From Oompa, Bent Knee, and Big D, to Billy Dean Thomas and Future Teens, these artists helped us through the haze
This past year has been a mix of things, wasn’t it? We had a change in the Oval Office, vaccines rolled out, interspersed with some normalcy during the spring and summer only to now have new variants rear their ugly heads. It’s a different kind of uncertainty we face this time around, but it’s an uncertainty nonetheless.
For Boston’s music scene, there was nonetheless resilience and resurgence, with venues filling up their calendars with local and national acts along with a consistent flow of new music released by musicians who hail from the region. To highlight some of that excitement (in no specific order), here are my top tracks out of Greater Boston in 2021.
City Of Four – “Said & Done”
In my spare time, I’m one of those audiophiles who likes to explore new tunes on Bandcamp. That’s how I discovered the Boston-based instrumental jazz-funk quartet City Of Four and this song off of their Not Lost EP. It’s truly excellent, with substantial keys courtesy of Christian Tremblay anchoring the track as Steve Wilkinson displays incredible drumming skills, Blain Crawford holds it down on electric bass, and Mike Caudill brings an additional highlight on tenor sax.
Linnea’s Garden – “Non-Dramatic Breakup Song”
As a sucker for late-’70s punk, post-punk, and new wave, I love how Linnea’s Garden captured this style in their own way with their Nowhere Friday Nights EP. The lead single off of it has a bit of a doo-wop spin that makes for a subltle catchiness, whi.le the trio of guitarist and vocalist Linnea Herzog with Hands O’d and Tom O’Donnell on bass and drums complete a perfectly tight rhythmic structure.
Bent Knee – “Queer Gods”
I’m still amazed by how art-rock act Bent Knee made their sixth album, Frosting, that came out in November in completely remote fashion. Each song has so much going on one can only imagine the process of melding all of the elements together. This particular one shines due to how charismatic it is, while samples of synths and horns revolve around groovy rhythms and Courtney Swain’s soulful delivery on vocals. If you don’t enjoy the kitschy piano solo at the end of it, you have no soul.
Big D & The Kids Table – “Med Her Lazy”
Boston ska came back in a big way in 2021 and Big D & The Kids Table are one of the bands that led the charge with their 10th original studio album, Do Your Art. I enjoy this track off of the album because of how it echoes the band’s trademark energy and how the drums and horns come in at a feverish pace. On top of this, how can you not like a song that sticks it to Big Pharma dipshits?
Future Teens – “Guest Room”
Future Teens’ Deliberately Alive EP was released on March 12 after an eight-hour recording session during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. This track, which was birthed during said session, has co-guitarist and co-vocalist Amy Hoffman taking the lead on singing duties with harmonies weaving in and out. There’s a driving force within the song that evokes the persevering essence of it.
Oompa – “Outta Patience”
One of the best hip-hop albums I’ve listened to in years is Oompa’s Unbothered. The running theme across the record details the struggles and triumphs that come with personal growth as an artist and this song nails it. Over a sick beat, Oompa rhymes about how hard work can often go unrecognized when it comes to achieving a goal, and how people seem to enjoy putting down those who are struggling. Like some persevering targets of such situations, this track rises above that negativity.
Ward Hayden & The Outliers – “When The Hammer Falls”
I’ve mentioned before how Ward Hayden & The Outliers turned up the amplification a notch with their first album of original music under their current name when Free Country was released on Aug 20. This song really echoes that statement due to how the guitars from Cody Nilsen, Hayden, and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel make their presence felt. There’s a darkness flowing through the track as well that fits the current real world narrative.
Billy Dean Thomas – “We All Go Up”
Thomas has been riding high ever since the release of the For Better Or Worse EP in late 2020. Roughly an exact year later, the “Queer B.I.G.” followed this success up with a banger of a jam that made it onto the soundtrack of the Peacock original series, One Of Us Is Lying. The beats and production from Oliver Cho bring a trap vibe, while Thomas’ lyrics call for unity while defying the competitive mindset and race to the bottom.
This Bliss – “Friend”
When electronic music act This Bliss released their second LP Retroshade on March 5, the duo of vocalist Jess Baggia and drummer plus electro-instrumentalist Nick Zampiello made it a point to expand their sonic horizons while being joined by by Danni Vitullo on synths, saxophone, and bass; with Tom Maroon on guitar and synths. They’ve graduated from their trip-hop beginnings into a style that orients more towards pop and rock while maintaining their initial foundation. This track exemplifies that approach and it’s one that’ll get stuck in your head in a good way.
Sunshine Riot – “Fast Train”
I come from the school of thought that when Steve Albini from Big Black and Shellac produces a record at his studio, Electrical Audio in Chicago, it’s going to be more than good. Turns out the guys in Sunshine Riot had a similar frame of mind for their Electrical Tape EP that was produced by Albini and released in April. I love the grit and progression of this song; put simply, it grows in intensity with each note.
The Arcanauts – “The Magic (Is You)”
Another excellent record that was made remotely is The Arcanauts’ The Hermit EP from way back in January. With a ’70s progressive R&B and funk approach, this track has a vintage vibe to it while maintaining a modern essence. It also doesn’t hurt having the legendary guitarist Wali Ali, who has played with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Rick James, lending his immense talents.
Oh The Humanity! – “Future Killer”
Melodic hardcore punks Oh The Humanity! put out a blistering self-titled album back in April that exudes pure intensity. Chris Santoro’s drumming on this ripper alternates between rapid fire and steady downbeats, all refreshing to hear in a band of this style. The dual guitars of Chris Dilseo and James Silvio join along in this amplification as well. It’s killer.
Juliana Hatfield – “The Shame Of Love”
When it came to making her 19th album Blood that came out on May 14, Juliana Hatfield didn’t have a plan. This initial approach forged one of the best albums to emerge from New England this year and this song is one of the gems off of it. Starting acoustic and moving into a blend of dream pop and shoegaze, the backdrop is already outstanding, and on top of it all, needless to say, Hatfield’s introspective lyrics really push it to another level entirely.
The Jacklights – “Cold Feet”
This trio—Nilagia McCoy on guitar and vocals, Michael Allen on bass, Steve Patton on drums—exhibit a brand of punk that rekindles ’90s glory. Their second EP, Drift, ventures deep in that artistic direction, and this track from it is a straight-forward electrifier. Making things particularly interesting, McCoy’s vocal delivery (not unlike the rest of the package, drums to guitar) brings a unique melodic element across the board. This Jacklights highlight, you should note, is among the fastest songs on this list.
Veronica Lewis – “Clarksdale Sun”
After first listening to this number off of Lewis’ debut album, You Ain’t Unlucky, that was released back in February, you might think that it was recorded back in the late-’50s. But don’t be mistaken, even though your mind is surely in a time warp. Lewis is a welcome blast from the past, and her passion for pre-classic rock makes her one-of-a-kind in these parts.
Senseless Optimism – “Yesterdayz”
Off of the 617Sessions compilation that came out in November, “SO” exhibits pure honesty and emotion with an indie-pop flair. It’s all rooted in the singer-songwriter aesthetic and seems somewhat simplistic on the surface, but isn’t true beauty born in simplicity? A harmonic chorus separates this song from the rest while yearning for better times in the face of the current miasma.
Fiddlehead – “Get My Mind Right”
It’s said that some of the best art comes from pain, and that’s probably because it’s a topic we can relate to. Everyone has been burned, or mentally put in a difficult place to figure things out. This song off of punk rock supergroup Fiddlehead’s second album, Between The Richness, evokes this feeling. It’s universal. Take a listen, you’ll relate.
Carissa Johnson – “Wasting Dreams”
People around the Boston music scene know Johnson as a power pop punk rock badass with her backing band the Cure-Alls, and as a talented songwriter with an acoustic guitar. With the single she put out on Aug 12, she went down a synthpop route while maintaining a distinct edge. And note: the video for the track packs all sorts of colors and more, it’s pretty cool.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – “I Don’t Believe In Anything”
You can’t talk about Boston ska without noting the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And this year, you must recognize their 11th album, When God Was Great, a breath of fresh air since its release in May. Co-produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, the record is a return to form, and this single off of it exemplifies why. It’s emphatic storytelling from a reflective point of view with horns and guitars roaring, all while Dicky Barrett takes the lead on vocals. To quote one YouTube commenter, “As an old fat man that was once a 90’s ska kid, this meant so much to me.”
Lake Street Dive – “Hypotheticals”
They might be based in Brooklyn these days, but Lake Street Dive will always be known as Boston band by heads who watched them come up with vocalist Rachael Price, bassist Bridget Kearney, drummer Mike Calabrese, and multi-instrumentalist Mike “McDuck” Olson who met at the New England Conservatory of Music. The band’s eighth studio album, Obviously, is their last to include Olson and their first to have keyboardist and organist Akie Bermiss in the fold. The first track is especially brilliant, walking a funky line between romantic r&b and upbeat soul-pop.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The Providence Journal, The Newport Daily News, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, New Noise Magazine, Flood Magazine and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.