The Best of 2021
#20-#16 | #15-#11 | #10-#6 | #5-#1
We enter the top ten of our year-end singles list.
KJC: Willie Jones effectively delivers on the promise that Lil Nas X teased us with on “Old Town Road.” Effortlessly weaving together elements of country, rock, soul, and hip-hop, “American Dream” is a patriotic anthem for Americans who love a country that doesn’t always love them back. I recommend the entire Willie Jones album wholeheartedly, and this is its centerpiece.
JK: Not to put too fine a point on it, but if a single with the exact production of “American Dream” were released by any of mainstream country’s current A-listers– let’s say, for whatever reason, Jason Aldean or Morgan Wallen– it would fly up the charts. It’s a perfect example of how traditional country instrumentation can work brilliantly in the context of hip-hop and of how the cadences of hip-hop lend themselves just as brilliantly to the type of storytelling that exemplifies country music. Add to that the specificity of Jones’ outrage at how hard he has to kick just to claim his rightful place, and “American Dream” makes for one of the most powerful anthems of the last year. And, like Kevin, I’ll vouch for Jones’ entire album; he’s a major talent.
ZK: My colleagues have already excellently examined the roots of Jones’ justifiable anger here, and all I can add is that I love how direct and focused “American Dream” sounds throughout its run. Never once does it let up, reminding us that there’s still so much progress left to make. It dropped way in the beginning of 2021, but if you remember certain events swirling around country music around that time … well, you understand why it still resonates.
“French Summer Sun”
ZK: In a career that carries songs like “Barabbas,” “Daylight & Dark,” and “40 Years,” among others, “French Summer Sun” just may be Jason Eady’s finest work to date. And it gets there through little more than buzzy acoustics, Eady’s conversational, lived-in tone, and spoken-word poetry that earns comparisons to the late Tom T. Hall. Suffice it to say, this is a song where the writing takes the spotlight and everything else forces the listener to hang on to every word, a war-time story that follows a soldier who miraculously avoids death in battle, returns home to start a family, and watches his family continue to grow with a grandson – a character Eady plays here. And, rather than glorify a familial obligation to service, Eady’s character finds his own way and makes it as a teacher, contributing to the world in a different – but no less valid – way.
And then – spoiler alert – it’s revealed that that solider actually didn’t escape death, and that all of those characters and lives that Eady humanized never actually lived or happened, ripping away the veneer of the harsher consequences behind war. It’s a gripping reminder of how it will always take more than just one life, and that Eady lends each character their own parts to play within the story without regard to keeping things short for the sake of time is what drives the ending truly home.
JK: I’ve voted for Eady several times in our year-end features, but his latest is on my “Notably Missed” list alongside the Emily Scott Robinson album we covered in our first entry. And, again, this selection makes me want to rectify that oversight right away. Eady’s always been a masterful storyteller, and what’s fascinating about “French Summer Sun” is that Eady manages to pull off an act of narrative slight-of-hand that feels earned, rather than manipulative. I could see how some might interpret the song as jingoistic, but I think the more intimate, personal scope of the song keeps this song grounded and human.
KJC: Spoiler alert, indeed. Eady does some masterful storytelling here, with both timelines being poignant in their own way, and both of them expressing the consequences of war. Sometimes those consequences are felt for generations. Sometimes, they are enough to make generations come to an end.
“At Least There’s No Babies”
Brit Taylor featuring Dee White
JK: A single that feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between two young adults not quite mature enough to work out their shit but mature enough to cut their losses without being cruel about it. Taylor’s phrasing is extraordinary, and this fills in nicely while we await White’s sophomore album.
KJC: Reba McEntire once sang, “If it was only you and me, goodbye might come more easily. But what about those babies down the hall?” That was nearly forty years ago, and it has taken this long for a breakup song to acknowledge that blessing embedded in not having those babies down the hall. Breaking up is hard enough already without kids in the mix. Kudos to Taylor and White for finding this silver lining and singing about it.
ZK: Perhaps the best song in either artist’s catalog, as of this writing. But they’re so young and talented, that it’s only a matter of time before they somehow transcend it. Still, my colleagues have already examined why this is an excellently crafted divorce song – where the relationship sketched is utterly dead. I love the cut-throat intimacy of the presentation through the production and performances that strengthens the content itself. There may be no anger present, but to breathe a genuine sigh of relief for an unhappy ending … I mean, damn.
“Dirt Around the Tree”
Candi Carpenter featuring Brandi Carlile
KJC: What to do about our poisoned roots? Understanding what feeds intergenerational trauma is essential to breaking cycles of abuse, neglect, and dysfunction. “Dirt Around the Tree” weaves a powerful metaphor in service of these foundational ideas of trauma-informed care, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write in a year-end singles blurb, but here we are.
Country music has successfully engaged with societal taboos since its inception, and here, Carpenter tousles with one that undercuts so much of the misty-eyed nostalgia about family and times gone by that the genre traffics in: Sometimes, home isn’t where the heart is, and even when you leave, the hurt follows you wherever you go.
JK: The overarching theme of 2021’s strongest music is trauma: After the last two Plague Years, how could it be anything else? This duet between two of the most powerful voices in country music focuses on cycles of generational trauma and how, even when you think you’re doing the best you can, it’s always there, just under the surface. One of the biggest hits of the last few years says, “If the bones are good, the rest don’t matter.” Carpenter and Carlile counter that, if the roots are rotten, the rest don’t matter. What makes “Dirt Around the Tree” so powerful, then, is that Carpenter and Carlile argue that it’s worth fighting like hell to heal yourself anyway.
ZK: I’ll say it – this team-up deserved better than a four-song EP. Candi Carpenter has remained an exceptional talent since at least 2016’s “Burn the Bed,” and that she isn’t so much more well-known is damn-near criminal. At any rate, this may be her best work to date, bolstered by its terrific mandolin work and its capture of a mood that’s equally as optimistic for what’s ahead as it is afraid of a dark past best left behind. It’s quaint in the sense that Carpenter’s lived-in tone is at the forefront of the mix and emphasizes her understated delivery and the content, but underpinned by a sense of grace and forgiveness for herself as she reconciles past decisions.
“Sober & Skinny”
JK: Most of what’s been written about Spencer to date focuses on her vocal prowess– which, yes— while overlooking what a powerful and distinctive voice she already has developed as a songwriter. “Sober & Skinny” is a masterstroke of layered ironies, as Spencer pleads with her lover that their relationship will improve if he stops drinking and she loses some weight, knowing exactly how hard it is to do either of those things and how many times they’ve failed already. It’s a mournful couples therapy session that Spencer sings with empathy and wisdom.
KJC: This is a relationship epiphany if they’re willing to lean into it. Spencer is breaking the cycle of her partner criticizing her weight and her criticizing their drinking, and realizing that they are both trying to feed their hungry hearts, to borrow from the late, great K.T. Oslin. Her willingness to own her own vices opens the door for her partner to do the same.
ZK: And to think it all started with a Highwomen cover. “Sober & Skinny” is both the proper introduction into Brittney Spencer’s discography and an absolutely wonderful relationship track, where both parties resort to their own vices of drinking and overeating to cope with financial and mental issues and can’t see that all they’re really doing is tearing each other apart – as it usually goes, sadly. It’d be easy to frame it all as a ship going down, but I like that Spencer frames it as a connection (or rather, reconnection) with her partner and plea for empathy not just for them, but for anyone else in a similar situation. She doesn’t have the solution just yet, but she’s starting to work toward it, and that’s sometimes the biggest step of all.
The Best of 2021
Willie Jones’ “American Dream” was 2021’s best executed stab for mainstream penetration of the black experience into country music today – both sonically and cinematically. The video is breathtakingly modern and forward looking while the song simultaneously explores a too old and too painful past. The whole production crackles with the energy of a live broadcast.
As for its country credentials, all the country visual signifiers are there in Jone’s imaging: the hat, the tank-top t-shirt, the old microphone on the desk. I think using the radio as the medium for the young boy’s discovery of the song/message is amazingly smart and country even as the video plays out as an action packed anime, speaking as purposefully to children as to adults.
It is certainly a country trope to pass wisdom from the older generation to the new, from the old man to the young man. Country music history is full of these conversations and stories in song. This song’s brilliance rests in its confidence to challenge the assumptions, inclusivity, and perspective of those earlier country conversations.
Lyrically, the song pops and runs with the brilliant wordplay both hip-hop and country celebrate at their best. Jones manages to tilt the tension of holding those two tradition in balance toward the country.
This song is complex and brilliant enough to be used as an educational tool. It’s a genre crosser and a conversation starter. The song warrants repeated listens and the video repeat viewings.
I think this song didn’t sell because it rang Nashville’s bell too openly and honestly and showed us what a crack in liberty still sounds like today.