You could be forgiven for thinking of 2021, already labelled a year of “languishing” by the New York Times as also one of stasis where music is concerned. We took comfort in artists making unexpected returns: most miraculously ABBA with their first album in forty years, the patchy but true-to-form Voyage (with its legitimately great single “Don’t Shut Me Down”) but also long-awaited new stuff from Kings of Convenience (after an absence of 12 years), Arab Strap (15), Liz Phair (11), Jose Gonzalez (6) and other acts adhering to the usual 3-4 year cycle between releases, from Aimee Mann and Kacey Musgraves to Tori Amos and Twin Shadow.
Fortunately, many of my favorite tracks came from out of the blue: Mia Doi Todd’s loving yet sharp boho paean to the “Music Life”, The Felice Brothers keeping in check with the gallows humor of the times on “Jazz On The Autobahn”, Emm Gryner going giddy EDM-pop with “All Love All The Time”, Rufus Wainwright taking to the dancefloor with his Ampersounds collaboration “Technopera”, Yard Act invoking the spirit of Art Brut with “Dark Days”, both Wolf Alice and Colleen Green recreating 90s alt-rock in their own images (“Smile” and “I Wanna Be A Dog”, respectively), The War on Drugs perfecting their anthemic retro-isms on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” and Middle Kids offering up their own anthem for the ages with the bighearted “Stacking Chairs”. So many great tracks this year that I couldn’t even limit myself to usual forty, easily expanding my playlist to fifty.
I want to single out two more songs. When I first heard “Chaise Longue”, I immediately pictured Wet Leg as Brit versions of the disaffected teens played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke in the 2017 film Thoroughbreds. Thankfully, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers are far droller than that, their mostly spoken post-punk a prospect both familiar and, in this climate, totally refreshing. Strung together with quotable, cheeky lyrics (“I went to school, and I got the big D”), their debut single is a gas and a tonic to all of this year’s troubles.
However, “Like I Used To” is my best-loved song of 2021 by a wide margin. In the past, I’ve casually admired both Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen but never could’ve guessed how sinuously their voices would blend together. In this standalone duet released in May, against a Springsteen/Spector-like wall of sound, they sing of a will to survive and a hope for renewal that many of us can relate to following a year-plus of crisis, heartbreak and uncertainty. The title serves as a mantra of sorts in the majestic chorus, repeated with modifiers like “Sleepin’ in late”, “Avoiding big crowds”, “Dancing all alone” and “Taking what’s mine”. “Like I Used To” is both a lament and a promise, the yearning and resilience in Van Etten’s and Olsen’s voices deeply resonant as we look to the future.
My favorite songs of 2021: