Listen Up: The Year in Music 2021

This is my second year running the best music of the past 12 months from my neighbor Xabi Vazquez, who sees more live music than anyone I know outside the industry. He’s been compiling an annual list of his favorite new songs for a couple decades, and I asked to publish it here.

This is not for fans of opera or classical or jazz — you’ll have to find your own expert for that. And maybe it’s not as ecumenical as Barack Obama’s list. But if you like rock/pop/hip hop and the spaces in between, this is a great way to discover something you may have missed in 2021. 


It’s that time of year again! Below are my favorite 50 songs that were released over the past 12 months. Three things stuck out for me in 2021:

  • The new Deafheaven album is a masterpiece. Lots of jams, not a single dud.
  • Two new UK bands emerged this year that are absolutely bonkers good, and their sound is totally unique: Squid and Black Country, New Road. Go listen to them.
  • Live music is back! It was sooo good to see bands play concerts again. Let’s hope Omicron doesn’t mess this up for too long.

Overall, 2021 was a great year for music. Find my full playlist on Spotify here.

Deafheaven – Great Mass of Color: Simply the best song from the best album of the year. This is a different and unexpected sound from Deafheaven, but it’s just so damn good…some people apparently don’t like the new “shoegaze” direction the band has taken. I disagree. If this record was released under any other band name, it would have received far more critical acclaim than it has. Perfect song. 10/10.

Japanese Breakfast – Be Sweet: In the past, I probably never gave Michelle Zauner the attention that she deserved, but everything just clicked with this song. That bassline…

Makthaverskan – This Time: I have said this many times in the past, but Sweden as a country low-key releases some of the best music out there. This song exemplifies why. It’s a little more poppy than the rest of Makthaverskan’s catalog, but it’s a great place to start.

St. Vincent – Down: It would be pointless for me to add onto all that has already been written about Annie Clark, but all the praise is 100% deserved. Killer songwriter, guitar virtuoso, style for miles, shapeshifter extraordinaire, the list goes on and on. This is just a perfect revenge song that sounds so FUN at the same time.

Squid – Pamphlets: I’m a total sucker for longer songs that have several parts to them. My teen and I agree that this is their best song. So, four thumbs up between the two of us!

Parquet Courts – Walking at a Downtown Pace: Parquet Courts has a real talent for sounding both poppy and raw at the same time. This song is a perfect example of that. Apparently Barack Obama digs it too

Deafheaven – The Gnashing: In my dreams, Interpol does a cover of this song. And it sounds amazing.

Madi Diaz – Do It Now: This was one of those songs that, when I first heard it, I just had to stop what I was doing. Just absolutely grabbed me right away. I think it may have been on repeat for like 3 days.

Big Thief – Change: Big Thief is one of the most important bands to come out in the last 5 years. Along with Wilco, War on Drugs, and several others, they are right up there in the pantheon of American music groups that kinda transcend time – if you told me that this song was released in 1971, I would have believed you. Timeless. Classic.

Bachelor; Jay Som; Palehound – Back Of My Hand: This collab between Jay Som and Palehound is stunning. Great hook, great verse, and a totally sing-along-able chorus

Squid – Narrator: As mentioned above, out of all the shows that I have seen this year, Squid’s was the one that was the most pleasant surprise. All of these dudes were just so tight the entire show. The drummer in particular was a total monster and did not miss a single beat, which is particularly impressive because he’s also the singer! They absolutely destroyed this song live…

DARKSIDE – Liberty Bell: To everyone’s surprise, DARKSIDE reunited to release what ended up being a great album. This song captures everything that makes the band unique: the guitars, the rhythms, the hushed vocals, etc.

Sharon Van Etten – Love More/Femme Fatale: This was the year when Sharon Van Etten just CLICKED for me. Don’t get me wrong, I always liked her, but this year I just had to listen to everything she had put out. She released two covers this year which were superb: Love More (Fiona Apple) and Femme Fatale (Velvet Underground). Talk about big shoes to fill…no joke, these are better than the originals

Cassandra Jenkins – Hard Drive: So many things about this song are absolutely magical – the piano, the spoken word, the arpeggios, the horns. I could go on…the thing that sums it up best though is that this is a song that I just NEEDED in 2021.

Hiatus Kaiyote – Red Room: This song is just, like, an entire mood.

Kanye West – Jail: Great song, but can we all just be honest and acknowledge that Jay-Z’s guest verses have gotten worse as he has gotten older?

Shame – 6/1: Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink could have been album of the year for me if it wasn’t for that Deafheaven masterpiece. This is the best song from that record.

Deafheaven – Mombasa: Encapsulates everything that makes Deafheaven great, with a classic soft/melodic -> loud/punishing build up. I have tickets to go see them soon – I hope they close with this one.

Mogwai – Ritchie Sacramento: Mogwai does not do a lot of songs with vocals, but when they do they tend to be pretty great.

Snail Mail – Valentine: I had SUPER high expectations for Snail Mail’s latest album, which in hindsight were probably unfair. I go back and forth between Lindsey Jordan and Phoebe Bridgers as to who is the Liz Phair of this generation. Some real gems in the new album, particularly this one.

The Weeknd – Save Your Tears: I think this was my son’s song of the year

CARR – Poor Boy: Totally came out of nowhere for me, thanks to the introduction from a friend that manages her. So, so good…I see a nice mix of Avril Lavigne and the older Billie Eilish stuff in her. The guitar right before the chorus is magical.

Hamilton Leithauser; Kevin Morby – Virginia Beach: This song sounds EXACTLY like you would expect a combination between these two to sound like, which is a good thing!

Hand Habits – More Than Love: I can’t believe I just heard Hand Habits for the first time a few weeks ago. This song is so good on so many levels, and the entire album is excellent as well.

The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore: I really like that Adam Granduciel and his band really ham up the music when they play live. Like, guitar-hero type of stuff. They are going to blow the roof off MSG when they play this song live.

Courtney Barnett – Write A List of Things To Look Forward To: My favorite musician from Australia. Yet, sounds oddly American.

Crumb – BNR: A couple of Crumb songs missed my 2019 list because I discovered them after sending out the list, but they would have been up there that year for sure. Their new album this year is totally stunning

Joy Orbison – in drink: The whole album deserves a listen…there’s some really warm, unique sounds in there, and superb use of random samples of his family. This is the best song on that album.

Ethereal Shroud – Chasmal Fires: Grab a tall drink, sit down, and put on some good headphones. I have recently rekindled my interest in all things metal, and my favorite sub genre seems to be atmospheric black/doom metal (who knew?). This is the finest example of it.

Public Service Broadcasting; Andreya Casablanca – Blue Heaven: A total departure from PSB’s documentary-sampled oeuvres, this poppy piece also includes a part in German for your listening pleasure

Crumb – Up & Down: I am genuinely surprised that Crumb is not bigger than they are. They feel like the next Khruangbin – great musicians, super groovy, etc.

Parquet Courts – Pulcinella: What? These guys can also write ballads? And they’re good?

Wavves – Sinking Feeling: This song reminds me a lot of Deerhunter, not sure why…definitely a little less rambunctious and more melodic than Wavves’ earlier music. Good stuff.

Goat – Let it Burn: Goat may be my favorite active band to see live, and it has been YEARS since they have come to NYC. Also, another band from Sweden…This song has some bangin’ flute.

Squid – G.S.K.: Who knew that a song named after a pharma company could be so damn good?

Strand of Oaks – Galacticana: Just some good old-fashioned american rock

The War On Drugs – Living Proof: This song absolutely crushed me when it came out.

José González – Line Of Fire: If this weren’t an alternate version of an already-released great song, it would have placed much higher on this list. This one sounds very different though, and much more stripped down.

Drake; Lil Wayne; Rick Ross – You Only Live Twice (with Lil Wayne & Rick Ross): Although I think he is completely overrated, Drake has a nasty habit of always up in my end of year lists…

Big Thief – Off You: In my humble opinion, a better version of the original Breeders’ song

Iceage – Shelter Song: Iceage feels like they tried to move more “polished” with their sound and look. This is in no way a pejorative statement, it’s just an observation. I think it broadly works, and this song is where it works best.

Mogwai – Fuck Off Money: I was so happy to see that Mogwai, of all bands, ended up hitting number 1 on the UK album charts this year when their latest album was released. I hope they are indeed making “Fuck Off Money.” They deserve it.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – First of the Last Glaciers: um…it’s a GYBE song. It’s epic.

Black Country, New Road – Opus: I debated which song of theirs to put on this list, because they are just so damn good and unique. This one is totally bonkers, but just go and listen to the whole album.

A Place To Bury Strangers – I Need You: Does anyone else get mad Jesus and Mary Chain vibes from this one?

Crumb – Gone: I very, very rarely have three songs from one single artist on this list. What are you waiting for? Go listen to Crumb

Blood Cultures – Set it on Fire: Great little poppy song which showed up on my text messages

Poppy Ackroyd – Seedling: Poppy’s stuff is great…CH comments each year that my list always has some songs that sound like video game music. This year’s list does not. But, this song actually reminds me of the soundtrack from Final Fantasy X.

Public Service Broadcasting – Lichtspiel III: Symphonie Diagonale: another very uncharacteristic song from PSB. Very soothing, and the last minute is simply divine



  1. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Parquet Courts!!!!

  3. Thanks very much for sharing this list. I do the same (for myself) every year and although we have a few “overlaps”, your list offers a lot of new material I’ll definitely check out. Just thought I’d throw these at you…Jesse Malin, Weather Station, Jane Weaver, Helado Negro, Arlo Parks and The Staves. Here’s to a musical 2022.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing! Look forward to listening. . .