To our fellow beloved sweaty, bedraggled, and grody music nerds – here are just some of the many tracks that kept us going in 2021. We hope you enjoy.
And If you haven’t already, read the Melisma staffs’ summaries of some of 2021’s best albums. Go on – we’ll wait.
CHVRCHES – “Asking For A Friend”
Ethan Lam (’22)
From 2013 – 2015, I was a CHVRCHES superfan. The lyrics to every song off their debut The Bones of What You Believe – which has since taken its rightful place as an integral part of the 2010s indie pop canon – are etched deep into the core of my very being. I have to admit, though, that I had mostly written CHVRCHES off after that record. I found Every Open Eye to be just decent (although the blame is largely on me for expecting TBOWYB 2.0), and the most succinct summary of 2018’s Love Is Dead I can give you is that it sounds like the band’s best Imagine Dragons impression. Even more egregious was their follow-up single “Here With Me,” a collaboration with EDM titan Marshmello so painfully generic that even frontwoman Lauren Mayberry herself has called it “tacky pop crap.” I thought this overpolished and frankly bland sound was the direction the band was going in – not to mention I had expanded my sonic palette as I aged – and so I let go of my fandom.
But as it turns out, one thing I share with my 13 year old self is that I’m still the world’s biggest sucker for a good synthpop track. “Asking for a Friend” feels truly monumental, with not one, but two sparkling and squirming breakdowns that drop exactly when they’re needed. The synths are tightly engineered, packed together and beautifully layered, which left me feeling overwhelmed in the best possible way. And Mayberry is truly on fire here – “And the songs I wrote ’bout hearts I broke would never come for free / I cheated and I lied / But I meant it when I cried” she coldly sighs, as if she has long resigned herself to the role of a heartbreaker and the conflicting emotions that entail.
After a decade together, CHVRCHES have accrued a considerable catalogue of pure bangers, but “Asking for a Friend” has somehow squirreled its way into my personal top 3 CHVRCHES songs – considering the caliber of the competition, that’s no simple feat. This is a song that you listen to with headphones on, the volume turned up to near-maximum levels. If you couldn’t already tell from this entire write-up, “Asking for a Friend” is a track so good that it single-handedly convinced me to love CHVRCHES with my entire heart again. I’ve missed this band so, so fucking much.
Arca – “Tiro”
Andrés López (’24)
Having one of the most prolific outputs out of any artist this year, Venezuelan producer and singer Arca released her Madre EP in January, before ending the year with a bang releasing the second, third, fourth, and fifth installments in the Kick series over four consecutive days between November and December. One track in particular that stuck out was “Tiro” from KICK ii. An industrial reggaetón banger, Arca finds a way to blend the experimental and the mainstream flawlessly on this song. Produced alongside Boys Noize and Cardopusher, the track features a thumping reggaetón groove, animated autotuned vocals, and an insanely infectious energy. On the lyrical end, Arca describes a lively club scene where money is being thrown and people are dancing while also giving a shoutout to multiple states in her home country of Venezuela. Arca has been pushing the envelope in her music for years now, and the explosive release of her four latest albums puts this on full display. Give “Tiro” and the rest of what the Kick series has to offer a listen if you want a musical breath of fresh air.
DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ – “Love Is The Purest Thing There Is”
Jason Evers (’23)
A lot of my friends thought I was joking when I first told them to listen to DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ. I mean, her name sounds like a sick joke, with the twice-repeating “DJ” moniker at both ends. Sabrina’s discography is replete with tacky, Y2K nostalgia-inducing flair and samples from everyone’s favorite terrible early 2000’s teen sitcoms. It’s true, there’s a lot of humor in listening to DJ Sabrina, but if there’s one thing Sabrina knows how to do right (other than construct a fantastic house jam), it’s showing sincerity. “Love is the Purest Thing There Is” is the very embodiment of tender reassurance compressed into an 8-minute melody. The song starts timidly, unsure of itself, with television samples desperately asking “Are you sure? Are you sure?” As the song unfolds, the samples become more confident, reaching out to the listener themselves. It’s as though Sabrina herself speaks through the lines she samples – she’s there to reassure you that you’re smart. You’re beautiful. You’re charming. You only need to realize that about yourself.
Indigo De Souza – “Kill Me”
Georgia Moore (’22)
Like other scream-able tracks like “Take Off Your Pants” or “How I Get Myself Killed,” “Kill Me” is about the best and the worst we find in ourselves; the joy of being consumed by love and life and the “bigness” of it all, but also the fear of never being able to understand how to do it right. According to Genius, de Souza says she first recorded “Kill Me” with her laptop camera in 2018. About a year later she rediscovered the video which would become the lead single off of her 2021 release, Any Shape You Take. Both the single and the album have been constants in my rotation this year, because it perfectly captures this irrational (yet relatable?) and exhausting desire to be loved to death. 2021 has been a pretty imbalanced year, where joy and pain have been blurred into extremes that de Souza translates into lyrics that are all at once universal and deeply personal.
Brady Watt, Westside Gunn, DJ Premier – “The Narcissist”
Jackson Rhodes (’22)
The persona of Westside Gunn is of a WWE-wrestling, Buffalo mafioso, mythical god of rap who’ll “Walk through your blood happily.” It’s intentionally blunt, reflected viscerally with production on his projects usually of lightly drummed, elegant tones under his bars about buying lambos in every color possible. With “The Narcissist,” Gunn’s “You ever had a gun in your mouth like a cavity?” demeanor is immediately spotlit by Brady Watt’s isolated, warm keys. The song builds to a satisfying groove, catchy synths suddenly capture melodies, and DJ Premier adds just enough spice on the end for me to keep listening to this thing until the end of time. It’s not a musical reinvention of the wheel, but for when I was yearning for something fun to bop my head to, nothing quite scratched that itch like “The Narcissist.”
Mdou Moctar – “Afrique Victime”
Jake Rubenstein (’25)
If we stay silent it will be the end of us
My brothers and sisters, tell me why is this happening?
Tuareg rocker Mdou Moctar gives a voice to the Berber people of Western Africa through his album Afrique Victime – an amalgam of traditional Saharan folk music, polished modern production, and electrifying guitar licks. The title track is the album’s 7+ minute opus that covers as much sonic ground as it does lyrical content. Afrique Victime comments on the downtrodden African continent and how its people have been the victims of continual exploitation. The track begins with what sounds like a solemn prayer for a world in mourning. The pain of Moctar and the people of his home country, Niger, comes through in the track’s galloping catharsis, with gang vocals and blinding lead guitar solo sections giving way to a tempo crescendo and blistering climax. Moctar’s recent foray into the mainstream has not only exposed many to the ecstatic sounds coming out of West Africa, but also represents a traditionally forgotten class of world musicians. See Mdou Moctar’s NPR Tiny Desk performance from May of this year to catch a glimpse of his band’s exhilarating energy and soulful performances.