorite songs of 2021.
Oh, wow, I just noticed how that works perfectly!
20 – “What This City Needs” – Sam Coffey and The Iron Lungs
A rip-roaring, old-school, rock ’n’ roll track to get us started.
19 – “In the Stone” – The Goon Sax
OK, I’m going to admit I have no idea what a few of these songs are supposed to be about. This one, for example. But I dig the bored tone the singers deliver their lines with.
18 – “Enough is Never Enough” – The Clockworks
THESE FINGERS WERE MADE FOR POINTING!!!
17 – “Empire Builder” – Typhoon
Another song I’m not totally sure what it is about, even after reading a few theories. I do know it sounds absolutely amazing. And the closing lines of “everybody’s angry, everybody’s lonely” seems like a spot-on assessment of this moment in history.
16 – “Hardline” – Julien Baker
Baker surprised people when she announced her new album would feature, for the first time, a full band backing her. Rather than hiding her unique brand of intimacy, the bigger sound made it even better.
15a/15b – “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head” / “Thirstier” – Torres
I tried and tried, but I could not pick between either of these excellent songs. MacKenzie Scott has made some amazing music in her brief career. Both of these eclipse everything else she’s done.
14 – “Dino’s” – Gordi and Alex Lahey
There were a lot of songs this year about how Covid affected the music business. Here, Gordi and Lahey sing of missing not just their favorite dive in Nashville, but also sharing a moment with someone you love in a place that is special to you both.
13 – “Levitating” – Dua Lipa
That’s right: the Billboard number one song of the year made my Favorites list! That probably hasn’t happened since sometime in the ‘80s. A nearly perfect – and timeless – dance-pop song.
12 – “Why Don’t You Touch Me” – Leon Bridges
This is a straight-up beautiful song about the person you love drifting away from you.
11 – “Heaven” – Eliza Shaddad
Shaddad has officially entered the group of artists who almost automatically make my year-end list when they release something new.
10 – “Chaeri” – Magdalena Bay
Robyn provided vocals for Smile’s “Call My Name” this year. That track did not sound very Robyn-ish, though. This song, which features singer Mica Tenenbaum, sounds like it could be straight off of the next Robyn album.
9 – “The Way I Feel” – Alien Boy
I remain a sucker for songs that are about trying to recapture feelings from the past.
8 – “Undone” – The Shivas
This song’s neo-psychedelic vibe kept me listening to it over-and-over.
7 – “The Shining but Tropical” – Wild Pink
I doubt any track this year sounded as glorious, warm, and anthemic as this, another excellent entry in Wild Pink’s rapidly growing collection of great songs.
6 – “Long Way” – Eddie Vedder
EdVed surprised the hell out of me with this solo track. There is the obvious, heavy Tom Petty influence. The bridge (“Well, it couldn’t be had…”) is soooo perfect.
5 – “Seventeen Going Under” – Sam Fender
An emotional beast of a song set to a beat you can dance to: that is the classic Sam Fender experience. Here he sings of being 17, the rough crowd he ran with, and how his mother’s illness and their lack of money had a huge impact on his life.
4 – “Better” – Michgander
2021 was supposed to be different. Vaccines had arrived, an inauguration was ahead, and it sure felt like we would get a break from all the bullshit of 2020. It took six days to shatter those hopes.
This song’s soaring high points plus the title of the EP it is from – Everything Will Be OK Eventually – are reminders that maybe things will not be so fucked up some day.
3 – “the angel of 8th ave.” – Gang of Youths
This song gallops along and dares you to resist it. An ode to his new wife and their new home in London, Dave Le’aupepe throws everything that makes Gang of Youths great into this track. It gets better every time I listen to it. In fact, this has moved up three spots since I started seriously considering this list. Maybe if I waited until January to finish, it would be number one.
2 – “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” – The War on Drugs
I, like most TWOD fans, was totally blown away the first time I heard this. It didn’t sound like anything the band had done before, full of brightness, with a proper chorus, and no true guitar solo. It even has backup singers, for crying out loud!
Adam Granduciel has made a shitload of classic songs in the decade-plus TWOD has been putting out music. This might be his magnum opus, a brilliant track that perfectly balances the bittersweetness of getting older and moving on with your life, while still sneaking glances back at the past.
1 – “Stacking Chairs” – Middle Kids
Middle Kids did the hard part first: their debut single, “Edge of Town,” was a stunning, unforgettable song that most bands spend years trying to make. They followed up with an EP and LP, and both filled with good songs. None matched “Edge of Town,” though. That song’s success was starting to feel like a curse.
That changed this year. The band’s second full-length record, Today We’re the Greatest, was a huge leap. It was a mature, emotional-yet-reserved album that took some time to relate to. In fact, I’m a little mad at myself for not spending more time with it upon its release. Thankfully I eventually connected with it, and it is one of my two favorite albums of the year.
Singer and songwriter Hannah Joy opened up about her life in this new batch of songs, including her issues with alcohol (“How am I supposed to know you, when you are drunk all the time?”), people she had hurt in the past (“You lifted me up, I let you down. Over and over.”), her experience becoming a mother, and the challenges of committing yourself to a relationship. That final theme appeared on several songs but was most apparent on “Stacking Chairs.”
Here she sings of the leap of faith that is marriage, and how you open yourself not just to your partner, but to their past as well. There are millions of songs about being faithful. I would bet this is the first to use the metaphor of cleaning up after a party to demonstrate loyalty within a relationship. It totally works because Joy is such a good, honest, and emotional singer. When she ends the second chorus by repeating “I will be there…” it gets me every single time.
Middle Kids knew they had a good thing with this song. They’ve performed it for several shows. A few nights this fall I would watch one, and then another, and then another. Here are some of my favorites. From Triple J in Australia. From The Late Night with Stephen Colbert. From CBS Mornings Sunday Sessions.. And, finally, it leads off their excellent performance for KEXP.