Welcome back to my annual trilogy revealing My Top 50 Songs of [X] Year! Hope you’re having fun. Yesterday, we revealed the first 20 entries on the 2021 countdown, and you can head here if you missed them or need a refresher. Today, we’re doing the middle-ish 20.
30] The Go! Team
“Let the Seasons Work”
Get Up Sequences, Part One
As much as this hurts for me to admit, I think The Go! Team are officially out of ideas. Much of Get Up Sequences is a rehash of prior songs of theirs and the production lacks the ecstatic oomph I’ve come to expect from Ian Parton’s project. But there are still select moments where they can cook up some of that trademark alchemy, none more effectively so than on the album’s opener. I can pinpoint the exact prior Go! Team songs “Let the Seasons Work” pulls from: “The Wrath of Marcie” for the marching band trumpets, “The Scene Between” for the tumbling post-chorus bridge, “If There’s One Thing You Should Know” for the steel pans, “Milk Crisis” for the tremolo guitars, “Rolodex the Seasons” for the title. And, yeah, the vocal sections are really underwhelming. But, holy shit, when that trumpet riff kicks in, I don’t give a solitary jot about self-cannibalisation or placeholder verses! I am the protagonist in my own Saturday morning cartoon and this is my theme tune looping for the next hour!
29] The Staves
Originally, when sitting down to work on this year’s list, I was hoping to have this slot filled with “Satisfied” because seriously have you heard that chorus? Alas, it originally released two weeks before my eligibility date and so had to be disqualified. But when Rules Boss closes a door, she sometimes opens a window for the less immediately-excellent choice to slide in and make itself at home. I also adore the chorus on “Devotion,” these sisters are so cursive at the exact right harmonies required to elevate a song into greatness through sheer gorgeous warmth, but it’s the kind of chorus which takes a few listens to fully realise the extent of its greatness. The totality with which it has enveloped your soul. The progression also cleverly layers new instrumentation and accentuating effects on top throughout the whole length of the song until that last chorus sounds, in its own way, totemic. Not unlike the manner in which Emily ends up being unwittingly consumed by the titular sensation despite so many red flags.
28] illuminati hotties
Let Me Do One More
Another record I chose to howse. Between this, The War on Drugs, and Little Simz (to some extent), I’m reconsidering howse-ing future albums since it meant that I missed out on having “Pool Hopping” be the soundtrack to my summer this year. There’s a real Lit or “In Too deep” Sum 41 to this one, albeit thankfully sans any of the dirtbag masculine energy of those songs. But there’s that kind of youthful, playful, sticky buzz in the palm-muted up-and-down riff which runs throughout the track, one reinforced by Sarah Tudzin’s attitude-heavy singsong vocal delivery of a relationship on the rocks and exploration of other potential options. Pretty much the only thing missing from a song like this is a full-force power pop guitar solo to take us into the climax, but that’s mitigated by lyrical canonising of “all rippers, no skippers.” You can tell that Tudzin’s been sitting on this song for a while, it carries major Before Times energy, and it works really well as a counterpoint to the last two years.
Kenny Beats – Sir Kenneth Beatsberg, as he’s known to his friends – is all over what might be IDLES’ best album(?), but no more so than “Car Crash;” what happens when a noise rock outfit tries to rewrite “HEAT” by BROCKHAMPTON. That’s not a burn, trust me. There’s so much anxiety-inducing menace to the first three minutes, forever on the verge of losing it and going on a warpath, with Mark Bowen’s Purge-siren-esque guitar wails heralding a drum track which sounds like it’s disintegrating mid-recording. Joe Talbot, meanwhile, is rapping and, even more surprising, he’s good at it; vividly embodying, through thick distortion filters, a violent drug-addled wreck of a human being so financially comfortable yet spiritually unfulfilled that he’s spiralling out of control. We’re a long way from Ultra Mono’s generic placeholder sloganeering, especially in that second verse. This’d be one of the band’s best songs even if it didn’t absolutely explode in the furious outro, but then it does and the debate is settled. This is going to kill live.
26] Sleigh Bells
After dropping pure liquid gold first time around with Treats, Sleigh Bells have evidently struggled with how best to evolve on that sound. That precise blend between bubblegum pop and head-crushing hard-rock/metal, sweet teenybop songs played by hardcore punks with their amps cranked all the way to deafening levels. The answer, it would seem, is to look at these young hyperpop whippersnappers, a subgenre which followed along the trail Sleigh Bells blazed to do new even more radical things with those philosophies, and crib a few tricks from them. That MIDI xylophone ringtone loop is maddeningly catchy, providing an ideal counterpoint of sweetness to the gargantuan-sounding drums and crunchy guitars which keep trying to drown it out. Even more pertinently, there are like five different hooks in this thing and each one is catchier than last. I legit keep forgetting the outro is the outro, you could base an entire song around a hook that strong instead of just casually throwing it out in the last 12 seconds.
“X (Feat. Clara La San)”
There’s something about that buzzing metallic synth line which is just irresistible to me. That Andromeda A6 whirl, cutting back and forth across the mix with irregular modulation, harsh and cold. Dramatic and dark yet not actually all that intense even when it heralds the track’s drops. At once a retro throwback to 6experimental acid raves of the early 90s, yet also sounding like a herald of the dystopian cyberpunk future as music for augs to dance to. “X” is a cavernous track, it has the sonics of the aircraft hanger a song like this was born to be played at, coated in reverb and with Clara La San’s looped verse almost ghost-like in its translucent presence. And at the centre, that improvised synth melody, bending the Syncussion bleeps and snaps to its will. Again, not that I have ever gone clubbing, but a song like this really makes me wish I could go clubbing.
Between the Richness
Remember in the last part where I mentioned that sounding like a cut from the Burnout 3 soundtrack is what takes a song from good to great? Maybe that’s why I’ve fallen quite a bit for post-hardcore these last couple of years. But seriously, you give me an intro like this one – rapid-strummed power chords joined in by increasingly intense snare rolls, kicks in the next eight bars, and then the rest of the band crashing into the song proper – and you gotta go a long way to sour my feelings on the rest of the song. Few things get me more hyped than that, except for maybe a trade-off chorus where a rough-voiced singer shouts out one line and the clean-voiced singer belts out the next one with a sustained high note I am pathologically incapable of resisting joining in with. And, oh hey, “Eternal You” has one of those! Does it also have very sparse but affecting lyrics about the unceasing passage of time which achieve an uplift when delivered and backed like this? You bet your butt it does! Pure Callie Bait, this, and I don’t care.
23] REI AMI
Speaking of hyperpop’s balance between straightforward sweet pop confection and wilful perversions of said, I would not love “RICKY BOBBY” as much if REI AMI and her producers hadn’t been able to work that Disney-esque intro into the song itself. Without it, the song is an admittedly fun piece of trap-crunk brag-rap with some funny Mean Girls-style bitchiness only bettered right now by Flo Milli, and bass designed to ruin subwoofers the globe over. With it, there’s a million-dollar chorus which provides a smooth and sexy contrast to everything around it. I feel trans as hell every single time I sing along to it and I love that! Credit REI’s breathy, affected delivery which is the song’s real ace in the hole. The cheek in which she drops “get some money, bitch” convinces me she’s destined for big alt-pop things, one day.
“silence, pt. 1 (when we say “we”)/silence, pt. 2 (who is “we”?)”
I am aware that tUnE-yArDs have a well-documented history with cribbing from Black spiritual music history for their sonic palette; their entire album previous to this (excellent) one was Merrill Garbus excoriating herself for her privilege as a White woman arguably appropriating those sounds. And whilst most of sketchy. looks elsewhere for its influences – Kate Bush, Bill Doss, 90s plunderphonics – the centrepiece “silence” pairing are unmistakeably indebted to spiritualistic tribal music. Heavily repetitious in the lyrics, with an almost chant-like delivery, a pre-chorus which has an ominous gospel rise with that many harmonised multi-tracked Garbus-es, and driven significantly more by the syncopated percussion than the embedded slightly-detuned keys. And yet, for the topic at hand, defiantly addressing the continued systemic racial injustices by reaffirming Garbus’ desire to try fighting back against them via a Grace Lee Boggs quote (“change yourself to change the world”), it absolutely fits and avoids being appropriation, at least to me (admittedly not the most authoritative voice on the subject). The minute’s silence afterwards (in part 2) only adds to that vitality.
21] Little Simz
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Question for the group: is there anything more thrilling than when a virtuosic in-the-pocket rapper just keeps going after the beat cuts out? It’s the musical equivalent of when the Roadrunner keeps sprinting across the air separating two canyon verges and it pops the shit out of me every single time it happens. Enter Little Simz, our current best rapper alive, who spends almost four entire minutes, without a single hook, just going off whilst barely stopping for breath. Inflo’s dramatic Blacksploitation beat keeps careening around on a dime with both tempo and time signature changes, the kind of audaciously immaculate shit you need brass balls the size of Jupiter moons to try rapping on, and Simz rides it whilst doing lyrical handstands. Demanding the rest of the game get on her conscious level, laying bare her self-critical soul before standing up in full belief that she is deserving of her flowers, and finally placing her success in the lineage of Black history. In that last verse, you can faintly hear her ringtone going off in the background but Simz is so locked-in that it doesn’t faze her at all. When she starts listing off groups whilst the beat cuts out, it sounds almost Godly, like she could do this all day.
“Silk Chiffon (Feat. Phoebe Bridgers)”
Silk Chiffon – Single
When Lorde trailed Solar Power in interviews with references to 90s pop like Natalie Imbruglia, I got unreasonably excited… before mulling over reporting her to Trading Standards for false advertising when the finished album was absolutely nothing like that bubblegum pop rock era she promised. Say what you want about that style of music, at least they had proper gigantic choruses and FM radio pep. ‘Don’t worry, fam,’ said queer-pop heroes MUNA roughly two months after that colossal disappointment, ‘We got you.’ “Silk Chiffon” is yet another pristinely lovable queer smash from pop’s most underrated act right now, with yearning passion in the verses giving way to a euphoric chorus of romantic bliss in a Sixpence None the Richer glow. The inescapable Phoebe Bridgers is also here, similarly finding a natural fit within this 90s playground, but she slots neatly into a support role and never tries to upstage MUNA’s spotlight. Please let it be their time, already. The video is an …But I’m a Cheerleader! homage! What more do you people want?!
Bright Green Field
The thing that so many of Britain’s current crop of art-punk disciples – your black midis; your Dry Cleanings; your Shame; your Porridge Radios; your Black Country, New Roads – seem to forget is that it’s not enough to be ‘clever.’ A song cannot just be a discordant jamboree or a monotone dirge and your lyrics can’t be intentionally vague texture if you’re going to deliver them like they’re the sermon on the mount. Because then you have all flash and no substance, no reason for a listener to want to come back and work on the assignment you keep giving them. You, in fact, still need to write actual hooks and have a sense of progression to the song. Do that, give the listener an in, and then you can throw all the funny time signatures, impressionistic lyrics, and atonal synth modulators in that you want because that’s additional substance beefing up a song’s skeleton, rather than trying to sell a plate full of sizzle as a juicy steak. Squid, thank fuck, get that and it’s how they made a song like “Pamphlets.” Energetic, antsy, hooks for days, driving with a sense of progression and build and climax which makes excellent usage of the eight-minute runtime.
“On the Ground”
It’s finally happened, folks! K-Pop won! It’s on one of my lists! Admittedly, it won by largely bending to my personal Western whims rather than me meeting it fully on its own terms, but there were Red Velvet and DREAMCATCHER tracks part of those painful last cuts, so baby steps! For now, yeah, Prime Callie Bait. “On the Ground” compresses the journey of pop music these last two decades into one song, cherry-picking the best elements of each in a magpie manner that nonetheless comes together cohesively thanks to some very satisfying texture in that synth fission. The verses are early 00s pop-rock ala Let Go-era Avril Lavigne, the chorus has that late-00s/early-10s cadence and melody from guilty pleasure Obama-hangover pop like Katy Perry and Selena Gomez, and then the drop in place of a proper wordy chorus brings us up to the modern day but thankfully has an unusual tone which flips the song on its head rather than limply sitting in place like so many other examples of the form. All of it is dead catchy and releases serotonin by the bucketload, enough that I can’t even get mad at the sub-three-minute runtime.
“Easier Than Lying”
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
A part of me really wants Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross to become the new Jack Antonoff, the go-to super-producers for all the alt/indie pop girlies who conspicuously start making similar music to each other, and have that herald a pop rock/industrial revival. After all, their unmistakeable finger-prints are all over “Easier Than Lying,” an industrial rock song in the midst of a contentious love-hate relationship with the concept of pop just like Nine Inch Nails’ With_Teeth was. A mood immediately set by that intimidating drum line – a kick which won’t stop banging, hi-hats fidgeting in a cold sweat, the irregular snare rim clicks – that releases three tracks’ worth of tension in a violent muddy burst come the chorus. But one would be dead wrong to credit this song’s power to Reznor & Ross; they’re merely the set decorators. This is Halsey’s show, bringing the melodrama and wrenching pain in both lyrics and vocals that this kind of song demands. When they tear into that chorus, especially “you liar, you don’t love me too,” the pent-up rage is intoxicating.
“BUZZCUT (Feat. Danny Brown)”
ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
Oh, yeah. This is the good shit. I’ve been a big fan of BROCKHAMPTON’s post-SATURATION trilogy output, but it is inarguable that their momentum crashed hard with 2019’s GINGER when they leaned more into their pop side. Pop side in 2019 obviously meaning ‘vibes.’ So, after taking 2020 off due to the stupid apocalypse and dealing with plenty of personal tragedies and mental struggles, a reintroduction like “BUZZCUT” was exactly what the doctor ordered. A hard, bassy, trunk-ruining banger expressly designed to cause involuntary stank-faces in all who hear it, with Kevin Abstract going in for the first time in a long while (“A platinum record not gon’ my Black ass outta jail”). But, as is the BROCKHAMPTON way, this banger still has some curveballs. First of them, a full-on guest verse by Danny Brown who calls n***as “incels” and melds beautifully into the group’s production. Then, there’s that gorgeous outro switch. JOBA in choir boy mode, a sprinkle of Merlyn energy to balance the tonic, and a sky-scraping saxophone for the song to float off into the ether on. Yep, the dope boys are back.
“Last Day on Earth”
Our Extended Play – EP
I feel like, at this point in the countdown, you can tell why this song is on here just by pressing play and hearing how “Last Day on Earth” sounds. Madchester-era drum loops? Check. Lush-style shoegaze guitars and layered background vocals? Check. The 1975 melody cadences and lyrical turns of phrase? Check, especially for that “So Far (It’s Alright)” bite in the second verse. Cheesy “shoop-do-be-do-be-do”s in place of a chorus, scientifically engineered to end up in my head for an entire week each time I listen? Big fat check. A disaffected cool-as-hell female lead vocal which makes me both nostalgic for the adolescence I had and wistful for the one my obliviously-trans arse couldn’t? Checkity check check. Would it be my very first choice for the opening title sequence in a teen comedy if I were ever given a Music Supervisor job? That’s a checkmark the size of the Empire State. …I think I understand why Oscar Bait is so successful, now.
Good Days – Single
In the 365 days since Solána Rowe dropped “Good Days,” she has: put out an underwhelming belated video for the song, teased a new song at the end of said video she still hasn’t bothered to release, done a whole bunch of middling collabs on other artists’ songs, dumped three demos onto Soundcloud, recorded for the soundtracks of the godawful Space Jam 2 and Dear Evan Hansen, and officially released just one (1) proper solo song which was actually just one of those aforementioned Soundcloud dumps and she had to be bullied by TikTok virality to even do that. Things Solána Rowe has not done: FINISHED THE FUCKING ALBUM. I wouldn’t get so hung up about this were “Good Days” not so utterly transcendent a slice of R&B. Beautifully ethereal and otherworldly in its instrumentation, evoking the glow of the hopeful future she’s attempting to look towards in her lyrics. Uniquely SZA in the cascading vocal melodies and touchingly intimate delivery – almost literally on that intimacy front, she’s right in the front of the mix. I’ve lived with this song for an entire year and it just keeps getting better and better. PLEASE, SOLÁNA! FINISH THE FUCKING ALBUM! WE’RE STARVING, HERE!
“IN PINK (Feat. Mndsgn)”
Aaaah, pretty! “IN PINK” sees CHAI embracing their city-pop side and every single facet of the results are just… pretty. Soothing. Calming. Relaxing. Other such synonyms. I know that sounds like the most backhanded compliment this series has ever trotted out, but do you know just how difficult that kind of mood is to successfully pull off? So many artists who aim for this niche either over- or undershoot the target and plummet into the valley of boredom. You need to be hooky but not potently so, soft but not dull, beaty but not overpowering. Every element needs to be precisely tuned and CHAI’s collab with Mndsgn completely nails the vibe. That bass skips with glee, those synths are sprightly but not busy, and the ways in which CHAI and Mndsgn’s respective harmonies intertwine together is just magnificent. Even if you took out the lyrics extolling the virtues of pink (and by extension stereotypical femininity disparaged by patriarchal society), this song would be an unmistakable representation of the colour.
Under Twenty Five – EP
Smooth as melted butter sliding down the throat of Barry White, this standout from ENNY’s debut EP radiates South London energy. Bouncy club-R&B with effortless cool of the kind I had been led to believe was supposed to rip up charts and radio like nobody’s business. ENNY rides that beat with a laidback hunger that relates her desire for success yet instils the image of someone whose greatness and success is a given, just waiting on the rest of the world to catch up. Proud of her heritage even as its mixed nature leaves her unmoored: shouting out “Black and British and African too but so far removed” women like herself and desiring “a Nigerian honey who laughs at [her] jokes even when they’re not funny.” Brought together by a chorus so big that calling it an ‘earworm’ is a misclassification of how massive the creature is, bulldozing its way into the frontal cortex to cause boogie-ing like it’s ’98.
11] The Weather Station
STRIIIIIINGS!! Strings are amazing. They can make the most mundane of stories sound positively epic. That means they need a strong foundation, mind, lest one instead create wangsty syrup through improper use. But if that foundation is solid and the resulting arrangement is tasteful, strings can become the runaway MVP of an entire song. Take “Parking Lot,” for example. The vast majority of the track, much like everything else on Ignorance, is driven by piano and bass with the strings being an irregular accentuation to grace notes in those instruments and Tamara Lindeman’s gorgeous vocals. Poetically painting a picture of nature meeting the artificial, a bird in a city parking lot, and the existential crisis over what it can mean for a world hurtling uncaringly into climate catastrophe. So, when the song hits that outro, and those crying strings match the hard piano chords to create complimentary dynamics, an ascendence is achieved which brings about goosebumps and instinctual tears in someone like me. Were I not so late to the party on this album, there is every chance we could have been discussing this in the #1 slot instead. I look forward to many much-needed cathartic cries with this song in the near-future.
Return here tomorrow for the Top Ten!
Callie Petch must confess they don’t wanna undress this feeling.