Features Year End Lists

Staged Haze’s 15 Songs Of The Year: 2021 Edition

Can you believe we’re just weeks away from 2022? I sure can’t. We bet you’ve already read an extensive amount of roundup posts from major publications sharing their picks for the best songs and albums of the year, and as we gear up for finalizing the last few posts of 2021, we wanted to switch things up and share some of our favorite songs of the year and why they were meaningful to us.

The following fifteen songs are highlighted from five of our writers: Me (Kristin), Brittany, Emma, Erin, and Sean. We all have a pretty eclectic music taste, but there’s usually some sort of common thread that binds our tastes together, leading to the list of songs below that made an impact on us this year. We hope you find something new to enjoy!

In chronological order:

“Hard Drive” – Cassandra Jenkins
Release date – January 20

“Hard Drive” invites you to take several deep breaths, to admit that “this is a hard drive,” and to take comfort that things will get better. The gentle saxophone in the background, the twinkly guitar, the driving rhythm, the three-act structure, and Jenkins’ calm speaking voice are all perfect production choices and a perfect pairing with the Tony Soprano Crying To While Driving meme. After a hard 2020 (and, let’s face it, a hard 2021), we all need the meditative counting Jenkins’ mystic friend offers at the end of the song. “She said, ‘Oh, dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months / But this year, it’s gonna be a good one / I’ll count to three and tap your shoulder / We’re gonna put your heart back together…So close your eyes / I’ll count to three / Take a deep breath / Count with me’…She said, ‘one, two, three…’” – Brittany

“Immune” – Jensen McRae
Release date – January 27

Immune was basically outdated the moment it came out (McRae admitted she based her fictional August/September 2021 “hot LA, college football on the radio, waiting at the mass vax center” setting on her best research at the time), but in that sense, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the entire pandemic. The song, which started out as a Phoebe Bridgers pre-cover parody, was a COVID-19 vaccination anthem for many people including me (I played it as I drove out of the Walgreens parking lot with the first shot in my arm) and no matter how outdated it gets—just like toilet paper hoarding, grocery sanitizing, or “it’ll be over in two weeks”—it’s always going to hold a weird little place in my heart. – Brittany

“Bloodshot” – Julien Baker
Release date –
February 26

According to Julien, “Bloodshot” is partially about “the realization that we’re each just kind of sculpting our own mythologies about the world, crafting our narratives.” Until I read that quote, I didn’t quite understand why I played this song every day before, during, and after my move back to New York City. New York is so wonderful and lonely because you’re constantly processing that each person you pass has a vast interior world that you can sometimes witness, but never truly understand. Obviously, this feeling is not specific to New York, but I experience this sensation most intensely when I’m here.

“Bloodshot” was the soundtrack of my plane ride to LaGuardia and first several hundred city walks, and I’m sure passerbys saw my involuntary smiles as Julien’s vocals in the second verse kicked in (my favorite part of the song). This track also contains a notable reference to Julien’s album title (“Isn’t like I do this on purpose/I just forget the second I’ve learned it/Looking for little oblivions/I’d do anything knowing you would forgive me”) and the best lyrics on the album (“There’s no glory in love/Only the gore of our hearts/Leit come for my throat/Take me and tear me apart”). It’s an immaculate, wistful and richly produced indie rock anthem that I wish was longer each time I listen. – Emma

“Lux” – Pom Pom Squad
Release date – March 2

If 2021 was the year for rock returning to the forefront of popular music, it’ll truly be a shame if Pom Pom Squad doesn’t get their moment in the sun for dominating the genre in a nearly flawless execution (Do yourself a favor and Google Olivia Rodrigo and Pom Pom Squad and thank me later). While Death Of A Cheerleader was one of my albums of the year, it took some more convincing for my fellow team members at Staged Haze to identify with the album in the same way, though a few of them eventually did come around to enjoying it.

In a crowded high school dance
In a cloud of peach alcohol 
I let myself get drunk on the idea that you loved me
Cause in here I’m suffocating
But out there I feel so small
What a wonder to be anything at all
When I hear your pretty words
I should be listening to the sound
Of my feet against the ground
In the opposite direction

Clocking in at just 1 minute and 39 seconds, Chaotic and full of muscle,”Lux” perfectly encapsulates the energy of the 14-track 30-minute album, weaving aggressively through a storyline of a drunken high school prom night, lead singer Mia Berrin describing the inspiration for the song as “the fear of intimacy I felt as a teen that stemmed from negative early experiences of male attention.” – Kristin

“dullscythe” – Porter Robinson
Release date – April 23

Nurture marked Porter Robinson’s return from a seven-year battle with depression and anxiety. There are several introspective moments on Porter’s sophomore album and “dullscythe” is no exception. The first half of this track is intentionally somberーmarred by stuttering synths and broken harmonies. This first half notably represents the beginning of any creative process where one tests different structures, instruments, organizational strategies… seemingly to no avail. These two minutes mirror my feelings at the beginning of 2021. The world was still rocked off its axis, merely stringing some of the important pieces together.

Nothing felt like it clicked.Porter’s transition, which takes place right around 2:10, connects all of the dots. The broken harmonies become fulfilling melodies; the fractured synths ebb and flow effortlessly. The track is fairly special because it embodies hope and revitalization. Similarly, I’ve felt as if 2021—while far from perfect—began to click right around May and June. A rush of stabilization filled many with a new hope. Porter’s “dullscythe” may seem broken and disgruntled, but it truly is the perfect soundtrack for a world in recovery. – Sean

Yonaguni” – Bad Bunny
Release date – June 4

At this point, is there anything Bad Bunny can’t do? If I asked that a few years ago, I might have just been stanning, and while of course that’s still the case, it’s without a doubt that everything the reggaetonero touches turns to gold, including his summer single “Yonaguni.”

Bad Bunny has a reputation as a workhorse—he released three different albums in 2020—and so if he’s just going to release a few singles in 2021, “Yonaguni” was worth it. He’s also earned a reputation as one of the most emo reggaeton singers, and again, “Yonaguni” is no different. In the song, Bad Bunny sings and raps about unreciprocated love, and how since he’s alone he’s just going to travel to the island in Japan that spurred the single’s name, Yonaguni. As in “Yonaguni,” Bad Bunny is an expert at making music that’s perfect for crying at the club, or at the beach, or maybe even in your car while still dancing along a little bit in the front seat and that’s why he’s one of my favorite artists of all time. – Erin

“Renegade” – Big Red Machine ft. Taylor Swift
Release date – July 2

When I first heard that T.Swift was set to collaborate on not only one, but two songs with folklore and evermore collaborators Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon, I was unsure of what to expect. Swift, before releasing her duet with Phoebe Bridgers in the hauntingly beautiful song “Nothing New” on Red (Taylor’s Version) earlier this year, had an extensive history of featuring well-known artists on her songs, only to give them their moment to shine with mere backup vocals (see The Chicks and HAIM). Though I’m unsure if we’ll ever know the answer, to me, the song sounds like one written and scrapped one of the two albums Swift dropped in 2020, perhaps saving it with a plan to give it to another artist…or maybe this was the plan all along, and either way: my speculation is meaningless.

But “Renegade” couldn’t have landed in my lap at a more perfect time: the lyrics completely encapsulating my personal experience processing the ending of a romantic relationship and the emotional turmoil that followed, corresponding with the release of this track. Unfortunately and unsurprising to anyone, humans can’t tell the future, and hindsight is always 20/20. Failure to accept the negative characteristics of someone you love isn’t uncommon, and neither is the anxiety that feels inescapable as you try to navigate the complicated feelings of loving someone who may not have the ability to love you back. But Swift’s lyrics, per usual, address these intricacies in a beautifully poignant way, showcasing a new layer of her swift-as-ever (see what I did there?) skills as a songwriter, diving headfirst into the topic of mental health in the way that was hinted at in songs released previously. I may still be completely fangirling over “Nothing New” (mentioned above) and the glorious melodrama of “All Too Well,” (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version), but “Renegade” easily takes the cake for the best song Taylor released this year. – Kristin

“Happier Than Ever” – Billie Eilish
Release date – July 30

I’ll never forget the moment I heard this song for the first time. After casually listening to the album in its entirety, I was unsure about how I felt about it overall, but knew that something exciting was coming after a friend told me to “just wait” to hear “Happier Than Ever.” The majority of the song admittedly threw me for a loop, but everything immediately clicked for me during the bridge of the song.

Not only does this song take Billie into uncharted territory during her career up to this point, but it takes her to ROCK?! It was the last thing I expected from her after hearing the previously-released singles, but I honestly can’t think of a better direction for her to go into. I would go out on a limb and say that these lyrics that make up the second half of the song are the most poignant ones I heard in a song this year: lyrics that completely took a life of their own on social media and specifically TikTok, seeing thousands of people sing along in seas of festival crowds with the same brevity that Eilish does. – Kristin

“Mood Ring” – Lorde
Release date – August 18

Release date – August 18

I get it, “Solar Power” was not one of Lorde’s most critically-acclaimed releases. I found myself telling my friends all summer “No, it’s actually pretty good.” There were points where I felt like one of it’s sole defenders. The album strayed pretty far from Lorde’s beloved roots. I even saw a tweet that basically said it was thoughtless of Lorde to release an album like this during a pandemic, because how dare a young woman embrace a bit of happiness, right? But even for its detractors, the album does have certain high points and for me, one of them is “Mood Ring,” Lorde’s mocking take on wellness and pseudo-wellness culture. The song is mellow and laid back, like all of “Solar Power,” but its lyrics are biting and mocking in a fun way that Lorde is so talented at. I may not be replaying all of “Solar Power” all the time, but “Mood Ring” is regularly in rotation. – Erin

“June’s A River” – Big Red Machine ft. Ben Howard
Release date – August 27

Okay, while “Shotgun Blues” is my all-in, fired up selection of the year, “June’s A River” satisfies the exact opposite side of my mind. Ben Howard tags in with Big Red Machine on this piano-laden moment of self-introspection. This track helps me rekindle what matters most and refocuses me during times of angst and confusion. To be honest, the entirety of How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? feels mature and raw. That might be why the album clocks in as my favorite of all time.**It’s definitely one of the most memorable albums that draws an emotional reaction from me. I’m very thankful that the Staged Haze team introduced me to what landed itself as such an impactful album. – Sean

“New Auburn” – Big Red Machine ft. Anaïs Mitchell
Release date – August 27

There are some songs that are sad because of their lyrics. New Auburn somehow manages to make me think about crying with just its melancholy piano instrumental. I don’t know exactly what this song is about, and I don’t know if Anaïs Mitchell, Justin Vernon, or Aaron Dessner know either. But I know that if someone put this song over home video clips from their childhood family vacations, I would absolutely bawl my eyes out. – Brittany

“Horsie” – Kate Nash
Release date – September 6

There’s nothing extravagant about Kate Nash’s “Horsie.” It’s a song that the singer wrote at home during the pandemic about, well, being at home during the pandemic. She captures the mundanity of sitting at home for days on end in the opening lyric “Blue velvet curtains, why do you judge me?” 

But the simplicity of the song perfectly captures the past two years (oh my god how has it gone on this long!) of the pandemic — the highs of driving to the mountains to see snow, the lows of crying in a department store parking lot…again. The first time I heard this song I broke into tears, because unlike a lot of musicians and artists, ones who clapped for first responders on their balconies, or sang “Imagine” by John Lennon one week into the pandemic, Kate Nash gets it. Once we’re finally out of it, I don’t know how much I’ll be wanting to relive the pandemic, but this song captures the melancholy, loneliness and rare feelings of joy that it brought out flawlessly. – Erin

“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” – The War on Drugs ft. Lucius
Release date – September 15

Coincidentally, Lucius had a hand in creating another one of my favorite songs of the year, and  on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” especially, their backing vocals give the production an unforgettable ethereality. This track captures all of my favorite emotions to unpack in a song: nostalgia, curiosity, transition, persistence, evolution. It’s also incredibly impressive that it feels so lyrically and sonically rich while only utilizing two chords for five and a half minutes. Even though there’s a clear 80s anthem influence going on, The War on Drugs imbued a tangible timelessness into this song. I look forward to rediscovering it in five, ten, twenty years, rediscovering its meanings, and uncovering new ones. -Emma

“Shotgun Blues” – Volbeat
Release date – September 23

I’m a firm believer that every competitor needs one song that pumps them up beyond feasible comprehension, and “Shotgun Blues” is quickly taking over that role for me. The combination of Michael Poulson’s vocals and the electric guitar riffs are simply electric and the energy is exuberant. This track latches itself in my mind effortlessly and has helped me hunker down during many tough workouts. I imagine this is the cacophony that takes place inside of a V8 engine. Yup, I got hyperbolic. That’s how you know this track is a mighty fine rager. And for the curious, my other take-the-world-by-the-beat hype tracks include “I Don’t Wanna Stop” by Ozzy and “Guilty All the Same” by Linkin Park. – Sean

You and Me On The Rock” – Brandi Carlile ft. Lucius
Release date –
October 1

I’m always on a quest to find a song that expresses pure love and devotion without reverting to a single cliche. Heartbreak songs are often dripping with cutting details and a tangible aching pain, but I find that, for me at least, it’s difficult to find a love song that feels equal parts distinct and authentic. This year, I found “You and Me On the Rock” to be one of the most well-written and touching love songs I’ve heard in a while. With sonic references to Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, Brandi celebrates the hard-won oasis that she shares with her partner. The home that they share together is idyllic, but only because of the struggles it took to build it.

This year, I had the fortune (and misfortune) of finding myself in a long-distance relationship, and I clung to this anthem of romantic closeness to carry me through our separation, rather than listening to “I miss you” songs. My favorite lyric (“Me out in my garden and you out on your walk is all the distance this poor girl can take without listening to you talk”) became a sort of meditation for me, a vision of the potential future lying on the other side. – Emma

1 comment on “Staged Haze’s 15 Songs Of The Year: 2021 Edition

  1. Pingback: Staged Haze Presents: The 50 Best Albums of 2021

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