Deep Voices: The 100 Best Songs of 2021
A semi-brief history of a year in music
Hello! Here are the 100 best songs of the year, according to me. I didn’t hear every song released in 2021—I didn’t even hear every Lana Del Rey song released in 2021—but I did my best. Despite being over seven hours long, I have sequenced the playlist for smooth transitions and, like Adele, hope you will listen in order.
The list is unranked, but I do want to note what I think is my favorite song of the year: Lauren Duffus’ “Soho Road (Crying Song)” (Lauren is the cover star for the list, as well). There is an old cliche in music writing about “tears in the club,” cathartic music that help you dance the pain away. Instead of relying on the pensive chord work typical of that type of song, Duffus just added loud sobs as part of the beat. It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. A perfect song for the year of Omicron and whatever else comes next.
I’ve avoided using this list as representative of anything other than great songs that I liked a lot, though I have a handful of ground rules rules: only one song by each artist, no reissues, and no recordings of older music (which means that this wonderful performance of Julius Eastman’s piece Feminine is not on the list and neither are these devastating acoustic re-recordings Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s Suffer On). Also, for purposes of this newsletter if it’s not available on Spotify or Apple Music, it’s not on the list (which means that neither this year’s DJ Haram or Esau tracks made the cut, nor, once again, anything from the Jolly Discs catalog).
Attempting to make some sense of the songs and the year, I found several through lines. Some are genre-based, some about geographic location. Other songs feel like they have the same climate, if not the same time signature. Some songs simply have nice singing, others have cool guitar. There is a lot of electronic music, but also more pop (or at least what I think of as pop) than I perhaps would have guessed when I set out to winnow down my favorites. It’s cohesive to me, if maybe also a little oddly shaped. Scroll down to read about the slices of the pie that make up the list.
Songs Longer Than Six Minutes
Even if I can’t credulously claim my curiosity has expanded, it seems fair to say my patience has. Everyone’s experience of time this past year has been beyond wonky, and I have given myself over to the ebb and flow of slow days and fast months. Music is always on. The walk up and down Willoughby to and from daycare. While writing emails for work. On the highway to visit my parents or inlaws. Unfortunately in the hospital. On an interminable drive around the neighborhood looking for parking. While talking with Allegra as we feed Renzo dinner, looking for the perfect song to bring our day to a close. A 15 minute song? Sure, I’ve got the time. No need to rush.
For academic purposes, I’m defining long as over six minutes. There are 18 of those on this playlist, with two over ten minutes. Neither of those two songs really need to be that long, to be honest, but it’s great that they are. They are songs that meander, that stretch out, not that build to a point. On Tara Clerkin Trio’s eight-minute there’s two minutes of piano noodling before the vocals enter. It might as well be someone warming up in the practice room. “Playing Retention,” a saxophone and drums duo by Daniel Carter and Jim Clouse rolls along like a beast pondering an attack. The tension is better than a release. Bendik Giske flutters his saxophone pedals with a true gentleness. “I could be here all day,” he whispers in your ear.
There’s a David Lynch movie I really love called The Straight Story Steady. It’s based on the true story of a man who goes to visit his dying brother many states away. But he doesn’t have a car, so he drives there on his lawnmower. It’s a long trip with many side journeys as he goes along. Steady as he goes. Which is not very steady. But eventually he makes it.
A majority of the music on this playlist is instrumental. A few songs are rap. Some songs have vocals that are closer to spoken word than singing. Most of those who do sing have mastered their craft, like Caroline Polachek or Florence Adooni, musicians with tantalizing voices that sucked me into their orbit with pure prowess. But I loved the people who used their voices without what you might traditionally call “talent.” Take photographer Wolfgang Tillmans who has fashioned a fine career as a producer. In his Germanic warble, he tells someone, “You are insanely alive,” a love compliment like I’ve never heard. Swoon! Azita, a one wild screamer in post-punk bands, retires her yowl for a drawl and makes a song I hope to one day play on a crusty old jukebox. The wordless soul vocals in the beat of Wiki and Earl Sweatshirt’s “All I Need” anchor their sour lamentation. Francesca Ter-Berg’s unsteady chanting sounds like someone rescued a cassette of me practicing for my Bar Mitzvah in 1995.
I used to politely argue with my former coworker Ryan about “good” voices. I probably said I had no use for them. I’ve learned that’s not true. But he had no use for bad ones. While I recognize not every passionate karaoke session needs to end up packaged for release, a good deal of them probably could be and I’d be happy to hear them. Passion and skill are both valuable assets to a singer, but the former is a formidable threat to the latter.
Believe me, I’m as surprised to see Sufjan Stevens on this list as you are. But his album “about” movies is excellent and weird, thanks largely in part to the occasionally ripping solo by his collaborator Angelo De Augustine. The music feels free of stakes. Fussy, precious guitar be damned! Garrulous, sputtering guitar, welcome home. Dean Blunt uses his guitar like he’s hitting you with it in a pillow fight. Bill Orcutt uses his like a chainsaw. Julie does the best Sonic Youth impression this side of Sonic Nurse. William Parker, bass patriarch, goes electric and recruits Ava Mendoza to shred from here to high heaven. Beam me up.
Fader Magazine Music
If it were 2011, I would be tripping over myself to pitch Dawuna for a story in Fader, where I worked at the time. His music’s DNA is R&B, but it’s as if D’Angelo were distilled to vapor. It’s so elegantly composed and so idiosyncratic that it’s clearly the work of one obsessive. It would have sounded incredibly prescient 10 years ago; it sounds right on time now. That’s no less an accomplishment.
Fader provided me with an insatiable appetite for the new, for the expressive, the clever. On staff, I sought out experimental moments in the mainstream, making listening like a sort of scavenger hunt. I was always on the lookout for subversion, be it a featherlight rap beat, like the one powered by a hazy guitar on Kwengface’s “Petrol Station,” or the quivering vocal sample backing up Mariah the Scientist’s sweet heartbreaker, “2 You.” Wet’s “Blades of Grass” is a gentle song, straight ahead pop-indie, but it’s lyrics are very nakedly about depression. Bekah CC sings about staring “at the fucking wall” with the infinite wisdom of a teen chain smoking behind a gas station, genuinely way too cool for school. Ishi Vu’s “This Is Your Life” the kind of anthem we all would have rallied for. This is your life! These songs are so big in ambition but small in scale, outsider art that stumbled inside.
British music remains completely undefeated. Maybe it’s the free healthcare that lets them operate a little more fearlessly (and forget money, I could have written 20 albums in the amount of time I spent on the phone with my insurance company this year). Great British artists making great British music and me loving it isn’t new, but this year’s consistency of career artists is impressive. Dean Blunt is the undisputed master of talk-singing. Every song he does is perfect? Tirzah’s sophomore album is as much a perfect squiggly jellyfish as her first. She coughs on a song and I am like “Genius!!!” Vivien Goldman, though living in the US, retains her British right to sing in a flat voice over a dubbed out beat. Decades after her debut single and she decides to drop her first album. She’s been busy! Worth the wait. There’s no one like Tim Reaper, whose prowess as jungle producer now rivals the best of the genre’s originator. The brothers Overmono studied Burial’s blueprint and, bless their hearts, asked “What about this, except if it didn’t make people want to die?” And there’s Klein, reigning queen of music that sounds like a CD skipping as performed by a philharmonic. And though she is brand new, PinkPantheress deserves all the credit she gets. It doesn’t even take her a minute of hum-singing over an Amen break to make me lose my stupid little American mind. And why not? What is the US bringing to the table? Useless stuff like song structure and narrative lyrics? The UK brings a song where the beat is literally made of tears. Honestly, it’s almost unfair.
It honestly feels nearly stupid to write about my love of “dance music,” a broad term that lumps in about as much as it keeps out. But I’m a fan, not a critic. Saying dance music is about as specific as someone giving you driving directions by pointing you “over yonder.” Thanks for the help. But maybe if you turn the uselessness of a vast expanse on its head, it’s pretty cool what a breadth of sound can still fit under one umbrella.
One of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to dance music this year is that its fluidity acts as something of a microcosm of my exploration of music at large. Discovery of music is about as close as my everyday life comes to new possibilities, especially during the pandemic. Because of the constant advance of technology, the sounds in dance music are always evolving. The precipice always moves further out. I like chasing it. The artists I love most found their limits and then pushed them. They ended up in a lot of different places.
Forest Drive West’s manic drum workout is from a different planet from Sofia Kourtesis and her enrapturing house. And her nouvelle brand of house is different than traditionalism Musclecars practices. Zuli sounds like an experimentalist compared to Tim Reaper, despite both having fresh takes on jungle. Downstairs J gives an update to downtempo. DJ Manny bodies footwork.
This list contains a lot of music that might work in a club setting, or at least make my toddler dance in the living room. Different dances and different dancers. But their underlying reason for existing is similar. Imagine looking at a Jackson Pollock painting and then looking at an Ansel Adams photo, waving a hand at both and going “art!” Well...true! Unquestionably both have different opinions on what you should look at, but both do want you to look.