My 10 favorite songs of 2021 by Justin Barney
10. “Frankie” by Barrie
This is a song about a song. It’s an essay on Glen Campbell’s 1968 hit, “ Wichita Lineman.”
Wichita Lineman is about a lineman for the county. He sings that he needs a small vacation. He needs this person he is singing to. But he can’t be with them because he has to work.
The Witchita Lineman is generally praised for sacrificing his needs in order to maintain power lines.
But Barrie hears a man in real pain. A plea.
This song is about the tragedy of Glen Campbel’s Witchita Lineman, and a hope that he got those things he said he needs.
It's justice for the Witchita Lineman.
9. R.A.P. Ferriera – “Abomunist Manifesto”
Before he was R.A.P. Ferriera he was Milo and before he was Milo he was Raury and when he was Raury, as a 17 year old Raury went to Badger Boys State, a politics camp for boys. I went there too. At Badger Boys State you recreate an entire state government. Two boys from each high-school in the state goes. Out of the thousands of boys, one gets elected Governor. When Raury went, he was elected Governor. You can hear why in this song. It’s a manifesto for the Abomunists. Abomunism’s main function is to unite the soul, with oatmeal cookies. So speaks R.A.P. Ferriera. Abomunist poetry, in order to be completely understood, must be eaten. Ferriera campaigns. You can hear his natural charisma and charm. He’s principled and funny. No wonder we voted for him back then. I’d still vote for him.
8. Telethon - “Positively Clark Street”
Despite there being a Clark Street in Riverwest, this song from Milwaukee’s Telethon is about Clark Street in Chicago. A street that is known for having a good time, and lead singer Kevin Tully is not having a good time. At the beginning of the song he resents the people having fun for the simple fact that they are having fun. And he isn’t. Then he slows down and thinks about it. And the brilliant part of this song is that the song slows down in that moment, as he slows down, and wonders if its him, not them who needs to change.
7. Chloe – “Have Mercy”
“Have Mercy” is my Certified Banger of the year. From the opening fanfare of “BOOTY SO BIG (WORK!) LORD, HAVE MERCY” to the build of the chorus as her voices rises to it’s payoff beat, “Have Mercy” works. It’s production includes a crow cawing, and a hot breathy exhale. It is the moment of horny delirium that the song describes.
6. Ross Gay – “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be”
For Jagjagwaur’s 25th anniversary as a record label they did something unusual, they hired a poet to make an album. A thin man, with piercing eyes who teaches poetry at Indiana University, Ross Gay. Gay’s best known work is his incredible, “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude.” Where he sees, as seemingly only poets can, the small beauties of the world.
In this song he writes a poem to his child, if ever they shall be. Which means it’s a letter to the future, about the present. In it he describes in beautiful and poetic detail, millions of leaves collecting against curbs, the bush called honeysuckle, and a field of pigs swimming in shit and clover.
It’s a romantic look at a world so full of hurt from a man who seeks beauty for those who will inherit it.
5. Black Country, New Road – “Bread Song”
This song is like morning mist, hanging around for six minutes, morning light shining through and about it. Vocalist and guitarist Issac Wood said they wanted to do the first chorus without time signatures. He’d gone to see Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” in which there is a piece where the clarinet player plays until they run out of breath and that is the length of the bar in the song. "I wanted to try that with the whole band, where we don't look at each other, we don’t make too many cues, we just try and play without time—but together."
The result is this beautiful seven minute unfolding of a song about wanting to eat a sandwich in bed.
4. Olivia Rodrigo – “Drivers License”
"Driver’s License" did a thing that is seemingly impossible in the world today. For one week, in the summer of 2021, it unified the country.
It is increasingly rare, in a stratifying media landscape, for a song to be a national phenomenon, but “Drivers License” a sad song about love lost, was a great unifier for one great week.
SNL even did a skit on it. At a pool table in a bar that could be The Newport, a bunch of macho guys stood around a pool table and shared about how they love the song at it plays over the honky tonk’s jukebox, culminating in one of the greatest bridges of all time, Kate McKinnon even prepares the audience for it by saying, “And now, boys, for the bridge of our lives.”
In 2021, “Drivers License” was a beautiful moment of musical unity.
3. Caroline Polachek – “Bunny is a Rider”
Who is Bunny? What is a rider? Why are people looking for her? It’s irrelevant. This is less about it actually means and more about the intense satisfaction of it’s sounds. The whistle, the way her voice swoops up then down between the syllables in rider, the percussion of the phrase “Dirty like it’s earth day.” It’s easy for me to get caught up in everything that surrounds the song, but Bunny is a Rider is a testament to how satisfying a song can sound.
2. Wednesday – “How Can You Live if You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do”
In Leonard Cohen’s “ Ain’t No Cure for Love” he sings, “The holy books are open wide, doctors working day and night, but they’ll never ever find the cure for love.”
It’s an idea that love can make us so happy, that it makes us sad.
Love is an issue for Wednesday lead singer Karly Hartzman in this song too. This is a love song. She sings, “I’m jealous of the rooms who’s floorboards feel your weight upon them.” My favorite line. It’s also a love that makes her sad, she sings of his absence “The pain was kind of wonderful cause it was so complete.”
It’s a love she wouldn’t want to live without, and yet a love that she can’t live with, or in words penned by James Baldwin, “How can you live if you can’t love, how can you if you do?”
1. Katy Kirby - "Portals"
"Portals" is my favorite song of the year. It’s simple. Two verses. Two choruses. A couple chords on a piano, Katy Kirby’s voice, and a bit of ambient chaos that she sings through the center of.
The first time I heard it I listened again. And again. On the third time I got the chorus down. And then I realized that if I listen a couple more times I could memorize every world of the song.
I couldn’t remember the last time I memorized every word to a song. So I did.
Something magical happens when you memorize every word to a song. It becomes yours, in a way.
I became the one singing with emotion though the chaos.
It's simple. It's clear. It's sad. It's my favorite song of 2021. It's Katy Kirby's "Portals."