The Songs That Kept My 2021 On Its Axis

Jean Dawson

Jean Dawson (feat. Mac DeMarco) — “Menthol*”

Jean Dawson is making music for those of us keeping our candles lit and taking up space, even though the air feels more than a little poisonous. 26 year old Dawson grew up in Tijuana, crossing the border daily in order to attend elementary school in California. Young Jean found that music could help him survive the repeated 5-hour commute, and his description of this childhood experience deeply influences the way I listen to the misanthropic, private, and occasionally enraged musician’s work. “Everyone watching me/No one watching me/I don’t need anything/From no one,” he howls, gospel truth to me and certainly to any other Enneagram 5 personality types out there. His raw and radically open/closed masculine energy is magnetic, and he has that rare ability to knock the air out of your lungs with less than 10 words: “Bitch, I lived afraid/So what’s my name?” The exact pop-punk exposed nerve that 2022 needs, “Menthol*” shows me that even the darkest energies have their good place, and for me that place is usually head-banging in my car while driving home from a workout. But beyond that, I’ve experienced plenty of times over the last year where a brief mental escape from the social contract felt absolutely necessary, and so I’ve put Jean on full blast and felt exactly what I needed to feel. If “Menthol*” has a bottom line, it’s this: “I don’t hold my tongue — I bite the grain.”

Kanye West — “Runaway” & “Jail”

Kanye West is a complicated individual, often appearing impulsive to the extreme — at times the egocentric braggart, and at other times a truth-teller with almost childlike vulnerability. Prior to 2021s Donda (which, pleasingly, was released on my birthday), this quintessential Gemini energy was best expressed in 2010’s “Runaway” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). A painfully transparent and humble confessional, Ye’s sincere admissions were juxtaposed with Pusha T’s selfish and jaded feature verse, a powerful combination showing both sides of a flawed man experiencing moments of clarity.

With “Jail”, Ye crafted a penetrating and haunted experience of what it is like for a low-grade occasional menace to be full-grade menaced in return by the world around him — “Take what you want,” is how he opens, half screech, half battle cry: “Take everything”. It’s unclear whether he is challenging someone to take from him, or whether he is giving himself permission to take from the same world who so frequently rejects some or most of who he is. In the chorus, he offers what I can only call floor-level profundity: “I’ll be honest, we’re all liars.”

Whether or not we’re aware of our own fear-based delusions, nothing is more accurate, human, and ultimately forgivable than that. When life threatens our most self-protecting instincts, rage often follows. “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?”

Cheap Trick — Surrender

I remember spinning this on repeat back in 2001, after finding it on the soundtrack of the underrated teen comedy Detroit Rock City. Over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve transformed from angsty teenager to being mom of my own two boys (“Mommy’s alright, daddy’s alright/They just get a little weird”), but the memory of being fifteen still burns bright, and this song along with it. When stress and its many psychological byproducts wage battles that are often deadly serious for so many of us, there is something very comforting about learning to surrender, to let the tides move us in new directions, but never devastating the core identities we rightfully cling to.

At the end of this 4-minute pop explosion, Robin Zander howls “We’re ALL alright,” over and over and over again. And for a moment, despite all that’s happened, despite all that may happen, despite the fact that much of it feels very much not alright — I’m still inclined to believe him.

Crowded House — “Don’t Dream It’s Over”

The finest cut from a long-touring but so ’80s it hurts kind of band, this song is a heartbreaker from start to finish.

In the first-ever episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano offered his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi a general observation: “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Tony was referring to the mafia, but his psychiatrist broadened the comment’s significance by replying “I think a great many Americans feel that same way.” COViD seems to have further expanded this sentiment to apply to the international stage, with many individuals I know describing a kind of overwhelming demoralization of mind and spirit. Whatever “IT” is — one’s job, one’s friends, one’s country, one’s life, the world — people I speak with seem to feel that “IT” is about an inch away from being unrecognizable, irredeemable, or just plain over.

But 35 years ago, Neil Finn wrote about a melancholy big enough to fit the present moment, and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” remains equal parts gorgeous, sad, hopeful, and just plain odd (is that an organ solo?) Ultimately, whether it’s 1987 or 2022, the lyrics still speak for themselves: “There’s a battle ahead/Many battles are lost/But you’ll never see the end of the road/While you’re travelling with me.”

May the artists that we travel with, and some very fine dark humor, keep us all safe in 2022.

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Increasingly brave woman and writer. Recovering ghost.

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Christina Tsiperson

Christina Tsiperson

Increasingly brave woman and writer. Recovering ghost.

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