In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade.
My dear buttered muffins,
I appreciate how this round brought us to the hard facts of the industry, economics, and wealth and power gaps that influence the ways music gets made, distributed, received, and interpreted. I militantly refuse to deal with the pyramid-scheme nonsense of NFTs, for instance, but no doubt the income-flow crisis that came with the pandemic cessation and then limited return of live music has accelerated all the online shenanigans—and, of course, some genuine innovation—of the streaming era.
Thank you, Jack, for bringing up the fact that the few extraordinary music documentaries many of us have mentioned in our entries so far float atop a flood of others that are middling or worse. Overall, I’m still glad that there’s more of everything in that sector now; as we all know as writers, the more overall activity there is, the more that opportunities for exceptional work open up. But you’re right that it also means lazy, misleading, reductive formulae can insinuate their way into popular thinking.
One alternative to connect-the-dot documentaries about music is works of imaginative fiction about it. In 2020, we all celebrated Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, his short-film love letter to that roots-reggae subgenre and the Afro-Caribbean U.K. communities for whom it was a cherished soundtrack when McQueen was growing up. This year, a movie that hasn’t gotten enough attention from music lovers—although our Slate colleague Dana Stevens just named it among her Top 10 films of the year—is The Disciple by Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane. It was on the festival circuit in 2020 and became available for streaming on Netflix early this year. It may be overlooked in part because it’s set in the world of Indian classical music, unfamiliar to many of us, where students struggle to master centuries-old forms such as ragas, and then find their own improvisational voices within them. But as one gets absorbed in this beautifully told story, it becomes clear that, on the one hand, it is a close reading of the process of music-making, an aspect that so many of us admired in Get Back. On the other, it’s an unsentimental inquiry into what makes an artist; what balance of talent, discipline, and temperament allows for success; and what is worth sacrificing in that goal. It becomes almost too intensely easy to relate it to one’s own life! Some gorgeous set pieces showcase the music itself, with respect but not sententious reverence, and they at least make a start toward teaching the viewer how to listen within this tradition—no talking heads or newspaper-headline montages required.
In a much more antic mode, I also adored the U.K. Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts, which combines a plot about a collection of misfits forming a neo-riot-grrrl band, a la the Linda Lindas, with a Mindy Kaling-style second-generation South Asian coming-of-age story. The tricky bit with any fictionalized band is to make the music itself convincing, and Lady Parts has the songs—I went around singing “Bashir with the Good Beard” to myself for days.
Steacy and Ann, thanks for raising the year’s controversies in country music, now apparently one of the most fractious areas in pop. Some questions came up for me reading that same excellent Buzzfeed piece revolving around Jason Isbell that you quoted, Steacy, by Elamin Abdelmahmoud. At one point, Isbell goes so far as to say, “There never should have been ‘country music’ to begin with.” I know just what he means—country as a commercial category, like rhythm-and-blues or “urban” (a term that’s thankfully fading) and other euphemisms for Black music over the decades, originated as the product of an industry pandering to segregation, often taking music that was powerfully interrelated and carving it up by race. Given the historical realities of America, however, those decisions became entrenched, and they helped bring into existence a perceived R&B audience, country audience, and so on. None of them are ever monolithic or unchanging, but they’re constituencies that also partly understand their own commonalities through these inherited categories.
I’m thinking about this partly because of New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh’s provocative book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, released earlier this year. (He discussed it with me and the Popular Music Books in Process series audience in October, as seen here.) Its argument is that the impulse to “transcend” genres and leave them behind—very common among critics and certain kinds of more “adventurous,” bohemian-leaning artists—risks impoverishing music itself by disrespecting the histories internal to genres, which (like Indian ragas) require a certain kind of specialization and devotion to understand and extend. They might also underestimate the stakes for communities that identify with certain genres and reject others.
Of course, it’s easier to talk about the value of that continuity when we talk about R&B or hip-hop; it’s much harder when it’s linked with the racism and sexism that have persisted in commercial country. But I do wonder if it’s too simple to put the blame mainly on powerful gatekeepers, radio programmers, and so on. When the gatekeepers tried to censure Morgan Wallen this year, it was audiences that resisted more than elites, from the bottom up, even if it was from the bottoms of what a doctrinaire Marxist might call their false consciousnesses. Critics can praise all the great Black country artists we’ve mentioned, but we can’t seem to help them score hits. Can you effectively desegregate genres of music while the society they circulate in remains so stubbornly segregated on the ground? What’s the best way to address these inequities without ignoring that country also has a history of expressing significant class and regional solidarities that a lot of other popular music disdained, even though those “good” politics were bound up with an often-abhorrent politics of whiteness? I don’t know the answers, but it does seem like a part of the country conundrum that can’t simply be condemned or shamed out of existence.
Jewly, you’re the one in our midst who’s contributed most crucially and actively to these conversations in Nashville for many years. Help me try to square-dance this vicious circle.
All that said, I’m now going to offer a survey of songs of 2021—the ones not found among my earlier album list—that capriciously crosses genres, like the rootless-cosmopolitan critic I am. I found it more engaging to offer micro-thoughts on individual songs this year-end than broader ones about albums, so I’ve gone a little hogwild on this list. But I hope it offers a few discoveries and more themes to explore. Skim it for what catches your eye. I’ll return at the end of the Music Club series with a honking big Spotify playlist incorporating these tunes as well as all of our guests’ best-of picks, for which I thank you in advance!
A 2021 top 40 list:
A selection of the best songs I heard this year not found among my albums list. Alphabetical by artist, with brief annotations.
Adele — “Cry Your Heart Out”
If you adore weepy Adele, 30 has plenty to offer. But for those who prefer the clever, self-deprecating personality that we know from interviews, this Motown-reggae-girl-group-synesthesia track sets its sights firmly on the pleasure principle without abandoning the album’s central themes.
Phoebe Bridgers — “That Funny Feeling”
I was ambivalent about comedian-musician Bo Burnham’s acclaimed Netflix lockdown special, Inside, but he does have a way with satirical hooks. Bridgers’ cover crystallizes Burnham’s litany of online-culture references as a languorous “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” for the digital era.
Cardi B — “Up”
We didn’t get as much of Cardi’s bracingly boisterous spirit in 2021 as we needed, so this was a welcome boost. A shoutout, too, to her duo track with Lizzo, “Rumors.”
Deerhoof — “Scarcity is Manufactured”
Going on three decades as one of the greatest avant-rock-pop-noise ensembles ever, Deerhoof gets overlooked too easily. This anarchical pandemic-mood portrait from the group’s latest album, Actually You Can, slapped my face (giddily, mind you) for ever neglecting them.
Lana Del Rey — “White Dress”
I can take or leave Del Rey’s devotion to “glamor.” Give me LDR at her weirdest, her voice pushed thin to cracking as she unspools a funny-sad yarn about her days as a young waitress slipping into “the Men in Music Business conference”—one of the most uncannily unforgettable turns of phrase of the year.
Drake ft. Tems — “Fountains”
I have a hard time digesting the sprawling buffets that Drake albums have become. I’m content to fill my plate with this lesser-recognized track from Certified Lover Boy. That’s mostly due to the luminous Nigerian singer Tems, also featured this year (along with Justin Bieber) on the hit single “Essence” by her compatriot, the Afrobeats star Wizkid—who made his own international breakthrough in 2016 as a guest on Drake’s “One Dance.” Drake’s curatorial acumen, as much as the commercial kind, remains a quality that keeps him relevant.
Drakeo the Ruler — “Engineer Scared”
The tragic news of Darrell Caldwell a.k.a. Drakeo the Ruler’s death at age 28, by stabbing at a music festival in L.A., came this weekend while I was assembling this list, adding to the dispiritingly endless tally of figures in hip-hop who’ve met untimely fates in recent years. I hadn’t dug much into his catalogue before, and when I did, I was taken aback by how commanding and charismatic a rapper he was. This is just one of the Drakeo numbers that stood out from a year in which he put out four albums and appeared on countless other tracks. RIP.
Billie Eilish — “Your Power”
A lot of Eilish’s Happier Than Ever is about the hard lessons she’s learned in her short years in the music-and-fame industry. This is not only one of the most acute and pointed, but also among the must musically inviting.
Glaive — “I Wanna Slam My Head against the Wall”
A hit inside the hyperpop hive, whatever we exactly mean by that. Caution, parents: The self-harm talk is meant to bait you.
Walker Hayes ft. Kesha —“Fancy Like”
I go back and forth between this version of the country smash and the original, but Kesha’s a brilliant choice of guest—she started out making similar jokes about déclassé indulgences, only downtown instead of small-town. And she de-bros the song a tad.
Illuminati Hotties — “Pool Hopping”
Singer-songwriter-producer Sarah Tudzin and her L.A. band have been firing off one witty, acerbic song after another for several years. This single from Let Me Do One More, its third full-length but first on Tudzin’s own independent label, conceals riches of practically Joan Didion-level social observation beneath its shimmery, summery surface.
Cassandra Jenkins — “Ambiguous Norway”
Another entry in the spoken-word sweepstakes of 2021, Jenkins’ whole second album An Overview of Phenomenal Nature is strong. Critical attention has zeroed in on the Slacker-meets-Laurie-Anderson conversational travelogue, “Hard Drive.” But I have to plant my flag for Jenkins’ tender, tremulous effort to grapple with the death of the poet and singer David Berman (Silver Jews/Purple Mountains), with whom she was about to tour until the awful day in August 2019 that the news of his suicide broke.
Lil Nas X — “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
This song was a capital-E Event in a year short on good ones. What more is there to say? Just relish that exhilarating slide into the erotic inferno of what is probably the biggest explicitly queer hit in pop history.
Little Simz — “Point and Kill”
The British-Nigerian rapper Simbiatu Ajikawo has been on the rise for years, both on her own and as part of the acclaimed collective Sault. Her 2021 album, Sometimes I Feel Introvert, is near the top of many critics’ lists. I found it a bit uneven but still full of high points—many of them with video treatments as powerful as the songs themselves, like this one.
Lorde — “Stoned at the Nail Salon”
Among Solar Power’s many hazy stoner reflections, I found this perhaps the most musically alluring and emotionally poignant.
L’Rain — “Suck Teeth”
No question, Brooklyn singer-composer Taja Cheek is one of the current artists leading into the future, and this song is one that has me falling, fainting, collapsing intoxicated into her slipstream.
Mach-Hommy ft. Westside Gunn and Keisha Plum — “Folie Á Deux”
A boho experimentalist so elusive that he’s always (not just lately) worn a mask, Mach-Hommy can seem like an improbable part of the hardcore crew at Buffalo, NY-based independent hip-hop nerve center Griselda Records, even though he was one of its founders. His Pray for Haiti was one of the best, most ambitious rap albums this year, and this track one of its most concentrated sonic eruptions.
Juçara Marçal — “Delta Estácio Blues”
The title track is a highlight of this São Paulo experimentalist’s album, a sequence of constant sonic surprises that also sustain a vigorous link to the traditions of Brazilian music. She’s been active for a long while but was one of the most delightful discoveries of 2021 for me.
Mdou Moctar — “Afrique Victime”
With this song, the Tuareg guitar hero put out the most shit-hot anticolonial psychedelic rock anthem (the lyric video can clue you in on the translation) since, I dunno, maybe Brazilian Tropicalia or Jimi Hendrix. And there’s tons more where it came from.
Megan Thee Stallion — “Thot Shit”
This wasn’t just a typical scorching Megan single, but also the most hilarious, grand-guignol, politically satirical video (by director Aube Perrie) this side of Lil Nas X in 2021.
The Mountain Goats — “Arguing with the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review”
The longwinded title of this song from the Mountain Goats’ latest album, Dark In Here, is a deep rock-nerd dive. It references an infamously drugs-and-violence-filled Lou Reed record review in Creem magazine in 1976, written by the gifted Cleveland musician Peter Laughner (of the legendary band Pere Ubu) the year before his death by substance abuse at 24. But that’s not really what the song is about. It is an elegy from Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle for David Berman—see the Jenkins entry above. It expresses Darnielle’s vast admiration for his songwriting peer while lamenting the romanticization of artists’ self-destruction. (See also: Mia Doi Todd’s “Music Life.”) It is the one song on this list I can’t listen to without breaking down. I thought of it again this month when we lost Greg Tate. Not that Tate self-destructed, but these lines certainly apply: “You who took with you the ancient spell/ When you fell.”
Muna ft. Phoebe Bridgers — “Silk Chiffon”
A deliriously delicious sapphic anthem from the L.A. electropop band, with an uncharacteristically chipper Bridgers along for the ride and a video that pays tribute to that millennial queer-teen ur-text, 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader starring Natasha Lyonne.
Kacey Musgraves — “Justified”
“Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” Musgraves sings in this track from Star-Crossed, which as an album probes all the angles of that insight. But with a hook this enticing, you’re sure to feel better for at least a few minutes.
Carly Pearce — “29”
Watch out, Adele—there’s another age-enumerating heartbreak singer, and this one has Nashville craft in her holster. This track is the centerpiece of Pearce’s album of the same name about “the year that I got married and divorced.” The feelings are as big as that implies. Luckily, the music is too.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss —“It Don’t Bother Me”
I said my piece about the Plant-Krauss comeback album at length recently, including this tour de force led by Krauss. Exquisite music that begs no further argument.
Caroline Polachek — “Bunny is a Rider”
What is this song by this indie-pop stalwart all about? No idea, really, which may be part of why there seems to be no limit to how often I’m happy to hear it.
Olivia Rodrigo — “Deja Vu”
There’s nothing explicit in this song that acknowledges how off-base its central sentiment is, however common and relatable: jealous outrage that an ex is doing with their new partner things you used to do, and not just the sexy parts. Love is many-splendored but romance has a more limited range, and you don’t have exclusivity rights over anyone’s experiences just because you got there first. (Also, Olivia, you didn’t invent Billy Joel.) But it’s that very tension that makes the song even more charming than the other three or four great Rodrigo singles I could have put here.
Shad — “Black Averageness”
All the current empowerment rhetoric in pop is great, but once in a while, it seems healthy for someone to wink and say “don’t believe the hype.” Veteran Toronto rapper Shad opens this track by saying, “I love Black excellence… This is not that/ This is somethin’ different.” He goes on to celebrate the ordinary virtues of being merely okay, even mediocre, but getting by. Such relief from aspiration feels especially welcome these days. (Get your loved ones some adequate presents this holiday season!) Also, I think my compatriots will agree that, in all its proud corniness, this may be one of the most Canadian songs ever.
Sleaford Mods — “Mork and Mindy”
More Brit post-punk talk-singing, this time from a band that’s been around a dozen years and with a decidedly working-class accent. This song about growing up feeling like an alien in your dead-end district veers affably off in all directions on many reserve tanks of unspent anger.
Jazmine Sullivan — “Pick Up Your Feelings”
Dawn Richards’ and Rochelle Jordan’s albums represented R&B among my albums list, but Sullivan’s stands right alongside them. This track in particular might just be the best in the genre the year, an unsparing yet high-spirited kiss-off to a double-dealing dog.
Taylor Swift — “All Too Well (10-Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” (Saturday Night Live version)
I dreaded this one in advance, and I definitely don’t think it outstrips the original, which remains maybe Swift’s best song. Some of the extra material here dilutes and distracts. But there are superb ones too—I love “you kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” and the bits about the guy and her dad, for instance. But you know what I liked best? All that discussion! It made 2021 actually fun for a few days.
Tinashe — “Bouncin’”
Another great escapist track, another great video, and another great R&B singer who doesn’t quite get her due.
Vanishing Twin — “Big Moonlight (Ookii Gekkou)”
Another London band new to me this year, this one redolent of 1970s Brazil and, above all, Stereolab. But the whole world should be a thousand percent more Stereolab-like, so yes, please.
Martha Wainwright — “Love Will Be Reborn”
Adele, Kacey, Olivia, Red (Taylor’s Version)? Sure, but if you want to talk breakup/divorce records, prepare to be dismantled and then restored by the title track from 2021’s comeback album by this daughter of Montreal. Martha is too often unjustly overshadowed by the combined stature of the whole Wainwright-McGarrigle clan, but she verifies her artistic autonomy here in more ways than one.
Ryley Walker — “Rang Dizzy”
This Chicago singer-guitarist, whose work wavers between neo-pastoral, prog, and jazz/improv, is so prolific that I’ve been daunted. But I’ve started to dabble, and this tune with its extremely 2021 dazed-realization punchline “fuck me—I’m alive” makes me eager to hear more.
Jessie Ware — “Please”
Shouldn’t Ware have been totally exhausted from pumping out so many neo-disco bangers on last year’s What’s Your Pleasure? Then she turns around and drops one of this year’s most irresistible singles, too, just in case anyone still dares underestimate her.
Tion Wayne x Russ Millions ft. Arrdee, 3x3E1 and ZT, Bugzy Malone, Fivio Foreign, Darkoo and Buni — “Body 2”
The remix of this hit London drill anthem attracted a huge cross-continental cast. It may not be the most subtle emissary for the U.K. hip-hop scene (for that see Little Simz, or the Dave album on my earlier list), but it’s an enthralling one-stop sample.
The Weather Station — “Parking Lot”
One planet in environmental despair under a groove. A half-century on from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” not only is it barely possible for Mitchell’s fellow Canadian Tamara Lindeman to recall a paradise under the parking lot, but a solitary bird is a heavier symbol of fragility than she can stand. From the album Ignorance.
Wobbly — “Lent Foot”
San Francisco’s Jon Leidecker has made diverting experimental electronic music since the late 1980s. But I’m picking this song from his latest album Popular Monitress primarily for the inspired video that combines it with the bar scene from a certain popular space movie (shhh); it’s a creation of the artist-composer who invented the mashup decades before YouTube, Plunderphonics master John Oswald.
Yotuel, Gente De Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, and El Funky —“Patria y Vida”
There are protest songs, and then there are acts of defiance so brazen that they dare the secret police to come to the door. That’s what this ensemble of Cuban artists (some on and some off the island) did with this anti-government track. Protesters adopted it as an anthem, and sure enough, the police came. The most humbling act of musical courage I heard about this year.