2021 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our Annual Mixtapes Ft. Our Favorite Songs of the Year, Pt. 1 (Songs 104-53)
Our first two mixtapes take us through the second half of our Top 104 songs, but make no mistake, they're all essential. We'll give you a short write-up (in some cases, based on our previous writing this year) and a golden moment we credit for sending the song to the lofty level of one of our favorite songs of 2021.
MIXTAPE #4: SONGS 104-79
104 RATBOYS / "Go Outside"
Blurb: Chicago's Ratboys normally bring the power pop crunch, but on this twangy lament to the little things in life that we all miss, they hit the quaint middle ground between the country and the city.
Moment of Conversion: "I want to show up at the shoreline and drink Lake Michigan."
103 THE DIABOLICAL LIBERTIES / "Mostly Indoors"
Blurb: The exact opposite of the sentiment found on the song prior, here we find the narrator of the song to be an agoraphobic who spends most of his time surfing the internet, eating "modern bread" (whatever that is), and learning how to re-skill workers to do other jobs. Imagine Blur's "Parklife" as told by Roy Kent of Ted Lasso fame and you're getting close to what this sounds like. Highly amusing.
Moment of Conversion: That confused sensation of not knowing exactly what you are hearing or its purpose.
102 THE SONDER BOMBS / "What Are Friends For?"
Blurb: I thought Clothbound, the excellent second record from Cleveland favorites the Sonder Bombs, might get more attention this year. Willow Hawks' standout voice and ukulele give a head-tilting curiosity to the band's sound, whether they're outright rocking or downshifting into a more contemplative headspace. The perfect example of them harnessing all their promise in one track is "What Are Friends For?," a song that should've, in a fair world, got much more attention.
Moment of Conversion: I love the band's ability to stop and start on a dime.
101 BEACH BUNNY / "Good Girls (Don't Get Used)"
Blurb: Just an EP from Chicago's Beach Bunny in 2021, but it did give us a modern take on The Knack's "Good Girl's Don't" even though it wasn't a formal sequel, but right there in the title you can tell the song has been dragged into the modern world.
Moment of Conversion: The message.
100 CHA WA / "My People"
Blurb: A real New Orleans band, hatched from the Mardis Gras Indian community, plays a little of everything the makes the Crescent City gumbo so spicy on My People, and the title track is their passionate calling card. A song of post-Katrina defiance that proudly announces the will of their people is far from broken.
Moment of Conversion: The authenticity of the juju king.
99 GREENTEA PENG / "This Sound"
Blurb: You've got to love an album that comes with an audio user's manual. "This Sound" finds the London rhythm queen tapping into a higher plain and explaining her cosmic mission statement. And it's easier to follow than the instructions for an Ikea dresser, I tell you that much.
Moment of Conversion: A phat groove sets up her mission statement.
98 REMI WOLF / "Grumpy Old Man"
Blurb: You can always count on Remi Wolf for a madcap earworm. Last year it was the ubiquitous "Hello Hello," of Apple commercial fame, and this year gave us "Grumpy Old Man" which had a bizarrely memorable chorus that you won't be able to shake. And the less sense it makes the better it gets.
Moment of Conversion: It's the chorus, but I won't spoil it for you. Get used to it though, because once it's in there, it ain't coming out.
97 WANDA JACKSON / "Two Shots"
Blurb: Wanda, 83-years-young, sounds full of life on her new album, her voice still in possession of the girlish twang that put her on the rockabilly map in the late-50s. Joan Jett and Elle King feature on "Two Shots," but no help was really needed. Wanda, as always, owns everything she sings. And she's not messing around in her silver years either. "Two Shots" isn't a drinking song—it's a threat. And there's a 12-gauge shotgun involved if you cross the line. And if you think an 83-year-old woman can't handle the kick of a big ol' shotgun, you haven't been paying attention.
Moment of Conversion: I love that she's saying "Reconsider baby, put that suitcase down" whilst training a shotgun on the guy. It sounds like he doesn't have much of a choice.
96 WAXAHATCHEE / "Light of a Clear Blue Morning"
Blurb: Waxahatchee's transcendent cover of Dolly Parton's "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" is the song we all needed in 2021. It is hopeful, the start a new day, or a chance for redemption. Dolly has a way of tapping into the essence of everyday lives and normal people with her songs and this is another example of her natural songwriting gift. That said, Katie's version now sounds definitive to these ears, making this one of the best covers of the year. Play it on repeat for comfort. Play it when you need a new look at life.
Moment of Conversion: What everyone needs to hear: Everything's gonna be all right / It's gonna be OK.
95 LES JEUX SONT FUNK / "Spike Lee"
Blurb: We're not in the golden age of instrumental R&B—that would be the 1960s and early-1970s—but we're definitely seeing a return of some of the touchstones of that bygone era. Hammond B-3 organs, punctuating horns, thick bass lines, swinging drums, and funky-ass guitar riffs abound. If you want to know what my heaven sounds like, there you have it in a nutshell. And it's a sound that's gone global, too. Italy's Les Jeux Sont Funk's single "Spike Lee" is music to my ears. They named the track after the famed director for a reason—this sounds like a song that would work fabulously on the soundtrack to a Spike Lee flick. Lots of wah wah, rubberband bass, and bad mother grooves to be found here.
Moment of Conversion: I cannot believe it myself, but yep, it's the synth.
94 BLACK MARKET BRASS / "Chemical Plant Zone"
Blurb: Black Market Brass is likely the best band on Colemine Records, the best soul label in America right now. They seem poised to push the boundaries of their Afrobeat sound without losing what made them great in the first place. "Chemical Plant Zone" proves them more than able of doing just about anything and everything. Even the title of this single implies some lab experiments are underway and some new chemical reactions are on the horizon.
Moment of Conversion: Coconut rhythm.
93 TRAPPER SCHOEPP / "May Day"
Blurb: Tucked up and out of the way in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is Trapper Schoepp, a smart, clever songwriter with a turn-of-phrase similar to the Old 97's Rhett Miller. An equally good name, too. May Day was a hidden gem worth discovering this year and the title track is all you'll need to sway you to his way of singing.
Moment of Conversion: The way the lyrics seem to fall into each other effortlessly.
92 THE CONNELLS / "Steadman's Wake"
Blurb: Was it a funeral for a mutual friend that brought the Connell's back together after twenty years apart? Even if not the case, that would make a good storyline. I had guarded optimism when I heard of the reunion, but was rewarded with more than I expected. They've lived a lot since we last heard from them and on this song they mournfully take on the opioid crisis, war, and racism in three succinct verses. They've got a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully, after all these years, even their troubled conscience sounds jangle-pop.
Moment of Conversion: Mournful "well, well, oh well" underneath the main lyrics. Almost like they don't know they're doing it.
91 TOMMY RAY! / "One Step Forward"
Blurb: "One Step Forward" is as good a single as any from Tommy's Handful of Hits, which is cheekily titled like a greatest-hits album and actually delivers on that promise. The power-pop here is old school, fast, frenetic, and sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. What more could the fan with a sweet tooth want?
Moment of Conversion: Tommy Ray! of course.
90 CHRIS PIERCE / "American Silence"
Blurb: There have been a lot of good songs capturing the BLM movement in the past two years, but I'm not sure there's one that cuts to the bone in a more simple fashion than soulful folk singer Chris Pierce's "American Silence." I won't explain it to you, but it hits hard. if you watch just one video on this mixtape, make it this one.
Moment of Conversion: "American silence is a crime."
89 SELF ESTEEM / "I Do This All the Time"
Blurb: A little life perspective spoken by a wise and empathetic friend. In a good year for spoken-word songs, this one was perhaps the most touching and inspiring.
Moment of Conversion: Getting married isn't the biggest day of your life / All the days that you get to have are big.
88 DEL AMITRI / "Close Your Eyes and Think of England"
Blurb: As it turns out, this is not a stirring anthem about "England's green and pleasant land" as I had hoped. As it turns out, the title's origin was taken from advice given to women forced to suffer through unwanted sexual advances by powerful men back in early-1900s England. In other words, take one for the team, ladies, and just get through it. Perhaps you can think of something pleasant until it's over. Seriously, this is how they thought back in the day. And let's face it, not that much has changed since then. Which is where Del Amitri's Justin Currie comes into the picture. Here, he does his part to set a new narrative where the perpetrators of such acts actually have consequences for their actions retroactively.
Moment of Conversion: When I started to understand what the song was really about.
87 ST. VINCENT / "The Melting of the Sun"
Blurb: I wasn't in love with St. Vincent's latest, but there were moments of brilliance, like this spaced-out Flaming Lips-esque symphony.
Moment of Conversion: Backing vocals
86 ORLA GARTLAND / "Codependency"
Blurb: Dublin's Orla Gartland (said properly, it should sound like a plugged drain suddenly opening up) is in need of some therapy, that's for sure. Her excellent new record, Woman on the Internet, is basically one long struggle for some kind of emotional freedom—"Codependency" being one of the more pronounced couch-worthy issues on the menu. Amazingly, the record doesn't bore, nor does it wallow. Instead, it's deceptively upbeat musically and at times it positively rocks. If this is the sound of problems being worked through, maybe I've been missing out on my own version of psychological catharsis.
Moment of Conversion: The power crunch that accompanies the realization that she's the problem with you. I mean, if you're gonna be the problem, you may as well do it to a killer riff.
85 BONES OWENS / "Lightning Strike"
Blurb: Bones' real name is Caleb, he's from Missouri, and he's not a "hat act" despite the fact that he often is seen wearing one. He's more of a Southern rocker in reality, one that gives zero fucks about his appearance or your expectations. This is a guy, loaded with tattoos and rock n' roll attitude, who clearly relishes that moment when it's time to plug his guitar into a cranked amplifier. The big question now is what happens next. That single moment of anticipation doesn't always translate to a bona-fide thrill. But here, thank God almighty, it does. And the appropriately titled "Lightning Strike" is what we get in the deal.
Moment of Conversion: It had me from the opening whoops.
84 WILLIE NILE / "The Justice Bell (For John Lewis)"
Blurb: The rousing "The Justice Bell (For John Lewis)" is an anthem of equality by a old, scrawny New York white guy and its stirring and convincing, carried by a wordless chorus that puts chills down my spine every time I hear it.
Moment of Conversion: The arm-locking chorus.
83 TONY JOE WHITE / "Scary Stories"
Blurb: "Scary Stories" is a near-perfect demonstration of the late Tony Joe White's song crafting skills, most notably his ability to convey worlds of information and feeling with just a few perfectly-chosen words. His death a couple years ago was a big loss. On this posthumously released track, he puts you right in front of a warm fire in an old house on a stormy night, ghost stories being traded to capitalize on the already creepy vibe. Before long, the stories bring paranoia in the form of tapping on windowpanes and scratching on doors. He makes you feel like you're right there with them.
Moment of Conversion: Near the end, the fun turns to fright: "I heard somebody whisper / Please don't tell that one again." What a brilliant ending to a remarkable song.
82 ARAB STRAP / "The Turning of Our Bones"
Blurb: Imagine if Leonard Cohen was from Scotland and you're close to approximating the feel of this spoken word track from the 16-years dormant rock band. Some great lyrics throughout, carried off with just the right amount of menacing swagger. You want it darker, you say?
Moment of Conversion: The perfect first line for a comeback record: I don't give a fuck about the past / Our glory days gone by.
81 HELADO NEGRO / "Wind Conversation"
Blurb: Helado Negro created his own dreamlike world on this new album, Far In. And this cut, unfairly separated from its spiritual brethren, demonstrates his atmospheric magic in a nutshell. Prepare to go deep, but please give it time to get there.
Moment of Conversion: And all the whi-ile...
80 ISRAEL NASH / "Sutherland Springs"
Blurb: This track is a heavy one, about the Sutherland Springs church shootings that left 26 dead in 2017. It's a simple song that's also honest—nothing can be said or sung that will ease the pain of the tragedy even years later. He sounds like Neil Young on this song, which makes sense. He had the same talent for boiling major events down to the most basic huan elements.
Moment of Conversion: Mournful steel guitar weeps and so does everyone listening.
79 JASON RINGENBERG / "I Rode With Crazy Horse"
Blurb: Jason Ringenberg autographed a copy of his new CD, Rhinestoned, for me this year. He wrote, "History is Now" and his name. An interesting sentiment from a guy who has two great historical songs on his new album, one about the Freedom Riders (mostly white anti-segregation protesters from 1961) and the other about Crazy Horse, the legendary Native American warrior. But I get it. History is always now. And we have the chance to craft the storyline. It doesn't mean we can't pull from the past. This tale, told by the wing man of Crazy Horse, is an appropriately epic track that does belated justice to the Lakota icon.
Moment of Conversion: When Jason proves he can still rock like he did back in the days when he and the Scorchers were opening for the Ramones. He has the same fire now as he did then.
MIXTAPE #3: SONGS 78-53
78 DAWN RICHARD / "Boomerang"
Blurb: I'm always down for another "Boom Boom" song for my growing collection. Rock & roll is all about the "boom boom" and always will be. Here's further proof.
Moment of Conversion: When even I am tempted to head out to a dance club to hear it on the big house speakers. Where it will sound spectacular undoubtedly.
77 LIZ PHAIR / "Spanish Doors"
Blurb: "Spanish Doors," the first single from Liz Phair's Soberish is proof that she's still go it. It captures the old magic we all knew was hiding somewhere. I'll always love catchy songs about heartbreak and sadness ("I don't wanna talk about it / Cause talkin' bout it makes me sad") and few have the ability to bring both to the table quite like Liz.
Moment of Conversion: Overlapping vocal tracks in the chorus.
76 NICK WATERHOUSE / "To Tell"
Blurb: Nick Waterhouse is a throwback to say the least. He loves that early rock & roll sound, but somehow makes it sound fresh again (much like the great JD McPherson). There are brand new old classics all over his new album and he'd be a blast to see live. "To Tell" sounds like a lost Coasters song, which is a high compliment.
Moment of Conversion: Well, well, well, well....
75 LA FEMME / "Paradigme"
Blurb: From a French band who never settles on one sound for more than a single song comes this big band affair that will makes you think Moulin Rouge circa the 1920s.
Moment of Conversion: The slow entry into the Paris club where the band is playing.
74 MASTODON / "Pain With An Anchor"
Blurb: The new Mastodon record came to me late in 2021, but it is an absolutely massive beast. Why would you expect anything else from a band with this name? The opening moments are chest-caving in the best way, and is the winner of this year's "Your Annual Ass Kicking" Award. More coveted than a fucking Grammy, that's for sure.
Moment of Conversion: Drum intro or motorcycle engine? Both?
73 TOM JONES / "Talking Reality Television Blues"
Blurb: If Tom Jones knows one thing, it's how to own a song, no matter what it is. Even a song written just a couple years ago by Todd Snider, the granola Nashville oddball responsible for this spoken word manifesto. It's, as advertised, a "talkin' blues" about television's role in forming the American experience. It take us from "video killing the radio star" to "Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles!" to "One small step for a man..." to "I want my MTV" and ends with a "man with a comb-over" hosting The Apprentice, and I bet you can see where this tale is heading. It's a brilliant song reinvented by the versatile Jones. His voice was made to tell stories to music, and here he does so like a wise old owl speaking over a bed of ominous sounding guitars. It's a harrowing tale, but one that you'll want to hear again and again.
Moment of Conversion: Perfect phrasing and the ultimate leather voice to go with it.
72 J. COLE / "the.climb.back"
Blurb: Undoubtedly, one of the best mainstream rappers out there—he makes Drake sound anemic in comparison--J. Cole packs more into this cut than he really should, but still pulls it off. A little boasting of course, which soon devolves into that helpless feeling of seeing his people turn to drugs and guns and murder each other instead of finding an alternate survival method.
Moment of Conversion: The end, when Cole calls for a number, similar to the suicide hotline, for troubled youths to call "whenever there's an urge to get triggers involved."
71 LANA DEL REY / "Let Me Love You Like a Woman"
Blurb: "Let Me Love You Like a Woman" is the pick for this mixtape because the idea of her holding me "like a baby" is simply too enticing to pass up. She's going to have her hands full of baby with me, but my guess is she can more than handle the job.
Moment of Conversion: Redacted by censors.
70 HERE LIES MAN / "I Wander"
Blurb: If you were remotely tempted to try out this band based on our Top 50 Albums list, perhaps you landed on this killer slab of guitar riffs, Afrobeat drumming, and chanted vocals. If this was the sound of a cult, I'd be a member by now.
Moment of Conversion: The riffs and the drums, of course.
69 NEIGHBORHOOD BRATS / "Who Took the Rain"
Blurb: I was enjoying this freaky fast punk gem when I overheard a lyric that made me do a double-take: All the birds flew away today / And the skies, they are in flames. I love when a track that doesn't have to say anything to be great still manages to do just that.
Moment of Conversion: Tommy-gun drums.
68 ILLUMINATI HOTTIES / "Pool Hopping"
Blurb: I was all set to put the borderline insanity of "Mmmoooaaaaayaya" in this spot when this goofy summer single came out and brought back some harmless teenage hijinks with it.
Moment of Conversion: You're twisted like an ampersand
67 DOMINIQUE FILS-AIMÉ / "Being the Same"
Blurb: In the process of working through Dominique's ambitious new album, which pivots often into a completely different style, you can forget tracks like this one since they are relatively simple and peaceful, but I've been stuck on it for a long while now. It seems to be a love song, but there also seems to be an undertone of doom. Or am I reading into it too much?
Moment of Conversion: Shift in tone at 1:33
66 ARLO PARKS / "Hurt"
Blurb: Arlo makes super cool, neo-soul music with a slyly seductive groove, almost like Lily Allen and Sade blended together in a five-thousand dollar espresso machine. But guess what? It's the perfect way to just let the day's troubles drift away for a little while.
Moment of Conversion: Pitter-patter beat.
65 THE LIMIÑANAS & LAURENT GARNIER / "Saul"
Blurb: Cool, detached French vocals (are there any other kind?) drift through this introduction to the story of Saul & Juliette in a movie soundtrack to a movie that hasn't been made yet. Surely there's a restless auteur waiting for inspiration in a Paris cafe somewhere.
Moment of Conversion: After an eerie beginning, when the groove kicks in at 0:16.
64 ELIZABETH KING / "Living in the Last Days"
Blurb: When 77-year-old gospel singer Elizabeth King sings about humanity living in its last days it sure sounds like she knows something we don't. What do you know Liz!?
Moment of Conversion: Seriously, tell us what you know, Liz!
63 WET LEG / "Chaise Longue"
Blurb: Not one to get caught up in a novelty, even I was powerless to resist this blasé tribute to lounging around all day doing nothing. I don't normally advocate watching the video of any song, but it's right here for the taking. Just click on it. You know you want to watch it again.
Moment of Conversion: You didn't have to ask, the answer is always yes: Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?
62 DRY CLEANING / "Scratchcard Lanyard"
Blurb: "It's OK / I just need to be weird and hide for a bit." That one lyric from "Scratchcard Lanyard" kind of sums up London's Dry Cleaning for me. They're willfully weird and abstract, mixing instrumental post-punk with spoken poetry-slam lyrics delivered by the perpetually disaffected Florence Shaw. It's a too-cool-for-you combination that is best taken in smaller doses rather than in its entirety (it can be a little much in one sitting). So if four minutes of non sequiturs about making ceramic shoes and women in aviators firing bazookas appeals to you, you're in the right place.
Moment of Conversion: The link between all the nonsense appears to be the oft-repeated phrase, "Do everything, feel nothing."
61 KILLER KIN / "Narrow Mind"
Blurb: A love a good old double-A-sided single. The Kin dropped the swaggering "Sonic Love" on the main side this year, with "Narrow Mind" populating the back side. But we all know the back side, lost and forbidden territory for some, can be even more fun. And so it is here. "Narrow Mind" just seems nastier and more violent.
Moment of Conversion: Wailing like a hyena is never a bad thing.
60 HEDVIG MOLLESTAD TRIO / "Gimbal"
Blurb: This is what a Hedvig Mollestad should sound like. An adventurous combination of jazz and rock, thrillingly complex. capable of devastation at a moments notice.
Moment of Conversion: The opening 18 seconds of ominous riffery.
59 LA MARISOUL / "Detonantes (Little Triggers)"
Blurb: From the reissue of Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, the same album done in Spanish. An inspired idea with lots of great tracks. I love this version of "Little Triggers" by La Santa Cecilia lead singer La Marisoul, one of my favorite vocalists on the planet. She takes the familiar and makes it completely fresh again.
Moment of Conversion: Just listening to a singer own a song.
58 TEKE::TEKE / "Yoru Ni"
Blurb: I didn't get too far beyond "Montreal-based Japanese psych-punk band" before I was scrambling—more like begging—to cough up my money to make it mine. And it's everything I hoped it would be and more. Each track on the band's debut album, Shirushi, is like being randomly dropped into a pivotal scene from a Tarantino film, perhaps for a showdown with the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad or for a frantic car ride with Mr. Blonde and Mr. Pink. "Yoru Ni" is like surfing on a tsunami right into a nuclear meltdown with an AK47 strapped across your chest. Totally preposterous, totally thrilling.
Moment of Conversion: The first 30-seconds: from surf to spy to karate.
57 FAYE WEBSTER / "Better Distractions"
Blurb: "Better Distractions" is a subtle heartbreaker with a nifty little chorus that sidles up next to you while you're eating a tub of ice cream and smoking a cigarette on the fire escape watching other people living their lives.
Moment of Conversion: How she pronounces words just a little bit differently than the rest of us.
56 CASSANDRA JENKINS / "Hard Drive"
Blurb: The concept behind this song appeals to me. The mind is a hard drive constantly adding input from diverse sources. Since that is inarguably the case, it makes sense to curate that data input somehow and discourage system overload and harmful malware. Hence, throughout the song, Cassandra Jenkins recounts, in zen-like spoken word fashion, human interactions that have elevated her spiritual connection with nature. You can buy off-the-shelf software to clean your computer, but what can you use to declutter your mind? Therapy is the obvious answer. Maybe a life coach even. A spirit guide? While you're deciding, this song is a good place to start.
Moment of Conversion: A security guard stopped me to give me an overview on phenomenal nature... Clearly I've been engaging with the wrong people. I get nothing but vegetables staring into space, hoping the Van Gogh doesn't get razored on their watch.
55 LITTLE SIMZ / "Standing Ovation"
Blurb: You don't hear the phrase sitting ovation very often, but Little Simz' new record doesn't need to worry about that. It's the living embodiment of a standing ovation. Even if she isn't asking for it (and she's not). In fact, she rebels against society's craving for attention. But when you have her talent good luck fending one off. This song is an explosion of creativity that demands the most enthusiastic response possible.
Moment of Conversion: Near the end she earns the title with rapid fire vocal dexterity.
54 PEARL CHARLES / "Only For Tonight"
Blurb: The ABBA reunion album could've used a song as perfect as "Only For Tonight." What a missed opportunity.
Moment of Conversion: The little funky breakdown at 3:25
53 TOO MUCH JOY / "Uncle Watson Wants to Think"
Blurb: "Uncle Watson Wants to Think" is a disturbing tale told in a humorous way. It's about divorce, mom's new beau, and his toxic personality, which basically taints the existence all he comes into contact with. Like a virus. And you know Uncle Watson is a Trump-loving anti-vaxxer, too.
Moment of Conversion: Lyrics that recall the Ass Ponys in a good way.
CONTINUE TO SONGS #52 TO #1
For songs 52 to 1 please see link above. Please do so in an orderly and violent fashion.
Note: This list was verified and triple-checked by PH Certified Public Accounting, a world-renowned accounting firm, whose motto, "It All Adds Up!", gives us comfort knowing the ranking of song choices, and the logic behind them, are airtight. That said, their explanation for skipping the standard double-check and moving straight to the triple-check is dubious and defies common sense. But I'll let it go because their owner has an honest mug on him.