Achyuta Ambal and Addie Gleason

A graphic using album covers from our staff’s top picks.

2021’s Staff Song Reviews and Top Picks

December 31, 2021

As a result of quarantine downtime, some artists pushed previous boundaries. Here are some artists and songs Pathfinder journalists have handpicked to highlight.

“Glad You Exist” by Dan + Shay

“Glad You Exist” was the sweet, simple song that we all needed coming out of the disaster that was 2020. Released Feb. 5, this song was the third single from the band’s fourth album Good Things. “Glad You Exist” is a love song with a greater message: giving thanks for those you love.

This message was essential to consider following the chaos of the past year, from a global pandemic to national protests to capitol riots —just to name a few. It’s easy to focus on the tragic aspects of the last couple of years, but it’s crucial to focus on the positive, which is exactly what this song is about. After a year when many experienced great loss, this song was the perfect reminder to express gratitude.

In this hit single, Dan and Shay express just how thankful they are for their respective wives. If that’s not enough to make you say “awww,” just hit play and wait. 

Dan + Shay open the song with a toast of sorts, ending the first verse with “Here’s to everyone but mostly us.” This sweet, albeit slightly sappy, expression of love perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the song. The singers thank their spouses for putting up with their flaws and celebrate their relationships with this first verse.

Next, the band jumps right into their chorus, starting broad with “a couple billion people in the world” and zeroing in on just two people. Fair warning, this chorus may be on repeat in your head for the rest of the day after listening; It’s just that catchy. This chorus is simple, but I love simple, and this simplicity works to build a super solid couple of lines. Ending with “I’m just so glad you exist,” the chorus is undoubtedly my favorite part of this cute song.

Following the chorus is another verse, which is another top moment of this poppy ballad. The band reflects on how they’ve grown since meeting their spouses, remarking, “look what a hello from a stranger turned into.” The verse breaks up the song really nicely and is a good pause from the melody. This verse ends with “You know me better than anyone else, we don’t need anyone else,” and if this isn’t enough to make you smile, you better get that cold heart of yours checked out. 

The bridge following the subject is a bit of a touchy subject for me. The rest of this song is amazing, but the bridge is … interesting. I like the general sentiment of the lyrics, but the repetition and whiny tone are just a bit too much for me. The bridge is the complaint I have for the song, however, and the rest of the single totally makes up for this little dip in quality.  

After another rendition of the chorus, the song concludes with a poignant “I’m glad you exist.” This song is simple and sweet, and the prevailing message is crucial for everyone to remember year-round. You will be inspired to express your gratitude to your family and friends after listening to “Glad You Exist.”

“2055” by Sleepy Hallow

2021 was revolutionary for the hip-hop game. Ranging from Lil Nas-X to Eminem, all the greats dropped a new album, single or cover with help of the extra quarantine downtime. With so many recognized artists and influencers entering the music field once more with new music, smaller artists are finding it hard to find their way into the limelight. Sleepy Hallow burst into the spotlight with a banger song, “2055.”

As the song started, I heard the melancholy tone that artists seem to prefer in the current age. My first impression upon hearing it was to immediately write it off as just a regular song made by another regular Joe Schmoe off the streets. Since I use music as background noise, it took me a couple of replays of the song to fully grasp the soul of the song. I am glad I took the time to, because it was game-changing.

Starting with a soft and faint voice, Sleepy Hallow warms up to the beat with a few indiscernible words. As the beat at the front of the song reaches its climax, the words sharpen to a crisp and clear rendition of his chorus.

“I just wanna slide, parties in the sky like its 2055,” Hallow sings. Modern technology has grown and developed so much that even if you compare life 20 to 30 years ago to now, it doesn’t seem like the two worlds are the same. In an interview by Genius, Hallow talks about how “we already got facial recognition” and how technology is “just going to get weirder and weirder.”

As the chorus winds down, Hallow hits the listener with arguably one of the most profound lyrics in the song. “Heart cold like some water and some ice,” Hallow sings. In his interview with Genius, Hallow explains his urge to add this to the chorus. “The reason I say my heart is cold is the s*** I’ve been through. I have the ability to put my feelings on freeze for certain situations that I’ve [encountered], [it’s] like a defense mechanism.” Hallow said.

The first part of the second stanza also scored a direct hit right in the feels. “Why would you sacrifice, knowing you could die with nobody by your side,” Hallow sings. In an interview with Genius, Hallow brings into the spotlight a real issue that is happening today. “You’re taking a risk knowing that if you f*** up, nobody is going to be there to have you. It’s regular for some people,” Hallow said. “You get the feeling that you’re living, but everybody gotta go one day.”

The end of the second stanza talks about Hallow’s feelings towards new people and why he doesn’t want to make friends with some people. “I don’t really want friends, everybody fake don’t got trust,” sings Hallow. “Only the people that are closest to me, like [there has been] people I been rocking with, and nobody else.’” 

After the lyrics stop, the beat runs on for a while before ending on a low, and faint note that fades out of existence. With the smooth stop, the factors for why this song is my annual number one song grows by one.

“SUN GOES DOWN” by Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X both figuratively and literally gave birth to his first studio album, Montero, Sept. 17. But months before the album’s full reveal, the artist released the lead single: “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”. What followed was a divisive uproar from both fans and critics and even a trademark infringement lawsuit from Nike over the artists’ “Satan Shoes” marketing scheme. In the wake of this controversy, May 21, Lil Nas X released Montero’s second single, “Sun Goes Down”.

Admittedly, I enjoy all of Lil Nas X’s songs. My sister and I freely blast his discography on loop from our car speakers – from “Old Town Road,” which brings back fond memories of claustrophobic middle school hallways, to “Industry Baby.” But what sets “Sun Goes Down” apart is just how deeply vulnerable and grounded in reality it is. 

“I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised never to be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist,” Lil Nas X, who publicly came out in 2019, said in a tweet anticipating his album’s release. 

In “Old Town Road,” he pretends to be something he’s not: straight. He sings empty, albeit catchy lines, that seem to describe a very stereotypically masculine and very heterosexual cowboy. Futhermore, while several of Montero’s songs show Lil Nas X’s reality and struggles with his gay identity and Christianity, he still paints it in a fantastical or futuristic picture. For example, in the music video of “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” the rapper is seen in many biblically-inspired scenes, even dancing with Satan.

“Sun Goes Down” is different. In the music video, Lil Nas X revisits various eras from his life. He sees himself working hopelessly at Taco Bell, secretly running a Nicki Minaj fan Twitter account, and painfully alone at his senior prom, crying in a bathroom. In this video, he is no longer singer and rapper sensation Lil Nas X, he is purely and excruciatingly himself: Montero Lamar Hill.

In this song, Lil Nas X sings about being picked on for his darker skin and large lips. He describes how the only place he felt truly accepted was online, among strangers. Above all, he beautifully emits the sensation of being alone in a bustling crowd. Through these raw anecdotes, I can feel his insecurity and scarring loneliness. 

“But it’s much more to life than dying over your past mistakes and people who threw dirt on your name,” Lil Nas X sings. Throughout his whole song, although he is constantly on the edge of giving it all up, even praying to God to take away his gay thoughts, he weaves a thread of hope. At the end of the music video, an older Lil Nas X guides his high school self back into the prom crowd, where he dances and radiantly smiles.

“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the f*** out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be,” Lil Nas X said.

“All Too Well (10 Minute Version) [Taylor’s Version] [From the Vault]” By Taylor Swift

For 10 minutes and 13 seconds, Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” transports us back to 2012. Swift’s re-recordings have been a huge success. For those unaware, Swift wasn’t allowed to own her own music after her record label contract expired, so she decided to record the album again and ask her fans to listen to “Taylor’s Version” instead. Starting with her second studio album, Fearless, the LP charted 13 years later again with massive success.

Swift’s second re-recorded album, Red was released Nov. 12 and, just as the original album, Red [Taylor’s Version] took over the charts once again. 26 of the 30 songs on the album, including her Vault tracks (songs planned for the album but never added to the original version) charted on Billboard 100.

Number one on the charting list was “All Too Well” (10 Minute Version) [Taylor’s Version] [From The Vault]. The song is the original version of the song that first made it onto the album. The shorter version is 5:31 long. Swift had to cut down almost three of the six verses, so the song in its full length has been highly anticipated since its announcement. 

The song begins in a similar way to the original. The first verse reminds us of the transition to fall and winter weather, “The air was cold, but something about it felt like home somehow.” Of course, the infamous line remains: “And I, left my scarf there at your sister’s house and you’ve still got it in your drawer even now.” The pre-chorus and chorus are flawlessly familiar, leaving us all too reminiscent of memories that we, as her fans, never experienced. 

The first thing that changed from the five-minute version to the 10-minute version was an extended second verse. After the expected, “You taught me ’bout your past, thinking your future was me,” Swift continues the verse, surprising us with, “And you were tossing me the car keys, f*** the patriarchy”. The line exploded among fans. Swift compares the relationship in the song as something “dead and gone and buried” and while our hearts break alongside hers, she jumps back into the chorus. This chorus extends as well, giving us yet another scene to picture as we listen to the song. 

Swift’s voice changes into the well-known bridge which leads into a new fourth verse. The lyricism hidden for almost ten years in the original song is finally revealed to be filled with metaphors, wordplay and hints to other songs she’s produced. Finally, the sixth verse brings the song, as well as the autumn season, to a close when the first snow falls, “and how it glistened as it fell, I remember it all too well.” Swift shows us the close in this season of her life, just in time for the album’s end.

Accompanied with the song came a short film written and directed by Swift herself, starring actors Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink along with scenes where Swift appears as well. Fans can find the 15-minute short film on Youtube. 

Without the jumpstart as a single, this song took off on its own, and here the version is, 10 years later, with a “[Taylor’s Version]” behind it. We’ll be “singing in the car, getting lost upstate” to this song for “evermore”.

“brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo

2021 has been an unusual year in music for me as I branched away from listening to mainly American hits to exploring Spanish, Korean and Bollywood music. Along with these new genres, I’ve been connecting with my inner fifth-grader as one of my all-time favorite artists, Taylor Swift, re-recorded the new and improved Red album. All in all, my interest in newly released music has been limited except for one album that stands out starkly: SOUR.

Like many other high schoolers, I was introduced to Olivia Rodrigo while scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and hearing “good 4 u” roaring in the background of a reel — 50 times in a row. Binge-watching High School Musical: The Musical: The Series —don’t judge me— and more intimately learning the backstory behind this iconic album was the stimulus to me finally giving it a good listen.

Released May 21, “brutal” is the first track in Rodrigo’s debut album. Other songs in the album have had tremendous success as well, with pop ballad song “drivers license” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and psychedelic pop song “deja vu” reaching more than 200 million streams both in just one week. “It’s been the absolute craziest week of my life,” Rodrigo stated in The New York Times, as she reflected on becoming a pop sensation practically overnight. “My entire life just, like, shifted in an instant.”

Recorded during quarantine, SOUR is every teenage girl’s passive-aggressive heartbreak anthem as Rodrigo sings about everything from insecurities and crazy relationship drama to her struggles with social media and fame. 

The sudden and almost startling music that begins “brutal” is atypical of her more popular ballads, and almost the entirety of the song is a powerful, angry yet articulate rant about the problems of being a child star in a manipulative world. Expressing her fleeting thoughts of quitting her job, Rodrigo sings, “they’d all be so disappointed, cause who am I if not exploited?”

And while it’s a little ironic to hear the AMA New Artist of the Year and VMA Best New Artist say, “I’m so sick of 17. Where’s my f****** teenage dream,” hey— who hasn’t been there, right? Yet in all seriousness, Rodrigo’s ability to define and express conflicting emotions is what has made her so captivating to her audience, both young and old

Rodrigo expressed in an interview with Nylon, “I was super obsessed with social media. I would look for things that would hurt my feelings all the time and compare myself to everyone. I felt like my life was only what I showed to others. I didn’t feel like my life was any deeper than my Instagram feed.”

The only real problem I had with SOUR is the lack of nuanced and individual themes across the album, especially “brutal,” although Rodrigo’s irresistibly catchy and cathartic bops definitely make up for this flaw.

Following the first couple choruses sung with heavy drums and all the attitude, the song surprisingly and dramatically slows down after just a short two minutes, the rage and passion leaving her voice as Rodrigo laments, “Got a broken ego, broken heart. And God, I don’t even know where to start.” I think I speak for all the Livies out there when I say that regardless of where Rodrigo starts, we’re all tuned in for the journey, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s coming next from this up and coming star.

“The Fall” by LoveJoy

When the band Lovejoy announced that they were going to release an EP, fans were ecstatic after their debut EP Are You Alright was released in May of this year. Not even a year after their debut, they pushed out another EP called Pebble brain. Only a week after if was released, it hit #12 on the UK’s album chart. 

I was very excited about this drop, having already listened to the previous album with my friends. Many fans were excited for one song in particular, “Concrete,” which was leaked by one of the band friends. Before listening to the entire album, I thought that “Concrete” would be my favorite song from the EP, however when the band released the album, the one song that stood out to me was “The Fall.” 

This song highlights how even though the world is “burning” around us, we still put on a smile and continue about our day like nothing is wrong. The lyrics — “ We’re so calm but were f***** scared f****** scared” — allow us to see how teens in this day and age are trying to seem okay. Especially with the rise in depression in teens, this song lets us see what we might not be able to tell others. 

Verse two comes in talking about the medications of Prozac and Sertraline which are common antidepressants. The lyrics, “A couple Prozacs, and now I’m pumping dopamine” continues into the singer saying “There must be more to this”.

The so-called “Breakdown” of the song is something that you don’t typically see in a song. The singer screams into a microphone, almost sounding as if he is having a mental breakdown. He starts the breakdown with the lyrics “So come on, one and all and see the apathy!” continuing with “I look at all of you and see a different f****** species” I think these lyrics speak the most to me. The use of the word apathy shows that the character that the singer is portraying is numb

The end of the song cuts off with an exhale, leaving the reader on a cliffhanger of what he was going to say, making you fill it in with what you think the lyric was going to say. I think the lyric ends with fall, hinting that once you reach your peak you can’t go anywhere but down.

“Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X

Bellowing, majestic horns kick off this masterpiece before the low, smooth voice of Lil Nas X graces the energetic beat. In his 2021 song, “Industry Baby,” he’s calling out everybody, and most importantly, congratulating himself.

“Couple racks, ayy,” Lil Nas X sings boastfully. “Couple Grammys on him, couple plaques, ayy.”

Lil Nas X has received ten Grammy nominations and won two Grammys for “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance” and “Best Music Video.” One of his songs is the most certified song in all of music history, having reached 14x platinum in January 2021. So yes, he’s most certainly qualified to pat himself on the back.

“And this one is for the champions. I ain’t lost since I began, yeah,” he sings. “Funny how you said it was the end, yeah. Then I went did it again, yeah.”

After Lil Nas X’s 2019 hit, “Old Town Road” broke records and topped the charts in nine different countries for weeks, he was called a “One-Hit Wonder,” as if he could never make a chart-topper or banger again. Of course, in true Lil Nas X fashion, he did — and not only did he do it with grace, but he did it in the most extra way with hits like “Panini,” “Rodeo” and of course, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” at the beginning of 2021. Here, Lil Nas X calls out the ones who told him — whether personally or online — that he’d never make it [in the industry] again when he’s always believed that he would.

“When I’m back up at the top, I want to hear you say,” Lil Nas X sings in the last part of the chorus. “‘He don’t run from nothing, dog.’ Get your soldiers, tell them that the break is over.”

It’s thunderously loud, it’s obnoxiously catchy and most importantly, it’s so fun. The beat is fire, and the spirited voices of Lil Nas X and his guest, Jack Harlow, match each other’s passion and vivacity. What I like most about this song is that it’s so marvelously vibrant. The music is lively and the lyrics are simple but meaningful to Lil Nas X, both as an artist and a person. Lil Nas X came out as gay in 2019 and is seen embracing his sexuality in songs and music videos such as “C7osure” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” respectively, and frankly, not everyone was okay with that. But Lil Nas X is basically telling his haters to politely f*** themselves.

Not only is this a song to listen to, but it’s one that people can connect to as well, even if their “f*** the haters” reason isn’t quite the same as Lil Nas X’s. Isn’t it fun to prove others wrong while you stay winning?

Is it groundbreaking? Ehhhh. Is it risque? The music video, sure. But with its tight beat, insanely memorable tune and a fiery quality I can only describe as *chef’s kiss,* “Industry Baby” is one hit that sits at the top of my song list for 2021.

“Run It” by DJ Snake

“Run It” is a single released by DJ Snake in collaboration with Rick Ross and Rich Brian. This single was also featured in the Marvel Studios movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. “Run It” is one of the most upbeat songs with decent lyrics released in 2021. 

“Run It” is featured in the Marvel film’s “bus fight scene”  and is on the official soundtrack to the film. The music video is action-packed with the three artists, and the Marvel film’s lead actor, Simu Liu. 

It is hard to find hip-hop songs with good lyrics and DJ Snake definitely achieved this goal. Brian Bonavoglia of DJ Times describes the song as “one adrenaline-pumping listening experience”.  

This song is also featured as the anthem of ESPN’s coverage of 2021’s College Football season. The lyrics and the music both set a tone for a winner mindset. The verses build on an energetic fight which, towards the end, tops off into a chorus of winning.

Outside of the movie and football, the song by itself gives the mood and the feeling of richness and above all the thrill of winning in life.

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