Words by Kevin Connor
Since this is my first contribution to Off Shelf, a quick intro: I’m Kevin Connor, a co-host of the Best Song Ever Podcast, where I have been eloquently labeled “The Banger Bitch.” If it slaps, rips, shreds, is a bop, a jam, or a certified banger – I want it. It’s what I crave. I’m ride or die for Carly Rae Jepsen, but also spent a lot of 2021 revisiting my middle-school-era pop-punk habits. I also reserve the right to completely trash this list as I discover a ton of great 2021 music all throughout 2022 (just as I discovered tons of amazing 2020 music this year). So let’s get into it, in no particular order:
“It’s brutal out here,” – a little over a minute into Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album Sour, my interest was piqued. The former Disney star, brought into the cultural zeitgeist by this summer’s OBSESSION with “drivers license,” (thanks TikTok) starts her album out with a declaration that things suck, love is bullshit, and she has something to say about it. Sure, this is common fare for anyone still in their teens, but Rodrigo succeeds in creating an album that perfectly hits a nostalgic circuit in my brain while still standing on its own in 2021. The fact that Rodrigo nails this sound while herself not being an awkward middle school student in the mid-2000s shows a degree of music prowess I am very excited to see expanded upon. But she’s not reliant on that formula. While “good 4 u” is this year’s “Misery Business,” the album features tracks that elaborate on the tragic but often-experienced ending of young love. You will certainly catch me longingly staring out the window while “deja vu” plays.
Hosting a music podcast has its perks. It’s mostly being forced to go out and find awesome new music constantly. Best Song Ever listeners will be familiar with my love/hate relationship with my “Albums to Check Out” playlist, which is around 50 hours right now (I recently added a lot, much to my chagrin). But it bears fruit quite often, of which one of my favorites has been Spud Cannon’s Good Kids Make Bad Apples. The five-piece band is making some of my favorite jangly-rock (a genre that’s had some MAJOR releases this year), and it just oozes excitement and joy throughout. The entire album usually does less with more, just relying on a few instruments to carry most songs, yet somehow often feels lush in its production. Maybe that’s what secretly recording on a squash court does (truthfully one of my favorite fun facts that I’ve been provided in a band’s press materials). But spending more time with Good Kids Make Bad Apples let me realize that Spud Cannon is something special – the vocal performance, echoey and ethereal, combined with the presence of the drums and melodic guitar and bass parts all come together to be greater than the sum of their parts. Tracks like “You Got it All (NOT)” and “Juno” are where the band really shines, all the pieces come together, and prompt me to ask: why isn’t everyone listening to Spud Cannon.
I proclaimed this album would be the sound-of-the-summer about two seconds after I heard “Be Sweet” for the first time. It’s very satisfying to be right, but it’s also very easy to be right when you bet it all on Michelle Zauner AKA Japanese Breakfast. If you skipped her 2017 release Soft Sounds from Another Planet, I’m envious; you’ve got a great album to go check out. But Jubilee brings a more synthy sound paired with anthemic vocals (like on “Be Sweet”), before it pulls the carpet out from under you, and provides an acoustic ballad in “Kokomo, IN” before it smashes you in the face with the horns at the end of “Slide Tackle.” And that’s just my favorite three-song run on the album. Jubilee is filled with near infinite combinations of amazing one-two-three punches that rattle your mind, making you confirm your music player isn’t on shuffle. Where a lot of artists would be critiqued as disjointed, Japanese Breakfast’s magnificent vocals are the throughline of this album: Jubilee goes in a lot of different directions, but it always revolves around its’ star. I’m a big proponent of the shorter, more focused album, which Jubilee is, but it is also proof that when a project is great, it could go on and on and I wouldn’t get sick of it. I’m already ready for Japanese Breakfast’s next album.
This is perhaps cheating, as I very much have conflated Tkay Maidza’s previous two entries in the Last Year Was Weird trilogy into one super-album. However, Vol. 3 stands on its own as Tkay at her best, with VERY hard bars in tracks like “Syrup” and “Kim” (featuring Yung Baby Tate), as well as more melodic entries like “Eden” and “So Cold.” Now that I’ve shouted out literally half the tracklist, it’s easy to see why Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3 sticks in my head as an easy selection at the end of the year. However, when combined Voltron-style with the other 2 entries, it’s a 24-track 71 minute top-to-bottom showcase in what a great hip-hop project can look like in 2021, a year stacked with the greats and up-and-coming artists attempting to put out classic albums. For me, Tkay did the best job, even if it technically took 4 years.
Kacey Musgraves’ star-crossed is a bummer. The album is a tragic telling of Musgraves’ recent divorce, the story of two people falling out of love. A tale as old as time, and even featured elsewhere on this list. But Musgraves’ skill as a singer, songwriter, and performer lets her shine through as the definitive country artist that I will always return to. star-crossed certainly delves into the pop sphere with some of its more up-tempo tracks like “there is a light” and “cherry blossom,” and you can’t ignore the stellar song writing featured on the project’s biggest hit, “justified.” But the song that really sold me on the story of star-crossed is its second track, “good wife.” Musgraves reaches out in the chorus “God help me be a good wife,” perhaps ironic now, but sold as so completely genuine in the track. Yet we know this wish falls on deaf ears, and we know the outcome of this story. But in how it’s presented, we almost believe things will work out. That’s how this album grabs you and then shatters your world. I can’t begin to understand the emotion that goes into creating a project like this, but I can certainly appreciate how fantastic it is.
Jungle is best known for “Busy Earnin’” from their 2014 self-titled debut. Go look it up, you know it. I’ll wait. Okay, now I am thrilled to share that Jungle has released 2 more albums since that debut, and 2021’s Loving In Stereo is their best yet. The retro-electric genre that Jungle lives within flourishes on this album, where piano and synth mix with big loud choral lyrics insist that you have a good time while listening to this album, as in the first single “Keep Moving.” Later songs on the album bring a different level of fun, such as “Fire,” a mostly-instrumental track that blends seamlessly together with “Talk About It.” This specific pair brings to mind fast-moving action while final tracks like “All Of The Time” demand you call out in response to the catchy chorus, proclaiming “it’s all alright.” These individual tracks would be a perfect addition to any playlist, but the whole of Loving in Stereo is an impressive entry into Jungle’s already solid discography.
Music is something that can bring so many associations to mind, and when HOMESHAKE’S Under the Weather released at the very beginning of fall this year, with the last remnants of sunny warm skies and shorts and t-shirt every day fading, I knew this album would only grow more powerful with temperatures falling. Under the Weather demands to be heard under a blanket, with a cup of tea, and perhaps a runny nose. The lo-fi production and gentle vocals fit perfectly in the morning or late at night, and I’d often grab a good book before turning it on. It’s a genre of greater-than-ambient music that’s tough to do well: too little, and it’s near nothing; too much, and it’s going to be a bigger distraction than necessary. Under the Weather’s production offers a comfortable mood for whatever it’s paired with, and honestly, I want more cozy music in my life.
I remained concerned for a lot of the fall because I had 9 albums locked in for this list; but the 10th eluded me for quite a while. This spot has shifted a lot, as I discovered new music and tried to make other favorites work, but it took a chance encounter while searching for new music for Best Song Ever. “Once More for the Ocean” was featured on November 19th, and in the time since, I have not stopped listening to Slothrust’s Parallel Timeline. There is an empty place in my heart for a rock album that rocks as hard as this. It’s a genre that has released a lot of mediocrity in the last 20 years, as favorites age and get a little less hardcore, but every once in a while we get an entry that proves rock isn’t dead. Don’t be deceived by the album’s rainbow and bubble-filled cover: the pink clouds hide a fantastic rock three-piece that had me headbanging as I write. I’m really excited to spend more time with this album; we haven’t had much time, but what we’ve had has been a bright spot of 2021.
Duckwrth’s 2020 album SuperGood landed on my end of year list last year, and I made a huge mistake. It should have been way higher. In 2021, I’m not making the same mistake again. His 2021 album SG8* takes a different approach: half the length, half the tracks, instantly catchy, and posing the most important question of the year: “Was your pandemic poppin’?” The first track,“We Outside,” does what Duckwrth does so well – insanely-smooth dancy hip-hop that you can’t help but play over and over. SG8* succeeds in its brevity. As soon as the album is over, you’re tempted to hit play once again, just to get more Duckwrth. Certainly successful in his own right, I’m waiting for Duckwrth to have a project go supersonic the way we saw Baby Keem’s debut album The Melodic Blue do this year (for more on this, please refer to my Best Song Ever co-host Luke LaBenne’s top 10 list, where I’m sure he’s written a dissertation on the subject). In the meantime, I will just go ahead and hit repeat on SG8* until his next project is out.
I was late on the Doja Cat train. My first introduction was 2019’s “Say So,” and I couldn’t get it out of my head for months, though the album featuring the track, Hot Pink, didn’t really catch me. Even Planet Her didn’t register on my radar at first, and what a fool I was. I can’t pretend the 7th most streamed artist on spotify is a deep cut I discovered somehow. But sometimes, as a musichead, you ignore a lot of the stuff right in front of you. Planet Her is worth paying attention to. From the lead track “Woman” to the tik-tok viral (noticing a trend?) “Kiss Me More” featuring SZA, you start to realize it’s Doja Cat’s world and we’re all just living in it. The album defies genre, weaving from pop to hip-hop to R&B effortlessly, as Doja Cat shows bars (“Get Into It (Yuh)”) as well as the catchiest hooks of the year (“You Right”), on top of strong production and a hell of a feature list. Planet Her is the catchiest project you will listen to this year. It will get stuck in your brain and you will not be able to get away from it. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but you should be prepared, and we should all keep an eye out for Doja Cat’s next project. It will almost definitely be fantastic, and will dominate our world for several months. We should be so lucky.