Songs tell stories, sometimes these stories have the power to change perspectives, or maybe even inspire change to happen, or at the very least, they can inform and entertain. Opening our eyes to other ways of thinking, other ways of being, enlightening alternate paths to the ones we might currently be taking, but then again, they could just simply confirm or reaffirm what we already know. Music is the conduit for all of this. And that’s why it’s so vital that we continue to celebrate it and always appreciate its maker(s) because ultimately, where would we be without sharing our stories?
In this year-end list, the Bitter Sweet Symphonies team has rounded up their favourite moments in song, of 2021. We hope you enjoy. And as well, please do share with us your favourite moments of the past year in music, in the comments below.
Track selections and reviews by Charlotte Holroyd, Chiara Strazzulla and Annie Jo Baker.
Taylor Swift – ‘All Too Well’ (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)
There’s nothing bolder than speaking your truth, and seemingly that’s what Taylor Swift does in ‘All Too Well’ (10 Minute Version). The song has been highly regarded over the years as a fan favourite and the ‘centrepiece’ of her fourth studio album, Red. Now, this update sheds new light and lifts the lid for the first time on the intended unabridged ten minute form. Told to have been written spontaneously one day during band rehearsal for the Speak Now tour, the origin of the ten minute version feels appropriate to the somewhat chaotic stream of consciousness that embodies the final composition, for it is the perfect example of a carefully crafted crescendo.
What unfurls is a damning account of what went down in Swift’s own words in relation to a past romantic endeavour, potentially too radical for audiences to swallow at the time of the original album release. It’s what this recording symbolises, perhaps, that is possibly more meaningful than anything else in Swift’s’ catalogue: in terms of the greater societal, cultural and moral implications that a conversation like this sparks over ownership, censoring oneself, and the role of accountability. Of course, subject matter of this nature is highly contestable, we live in the opinion age after all – that’s the compromise of subjectivity. But as a singular work of art told amongst a greater body of work, one finds that it is incredibly profound, and dare we say, truthfully groundbreaking.
The ten minute version shifts the entire narrative of the song from the one we knew previously: of tragic heartbreak towards something much more nuanced and complicated, a story fraught over a relationship riddled by unstable dynamics. It’s art like this that inspires others and offers aid and immeasurable solace. And the impact this version could have, could be even more significant because a global titan like Taylor Swift has penned it. Yes to that.
And true to the effect that ‘All Too Well’ (10 Minute Version) has made so far, for the first time ever in the history of the recorded charts a ten minute song has reached number one. How about that.
Roo Panes – ‘Childhood’
Sometimes the simplest moments are the ones you remember most, and for me, Roo Panes captures the essence of simpler times in ‘Childhood’. Over five-plus minutes, rapturous melodies and Panes’ gorgeous baritone softly entrance as warmly gentleness of plucked guitar, resonant piano and swelling strings take us by the hand and guide us on a storytelling journey.
This is a song that speaks to the human experience, it poses that every day is a childhood. In my mind, this muses on the idea that, every day we’re here offers us another chance to begin again, to create the life we want to lead, and that we should appreciate each day we’re given for the glorious gift that it is: a chance to learn lessons, explore, share, give love, hold close the little joys and understand the struggles. It’s an invigorating message. One that acts as a re-centring mantra. It’s so easy to take for granted what we have and forget the essential point of life. I think a song like this, that talks about existence and gratitude and memory and hope, is so important. It has the capability to enrich rather than just add, and in a time where there’s so much noise and opinion, it’s just nice (imperative, even) to reconvene with yourself and what matters most.
And it further benefits that the music video is filled with images of nature and family to bring the message home. Beautiful. Thank you, Roo Panes.
Jack River – ‘We Are The Youth’
Activism and social movements have been drivers for positive action and conversation since we can remember, without someone standing up and saying “I’m not happy and I’m not going to take this anymore,” and brave people allying together over a common cause or injustice then how can we trust that law makers will see fit that change happens for the good of a people? This question continues to remain relevant. And this is the area in which ‘We Are The Youth,’ by Australian artist, Jack River, concerns itself.
Dedicated to the people who are making a difference today, for the future of our planet, our people and generations to come, ‘We Are The Youth’ is a vibrant opus that claims power and strength for this generation’s determination to make their voices heard and understood in order to enact real change. It’s possibly the most moving song of this era. Defiant, honest, irrefutable spirit meets glistening bombast. A colourful ode to the sights and sounds one might witness at a rally, as we take in its message ‘We Are The Youth’ explains a lot of the troubles and unruly devastations that we hear about and see in the world today.
It takes quite a toll and that’s exactly why a song like this plays such an important role, aligning real issues within the realms of music has the ability to reach so many and fuel discussion and create movement. Take a listen and experience it for yourself. Who knows, it might change your world forever.
YONAKA – ‘Seize the Power’
This band is known for releasing music which goes a little bit deeper, conceptually all of the tracks featured on Seize the Power mixtape – this year’s excellent body of work by YONAKA – inspect the interior state of mind, discussing mental health, self-empowerment and how outside opinions and judgement can affect one’s own self esteem in amongst the chatter also perpetuating inside one’s own head. The ideas running through the lead, titular single are so important, that it’s hard to understand why it has taken this long for a song of its kind to exist.
‘Seize the Power’ is about individualism, gone are the wisdoms of following the crowd to fit in now being yourself is the currency. It’s refreshing because it’s true, but also the simplest truth we could ever think up. If you are not being honest with yourself, or lose yourself trying to compete, it is so much harder to be a fully functioning human being, to be able to help others and be of use to anyone, really, it needs to start within. You need to be a friend to yourself before you can be a friend to others, as it goes. And YONAKA basically summarises this within three minutes to a chorus of hybrid rap, pop and electronic.
Not only does this sound really cool, it actually delivers an inspiring message. Yay for personal growth.
Junodream – ‘Eden Burns’
Actually written around the time of the Australian bushfires in 2019, this song references the coastal town of Eden as it caught ablaze during that devastating period. Frustration is the theme here, and whilst the song’s context was originally focused on a specific tragedy in time as previously mentioned, it feels eerily as relevant now to attach even more meaning to it.
As a lot of us remain dismayed by the lack of action from world leaders concerning the climate emergency we’re facing as a global society, as well as the continued ignorance that our elected officials seem to bear towards implementing tangible change. Art does what it must to declare what has to be heard. And Junodream makes a fantastic statement with ‘Eden Burns’. A staccato vessel of rebellion.
Transitioning the Garden of Eden as a metaphor, to the ‘Eden’ supposed in the title, we can deduce even more parallels to our present day situation. For this cautionary tale is of present importance, the bristling rhythms and charging shuffle conflict before hitting an apex of clearance where the crux of all this urgency cuts through – “running out of time,” singer Ed Vyvyan announces which echoes through the emptiness, and like a grave premonition it lingers and permeates the mind. Very smart, this band is.
The distortion grows as anger swells, emphasizing the voices of the many aggrieved at present. ‘Eden Burns’ is considerably even more pertinent now than when it was released earlier in January.
Jessica Winter – ‘Like a Knife’
Jessica Winter is one of the most interesting emerging voices on the British music scene right now, in every sense of the term: from her unmistakable vocals to the clever, precise way her tracks are arranged to be both immersive and energetic, with a subtly disquieting vein running through them. Her most recent EP, More Sad Music, is packed with examples of this delicate, refined balance she’s weaving, but Like a Knife is a poster child for it, a song so exact in its structure it’s almost mathematical, without losing any of its punch and emotion.
It’s a dark, danceable brand of electropop which takes the classic pop structures (yes, there’s an echo of Ke$ha in this song) and runs them through the filter of suggestions which belong in techno, acid house, punk, and beyond. It’s also one of the most persistent earworms I have heard in a long time, immediately recognisable even if you catch a couple chords of it distractedly and immediately recalled from memory. It is, also, a song that has you from its surprisingly rough opening chords, starts intriguing, continues melodic, and overall comes out both catchy and compelling.
The crisp arrangement blends with the subtle distortion of the vocals, leaking in turn into the equally subtly dissonant instrumental background, creating a tune that has a clear, loud, brazen voice but with an unsettling, perturbing underbelly. It manages to keep its energy high throughout, too; it is a song for a late-night club, potentially in a basement, with strobing lights maybe, the kind of thing we’ve all been missing and craving in recent months; it taps into, and channels, those feelings of pent-up tension through a thrumming rhythm section and a beautiful use of its drop. The result is layered, dirty around the edges in all the right ways, complex without losing any of its punch. Like its title, this song also has something of a blade in its sharpness in the way it cuts right through to you.
Sorry – ‘Cigarette Packet’
After delivering one of the strongest albums of 2020, Londoners Sorry have taken an unexpected turn into the dissonant, the electronic, and perhaps even the brainy with their most recent effort, an EP titled Twixtustwain, which was very much not what their fans had seen coming but which has opened up a number of ambitious directions for a band that is clearly bold enough to take them.
It’s also a callback to the band’s early mixtapes, but revisited with a much more mature voice and a welcome boldness, and the result is tense in mood and taut in sound. This is perfectly exemplified by ‘Cigarette Packet,’ the first single out of the record and easily the stand-out one, too. I have rarely bumped into a song that is equally as capable of grabbing you by the throat and dragging you down the vortex of its own obsession as this one does. It reminds me a little of some things found in the unlit corners of punk music – some tracks out of Plague Vendor’s latest have the same frantic quality, for instance – while playing around with a completely different set of sounds.
It is a song of many elements which succeeds in the difficult task of coming across deceptively simple-structured while hiding a remarkable level of complexity. Taking the backbone of the type of syncopated rhythm the band have come to be familiar with in their previous ventures, it becomes a restless cavalcade which channels the antsy, restless feeling of a too-long night, also through the repetitions of its vocals, which start clean, flirt with distortion, and end expressively rough. “I know, you know, we know what’s gonna happen/straight through the night, back on the wagon” sings vocalist Asha Lorenz, with a raw authenticity that is one of the main assets of this track. The other is a clever mixing of sounds which build up into organised chaos – including the cleverest use of cowbell I’ve heard in quite a while. It’s a track meant to leave you breathless by the end, which fully succeeds in its intent.
The Horrors – ‘Against The Blade’
This is another surprising turn, although, in their more-than-respectable career, the Horrors have now made it clear that they’re one of those bands who delight in their ability to always come out with the song (or, indeed, the record) you didn’t expect them to. Their two most recent EPs, conceived through the pandemic and delivered practically back-to-back, are the hardest they’ve ever sounded, and as they go in – almost literally – all guns blazing, it’s clear that they are having a lot of fun with it.
It’s equally good fun to listen to, especially when one gets tracks like this Against the Blade, out of the EP of the same name, a breathless, hard-hitting kick which never slows down throughout its remarkably tight three minutes and twenty. It’s a surprisingly short track for a band that in the past has happily leaned into sprawling mazes of songs, but it manages to pack a lot in its stripped-back runtime. In fact, it’s precisely the fact that it’s so trimmed, with no room allowed for any extra frills, that makes it so effective: it is a track with no time to lose, where every sound is measured, resulting in a brilliant organised chaos.
The full-bodied vocals and challenging lyrics (“Push against the blade, surrender to the game,” the song encourages, before devolving into manic laughter; make of that what you will) are an excellent hook, but the real star in this track is the guitar sound, unleashed at its dirtiest and loudest. There’s an instrumental bridge which is truly what remains with you after the song is over: an electric shock of raw sound woven into a remarkably refined structure.
This is a track to be played loud at a club, but a clever track also, drawing from the glories of industrial rock (one might think of Nine Inch Nails, perhaps most obviously, but I can’t help but hear a pinch of Rammstein in the screech of those guitars), hardcore punk, and even metal. It’s bold, it’s relentless, it’s uncomfortable in exactly the way that it’s meant to be, and it’s great to listen to on repeat. It’s the work of a band that has nothing left to prove but still, apparently – and most luckily for us – a lot left to say. They could not have stepped back onto the scene with a stronger calling card.
Brian Destiny – ‘Is It Gonna Be Love?’
One of the 2022 releases I’m most excited for is the debut EP by this new South London outfit, a brainchild of Nathan Saoudi, also of Fat White Family fame, where he’s responsible for the keyboards, backing vocals, and a certain amount of songwriting. His songwriting ability is certainly showcased here, in a first single that grabs you from the very first second and never falters until the end of its three-minutes-and-forty-seconds runtime.
It is a beautifully crafted song, which delivers a brand-new spin on a collection of retro sounds: you may think of Gary Numan at first, but there’s a near-encyclopaedic knowledge and love of synth-rock, post-punk, classic British rock, German electropop, and a lot more, in a cleverly woven track that incorporates a lot without ever losing its voice and becoming citationist. It’s a song that David Bowie would have absolutely loved if he’d happened to hear it on a Berlin radio channel in the late ‘70s (where, one must add, it would not have been entirely out of place).
One of its greatest strengths is without doubt its ability to be so much more than the sum of its parts. There is a cleverness to it that never ends up disrupting the smooth flow of its sound, which is somewhat of a teachable moment in a time when too many artists appear to feel compelled to choose between complex and catchy: here is a track that achieves both in an elegant way, and manages to appear to do it effortlessly.
I was lucky enough to hear this song live prior to its release, and it’s one of a number of Brian Destiny tracks that have been replaying nonstop in my head since; played on a stage, it’s a bopping romp which will get the whole room moving, but this studio version has its own added value in that it allows for the ability to appreciate how fine-tuned everything about this song is. From a never-faltering use of drums to a synth section that is ever-present and loaded with personality, down to the splendid surprise of the vocals, which are expressive and versatile, this is an extremely playable, extremely listenable track which promises a lot and delivers an excellent example of balance between classic sounds and new ideas.
It has personality, ambition, a very mature voice and a striking set of very clear ideas. One would be almost tempted to call it art-rock, just for a moment, but there’s so much more to it than that.
Walt Disco – ‘Weightless’
Walt Disco started out as the best New Romantic band to suddenly appear on the scene in the 2010s, and they have steadily grown ever since, to the point that they’re now delivering something that doesn’t yet have a name and that is in places almost more performance art than mere music. Not that the music isn’t brilliant: and this immensely powerful single is an excellent example of how mature, confident, and ready to let go of all restraints this band has come to be.
Weightless is a deeply intimate song, and a deeply intimate listening experience, and I must admit that it spoke to me on a personal level also, as the lyrics have an uncanny ability to transpose feelings I wasn’t entirely sure I had a name for and conveying them with eloquent sharpness (“For all of my life/I was in the dark/Was I never my type/Oh please don’t cry/It’s not too late to start”). Beside its doubtless emotional power and the liberating thrill of expressing all of this in such a bold way, however, the song stands out equally as much as a beautifully put-together, experimental track, sounding eerie and intense in turn.
The New Romantic vein is still there – I will never listen to a Walt Disco track and not think of Adam and the Ants – but it’s now a part of a much greater whole which speaks with one of the most unusual and intriguing voices on a scene that it would be almost dismissive to just call post-punk. There is a lot to love here, from the industrial-style hum of the guitars to the little drops of electronica, to a thumping bass that has almost something of trance music, to the deeply melodic harmony of backing vocals and the ripple of synth-pop holding up the instrumental coda.
It strikes a very delicate balance, catchy enough to stick with you after it’s over, intense enough to command the listener’s attention for as long as it lasts. The depth of emotion that runs through it is channelled into a sound that feels as boundary-breaking as the feeling it expresses, and that’s an amazing feat. Easily one of the most unforgettable surprises of this 2021.
AJJ – ‘Motor Away’
Rarely have I heard musicians so violently affirming of life, including all its miseries, as AJJ. Their work is swollen to bursting with a tragic optimism borne of attempts to escape drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty. They’ve always had so much to say that I’ve struggled to keep up. I’ve sobbed and screamed to their music, and now I’ve stopped in my tracks.
‘Motor Away’ is a startlingly brief but all-consuming fuzzy anthem of doubt. While initially grown out of the DIY ethos, the quality of the band’s production has soared since their inception, and so this is a deliberate blurriness–they’re obfuscating on purpose. I don’t know what they’re hiding–maybe just the idea of covertness. The track itself finishes with softly glittering guitar, a question half-answered. Every instrumental is as carefully and deliberately laid as it possibly could be.
Be honest with yourself, says this folk punk band from Phoenix, Arizona. Just drive away, they say. How sarcastic are they? How sincere? You don’t know. You can’t know. Listen long enough and maybe you’ll have a guess.
Annie Jo Baker
Jackfruit – ‘I had gay sex with god (it could’ve gone better)’
This title is blasphemous, but the shock value hinted at never comes. Instead, you accept the narrator’s reality; they tell you of their experience, and you believe it, even if you don’t know what it means.
Instrumentally, it involves little more than vocals, sometimes layered, mostly not, and spare piano. A touch of bass. Of percussion. Jackfruit’s voice is young, but strong, with a rich androgyny, able to carry emotion with little instrumental backing. “Nothing ever stays in my head through the day, it’s sunset, when did I wake up?”
Lyrically, it tells the story of a sexual encounter with the, “prettiest man [the narrator] had ever seen,” someone who is only ever identified as “God.” The storyteller falls in love with this individual, but the latter remains uninterested. “Didn’t wanna be forgotten, so I had gay sex with God, and it could’ve gone better.” It ultimately doesn’t matter if this is just a human man, or if this person is actually supposed to be God and this is the magical realist diatribe of an excommunicant. What matters is that the narrator sought absolution with him, and they found it, or at least a version of it. “I spent all of last night in God’s bed. Mom, please don’t get upset, ‘cause now I’ll be immortalized–I’ll be immortalized,” and then they choke up. The song devolves into a litany of, “amen,” and then it’s over.
Annie Jo Baker
dodie – ‘Hate Myself’
I’ve followed dodie since she was the vlogger Dodie Clark, a young person in their bedroom with a ukulele, performing covers as well as quietly lovely songs of their own division, like the soft queer devotional, ‘She.’
The total extent of their musical talent, either developed since or hidden or dormant at the time, is fully on display here with ‘Hate Myself.’ The whole Build a Problem album is perpetually, gently percussive, and this single is no exception. It feels so delightfully unique for a young pop artist to favor percussion over melody as regularly as dodie does. As is the norm for her, the silences and the literally audible breaths are just as important as the “proper” instrumentals. It’s like they read the definition of “negative space,” and then decided to build a career of it. It makes for a particularly unique work of alt-pop, and, despite their quiet, melancholic voice, it all adds up to something you scream along to when you’re alone.
Because this is a song about an overthinker, someone who worries to no end and blames themself for all misunderstandings. “Oh, so illogical/ I’m not magical, I can’t read your mind.” (dodie really likes her consonants.) How many of us have lamented our inability to understand everything around us? And then how many of us have wanted to turn our own feelings of inadequacy back on the person who, perhaps accidentally, perpetuates them: “But how can you not hear the whole conversation/ I have sitting still with a brain on fire?” If we blame ourselves for being unable to read their minds, how dare they not read ours.
Annie Jo Baker
Arlo Parks – ‘Hope’
This is a track whose lyrics hit so very close to home. Statements like, “Millie tried to talk the pleasure back into being alive,” and, “ashamed of being locked into bed,” imply a story of institutionalization, or, at least, the healing that can take place during. This is further evidenced by the music video, in which Arlo Parks’ character befriends the loner at a psychiatric hospital. “Feeling like a liar at best,” is a refrain in this song, as well as the constant thought of many who have dealt with mental illness. Arlo Parks herself has seemed unashamed to discuss her own experiences with it.
The song itself is a swirling, spiraling R&B-tasting single made initially of mostly piano, with support from the guitar-bass-drums of conventional popular music. Despite the initially macabre lyrics, it’s a track about healing. When there’s a spoken word interlude, it’s earned. Someone taking you aside and spilling their guts to tell you something about yourself. It’s superficially a simple song, mostly repeats of the chorus, but taken as a whole, it feels like the domestic violence escapee at the psych hospital who tells you she worries about you. “You’re not alone like you think you are.”
Annie Jo Baker
Tony & The Kiki – ‘Extra Express’
Hard rock, at least here in the United States, is usually associated with hypermasculine men bleeding red, white, and blue, and very rarely with explicit queerness, so to hear a promotional single’s lyrics begin with, “Shave your head. Bind your chest. Male pronoun’d but wear a dress. Pompadour. High-heeled shoes,” is just this side of shocking. Some would perhaps consider it “hopelessly woke,” when it’s in fact mostly just a description of the visuals of the ‘70s rock that clearly inspired the instrumentals. Also a nice to-do list for the androgynes in the twenty-first century audience.
Initially aurally indistinguishable from examples of its half-century-old stylistic origins, the lyrics then casually switch language between English and Spanish. Latinx vocalist Anthony Alfaro has a preternaturally powerful voice, capable of a bilingual vocal showmanship rarely so shown-off in this decade’s rock. We definitely have a cultural bias in favor of the classic rock sound, but the old stars of rock never got to scream, “This is the death of gender. I’m on a grammar bender. Come on, take a ride on the extra express.” Maybe our put-upon androgyny is “extra,” but fewer and fewer people care that it is, and when it isn’t so easy, remember, “You wanna flirt with freaky?”
Annie Jo Baker