Last week, I featured my top albums of 2021, but there are a lot of other individual songs from 2021 not on those albums that I want to share. As I sifted through my favorites from the year, I again noticed a theme—this year, all these songs are about subjects and situations that aren’t quite right. I guess that is a pretty good general theme for 2021.
I’ve organized my 2021 playlist into six pairs of songs:
"Anthony Kiedis" by Remi Wolf and "Jealousy, Jealousy" by Olivia Rodrigo are both songs from young debut artists that are insightful commentaries about problems they are encountering—and the older generations can relate, too. The former is about dealing with the 2020 pandemic shutdown, and the latter is about the effects of social media. Both also feature fresh, fun, humorous music despite the heavy topics. FYI, Anthony Kiedis is the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in case that helps.
"Savage Good Boy" by Japanese Breakfast (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner) and "Fly as Me" by Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak in a 1970s throwback project) are both satires on toxic masculinity, throwing a light on how ridiculous it can be by inhabiting that space. Great lyric writing in both songs—as the songs go on, each character gets more ridiculous. Japanese Breakfast has some great production, and Silk Sonic somehow call back the 70s and update the sound at the same time.
"The Tradition" by Halsey and "Bloody Soil" by Northern Irish band The New Pagans are both about the exploitation of young women—no shortage of that still going on. Like Silk Sonic, both find inspiration in older musical genres to help tell their points—"The Tradition" uses English ballad melodies and form (though with some added production and off-key creepiness) and "Bloody Soil" calls back to early 80s U2 rock crossed with Sonic Youth noise rock.
"Harmony Road" by Sting and "The Princess and the Clock" by Kero Kero Bonito are both about escaping a bad circumstance not of the protagonists’ creation (or at least wishing to escape). I’m sure many of us can relate to feeling trapped and isolated. While "Harmony Road" isn't one of the best Sting lyrics, I’m always there for weird meter Sting and folk-inspired Sting (plus a Branford Marsalis sax solo). "The Princess and the Clock" is typical KKB quirky electropop, with a fantasy story. A fairly typical form is spiced up by three pregnant instrumental interludes.
"Make it right." by Tune-Yards and "Reach Out" by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo de Augustine are about fixing things that have gone wrong in the past. Tune-Yards are also into quirky production, and you can hear it here, along with some unexpected repetition. "Reach Out" is loosely based on the 1987 German fantasy-meets-romance film Wings of Desire (The German title is better: Der Himmel über Berlin, the Heaven/Sky over Berlin) where angels listen to the thoughts of Berliners. It features the light, airy Sufjan production you’ve probably heard before. While the song definitely feels like a whole, a melodic section does not repeat until almost 2.5 minutes into the song. For those counting at home, the sections look like: ABCDEDBA. So that’s cool.
"Indigo" by Katherine Priddy and "Homeward Bound (For Ana Grace)" by Johnathan Blake and Pentad are both about going home after a terrible experience. For "Indigo," the experience was a beloved tree breaking in the storm—though I think also a hard life. Those chord changes and the folk-inflected (and sometimes overdubbed) vocals get me every time. "Homeward Bound" is dedicated to the daughter of two other musician friends of Blake; the daughter died in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. It’s not that often that the drummer of a group is the bandleader, but if more weird 5/4 meter jazz are a result, I’m all for it. Also: I can’t get enough of the vibraphone in small ensembles like this.