Musical Musings 2021: Adam Holz and Kristin Smith’s Year-End Picks

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blog top 12-10 images from our top 5 music picks

If you want an intriguing exercise, take a gander at Billboard’s year-end album list. This litany of the top-200 bestselling albums offers a fascinating perspective on pop culture, circa 2021. And it’s worth a moment or two of our time before I give you some thoughts about Plugged In’s music picks for the year 2021.

You’ll find plenty of rap, pop and country on the list. As for rock and metal, though, you won’t find any of that—nary a single new album in these genres in the top 200. But many of the dominant classic rock albums of yesteryear—albums stretching back as least as far as the Beatles’ 1969 opus Abbey Road—can be found all over the chart.

Queen, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, Journey, AC/DC, Michael Jackson, Tom Petty, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Nirvana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Guns N’ Roses, The Eagles, and ABBA all show up here (among others). Rock obviously isn’t dead. But, ironically, much of the rock that people still purchase does in fact come from artists who’ve passed on.

Ironies aside, however, what this chart reveals is that pretty much all the popular music ever made is competing simultaneously for listeners’ attention, thanks in large part to the easy availability of all of it on various streaming platforms. The result is a musical landscape evermore fragmented.

With that in mind, our challenge to choose the “best” music of 2021 was relatively easier: picking five tracks or albums from what we’ve reviewed in the last year or so. Like Billboard’s list, ours has some veterans who’ve shown up on our chart before. And naturally, we’re looking for more than just the quality of the music here: We’re looking at the quality of the message, too. So take a gander and let us know what you think about our choices. And we’d love to hear from you regarding the things you’re listening to or that you’d like us to review in 2022.

Twenty One Pilots’ Scaled and Icy album cover.

Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy

The sixth album from Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, better known as Twenty One Pilots, once again offers a cryptic-but-redemptive take on life’s struggles. In an interview with Hype Magazine, Joseph said of the album’s title, “The words ‘scaled’ and ‘icy’ actually stand for ‘scaled back’ and ‘isolated’, which is kind of how we all found ourselves this past year.” Despite that reference to how COVID-19 has influenced the band, optimistic and confident messages can be mined out of sometimes lyrically dense reflections on life, complete with the band’s trademark genre-blurring vibe. Parents will want to be aware of a couple of minor bumps in the road, including one song about helping a friend escape the law. But a handful of small content hiccups ultimately don’t ground Twenty One Pilots’ latest effort.

Still from Justin Bieber’s “Ghost” music video.

Justin Bieber, “Ghost”

Loss and grief are inescapable parts of life. And in his song “Ghost,” Justin Bieber explores those somber themes. Bieber lost his grandfather unexpectedly in early 2021. And he’s still trying to make sense of that loss here as he reckons with the finality of death. “I miss you more than life,” he tells us. “I know you crossed a bridge that I can’t follow.” Bieber notes that when we’re young, we often evade the haunting reality of death (“Youngblood thinks there’s always tomorrow”). But as we age, our perspective on time—and how short it ultimately is for all of us—begins to change. A couple of lightly suggestive lines turn up elsewhere, hinting at the loss not just of a loved one, but of a lover.   

Still from Skillet’s “Surviving the Game” music video.

Skillet, “Surviving the Game”

The Christian hard rock act Skillet is back with a new single and a forthcoming new album (Dominion, January 14). The lead single raises a fist against the spiritual forces that oppress us, with frontman John Cooper declaring: “I was born to be demon defiant (biting), and I won’t let this kingdom fall.” In an interview with Jesus Freak Hideout, Cooper said, “Within the first 30 seconds of the song you’re taken on a journey that begins with uncertainty and trepidation and leads to an explosion of energy and life. That sums up how I see the future. This has been a tough season, and we are not yet through the storm. We need hope, we need grit, and we will survive. I hope that when people hear ‘Surviving the Game’ it will be the song they’ve been waiting for.”

Still from Billie Eilish’s “Your Power” music video.

Billie Eilish, “Your Power”

Billie Eilish returns to our chart for the second year in a row. And as Kristin Smith wrote last year, she might seem an unusual choice. The 19-year-old’s 2021 album Happier Than Ever is certainly provocative in both positive and problematic ways. We see some of both here, as Eilish confessionally tries to come to grips with a relationship with a much older guy who has used his “power” over her to manipulate and take advantage of the singer. Those aren’t positive things, of course. But here, Eilish is getting some clarity on what really happened. And for older teens, we feel like her lyrics and the unhealthy relational realizations she makes here could offer an opportunity for discussion about recognizing when a relationship turns toxic.

Still from Thomas Rhett’s “To the Guys That Date My Girls” lyrical video.

Thomas Rhett, “To the Guys That Date My Girls”

The title of this wholesome country hit from Thomas Rhett practically tells the whole story. Rhett has three daughters. And he’s “encouraging” any guy brave enough to pursue a relationship with them someday to realize their dad has some high expectations. Plugged In reviewer Kristin Smith summarizes: “He’s not scaring them away with gun in hand, but he is letting guys know that if they’re interested in any of his daughters, they’ll need to treat them like the precious ones they are.” That pretty much sums it up. But we’ll toss in one lyric to give you a sense of this country icon’s deep love for his girls: “So, when you take their hand, remember/You’re holding my whole world.”

Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.

One Response

  1. -My favorite new releases this year are in order:
    Elton John the lockdown sessions
    Offspring let the bad times roll
    Eminem music to be murdered by side B deluxe edition
    Jeff Tweedy love is the king

    My favorite reissues of the year are Cat Stevens Mona Bone Jakon; Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, Stone Temple Pilots tiny music, and John Lennon’s plastic Ono band

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