The Christmas decorations are up, you’re spending a significant amount of each day thinking about whether or not you should eat yet another mince pie, and you’re probably ready to fling your laptop out of the window until 2022. It’s the end of the year, baby!
In musical terms, that means we’ve lived through thousands of new releases – some new releases from old artists, some new releases from new artists, and in the case of Taylor Swift’s re-recorded albums, new versions of old songs by one of the world’s most successful but ultimately annoying artists.
To look back on the year in music in the most inclusive and expansive way possible, we brought together an intergenerational, transatlantic roundtable of a boomer, a millennial and a zoomer to discuss the big music events of the year, as well as their personal favourite releases. Meet the panel:
Phil: 61, London. Songwriter and record producer. He was once in The Cure, co-wrote “Torn”, and now has an NTS show.
Dondré: 28, New York City born and raised. Currently working in pharmacy tech but music and sports are his passion, and he used to run a music blog.
Sohrob: 21, LA. Works in the visual side of the music industry making album covers and Spotify canvases, including animation and graphic design.
VICE: Let’s kick off with the first big release of the year, which was Olivia Rodrigo's “Driving License”, which came out in the first week of January and broke Spotify’s record for the most single-day streams for a non-holiday song. She released her debut album in May, which debuted at number one and caused some drama about her “stealing” samples and melodies from other artists.
Phil, a boomer: To me, conceptually, being artistic [and] retooling old music - it's always happened through every generation - Bob Dylan did it to old folk tunes and made them his own. I guess from a financial point of view, if you own the rights to the music that's being used, you could get very upset about it, or you could be like Elvis Costello's case and say I don’t care. But I would imagine that his publishers cared, and his lawyers cared.
Dondré, a millennial: The only knowledge I have of her music is because one of her songs went viral on TikTok. With the whole artistic licence thing, I really think a lot of it depends on the context. She's an up and coming artist, and if you're older, and she's paying homage to your music, I feel like you should chill out, because you've already made your money.
Sohrob, a zoomer: I listened to it one time…I mainly remember the drama behind “Driver's Licence” being all over TikTok. The only song that stood out to me was “Good 4 U”, with the “Misery Business” [by Paramore] sample.
Let's move onto another Gen Z heavyweight. Billie Eilish released her second album this year, alongside a dramatic new look and glamorous Vogue cover. What did you think of the way she navigated her entrance into adulthood, and is it even possible to be a young female popstar truly in control of your sexuality?
Dondré: One of the things that drew me to Billie when she first came on the scene was her clothing – I respected her reasoning behind it, even though obviously the onus is not on her to not be sexualised. And for her to then decide “maybe I do want to own my sexuality”, I feel like that's something that comes with the territory of getting older and growing into a woman. I like her music because it sounds like she's lying on a couch on her back and just recording it like that. I've always been a fan of how soft and smooth her voice is compared to the beats that she chooses to sing on.
Sohrob: I remember my timelines on social media – it was a big deal when she turned 18, and I remember suddenly seeing all these gross posts. I think the Vogue cover was her sort of taking control of that narrative. She went from just a pop star that people liked only for her music to more of a personality that people respected.
There was a resurgence of the age-old concept of Satanic panic this year, mostly centred on Lil Nas X, his “Montero” video, and subsequent VMAs performance.
Phil: I watched the video and I thought conceptually, artistically, it's just brilliant. I loved it - it's what they would have called rock’n’roll back in the 50s. It's music to upset your parents by, and long may that be the case, because that's how music moves forward.
Sohrob: I remember when Lil Nas X broke out with “Old Town Road” and it had a really terrible video filmed in like Red Dead Redemption, so seeing him with these insane visuals - it's just impossible to replicate the way that he does it. And he uses that to completely disrupt everything and is able to dominate the conversation. It's really interesting to see, especially for an artist who completely came from the internet.
Dondré: As a youth, I was familiar with Limp Bizkit because I used to watch a lot of wrestling and they used a lot of their songs, particularly for Wrestlemania 17. It wasn't until I got older that I realised people were trashing nu metal back in the early 2000s. I guess people just didn't like Fred Durst, but I’m glad they're giving them their flowers.
Sohrob: Growing up I heard about them but for me it was just a vestige of the early 2000’s. I didn't really care much for it… to me it just seems like stuff AJ Soprano would listen to.
I don’t know if this one made it across the pond but Russ Millions and Tion Wayne’s “Body” went to number one this summer, making it the first UK drill number one.
Sohrob: Is that the two old guys who did a drill song?
Dondré: [laughing] No, not those two white geezers.
Ardee's on it too, who I guess qualifies as a white geezer, but he's like...18.
Dondré: I'm a big Tion fan - his album Green with Envy was one of my favourites that came out of the UK this year along with Skepta's All In EP and Dave's We're All Alone in This Together.
Phil: I listened to the record because you told me about it, and I actually thought it sounded kind of…weedy. You know what a powerful beat sounds like, and a powerful vocal delivery, and this sounded quite homemade to me. Maybe that's the charm of it, but I didn't find this record as compelling as some of the others we've talked about.
That’s interesting because this was almost a UK drill pop song, and a lot of fans weren’t particularly impressed by it. But it’s also obviously just a really fun song, and maybe people were ready for something fun and light-hearted.
Dondré: It wasn't even his best effort on his album. I was never really a huge fan of it but it was big on TikTok and when people like it on TikTok…
Staying in the UK for a bit, 2021 also saw the return of a post-divorce Adele and the release of her fourth studio album, 30. Was the record something you had been anticipating?
Dondré: I respect the fact that her label came to her and said that they wanted her to make a song for TikTok and she said no, because that's not her audience. She’s very talented, I love her personality, but the music is not for me.
Sohrob: Adele makes very melancholy music, and if I'm in that mood, I'm not really listening to Adele. But I did listen to “Easy On Me”, and I loved that.
Phil: I've always found Adele is held in such reverence. When her album comes out, you're feeling the power of a major – also because so much rests on it, because she's gonna pay for all the interesting artists that we've been talking about. But personally, I find if you think of great pop artists like Prince, or Madonna, they change up every album, they look for a new sound. There’s no shame in being in the middle of the road…just watch out for the traffic coming!
Another big event this year was Kanye West and his seemingly never-ending DONDA album rollout, which culminated with him bringing out Marilyn Manson and DaBaby. Where are you all at with Kanye? Do we still care?
Dondré: I've been over him since the Life of Pablo… I started seeing him show his ass during that album rollout. He released the album, and then he still had to fix all the songs for the album afterwards. I'm one of those people where I don't want to hear anything about the album until the album is finished, mixed, mastered and ready to go. Then he started making remarks about how slavery is a choice, and hanging out with Donald Trump, and I just tuned out. Maybe it has something to do with his mental illness...I'm not excusing the behaviour because of his mental illness, but I don’t know…it's not for me anymore.
Sohrob: I've been a diehard Kanye fan since I was like ten, and as I've grown up, it's been harder and harder to deal with him as someone that I like. As far as the listening parties, I really like being let into the process, being able to see the chaos that goes into making a giant album like that. You hear the beginnings of the songs, the ideas and then they blossom into something completely different; I thought it was super cool to see that process first-hand.
Phil: If you reverse that process - the finished album came out first, and then the demos came out - that's happened quite a few times. Does it matter that you switch the process and go: “I'm trying to figure this out?” I don't know if anybody else has done that before; has said let's reverse and sort of get it wrong, and then gradually get it right. But conceptually, that's quite interesting.
Taylor Swift evolved into final boss-level Taylor Swift this year and began re-releasing all her old music following Scooter Braun selling the master rights to private equity firm. The one that seemed to make the biggest impact was her version of “All Too Well”…are you Team Taylor or Team Jake?
Dondré: I get the reasons why people don’t like her, but I've always been a fan of her music. I find it despicable that Scooter is holding her masters hostage, but I am glad that she is able to re-record all her music. I can't tell you how many times I listened to her version of “Wildest Dreams” this year. When it comes to her dating life, it's just something I do not care about. I don't understand why people are up in arms about it - she's not rehashing it, she's just re-recording it.
Sohrob: I'm explicitly not Team Jake because why were you ever the Prince of Persia? I'm also not that big of a Taylor Swift fan, but I got to see what this album meant to a lot of my friends who grew up on her music. I can appreciate it in that sense - I always like it when artists pay homage to their old works, because there are so many people who have such visceral connections to these things.
Okay, time for the part you’ve all been waiting for: what was your favourite album of the year?
Phil: My favourite album was Weezer's OK Human; they’re [traditionally] a guitar band, but there are no electric guitars on this album and they replaced it with string arrangements. I love the use of strings in pop records – from Frank Sinatra through Motown, they just always add this beautiful classy icing to the cake. I love his voice and charming nerdy lyrics. My favourite EP is Good Old Friend by an artist called Vegyn, who is actually - full disclosure – my son.
Sohrob: That’s crazy, Vegyn was my most binged artist of the year on my Spotify Wrapped! My favourite album of the year was Fred Again's solo album, Actual Life (April 14 to December 17 2020) – he's cataloguing his life throughout the pandemic. It's electronica type stuff, but he weaves in phone conversations and audio messages and voice clips from throughout the year. It's all about being inside, and it's this really beautiful portrait of what life was like under the pandemic.
Dondré: This is very difficult for me! The album that I've really spun the most has been Don't Feed the Sharks by Shy Glizzy and Glizzy Gang. I’ve been a fan of Shy Glizzy almost coming up on a decade now, and to see his progression on this new album as well as the progression of all the other people in Glizzy Gang has been wonderful for me. He's really gotten to find his own sound, and it's a lot more refined.