2021 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our Annual Mixtapes Ft. Our Favorites Songs of the Year, Pt. 2 (Songs 52-01)
Our final two mixtapes count down our Top 52 songs of 2021 on two 26-song mixtapes, 13 songs per side. It's almost like they're real.
MIXTAPE #2: SONGS 52-27
52 DEAN WAREHAM / "The Past is Our Plaything"
Blurb: Without this song, I don't know if I give Dean all of my ears this year (the usual two, I don't want to mislead you otherwise). It's the perfect laid-back vocal from the master of the dream pop genre, but it's also clever and engaging. You will not drift off listening, you will lean in to hear more.
Moment of Conversion: The intriguing first line, novelistic in execution, is what made me want to buy the record: "I have nothing to say to the Mayor of L.A...."
51 VIAGRA BOYS / "Boys & Girls"
Blurb: Here, singer Sebastian Murphy takes the sentiment of Blur's "Girls & Boys" and finds its dark heart, "This fucked up world keeps spinning 'round / One day I will burn it down."
Moment of Conversion: When things get too deep and despairing, Murphy transforms into Stockholm's answer to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, spitting demon-like gibberish where insights should rightly be. Sometimes there are no words.
50 NAKED RAYGUN / "Suicide Bomb"
Blurb: Lots of highlights on Naked Raygun's amazing comeback album, but I was immediately drawn to "Suicide Bomb" because it doesn't sound like anything else they've ever done, but it still sounds like they're the coolest band in town. And the message is clear: I'm not going to contribute to your downfall. I'm not going to be your way out.
Moment of Conversion: The bombs detonate at 0:35 and 1:56 and 2:26.
49 JESSE MALIN / "State of the Art"
Blurb: Nobody does this kind of genuine Tom Petty-ish mid-tempo rock anymore, not even Tom Petty, sadly, but Jesse Malin does and he's doing it with remarkably consistent quality lately. His new double album, Sad and Beautiful World, would've been better as a single edited LP, but no matter, we still got this song about trying to live your life in an elevated state. Or if that fails, getting as close as you can.
Moment of Conversion: The concept. Each of us should evolve as we move though this world, realizing and correcting our mistakes as we go.
48 ABBIE OZARD / "True Romance"
Blurb: Abbie Ozard's songs reflect the trials and tribulations of the typical young girl, but it's her instantly memorable choruses that make them stand out from the crowd. She has a natural gift for instantly bringing a song to life with the flick of a switch—your job is to wait for the lights to come on.
Moment of Conversion: Confidence in the song. It has a great chorus, but you aren't beaten over the head with it like so many others these days.
47 CELESTE / "Love is Back"
Blurb: Celeste's amazing new album, Not Your Muse, deserved better this year (from me, too), but she still won over a lot of new fans. She's a versatile vocalist with a great presence and you should hear more from her in the near future. And if you've been going through an Amy Winehouse withdrawal, "Love Is Back" is just what you need.
Moment of Conversion: The first twelve seconds is all she needs to lock you up for the rest of the song.
46 SOPHIA KENNEDY / "Orange Tic Tac"
Blurb: Like all Sophia creations, "Orange Tic Tac" is wildly inventive, combining traces of hip-hop, some broadway crooning, a little electronic ambiance, and some musical allspice, too. She's the everything bagel in a pile of plain ones. Her world is never anything less than more interesting than yours.
Moment of Conversion: The title, sadly not referenced in the lyrics, is what got me to listen to the song.
45 THE ALLERGIES / "Move On Baby"
Blurb: This Allergies single plops a soul vocal sample on top of a deep Latin groove, adds in some drums and horns, and somehow exceeds the sum of its parts. "Move On Baby" sounds like one of those deep cuts only crate-digging DJs know about.
Moment of Conversion: There's nary a second wasted, but I love the whistle (or what I think is one) blown throughout the song, like there's a referee on the dancefloor busting people for not shaking it hard enough.
44 ORQUESTRA AKOKÁN / "Mi Conga Es De Akokán"
Blurb: This is the sound of a nightspot you're going to want to be at if you ever find out where it is. The good news is that wherever you hear this Cuban conga playing you'll be transported to a table right right next to the dancefloor. So get out there already.
Moment of Conversion: The way it starts like an old ABC detective thriller for the first 15 seconds only to turn into an exotic caper unfolding on the streets of Havana moments later.
43 THE FELICE BROTHERS / "Jazz on the Autobahn"
Blurb: I don't know if this surrealistic debate over what the apocalypse with be like is disturbing or pacifying, but there's been no song quite like this to date, which is reason enough for pressing on. The Felice Brothers put out a record called From Dreams to Dust this year, and it lives up to the title, complete with musical bucket list, the singer's eulogy (very funny), and his own reincarnation. Great title, too.
Moment of Conversion: Little tossed off lines of brilliance like "She said this is what the apocalypse will look like / A tornado with human eyes"
42 JAPANESE BREAKFAST / "Be Sweet"
Blurb: There's no denying that Michelle Zauner is having a moment right now. She's got a hit album (Jubilee), a successful book (Crying in H Mart), and a smash single ("Be Sweet") that sounds to me like it has been written countless times already, but actually hasn't. That's the mark of an indelible pop song.
Moment of Conversion: Sometimes it's easy: the chorus of course.
41 CARSIE BLANTON / "Be Good"
Blurb: "Be Good" is the catchiest depressing song I've heard in a long time. It'll make you feel ashamed of our collective humanity, or lack thereof, which often demonizes and aborts those advocating for tolerance and empathy, but it'll also make you sing along with its hopeful, simplistic chorus as well. Could the answer really be this easy?
Moment of Conversion: Sweetly executed, but razor sharp.
40 THE CITY CHAMPS / "Freddie King for Now"
Blurb: This song is the fuel the Pickled Priest runs on. Classic Memphis instrumental soul that understands Albert King also recorded for Stax, that B.B. King first took to the airwaves in Memphis, and that Freddie King, the third of vaunted "The Three Kings," shouldn't play third guitar to anyone.
Moment of Conversion: When the blues meets the groove.
39 CAMILA CABELLO / "Don't Go Yet"
Blurb: I don't love to a ton of modern pop songs, but when I do, they often have a Latin rhythm. This song sounds like how life should be. The party and, ahem, other things should never end. And don't go telling me you have an early flight in the morning.
Moment of Conversion: Delirious chorus like you're at the best wedding reception ever and nobody wants to go home.
38 STIFF RICHARDS / "State of Mind"
Blurb: Stiff Richards is a band almost always on the brink of losing it. In one song, they're looking for a logical "Point of View," in another their brain is "Going Numb," and elsewhere that same brain it outright missing ("Fill in the Blanks"). At least in "State of Mind" there's the hope for some kind of reliable perspective. You have to have a mind to have a state of mind. That's how it works. But, if you're going to lose you mind, there are few better bands to do it with than Stiff Richards.
Moment of Conversion: "Helter Skelter" opening riff.
37 SONS OF KEMET / "Pick Up Your Burning Cross"
Blurb: Taking the incredible rhythms they're known for and inviting some guest vocalists for several tracks was another way for bandleader Shabaka Hutchings to keep his Sons of Kemet project both evolving and pushing boundaries. This may be the best example on the record of everything coming together seamlessly. The powerful and timely "Pick Up Your Burning Cross" brings in up-and-coming Chicago-based force of nature Angel Bat Dawid and Philadelphia's Moor Mother together for a prime slab of undulating afro-funk.
Moment of Conversion: Angel Bat Dawid's cameo is fabulous, but it always comes down to Shabaka's sax.
36 VALERIE JUNE / "Why the Bright Stars Glow"
Blurb: Valerie's songs are showing up everywhere these days, for better or worse (that stupid commercial with the girl who keeps her snowman alive for a year being the worst of all). Hopefully, this one won't be co-opted. It sounded timeless from the first listen and I hope it stays that way.
Moment of Conversion: A beautiful song. Also check out the alternate version with Mavis Staples guesting.
35 THE ANTLERS / "Solstice"
Blurb: The Antlers are one of my go-to bands when I need to have my breath taken away. In a good way, that is. They have a way of doing so with a sigh, a moan, an exhale. This is gorgeous music that is inspiring, healing, and moving.
Moment of Conversion: Ohhhh oooohs.
34 EMILY SCOTT ROBINSON / "Let 'Em Burn"
Blurb: If you look for honesty in your music, look no further than this ballad about the sudden realization that you need to abandon everything you thought you had to be in order to get to where you have to go.
Moment of Conversion: The dramatic swell that starts with "I'm on the edge of something wild, I'm on on the edge of something free,,,," You'll be cheering for her to get away.
33 GOAT GIRL / "Sad Cowboy"
Blurb: "Sad Cowboy" sounds like nothing Goat Girl has ever done before and is all the better for it. It has a little rock and roll, adds some synth-pop accents, trots with a countryish gallup at times, and even shimmers off into the sunset at the end like we're about to see the credits roll after an indie sci-fi movie.
Moment of Conversion: When the chug kicks in.
32 YASMIN WILLIAMS / "Sunshowers"
Blurb: It's rare that an instrumental sounds like it will last for ages, but this is one of them.
Moment of Conversion: Tempo change at 1:10 mark is magical.
31 YOLA / "Whatever You Want"
Blurb: "Whatever You Want" wouldn't have sounded out of place onstage at L.A.'s Troubadour club in the early-70s. (Ronstadt would've ripped it off and sold a trillion copies, so maybe it's best it came out in 2021.) When she kicks into high gear near the end of the song, straining the edges of her substantial vocal range, you know it has to be the last song of the night. There's really no following it.
Moment of Conversion: When she absolutely shreds her vocal chords.
30 MDOU MOCTAR / "Chismiten"
Blurb: This is the sound of Saharan rock and roll at its most thrilling, and there may be no cooler sound on the planet when it locks into one of its deep, trance-like grooves. Mdou Moctar's electrifying new album, Afrique Victime, opens with about 15 seconds of ambient sounds, presumably sandals walking across hot sand, before the left-handed, Hendrix-loving Nigerian guitarist plugs in and rips into "Chismiten" for about five glorious minutes. If you saw this in its natural habitat it would blow your numb American mind. Even on record, the heat is palpable.
Moment of Conversion: The gallup with about 90 seconds remaining.
29 JAMES MCMURTRY / "Canola Fields"
Blurb: "Canola Fields" finds McMurtry on top of his craft, telling the story of a long-lost love rekindled by a chance meeting in Brooklyn. (It doesn't hurt that the girl's name is Marie—my wife's name!) The song highlights a very basic human need—the age-agnostic desire to find someone that won't let you go.
Moment of Conversion: Vivid line after vivid line. One example:
In the way-back corner of a cross-town bus
We were hidin' out under my hat
Cashing in on a thirty year crush
You can't be young and do that
You can't be young and do that
28 LADY BLACKBIRD / "It'll Never Happen Again"
Blurb: Lady's take on Tim Hardin's 1966 nugget "It'll Never Happen Again," from his debut record Tim Hardin 1, is one of many jaw-dropping moments on the amazing Black Acid Soul. When I first heard the song, time stopped. It's one of those breathtaking moments that I'll never forget. Every moment, sheer perfection.
Moment of Conversion: The release when Lady enters after the smoky piano intro and you know you're about to hear something shiver inducing. Works every time, too.
27 SPOON / "The Hardest Cut"
Blurb: I don't like putting songs from albums coming out early the following year on my top songs of the year list, but fuck, I've heard it and there's no going back now. This is prime Spoon, a band that already has one of the most rock solid and listenable greatest songs mixtapes of any modern group. Here's yet another classic for the pile.
Moment of Conversion: Handclaps, whenever used, are always the highlight of any song.
MIXTAPE #1: SONGS 26-01
26 JOANNA CONNOR / "Bad News"
"Bad News" is a Luther Allison song, selected for Joanna's amazing new album in tribute to the legendary bluesman who died prematurely at 57. Ushered in and out by bells tolling—a nice AC/DC-esque production touch—and what happens between the bells is truly something special. It's both mournful and uplifting, and embodies everything the blues are all about.
Moment of Conversion: The two-minutes scalding minutes after the piano interlude. Holy crap.
25 LIARS / "My Pulse to Ponder"
Blurb: "My Pulse to Ponder" was plucked from the track list here solely because I love to scream "I'll cut your throat!" repeatedly in the car during its chorus. I think that's enough reason to put the song on a mixtape. I've added songs for less.
Moment of Conversion:
When the newsprint's chopped into a ransom note
They should duly pay it mind
Or I'll cut your throat!
I'LL CUT YOUR THROAT!"
24 IDLES / "The Beachland Ballroom"
Blurb: If you're looking for a rock song that sounds like everything might be literally on the line at that very moment, this is it. Sporting one of the great lyrics of the year, we find Joe Talbot in his darkest hour, standing firm despite needing some kind of intervention: "If you see me down on my knees / Please, do not think that I pray."
Moment of Conversion: Damage! Damage! DAMAGE! DAMAGE!
23 LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM / "On the Wrong Side"
Blurb: Everything that makes Lindsey Buckingham a master pop songwriter is right here. Now if you he could only get some respect from his old band.
Moment of Conversion: The first listen, when Lindsey, at 72 years, sounds like he's still 29.
22 TONY ALLEN / "Mau Mau"
Blurb: "Mau Mau" finds the legendary Allen in prime form, creating beats that sound like nothing I've ever heard from him before. His partner on this track is Nairobi's Nah Eeto (previously unknown to me) and both deliver something approximating a fireside tribal sex ritual, but I could be reading more into it than intended.
Moments of Conversion: As with any Tony Allen track in the past 60 years, the drums.
21 MON LAFERTE / "Good Boy"
Blurb: The best song about being up on the roof since the Drifters' "Up on the Roof."
Moment of Conversion: The atmosphere is perfect for a night of stargazing.
20 TAMAR APHEK / "Crossbow"
Blurb: Now we jet off to Israel for Tamar Aphek's "Crossbow" which approximates an acid trip featuring a drum-pummeling Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt tailing Nadine Shah through a rabbit hole into an illegal nightclub in uptown Jerusalem (recommended name of said club: The Unholy Land).
Moment of Conversion: Just when you've oriented yourself to your exotic surroundings, Aphek bursts in, guitar shards flying, for the last 50-seconds like she's just seen Jimi Hendrix's ghost nailed to a cross in the women's restroom.
19 SLEATER-KINNEY / "Method"
Blurb: I love Corin's wail, of course, but I've always been a huge Carrie fan. Her halting vocal style exudes a natural cool that is not only still intact, but seems to get more confident as she gets older and wiser. "Method" is one of her best vocals in a long career of highlights as she details a laundry list of self-conscious character flaws all conspiring to sink a relationship out at sea. Will the awareness of such "issues" prevent a full-on iceberg hit? Unknown, but unlikely.
Moment of Conversion: Oh, I'm not asking you to smile / You're not a fucking child
18 SHAME / "March Day"
Blurb: You can't get through to an addict, but that doesn't mean you can't write a great rock song about the attempt.
Moment of Conversion: You immediately know what you're dealing with: You said, "Please, get up"
I said, "Can't get up".
17 DAZY / "Crowded Mind (Lemon Lime)"
Blurb: James Goodson is Dazy, a one-man power-pop machine who has been kicking out short, crunchy sweets for a year now. This year we got his first 24 creations bundled together in one cassette (now available on Bandcamp in digital format only). I've included them all here for the hell of it. They're all pretty damn good, but I was immediately drawn to this little miracle which indicates another international pop overthrow could be in the offing!
Moment of Conversion: Here comes the fuzz.
16 THE BLIPS / "Yes Yes No Yes Yes No"
Blurb: Clocking in under two minutes, using a grand total of 14 different words along the way, is this Blips anthem of indecision, "Yes Yes No Yes Yes No." You'll notice that yes gets double time along the way, and don't we all want to live in a "Yes" world, where we are open to all kinds of music, people, and activities? I know I have a problem saying yes a lot of the time, but this song is here to remind me now and then to default to the positive whenever possible. So consider this your new daily affirmation. Say yes to the Blips!
Moment of Greatness: A chorus you can sing along with while you are hearing the song for the first time. How does that even happen?
15 THE TUBS / "Illusion"
Blurb: I love the dopey bounce of "Illusion," with singer Owen Williams giving us the full ennui treatment from the first moments. Somewhere Morrissey is mildly amused, but non-plussed, which is about the highest compliment they could get.
Moment of Conversion: Vibe sold; you'll want to give the singer a hug.
14 TWIN SHADOW / "I Wanna Be Here (Shotgun)"
Blurb: This song makes me want to pack my shit, fill a dumpster with useless material possessions I don't really need, and head South. It's a song about seizing life and witnessing it from the front seat. Everybody likes to call shotgun. Why? Because it's the place to be. No responsibility, feet out the window, wind in your hair, perhaps a joint in hand, not a care in the world, living in the moment. This song is the perfect soundtrack for such moments. Even without all that, it'll take you there in spirit for a few minutes.
Moment of Conversion:
I wanna be here, not dragged down
Raised up, not background
I want to be here, not backseat
13 DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO / "Aces"
Blurb: "Aces" is one of many great moments on the record. I love that it sounds like a lost Stax single that just surfaced through a crack in the McLemore Avenue sidewalk that runs in front of the famed Stax studios. And a warning for listeners: this is a record that must be heard on vinyl on a good stereo system. AirBuds not allowed.
Moment of Conversion: Jimmy James lays down the itchy-chicken groove right from the beginning.
12 BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD / "Instrumental"
Blurb: The opening track on this buzzed-about record is generically titled "Instrumental." When I heard the first five minutes, I knew this was anything but generic. It made me want to get in the car and drive. So I did just that. (We also needed milk, which helped.) Anyway, there's a sensation I get when I hear something that doesn't sound quite like anything else and this band provides it. This track is pure adrenalin.
Moment of Conversion: At 3:15, something mysterious happens and this cinematic piece erupts into a high-stakes spy thriller.
11 NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS / "White Elephant"
Blurb: I cannot wait to hear Nick trot this out in a future live set. I simply have to be close up when he tells us "I'll shoot you in the fucking face if you think about coming around here!" I can't wait. There are few people on the planet who could pull off lyrics like those found on "White Elephant," perhaps nobody else at all. While there is rarely a specific inspiration for any Cave song—they're usually written in some kind of creative fever dream, blurring a vast array of seemingly disconnected imagery into a bizarre unifying whole—this time it seems a touch more overt. I hear a song about the couple in St. Louis who pulled guns on protesters cutting through their neighborhood last year. Could it be partially inspired by real events or am I reading too much into things? And how does a man with "a seahorse on each arm" fit into the storyline? I almost don't want to know. That's what makes his songs so great in the first place.
Moment of Conversion: I'll shoot you all for free if you so much as look at me.
10 AMYL & THE SNIFFERS / "Freaks to the Front"
Blurb: Almost every song on Amyl and the Sniffers new record, Comfort to Me (on Australia’s red-hot Flightless Records), is a snarling rebuke of something or someone, but “Freaks to the Front” stands out as a drop-dead punk classic. Apparently, a direct response to some drunk fan who called her ugly on the streets of London during the band’s last tour, Amy dismisses the soused Brit like the insignificant lout that he is. “If they don’t like you as you are / Just ignore the cunt.” And it’s raining cunts, hallelujah, from that point forward. To put it mildly, Amy is an Aussie who is not afraid to stand up for herself, or anyone else for that matter.
Moment of Conversion: All 101 seconds.
09 CIVIC / "Radiant Eye"
Blurb: I don't know what causes bands from Australia to naturally exude a snarling, bratty attitude, but whatever it is, it just works for me. Civic is yet another rising band from Melbourne (home of Amyl & the Sniffers as well) signed to the seemingly infallible Flightless Records. "Radiant Eye" is just the tip of this album's iceberg, favorably recalling the epic early singles of peak-period Radio Birdman and the Saints in the process. The record has at least five songs that could soon be downunderground classics, but this song may forever be the band's signature.
Moment of Conversion: Saints-like horns!
08 DUCKS LTD. / "18 Cigarettes"
Blurb: From Toronto, Ducks Ltd. bring back the glory days of melancholy 80s pop (Clean, Chameleons, Chills, etc), complete with requisite jangle and wistful choruses. This stands with the classics of the form.
Moment of Conversion: When the falsetto kicks in.
07 PIST IDIOTS / "Juliette"
Blurb: Pist Idiots are a great "rock & roll team" (to quote their t-shirts) from Australia with a singer who perpetually sounds down on his luck or possibly hungover, but Jack Sniff is a guy with a big heart worn right on his sleeve, so he's easy to cheer for. Yeah, Juliette, he might be a mess, but how can you turn your back on him? We can't.
Moment of Conversion: The pub-worthy chorus sounds triumphant. Like if we all join in and sing loud and passionate enough Juliette might just come back.
06 CLAUD / "Guard Down"
Blurb: Famously this suburban Chicago bedroom pop singer was the first signed to Phoebe Bridgers vanity label, Saddest Factory. This song doesn't sound manufactured in such a factory, even though it has its share of inherent melancholy. The chorus warns all not to let down your defenses, because love could get in. But it really sounds like she's about to let her guard down despite her own warnings.
Moment of Conversion: There's nothin' like a New York summer...
05 RODRIGO AMARANTE / "Maré"
Blurb: Rodrigo Amarante's music is the natural extension of his positive life philosophy. It clarifies everything even though I can't understand a word of it. As I was playing "Maré" again this afternoon while walking my dog, I felt like I was the best version of myself. I was hearing every rhythm, every pitter-patter, every instrument. I was swept up in a vocal I couldn't even understand, My ears were having the time of their lives.
Moment of Conversion: Irresistible from the opening whistle.
04 BLACK MIDI / "John L"
Blurb: What are you going to do for an encore when your first record blows the doors off people's already lofty expectations? Here's your answer. You push beyond reasonable expectations into areas nobody had thought to expect at all.
Moment of Conversion: The feeling of not knowing what the fuck is happening.
03 MAXIMO PARK FT. PAULINE MURRAY / "Ardour"
Blurb: So many great moments on Nature Always Wins but "Ardour" won my heart mainly because it heralds the return of British punk singer Pauline Murray from the band Penetration, whose 1977 single "Don't Dictate" has long been a Pickled Priest favorite. She's 63 now, but sounds almost exactly like she did in the 70s, and her voice blends perfectly with Maxïmo frontman Paul Smith on this devilishly catchy track that asks a very important question, "If I become the joke / Can I still deliver the punchline?" Pauline's wise answer? "It's easier said than done."
Moment of Conversion: Pauline's cameo, of course.
02 SLEAFORD MODS FT. BILLY NOMATES / "Mork n Mindy"
Blurb: "Mork n Mindy" is a funny take on what it's like growing up on a cul-de-sac in a suburb of London (also a very American concept). It may boring and predictable, but it's all you know. So you find ways to have fun, especially when you're a little bloke with raging hormones. And if that means forcing your Mork & Mindy dolls to get it on with Action Man and Sindy (the British G.I. Joe and Barbie, or so I gather) that's your prerogative. Sounds like one out of this world orgy (Shazbot!), so why not? To mix things up, the Mods tapped up-and-coming British singer Billy Nomates to add a killer guest vocal, which takes the song from very good to great in an instant.
Moment of Conversion: Nomates is the perfect break in the cockney action.
01 PARQUET COURTS / "Walking at a Downtown Pace"
Blurb: As I wrote last week in my selection of Parquet Courts' Sympathy for Life as our favorite record of the year, a downtown pace is a state of mind for each individual. I also mentioned that my downtown pace is conveniently calibrated to the beat of this song. If I'm walking at the same pace, I know I'm cool, confident, streetwise, and funky. At least for a few minutes at least. The great songs can elevate you and this is one of them.
Moment of Conversion: Isn't it obvious? The downtown pace.
One more post left for 2021. Be good to the people. Be sweet to the people. Let your guard down. Smoke 18 cigarettes. I don't give a fuck what you do, to be honest, just keep tuning in.