Here it is — the 50 Best Songs of 2021. I didn’t get a chance to write about all 50, because of *life*, but I wrote about the top 20, and you can still enjoy the usual video/audio snippets for all of the songs.
(Photo credit: Jordi Vidal/Redferns)
2020 was the year of the cover song, as artists were forced to cancel their tours and rely on ad-hoc performances from their own homes. There were so many live covers that it was impossible to keep track of the deluge of videos, but I was able to track many of the officially-released covers that emerged this year. Here were ten of my favorites (with honorable mentions for Hinds covering the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” and Jenny Owen Youngs’ take on Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”). Spotify playlist here.
10. Rostam: “Under Control”
Original song by: The Strokes
Beloved indie music blog Stereogum went independent this year, and in order to keep up with costs, they put together a fundraiser. Donors were lucky enough to receive a compilation of current artists covering songs from the 2000s. Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend and current solo artist and producer, contributed a ballad version of the Strokes’ crooning “Under Control,” replacing the guitars with tender piano chords. Rostam switched the lyric “I don’t wanna change your mind, I don’t wanna change the world” to “I think we gotta change our minds, I think we gotta change the world.” About the change, he says, “[it] felt like in 2020, we needed that.”
9. Father John Misty: “Trouble”
Original song by: Cat Stevens
Josh Tillman has built his Father John Misty brand on acerbic, witty satire, which makes his occasional turns at sincerity all the more powerful. Tillman has one of the greatest baritone voices there is, which fits Cat Stevens’ early-70s folk classic “Trouble” like a glove.
8. Fruit Bats: “Today”
Original song by: Smashing Pumpkins
Eric B. Johnson, the primary member of 2000s indie folk act Fruit Bats, had a great 2020. As a part of the folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman, he released one of the best albums of the year (“The Roving” was one of my ten favorite songs of 2020), and then covered Smashing Pumpkins’ alt-rock hit album Siamese Dream in full. Johnson drops the distorted guitars of “Today” and turns it into a lush, slow-moving reverie.
7. Marika Hackman: “Realiti”
Original song by: Grimes
“Realiti” by Grimes is a phenomenal song (some would say, the tenth best song of the last decade, even) because it’s transportive. It causes you to lose yourself as you sink deeper into it. Marika Hackman slows it down and imbues it with lonely yearning, but maintains its escapist wonder.
6. Whitney: “Strange Overtones”
Original song by: David Byrne & Brian Eno
David Byrne and Brian Eno are legends of ’70s and ’80s alternative music, but one of their best songs, “Strange Overtones,” is from their late-career collaboration in 2008. It’s an “electronic gospel” track (Byrne’s and Eno’s words), but Chicago band Whitney coat it in their style of soulful, early-’70s, AM folk rock. One of the reasons the original is so great is that it projects a certain warmth, despite its electronic quality, and Whitney is the perfect band to tap into that warmth.
5. James Blake: “Godspeed”
Original song by: Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s phenomenal 2016 album Blonde is filled to the brim with flashes of stunning beauty. Every listen reveals new moments tucked into the album’s folds that jump out at me and grab my attention. “Godspeed” seems to get better and better each time I hear it — it’s just strikingly gorgeous. Not just anyone can capture Frank Ocean’s unique spark, but James Blake is talented enough, and has a special enough voice, to do it successfully.
4. Helado Negro ft. Flock of Dimes: “Lotta Love”
Original song by: Neil Young
I consider myself a fairly big Neil Young fan, but I hadn’t even heard his 1978 song “Lotta Love” until digging into it after weeks of enjoying this cover version by Helado Negro and Flock of Dimes. I guess I’ve put too much of my focus into pre-1976 Neil, to my detriment. “Lotta Love” is a little two-chord ditty, incredibly catchy in its simplicity. Roberto Carlos Lange, who performs as Helado Negro, makes it a warm, soulful dreamscape, with a funky but low-key bassline and Jenn Wasner’s airy background harmonies.
3. Bedouine, Hurray for the Riff Raff & Waxahatchee: “Thirteen”
Original song by: Big Star
Almost fifty years ago, Big Star released an album containing “Thirteen,” which was never promoted as a single and hardly played on the radio, but the beautiful acoustic ballad gained appreciation and esteem over time as one of the best songs of the 1970s. Many artists have covered the song, including Elliott Smith, Wilco, and Garbage, but I have become very taken with a cover by three excellent indie artists in Aznif Korkejian (who goes by Bedouine), Alynda Segarra (who performs as Hurray for the Riff Raff and released one of my favorite albums of the last decade), and Katie Crutchfield (also known as Waxahatchee, and also had a great 2020). Their cover is very faithful to the original, not adding much in the way of new ideas, but it’s performed with such grace and charm, especially as they harmonize together.
2. Amber Mark: “Heart-Shaped Box”
Original song by: Nirvana
Amber Mark continues to be one of the most underrated artists of our time. The R&B singer has never released a bad song, coating them all with her silky voice and top-notch, all-encompassing production. Mark completely reimagines Nirvana’s grimy grunge-rock classic “Heart-Shaped Box,” making it into a sumptuous, soulful jam.
1. Lianne La Havas: “Weird Fishes”
Original song by: Radiohead
The best cover songs deconstruct their target and add new flavor while still channeling the spirit of the original. Lianne La Havas’s take on Radiohead’s equally emotive and cerebral “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” more than succeeds in this regard. La Havas starts with a nod to Radiohead’s original, as the drums come in with that frenetic tempo, but not more than three seconds in, she switches it up, cutting the beat in half to a more soulful clip. It settles into a captivating groove, before turning to some understated, yet remarkable low-register harmonies. Then in the second half of the song, defying the original, it builds and builds to one of the most satisfying climaxes you’ll ever hear.
Call me unoriginal, but it’s impossible to talk about 2020 without talking about the global pandemic. Our lives were turned completely upside down, in a way that none of us could have foreseen or even imagined. Many of our previous comforts, whether they were taken for granted or earned and appreciated, were stripped away from us. Luckily, one comfort that remained throughout was music, and the music was better than ever.
Check back here for more end-of-year coverage.
We are well into 2020 by now, and a deluge of good music has already come out in the new year. But that doesn’t mean we should shortchange 2019, so at long last, here are the 50 best songs of last year. It took me so long because I got burned out from writing about the 200 Best Songs of the 2010s, but I’ve rallied since then. Better late than never…? Hopefully you’ll agree, because these songs are well worth your time.
Here are 15 honorable mentions before we dive in.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year — list season. But this time, it’s not just the end of the year; it’s the end of the decade. And as has been the case the last few years, you can celebrate a superb decade in music with a sleek, newly designed website featuring the 200 Best Songs of the 2010.
Check back here for more end-of-decade and end-of-year coverage, coming soon.
I have a unique experience with the music of 2009 — I didn’t hear any of it until December 30, 2010. Well, I didn’t hear most of it, at least. How could you not be exposed to “I Gotta Feeling” and “Run This Town” blasting out of various cars and backyards in the summer of ‘09?
I served a two-year Mormon mission that started the last day of 2008 and extended all the way through the last week of 2010. On a mission, you’re only allowed to listen to church-related music, and maybe some classical (as long as it doesn’t get too wild, like “Ride of the Valkyries” or something). Those music restrictions were… incredibly hard, as you can probably imagine. I would cope by periodically meandering over to the magazine rack in Walgreens and thumbing through Rolling Stone and Spin to get a sense of what was happening. It was there that I read album reviews for Bitte Orca and Brothers, learned that Jack White was forming a new band called the Dead Weather, and that Kanye West released a masterpiece called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The very first sanctioned “new” song I heard when I got back was “1901” by Phoenix, and my mind was blown. I learned later that most people in America were sick of that song by then, since its appearance in an ever-present Cadillac commercial. But to my fresh ears, it was glorious. Was that a guitar or synth riff at the beginning? Were they singing “Fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, FALLIN’” in the chorus? Or “Ballin’, ballin’, ballin’, BALLIN’”? Who knows, but it sounded incredible.
And that’s how it was with the music of 2009 and 2010. It was like Tom Hanks finally returning home in Cast Away, except instead of learning that your wife married someone else, you get to just experience a whole two-years worth of music as if it were brand new.
Indie art-pop was a big presence in 2009, with Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors carrying the torch. Rap was still coasting a wave of soul samples, popularized by Kanye West in the early to mid-2000s. And Max Martin was just on the precipice of his second wave of pop dominance, with hits from Katy Perry and Kesha soon to come the following year.
I started making year-end best songs lists in 2006, but for reasons outlined here, I never made a list for 2009 and 2010. Now that 2009 is ten years away, it’s time to rectify this glaring hole in my music list inventory. One added bonus is that I guarantee the list I’m making now, with ten years’ worth of hindsight, is much better than whatever I would have made in 2009 itself.
Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions.
Including the top 10 albums of the year, best music video, biggest pleasant surprise, best pop album, best EP, most disappointing albums, and more.
The last time I doled out awards in lieu of a strict “best albums” list was 2014. 2018 reminded me of 2014 in a way — both years didn’t have a clear hierarchy of albums. I feel strongly about my top 10, which we’ll get to first, but I couldn’t have extended the list beyond that with any conclusivity. So instead, we’ll flesh this out with some superlatives — most overrated, most underrated, biggest surprise, biggest disappointments, best music video, and more.