DC's Favorite Songs of 2021
It's that time of year again!
As we roll into the final stretch of 2021, DC would like to take a moment to review our favorite music released over the past 12 months. Today it's songs, tomorrow it's EPs, and then albums on the final day. On Thursday (after all the lists) we'll post some reflections on 2021, lay out where we plan to head next year, and maybe even give away some free shit. So don't miss that.
Many of the tracks we favor carry a poppy flavor (please forgive the rhyme), as you'll see in our 2021 roundup. Sure, the albums we cover usually feature more experimental elements, but more often than not, we like to loop catchy, danceable singles. This does not hold true for everything you'll hear below, but is simply a trend we've noticed across years of reflecting on our listening habits. We fully lean into loving the songs we love, without much regard to genre at all.
So let's count down our favorite songs of the year, twenty through one.
20. Julien Ledru - Daniel Variations
Hey, our first selection isn't even from this year! Julien Ledru released White Oak Blues in December 2020, the week after last year's lists were posted, and because of this timing, we decided that the album's stunning closer was eligible this time around. Across Daniel Variations, the French guitarist showcases varied technique over top melodies which are both beautiful and bouncy. Have a listen below.
19. JPEGMAFIA - FIX URSELF!
People have all sorts of feelings about JPEGMAFIA and his work, but we've long been a fan of the rapper's output. He often splits up his signature in-your-face barrage tracks with softer interludes, and his songs rarely follow a standard verse-chorus-verse structure. There's usually an element of surprise in Peggy's music. But FIX URSELF! is actually a pretty straightforward cut - something you wouldn't be shocked to hear on the radio. And while it might not be super representative of the artist's larger catalog, it's a great entry point.
18. Miss Grit - Blonde
This past year there were a handful of excellent songs which featured pressured builds into exploding crescendos, and this was one of them. We loved The Body's The City Is Shelled and Lucy Dacus' VBS, but Miss Grit's Blonde was our favorite of these tracks. Opening with her softly echoed voice and spare plucks, Margaret Sohn lifts Blonde skyward with crash-heavy drums, a distorted guitar solo, and layered harmonies, transforming the song into a maximalist opus.
17. Cassandra Jenkins - Michelangelo
Cassandra Jenkins' Hard Drive got a lot of hype leading up to her full-length release last spring, and rightfully so. It was the album's first single and also its exquisite centerpiece. But we found ourselves drawn more to the album's lead track - a stomping folk ballad with string accompaniment reminiscent of vintage Aimee Mann. To us, Michelangelo's opening notes and lyrics felt like the perfect introduction to Jenkins' unfolding musical world.
16. Emmalee Hunnicutt - On the Joy of Eating Beets
We wrote a lot of words about Emmalee Hunnicutt's most recent album this past summer, so feel free to check out that post here if you're at all interested. TLDR: we loved it. Vespertine and Sun, Salt, Sea are standout tracks, but opener On the Joy of Eating Beets stuck out to us then, and has stayed with us since. Cello squeals and solo voice bleeds into string plucks and looped rounds over the course of the seven-and-a-half minute construction. It's a work which breathes and evolves, and is absolutely beautiful from start to finish.
15. Yasmin Williams - Juvenescence
What a perfectly named song! Juvenenscence means "the state or period of being young" and Yasmin Williams' interpretation moves with a lively energy. Her unique approach to guitar is on full display here, as she picks, strums, and hammers away with mind-blowing pace and precision. It was a joy to see her perform this past summer, and we highly recommend watching her magic live in the coming year if you're able. In the meantime, check out her recent Tiny Desk Concert and hear Juvenescence below.
14. Sofia Kourtesis - La Perla
As the weather warmed last spring and Covid rates began to decline (at least momentarily), we threw aside glacial ambient music and welcomed songs of a sunnier vibe. We were struck by Sofia Kourtesis' Fresia Magdalena (more on this tomorrow), and were especially taken with the EP's opening track, La Perla. This two-note synth melody sways breezily, punctuated by some low bass, stare pops, and twinkly chimes. It felt like a breath of fresh air after a long period of hibernation.
13. Arooj Aftab - Baghon Main
Like our number 16 selection, we wrote a bit about Arooj Aftab's 2021 release earlier this year (check out that post here), and coincidentally, Baghon Main happens to be a relatively long and extremely beautiful album opener. Guess we have a type here at DC! The delicate interweaving of harp, violin, and bass flow across the track and perfectly back Aftab's smooth vocal delivery. It's a stunning studio mix, and even better to see live. Thanks, Treefort!
12. Walt McClements - Thresholds (through a hole in the fence)
Feels like Bandcamp is already flooded with accordion-centric ambient music, but I guess Walt McClements figured he could stand apart in the oversaturated genre. Kidding, of course! This shit is totally one-of-a-kind. Congrats to McClements for his singularly gorgeous album, and for this song in particular. Thresholds will have you melted by the 3:40 mark, and we promise you won't hear much else like it out there. Another LA musician we adore (and who will remain unnamed since we didn't clear her quote) told us that she was "obsessed" with the song, so give it a listen for yourself.
11. Karima Walker - Waking the Dreaming Body
We wrote about this one last winter, and spoiler alert: it's going to come up again later this week during our favorite albums countdown. Check out our glowing review of Karima Walker's full album here if you're interested, but we want to dedicate this space to a moment late in the album when everything snaps into focus. Most of Walker's 40-minute work feels like wandering interlude, not unlike like a dream, but the title track wakes our dreaming bodies. It's sweet like a first morning moment, a cozy cuddle in bed as sun peeks through a window.
10. Grouper - Unclean Mind
Here at DC, we enjoy all sorts of Grouper music. Whether Liz is strumming guitar, playing piano, collaborating in a band, or performing under a different moniker, it's a surefire guarantee that we are into it. On Unclean Mind, Grouper presents yet another version of her sound - something which feels familiar to many of us Portlanders, but is a distinct departure from her past work. The song is clean and clear, not at all washed out or distorted, and follows a standard pop song structure. We were hooked instantly, and looped it for days. Hear it for yourself below, and come back in a couple days to read more of our thoughts about Shade.
9. Geryz / Powers / Rolin - June
Here's where this countdown really starts cooking! This power trio's late-summer ADR release is full of extended freewheeling jams, but this side B opener is a tight lil outlier. Drums, guitar, and dulcimer move with pace and swirl together to make something bubbly and bright. June shines with brilliance from start to finish. Hearing it makes you wanna spin around until you're too dizzy, and then flop down on a green lawn. Wish we could fast forward to next summer already, but in the meantime, read some of our words about the trio's full album and catch the song below.
8. Bicep - X
This house track is an absolute banger. Looking over this list, you'll notice that we favored guitar music in 2021, but DC's still got a big heart for electronic tracks. On X, the UK DJ duo known as Bicep keeps you on the edge of your seat (if you're not already on the dance floor) with build-ups and climaxes, but it's those snare baps we love the most. Clara La Sans' haunting vocals are a great touch too. All in all it's an immaculate track from a team who is one of the best in the biz.
7. Strange Ranger - Needing You
Strange Ranger evolves with each release, the band always seeming to shift in surprising and fresh ways (more on this in a couple of days), and Needing You is the best song they've made yet. A pop melody and radio-friendly song structure with chunky drums and vocal samples makes the song super accessible, which can't be said about a lot of the band's earlier work. They truly seem primed to make it big - the same sentiment we expressed when they released Leona a couple years back, but Needing You is even more impressive!
6. Mannequin Pussy - Control
Since Patience is STILL probably the most-played album around these parts, we were stoked last spring to hear that Mannequin Pussy was planning to give a us a few new songs in 2021. Also, thanks for the interview, Missy! Control, the EP's opener, is just about perfect. Kaleen Reading's powerful drumming blasts us off, and the band conjures excitement at Missy repeats "I know no one's waiting for anyone" before screaming out SOMETHING'S IN YOUR EYE" like a million times. Best indie rock group in the game right now.
5. Torres - Don't Go Puttin Wishes in My Head
This song is so big. Like, brimming with arena energy. Think The House That Heaven Built huge. We don't often feature music like this on DC, but Don't Go Puttin Wishes in My Head is just too good to ignore. It's a real fist-pumper. In fact, that is exactly what we were doing while watching Torres rip this song live in Boise this past September. Check out the power ballad below, memorize the chorus, and belt it out again and again.
4. Gia Margaret - Solid Heart - Guy Sigsworth Remix
Ah, the original version of this song so so so good, too, but we ultimately decided to go with the remix. Gia Margaret wrote our favorite album of 2020 (check out those words here), and kept it rolling into the new year. Famed producer Guy Sigsworth (who has worked with artists including Brittany Spears, Madonna, and Bjork) handled remix duties on Solid Heart, and he opted to add some pretty sweet 90s pop/00s Jimmy Tamborello textures. But it all starts with the base tune, beautifully crafted by Gia Margaret.
3. Japanese Breakfast - Slide Tackle
2021 was JBrekkie's year, but more about Michelle Zauner in a couple of days when we count down the year's best albums. It's the last time we'll write that line in this post. Promise. Turns out that one of the many things this do-everything artist can do is write a hit song. Slide Tackle is amazing. Love the hook. Love the horns. Love that sneakily excellent rhythm guitar lick. We think that this song is one of the moments in Zauner's live set when the band goes full-on balloon drop, but we wouldn't know because we missed Japanese Breakfast's pass through Portland AGAIN. Next time, for sure.
2. Tune-Yards - hold yourself.
More than any other song in this countdown, hold yourself. was a true love at first listen. To be completely honest, we hadn't followed Merrill Garbus' output much since W H O K I L L came out a decade ago, but jeez, she regained our attention with this one. The whole album is actually pretty solid. But this specific cut features all the signature Tune-Yards calling cards: distinct percussion, layered vocals, and a walking bassline. It builds and builds and builds until the noise reaches a blaring cacophony, reminding us once again why we love Garbus' music so much.
1. Tonstartssbandht - What Has Happened
On one level, it feels a little strange to choose this jam as our favorite song of the year. It's so mellow. So subdued. Instead of dramatic peaks and valleys Tonstartssbandht's What Has Happened operates at sort of a low hum. But the more you listen to the song, the more you notice. A steady Krautrock rhythm provides the track's base, but the shifts in melody and transitions between sonic movements are just so slick. It's quite complex after all. Ingenious really. What Has Happened stuck with us for weeks after our first listen - the sign of a truly excellent song.
And that's it for our favorite songs of 2021! We considered embedding a Spotify playlist of all twenty tracks (and another of our top 100 selections), but decided to avoid using that platform. Go to Bandcamp to support a few of these artists instead. And be sure to come back tomorrow for our three favorite EPs of the year.
Thanks, as always, for reading.