For many of the last 17 years, I have created an end of year comp that I call Missed Hits. The idea was to share music that hit me and that I expected many people had missed. Despite spending a lot of time discovering and writing about music in early 2021, I kind of expected this task to be more difficult since I slacked off so much over the second half of the year and spent more time listening to older records. Nonetheless, it turns out there was quite a bit of good stuff that I heard in 2021 and the real effort was in paring down the list. Below the list of songs are links to playlists in Spotify and Apple Music if you’re interested in hearing any or all of what I consider the missed hits of 2021.
Naked Raygun – “Living in the Good Times” (single): In the midst of a global pandemic and in the wake of the death of their longtime bassist, Pierre Kezdy, Naked Raygun released this dose of punk rock optimism bolstered by all the off-kilter, catchy urgency for which they have always been known.
Low – “Days Like These” (from Hey What) – Almost three decades into their existence, Low continues to make music that both engages and shocks. I would even say they are making their best music at this point. “Days Like These” manages to be both beautiful and jarring.
Beach House – “Runaway” (from Once Twice Melody) – Once Twice Melody is coming out monthly in four parts. Part one was not as engaging as I’d hoped, but part two was much better and “Runaway” was a highlight. This is not quite up to their recent albums, but it’s close and it not only stands a head above modern dream pop, it could hold its own with its predecessors.
Fiddlehead – “Grief Motif” and “The Years” from (Between the Richness) – To be fair, I may have only included this because I love e.e. cummings. These are decent emo-ish tracks that run together, but they are really elevated by the cummings reading that opens them (and the album as a whole).
Lil Haydn – “More Love” (from More Love) – When I first heard this, I immediately connected the similarity in the musical motif of “More Love” and (oddly enough) the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change.” The Scorps song (all recent controversy about its CIA origins aside) was an okay song that somehow captured the optimism of its time. Lili Haydn in a sense tries to capture a similar optimism in the midst of a pandemic, only this optimism is harder to see in our now restricted lives. I wonder if, in time, I will return to this song and feel that sense of cooperation and empathy that bound us half together while other forces tore us apart.
The Catenary Wires – “Canterbury Lanes” (from Birling Gap) – The Catenary Wires formed when Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey moved from London out to the country. The 60s pop-ish roots are still evident with a somewhat more pastoral feel and no urban urgency. They have a haunting beauty reminiscent of Belle and Sebastian.
Bonbon Vodou – “De colere” (from Cimitiere Creole) – Bonbon Vodou translates to Voodoo Candy. That seems apropos for a band that has a weird, foreign feel and sounds this sweet. The album title translates to Creole Cemetery and it is Creole bones they are digging up and reassembling in their own unique way.
Sault – “Hard Life” (from Untitled (Black Is)) – This album came out in 2020, but I was late to the party. I think it is safe to say that popular music at least feels a little less organic than it once did and there is a lot of conjecture about why. One thing that strikes me about this track and its album is that, while still feeling current, Untitled (Black Is) doesn’t even feel cold or processed. But most of all, I love the grounded optimism of this record. As they sing here, “Everything is gonna be alright,” but that isn’t some blindly chipper view of the world, far from it. It embraces the difficulties of making everything alright.
Mexican Institute of Sound – “My America Is Not Your America” (from Distrito Federal) – I was led to MIS via their 2007 release, Pinata, about a month ago. It was one of those albums that I loved 30 seconds into the first track. Distrito Federal took a little more time, but its ability to be Mexican without being incomprehensible to a middle class American and its ability to be both electronic and perhaps fundamentally folk walks a very compelling line. It is a window and a bridge.
Dirty Streets – “Blinded” (single) – Yes, this is a 70s hard rock revival, but it has a great low end groove and sometimes we can still use a bit of riffy guitar. Not everything needs to break new ground.
Olivia Kaplan – “Ghosts” (from Tonight Turns to Nothing) – “Ghosts” had me at the opening broken chords. Olivia Kaplan’s breathy delivery kept me coming back.
Bedouine – “Sonnet 104” (from Waysides) – Armenian-Syrian-American Azniv Korkejian brings a rich cultural background to bear on Waysides, her third record as Bedouine. Fundamentally, this is a folk record, but there is so much more to it. It is busy without being overwhelming.
Annie Keating – “High Tide” (from Bristol County Tides) – Surely, the pandemic influenced a lot of music in 2021. What’s really good about Keating’s odes to Covid is that they could apply anytime we feel disconnected and lost. “Let’s ride for a while with music up loud and forget for an hour maybe three” doesn’t need a global health crisis that keeps us physically distanced to ring true.
Triptides – “Hand of Time” (from Alter Echoes) – I like a lot of records that throw back to the rumble coming out of the garages of the 1960s. I liked it in the Paisley Underground of the 80s and I like it today. For all of its simplicity, it never feels old. Granted, Triptides have their hands pretty deep in that trippy cookie jar.
Handsome Jack – “High Class Man” (from Get Humble) – Some of Get Humble gets to be a little too Neil Young, but tracks like “High Class Man” are a little more of just a dirty 70s blues rock vibe that, like Dirty Streets above, still finds a place today even if it isn’t pushing any boundaries.
Madlib – “The Call” (from Sound Ancestors) – In January, I thought Sound Ancestors could be the best album of 2021. If it isn’t, it is certainly in the mix.
Yung Bae – “Wonder” (single) – Apparently, I should have known Yung Bae before 2021. He works in the vaporwave/future funk genres, but to me, this is just modern disco. Contributions from Channel Tres certainly didn’t hurt.
Foushee – “2 L8” (from time machine) – I know Carole King wrote a lot of great pop songs with Gerry Goffin in her Brill Building days, but I always hated her as a solo artist. Tapestry? Should be Crapestry. So, it is perhaps a bit strange that I found this Foushee song which borrows heavily from “It’s Too Late” to be compelling enough to include here. Maybe it’s the performance that bothers me about King rather than the songs. Maybe the hook is good and works better in this context. Either way, I like it here. For what it’s worth, she also does an interesting cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.”
Richard Dawson and Circle – “Pitcher” (from Henki) – Henki is a strangely dark record about plants. The lyrics read like a field guide. It’s a peculiar record and I don’t care for the underlying darkness even if I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I do appreciate how it is very subtly a heavy record as it dances around prog.
The Dictators – “Let’s Get the Band Back Together” (single) – This is another pandemic song and it was a dose of what everyone probably needed: fun.
Reiko Yamada and Tochigi-ken Symphony Orchestra – Ritmica Ostinata – Live recordings seldom feel live. Some might suggest, though I would vehemently disagree in recent years, that classical never feels live even in person. This recording is as live as it gets, not because of bumps and bruises that pepper the best live rock records, but because of its intensity and urgency. Ritmica Ostinata was composed by Akira Ifukube, under whom Reiko Yamada studied. Ifukube is best known for his work on the soundtracks of the classic Godzilla movies.
Natalie Bergman – “Shine Your Light on Me” (from Mercy) – Religious pop music is often sorely lacking in one thing: actual religious fervor. Similar to how love songs often fail to grapple with the realities, both the good and bad, of love, so too does religious pop fail to deal with the difficulties of a God-focused life. Natalie Bergman, writing Mercy in the wake of her father’s sudden death and a spiritual retreat to deal with her loss, never falls into that trap. This record is not full of the emptiness of “praise” music, but full of searching for self, for Love, for God.