If you could sum up 2021 in a mixtape…would it even be worth the effort?
It’s a question I’ve gone back and forth on for a while now. Most of the time, 2021 felt like a continuation of all the badness that was 2020, and didn’t feel like it had any personality or character of its own. There was no country-changing election, no notable genre trends, and no parent-requested playlists to help fill out our track list. Even the pandemic, now on its third variant, feels like a remix of an existing song, bringing in a guest star for a verse or two to send it back up the metaphorical Hot 100 of our consciousness. If 2020 was an album, 2021 is just the deluxe version, with a couple of new tracks tossed in to justify charging twice the price for it.
Still, as 2021 winds down, it’s important to remember that this year did not happen in a vacuum. We may be in the same spot that we were last year, but we are here by choice, or rather by the many choices that people have made to disregard the well-being of others, to spread misinformation and disregard the truth, or simply to turn their back on the entire situation and prematurely return to whatever “normal” was in 2019. As a result, our society remains divided, the election remains contested, the reckoning with police brutality and racial inequities was deferred, and the pandemic death toll now exceeds 820,000 in the United States. It’s been said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and 2021 is what happens when we actively and willfully try to ignore both past and reality as a whole. If we’ve already forgotten 2020, we need to do all we can to remember 2021 and the misery that result, in hopes that this will spur us all to make better decisions going forward so that we never end up at this crossroads again.
The only rule for this list is that there are no other rules. Songs are not restricted by genre, artist, original year of release, or anything else (in fact, given how surreal and absurd this year felt sometimes, weirdness may actually strengthen a song’s case for inclusion). All that matters is whether or not a song can be tied back to 2021 in some shape or form.
For better and sometimes for worse, this is the official Kyle’s Korner playlist for the continuing tire fire that was 2021.
Adele, “Easy On Me”
This song hit the musical world like a tidal wave back in October, and has spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100 so far (and may well get there again after the holiday season), so it will likely end up on a lot of end-of-year lists. However, I put the song in the “good, not great” category and found it to be a step down from her last leadoff single “Hello,” so why does it lead off my pandemic playlist?
The song is billed as a message from Adele to her young son, asking him not to judge her too harshly about ending the relationship with his father. From a historical perspective, however, I think this is the sort of plea that we’ll be making to future generations, because we’ve screwed up a lot of things over the last few years and decades: Our weak pandemic response, our weak climate change response, our weak response to the call for racial justice…heck, just the fact that our infrastructure (and even entire areas of the country) have been left to rot. Maybe some of theses issues predate us, but the truth is that we’ve had ample opportunity to impact these issues for the better, and we’ve just left the bat on our shoulder and watched our pitches go by. We’re going to be asking our children and grandchildren for forgiveness and understanding in years to come, but whether or not we get it (or even deserve it) is an open question.
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Burn Down The Trailer Park”
So what’s a long-forgotten single from 2001 doing this early on the list? It’s because a bunch of angry morons tried to burn down the country just six days into the new year, storming the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral votes for the presidency. Just like Cyrus’s narrator here, these people were so blinded by rage, grievances, and stupidity that they decided to score an own goal and destroy everything around them, not realizing the damage they were doing to themselves (and everyone else) in the process. It’s kind of scary how well this parallels the lead-up to January 6th: The consumption of new-ish media (satellite TV in the song, the Internet and social media in 2021) led to a noticeable change in someone’s attitude and behavior, the way the narrator references being “paranoid and scared to death,” and how the response to the other’s person behavior is to simply destroy everything instead of, you know, confronting them and talking about it? Despite what idiots like Tucker Carlson would have you believe, what happened that day was neither patriotic nor brave. The storming of the Capitol was dumb, it was dangerous, and it was deadly, and we need to remember it for what it was to ensure that it never, never, never happens again.
Ward Davis, “Black Cats And Crows”
I tend to be late to the party on material that doesn’t make it on my review list in a given year, and that was the case with Davis’s incredible 2020 album Black Cats And Crows. The title track earns a spot here because if depression were a song, it would be this one, and it travels to the sort of dark places that I think this year sent a lot of people to, especially as new coronavirus variants emerged and the promise of a “hot vax summer” and a “normal” school year crumbled into dust. This was supposed to be the year that we put the pandemic behind us and started working on the issues that it had laid bare, but instead America ended up losing more lives to COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020, despite all of the knowledge we had gained and the tools we now had at our disposal. The coronavirus took what seemed like our best shot and came back with a devastating one-two combination of its own, sending us sprawling to the canvas and spiraling into despair. Because of this, everyone was carrying around an extra weight this year, wondering if anything they did even mattered (more on this later) because it seemed that “every day is just another day to die.” No song captures these feelings quite as poignantly as Davis’s does, so it deserves a prominent spot on this list.
Willie Jones, “American Dream”
Chapel Hart wasn’t the only musical act that was overlooked for my best-of-2021 list—Jones dropped “American Dream” back in January, and honestly this would have probably been my #1 song of the year had I gotten around to review it. If I had one issue with “I Will Follow,” it was that the song never went beyond a declaration that they would never give up, and all of its hard edges had been sanded down to make the song more palatable to a wider audience. This song makes no such concession: The sound and beats are in-your-face, Jones is direct and determined in his delivery, and the lyrics get straight to the heart of the matter: Life in America is very different depending on your skin color, and while progress had been made over the years, we’ve still got a long way to go before true equality is achieved. It’s a reminder that the calls for change made last year still haven’t been meaningfully addressed (see: the Morgan Wallen situation), and that reminder makes it a must-have for this year’s list.
Linkin Park, “In The End”
This song is for those of you who’ve tried to stay on Santa’s nice list this year. You’ve been diligent about following the pandemic best practices I’ve been shouting about for nearly two years. You were fully vaccinated, and even gotten a booster shot. You barely leave the house, you wear your mask indoors and outdoors, and you’ve even confronted an apathetic family member and convinced them to get the vaccine. You’ve done everything that’s been asked of you since the pandemic started, and then some. You “tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter.” You’re probably feeling angry right now: Angry for all the time you’ve lost, angry for how little of a difference you think you’ve made, and most of all you’re angry as the people who didn’t do the right thing, who didn’t protect themselves and allowed the pandemic to linger and eventually rise again. I understand you’re anger, and these three and a half minutes are for you to vent your frustration and wonder if it was all worth it.
…Feel better? Okay, now let me be the first to say that what you’ve done is admirable, and that it was worth the sacrifice. Without folks like you, this pandemic could have been much worse, and tens or hundreds of thousands of additional people could have died. You helped flatten the curve in the early days of 2020, and you kept the delta surge from being as bad as it could have been. You controlled what you can control, and we’re all grateful for it.
Now spare a moment to think about the unvaccinated people around you. They may be selfish and misinformed, and you’re free (and even justified) to be mad at them, but never forget that they are still human beings, and keep that in mind even as you rail against their behavior. Like it or not, we’re still all in this together, and we’ve got to control what we can control, even if we can’t control other people. We have tried so hard and have gotten so far, and in the end, it did matter, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
(If you’re one of the people who are still unvaccinated, my message for you is this: There’s still time to make a difference. The vaccines are safe, effective, and will help protect both you and the people you care about. The ultimate decision may be yours, but know that we would all be greatly appreciative if you got the shot.)
Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy”
Sadly, if a song aggravates me enough to match the all-time low score ever handed out on the blog, it made enough of an impact to make it onto this list. This song represents the anger and closed-mindedness exhibited by many in our community, the raw emotions that lead people to draw hard lines between “us” and “them,” and vilify anyone who’s not on the “country” side of the line. “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” may have explicitly listed the “undesirable” characteristics of “non-country” folks, but this one drew my ire the most because it took the hostility an extra step too far, declaring that anyone who wasn’t part of the “country” crowd might as well be dead, but their life wasn’t worth living.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many are so dedicated to this small-tent mindset, casting out people for severe transgressions like preferring soft drinks to liquor and driving a hatchback instead of pickup. (I also can’t see why people insist on trying to tell us how awesome their life is by telling us how not awesome it is, as Shelton does in great detail here.) Country music is better as a big tent where people are free to try different sounds and songs to see how things come together. I may not always like the results (abrasive drum machines rarely have the warm, textured feel I’m looking for), but I’m glad that people have the leeway to experiment and express themselves the way they want to.
When I die, I don’t care if I come back as a country boy or not, but I’d like to think that I’ll be able to listen to country music and appreciate all the ways that people have make it special.
Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like”
I was going to include “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” on this list, but ended up leaving it out because a) this should be a list that people want to hear, and b) “Fancy Like” wound up as one of the worst songs and biggest hits of the year, and if my list was truly going to represent 2021, it would have to be included somewhere. Chalk this one up as a victory for the Internet: The song was poorly produced, poorly written, and poorly performed, but it found a spark through a little social media virality and exploded to the point where Applebee’s had to put Oreo shakes back on the menu.
“Fancy Like” is the latest example of how being popular and being good are two very different things when it comes to music. From a critical standpoint, there’s basically nothing redeeming about this song; however, if you can write something that resonates with people and hit the marketing jackpot with enough silly dancing and the right brand tie-ins (a lot of review traffic I got came from a Reddit dedicated to commercials), you might just wind up with one of the biggest songs of the year. For the world’s sake, however, let’s hope the novelty wears off before it winds up in the gold rotations…
Ronnie Milsap, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
This song is here for two reasons:
- As the world moves on towards different forms of media (and eventually to a media-less future thanks to digital downloads), I’ve inherited several collections of CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl records from people trying to downsize or who no longer have the means to play them anymore. Sitting around at home so much has finally given me the time and motivation to start going through and cataloging all of the items, and while there have been some surprises amongst the items (who knew people purchased so many Christmas cassettes?), there have also been some real gems buried deep in the pile, and a high-quality copy of Milsap’s retro 1986 album Lost In The Fifties Tonight is one of them. This song represents all of the media of yesteryear still sitting in closets and basements around the world, and if you’ve still got a stash somewhere, you should take a moment to revisit it sometime.
- “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby” is the best song on this album, so why is the closing Barrett Strong cover here instead? It’s because money is what everyone wants these days, and right now we seem to stuck in this spot where there’s too much money and not enough money in the system at the same time. Corporate profits are surging and billionaires are launching themselves into space, all while many people are still dealing with job losses and food insecurity. Wages have seen some real growth this year, but so has inflation, and while I think I think things will eventually get better, it’s hard to say when that might actually happen.
King Curtis, “Da-Duh-Dah”
There’s an interesting story behind this one: While walking through the supermarket one day, I heard an old 80s pop song that I remembered from long ago, but I didn’t know the title or any of the lyrics. Instead, all I remembered was the “duh duh da-da da da dadadada” vocal break between choruses. It wasn’t much of a search query, but I dutifully typed it into the YouTube search bar hoping that the algorithm would provide me with some answers. Instead, it brought me to the 1960 leadoff track from The New Scene of King Curtis, and introduced me to the famed saxophonist “King” Curtis Ousley. Curtis is best known for playing on hits such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and The Coasters’s “Yakety Yak,” but he produced some singles and albums of his own, and by sheer luck I stumbled onto this exquisite jazz instrumental performed by an all-star cast. (Seriously, when you can even feature the drummer on an extended solo, you’ve got one heck of a band.)
This find may have been serendipity, but I hope it encourages folks to try step outside their comfort one and check out types of music that they may never have considered before. Our preferences tend to solidify as we get older, so every so often you should go off on a musical tangent and see what you discover. I’ll bet there’s a lot more music like this out there to find and enjoy.
Lena Raine & 2 Mello, “Mirror Temple (Mirror Magic Mix)”
So after spending almost two years doing nothing but watching YouTube videos, I decided to take another shot at making videos myself. I had a short ‘Kyle Vs.’ series back in 2017 after getting laid off from a job in Texas, but over the last few years the channel had gone dormant, with only a few musical posts here and there getting posted. This year, despite being busier than ever, I decided to jump back into the video content grind, and Celeste, a game that took a recommendation from a fellow gamer and a 75% off sale to convince me to buy it, was the game I used to re-launch it.
After three-and-a-half months of messing around with YouTube, I’ve learned that putting this stuff together is fun, but it’s really time-consuming and much harder than tossing together my blog posts. (Also, no one actually watches my longer videos, which tells me I should’ve restarted this thing on TikTok instead.) Still, it’s pushed me to do some things I didn’t think were possible, starting with completing these dastardly C-Side levels that are waiting for you at the end of Celeste. Chapter 5 was the the one that left the biggest impression on me (I was hearing this blasted song in my dreams for two days after beating the level), so its C-Side remix makes my year-end list.
Where will the channel go in 2022? I’m not sure yet, but I’m going to keep working on it alongside the blog until my brain explodes, and when that happens…well, hopefully it’ll at least make for good content.
Lefty Frizzell, “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues”
My retro music kick from last year continued into 2021 (albeit at a reduced pace), and one of the main focuses this year was Frizzell, a country music legend that going into the year I knew next to nothing about. I found a couple cassettes, bought a compilation CD, and started digging into Frizzell’s surprisingly-large discography. (Ironically, 1958’s “Cigarettes And Coffee Blues” was not included on the CD I got, so I had to listen to it through YouTube, and it was so darn catchy that I wound up choosing it for the playlist.) Frizzell’s superpower seems to be the combination of a distinct voice and an easy, effortless charisma that makes him both believable and enjoyable regardless of if the song is serious (“The Long Black Veil”) or silly (“If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time)”). He excels as a storyteller (see: “Saginaw, Michigan”), and he’s got this sort of understated, plainspoken delivery that reminds me a lot of Randy Travis (which makes sense, given that Travis cites Frizzell as one of his major influences). In other words, I’d say Frizzell deserves his spot in the country music pantheon.
As for which artist will get this slot next year? It’s hard to say…but if I had to put a name down, I’d really like to get into Jerry Reed’s back catalog one of these days.
Randy Travis, “Ain’t No Use”
Speaking of Travis, a.k.a. the G.O.A.T of country music, his debut album Storms Of Life turned 35 this year, and Warner Bros. marked the occasion with a remastered release of the album that included three new old songs recorded as part of those sessions, of which “Ain’t No Use” was the best of the bunch. While I’m not thrilled with the practice of labels sitting on recorded material and releasing it years later, I’m glad to see Travis getting his due as a titan of the genre (honestly, it seems like he’s been more visible in the last few years than in the previous ten). Country music has a habit of not giving people their due until they’re dead, but in a sick and twisted way Travis’s 2013 stroke and slow recovery has made country music decide “close enough” and give him the accolades he deserves.
If Travis is never able to perform in, we can at least take solace in the fact that Storms Of Life and twenty-five-plus years worth of recordings exist, and that we still have the chance to experience Travis’s amazing baritone and are able to show people who never heard him live the reasons that he was so good. In a weird way, that’s part of the reason I started writing blog posts and recording songs: If a bus were to smear me across the highway tomorrow, these makeshift horcruxes would live on, and I could be remembered through my rants about Dustin Lynch and Celeste-induced screams of agony. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you think about your “legacy,” and while you may never be as famous as Travis, there’s someone (perhaps a future generation of your family) that might be curious about who you were and what you stood for someday, and preserving your thoughts/sounds/pixels means that you’ll be more than a name on a stone to them after you’re gone.
Speaking of death…
Chris Janson, “Bye Mom”
This one is for all the premature goodbyes we’ve had to say to parents, grandparents, siblings, children, friends, and acquaintances over the last year. 2021 was supposed to be the year we left the pandemic in the dust, and instead we’ve lost more people in the U.S to the coronavirus than we did in 2020. With many people forced to say goodbye remotely or through a maze of tubes and machines, I think there’s been a real a lack of closure for the nation, and Janson’s song is an attempt to resolve this, giving voice to those who have been unable to find or deliver the words to describe their feelings.
When all this is finally, I’d like to see a monument go up somewhere to honor and remember all the people that have died from COVID-19. The deaths have been numbers rather than names for a while now, and I’d like us to have a physical reminder that these were all people with lives and families, a place like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where we can go to remember and pay tribute to those we’ve lost. For now, however, we can only keep the memory of those we’ve lost as close as we can, and vow never to forget them.
Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job And Shove It”
Cody Johnson released “‘Til You Can’t” back in October and implored the world to stop wasting time and do the things you want to before you aren’t able to, but by this point a lot of people had already taken that advice. Instead, millions of people were singing along to Paycheck’s 1977 anthem as they joined in “The Great Resignation,” leaving their jobs and striking out in a new direction for better pay, a better work/life balance, or to follow their passion and try to turn it into a career. In the face of massive loss and the potential risks of returning of work, millions of us turned a critical eye towards our lives and decided to do something to prioritize the things we really cared about. (Perhaps that’s where my sudden return to YouTube came from…)
Power has swung from employers to employees in a big way this year, and it’s a trend I’d like to see continue in the next twelve months. People feel empowered to take back control of their lives and jobs right now, and I feel like this will put everyone in a better position in the long run.
Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone”
This list has mostly been a downer up to this point, so let’s try to wrap things up on a high note. There isn’t much that I can say that I haven’t said already, but I think this captures exactly what I’d like country music to be going forward: An inclusive genre where different sorts of sounds and people can gather freely, all united by the bonds of experience and life lessons. “Country,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and while we all may not agree on songs (see: Hayes’s abomination above), if we keep our doors and our minds open to different ideas and sounds, I believe the genre will ultimately be a better place for it. (Note that this is why “Fancy Like,” for all its flaws, still ended up ranked above exclusionary garbage like “Old School’s In,” “The Worst Country Song Of All Time,” and “Come Back As A Country Boy” on my year-end list.)
We drew a lot of lines between people in 2021. For 2022, let’s try reaching across them instead.
Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow”
I don’t do album reviews on the blog anymore, mostly because I don’t subscribe to any streaming services and rarely buy full albums anymore. I bought The Girls Are Back In Town, however, and I regret nothing: It was a strong album from start to finish, and even the more-generic and attitude-laden stuff that you might find on anyone’s album worked here thanks to the stellar performances of Danica Hart, Devynn Hart, and Trea Swindle. These three have solid deliveries, effortless charisma, and incredible harmony, and when packaged with classical-leaning instrumentation and some truly amazing material (“4 Mississippi,” “Jacqui’s Song,” “You can Have Him Jolene,” “Tailgate Trophy,” and of course “I Will Follow”), this is an album that will probably end up on a few year-end lists for all the right reasons. “I Will Follow” is my #1 single release of the year and thus is the group’s official representative on this list, but you could pick pretty much anything from this album and not go wrong.
The failure of radio to pick up on this trio in 2021 is astounding, and I sincerely hope the genre rectifies this in 2022. This trio deserves to be heard.
Willie Nelson, “Still Not Dead”
Let’s give Willie Nelson the last word for this year, and this 2017 song from God’s Problem Child gives us a hopeful starting point for next year. If you’re reading this, then at the very least you’re “still not dead again today,” and like Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, you’ve still got a chance to make a difference. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the world and admittedly little to look forward to right now, but if have to start somewhere, let’s start here: We’ve got a single day to do our part to make things better, and with any luck we’ll get another day to do it again tomorrow. At an ageless 88 years old, Nelson may look immortal to the outside world (you could imagine him playing chess against Queen Elizabeth II in the year 2100), but he’s acutely aware of his mortality, and he’s doing everything he can to live a full and meaningful life right up the day he passes away. We should all be so lucky, and we should all be looking to him as an example.
To paraphrase another Nelson composition: It is funny how time slips away, and we shouldn’t let it get away so easily. You’ve still got today and we’ve all still got 2022 (hopefully), so let’s make the best of it, and make the 2021 the year that we decided that enough was enough.
Happy New Year, folks. At the risk of having to eat my words again, here’s hoping it’s better than the last one.