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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Pop CultureDecember 26, 2021

These are the tunes that got us through 2021

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

From big-name pop stars delivering the goods to an Aussie funk outfit performing in a dusty car park and a reimagined hit from 2001 sung in te reo Māori, these are the songs that helped us cope with the constant ravages of this year. 

‘Old Peel’ – Aldous Harding

I listened to a lot of Aldous in one of the lockdowns we’ve had. Was it the latest one? Hard to say. I’m thinking jigsaw puzzles and Fiona Apple was last year and Aldous and cross stitch was this year. Or was it the cheeky August 2020 one? They all blur, let’s be honest. Anyway, Aldous Harding released just the one new song this year, and it was a beauty: ‘Old Peel’. Other people on the internet have described this tune as “bouncy”. I would, less eloquently, say it’s a real toe-tapper. I have no idea what the lyrics are about but they sound somewhat ominous (“Hot clown and the creek is turning”? “Give back the sheets of Easter?”). Yet despite this, ‘Old Peel’ feels upbeat, which is exactly what we needed in 2021. Also, I could listen to Aldous pronounce baby as “babby” all day. / Alice Neville

‘Bestfriend’ – Sun-EL Musician

Although Spotify would like to try to tell me, and therefore the world, that I am in the top 3% of Taylor Swift fans, I would instead like to showcase a song that got me through the end of lockdown. It’s by Sun-El Musician, a South African DJ/music producer/songwriter, who has had an unimpeachable, consistently great run over the past half decade. ‘Bestfriend’, off his new album African Electronic Dance Music, is a near-six minute chill but danceable plea to a new friend, or even a stranger, to keep having his back. Msaki’s voice, slightly digitised and totally falsetto’d, pleads with the listener as Sun-El’s beat builds and builds in the background. The way Msaki’s last “Stay in my corner” rings out? Nothing better. Is it a little sad? Yup. Is it ultimately uplifting? Hell yup. This was on my Wrapped this year, and will be on my Wrapped next year, no question. / Sam Brooks

‘All Too Well (10 minute version)’ – Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well (10 minute version)’ is an enthralling cultural artefact that I cannot stop listening to and thinking about. It’s at once incredibly old-fashioned – more of a degustation than snackable content and a very analogue work all the way through – and trail-blazingly modern. The extremely not-coy subject, the hyper-literal and very compelling Oscar-bait short film, the creator economy backstory of her re-recordings – so many heady ideas. That alone would be enough, but the song, already brilliant, is now extraordinary. The fresh lyrics – “Tossing me the car keys, fuck the patriarchy”, “Sipping coffee like you’re on a late night show” – are as vivid as any she’s written. It’s absolutely the product of obsession, and the critique that she’s still clinging tightly to a three-month relationship 10 years on is entirely valid (though, “It’s supposed to be fun, turning 21″ – at that age everything means so much more, which is entirely the point). So, much like Jeremy Strong’s process, I don’t care at all about the journey if this is the destination. / Duncan Greive

‘Musika Malie’ – LEAO

Leao’s cover of the Five Stars’ pese ‘Musika Malie’ brought warmth to a cold and restless winter. The musical project of David Feauai-Afaese, Leao makes jangly garage rock, singing in gagana Sāmoa and conjuring teenagers hanging out on a hot night. Feauai-Afaese’s voice is usually washed in fuzz, but here you can here it full voice, with added kīkākila (steel guitar) reminiscent of the great Bill Sevesi. It brings me a lot of joy. / Leonie Hayden

‘Deja Vu’ – Olivia Rodrigo

I know. I KNOW. I’m a 43-year-old father-of-two from Te Atatū. How did an 18-year-old Disney star manage to write a song that would tug at jaded heart strings on the other side of the world? Beats me, but I could have chosen any of the 11 songs on Sour, Olivia Rodrigo’s Grammy-nominated stunner from May, to place in this spot and I’d say the same thing: absolute banger. I love ‘Jealousy, Jealousy’ for its takedown of toxic social media habits, and ‘Brutal’ for its crystallisation of 90’s grunge rawk, but ‘Deja Vu’ is pure pop perfection from someone who’s already a master of the dark art. It’s my song of the year, from the album of the year. (Please don’t tell my friends, or my 2008 hipster blog readers, I said that.) / Chris Schulz

So Much So Much – Sallytabs and the Peppermint Darling

A sexy, hot mess collection of mixes that chart the peaks and troughs of lockdown in Melbourne. Made for listening while you cry, cook, clean your car or pour another syrupy drink, these have been on heavy repeat. / Bel Hawkins

’35’ – Ka Hao

The te reo Māori track 35 by Ka Hao – a choir of young Māori from Te Tairāwhiti featuring “Uncle” Rob Ruha, is a perfect summer road trip anthem that I guarantee will leave you with a grin on your face. You won’t be able to help yourself but give the viral TikTok dance a go. As the track takes you on a trip down the East Cape’s State Highway 35 the guitar lick, summery key melody and crescendo into sax solo captures the vibe of the coast and the mana of Ngāti Porou. It’s a vision into the generation of rangatahi who are in charge of where te reo Māori me ōna tikanga is going – and it appears to be headed somewhere pretty special. / Simon Day

‘Fade Away / E Kore E Motu’ – Che Fu

I adore how joyful this re-recording of the 2001 bop ‘Fade Away’ sounds in te reo Māori. As much as I love the original, ‘E Kore E Motu’ will be the default version of the song henceforth – to me, at least. Seeing this live at the Auckland Town Hall earlier this year – where I first heard the song, just a week after a short lockdown – was an overwhelmingly triumphant experience: the reuniting of Che Fu and his band The Krates, the return of live music and an inspiring reclamation of te reo Māori. / Charlotte Muru-Lanning

‘Like I Used To’ – Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen

In a year spent clinging the fading memory of the before times and wondering if things would ever be normal again, maybe being obsessed with thinking how things used to be makes sense. Olsen and Van Etten play to their strengths and fit together like they’ve been making songs together for years, looking back with a woozy mix of regret and nostalgia. Lighting one up like I used to, dancing alone like I used to. / Toby Morris

‘Free (Live from the Silverton Hotel)’ –  Parcels

Aussie funk darlings Parcels released their sophomore album Day/Night on November 5. While it didn’t pack the same punch as their incredible 2018 self-titled debut, this year’s offering did give us the terrific lead single ‘Free’. Featuring lush vocal harmonies, whip-tight funk guitar lines and an irrepressible groove, it’s the anthem of hope I needed to get through the endless slog of 2021 lockdowns. This charming live version was filmed in the dusty carpark of a verrry rural NSW pub, complete with bemused-but-appreciative locals.  / Te Aihe Butler

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