TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to a lot of music from 2021 to come up with a review of the year's best. He's decided that the common notion that an artist tends to do their best work at the start of their career is a notion that should be retired. This year, artists ranging from teenager Olivia Rodrigo to octogenarian Peter Stampfel have made Ken's collection of high points. Let's start with one of the biggest hits of the year, Rodrigo's "good 4 u."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD 4 U")
OLIVIA RODRIGO: (Singing) Well, good for you, I guess you moved on really easily. You found a new girl, and it only took a couple weeks. Remember when you said that you wanted to give me the world? And good for you, I guess that you've been working on yourself. I guess the therapist I found for you, she really helped. Now you can be a better man for your brand-new girl. Well, good for you...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: As I began going through the lists I keep over the course of every year of my favorite or most important songs and albums, a pattern began to emerge. A lot of the stuff I most enjoyed was recorded by artists who were either very young or quite old. From 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo to 83-year-old Peter Stampfel, the liveliest music of 2021 was being made at opposite ends of that spectrum. On the magnum opus titled "Peter Stampfel's 20th Century In 100 songs," the great folk music original covered a century of pop, including his version of The Association's 1966 hit "Along Comes Mary."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONG COMES MARY")
TUCKER: (Singing) Every time I think that I am the only one that's lonely, someone calls on me. Every time I think that I'm home free and out of trouble, something falls on me. Then along comes Mary. Does she want to be my (unintelligible) or would she rather not be bothered by the part of me that no one ever sees? When we met...
TUCKER: For me, the music event of the year was Peter Jackson's Beatles documentary "Get Back" - nearly eight hours of the fab four, all of them still in their 20s, grappling with massive fame, creative conflicts and a breakup that at various times they wanted or dreaded. In 2021, it was 22-year-old Lil Nas X who broke through to a new level of Beatles-sized popularity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDUSTRY BABY")
LIL NAS X: (Rapping) Baby, baby, eh, couple racks, eh, couple Grammys on him, couple plaques, eh, that's a fact, eh, throw it back, eh, throw it back, eh. And this one is for the champions. I ain't lost since I began. Funny how you said it was the end. Then I went did it again. I told you long ago on the road, I got what they waitin' for. I don't run from nothin', dog. Get your soldiers. Tell them I ain't layin' low. You was never really rootin' for me anyway. When I'm back up at the top, I wanna hear you say he don't run from nothin', dog. Get your soldiers. Tell them that the break is over.
TUCKER: That's Lil Nas X glorying in the fact that an out-gay rapper, initially stereotyped as a one-hit wonder - remember "Old Town Road"? - is now so mainstream, he stars in funny, flirty TV commercials with Elton John. I think another Gen-Z artist deserves Nas X-sized fame. Twenty-five-year-old Remi Wolf, who's pop/hip-hop, managed to make lines about pandemic shutdowns work as energizing inspirations.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTHONY KIEDIS")
REMI WOLF: (Singing) Everything's shut down, yeah, and I don't have friends anymore. Everything's so cloudy, yeah, and I don't have feelings. I fit my family dynamics like a Red Hot Chili Pepper. I love my family intrinsically like Anthony Kiedis. Yeah, everything's so whack. When I turn my back, my life shuts down. Everything's so rowdy, yeah. Now I don't have feelings. I'm doing on-and-off pilates like a middle-aged soccer mommy. I'm making doughnuts with my body and talking with Jesus.
TUCKER: So it went for the past 12 months, back and forth from Young Turks to old folks supplying the pleasure. To my ears, 26-year-old Julien Baker released the year's best singer-songwriter album, "Little Oblivions." It's followed closely in confessional power by "Valentine," the latest album from the 22-year-old who calls herself Snail Mail. Meanwhile, a creakier singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, resumed his never-ending tour and got rave reviews for the replenished sound of his 80-year-old vocal chords. And the best live album of 2021 is "Northeast Corridor," concert band versions of his Steely Dan hits from 73-year-old Donald Fagen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY NINETEEN (LIVE FROM THE MET PHILADELPHIA)")
STEELY DAN: (Singing) Way back when in '67 I was the dandy of Gamma Chi. Sweet things from Boston so young and willing moved down to Scarsdale and where the hell am I?
TUCKER: Believe it or not, I had to explain to a young person the other day the derivation of the old countercultural war cry, don't trust anyone over 30. This young woman, under 30, thought that was pretty dumb. We agreed, however, that young or old, now more than ever we're all in this life together.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. If you missed part of his year-end review, you can hear all of it on our website. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about why child care is the most broken business in America, with high costs for parents and providers. My guest will be Claire Suddath, a Bloomberg Businessweek senior writer who's investigated why child care costs are so high and how they can be made more affordable. I hope you'll join us.
Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG IN E")
JULIEN BAKER: (Singing) I wish that I drank because of you and not only because of me. Then I could blame something painful enough not to make me look any more weak. When you heard my name, you could be angry and have a good reason to be. Then when I say a horrible drunken parade of my worst thoughts, I'd say, give me no sympathy. It's the mercy I can't take. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.