Long overdue: My favorite singles of 2021

Everything is all reused.

Taylor Swift has never won our annual Poll.  Neither has Hayley Williams or Paramore. Elastica hung them up a long time ago; they got their votes, but they didn’t come close to the top. Fond though we all are of Carly Rae Jepsen, she’s never sniffed a Poll win, either.

Yet if I tallied up the Top Ten lists of the people I know well, and who vote in this Poll during the years when I have it in me to tally, our winner would have been an artist whose borrowings from Elastica and Carly Rae were barely disguised, and who pinched so shamelessly from Taylor Swift and Paramore that she had to put their names in the credits. We’re hardly alone. Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour topped critics charts all over the world: mainstream showbiz ones like Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the BBC, and placed on aficionado’s lists in Pitchfork, Spin, Consequence of Sound, etcetera. All three New York Times critics placed Olivia Rodrigo in their Top Tens; Robert Christgau had Sour at #4. Hey, I dig it too. I may not have listed Sour, but I sure did sing along to it with a huge smile on my face.

So here’s my question, for you, and me, and everybody else who makes assessments of the merits of pop records for fun and occasional profit: what the fuck happened to us? We, who used to thrill when Carl Newman stacked chords in gravity-defying arrangements, when Kevin Barnes extended melodies into the ether, when Liz Phair turned the structure of the pop song inside out, when Kanye and Kendrick and Lauryn Hill found unexplored intersections between soul and gospel, hip-hop and R&B?  Do the virtues implied by those records mean nothing anymore?  Originality, or innovation at least, was once everything to us. Then we were taught that everything was borrowed, and nothing is new under the sun, and every artist’s notion of sui generis songcraft was nothing but a high-romantic conceit.  We’ve internalized that lesson and kept on going.

You might remember when Stefani Germanotta took it on the chin, hard, for a similar infraction.  A million Madonna-wannabees cried foul, justifiably so, after the release of “Born This Way,” and Jay Lustig responded with one of my favorite Ledger headlines ever: Lazy Gaga.  I didn’t like the record either, but I thought she did us all a favor. She reminded us that plagiarism was real, and it’s absolutely unwelcome in pop music. Pop requires practitioners to work within strict parameters, but it also requires novelty. A pop song needs to remind you of songs you already know — it’s got to be familiar — but it can’t be a copy.  That’s what makes this such a murderously difficult art form to master: it’s a tightrope walk between recognition and surprise.  One errant step in either direction, and you either plummet into the abyss of experimental music (usually bad) or you land in the net of the tribute acts and revivalists (usually worse).  

That every pop song recycles elements of other pop songs is a given, and it usually isn’t a problem. Elvis Costello, broadminded as always, waved off Olivia Rodrigo’s reuse of the “Pump It Up” riff  (on a song called “Brutal,” no less!) as fair play: we’re all magpies, flying off to feather our nests with what we’ve stealthily gathered from our friends and neighbors.  But what distinguishes a written pop song — and all great pop is written, even if the writer is simply directing a team of song technicians — from one assembled by a mainframe is that the writer shuffles around the pieces and adds the irreducible mark of her personality; “spell a brand new world with the same old letters,” Robyn Hitchcock gave us our marching orders in 1985. That’s exactly what Lady Gaga didn’t do with “Born This Way”. She put “Express Yourself” on the stovetop, warmed it over, and tried to serve it even before it sizzled. It was an affront to pop from an artist who is usually a credit to it, and we were right to receive it as a betrayal.

Since then, those of us holding the line against facelessness have lost ground to the Death of the Author team: those who believe that pop is simply a can of beans, as Billy Joel inelegantly put it on “The Entertainer,” production like any other production, stamped out according to algorithms calibrated to light up human pleasure centers. So why bother insisting on originality?  Even Damon Albarn, who really ought to know better, accused contemporary pop of being a center-free team sport. Sour, some of its supporters (!) argue, is a glittering example of the triumph of craft. There doesn’t need to be an author, because everything is so tightly assembled and beautifully performed. 

But wait a second: Sour does have an author, or a pair of authors, anyway.  It isn’t one of those pop albums made by a zillion contributors holed up in a compound in Hawaii.  It was created, almost in its entirety, by two people, one of whom is the star herself. Olivia Rodrigo isn’t exactly a rookie. She was the main character on the High School Musical television program, which you certainly didn’t watch, but which fluttered around the Disney Channel for a while. During that time, she sang a lot, and even did some writing, and those songs exhibit many of the same compositional and performance characteristics of her world-famous 2021 hits.

Those songs caught the attention of author number 2.  Daniel Nigro sprouted from the same fertile Long Island soil as Taking Back Sunday and Straylight Run: his old band, As Tall As Lions, split the difference between parking lot emo and schmaltzy, super-immediate Coldplay-ish pop-rock.  They were good, honestly; I remember seeing them at some wonderful-stupid emo blowout. (Probably in a parking lot). He caught on with another thirdwave-emo refugee — Ariel Rechtsheid, who is best known for his work with Haim and Vampire Weekend, but who I, an emo kid in old crank’s clothing, will always think of as the man behind Valencia’s amazing We All Need A Reason To Believe. As a Rechtsheid henchman, Nigro got to inject some Southern State Parkway grease into a few of the best pop records of the teens, including Carly Rae’s E-MO-TION and “I Blame Myself,” Sky Ferreira’s unbeatable declaration of autonomy through excoriation. 

This is exactly how Jack Antonoff wormed his way into command position — he parlayed his experience in a theatrical, over-the-top post-emo outfit into tight, sympathetic relationships with talented female pop singers. And in 2021, Nigro had a better year than Antonoff did.  “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” one of several numbers he co-wrote and co-produced on Caroline Polachek’s Pang album, caught fire on TikTok, and spawned a trillion dances and cover versions from Squirrel Flower and Waxahatchee. “Roots”, his track with Cautious Clay, was a neat demonstration of his flexibility. Then there was Sour, which he’s all over, playing nearly every instrument, programming the drums, producing the whole shebang, and sharing compositional credit with Olivia Rodrigo on everything but the back-to-back tearjerkers “Happier” and “Enough For You.” Others assist here and there, but this is mainly the Rodrigo-Nigro show, and Nigro’s particular sensibility and mallpunk attitude does lend the album some coherence. That Nigro, who is pushing 40, has conjured up these tales of high school betrayal with a girl half his age is a matter best left for his priest and his psychiatrist; what matters to us as fans of pop is that the collaboration is dynamite.

Nevertheless, they both should have known better. Nigro comes from an emo scene where everybody sounds rather similar, but nobody was ever trying to sound similar.  The Bamboozle belonged to kids who thought of themselves as geniuses, and whose songs, they believed, emanated from individual, inimitable souls.  The artists he worked with alongside Rechtsheid epitomize the pop star as auteur, especially the prolific Jepsen, who is the master of the invaluable trick of minting melodies that you think you’ve heard before, but are always hers alone. As for Rodrigo herself, she’s supposedly a Taylor Swift superfan. She didn’t just pick a songwriter for the ages to emulate. Her hero is the one who works out minute and ingenious variations on formula within some of the tightest compositional restrictions (those of country-pop, new wave, indie folk) ever invented. If you’ve got to know one thing about Taylor Swift, Damon, that’s the thing to know.

Olivia Rodrigo’s lyrics suggest that she’s either fully in on the joke, or the heist, or that she’s too close to her primary topics — imitation, and envy, and our envy of those we can’t help but imitate — to see things clearly. She can’t swerve away from the mimeograph; she’s consumed by jealousy-jealousy, and of course the things we criticize most fiercely about others are those things we hate the most about ourselves. One of the primary implications of Sour and other 2021 albums like it, including Ora Gartland’s under-appreciated Woman On The Internet, is that the social media game has scrambled our synapses so thoroughly that we have no choice but to walk around in a fugue state, desperately attempting to match the achievements of those whose like tallies are higher than ours. Obviously this is no way to live, and I’ll take Olivia Rodrigo’s word for it that many young people have fallen head first into this trap. The, er, rampant borrowing becomes both a cautionary tale and a metaphor: an actualization of the album’s themes, a token authenticating the star’s insecurity and paralysis. 

Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that all of that is bullshit — that Rodrigo is an actress, and by all evidence a very good one, and she’s playing at contrition for her copycat act and laughing, arm in arm with Daniel Nigro, all the way to the bank.  Every teacher who has ever caught a kid plagiarizing (which means every teacher) knows how the reaction goes.  First comes the bewilderment, then comes the stonewalling, then the tearful confession that they were just doing it to live up to impossible standards.  It’s all nonsense, of course. People plagiarize for one reason and one reason only: writing is hard. It’s far easier to be Lazy Gaga.

Which brings us back to my original question: why have we chosen to give Olivia Rodrigo a pass?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because of that very talent as an actress, which makes her a powerful pop singer, able to express desire, rage, and petulance in one continuous breath.  Your tolerance for overwrought teenagers might not be too high; as an arrested overwrought teenager myself, bawling over jilted love is and will always be right in my lane.  I also think that the questions of authenticity and sympathetic identification raised by Olivia Rodrigo’s best songs are interesting ones, and have much less to do with online competition than with the age-old race for attention.  She’s also incredibly adorable, a proper Filipina pan-de-sal bun of a human being: possibly the nicest-looking American pop star in decades, and in beauty is virtue and all of that. 

But mostly, I think this is what baseball fans refer to as a make-up call.  Many critics missed the boat, badly, on Taylor Swift and have been playing catch-up ever since; Pitchfork declined to review Red upon release, only to later place “All Too Well” atop its list of the best songs of the decade. Many of the fustier rockers among us dismissed her writing for years as little girl’s stuff, ignoring that the same was said about The Beatles, and Michael Jackson, and The Wizard Of Oz, and everything else that’s ever been worth paying attention to. Hayley Williams still hasn’t been properly recognized for what she is, and that’s because two of the four styles she manages to catalyze in the heat-furnace of her diaphragm are considered embarrassing to acknowledge an interest in. (I mean mallpunk and Christian Contemporary music; gospel and pop-soul are cool with everybody). As indispensable new acts cite Paramore as a primary influence, the critical neglect looks increasingly egregious.

Critics don’t want to miss again. We want to get into the elevator on the ground floor, so we’re going to look the other way. Unfortunately for us, Olivia Rodrigo isn’t Taylor Swift, or Hayley Williams, nor is she a visionary culture-scrambler like Kali Uchis, or somebody who is going to bend the tastes of the listening public in her direction through sheer obstinacy like Lana Del Rey did. She’s a little too palatable for any of that. This is somebody who comes along with a bag of seeds after other, braver artists have broken the ground, spills them, and gets some beautiful flowers to bloom. While there’s a lot of value in that, of course it matters that she’s well past the legal limit for biting in pop. Of course it’s a black mark on her record, and of course it means that she’s off to a shakier start than her idols and role models, no matter how many hits she’s scored. Of course it’s a little bit shameful, and as critics, we shouldn’t hesitate to point that out, and stand up for originality, which is now and always will be a real thing. And I will say so, loudly, right after I get this damned song out of my head:

Best Singles of 2021

Song Of The Year


Best Lyrics (Over The Course Of An Entire Album)

KRS-OneBetween Da Protests. We were having a pseudointellectual conversation about the political thinkers whose writing influenced our worldview, and while I’ve read everybody in the canon from Plato to Hegel to Arendt to Irigaray to the dude who wrote Tipping Point (not the one by the Roots), I had to admit that for me, the answer was Mr. Lawrence Parker from the South Bronx, the South South Bronx, and there wasn’t anybody close. The dynamics of power and the justifications given for its exercise that are outlined on “Illegal Business,” the Sex & Violence album, “Sound of the Police,” “Invader,” you name it, resonate so profoundly with my experience of life that I would be fronting, to use a very KRS word, to pretend that my guiding star was Amartya Sen or somebody like that. I mean, I doubt that guy can rap at all. Not a day goes by when I don’t apply a KRS-One lyric to a headline; sometimes I think the only good thing about following current events is that the news tends to get Boogie Down Productions songs caught in my head. KRS says a lot of crazy shit, and sometimes it seems like he’s just stirring the pot for his own ill amusement. But as the old autodidact just proved again on his umpteenth album, nobody slices up conceptual Gordian knots with the same skill as he does. Nobody believes in teaching, or heritage, or literacy, or peace, with any more ferocity. Nobody mixes up realism and idealism so audaciously, or shakes it up so vigorously, or lights the match and hurls it against the authorities with such glee. He’s been on a roll for about eight years now, and you probably didn’t notice, because he does not always bother to match the interesting sentiment with interesting sound. But if the words are powerful enough, and the vocalist is charismatic enough, sometimes, in very rare cases, once in a blue moon, lyrics are all you need.

Best Lyrics On A Single Song

Aubrey Graham doesn’t get much love for his lyrics, even as he continues to supply us with memorable ones. I think I know why. It’s because the guy won’t get out of our faces for forty seconds. There’s no way to get any historical perspective on Drake when there’s a new Drake quintuple-album project to digest every time you turn around. There’s a lot of Drake out there for you to sift through, and its not exactly hiding on the left of the dial. As a professional Drake-sifter, allow me to draw your attention to a mid-album stretch on Certified Lover Boy — roughly “Yebba’s Heartbreak” through “Get Along Better” — that contains some of the best writing he’s ever done. The ride peaks with “Race My Mind,” a song that is such an elegant restatement of major Drake themes (late night longing, interpersonal friction, romantic possession, ass-grabbing in the cluuuuub) that you might miss the specificity of the language, and the very real way it differs from other songs in his catalog. It’s an unsparing portrait of a man with an alcoholic girlfriend, and a close examination of his racing thoughts as he waits for her to get home from wherever she’s at, possibly in one piece, and possibly not. Drake nails everything about the experience: the loneliness, the blinding jealousy, the brief declarations of independence and autonomy that quickly resolve to fretting resumed, the flashes of clarity, the intimations of sudden death, the constant watching the window, the desperate prayers. Notice how the lyricist and the producer (the great Noah “40” Shebib) respond to each other; Drake keeping things recursive during the dreamier sections, repeating Drakish signifiers, and launching into gear when the beat smooths out and provides him a spacious lane to speed ahead on. Even as he’s stuck in one place, waiting for release. Does she make it back before sunrise? Does she make it back ever? He’ll keep checking that driveway, and pacing a groove in the floor.

Most Romantic Song

Courtney Barnett — “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”. Among other things, she understands separation anxiety.

Funniest Song

Black Country, New Road — “Sunglasses”. That singer, who isn’t even in the band anymore, can be a bit much, but I did laugh out loud when he set the high-strung, upper-class suburban scene like this: “with frail hands she grasps the Nutribullet”. That’s practically a Zach Lipez line. Also, I’m sure Zach hates this group.

Funniest Song About Which It’s Impossible To Explain Why It’s Funny

Cool Ghouls — “Look In Your Mirror”. This is a comically plaintive number about the narrator’s love for his car. The second verse goes “I rode the train/but it’s just/not the same/it belongs to everybody/not to me.” Makes me crack up every time. I think you’ve got to hear it to get it.

Most Frightening Song

Everything on By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Injury Reserve‘s requiem for group member Stepa J. Groggs, who died during the pandemic. Also, I admit that no matter how many times I play it, Any Shape You Take still makes my stomach drop. I don’t believe that Indigo De Souza really wants her boyfriend to kill her — at least I hope she doesn’t — but the part on “Bad Dream” where she sends up a hopeless entreaty to God always gives me the chills. It’s the way her voice breaks when she confesses that she’s having a hard time. In case you couldn’t tell.

Most Moving Song

Ka‘s “Need All Of That”. It’s the pain of institutional racism, and the residue of hundreds of years of discrimination and injustice, oozing out of an exhausted emcee’s wounds.

Most Moving Performance

Miranda Lambert — “Waxahachie”. Nobody tells a breakup story like she does. It’s that combination of venom and ache, that unquenchable desire to be held, and also to murder the motherfucker who broke her heart. You could drop the needle anywhere in her unbeatable discography, and you’d get it at once.

Sexiest Song

Mon Laferte — “Amado Mio”

Most Inspiring Song

I think I covered this yesterday, but my answer is “Hard Drive” by Cassandra Jenkins. An Overview On Phenomenal Nature might’ve made my Top 20 if it was just a wee bit longer.

Meanest Song, and also Most Disgusting Song

Sleaford Mods — “Shortcummings”. Not that Dominic Cummings didn’t deserve it, but the Sleaford guys really laid the jizz jokes on thick and goopy. I’m sure he’s been getting that all his life. Might just have driven him to join the Tories.

Saddest Song

Julien Baker — “Ringside”. It’s hard to evaluate Julien #3, because listening to it feels like rubbernecking. Little Oblivions is a brutally frank set narrated by a woman who is losing herself in the bottle and finds it impossible to arrest her slide. “You can either watch me drown/or try to save me as I drag you down”; that’s about the size of it. Billy Sunday said it long ago: there’s a place for beer and liquor, and that place is Hell. Nothing but the Devil at the bottom of that glass, Julien.

Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation

Gotta thank Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys for hypnotizing me with Hill Country blues covers on Delta Kream. I also loved Spanish Model, the reinterpretation of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model done, at Elvis’s request, in Español by Latin American singers. I may well have been the only one.

Least Believable Perspective On A Song

I don’t believe Halsey is a god. I’m pretty sure she’s a woman. Were she really a god, she wouldn’t pronounce it “gaaaaaahd.” Gods are all-powerful; they have better elocution that that. Unless she means she’s the god of the Grover Cleveland Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike. If she were, that would actually explain a lot.

Best Music Video

Because it pissed off the Moral Majority and precipitated some excellent Twitter quips, everybody went wild for Lil Nas X’s Satanic lapdance clip. And that is pretty great, but my queer three dollar bill is on the “Industry Baby” video instead. Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow subvert a bunch of prison clichés, send up Shawshank Redemption, bend over enthusiastically for the soap, and deck themselves out in some excellent pink jumpsuits. The gag, see, is that Lil Nas X has managed to turn the penitentiary flamboyantly gay from the inside, as this is his homosexual superpower, and the final crane shot of the dance in the prison yard and the Pride Parade breakout is so glorious that it almost makes you believe it’s possible.

Best Choreography In A Music Video

Usually, my Busby Berkeley dreams prompt me to tap something grand and over the top, but I really liked Ora Gartland’s humble pas de deux with her Internet role model in “More Like You.” She’s trying to make a statement about the futility of jealousy and social media copycattism, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t achieve what she set out to do.

Best Musical Moment Of 2021

It saddens me that the last sixty seconds of “Died In The Prison Of The Holy Office” by The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die is exactly what I was trying to do on my song “Midnight (Now Approaching)”. It gladdens me that somebody actually did it.

Best Line Or Rhyme

Drake says: the world is yours but the city is mine.

Worst Song Of The Year

Van Morrison — “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”. Dude really thinks we’ve got nothing better to do than to listen to him whine about his ex-wife’s profligacy. If he keeps this up, he’s going to get kicked out of the Hall of Fame.

Worst Singing

Rostam Batmanglij

Worst Rapping

The guy who busts into the remake of Natalia Lafourcade’s “Tu Si Sabes Quererme” and coughs all over the track. I realize Natalia feels that her songs are infinitely flexible, and maybe they are. But she’s pushing it.

Worst Instrumentalists


And While We’re At It

Matthew Sweet is an excellent songwriter. A one-man band he is not.

Worst Lyrics

Toby Keith — “Happy Birthday America”. Love it or leave it, pal.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should’ve Known Better

Jackson Browne — “My Cleveland Heart”

Worst Song On A Good Album

Weezer — “Precious Metal Girl”

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Guess who’s going to jaaaaail tonight?”

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

Ingram/Lambert/Randall — “Homegrown Tomatoes”. They really are delicious.

Okay, individual awards (and a heartfelt essay) tomorrow!