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!