The 100 Best Songs of 2021
This is a playlist. Click on song titles for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpage. There are hours worth of listening here: you might want to bookmark this page. The point of this is not just to cull the best songs from the Best Albums of 2021 list, but also to include singles, and videos, and tracks from other records that for one reason or another aren’t on that one,
Given the choice of a fierce, plainspoken, feel-good singalong protest song, a totally disconsolate one, or a much more complex, artful powerpop gem, which would you pick for best song of the year?
Subjective as this list is bound to be, there are three main contenders. The big outlaw country hit that everybody’s blasting at all the protests is Blind Joe‘s I Will Not Comply. It’s Woody Guthrie for the 21st century. It’s catchy, it’s optimistic, and everybody can relate to it.
They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits
Then there’s Irene Pena‘s The Summer Place. Over a catchy late 70s/early 80s powerpop tune, she paints a witheringly detailed picture of family dysfunction by the seaside. As a portrait of the dark side of human behavior (without touching on lockdowns or muzzlemania), it’s Elvis Costello-class, as vividly cynical as anything Black Box Recorder ever did. And in a normal year, it could have topped this list.
This year, the #1 slot goes to Five Times August. He hadn’t even recorded the song yet when he debuted it at a massive rally held by Texans for Vaccine Choice in Austin at the peak of the summer heat. And as sad as it is, at the end he implores us to “Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone.”
What’s optimistic about this list is that despite the current state of the world, there are more funny songs on it than ever before. What’s less optimistic is that there was less recorded music released in 2021 than in any other year since the 1940s. One suspects that artists have written infinitely more material than they’ve been able to record in the past twenty-two months. Whatever the case, there’s still an embarrassment of riches here.
Beyond the next ten songs or so – the creme de la creme of 2021 – there’s absolutely no order or ranking to this list.
Five Times August – God Help Us All
One of the great protest songs of the past year or so: “Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now…Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?”
Five Times August – Jesus What Happened to Us
One of the first protest songs banned from youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,”
Tessa Lena – The Physical World Is the Only World We Have
The longest song on this list, a bracingly immersive mosaic of savagely funny spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged sounds by the polymath singer/investigative journalist and host of the philosophical podcast Make Language Great Again:
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Here and now!
To the masters
Mostly Autumn – Turn Around Slowly
An endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded art-rock seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda for their album Graveyard Star, one of the most vivid portraits of lockdown-era terror released to date.
Slowhand and Van – This Has Got to Stop
Anybody who wants to subject Eric Clapton to any more crippling mandatory shots will be stopped dead in their tracks, the guitar icon wants everybody to know. Van Morrison’s response is more quietly seething.
The Armoires – Homebound
One of the most spot-on, witheringly cynical lockdown songs written so far is this Louvin Brothers-style country waltz originally released under the pseudonym The Chessie System. The title is a cruel pun. From the album Incognito
Ward White – Easy Meat
Reduced to lowest terms, this cinematic, imagistic powerpop narrative is about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.
From the album The Tender Age.
Van Morrison – Double Bind
A slow, slinky minor-key soul protest anthem: “It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind,” the Celtic icon warns. Arguably the best song on the album Latest Record Project No. 1
Van Morrison – Why Are You on Facebook
Over a jangly, bluesy Highway 61-era Dylanesque backdrop, Morrison wants to know “Why do you need secondhand friends?” Funniest track on his album Latest Record Project No. 1
The Academy Blues Project – All Will Be Revealed
A deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud: Ben Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to guitarist Mark Levy’s savage guitar outro. From the album The Neon Grotto
The Pocket Gods – Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday
Crushingly sarcastic as it may be, this creepy, barely two-minute synth-rock song arguably captures the relentless gloom and hopelessness of the plandemic better than any other song released to date. From the album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall
Van Morrison – He’s Not the Kingpin
A soul-infused, sinister look at how the forces behind the lockdown ambush each other: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1
The Felice Bros. – We Shall Live Again
A big folk-rock epic that’s as poignant as it is funny – and creepy: “The clouds are at the winds’ command, a great extinction is close at hand.” From the album From Dreams to Dust
Gary Louris – Dead Man’s Burden
An eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic pondering questions like transcending the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way. From the album Jump For Joy
The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra – Christopher Muscat: Mesogeios
A magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key portrait of the Mediterranean featuring soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance. From the album Contemporary Colours
Volur – Death Cult
Menacing tritones, a Bartokian string interlude, towering crescendos, a skull-shredding violin solo, and what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks. Title track from the art-rock/metal band’s latest album.
Katla – Hvitamyrkur (Dark Light)
A somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching forward drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo in this Icelandic metal dirge. From the album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness)
Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Sextet – The Mask
A stark urban noir soul tableau behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved. From the album Social Distancing
Sana Nagano – Loud Dinner Wanted
Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by booming bass chords and a minimalist stomp in this shrieking, dystopic tableau from the jazz violinist’s album Smashing Humans
HK et les Saltimbanks – Danser Encore
The mighty Romany jazz-flavored protest anthem that became the unofficial theme for this past year’s protests throughout Europe. The point is that we’ll dance again…but not the way the totalitarians want us to, literally, “on a chord chart.”
Dave Specter and Billy Branch – The Ballad of George Floyd
The Chicago blues guitarist and blues harpist build a slow, venomously simmering groove: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.”
Tsibele – Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them)
When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. Their response was this song, a defiant Middle Eastern-flavored singalong recreated by the New York klezmer band as a seven-minute epic.
Azure Ray – Already Written
An allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem: “Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen, try to write it down but it’s already written – how I miss those days.” From the album Remedy
Nick Waterhouse – Very Blue
Gorgeous, Orbisonian early 60s style Nashville noir, complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes and flurrying early ELO strings. From the album Promenade Blue
Carola Ortiz – Corro per la Nit
A harrowing nocturnal chase scene, through a werewolf intro, to leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls. From the Spanish clarinetist’s album Pecata Beata
The Armoires – Great Distances
A soaring but poignant lockdown-era tableau that could be the great harmony-rock tune the Jayhawks left off Sound of Lies. Originally released under the pseudonym The Gospel Swamps. From the album Incognito
The Speed of Sound – Tomorrow’s World
“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open this dystopic retro new wave tune. From the album The Museum of Tomorrow
James McMurtry – Operation Never Mind
A slashing, spot-on, cynical, twangy critique of American foreign policy misadventures in Afghanistan before Biden’s disastrous pullout: “We won’t let the cameras near the fighting. that way we won’t have another Vietnam.” From the album The Horses and the Hounds
Acoustic Syndicate – Bertha
A cover of the Grateful Dead classic, with a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?”
Changing Modes – Nothing to Say
Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam dismissively critique social media over haphazard Beatles blues. From the New York harmony-rock band’s latest album Wax World
Nikolaj Hess – ECM Country
A brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, the pianist playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful, Lynchian swells of the string section. From the album Spacelab & Strings
Caamaño & Ameixeiras – Maneo de Cambre
A bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz from accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras with a plaintive solo from powerhouse guest clarinetist Carola Ortiz. From the album Aire
Bare Wire Son – Saved Alone
Menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs, whispered vocals, a lulling organ interlude and ragged crescendo in this grim World War I tableau. From the album Off Black
Van Morrison – Duper’s Delight
A pulsing midtempo ballad that could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” From the album Latest Record Project No. 1
Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band – Push Come da Shove
Mozartean exchanges of voicings, careening swing, elephantine, undulating drums and a firebomb of a false ending on the most wildly turbulent track from the big band jazz album Still I Rise
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog – The Activist
The protean, agelessly relevant guitar icon takes aim at limousine liberal yuppie puppy entitlement in this hilariously verbose parody of cancel culture. From the album Hope
Langan Frost & Wayne – The Alchemist of Hazy Row
A sobering Kinks-inflected psych-folk narrative with a darkly enigmatic violin solo and a trick ending. From the band’s debut album
The Speed of Sound – Impossible Past
A knowing chronicle of revisionist history set to enigmatic new wave rock: “Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills among dark satanic mills.” From the album The Museum of Tomorrow
Sarah McQuaid – The Day of Wrath, That Day
An eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre guitar instrumental: McQuaid is known as a singer, but she wails on the frets. From the record The St Buryan Sessions,
The CCCC Grossman Ensemble – David Dzubay: PHO
Not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook for playfully maximum impact in the most animated and strongest piece on the album Fountain of Time
Lia Sampai – Una Llum (A Light)
A slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. From the Catalan singer’s album Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation Hidden in Plain Sight),
Anbessa Orchestra – Gobez (Brave)
This single is more spacy and atmospheric than the incendiary, guitar-stoked Ethiopian jam they used to slay audiences with in summers where people congregated freely here in New York.
Ward Hayden and the Outliers – Nothing to Do (For Real This Time)
Jangly bluegrass-tinged highway rock with a chilling lockdown-era narrative: “This is what happens when you wake up, all the cool kids in the class, just actors in a mask.” From the album Free Country
Willie Nile – Blood on Your Hands
Steve Earle guests on this stomping, venomous Americana rock broadside aimed at oligarchs everywhere: “There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street.” From the album The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout – Sheba
Surf Ethiopiques recorded in the backroom of a legendary onetime speakeasy. From the album The Boog At Sunny’s
The Colorist Orchestra and Howe Gelb – Tarantula
A clip-clop southwestern gothic opening credits-style instrumental theme from the desert rock icon and European art-rockers’ debut collaboration Not on the Map
Space Summit – Ancient Towers
Lush, richly clanging layers of guitar permeate this mighty, allusive art-rock anthem from twelve-string maven Marty Willson-Piper’s latest project. From the album Life This Way
Becca Stevens and the Secret Trio – Pathways
The art-rock singer contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising,” over a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. From their debut collaboration
Perry Carditis & the mRNA’s – Christmas medley
Coffee and Covid published this ridiculously entertaining spoof of infomercials for holiday albums, with updated lyrics for the age of lethal injection campaigns. Scroll down for the video.
Nirvana A – Pure Blooded
One of the funniest protest songs of the past year, set to the tune of the silly 70s Foreigner lite-metal hit Hot Blooded.
Dan Blake – The Grifter
A complex and crushingly cynical, bustling jazz portrait of a would-be political savior with a dark undercurrent and a spot-on sax solo out. From the saxophonists’s latest album Da Fe
Lake Street Dive – Hush Money
“You can’t win the game so you wanna throw it, but I’ve got a whistle and I’m gonna blow it,” singer Rachael Price insists, over a Beatlesque, quasi trip-hop sway. From the album Obviously
Icon of Sin – Clouds Over Gotham
Shifting between gentle, early Genesis-tinged interludes, a fullscale stampede and nightmarish symphonic angst, the Brazilian metal band captures the anguish of the early days of the lockdown here…but if their prophecy comes true, we will rise again! From their debut album
The Shining Tongues – Annihilation
A wealth of dark textures: fuzztone repeaterbox guitar, symphonic keys and a lush bed of acoustic guitars. The most lavishly orchestral track on their debut album Milk of God
White Lightning – 1930
Little did the Minneapolis heavy psych band realize that when they released this rare Move-influenced protest single in 1969, how relevant their historical parable would be fifty years later. From the compilation album Brown Acid: The Twelfth Trip
Black River Delta – Solitary Man
Not a cover of that awful Neil Diamond song. Set to a brooding web of acoustic guitars, this original is a harrowingly detailed account of the slow decline of a member of the crew of the Enola Gay. From the album Shakin’
Kristy Hinds – Miss Morocco
An icy Bliss Blood-style noir cha-cha: ‘Put her up in a sweet hotel, so sweet she didn’t notice the smell.” From the New Mexico chanteuse/ukulele player’s album Strange Religion.
Olcay Bayir – Kayip Cocuk (Lost Child)
Brooding, hypnotic trip-hop rising to an imploring, accusatory peak. “Who can give me my future? Take your dirty hands off from my hope and dreams,” Bayir sings in Turkish. From her album Inside (İçerde)
Emily Frembgen – Butterfly
“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” the folk noir singer relates gently in this chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. From the album It’s Me or the Dog
The Reducers – Let’s Go
Written back in the 80s when traveling the world was something everyone did. This chugging punk-pop hit with a sizzling Hugh Birdsall guitar solo might be the high point of the band’s archival album Live: New York City 2005
Ensemble Mik Nawooj – Mozart on Joy
A wickedly clever mix of famous riffs by the ingenious classical/hip-hop ensemble, rapper Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics. From the album Death Become Life
Daz Band – We Are the 99%
The most authentic folk song on this list: haphazard, catchy and pissed as hell