Best of 2021
This is a list of my favorite songs from 2021. There are many more songs that I enjoyed from last year, that are not on this list. I’ve attempted to choose songs that can be enjoyed in years to come, and have lasting sonic value. Of course, any such effort is opinionated and open to criticism, feedback and response. These songs are in no particular order. I hope you enjoy these writeups. You can find this playlist on Spotify.
Salor is one of the new musicians to watch. An easy Punjabi vocal delivered over a Prabh-Deep-like sparse, but intriguing instrumental track. →
I love the melancholic warmth and subtle optimism of this song. →
This one’s a classic. Yunus and Anjum provide signature verses, and Asim delivers a mean, catchy hook. He also casually sits on a burning sofa – it’s literally on fire, I’m not sure how this can be done with this much chill.
In my mind there are two broad rap genres in Pakistan: a pop rap genre which is focused on melody, and a more fundamental rap genre focused on words. Of the pop rap genre, this song is exemplary of what is good about it. A delightful melody that burrows in your head and subtle, but deeply interesting beat underneath. I wrote a few months ago that “This recording encapsulates so much of the cultural and technological state of modern Pakistan.”
I previously wrote about Jokhay’s album Khana Badosh, off which Raabta is one of my favorite songs:
The album is a producer’s album, in that Jokhay invites frequent collaborators from the Young Stunners universe in different combinations on each track. As the rappers tell their stories, Jokhay stitches their narratives into a cohesive musical vision. The result is a triumph that represents the coronation of the underground scene from which all this music has emerged. →
The song that announced Hasan Raheem to the world. A delightful guitar riff, a joyous and youthful video, and an amazing Kasumbi beat. Kids in their teens now will listen to this song in a decade and reminisce.
The best Faris Shafi songs – and Introduction is one of them – deliver hard-hitting truth with two essential sides: some artfully constructed swearing, and a memefication of Pakistani culture into a soundbite. →
The authenticity of their work comes from the fact that despite having achieved the success they have, and perhaps maybe having let go of the bitterness they may have felt towards the pessimists around them, that they still sympathize with the pain of those that have yet to reach their goals. →
Choro is about the labour of leaving a toxic environment. Each space in the music video showcases a different aspect of that struggle. →
Nadir Shahzad’s latest is a metaphor-laden, visually-rich presentation about caring for loved ones with mental illness. It stitches together elusive memories of past and future centered around a decimating event – in both an individual and collective sense. →
In the last two years Young Stunners have honed their craft to the point where they can be labeled the best of the best. Afsanay, their last non-commercial track as a duo this year, is just another piece in a growing bouquet of high-quality output.
Arooj Aftab’s latest album is staggering:
Fusion albums often add layers of music. This is typified today by the orchestra model of Coke Studio, where an array of musicians often underpins a South Asian vocal. Arooj Aftab accomplishes a new sound by removing all these layers of instrumentation. And in the air left in the wake of it, there lies an expanse that is befitting of the words she is singing. This is, in a sense, the anti-Coke-Studio. →
Mohabbat is the crowning jewel of this album. A rethink of an ageless classic. For listeners used to the original this can be blasphemous. But what is worth appreciating about this new version is the boldness, bravery and openness to new audiences. Aftab is gladly being applauded for this work internationally.
Atif’s latest solo song Ajnabi is a departure from his previous work. Ajnabi harks towards a newer style of pop rap from the likes of Hasan Raheem and Maanu. →
This female vocal above a dance rhythm is not very common in this industry. What stands out even more for me however, is the power of RFB’s vocal. … Credit is due to Abdullah Kasumbi, who continues to cement his stature as one of the most exciting producers of this moment. →
Shorbanoor’s body of work is indie in its genre, industrial position, and ethos. It is soft and moody guitar rock, produced outside of the ambit of large labels. But the basic definition of indie fails to capture the nature of this music. I find it more helpful to think of Shorbanoor’s music as art pop rather than indie pop. This helps identify that his music is concerned less with the conventions of pop music and more with the references and aesthetic value of fine art.
His new song lays waste to this theory. Because it is wonderfully bright pop. →
I was fortunate to see a crowd a few hundred-strong sing along to this song in Lahore a few weeks ago. Truly, this song has broken out of a niche audience into a larger, collective consciousness – and for good reason. Maanu produced this song himself. This was exciting because of the possibilities it opened for a star so quickly finding his voice and his position in this scene. I think many years from now we’ll look back at this song as a watershed moment for a well-minted star.
This song about young people and emigrants finding themselves is poetic, danceable, poignant.
It is easy to see the impact Bohemia has on a generation of Pakistani rappers. A true pioneer. His latest work delivers introspection without the need for aggressive bravado or posturing. He is a true star in his element. On Star Rapper, Sahir Lodhi constantly asks for swag. Young rappers may interpret this to mean bluster, but I think it is more aptly demonstrated in the comfort with which Bohemia sits in his own skin.
To understand this recording you must go back to the Young Stunners’ song Laga Reh, which I wrote about previously. … In that video, Boljani, Savage and superdupersultan play younger versions of Yunus, Anjum and Jokhay respectively. … This is not a one-time cutesy collaboration, the connections established here speak more strongly to how linked these artists, their sound, and their songs are. Even in this song, Locomotive, there are direct throwbacks to Laga Reh. →
Another calming gem off Arooj Aftab’s aforementioned Vulture Prince. A much-needed reminder to pause.
JJ47 is part of the Stunners universe. However, unlike most of the vocalists in this group, JJ47’s style is less about flow and more about delivery. In that while other rappers impress by focusing on speed and rhythm, JJ47’s style is more about tone and cadence. As a result, his songs have less lines but are more hummable. →
It’s not really the age of guitar solos. But for this one, and the lead up to it, and the poem it undergirds – time can wait. →
Faaslay, uses a stereotypical Pakistani rock vocal melody on top of a modern EDM beat. You are sucked in by the melancholy and end up sticking around for the rhythm. →
I frequently hum the chorus on this song. I’m also noticing the number of songs that pair JJ47 and Talhah Yunus on this list – a testament to their volume and quality of output. One of those songs where you find a new verse every time you listen to it.
With every recording, JJ47 and Jokhay appear more grounded in their craft. Talha Anjum puts on his reflective poet persona, and his verse here is reminiscent of Zindagi Se Maut Tak. His recent appearance on Abdullah Siddiqui’s Surface also has an emotionally similar tone. Talhah Yunus’s hook is very catchy. There is so much versatility in Yunus’s recordings – some songs are just an exhibition of flow, others straight up aggression, and this is a straight up mean pop line. →
Taha G is so good at writing catchy choruses. If advertising agencies have not hired him to write jingles, they should. Salor’s style is so perfect to pair with Taha, and I love how much Salor is exploring in his own music and in collaborations like this. Both are artists to watch in 2022.
After Maanu’s last set of releases, I wrote that Maanu’s style had settled enough to stand up in front of great producers and that his acoustic roots suggested there was room for further stylistic expansion. After his latest release I am more confident that Maanu’s ability to hop genres is amazing to watch. Instead of going back from hip hop to acoustic though, Maanu pushes into dance music. →
JJ47’s reputation is of a rapper’s rapper. His songs rely heavily on his lyrical prowess – his words are often direct social commentaries. JJ references his lack of emphasis on “good looks” and “good hooks”. The result is music that sounds simple and unadorned, but the words are hard to let go. →
Rozeo flow, and Talal hook. Hard not to smile.
Like the best Hasan songs – it feels like very little is happening but actually the song is so stuck in your head that you have no idea what happened.
I’m often moved by the power of RFB’s voice. This song, another in the progressive Alaap Pop realm she seems to be toying with recently, is an exhibition of how she modulates beautifully between a restrained airy tone and some glimpses of a comfortable belt in the chorus.
One of the more melodic recordings off of Jokhay’s Khana Badosh. A beautiful way for pop rap listeners to get into the Stunners Universe.
Hasan’s appeal is that he oozes confidence. He switches languages and metaphor so easily it has to be wrong, but he does it so smoothly that it doesn’t matter. In fact what is conventionally wrong becomes what is novel and pioneering. Because underneath the monochrome visuals and the gentle electronica, is a charismatic appeal that makes you believe that this sound is saying something you needed to hear. And maybe this effortless randomness is not just novel, but a representation of something so embedded within us that it is impossible not to embrace. →
Progressive Alaap Pop. This is such an exciting genre, and I hope there is room for more of it in music programs with bigger marketing budgets.
A song so smooth and so effortless that it almost pisses me off. You can see how easily and simply the song is put together, and it makes you wonder – should these guys try harder or are they just that good?
You might not dance to this in a club, but you can definitely bop to it in your car. Hummable, very fun. RFB sings but also raps, with a verse delivered by Rap Demon – another rising star of the Stunners Universe.
In commenting about Shamoon’s latest album and his collaborations with Hasan and Annural Khalid (who features on my other favorite song from this album), I wrote:
Shamoon Ismail’s latest album, Scars & Screws, is a collection of mellow pop over guitar arpeggios. The album seems reflexively influenced by a hip hop scene that at least in part looks up to Shamoon’s success as a role model. … The most interesting songs on this album for me are the ones where Shamoon collaborates with artists on the periphery of this scene, Hasan Raheem and in Promises here, with Annural Khalid. Perhaps because they are doing different things in their own music, Hasan and Annural’s presence provides a different flavor that adds melodic intrigue to this album. →
Umer Ahmed’s new single Deewana is a delightful step in the development of Pakistani indie pop. There are classic throwback elements in this song – the warmth of the melody, an almost Fleetwood-Mac-like combination of keyboard, drum, bass, and the tone on that guitar solo. →
(This song is not on Spotify)