Top 12 Songs of 2021 (Howard Druckman)

To kick off our year in this/that/and whatever posts, Howard Druckman posts his favourite songs of the past 12 months. (Pictured above: Snotty Nose Rez Kids.)

It’s actually 14 songs, because for Mustafa and Donovan Woods, it was impossible to choose the best out of two songs. So for each of them, it’s two-songs-per instead of one.

Needless to say, the pandemic figures heavily in my choices this year.

1. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – “Grave Digger”
In 2021, like a lot of Canadians, I was more acutely aware than ever that I’m one of the beneficiaries of an Indigenous genocide. In a year where it became impossible to deny, or even ignore, the thousands of Indigenous childrens’ bodies found buried under residential school property, “Grave Digger” is the darkest, most terrifying, and most powerful musical statement of the past 12 months. It’s slow, relentless, inexorable, set to the rhythm created by a looped sample of a shovel digging earth. As Yung Trybz sings, “You buried all your demons, never put ‘em in their place/Nowadays I do the same, guess it’s in my DNA,” he deftly draws the comparison between the physical trauma of the murders/burials, and the psychological trauma of all subsequent generations. And as Young D raps, “My very existence is a resistance.” “Grave Digger” is pure, searing, essential truth.

2. Haviah Mighty featuring Yizzy – “Protest”
2019 Polaris Prize winner Haviah Mighty’s Stock Exchange is one of my two or three favourite albums of 2021, and “Protest” is the best song on it. We already know (from cellphone videos, if nothing else) that police forces across North America have been senselessly, needlessly, brutally abusing and killing unarmed Black people for years now. What Toronto’s Haviah Mighty (her real name, by the way) and U.K. artist Yizzy do is reveal their own pain, heartache, stress, and anger at facing that situation on a day-to-day basis in their own lives; both reflecting the struggle in order to support their own communities, and exposing the daily reality of it to those (like me) outside of them – in the tradition of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lilian Allen, Clifton Joseph, Gil Scott-Heron, or even Bob Marley at his most political. The sound updates their formats, alternating between a chorus of dub-poetry lyrics, rapped fast in Jamaican patois to a tense stutter-beat, and a slow, mournful piano figure in the verses. Among Mighty’s true confessions: “Everywhere that I go, gotta watch out”; “I be sick when I be thinking ‘bout the trauma we know”; “I don’t feel safe in the 6ix or Peel”; “Weight is on my back, I’m getting no rest”; and “See a lot of dead men/After boi dem beat them and arrest them.” “Protest” is powerful, moving, and ought to inspire us all to follow the active direction of its title.

3. Donovan Woods – “She Waits for Me to Come Back Down”/“Whatever Keeps You Going”
I keep telling everybody I know that, push comes to shove, Donovan Woods is the best (i.e., my favourite) working Canadian songwriter. Nobody really listens – but that’s probably because of me, not him. Woods writes clear, concise songs that capture the eternal in the commonplace, and I almost always recognize my own experience in them. He sings and finger-picks his acoustic guitar quietly, so you kinda have to lean in to hear him, but the payoff is worth it. “She Waits for Me to Come Back Down,” a gorgeous, minimal duet with Katie Pruitt, is heartbreakingly accurate to my own daily life as a bipolar person with anger-management issues: “I make a mess inside my head/And she just waits beside my bed/Until all the kicked-up dust/Settles on the ground.” As was often said of Dylan in his early days, he writes and sings what I feel but can’t say. “Whatever Keeps You Going” is a little more country, even a little “bro-country,” but while its three stories (one per verse) are as engaging as usual, it’s the chorus, with the repeated title line, that so perfectly summarizes our fragile survival in a year of isolation and lockdown.

4. Mustafa – “Stay Alive”/“Ali”
If Nick Drake grew up as a Black Muslim amid gangs and gun violence in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, he’d sound like Mustafa. A celebrated poet – before he became a contributor to songs by the likes of Drake, The Weekend, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift – Mustafa has defied stereotyped musical expectations and set his thick, rich, slightly constricted voice against a backdrop of acoustic guitar, and just a few other colours. Essentially, he’s a folk artist. In “Stay Alive,” he confesses “I care about you fam” to a struggling friend, and when his voice rises to a desperate plea in the chorus to “stay alive,” it’s almost too real. In “Ali,” Mustafa memorializes another friend, this one who lost his life to the violence; when he sings, with an ache in his voice, “there were no words to stop the bullets,” it’s impossible not to feel the loss. It’s mournful, beautiful music, with infinite heart and soul.

5. TOBi – “Made Me Everything”
An equally great singer and rapper, TOBi starts with a full verse, and then a fantastic sample of the chorus, from a 1971 song I’d never heard before: “You Made Me Everything,” by Words of Wisdom-Truth Revue. Buoyed by that superb, horn-heavy, slow-jam foundation, he mostly celebrates his hard-earned success – as well he should – culminating in a great braggadocious rap line, “You ain’t got the bandwidth to handle this.” But he also drops his own wisdom, carefully crafted from experience (and among my favourite lines of the year): “Well-spoken for a Black man/That’s how you serve a compliment with your backhand/A routine stop, ain’t no talkin’ back/Save your breath/Keep your two cents/And invest in a dash-cam.” Translation: No matter how great his accomplishments, he’ll still be forced to encounter daily racist shit, whether personal or systemic. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

6. – Savannah Ré – “Where You Are”
“Where You Are” finds Savannah Ré’s vocals often halfway between rapping and singing, and sometimes breaking out in either. To a spacious, leisurely cooked-beat of loping, heavy synth-bass, light snare rim shots, and a busy high-hat, Ré updates an R&B tradition of crafting love songs that describe long-term romantic and carnal relationships between adults. Ré is all-in, 10-toes-in, fully committed when it comes to her partner. In this case, she is righteously, lovingly demanding the sexual attention she desires and deserves, in an authentic, daily-life-feminist way. “Fuck the phones, fuck the texts, fuck the e-mails right now/Better touch me like you mean it” speaks not only to the heat of the moment, but also against the pervasive distractions of 2021’s pandemic isolation.

7. Courtney Barnett- “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”
Many of my fellow Courtney Barnett fans have already dismissed her new album Things Take Time, Take Time because it’s too mellow (maybe ‘cause she’s gone kinda zen/meditative in this quiet year), and not as instantly catchy as usual. But it’s a real grower, and yields many rewards on repeated listening. The first, for me, was “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” which leans in a softer pop direction than her previous, harder rock ‘n’ roll; builds a layered mille-feuille of gently jangling electric guitars in the chorus; takes a similar approach to the pretty multiple harmonies; and tells the perfectly-pandemic-for-2021 story of yearning for a possibly-requited loved one from whom you’re separated/isolated. The title, and Barnett’s singing style, feel Dylanesque, though the music sounds more like Yo La Tengo or The Feelies. The melodic lifts in the bridges are fantastic, and the whole thing is irresistible to me.

8. LU KALA – “No Smoke”
In a word… sassy! If Lizzo and Carly Rae Jepsen decided to co-create a righteous disco-pop banger/feminist anthem, this would be it. Like Savannah Ré in “Where You Are,” LU KALA is fully committed when it comes to affairs of the heart (and body), and she demands the same from her suitors: never mind sending her flowers, or DMs, or “talking real nice,” just come correct and keep it real – as she demands and deserves. The popping electric (synth?) bassline, coupled with the kick-drum-and-high-hat beat, get my feet moving and my head bopping every time. Extra points for the occasional French comments and the short spoken-word break. My favourite song of the last 12 months to dance to, in a year with precious little dancing (except at home).

9. Leonard Sumner – “Mourningstar”
When I managed Six Nations singer-songwriter Derek Miller for a few years in the mid-‘90s, I became more aware of Indigenous peoples’ struggles in this country. In 2021, with the sudden, widespread dissemination of the news about thousands of buried children being abused and murdered at residential schools, that awareness was magnified a thousandfold. Anishinaabe singer-songwriter, rapper, and poet Leonard Sumner’s “Mourningstar” boldly addresses the issue – as well as the alarmingly high rates of both addiction and suicide among Indigenous people – in a burning, agonizing summary of the horrors that colonialization has wrought. What makes it so compelling is that, firstly, he sees behind to the system that creates them, and secondly, he tells the stories in three detailed personal narratives – one in each verse, all of which end in death. When the tender, mesmerizing chorus comes around, it’s utterly heartbreaking: “Light the fire for the mourning of these taken lives/Gone to the spirit world, they’re dancing with the Northern Lights.”

10. DijahSB, RAY HMND – “Moving With The Tides”
This mellow, utterly charming song combines sweet soul music, a couple of compelling voices, and life-affirming lyrics that alternate between playful humour and gritty determination. It’s a great vibe, one that recalls the late-‘80s/early-‘90s feel of Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. When DijahSB raps, “David Blaine, good luck keeping me in a box” or RAY HMND spits, “Was in a broken home, I had to go and redesign,” I can’t help but smile at the conceits of the wordplay. The song is a wonderful-but-real paean to the positive, about keeping one’s “Head Above the Waters,” to quote another DijahSB song title. Just the kind of thing I needed to hear in 2021.

11. grandson – “In Over My Head”
Like Rage Against the Machine before him, grandson tends to combine loud, grunge-y electric guitars with funky beats and rapped vocals – though he often adds synths and electronics like Nine Inch Nails. “In Over My Head” boasts the rock ‘n’ roll riff of the year: simple, short, hard, as great and timeless as the ones in The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” or The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy.” When it drops after the first chorus, it’s like a mule kick to the head, and it’s so satisfying when it recurs throughout the song. I swear, I could listen to it all day. Lyrically, it finds grandson out of his depth at various points in his life, and now trying hard to maintain some shred of optimism in the rigged game of late-stage capitalism, when it would be so easy to give up. Not a bad metaphor for pandemic life in 2021, and my favourite rock ‘n’ roll song of the year.

12. Charlotte Cardin – “Passive Aggressive”
Start with Charlotte Cardin’s honey-butter voice, always a pleasure to hear. Then add a brilliant, slow-build arrangement of a highly melodic tune that rides a catchy variety of rich, mostly-’80s sonic textures: electronically treated synth bass, phase-shifted electro tom-toms, a flat snare sound, twin-lead vocals, muffled and echoing background singing, compressed multiple “la-di-da” harmonies. Atop it all, superimpose a set of lyrics that score blow after blow, in one of the best post-relationship dismissals ever. Like, “Hallelujah, baby, we’re no longer together,” And, “I love myself too much/To waste good years on bad love.” And, “It’s not my job to save you.” And, “Don’t hate on me, you brought this on yourself.” My favourite pure-pop song of the year.

Howard’s year-end Spotify Playlist.

Howard Druckman, Editor in Chief, SOCAN Words & Music (SOCAN is a music rights organization based in Canada)… Music Lover. 2016 Polaris Prize Grand Juror. Sing/Write/Play in high-energy old-time duo HOTCHA! Choir singer. All heart, all the time.


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