This time each year, I usually post separate articles of my favorite songs and full-length releases of the past year. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old or that rock music in general is as unexciting as it has been in a long time (IMHO). Whatever the case, I find myself listening to less and less new music as time goes on. Thus, my collection of favorites is the shortest – but probably most readable – I’ve ever done. In fact, it’s so short that I’ve chosen to include both my songs and album favs in one post. So let’s get right to it.
My Top 10 Songs of 2021
Eddie Vedder – “Long Way” (From his upcoming solo album Earthling, this is the best song Tom Petty never wrote.)
Anais Mitchell – “Bright Star” (Released last October and from her new, self-titled album that came out this past Friday, everything about this folk pop gem is gorgeous. I first heard it on Christmas Eve and immediately knew I had to put it on this year’s list. Its warm production makes it perfect for these winter days.)
Young Thug – “Hate the Game” (Just try and not have “Do not hate me, hate the game baby” stuck in your head.)
SZA – “Good Days” (I am not all that familiar with alternative R&B and certainly didn’t expect to hear an artist such as SZA on MIT station WMBR’s longstanding “Breakfast of Champions” rock program over a year ago. Glad I did.)
The Freight – “Show Me” (This hit #1 on the iTunes Top 40 Blues Songs chart last August – a fantastic accomplishment for my good friend Adam Tiro and the Boston band.)
Jesse Ahern – “Just a Moment” (A punk rock and roll rager from my fellow Quincy, MA native’s latest album, Heartache and Love, “fuck streaming, fuck playlists, fuck today’s pop” is now one of my favorites lines of his.)
Dinosaur Jr. – “And Me” (It amazes me that over 35 years on, J. Mascis’s voice hasn’t aged much at all. Dino Jr. still churns out loud as hell, catchy guitar rock that never sounds dated or rehashed. This tune from Sweep It Into Space soars above the rest.)
Third Eye Blind – “Again” (A sunny powerpop duet with Best Coast’s lead singer/songwriter Bethany Cosentino, it easily ranks as the top tune from TEB’s Our Bande Apart album – and sounds very much like Best Coast.)
Kacey Musgraves – “Justified” (On this lead single from the Texas country singer’s “divorce” album star-crossed, the line “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line” may be her most quoted and relatable lyric of her career to date.)
The Linda Lindas – “Racist Sexist Boy” (For one hot minute in 2021, these young Asian and Latin punk rock girls gave the rock world and society at large an inspirational kick in the ass. Here’s to hoping there’s more where this came from in the near future.)
My Top 10 Albums of 2021
The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
When I first heard this four-year follow-up to A Deeper Understanding, I was largely disappointed. The theme of “dark” or “darkness” explored on ADU seemed repetitive for one thing. Upon further listening, the ’80s/Dylan/Springsteen spirit and depth of the music won out over any lyrical deficiencies.
David Bowie – Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001)
One would think a David Bowie album featuring a cameo by Lenny Kravitz at arguably the peak of his own popularity in 1993 would be more well-known. Yet it took this box set to enlighten me not only to the latter’s guitar work on the title track but as to how underrated The Buddha of Suburbia is on the whole – “Dead Against It” and “Strangers When We Meet” are true standouts. Outside is still a tough listen but much of the rest of this mammoth collection, including the “lost” album Toy and the uncut June 27, 2000 BBC show, is worth your engagement.
Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep It Into Space
If you ever think all hope is lost for lively, no frills guitar rock (verse/chorus/killer guitar solo/repeat), put on a Dino Jr. record. You have 12 studio albums to choose from now.
Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Ashley Frangipane (aka Halsey) is a fearless, certified badass. Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor doesn’t produce for just anyone, let alone a pop star, yet Halsey had the guts to ask him (and Atticus Ross by extension) to produce some of her work anyway. To see that Reznor produced her entire album is a triumph not many other artists get to experience.
Mastodon – Hushed and Grim
Much like fellow southern metal band Baroness and Swedish prog metal greats Opeth, Mastodon has mellowed out vocally over time while still expanding its musical horizons. This 15-track, 86-minute odyssey is full of sudden twists and turns of ferocity and delicacy. “Sickle and Peace,” “The Crux,” “Pushing the Tides,” and “Skeleton of Splendor” are just a few highlights from what is now their eighth album in 20 years.
Kasey Musgraves – star-crossed
Golden Hour is one of my personal favorite albums of the last five years. Songs like “Lonely Weekend” and especially “Slow Burn” (including her majestic performance of it on SNL) helped get me through moving away from my native town of Boston in the spring of 2018. That record deserved every accolade it got a few years back, including Album of the Year at the 61st Grammys. Her follow-up here is darker – aimed at overcoming her divorce from Ruston Kelly – and a bit long at 15 tracks but still packs in a lot of goods (“Camera Roll,” “Justified,” and “If This Was a Movie” among them) with influences as varied as Daft Punk, Romeo and Juliet, Bill Withers, and Sade.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Barn
Young took a break from archival releases to record this album with Nils Lofgren and Crazy Horse in a Rocky Mountains barn he and wife Daryl Hannah restored. Barn has been described as full of joyous and loose performances by old friends, and it sounds like it too.
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Perhaps the most heartfelt and confessional artist on this list, Baker is a singer/songwriter with some of the most powerful and intense indie folk music out there. You may know her from boygenius (the alt-folk trio with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus), but this, her third solo LP, rivals anything she’s done beforehand.
Jesse Malin – Sad and Beautiful World
There isn’t one bad song to be found on this double album by the veteran NYC singer-songwriter (formerly of D Generation): “State of the Art,” “Lost Forever,” and “Backstabbers” are my alternating favorites.
The Beatles – Let It Be: Special Edition (Super Deluxe)
Just when you thought there wasn’t much new to say that hasn’t been said before about the Fab Four, this remixed and expanded reissue of their final release in 1970 and Peter Jackson’s revelatory documentary The Beatles: Get Back created more shockwaves and excitement last fall than any other music that came out in 2021. Even Sir Paul McCartney himself was surprised to learn some of this newly unearthed history – namely that he actually helped John Lennon write some lyrics to “Gimme Some Truth” during this period. He simply forgot it ever happened.
The most talked about revelation is how much The Beatles actually got along in their final year as a full band (1969) and had fun on many of the rare rehearsals/outtakes here – this collegial spirit appears all over the more raw Glyn Johns-produced Get Back mix on CD4. You may still have your original Let It Be LP or even the 2003 Phil Spector-less …Naked CD edition, but this expanded collection (5CD/Blu-ray/105-page hardback book) is as close as it gets to what McCartney originally intended for the closing chapter of the most influential band in popular music.