Top Rock Songs of 2021
A major factor in selecting the top rock songs of 2021 was the eye-opening presence of yesteryear’s radio superheroes. Thanks to the estates of those who left us, along with household-name musicians who aged (like wine), 2021 had plenty of new lessons from old schools. George Harrison and Tom Petty unleashed previously detained music while Jethro Tull and Robert Plant made heads turn with some gutsy new tracks. Consider these and other recent releases -from musicians new and not-so-new -- as we track the top rock songs of 2021.
Harmonies From Heaven
You’d be hard pressed to not question a calendar when sifting through the top rock songs of 2021. The guards of all things music for Prince, George Harrison, and Tom Petty thankfully released never-before-heard music through the course of the year. Naturally, there were a slew of terrific songs from young, trending artists, but having a fresh batch of tracks from long-gone icons is sweet news for a bevy of us loyal fans.
- George Harrison, "Cosmic Empire"
In late summer of 2021, the gone but not forgotten “quiet Beatle” released the super deluxe edition of his All Things Must Pass set. The unreleased “Cosmic Empire,” complete with a slick, mega-colorful video, has a heralded beginning point of six weeks after the break-up of the Beatles in 1970.
The box set features a rich menu of over 40 previously unreleased demos and outtakes. Despite the trippy coolness of the track, "Cosmic Empire" is one of the left-on-the-studio-floor-songs that never quite made the album. Regardless, thanks to smart fans and social media it didn’t stop us from finding it, hearing it, and loving it.
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "105 Degrees"
This rootsy-rock single from the late Tom Petty is one in a collection of newly discovered tracks from the reimagined Angel Dream, the soundtrack to a 1996 indie film called “She’s the One.” The tunes -- which following the 2020 release of Wildflowers & All the Rest -- include the vivid and way energetic “105 Degrees,” a tailor-made track for road trips in the summer sun. What a great song. Let’s hope it’s not the last from TP’s voluminous vault.
- Prince, "Welcome 2 America"
The rumor that Prince left behind albums (upon albums) of unreleased music became reality with “Welcome 2 America,” the title track from his “latest” 12-song set. According to Wikipedia, “…Recorded in March 2010 before the Welcome to America 2 Tour, it’s the first full studio album from Prince to be released posthumously.”
The song and album are introduced by Prince’s beyond-the-grave spoken word. In profoundly penned phrases, he tells us “Welcome to America / Where you can fail at your job, get fired, rehired / And get a seven hundred billion dollar tip.” In this imaginative collection, he calls out everything from the saturation of media to a more pressing need for women’s rights. Per usual, the music is as thought-provoking as it is timely.
Old School / New Classics
Bands and artists from the 70s and 80s were all over the charts in 2021. It turns out they weren’t nearly ready to hang up the mic and drums – which is welcomed news. There are two ways to look at this experienced display of wisdom: One is, they’re back in a big way. Another is: they never actually left! Here, then, are further, stellar additions to our top rock songs of 2021.
- Nancy Wilson, "4 Edward"
Might want to grab a hanky for this one. Prior to Eddie Van Halen’s death in October of 2020, he and Heart’s guitarist and co-frontwoman, Nancy Wilson, struck up a beautiful friendship. Touched by Eddie’s kindness and warmth, Ms. Wilson put pen to paper with an emotionally powerful tribute song aptly titled “4 Edward.” The tender, acoustic instrumental track appears on You and Me, her long-awaited debut solo project.
Story goes; Nancy bought Eddie an acoustic guitar while touring together back when. He paid her back by playing a soft melody on that very guitar -- over the phone for her -- in her hotel room. “I was so touched,” she said. “It was one of the prettiest things I'd ever heard." She returned the love with the creation of “4 Edward” just six months after the rocker’s death.
- Jethro Tull, “The Zealot Gene”
It seems like an eternity since we rocked out to Jethro Tulls’ mega-classics “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Aqualung.” Now, after two decades of musical drought, JT is back with a track deeply entrenched in their style of flute-filled rock. Front man, Ian Anderson, now 74 years old, though diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sounds twenty years his junior.
In fact, it’s been 30+ years since the controversial heavy metal Grammy was handed to Jethro Tull over Metallica. Stop any metal fan and ask “What are some of the best American heavy metal songs?,” rest assured “Farm on the Freeway” from Crest of a Knave isn’t one of them. But I digress….
“The Zealot Gene” is a wonderful track, proof of Anderson’s prowess. Sight unseen, you wouldn’t know he carries an AARP card. His voice is as rich as it was in the early 1970s and his guitar work is top notch. But the lyrics, full of obscure references to the bible – are hardly modern fare. In fact, all 12 tracks on the album refer to the Holy Book. That said, musically speaking, “The Zealot Gene” is a perfect re-entry single for this historically powerful band.
- Elvis Costello and the Imposters, "Magnificent Hurt"
It’s also been a minute since we’ve heard from the other Elvis, and for his legions of fans, not a moment too soon. Costello’s factory new The Boy Named If features a baker’s dozen of highly original songs including “Magnificent Hurt,” a rocking tune in the wheelhouse of his 80s best.
Elvis’s liner notes share the following: “… (These songs) take us from the last days of a bewildered boyhood to that mortifying moment when you are told to stop acting like a child — which for most men (and perhaps a few gals too) can be any time in the next 50 years!” It all runs deep through “Magnificent Hurt,” a lyrical treat packed to the gills with awesome music, deadpan humor and laser-focused honesty.
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Ivory Tower"
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of CSNY’s epic 1970 classic Déjà vu, they’ve revived a long-forgotten Stephen Stills single called “Ivory Tower.” The country/rock tune was left off the album, then gradually found itself morphed into a song called “Little Miss Bright Eyes” –which was included on Stills’ Carry On from 2013.
Stills claims the lyrics for “Ivory Tower” were initially “… inspired by several women he knew from the Laurel Canyon scene who think they are more than they are.” Stephen adds, “This song fits perfectly for today because it’s just so mean. Social networking caught up with it.”
- Peter Frampton, "Isn't It a Pity?"
Peter Frampton will always be synonymous with the banging success of the live album experience. His Frampton Comes Alive! was the best-selling album of 1976, selling over 8 million copies in the US alone. These days, Frampton, best known for his exquisite guitar and talk box play, is promoting a collection of instrumental songs decades in the making.
Forget the Words is a creative album comprised of songs by musicians Frampton has long been fond of. Included in that legendary group is George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity?,” a track of deep personal emotion. In the official video, Frampton begins the song by uttering the phrase, “I won’t say goodbye,” despite the fact he’s on his final tour. Said Frampton, “‘Isn’t It A Pity?’ from George’s album All Things Must Pass, was the track I could hear playing when I first arrived at Abbey Road to record.”
- Jackson Browne, "My Cleveland Heart"
Let’s hear it for Ohio! Jackson Browne, the perennially long-haired California boy from the 70s & 80s, recorded “My Cleveland Heart” as a reminder that we all, eventually, have to grow up. In the melodic, lyrically amusing track Browne paints himself as an aging man with a blood-pumping healthy heart replaced by a fake one. “They never break, they don't even beat and they don't ache / They just plug in and shine.” The video is tongue and cheek, and to many, sickly dark. It shows a “caring” nurse snacking on Browne's heart –one would figure for laughs and effect. It’s catchy, memorable, and a solid effort from an icon known almost exclusively for his contemplative menu of hippy folk rock.
- Neil Young, "Heading West"
Neil Young and his musical brothers, Crazy Horse, are back at it with a new collection called Barn. The lead single, “Heading West,” presents a look back into Young’s not so kind childhood. His move from Ontario to Winnipeg after his parent’s rough divorce provides the serious subject matter of the album.
Heading West, says Young, is “… a song about me and my mom and those ‘growing up’ times. It’s so great to remember her this way!” Though intense with thought and life-solving prose, Young and his Crazy Horse partners still know how to throw down a gritty, electric jam session; an essential element of the band’s long standing style.
- Duran Duran, "Anniversary"
It’s been ages since Duran “Squared” pummeled the MTV airwaves with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio.” We’re talking 1982. After four decades together, their latest effort, Future Past (perfect title) includes “Anniversary,” a poppy synth track featuring the gracefully ageless vocals of Simon Le Bon.
Play the song a few times, you’ll sense it could’ve just as easily come from the high-hair 80s or 2022. It’s a fun, danceable track for fans young and (sorry) old; cut right in the wheelhouse of their signature, fashion-forward style.
- Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Can't Let Go"
One of the great all-time musical marriages isn’t actually a marriage at all: it’s (literally) the folk and rock dream-duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Each a trailblazer in their genres, they connect beautifully on the intoxicating “Please Read the Letter” and “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On).” Now they’re back with a dynamic cover of the remarkable Lucinda Williams song, “Can’t Let Go.” Here lies the harmonies of legends -- with one of the Godfathers of rock and the queen of country/bluegrass. It’s a fantastic rendition of an unforgettable song.
- The Rolling Stones, "Troubles a Comin"
Few, if any bands in the history of the musical note, have connected with an international audience the way the Rolling Stones have. In discussing what are the top 5 countries that appreciate rock music – and for the sake of argument listing them this way: the UK, Sweden, Norway, France, and the U.S. – you could say, unilaterally, that all have a plethora of diehard Stones fans.
When Charlie Watts died in August of 2021, as one could imagine, tributes began to flood in with respect to Mick and Keith’s next project. They decided to present a previously unreleased cover of the Chi-Lites’ “Troubles a’ Comin.” The song, originally recorded in Paris in 1979, features a major enhancement of vocals and guitar. But above all is the drum thumping of Charlie Watts, the purposely stand-out essence of the track.
More Modern Melodies
- Foo Fighters, "Waiting on a War"
The one constant of any excellent Foo Fighters song is the controlled rage of front man Dave Grohl. Mind you, if you asked a rock fan “What is the best screaming intro to a rock song?” you’re probably going to hear The Who’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again.” But Dave Grohl’s ripe screamo chops sure are in the running.
FF’s 10th LP gets political – to a certain extent -- with “Waiting on a War,” a rock and funky recording with metal notes to spare. The lyrics are poignant, and truth be told, for parents especially, downright frightening: “I've been waiting on a war since I was young / Since I was a little boy with a toy gun.” When the electric guitars kick in full throat, what you’re happily hearing is timeless Foo – who haven’t aged a lick since 2002.
- Weezer, "All My Favorite Songs"
"All My Favorite Songs" is the first single from Weezer’s fourteenth studio album OK Human. The album is loaded with songs in the realm of didn’t see that coming. The title itself, is homage to Radiohead's OK Computer from 1997. But that may be where the heavy lifting of comparisons end. Where Radiohead's sound is thick with electronic noises, Weezer’s technical aspects are whittled to the bone. The most musical element of the collection is a 38-piece orchestra proving again that expect Weezer to go South – and they’ll go North. Lead singer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo mixes irony and pathos with his crisp, now-recognizable voice and cadence. There’s an emotional level to the song – a dichotomy of sad thoughts sung with upbeat flavor. Cuomo's words even mention social anxiety: “I love parties, but I don’t go,” he sings. “Then I feel bad when I stay home.” 16. Kings of Leon, "100,000 People"
Believe it or not it’s been over four years since Kings of Leon released Walls, their last (7th) studio album. The two songs which headed to the singles market were “The Bandit” and “100,000 People;” the latter was the better. The poetry here is topnotch: “Parlor games and six o'clock news / Hands of a stranger touching you / Wide awake incased in a dream / Everything is not as it seems.”
With contemplative lyrics belted out by the post-modern vocal styles of Caleb Followill, it’s easy to see how Kings of Leon simultaneously plays artsy and radio friendly. It may not have the stranglehold of emotions the way 2008’s “Sex on Fire” did, but this raw material is without question must-hear music.
There’s a sense that music was drifting deep into the classic rock phase in 2021. And that’s okay. In fact, better than okay. It was awesome. In a year that presented either new songs, epic covers, or re-worked rock and roll gems, there was a little chunk of nostalgia for all suitors.
The year saw newly released, long-anticipated tracks from Tom Petty and George Harrison. In that same year the Foo Fighters rocked the house and Nancy Wilson made us cry. Call that a little bit for everyone. As we move head-long into 2022 we can only imagine what kind of trajectory the music world will be on; if you’re a betting person, lay your dollars on an eclectic group of young and old.
Top Rock Songs of 2021 | turntablelive.com
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