Noise Floor’s Best of 2021

Faye Webster at The Sinclair, September 2021

Highlights in the year of live and recorded music.

As of like a week ago, I considered bailing on my year-end post entirely, what with all of the general backsliding going on. Gigs were cancelling, venues temporarily shutting down, acts dropping from tours left and right, fear of the unknown creeping in again. Tell me you didn’t get a March-of-2020-sized shiver down your spine at the first announcement that read something like, “tour postponed til 3 months from now when everything will probably be fine again.” You can’t.

At press time (ha), all of that still remains up in the air. Omicron seems unlikely to upend things in such forceful fashion as the initial COVID wave, but the next few months are probably going to be a storm of confusion – for the country at large of course, but for the live music ecosystem in particular. There’s a temptation to throw up one’s hands and let the familiar hopelessness flood back in, declaring a resilient summer and fall a fluke or an illusion and proverbially retreating back to the bunker (or rage-quitting your blog’s year-end list, whatever).

At the end of the day though, I’ve gotta take the opportunity to acknowledge that 2021 did offer more than a few things to celebrate, in and around Boston at least. ONCE’s summer concert series ushered live music back with an innovative parking lot solution to a landlord problem, our surviving indoor venues welcomed fans back and adapted to vax-and-mask requirements that made things feel as safe as they were gonna feel, and I felt hugely grateful to be a part of a community of artists, photographers, bookers, bartenders and venue staff that weathered the unthinkable and still showed up on the other side.

And on a personal level, sure, I had a pretty not-great “professional” year photography-wise that further soured me on the hustle culture nature of the business and the clamoring for a vantage point amid the crumbling Boston media landscape, but I also made a lot of work I’m proud of on my own terms, which I’m coming to understand is uh, a lot more important to me. Even with a late May start, I made it to 68 shows and 2 festivals in 2021, saw favorites old and new on stage, and made some images that I think rank among my best. After spending most of 2020 wondering if I’d even remember how to hold a DSLR if I ever made it back to a venue, I’ll take it.

I also shot a ton of film this year, on and off stage, and started a feature about it that I’ve had a lot of fun with and plan to keep rolling.

I listened to another sizable number of new records, too – 275, according to my almost certainly inaccurate list. I struggled with some of the same things I did last year with regard to new music, still lacking commute listening time and the ability to hyperfocus on particular records in the way that once made my ranking choices a lot more straightforward. But I also came to an acceptance this year that my listening habits have simply changed, pandemic or no pandemic, to reflect a more range-y approach of records old and new that doesn’t really lend itself to a more traditional critics’ mindset. And that’s fine, because who cares!

2021 was perhaps not an all-time year for new music, but there was certainly plenty to appreciate. In the spirit of embracing the good times, fleeting as they might prove to be, my album of the year had to be Turnstile’s transcendent GLOW ON. There was simply no other record I had more fun running, driving or listening to in general this year. A deserved breakthrough, an inspiring crossover success story, a record that just totally fucking rips and makes you feel happy to be alive with every listen. It’s undeniable.

Elsewhere, it was incredible year for the UK art-rock/post-post-punk scene that’s spawned the likes of Black Country New Road, Black Midi and Squid, all of whom dropped mind-bending and boundary-pushing statement records. Low continued their unpredictable evolution with the bracing HEY WHAT (big year for capitalized album titles). Jazz legend Pharaoh Sanders released a transfixing late-career triumph with the Floating Points/London Symphony Orchestra collaboration Promises. Foxing followed up a career-defining record with a streamlined one that still plays to their many strengths. Japanese Breakfast leveled up with the year’s best and dreamiest indie pop record. Nick Cave proved vital even with a single Bad Seed at his side. Deafheaven handily pulled off the improbable pivot away from metal. Arab Strap came back! Tindersticks made an electro-chamber-pop album! The Body and Big|Brave went neofolk! The Armed did…whatever it is exactly that The Armed do! And there were many wonderful works beyond that – 50 of them to rank, to my ears, and another chunk of honorable mentions. Find that list and an accompanying mix below, and keep scrolling for a companion 50 favorite photos of 2021, arranged chronologically.

Weird year, obviously, that seems unlikely to lead one that’s any less weird. Music gets us through though, and after getting back into the crowd and behind the lens these past several months, it’s certainly not something I’m taking for granted looking toward whatever’s about to happen next. Happy new year.

Top 50 records of 2021:

  1. Turnstile – GLOW ON
  2. Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
  3. Low – HEY WHAT
  4. Black Midi – Cavalcade
  5. Pharoah Sanders / Floating Points / London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
  6. Foxing – Draw Down the Moon
  7. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
  8. Nick Cave / Warren Ellis – Carnage
  9. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
  10. Squid – Bright Green Field
  11. Kitner – Shake the Spins
  12. Parannoul – To See the Next Par of the Dream
  13. Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club
  14. Armand Hammer – Haram
  15. Chris Corsano / Bill Orcutt – Made Out of Sound
  16. Spirit of the Beehive – Entertainment, Death
  17. Tindersticks – Distractions
  18. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
  19. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
  20. Darkside – Spiral
  21. Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark
  22. Wednesday – Twin Plagues
  23. Lingua Ignota – SINNER GET READY
  24. Tropical Fuck Storm – Deep States
  25. Wolves in the Throne Room – Primordial Arcana
  26. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
  27. The Body / Big|Brave – Leaving None But Small Birds
  28. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
  29. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
  30. Wild Pink – A Billion Little Lights
  31. The Armed – ULTRAPOP
  33. Fiddlehead – Between the Richness
  34. Aeon Station – Observatory
  35. Bonnie Prince Billy / Matt Sweeney – Superwolves
  36. Ovlov – Buds
  37. Springtime – Springtime
  38. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
  39. The Antlers – Green to Gold
  40. Ryley Walker – Course in Fable
  41. Ian Sweet – Show Me How You Disappear
  42. Nation of Language – A Way Forward
  43. Mach-Hommy – Pray for Haiti
  44. Spellling – The Turning Wheel
  45. Aenigmatum – Deconsecrate
  46. Iceage – Seek Shelter
  47. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World
  48. Seed – Dun Pageant
  49. Makthaverskan – For Allting
  50. Mogwai – As the Love Continues

50 favorite photos of 2021:

Lady Pills at Looney Tunes Records
House of Harm at The Sinclair
Catcher at The Jungle
Squirrel Flower at the ICA
Mint Green at NICE, A Fest – ONCE Somerville at Boynton Yards
Hallelujah the Hills at the USS Constitution
Bright Eyes at the Worcester Palladium
Zip Tie Handcuffs at ONCE Somerville at Boynton Yards
The White Belts at Emo Night Boston – The Sinclair
Seed at Somergloom – ONCE Somerville at Boynton Yards
Wilco at Leader Bank Pavilion
Future Teens at ONCE Somerville at Boynton Yards
Tigers Jaw at The Sinclair
MANAS at The Sinclair
Armand Hammer at Pitchfork Music Festival – Union Park – Chicago, IL
Yves Tumor at Pitchfork Music Festival 2021
Bob Mould at Paradise Rock Club
Speedy Ortiz at ONCE Somerville at Boynton Yards
Yo La Tengo at the Columbus Theater
Faye Webster at The Sinclair
Osees at The Sinclair
Blood Incantation at the Middle East
Phoebe Bridgers at Leader Bank Pavilion
Caspian at The Sinclair
Ex-Hyena at Somerville Porchfest
George Clanton at The Sinclair
Nothing at The Sinclair
Imperial Triumphant at the Middle East
Black Midi at The SInclair
The Mountain Goats at Royale
Pink Navel at Notch Brewing
Alan Howarth at the Coolidge Corner Theater
Titus Andronicus at The Sinclair
Inter Arma at the Middle East
Creeping Death at Sonia
Adrienne Lenker at The Sinclair
Wednesday at the Cambridge Elks
Actor Observer at The SInclair
Jeff Rosenstock at The Paradise
Caribou at Royale
Caroline Polachek at Royale
Cave In at The Sinclair
SEA at The Rockwell
Khemmis at Saint Vitus
LCD Soundsystem at Brooklyn Steel
100 Gecs at Royale
Genesis at TD Garden
Chepang at O’Brien’s Pub
Oso Oso at Big Night Live