Happy New year, and happy new 2021 music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2021 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
This is my first full year in quite a while with no album assignments — that project remains on semi-permanent hiatus while we continue to deal with what’s thrown at us. In its place, I really dove into Spotify this year, trying out random playlists from all over the place to find new songs to love. Several of those show up in this mix, along with stalwart favorites like Neko Case, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks. This was also the year my iPod finally gave up the ghost, and I kept my listening records in Spotify rather than iTunes, though I sometimes had to make notes about what was missing.
As usual, I tried to craft the mix with a bit of flow to it, an art that relies much more on the gut than the head. Sometimes songs would join up like puzzle pieces, based on a sound or a mood or a theme. Gradually those joined up pieces accumulated until they made bigger pieces, which eventually fit together like tectonic plates — not seamless but close enough. By the time the order was finalized, I felt like it told a story, which is the best I can hope for these mixes. Here are my stories behind the songs.
1. Muse – Apocalypse Please
On January 1, I posted the liner notes from last year’s mix, ending with the words, “Here’s to a brighter 2021.” Five days later, United States senators were dropping to the floor of the chamber, hiding under tables, and attempting to crawl to safety as a mob of armed lunatics stormed the Capitol building, beating the crap out of cops while waving “thin blue line” flags. To me, it felt pretty apocalyptic. I never thought I’d live through a coup attempt in my own country, especially one that felt more driven by nihilism and stupidity than any particular revolutionary philosophy. So much for a brighter 2021.
2. Pink Floyd – Goodbye Blue Sky
I love the gently sinister feeling of this song, the pretty voices mixing with the stark words. “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on” really captures a 2021 feeling for me. During the Trump presidency, every day felt like it brought fresh horrors, and this year didn’t feel like that, thank god. But there’s still so much pain happening — the never-ending pandemic (thanks for that by the way, unvaccinated people), the economy struggling to deal with new realities, the ongoing partisan nastiness lurking around every corner, and a world that just seems to keep getting hotter. When Dante heard this mix, he asked me if this song was meant to refer to the way that all summer, wildfire smoke clouded the sky. I hadn’t thought of that connection, but it sure fits.
3. Simon & Garfunkel – The Times They Are A-Changin’
As I was putting this part of the mix together, a feeling of familiarity kept nagging at me. Finally I uncovered it — I used both this song and “Goodbye Blue Sky” in my 2016 mix. It feels fitting that they surfaced again for me, though with the cover/original relationships reversed (in 2016 I used Heart’s version of “Blue Sky” and Dylan’s original of “The Times”.) That year, I even framed “The Times” as hopeful, and this early Simon & Garfunkel rendition certainly feels full of freshness, youth, and enthusiasm. But I just can’t shake the way that “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” has a new and horrifying resonance.
4 and 5. Genesis – Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974
I don’t think I’d ever really given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway a fair shake, or maybe there was a long time where I just wasn’t quite ready for it. This was Peter Gabriel’s last album with Genesis, and while I love them both, this album had never fully engaged me. For a long time I had a homemade cassette with songs plucked from it, labelled “Lamb Chops” (yes, thank you, it is awfully clever, isn’t it?), but looking back that was a pretty strange thing to do with a concept album. So this year I spent some time with it, or at least the first disc of it, and really enjoyed it back to front. It’s Peter Gabriel leveling up, before he was about to really level up.
Nevertheless, whether through familiarity or preference, it was the “Chops” songs I gravitated to even on this listen. The moment in “Fly on a Windshield” where the band kicks in still blows me away, and the image felt fitting in connection with the previous 3 songs. Then there’s the bizarre parade of cultural figures that floats through the “Broadway Melody.” I enjoy list songs, and this is a really off-the-wall one. For me, it brings to mind the way the pile-up of input that comes through all channels can start to feel grotesque, with even familiar and beloved figures beginning to take on a menacing cast.
6. Neko Case – Oracle of the Maritimes
I felt like the ending of “Broadway Melody” blended really nicely into the beginning of this one, taking us from the center of Times Square with everyone stepping on everyone else, to a lonely boat with a mysterious oarsman. This for me was the standout song from Neko’s 2018 album Hell-On, the one that felt most like her Middle Cyclone tracks — my favorite period of hers, and one that will appear later on this mix. I love the surreal, dreamlike lyrics (“ride a chest of drawers into the waves”), and of course I find her voice endlessly thrilling, especially as it rises above doubt, fear, and confusion to a crescendo of self-affirmation. It’s a song that never fails to elevate me. And oh man that cello — Dante’s playing has improved to the point that now I get to hear a lot of lovely cello in my house, and it really makes me appreciate when one shows up in a pop song.
7. HAIM – The Steps
Speaking of self-affirmation. It’s rare anymore that a song will grab me so hard that I have to listen to it on repeat for days, but that’s what happened as soon as I heard this one. I think it’s my favorite song on this mix, which is part of why I made it the “title track.” (The other part is because so many of the feelings in these songs make up the steps I went through this year, often over and over.) I was never really on the HAIM train (or the Haim train? I feel like I see conflicting versions of how they style their name) before this, but holy cow do I love this song, just everything about it. The California instrumentation, the frustrated/resigned lyrics, the swooping melody, the power harmonies, the emotion-drenched vocal… whew. This was one I ran across on Spotify, and I’m so glad I did.
8. IX Reflections – New Man’s Born
Here’s another Spotify discovery — this band came up on some playlist I stumbled across, and their sound immediately captivated me. I switched over from the playlist to their one full album, and by the time I’d finished listening to it once, it went on my “to buy” list. It turns out they are quite an obscure band, without even a Wikipedia page to their name. They’re on facebook, though, where I learned that they are a “Moscow darkwave band”. So… I guess I like Russian goth synth music? I sure do love this album, and in particular this song, which feels like the rebirth I needed.
9. Lizzo – Good as Hell
This is a whole different style, but a pretty similar message, I think. I spent some quality time with Lizzo this year, and really appreciated both her music and her persona. I have to say, though, this song has become primarily associated with Nimbus in our house. He’s got a bunch of fluff that looks just like pants, and when he’s on his way somewhere, the vibe is totally “walk your fine ass out the door.”
10. Baby Blue feat. Wretch32 – Run (TDH remix)
The “Spotify finds” section of this mix continues with this song, another one that I randomly ran across and decided I needed to buy. This time I didn’t so much dive into the artist, but I dig this song a lot. Lyrically it’s typical rap braggadocio, but I love her London accent, her “I’m so London / Scratch that, I’m so the world!”, and the beat, which always gets me moving.
11. The 1975 – The Ballad of Me and My Brain
I ran across The 1975 on Spotify, but via an even more sideways process than usual. In searching for Stevie Nicks stuff, I unearthed a podcast called The Face, in which Matty Healy (frontman for the band) interviewed Stevie for over an hour. The interview is super fun, and the two of them have a great rapport, in which it emerges that Stevie is a huge fan of The 1975. Well, that was certainly impetus enough for me to check them out, and sure enough, I loved them and bought their first two albums. This song jumped out because of its fantastic title, and stuck around because of its intriguing sound and playful words.
12. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate
This might look like another Spotify find, but I’ve actually known Kristin (whose real last name is Gundred) for a long time. I first ran across her when she was fronting a band called Grand Ole Party (ugh that name, but the band was wow) opening for Rilo Kiley in 2007. I wrote about it at the time and predicted that Kristin was going to be a big success. And as indie artists go, it kinda seems like she has been! GOP broke up a couple years after I saw them, and Gundred started the band Dum Dum Girls. That lasted for about 8 years, and then she reinvented herself into Kristin Kontrol, with a synthpop feel straight out of the 80s, like IX Reflections but with clearer vocals and the occasional New Order-ish guitar part. In other words, my kinda thing. I think this is my favorite version of Kristin yet.
13. Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark
Some songs are played so much that they need decades to recover, and this is certainly one of those for me. But I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Bruce in recent years, not just as a singer but as a speaker and a writer. I listened to his autobiography as an audiobook a few years back (highly recommended), and this year I absolutely devoured Renegades, his podcast with Barack Obama. That brought me back to this song in particular, and I gained a deeper appreciation for it not just by hearing it fresh for the first time in a long time, but also because I emotionally connected with it in my ongoing pandemic loneliness. “I ain’t nothin’ but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself” — I really feel that some days.
14. 10,000 Maniacs – These Days
Another melancholy song — Jackson Browne’s original is great, but there’s a special place in my heart for this 10,000 Maniacs version, which somehow feels even more wrenching to me. I wrote last year about how the isolation produced by my change in working habits (along with everybody else I work with) has had some personal downsides for me. Sure, it’s nice not to have to commute, but I find it much more challenging to maintain personal equilibrium when so much of my “social contact” outside of family is via a screen, and some of the cornerstone routines of human connection for me — biweekly D&D games, basement bowl trivia — have just gone away. Now, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in 2020 when everything was really really locked down, and I am grateful for the connections I do have, but there are still those days.
15. Neko Case – I’m An Animal
Here’s Neko again, this time from the classic Middle Cyclone album. This song to me is about the pure need for affection and connection. Typically when we talk about the “animal side” of humans, we’re referring to violence, domination, brutality, and so forth, but here it means the animal need for comfort, Mary Oliver’s “soft animal of your body” that just wants to love what it loves. That’s what this song is about for me, and it flows from the previous two.
16. The Waterboys – And a Bang on the Ear
This one is about affection too, but from a little different direction. I spent about a week with Fisherman’s Blues this year, and found that certain songs on it perfectly embody a mood. “Sweet Thing” is absolute ecstasy, “We Will Not Be Lovers” captures defiance… and this song is quintessentially wistful, or at least it is once you know that a “bang” is a kiss or affectionate pat. It’s not just about romances, either, at least not for me. I feel it as a tour of past selves, returning to memories both happy and painful with a settled affection and grace, a making peace. As I get older, this song moves me more and more. “Not surprisingly,” as Werner Herzog would say.
17. Stevie Nicks – Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?
“You to me are treasure / You to me are dear” says the previous song, and for me this song will always be about my dear treasure of a spouse. 2021 was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we celebrated in a few ways, including ziplining across the Royal Gorge(!). My most precious memory of it, though, is the gift that Laura gave me on the day, a 45 of this song pressed into a frame with an image of the sheet music and quotes from the lyrics. A harpist played it at our wedding, and having it return this way was just profoundly lovely.
18. Tori Amos – Flying Dutchman
Just as the previous song is about Laura for me, this one (and the next) is about Dante, or at least what my imagination projects onto him. Or maybe it’s about me, as I imagine myself onto Dante. His social world is mostly closed to me, but it’s my perception that he doesn’t have many of his own tribe in his life, at least outside of us. I think that’s slowly changing, but it still feels to me like he’s an outlier among his peers, and that they can’t see what he’s born to be. But he’s got his own rocket ship, and I hope one day he finds the planet that’s home to him.
19. Brandi Carlile – The Joke
This is a song in that same vein, and was my entry into appreciating Brandi Carlile. Laura dove into Brandi’s catalog this year much more than I did, but when I heard this song on Spotify, I knew it would be part of this mix. I don’t know that Dante gets harassed in the way that this song implies, but I know that I’ve repeatedly experienced his exasperation with most of his peers and his conscious separation from their juvenile energy. I think that’s changing as he and they get older — as other kids settle down he’s able to find more common ground with them, but even so he’s often pretty well apart from what they find cool, what they find interesting, and what they find funny. But before long the joke will be on them.
20. Dan Wilson – Closing Time
Dan Wilson used to be the lead singer and songwriter of a band called Semisonic, best known for their song “Closing Time”. That band went on a long hiatus in 2001, and Wilson moved into a songwriting career. In that career he wrote or co-wrote some huge hits, including Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This year I listened to his album Re-Covered, in which he sings his own versions of all those songs he helped create, and at the end he performs this absolutely gorgeous version of “Closing Time”, with just piano and a bit of subtle synth. I’ve always adored this song — it’s how I became a Wilson fan in the first place — and it felt like a perfect grace note for this collection. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and I’m ready for another new beginning.