The Best of 2021
#20-#16 | #15-#11 | #10-#6 | #5-#1
KJC: This isn’t quite my favorite record of 2021, but it’s the most important one for me. Earlier this year, I attempted to re-engage with mainstream country radio artists. I was knocking out a batch of single reviews, and I heard this, and it scrambled my wires.
I can’t say that I thought Kane Brown was bro country, so I wrote him off. I honestly didn’t know much about him at all when I clicked “Play” on “Worship You.” I wasn’t even an instant convert. I’m fairly certain it was “Be Like That” which got me to take a chance and buy Mixtape Vol. 1.
But over time, I’ve only fallen in love with it more. If this catches me at the wrong (right?) time, I’ll tear up. It’s such a beautiful statement of devotion, and such a beautiful country song to boot. The fiddle is as much the antidote for the sound of mainstream country as the sentiment is an antidote for the toxic masculinity at the root of mainstream country.
ZK: I’ve loved Kevin’s love for Kane Brown all year – it’s wonderful to watch a writer get so passionate about an artist! I, admittedly, wasn’t sold on this single at first, but I do think the delivery and intent separate it from other songs in this vein. Like Kevin, I’m trying to re-engineering with mainstream country music, and Brown is a bright spot thus far in that regard.
JK: Kevin’s transformation into a Kane Brown Stan has been one of my favorite developments of 2021, and– spoiler alert– there’s at least one example of how I’ve found that enthusiasm to be contagious. “Worship You” isn’t the Brown single that really connected me with me this year, but I do think it’s a terrific example of how Brown’s perspective differs in some critical ways from that of so many of the other men who are dominating country radio. In an absolute sense, it shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise to hear a country A-lister whose music doesn’t betray an utter contempt for women, but that’s part of where we are in 2021, so, for that, I am beyond grateful to Kevin for inspiring me to listen to Brown’s music with a more open mind!
Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
JK: The idea that the powers-that-be on Music Row silenced a voice as extraordinary as Miko Marks’ for well over a decade is a damning indictment of the genre’s entrenched white supremacism; it’s both maddening and predictable. And my God, what a voice Marks has. There’s the tiniest catch in her phrasing in the second chorus of “Hard Times” that made the hair of my arms stand on end the first time I heard it… and on every single one of the hundred-plus listens since.
ZK: This is so lovely, rich, and warm from beginning to end, which all strengthens the song’s hopeful optimism for better days ahead. “Hard times come again no more” – you believe Miko Marks when she sings that, and it’s a perfect rallying cry to carry into 2022.
KJC: “Hard Times” is a perfectly malleable standard, as applicable to working class economic strife as it is to the current pandemic. The song takes on an additional potency with Miko Marks at the mic, as she channels the unique hard times shouldered by Black Americans, long after most of the rest of us have put our signs down and faded into the background again, leaving those burdens to be shouldered alone. As she lets loose vocally toward the end of the track, it’s as if she knows that nobody else is coming to help her, so she is left to bargain with the hard times themselves, looking for mercy.
“I Bet You Think About Me”
Taylor Swift featuring Chris Stapleton
JK: It’s the most overtly country song in her catalogue. That doesn’t, by default, make it the best– stay tuned!– but that certainly makes it the most interesting to hear at this juncture in Swift’s career. 2021 had so many cultural villains that I don’t care whether or not this song is “about” Jake Gyllenhaal. But the antagonist of this song, whoever he may or may not be, is subjected to one of the most savage line readings I’ve ever heard: When Swift drawls out, “You, in your house / With your organic shoes,” it sounds like a justifiable homicide steeped in the kind of class conflict that country music does so very well, and it made me blaspheme out loud while driving in my car the first time I heard it.
KJC: This song is hilarious, and it works so much better because it’s so many years removed from the feelings that inspired it. There’s something so subversively funny about putting Chris Stapleton on a throwback to young love’s angst. I dare say that “Mean” edges it out as her most overtly country song, but as with many of the bonus tracks on Red (Taylor’s Version), “I Bet You Think About Me” is a reminder of how well Swift had mastered the genre just as she left it behind.
ZK: “It works so much better because it’s so many years removed from the feelings that inspired it.” This is probably what holds it back for me personally – in that the distance between feels a bit jarring as a whole to hear now. Buuuuut, I’m still excited to see a “new” Taylor Swift song climbing the country charts again, and with harmonica and Chris Stapleton as added bonuses; can’t complain about that!
Joshua Ray Walker
ZK: A song that absolutely gutted me the first time I heard it and every time since. It’s framed as a difficult goodbye between Joshua Ray Walker and his dying, nonverbal father, where Walker wishes for one last show of affection from a man who can’t afford to be that vulnerable, even in a moment that calls for it. The goodbye will have to come in what’s left behind rather than what’s said, which will, ultimately, stick more, like it or not. The thing is, when you’re like me and know someone who hung onto that sort of stubborn pride right down to the very end, you understand the weight of what a few last words can mean, both then and afterward. I’m glad Walker could be this vulnerable with his own audience.
JK: I had a different Walker track– “Sexy After Dark”– in the mix for my own ballot, but am I ever delighted that he made our final list. “Flash Paper” is certainly a more substantive choice for Walker, at that, and a fine showcase for what makes him such a compelling new voice in country music. As Zack said, it’s Walker’s vulnerability that makes “Flash Paper” so remarkable. I say this, knowing that it’s the highest of praise: This track is of a piece with Patty Loveless’ “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” when it comes to how country music addresses the peculiarities of grief.
KJC: I voted for a third track – his bewitching cover of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” What a versatile and vital talent he is. My colleagues capture the power of the lyrics well, so I’m going to comment on what he does here as a vocalist: finding the musicality in the guttering wail of grief. He manages to turn the graveside scream into a flawless bluegrass yodel. I’ve never heard anything like it on record before.
KJC: Carly Pearce talks often about the inspiration she takes from the nineties country she grew up with. The music she’s making now reminds me most of Matraca Berg, as both a singer and a songwriter.
“Next Girl” hits that sweet spot between empowerment and vulnerability, and I love that she never takes her eye off of the target. This warning is coming from someone who genuinely doesn’t want the next girl to be hurt by her ex-lover, and that compassion remains centered throughout the song.
ZK: Not the first time I’ll mention this, but watching this stall just within the top 15 while “Whiskey and Rain” climbed nearly all the way to the top is damn-near criminal. Not quite the most damning moment on Carly Pearce’s latest album, but between the solid groove, cleverly written lyrics and incendiary hook, it’s certainly among its most direct. Kevin’s comparison to Matraca Berg is spot on, and I’m thrilled that Pearce both earned those comparisons to her heroes and came into her own as an artist in 2021.
JK: There’s such skill in the writing of “Next Girl,” in how Pearce balances two separate and potentially competing emotional beats, without resulting in a song that whiplashes between them. She directs a real sense of ire toward her ex for his sleaze– there’s a good 1000 words I could write about the significance of the, “Knows how to get you out of that dress,” line in the chorus– while also telling a cautionary tale that’s grounded in genuine empathy and solidarity. Not for a second does she judge or vilify the woman she’s singing this to– in as much as she is very clearly also singing this to her former beau– and that lack of judgment is why the song works so well.
The Best of 2021
My favorite part of the Taylor song is the self-awareness at the end with “Oh my god, she’s insane, she wrote a song about me”. Cracked me up the first time I heard it.