The Best of 2021
The five best singles of 2021, according to three writers and an spreadsheet formula.
KJC: The genius of those Shania Twain classics was her crafting songs with a pop structure using country instrumentation. I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to apply the Twain Cocaine formula to some new music.
“One Mississippi” is ridiculously catchy, utilizing a fiddle hook that became my most stubborn earworm of 2021. But Brown also cut his teeth on the new traditionalists from earlier in the nineties, so we also have clearly drawn characters that have specific experiences that explore universal emotions. The best of both nineties worlds.
Brown explores themes that were captured best in the following decade, when “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and “Need You Now” both leaned into the inevitable regret that would follow the drunk dial hookup. “One Mississippi” leans into the adrenaline rush of the hookup itself. He may be hurting tomorrow morning, but he’s going to love every minute of tonight. His enthusiasm is contagious.
Brown’s continuing development as a singer and songwriter make his 2022 set my most anticipated new release of the new year. If “One Mississippi” is any indication, it’s going to be a hell of a listen.
JK: What I love most about this record, and what makes it the year’s catchiest single by a good margin and one I enthusiastically voted for here, is that Brown understands how the natural cadences of language should align with the rhythm of a song. It’s a lesson a lot of Nashville songwriters– John Rich is the most egregious offender when it comes to this– have never learned, and it results in a lot of middling vocalists who emphasize the wrong syllables of words, and it drives me up the wall. The anticipation in Brown’s delivery of the line, “Are you on your way?” isn’t driven by the sleaze or entitlement of so many of his contemporaries but by a genuine excitement to see someone he knows is just as eager as he is. From the central hook all the way down the line, “One Mississippi” is youthful in all the best ways.
ZK: This one grew on me as the year progressed; that hook is catchy as sin. And, like with “Worship You,” Kevin now has me looking at this single from a new perspective, thanks to his comparison to “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.” It’s a familiar theme, but one tackled differently and with a driving sense of urgency that gives it its heartbeat. And … now my “catchy as sin” attachment makes too much sense to me.
“I Will Follow”
JK: What mainstream country music ought to have sounded like in 2021, Chapel Hart’s “I Will Follow” is a thrilling statement of intent that hinges on vocal harmonies that put even Little Big Town to shame and a glorious, unexpected interpolation of a familiar gospel tune. That it’s one of the year’s finest singles but only the fourth or fifth best track on their album is a testament to how massive this trio deserves to be. There’s no legit reason why “I Will Follow”– which just sounds like a hit– shouldn’t have shared space on radio playlists between quality offerings from, say, Lainey Wilson, Chris Stapleton, and Brothers Osborne, but the reasons why it didn’t are all too obvious.
KJC: What a gloriously infectious record. We just don’t get female harmonies like this as often as we should. The Chicks, The Judds, The Carter Family. The legacy is there. How wonderful it would be for Chapel Hart to sing their way onto that list, which they can do if they are given the opportunity.
ZK: An inspirational track that’s truly inclusive, adding a sense of realism to its stakes. Ergo, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your skin color is, you can’t let others’ perceptions of you dictate your chosen path in life; you’ve just got to follow the beat of your own drum. And Chapel Hart did it even one better by framing it as an absolutely infectious anthem with a deliriously catchy chorus and hook, all backed by a well-balanced mix of handclaps, sunny tones, excellent harmonies, and a solid bass groove to add driving momentum to a track brimming with exuberance.
“Never Wanted to Be That Girl”
Carly Pearce featuring Ashley McBryde
ZK: You get these two artists to collaborate, and it’s almost like cheating. Which is to say, this is a perfectly balanced duet, in which both characters find that they share the same significant other who’s been cheating on both of them, framed within the context of Pearce’s excellent 29: Written in Stone album. And, because that album focused just as much on Pearce’s own decisions in life as it did her divorce, there’s a sad beauty to this song. Both women will blame themselves for letting something like this happen even though it’s neither one’s fault, and there’s an unfortunate reality sketched there that gives the song its heartbreaking resonance. Country radio has screwed over both of these artists in the past, but I’m happy to see this one take off thus far.
KJC: Full disclosure (and spoiler alert for the 90’s singles feature): I loathe “Does He Love You.” With every fiber of my being.
“Never Wanted to Be That Girl” is how that conversation between wife and mistress should’ve gone. These are two women who know what to do with the information they’ve been made aware of, and proceed accordingly. That they’re both done with him is a given. That they’re also both walking out of this with hard lessons learned and without bitterness toward each other is a revelation.
Ashley McBryde is especially good here. Maybe Carly Pearce will accept McBryde’s Female Vocalist trophy for her in 2022.
JK: Trisha Yearwood recorded a cover of a killer Matraca Berg song– which is essentially fish-in-a-barrel for both of those two women– called “Your Husband’s Cheatin’ On Us” that I always wanted to hear as a reciprocal conversation between the two women in that story. What Pearce and McBryde offer here is a version of what that conversation might sound like, and it surprises at every turn for its candor, self-reflection, and compassion.
The maturity of this record is a wonder. Neither woman is shirking what she feels is her own responsibility, but neither are they wallowing in self-pity. And there’s no vilifying the other woman here, either, because they both recognize that they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and it’s unfair to hold someone in contempt for that. They’re not parting as friends here, but there’s a mutual understanding of a shared reality that came from two different perspectives. In 2021, something like that is a goddamn miracle.
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”
KJC: “All Too Well” was already heralded as Swift’s finest composition, making the top 100 recently of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” I expected this long-discussed ten minute version to be an interesting historical record, showing how an expert songwriter uses addition through subtraction, making the song stronger through the editing process.
I was wrong. “All Too Well” in its full ten minute form is a masterpiece, and it knocked me on my ass. We get a much fuller picture of this doomed relationship, with far more vulnerable details included this time around.
The walk-on appearance from her dad is particularly devastating: “You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes, sipping coffee like you were on a late night show. Then he watched me watch the front door just willing you to come, and he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun turning 21.’”
The potency of Swift restoring these details several years later is a poignant way of validating the experiences of her younger self and undoing the gaslighting that surrounded her throughout this period of her career, as each public breakup came coupled with some “shouldn’t have worn that dress”-style shaming of the way she was living her life.
Swift’s legacy as a legendary singer-songwriter is already secured. But this “reclaiming my narrative” era of her career is historic in its own right. “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)” just might be the pinnacle of this era.
JK: When I reviewed the original version of RED back in 2012, I described “All Too Well” as a “bloodletting.” However many hundreds upon hundreds of listens in the years since, that’s an assessment I stand fully behind, as the impact of its pivotal lines (“And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest”) only deepens with repetition. At the time of its release, it was the finest song in Swift’s catalogue, and, for as tremendous as her work has been in the interim, it remained so until the release of RED (Taylor’s Version) in the Sad Girl Fall of 2021.
The re-recording of “All Too Well” improves on its predecessor with a greater sonic heft to its arrangement and a rangier, more powerful vocal performance by Swift. But it’s the new “10 Minute Version” of “All Too Well” that highlights Swift’s full command of narrative. What’s revelatory about the song isn’t that Swift provides previously unreleased detail about the song’s central relationship– though the details, including the just brutal stanza about the narrator’s father that Kevin already referenced– it’s that the the structural changes she’s made to the song result in a shift in its tone. Essentially, she’s telling the same story– one that had become familiar– from a different perspective and with a different intent.
While the abridged version of “All Too Well” remains a masterclass in catharsis, driven by the narrator’s personal need to move forward, the “10 Minute Version” is about accountability and validation. In the song’s final moments, Swift explicitly invites her ex into her remembrance. “Just between us,” she whispers, “Do you remember it all too well?” Instead of making an accusations, she’s insisting that this man confess his crimes so that they can both move on. It’s an important shift in perspective, and it’s one that gives an already fascinating song new depth.
Whether or not it sounds like a country song, production-wise, matters even less to me than whether or not the song is about Jake Gyllenhaal– which, again, never mattered a whit. What matters is that “All Too Well” is, like so many of the greatest country songs, about how someone responds to being deeply wronged. And when a song is as brilliant as “All Too Well”– and, to be clear, this is a song that was already brilliant that is now even better– we should be eager to claim it for our own.
ZK: Full disclosure: “All Too Well” is likely my favorite Taylor Swift song, but it took my colleagues’ placement of this single here to get me to listen to the new version because, my God, it’s ten minutes long. How fitting, though, that a song in which Swift wants to go back before this heartbreak but can’t – because that’s how relationships will change a person – is now revisited and strengthened by the weight of history and Swift’s improvements as a singer. There are greater personal details on display compared to before, and while the adolescence of its time does mean I’d say Swift is writing stronger, more mature material now, this was the crowning moment in her discography then that elevated her to those new levels to begin with; it’s simply an improvement of a classic.
ZK: If “Black Myself” acted as both a reintroduction to Amythyst Kiah’s solo work and a reclamation of a long, violent history, “Wild Turkey” is the moment to look inward. In doing so, she delivers a pain and yearning so personal and vulnerable, that it rings like an anthem – especially on that final chorus – and captures a flurry of emotions from anger to grief and confusion reminiscent of Allison Moorer’s 2019 album Blood.
Framed around Kiah’s mother’s suicide, it’s a song where the scars settled long ago but didn’t quite manifest until years after the fact. It’s a search for forgiveness and empathy where said search may not be able to reverse the damage done, but can at least help to provide some vestige of closure. It’s harrowing, it’s difficult, and it’s delivered with a sobering directness, because she’s walled herself off from the pain for too long and knows she needs to face the past head-on if she wants to feel right again. It all adds a devastatingly relatable subtext for anyone trying to cope with a similar level of pain, and it made an easy selection for Country Universe’s top single of 2021.
JK: It’s often said that country music is fundamentally about storytelling. I’ve never bought that entirely; instead, I’d posit that, at its best, country music is about empathy. And I cannot think of a finer example of that to represent 2021 than Amythyst Kiah’s “Wild Turkey.”
There’s not a single detail of “Wild Turkey” that offers me a direct point of entry into Kiah’s story; it’s so divergent from my own experiences that to center myself in any of it feels selfish and lurid. Because Kiah is such a remarkable songwriter, even though this story is in no way mine, I still find myself affected by “Wild Turkey” for its vulnerability and its insistence that confronting trauma is essential for survival. Kiah knows that, no matter how many times you might tell yourself an answer (here, it’s the refrain of, “She’s never coming back”), that still doesn’t guarantee that the answer is easy.
But life isn’t always easy. Country music, when it’s doing what it does best, isn’t easy, either. And “Wild Turkey” captures both life at its most difficult and country music at its absolute best.
KJC: So much of the best music of 2021 has been crafted through exploring traumatic events of the past. It’s as if this pandemic left us alone with our thoughts enough to have no choice but to engage with past trauma, or maybe it’s just that trauma has been so widespread in recent years that there’s a better climate for wrestling with it than there has been in the past.
“Wild Turkey” explores about as difficult a traumatic event as anyone can experience. Kiah’s greatest gift as a songwriter and performer is knowing how to use repetition effectively, so that every time the same line or phrase is repeated, its impact has been altered by the lyrics surrounding it.
In “Black Myself,” it was the title that served that role. On “Wild Turkey,” it’s the gut-wrenching line, “She’s never coming back,” which grows in potency with every revelation shared throughout the song.
We used to talk about country music being “three chords and the truth.” How well it’s lived up to that motto over the years is debatable, but the power of a simple arrangement and a truth-telling lyric is on full display here. These are the artists who we need to hold on to for dear life.
The Best of 2021