As was the case in 2020, the race for album of the year in 2021 was all but over early in the year: The Weather Station's Ignorance is every bit the generational masterpiece Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters was. I've already written about that album and many of its most brilliant tracks ("Heart" is unquestionably my favorite song of the year), so those won't feature here. What will? Hopefully a fairly good cross-section of great songs, spanning a solid cross-section of genres (though I haven't really kept up with much in the way of metal this year, I'll admit).
I only found the mental energy to write about 10, but here's a dozen more honorable mentions just for the hell of it: Little Simz - "Introvert"; Japanese Breakfast - "Slide Tackle"; Iceage - "Gold City"; Low - "White Horses"; Snail Mail - "Automate"; Julien Baker - "Hardline"; serpentwithfeet - "Fellowship"; Wolf Alice - "No Hard Feelings"; MUNA - "Silk Chiffon"; Indigo De Souza - "Hold U"; Cassandra Jenkins - "Hailey"; Jessie Ware - "Please"
Yasmin Williams - "Sunshowers"
My favorite new-to-me artist of the year, Yasmin Williams pens instrumental guitar compositions whose intricacies never overwhelm their melodic sensibilities. Take this stunning opener to her second album, Urban Driftwood, which opens with a series of lovely two-note figures before gradually adding layers of complexity to both the arrangement and the melodic lines. And that's just the first third of the song, which then shifts into its main theme—an expansive and dexterously-performed thing on which Williams offers countless little variations. But the greatest moment of magic happens a little over three minutes into the song, when she introduces a brand-new melody that flows blissfully out of that theme, sending it soaring toward its peak (just once, no more) before returning to her most prominent musical idea for another 50 seconds or so of gorgeous playing.
Lucy Dacus - "Triple Dog Dare"
When the Lucy Dacus song is over six minutes long, you know it's about to get real.
Home Video is only Dacus' third album, which makes it remarkable that the above statement has already become something close to an incontrovertible truth. It's also true of essentially all her other songs, of course, but the handful of epics she's penned on those three albums all rank among her best compositions. "Triple Dog Dare" perhaps can't match the build-up and cathartic release of Historian's two greatest masterpieces ("Night Shift" and "Pillar of Truth"), but it still builds breathtakingly. Its lyrics, meanwhile, are the finest example of what she does so well on this album—if Historian was in part about Dacus thinking about her own songwriting, Home Video seems to me about applying that songwriter's eye to events in her own past. In the case of this particular song, the result is a portrait of queer desire whose details—like the guy at the counter who she describes as being unable to stop looking at her friend before noting "I'm sure I look the same"—are drawn with remarkable specificity and texture.
Dave - "In the Fire"
Dave's rapping skills are some of the very best out there right now; pick any song at random off We're All Alone in This Together and the virtuosic, impactful wordplay (with its many layers of meaning) is all but certain to astound. For the best track off the album, though, he turns much of the song over to a series of fellow artists from the UK rap scene—Fredo, Meekz, Giggs, and Ghetts—whose flow rivals (or even exceeds) his own. Over the course of five verses and over seven minutes, they delve into what being "in the fire" means to each of them, dropping piercing observations over a lush, gospel-infused series of beats. It's often heavy stuff, obviously, but the way each individual artist's thoughts dovetail into the next makes it a triumph of collective storytelling.
Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen - "Like I Used To"
"Like I Used To" is a damn great song—full of concise, emotionally evocative lyrics and built around an absolutely killer melody—and would be no matter who was singing it. That it's a collaboration between two of the greatest voices in indie rock music right now, however . . . yeah, that makes it altogether more special. Their separate solos on the verses are great, but the real magic happens on the bridge and chorus, when they combine to give the song's sentiments a sense of full-throated nostalgic sweep and grandeur unmatched by anything else I've heard this year.
Ryan Ruocco - "Vandersloot Stops, Fades, and Hits!"
Spoken word pieces don't always get the level of respect they deserve, but at their best they can achieve every bit as much beauty as a more conventional song. Such is the case with Ryan Ruocco's short but dazzling achievement here. The man is unaware he is making a transcendent work of art, of course. In his mind, he is simply calling a basketball game. And yet as his voice calls out what is happening on the court, you can sense the souls of Chicago Sky fans (living and dead alike) given collective voice. Our years of dashed hopes. Our knowledge that, with a two-point lead in this moment, if we fail to score here we will surely find a way to lose this game in the closing seconds. And finally our sheer exhilaration when one of the best guards to ever play this game makes a move and a shot that will (after a subsequent Phoenix miss on the other end) all but seal the team's first title. The entire emotional range of sports fandom summed up in under 30 seconds. Is this what one of the great poets or balladeers of long ago would sound like if they had lived in the age of basketball? I like to think so.
Laura Stevenson - "Continental Divide"
Though she's vague on the details (rightfully so, as they're not hers to share), Laura Stevenson has been open about parts of her terrific self-titled album being about helping someone close to her through some sort of traumatic incident. You can hear some of that during "Continental Divide" amid the song's warm, twangy Americana. You can also hear climate change (and specifically a soon-to-be parent's perspective on it) in the way she returns to the song's chorus toward the end to infuse it with the same level of existential pathos observed across that Weather Station album. "What could I do right to keep you safe all of your life? / To keep the waves from rising higher than the cities in their sights?" she sings, all too aware that she doesn't have the answers for any of the things that are affecting the people she cares about.
Chvrches - "Final Girl"
Love is Dead is not as bad an album as it seemed to me at the time, but it was still an enormous letdown for a band that, prior to that moment, I might've called my favorite pop artist in the world. Follow-up Screen Violence offered early signs that it would be something of a return to form (particularly in its second single, which saw the band collaborate with The Cure's Robert Smith on a churning, brooding track that managed to sound like the best of both artists' work), but it's the album songs that really reaffirmed Chvrches were back on track. "Final Girl" is the best of the bunch, featuring a propulsive verse hook from that gives way to a chorus that's thrillingly Cocteau Twins-esque in how its crystalline melody unfolds over swirling guitars. If Lauren Mayberry was indeed seriously thinking about quitting the band (as she sings here), the results here should make us all thankful she didn't.
Flock of Dimes - "Walking"
On Head of Roses, Jenn Wasner delivered probably the finest set of songs she's ever written (yes, better even than her many storied albums with Wye Oak). It was between this one and "Awake for the Sunrise" for me, but I'll give "Walking" the narrow edge even if they share basically all the same strengths: namely, beguiling mid-tempo folk-rock melodies and some of Wasner's most straightforward yet still sophisticated lyricism. (That third verse . . . damn.) Much of this album is a far cry from the Civilian-era songs that rocketed her to a certain level of indie music fame around a decade ago, but of course this is the songwriter who followed up those songs with one of the most successful sonic pivots (Shriek) in recent musical history. This one isn't nearly as startling (most of it feels like a natural extension of the first Flock of Dimes record) but it's another reminder of her immense range and talent.
The War on Drugs - "Victim"
The War on Drugs understand that when it comes to rock music, sometimes all you need is one great thing, and then the rest of the song is gravy. In the case of "Victim" the thing in question is that hypnotically danceable opening groove, which is omnipresent for the duration of the track. Everything else that happens in the song—every perfectly placed synth, guitar, vocal, and other element Adam Granduciel and company add to the soundscape—feels like it's there to provide ornamentation to the much simpler, more instinctual pleasure of tapping your foot along with that underlying beat for six full minutes. Not that all those anthemic sonic trappings aren't their own sort of delicious: The War on Drugs also understand that.
The War on Drugs are a great band, is what I'm saying here.
Torres - "Don't Go Puttin Wishes in My Head"
Torres fooled around with country and Americana imagery to neat effect on her last album (the somewhat underrated Silver Tongue), and you can hear her having a little fun with her vocal inflections at certain points during "Don't Go Puttin Wishes in My Head" as well, such as when she delivers the line "Lord, girl, you've gone and put me to the test" with the same drawling quality that she previously brought to lyrics about knocking her lover up "under Tennessee stars." The song itself, though, is pure, joyous heartland rock—Torres by way of Springsteen in the best way possible. It's probably the most massive-sounding song she's ever penned, and if it's not, it's certainly the brightest and most endlessly fun to listen to (an ethos that can also be seen in the very sweet video). Truly the perfect lead single for this fantastic album.