Sitting down to do year end music lists are a good time to reflect on how fast the landscape has changed, how Punjabi non-film music has become a part of film music in a big way – with hitherto unknown artistes now on a level playing field as the big guns, and there is some democratisation that has happened in Hindi film music in that sense – and how cover versions now reach you faster than the original. For instance, I had first heard a version of 'Marjaawan' from Bell Bottom on a friend's Instagram story; someone called Kritiman Mishra, an independent artist known for his Lo-fi takes of popular tracks, had done it up his own way, adding muffled effects, deliberate glitches and making the vocals spacey, improving on the original's somewhat trashy arrangement while retaining the melodically soulful main chorus line.
I didn't include the song in the list but how I discovered it, I think, gives a brief snapshot of the film music ecosystem at present, the kind of tastes that are in vogue, and how social media has changed the game. 'Param Sundari' picked up only after it became a sensation on Reels; others missed the bus. At the same time, there was a surprising resurgence of a number of robust, wholesome albums this year – a trend that created some complications for the list. Going for the best 10 tracks would be unfair to albums that had multiple good songs; and 10 best albums was not an option. Then there is the bottleneck release of big films in December – a new song or album everyday. Instead of a one-size fits all, therefore, the list is in a hybrid form. It includes albums, one song from a film, and in some cases two songs from a film.
At 1 hour 35 minutes, Arijit Singh's debut album as a composer is only twenty minutes shorter than the film – they don't make them like that anymore. Pagglait is hardly a musical – far from it – but Arijit, along with lyricist Neelesh Misra, uses it as a jumping off point to create a parallel soundtrack experience that works on its own. The first one minute of the first track 'Dil Udd Ja Re' – a faint, mellow taar (by Tapas Roy) wrapped up in layers of sound waking up like a morning raga, before Neeti Mohan comes in – sets the tone: this is as much an album of fetching melodies as of soundscape-y pleasures. There's a bit of everything. If the title track is proof that Arijit has imbibed his one-time mentor Pritam's knack for catchy as hell dance numbers, then the wild 'Phirey Fakira' is his Rahman tribute. But Arijit is also something they are not – a singer, and he does something very special with someone like Jhumpa Mondal, a rank newcomer whose unvarnished, sharp rendition of 'Thode Kam Ajnabi' (called 'Radha's Poem') is strikingly original.
'Bandar Baant' sounds like an organic extension of Sherni – a jagged-edged folk number that also takes into account the film's flair for punning and wordplays. Drawing from the folk tale, Hussain Haidry's lyrics plays like a parable that has the trenchant bite of satire, with animals as characters – two cats, a roti, and a monkey – while also alluding to the subject of the film that revolves around a tigress, her cub, and humans surrounding them. (Later, when the phrase 'Tote Ude' comes up, it adds to the pun). You might be surprised that it's composed by Bandish Projekt, typically known for its electronic music driven experiments.
It says something that Amit Trivedi's best song in 2021 belonged to a web series, and not films such as Haseen Dillruba and Rashmi Rocket. Maybe OTT will be the unlikely home for Hindi film songs in rejuvenated form? "Chori Chori" from Grahan sounds like the Amit Trivedi we miss: objectively fresh and yet completely familiar. The sequence, set sometime in the 80s, has two characters falling in love the old-fashioned way and the song is heady with feeling. The transition before 'Yun Hi Prem Ayega', and yet another before the male verse kicks in, is inspired melody-making, while Varun Grover keeps things rooted and surprising with unexpected choice of words and similes ('Jaise sarkari kaagzat sab, Aa hi jaate hai ji haan sahi pate').
Simple, acoustic guitar based numbers bring out a different side of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (think Phir Dekhiye from Rock on!) that carries traces of their indie, non-film music roots. "Ananya" is beautifully understated, even more so in an overwrought, mechanical album. Arijit's clean, rich singing in a low scale continues to be a delight (a feature SEL, ever intelligent with their use of singers, keep tapping into) bringing small variations every time he sings out the catchword. Someone on Twitter pointed out the starting being similar to Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, and I don't entirely disagree.
'Param Sundari' is a banger alright, but under its item song exterior Amitabh Bhattacharya supplies lyrics that subtly subverts the objectification of women typically at the centre of such songs. Particularly impressive is Rahman's shifting of the song's tone before the antara, similar to how big celebratory wedding songs back in the day would inadvertently feature a 'sad' stanza, with seamless ease. 'Rihayee De' (comes right after in sequence) offers different pleasures: a synth driven trip propelled by Rahman's vocals that ends with a high into a Rajasthani folk-infused chorus.
One of the most popular film songs of the year is also, thankfully, a good song. 'Ranjha' works as something you might want to play in a family wedding, but its underlying sadness makes it so much more (used in the film Shershaah as a song of separation of two lovers). It begins with soft dholaks but changes the tempo to a rock drumming pattern bridged by an esraj. Everything, however, is at the service of the sublime verses by B. Praak, who sings with largeness and heart. With her girlish vocals and canny compositional choices, Jasleen Royal seems to know the secrets of the hit contemporary Punjabi song ('Nachde ne saare', 'Dil Shagna Da').
Justin Prabhakaran infuses a freshness in this wholesome soundtrack that includes old school duets, a reggae number and several instrumental pieces. There is a touch of vintage Tamil film music reminiscent of early AR Rahman and Ilaiyaaraja and the album is eclectic in its vibrant mix of various styles and influences: a sweet romantic song like 'Tu Yahi Hai' will suddenly break into a jazz-like improv before it blurs out as a Carnatic vocal flourish. With lyricist Raj Shekhar on the same page, the album has an outlandish side, best exemplified in the delightful, mad 'Tittar Bittar'.
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy hits the sweet spot between familiarity and interesting things in this groovy, smooth-sounding song from the otherwise disappointing Bunty Aur Babli 2 album. The beats are an instant hook, starting with an electronic loop that forms a motif, and Arijit Singh sings the main verses with casualness and a low-scale grunge – all of which gives 'Luv Ju' a relaxed, almost reggae like vibe. Amitabh Bhattacharya's lyrics walk the tightrope. There are pop music buzzwords like 'Sohniye Heeriye, Mere naal coochi koo,' but also inventive phrases like 'Dil sarson da khet hai zamindar tu'.
Fans of the Raanjhana soundtrack will see similar sensibilities at play in the Atrangi Re album. 'Tere Rang" comes the closest, a song steeped in Hindustani classical that turns the devotional into romantic, sung with joy and spirit by Haricharan and Shreya Ghoshal. It's a fine representative of the AR-Rahman-Irshad Kamil-Aanand-L-Rai aesthetic. Although the other top pick of the album is something of an outlier. 'Toofan Si Kudi' (last in sequence) is like a guest who walked into the wrong house party but is so much fun that you don't care – a flamenco styled, carnivalesque number whose main verses resemble Goan music, with Rashid Ali ('Kabhi Kabhi Aditi') singing Irshad Kamil's lyrics that mixes tapori with Punjabi.
No current Hindi film composer knows how to deliver big, whopper sized crowd pleasers as well as Pritam. And 'Lehra Do' from 83 is an unabashed one, a soaring anthem that keeps upping it till the heart is full. The astonishing bit is where the song switches to qawwali mode, as if it was only natural – a choice that is both in tune with the secular, unifying fabric of cricket and Bollywood – with Kausar Munir providing appropriately Urdu-laced lyrics ('Sarzameen ka parcham lehra do'). The song has an almost three act structure and it reaches a kind of trance-like climax in the final minute.