Steve’s Top Tracks of 2021

A few random thoughts: 

In my year-end essays over the last couple of years, I’ve written a bit about the various functions of popular music, which have kept evolving throughout human history: Traditional societies used music as a means of long-distance communication via tribal drums, or to lead the troops into battle with a bugle, or for religious ceremonies, for instance. And we’ve kept expanding music’s functions over the centuries, in modern times using it to dance to at a club, or to add drama to a movie scene or video game, or to motivate us in an exercise class (Peloton is now a major source of revenue for the music biz), or to advertise a product, or to advance the plot in a Broadway musical, or to set a romantic mood, or to give voice to a political movement, or just to enjoy, alone or with friends–really the functions of popular music are endless.  

In the last few years, a new function has arisen: Music has been used as raw material for fan-created short form visual content on social media platforms like TikTok (now joined by Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts). And 2021 was the year when success on these platforms became nearly a prerequisite for launching a recording career in pop music. The DSPs, notably Spotify, increasingly use social media data as key components of those algorithms which determine which songs are served to the audience through editorial playlisting, or increasingly, personalized targeted playlists. Commercial radio regularly wants to see strong DSP metrics before playing new music, and those metrics can generally only be achieved by a new artist via social media virality. And so, the millions of clips made using TikTok sounds suddenly become the equivalent of millions of little lottery tickets which, if they lead to big TikTok trends, may yield a jackpot for some lucky young musicians.  

While this process can seem random and the winners may not always be the music that an audience might actually enjoy listening to in its entirety, there is also a tremendous empowerment present in this ecosystem.  Audience members, now also creators themselves, today have greater power than ever to nominate music for other audience members listen to. The audience itself is now the gate keeper, and it wields its power with great efficiency. This filtering process, like any filtering process before it (A&R men, radio programmers, music critics, Spotify editors), is something music makers, by necessity, learn to navigate in order to bring their songs to the widest audience.   

This interaction between musicians—who want their music heard–and audience/creators–who use music as something in their toolbox–inevitably affects the music itself. Like with any tool, the ways music is used may not be the ways the creator ever imagined. And so aspiring pop stars start to adapt their music to the new uses.  Like the inventor who learned that his wallpaper cleaning putty was being enjoyed by kids as modeling clay and ended up marketing Play-Doh in 15 colors, hoped-for success in the TikTok ecosystem now factors into the creation of much pop music. You’re a recording artist noticing music being used in 20-second videos of kids opening college admissions letters? Okay, so maybe you start making music with tight 20-second sections that could be used to accompany moments of joy, or suspense, or surprise, or heartbreak. There are young musicians out there now just posting hooks on TikTok and not bothering to even release the whole song, or maybe even not writing the whole song until they find out whether the hook is working on the platform. The audience didn’t react to that hook? Well, here’s another.  

But the thing is, you can’t game that system. TikTok creators ultimately use whatever sounds they want, and the community collectively turns some into viral hits, without any apparent rhyme or reason, at least as far as the choice of music is concerned. Literally anything might become the soundtrack to a TikTok video. And no one’s come up with a way to just will something into virality.  

Of course, not every song that accompanies a big TikTok trend becomes an actual hit in its full-length form. Just as only some commercials have historically launched a song to the top of the charts (think Feist and Yael Naim, and if you’re old enough, those people on the hillside singing about Coke), while many more fail to translate to success, so too, only some big TikTok trends lead to a hit record on DSPs and radio. Sometimes, the listeners determine the full song isn’t worth listening to. Or maybe the part of the song that has become the viral trend is not even a crucial part of the song—maybe it’s just a few bars of instrumental that happened to accompany a really enjoyable visual gimmick—and that exposure may not be enough to induce people to want to hear the whole thing. On the other hand, when it all comes together—the right song segment, the right visual concept– it can bulldoze a more direct path to a monster hit than any other vehicle currently available.  That’s because the best social media videos hit the audience in such a personal way, and encourage reciprocal sharing of others’ experiences. In these instances, music acts as a soundtrack which enhances the sharing of people’s lives online. The aural equivalent of an Instagram filter, if you will.*  

But success on TikTok alone does not a hit record make. Whether they are aware of it or not, musicians and “creators” in the social media ecosystem are engaged in an ongoing competition to win the attention of the Spotify algorithm (I’m using Spotify as a stand-in for all DSPs here). With songs being uploaded to DSPs at an ever-accelerating pace—Spotify ingests over 60,000 new tracks per day, for instance– the only way to filter it all is to turn control over to the machines. The percentage of total song streams attributable to their presence on human-curated editorial playlists continues to shrink.  Algorithmic, personalized playlists are the way of the future. The mass hit known by everyone becomes vanishingly rare. So, we must ask:  Is Spotify evolving into the musical equivalent of Facebook, with its algorithm feeding users what the AI has determined they want, creating a musical echo chamber and decreasing the opportunities for a shared musical culture, just as Facebook silos users, decreasing the likelihood of a shared narrative of reality? It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.  

As a corollary to the above, for anyone reading this who also happens to be a human being,** there’s some potentially sobering news: As it turns out, it’s not just truck drivers and travel agents who need to be worried about impending obsolescence. The shift from human music curation, a job that, by definition, requires some sense of aesthetic judgement and maybe even taste, to algorithmic music curation, may suggest that the creative class, too, should worry about being replaced by tech.  

But I digress.  

Here are some thoughts about my Best Of 2021 list:  

The song I placed atop my list this year is “We’re All Gonna Be Killed” by Terrell Hines, a Georgia-born, Berklee-trained artist who describes himself on his website thusly:  

HE’S NOT ONLY A SONGWRITER, VOCALIST, MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST, AND PRODUCER WITH INFLUENCES AS BROAD AS OUTKAST, JOY DIVISION, FOUR TET, AND GULLAH MUSIC. HE’S A RENAISSANCE MAN WHO CAN BE FOUND DEVOURING BOOKS ON LINGUISTICS, SYNESTHESIA, OR EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY IN HIS DOWNTIME. OR CONSIDERING WHICH METALS ONE WOULD WANT TO GATHER FOLLOWING A CATASTROPHE, THEN ACTUALLY SAMPLING THOSE METALS IN THE STUDIO. 

Sounds like a very interesting guy. He certainly made a great record.  And yes, I’m aware it came out toward the end of last year, but like holiday decorations, year-end best-of lists come earlier and earlier every year, and so I missed this one at the time. “We’re All Gonna Be Killed” is a song of remarkable ambition and breadth, moving effortlessly through seemingly unconnected sections, but still, you come away feeling that those disparate sections must have all been birthed as a unified piece, and it all could have happened no other way.  

A large number of the songs on my list this year are by young female artists whose records share a few attributes: Really colorful pop production, killer hooks and intelligent, highly personal lyrics. Even in the face of an ongoing pandemic, these records are bright, and affirmative, even if their subject matter is not always happy. Music critics are often attracted to female singer-songwriters whose work has a somewhat darker vibe, like Billie Eilish, Lorde and Lana del Ray, as if somber equals smarter. While I have nothing against those artists (Lorde is represented on my list, and the others could easily have made it),  I, like the great pop philosopher Andy Grammer, do not believe that happy equals stupid. If the likes of Remi Wolf, Japanese Breakfast and Maude Latour are pop music’s future, then that’s fine with me.  

About 10 years ago, songs from the UK-based PC Music label began to make regular appearances on my year-end list. In those early days, PC Music’s super-bubblegum/electro/disembodied productions were way outside the mainstream and a lot of people I know didn’t like them very much. The PC Music vibe has since been absorbed by the pop world at large (starting with Charlie XCX, who began working with PC Music founder AG Cook a while back, and 100 gecs, who’ve built on the PC Music concept in their own unique way), and consequently PC Music records come across as less outrageous today. The label is still making great records, though: On my list are both Boing Beat—which actually IS kind of outrageous–and The Darkness (Remix). The latter features the label’s secret weapon Hannah Diamond, who has not only made some great records, but who is also one of the most exciting music photographers working today. A true renaissance woman.  

As always, I do not include songs from our S-Curve label on this list, but a collection of the best of them can be found at the end of the list, right after my actual Top 50. There’s some great stuff by everyone from the legendary Sir Tom Jones, who continues to offer musical surprises in his 80s, to the emerging creative force that is Netta. And there’s terrific music by label stalwarts Andy Grammer and AJR, the latter of whom not only put out some great records this year, but who also are seeing the resurgence of their 2017 track “The Good Part”. That song is being driven up the charts due to an extremely popular TikTok trend that is probably one of the most perfect marriages between music and visual concept on the platform.  

Here’s wishing us all a very happy 2022. Stay safe, healthy, and enjoy life.  

Steve 

*Thanks to Jack Met for that analogy.  

**In addition to human beings, this essay no doubt is also being scoured, along with everything else online, by numerous AI-powered data scrapers, who will then target me with ads for TikTok, Play-Doh, and Remi Wolf.