Ranking and ordering art is of course a subjective affair, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to do. There’s nothing that forces you to really listen to music and think about it like trying to come up with a list of the best stuff of the year.
It’s especially hard as a year like 2021 sunsets, where things are a slight touch more fraught than they have been in years past. Our frame of mind is inextricably linked with our ability to engage with art. How can we be expected to meet a bright and snappy pop song with an open mind when we’re staring at overcrowded hospitals and exploding homelessness? How do we avoid wallowing in the cynical and dark?
For my part, in sifting through the huge selection of tunes that made their way to my ears this year, I found myself gravitating toward substance and nostalgia. Sure, I wanted to feel something, but I also wanted something I could spend a lot of time with and continue to find new nuances, new meanings.
We are lucky here in Portland and Maine as a whole to be surrounded by no shortage of artists willing to deliver both. We are incredibly spoiled, with access to and output from a talent pool that is outsized in comparison to our population.
Perhaps no one personifies that like Genevieve Stokes, who exploded onto the airwaves this year as the most exciting young Maine voice in recent memory (Amy Allen and Sara Cox come to mind as comparables).
Just a few years ago, Stokes was learning to make music and be a performer as a high schooler with the Maine Academy of Modern Music, and here she is in 2021 at 19 with millions of spins and an ability to deliver pathos that’s well beyond her years.
But in the cloistered environs of the coronavirus pandemic, there haven’t been local gigs, tours, much of a physical manifestation at all. In an all-digital age, what makes anyone from anywhere?
It may be ephemeral, ineffable, but there is a Maine-ness to the music made here. It’s a result of the small-town community that leads Dave Gutter to be on this year’s Top 10 songs list even when they haven’t been released under his banner (Bensbeendead. and Spose), that allows Christopher Beggars (nee Moulton) to keep writing his comeback story, that brings Sole all the way back from parts foreign and domestic.
If there’s a consistent criterion I use for coming up with these lists, it’s that the song feels like part of the continuum. It makes sense. People will remember it and make a song a little bit like it sometime in the future. It’s part of the fabric of living here.
I listened to these songs a lot in 2021. If you didn’t, I hope you’ll give them a go in 2022.
Genevieve Stokes, “Surface Tension” — It’s hard to argue with “I’m missing people I’ve never met” as an epigram for 2021. The opening phrase introduces a song with true force, naked in its emotion and delivered impeccably, allowing us to channel our turmoil.
Stokes employs a vocal delivery that’s ripped through pop music in recent years, embodied by the likes of Birdy and Billie Eilish to varying degrees, electric with intimacy and lilting into their upper register. It sits on top of a murky and watery piano, a gritty low-end guitar like Idaho, and a tripling bass, and sounds a clarion bell.
“Am I the perfect picture that you wanted before?” she asks. “I’m not quite sure.”
The past couple years have made us reevaluate just about everything. But the world hasn’t changed so much that a song like this can’t make it a little bit more tolerable.
Bensbeendead., “Feels Like Dancing” — It’s hard to shake the idea that this song is a few years ahead of its time and we’re not quite ready for it. Its slink, its pacing, its ability to sit on your shoulder and give you ideas you didn’t know you had, are intoxicating.
It’s like waking up to find the Pink Panther standing at the end of your bed. Let’s go.
R.A.P. Ferreira, “redguard snipers” — The captain of the Ruby Yacht crew bookended 2021 with a pair of records in “Bob’s Son” (released in January via interactive HTML) and this month’s “the Light Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures” that featured some of the most provocative and thoughtful wordplay and jazz-hop going anywhere today.
This piece is a bouncy R&B number that pulls back into spoken word and then an atmospheric meditation that manages to be both cynical and hopeful: “It’s chaotic down here/ It’s chaos/ And that’s the power of creation.”
Weakened Friends, “Everything Is Better” — With legitimate claims to album of the year in “Quitter,” the Portland trio captured like no one else the nihilistic impulse to remove oneself from society in the face of being told it’s everyone for themselves.
But this band is as much about the craftsmanship as it is the emotion. The mid-song guitar solo from Sonia Sturino into the a cappella chorus and then bridge chant of “I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry for it” is just so well executed.
Spose, “Motherfuckers (Bring You Down)” — Part of the year’s most ambitious musical project (well beyond Maine) – the double album “Get Rich or Die Ryan” – this is an absolute rave-up, with big horns, handclaps, and a ripping bass line.
The juxtaposition with the lyrics is delicious, Spose laying out every insecurity before various family members admonish him via encouraging texts to stay the course. Be glad he did.
Christopher Beggars, “Like Swans” — For those of us who’ve followed Chris Moulton’s voice and songwriting, this song and the album “Elephant” were a revelation. Let’s just say he’s come and gone and come again over the years.
But when he’s here doing this, a shuffling alt-country that makes Ryan Adams wish he’d tried a little harder, there are few performers who are his equal. “You found me in a ditch and I appreciated it,” he croons, and then turns about-face: “I wish you’d up and tell me what I owe you for the lift.”
Sole, “I’m Ridin’” — If Maine has a conscience, it lives on Sole’s farm outside Brunswick: “In Midcoast Maine all it does is rain – cool.” After decades of bootstrapped hip-hop, Sole’s music has narrowed its focus, self-contained and with modest aspirations for self-sustainability and quiet family life.
This piece is defiant, like Rocky climbing those stairs in Philadelphia, but self-assured in its accomplishments. Sole knows Maine allows us to redefine what’s cool and what’s possible.
Renée Coolbrith, “Kiss in the Sky” — Languid and utterly confident, this is a lament for a lost friend that’s eminently relatable. All of us, it seems, have lost someone and know what it is to hurt.
The production here is crisp and cold, the musical equivalent of seeing your breath. Throw it in the headphones and take a walk with it some starry night. It will ring true.
The Mallett Brothers Band, “Livin’ on Rock ‘n Roll” — For a while there, no one was doing much living on rock ‘n’ roll, and so this becomes an anthem of identity. When the musical life can’t deliver enough to pay the rent, it is at least able to nourish the soul.
Somehow, these guys came out the other side better than ever. “Gold Light” is an album with staying power that will live on well past the end of this pandemic.
Custardpaws and Mr. Freezy, “All I Want To Do (Is Leave the House)” — It’s easy to feel like this all-bedroom affair is a bit of a put-on, that they find it hilarious anyone would spend a minute with it, but this New England-style Daft Punk encapsulates the anxious pandemic energy like nothing I’ve come across.
When the dark of winter truly hits this January and February, and all signs point to some tough sledding on the way, throw this on the speakers as loud as it gets and move your body.
It certainly can’t hurt.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
The best of the rest
These Top 10 songs are just the tip of an iceberg of amazing music released over the past year. While they may be my favorites, there’s little doubt you’ll find songs made by Mainers that blow you away but don’t quite do it for me. There are black metal bands, atmospheric ASMR types, quirky pop balladeers, and so much more.
To help you dive into a body of work you might not have familiarity with, we’ve put together a Spotify playlist of (currently) 72 songs (one from each artist) all released in 2021. The Top 10 songs are listed first, but after that, it’s a free-for-all and largely chronological. Shuffle might be your best bet.
Find the playlist at https://spoti.fi/3seFQXZ, listen up, and share it with your friends. If there’s one thing we’ll all agree on, it’s that these songs deserve a wider audience.
— Sam Pfeifle