2021 Liner Notes
The Soundtrack Synopsis to a weird year
Happy New Year all! 2021 is officially in the books and it will go down as a year when things got weirder. Think of it as the “hold my beer” year to 2020. And in response, we got weirder. And those who were weird before? Well true to Hunter S. Thompson’s prediction, they turned pro. Sometimes that helped, sometimes it didn’t. And through it all, the musicians among us wrote us a soundtrack for the times.
So there’s plenty of Top 10, 20, 100 lists out there, but this one’s a little different. First the rules and disclaimers.
#1 I’m not a music critic but I listen to a shit ton of it. It’s my strategy to deal with the news and other craziness in the world. Headphones on and out.
#2 Music always feels more like a map of our souls, so I’ve lumped the selections in categories…aural locations more or less.
#3 Some genres I just don’t know that much about, so give respect to the other lists that know rap, jazz, and classical. Oh, and I still got issues with Emo. Yup, that’s not changing.
#4 This is what I like, and I hope you will check out some of the musicians that made my year a little brighter.
Let’s start with the Young Ones….
Olivia Rodrigo, “Brutal” — Sour is a great album and covers a lot of teenage emotions masterfully. This song was a banger and the guitar riff incredibly catchy. I suspect many teenagers screamed in the car “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” Good question Olivia, good question.
Mehro, “Lightning” — The sparseness of this ballad and its simplicity captures the raw emotions at the edge of starting a first love in this crazy world.
The Life Led Me Here category
Noga Erez, “Story” — I don’t know much about this Israeli artist, but the mix of hip-hop and electronica carries unexpected rhymes and riffs. Everything I heard from her was interesting.
Sunflower Bean, “Baby Don’t Cry” — When I first heard this, I thought it was a 90’s song. It’s got that fuzzy shoe gaze feel. And I love the lyric “Everything made in a boardroom goes pumped straight into my head.” Ain’t that the truth these days.
Boy Golden, “KD and Lunch Meat” — The Great Resignation and processed meat theme song. Eat cheaply and drop the ball everyone. It’s heavy man. “Got a few hundred bucks, that should be enough.”
Lucy Dacus, “Hot and Heavy” — Another critic favorite this year. Most are raving about her song where she fantasizes about murdering a friend’s father, which is creepy. But I liked “Hot and Heavy” more with that bittersweet feeling of lost love and unexpected growth.
Lorde, “Mood Ring” & “Solar Power” — Lorde albums are weird for me. Usually at first listen I think “nope.” But then I go back to it, and think “hmmm.” And then I go back again and think “huh.” Then I’m singing the damn thing non-stop. This is her California love letter and if you need an album where you just want to set down all the hatred and throw your phone away for happiness, well then “Blink 3 times when you feel it kicking in.”
The Sexy Spin category
Cardi B and Lizzo, “Rumors” — How lucky we are to live in the time of Cardi B. and Lizzo and how they speak, explicitly, their truth in our weird Internet age.
Doja Cat (featuring Sza), “Kiss me more” — A sexy lady powerhouse tune that is fun and catchy. Made the summer sun shine a little brighter.
Leon Bridges, “Motorbike” — “We don’t stop by the time do.” With his voice? Someone hand me a fan.
Farruko, “Pepas” — The video made me laugh as it feels like a homage to Mad Max and the Fast and Furious. It was the “Live life and just dance” riff of the summer. It rolled off the asphalt just about everywhere this year.
The Divorce/Breakup/Scorched Earth category
Carly Pearce’s “29” — For those of us who at one time or another failed at the “supposed to’s” of social ideals and discovered you’re still here and alive with no plan (that covers about 90% of us now). This is a beautiful emotional album that articulates some of life’s tougher times.
Kacey Musgraves, “Justified” — Now a country mega-star, she is also a magician with word play and emotions. Her last album Golden Hour was her fall in love and get married album. Star-Crossed is her divorce album. It’s beautifully crafted and catchy, which is almost expected of her now. Let’s see where the road takes her next.
Chapel Hart, “You Can Have Him Jolene” — A “Kick-em to the curb” response to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that’s worth the spin.
Miranda Lambert & Elle King, “Drunk (and I don’t want to go home)” — Done with the divorce album of your choice? Come on over to the cringey hot mess anthem of 2021. Who in the Midwest has not been to a wedding like this? Thanks ladies!
And lastly, Taylor Swift did not get a divorce, but with her Red re-issue put another metaphorical nail into a certain ex’s head, wrapped in a scarf. Her “All Too Well” is not new per se, she still ran it up the charts…again. Nearly all of us could sing a bar to two of words she has written. The Lesson? Don’t break up with Tay-Tay and don’t underestimate her.
The Metal Heads Category
Iron Maiden, “Stratego” — Being an 80’s kid, Iron Maiden makes me nostalgic, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Iron Maiden releasing a new album, Senjutsu and it’s worth a spin.
Khemmis, “Avernal Gate” — I’m not a metal expert, but I do appreciate it when I need to put something in my headphones and pound out some work or writing. Khemmis’ Deceiver album did the trick when needed.
The Helium Cotton Candy Ear Worm Category
Wet Leg, “Chaise Lounge” — This year’s one hit wonder wrapped in a prairie dress. Lyrics are catchy, weird, and a little dirty with a warm six pack of beer. Kudos on taking a piece of furniture and turning it into a fun pop song.
Daisy the Great & AJR, “Record Player” — I didn’t like the original record player song, but this remix with AJR was a genius ear worm. A fun collaboration full of angst and hope.
Tai Verdes, “A-O-K” — “Doesn’t this guitar sound so good?” When you needed to know you could make it through….sing along with Tai and his Minute Maid. The feel good song of summer.
The Songwriter Category
Bad Bad Hats, “Walkman” and “Detroit Basketball” — “Heavy metal, rock-n-roll. It makes sense, when you lose control” This local Minneapolis band produced some memorable pop songs with the Walkman album which focuses on the starts and stops of love, with catchy power pop riffs. I really came to love this band in 2021. I hope you do too.
Yola, “Starlight” — Yola has been making a name for herself for the last couple of years. Her Stand for Myself album is her triumph over writer’s block. Great vocals with undertones of R&B, country, soul and even a little funk. If you love a beautiful voice and great lyrics, she’s a strong joy in this world and worth exploring.
Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real, “Perennial Bloom” & “Smile” — This band flew under the radar for many folks, but I’m giving it a warm spot in my heart as I got to see them in concert this year (now a rare occurrence in my life). Also in spinning through this album, you’re starting to see the Nelson’s songwriting carve its own path. Just a Few Stars Apart weaves through the oddness of love, touring, and the abrupt changes the pandemic brought. When I first heard “Perennial Bloom,” summer held such hope and it burned into my brain. Lastly, “Smile” on this album is a beautiful, poignant ballad. Give it a spin.
Valerie June, “Why the Bright Stars Glow” — I literally stumbled across this one because I loved the album title, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Her voice is a balm in hard times and this is a great Sunday morning album that will make you smile with hope. Look for the version with Mavis Staples. You will not be disappointed.
My 2021 Top Shelf Category
Japanese Breakfast, “Paprika” — This album is on a lot of best of lists and it deserves it. It sounds like nothing else. A mix of 80’s synth with a hardened, but sweet view of the modern world.
Jungle, “Romeo” & “Keep Moving” — Electronica album of the year. This was Jungle’s resilience album focused on pulling one’s self back up and forward, with a fresh steady beat. We needed this, more than ever this year.
Jon Batiste, “Freedom” — Give it to the man. This whole album is pure joy. When I needed a pick me up, I put on We Are. It’ll make you dance and it should. Thank you sir, for making the world a better place. My choice for album of the year.
Keep listening folks and keep dancing.