2021 was, in complete honesty, an all-over-the-place year. We made a right-turn out of the pandemic to relative normalcy despite new variants and editions of the same COVID-19 craziness, live music came back in a thrilling capacity, and we held on to each other to get through the highs and lows of the past 365 days. After the downtime brought on from a lack of touring in 2020, it felt like this year there was a glut of great music that rivals what we’ve heard in years past. On one end of the spectrum you had the high-definition pop breakthrough of South Korean titans BTS and the omnipresence of Taylor Swift following the re-recordings of her beloved albums, and on the independent side of life, artists like Japanese Breakfast and Briston Maroney released career-defining pieces of work that will serve to inspire the next generation of rockstars.
Every year at Mason Music, we like to recap the past 365 days of music with our annual Family Friendly Playlist. These songs have been vetted to make sure you can play them with your children to celebrate the past year, and maybe you’ll find something you love in the process.
Here are a couple of our favorites from the playlist, along with some words about my own album of the year:
Venture Boi — ”Parallel Universe”
We’re going right in our backyard for the first song on the playlist, as our own guitar teacher Matt Sanderlin’s project Venture Boi had a momentous 2021 that culminated in the release of November’s “Parallel Universe.” Their slick and stylish take on indie rock has won over countless fans in the southeast, and “Parallel Universe” (produced by uber-producer Micah Tawlks) is an impressive piece of songwriting that’s sure to have you dancing in your car as you take it in. Come for the retro synths, and stick around for the mid-song shift that recalls the best of Tame Impala.
Japanese Breakfast — “Be Sweet”
As I mentioned above, Japanese Breakfast broke through to another level of fame with the release of her third album Jubilee in June. Frontwoman Michelle Zauner’s talent is completely undeniable; in one year, she released a New York Times-bestselling memoir (Crying in H-Mart, about her mother’s battle with cancer), recorded and released a triumphant record in Jubilee, and found herself on a coast-to-coast tour playing the biggest rooms of her career — including her show at Birmingham’s Saturn this past July that served as the venue’s big kickoff show as life got back to normal. The album’s lead single, “Be Sweet,” is a full-fledged turn towards 80s pop with a chorus hook that has stuck around in my head all year. The sky’s the limit for Japanese Breakfast, and with two Grammy nominations for 2022 (including Best New Artist), I feel like she’s only scratching the surface on what she’ll be able to achieve.
Wolf Alice — “The Last Man on Earth”
With the release of their third album Blue Weekend in June, England’s Wolf Alice fully ascended into rock royalty. Following up their Mercury Prize-winning 2017 effort Visions of a Life, Blue Weekend is best described as a shoegazer’s take on a Fleetwood Mac album with its hi-def ambitions and strong lyricism from frontwoman Ellie Rowsell. Lead single “The Last Man on Earth” is a fight against passivity, with Rowsell focusing in on someone who just waits for life to happen to them; it begins as an Elton John-inspired piano piece that eventually unfurls into a beautiful cathartic anthem, making you feel as if you and Rowsell are, in fact, the last people on Earth.
Bleachers — “Stop Making This Hurt”
Not only was Jack Antonoff everywhere in 2021 producing albums for artists like Clairo, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey, but he also crafted one of the most addictive tracks of 2021 with his own project Bleachers. Coming from his summer release Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, “Stop Making This Hurt” is a complete throwback to the days of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen with an incredible saxophone line, gang vocals, and a jukebox-esque piano melody that’s infectious and upbeat.
The Marías — “Hush”
Los Angeles-based group The Marías classify themselves as “psychedelic soul,” but they don’t cleanly fit into any genre and that’s the greatest thing about them. Tracks from their debut album CINEMA span the gamut between full-on bedroom pop to reggaeton-infused jazz, but it’s beautiful in its ability to let you escape into another dimension over the course of its 40-minute runtime. “Hush” is the finest example of what the band can create — it grooves like early Billie Eilish as bandleaders María Zardoya and Josh Conway construct a world you desperately want to fall into.
Hovvdy — “True Love”
I’d be remiss not to include my own favorite album of the year, which is True Love by Hovvdy (pronounced “howdy” for those uninitiated). The Texas duo of Charlie Martin and Will Taylor have been quietly making their version of indie-rock for nearly a decade, and the October release of True Love has launched them into unprecedented territory with its bald-faced embrace of love and a fleshed-out, more full sound than we’re used to from the band. I had a friend once describe their music as having the ability to make you “nostalgic for a moment that hasn’t happened yet” — songs like the title track and “Blindsided” have a transportive quality to them that is utterly enrapturing and rank within my favorite songs of the year. It’s an album full of hope and heart about fatherhood, familial love, and every possible feeling that takes place within the confines of that four letter word. It’s one of the sleeper hits of 2021, and I have a firm belief it’s going to be incredibly inspiring to the next generation of musicians that discover it.