I’m back for my fourth rendition of annual anthems. Songs that defined my year, whether it be through a period of obsession or a strong personal association to a moment or relationship. It’s more archival than evaluative—a way for me to track my moods and obsessions as I move through time, not a way for me to list songs that are “good”.
I don’t think this was my best music year. I enjoyed a handful of live concerts, which marked the highlights of my year, but I didn’t really discover or expand beyond what I was already listening to. I also noticed I’ve been listening more for the music and less for the lyrics. I used to judge songs primarily as pieces of text, but there’s a lot of songs on this year’s list for which I can’t name a single lyric I like. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Anyway, here’s my 2021 dozen, in rough chronological order of when I listened to them. (Here’s the Spotify playlist.)
1. R.O.D. – from COUP D’ETAT by G-DRAGON (feat. Lydia Paek)
Anyone who hung out with me in Seoul at the beginning of 2021 has heard me admit that I’d developed my very first (and very fleeting) k-pop obsession. I had never been able to get into “idol music” and its overly produced/reproduced sound—so much k-pop exists just to serve an aesthetic. But G-Dragon just does his own thing: he’s iconic and irreplaceable. Artist before celebrity, rapper before k-pop star, singer-songwriter before Big Bang member. And no song was on repeat more times than “R.O.D.” this January. It might be difficult not to cringe at G-Dragon’s rap voice if you haven’t listened to him before, but “R.O.D.” evokes so much drama and rebellion in a big-budget Hollywood way that I can’t help but lose myself in its story sometimes.
Favorite lyric: none. The beat is really addicting though.
2. Nothing Burns Like the Cold – from Nothing Burns Like the Cold by Snoh Aalegra (feat. Vince Staples)
One of my fondest memories of 2021 is all the time I got to spend being a young person in Seoul with a lot of time on my hands. There was a period when I was spending almost every weekend on the rooftop of my favorite bar, familiar cocktail in hand, sitting across old friends. This is a song they played on one of those weekends, and I was pleasantly tipsy at the time. I love the city. I love everyone I ever met at that bar and all the art I shared and created there. All the aspirations built over half-drunken conversations. I love music that’s fastened to moments.
Favorite lyric: “cause we live in the time of make-believe”
3. So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky – from The Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy
I can’t pretend my time in Seoul was all bustling city fun. A lot of it was melancholy. A lot of it was just waiting for better times to come around. I listened to this song countless times in transit, on my way to and from work or errands, feeling like I’ve perpetually been in transit for a year or so. Not knowing how much longer I’d feel that way.
Favorite lyric: the whole song
4. Hopefulessness – from Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett
This song feels like an appropriate follow-up to the last, striking a similar chord but leaning more on the optimistic side. I listened to “Hopefulessness” extensively while preparing for my transition back to school, back into the rhythm and progress of life I’d taken a long departure from. The instrumentals are slow and sparse to start, and gradually build through small ruptures that eventually push the music into an intense and immersive space that completely transports me every time. If I had to pick a single song for the entire year, this would be it. “Hopefulessness” still makes me feel like I’m headed somewhere. In motion, on the cusp of something, ready for something bigger.
Favorite lyric: “I’m getting louder now / getting louder now”
5. Opening – from the Carol soundtrack by Carter Burwell
Movie theaters in Seoul were almost empty in the beginning of the year, and I made a hobby out of frequent solo visits. Carol is one of the best things I watched during that time, and can vividly reconstruct the moment I walked out of the neighborhood mall after watching it. The vast concrete of Yeongdong-daero stretching in both directions, Seoul at its most angular and surreal. “Opening” playing through my headphones. I felt small; swallowed up; part of a grand narrative.
Favorite lyric: none (obviously)
6. Fantasy – from All ‘N All by Earth, Wind & Fire
A question I’ve met multiple times upon my return to school was whether I could name a “best thing that happened because of the pandemic”. My answer is easily the extra time spent with family. I went on multiple road trips with my parents, and I often demanded the role of in-car DJ. Sometimes, I’d get worried that they were sick of my music, and I’d ask them to play something they liked instead. I instantly enjoyed “Fantasy” when my Dad put it on during a nighttime drive. I love knowing his music taste overlaps with mine, and I love hearing them recall life in the 80’s and 90’s.
Favorite lyric: none
7. Call It Fate, Call It Karma – from Comedown Machine by The Strokes
This kind of has to make the list, because it was my most-played song of the year. I love its idling tenderness and don’t have much else to say about it. I guess it’s also funny that I was supposed to see The Strokes live at a music festival this year, and a ticketing mishap left me deprived of the experience. I was jealous to hear that they opened their set with this song, but I’m content knowing I’m saving my joy for a solo tour somewhere down the road.
Favorite lyric: “Can I waste all your time / here on the sidewalk?”
8. Venus Fly Trap – from Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land by MARINA
I can’t emphasize how much time I spent listening to MARINA (then called “Marina and the Diamonds”) in middle school. I got such a thrill when I saw that she released a new album this year, and while the songs lack the kind of sharp and sarcastic lyricism I remember from eighth grade, the familiar electropop beats were enough to keep me entertained for hours alone in my room. MARINA is at her most banal with her lyrics in this song, and it honestly annoys me on most days. But it makes the list for a single, 3-second moment that briefly reminds me of the brash, unapologetic intensity that I used to love about her. It’s when the music changes as she sings “I should be motherfuckin’ crazy”. It’s unexplainably addicting to hear that line—and I believe her. I believe that she feels her sanity to be a miracle, something that surprises her each day she wakes up and chooses to stay in the industry.
Favorite lyric: obviously “I should be motherfuckin’ crazy”
9. The Gold – from A Black Mile To The Surface by Manchester Orchestra (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)
Lyrically speaking, this is my favorite song on this list. It’s one of those songs that originate from a background and narrative so far from my own (mine references?) and yet have such a powerful hold on me. “The Gold” could be a poem, and I would read it over and over again.
Favorite lyric: “You and me, we’re a day drink”
10. Savior Complex – from Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
I usually try to avoid repeating an artist in the same list, but nothing can be done about the fact that she featured on one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra songs and also happened to play in Berkeley this fall. It was a gorgeous concert and I had so much fun. I already named my favorite track from this album on last year’s list, but “Savior Complex” was a song I didn’t pay much attention to until I listened to it live. She sounded angelic and the intro put me in such a mood. It’s also nice not having a visceral reaction to the phrase “savior complex” anymore.
Favorite lyric: “crocodile tears / run the tap ’till it’s clear”
11. Feeling Myself – from Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice
Seeing Wolf Alice live was the single best evening of 2021. I had been obsessed with “Feeling Myself” since its release earlier in the year, and I went absolutely crazy when they began playing it. The song plays out in perfect alignment with my personal formula: a slow burn to start, followed by a crashing cascade of dramatic sounds. It helps that it was Halloweekend, and my journey to and from the concert hall was cinematic in itself. Exhausted on Caltrain with a good friend, sharing fries from Denny’s, makeup smudged, dressed like the girls we want to be. Loud partygoers sitting around us, costumed and playing 00’s pop. A Blue Weekend of our own.
Favorite lyric: none
12. Kokomo, IN – from Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast
I don’t know how to write about this song. Living the most beautiful November. Resenting Jordan. Pulsing circles of colorful lights. Michelle Zauner skipping around the stage with more energy I had been able to muster in the past two years. Reaching for someone; finding them.
Favorite lyric: “passing time just popping wheelies”