The Best Music of 2021
I was standing inside a honky tonk on the outskirts of Casper, Wyoming—Mills, technically. The air was electric. On a usual Tuesday it was the type of place the Cowboys Go Sneakin’. A few rows of slots. Cheap beers. A big-ass American flag. A smaller Wyoming one. Neon Jack Daniels and Jameson signs.
But on this night the crowd was not its normal mix of land men and divorcees.
It was brimming with more green hairs than blue. Non binary teens. PFLAG moms. Lesbians both lipstick and butch. Guys in Hawaiian shirts, some of whom were gay, others just big fat party animals. One of the gals I met in the smoking area had driven from South Dakota. The younger ’mos had carpooled up from the university in Laramie. And they were all mixed in with a smattering of Lee-jeaned regulars. The whole thing was like a scene out of Queer as Folk.
It was, according to the Hilton Garden Inn barkeep who I had gifted my extra ticket, unlike anything she’s ever seen at The Beacon. Certainly on a school night .
As the clock approached 9 the anticipation was building, excitement palpable. House music crescendoing. A few of us craning our necks to see the end of Game 6 on the big screen. Furtive vape hits. Big grins.
Then up from stage right struts Orville Peck. The first chords of Summertime rang out.
Catch ’em by surprise and
Chasin’ the horizon
Nothing holds me down
Askin’, “Where the time’s gone?”
The time had been slipping away from all of us.
It had been 19 months since I’d seen live music, the longest stretch for me since I first saw Tom Petty wail away at Red Rocks [redacted] years ago. For Orville, it was the first headlining show after his 2020 tour got the COVID treatment. In the meantime, he had gone from niche country music gay, who was scheduled to play at our tiny Oakland indie venue, to a bona fide star, headlining Red Rocks himself and partnering with Beyonce on an Ivy Park collection.
And so, in that moment, in that little rodeo, there was this effervescent energy as this bizarre but beautiful collection of cowboys and queens got to exhale, and revel in what we had been missing.
These little moments are still being taken from us. Omicron led to the cancellation of my self-birthday present to see a show in New York. My buddies in Seattle had to spike yet another gig. But 2021, I hope, gave those of us who love and require music a little taste that reminded us why it mattered and that we should savor it.
Before we get to the list, I want to offer one important caveat, as I did last year. I’m just a humble political content man and music buff. I don’t have the talent to judge these albums on musicianship, nor the ability to mine the internet for all the year’s little gems. This is simply a collection of what resonated for me in 2021, in the hope you might find something new to love too.
So in that spirit, here’s a Spotify playlist with the best tracks if you’d rather experience the music than read my vamping about it. To the tunes:
- If the algorithm is to be believed, my third-most-listened-to song this year was this hauntingly beautiful take on Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” by Angel Olsen. The whole “make an 80s song sad” schtick is well-worn at this point, but Angel’s turn on “Gloria” absolutely wrecked me. She described her inspiration this way: “I’d heard ‘Gloria’ for the first time at a family Christmas gathering and was amazed at all the aunts who got up to dance. I imagined them all dancing and laughing in slow motion, that’s when I got the idea.”
- The Reimagined collection marked the 10 year anniversary of Born This Way and while all the tracks are worth checking out if you are a Gaga stan, “Judas” by NOLA bounce queen Big Freedia was the cream of the crop.
- Jason Isbell’s record, Georgia Blue, covers songs by Georgia artists, and I’d recommend in particular his take-out on Drivin N Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue” and the late Vic Chesnutt’s “I’m Through.”
- Dale Hollow’s country cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
Fave TikTok Songs
I punished myself with a mild TikTok addiction this year. And anyone who frequents that Devil’s playground knows that certain earworms catch on and then get fed to you again and again. The ones I couldn’t escape this year:
- “Meet Me At Our Spot” – Willow Smith & others
- “Kiss Me More” – Doja Cat
- “Pope Is A Rock Star” – Sales (Despite the fact that all the tweens *get the lyrics wrong* on their Toks which INFURIATES me. It’s not “go little rockstar,” idiot children! Get off my lawn!)
- Yves Tumor, The Asymptotical World. I had a blast seeing Yves on Halloween night in San Francisco. A black, gender-bending psychedelic rocker who could’ve fit right in opening for David Bowie was bringing the Ziggy Stardust vibes to a Zoomer-heavy audience, which was a cool experience. Along with Orville and Sleigh Bells at The New Parish, Yves rounded out my fave concerts of the year.
- Billy Nomates, Emergency Telephone. A dancy pop-punk vibe from an Isle of Wight artist. Isle of Wight is so hot right now; it’s also the home of buzz band Wet Leg.
- Jarv Dee & Bad Colours, BLAKHOUSE. I’m a sucker for a well executed rapper/house music mash-up. This one brings the unce unce.
- Tierra Whack, R&B? – I’m cheating with this one because the Tierra Whack 2021 single that might just be the song I most loved this year, “Walk The Beat,” wasn’t on the EP for some reason. But I’m grandfathering it in because this is my list and I make the rules.
15. Paul McCartney: McCartney III Imagined
In 2020, 78-year-old Paul McCartney put out McCartney III and it was good … legitimately good, not just good for an old guy. This year he curated a record that remixed all his songs and it is sublime. Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien spin on “Slidin’” is the highlight for me. With III & Get Back we are really living through a McCartneyssaince.
14. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
A lush, mature singer songwriter whose line “finally got my license when I was 35” in “Hard Drive” brings nice balance to our coming album of the year. This is the perfect record to play as you doze off on an airplane, so long as you don’t take “Baby, let’s jump in the ocean, water it cures everything” literally.
13. Polo G, Hall of Fame
My favorite traditional, major-label hip hop record of the year. “Blackhearted” is a bop and it also might be a rap guitar ballad? “GANG GANG” with our fave Hot Boy Lil Wayne brings it. Only thing that knocks Polo below Lil Nas X is the DaBaby cameo.
12. Lil Nas X, Montero
Montero prolly shouldn’t be on a “best” list since this record includes some super skips. But a review of 2021 without Lil Nas would be incomplete. The record includes 3 tracks in the running for Song of The Summer, but it’s the cultural impact that will stick. Lil Nas first got famous with Walmart moms, doing a hokey country rap mash-up. To come back and deliver those fans the vision of a sexualized, unapologetic, empowered bottom took real courage. And in a year when DaBaby was still ranting about faggots, Lil Nas’ willingness to show himself and be honest about what he wants brought me a lot of joy. P.S. if he’s reading he should call me.
11. Nation of Language, A Way Forward
No matter how “relevant” I think I am. No matter how much work I put in on soundcloud. The reality is, I’m a dad. And even the coolest dad in the world can’t escape loving the kind of music that made them love music. For me it’s jam bands and the mid-aughts indie rock. This next little batch of records are all the best 2021 versions of those 2006 records I know and love. Nation of Language’s earlier output is more of a straight Cut Copy-style dance, synth record. But A Way Forward has more rock themes like a synthier Strokes, maybe an alternate universe version of Room on Fire if the DFA guys had produced it
10. Lo Talker, A Comedy of Errors
Recommended by one of my coolest friends (who is in the list’s next band), Lo Talker is a Georgia outfit that tickles all my nostalgic pickles. They would’ve been a Carles approved, Gorilla vs. Bear feature in their heyday. A little shoe gaze, some My Morning Jacket, all warm vibes that make you feel just enough feelings.
9. Acid Tongue, Arboretum
I poked around the Treefort Music Fest in Boise this year trying to see as many West Coast indie bands as I could with a little kiddo in tow. And I can say that even taking my personal bias into account, the Acid Tongue boys brought more heat than all the rest of em. As Kendall Roy would say it was All Bangers; All The Time. Their new record, Arboretum touches the whole rock canon, with some glam, garage, a bit of psychedelia, and no shortage of soul. The songs are tinged with all the neuroses of a writer who was going through a depression and the uplift of coming out the other side. Give the whole thing a spin.
8. Tyler The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost
Tyler has this record that is so intricate it rewards a close listen and yet so pleasant that you can have it on while writing as a beautiful compliment to your work day. CMIYGL is an ode to the rap mixtape with a bunch of eclectic tracks that take you on a tour of the best, if short, versions of the genre’s different stylings. (P.S. — For the fellow parents who’ve made it this far, Tyler’s version of the Grinch soundtrack is a freaking triumph that doesn’t get enough love.)
7. Art D’Ecco, In Standard Definition
100% Glam straight out of the ’70s New Romantic era. It’s affected, but pulses forward, rather than getting caught up in the showiness of it all. Every song hits just right for me. It’s the album I wish we had when I bopped around the Black Cat’s MouseTrap dance party in D.C.
6. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
I can’t pinpoint exactly why but SIMBI feels like the most *now* record on the list. A Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for the Zoomers, with a bit of a British “I May Destroy You” swagger. She tells a story that traces her anxieties and traumas and contrasts public “performance” vs self actualization, themes that have never been more relevant than the TikTok age. She raps over orchestras and neo-soul and some trap—it’s what Brooklyn Vegan called a “globe-trotting epic.”
5. Night Beats, Outlaw R&B
Anything titled Outlaw R&B is going to get my attention. Especially when the record is more psychedelia than either. Add in a guest spot from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, one of my all-time faves means this record reaches all my erogenous zones. No skips. No misses. This is my top rock record of the year by a good margin.
4. Aaron Frazer, Introducing; Durand Jones & The Indications, Private Space
Frazer is a founding member of The Indications so I’m lumping this pair of absolutely phenomenal neo-soul records together. Play them back to back and you can take yourself back to Harlem 1969. Introducing was better for me as a complete record, but the highs of Private Space were so damn high. Just do yourself a favor and turn on “Witchoo” right now actually.
3. Doja Cat, Planet Her
Doja gave the gays the chance to do that “simple flick of the wrist at just the right moment.” She let the hets get weird again. And she made an album so eclectic that even the Pitchfork posse were smitten. There is no need for nostalgia or ’70s throwbacks. There are five legit hits. It’s the 2021 pop record and if it weren’t for a few clunkers in the mix, Planet Her would’ve been top of the pops for me this year.
2. Sault, NINE
So Inflo, the guy who heads up the R&B Collective SAULT, is the same dude who produced the Little Simz record and is possibly the coolest person in the world at the moment. His collective’s album NINE, which includes collabs from Simz and Michael Kiwanuka, flows beautifully from dub and electronica to soul to afrobeat to funky New Orleansy shit to the best damn coffeehouse jazz you’ve ever heard to classic rhythm & blues. It’s 34 minutes that will just blow you the fuck away. But … you can’t hear it on the streaming services anymore because they set it to disappear after 99 days. Which is pretentious but kind of in a great way? So SAULT won’t be on the Bulwark playlist but you can still hear it all on YouTube and under the right rocks.
1. Olivia Rodrigo, SOUR
Here’s the thing about Olivia Rodrigo’s break-up record. It’s ridiculous. She’s a teenager. She just got her driver’s license last week! I hadn’t even had puberty when I got my driver’s license!!! I was a totally different person then. All of us listening know that the pain she’s feeling from this break-up is going to go away. The dude was probably a dick. She will have new loves. Hopefully many of them. And yet it works because while ridiculous it is also so pure and vibrant. It expresses a youthful agony that is universal. As a bonus Olivia, like Lil Nas X, pulled a switcheroo on the fans, putting out the most-listened to single in history, a terrifically treacly ballad and then turns around and drops a record with some Gwen Stefani, Ashlee Simpson pop punk bangers. It’s a fantastic album and as a result she got her teenage dream and we can all enjoy it with her.