Music does something to me, and I’ve never been able to explain exactly why. It just happens. Sometimes when I walk into a supermarket, and hear a song on the sound system, my attention disappears into space. I stop dead and forget the shopping list. My wife becomes understandably exasperated.
I can’t not listen.
My earliest childhood memories have melodic accompaniment. When very young, I’d go to sleep to the cracklings of an ancient AM radio, and perhaps that’s why absolutely nothing about being five years old remains intact in my memory except for hearing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
The grooves on a LP collection of children’s music subsequently were worn and frayed. I recall two cuts in particular: An American folk song called “One More Day,” and Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo.”
The anecdotes are both endless and tedious, but the point is this: Music plays inside my noggin at all times, and has done so for as long as I can remember. It is central to my being. And yet, for all the ways that music is the soundtrack of my life, I possess no musical skills.
Instruments are a mystery to me, and my voice, once capable of decently carrying a tune for the legendary FCHS choral director Mick Neely, has digressed through decades of misuse and abuse to the point of shower stall braying when alone, safely away from the ears of humans, if not our terrified cats. I listen, drum fingers, hum, whistle, and participate as best I can.
My conclusion? If there is a music gene, I possess a variant of it. Music has spoken to me from the beginning. Had my formative years been spent with musicians as role models as opposed to athletes, perhaps it all would have turned out differently. As it stands, I’ve no complaints.
The innate pleasure to be derived from listening to music is more of an essential heartbeat than an optional amusement, and I can’t imagine life otherwise. If the music in my head ever stops playing, it will be the unmistakable sign of imminent death — and as all atheists know, death is a symphony without encores.
As such, my mission each year is to find new musical releases of the sort that Roger likes. It’s as simple as that.
These might be rock, pop, world music, classical or jazz, although I’ll readily concede that rock and pop generally constituted the bulk of my findings in 2021. Granted, I streamed quite a few new classical albums, but not much new world music or jazz. So it varies from year to year, although a steady diet of Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Bunny Berigan and Duke Ellington always occurs.
Also, as a necessary caveat, you’ll see a notable absence of hip hop, rap, “today’s auto-tuned pop songs for truncated attention spans,” and country/western music in my customary musical vicinity. These genres don’t thrill me very much. They don’t flip the switch, but be aware that my lack of interest in them extends to refraining from making sociological pronouncements about them, which I will not do. All music is good; some is better than others, at least for me.
The idea, then, is to constantly reprogram my brain with new music. It takes effort and a modicum of forethought. It’s far too easy to dive into the “classic” back catalogue and relive (why?) the days of my youth. When you’re a kid and have only a handful of albums, you listen to them hundreds of times and they’re imprinted forever; at least that’s the way it worked for me. Consequently, these days I ration my oldies, saving them for special occasions only.
Stay fresh and renew. Here’s a list of six of my favored bands in 2021 which share the distinction of being entirely unknown to me on 31 December 2020.
- The Great White
- Nothing But Thieves (see below)
- Middle Kids
- Dry Cleaning
- Cloud Nothings
This is what I’m saying, and all of it duly noted, it’s also true that my musical year of 2021 had to do with more than just new album releases.
2021 was the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s final album with all four original members, New Adventures in Hi Fi, and after thinking about it for years, now I can finally say that this is my favorite album by the band (for the record, Automatic for the People comes second). Yes, I understand that R.E.M.’s 1980s oeuvre is widely regarded as the group’s finest. But I wasn’t paying attention then, and as is so often the case with music, in 1996 I was ready to hear just such an album as New Adventures.
Music meets you where you are.
The only movie of any sort that I watched in 2021 was “Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” a superlative documentary about a band which is unlikely to ever genuinely receive its due. To be sure, I somewhat detested the Bee Gees during the disco period, and I was wrong to do so; among other deficiencies in perception, I failed to see the racism behind the “disco sucks” movement. In truth, I was unhappy with myself the way I was then, and disco was merely a stand-in. The brothers Gibb always were a band; they could sing the phone book and wrote quality pop songs, whether for themselves or others.
This year I discovered Rick Beato’s videos on YouTube and belatedly learned that the contemporary Irish folk band Lynched had changed its name to Lankum. In the fall we returned to the Ogle Center at IU Southeast for the Louisville Orchestra’s great “neighborhood” concerts, which always enrich me. Louisville, you won’t always have Teddy Abrams. Appreciate him now, while there is time.
Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones), Tom T. Hall, Michael Nesmith, Robbie Steinhardt (Kansas) and Dusty Hill (ZZ Top) were among the musicians who died in 2021. Obviously there were many others from all musical genres. The passing of artists saddens me in a way that captains of industry or politicians do not, full stop. Watts’ passing particularly unleashed a tidal wave of emotion, and for good reason, as he was a throwback in so very many ways. It’s a cliche, but we’ll not see the likes of his generation again, once it has gone.
Here’s my first list: newly released live albums of old songs that I enjoyed in 2021.
Live Albums, Mostly from Olden Times
- Can … Live in Brighton 1975
- Mick Fleetwood and Friends … Celebrate the Music of Peter Green
- Fleetwood Mac … Live (circa 1980s; expanded release)
- Oasis … Knebworth 1996
- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band … The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concert
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse … Way Down in the Rust Bucket (Live in 1990)
Next, seeing as albums (my preferred medium) are composed of individual songs, here are the ones that will help me remember 2021, arranged alphabetically. An * indicates the top five.
20 Songs in 2021 That Became Ear Worms
30 Days in the Hole, (Humble Pie cover) by The Dead Daisies
All the Colours of You, by James
Celebrate, by Jacob Resch
*Change Your Mind, by The Coral
Elevator Boots, by Counting Crows
Frank Sinatra, by The Pale White
*Funeral, by Tigercub
*Hammerhead, by Duran Duran
How Not to Drown, by Chvrches
Lipstick on the Glass, by Wolf Alice
Losin’ Ground, by Bill Champlin
Making a Fire, by Foo Fighters
Nothing Without You, by Cloud Nothings
Ride or Die, by Houndmouth
*Scratchcard Lanyard, by Dry Cleaning
Shortcummings, by Sleaford Mods
So it Goes, by Cheap Trick
The Secret He Had Missed, by Manic Street Preachers
Today We’re the Greatest, by Middle Kids
*Unpleasant Breakfast, by The Hold Steady
The list of my 30 favorite albums of 2021 begins with an explanation. Perhaps my favorite “new” band of the year was Nothing But Thieves, except the band has been around for a while, and only came to my attention at the beginning of the year when I heard the album Moral Panic.
Understanding that My Top 30 is supposed to be “new,” and these three Nothing But Thieves albums weren’t, but still they’re all I listened to for at least a month (and later the band released an EP), there’ll be an exception in 2021 and all of them will be listed here.
30. Nothing But Thieves … Nothing But Thieves (2015)
29. Nothing But Thieves … Broken Machine (2017)
28. Nothing But Thieves … Moral Panic (2020)
27. Nothing But Thieves … Moral Panic II (EP; 2021)
26. Johnny Marr … Fever Dreams, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 (EPs; Marr will proceed with Pt. 3 and Pt. 4 in 2022, presumably combining to create a whole album).
25. Inhaler … It Won’t Always Be Like This
24. Shame … Drunk Tank Pink
23. Foo Fighters … Medicine at Midnight
22. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis … Carnage
21. Cloud Nothings … The Shadow I Remember
20. The Vaccines … Back in Love City
19. James … All the Colours of You
18. Chvrches … Screen Violence
17. Crowded House … Dreamers Are Waiting
16. The War on Drugs … I Don’t Live Here Anymore
15 Cheap Trick … In Another World
14. Dry Cleaning … New Long Leg
13. Sleaford Mods … Spare Ribs
12. The Pale White … Infinite Pleasure
11. Counting Crows … Butter Miracle Suite One (EP)
10. Bill Champlin … Livin’ for Love
09. Houndmouth … Good for You
08. Middle Kids … Today We’re the Greatest
07. Mogwai … As the Love Continues
06. Tigercub … As Blue As Indigo
05 Manic Street Preachers … The Ultra Vivid Lament
04. The Coral … Coral Island
03. Duran Duran … Future Past
02. Wolf Alice … Blue Weekend
01. The Hold Steady … Open Door Policy
Finally, here are the full albums I consumed at least three times without coming away with anything to obsess me. However, never say die; there’s always the possibility of an afterglow. After all, the Dry Cleaning release (above) eluded me for months before finally clicking into place. Some of these releases made enough of an impression to have the chance of extended life into 2022, especially the albums by Lindsey Buckingham, Parquet Courts and Elbow.
Now for a coda: Perhaps the single biggest disappointment for me in 2021 was the Deep Purple “pandemic covers” album, Turning to Crime. As a dispassionate critic, I’m compelled to give the album a stellar review. The chosen covers are eclectic, and they reflect musical milestones in the lives of the band’s members. The performances are first-rate, and there is a pervasive and infectious spirit of fun motivating these 70-something codgers to let loose and make what for them must have been a cathartic collection of songs.
And yet, given the impact on me of Deep Purple’s most recent three studio albums, which constitute a late-career resurgence of genuine merit seldom witnessed in the output of similar “classic” bands, as well as my personal antipathy toward the entire concept of “covers albums,” I can only hope there’s time for another collection of original material before they’re finished.
Arab Strap … As Days Get Dark
Bachelor, Jay Som & Palehound … Doomin’ Sun
Black Midi … Cavalcade
Jackson Browne … Downhill from Everywhere
Lindsey Buckingham … Lindsey Buckingham
Coldplay … Music of the Spheres
David Crosby … For Free
The Dead Daisies … Holy Ground
Deep Purple … Turning to Crime
Dinosaur Jr … Sweep It into Space
Django Django … Glowing in the Dark
Elbow … Flying Dream 1
Aaron Frazer … Introducing
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds … Back the Way We Came (greatest hits)
Billy Gibbons … Hardware
Glasvegas … Godspeed
Goat Girl … On All Fours
Grouplove … This Is This
Idles … Crawler
The Killers … Pressure Machine
Kings of Leon … When You See Yourself
The Lounge Society … Silk for the Starving
Ministry … Moral Hygiene
Modest Mouse … The Golden Casket
Van Morrison … Latest Record Project, Volume I
The Mountain Movers … World What World
Parquet Courts … Sympathy for Life
Liz Phair … Soberish
The Pretty Reckless … Death by Rock and Roll
Jacob Resch … Clockwork
Rise Against … Nowhere Generation
Sativa Gumbo … Sativa Gumbo
Sleater Kinney … Path of Wellness
Matthew Sweet … Catspaw
Roger Taylor … Outsider
Teenage Fanclub … Endless Arcade
TV Priest … Uppers
Weezer … Van Weezer
Paul Weller … Fat Pop
Wild Front … If I Ever Lose My Way/Brace (technically not an album at all, only two songs)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse … Barn