25. Jade Relics – With You
My main gig is covering cover songs, so I appreciate a song that shouts out “Nina Simone covering Bee Gees” (that’s the 11th Best Bee Gees Cover Ever, in case you were wondering). A new production trio from three veterans of Vermont’s hip-hop scene – Elder Orange, IAME, Rico James – “With You” brings some freak-funk vibes, like some old Stevie Wonder sample. Maybe someone will cover this soon.
24. The Pyros – King of the Internet
“King of the Internet” is not just about the internet – it sounds like the internet. A rock band temporarily taking cues from chiptune, the sonics recall the MIDI soundtracks of pre-YouTube Flash videos.
23. Tom Pearo & Michael Crain – Love Wave
No song came with a better backstory than Tom Pearo’s “Love Wave”: He recorded the entire thing submerged in a lake. But you don’t need all the details to enjoy this new age-y guitar instrumental. A few years ago, Pearo released one of the best albums of 2019 with I Am a Mountain. Though “Love Wave” is only a small fraction of the album’s length, it offers a miniature sample of the composer’s sonic mind at work. And underwater.
22. Bilé – New Kid
Quoting British theologist Alan Watts talking about Carl Jung to open your rap song seems like a flex Drake might make. “New Kid” echoes streaming’s reigning champion musically too. Bilé’s debut album INSULT TO INJURY came out in April and he seems to have already taken it off streaming services. At least this song is still up…for now.
21. Trackstar – Hello Easy
“Hello Easy” is the title track of Trackstar’s new EP, and “easy” is the perfect word. A little easy-listening, a little soft-rock, all filtered through a supremely chill delivery. Recordings likes that sometimes fall into the trap of being all vibe with no actual song behind them, but Trackstar buttressed all that relaxation with some solid hooks.
20. Abby Sherman – I’ll Be There
This past July, when I first wrote about this track, I complimented “Sherman’s bluesy belt in the Susan Tedeschi vein, which she really unleashes near the end.” And, get this, just a few days after I wrote that, Susan Tedeschi actually performed this song with her! I’d take credit…except I hadn’t actually published my writeup yet. Damn. Tedeschi kills it, of course, but Sherman holds her own standing right beside her.
19. Omega Jade – MommiEbonics
It’s no coincidence that Omega Jade’s new EP Elevate: The Rise of Mama MC dropped on May 9: This year, May 9 was Mother’s Day. The EP is a hip-hop tribute to motherhood and all its joys and struggles, never more so than on the witty and moving “MommiEbonics.” As the hook goes, “I love my kids, but they get on my nerves.”
18. Nate Gusakov – Coming Apart
On “Coming Apart,” banjo player Nate Gusakov sounds like an old blues singer growling over an outtake from Mark Knopfler’s Sailing to Philadelphia. That’s his dad on the fiddle, too.
17. Troy Millette – Stay (Please)
Country singer Troy Millette’s new song “Stay” has been kicking around unrecorded since 2016, but when he began to record his new album with producer Chris Hawthorn, he decided to give it another shot. He explained the back story in an email: “I wrote it about a girl who was in a pretty serious relationship, but I was convinced that I was the better choice. When we went back into the studio to start recording our new record, the melody just seemed to fit the vibe of the other songs, so I revisited it and finally finished a full draft in the studio with Chris Hawthorn. I loved the sentiment of the bridge, looking back on how I actually would have been TERRIBLE for her in that situation, but the melody felt jagged and forced, so Chris suggested that we just talk it out, and it played out into one of my favorite moments in the song.”
16. Leon Ampersand – These Blue Skies, They Are a-Callin’
The title “These Blue Skies, They Are a-Callin’” sounds like an outtake from Oklahoma!. The actual song, an inviting slice of breathy Britpop, very much does not.
15. Portraits of Sawyer – Mullet Action
Ben Wiggins and Adam Henry Garcia of Portraits of Sawyer released two very different songs in advance of their album Whatever You May Say. The title track is a lighters-in-the-air piano ballad, while “Mullet Action” is a hearty ’80s-inflected rocker. Though the genre is experimental indie-rock, the combination of a big holler-along rock jam and a sensitive piano ballad feels very hair metal. I like them both, but “Mullet Action” takes it by a – ugh sorry – hair.
14. Francesca Blanchard – Loon Song
Depending on your age and scene, the phrase “loon song” might conjure up visions of Bon Iver or Tom Green. For those unfortunates in the latter camp, any memories of Green putting his bum on things should be wiped (no pun intended) out by Francesca Blanchard’s beautiful synthpop song, which channels the energy of Lorde’s effervescent Solar Power summer. (And don’t miss Blanchard’s other killer 2021 single either, and a timely one right now: “New Year’s in Paris”).
13. Eastern Mountain Time – A Little Bit of Rain
Remember the days of the CD single? Where you’d pay for the one song you wanted, and then, to try and make you feel less ripped off, they’d throw on a couple extraneous versions – a crappy remix, an instrumental? Eastern Mountain Time’s new single has that throwback energy, with his version of “A Little Bit of Rain” followed by a cover of the exact same song by Willoughby J Morse. They botched the retro execution, though, by accidentally making both versions essential. Too late to add a “Tambourine Part Only” remix?
12. Strangled Darlings – Terrible Monsters
Shortly before Covid hit, I saw David Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia. When I listen to new-weird-Americana duo Strangled Darlings’ “Terrible Monsters,” I picture Byrne’s army of barefooted percussionists marching around on stage. From the ominous chorus – “All that I want, and it’s good, is the terrible monsters” – to the propulsive rhythms waterfalling around the melody, it’s peak Byrne. Add some nonsense words and you’d get “I Zimbra.”
11. Robscure ft. Eva Rawlings – Echoes
Vermont Hip Hop, which follows its titular scene at a granular level, recently wrote, “Even among the most packed & diverse crop of young talent [Vermont] has ever seen, Robscure has distinguished himself with a prolific and adventurous body of work.” And that was before his new single “Echoes” came out. A collaboration with singer Eva Rawlings on the indelible hook, it’s a great showcase for a rapid-fire rhymer.
10. Ryan Montbleau – Ankles
The tasteful folk-rock opening doesn’t exactly scream “comedy song,” but then the first line comes in: “I am thankful / for my ankles.” It continues like that for a bit before impressively pivoting back to not-a-comedy-song territory, as Montbleau delivers a sincere and heartfelt ode to music itself. Then, bam, we’ve boomeranged back to Montbleau talking about his pancreas. These is-it-a-joke-or-not transitions sound jarring on paper, but somehow when he sings it all makes sense.
9. New Erotics – Thicc Thighs
A silly and extremely fun new-wave dance song, the only thing that dates “Thicc Thighs” as not hailing from 1986 is the spelling of “thicc.” It could be an old Go-Go’s or Cars song, only with lyrics that sound like a Sir Mix-a-Lot who’s gotten some lessons on body positivity.
8. Dave Richardson – Keep Trying
The first time I wrote about Dave Richardson this year, I said he seemed like a super positive person. At the time, he had released a song called “It’s Gonna Be OK.” The follow-up track, the opener of his album Palms to Pines, came with a similarly encouraging title: “Keep Trying.” In this case, it’s clearly him talking to himself, offering a bit of encouragement to a shy person doing his best to avoid social isolation over some extremely catchy folk-rock.
7. A2VT – I’m a Soul Survivor
A2VT’s new single blends the group’s trademark sounds of Afropop, R&B, and hip-hop with a surprising twist: ’80s metal. After three extremely catchy minutes of singing and rapping, an epic guitar solo bursts forth by an actual ’80s-metal vet, Andre Maquera of 8084. It reminds of that time Kirk Hammett guested on a K’naan song, in the best way possible.
6. Repelican ft. Sam Herring – All Our Heroes
Repelican aka. Jon Ehrens recruited a host of collaborators to co-write and sing almost all the songs on his new album I’m Not One: Vol. 1. It was hard to pick a favorite. For a while, it was the soft-funk of “Oh My God” with Giant Wave. Then it was the folk-rock “Wrong End of the Rise” with Tom Vollmer. But I finally landed on the indie-synth-rock of “All Out Heroes,” which features Future Islands frontman Sam Herring.
5. The Silent Mile – Better Days
The extremely catchy “Better Days” brings a healthy dose of Blink-182 pop-punk with surf-rock drums and a snotty sneer. Some killer lines too, both funny and honest about struggling with depression, starting with the opener: “I’m fucking crazy, but not in a fun way.”
4. Lowell Thompson – Blood Season
Lowell Thompson is a great and extremely un-prolific singer-songwriter. He hasn’t released an album since 2014, well before I started this site, so I haven’t been able to write about his music as much as I’d like. But he snuck out two singles this year. The first, “Doorstep Religion,” is excellent. The second, “Blood Season,” is excellent-er. It’s a very Neil Young and the Stray Gators vibe (minus the honeyslides…I assume), country-rock with some real grit.
3. The Smittens – Year of Happiness
A pure little blast of pop balladry that barely tops a minute, “Year of Happiness” seems destined to serve as a concert intro number. After all, it ends with “Let’s start with a song / let’s start with a beat / Let’s start with a 1-2-3 / 3-2-1 / Let’s go.” From there they could segue right into the indie-pop vets’ similarly-themed “Year of the Lake.” Also, I appreciate the audacity of naming a song “Year of Happiness” in 2021. It’s kind of like the new Band of Horses album title: Things Are Great.
2. Liz Simmons – When the Waters Rise
Liz Simmons had logged time singing backup for Melanie. Yes, that Melanie, of Woodstock and “Brand New Key” fame. On her own new album Poets, Simmons stays more in the singer-songwriter Americana lane than Melanie’s ’60s pop, but she knows her way around a hook, and has a hell of a voice to deliver it. Nowhere is that more true than opening track “When the Waters Rise,” which evokes current Newport Folk Fest-type mainstays like The Lone Bellow and Lake Street Dive.
1. Jesse Taylor Band – Disaster
When I first wrote about Jesse Taylor Band’s EP Ever-changing, I focused on the song “Blue.” When I wrote about it again, I switched to the title track. Now, after almost a year of listening, I can say I got it wrong both times. Both those songs are great, but the best of the EP – and the entire year – is “Disaster.” It’s a hooky alt-rock look at growing up, drawing from Taylor’s contemporary influences like Courtney Barnett and Big Thief as well as further back to ’90s college-rock stars like Dinosaur Jr. and Pixies. The song came out on January 1st. The competition was over before it even began.