Some Thoughts (and Tunes) on a Truly Bizarre Year

by Carlo Thomas

My favorite song of the year—“Ascending Forth”—stood out because of its uncanny self-awareness. The song closes black midi’s maddening yet immaculate second album Cavalcade. For an album full of awe-inspiring moments, the song ends, following an orchestrated build-up, on a familiar resolution. This begs the question: why? Is this a nod to the human instinct for a happy ending? Or is this song a cynical interpretation that mirrors the song’s protagonist, a composer who creates a masterpiece only to have their patrons beg for those familiar ascending fourths?

If 2020 was the climactic build-up of social and political tensions, 2021 was the chance for resolution that never came. The pandemic rages on with ever-changing concerns. Record-breaking weather events occur at a regular pace and our political institutions always fail to meet the moment. Never have I relied on music to serve as an expression of my frustrations or provide pockets of escape. And never has that pendulum swung so violently. 

When this year started and my damp, overcast Seattle was barely emerging from lockdown, I relied on the music. Early year standouts included Drunk Tank Pink by Shame and For the first time, the debut album by Black Country, New Road. The latter’s melodramatic and opulent arrangements may have been born out of privilege and education, yet they pressed hard on the universal discontents of adolescence. They turned their melodrama into something existential.

Of course, they weren’t the only band to turn yet another post-punk revival into relevant commentary. What would the year look like without Bright Green Field by Squid? Or New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s statement that speaks more truths through Florence Shaw’s deadpan delivery than our most seasoned politicians? Even the American barroom mainstays The Hold Steady updated their tales of the downtrodden to mirror today’s reality of inequality; the characters of “The Prior Procedure” meet a billionaire whose open door policy isn’t borne out of generosity, but of self-aggrandizement.

Nevertheless, this year saw moments of unabashed declarations of identity, joy, and pleasure. Those like the appropriately-named Prioritise Pleasure by Self Esteem and Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast. On Soberish, the rock veteran Liz Phair turned her experiences into an undeniably catchy document of pop and rock. Others, like Lost Girls, embraced the joy of improvisation and the creative process on Menneskekollektivet

Meanwhile, some artists simply came into their own. Those like Lucy Dacus, an unmatched lyricist who tells stories of her childhood, of friendships and love, oftentimes through the lense of the queer experience. Artists like Faye Webster, who elevated the slacker-rock sensibilities of I Know I’m Funny haha into something of incredible depth and poignancy. The year would also look entirely different without Cassandra Jenkins’s masterpiece An Overview On Phenomenal Nature and Iceage‘s Seek Shelter. I often think about ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, the cacophonous yet exhilarating album by SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, one that establishes the trio as masters of genre deconstruction, of reassembling the essentials into music that nonetheless taps into the familiar. 

By September, I knew we were in for an autumn of exceptional music. The return of Snail Mail with Valentine showcased a leap in sound while reaffirming Lindsey Jordan’s knack for crystalizing heartache inside windswept choruses and intimate guitar ballads alike. And one of my favorite bands—The War On Drugs—created their loudest, boldest statement yet with I Don’t Live Here Anymore. For the third year in a row, my album of the year also came out in September. HEY WHAT, by Low, is a rare album that evokes the cosmic and miniscule at once. 

These albums and songs are, of course, just a sliver of what 2021 had to offer—I haven’t even mentioned all of my top picks! Here in Seattle, the days are back to being cool and damp, weather I enjoy, especially when looking back on the heat dome that baked the Pacific Northwest this summer. Which is to say that 2021 has been a year of extremes and I’ve given up on guessing what 2022 and so on will hold.

That is, except for the music, which always meets the moment in one way or another. I’m sure I’ll hear astute political commentary, interpretations of the cosmic, or maybe even hopes for a resolution, a happy ending.

Because, damn, don’t I love those ascending fourths.


Top 25 Albums

  1. Low – HEY WHAT
  2. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
  3. black midi – Cavalcade
  5. Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet
  6. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
  7. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha
  8. Chad VanGaalen – World’s Most Stressed-Out Gardener
  9. Geese – Projector
  10. Iceage – Seek Shelter
  11. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
  12. Poppy – Flux
  13. Squid – Bright Green Field
  14. Yung – Ongoing Dispute
  15. Black Country, New Road – For the first time
  16. The Goon Sax – Mirror II
  17. shame – Drunk Tank Pink
  18. Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
  19. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
  20. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
  21. Liz Phair – Soberish
  22. Snail Mail – Valentine
  23. Cool Ghouls – At George’s Zoo
  24. Penelope Isles – Which Way To Happy
  25. Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take

Top 25 Songs

  1. black midi – “Ascending Forth”
  2. Low – “Days Like These”
  3. Snail Mail – “Valentine”
  4. Lucy Dacus – “Thumbs”
  5. The Hold Steady – “The Prior Procedure”
  6. The War On Drugs – “Old Skin”
  7. Lost Girls – “Real Life”
  8. black midi – “John L”
  9. Penelope Isles – “Play It Cool”
  10. Cassandra Jenkins – “Michelangelo”
  11. Geese – “Opportunity Is Knocking”
  12. The War On Drugs – “I Don’t Live Here Anymore (feat. Lucius)”
  13. Iceage – “Dear Saint Cecilia”
  14. The Goon Sax – “The Chance”
  16. Poppy – “On The Level”
  17. Faye Webster – “Better Distractions”
  18. Dry Cleaning – “Leafy”
  19. Yung – “Progress”
  20. Maximo Park – “The Acid Remark”
  21. Cool Ghouls – “To You I’m Bound”
  22. Jessie Ware – “Please”
  23. Indigo De Souza – “Darker Than Death”
  24. Field Music – “Do Me a Favour”
  25. The Besnard Lakes – “Our Heads, Our Hearts on Fire Again”