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Year In Review

The Best Things We Heard In 2021

Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This is what the Defector staff enjoyed listening to in 2021.

Snail Mail, Valentine

Among my coworkers, my favorite type of music is derisively referred to as “Weenie Music.” I prefer to think of it as “Sad Girl Music.” Whatever you want to call it, I simply can’t get enough of a sad singer-songwriter serenading about their broken heart and/or existential dread. Mitski; the Boygenius trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus; Taylor Swift when she’s not in bop mode; Soccer Mommy … all of these acts get constant play in my apartment.

Admittedly, I did not think Snail Mail’s first album, 2018’s Lush, was all that great. It had some good songs, but it didn’t really make it into my rotation. Second, I did not know that Snail Mail (real name Lindsey Jordan) had released a second album this November. Valentine completely slipped through the cracks for me until it was put on a bunch of year-end lists at the beginning of December. “Sure,” I thought, “I’ll give it a listen.”

Holy fuck. I'm trying to not let recency bias play too much of a role in picking my absolute favorite thing that I heard this year, but Valentine is it. In ways that felt like a massive step up from Lush, Jordan—a Gemini queen, it must be said—traverses heartbreak, rehab, controlling relationships, and all with a lush soundscape. The synths are a welcome addition, and songs like "Ben Franklin" and “Madonna” benefit from a more evocative songwriting style. “Fuck being remembered,” she sings on the title track and album opener, “I think I was made for you,” and that’s when I start hooting and hollering and possibly crying. It’s the perfect weenie music moment in an album full of them.

Maybe I also love Valentine more than both Lush and everything else that came out this year because it feels like a perfectly anxious album. Jordan has said that she began to craft the songs for it in her childhood bedroom during the start of the pandemic, and if there has been a more anxious time than the early pandemic, I can’t easily recall it. That I missed Valentine until the omicron variant began spreading through New York City in early December feels fitting, then, even if the album isn't exactly about the pandemic. 

I’ve listened to Valentine more than anything else in the last month, and it’s not even close:

Surely that'll change once 2022 albums start dropping. For now, I’m going to keep widening the gap between Valentine and everything else. - Luis Paez-Pumar

The Skatalites

As this topic plows its way toward contemporary music, those of us who believe that each generation should have its own music free of the constraints of having old people nearby pretending to be part of the modern world tend either to declare as David Mitchell once did "that music is shit," or head back in the other direction. Not because older stuff is better, but because older, more obscure stuff is indisputably better.

In short, I plowed back into The Skatalites this year, and to the extent that such a thing is possible in any context, I am better for it.

The Skatalites were, to put it crudely, Jamaica's house band, backing acts such as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, Scratch Perry, and Prince Buster. Indeed, nearly all ska and reggae artists of any value went through their neighborhood, and any artist who could worked with them. All the original members except alto saxophonist Lester Sterling are dead, so the earliest stuff (1963-65) is the genius stuff, as is typically the case in music. If you want it in easy-to-digest form, get Foundation Ska; if you want one song, "Guns of Navarone" or "Don D-Lion." But that's all the proselytizing we allow.

Music belongs to the generation best equipped to handle it, and if you don't want to be a parent-aged poser to your kids, check the rear-view mirror. Darwinism can be found in garages as well as jungles, and the music that survives does so because it is best equipped to do so. If the new music slapping against the holes in the side of your head sounds repetitive and too heavily influenced by the artist that came three days earlier, well, that's how rock'n'roll was, too. Imitation is the shittiest form of flattery because it's everywhere, and because it's always been that way. The great stuff survives to be stuck on TV commercials; everything else rots on junkyard Walkmans. If it helps at all, the best way to understand this is from a song written in 1949 and covered many times, the best of all being this one. - Ray Ratto

BTS Live

In case you weren't aware, I got really into BTS during the pandemic. I wrote a whole pile of words earlier this month about what it was like becoming a BTS fan in lockdown, suddenly getting to see them live in concert this year, and learning it was OK to shamelessly love something. You should go read those words. I will leave you with the official BTS fan chant.

Kim Nam-joon! Kim Seok-jin! Min Yoon-gi! Jung Ho-seok! Park Ji-min! Kim Tae-hyung! Jeon Jung-kook! BTS! - Diana Moskovitz

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

This damn Japanese Breakfast album really flattened me, and it's not even the first time I've had this exact same experience with her music. The first one came out when I was grieving, then I was obsessively listening to the second one (which is also about death) while walking around New York in the winter of 2018 both before and then after Drew fell and almost died. Jubilee came out right as I was ready to relearn to socialize with people and teach myself how to be a person again. This is not necessarily the terrain the album is covering, although the contours of the it synchronized with the questions I had to ask myself after being inside for a year-and-a-half. All of which is to say, I did not regret seeing both of her San Francisco shows on back-to-back nights even though they featured mostly the same setlist. There I was thinking that the pandemic was over, and I had learned how to exit it. Ha ha! - Patrick Redford

100 gecs, “mememe"

I had a lot of different ideas for this blurb, such as the way that the Pet Shop Boys’ live album recorded at the height of the AIDS crisis, Discovery: Live In Rio 1994, paralleled our emergence into a post-vaccine world, or how Tokyo Police Club reintroduced me to the perfect concert experience with their anniversary show for Champ. But I’d be a dirty rotten liar if I said the “best thing I heard” was anything other than this blast of pop-punk perfection from 100 gecs—the first single off the sophomore album due in 2022. The geckos have been the best in the world for a few years now, by my count, and with their lone release of 2021, they triumphantly maintained their grip on that title. - Lauren Theisen

Mastodon Live At The Anthem

I’m used to going to movies alone and, in fact, prefer it. Concerts alone are a whole other enterprise. There’s no one else to drink or smoke up with. There’s no friend right next to you to go "THAT WAS AWESOME" after the band plays that one song both of you were dying for them to play. There’s no pregame or postgame at a bar. There’s no shared memory. There’s just you and the band. So I didn’t know what to do with myself when I went to The Anthem an hour before Mastodon would take the stage. I didn’t need to stake out a spot on the general admission floor, because I was alone and big, and could slip in as close to the stage as I wanted, pretty much anytime I wanted. I didn’t need to pay super close attention to opening act Opeth, because they didn’t really do it for me (my apologies to the Opeth addicts). I just stared at my phone and then bought a cappuccino. At a rock concert. Maybe I should have just stayed home.

Then Mastodon plugged in, and suddenly I knew exactly what to do with myself. Certain bands, from the moment they plug in on stage, you know they’re not fucking around. You know they‘re there to fucking DESTROY you. So for a tight 90 minutes, I stood there and let Mastodon destroy me. With guitars. And lasers. And a flawless rendition of “Pushing the Tides.” And the best touring visuals in the game.

This was the best concert I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a few. It’s really hard, at age 45, to have a show teleport you the way it does when you’re 30 years younger. Mastodon pulled it off, because they’re built for this. They’re built to crush you. I’ve never been happier while alone. - Drew Magary

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony, Promises

Sometimes I wonder if this genre-less 46-minute album was just an experiment in Pavlovian conditioning. Did an electronic musician, legendary jazz saxophonist, and orchestra of a major metropolis conspire to program my emotions like a common dog? Over the course of this record a seven-note motif repeats itself, like an unanswered question, dozens, perhaps a hundred times. There's no going back now. Anytime those seven notes are played, no matter the time, no matter the place, the dog drops everything and surrenders to a sense of sweeping beauty and impermanence. I am the dog now. You got me. - Giri Nathan

Lucy Dacus Live At The 9:30 Club

I have spent a decade processing my departure from the evangelical church. It has been painful and complicated. I have been forced not only to reckon with what I could believe now and in the future, and what I think is worth fighting for, but also with the failures of my beliefs in the past and the ways in which they harmed others. It is a strange thing to process because it is lonely. Many people who grow up evangelical stay that way and many people who are not evangelical never were. I worked through it in therapy and on yellow notepads that eventually became a novel. The novel came out this year after years of work, and suddenly, I realized I hadn't been alone in this journey at all.

In the strangest collision I have ever experienced, three days after my book about losing faith came out, Lucy Dacus released her sophomore album Home Video. Listening to Home Video when it came out felt like being shown a photo of a stranger who looks so strikingly like you, but just so subtly off, that it jars you into a state of self-questioning.

There are a lot of songs on this album that fucked me up in a way that I don't really want to get into here, but listening to "VBS" on a summer day that felt like the longest winter night made me feel less alone, more seen, and more able to push through the next few hours. I bought Home Video on vinyl and played it constantly. I loved it.

A couple of months ago, I went to see Lucy Dacus at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. It was my first concert since before the pandemic. I had a beer. I stood in the pit. I wore my mask, which was lucky because it is much less obvious that you are sobbing when you have a mask and a baseball hat on. I hope that maybe by this time next year, I will have processed why this album is so important to me. But it was the best thing I heard this year. I know that for sure. - Kelsey McKinney

Cloud Nothings, "Wasted Days"

This became my pandemic song by accident. When I'm home, I work to music, and over the last year, I've been home an awful lot (emphasis on "awful"). But it can't be just any music—it's got to be able to fade into the background, and this nine-minute track features an extended central section built around a simple, massive lick. The repetition and the increasingly unhinged use of effects pedals become hypnotic, especially if one plays the song on repeat for, oh, two or three hours at a time.

And then, somewhere along the line, I started paying attention to the lyrics. Buddy, they're not exactly cheerful when heard in the context of enforced isolation: a frustrated ode to time squandered and not recoverable; a numbed and numbing acceptance that, yes, this is all there is. Man, I just came here to rock! I didn't ask for this. So I did what any self-respecting head-burier would and went back to not listening to the words and just enjoying the slow build and release. That's what speaks to me here, after this year that has been all slow build and no release. But if you can't avoid the lyrics, that's OK: Ennui is a feeling too. - Barry Petchesky

Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today

I can tell how I am doing by how I am listening to music. Because I don’t really use any of the algorithmic streaming services to do this, I am always listening to music intentionally: going to a specific act’s Bandcamp page, or putting a record on the spindle or (yes) placing a compact disc into the ancient compact disc player that has been begging for death in increasingly overt ways for the last year. I like it enough to have never really tried another way. I am old enough to like owning the music I listen to, and by this point I own a lot of it. Enough, at the very least, that if I get bored of listening to one record, or one type of record, I could readily listen to something else.

But retaining this crucial bit of agency doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily in control. When I am not at my best, as I was for much of this year, the days turn in a way that’s not just cyclical but recursive—a needle in a locked groove, the same revolving incoherence. That is reflected in the music I listen to, but it’s reflected more precisely in how I wind up listening to it. If I am off, I will listen to the same record not just three times in a day, but for days on end. I pick the music that aligns with whatever mood I’m lost in—despondent, anxious, grandiose, all the classics—and then just ride it down to whatever sub-basement I’m bound for, often without even really knowing that I’m doing it. Then it is three days later, and I have listened to a Neil Young song I wasn’t even sure I liked listening to 175 times, or I have listened to a Mogwai soundtrack to a documentary about nuclear war a dozen or so times, and I am no happier for having done so. I try to keep an eye on that.

Still, there were a number of albums that I listened to this way over the last year. Sometimes this was for work—I wrote the label bio for PUP’s upcoming record, which I absolutely wore out in the process; it’s great, but I also woke up in the night with shout-along choruses in my head. Some of it was normal, pleasure-seeking stuff: After I saw Titus Andronicus play in Jersey City last month, I went back over The Monitor simply because the songs reminded me of that experience, and others that felt big and urgent and nearly within reach. There were times when I had something I needed to write where I would just keep listening to the same Moon Duo record because it had become such a part of the experience that I noticed when it wasn’t there. But of all the things I listened to on repeat, Protomartyr’s 2020 record Ultimate Success Today was the one that probably seemed the most ominous, both in terms of how I over-listen and just because of how the record is.

The album was written and recorded in 2019 but is both by happenstance and by dint of how it works very much 2020 In Album Form to me. Those who remember 2020 will know that this does not immediately scan as a compliment, and considering that Protomartyr is not for everyone in the first place—the songs have gotten prettier and more sonically diverse over the course of their five albums, but lead singer Joe Casey’s peculiar back-of-the-throat voice is a challenge not everyone will want to accept. He really is a brilliant writer, as it happens, and the best songs on Ultimate Success Today had the strange fortune of arriving, in spring of last year, at a moment that made them seem almost supernaturally prescient. I remember listening to “Processed By The Boys,” which is ambiently about chaos and collapse and how it feels to have that all being administered by unaccountable and unpredictable violence workers. Casey has said he had ICE agents in mind when he wrote the song, which alludes to a plague that had not yet arrived, but for better or worse he wrote the song of that last miserable year before that year had even happened.

I listened to it when it came out, recognized it as both brilliant and what seemed like a real step forward for a band I like, and also unspokenly consigned it to the category of songs that I just wasn’t ever going to listen to again because the ways in which they were virtuosic happened to evoke things I didn’t want evoked. David Berman’s last record, from 2019, is like this for me. Some perfect statements are too perfect to admire.

But a few months ago I started to listen to the record again, first a little and then in bulk. The moments of pure discordance are still there—not necessarily or not only in the music itself, which is commanding, graceful, and thoughtful throughout, even and especially where it’s harsh—but I think I mostly wanted to see whether it was still too hot to touch, whether I was ready to revisit any of this shit we just got done with. I don’t know about the last bit, but in listening again and again, I realized that I’d sold the record short. There is indeed a lot of stuff that Ultimate Success Today either got jarringly, spookily right before it happened or just put a name to before anyone had figured out how to do that, but what I remembered as a sort of accidental sonic simulcast of a grim year is actually broader and more forward-looking than that. It’s a dissection of the delusions and weaknesses and thwarted secondhand aspirations that got us into that spot in the first place—the suspicion and the dread, the dumb empty dreams of a culture that is finally and mostly about sales, and control. 

This is not making it sound much more fun, I realize, and that the record itself is pretty much perfectly realized—that it progresses along a narrative more felt than literal, towards a sort of peace, if not quite grace—might not make it sound that appealing. But by the time the album arrived at “Worm In Heaven,” which I think is the loveliest song that this band has ever written, it was clear that the record was not just what I remembered. It’s also a record about living through it all—how uneasy and degrading and stupid it all is, but also the dignity in having tried for more than that moment offered. It’s a sad record, but just not in the ways I thought I remembered. I will listen to it again. - David Roth

Jeremy Levick And Rajat Suresh On Office Hours

It's gotten crazy out there, and if it wasn't for thinkers like Jeremy and Rajat being willing to stand up and say, Hey! What exactly are we doing here? I would have lost it a long time ago. And I mean really lost it, OK? - Tom Ley

Genesis, "Carpet Crawlers"

The best thing I heard this year was “Carpet Crawlers” from Genesis. There’s more than meets the ear to my choice of a 1975 prog rock ballad as my favorite song of 2021. 

The tune closed out Genesis’s reunion/farewell tour stop in D.C. in November. I went to the show with my lifelong buddy Louie. Louie and I had also seen Genesis together a long time ago in August 1978 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. For that long-ago show, we were both 16 and pregamed by drinking gin and Slurpees and listening to eight-track tapes of Genesis in his Ford Pinto. We snuck the leftover liquor into the venue in a wine skin. Eight-tracks, wine skins and Pintos didn’t survive the Me Decade; me and Louie and Genesis somehow did.

I’m embarrassed by lots of the music I loved as an adolescent dirtball, and nothing has aged worse than ‘70s prog. Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Seriously? Jethro Tull, five tours in a row? What was I drinking? (See above.) Yes? More like: Why? 

But my teen fling with Genesis brings me no shame. I remember the moment I fell for ‘em as a middle-schooler, as soon as I saw the 1973 Genesis Live album in the cutout bin of Kemp Mill Records in Falls Church. The cover showed the band bathed in neon blue light and the lead singer, who turned out to be Peter Gabriel, dressed in some sort of alien outfit. I bought that record and loved the weirdness and soon after the band’s earlier albums. I’d never heard anything like “Supper’s Ready,” a tune so long (22 minutes and 54 seconds) that it took up a whole side of an LP. I memorized every “movement” to that bombastic opus, and though I knew every word I had no idea what the hell the song was about. I was sure it was different and made me feel nice. 

Louie was the only other kid in my neighborhood who dug “Supper’s Ready.” We’d grow up to go to lots of rock shows together, but by the time we were old enough to see Genesis play live, Gabriel had left the band and the drummer, Phil Collins, took over as frontman. Genesis quickly went from playing clubs and small theaters to filling amphitheaters and then stadiums, and from different and cool to just plain big. I remember through my ginned-up haze that during that August 1978 show at Merriweather Post, Collins was perky where Gabriel was quirky. Collins wore a Washington Capitals jersey, but no alien or monster costumes that Gabriel was known for. The band didn’t play “Supper’s Ready” or any Gabriel-era staples, but Collins did croon “Follow You, Follow Me,” the band’s lyrically accessible then-new single, which would be the first Genesis tune to crack the Top 40 in the U.S. The hits kept coming for the band and Collins over the next couple decades. Collins would go on to be the only rocker besides Paul McCartney to ever sell 100 million records both with a band and as a solo act.

But Phil Collins’s Genesis wasn’t Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, and my fandom before the band produced monster smashes like “ABACAB” and “Tonight Tonight Tonight.” I never bought another Genesis record after that show, and the Collins-era songs became so ubiquitous that I even avoided the early stuff. Yet a couple years ago, as old dudes do, I went back to my old records, and hell if the Genesis of my youth didn’t still float my boat. For a time I even went to sleep every night listening to bootlegs of live Genesis shows from the 1973 tour. 

Then this fall, the band announced it would be reforming for one last tour, and the Washington Post, for whom I’ve done occasional music pieces since the early 1990s, assigned me a live review of the local show. I’d heard that because this was likely the last tour, they’d have a setlist that covered every era.

Louie was my plus-one. We mostly talked about how fast the 43 and a half years between Genesis concerts had gone by, and how lucky we were to have lived to laugh about that night and those times. If we didn’t already feel old, seeing Collins in the flesh really brought home that we were. Collins, 70, has been so wracked with injuries and substance abuse since his rock heyday that he can no longer play drums and can barely even walk. But he hid nothing that ailed him. He used a cane and help from some roadies to get to the comfy chair at center stage where he sat the whole show. It was a touching, courageous performance. 

For the encore, the stage was bathed in the same neon blue lights from the Genesis live cover, back where it all began for me and the band. The staging choice was certainly for the oldest fans. So was the song selection: To close the last show I’ll ever see Genesis play, Collins crooned “Carpet Crawlers,” the last single released during the Gabriel era. Last time we heard it together was on an eight-track tape in his Pinto and we had our whole lives ahead of us. I closed my eyes and tried thinking deep thoughts about the wondrousness of still having the same pals all these years later. And as I swayed along, I was reminded: What an amazing tune! I remembered every word, and though I never had any idea what the hell the song was about, I know it still makes me feel nice.  - Dave McKenna

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