The Good & The Ugly: 2021

Pop music is weird. 2021 made that abundantly clear, an extremely precise divide between the brain-meltingly bad, the appallingly average, and pure pop perfection. I never bought into the stock Tik Tok had on popular music until studying the charts and going on it myself. For better or for worse, it’s a staple in the consumption of modern media, in a way Vine never could’ve in its 6 second intervals.

For the uninitiated, I’ll be going through the best and the worst from the Billboard Year End Hot 100 and sorting through the confusing pop industry. This year, I’m adding a rule that I really should’ve had when I first started: Any song that graced the top 20 in 2021 is eligible for the list, just to get a fuller understanding of the year — even if it means it’s more work. With that, there’s a ton of honorable mentions, starting with: SZA- “Good Days”, “ Silk Sonic- “Leave The Door Open,” Dua Lipa- “Levitating,” The Weeknd- “Save Your Tears,” Olivia Rodrigo- “Driver’s License”/“good 4 u”/“traitor”/“enough for you,” Justin Bieber/Daniel Caesar/Giveon- “Peaches,” Pop Smoke- “What You Know About Love,” Bad Bunny/Jhay Cortez- “Dakiti,” Drake- “No Friends in the Industry”/“TSU,” Roddy Ricch- “Late at Night,” Thomas Rhett- “What’s Your Country Song,” Ariana Grande- “pov,” Pooh Shiesty/Lil Durk- “Back in Blood,” Eric Church- “Hell of a View,” Billie Eilish- “Your Power,” Jauw Alejandro- “Todo de Ti,” J. Cole- “Let Go My Hand,” Tyler the Creator/NBA Youngboy/Ty Dolla Sign- “WUSYANAME,” Kanye West- “Hurricane”/“Off The Grid”/“Moon,” and Nardo Wick/Lil Durk/G Herbo- “Who Want Smoke.” A ton of great stuff this year, it was so hard to make cuts. With all that out of the way, I wanted to talk retro aesthetics.

Best: Silk Sonic- “Smokin Out The Window”: Silk Sonic has forced me to confront a few things in regards to how I consume art. Something as care-free as Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s collab album shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. It doesn’t have any hidden meanings, or any layers to begin with. It’s not a very ambitious album. It’s perhaps the safest major music release this year not named Drake’s Certified Lover Boy. So is Silk Sonic any good? I think so. So what’s the problem?

Parsing through reviews and comprehending critiques for An Evening with Silk Sonic, one core issue arises constantly: it’s incredibly sanitized. This isn’t an invalid observation; listening to old soul records, there’s so much character in their compositions. There’s imperfections; the drums are so raw, the tempo might be too scattered. Certain horn sections don’t always line up, Vocals have rasp and crackles. Silk Sonic is staggeringly spotless. There’s countless examples of albums that sands its edges down and erases its interesting attributes. Silk Sonic wear retro soul like a Halloween costume. In any other situation, it’d be uncool. But it’s so fucking good.

Bruno Mars is in something of a lose-lose situation. He cares deeply about the music he curbs so directly from. So he uses every resource to ensure that he does the genre correctly. It’s overboard sometimes (see the unbearably cringy “777”) but it’s not without attention to detail. He clearly gets what makes these records great and he tries to nail it precisely. If he didn’t carefully craft something without such nurturing, he’d be looked at as a leech who doesn’t care about the art, rightfully so. So Bruno making cheesy, cocaine fueled retro records with tons of love is ideal. What was ever wrong with being cheesy?

It’s hard not to feel like we’re poisoned by irony, how even genuine moments of love are shrouded between self depreciating jokes to take the air out of them. Patty Jenkins said in an interview once, “I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience.” There’s something to be said about some art being a little self serious sometimes but in response, it runs to the opposite extreme. All in the fear of being “cheesy.”

Silk Sonic meets somewhere in the middle on “Smokin Out The Window”, rhyming Tiffany’s with Chuck E Cheese with UFC, but crafted with so much tender affection. Anderson and Bruno’s harmonies swell together into an impossibly catchy melody. Framing a “She belongs to the streets” anthem in such an eager Vegas residency song makes for one of the silliest, most joyous records of the year. It could be said that Bruno, and even Anderson Paak to a certain extent, rely on soul nostalgia as a crutch. But if I’m picking between the cheesiness of “The Lazy Song” and the over-the-top corduroy suits of “Smokin Out The Window,” I’ll always go with the latter.

Worst: Masked Wolf- “Astronaut in the Ocean”: The negative influence Eminem has on modern rap can’t be understated. In all of the eye rolling edginess and half baked concepts, there’s a great rapper at the core of Eminem with a couple really good albums. His writing had such a keen eye for details and how to create an atmosphere, no matter how bone chilling or hilarious it was. But people don’t really understand what made Slim Shady good. Rather, they’ll take a rough sketch of an artist and put their fingerprints all over it. This is the case of Masked Wolf.

“Astronaut in the Ocean” is one of those “rap is crap” disasters but in Australian and vaguely Christian rap. Nothing screams “cool pastor” than hearing “I believe in G-O-D, don’t believe in T-H-O-T.” Christian rap is a diseased pool of artistry, ceasing to explore the complexities of faith. God is too perfect to question and scaring the evangelists leads to a dead career. That’s Masked Wolf’s biggest flaw as a rapper, cowering from the details the song begs for. It’s supposed to be a song about depression but lacks the courage to step away from cliche and flaccid punchlines (“Let me give you the picture like stencil.”) He raps fast in a way that’s fan service to the underdeveloped rap fan who ogles at music merely signaling towards “real hip-hop.” It’s shallow, empty calorie rap focus grouped in a lab by label execs.

Best: Doja Cat & SZA- “Kiss Me More”: This song is perfect. Almost too perfect. The groove is undeniable. The hook is built inside a Hyperbolic Time Chamber, specifically created to muscle its way into your skull. Doja Cat is scarily good at discovering nooks in melody runs; whether it’s about sex or being a cow, she takes up so much real estate on dreamy loops. Even her more abstract records with Young Thug (“Payday” “Icy Hot”) are eager, high pitched squeals, the reaction you get after eating a handful of Sour Punch straws. “Kiss Me More” is noticeably more tame in comparison, probably the byproduct of a music industry obsessed with the mid tempo. But Doja Cat never sacrifices color in favor of a label backed smash picked out of a hat. She’s incredibly distinct, which makes her such a satisfying pop star. She puts everything into it, even if she’s exhausted and burnt out. With a record like “Kiss Me More,” she can afford to breathe. It’s the kind of ear worm that’ll survive for decades.

Worst: AJR- “Bang!”: This is quite possibly the ugliest sounding Android commercial I’ve ever heard in my life. If pop rock wasn’t already a dead concept because of the Imagine Dragons industrial complex, AJR gives the genre its Denzel Training Day with the Russians moment. It begs the question though: Is it worse to be hideous and ugly or boring and not noteworthy? Furthermore, how the hell is it possible to be both?

Best: Chris Stapleton- “Starting Over”: 2021 was the year I finally accepted some of my roots as a Southerner and fell in the grasps of Country music. Somewhere in between the burnout of the sun and artificiality of certain Southern Californians, I found a lot of comfort in the distinct twang in Southern music. Not all of it is great, for every Eric Church and Jason Isbell, there’s a Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. Nowadays, with the controversy of artists like Morgan Wallen, a once talented crooner about past flings who hurled the n word on camera earlier this year, the country industry pivots to ultra safe music. Most of it has been sappy Dan + Shay sludge about vague girlfriends with no personality. But in between, an artist like Chris Stapleton emerges from a 3 year hiatus with some of his best work.

The best Country music has a sort of wispy characteristic to it, signaling the passage of time with a bittersweet goodbye. Sad but grateful for the experiences made. Chris Stapleton’s gravelly, husky voice complements the very woodsy, campfire guitars perfectly. It’s home in a “G rated, family comedy montage” kinda way but it’s so warm and fuzzy that it doesn’t feel nearly as stocky as it could’ve been in lesser hands. There are more precisely perfect hit songs from this year but not many of them meant as much to me in a such a brutal year.

Worst: Maroon 5 & Megan Thee Stallion- “Beautiful Mistakes”: Adam Levine is a conman. Adam Levine is a grifter. Adam Levine will never go away because the real currency is to continue to make mush made for lowest common denominator. Songs About Jane and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long were made with some semblance of care and craft behind them. The overall douchebag aura of the record was more or less the point. Whether it was believable is neither here nor there. He cared enough to demonstrate a little charisma that warranted two decades worth of hits. If Adam Levine stopped making music in 2021, people will realize they don’t need him around. Therefore, he continues to drag the Maroon 5 name for over a decade.

His biggest trick is throwing reputable artists’ names through the mud in exchange for credibility with younger people. Kendrick’s corpse still lays lifeless on “I Don’t Wanna Know.” Cardi B was so unstoppable, she was able to escape unscathed and even propped up a potential career tanker in “Girls Like You.” Wash and repeat for SZA and Future. The album Jordi attempted to sabotage H.E.R. and the legacies of Juice WRLD and Nipsey Hussle.

Megan Thee Stallion was Levine’s real prize though, a superstar with enough momentum to stand side by side with Beyoncé’s overwhelming dominance on the “Savage” remix. To maintain relevance, Adam Levine must mine any of the interesting qualities from Meg and weaponize them for radio sustenance. It worked too. As Levine sings sweet nothings on Tik Tok wallpaper music, Megan’s presence is vaguely familiar enough to hint at a Hot Girl Summer without swaying from the bottom line. Not as threatening or hilarious as “WAP”. Not as energetic as “Savage”. Not as chaotic as “Don’t Stop”. These are the caveats of collecting the Maroon 5 paycheck: you are nondescript. Just a cog in the hollow Adam Levine Experience.

Best: Wizkid & Tems- “Essence”: I was very close to leaving this off the list. Not because it’s not good. It’s probably one of the most perfect songs I’ve heard on the charts in years. But because the version on the year end Billboard Hot 100 was the one with Justin Bieber, a charisma vacuum who adds nor subtracts from any song he features on. A Justin Bieber feature is like a fruit salad packed with honeydew. A palette cleanser that glaringly distracts from the primary flavors. He makes such hollow music because he’s hellbent on making the most neutral music imaginable. His big hit “Peaches” is an astoundingly catchy piece of wallpaper that has no business working because of how devoid it is of any character. Bieber could’ve ruined Essence. But Wizkid and Tems are two unstoppable juggernauts. There was no derailing such a spotless song.

There have been many important songs that weren’t very good. “Essence” is not one of those songs. It’s the first big Afrobeats hit that really crossed over with people, a genre so loving and pure, not yet sapped dry of its beautiful characteristics. Wizkid and Burna Boy are the only artists that have come close to the consensus classics in recent memory. It’s not discussed in cutthroat competition like hip-hop and R&B can be. Art isn’t a sport and it shouldn’t be in that First Take environment. It isn’t ran through the ringer like so much art is nowadays. At the very least, it doesn’t project despondent cynicism. Songs like “Essence,” and Odunsi’s “Wetin Dey,” albums like Wizkid’s Made in Lagos, Burna Boy’s African Giant, and Cruel Santino’s Mandy & The Jungle are painted with such compassion and vivid color. Aquatic blues, greens of a healthy earth, warm oranges and reds fill the space. It shows what music could be if it’s not contaminated by poisonous pessimism. One can only hope artists like Wizkid and Tems will have the space to create more affectionate hit songs to instill a new norm.

Worst: 24kGoldn & Iann Dior- “Mood”: Think of bad pop music as the “Selling Out” episode of Spongebob. It’s a rather on-the-nose episode with a very standard premise that rings true in so much popular media. Mr. Krabs gives up the local business life when the wealthy Howard Blandy throws an unspeakable amount of money at him. With Blandy in charge, the Krusty Krab takes new branding and management, a dead-eyed Carl ensuring the status quo through forced smiles and threats from Human Resources. By the end of the episode, it’s realized the Krabby Patties are synthetically engineered, gray goop oozing out of the burger after a bite. The real eye opener is no one batted an eye until it was pointed it out. That’s 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood”

Artists have attempted to use the Juice WRLD influence as a vague aesthetic to project onto unsuspecting children. With 24kGoldn and Iann Dior, it’s weaponized and cynical. They use half baked cliches to suggest earnest emotion rather than in connection with anyone. It declines empathy in favor of easy guidelines. The byproducts of a post “Royals” pop landscape have led to the degradation of honest emotion. “We play games of love to avoid the depression” is horrific and ignorant at best and focus-tested, cynical, and deceptive at worst. But it’s not hideous enough to toss aside. Instead, it’s one of the biggest hits of the last few years. We could only hope people slowly see through such horrid music because, at its core, it’s rotten. To quote Mr. Krabs, “Without all your smoke and mirrors, no one would stomach this garbage!”

Best: Rod Wave- “Street Runner”/“Tombstone”: My friend Mano once called Rod Wave “Adele for boys.” With how happy he looked singing her gutting “When We Were Young,” the comparison rings true. In so much of the discourse about Rod Wave, what makes him effective gets lost in meme translation. His earnest demeanor makes it easy to poke fun at but nothing really separates him from the best adult contemporary artists. To mold him in a broad “pain rap” category feels dishonest to massive lineages of music. He mixes the bluesy dejection of BB King with the more understated production of Norah Jones and the full on belting on Adele’s best.

Still, Rod Wave is instinctually discarded in favor of more obvious award bait and less interesting ideas. The delicate guitars on “Tombstone” make for a collage of distant memories and agony. Stacking his vocals atop a gospel choir highlights the heartbreaking writing he has. Even after all of his success, he’s still wary it’ll really make him feel better. He’ll clutch his gun in paranoia and shrug his shoulders at the missed calls, certain that it’s more bad news is coming. He sings the hook with freedom when contemplating his death, singing “Finally, I’ll be resting in peace.” Rather than worry about the end to his story, he approaches it with a sigh of relief. It’s a release from pain.

Similarly, on Street Runner, he longs for comfort, circling through missing a lover and continuing his music hustle in hopes he can settle down one day. Those things eventually clash, he could never have everything he wanted all at once. There’s a dry sadness on “Street Runner”, complemented by sampling Ruth B’s “Mixed Signals.” That’s one of Rod Wave’s greatest strengths, elevating more soft spoken music and emboldening them to ensure very raw feelings don’t get washed away in stocky, stagnant melodies. It’s especially notable when he quietly harmonizes in the background of the sample and a voicemail of a woman pouring her heart out, bordering on an emotional breakdown. Sometimes Rod Wave’s music isn’t especially complex but he always ensures whatever feeling is given proper attention. Even the most straightforward emotion is valid.

Worst: Walker Hayes- “Fancy Like”: The common theme in the worst songs in the list is the cynical nature of the bad pop song. Before 2014 roughly, I used to think the worst songs were the ugliest travesties made and unleashed onto the airwaves. After that, the boring, lifeless, and indistinguishable hits were the worst creative decisions. In 2021, those lines are blurred in the increased commercialization and commodification of music. A strong chunk of what cracks the Hot 100 are made with the sole intention of ad space. How can marketing use the most inoffensive jingle to their benefit? Ed Sheeran seemingly ran an entire album campaign with singles that fit the description. Adam Levine is a professional grifter, using the Maroon 5 brand and pop’s burgeoning superstars to leverage more mush into the world. What used to be indie rock crossovers have been hollowed out into the soundtrack of your next Macbook commercial. Art is made with corporate interest or playlist placements in mind. The love of the dollar always trumps the art in the crippling capitalist society we live in. None of this is new, it’s a sad realization anyone comes to when thinking about the art they love. At the very least, there used to mere suggestions of selling out or at least putting on a good front for the audience. Walker Hayes doesn’t play pretend.

This feels like a very distinct low point in art. Plenty of songs sound like their purpose is to sell a Ford F-150. Flat out product placement is aggressive and misanthropic. Applebees is the crux of “Fancy Like,” a song begging for you to try the Bourbon Street steak. Blowing up off Tik Tok and in actual Applebees commercials, I’m sure the ad revenue is fantastic and should keep Walker Hayes paid for a very long time. But I worry what this song becoming such a smash means for the future of popular music. Artists and content creators already have McDonalds and Burger King meals. Future’s Samsung song snippets have already infiltrated every ad in my YouTube algorithm. Will the next Young Thug album have a single designated for the Taco Bell brand partnership? Is the new Dua Lipa number #1 going to be sponsored by Chipotle? The possibilities are truly endless.

It’s good to see people get the bag, everyone should be able to eat out here. But at what cost do you exploit the art? People applaud brand partnerships and good marketing as if they closed the deal. It doesn’t matter. At least it shouldn’t. When did we get to the point where people marvel at how the product is sold rather than the quality of the product? The art should always dictate the bag, not vice versa.

Ultimately, “Fancy Like” is an awful song. It hints at the meat-headed nature of Bro Country without any of the fun goofiness of it. There’s no life or swing to it. It’s stock music. But since it matches a rough aesthetic, it will be accepted. Advertisement music will take over the art in the most depressing way imaginable.

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I get real nerdy about music and other things

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Caleb Catlin

Caleb Catlin

I get real nerdy about music and other things

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