This year has been something. Again.
Thankfully, we saw the return of live music, albeit in a limited fashion. If this whole mess—and the tenuousness of not only every show but my comfort with attending those shows—has taught me anything, its that for far too long we as fans have taken for granted the lengths our favorite musicians go to, to allow us to enjoy their music in person. This past year they not only shouldered the load they normally did, they also put themselves and their families at risk to make our lives a better place to live.
I closed with this last year, but it bears repeating: PLEASE support your favorite musicians by purchasing music, merch, and anything else they may be into. Do not hesitate. They need us as much as we need them.
As is tradition at this point, below is a list of my favorite releases from 2021—each with a 50-word review—and a playlist of the individual songs that accompanies me throughout the year. Hopefully, you’ll find something that grabs you, comforts you, excites you, or makes you smile. Hopefully, you find a little of all of that.
Here’s to a year filled with love, kindness, and lot less everything else.
Best of 2021 Playlist
How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last — Big Red Machine
If you had told me that I would be listening to a song that features Taylor Swift nearly as much as any other song this year, I likely would have smiled kindly and moved on in conversation. But here we are. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop.
Motel Mayday — Josiah and the Bonnevilles
I’ve yet to nail down exactly what about Josiah Leming’s music strikes such a major chord with me. Catchy hooks? Sure. Clever Lyrics? Yup. A focus on sad songs? Well, yah… it’s on this list, isn’t it? But it’s more than all that. The sum is greater than its parts.
The Ballad of Dood & Juanita — Sturgill Simpson
Is this Sturgill’s last album? Selfishly, I sure as hell hope not. Looking back at his whole resume, if he has proven one thing it’s that creatively he’s a force to be reckoned with. Can’t wait to see or hear what’s next.
Sidenote: I played “Sam” 195 times this year.
Quietly Blowing It — Hiss Golden Messenger
There are few whose music has hit me on so many levels and in so many different times.
Best to wrap with MC’s words:
So forward, children
Never back down
What used to hurt you
Can’t hurt you now
The world feels broken
I ain’t joking, babe
Never back down.
In These Silent Days — Brandi Carlile
It’s odd to say that an artist that is already of Brandi Carlile’s caliber is on a meteoric rise, but I’m not sure how else to say it. Her latest release seems among her most creatively brave and she’s done it without sacrificing an ounce of her authenticity.
Topaz — Israel Nash
If you listen to enough new music, there are bound to be favorites you didn’t see coming. I am over a decade late on the Israel Nash train, but you can bet your sweet bippy I’ve got a reserved seat on all future departures. Spin this genre-blending sonic experience ASAP.
Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! — Aaron Lee Tasjan
It’s almost a tradition at this point—Tasjan releases an album, it makes my best of the year list. The triply self-titled album is more than just a name, it’s a reminder that every time ALT releases a new album, we should stand up and cheer.
(Chanting) Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!
The Future — Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats
The first time I heard an NT&TNS song, the hair on my arms stood straight up. Seven years later, not much has changed. The soulful words and sounds of Rateliff’s crooning paired perfectly with a band that can stand up to any is a recipe for any best-of list.
If Words Were Flowers — Curtis Harding
If Harding’s “slop ‘n’ soul” hasn’t been part of your playlists before today, I suggest you change that immediately. Fusing gospel, soul, R&B, blues, psych, and rock, “If Words Were Flowers” is the next step in the evolution of an artist who refuses to be pigeon-holed into any one category.
Notes With Attachments — Pino Palladino & Blake Mills
Most people know Pino Palladino’s work without actually knowing his name. The legendary bassist has played with artists ranging from The Who to John Mayer to Jeff Beck to Ed Sheeran. Hopefully, his latest effort—co-created with virtuoso Blake Mills—makes his name as well known as his life’s work.
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