My 2021 Soundtrack Reflects the Times (and Music) I Want to Remember

13 Dec

When directors make movies, they work with a music supervisor and a composer to create a soundscape for the film that will deliberately help drive the narrative, boost the desired emotional impact, and leave a distinct impression in the minds of viewers. When done well, hearing a particular song or musical motif included in the movie may trigger memories of that work.

In real life, the process happens somewhat in reverse: The “narrative” of our lives moves forward organically, and the music that triggers memories of certain times and events is not necessarily planned. And, rather than the music itself telling a story, it’s up to us to look at the collection of songs and pick out the themes from the soundtrack in hindsight. In this way, music serves to remind us of the times we’ve lived through, and the music that was playing while we lived — with this caveat: The soundtrack often reflects the times we want to remember. More importantly, it’s made up of the music we want to remember.

I listened to a lot of music in 2021, and my “Now” playlist was everchanging. But as noted, the soundtrack of my year — a.k.a. my 2021 Time Capsule Playlist — largely reflects what was good about these last 12 months.

The year began with hope and optimism, illustrated by the songs “Love Again” and “Better Days,” which spoke to the hopefulness I felt after all that sucked about 2020, and all I was looking forward to this year. Around the time when I became fully vaccinated in early April, I randomly discovered Marc Rebillet’s “Vaccinated Attitude” and had it playing on repeat over the next few weeks (somewhat in jest) because it captured to a degree my desire to get my mojo back after too much time spent on the sidelines. (That said, the song is a legit jam.) 

With things returning to some degree of normal in early summer and the world starting to reopen, I started to go back to movie theaters on a regular basis, and enjoyed the music featured in films like In the Heights (three songs from that soundtrack are on my year-end playlist); CODADear Evan HansenLast Night in SohoBelfasttick, tick… BOOM! (three songs from this soundtrack are on the playlist, too); Licorice Pizza; and West Side Story.

I went to a couple Red Sox games at Fenway Park this year, too — including the ALCS game where the Sox actually won. That’s why “Dancing on My Own,” the team’s postseason theme song, is on my playlist. (Though, I prefer Robyn’s original version, not Tiësto’s remix of Callum Scott’s cover, which is the version the Sox played.)

Equally exciting was the fact that I could go back to theaters and concert venues to see live performances again. I felt so lucky to score a ticket for Bruce Springsteen’s limited-run return to Broadway over the summer — and to see the show shortly after we finally received some clarity about what Mary’s dress is doing in “Thunder Road.” (I’d seen the show in 2018, but it was incredible, even for the second time.) I’ll be going back to New York before the end of the year to see the brand-new Broadway revival of the late Stephen Sondheim’s Company. And I was so happy to be right up front at the Paradise in November for the Lone Bellow’s local show, during which I became a fan of Early James, who was the opening act

As you may recall, the Lone Bellow provided my soundtrack for much of 2020, and their music was ever-present once again this year — not just as a group with some new tracks released, but in solo projects from Brian Elmquist (Joyclub) and Zachary Williams. (For the record, I chose to add “Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy” to my year-end playlist so I could remember when the band played that song during their pre-show Shindig in Boston and Zach broke the stool he was sitting on.)

But for the first time in recent memory, the Lone Bellow was not my top artist of the year — at least according to Spotify, whose annual “Wrapped” recap is always worth a mention. In 2021, that honor went to John Mayer, who released a new album this year of 1980s-influenced music. Apparently, his song “Carry Me Away” was the song I listened to most over these last 12 months. I guess that’s no surprise, given the song includes lyrics that mention how John’s “been way too safe inside my bubble” and how he wants to “live on the wilder side of the light.”

Close behind John, at least according to Spotify, was Zac Brown Band, a group I was actually starting to tire of, but whose new album The Comeback brought me right back since the title spoke not just to a renewal of life and activity, but to the band moving away from whatever it was doing on recent releases and making music again with the sound fans like me had come to know and love (e.g., “Same Boat”). 

Other favorite artists who returned with new albums this year included Anderson East, The Wallflowers, and Counting Crows.

Admittedly, I probably spent too much time at home watching things on TV this year. But there was a lot of good programming, and a lot of those shows had fantastic music. I’m talking about shows like WandaVisionThe Falcon and the Winter SoldierThe White LotusOnly Murders in the Building, and Succession. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re truly in a Golden Age of TV scores.

The Grammy Awards this year was actually a very good TV show, and a handful of the songs that were performed that night found their way onto my playlist — including Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” Black Pumas’ “Colors,” Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” and Brittany Howard’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I watched a lot of YouTube videos this year, so shout-out to Lubalin, whose “Internet Drama” remixes were absolute jams that I listened to and/or watched too many times to count.

One thing worth noting as a trend is just how much country or country-influenced music is on my annual playlist every year. This year, in addition to tracks by artists like the aforementioned Mickey Guyton and Zac Brown Band, there were songs by Chris Stapleton, Lady A, Caroline Keller Band, Thomas Rhett, and Jimmie Allen. (I’d been waiting for the Caroline Keller Band to release “Smoke Show” for four years, ever since I saw them perform the song at the Bluebird Café in Nashville.) Not sure what it says that my musical tastes are gravitating this way, but it’s something I’m not resisting.

Actually, Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, collaborated with actor Leslie Jordan on the gospel tune “Farther Along,” and surprisingly, the result was a track I really dug, and listened to many times this year.

There were also plenty of songs that found a happy home on my Now playlist and stayed there for a very long time. Guster’s “Emily Ivory” and Alessia Cara’s “Sweet Dream” are good examples of this. Or the oft-played “Leave the Door Open,” by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s side hustle, Silk Sonic.

Shout-out, as well, to my high school classmate Tom Kitt, whose song “Fly Away,” off his debut album, was a favorite track this year. (Though I could have sworn I first heard it many years ago. Is that possible?)

Of course, there were also times this year that were not so good, and many times I was frustrated. A case can be made that songs like Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Sanctuary” and the Wallflowers’ “Maybe Your Heart’s Not in It No More” reflect that. You can also say that positive, youthful songs like Andy Grammar’s “Lease on Life” balance “Wasted Days,” the song in which elder statesmen John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen sing about watching their “lives just fade away.” (“The end is coming, it’s almost here.” Yikes!) And songs like Jason Mraz’s “Be Where Your Feet Are,” Wild Feathers’ “Another Sunny Day,” or Alessia Cara’s “The Use in Trying,” that suggest looking for the good in a bad situation, touched a chord, too.

There’s no need to mention every song on my Time Capsule Playlist. And not everything that happened this year is reflected in a song that’s on the playlist.

That said, this wasn’t my favorite year; it definitely didn’t live up to expectations. But like any year, I’m glad I have my compilation of 2021 music to remind myself of what the year was like aurally, and to trigger memories of some of the better times.

What songs are on your 2021 soundtrack? Leave a comment below and let me know!

3 Responses to “My 2021 Soundtrack Reflects the Times (and Music) I Want to Remember”

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