It's that time again. Let's count down the tracks that made 2021 another great year in music.
The time is upon us.
It's list season and I'm not talking about the big guy in the red suit, although there are plenty of gifts to celebrate from the year 2021 in music terms.
It's somehow been a full 12 months since we counted down the best tunes of 2020 - with the likes of The 1975, Fiona Apple, Gorillaz, Grimes, Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift receiving top billing last year, 2021 had a lot to live up to.
I'm glad to report it did, and then some.
This year, I've decided to narrow the selection process down to just 50 of the finest tracks of the year gone by. In addition to allowing me to write about every single song below, it also ensures that you're only getting the absolute cream of the crop.
As always, I have compiled the results into one spectacular playlist for you to blast over the holiday season - you'll find it at the conclusion of this countdown.
So without further ado, here it is - enjoy the very best of the music that made 2021.
50. Do You Wanna - Nana Yamato
Released: 5th February
Album: Before Sunrise
Nana Yamato sings evocatively of lonely Tokyo nights on her dark, dreamy debut Before Sunrise, introducing us to her world with the brooding yet playful synths of bedroom pop anthem 'Do You Wanna'.
49. Dark Side To The Party - Miss Grit
Released: 5th February
Album: Imposter EP
Miss Grit flexes some serious guitar skills on the experimental rock of her Imposter EP, and 'Dark Side Of The Party' is the gnarliest of them all.
Here's hoping this is only the beginning for the Korean-American musician, who also showcases reflective lyrical touches on this face melting ode to social anxiety and alienation.
48. American Beauty - Biig Piig
Released: 21st May
Album: The Sky Is Bleeding
The Sky Is Bleeding was the most instrospective work of Biig Piig AKA Jessica Smyth's blossoming career to date, a fluid six track set that slickly blended DIY and bedroom production elements with Smyth's atmospheric vocals.
Leaving on final note of lo-fi indie rock bliss with 'American Beauty', you get the feeling that there are bigger things ahead of the Irish-Spanish artist in the not too distant future.
47. 'One Step Closer - 100 gecs Reanimation' - Linkin Park, 100 gecs
Released: 8th January
Hyperpop nu-metal remixes weren't something I necessarily envisioned being a highlight of my 2021, but then 100 gecs came in.
Strap yourself in for the freakiest ride of the year on Laura Les and Dylan Brady's spectacularly nasty interpretation of the Hybrid Theory classic.
Now how about the rest of the album...? Please?
46. Working For The Knife - Mitski
Released: 5th October
Album: Laurel Hell
Mitski is back baby, and judging by the sinister industrial style synths and brooding electro rock of anti-establishment anthem 'Working For The Knife', we are in for a wild ride in February when the sixth album from the visionary songwriter hits shelves.
I, for one, cannot wait.
45. Te Ara Tika / The Path - Lorde
Released: 9th September
Album: Te Ao Mārama
Solar Power will perhaps go down as the most disappointing album of the year for me, with Lorde's Melodrama follow up finding Ella O Connor working her way through an uninspiring stoner hippy phase that was equal parts pleasant and ponderous.
But there were moments that shone through and revealed what could have been, none more so than 'The Path'.
The opening mantra was so beautifully highlighted on sister EP Te Ao Mārama that I'm actually going with its Mãori version 'Te Ara Tika' as my choice here, with the surprise 5 track set that followed Solar Power going some way towards making amends for the shortcomings of Lorde's third album by wonderfully complimenting and lifting a few standout tracks to new heights on a very welcome accompaniment.
44. Civil Twilight - Bobsleigh Bob
Released: 12th February
Album: How To Measure A Coastline
'Civil Twilight' stood out when I first heard it for perfectly encapsulating Robert Davis AKA Bobsleigh Bob's downtempo hybrid of indie and electronica, and it makes for an assured centerpiece on promising debut How To Measure A Coastline.
With a lowkey beguiling hook in its chorus that you'll find yourself drawn back to time and time again, 'Twilight' is the ultimate example of Bob's songwriting skills to date.
43. Certainty - Big Thief
Released: 7th September
Album: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
As the constantly intriguing indie folksters get set to release a double album this coming February, Big Thief have blessed us with some delightful ditties over the course of 2021.
In truth, 'Little Things', 'Sparrow', 'Change' or 'Time Escaping' would all have been fine picks, but there's something especially riveting about 'Certainty' that captures Big Thief to their very core.
Recorded directly into a 4-track during a three day power outage in upstate New York, 'Certainty' finds Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek at their purest and most wholesome on a raw woodland ballad that suggests further greatness lies ahead for the band in 2022.
42. Resting On Laurels - Cooks But We're Chefs
Released: 10th July
One of the best kept secrets of the live music scene in Ireland pre-pandemic, Cooks But We're Chefs were well and truly thriving in 2021, with the release of a dynamite duo of singles in 'Resting On Laurels' and 'Kodama', as well as a host of headline gigs around the capital and beyond paving the way for what is sure to be the tightly knit septet's breakout year in 2022.
'Resting On Laurels' is all the evidence you need to prove that Chefs are cooking up a funky new hybrid of smooth jazz, classic hip-hop and much more with their unique ensemble.
41. Good Days - SZA
Released: 25th December (2020)
Despite endless label disputes and album delays, the entire music community is still holding its breath for that second SZA album precisely because she keeps dropping amazing tracks like 'Good Days' or 'Hit Different' (which placed 46 on E/O's 2020 song list) every time these singles eventually see the light of day.
If we do get the album next year, it should be a worthy successor to 2017's stunning CTRL going by the sound of this.
40. Follow Me Around - Radiohead
Released: 5th November
Album: KID A MNESIA
The most precious gem among the fresh material on last month's reissued Kid A & Amnesiac collection is a final version of 'Follow Me Around', the mythical Thom Yorke solo acoustic piece that was originally heard during soundchecks on the Against Demons tour all the way back in the late nineties.
39. Superstar - Beach House
Released: 8th November
Album: Once Twice Melody
Beach House are preparing to drop a dream pop carnival upon us in 2022 with the phased rollout of their double album Once Twice Melody beginning this month, as the first of four monthly "chapters" dropped mid November to reliably enchanting effect.
It's a strange release process that Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have landed upon, but if the entirety of Once Twice Melody can live up to the psychedelic bliss of 'Superstar' then it will be hard to gripe about the final form of this oddly structured record.
The band's eighth studio album arrives in full on 18th February 2022 - on the basis of 'Superstar' and its accompanying trio, we can expect another magical work from the consistently spectacular duo.
38. Xcxoplex (feat. Charli XCX) - A.G Cook
Released: 6th May
Album: Apple vs. 7G
Charli has been in top form once again in a relatively quiet year by her standards, dropping chart toppers and floor fillers in 'Good Ones' and 'New Shapes' before she bids farewell to major label status in 2022 on her final album for Atlantic in February 2022 with Crash.
As fun as it is to hear Charli drop mainstream bangers, the truly exciting thing is what happens next year when Charli is free to explore and push her boundaries even further than the experimental hyperpop of last year's how i'm feeling now, and 'Xcxoplex' seems like a pretty good indication of what we'll be hearing more of when Charli goes independent.
PC Music founder and pioneering producer A.G Cook has redefined modern pop music alongside Charli over the past half decade, so it's little surprise that their latest collaboration is another glorious spectacle.
By redesigning one of the heavier electronic instrumentals on Cook's 2020 solo project Apple and evolving 'Xxoplex' into 'Xcxoplex', Cook and Charli strike gold again on yet another hyperpop masterwork.
Close your eyes and elevate.
37. MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) - Lil Nas X
Released: 26th March
The blockbuster smash hit single of the spring through summer 2021, 'MONTERO' justifiably sent Lil Nas' star power to even greater heights and clearly signaled the 22 year old's arrival as a serious artist beyond the gimmickry of country rap smash hit 'Old Town Road' back in 2018.
36. Fast Car - Syd
Released: 16th July
No, not that one.
The former Syd Tha Kyd (Odd Future, The Internet) returned with her first solo material since 2017's Fin with a trio of fantastic singles this year including 'Missing Out' and 'Right Track', but my pick of the bunch has to go to 'Fast Car'.
A glowing neon light of romantic, escapist synthpop that vividly contrasts the ruminative alt R&B of break up number 'Missing Out', 'Fast Car' (as well as its accompanying singles) is yet more evidence if any was needed that the OF collective was always packing more star power than just Tyler, Earl and Frank.
35. Scratchcard Lanyard - Dry Cleaning
Released: 2nd April
Album: New Long Leg
With her bewitching London drawl, Florence Shaw's dry delivery bursts with such charisma and wit that it lends the seemingly mindless musings of 'Scratchcard Lanyard' a level of poetry and sharpness that a lesser vocalist would find impossible to express without singing.
The New Long Leg opener is a fittingly odd and electrifying start to one of the most creative and unique rock records of 2021.
34. Walking At A Downtown Pace - Parquet Courts
Released: 18th August
Album: Sympathy For Life
Multiple lo-fi indie bangers dropped in the months leading up to Sympathy For Life showcased prime PC with a hint towards a more accessible radio rock sound, and though the final product may have been hit and miss, 'Walking At A Downtown Pace' sounds just as infectious and melodic now as it did when it dropped in August.
33. We Cannot Resist - LUMP
Released: 29th June
One of the most delightfully offbeat listening experiences of the summer came from Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay on their second album as LUMP. Animal was an irresistible collection of indietronica bangers that sees Lindsay tee up no shortage of funky electro grooves for Marling to steal with her own brand of witty existential lyricism, no more so than on 'We Cannot Resist'.
32. Leave The Door Open - Silk Sonic
Released: 12th November
Album: An Evening With Silk Sonic
One of the most pleasantly surprising collaborations of the year came from Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak, who laid down a sumptuous set of ultra suave R&B jams on An Evening with Silk Sonic.
'Leave The Door Open' premiered back in March, with its the unlikely duo skillfully executing a loving, faithful throwback to 70s funk and soul that can only be accurately describe as straight up baby making music.
31. Black Dog - Arlo Parks
Released: 29th January
Album: Collapsed In Sunbeams
Arlo Parks had quite a year, bagging the Mercury Prize in September for the wonderfully warm Collapsed In Sunbeams which has only continued to resonate with me since January, a genuine source of comfort in the uncertain times we find ourselves in.
'Black Dog' is perhaps the best moment of the record (just pipping 'Hurt' and 'Eugene') with its candid and cleansing account of a friend's depression. Parks said she felt helpless while writing the track for being unable to support her friend and understand the struggles she was facing, but ironically 'Black Dog' has surely already helped many of those who discovered Arlo's music this past year.
30. Stay - Israel Nash
Released: 12th March
The cacophony of soulful, existential folk to be found on Topaz never sounds better than on 'Stay', a stirring country rock ballad that packs a melodic punch the like of which would make Van Morrison or Neil Young proud.
Topaz may have just missed the cut for my album list this year, much to the chagrin of my fellow music critic Kiley Larsen who put me onto this glorious record, but 'Stay' was always a surefire inclusion when it came to counting down the standout songs of 2021.
29. La Perla - Sofia Kourtesis
Released: 2nd February
Album: Fresia Magdalena EP
Peruvian DJ Sofia Kourtesis' colorful production makes for seriously infectious listening whether you're a house fan or more often not (like this guy). Kourtesis makes floor fillers plain and simple, but its a track like 'La Perla' with its bold and bright twist that separates Kourtesis from the rest of the scene in her adopted home of Berlin.
28. How Dare You Want More - Bleachers
Released: 9th June
Album: Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night
'How Dare You Want More' was chief among the highlights on Bleachers' baroque throwback Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night, a rockabilly blast that paid worthy tribute to Brat Pack film soundtracks while demonstrating the immaculate craft and production wizardry of Jack Antonoff on his return to indie rock.
27. Back To Oz - Sufjan Stevens, Angelo De Augustine
Released: 24th September
Album: A Beginner's Mind
What an immense relief it was to hear Sufjan Stevens pick up an acoustic guitar again.
As the standout from an excellent set of singles released in the build up to Stevens and writing partner Angelo De Augustine's delightful collaboration A Beginner's Mind, 'Back To Oz' was every indication needed to suggest that Sufjan was well on his way to creating his best album in years, on an eerie ballad inspired by 1985 sequel Return To Oz.
He duly obliged and delivered in September, but more on that in our album countdown.
26. Parking Lot - The Weather Station
Released: 5th February
The emotional depth of The Weather Station's masterful fifth album Ignorance is no more affecting than on 'Parking Lot', a celebration of the natural world that finds Tamara Lindeman simply studying a bird above the city traffic with a level of poetic majesty befitting the bombastic, stirring groove laid down by band and string section on the albums finest moment.
25. Nectar Of The Gods - Lana Del Rey
Released: 22nd October
Album: Blue Banisters
Lana gets the honor of appearing twice in this list by way of her second album of 2021, Blue Banisters and its standout track 'Nectar Of The Gods', on which Del Rey proves once again she doesn't need much more than an acoustic guitar accompanying her to completely enrapture her audience, as one of her most passionate vocal takes of recent times elevates 'Nectar' to classic territory in the New Yorker's discography.
Rumor has it this was an outtake from as far back as the Ultraviolence sessions in 2014, so we can only thank the Gods it saw the light of day eventually.
24. Crush - Ethel Cain
Released: 18th March
Album: Inbred EP
It feels like Ethel Cain is a superstar in waiting judging by the mass appeal her dark emo pop/rock possesses, not to mention the quality songwriting and lyricism that she backs it up with.
Cain has already built up a cult following of ''Daughters'' through her raw piano and acoustic ballads, which draw on the gritty influence of her deep Southern backwoods origins, and it's clear from the murky, evocative sound of 'Crash' and 'michelle pfieffer' that this is a potential star in the making.
'Crash' ultimately gets the pick here as my favourite Cain track to date, with its hypnotic chorus having been on a loop in my head since March.
23. Last Day On Earth - beabadoobee
Released: 25th March
Album: Our Extended Play EP
Written and recorded with Matty Healy and George Daniel of The 1975 "on a farm in the countryside", Our Extended Play was a bubbly four track EP that saw beabadoobee go all out 90s indie pop with spectacularly catchy results, most evidently on irresistable lockdown bop 'Last Day On Earth'.
Judging by the results, this wonderfully suited collaboration for the Dirty Hit label mates promises to bear fruit on future releases for both artists.
22. Introvert - Little Simz
Released: 21st April
Album: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
"Simz the artist or Simbi the person?"
This was the question at the heart of Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, the highly ambitious concept work of Little Simz that was such a massive highlight of the second half of 2021. I'll be getting into SIMBI in further detail when we get to our album list for sure, but while I may not have been expecting the frankly mind blowing 65 mins that Simz unleashed on her third record back in September, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised - 'Introvert' hinted as far back as April at the glorious heights Simz was capable of reaching with a spectacular lead single.
This eye opening personal thesis and lyrical gem from the Londoner opens one of the major albums of 2021 with scintillating prose and weighty themes which are furiously explored throughout the remainder of SIMBI, but perhaps never as eloquently as on the exceedingly epic 'Introvert'.
21. Hold U - Indigo De Souza
Released: 21st July
Album: Any Shape You Take
Indigo De Souza's instantly enchanting brand of anxious 90s indie rock on Any Shape You Take made for a fantastic breakout sophomore album from the Saddle Creek artist, and 'Hold U' is the crown jewel of this collection as De Souza hints at mainstream breakout potential with this earnest, touching ode and its zesty, addictive refrain.
20. LUMBERJACK - Tyler, The Creator
Released: 16th June
Album: Call Me If You Get Lost
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Tyler, The Creator dropping the lead single from his sixth studio album out of the blue this past June wasn't so much the surprise album announcement as the fact that Tyler was actually rapping - and not just rapping, but going pretty hard too.
Having spent the past four years evolving his artistry on two of the most extraordinary works of the past decade in hip-hop, 'LUMBERJACK' felt like a significant shift in tone. Fans from day one might have hailed the return of Wolf Haley but the truth was that nothing is quite the same.
Simultaneously boasting the production wizardry and profound songcraft of recent records while unleashing the hard bars and raucous energy levels that captivated early audiences, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST gave us the best of both Tylers, with 'LUMBERJACK' perfectly encapsulating everything about the enigmatic artist's sixth album in the best way.
19. Valentine - Snail Mail
Released: 5th November
"Fuck being remembered, I think I was made for you"
The second album from Snail Mail found a bitterly lovesick Lindsey Jordan contemplating love and loss while transitioning into a more accessible guitar pop sound that perfectly suited the hopeless romanticism of the band's sophomore record.
Its bombastic intro and title track boasts the sweet spot between the sticky garage rock of debut Lush and Valentine's reflective pop-rock, with a synthy intro crashing head first into the most explosive chorus of Jordan's young career.
18. The Darkness That You Fear - The Chemical Brothers
Released: 23rd April
Described by Tom Rowlands as a ''hopeful piece of music'', 'Darkness' marked the triumphant return of the legendary electronic duo in typical fashion - with the kind of euphoric, all consuming banger you've come to expect.
Fingers crossed for an album in 2022 - if it can live up to this, then it might be the Superstar DJs best work in years.
17. Glasgow - The Snuts
Released: 2nd April
It's clear to see why Snuts have captured the hearts and minds of so many with their throwback indie guitar tunes transporting listeners back to the noughties heyday of post-Britpop.
W.L is music made for the main stage, and once festivals are safely back on the agenda you can be assured that Snuts will command a billing on on every major line up in the UK, Ireland and perhaps beyond.
I can already picture myself in the afternoon sunshine in the midst of an Electric Picnic crowd with beverage in hand and a dodgy Hawaiian shirt on as 'Glasgow' rips into life, and I cannot wait to get there.
16. Hardline - Julien Baker
Released: 13th January
Album: Little Oblivions
Little Oblivions was a disappointment. Its underwhelming transition to a full rock band sound resulted in a loss of the understated beauty in Baker's vocal power, but the epic climax of the emotional barnstormer that is 'Hardline' would argue differently, showing that there is serious merit in the songwriter expanding her sonic repertoire when it's executed like the final minute of this superb opener.
Despite the shortcomings of Baker's third album, 'Hardline' gives me hope for an album in the future that lives up to its best track - if we can get that down the line, then Little Oblivions is totally worth the transition process for Baker to iron out the kinks of this new direction.
15. nhs - slowthai
Released: 12th February
"What's love without hate and stuff? Loyalty without no trust?
Rick without Morty? Lil Wayne without codeine?
A rapper without jewellery? Real person, surely
What's health without poorly?
What's wealth without the poor? Please
The world we're living in, I'm tryna give you reassurance"
Alongside 'feel away' and 'adhd', 'nhs' brings one of the rap records of the year to a hard-hitting, poetic and bittersweet climax.
slowthai pours his heart and soul into his best ever verses with a life affirming message that could sound rote coming from another artist but instead feels like a well earned victory lap when considering Frampton's tough upbringing.
14. Coming Back (feat. SZA) - James Blake
Released: 8th October
Album: Friends That Break Your Heart
As a whole, James Blake's fifth album was an underwhelming affair, but when it hit right, it hit really right.
Friends That Break Your Heart contained fleeting moments of beauty and collaborative bright spots, both of which came together on this masterful duet between the British DJ and SZA.
Let's hope these two have plenty more where this came from, because 'Coming Back' reveals a match made in musical heaven.
13. Jail - Kanye West
Released: 29th August
For a minute there, it seemed like Kanye was back.
The Throne reunited in style to kick off DONDA with long lost brother Jay Z showing up for 'Jail' as Kanye got strikingly introspective about his divorce and ever worsening public image on a genuinely emotional and cathartic opening anthem.
12. All My Favourite Songs - Weezer
Released: 29th January
Album: OK Human
The highlights on Weezer's lockdown diary OK Human are songs worthy of the band's greatest hits - lead single 'All My Favorite Songs' and late standout 'Here Comes The Rain' will no doubt go down as verifiable classics in the Weezer canon, with each boasting the very distinct, endlessly satisfying kind of hook that the band could effortlessly belt out circa 1994-1996, the kind of hook that every indie rock band worth their salt has been trying to steal ever since.
'All My Favourite Songs' gets the nod here as the biggest earworm of 2021, a year in which Weezer gloriously returned to form on two highly different records that nonetheless retained the melodic charm that Cuomo & co. have been mining for near thirty years now.
11. Paprika - Japanese Breakfast
Released: 4th June
"After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow up to be about joy."
The above mission statement accompanied Japanese Breakfast's press release for third album Jubilee, and the results did not disappoint one bit. Having spent her first two albums dealing with the trauma of her mother's passing to pancreatic cancer, it was a truly glorious experience to witness the change in Michelle Zauner on her third and best album to date.
The highlights were plentiful, and while lead single 'Be Sweet' stole the show with its Madonna-esque 80s disco vibes, it was the brilliant technicolour blast of opener 'Paprika' that has stayed with me since summer, with a delirious chorus of horns expressing the ecstasy and jubilation that Zauner warmly expresses throughout the celebration of life that is Jubilee.
10. deja vu - Olivia Rodrigo
Released: 1st April
Olivia Rodrigo's astronomical rise to superstardom was the breakout story of 2021, and not without merit either as the young songwriter delivered not only two of the biggest singles of the year but two of the very best.
The arrival of 'deja vu' in April immediately dispelled any notions of a one hit wonder as Rodrigo capitalized on an already outrageous level of success with the wicked dream pop bliss of her spellbinding second single. Paying sublime homage to Olivia's most overt influence, 'deja vu' premiered a decidedly Swiftian piece of electropop that recalled the work of Taylor's 1989 in all the right ways.
As for the other one, keep on scrolling.
9. Sunglasses - Black Country, New Road
Released: 5th February
Album: For the first time
For the first time cleverly constructed itself around the mounting tension and claustrophobia of its near ten-minute slowcore symphony, as frontman Izaac Wood wildly reels off classist and narcissistic rants as well as performing an intensely personal if vaguely preposterous examination of his own self-image, set amid the backdrop of a doomed relationship which ultimately ties into the album's concept on the life cycle of a failed romance.
It's all set to a loosely constructed garage rock opera, which takes us all the way from a misleadingly meditative opening into frantically fun lo-fi guitar riffs leading to a traffic jam like horn section concluding the chaos as the English seven piece are wont to do.
8. Down - St. Vincent
Released: 14th May
Album: Daddy's Home
"Go get your own shit, get off of my tit Go face your demons, check into treatment Go flee the country, go blame your daddy Just get far away from me
'Cause I'll take you down"
A self described "revenge fantasy", 'Down' finds St. Vincent at her devilish best, reveling in the misery of an abusive ex with a menacing swagger and evil grin as the synth-soaked neo-soul and 70s funk of Daddy's Home climaxes and crashes all around a smoke filled stage populated by the one and only Annie Clark.
7. The Last Man on Earth - Wolf Alice
Released: 24th February
Album: Blue Weekend
Wolf Alice divided opinion on their third album this past summer, with many deeming it indie perfection and others such as myself less than impressed with what could perhaps be best described as a mixed effort from the Mercury Prize winning English quartet.
There were undebatable moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout Blue Weekend though, and while the shoegaze infused 'Delicious Things' came close to my selection for best of the bunch, that particular accolade must go to the starry eyed beauty of Beatles-esque piano ballad 'The Last Man On Earth', a track that truly demonstrates what Ellie Roswell & co. are capable of when at their best.
More of this please.
6. Hard Drive - Cassandra Jenkins
Released: 9th February
Album: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
"I just love talking to people, to strangers. The heart of the song is people talking about the nature of things, but often, what they’re doing is actually talking about themselves and expressing something about themselves. I think that every person that I meet has wisdom to give and it’s just a matter of turning that key with people. Because when you turn it and you open that door, you can be given so much more than you ever expected."
Cassandra Jenkins cinematic tour of Downtown LA is without a doubt the most visually striking song of the year, as the NY songwriter vividly draws us into the West Coast through a series of monologues playing out her conversations with the everyday characters encountered on her travels through California.
Jenkins' gift for breathing life into the characters that populate her stories can be witnessed throughout her majestic sophomore album but never more so than on the unique work of music which is 'Hard Drive'.
5. White Dress - Lana Del Rey
Released: 19th March
Album: Chemtrails Over The Country Club
An arresting piece of whispered falsetto that finds its artist breathlessly reflecting on life before fame and success as a waitress in Long Island, 'White Dress' was a poignant, punchy way to start one of the records of the year.
Blending a daring vocal performance with timeless Del Rey touches in its classic Americana imagery and Raymond Carver tales of everyday American life and middle class suburbia, the Chemtrails opener was all the proof needed that Lana was still in peak form post-Rockwell, which she would go on to prove not only once but twice throughout 2021.
4. Birthday/The Pain - For Those I Love
Released: 26th March
Album: For Those I Love
There's an immediately identifiable range of influences to be found amongst the progressive house beats of For Those I Love's sublime album of the year contender - Jamie xx, James Blake and The Streets were all mentioned when I reviewed the album back in April. But what came to my mind when I heard the ingenious sample of The Sentiments' 'She Won't Be Gone Long' transformed from smooth soul jam into the shimmering electronic beauty of 'Birthday/The Pain' was the sonic mastery of Kanye West.
The high of its euphoric beat is cruelly snatched away when Balfe's voice enters the track, sucking us into the tragic story of a murder on our narrator's road when he was just six years old. It's as frighteningly real and mercilessly gritty as the lyrical content gets on For Those I Love, as Balfe spits with rage about the passing of another year.
"So don't fucking ask me why I don't want to age,
It just marks the time of things staying the same"
And then, in a moment that so perfectly encapsulates the central message of love over loss that Balfe so profoundly explores throughout For Those I Love, just as it all seems so hopeless and bleak to the point of no return, the music kicks back in and it's alright again. For now.
"But the songs sound fun,
And you dance with your mates,
And it's grand then,
Until the next day."
3. That Funny Feeling - Phoebe Bridgers
Released: 4th October
It takes a very special cover to even merit inclusion in a year-end song list, so the fact that Phoebe Bridgers' interpretation of Bo Burnham's 'That Funny Feeling' sits comfortably in my top three tracks of 2021 says all you need to know about the performance, power and emotion that the Punisher songwriter brings to this haunting existential ballad.
Bridgers takes Burnham's doomed dissertation on modern society come blisteringly confessional examination of mental health, and develops this viscerally sketched bedroom ballad into an exquisite, eerie generational anthem.
With the expressive melancholy of her hushed vocals atop a simply strummed folk guitar and delicately understated string section, the 27 year old millennial prophet achieves the rarest of feat by taking someone else's track and making it entirely her very own, all the while perfectly encapsulating the ultra strange experience of being a member of the human race these past two years.
"Hey, what can ya say? We were overdue."
2. driver's license - Olivia Rodrigo
Released: 8th January
"To me, “drivers license” was never one of those songs that I would think: ‘It’s a hit song.’ It’s just a little slice of my heart, this really sad song. It was really cool for me to see evidence of how authenticity and vulnerability really connect with people. And everyone always says that, but you really never know... That’s just surreal, a songwriter’s dream."
Just eight days into the year, former Disney Channel star Olivia Rodrigo dropped what will undoubtedly go down as the biggest song of 2021, setting all time streaming records with one of the most dominant number one hit singles in modern chart history.
Within a week, Rodrigo's twisted suburban fairytale of love gone wrong had debuted at number one around the world, captivating audiences globally with an enchanting fusion of bedroom pop and power balladry, not to mention Rodrigo's heart wrenching delivery and poetic lyrical prose into the mix.
The rest is history - Rodrigo's ascension to the throne of pop music throughout the following 12 months was the most natural course of events off the back of the raw talent, genuine emotional connection and universal appeal of this instantly iconic four minutes.
Eight days into the year, music audiences worldwide pumped their fists as the bridge kicked in and Rodrigo hit those red lights. As the year draws to a close, we're still singing along as Rodrigo drives alone down the street - and if 'drivers license', 'deja vu' and SOUR are anything to go by, the 18 year old's journey has only just begun.
1. Thumbs - Lucy Dacus
Released: 9th March
Album: Home Video
"I wasn’t expecting it and it made me feel weird, almost sick..."
In 2018, Lucy Dacus began finishing live sets with a song that she would ask audiences not to record, often ending with her shaken and in tears as she exited the stage.
Of the many curiosities surrounding the origin story of 'Thumbs', perhaps the most notable is the fact Dacus' requests were honored, with the legend of the song only growing through word of mouth in the past three years until (following repeated encouragement from bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker) Dacus finally felt ready to record.
One can only assume that the sanctity with which fans treated 'Thumbs' is testament to the experience it must have been to have Dacus share her darkest creation in person, and the powerful intimacy of this tale somehow, miraculously carries over to its studio recording, its final form standing as the finest song of a stellar year in music.
The results speak for themselves. With no more than a gentle wave of synths swept underneath an almost acapella performance, Dacus needs only her words and her voice to completely and totally devastate across a beguiling, bewitching four and a half minutes that recalls a repressed memory from Dacus' college days.
The incident in question seems innocuous enough - an uncomfortable dinner with the deadbeat father of Dacus' then girlfriend - but the sheer anguish, hatred, love and terror which Dacus' transmits in an all time great vocal performance gives these relatively low stakes the feel of a tragic and terrifying ordeal, transporting the listener inside the hearts and minds of two teenage girls on a disturbing evening in their lives.
Just when it seems as though Dacus' can't go on any longer and 'Thumbs' threatens to collapse in on itself (as Dacus' admits it did multiple times onstage) our songwriter delivers the most beautiful monologue to her partner with a lyrical passage that is equal parts comforting, life affirming and intoxicatingly romantic.
Putting the words here won't do it any justice. 'Thumbs' must be heard to be felt and absorbed completely, although I imagine that anyone privileged enough to have heard this masterpiece in person with Dacus will tell me I haven't truly experienced it yet.
That's something I plan to fix very soon, because 'Thumbs' is a song to be treasured, a work of art that defies streaming numbers, Spotify Wrapped or any other number of distractions that interfere with the pure connection between artist and listener. 'Thumbs' will make you pause and feel. That is an increasingly rare gift, so don't let the greatest piece of music made in 2021 pass you by.
That's it, folks - a massive thank you to everyone who has subscribed and read this year. If you haven't yet and you enjoy what you're reading, then what are you waiting for?
Catch you all very soon for the all important 2021 album countdown - stay tuned on socials for more info on when that's coming your way!