The Best Music Moments of 2021
As old songs provide comfort during a pandemic, are we approaching the end of the "new"?
Music journalists take pride in carefully-curated year-end lists and promoting new artists. In 2021, I struggled to remember what I heard. I barely saw my friends. Most work interactions took place on Zoom. I rarely shopped or went to restaurants. I went to a museum once and enjoyed a few masked concerts between outbreaks of different coronavirus variants. Outside of family time, I spent the majority of my waking hours working in silence. It was the most music-less year of my life. I wonder, have we reached the end of the new?
In the future, there will be a dividing line between the music that came before the pandemic and the music that comes after. The in-between years, where we are now, will be remembered as a time warp in which old and new are virtually indistinguishable. For example: Spotify's Top Viral Hits of 2021 includes hits 1970s and 1980s songs "Somebody’s Watching Me" by Rockwell, "Let’s Groove," by Earth, Wind and Fire, "More Than a Woman," by the Bee Gees, "Just the Two of Us," by Grover Washington Jr. with Bill Withers, plus 1999's "Bills, Bills, Bills" by Destiny’s Child. The Top Throwbacks of 2021 list by Spotify features 1980s mainstays such as Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," George Michael's "Careless Whisper" plus Coldplay's "Yellow" (2000). Patrice Rushen's 1982 "Forget Me Nots" popped up hundreds of times on endless TikTok dance videos and the Elton John/Dua Lipa mashup "Cold Heart" happily took us on a tour of the 1970s.
I succumbed to the familiar and did not venture too far outside of my comfort zone. I know I'm not the only one who looked to beloved songs and artists to assuage the numbness of isolation and pandemic anxiety.
Here are my favorite music moments of the year, along with songs I could not get out of my head:
Play the Spotify Playlist here.
"You Get What You Give" by New Radicals (1998)
Thanks to a Facebook video, this track served as the de facto theme song for the political campaigns of the Democratic U.S. Senators from Georgia, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the weeks leading up to their runoff victories in the 2020 elections. The election results were announced on the morning of January 6, 2021, at the same time the horrible insurrection at the U.S. Capitol had begun to unfold. Joe Biden requested that New Radicals reform to play this song as part of his inauguration on January 20, which they did. In that performance, singer/songwriter Gregg Alexander dedicated the song to the memory of the President's late son Beau Biden. A second life for a great tune.
“Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and "Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension (1969)
from The Summer of Soul Soundtrack:
"Aquarius" was number one on the Billboard charts the week I was born, and two months later, the 5th Dimension performed it at the Harlem Cultural Festival. That footage, unearthed in 2021's Summer of Soul documentary by Questlove, cemented the affection I've always felt for the 5th Dimension's music. In the film, “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” makes me realize the act was so much more than just a vocal group. The energy is off the charts, and Marilyn McCoo, shown here years before her familiar stints on Solid Gold, is a real star.
"Mother Nature" by Angelique Kidjo
Kidjo is a global star from Benin in West Africa, one of the most driven and optimistic musicians I have ever known, and an endless font of empowering anthems. The lyrics of this universal call-to-action about self-preservation and caring for the environment could not have arrived at a better time. "Don't ever let 'em hurt you in any way / Oh, never let them steal and take the best of you"... a summer anthem that made hard times bearable. This remix featuring Sting is a keeper.
"Give It All Up" by Duran Duran
Duran Duran made the best pop album of 2021: Future Past is solid chrome, pure dance-and-trance perfection. With collaborators and producers including Giorgio Moroder and Blur's Graham Coxon, the group created a relevant new work built on the finest elements of its 40-year career—groove, mystery, melody, melancholy, fun and futurism. "Give It All Up," a duet with Tove Lo, is a 120 b.p.m. pandemic-era torch song that clings to hope on the precipice of post-human existence. Every track on Future Past offers high-stakes without the feeling of being forced, and singer Simon Le Bon never sounded better. The video below is the studio version, but watch the song performed live here.
"Start of Something" by Crowded House
Neil Finn was stuck in Los Angeles at the beginning of the pandemic after finishing up a tour with Fleetwood Mac. As soon as he was able to fly to New Zealand, he and his family went home to Auckland, where in a nearly Covid-free society, he gathered bassist Nic Seymour, producer Mitchell Froom and his two sons to record a Crowded House album, Dreamers Are Waiting. The album is largely unburdened by fear and pandemic, yet its lyrics allude to what life might be when/if society the virus recedes. "Start of Something" sounds like an end-of-the-world breakup song, with sunny harmonies that give us reason to believe the humanity will survive. Finn proves time and again that melody is one of life's most powerful forces.
Mad Love by Infinity Song
This family act won my heart with their Instagram covers of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," and their uplifting original 2020 album, Mad Love, was released in a deluxe edition this year and features the string-laden "Everything is Gonna Be Alright" and "Far Away." Inspirational.
The Beatles Get Back
Watching the Peter Jackson documentary was like an adopted child meeting her birth parents for the first time. Everything about the Beatles was familiar and familial, yet felt brand new in ways that surprised, shocked, and rarely disappointed. The experience justified all my beliefs about each Beatle's talent, and cemented the absolute genius of Paul McCartney, which I never doubted. Also: BILLY PRESTON. I have so much more to say about the film and will do so when I have time to write about it.
Fine Line by Harry Styles I have a memory of riding around a beach town on vacation with my daughter and her friend on New Year's Day 2020, listening to Fine Line with the windows rolled down. A few weeks later, the school year was cancelled, I moved out of my office from downtown to my living room, and pandemic isolation set in. Styles's songs ("Watermelon Sugar," "Golden," "Adore You" et al) carried a lot of American families through the past two years. We bought the Fine Line album and Harry Styles concert tickets for our daughter in 2019 as a Christmas present at the beginning of her senior year of high school. She was in her third semester of college when we finally saw his Love On Tour show at State Farm Arena in October 2021. As he danced around, wrapped in a rainbow flag and singing "Treat People With Kindness" and then Fine Line's title track, I stood in the back of the arena floor and was in awe of the sheer force of hope in the room.
Joni Mitchell: The songwriter, the myth, the icon—2021 was filled with reminders of her talent. Brittany Howard performing Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" with Herbie Hancock at the Kennedy Center Honors was a highlight.
Stephen Sondheim Tribute: The outpouring after the songwriter's death on November 26 made us remember the importance of music in our lives. Watch this all-star tribute recorded in Times Square on November 29, 2021.
2021 songs too good to ignore:
"Beat the Drum Louder" by HuDost
"Freedom" by Jon Batiste
"I Don't Live Here Anymore" by The War On Drugs feat. Lucius
"Formwela13" by Esperanza Spalding
"Cheer Up Baby" By Inhaler
"The Tipping Point" by Tears for Fears
"I'll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up)" by The Wallflowers
ABBA's "Don't Shut Me Down"
"Staying in California" by Merchant
Sunlight Follows the Night" (Storm Shelter version) by Ben Watt
"Can't Hide It" Curtis Harding
"Ahead of the Game" by Gary Kemp
"Hardline" by Julien Baker
Silk Sonic's "Leave the Door Open"
"Love Is A Game" by Adele
"Love Will Be Reborn" Martha Wainwright