The Best Songs of 2021

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You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2021 here.

There were so many great songs this year that we honestly had a hard time narrowing it down. Tracks that put the finishing touches on some of our favorite albums (“traitor”, “Justified”, “That’s What I Want”) and songs that stood alone as brilliant moments of hope, pain, and resolve (“Silk Chiffon”, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”. We even had our first track from a comedy special crack the list. Although it’s admittedly hard to have a laugh while listening to “That Funny Feeling”.

While we wait on a new year of tracks to fill our playlists, we’ll finish out the remainder of 2021 jamming along to these. Take a look at our list below and let us know what songs stood out to you.

15. Royal Blood – “Typhoons”

One of the lead singles from the UK rock duo’s album of the same name, “Typhoons” is a dance-ready track that explores the damage of living with thoughts constantly swirling in your head. As someone who lives everyday reliving scenarios and ideas and hoping for better outcomes, Royal Blood manage to find the hopelessness and ecstasy of the situation against a steady beat and garage rock guitars (“I need waking up, I should face the truth / I could calm the storm if I wanted to”). – Kyle Schultz

14. Bo Burnham – “That Funny Feeling”

I would consider anyone who says they didn’t like Inside by Bo Burnham to be lying a little. It was an incredibly versatile representation of how crazy everyone went in quarantine, and offered a fresh take on almost any genre we could think of, including the campfire song with “That Funny Feeling”. When the theaters opened up again, a friend and I saw Inside on the big screen, and what could be a better example of the song than seeing the Netflix logo at a theater? Every track in the special is devastating in one way or another, but somehow the juxtaposition of “A gift shop at the gun range / A mass shooting at the mall” hits so much closer than any of us want it to. Top it off with the Phoebe Bridgers cover and you have not only a perfect picture of both how timeless singing songs about how messed up and sad society is, but also how deeply Inside touched culture this year. – Nadia Alves

13. Holly Humberstone – “Scarlett”

I first heard Holly Humberstone while driving alone at night, which turns out to be the perfect setting to experience her latest EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin. “Scarlett” is Humberstone’s best track to date, tapping into a soft but serious indie rock sound that lets her explore themes of hurt and heartbreak with  a sense of melancholy and resolve. “‘Cause I cried all the summer away / Oh, you left me waiting on a heartbreak”, she sings to launch into one of the year’s most memorable choruses. But “Scarlett”, and the EP as a whole, aren’t meant to wallow in the pain so much as use the songs as a way to process and move forward, made ever so clear by the track’s final line: “I don’t need you now”. – Kiel Hauck

12. Graduating Life – “Crushed & Smothered”

On a base level, “Crushed & Smothered” is a standard emo rock song from Graduating Life. What sets it apart from the genre is the raw, excruciating energy behind it. The song demands the listener unleash their inner torments (“Show me what angers you / Ball up your fist show me why you exist, fight back / Don’t be defined by the cuts on your wrist / Go!”) before unleashing an orgasm of sound and guitar solos at differing tempos. “Crushed & Smothered” is a melodic release of emotion, rage and angst that pull the lyrics describing an anxiety attack under the rug, if only for a moment. – Kyle Schultz

11. Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”

I would call this the yummiest song of 2021. When this song came out I was instantly enamored. It brought me back to a time i wasn’t even around for. The way it equally brings us back to Motown and keeps us in the modern age is not an easy feat, and only doable by artists with an intense knowledge of music history. Enter Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak. Every song on An Evening With Silk Sonic deserves to be on top lists this year, simply because of how smooth they are. The hardest part of ranking them would be picking the best song on the album. For me, this single perfectly encapsulates the album as a whole, and ushers us into another era. – Nadia Alves

10. Kacey Musgraves – “Justified”

“Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line”. That simple, yet powerful line that serves as the heartbeat of Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed is what sparked an hour-long podcast we recorded on why the album is the perfect encapsulation of the experience of divorce. “Justified” is inarguably the best track from Star-Crossed, in part because it most closely resembles the sonic excellence of Golden Hour, but also because it reveals the thematic and artistic next evolution of Musgraves, both as a musician, and more importantly, as a human. Throughout the album, she mines the feelings of grief and confusion that accompany such a traumatic event, but a track like “Justified” offers Musgraves the space to explore the sometimes prickly feelings and motivations that are necessary to move on. – Kiel Hauck

9. Real Friends – “Storyteller”

Real Friends’ stellar Torn in Two EP blasted an impressive lineup of songs that were stronger than they deserved to be, but amongst those jams was “Storyteller”, a song that duels with itself whether to be a soft emotional ballad or a hard rock emo anthem. “Storyteller” speaks to the animalistic instincts we have when someone we love lies to us, and the painful ways we it eats at us late at night (“212 degrees rushing forcefully through my veins and arteries / No chance of getting sleep, as you soundly rest”) and the cleansing way release of anguish and anger (“You’re a storyteller / What you buried deep resurfaced / You’re a liar, liar, liar”) that comes from calling this person out for how they’ve hurt us. – Kyle Schultz

8. girl in red – “Serotonin”

I had a tough year mentally. An unexpected loss at the end of 2020 basically took me out of the game emotionally all year. I’ve felt like I was just kind of existing and surviving, and one of the tracks that brought me back to myself a little bit is ”Serotonin” by girl in red. It’s fun and truthful, and doesn’t make me feel bad for the way I feel, the way a lot of songs try to make me squash the things I’m dealing with down deep inside. This is probably the song I’m most grateful for this year. Produced by Billie Eilish’s half brother FINNEAS, this is a track that will stay in the indie pop circles for years to come.– Nadia Alves

7. Lil Nas X – “THATS WHAT I WANT”

After opening track and first single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, the next track on Lil Nas X’s brilliant debut to cause your ears to perk is “That’s What I Want”. It’s the kind of infectious and instantly memorable moment that “Old Town Road” promised us when he arrived on the scene two years ago. But what makes “That’s What I Want” so brilliant is its subversive nature. As easily as you can roll down your windows on a sunny day and sing along, you could also curl up into a ball and cry. “These days I’m way too alone / And I’m known for giving love away”, he sings right before his pleading chorus of, “I want someone to love me”. To experience Montero, and Lil Nas X in general, is to turn the prism in your hand, taking note of every angle and color. “That’s What I Want” showcases the brilliance and promise of one of the most important new pop artists on the planet. – Kiel Hauck

6. Olivia Rodrigo – “traitor”

Though her debut album, SOUR, spanned across genres, one song stood out among the pack: the quiet and somber “traitor”. Consisting of mostly sober synth, exhausted drums, tired acoustic guitar and Rodrigo’s exasperated vocals, “traitor” is the epitome of the frustration and pain of a dead relationship.

The song itself is a quiet affair, but it speaks to the raw emotion of lost love. From the almost whispered, “Ain’t it funny? / All the twisted games, all the questions you used to avoid”, to the pointed emphasis of, “Don’t you DARE forget about the way / You betrayed me”, Rodrigo hammers each word with a new form of heartbreak that nails the most innate and intimate emotions for what is a shared experience among almost everyone who experiences love. – Kyle Schultz

5. Willow feat. Travis Barker – “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”

Ah yes, Willow Smith. The biggest surprise for me this year both in albums and in singles, is the jump Willow made into the sea that is alternative music. And if that jump was in the Olympics, she would win gold. I am literally in love with this song. Travis Barker is only a crutch left to the side for her. He’s there if she needs him, but everyone can see that she’s able to stand perfectly fine on her own. It’s been a while since Willow Smith has released music, but when I bought  “Whip My Hair” from the iTunes store in 2010, it wasn’t hard for me to see that she has something special musically. Not only is the video (stylized as a “performance visual”) the perfect companion piece, it affords us a view of Willow as she should be seen: a strong, young woman full of talent. – Nadia Alves

4. Stand Atlantic feat. nothing,nowhere – “deathwish”

When I handed out a perfect score to Stand Atlantic’s Pink Elephant last summer, I certainly didn’t expect that the next song they would release would be the best thing the band has ever done. “Deathwish” hit just in time for summer and further blurred the band’s lines between pop and punk, which they so excellently began smearing on Pink Elephant. A song that’s just as easy to dance to as it is to mosh to, “deathwish” finds Bonnie Fraser tapping into a new level as a vocalist. Her pre-chorus, which crescendos with the line, “If you’re leaving, could you quit saying ‘bye’” right before the guitars and synths crash through your speakers is one of the highlights of 2021. Of course, the punk elite arrived right on cue to dismiss the track as too glitzy. The band responded with the raucous and ferocious “molotov [OK]” in November, which could’ve easily made this list as well. – Kiel Hauck

3. Taylor Swift – “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”

Of all the music released in 2021, one song has seemed to stand tall amongst the competition. Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is a behemoth of a song. While on a base level, it seems like an extended version of a single from almost a decade ago, this version of “All Too Well” is closer to what Swift originally intended the song to be.

What makes it stand out again after all this time is the fact that not only are there additional lyrics, it somehow hits and hurts more than it did upon original release. This is a feral pain that not only never quite healed, it embodies the heartbreak we all feel from our first broken love.

The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” would be easy to write off as a “cash grab” for the rerelease of Red, but the song was an overnight phenomenon. Accompanied by a short film and smashing the time limit for an SNL performance, Swift indulged her artistry in its purest form. While the original release may have been forced to scale back to a five-minute ballad, the 10-minute version not only adds more lines (“Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same / After three months in the grave / And then you wondered where it went to as I reached for you / But all I felt was shame and you held my lifeless frame”), it managed to hit a nerve of our collective consciousness that it may not have when she originally released it all those years ago. – Kyle Schultz

2. Greta Van Fleet – “Heat Above”

TikTok’s greatest success story this year (other than Noodle the Pug) is definitely Greta Van Fleet. A band once ridiculed for being an almost identical, albeit younger, Led Zeppelin is now at the forefront of modern rock. With “Heat Above”, the band comes into their own sonically and stylistically, and is the perfect opening track to their latest album The Battle At Garden’s Gate.

Josh Kiszka’s vocals are unmatched, only closely followed by the harmony he and his siblings have musically. It’s no wonder I can’t stop listening to it. Before the release of the music video, which is simple and allows the song to do the legwork, the band said, “Thematically, we are dead center in the cult of Heaven, surreal, strange, alive, and free.” And the video does just that. It elevates what is already an incredible piece of craftsmanship and provides the perfect visual to get lost in.

I never considered myself a real Greta Van Fleet fan; the hair metal of the 70s and 80s has never appealed to me like the folk and pop of those eras do, but “Heat Above” packs just the right amount of punch to make me a believer. – Nadia Alves

1. MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers – “Silk Chiffon”

From the opening moments of “Silk Chiffon”, as Katie Gavin croons, “Sun down and I’m feeling lifted / Downtown, cherry lipstick” over the strum of an acoustic guitar, there’s a sense of bliss that washes over you in the way that only the most perfect of pop songs can do. The track is an anthem of queer love, full of warmth and whimiscal imagery that captures those all-too-familiar feelings of innocent and exciting love on fleeting summer nights. 

I first heard the song on the night it was performed for the very first time, as MUNA opened for Phoebe Bridgers in Indianapolis. The band’s previous work, most notably their breakthrough 2019 album Saves the World, is marked by energetic synthpop – something the band does as well as anyone. But “Silk Chiffon” feels like the opening of a new chapter in which you could envision MUNA fully crossing over into the mainstream. 

It’s a track that seems to perfectly capture the trio’s personality while grafting in Phoebe’s as well. Just listen to the crunch of the guitar as she enters the second verse with her lines of, “I’m high and I’m feeling anxious / Inside a CVS”. For all of its brightness and charm, my favorite thing about “Silk Chiffon” is that it simply makes me feel happy. And I’ll be damned if that’s not just about the best feeling a song can inspire right now. – Kiel Hauck

Honorable Mention:

Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar – “family ties”
Olivia Rodrigo – “good 4 u”
Spiritbox – “Circle with Me”
CHVRCHES – “Final Girl”
Architects – “Black Lung”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Albums of 2021

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This is the year that everything was supposed to get back to normal. Well, that didn’t happen. But many of us did begin to dip our toe back into this new version of what life looks like. We went to a few concerts, saw our friends and family, and clung to the things that bring us joy. It goes without saying that music is a big part of that.

Many of the albums that made our list this year share a common theme: finding the strength it takes to face adversity and rise above. Be it battling the perils of heartbreak and adolescence (Olivia Rodrigo), overcoming gatekeepers of an aging genre (Spiritbox), or standing in the shadows of who we used to be (Foxing), so many of the artists we love found their footing and crafted something that speaks to our hearts.

Wherever this year found you in your journey, we hope you found music to walk alongside you and give you life. Here are a few of the albums that did that for us in 2021. Take a look!

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15. Noah Gundersen – A Pillar of Salt

A Pillar of Salt is the definition of a piece that snuck up on me. Noah Gundersen spent time in a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest, much like his contemporary, Bon Iver, and came out with a piece of art for the ages. Of course I kept it in the back of my mind when it had released and was interested in it for my casual listening, but when I finally spent some time with it, I regretted not shouting about it from the rooftops in the way it deserves. Indie pop vibes that would make Sufjan shed a tear, religious allusions that stun seminary students, and an under-the-radar Phoebe Bridgers feature — A Pillar of Salt has it all. It’s devastating, it’s lovely, it’s gentle, it’s hard hitting. It’s perfect. – Nadia Alves

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14. J. Cole – The Off-Season

Since his arrival on the scene, J. Cole has seemingly been chasing the admiration of the rap community at large. 2014 Forest Hills Drive showed promise, but ultimately, Cole’s biggest challenge was being shadowed by so many vibrant artists pioneering new territory in hip hop. On The Off-Season, he finally leans fully into his greatest strength: rapping. The Off-Season is a masterclass in the art of technical wordplay and punchline delivery. The bells and whistles are few and there isn’t a single trend to be chased. Instead, we’re treated to a J. Cole who seems content in his standing, but driven to bend our ears back toward the sound that made hip hop such a sensation in the first place. Call him a relic if you like, but it’s impossible to deny the gravity of The Off-Season. Freed from expectation, it’s finally exciting for rap fans to dream about what Cole might be capable of. – Kiel Hauck

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13. Weezer – Van Weezer

Being a Weezer fan is to not know what to expect when new music is released. In the case of Van Weezer, the Van Halen inspired rock album was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it finally released in Spring 2021, it was exactly what a summer album should be: loud, fun and familiar. Weezer’s tribute to anthem rock simultaneously indulges in glitzing guitars while maintaining the crunchy rock that the band is known for. Having already released a stellar surprise album earlier in the year (OK Human), Van Weezer is shocking in just how fun it is to listen to. For an album paying homage to another band, it sits strong in the mountain of Weezer’s best albums. – Kyle Schultz

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12. Dan Campbell – Other People’s Lives

There is always an album toward the end of the year that blows up my year end lists and forces me to make hard decisions. This year it’s Other People’s Lives by frontman of The Wonder Years, Dan Campbell. The man is so accomplished these days, it feels pigeonholing to refer to him as the lead singer of The Wonder Years. With his affinity for Americana and his soulful voice, he brings the finer points of reality to the surface with this, his first official solo project. Each line carefully crafted and placed with the care of a jeweler, his reflections on family and childhood remind us that maybe this place we call home can be quite all right sometimes. – Nadia Alves

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11. Architects – For Those That Wish to Exist

With the release of Holy Hell in 2018, grieving the loss of fallen comrade Tom Searle, it felt like the closing of a book on one of modern metalcore’s giants. But Architects had more to give. This new chapter begins with For Those That Wish to Exist, an album faithful to the band’s roots that has its eyes set on forward motion. Who could’ve imagined a track like “Animals” sounding so full of life and fury or the infectious drive of “Giving Blood”? Architects spread their wings across these 15 tracks, experimenting with new sounds, like the glitchy “Flight Without Feathers” or the roaring horns on “Dead Butterflies”. For Those That Wish to Exist opens a new door of possibilities for the band, and the metalcore genre at large, but it’s the album’s message that is of utmost importance. “What would you do to stay alive if the planet was burning?” Sam Carter asks us on the album’s second track, “Black Lungs”. It’s a thesis statement that uncovers the true drive and purpose for the band’s new era. – Kiel Hauck

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10. Kennyhoopla – Survivor’s Guilt: The Mixtape

Kennyhoopla’s debut into the scene in 2020 was a refreshing take on indie rock and emo that left listeners wondering how he would top himself. Survivor’s Guilt: The Mixtape// answered by leaning hard into glittering power pop guitar riffs and absolutely thunderous drums that make it an instant classic. The collaboration with Blink-182’s Travis Barker is a playground for Kenny to test every aspect of his vocal range, from whispers to screamo to anthemic melodic choruses in songs that don’t take themselves as seriously as his first EP. While Survivor’s Guilt revels in nostalgia, its greatest strength is how much energy and possibilities it brings to the genre. – Kyle Schultz

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9. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

When Little Oblivions was announced in October 2020 with the heart-wrenching single “Faith Healer”, I was excited and ready to be destroyed in the way only Julien Baker can do. This album, to put it mildly, is alive. The full band sound against Julien’s gentle voice is the perfect addition to her oeuvre. It is the most natural progression we could have received. Oftentimes, an acoustic artist will take the band route and head straight for overblown synths and make a jumble of their discography, but Julien knows where to hold back. The big moments are big, and the small, intimate moments we know and love from her become somehow bigger. An album about heartbreak and the sickening way that it becomes just another feeling in the back of our minds is the perfect cultural response to *gestures to society* whatever this is. I love her for it. – Nadia Alves

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8. Lil Nas X – Montero

Montero was sure worth the wait, huh? When Lil Nas X introduced us to “Old Town Road” all the way back in 2019, it signified the unstoppable fluidity of genre for a new generation of artists. Montero, the proper debut album from Lil Nas X, feels fully liberated from labels. It’s a pop extravaganza with a kitchen sink of influences that are each perfectly painted with queer spirit, resulting in something that feels as truly enjoyable and familiar as it is unique. What elevates it to album-of-the-year discussion is Lil Nas X’s sleight of hand. Montero, for all of its glimmering and celebratory sound, is sinking in sadness. “These days, I’m way too lonely” he sings on “That’s What I Want”, a track that you could play in tandem with “Hey Ya” on a wedding dance floor. His chorus of, “I want someone who’ll love me” is devastating in the context of an album where he mines through the pain of sudden, but seemingly hollow fame and faux admiration from those close to him. As impressive as it is to behold, Montero is also wise beyond its years. – Kiel Hauck

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7. Real Friends – Torn in Two

Creating new music after the loss of a lead singer is an intimidating task for any band. To create music that not only pays homage to the former singer’s sound while crafting a natural path forward is another task altogether. New vocalist Cody Muraro’s debut not only exceeds expectations for his ability to handle former vocalist Dan Lambton’s emotional depth, he finds his own rhythm with the confidence and power of the scene’s greatest. Most bands struggle to find their sound again after such a dramatic shift, but Real Friends pull together to hone their sound for an experience far more engaging and stronger than it has any right to be. The fact that the band are already recording new songs together is only more evidence that they may be in a synchronization that most bands only hope to achieve. – Kyle Schultz

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6. Hayley Williams – Flowers for Vases / Descansos

Last year when Hayley Williams released her much anticipated first solo album, Petals for Armor, I don’t think many of us realized what an important part of the Paramore / women in music / mental health awareness stories the album would be. When she released Flowers for Vases / descansos, I definitely didn’t see it coming. Where the first chapter was brazen and in-your-face independence, this second installment cuts deeper. It’s a story of a woman who wanted so badly to be above the noise in her personal life and simply couldn’t for a time. This is the raw side of Hayley, and maybe a side of her we won’t see again for a while. Either way, where Petals was about Hayley rising from the ashes to save face, descansos is about saving herself for herself. – Nadia Alves

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5. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Some would like you to believe that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were able to finally harness Halsey’s potential and channel it into something worthy of critical praise. But while their soundscapes certainly prove to be the perfect canvas for the story of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, the punk spirit has always run deep in the work of Halsey in myriad ways. Here, their songwriting coalesces into one intertwined and succinct body of work. Last year’s Manic worked because of its maniacal changes of pace and genre. If I Can’t Have Love is the opposite. That both albums are a masterclass in songwriting and storytelling, providing different yet beautiful sides of one of alt pop’s most essential artists speaks volumes to Halsey’s abilities. Besides, what do Reznor and Ross know about the horrors of pregnancy and childbirth? No, they’ve simply provided another fascinating sonic playground for Halsey to stake her claim as one of this decade’s most exciting artists. – Kiel Hauck

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4. Graduating Life – II

Graduating Life is the type of band you hope every artist is: erratic, emotional and intense. The project of Mom Jeans guitarist Bart Thompson, II explores the conflict of fighting one’s own inner demons and stagnation in an emotional experience that mixes intense lyrical ideas with equally intense music that jumps from tempo to tempo and indulges in guitar solos at the exact moment you hope it will. II somehow manages to blaze an identity all its own while feeling reassuringly familiar. The path that Graduating Life has forged is what all bands should aspire to achieve—a unique sound that drives the genre forward while also paying homage to what came before. – Kyle Schultz

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3. Foxing – Draw Down the Moon

When I choose a top album for the year, my rubric starts off as ridiculously open and almost anything can slip through if I listen to it enough in the mindset of what’s “best.” What always surprises me, however, is that it’s the albums that I move past after their release that sneak back up on me and impress me all over again.

With Foxing’s Draw Down the Moon, I got into it almost obsessively for a couple of weeks. My Spotify algorithm was deeply affected by it, and I found myself with the title track on repeat, both in the car, out of the car, and in my head. In choosing my top album, I’ve thought a lot about what takes this one to the forefront. It’s not only the creativity that Foxing brings to everything they touch that keeps their art refreshing, it’s the relatability. Where another artist in the prog-rock scene can end up being gaudy and overzealous in their attempts, Foxing never is. Whenever they release, it’s guaranteed to be at the top for me.

There is no other band in the scene like this. Their live shows are full of energy and interesting instrumentation, and it feels natural. The chaos is part of what makes the band who they are. Conor’s vocals take listeners on a journey, and in Draw Down the Moon, it’s the most ambitious and intelligent journey the band has embarked on thus far. – Nadia Alves

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2. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue

What’s that they always say about pressure forming diamonds? For well over a year, Canadian metal act Spiritbox sprinkled a rapidly growing fanbase with singles, seeming to up the ante (and volume) with each release. By the time the band’s debut was set to arrive, the bar had simply been raised too high for the band to deliver on the promise of those early nuggets. Right? Apparently not. As it turns out, Eternal Blue is one of the most electrifying debuts the genre has seen in recent memory.

Part of what makes the experience of Eternal Blue so thrilling is that it brings Spiritbox as a band fully into view, weaving multiple experimental facets into something cohesive. Be it the colossal crash of “Holy Roller” or the more subdued and simmering sounds of “The Summit”, Eternal Blue just works from every angle, thanks in large part to vocalist Courtney LaPlante. Her staggering vocal range both soothes and punishes across the album’s 11 tracks, just as guitarist Michael Stringer shifts pace at every step along the way.

The band seems fully aware of the challenge they set before themselves with those wild moments of introduction. LaPlante tunnels through her mental state throughout Eternal Blue, balancing her self-doubt with flashes of confidence. On the bridge of penultimate track “Circle With Me”, she bellows, “I held the power of a dying sun / I climb the altar and I claim my place as God”. Interpret as you see fit, but suffice it to say, Spiritbox have injected a much needed dose of energy into a metal scene fully in need of their kind of new blood. – Kiel Hauck

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1. Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

There is little doubt that Olivia Rodrigo was a breakout sensation of 2021. The release of SOUR was one of the few actual musical events of the year, spawning not only several hit singles, but almost single handedly revitalized pop punk as a genre for a younger generation who either hadn’t heard it before or had stopped listening to it altogether. 

Rodrigo seamlessly blends genres across pop punk, emo and pop in a way that sounds startlingly fresh and familiar in equal measure. While single “good 4 u” became one of the anthems of the summer—appearing in commercials and sung in bars across the country—the highlight of SOUR is the intense emotional depth of Rodrigo’s lyricism.

Rodrigo uses SOUR as a conduit to explore not only the transition from adolescence to adulthood, but the absolute depths of emotion and heartbreak. Her vocal abilities aren’t just impressive in and of themselves, but her use of intonation of specific phrases strikes to the depth of the soul (“traitor”).

Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album was one of the few modern phenomena that sent shockwaves through the music scene. If her first foray into a solo career can make this much of an impact, it’s impossible to do anything but wait anxiously for what experience and ambition bring to the table in the future. – Kyle Schultz

Honorable Mention

Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed
Turnstile – Glow On
Silk Sonic – An Evening with Silk Sonic
Willow – Lately I Feel Everything
CHVRCHES – Screen Violence

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Reflecting On: Michelle Branch – The Spirit Room

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A couple of times a year, I find myself spending days at a time inside The Spirit Room. I’ve said it countless times in the two decades since its release, but the debut album from Michelle Branch is perfect. And as it reaches its 20th anniversary, I’ve thought a lot about its legacy, and how the album unexpectedly became a blueprint of sorts.

We’ve talked extensively this year about Sour, the debut from Olivia Rodrigo, and how it so perfectly encapsulates the emotions and experience of adolescence. One of the many things that makes Sour so impressive is Rodrigo’s ability to shape-shift within genre, often tapping into nostalgic pop rock sounds that feel both fresh and familiar. It’s hard to listen to the album and not think of Branch.

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You can buy or stream The Spirit Room on Apple Music

The story of how The Spirit Room came to be back in 2001 has been reported in detail, but it’s still fascinating to think about a teenager operating independently from major label influence and creating an album so different from what was expected from a young female artist at the time. It worked, and what followed was a new wave of young singer-songwriters following in her pop rock footsteps. Even Taylor Swift has spoken of the album’s influence in her own writing.

It was a sound that clearly caught my attention at the time, and Branch’s lonely, bedroom daydream songwriting resonated as well. When I listen to the album now, I’m transported back to a very specific time in my life in the best way. There isn’t another album that captures those feelings quite as well for me. When I hear “Goodbye to You”, I see Branch performing the song from the stage of The Bronze on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I hear “All You Wanted” I’m reminded of late night drives in my first car. “Everywhere” transports me back to my freshman dorm room.

For all of these reasons, it was captivating to hear Branch’s 20th anniversary re-recording of the album. Unlike Swift’s current explorations of her past work (which I also love), Branch has allowed the passage of time to change her approach to these tracks. Her voice sounds slightly weathered, the songs have more room to breathe and move at a slightly slower pace. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her playing these songs to a small audience in a smoky lounge room. There’s an innocence that’s missing and it gives the album an entirely new feeling. The fact that it works this well speaks to the timeless beauty of the songwriting.

Last month, I purchased a ticket to Branch’s live stream performance of the album, expecting a full band rendition of the songs I know so well. When the stream began with Branch sitting on a stool, holding an acoustic guitar and strumming her way through “Everywhere”, I was taken aback. But by the opening moments of second track “You Get Me”, I was sold. The songs just work in every context, and in this case, some of them became even more alive with emotion and meaning. 

The early years of the 2000s were a transitional period for popular music, which is perhaps why it feels as though The Spirit Room sometimes gets forgotten in conversations around modern classic albums. It feels out of place when you think about the final gasps of bubblegum pop giving way to the oncoming avalanche of garage rock, hip hop and pop punk. But taken in a vacuum, it’s hard to poke holes in the album. It’s stellar songwriting paired with impeccable production. It moves. It captures hopeless romantic feelings you chase into your adulthood without ever feeling forced or cliché. It opened a new door for young female songwriters to lean into their own individual sounds. It invites you to get lost within it again and again.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Eras of Influence: 2004-2010 – Underoath

underoath-safety-2004

This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my previous installment on L.A. Symphony, covering the years 2000-2004.

***

Each year when summer arrives, there is a specific rotation of music that takes over my stereo. You know the sound, because it’s likely the same for you. There’s music that just sounds like summer. It’s a season unlike any other in that regard. And for me, there’s no other album that better captures everything I want to feel in summertime than They’re Only Chasing Safety by Underoath. Because in the summer of 2004 when the album was released, I found my favorite band.

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to write this article. Each of my past Eras of Influence features have effortlessly tumbled straight out of my mind and onto the screen through a fury of fluid keystrokes. But I’ve literally held off for months in writing about how Underoath defined this period of my life. They’re my all-time favorite band. I’ve seen them 10 times in concert. I’ve written so exhaustively about them through the years, that it’s difficult to know what else to say.

So I’m going to write, but I’m also going to link to a lot of other things I’ve written. Because they’re applicable to the story of how this band was so formative during this stretch of my life that every “era” still to come in the years I have remaining will be measured against it.

Underoath-Theyre_Only_Chasing_Safety

You can buy or stream They’re Only Chasing Safety on Apple Music.

I spent the summer of 2004 living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, working for a nonprofit organization with nine other people who were all sharing a house together. One weekend in June, I drove back to my college town to visit some friends – namely Mitch. While in college, I lived with Mitch and his brother Nick who were also in a band with their older brother Travis. It was through these three brothers that I discovered most of the music that defined my college years and beyond. If they were listening to it, chances were high that it was cool.

That June weekend, I was excited to tell Mitch how much I had been enjoying a new band I had discovered called Emery. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Mitch had another band for me. “If you like Emery, you’re going to love this.” He booted up the computer, navigated to the Tooth and Nail Records website, and began playing a grainy, low quality music video for a song called “Reinventing Your Exit”. It’s well documented how much Underoath took the scene by storm that fateful summer of 2004, and I imagine that some of you had a very similar experience. If you were sharing one album with your friends that year, it was They’re Only Chasing Safety.

Further reading: Reflecting On Underoath – They’re Only Chasing Safety

Although that album opened the screamo floodgates and I gobbled up every lookalike that came in the wake of Safety, no one quite had the “It” factor like Underoath. I spent the next summer in Tulsa again, crammed into a house with 14 people this time, several of whom had also discovered Underoath. It was spreading. And even though we were diving into other new bands like Hawthorne Heights, Chiodos, and From First to Last, we always defaulted back to Underoath.

But what made Underoath not just a cool band that came into my life one summer, like so many other cool bands have over the years, is what happened in the summer of 2006. Once again, I was in Tulsa, and on Tuesday, June 20, I woke up early and drove to Wal-Mart where I kindly asked an employee to open boxes of new CDs until they uncovered the special edition version of Define the Great Line. I spent the remainder of the summer listening to it daily. Alone in my room. Driving in the car. Taking a late evening walk. It didn’t matter when, where, or how many times I played it. Because every time I listened, I heard something new.

With Define the Great Line, Underoath made the bold and now legendary decision to completely abandon the sound that had made them a sensation. Instead of crafting another melodic and instantly catchy collection of songs, they made an album. An album without choruses, full of experimentation, designed to be listened to in full, from front to back. And it was heavy as hell. 

On paper, it should have swiftly ended the band’s run of dominance, but instead, it only made them bigger. And that can only happen when a band is simply operating on a different level of talent and vision than any of their counterparts. During this stretch, Underoath was more than just a band in the scene. They were the band by which every one of their peers was measured.

Further reading: Reflecting On Underoath – Define the Great Line

During these years, Underoath was a topic of conversation for me to a point where I’m sure it actually caused annoyance. I couldn’t stop talking about them. There has never been another point in time in which I was as obsessed with a band or artist. When Underoath abruptly dropped off Warped Tour in the summer of 2006, I felt like my own circle of friends may be in danger of breaking up. When drummer Aaron Gillespie left the band in 2010, I cried. 

Aaron, Spencer, Tim, Chris, Grant, and James felt like people I actually knew (even though I didn’t). And not in some creepy way, but in a “I love this music so much, I want to understand what’s inspiring the people who are making it” kind of way. I attended their shows any time the band came within striking distance. I owned more Underoath t-shirts than was reasonable. I bought every magazine on which they graced the cover. And every new band I discovered, I heard with a different set of ears because Underoath truly changed the way I listened to and understood music.

Further reading: Underoath 20 January 2013 – Chicago

After those early summers, it was obvious that Underoath was a band that was meant to shapeshift. Each new album was going to sound different and tread new ground, and it was exciting to ponder what would come next. Underoath defines this era of my life because of the way they sounded, but more importantly, they are my favorite band because of what they had to say.

From 2004 to 2010, which included the release of Underoath’s four best albums, a lot happened in my life. I finished college and left my days of youth behind me, entering the cold adult world. I became cemented in my Christian faith and went off to seminary to study further before abandoning the faith completely. I got married. I got divorced. I moved halfway across the country to a new city where I knew no one, but ended up meeting some of my closest friends. Through therapy, I came to understand that I struggled with depression and I began trying to climb out of that dark hole.

That’s a lot of life for any one band to provide the soundtrack, but somehow, Underoath pulled it off. Spencer Chamberlain’s own inner demons were battled consistently throughout the band’s catalogue. They openly and honestly wrestled with the complicated nature of faith and belief. Their constant shifts in sound were a perfect fit for the many city, apartment, and job changes I experienced. And I’m forever grateful for what they created, because it’s hard to imagine surviving the chaos of those years of my life without their music.

Further Reading: Reinventing Their Exit: Reflections on the Music of Underoath

The year 2010 brought Underoath’s Disambiguation, an album that closed a chapter for the band and preceded their breakup. That final note somehow perfectly bookended a period of my life, as everything would change in 2011. A new relationship. A new city. A new community of friends. A new start. By the time I found my footing, Underoath would return with the perfect album for new beginnings. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

I’m excited to explore the next two eras of my life that bring us to the present day, because each of them holds important moments of progress for me, both as a person and as a consumer of art. But at this point, I feel fairly confident that no new band or artist will ever hold the level of captivation Underoath has held in my life. And that’s okay. Pretty much all of us have that one band that changed everything. The one band that we can go back to again and again and again without ever tiring. Our favorite band.

As I write this, the summer of 2021 has arrived. And I can’t wait to spin They’re Only Chasing Safety. I know exactly how it will make me feel. And it’s a very good feeling.

Second Tier: Saosin, Paramore, Anberlin, My Chemical Romance, Kanye West

More Reading:

Podcast: Interview with Chris Dudley of Underoath

Illuminator feat Underoath: 15 July 2011

Review: Underoath – Erase Me

Reflecting On: Underoath – Lost in the Sound of Separation

Reflecting On: Underoath – Ø (Disambiguation)

Underoath Return from the Shadows on Rebirth Tour

The Unmatched Urgency of Underoath on No Fix Tour

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Reflecting On: Emery – We Do What We Want

emery-2011-splash

I know what you’re all thinking. Nadia, you’re really going to write about Emery again? Haven’t you said all there is to say about this band? No, friends, I have not, because their magnum opus (at least, what I consider to be their magnum opus) We Do What We Want turns 10 this year.

WeDoWhatWeWant

You can buy or stream We Do What We Want on Apple Music.

Looking back at the 14-year-old kid just breaking the surface into what would be a decade-plus obsession with the alt scene, never would I have thought I would get a chance to talk about how this album made me feel. I grew up to the sounds of this album, much to the chagrin of my conservative parents, who were none too pleased with the album art — a Bible, with the words “we do what we want” emblazoned across the shiny leather. It was honestly because of the edgy album art that I was so drawn to this body of work, and it remains an oft-played album for me.

I originally wanted to do a crazy, hypothetical piece on how each of the songs could be attributed to the Seven Deadly Sins, but that was quickly tossed out when I realized it was, in fact, not the case. I wanted so badly to have that cohesive lede and pathway to guide me through writing this piece, but as Emery explains so eloquently, they do what they want. And so do we. 

As a now 24-year-old kid married for a couple of years and watching the church culture she steeped herself in like a green tea bag slowly crumbling (oop, pun intended), this album is more refreshing and poignant than ever. Emery’s stark description of sin and falling short of what the church thinks Christianity should look like is more relatable now than I ever could have foreseen it to be. If you’ll notice, we never get preached to directly until the end of the album. The guys in Emery never want to be our pastors and judges, they’re just here to tell us, “Yeah, we get it.” And they do.

At 14, Emery got how I felt about the guys I had a crush on, even though spiritually I knew I could never touch those feelings. They got the guilt I felt being just a little bit sneaky with the music I would listen to with my friends, then going home to my parents and pretending we had plenty of good Christian fun. They got the fact that 10 years later, I would be experiencing an intense feeling of loss for the faith and the culture I once knew. Emery foresaw all of these things because they had gone through them.

When I listened to the album at 14, I didn’t realize how I would relate to “I Never Got to See the West Coast”. I didn’t realize that when I would listen to “The Curse of Perfect Days” I would see it as a soundtrack to my teenage years. I didn’t realize that “Scissors” would end up on a playlist I’d make memorializing my grandmother. 

What remains when I listen to We Do What We Want now is a piece of work so intensely intertwined in my thoughts and my faith (or lack thereof). What remains is the everlasting idea that we, in fact, will do what we want. And when I was 14, doing what I wanted, I was building lasting memories with Emery.

by Nadia Alves

kiel_hauckNadia Alves has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Vices & Virtues: Panic! At The Disco’s True Beginning

All things considered, Vices & Virtues is the first true Panic! At The Disco album. The tribulations of Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith in not only writing the record, but exceeding expectations and forging a new path for the band are legendary. Not only was the album Urie’s first experience acting as lead songwriter, he essentially played every instrument except percussion. While A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out made the band a household name, Vices & Virtues made Panic! At The Disco artists.

You can buy or stream Vices & Virtues on Apple Music.

Vices & Virtues came out the first year that I was finding my way in the world. College roommates had ventured off into the world while I worked a lowly job, feeling left behind and in some ways betrayed to sit with what remained of our previous lives together. I played mixtapes we had all made, many of which included many Panic! songs, to remind myself of the fun we used to have on summer nights that I now spent in my bedroom at home. It wasn’t until after the album’s release did I realize how much Vices mirrored that feeling of abandonment and looked out over the horizon for something bigger that I could scarcely imagine at the time.

A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was the epitome of a breakout record. Stylized, edgy, wrapped between multiple genres and engrossed in a circus-like visual flair, it launched Panic! from would-be opening band to headliners over night. “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” became such a staple single that it’s still the song everyone knows by the band. Panic! At The Disco were the rare overnight sensation that stayed. For years after their debut’s release, audiences demanded the next album. Although it’s looked at more favorably in retrospect, the immediate reaction to 2008’s Pretty. Odd. was mixed at best.

Pretty. Odd.’s retro style rock was so jarring, that 13 years later I still know people who refuse to listen to the band because of it. That’s why for many, the news in mid-2009 that guitarist and songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker were leaving Panic! At The Disco was met equally with a sigh of relief and a fear that the group was dead and out of its misery. 

Just months after the split, I watched a neutered Panic! open for Blink-182 on their reunion tour. Vocalist Brendon Urie paced back and forth slowly across the stage in a suit and tie, seemingly dazed and uninterested. Shortly thereafter, one-off single “New Perspective” released in the summer of 2009. While catchy, it proved to just be a safe, lackluster pop song. 

“The Ballad of Mona Lisa”, released a year and a half later, is arguably Panic!’s most underrated song of all time. It was the first real single from the new version of the band, now consisting of only Urie and drummer Spencer Smith. Returning to the “masquerade rock” sound of Fever, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” ushered in the true era of Panic! At The Disco. Harsh power chords, a sprawling anthemic chorus and rampant walls of percussion found a seductive mix between punk rock and radio pop. 

The song was made all the more impressive after the fact: Urie revealed that he had become lead songwriter after Ross’s departure, and that he sang, played guitar, bass, and the keys all while sporting a steampunk ensemble in the music video. He continued this blistering commitment throughout the rest of the album (sans the steampunk). 

Vices & Virtues wasn’t just a rebirth for Panic! At The Disco. It was an album of catharsis, anger and forgiveness that utterly cleared the path for Brendon Urie to become a global superstar. Despite having just become a “songwriter,” no two songs on Vices sound alike. Sweeping choruses and intricate instrumentation (“Hurricane”) permeate the album entirely. The inclusion of the defining genre sounds of Fever felt like a rebranding more than it did a retread. 

It’s hard to find a track that truly shines brighter than the others throughout the record. “Let’s Kill Tonight”, with its aggressive pop riffs teetering on the edge of new wave, stands just as brightly against “Memories”, a dance track describing the downfall of youthful love. However, “Sarah Smiles”, a song for Urie’s now wife is a lusciously haunting track teeming with layers of aggressive folk rock and punctuated with trumpets.

Hidden in the mix is “The Calendar”, arguably one of the band’s most important and often forgotten songs throughout their entire discography. Although the song is framed around a relationship, it is a direct reaction to Ross and Walker’s departure. The song balances the regret and sadness at how things ended for the full group and the shock of inspiration that spurred Urie and Smith forward. (“Don’t wanna call it a second chance, but when I came back, it was more of a relapse. / Anticipation’s on the other line, an obsession called while you were out.”)

Vices & Virtues was a redemption and reaffirmation of Panic! At The Disco that almost no one expected. Vibrant, emotional and utterly energized, it was worthy of the restored “!” in the band’s name. Although Smith left the band shortly after release as well, the confidence from Vices & Virtues gave Urie more leeway to experiment with less rock and more synth on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, and explore the burlesque and crooner sounds on Death of a Bachelor and Pray For The Wicked, Urie’s (current) pop magnum opus.

Vices & Virtues seems to be more or less hidden in the background of Panic!’s discography at this point, now that there are several high profiles albums that have dominated the pop world. However, the emotional energy behind this album allowed Urie to not only vent the feelings of betrayal and loss, but also test the waters of who he was as a songwriter. Despite already being two albums deep, Vices & Virtues served as the true start of Panic! At The Disco’s conquest to become one of the world’s top tier pop artists, and Urie’s journey toward becoming a superstar.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_cat

Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and ate a reuben sandwich with such vigor that he still feels guilty for the “slaughter” three days later

10 Classic Music Videos Turning 10 in 2021

Welcome to year seven of my dumbest annual list. Honestly, this list usually happens during that stir crazy part of winter, just before the dawn of spring. I get drunk on a weekend, fire up YouTube, watch a bunch of music videos, and write about the experience. Unfortunately, the past year has provided WAY too much time for me to sit inside, drink too much, and watch things on my TV. It’s sad, really.

But hey, why not make the best of it? There were some really great videos from 2011 that I’d totally forgotten about. It was a year of transition in my life, marked by leaving some difficult things behind and moving forward to some really great things. Thus, I have a lot of fond memories associated with the music videos below. I hope you’ll enjoy them. And please share your favorites in the replies!

Eisley – “Smarter”

The Valley arrived four years after Eisley’s sophomore album Combinations but was very much worth the wait. On lead single “Smarter”, Sherri Dupree-Bemis finds herself leaving her own funeral to return to her waiting family/bandmates in an abandoned church while singing lines like, “If I sound angry, I’m sorry / This body can only cry for so long / And if you want to blame me, then go on / I’m smiling now ‘cause I’m smarter than you think”. It’s an angry, poignant, determined return for a band that had been through the ringer in more ways than one.

Yellowcard – “Hang You Up”

“Hang You Up” is such a great video because it’s a lovely song and the video could’ve been played straightforward, but instead, they leaned into comedy. Here, Yellowcard vocalist Ryan Key wanders the street before entering his job at a fast food restaurant, annoying strangers and patrons along the way with his singing. Top moments include a woman in the parking lot threatening, “I swear to god, if you open your mouth and start singing a pre-chorus…” and drummer LP handing Ryan his signature black leather jacket.

Blessthefall – “Promised Ones”

Look, I’m an unabashed blessthefall fan and there’s no way this video wasn’t making the cut. It combines the intro/opening track from Awakening into one video, which is cool, and it’s set in some sort of post-apocalyptic world or something? I think? I dunno. There are a lot of fired up blessthefall fans that are all dirty and they’re running, driving, and throwing molotov cocktails, baby. And I don’t blame them. That breakdown at 3:50 fucking RIPS.

Childish Gambino – “Heartbeat”

The ascent of Donald Glover into a cultural force happened fast and it’s still incredible to think about how it happened. From a musical perspective, a lot of the forward movement began with his debut album Camp, which features this gem. The video for “Heartbeat” includes two very cool things. 1. A bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. 2. A really cool analogy about a slippery, messy relationship told through the very clear image of who’s in the driver’s seat.

Christina Perri – “Jar of Hearts”

I met my wife in the summer of 2011 and she was so into this song. And I got hooked, too. The video is one of those cool things where the color and choreography match the cold, dark feeling of the song in a way that’s just perfect. Perri’s raging bridge to the song is captured perfectly in the mid-street dance between the shitty dude character and the women that he seeks (and fails) to control.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – “Otis”

I just see this video and I’m taken back to the summer of 2011, which was a very good one for me. It was a celebration, just like this video. It reminds me of a time when we could get together and party. It reminds me of a time when Jay-Z and Kanye were like best buds and Kanye hadn’t made me sad. It reminds me of what a victory lap Watch the Throne was for hip hop and how good that felt. It just reminds me of good times, and that’s something I need right now.

The Wonder Years – “Came Out Swinging”

SPEAKING OF THE SUMMER OF 2011. This song is just a damn rager and a touchstone of when pop punk began its renaissance moment. The shots of The Wonder Years playing in that weird basement just says everything about that moment. It’s also a reminder that there was like a year where every scene band had light bulbs hanging in their video. But this was probably the best version of it because there’s like 20 bulbs and we all know that more bulbs = better.

Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”

It’s crazy how certain years in music are simply defined by the question, “Did Adele release an album that year?” And if the answer is yes, you kinda know what the conversation was about that year. And 21 dropping in 2011 was probably the biggest one. This song was fucking everywhere and the video is one of those kitchen sink videos. It has everything. A dude dancing with a sword, dishes smashing against a wall, a floor full of water glasses that ripple to the music, and Adele sitting on a chair. What more could you ask for?

Chiodos – “Notes in Constellations”

Ready for a really hot take? “Notes in Constellations” is the best Chiodos song. Yeah, you heard me. And the video makes it even better. It looks like it cost a lot, too. The video matches the song’s narrative about the passing of a loved one, with the bereaved carrying on with all of the memories. Brandon Bolmer’s voice is angelic on this track and he’s hot as hell in the video. Yeah, you heard me. Did I repeatedly watch this video at 2 a.m. in my apartment whilst crying many a night back in 2011? That’s none of your business, mister.

Katy Perry – “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”

There’s no way this video wasn’t making this list. It’s either the most notable or second most notable video of 2011, depending on how you feel about Rebecca Black’s “Friday”. But guess what. Just four months after that crazy Rebecca Black moment, Katy Perry GOT HER IN THIS VIDEO THAT IS ALSO ABOUT FRIDAY. I mean, damn. And then you’ve got Kenny G playing the sax solo on the roof at a house party. It’s all so dumb and crazy and silly, but this is kind of a moment that said, “Hey, if you’re gonna release a music video and have it actually matter, you have to do something big.” And that’s what Katy Perry did in the summer of 2011.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Eras of Influence: 2000-2004 – L.A. Symphony

This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my previous installment on Outkast, covering the years 1997-2000.

***

By the year 2000, hip hop had fully infiltrated the furthest reaches of suburban America. Even my rural hometown in Kansas, for better or for worse. With the release of The Slim Shady LP in 1999, followed by The Marshall Mathers LP a year later, Eminem had become not only one of the biggest stars on the planet, but a celebrated figure in my own high school (and probably every other high school for that matter). 

As someone who had spent the previous years immersing himself in hip hop culture, you might think I would be over the moon about this new found adoption from my classmates. Not at all. Not even a little.

There were certainly great byproducts of rap music stepping into the national limelight, not the least of which was the disruption of popular music tastes coming out of the 90s, which had been predominantly driven by white artists. Yes, Eminem dominated the airwaves, but new pockets of the country began blossoming their own sounds. The emergence of Nelly and the St. Lunatics as a voice for hip hop in the Midwest gave me particular delight, as did the arrival of a new wave of producers that begin shaping the sound of the new decade, namely the Neptunes and a new, then-unknown producer named Kanye West (more on him in a later installment).

Nevertheless, hip hop’s transition into the popular discussion sent me on a path to discover something new. Ironically, my discovery resembled something that was driven to pay homage to its past and was staunchly dedicated to its roots. Something underground.

***

In my late high school years, those early internet communities I had stumbled into began to grow and evolve. As rap made its way into top 40 radio, I became introduced to an entire portion of the genre that had been bubbling just beneath the surface all along. It was through MSN chats and online forums that I became introduced to names like Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, and more.

You can buy or stream Composition No. 1 on Apple Music.

But the biggest revelation, and the one that sent me tumbling headlong into a new community defined by shell-toe Adidas sneakers and beat up backpacks, came in the form of L.A. Symphony, a hip hop collective born out of the burgeoning West Coast underground scene.

Sometime around 1999 or 2000 – I can’t pinpoint the specific date from my memory – a friend of mine wanted me to hear something. He was a subscriber of the long-defunct alt music mag 7ball, which came wrapped in plastic bimonthly with a mix CD of new artists. This particular installment contained the track “San Diego” from the group’s debut album, Composition No. 1. I was immediately obsessed.

Fortunately for me, it didn’t take long to find people online who felt the same. That debut sent ripples through the West Coast underground, attracting the attention of major labels who were hungry for new hip hop acts. Like many underground collectives of the era, L.A. Symphony was sizeable in number – anywhere from eight to nine members at any given time. The core of the group was composed of Flynn Adam Atkins, Joey the Jerk, The Eternals (Cookbook and Uno Mas), Halieyoos Fishermen (Sharlok Poems, JBeits, and Trendi MC), and Brainwash Projects (Pigeon John and bTwice).

It was the latter duo that performed “San Diego”, and to my luck, they had released their own album a year prior that I also purchased and began obsessing over (The Rise and Fall of Brainwash Projects). Each member or duo brought their own flavor and personality to the group, creating a long tail of interest. Over the coming years, as each released their own solo albums in addition to the group material, I would gobble them up, play them relentlessly, and display their CD jewel cases in a line across a shelf in my room.

Part of what made L.A. Symphony (and underground hip hop as a whole) so intriguing, aside from the unique sound, was its purpose. At the time, the terms “underground” and “socially conscious” were nearly interchangeable. As I began experiencing my own social and political awakening during my exit from high school into college, this music was speaking my language. As corny as it sounds, it was almost like having a whole other avenue for education in my life. And I consumed as much of it as time would allow.

Conscious hip hop at the time thematically ran the gamut from social, racial, and economic issues to more philosophical topics like faith and religion. Each artist or group would bring their own perspective to the table, creating a community that felt bonded by its desire to learn and grow together. L.A. Symphony added a unique element of humor and lightheartedness that set the group apart. They wanted you to think, but weren’t afraid to crack a joke in the next verse and make you laugh.

The music led me to want to know more about the people creating it. During these years, I would scour the web for any morsel of information I could find; mainly interviews that would shed more light on the thoughts, views, and motivations of the artists I loved. But when my own curiosity couldn’t be quelled, I found a new way to keep the conversation going.

***

During my final two years of high school, I was given the opportunity to host a show on a local radio station in my town (an hours-long weekend hip hop show that I somehow sold the owner of the station on). I also began pitching article ideas to various websites I frequented, and shockingly, was given compensation to write said articles. 

I had no formal training in broadcasting or journalism, yet somehow, I was suddenly interviewing my favorite artists, asking them for answers to questions that I couldn’t find elsewhere. And they actually told me stuff. And people actually listened and read what I was saying. It’s the kind of rush that somehow still propels me to do the same all these years later.

L.A. Symphony was at the epicenter during this time. I can’t count from memory how many interviews I did with various members of the group during those years, but it was more than was likely necessary. For a fleeting moment, the group’s ship actually did arrive in the form of a record deal with Squint Entertainment, resulting in a 19-track album titled Call it What You Want, featuring production from likes of Prince Paul and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Sadly, in one of the most well-worn stories of the era, Squint was acquired by Warner Music Group, which shelved the album prior to its release. Although leaks scattered across the internet, one of the most anticipated albums in underground hip hop history never saw the light of day.

L.A. Symphony re-grouped and independently released Baloney in 2002, an incredibly unsung record that ended up producing an unexpected hit when “King Kong” was featured on a Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. While home from college in the summer of 2003, I interviewed Pigeon John by phone in anticipation of his sophomore solo album, Pigeon John is Dating Your Sister. Near the end of the conversation, I prodded for some updates about L.A. Symphony. After a couple of ambiguous answers, he finally caved. JBeits, bTwice, and himself had all left the group. L.A. Symphony as we had all known it was no more.

It was the first big story I ever got to break. It was also deflating and the moment that marked the beginning of my next musical transition. The core remaining members of the group carried on, releasing two more full-length albums on Gotee Records. In the summer of 2004, I caught a live performance in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before being invited out to dinner after the show with the group. The high school kid that had pestered them with interviews and broken news of their semi-breakup was now dining alongside them at a TGI Fridays in the middle of Oklahoma. Maybe not quite as exciting as William Miller’s journey in “Almost Famous”, but it still somehow felt stranger than fiction. I can’t think anything that could’ve brought this period of my life more full-circle.

By now, I was halfway into my college experience, full of new friends and, of course, new sounds. Hip hop remained a passion, but for the first time in my life, I felt fully accepted into a real life community of friends that wasn’t based solely on the web. And these friends listened to some cool music. By that summer of 2004, I was sporting a checkered backpack covered in patches of my new favorite pop punk bands: MxPx, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, The Ataris. 

I dove headfirst with my new friends down that new path of guitar-driven, angsty-lyric-filled music that had taken over Warped Tour and was about to break through on MTV. A sound that was about to literally be screamed from the rooftops by a passionate new influx of fans into “the scene.” And I was about to discover the band, my unquestionably favorite band, that would shape everything about the way I thought about and experienced music thereafter.

Second Tier: Clipse, MxPx, Deepspace5, St. Lunatics, Linkin Park

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Eras of Influence: 1997-2000 – Outkast

This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my introduction, covering the music that moved me in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

***

Like most people, my experience of middle school was awkward. As I moved into 8th grade, just a year away from high school, I remember a growing sense of a need for individuality. To that point in my life, I had no clear idea of who I was. Any interests I had were fairly general and mostly influenced by those around me. I liked basketball and drawing. Music was a safety blanket that I retreated to and was always in rotation, but none of it was solely “mine.” 

But everything was about to change.

If you’ve read the previous installments of this series, you’re aware of the role MTV played in my life from a very early age. In the summer after my sixth grade year, I won a small television from a raffle held during June Fest in my hometown. It wasn’t really big or nice enough to replace the TV we had in our family living room, which led to a crucial opening that would have never presented itself otherwise. There was nowhere else for it to go – why not put it in my bedroom?

After weeks of sprinkling the idea on my less-than-enthused parents, it finally happened, and I still have no idea why they allowed it. The cable man came and ran a new line in my bedroom wall, and before I knew it, I could watch MTV at any time, from the privacy of my own room. So I did just that. I turned the channel to MTV from the moment I got home from school until well after I was supposed to be asleep.

These were the pre-”Total Request Live” days, and while I certainly had an interest in shows like “The Real World” and “Daria”, it was the blocks of music videos that held my attention the most. And it was here that I fell in love with hip hop.

I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment, but by my 8th grade year in 1997, I was obsessed. I would place a blank VHS tape in my VCR and hit record every time a rap video came on. Early favorites included Ma$e’s “Bad Boy”, Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life”, Juvenile’s “Ha”, A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Find a Way”, and “Hate Me Now” by Nas. Unbeknownst to me at the time, hip hop was in a state of transition as it mourned the deaths of Tupak Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. I was aware of their music and influence, but didn’t understand the genre’s full history and the changing landscape from the two coasts to a suddenly evolving movement that was about to change popular music around the world.

In 1997, hip hop hadn’t fully crossed over into the mainstream. Aside from the scattered Will Smith hit, rap music was still viewed as dangerous by the vast majority of white suburban America. To this day, I still feel fortunate that my mom allowed me to explore the genre in full, something that so many of my friends and classmates weren’t allowed. I don’t think she was crazy about her middle school son purchasing CDs with the notorious “Parental Advisory” sticker, but as long as I could explain why the music interested me, it was always allowed.

For all of the new artists I began exploring with obsession, pouring over every line and every note, feeling as though I was peering through a window into another world, none held me quite as captivated at the time as Outkast – the duo that put Atlanta on the hip hop map and proceeded to change the genre in ways that are still felt to this day.

***

You can buy or stream Aquemini on Apple Music.

While I discovered ATLiens near the end of its cycle, it was 1998’s Aquemini that changed everything for me. I would replay the video for “Rosa Parks” until I wore out my VHS tape, and I still remember the day that the CD, with its iconic cover art and spacey, atmospheric music, arrived in the mail. It must have been nearly a year straight when I listened to the album every day. For as much as I was falling in love with rap, Outkast were on another level. Their music was distinctly hip hop, but it was…weird. No one else sounded quite like them.

All these years later, the yin and yang of Andre 3000 and Big Boi has become legendary. Two completely individual artists seeming to reside on different planes of existence that still somehow combined effortlessly into something greater than their individual parts. My favorite of the two changed depending on the day or mood. My favorite tracks revolved as well, although all these years later, there’s still not a song from that time period that gets me going quite like “Skew It on the Bar-B”.

I can say with certainty that there was no one else within my limited network of acquaintances at the time that was listening to Outkast, which made them distinctly my own. Oddly, this didn’t make me any cooler. Jokes about C-rap were abundant at the time, and I became viewed as somewhat of an odd duck to be immersing myself in music that wasn’t “meant for me.” And maybe that’s a fair critique, but my love of hip hop served as the jumping off point that forever changed my view of the world and opened my eyes to experiences and culture well outside my purview – complete with all of their beauty, and sadly, the societal injustices that sought to suffocate them.

Those are big words to tie to the music I was discovering as I entered high school, but it’s a real thing that forever changed the trajectory of my life, the passions I held, and the causes I associated myself with. It was the genesis in a lifelong journey of learning and responding in kind with action and empathy.

Seeing as how I had no one with which to share the conversation, I made do in a completely new way. By the late 90s, my family had purchased a computer and connected it to a phone line via a modem. After spending two minutes listening to squeals and squalls, I could begin surfing the internet to discover more about the music I was listening to. It didn’t take long for me to find pockets of the internet dedicated to the discussion of hip hop in the form of message boards. Suddenly, I’d discovered an entirely new network of friends from around the world, including a daily pen pal in Australia who was just as obsessed with rap as me, and a group of hip hop heads with which I would go on to share a fantasy football league with for over 20 years.

Up to this time, I had made my new hip hop discoveries from MTV or the newest copy of The Source that arrived in my mailbox each month. Now I was finding new artists daily through conversations with my newfound friends who I knew almost solely by their usernames. It was through my aforementioned pen pal Rachel that I discovered influential albums like Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star and the solo Mos Def follow-up, Black on Both Sides. As archaic as this all sounds now, I can still feel the excitement in the newness of it all. I had found a community. I had found music I could call my own.

***

In the time since Aquemini entered my life, my relationship with Outkast has fluctuated greatly, for better or for worse. My junior year of high school began with the release of Stankonia, an album that immediately took full ownership over the discman I took with me to school and the stereo in my bedroom. But about mid-way through the semester, just as “Ms. Jackson” was becoming a staple on Top 40 radio and MTV, something strange happened. I vividly remember overhearing a conversation about Outkast in my art class. Wait…other people were listening to this?

It was a strange introduction to an experience that would happen throughout my life going forward. The intimate relationship I shared with an artist suddenly vanishes and the secret is out. It’s a strange feeling, similar to have something stolen from you. That moment may have been the primary reason for the next shift in my musical journey that was about to take place, as well as the reason that I largely missed out on the joy of 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Fortunately, the passing of time has given me better perspective on moments such as these. Why wouldn’t I want more people to experience the joy that I had discovered? Things would come full circle at Forecastle in 2014 when I was able to experience Outkast in person for the first – and likely last – time. That night, you could feel the energy of the crowd rise as the duo entered the Aquemini porton of their set, rattling off the singles in succession. It wasn’t just me after all back in the fall of 1998. The sound of Atlanta had spread to the plains of Kansas and very much beyond.

Second Tier: Ma$e, Nas, Juvenile, Jay-Z

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Eras of Influence: Exploring the Sounds of the 1990s

This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. Check out the introduction to the series here.

1990s: Alanis Morissette, Nirvana, No Doubt, Boyz II Men

As the 90s rolled around, I started to gain a little more autonomy. On occasion, my mom let me choose the radio station. On the schoolbus, someone might talk about a cool new song that had just hit the airwaves. And I would use these moments to begin stretching my wings into new sounds. To put it plainly, I grew a very quick interest in anything that had a guitar.

And the sound of a guitar in the 90s was distinct. While I didn’t yet have the chops to distinguish between different styles of rock, I frequently used the term alternative to describe my tastes. Alternative to what? I don’t think anyone my age really knew. But it was a sound and it made me feel cool. My mom didn’t listen to Nirvana or The Smashing Pumpkins. She feigned interest in No Doubt’s breakout single “Don’t Speak”, but not enough to explore the entirety of Tragic Kingdom. I held my cassette tape of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill in special esteem. It had a swear word!

I remember how early sounds of the decade, in the form of groups like Ace of Base and TLC, blended the fleeting influence of the late 80s with something fresh and new that helped define the pop music of a new decade. A new wave of R&B sounds hit the radio in the form of Boyz II Men and All-4-One. The former’s third studio album II was owned by nearly everyone in my middle school.

During this period, my lawn-mowing and leaf-raking money was used almost exclusively on music – first on cassettes, then on CDs. My first compact disc, purchased in conjunction with a Discman, was Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere (yikes). Did I have to sit perfectly still to avoid my favorite songs skipping? Of course. But the days of rewinding and fast forwarding were over.

As much as I was able to stretch my own wings through the early and mid part of the decade, I still hadn’t found something that was quite my own. I was open to anything, by hadn’t quite pinpointed a sound or a scene that would engulf me. That would all change in 1997, which we’ll explore next time as my first clearly defined era of influence.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.