The Best of 2021
#20-#16 | #15-#11 | #10-#6 | #5-#1
Let’s have a conversation about the twenty best singles of 2021.
ZK: Morgan Wade’s debut single is explosive in more ways than one, sporting one of the most infectious hooks of the year along with a generally atmospheric, rollicking high that encapsulates its free-spirited energy from beginning to end. Songs about troubled pasts are nothing new in country music, but there’s a sense of mature framing here in learning from that past and finding ways to move beyond it while also learning more about ourselves along the way. Sometimes we need those wilder days to find better tomorrows.
KJC: There’s a sadness to Wade’s performance that suggests a concern that they might be meeting at the wrong time, as if she’s worried that she’d have been more appealing to him if his wilder days were still underway. Maybe she needs a secret of his to hold on to before she feels safe sharing her own.
JK: Confession time: I had “Wilder Days” in the mix for my own ballot but ended up hedging my bets that it would be more of a 2022 hit based on the fact that it was pushed to radio in October and, despite the pivot to Christmas and year-end programming, has gotten some real traction. As of this writing, it’s top 50 with a bullet, and what a wondrous thing it will be if a single like this actually gets embraced by country radio. Wade is one to watch as we move further into the new year.
“Harlem River Blues”
Steve Earle & The Dukes
JK: “Tell my mama I love her / Tell my father I tried,” was always the most fraught line in all of Justin Townes Earle’s exceptional catalogue, especially in the context of a gospel rave-up on which he sings of drowning himself at a moment when he’s most confident he’s in the Lord’s good graces. Hearing JTE’s actual father, Steve, sing that line in the aftermath of his untimely death? It just rips my heart out. It’s the most emotionally resonant thing Steve Earle has committed to record in decades, but at what a cost.
ZK: Truthfully, I didn’t take a deep-dive into Justin Townes Earle’s discography until after his passing, but it doesn’t take much to understand the weight behind this tribute – even if it is one of Earle’s most rollicking songs. Even still, Jonathan highlights why it cuts here nonetheless. And then, when everyone comes together in those final few moments … well, it’s another reason why it’s one of Steve Earle’s finest performances in years.
KJC: I can’t even begin to unpack the pathos of this record, so I’m thankful that my colleagues have already done so. So I’ll focus instead on the joy of this record, with the death by drowning feeling like a glorious release instead of an unfortunate demise. If Earle has any doubt that his son has finally found peace, he doesn’t show it here.
ZK: Trying to decode Pony Bradshaw’s work feels like an exercise in futility, mostly because his distinctly rural framing forces listeners to see his complicated characters not through the stereotypes associated with them, but as … well, people. The devil’s in the fine details, from the accented strumming that opens the song that carries a punchy, folksy rollick to it alongside the galloping percussion that evolves into an even faster-paced stomper by its end. Heady in terms of its framing, but anthemic nonetheless.
JK: What a fantastic pick this is, Zack. This one was not on my radar prior to compiling my own list, but it’s right in my wheelhouse. What I loved most about Dopesick was its rounded portrayals of rural Americans who are so often condescended to in popular culture, and Bradshaw’s songwriting here strikes the exact same chord.
KJC: I love the stripped down simplicity of this track. It sounds like something from many long days gone by, thanks to Bradshaw’s phrasing and choice of arrangement. But the lyrics are contemporary and relevant, and do a better job of capturing the true isolation and sense of being overlooked that exists in America, far better than any of the Coca-Cola cowboys on the radio have been able to do.
KJC: This song was already done perfectly on the Our Native Daughters album, so it’s a testament to the strength of the composition and Kiah’s presence as a performer that her solo version of it is actually better. In the original recording, the final verse comes as a surprise moment of empowerment. In this new recording, Kiah’s performance throughout makes the triumphant ending feel like a logical conclusion. This is her story and she tells the hell out of it.
ZK: We were first introduced to the single in 2019, but Amythyst Kiah reclaims this song about, fittingly, reclamation as her own, and with an incendiary presentation, to boot. It’s all to strengthen an already explosive song – one where Kiah works around the constraints thrust upon her identity, thereby recording the definitive version of this song.
JK: Picking between the version from the Our Native Daughters release and this re-recording is an exercise in futility: I love them both, and in different ways. What surprised me most about this single when I first heard it back in the Spring was, well, that it still surprised me at all. That’s a credit to the forcefulness of Kiah’s performance– the way she snarls, “I pick the ban-jah up, and they laugh at me,” is just thrilling.
“Let ‘Em Burn”
Emily Scott Robinson
ZK: As an album American Siren operates as a constant battle and test of one’s faith, forcing its characters to question everything they knew about the life they’ve lived thus far and the rules they’ve followed, with “Let ‘Em Burn” acting as its beautiful centerpiece. On paper, it’s a spare piano ballad, but one where the production magnifies it to become a beautifully transcendent and sweeping anthem – if only for the character in question – from the perspective of a married woman who sees her life and religion as empty. She’s followed every rule and has set the good example for her own daughter, but it’s also reached a breaking point for her. With a line like “what if desire is a gift and not a sin,” however, it’s also as much a cry for help as it is a way of holding out hope for something more. And if it takes burning it all away to find salvation, let the flames fly.
KJC: I think what makes this work best is the understated delivery. Like Zack says above, she’s having an epiphany, and she’s on the cusp of acting on this newly potent inner voice. She’s ready to let the flames fly, but she hasn’t struck the match yet. There were moments on this where I thought she was going to go full Adele, but she never did, and good on her. This way works so perfectly with the lyrics.
JK: God, she’s good. I loved Robinson’s previous outing, and it was only due to work obligations that American Siren remained on my “To Listen To” playlist as the clock ran out on 2021. This song motivates me to correct that, stat. What a wonder Robinson’s word choices are, and what a powerful statement of purpose this is. Another killer choice by Zack.
The Best of 2021
I am really liking the new trend of artists re-recording their songs in different/slightly different styles/arrangements. I went back to listen to Our Native Daughter’s “Black Myself” and I feel like the solo recording added significant value to the original.
There is a clear difference between a remix, acoustic version, live recording, and some of the reinventions or companion pieces that artists have been putting out. They come off as genuine outings to share with fans rather than cash grabs, or content dumps we have seen in the past.
I have also immensely enjoyed Jack White’s two versions of Taking Me Back, Taylor Swift’s 10-Minute version(s) of All Too Well, The Bruce Springsteen version of the Killer’s Dustland. I would even put Steve Earle’s project in this category because of the significance of the recordings after such a tragedy.
Can’t wait to see the rest of the list!