What I Learned & What I Loved in Music in 2021

I’m sitting down to write this post and I’m not quite sure what I want it to be. I have a lot of thoughts looking back on 2021. Usually this is also the time all of us are compelled to put out a list of our favorite music for the year. And every year for the last several years I just can’t decide what I think of end of year lists. But it kind of goes hand in hand with some of my observations of 2021, so I guess let’s start with the concept of lists.

On one hand, it’s enjoyable to see what others liked for the year and it’s a nice reference to see if you maybe missed out on some releases you want to check out. On the other hand, most don’t actually “read” them. What I mean is they just want to see the list, they don’t read the explanation or thoughts on them. They just want to celebrate when their list is validated and jeer when it’s not. Never mind the fact as individual listeners we’ve become more unique in our listening habits than ever before (which is ultimately great).

And of course there’s so much music to listen to, which means there’s more to enjoy and a bigger overall list. So it’s always hard to narrow the list and then ordering them. It can be slightly easier when doing it by genre, as opposed to all genres where it feels like you’re measuring apples, oranges, bananas and watermelons against each other. But even within a genre, how can one measure a “fun” album versus a “serious” album? Each have a different aim, so why measure them against each other, as each accomplish what they set out to do. So I stopped doing my own personal rankings even this year because I realized it was just causing unnecessary anxiety. It’s a personal music list, no need to make it rocket science!

I still have a list though, but I simply divide it by genre and in no particular order within each genre. But even without the rankings, I still know that I don’t feel the same about each album listed. There’s definitely some I enjoy more than others. That leads me to another realization I came to and that’s separating respect from enjoyment more (not to be confused with fun versus serious as I mentioned above). What does this mean? Well I’ve alluded to this before on social media and comments, but I’m not completely sure if I’ve ever bluntly spelled it out in a post. I think the best way I could explain it is through example and looking back at the way I constructed year-end lists at Country Perspective. Two artists that immediately come to mind that would always get high praise and be put on those lists was Jason Isbell and Rhiannon Giddens. They’re brilliant artists and the high level of thoughtfulness they put behind their music is loud and clear.

But here’s something I’ve never shared: I never went back to listen to Giddens’ music after putting her music on these lists. A lot of artists I realized years later I never went back and listened to their music after heaping them with praise. Was my praise of them not genuine? Yes, but also no. At the time I truly thought I enjoyed that music. But I really didn’t. I was lying to myself. I realized I told myself that I should enjoy this music and didn’t ask the real question, do I actually enjoy this music? This music may be good for some overall discourse or agenda, but is this music good for me?

That leads me to my music listening in 2021 and that was realizing how I figured out if I enjoy the music versus respecting it or forcing myself to listen to it. And realizing if you enjoy the music is actually quite simple, but difficult to let happen. Do you naturally gravitate towards it? Do you find yourself wanting to replay it over and over? Do you find yourself still wanting to naturally listen to it months/years after it’s been released? I hated that I got stuck in the mentality for years of forcing myself to listen to new releases constantly right when they dropped to keep up with the Joneses. And it’s a funny thing because I used to be a completely different music listener.

Before I discovered the realm of independent music and the greater music world, my music tastes were dictated by radio, what I found in the aisles of Walmart, my parents’ CD collection and what my friends were listening to (which was usually the same stuff from the same sources as mine). I was rarely an album listener. I would buy singles I enjoyed on iTunes and listened to them for months. I was pretty content with this! And a part of me wished for a while that I could go back to this mentality. The big appeal of this style that made me yearn to go back to this was that I feel like I appreciated the music I had a lot more. I wasn’t greedy and constantly looking for more. I had enough. And most importantly I operated on my own listening schedule, not the anxiety-inducing avalanche of new releases schedule that I did for the last several years.

But as much I wanted to go back to this, I realized I could never. Pandora’s box has been opened for me and it’s not going to shut again. I can’t just ignore new music because a) I’m depriving myself of the joy of discoverability and b) I’m hell bent on not becoming one of those people who stops listening to new music when they hit their 30s and insist there’s no good new music anymore. But at the same time, I can’t keep operating on the new releases schedule time because I’m not enjoying the music as much. I realized rather than stick with what I know, I needed to adapt and embrace a new way. And most importantly acknowledge that my music listening habits and my personality have changed and it’s always going to be changing with age. Not all artists are going to forever hold the same amount of enjoyment in my mind.

That leads me to circle back around to Jason Isbell, who I mentioned earlier. Southeastern and Something More Than Free still hold up for me. They’re great albums and they regularly make it into my rotation. Yet The Nashville Sound fell off steeply for me. How much did it fall off for me? I just sold the vinyl record. Hell I’m selling off a lot of vinyl records I thought I never would. And I know materialism shouldn’t be associated with the listening experience, but I realized even my music listening habits have screwed up this hobby for me too, causing me to readjust my focus here also. But that’s for another post on another day…

Back to Isbell, his last album never stuck with me. Now to dismiss the stupid reactionary thought to this: Well you just don’t like his politics. Nope. In fact our voting records and beliefs are much more closely aligned than different. Isbell can spout off all he wants about his politics and beliefs. It’s not my style, but it’s his right and choice. Any artist can and it doesn’t have a major effect on my enjoyment of the music. I think Travis Tritt acts like a complete loon nowadays, but I’ll still go back and enjoy his old albums (His new album however is dryer than rice cakes; I don’t care what he believes, it isn’t a good album, regardless).

Yes, I’ll admit I find Isbell to be too sanctimonious and corny about his beliefs at times and that obviously has some small effect on my willingness to listen to the music. But mostly it’s the lyrics aren’t connecting with me. And that’s not an Isbell has dropped off in quality thing, it’s more I’ve realized I’m in a different place in life/have a different mentality now thing. Isbell is still a great songwriter and one of the best of this generation in my opinion. I’ve changed. And it’s not even because I don’t want to listen to sad songs so much. I still listen to sad songs. I just don’t have the same connection and feeling I used to with Isbell’s music. And I finally realized it’s okay to feel this way after struggling with this for a bit. Neither Isbell nor myself have done anything wrong. Things just change and it can be hard to accept this. But not all of it is bad or hard. Some of it is quite good and some things don’t change at all.

I realized too there’s still a lot of music and artists that hold up for me years later. First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold has stayed golden in my mind. I still love all of Sturgill Simpson’s music. Luke Bell’s self-titled album is still an underrated gem and I can’t wait for a new album from him. I still love music I grew up on like AC/DC and Alan Jackson. Run the Jewels’ first three albums still hold up. Blackberry Smoke, Freddie Gibbs, Carly Rae Jepsen, Eric Church, The War on Drugs, Daft Punk, Leon Bridges, Kendrick Lamar and countless other artists’ current and old music still shines bright in my mind.

Then you have artists and albums I used to never like or appreciate enough. I’ve really got into John Coltrane this year as I’ve dived into jazz. I appreciate and really enjoy bluegrass music now. I’m digging into Prince’s catalog. I used to not like Mike & the Moonpies after not liking Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, but I’ve loved all their music since Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold and they’re now one of my current favorite bands. I hated Eric Church’s The Outsiders at one point and now I own it on vinyl. Zac Brown Band have gotten back into my good graces after their new album.

The points I’m trying to make are 1.) Music listening and your impressions of it are never static and 2.) Music is more enjoyable when you operate on your own schedule. And, 3.), perhaps most importantly, growth is a beautiful thing and you shouldn’t be afraid of it. That goes for anything in life.

I know these aren’t some great revelations. But it’s three points that have helped shaped my music listening this year for the ultimate good. I’m enjoying music even more now. I’m not holding myself to the new music release schedule. In fact here’s the current list on my phone at this moment of all the artists who have released new albums in 2021 I still haven’t listened to yet:

  • The War on Drugs
  • Margo Cilker
  • ABBA
  • Parcels
  • Matt Ward
  • Curtis Harding
  • Zelooperz
  • Cody Jinks
  • Caned By Nod
  • Kylie Minogue
  • Jade Eagleson
  • Adele
  • Wade Bowen
  • Carly Pearce

And the list could still grow. In the recent years past this would have freaked me out seeing this long of a list, as I would have forced myself to listen to all these projects by year’s end because for some reason I thought it was so important to listen to it all by year’s end for some arbitrary reason. And for some of you, you have no problem keeping up with the release grind. That’s great. If it’s works for you, you do you! For me though I realized I needed to slow it down and take my time. I need to be me. Spend more time with new releases. Spend more time revisiting old stuff. It’s better for me to listen to a couple new albums and if I enjoy them, spend a couple weeks or more with them before I move on to the next thing.

Of course this has also forced me to write less posts and less often, but this has been for the better too. I’ve loved everything I’ve written on this blog so far and I want to keep it that way. Nothing has been forced; it’s all been natural. That’s the way it should always be, but there’s so many distractions and pressures today it can be hard to stay on your own path. Because when you find yourself walking that line for someone else, the music just doesn’t sound as good.

And oh yeah I can’t end this without a list. I didn’t know if I would have one for you when I started this post, but I thought of a way to do it that works for me. I’m going to put albums in three different categories. Starting at the top is Albums I’ve Went Back to Often and Love (and inexplicably worked out to be a top ten, which I did not plan on). Then Albums I’ve Listened to a Few Times and I Know I Enjoy. And finally, Albums I Like, But I Haven’t Revisited Much Yet Since Initial Listens. Of course, as I laid out above, this is simply what my list for 2021 is at the moment. Maybe halfway through 2022 I’ll come back and revisit this. If I do, I guarantee it will change.

But for now here is my 2021 Best of Albums List!

Albums I’ve Went Back to Often and Love

  • Eric Church – Heart & Soul (A country/Heartland rock triple album with dashes of soul, a rock opera song and synth country; Church lets his inner music nerd out and I’m here for it)
  • Charlie Marie – Ramble On (60s-70s inspired/Patsy Cline country that actually does the throwback style justice for once; also one of my favorite debut records in recent memory)
  • Mike & The Moonpies – One to Grow On (Guitar-driven country that makes you want to be in a rowdy barroom with your buddies listening to it while drinking a cold one)
  • Sam Outlaw – Popular Mechanics (80s pop production meets smooth country; a combination that shouldn’t work yet does)
  • JPEGMAFIA – LP! (Offline Version) [Alternative, weird hip-hop with the sample of the year on “END CREDITS” and the interpolation of the year on “THOTS PRAYER!”]
  • Pearl Charles – Magic Mirror (Laurel Canyon soft rock with a dash of country & ABBA all while being a great concept album on self-love)
  • Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee (Indie pop/rock with a mix of 80s pop production and chamber pop influences; also has a cool music video about hunting for aliens)
  • Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Alternative rock concept album centered around a toxic relationship, yet it’s also really fun to sing along with, especially on “Play the Greatest Hits”)
  • Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (A futuristic synth pop album with heavy influences from glitch pop and hyper pop; dangerously addictive and feels like the perfect soundtrack for when we’re driving hovercrafts through space one day)
  • Béla Fleck – My Bluegrass Heart (Fast, progressive bluegrass with an all-star cast of pickers and players; feels almost illegal to have this much talent on one album)

(Fun fact: Only three of these artists previously appeared in one of my previous year end lists, which shocks me because I feel like I listened to less new music this year.)

Albums I’ve Listened to a Few Times and I Know I Enjoy

  • Conway the Machine – La Maquina (With this release and his steady consistency lately, not only the top lyricist in Griselda, but now the top artist)
  • J. Cole – The Off-Season (Cole finally drops the contrived themes and just raps his off, which is exactly what I’ve been wanting from him)
  • Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita (A great country cowboy tale concept album, but it’s simplicity is a double-edged sword; easy to listen to and enjoy, but also easy to forget about)
  • Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (This album is brilliant jazz fusion, but due to it’s structure and content it’s not something you can throw on any time, which hurts it’s replayability, yet does not diminish the outstanding quality)
  • Midland – The Last Resort EP (Another quality slice of smooth, 70s inspired country from this group, but…I want the full album!)
  • Zac Brown Band – The Comeback (Finally, they’re back to the experimental country that they can make work! Now don’t pull that bad experimental shit again…)
  • Aly & AJ – a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun (Don’t let the most ridiculous and obnoxious album title of the year deter you from this sunny and infectious, 70s inspired pop rock)
  • Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia (Southern rock that is just like a plate of warm, buttery waffles; consistently good and never disappointing)
  • Leon Bridges – Gold Diggers Sound (This time he tries a funkier side of R&B and just like his last two albums it just works)
  • Durand Jones & the Indications – Private Space (The even funkier cousin of the above album; may increase your urge to want to buy a disco club, especially “Witchoo”)
  • Silk Sonic – An Evening with Silk Sonic (We all knew this would be great. Also the pregnancy rate will single-handedly increase due to this album, as it’s certified baby-making music)
  • Billy Strings – Renewal (I was hoping it would be just as experimental and bold as Home, but this is still great bluegrass music)
  • Benny the Butcher – Pyrex Picasso (The Plugs I Met 2 was one of my top disappointments of the year, but this Butcher On Steroids production-inspired EP is a really nice rebound at least)
  • Black Midi – Cavalcade (Chaotic, bizarre, disorienting; I hated their first album; but this prog rock jazz album is a ton of fun and it can best be summed up by this clip)

Albums I Like, But I Haven’t Revisited Much Yet Since Initial Listens

  • Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
  • Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram & Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes
  • Cole Chaney – Mercy
  • Brian Kelley – Sunshine State of Mind
  • Tracy Lawrence – Hindsight 2020, Vol. 1 & Vol. 1
  • Jim Jones & Harry Fraud – The Fraud Department
  • Madlib – Sound Ancestors
  • Kishi Bashi – Emigrant EP
  • The Georgia Thunderbolts – Can We Get a Witness
  • Justin Moses – Fall Like Rain
  • Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings soundtrack

As always, thank you for reading! I hope you have a safe and happy holiday!

Oh it’s a Rush! My Night at a Japanese Breakfast Concert

February 13, 2020. That night I went to what I thought would be the first of several concerts I had lined up in 2020. Instead it would be one and only concert I would go to in 2020, as a global pandemic froze the world and all of live music with it. September 14, 2021. The night live music finally came back for me and I didn’t realize until I set foot into The Athenauem Theatre in Columbus, Ohio how much I truly missed it. But let’s back up a bit first. Let’s talk about the artist I would be seeing that night, Japanese Breakfast.

Before 2021, I had never listened to Japanese Breakfast before. I had heard of this indie rock band based out of Philadelphia in passing, but I had never stopped to listen. But then I listened to their new single released early in 2021, “Be Sweet.” And man was I hooked! Then I listened to the follow-up single “Posing in Bondage” released in the spring and now I needed to hear more of them. So I listened to their previous albums and I liked what I heard with this too. Granted it’s certainly a bit different from the two singles, but quite enjoyable nonetheless. The main contrast of course is their previous albums are much darker since they focus on lead singer Michelle Zauner’s mother’s battle with cancer and the grief and pain surrounding it. Zauner promised the new album Jubilee would focus on happiness and joy. It would be a clear departure in sound and style. With that being said, I knew I was taking a risk buying a ticket to a concert in April that wouldn’t be until September and before the album released in June. What if I don’t enjoy the album? What if the music doesn’t hold up? And what if COVID would rear its ugly head to derail live music once again? But in the spring when concerts were popping back up for the first time in what felt like forever, the thrill and excitement of buying a concert ticket outweighed these concerns. And the concerns of not enjoying the album were quickly erased after listening to it thoroughly. It’s hands down one of my favorites of 2021! So my faith paid off. Now I just had to wait and see what the answer would be to the last question…

COVID did rear its ugly head again, but not enough to derail live music. But it would be enough to show live music would not be the same as it once was before upon my return that September night at The Athenauem Theatre. As us ticket holders were told weeks ahead of time, at the request of the band, you would have to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. In addition, masks would also be required to wear at all times in the venue (except when eating and drinking of course). The former would be no problem, as I gladly got my vaccine months earlier. The latter admittedly troubled me a bit a few weeks before the show. I of course understood the why and the need for the masks. But would it make for an uncomfortable show? Would it make for a less than enjoyable experience? After all this was something none of us had to do before at a concert. Despite my worries, I chose to not get a refund when offered the opportunity, made sure to get a comfortable mask and eagerly anticipated my first show back in over a year and a half.

So I arrive at the front doors of The Athenaum Theatre, both nervous due to not knowing what to expect and excited to be back in the throes of live music. Before even entering the venue, you had to provide your proof of vaccination or negative test along with an ID. This also doubled as checking for your age to see if you’re 21 or not. I gotta say this is actually quite smart, killing two birds with one stone! And not only that, it was quite a smooth process too. It was smooth also upon getting inside and checking in digitally. Well done to the staff of the venue! After this I realized it was just like how I remembered live music to be. You’re filing in, peeping where the merch stand is at and observing the sights and sounds of the venue. This last part is definitely important when going to a venue for the first time, which it was for me with The Athenauem.

I then entered the theatre itself: a somewhat long ballroom, standing room only floor that stretched from the entrance up to the stage and surrounded on each side as bleacher-like seating. While I’m sure the seating is nice for some, I want to be where the energy is at and that’s on the floor close to the stage. The opener for the show and entire tour, Luna Li, had already begun playing. I had actually made sure to check her music out before the show months in advance and I found her music to be enjoyable too, which only made me anticipate this show more. And I picked a great moment, as I recognized she had just started playing “Trying.” As I stood there and listened, I took a look around me and basked in the moment. A big grin broke out across my face under my mask. This moment I had been waiting for, this moment I had anticipated for so many months, it had finally arrived. Live music is back!

Luna Li ended up putting on a really good set, especially considering her and her band are so new. They haven’t even put out a whole album yet, just a few EPs. But I think Luna Li has a lot of potential, as their dreamy, chamber pop is certainly intriguing. Luna Li herself told the audience how grateful she was to be opening for Japanese Breakfast, as she said seeing one of their shows five years earlier in Toronto had made a big impact on her. She specifically mentioned seeing an artist like Michelle Zauner on stage was a big deal for her and the importance of seeing representation firsthand were quite inspiring. I also enjoyed Li’s fun play through of her jams EP, breaking out the violin and a tiny guitar she had just bought. 

After Luna Li’s set had finished, I exited the theater to of course go get a better look at the merch stand. As is usually the case, I end up getting more than I anticipate. Damn you Japanese Breakfast for designing a cool poster and T-shirt. I also ended up having a nice conversation with the dude running the merch stand. I wore my favorite Sturgill Simpson shirt to the show, as it’s customary for me to wear a T-shirt of an artist similar to the headlining artist of the show I’m seeing. Yes, I know Sturgill and Japanese Breakfast aren’t real similar, but this was the closest I had. Chalk it up to years of mostly country shows and very little indie shows. But also this shirt I consider lucky, as it’s never failed to help me strike up a conversation up with at least one person at the show. So the streak continued, as we discussed how much we enjoyed Sturgill’s Sound & Fury album, which hey upon further thinking isn’t very different from Japanese Breakfast’s music. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him mention this album, as we both agreed it was underrated and under-appreciated. It’s a shame the music was never fully toured. We said our goodbyes and I then set off for a place to sit and catch my breath and rest before Japanese Breakfast would come on stage.

After this break I make my way back into the theater and take my spot before Japanese Breakfast make their entrance. And they start it off with an absolute bang, opening with “Paprika.” First off I’m a bit shocked they open with this, but at the same time I’m not because this song is just incredible. It also opens Jubilee and I was absolutely floored the very first time I heard it. It’s one of three songs on this album I would put on my favorite songs of 2021 list. “Paprika” may just be the best of the three though. Between the striking lyrics and the brilliant buildup to the end of the chorus where the saxophone comes crashing in and Zauner’s goosebump-inducing deliver of “Oh it’s a rush,” this song is just beautifully perfect. The two words that immediately come to mind for it are eloquence and joy. And hearing it live in-person, the cascading rush is even more incredible. The energy between both the band and the crowd, it’s an indescribable high that you can only get from live music.

Then it’s followed up with another amazing high in “Be Sweet” (which is also the second of my three favorite songs on Jubilee). I’m such a sucker for 80s pop and this song wears that influence proudly on it’s sleeve. The lyrics are instantly catchy, as I was pretty much addicted to this song when it dropped and played it on a loop to the point I was worried I would over play it to the point of hating it. But then I realized the limit doesn’t exist. And the melody is so damn infectious. How could you not want to dance to this? Not to mention the music video for this is so much fun and one of my favorites in recent memory, as it revolves around trying to find aliens. That’s right up there with Chris Stapleton in Lego form fighting a dragon with his guitar in the kind of absurd shit I love in music videos.

So with this one-two punch right out of the gate, I knew this was going to be a really fun show and what a fun show it was. The third of the aforementioned favorite songs “Tactics” absolutely blew me away. It’s such a sad sounding song, as the ache in which Zauner delivers the lyrics punches you right in the gut. The sound is gorgeous, but then again you can say that about all the production on Jubilee. But as I said before, Japanese Breakfast’s previously was quite sad and the band is sure to give us a dose of that in two songs that really stood out to me during the show. The first is “Boyish” from Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Part dark humor, more crushing disappointment, the song is about being attracted to someone who clearly isn’t attracted to you. The line of course that most poignantly showcases all of this is “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general.” The second song is “In Hell,” which is definitely a song that’s an exception the joyfulness that fills Jubilee. Zauner even introduced the song by saying, “And here’s the saddest song ever” and she’s not wrong. “With my luck you’ll be dead within the year, I’ve come to expect it” are the lyrics that open the song, as Zauner recalls with vivid emotion the death of her mother. It’s depressingly sad stuff, but it’s also tragically moving. You quickly understand why Zauner did sad songs for so long, as her ability to convey grief and devastation in her vocals is unquestionably one of her greatest artistic abilities.

At this point in the show I took a moment to observe the crowd around me. After my last show having arguably the rudest crowd I had ever been a part of, this crowd was great. Everybody was chill, polite and having a great time. More shockingly, pretty much everybody was wearing their masks! I couldn’t believe this. I thought for sure there would be a lot of people nursing beers to keep their masks down. Granted not everybody was wearing them I knew, as the usual concert odor of weed filled the air at one point and I don’t see how you could smoke under a mask. I would find out at my next concert how different crowds react to a mask requirement (that’s for another post). Speaking of mask, I was surprised myself of how little I noticed my own. I thought for sure I would be getting hot and annoyed at it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was little issue.

Japanese Breakfast would end the regular portion of the show just how they started it: with two bangers, “Slide Tackle” and “Everybody Wants to Love You.” Both of these songs had the crowd in a frenzy, especially towards the front of the stage. On the former it was absolutely crazy when at the end where the song slowly builds into an explosion of euphoria that comes with the saxophone solo. I along with everyone else lost their shit with this solo. Saxophones just make music even better. On the latter song, everybody was singing along with it because well it’s basically the hook over and over and the energy of this song just begs you to go along with it.

After this we did the traditional song and dance of cheering wildly for the encore performance, in which we were treated to Zauner coming out on stage solo and performing “Posing For Cars” and slowly being joined by another member of the band throughout the song until the end when we get the amazing guitar solo that closes the song out. We then heard the final song of the song, the eery, dystopian yet funky “Diving Woman.” By the way the lights and entertainment production were top notch throughout the whole show, with the highlights being the aquatic, dreamy background during “Posing In Bondage” (see above) and the closer “Diving Woman,” where flashing red lights just felt so appropriate going with the crunchy guitar riffs that litter the song. And thus concluded a fantastic show from Japanese Breakfast.

With a slight sweat on my forehead and a beaming smile on my face, I walk out of the theater filled with overwhelming joy. Live music is back. And I couldn’t be happier.