I think I was happiest this year when I was really fucking sad. Or, at the very least, when I was listening to someone else be really fucking sad.
This year was supposed to mean freedom—from masks, from paranoia about getting sick, from paranoia about getting others sick, from authoritarianism, from the annoying alliteration of “Mark Meadows,” from my very loud next door neighbors who most definitely need a couples therapist. But, as we all now know, it was none of those things. In the end, there were fleeting moments of light, but in total, this year still felt very, very dark.
And when I’m feeling dark, what I really want to feel is dark-er. I love to watch a tear-jerker when I’m feeling lonely, to read about death when I’m feeling adrift, and, most frequently, to listen to some really fucking sad music when I’m feeling moody. There’s something so cathartic or, I don’t know, oddly collegial and rejuvenating about seeing or hearing or feeling someone else feel pain, even if it’s pretty different from your own. It doesn’t bring me down, it builds me up.
I tend to swing specifically toward sad music from sad girls, and luckily this year was The Year of Sad Girl Bops. Just ask my Spotify Wrapped (and my husband’s, whose I apparently “ruined”).
Taylor Swift, while not always on the sad train, was definitely feeling gloomy; at the end of last year (fine, I’m cheating), Evermore warmed the waters, in July Folklore dipped our toes in, and last month Red (Taylor’s Version) was a fucking cannonball. Julien Baker, though, was on heaviest repeat for me; she released Little Oblivions in February and holy shit this girl feels it. Sharon Von Etten decided her old classics weren’t enough and in April asked Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, and others to cover Epic. Then came the Queen Who Could Not Be Beat: Olivia Rodrigo. Sour came out in May and I’ll never think of Billy Joel the same way. The next month Lucy Dacus released the soulful and nostalgic Home Video that made me want to crawl under an old blanket. Then just this month, Snail Mail said “hold my beer” with Valentine, screaming, “So why’d you wanna erase me?” On top of all that, Phoebe Bridgers sprinkled some new tunes all year to keep us going, including most recently a collaboration with Taylor. It’s truly an embarrassment of sad girl riches, and I haven’t even mentioned the fairy godmother of sad, Adele.
So back to those moments of light: There was that brief delightful window we all remember from this spring. We were newly vaxxed, we’d put our masks away, and we started getting notices about musicians hitting the road again. I thought, wow I could do this sad thing IRL and be happy IRL. The first show I bought tickets for was, surprise surprise, Julien Baker. One of the first shows I actually went to was Phoebe Bridgers and the surprise opener was…Julien Baker. By the time their shows rolled around, things were dark again and I was wearing a mask and showing my vaccination card, but as these women started to play, mayyybbbeeeee just maybe I started to cry (or maybe I didn’t! It was dusty and it was dark, and you’ll never know!), but all I felt was a few hours of pure joy.
Now dim the lights, grab a goblet of red wine and a full box of tissues, and settle in with my top 15 for 2021:
Images from left: Imagespace/ZUMA, Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA, Joshua Atkins/Rmv/ZUMA