Right up until today I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put together a top tracks list for 2021. It’s been such a weird year for my music listening compared to 2020, which was absolutely loaded with stellar releases by iconic pop singers and dominated by Dua Lipa’s instantly iconic Future Nostalgia. How big has Dua Lipa gotten since? Well, although it didn’t hit number one in America, the spectacular “Levitating” was the most popular song in America in 2021. When folks need an escape, they will find good pop music to escape with, and “Levitating” had serious legs, passing one billion streams on Spotify.
For me, anyway, 2021’s tracks were a convoluted hodgepodge, but when I went over my 2021 playlist and cut out the chaff, I was left with a rather impressive 60-plus songs I genuinely enjoy. Go figure.
My favourites, as always, skew heavily toward women artists. It’s what I like from my pop music, and there was great stuff: Olivia Rodrigo (and Willow Smith?!) channeling Paramore to brilliant effect, French star Hollysiz delivering a wonderful pandemic anthem, Halsey doing her thing with Trent Reznor, Jessie Ware doubling down on her newfound disco diva persona, Charli XCX ditching hyperpop (RIP SOPHIE) in favour of normcore dance music and knocking it out of the park, Snail Mail’s stunning epic “Valentine”. One song, though, and it’s an obvious one, stood out among the rest.
I thought Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” was a good track from her best album, but I was completely unaware that it had become arguably her most popular track among her fans. I didn’t know the story behind the song, and frankly I didn’t want to know. No one needs celebrity gossip. But what happened to the 21 year-old Swift was a shattering experience for her, and she channeled that devastation into a pretty song filled with regret and strength.
I suppose we have Scooter Braun to thank for what happened next. After the dummy bought Swift’s back catalogue from under her feet, Swift pulled off the unthinkable in 2021, re-recording her old albums in an attempt to seize control of her art. Unbelievably, and this is a story that will resonate for years if not decades, it worked. The re-recordings are near-flawless, and in some respects, better. Through no fault of her own, the young Swift sang in a thin, reedy little voice, but at 32 her voice has matured into something warmer, and phrasing-wise, she’s much, much better singer than when she was 21. Couple all that with her rapidly improving lyric writing, and it’s a deadly combination for anyone who wrongs her.
Which leads us to the epic, sprawling, Terrence Malick-style storytelling of the ten-minute version of “All Too Well” that Swift surprised the world with this past fall. The original song’s “red scarf” metaphor was cute and effective, but the older Swift elaborates with devastating results on the new version, going into deep, unflinching detail about how misled she felt and how traumatized she was from the affair that spawned the song. Her lines get more and more brutal with each verse, a steady barrage of body blows:
And you call me up again just to break me like a promise So casually cruel in the name of being honest I’m a crumpled up piece of paper
The idea you had of me, who was she? / A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you / Not weeping in a party bathroom
You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes / Sipping coffee like you’re on a late-night show / But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come / And he said, “It’s supposed to be fun turning twenty-one”
And then at the 7:22 mark, the knockout punch.
And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age”
This is Dylan-level venom. Cohen level acidity. Deserving of sharing a sentence with Joni. It’s on par with Blood on the Tracks, with “Famous Blue Raincoat”, with Blue. It’s that masterful. Never mind who the song’s about. He was a jerk that one time, and the woman he was a jerk to just happened to be a genius, and this song will haunt him to his grave. He doesn’t need any harassment from the “stans” out there. Let’s just appreciate the song for what it is, the zenith of a pop powerhouse’s prolific career. So far. To quote Colin Jost, “Never break up with Taylor Swift. Or she will sing about you for 10 minutes on national television.”
Listen to my favorite tracks of 2021 below.