This was easily the hardest list to make out of the year-end lists so far mainly just because of how much I had to cut down. This original list was somewhere around 55 songs and I realized that not only did I not want to put y'all through that, but I also didn't want to put myself through it either. There's a lot of variety on here for sure, but that's to be expected with a list like this. There are also a few honorable mention songs that I want to be sure I point out and give their credit as these were the hardest songs to cut out from this list (these will also all be included on the playlist at the bottom of this list).
Those honorable mention songs are adhd by Slowthai, New Shapes by Charli XCX ft. Christine and The Queens and Caroline Polachek, Starlight by Yola, All It Cost Me Was Everything by Cody Jinks, and Keep Moving by Jungle.
With those out of the way now, here are my picks for the 30 best songs of 2021.
30. Yves Tumor - Jackie
I was late to the Yves Tumor party last year and I'll be damned if I'm late to it again. There are instances where compression and a mix suffocating you can work and this is definitely one of those. This song is thick, heavy, and just crushing. I love the sinister vibe this song has along with Yves' usually great voice. If you haven't given this a shot already, definitely throw it in your rotation soon.
29. Weezer - Here Comes The Rain
I don't know what exactly it is about this song but it scratches a specific itch for me and I honestly want to hear more piano-rock songs from Weezer. Maybe it's Rivers channeling his inner Beatles or maybe it's just how catchy that hook is, it also might just be how awesome the strings on the songs are to the point where I think this song would sound worsewith guitars in their place. If you need a good entry point for OK Human, I'd say this is a solid as it gets. (You should really listen to it in order but more on that in the next list.)
28. Cody Johnson - Known For Loving You
The first time I heard this song, I automatically knew it was gonna be included in this list because this might be one of Johnson's best songs to date. I don't say that lightly either, I've been following him for a long while now and as his profile continues to expand, I'm glad his music isn't suffering. I think when Cody gets on a song like this, he's unbeatable. The whole thing instrumentally sort of If You're Going Through Hell by Rodney Atkins but not to the point of ripping him off. Johnson's vocal performance on the song is perfect for the upbeat tempo and the driving fiddle and electric guitar leads. I think the lyrics on the song are super fun as well with Johnson singing about how he could have all of this fame, wealth, and excess yet, "...when I'm gone / no matter what I did or didn't do / I wanna be known for loving you." I hope Johnson adds this to his live repertoire soon because this would be amazing live.
27. BROCKHAMPTON - THE LIGHT
Is someone chopping onions right here? No? Are we sure? Okay then damn...this song really stings. Most of the new BROCKHAMPTON album revolves around themes of loss, specifically Joba losing his father to suicide in September of 2020. I'm still shocked at how open he was about this loss on this album and this song is the first true gut-punch lyrically about the situation with Joba spending the whole first verse of the song rapping about how he misses his dad, how he feels like he could've done more, there's also a rough few lines where he says he wishes he could talk to him one more time so he has that image in his mind versus the image of his dad's room after he shot himself. It's a tough song emotionally but the beefy drums, organ chords, and loud distorted guitars make this thing instrumentally pleasing where the lyrics are so low.
26. Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall - In His Arms
The first single off of The Marfa Tapes, this has slowly become one of my favorite Miranda Lambert songs. A shimmering acoustic ballad, Miranda sings of missed connections and lovers she wishes she could've pulled a little closer. I love Miranda's vocals on the song because it shows just how great her voice is when all of the processing and studio polish is removed. She's just as great a singer in the studio as she is in this raw setting. I also really like the lyrics on this song, especially what's supposed to be the chorus with Miranda wondering where those missed connections have ended up. Maybe he's breaking horses in San Antonio, maybe he's lost in the Marfa lights, maybe he's playing with a house band in Dallas? Miranda isn't sure, but she does wish she was in his arms right now, and she even wonders if he's thinking the same. Again, we'll never know for sure, but the result of it is this beauty of a song.
25. Royal Blood - Boilermaker
I've been waiting to put this song on one of these year-end lists ever since this duo of Ben Thatcher and Mike Kerr live debuted the song on tour in 2019 and the finished product is an absolute heater. It's also neat to find out that this song was produced by none other than Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame. As far as Royal Blood's singles go, I think this might be one of their strongest in a really long time, probably since I Only Lie When I Love You. The groove and the energy of this song are both irresistible. I also love the extended bridge with the descending bass line, especially when the choir and synths get added in. I also have to give props to Ben's drumming on the song because it is fantastic and that man holds a groove better than a lot of other drummers in modern rock are. If you're a Queens of the Stone Age fan and you haven't given this song a shot yet, I highly suggest it, you'll find a lot to like.
24. The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore (ft. Lucius)
Quick! Someone grab my arm before I transcend too high and hit my head on the ceiling! The War on Drugs has been one of my favorite discoveries of the last year and the feelings of warmth and comfort I get from their music are unmatched. I can't really elaborate but they just sound comfortable. This song, the title track of their latest album, is no different. I love the booming drums throughout the song and I find Adam Granduciel's lyrics all over the song to be pretty smart. He's looking back on lots of past memories with a love interest he had that has obviously splintered and rather than sitting and being upset about it, he's moved on, he doesn't live in that state of mind anymore. I have to say that the chorus on this song is incredible. It just feels so happy and triumphant for a song that's pretty sad lyrically. Adam's knack for writing hooks is also flexed on here and I also really like the guitar solos he brings all over the song. The band was recently added to the bill for this year's Innings Festival in Tempe, AZ which I'm attending and I can't wait to dance like an idiot in the pit to this song.
23. Eric Church - Break it Kind of Guy
This is the least like Eric Church I think Eric Church has ever sounded and I love it. Don't think I'm saying that to discredit him either, I love Eric and I've been in his corner ever since the first time I heard Creepin'. But man, I'm glad he and his band just decided to cut loose and have fun on his two new records because it leads to songs like this. While Eric portraying himself as a badass is nothing new, it just feels so fun on this song. Whether he's calling his boss son telling him to tell his Dad to get lost or saying, "When it comes to raisin' hell / 'Bout to take y'all to school," you can't deny the energy Eric has on the song. I also love the outro with Eric essentially just saying, "I'm not gonna do it this way, I'm gonna do it my way" which leads to a funny, "Don't tell me how to sing it! It's my damn song!" I also love the funky groove of this song instrumentally with a fun bass line, guitars with a lot of vibrato, and drums that just ask for dancing. This is easily one of the best songs off of this triple album project from Church so if you need a good song to start before diving in, here it is.
22. Flatland Cavalry - Some Things Never Change
Cleto Cordero. That's all I need to say for you to know why I like this song so much. Okay maybe that's not all I need to say but for most of you, you'll get what I mean right off the bat. For those of you who don't know why that's such a big deal, let me break it down a little bit. Cleto Cordero and his band, Flatland Cavalry, are self-described as "Easy on the ears, heavy on the heart." Need an example? Here it is. As song with driving fiddle and acoustic guitar leads paired with Cordero singing about how his dream girl will appear in a bar or dancehall he's at only for her to disappear at the end of the night "when the lights come up and the smoke clears." To Cordero, it's like clockwork that this happens or in his words, "Like a bonfire fades when it runs out of flame." I also have to mention how awesome the fiddle is on this song. While Flatland's music is no stranger to fiddle leads, this has to be one of the best ones that they've laid to tape, especially the solo that ends the song out, it's just pure heat.
21. St. Vincent - The Melting of the Sun
Has Annie Clark missed yet? I'm honestly asking, I don't think she has yet. I could've chosen any song from Daddy's Home to throw on this list but if I have to pick what I think is the best song, it's definitely this one. Normally I hate songs that have lyrics that are only based on name-dropping other artists, songs, and albums but somehow Annie makes it work, mainly because it's from a different angle. Rather than trying to make these names work as a way to tell a story or make rhymes, this song serves more as a tribute to these artists and in Annie's words, "a love letter to strong, brilliant female artists. Each of them survived in an environment that was in a lot of ways hostile to them." But as far as the song goes musically, this thing is a beautiful mix of spacey synths, some simple but really great sounding drums, and of course, Annie's guitar which really shines before the last verse as Annie gets to solo for a little bit. The outro of this song is fantastic as well with a choir behind her and the song getting a little more steam musically. I really hope Annie finds a way to fit this into the setlist when I get to see her again in February.
20. Charley Crockett - I Need Your Love
Every time I hear a Charley Crockett song I feel like I've tripped and fallen into a time machine that took me to the 1960s. Seriously, you could slip this dude in between a George Jones and a Buck Owens song and I would believe that it's from the same time period. I was pretty late to the party when Welcome To Hard Times came out but when I first found out a new album of original material was due out from Charley, I knew I had to pay attention. (I say original material because he released an album of James Hand covers earlier in the year.) This song was the lead single and it made me fall in love with Charley all over again. Between Charley's voice, the horns on the song, and the pivot towards soul music, there's not much not to love on this song. Lyrically, this is a goofy love song but Charley really sells it with his vocals, especially when it comes to him singing a line like, "I can't ask to move the mountains, so just give me the strength to climb." This song just oozes swagger and if there are more songs like this in Charley's wheelhouse, I hope they come out next year when he'll likely put out another album since he never sleeps I guess.
19. Bleachers - Stop Making This Hurt
It's easy to hate Jack Antonoff. He produces just about every main pop girls album under the sun and as time goes on it seems like he gets more and more basic and not really daring enough with the artists he works with. But man, when he drops a banger, it's a banger. This song is probably the best thing he's released under any project he's worked on this year and it genuinely gets better and better each time I listen. There's so much to like about this song. Whether it's the driving piano and bassline, the snappy drums, the panned horn section, the warm guitars. This song alone reminded me why Antonoff is such an in-demand producer because this instrumental is pure heat. Lyrically I think this song is pretty fun too as he mentions how the world is spinning not just for him but for his family and friends as well, opening the song by singing about how friend and collaborator Lana Del Rey is on the road and doesn't recognize her country or in the second verse singing about how his mom is trying to "break free of New Jersey." I'm also pretty sure that the chanted "STOP MAKING THIS HURT" is one of the best hooks of the past year and it gets me hype every time I hear it. This song is fantastic and likely the best off of the latest Bleachers effort so if you don't want to listen to the whole thing, at least add this to your rotation.
18. IDLES - The Beachland Ballroom
In 2021, IDLES came storming back and won me over as a fan again. From the second I heard this song, I was blown away by a few things. First, a moody rock song produced by Kenny Beats has no right to sound this good, but it does. Also, Joe Talbot's singing voice on this song is fantastic and it's a nice change in pace considering I'm used to hearing him scream his head off. (He does eventually scream but it's not until the very end of the song.) This song just feels really tense with the slower tempo, big piano and synth chords, and I love those quick bursts of cymbals and distorted guitars that pop up. Lyrically the song is all about recovering from trauma, something that the album is based around too after frontman Joe Talbot nearly died in a car accident. Talbot comes through with some unsurprisingly solid lyrics on this track, I really like the lines about trying to move forward "inch by inch, foot by foot" on his knees before falling down again on all fours. The entire outro of the song is even more tense with the guitars going higher and the strumming getting faster, more cymbals, and Joe is yelling, "IF YOU SEE ME DOWN ON MY KNEES, PLEASE DO NOT THINK THAT I'M PRAYING." It's a very dramatic song and I'm glad I decided to give it a listen because it ended up pulling me back in and letting me give IDLES another shot.
17. Morgan Wade - Wilder Days
Before this year began, I had no clue who Morgan Wade was. I saw her name on a few festival lineups and I had seen BJ Barham from American Aquarium tweet about her and talk her up to be the next big star in country music. Now, almost a year later, she sure is shaping up to be that way. She's on just about every publication's "Artists to Watch in 2022" list, she's opening a stadium tour for Luke Combs, and this song even got up to #14 on Billboard's Heatseekers Chart back when this album was released. I believe this song deserves that success the most out of all the songs on the album. Why? Because you'll be hard-pressed to find a song that blends Country and Alternative as well as this one does. Produced by Sadler Vaden of Jason Isbell's 400 Unit, this song not only solidifies Morgan as a great singer and writer but also shows that Vaden's talents aren't strictly limited to being a great guitarist. I love the reverb on the guitars all over this song and the groove on this song is irresistible as well. Morgan's lyrics on the song are also fantastic singing about how she finds her perfect guy but he's cleaned up his act but still has a little wild side to him. In an interview with Apple Music, Morgan says that "if time would have allowed it, [we] would have gotten into some trouble and been more of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-type thing." If you're not on the Morgan Wade train yet, you better hurry because it's leaving the station really soon.
16. Jack White - Taking Me Back
I don't think this song being here will shock anyone that knows me. Jack could've released a song where he just burps for 3 minutes straight and it'd probably end up on this list. Luckily, that's not the case. Instead, this is a straight-up arena rock jam. If you thought Over and Over and Over slapped, Taking Me Back is coming to kick your legs out from under you then punch you in the nose. There's so much going on but at the same time, it never gets overwhelming. There are synths flying all around the place, guitars and cymbals panning back and forth, and of course, since this is Jack White, there's a buttload of fuzz to go along with it. You can also tell that this was Jack in his studio just having fun given that there are multiple synth and guitar solos, different instrumental bridges, and I absolutely love the bit in the middle of the song with the distorted arpeggios, it's a really solid touch. I think what I like most about this song is the fact that it manages to be both a classic Jack White song and yet still push forward. It has the weirdness of Boarding House Reach and it has a blaring riff like something you could've found on Icky Thump. I also have to bring up the point that this was also a new experiment for Jack given he pulled a Kevin Parker by recording and producing every sound on this song himself. Knowing that makes some of the production on here feel a little more impressive and the drum groove on here made me realize that Jack is also a fantastic drummer (yes, I know he played drums in The Dead Weather but I think it's his weakest side project so I don't listen to them much.) If you want me to make a long story short to end this, this song is a banger and Jack White isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
15. Halsey - Easier Than Lying
This...this is the exact thing I was expecting to hear when I first heard that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would be producing a new album for Halsey. That still sounds wild to say but yes, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the two sole members of the legendary Nine Inch Nails produced an album for Halsey, a singer whose two biggest mainstream successes have come from singing on a Chainsmokers song and a Benny Blanco song. This song, however, is very much not like those stylistically but I don't think I needed to tell you that. Instrumentally, this is the most any song on this album sounds like NIN and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this was something that got left off of The Downward Spiral (the drums especially really remind me of Mr. Self Destruct) and I'm very happy to report that Halsey has the proper energy and dark lyrics to match the vibe of the song. The entire chorus of the song is super heavy with Halsey singing "I sleep with one eye open and one eye closed / 'Cause I'll hang myself if you give me rope / I lost all my faith and lost all hope / That everything means anything at all / One eye broken and one eye bruised / 'Cause I gave myself away for you / You liar, you don't love me too / It's easy for you after all." I also love the second verse where she sings about her heart being an "innocent artery" that needs some "undivided hypertension" before she sings about telling her heart to quiet down which leads to everything dropping out except for her voice and a bass drum that sounds like a heartbeat. This song might be one of the best that Halsey has laid down so far in her career and while I don't expect her to continue working with Reznor and Ross, I'm not exactly opposed to it either.
14. Lil Nas X - INDUSTRY BABY (ft. Jack Harlow)
BABY BACK! AY! COUPLE RACKS! AY! COUPLE GRAMMY'S ON HIM! COUPLE PLAUQES! AY! Every time I think Lil Nas X is fading into irrelevancy, he comes back and drops another banger that makes me fall in love with him all over again. In 2021, this was that song, even though he dropped multiple great singles leading up to his first full album, MONTERO. I think this is still the strongest single he's ever dropped on a pure quality level. His verses have a fun flow, the chorus is catchy as hell, and he's just so cocky and full of swagger and he has every right to be. There's a lot of subtle flexes with him saying he's yet to lose while he's been popular and also saying that he's not scared to switch styles saying he's telling rappers he doesn't see them because he's making pop banging "like Bieber." I also love the marching band vibe of the instrumental with the huge horn section, the snare drum line, it surprisingly fits well next to the trap hi-hats and huge sub-bass. Oh yeah, Jack Harlow is on the song, too, and the chemistry these two have is undeniable. You can really tell they brought the best out of each other while they were recording this. Harlow's verse is also a celebration of success, rapping about how a lot of people are hating on him now that he's reached this level of success but he blames it on himself saying "I must be gettin' too flashy." I also really love his line near the end where he raps, "Saw your time is comin' soon, but just like Oklahoma / Mine is comin' sooner." It's a fantastic performance from both on all fronts and if you somehow haven't heard this song yet, what are you doing? Just turn on your local pop radio station and enjoy this song in all it's greatness.
13. Porter Robinson - Look at the Sky
I know this is probably a statement that everyone is sick of hearing at this point but 2020 was a rough year for everyone. A pandemic swept the nation that we still see the effects of almost 2 years later, everyone was forced inside, many people lost family members and loved ones and many had their mental health deteriorate as we stayed inside longer and longer. Porter Robinson was one of those people but he used that to make something very inspired and very hopeful. This song was the fourth single released for his album Nurture and it's easily one of the most powerful songs on the album. The verses show Porter really upset and confused with himself while trying to make this album to the point where I think he was just writing out what was pissing him off and decided to sing about it as a way to cope with it. He sings about being somewhat addicted to the fame and notoriety he was receiving at 18 when he first started touring. There's also a really cutting line in the second verse where he says, "Are you close? / Shouldn't it come to you naturally? / And everyone knows (Oh) / You're losing your gift and it's plain to see." Yet it comes to a very positive and hopeful resolve with Porter saying before the bridge that he felt a change and is more sure of himself and his art. The big message of hope comes in the chorus, however, with Porter singing, "Look at the sky, I'm still here / I'll be alive next year / I can make something good, oh / Something good." This song is an undeniable banger instrumentally too. I love how ethereal the first half of the chorus feels with these super grand synths and some fuzzy bass chords as well, it's just such a well-arranged song from the opening piano playing to all of the effects he stacks on his voice. That's a feat in itself, to process his voice this much yet still have this much emotion pour through is really great. Even if EDM isn't your cup of tea, I cannot recommend this song enough.
12. Tyler, The Creator - CORSO
They say money can't buy happiness and there's no one to prove that more true than Tyler does on this song. This song shows Tyler on a victory lap. IGOR was the #1 album in the country upon release, he had an extremely successful tour and festival run behind it, and you could make a claim that EARFQUAKE finally broke him into the mainstream. So what's Tyler doing in the aftermath of it? Well, he's buying cars, he might buy a boat, he's taking trips all around the globe. Yet, as he says, he's spending "millions, just to fill voids up." This song is the direct aftermath of the events that conspired on IGOR. Essentially, Tyler found himself in a race against the clock trying to win over a love interest before someone else got her and it seems like he lost that race. He tries to put on a happy face and make it seem like he was too good for this love interest saying, "In the end, she picked him, I hope when they f*ckin' / She still thinkin' of me 'cause I'm that perfect." He also tries to turn to his wealth again at the end of the song saying, "Remembered I was rich, so I bought me some new emotions / And a new boat 'cause I'd rather cry in the ocean." This song instrumentally is one of the hardest beats Tyler has produced in a long time with some soft pianos and a drum break mixing with some super deep 808s. Tyler also enlisted the help of DJ Drama on this song who might come off as annoying at first but I promise, in the context of the album, he makes much more sense on here. I still think his contributions on here are great saying that what Tyler is about to do is "something legendary" and then before the third verse saying, "Okay, now you understand what we came here to do," after Tyler has been rapping his ass off. It's a great intro to the album and the narrative and, oh yeah, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST SUCKAS!
11. Silk Sonic - Fly As Me
I don't want to hear a single one of you say that this sounds like Old Navy Commercial music because that might be one of the most disrespectful and discrediting things you can say about this song and this album as a whole. If you've never listened to Anderson .Paak's solo material, Bruno Mars is on a mission to make sure you do in the near future and I can't thank him enough for it. This is technically the first new song on the Silk Sonic album and I kid you not, I replayed this song three times on the night of release after I heard it because I was so hooked by it. I would try to talk about every reason why this song is great but I'm limiting myself on space in an effort to finally finish this list. For starters, again, if you've never listened to Anderson's solo work, please do it soon. His charisma and energy on the song are incredible to the point where I can almost picture him smiling in the booth while he's recording his vocals. The lyrics on the song are fun too with Anderson flexing his excesses to impress a girl going so far as to tell her, "Go ahead, sprinkle some truffle on your mashed potatoes." What the song boils down to is Anderson telling this girl, "I deserve to be with somebody as fly as me...and you deserve to be seen with somebody as fly as me." Bruno isn't on this song as much as he is a few others but man, his hook on this song is lethal. Also lethal is the bassline and guitar riff on this song along with the super sharp horns that pop up before the verses and during the end of each chorus. This song is just so well produced too, you can feel the warmth coming off of the drums and it just sounds so nice. One last time for good measure, go listen to Anderson's solo work if you haven't yet. After you listen to this song, of course.
10. Squid - G.S.K.
I will assure you guys now that this is the weirdest song on this list. British post-punk was an undefeated genre in 2021 and while there was a lot of great stuff that came out, Squid is the band that caught my ear the most. This song is just such a wild way to open up an album. There are so many twists and turns and they all catch you off guard because you don't know when to expect them. The song goes from a verse backed by trumpet and some strumming guitars before some synths are thrown into the mix. After this, there's some guitar noodling before someone shushes the band. The lick comes back again before there's a huge wall of distortion and the drums pick up, the cymbals get bashed on a little harder, then it sounds like it gets sucked out of the song into another smoother section. This song still catches me by surprise even when I'm paying attention to it. The bassline on this song is also really good and manages to add a bit of a sinister vibe to this song. Speaking of, this song and album are supposed to be set in a dystopian world ruled by the title's namesake, the G.S.K., a pharmaceutical company in the middle of this city that runs just about everything. Singer and drummer Ollie Judge sings about praying to the company and speeding along from pharmacy to pharmacy just hoping he's making enough to have a warm dinner for him at home. If not, he'll go through the windshield since he can't slow down. I think this is one of the wildest album openers of the year and while I don't really know if I can pick just one, I think it's not that tough to say that this is one of the best album openers of the year. The only reason why I don't feel 100% confident in that statement is because...
9. Brandi Carlile - Right On Time
It almost feels illegal that Brandi Carlile is still this great and still this consistent. It's been almost 17 years since she dropped her debut album and she is still a fantastic writer and if anything, she's only gotten better in these 17 years at it. Right on Time is a piano ballad capitalized by, as Brandi calls it, a "mega-money note...just to torture myself." I understand how it can be vocally straining but as long as her voice can handle it, I welcome any and all "mega-money notes" from Brandi. Lyrically, this song is about the aftermath of a fight with someone you're close with, whether it be a friend, a family member, a significant other, and having to cut each other off. Brandi sings from a strange perspective on this song as she misses the person she cut herself off from but she doesn't necessarily feel bad for doing whatever she did. Brandi is also sort of scared at what happened singing that she didn't mean to take her anger out on this person yet she always does but she does it because she knows they're the strongest person in the room and can take it (except for this time I guess). The chorus of the song really ties everything together nicely and I love the line where Brandi sings that she loses this person "in these silent days," essentially feeling more lonely the longer she doesn't hear from this person but she's still not apologetic, ending the chorus by singing, "It wasn't riiiiiiiiiiiiiight (that's the mega-money note), but it was right on time." I think Dave Cobb did a fantastic job on the production here, I love how drawn out the guitars are and how well they mesh with the lush strings and Brandi's piano playing. This song is compelling and beautiful enough as an instrumental alone but when you throw Brandi's fantastic songwriting and voice on top of it, you have perhaps the best country song of 2021.
8. The Killers - Quiet Town
When you think of The Killers music what do you usually associate it with? For a lot of people, they're immediately associated with they're dumb, fun pop-rock bangers like When You Were Young, Human, and of course, Mr. Brightside. For some others, they're associated with their live shows which are commonly very grand, bright, and full of confetti, lasers, all of the Las Vegas fixings. This song is very much neither of those and that's apparent right from the beginning when we hear a field recording from someone in the town of Nephi, Utah where frontman Brandon Flowers spent most of his teenage years. The man at the beginning of the song says that there's a train that will always pass through the city, everybody hears it and knows about it, yet every 2 or 3 years someone will get hit by that train. The man also says that he sees it as a way to escape the city and escape this life. Super cheery start to this song eh? For the rest of the song, Brandon flexes his storytelling muscle just about the best he has ever done in his career so far. His first verse is about a sadly true story of a young couple getting hit by the train while they were taking some "sheet metal and household appliances" back home while it was pouring down rain. Nobody in the town expected it to happen and it caught almost everyone by surprise with Brandon saying that the couple was expecting to get married once they graduated high school and have a kid but "trouble came and shut it down." This song takes an even darker twist in the second verse when Brandon starts singing about what plagues the city the most, opioids. The end of the verse is one of the most disturbing in the song with Brandon singing, "When we first heard opioid stories / They were always in whispering tones / Now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes / 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 reason why this is all so disturbing to hear is that Brandon paints a great picture of how tight-knit this community is, saying that people don't even lock their doors at night and are always more than willing to lend a hand if you need it. This song is fantastically written and, just like Brandi, Brandon has also only gotten better as a writer over the course of his career.
7. Twenty One Pilots - Shy Away
Wow! Shocker guys! I really like a Twenty One Pilots song! Who would've ever guessed? Maybe this is a biased pick but I can't help but ignore this song given I think this is one of the best songs they've ever released. Is that a bold take? Maybe, but I don't care. There are two things I need to point out before I talk more about this song. The first is Tyler Joseph's production chops because after taking over the reins on the band's last album, Trench, Tyler is still improving as a producer and while I do think there are a few misses across the album as a whole, this song gets everything right. From the peppy and bright drums to the panned guitar licks in the second verse, there are a lot of nice touches that make this thing really shine instrumentally. Oh and that's the other thing...there's guitar on this song. While this isn't the first song the band has released with guitar in it, this is the first they released that has it this prominently featured. I think stylistically, this is a mix of a lot of mid-2000s pop and alternative rock, I catch shades of The Strokes and Phoenix mainly but I can also feel The Killers influence on the song too. I also love the guitar lick and synth lines that drive the song, I'm glad that Tyler took the time to actually learn guitar a little bit because I would be bummed if he learned guitar only to write garbage riffs. The rhythm section on this song is fantastic too, the bassline is groovy as hell, super punchy, and Josh Dun will always be a beast on the drums. The chorus on this song is solid too and lyrically, Tyler has said this song was inspired by a conversation he had with one of his younger brothers after he asked Tyler to show him his songwriting process. From that comes an empowering set of lyrics with Tyler telling his brother to take risks, to "shed your modesty," and to not "shy away" from wanting to do what he wants making music. There's also a great breakdown near the end of the song too before the chorus hits one more time with a big explosion of synths, some distorted guitars, and Tyler screaming his head off in the background. While yes, I might be biased to put this song here this high, I genuinely think this is a fantastic indie-rock banger and if you haven't yet had the chance to give this a spin, do that soon.
6. Olivia Rodrigo - good 4 u
In case you didn't notice it, pop-punk is having a bit of a revival right now. The results have been...varied, but when one hits, it's great. On good 4 u, if you can't tell already, it hits. I think this song honestly could've been way worse but this song is smart in that it's not trying to "rawk out!!!! \m/" or be super loud and thrashy. This song wants to be a pop song, it just so happens to have some distorted guitars, distorted vocals, and some upbeat drums. Because of this, you're not getting a mix that's super blown out and compressed and you're not getting something soulless, to use the phrase again, everything clicks on this one. Another thing that I think helps Olivia out here is that she's obviously a student of Paramore and Avril Lavinge, she's also made it known that she's a huge Courtney Love fan as well (after Love accused her of plagiarism, Olivia responded by saying, "I'm just flattered that Courtney Love even knows I exist), so she's not entering this territory completely green behind her ears. What comes out of it is Olivia's best song so far and just a straight-up banger, honestly, I am convinced that there is crack in this song because it shouldn't be as addicting as it is. Olivia's vocal performance on the song is super fun and super charismatic, it gives the song another boost of energy as if it needed anymore in the first place. I also have to bring up the lyrics of the song because even though I'm not her intended audience, I still love these lyrics about her breaking up with someone only for him to move on a little too quickly. She's pissed off on the song and the lyrics are super cutting, telling this guy at one point that hopefully the therapist she found for him will help him be a better man for his new girlfriend, there's also the line in the chorus where she says she's glad that he's doing great, looking happy and healthy but not her but it doesn't matter because he wouldn't have asked anyway. Hearing this song makes me want more songs in this style from Olivia but given that this is only her first album, it's hard to really know what to expect next. All I can say for now though is that this song slaps and Olivia has a really bright future ahead of her, so long as she doesn't kill this ex.
5. Dayglow - Close To You
In 2019, Sloan Struble released an album called Fuzzybrain under the name Dayglow. As he described it at a show I went to, he upload the album to Soundcloud, closed his computer, moved into his dorm at the University of Texas, saw how well the album was performing, and dropped out to pursue music full time. That's mostly thanks to his viral hit Can I Call You Tonight which made the rounds on TikTok and helped him get a lot of buzz. Now, almost 3 years later, Sloan is only getting bigger, finding slots at major festivals around the world, selling out an entire headline tour, and releasing his second album, Harmony House. The lead single from that album is this song, Close To You, I have a lot of great things to say about this song and limited space so I'll try to be as concise as I can be. First things first, the synths on this song are incredible. I don't know what kind of black magic Sloan whipped up in his home studio to make them sound this great but oh my lord it's fantastic. I also can't deny the groove on this song. No matter where I hear this song, I always feel the need to get up and dance and put a smile on my face because it's that great. Especially when the chorus hits and you have the punchy drums, piano and synth chords mingling together, and Sloan also hitting some fantastic harmonies, especially when he reaches up into that falsetto, it's so catchy. The only thing holding me back from having this in the #1 or #2 spot (which I almost did) is that I don't think lyrics are that special though I do find Sloan to be a pretty honest writer. The song deals with Sloan getting too caught up in his head and thoughts to go talk to a girl that he likes, as he says in the chorus, "I'm only overthinking when I'm close to you." It's not offensively bad but I also don't really listen to Sloan's music for the lyrics since he's so great at producing these songs so it's not a big surprise that this song isn't as great lyrically as it is instrumentally. Regardless of that criticism, this song impresses me every time I listen to it and it never fails to put a smile on my face. If you want to get some background from Sloan about the making of this song or if you're just curious about his music-making process in general, check out this video to see his "behind the scenes" look at the song.
4. Dominic Fike - Kiss of Venus
I wanted to try my best to avoid covers in this list entirely. It's the reason I cut American Aquarium's cover of John Deere Green by Joe Diffie and the reason I cut Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden's cover of Honeysuckle Blues by Drivin N Cryin. But this one is very different. The main reason I cut those out is that they were trying to be as faithful to the original as they possibly could. This cover is different. Originally by Paul McCartney, Paul assembled a great cast of talent to remix and cover different songs off of his most recent album, McCartney III, essentially giving everyone creative freedom for whatever they wanted to do. Dominic decided to completely rearrange and reimagine the song. Originally an acoustic song, Dominic's version has some quirky guitars and synths, a big string section, and two new verses that he wrote. The song starts with what sounds like some marimba before it quickly transitions into the guitar leads and some steady snare drums. I also love the bridge on the song where it sounds like Dominic is singing and playing some chords through a phone. The new lyrics on the song shift the focus from astronomy to the division of the news cycle in today's age. It also somehow turns into a love song with Dominic saying in the first verse, "baby, what's your take on it? / Does it make you wanna leave? / 'Cause I could look the other way for you." I also really like the second verse, there's a line I love at the end where Dominic says, "Go to college / Go find your major / Realize you're minor in the scheme of everything." The double-entendre of that line is fantastic. I think what makes me the happiest about this cover, however, is just the fact that Paul was willing to do it. So many artists who have gotten older only go on to prove how out of touch and angry with life they are, whether it's Eric Clapton suing a fan for selling a bootlegged CD or David Crosby struggling to understand why Phoebe Bridgers would smash a guitar on SNL. McCartney is doing his best to make sure that when he's gone, music is still in good hands. While he could've easily told Fike and anyone else that was on this project to make it as close to the original as they could, he wanted to make sure everyone had fun with it. The direct result of it is remakes of his songs that end up as great as this one did.
3. Arlo Parks - Hope
I first listened to this album on the recommendation of Billie Eilish after she had posted her listening to this on her Instagram story and congratulating her on the release of her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. When it came to picking which song from that album would make this list, I honestly had a really tough time. There's so much good stuff on this album but given that I return to this song the most, it only felt fitting to put it in this slot. Between Arlo's poetic lyrics and amazing vocal delivery, the amazing production (especially on the drums, sheesh), and just the way this song flows, it's probably one of this album's highest points. Lyrically the song is all about isolation. Arlo sings about the anxiety and sometimes depression that comes from being isolated, away from those you loved, and not just that but also sometimes the shame that comes with it. And the themes of that are present from the opening line when Arlo sings, "Millie tried to talk the pleasure back into being alive." It's a really dramatic opening line and it sets the tone well. I also really like her second verse here where she sings, "Started sweating bullets when her dad asked, 'How d'you really feel?' / She said, 'I've been feeling like something inside me wants to scream' / Won't call my friends, I'm persuaded that they'll leave in the end / Can't feel my legs, I'm feeling like a liar at best." There's also a spoken word third verse that Arlo said she wanted to feel like the other end of a phone call and it's probably the most profound thing she says on the song saying:
I've often felt like I was born under a bad sign
Wearing suffering like a silk garment or a spot of blue ink
Looking for light and finding a hole where there shouldn't be one
I cannot communicate the depth of the feeling
Truth is I'm still learning to be open about this
But know that I know and you're not alone
The chorus is hopeful though Arlo wants to make sure the message is getting through to the listener saying, "We all have scars / I know it's hard / You're not alone like you think you are." I'm very glad I found this album and Arlo before it was too late and I missed the train because Arlo has a very great road ahead of her. I'll never be able to thank Billie Eilish enough for posting about her and talking her up. Oh, speaking of Billie Eilish...
2. Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever
I think to break it down simply, this song is 50% indie-folk singer-songwriter style acoustic, 50% My Chemical Romance and Queen-inspired rock, and 1000% the best thing Billie has recorded to date. I don't even think it's close and that's high praise considering how big of a fan of Billie's I am. A sprawling, mutli-phased, 5 minute long song, Happier Than Ever shows Billie somehow at her most vulnerable and her most confident at the exact same time. The first half of this song is Billie questioning an ex, asking if he reads her interviews or if he went out of his way to just pass through her neighborhood. She also starts her list of complaints saying he would do the opposite of things she told him which would lead her to be more afraid and "miserable." Instrumentally, the song is barren up until the end of the second chorus. The only things accompanying her voice are some harmonies and an acoustic guitar and honestly, she's great on this half of the song in itself. If this was the whole song, I'd probably be a little upset that it was barely two minutes long but I'd still really enjoy it. But instead of staying in this lane, the tempo picks up and the acoustic guitar fades into an electric guitar. As Billie starts singing again, there are a few notes of synth bass and some bent electric guitar notes before the song just explodes into a wall of distortion, guitar chords, and the drums being bashed away at. And don't worry, Billie is still singing. In fact, she's singing some of the most cutting lyrics on the entire album on this song. The verse right after the song transitions shows Billie recounting a call she had with her ex while he was driving home drunk, saying "You scared me to death / but I'm wastin' my breath / 'Cause you only listen to your f*ckin friends." She then tells him that she doesn't relate to him because "I'd never treat me this sh*tty." The whole final verse is Billie just unloading on this guy, saying she never said anything bad about him, yet all he did was make her sad. She also says that he "ruined everything good" by saying he was misunderstood. But I have to point a few lines that I think trump everything else, most notably, probably my favorite line on the album, "I could talk about every time that you showed up on time / But I'd have an empty line 'cause you never did." There's also the final line where Billie says that this guy made all of her moments his own before belting out, "JUST F*CKING LEAVE ME ALOOOOOOOONE!" I also have to say that hearing this song live was just as magical and cathartic as you would imagine it is. While Billie has continued (in my opinion) to be a disappointing live performer, I would definitely pay money to see her again just so I could experience being in the middle of 50 thousand kids screaming "YOU MADE ME HATE THIS CITYYYYY." Alright, now that we've gotten all of this anger out, let's dance.
1. Japanese Breakfast - Be Sweet
Holy guacamole this song is amazing, truly and honestly. This song continues to blow me away each time I hear it. And to be honest, I don't know what it is about this song that makes it so catchy and great to me but I think I have a few clues. First, the chorus on this song is irresistibly catchy and I have to be careful when I listen to this song because I know in the future I'm gonna find myself in a serious situation and all I'll be able to think of is this damn chorus and humming along to "Be sweet to me BAY BAY!" I've never really talked about songs being earworms on this blog in a positive light but this song is so good that I don't mind it being stuck in my head. There's so much more to love in the chorus too besides that hook. The harmonies on the hook are incredible, I love the twinkly synths and funky guitar chords that pop up throughout it as well. It's weird that this song somehow sounds futuristic but also makes me nostalgic for a time I can't remember. The second reason I think I like this song so much is because of the rhythm section. That bassline is killer and the drums on this song sound fantastic as well. They're both just perfectly funky and have the perfect head-bobbing tempo. The next reason I suspect I love this song so much comes with a question. Do you love synths as much as I do? Then you'll love this song as much as I do. Whether it's the cinematic swells in between the chorus and second verse or the ascending and descending solo at the end, there's so much here for all you synth lovers. Lastly, but certainly not least, Michelle Zauner is a reason why I think I love this song as much as I do. Her voice is one of the most unique I've ever heard and when she hops on a song like this, it's pure magic. Also, some of the harmonies she pulls off on this song are fantastic, like this song genuinely may have the best harmonies of 2021 as well. While the upbeat vibe and shiny synths may make this song sound seem happy, Michelle's writing on the song will make you think twice about that. On the song, she's singing towards a significant other telling him she wants a little more affection from him since she's had fantasies of him running away and leaving her. That's all she wants, for him to be sweet to her. I don't know how many times I've listened to this song, probably way too many, yet I still haven't burnt myself out on it yet. If I can have a song in rotation for months on end and never skip it, it's gotta be worth standing out. In case I haven't made it clear yet, I'll say it one more time for good measure. I think this song is incredible and I hope I get a chance to see this band play this song live somewhere because I will bust out dance moves I didn't even think were possible in the pit.
Linked below is a Spotify playlist with all of these songs in order from #30 to #1 along with the honorable mentions on the top. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.
Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I am thrilled to make this list this year but I need to preface this by saying something, something pretty shocking. I actually had trouble making this list. Seriously, I don't think I heard much terrible music this year to the point where I can't come up with a Worst Songs of the Year list (though I will point out multiple awful songs on this list). And even putting this list together, I had to think about if albums I listed were actually bad or if they just didn't meet my expectations, namely the new Kacey Musgraves and Twenty One Pilots albums. But nonetheless, there's still a list here, so let's get to it. Here are what I think are the 5 worst albums of 2021.
5. Coldplay - Music of the Spheres
All combined, there are three things that I like on this album. I think the songs Higher Power and Coloratura are fantastic, though the former has some painfully basic lyrics. I also think the stuttering synths at the end of My Universe are really neat but outside of that, any hope I had of Coldplay returning to form after Everyday Life was essentially crushed with this album. Everyday Life was actually a very bold album and actually felt like the Coldplay everyone fell in love with on Viva La Vida and A Rush of Blood to the Head. The Coldplay on this album almost feels like a parody of themselves. Sure, that's Chris Martin singing, but that's about the only thing on this album that makes it feel like Coldplay. Outside of Coloratura, I don't think there's much here that hasn't been done better by other artists. Human Heart or Heart Emoji (whatever the stupidly titled emoji songs are named) sounds like a bad Bon Iver ripoff, I can't confidently put my finger on it but Human Kind gives me shades of The Killers and Arcade Fire, and People of the Pride sounds like any of Muse's heavier songs (think Uprising or Psycho). And if a song isn't wearing its influences on its sleeve then it's either painfully basic or painfully boring. For example, the rest of My Universe,which has a feature from BTS for streaming money no reason. Have we not heard the build-up and drop leading into the chorus a million times before? Or the song Biutiful (I know I butchered spelling that but so did the band) which sounds like its only purpose is to be played in the background of a clingy girlfriend's TikTok compilation with a bunch of pictures and videos of her boyfriend. The chipmunk vocals don't help matters much either. All around this is just a very poor showing but Coldplay being inconsistent honestly shouldn't be as surprising as it is at this point. At least Higher Power slaps.
4. Drake - Certified Lover Boy
Yes, this is the real album cover.
I was reading through Rolling Stone's Best Albums of 2021 list the other day and unsurprisingly, this album was featured on it. In the write-up, the author writes, "Is it Drake’s best album? Well, no. But Certified Lover Boy is still a highly enjoyable cruise on autopilot from modern pop’s most charming blob of resentment and self-pity." And those sentences right there are the reason why Drake can still get away with putting out bloated, boring albums of material that are good for maybe a couple singles and Instagram captions. Any album being praised because of its artist being on autopilot is cause for concern because everyone is just accepting of Drake's level of mediocrity at this point. I don't even hate Drake either, I'm one of the many who thought he showed a lot of promise in his early records, I think Take Care and If You're Reading This, It's Too Late are two of the best rap albums of the past decade with the latter probably being his best project to date. That's a different argument for a different day though, just know that the Drake on If You're Reading This, It's Too Late could probably put the Drake from this album in the hospital after one punch. There's a lot that's wrong with this album to the point where I think I'll just have to make passing mentions rather than going in-depth, so I'll start listing off my issues now. It's wild that this album is 21 songs long and there are only 3 that are memorable (2 aren't for good reasons), it's sad that most of the features on this album are meh yet they all still outshine Drake, and it's sad that every. single. label. executive. who heard this album heard Drake say, "Say that you're a lesbian/girl, me too!" and didn't hear anything wrong. The only song that I think I'll ever see myself returning to on a constant basis is the song Knife Talk and that's mainly because of how hard 21 Savage goes on the song before Drake comes in and drops a line saying, "Checked the weather and it's gettin' real oppy outside." I think that's a great omen for almost all of this album, flashes of greatness that get ruined when Drake decides to show up.
3. Tom Morello - The Atlas Underground Fire
You guys know Tom Morello right? Guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Well noted activist. Dude known for writing super heavy, super cool riffs and playing guitar solos with all different types of effects and filters that makes it sound like he hates the sound guitars make. Well, let me break down this for you. On this album, noted rock legend Tom Morello decides to be DJ Khaled and make an album that's kind of a rock album, kind of an EDM album, and completely a trainwreck. I think what upsets me the most about this album how he managed to make things that could be great sound terrible. For example, do you know how hard it is to make a song that Chris Stapleton is singing sound bad? It's gotta be close to impossible. Yet Tom Morello somehow manages to put Chris on top of one of the most boring instrumentals he's ever sang over while Tom also wails away on his guitar pitched up one octave so it sounds like a chipmunk. There's also a cover of Highway to Hell by AC/DC that features Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder. This has to be one of the easiest songs in the world to cover and with Bruce and Eddie in tow, it should be amazing right? Of course not, because Tom blows out and distorts the song way more than it ever deserves to be to the point where his guitar and the drums don't have a distinct sound, they just sound like noise. Things don't get much better as right after this there's the song Let's Get This Party Started featuring Bring Me The Horizon which is another song that's compressed to hell and just isn't good. There's a line in the chorus where Oli Sykes says he's feeling "50 shades of f*cked up" and there's also the bridge where he's literally just screaming, "I'M SO HAPPY I COULD DIE RIGHT NOW, SOMEONE F*CKING KILL ME!!!" This song is awful. The only song on here that I think is somewhat decent is the song Hold The Line featuring Grandson given that Grandson has been copying off of Zack De La Rocha's notes for a long while now. Of course the guy who wants to be Zack De La Rocha would have good chemistry with Tom. I really hope that with the Rage Against the Machine reunion coming up soon, Tom can ditch this solo project for a while because this is doing absolutely nothing for me.
2. Morgan Wallen - Dangerous: The Double Album
Do you ever see something that's popular and want to understand what the hype is? Something that all of your friends love and you want to see what it is that they love about it but you just can't? That's me and this album because no matter how many times I tried, I still just don't get the hype around Morgan Wallen and this album. For starters, the only thing "dangerous" about this album is its title, and an hour and 40 minutes of this album is way longer than I think anyone needs of this album. I also want to make something clear really quickly, my ranking of this album is not because of anything Morgan has said or done in the past year and a half, it honestly is strictly because of the music, though I could easily bash him because of his character for this whole writeup. On my first listen through this album, 30 songs up, 30 songs down, I counted 9 songs that I liked. Surprisingly, that number is still close with the count of songs on this album I like at 8 now as, over this year, I've become a huge fan of Jason Isbell and I've come to realize how badly Morgan butchered this version of Cover Me Up. It's also just a strange song for Morgan to cover given that Isbell wrote the song fresh out of rehab for his now-wife Amanda Shires with lines about getting sober "forever this time" and how Shires helped him reach the sober and mentally stable state he's in right now. It just feels very contradictory given when Wallen got out of rehab, the first time he came back out on stage was to throw back shots with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. I digress, however. Again, this is about the music and I've said enough about Morgan and his character. I do have to say, I think this album starts and ends on its strongest songs. Sand In My Boots is super compelling from a songwriting perspective and Quittin' Time definitely puts a nice bow on top of this but everything in between is rough. There's also minor adjustments that could be made to make a lot of these songs better. Like if the song Warning had real drums versus that god-awful snap beat and trap drums, I would probably like it so much more. Or even more beneficial would've been cutting the song Country A$$ Sh*t entirely because this might be one of the worst songs I've had to subject myself to this year. There's a lot of reasons why but I'll just paste the chorus down below:
’Cause I just wanna do country-ass sh*t
With my country-ass friends
But my country-ass been
Havin' to make them dollar bills, y’all
Ask me how my country ass feels, y'all
Between workin' it off and gettin' it chewed
There ain’t much country ass left in these old blue jeans
But wait a minute, the whole world can kiss it
'Cause me and my country ass gone fishin'
Depending on how much you like those lyrics will probably also determine how much you'll like this album so if this for some reason appeals to you, maybe you'll also be giving me earfuls like I expect to be hearing from many people who love this guy.
1. SOUR - Olivia Rodrigo
1. AJR - OK Orchestra
Last year I put out a list for The Worst Songs of 2020. In the #1 spot was a song called Bummerland by AJR. I said in the write-up that I would rather have to endure coronavirus than have to purposefully listen to the song again...yet somehow, someway, Bummerland is the best song on this album. If you haven't put the pieces together yet, this album is really bad. Let me give this album some very slight praise real quick. I still commend the fact that this trio of brothers is writing, recording, producing, and mixing their music in their apartment still, even with the levels of success they've been having, and there are a few songs on here instrumentally that I actually enjoy, mainly the songs 3 O'Clock Things and Way Less Sad, there's something about them having horns in their songs that always get stuck as earworms for me. Also, of their music I've listened to thus far, I guess you could say that this is their boldest, probably even their best album, but this is AJR, so that means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
I'm not even putting this album on this list just for the meme or to make this a "HAHA AJR BAD!" writeup, though I could easily make this memeable. And I'm not doing this to knock on AJR either, their music is just not for me. If you've never heard of AJR and need to know whether you need to feel offended or not by this placement, here are some actual lyrics from this album:
It's kinda funny how I paid for college
When YouTube was an option
But then I would've had to spend
My best years
Skipping ads and readin' comments
And when the hell did advertisements get so good?
They're like narcotics
So now I'm spending every penny I own
I should have allotted to finishing college
I keep losing my socks
Where the hell do they go?
I bet they're finally free
Floating somewhere in the sea
Do they miss my feet?
I keep losing my socks
I got nothing to wear
I bet they're at her place
A house where I can't show my face
How I wanna be there
Feel like I'm gonna puke
'Cause my taxes are due
Do my password begin with a one or a two?
Been a hell of a ride
But I'm thinking it's time to grow
My grandpa fought in World War II
He was such a noble dude
Man, I feel like such a fool
I got so much left to prove
All my friends have vaping friends
They're so good at making friеnds
I'm so scared of caving in
Is that entertaining yеt?
Humpty Dumpty, when Humpty Dumpty
When Humpty Dumpty went down
He said, "Screw it, I'ma smile right through it
And I'll scream when no one's around"
Much like the Morgan Wallen lyrics I attached, your opinions on these lyrics will probably shape your opinion on this album. I think that these are awful and I can't believe an actual human being sat down, wrote these, recorded them, and still said, "Yeah, these are great." Yeah, this album is really a great package of everything a bad pop album today needs. Overproduced, basic instrumentals with lyrics that at times actually circle back and make you think...is this genius? There is no doubt in my mind that this is the worst album of 2021.
I'm gonna be 100% honest with you guys before I start this roundup, it feels really good just to be able to rank concerts I went to this past year. After a year and a half away from shows it got to a point during this extended time at home that I didn't think concerts would ever come back in their normal state. I also tortured myself by attending a socially distanced concert in Lubbock and all that did was make me even sadder that concerts couldn't be held in a normal manner. However, with the vaccine rolling out and more states finally repealing social distancing measures, I finally started getting to attend shows again in July and it's been so great to do so.
This list is likely going to be the easiest one to write out of the ones I plan on doing because it's such an easy thing to do. Of course, there will be some bias here and there (see the #1 spot on this list) but this ranking is based on three categories, 1.) my enjoyment of the show, 2.) The quality of the performance, and 3.) the reception by the crowd. So without further ado, here are the 10 best concerts I saw in the past year.
10. Flatland Cavalry
Flatland Cavalry has been on my list of Texas Country bands to see live list for a while, I think since the first time I heard One I Want. Given the chance to see them at Josh Abbott's festival, I knew I couldn't wait any longer. The band played for a solid hour and 45 minutes and there were a few things that made this show feel pretty special. For one, this was a homecoming show for the band, something that frontman Cleto Cordero touched on a few times and something that made the live version of Tall City Blues hit a little harder. Another thing that made it special was all of the artists hanging out on stage during their set. While this was dubbed as a festival, it was really just a Flatland show with three openers but regardless, it was still cool to see Kolby Cooper, Pecos Hurley, and Josh Abbott and his wife just hanging out while the band was on stage. Abbott did come out and play guitar during the song No Ace in the Hole which was cool but his microphone wasn't on which made it kind of funny. Performance-wise however, Flatland is tight as a knot. On stage, Cleto has fun banter and I think he smiled the most I've seen any performer smile during any show (save for someone I'll mention later). A lot of their songs also translate a lot better live, mainly the songs Some Things Never Change and Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson). The hometown crowd was a great cherry on top too as everyone sang every word back at Cleto and you could tell everyone was having a good time. If you're a fan of Texas Country music and you have yet to see Flatland live, I highly suggest doing it the next time they're in your area.
9. Phoebe Bridgers
Look, I'll start off with the negatives first because there are a few. First things first, while Phoebe 100% deserved to play a main stage at a major festival like ACL, having her play in the daylight felt almost disrespectful. Speaking of disrespectful, I think this show was the worst that talkers got during the entire weekend, especially during the songs Punisher and Scott Street where at times I couldn't even hear Phoebe over everyone in the crowd. However, when the crowd was attentive, it was magic. Especially during I Know The End where everyone progressively got more and more hyped as the climax of the song inched closer. Phoebe's set started off with an amazing run of songs, going from Motion Sickness (a perfect opener) into Garden Song into Kyoto, the last of which Phoebe said was dedicated to "anyone who's ever had to lie to CPS about their parents." This brings me to my next point, Phoebe is hilarious on stage. Whether she was giving songs wild introductions (my favorite being her introducing the song Chinese Satellites as a song about "being chased by anti-abortion activists" then also dedicating it to Greg Abbott) or asking everyone if they were ready for "more mid-tempo jams," she always had something witty to say in between songs. Her setlist was great too though it mostly leaned heavily on Punisher material, it was all great live. Songs that I didn't care all that much for like Moon Song and Graceland Too sounded miles better live. I hope Phoebe hits the road again soon because I'd like to see her in an environment where this material would be better suited. Preferably a theater or smaller venue that can get dark and really let her visuals pop (because the visuals she had were really cool and deserved more love.)
Never thought I'd like a pair of Aggies as much as I did these guys.
Hailing from College Station, Texas, I initially wasn't too sure if I wanted to see Surfaces at ACL Fest. For one, I wasn't too crazy about their latest album Pacifico, a lot of it felt too generic and safe. However, the second the band launched into their opening song, Good Day, I already knew I had made the right choice. I don't know how else to explain this show except for fun and the most positive vibes for any set I saw during the weekend. The crowd ate it all up, Forrest and Colin were super active, bouncing around the stage and even running down through where the barricades divided the crowd during their closer, Sunday Best. Sunday Best live was an experience, you could tell that that was the one song everyone knew for sure and the second the pianos hit, everyone lost their mind. I think a reason I haven't been crazy for their studio material has been because a lot of it feels a little too generic but when they play songs like So Far Away and can throw in a saxophone solo or just jam a little bit, that makes the songs so much better. They also threw in a couple covers, Fly by Sugar Ray and Ain't No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye, the latter of which went over waaaaaaay better than the former. And I know this will be a dumb comparison but in some way, Colin and Forrest sort of reminded me of Cage The Elephant live where one person is singing and the other is holding a guitar and just keeping the crowd hyped up. I don't know, that's just what I drew comparisons to. I also have to point out that Colin was extra appreciative to play this show because in 2017 when he attended the fest, he sent himself an affirmation text saying "gunna make it on these stages one day." 4 years later, he and his bandmates absolutely delivered and made for one of the happiest sets of the weekend.
7. Koe Wetzel
The first time I saw Koe Wetzel was in 2018. He played a Spring Break show in Corpus Christi and was the second artist to play out of 4 on the bill. Before the show, I tried to listen to a couple of his songs, the first being February 28, 2016, and I remember telling myself, "What's so special about this guy?" A few hours later, Koe and his band took the stage and I swear a tornado blew through Concrete Street Amphitheater. For a full hour, Koe and his band delivered one of the rowdiest, loudest, and most hell-raising shows I have ever seen from an artist in the Texas scene. Fast forward 3.5 years and I finally got the chance to see him again, this time being very familiar with his catalog and his reputation live. Yet once again, he blew through every expectation I had. I want to make something really clear though before I continue this write-up for this show, come here, listen real close. ahem. Koe Wetzel is a rockstar and makes rock music and I won't be debating that claim. Taking the stage promptly at 9:30 PM to an audience of 9000 fans, Koe walked out on stage, grabbed his guitar, threw his guitar stand into the wings of the stage, then immediately kicked us in the teeth opening with Sundy or Mundy and Something To Talk About. There's one massive upgrade from the last time I saw him though and you can probably guess what it is from the picture up above, an increased show production. While the band still rocked just as hard as they did the first time I saw them, it certainly helped to have fog cannons, pyro, fireworks and video screens this time around (even if he didn't use the video screens all that much). And, um, Fuss & Fight live...insanity. I think that's about all I can say about it. Just like Flatland, if you're a fan of Texas music and haven't yet taken the chance to see Koe live, it's an experience and I'd hurry to do it before he's in arenas.
6. Chris Stapleton
Speaking of arenas, man Chris Stapleton knows how to rock one. I want to give some credit where it's due though for another aspect of this show that I haven't really talked about for anything else listed here. Chris picked excellent openers for this show with both Yola and the legendary Jamey Johnson getting things warmed up before he took the stage. I do have to say though that I was a bit nervous about this show. He had had to cancel a few shows prior to this one due to laryngitis and when I found this out I was nervous for either a) the show to be canceled, or b) Stapleton to take it easy on his voice and maybe not play for as long as he usually does. Both of those notions were wrong however and from his opening song, Nobody to Blame, until the last notes of Outlaw State of Mind, Stapleton sang so effortlessly good like laryngitis had never been an issue for him. Stapleton played for two hours and barely even took breaks to talk to the crowd because it was so focused on the music. Which, yes, the music was very good. I'm a huge Stapleton fan so getting the chance to see him live as close as I did was incredible, but even knowing all of these songs, they all sounded so much better live. Hard Livin' and Second One to Know rocked a little harder live, Millionaire and Broken Halos both led big sing-alongs, and Tennesse Whiskey was the perfect way to cap off his set before going into his encore. I will say that one thing that bummed me out was the fact that his wife, Morganne, was unable to make it to the show that night as, according to Chris, she was home with one of their children who was sick. It didn't completely ruin the experience but it definitely would've made it cooler. Regardless, Stapleton is a beast live and I will definitely be seeing him again should he ever roll through these parts.
5. Tyler, the Creator
I remember eating breakfast with my mom when I felt my phone vibrate. I turned it over to see ACL had tweeted, "Lineup Addition: Tyler, the Creator has been added to this year’s festival, performing Sunday night of both weekends." He was called in to replace a disgraced DaBaby who had been dropped from DaLineup after his Rolling Loud incident. This was something that was still on my mind even as Tyler played, and not in a positive light. Even from the opening song CORSO, Tyler glided across the stage while fireworks popped behind him and he still rapped every single word without losing his breath, and right as that song ended I said to myself, "I can't believe DaBaby was supposed to be the rap headliner tonight." That's something else that I need to point out. As someone who is a huge fan of Tyler and has been super happy to see him grow both as an artist and in popularity, I was skeptical to see him being billed as a headliner both here and at Lollapalooza but any skepticism was erased as he continued performing. If this music thing ever fails for some reason, Tyler could easily have a career as a stand-up comedian because he is hilarious on stage. Whether he was calling the crowd trash for not singing Boredom loud enough for his standards or repeatedly asking us, "Are y'all sweatin' yet?" to respond with "Good because I am dripping." Perhaps the funniest was him saying how much love he had for the city of Austin even though, "Based on the color of my skin I feel uncomfortable going into a lot of places in this city." Oh, and don't get it twisted, Tyler is one of the best live rappers in the game right now, I could probably count on one hand the active rappers who are better than he is live. Every aspect from the set design to the setlist to his energy on stage was incredible and at times it felt cinematic. The only reason I'm not putting this show higher is that the crowd was pretty lame until mosh pits and a less-than-packed audience allowed me to keep moving closer and closer to the front. By the time I got to where I took that picture, he was dropping IGOR material and NEW MAGIC WAND live is an experience, take my word for it. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST OUT NOW!
4. St. Vincent
Another reason I'm not listing Tyler higher is because of the set I saw right before his by Texas native Annie Clark, professionally known as St. Vincent. While it took me a while to warm up to her latest album, Daddy's Home, I'm now convinced that it's one of the best albums released this year and I think that live, a lot of the Daddy's Home material slaps a tiny bit harder. Mainly the title track which benefits live from having extended time for solos and the song Down which has some really awesome synth passages live that didn't make it into the studio version. The show was very theatrical with Annie donning a blonde, Marilyn Monroe-esque wig and a set design behind her that looked like a tiny city. I also need to mention the band she had behind her because they were fantastic. While a lot of her music tends to be electronic and synth-heavy, hearing a song like Digital Witness get a funkier reworking or Sugarboy get a little extra distortion makes them all that much better but surprisingly, my favorite performances were songs where Annie wasn't even playing guitar, most notably the song Fast Slow Disco which had me dancing like a fool. That song live is honestly one of the best live performances I've ever heard of any song, I can't explain why but it was just beautiful. As far as guitar songs go, I can't not mention the songs Marrow and Birth in Reverse, Marrow mainly just because it's probably my favorite song she's ever released and it was fantastic live but Birth in Reverse absolutely blew the proverbial roof off of the place and was a kick in the teeth (to use the phrase again) to have right at the beginning of the show. I have plans to attend Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona this upcoming Spring and I am very stoked to be able to see Annie again.
3. American Aquarium
In my Principles of Journalism class, I've learned that to be a successful journalist, it's best to be transparent and share whatever biases you have before you make whatever points you need to make so let me do that real quick. A) this was my first live show after a year and a half of no concerts, B) I love BJ Barham, American Aquarium, and their music, and C) this show was at Gruene Hall I mean...come on now. For two hours, BJ Barham and the rest of American Aquarium tried their hardest to burn Gruene Hall down with only two guitars, drums, an organ, and a pedal steel, and they came really close. At 9:15, the band walked on stage to the sound of Smooth by Santana before Barham grabbed his signature red acoustic guitar and started strumming the chords to Casualties from the band's 2012 album, Burn.Flicker.Die. I don't think I saw any show with an opening song as fierce as this one all year. BJ was stomping around on stage, yelling in people's faces, and scooting away from the mic every time the final line of the chorus hit to let the sold-out audience yell, "NOW I'M JUST A CASUALTY OF ROCK AND ROLL!" Speaking of, the crowd was amazing. Being just about the only fan of this band in my inner circle, it was super awesome to be belting out a song like Jacksonville or Tough Folks with 900 other people. I wanted to try and single out some great performances but there were way too many to pick from. I could talk about how passionate BJ got during the final verse of The Long Haul, or maybe I could talk about how incredible the song The World's on Fire was live, but I think the crown jewel of this show was the performance of one of the band's biggest hits, I Hope He Breaks Your Heart. The song had a sing-a-long so loud that I couldn't even hear Barham at all during the chorus and it even prompted my dad to ask, "I wonder what everyone just walking by outside is thinking." The night capped off with a cover of Sammy Kershaw's Queen of My Double Wide Trailer before Barham stood at the merch booth shaking hands and talking to anyone who wanted to stop by. As one of those people who did stop by, I can assure you guys that he is a giant sweetheart and honestly one of the nicest guys I've ever met in this indie country circuit. With a new album planned out for the summer of next year, I can't wait to see what Barham and company have planned both in the studio and for their live shows.
Where do I even begin with this show? While I do still regret leaving before the last two songs of his set, I am both really proud and still blown away at the quick ascension of Sloan Struble's musical project, Dayglow. I actually have ACL to thank for introducing me to him when he was added to the 2019 lineup late. That year he played on the festival's smallest stage, the BMI stage in a brutal time slot between 4 other artists. I wasn't able to see him because the group I was with wanted very badly to be very close to Billie Eilish so I had to stay put at the Honda Stage for the whole day until after her set. That being said, in only two years, Sloan went from just another early-day option to headlining the VRBO stage which is an incredible feat, but enough of me talking him up, the point of this is for me to tell you why it was so great and there was a myriad of reasons. For one, the stage was nestled in a back corner of Zilker Park surrounded by trees on both sides. Second, whoever their lighting guy is needs a raise because the lights for this show were incredible and nailed the vibes of every song he played which leads to my next point. His setlist was packed with banger after banger and he only really slowed down in the middle to tell the story of how, while attending UT Austin, he uploaded his first album Fuzzybrain to SoundCloud before eventually dropping out of college. And last but not least, Sloan Struble. I really don't know how to describe him as a frontman because there's a lot of things I can say about him. For starters, as big as this project has gotten, he still seems pretty shy and nerdy but I feel like that's part of his appeal as well. He doesn't have a larger-than-life ego but he's also not just curled into a ball trying to avoid talking to the crowd, he's honestly just a guy who likes making music and got lucky and all his huge smiles on stage made it feel even more personal (This is who I mentioned earlier as someone who smiled more than Cleto). And speaking of, when the music hits, Sloan turns into a dancing machine. Just from the opening notes of their first song Something, Sloan immediately skipped onto the stage from out of the wings, hit the woah, did a spin, then started singing like nothing happened. He also had a David Byrne like energy during the song with some awkward moves that looked like he was fighting an enemy we couldn't see. Elsewhere through the set, the songs Fair Game and Listerine were both incredible live as was the song False Direction which greatly benefitted from a guitar solo from touring guitarist Colin Crawford. And the last two songs I saw, Crying on the Dancefloor and Close To You were the perfect way to cap off the end of the night. Had ACL not booked the next guy I'm going to talk about, I would easily say that this was the best set of the weekend and the best show I saw this year. It was even better considering I'm a pretty big fan of Dayglow and he still blew me away. However, I can't say that this was the best show I saw this year because ACL did indeed manage to book...
1. George Strait
Again, Journalism Class, biases, let me get those out of the way. For starters, I am a Texan, I was born with George Strait lyrics already memorized. When I was growing up, I absolutely adored George and you can ask any family close to me, Mom, Dad, cousins, aunts, uncles, I literally wanted to be this man when I grew up (I mean I still kinda do but it's a lot less feasible). When it was first rumored that George would be playing I already knew I would be set for a 3 day pass to this festival and that I would be hanging out at his stage all day to be as close as possible to him since I don't ever imagine myself paying thousands of dollars to see him from this close in an arena or stadium.
Alright, biases out of the way. This was my third time being able to see George. I had seen him for my 10th and 14th birthday in Little Rock, Arkansas and Denver, Colorado, respectively. Of course, never from this close and never as appreciative as I was of this opportunity to see him. I can confidently say that at 69 years old, George has never missed a beat and he still sounds incredible live. His voice may have gotten a little more baritone over the years but outside of that, he still sounds identical to how he sounded on Strait Country. Maybe it was just because of how close I was or how awesome the crowd was but I think this is the best of the three times I've been able to see George. He usually enjoys playing live ever since he retired from touring but for some reason I feel like he was extra appreciative to be headlining a fest like ACL, a fest where you also had the option of seeing Miley Cyrus at the same time or Billie Eilish and Tyler, the Creator on the same stage as him in the two days after. He seemed in really good spirits telling the crowd that "We were originally supposed to do this a year ago and we're so glad we finally made it." He also said that whoever thought the festival up deserved a medal. His stage banter was brief but it was always followed by a laugh or a smile before he would launch into his next song. One of my favorites being when George noticed someone, who I see yearly, holding a sign cut out in the shape of a guitar pick reading, "pick me!" He tried to throw the pick but he said, "It's hot, I'm sweating, I tried, sorry," after the pick didn't even clear the subwoofers in front of the stage. I know this will sound stupid to say just given that he's George Strait but of course, his setlist was just hit after hit for 2 solid hours and while he did drop in a few new songs, everything felt super consistent and the 2 hours went by way faster than I expected them to. As he walked off the stage after The Cowboy Rides Away, it sort of hit me that this might be the last chance I ever get to see him live. If this ends up being true, I can't complain, he was incredible, and there's no doubt in my mind that this is the best concert I saw in all of 2021.