The 51 Best Songs to Come Out of the 51st State in the Past 365 Days

"The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do's and don'ts." — Rob Gordon, High Fidelity

2020 felt like the year that music died, the local obituary pages strewn with the names of venues across the DMV. 2021, by contrast, has felt at times like a death rattle, at times a zombification, at times a holy resurrection.

I do not know what 2022 has in store, but all I can say is keep buying your favorite local bands’ merch, keep overpaying for the limited edition vinyls they’re releasing to stay afloat, keep pushing our elected officials to direct funds to small- and mid-sized venues, keep going to outdoor shows even though the sound quality sucks. And if you insist on patronizing an indoor venue like a short-sighted, marshmallow test failure, at least wear an N-95.

With that, let’s get to the music…

As always, praise be to Listen Local First, Hometown Sounds, DCist, DCDIY, Roxplosion, DMV Life, 730DC, WAMU, Washington City Paper, r/washingtondc, and the various D.C. music Facebook groups who let me leech off their good taste.

Now, in some particular order:

Every year, during the process of researching, composing, and culling these best-of lists, I end up with a pocket-sized notebook full of jotted-down thoughts:

  • This playlist isn’t meant to be a top-down ranking. I’d like to think of it more as a John Cusack-in-High Fidelity situation. Flow; thematic narrative; a desire to impress Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s all in there.
  • I have a theory I’ve since had validated by more than a few artists and producers I correspond with: Because of COVID, a lot of artists weren’t able to record in the more professional level studios they might otherwise inhabit, which is why a lot of tracks released this year don’t have the same level of “big” production they might normally boast (see: “Someday” by Mystery Friends, “On My Own” by 2DCAT, “Guts” by Beach Haven).
  • Relatedly, you’ll notice a lot of side projects emerged this year. The reason: “I’ve dabbled with side projects before, but it was usually because I hated what my bandmates were doing artistically. This year, it’s because I would have lost my damn mind.” — asked-to-be-anonymous member of band you’d definitely know.
  • (For the average listener) instrumentals are harder to pay full attention to than songs with words. That’s why I kicked things off with Bat Fangs’ “Into the Weave” and why I put “Piano Etude in Agitato” by C.M. Jenkins and “Sympathetic Structures” by Fiasco in prominent positions. Do yourself a favor and give them the attention they deserve.
  • BEST OPENING LINES TO A SONG: “This is a song for when you’re bored and cruising Tinder, swiping left and right, and it’s far too late at night, and you don’t know where you’ve been or where you’re going. This is a song for the ride home from the party that you didn’t want to go to in the first place. You saw your ex there, doing lines in the bathroom, and you felt just like a Looney Tune when you said, “Hey, that’s not good for you,” and they said, “Who let you in?” (from “Been There” by Cuchulain)

One of the truly heartening things about having been involved in “the scene” for a decade plus is watching how long-ago planted seeds have sprouted into wondrous plants that REWILD would sell for more than one would think they should cost. So allow me to take a moment to say congratulations to a few DMV music friends, casual acquaintances, and people I only know via social media:

  • All Things Go. When Freefest unfortunately folded, Landmark landed flat, and Sweetgreen gave up trying, there was a huge gap in the DMV area festival scene. This year’s Fall Classic lineup was front-to-back better than any mid-major festival in the country.
  • Songbyrd. Not to pull a James Murphy, but I was there when Alisha Edmonson and Joe Lapan first opened their cage doors and to see how they not only adapted to but succeeded despite COVID’s reign of terror has been positively inspiring.
  • Cordae. The Suitland, Maryland native first started garnering national attention with his remix of Eminem’s “My Name Is.” This year, he got himself a feature on Mr. Mathers’ “Killer.” What a feel good story.
  • Sean Barna. He opened up for Counting Crows on their national tour and now he’s getting the national recognition he so rightly deserves.
  • Mecca Russel. The Arlington resident won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest this year with her soulful track “Neffy,” a song inspired by moving back home during the pandemic.
  • Speaking of creative ingenuity, if you haven’t heard of it yet, check out DC Music Live, an app created by Nameer Rizvi and Naomi-Grace Panlaqui that aggregates upcoming shows at 23 different venues and connects users to sites where they can purchase tickets.
  • DEEP CUTS: “Roots” by Cautious Clay is better than his single “Dying in the Subtlety”; “Sunset” is better than The Crystal Casino Band’s reaching-one-million-Spotify-plays “Waste My Time”; “202” is the best track on HARAM!
  • HOT TAKE: DMV Female Rappers > DMV Male Rappers (see: Rico Nasty, Pinky Killacoon, RAtheMC, Reesa Renee, Sa-Roc, Mumu Fresh, 10-year-old prodigy Fly Zyah)
  • SOUND ADVICE: If you insist on using that incessant generic trap hi-hat, you better be doing it in a genre-bending way like The Empresarios’ tropicaliential “Dime.” And rap over it in Spanish.
  • Recognizing that while all “music criticism” is subjective, there are some songs I personally don’t like that are unarguably deserving of a spot on this list and there are some songs I LOVE but can’t in good conscious include. I can, however, list them right here: the RIYL-if-you-like-acoustic-Coheed-and-Cambria “Year’s Gone, Bye” by Doublemotorcycle; the if-Chester-Bennington-(RIP)-was-featured-on-a-Nikki-Minaj-track banger “SIMP” by Full Tac, Lil Mariko, and Rico Nasty; the quirky-yet-caustic “Everything Ugly” by Bacchae
  • Not a DMV artist, but R.A. The Rugged Man’s verse on DMV artist K.A.A.N’s “Rerun” is fire.
  • Sub-Radio creates shameless pop music, and that is a compliment. “What You Want To Hear” might not necessarily be your cup o’ tea, but you’ve got to respect a group that isn’t afraid to chew such a saccharine stick of gum and unabashedly blow a bubble of it right in your face.
  • There are countless feel-bad stories when it comes to what recently-shuttered venues have become, but the most egregious has to be U Street Music Hall becoming the unironically named Privilege Lounge, “DC’s New Premier U Street Corridor Lounge for Upscale Entertainment.” Dear new owners, to borrow from Jessica Day, “I hope you have a minor career setback, learn from it, relocate, and ultimately have a very nice life.”
  • Here’s a cool edition of Sunday Dinner hosted by DJ Domo featuring stars from the DMV, including Rico Nasty, Ari Lennox, Pusha T, and Backyard Band:
  • Astute audiophiles will catch that both the penultimate and closing track to this year’s list is Rare Essence’s “Baby Don’t You Go Go” featuring CeeLo Green. The penultimate one is the studio version, the closer is the live version. Go-go is meant to be experienced in person, and the juxtaposition of these two tracks best proves why.
  • I really appreciate that American Television’s cover of Green Day’s “Brain Stew” includes the fade in to “Jaded.” Those Dookie classics were placed back to back on the album for a reason.
  • If Professor Goldstein put the Live @Virtual Underground version of “Str8 to DVD” on Spotify (it’s currently only available on Bandcamp), it would most assuredly make this year’s list.
  • Props to Fat Trel for being released from jail after getting arrested for driving while intoxicated and possession of a loaded “ghost gun.” This city, which has seen a 9% increase in traffic fatalities since last year and an exploding homicide rate, is sure glad to have your mediocre talent back on the streets.
  • Semi-relatedly: what was Wale thinking when he decided to give Chris Brown a feature on Folarin II?
  • The Bandcamp bio that Brian Cook (of Russian Circles and These Arms Are Snakes) put together for Burial Waves’ inaugural EP Holy Ground is so humblingly insightful and well-written I’m including it in full:
  • How Suburban Hermit (aka Jarrett Nicolay of Virginia Coalition) got through quarantine: inviting 27 musicians to lend their voices to what amounts to the ultimate wedding song (think Girl Talk meets mid 90s Beck)
  • The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will eventually end up typing Shakespeare. It appears that if BRNDA kept making subversive anti-pop songs they were going to eventually accidentally stumble upon an actual pop song, which they have done (and done well) with “Perfect World.”
  • Keep your eyes out for The Black Fire Documentary. The project just recently reached its Kickstarter goal and aims to tell “a story about the early days of DC radio. It’s also a story about Black entrepreneurship and Black independent record labels of the time.” One of D.C.’s preeminent cultural hustlers, Jamal Gray, is behind it and he never fails to disappoint.
  • I readily admit I’m taking liberties when it comes to labeling some of these bands/artists a DMV band/artist. Some of these list-makers may have since abandoned the area for greener pastures (cough Dijon cough), some may live closer to Richmond than Alexandria. Whatever. Enjoy the music.
  • Thank you to Lindsay Hogan for the header image.

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Questions, comments, and concerns should be directed to @brycetrudow, where they will be gratefully received or immediately ignored depending on what you write.

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