2021: An Overview
2021 was one of the wildest, most milestone-filled years of my life, starting with the release of my second solo album and ending with the purchase of my first house. In between, my girlfriend moved back to the U.S. after a year of teaching English overseas, and within five months of her return, we had gotten engaged and then married, following a marathon-session of wedding planning that miraculously resulted in a wonderful celebration that, from a big picture perspective, went off without a hitch. Multiple people have told us that it was the most fun wedding they’d ever attended, (including the wedding videographer, who titled his video “The most fun wedding of all time?“).
The wedding took place at basically the ideal time of the year, in between virus spikes and pandemic restrictions, during that sweet spot when we thought that the worst of the pandemic might be behind us. All told, our lives certainly haven’t returned to a level of normalcy resembling that of 2019 (when my wife and I met at a concert), but even still, we’ve been able to start our life together under comfortably normal-ish conditions, with the primary deficiency being the severe lack of concerts that we’ve attended together. However, that hasn’t kept this past year from being any less musical, and we’ve also had the luxury of being able to regularly attend the movie theater with relative levels of safety. The purpose of this extensive blog post, then, is to walk you through the music and movies that made the biggest impacts on me, while simultaneously writing some personal vignettes and giving you a peek into my life as a musician, art-lover, and newlywed.
As I compile this article (which was written throughout the month of January 2022), my life has remained honed in on the following activities and responsibilities: moving into our new house; pre-production for my third album; preparations for my 30th birthday (which took place on January 24th); committing to a new daily schedule and regimen, which contains waking up earlier, reading more frequently, exercising more often, etc.; multiple writing projects, including this very blog post, music projects with new collaborators, two early-stage movie scripts, alongside hosting and producing two podcasts; and my full-time day-job, which tends to hit its busy season every January. Yet with all of this on my plate, I am thankful for the opportunity and the medium through which to reflect upon 2021, to find contentment in all that took place, and to share with you about the art that I believe deserves your attention and consideration.
As we transition from the introduction into the meat of this piece, I should warn you: it is very long. I planned on posting this blog entry during the first week of January, but its scope kept expanding and the details kept accumulating, to the extent where (after far more hours spent writing than I would like to admit), I’m finally sharing this with the world on February 1st (which, incidentally, marks the sixth anniversary of when I moved from Texas to Tennessee). And I wanted to let you know, up top, that I expect most readers to skim this article for topics that interest you. I’m not even sure who, outside of me and my wife, would be interested in reading every single word on this webpage. So you have my permission to skim, to speed-read, to glance over headers and lists and bullet points. But for those of you who buckle up for the long haul of this short-story-length dissection of this past year, I hope you will find enjoyment and encouragement through the effort that was poured into it and the personal touches that persist throughout it.
The Music of 2021
For anyone who’s a regular reader of my “What I’ve Been Listening To” column, you’ll recognize the image above: a 5×5 graphic that is sourced from my last.fm account, providing visual statistics on the albums with the most track listens for a certain period of time. The 5×5 shown above represents the twenty-five albums that I listened to the most over the course of 2021. Further down on this post, I’ll be going in-depth about the brand new albums that appear in this image; yet about half of these albums were released throughout the first two decades of the century, and they deserve their explanations, comments, and praises before I move on to highlight my standout releases from this most recent year.
The top row of the 5×5 is particularly telling. The lengthiest portions of the article you’re now reading can be summarized within those five little squares and the comparably high counts of track plays listed therein. But why would I spoil the fun so early on? So I’ll skip ahead. Hurley by Weezer was the road trip mascot of this past year, an upbeat, uncool, silly, irresistible ten-song set of dad-rock jams that I hated when the album initially released yet which now stands as one of my favorite Weezer albums. It was one of the most-listened-to albums of the year for both me and Paige, unlike Visuals by Mew, which is an album that I obsessed over at the start of the year, prior to Paige’s return to the United States. During last January and February, Visuals cemented itself as my all-time favorite Mew album, which seems crazy in light of how important some of their early albums were to me.
There are a few albums that make multiple appearances within the 5×5: Chase Tremaine (yes, I listen to myself, and I think all artists should create music that they enjoy listening to for themselves); cinema staff (which we’ll talk about later); Weezer; Thrice (which is a no-brainer, since they’re my favorite band of all time); and Relient K. That last artist is a weird one for me, or at least, I would’ve considered it weird a few years ago. Historically, Relient K has been a band that has made a few albums I really liked but fell short of being a band that I loved overall. That changed quite a bit over the past few years, where, according to Spotify, they’ve become my #4 top artist. They received quite a boost from my album ranking of their discography, and that was an article that I quite enjoyed writing. Spoiler alert: the two albums that made it onto my 5×5 may or may not have stolen the top two spots in my album ranking.
I don’t need to say much about Thrice here. 2021 marked the twentieth anniversary of their label debut and the tenth anniversary of my favorite album, Major/Minor. I’m hoping to post a larger column about Thrice soon, similar to the aforementioned rankings and reviews of Relient K’s discography. But next to Thrice, and in a similar genre, is the untouchable, legendary album Failure On by Beloved — a band that dropped a masterpiece and then disappeared without ever creating a follow-up. Failure On contains the most exciting, most clever breakdowns I’ve ever heard; it’s an album that thrills me to this day, so it was obviously one of the highlights of my year when Paige and I were able to attend Furnace Fest, where Beloved reunited to perform Failure On in (nearly) its entirety. It was a magical experience that we won’t soon forget.
The final non-2021 album of note is Here at the Mayflower by Barry Manilow, which I have unabashedly named my favorite album of all time since about a decade ago. The 2001 concept album hit its twentieth anniversary in November, and I listened to it a lot this past November and December, including two very passionate “performances” where I sung every word with vigor and verve while on holiday road trips. This might be surprising to some readers, but I’m…kind of terrible at memorizing lyrics? I can pick up on sounds and phrases pretty quickly, but to my detriment, I also have a terrible habit of memorizing incorrect lyrics. But Here at the Mayflower stands out as an album where the stories and the details and the images are all so important to me, all so emotionally vibrant, that it would be a shame not to sing along to every word. Not only is Here at the Mayflower the finest work from Manilow, but it’s the best concept album I’ve ever known.
In all, I tracked approximately 15,000 song plays throughout the year, spanning across 1,000 different artists. If you’re curious to see more data behind what I listened to, you can check out my last.fm account. Also, make sure you’re subscribed to this site if you want to receive notifications about my monthly “What I’ve Been Listening To” column. (Side note: If you want to talk to me about anything you see in this article, or if you want to request that I write about any particular topic, band, etc., please feel free to comment on the article below or to email me at email@example.com.)
My Top Ten Most-Listened-To New Releases of 2021
10. Architects, For Those That Wish to Exist
A trend you will quickly see is that I gravitated quite strongly toward heavy genres of rock throughout the year, both in terms of the new music that earned my repeat listens as well as the older music that kept me coming back again and again. Architects, the UK metalcore band, has been a staple of my metal fandom ever since they released 2016’s All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us. My loyalty to the band heightened when they invited a new member into their ranks, Josh Middleton of the band Sylosis, whose album Monolith from 2012 was instrumental in me becoming a fan of metal music to begin with. In the evolution of Architects’ sound over the years, they became the masters of clean, clear metalcore, where all of the intricacies of their instrumentation and songcraft can readily be heard and enjoyed, both in their albums and in their live performances. This specific style of metal riffs and soundscapes has since made its way through other high-profile music acts, such as the massive success enjoyed last year by Spiritbox and their debut album, Eternal Blue. So while For Those Who Wish to Exist was my most-listened-to album from this vein of metal (partially in thanks to its lengthy 15-song track listing, since my “most listened” albums is ranked based on track plays), it wasn’t quite my favorite 2021 album from this niche; that honor goes to the self-titled fifth album by ERRA, who have taken the blueprint established by Architects and truly made it their own, with a healthy dash of Saosin thrown in for good measure. I suppose the point I’m making right now is 1) I should’ve listened to ERRA more often, and 2) Architects benefited from a longer album. But they’re all great releases, deserving of anyone’s time who enjoys the genre or has been looking for heavy music that’s not messy, distorted, or chaotic. And if you’d like some heavier, technically-proficient music that skews even more notably on the side of clean/melodic singing, then I highly recommend another favorite of mine from 2021, the newest album from Eidola, which is ironically titled The Architect.
9. Weezer, OK Human
It’s worth noting, as you might have already noticed, that this wasn’t even close to being my most-listened-to Weezer album of the year. With about half the number of streams of Hurley, while also falling behind the streams of both the White Album and the Black Album, OK Human did not regularly bring me back following the excitement of its initial January release. In fact, the orchestral-based album would fall quite low on my overall ranking of Weezer albums; but it was still my favorite of the two Weezer albums released last year (the other being Van Weezer). I became quite the Weezer fanboy in mid-2020, after a decade’s worth of tepid random and selectively enjoying a few late-career albums. This band was, without competition, my top artist of 2021 (according to both Spotify Wrapped and last.fm), but sadly, the two new albums accounted for but a minuscule fraction of those numbers. But if anyone wants to talk to me about the under-appreciated output of Weezer’s discography from 2008-2019, I’m 100% here for it. Meanwhile, rumors about the band releasing four albums over the course of 2022 (one for each season) have me salivating with eager anticipation.
8. The Undertaking!, Funeral Psalms
It’s usually a very good sign when you can remember exactly where you were and what you felt when you heard an album for the first time. For Funeral Psalms by The Undertaking!, it was on the day the album released, which also happened to be the day that my then-girlfriend (mere days before I would propose to her) were taking a road trip to Knoxville, Tennessee to visit her friends from when she attended college there. I remember stopping at a gas station right after hearing the song “Holy Smokes,” which features what is still my favorite moment on Funeral Psalms (the line “The simulation has been good to me!,” which always puts a sly grin on my face). Nearly eight months late, I now proudly own this record on vinyl, having publicly declared it my favorite hardcore album of 2021. Admittedly, this album didn’t stay in rotation as much as it should have, given the disparity between how much I love it versus how low it ranks on this top ten. It got buried under other new releases, and I revisited the album about once every two months before bingeing it in December and realizing just how much I adore this thing. Looking back, I can now pinpoint hearing this album for the first time as the moment that ignited the hardcore renaissance that I experienced for the remainder of the year.
7. Meadows, In Those Days & Also After
Much like The Undertaking!, I vividly remember the first time I heard In Those Days & Also After, the impassioned debut from hardcore act Meadows. (Hint: it was also on a road trip with Paige… go figure!) The story behind hearing this album is a bit sad, though… or at least, it’s ironic. Paige and I were driving back to Nashville from Birmingham, Alabama, where we had just spent the weekend attending Furnace Fest, a massive three-day festival filled with historic reunions, glorified hardcore and Christian rock acts, and nostalgia galore. My brother and Paige’s sister had originally intended to attend the festival with us, but different circumstances resulted in Paige and me going alone. Certain aspects of the festival were miserable: our feet were killing us, the food was ridiculously expensive, the merch lines were sickeningly long, and it was simply hard to keep our energy levels up, which led us to leave early all three days of the festival. But other aspects of the event were downright amazing, such as seeing the aforementioned ERRA in concert. The weekend peaked with the reunion of Beloved, where they performed their debut album Failure On (which had become a staple in me and Paige’s relationship). But we felt so exhausted come Sunday (the final day of the fest) that we showed up super late and left super early, missing a handful of acts in the process. On the drive back to Nashville, we decided to check out Meadows, one of the bands that we had missed seeing perform earlier that day. And the album floored us. The music, the performances, the lyrics — everything on this album is so emotional, so touching, so evocative, so effective. And we simply couldn’t believe that we’d missed our chance to see the band play just earlier that same day. We hope to rectify this mistake as soon as we can!
6. Jesse McCartney, New Stage
This may seem out of place, especially right after talking about three hardcore/metal bands, but I freaking love Jesse McCartney. His sophomore album, Right Where You Want Me, was essential in my musical upbringing, keeping my tastes tied to pop, tightly constructed melodies, and stellar vocal performances, at a time when a large sector of my friends and peers were falling deeper down the well of metal-and-only-metal. My brother and I started attending Jesse’s concerts as frequently as we could, and the pop singer quickly became one of our favorite live performers, with undeniable on-stage charisma and indomitable vocal chops. His music has also grown increasingly personal over the years, as Jesse has come into himself as a songwriter. This development from being the pretty face for pop songwriters and producers into being an artist with a voice and a vision led to the creation of one of my all-time favorite pop albums, 2014’s In Technicolor. But the wait would prove lengthy for Jesse to finally release a follow-up; he wouldn’t release a full-length studio album for seven whole years. The result of our patience is 2021’s New Stage, a brief ten-song set that focuses on Jesse’s recent marriage and his newfound appreciation for monogamy. Unfortunately, it might also be my least favorite of his five official albums; but once I moved past my initial disappointment, I grew to nonetheless love and enjoy the bulk of this album. It’s easy listening in a literal sense, zipping by in less than half an hour, with effortless and uncomplicated pop tracks that average under 3 minutes each. But it was listening to this album with my wife which became the prime mover behind my shift in opinion. New Stage was one of the first new releases that we bonded over in the early months of our marriage, and Jesse’s own commitment to sing primarily about his bride gave us relatable lyrics aplenty. We even chose to celebrate Paige’s birthday by recording a few covers of songs from New Stage, including one of my favorite songs from 2021, period: “Party for Two.” If you’d like to hear our version (and more), my second annual collection of covers for Paige’s birthday is linked below:
5. idle threat, blurred visions
My wife’s favorite non-independent album of 2021 was this: blurred visions, the intentionally-lower-case full-length debut from Tooth & Nail Records signee idle threat. And while she loves this album more than I do, I’m grateful that she loves it so much; blurred visions became her album-of-choice on many a drive around town, and with with each successive spin, I came to enjoy and appreciate the album more and more. There’s an indie-pop warmth and fuzz to the post-hardcore proceedings, with ceaselessly introspective lyrics and surprising song dynamics. My primary disappointment with this album’s initial release was how nothing on the album topped the heights of “the gold grows dim” (which is a seriously incredible song and still my favorite here), but other songs that I used to consider weaknesses now sit tightly within the well-constructed whole of this impressive, cohesive debut. And while songs like “playing dead,” “driftwood,” and “gold” show how good this young band is at writing memorable post-hardcore that stands out from their peers, it’s the ballad “simon” that stands out as the album’s lyrical highlight. Written from the perspective of Simon Peter after he betrayed Jesus, the song is beautiful, heartbreaking, and special. I would’ve never expected to hear a song like this on a hardcore album, and it proves that idle threat is a band to watch — a band that is capable of doing far more than they’ve shown off on this lovely, subdued debut.
4. Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy
Scaled and Icy is an oddball entry for me. At this point in time, I’ve realized that I don’t actually like the album very much. My love for one song (“Mulberry Street”) effectively outweighs my love for the other ten tracks combined. But throughout the month of May, Twenty One Pilots effectively owned my life. In anticipation of the album’s release and the continuation of the strange narrative that weaves TOP’s past few albums together, I got sucked in deep. I was preparing to record an in-depth panel episode about the band for the JFH Podcast — an episode which would become our most popular episode of the year and one of our top 10 most popular episodes ever — and in my preparations, I fell down the rabbit hole of the crazy story about DEMA, Clancy, the nine bishops… Basically, if you don’t know what in the world I’m talking about, it’s insane. I basically exhausted myself of my interest in TOP after dedicating so much time to learning about the fascinating story that Tyler Joseph has been developing and slowly dispensing through his cryptic lyrics, high-budget music videos, secret messages, layered album artwork, and more. I listened to Scaled and Icy many times during these few weeks, but then I ignored it for about six months. Yet while the album did not prove to have much staying power for me, the ephemeral journey that the album sent me on was extremely inspiring; I would love, someday, to create a musical story that touches upon the scope, imagination, historical research, and inventiveness which has become part and parcel with Twenty One Pilots’ output.
3. Thrice, Horizons/East
If you cross-reference the order of this list with the 5×5 shown above, you’ll see that I’m listing my all-time favorite band’s new album Horizons/East at a higher spot than albums that I appear to have listened to more often. However, if you look at the 10×10 further down this article, you can observe that this album’s artwork appears twice: once at spot #16 and again at spot #51. The first entry is for the whole album, but the other entry is for the lead single, “Scavengers,” which I listened to semi-obsessively during the album’s rollout. According to Spotify, “Scavengers” was my #1 song of the year, and when you combine those two sets of stats together, Thrice trump Twenty One Pilots for the #3 spot on the list. It is with great sadness, then, that I report how “Scavengers” is still my favorite song on the album…and it’s not particularly close. “Scavengers” has a few silly lyrics and clunky transitions that keep it out of the discussion of my favorite Thrice songs, but it has enough emotion, swagger, melody, and technical prowess to overcome its minor flaws. For the majority of the album’s other songs, however, those “minor issues” (or in some cases, major issues) overwhelm the positives, resulting in a frustrating album experience where there isn’t a single track that I wholeheartedly, unflinchingly love. Worst of all, this marks the second album in a row where Thrice has released my new least-favorite-Thrice album (following 2018’s Palms). But I’m trying to stay hopeful about the upcoming sequel Horizons/West.
2. Benjamin Daniel, Shelterheart
As I’ve mentioned before (and will surely mention again), I’m a writer and podcaster for the website Jesusfreakhideout. And every year, one of our most popular articles is the “Staff Picks,” which includes lists of year-end favorites from all of our contributing writers. [Click here to view the full article, which includes my top ten lists of Christian-industry albums and songs of the year. You can also hear four of the staffers, myself included, go in-depth about our choices on this podcast episode.] For 2021, something happened that had never happened before in the site’s twenty-five year history: an independent artist won our staff average album-of-the-year designation. That milestone album is none other than Shelterheart by Benjamin Daniel, an album that I’ve been rooting for and been invested in for a very long time. I came to know Ben through online music forums in late 2016, and we started sharing demos and musical plans with each other as early as spring 2017. I learned about Shelterheart in mid-2020 and even got to hear some of its songs in voice-memo form, back when Ben’s plans were to record the collection as his third LP, with hopes of releasing the album in mid-2022. Then the pandemic hit, and Ben became strongly convicted that Shelterheart needed to be moved up in his schedule. The album’s songs are all about community, about pursuing and fostering friendships; and in the midst of a pandemic where the world’s population was being forcibly isolated from one another, these songs couldn’t wait any longer to be released. Thankfully, Ben had recently become acquainted with a talented young producer in Nashville named Asher Peterson (of the bands NAMO and Wake Low), and he vibed with Ben’s vision for the project and was willing to work with Ben’s graduate-student-budget to make it happen. They scheduled the recording sessions for August of 2021, and miraculously, they were able to successfully release the album to grassroots acclaim and strong word-of-mouth in October, less than three months after recording began. And since the recording sessions took place in Nashville, I had the honor of coming to the studio one day to contribute electric guitars to one of the album’s fifteen tracks, titled “Strange Roads.” Ever since October, Ben has enjoyed a steady incline of popularity and reach, as his songs continue to bless more and more listeners with his hard-earned life lessons and life-affirming poetry. I highly recommend you give this album a chance, and if you’re interested in hearing more about the meaning behind the album, you can listen to my interview with Ben.
1. cinema staff, Kaitei
I wrote extensively about this album in my November round-up (which I will quote below), but the short of it is: I adore this album and it’s the only 2021 release that has “all-time favorite” potential for me. Here’s more:
It’s time to talk about cinema staff. I’ve mentioned this band in previous “What I’ve Been Listening To” posts because their three-song EP Midnight Sun/Polar Night was the only 2021 release that I have loved to the point of obsession; it was the only new music that I couldn’t get enough of. By nature of the band being Japanese, however, I’m not very well connected to their publicity, marketing, news, etc., so I had zero expectations to receive more music from them this year other than that amazing EP, which had earned so many scrobbles on my Last.fm account that, despite including only three tracks, it had become my most-played 2021 album. So one fateful Friday morning, I was shocked to learn (thanks to Spotify’s Release Radar playlist) that cinema staff had released a brand new full-length album titled Kaitei, which included two of the EP’s three songs. (The album also contained two singles from 2020, “Tokyo Disorder” and “3.28,” neither of which I had heard before, thanks to my tendency to focus solely on albums instead of singles.) Needless to say, I was ecstatic. My first listen made me think, quite sadly, that the whole album wouldn’t live up to the EP I adored (and I even made my own playlist of the album, so that I could continue listening to the third song from the EP, pretending that it was a bonus track at the end); but I continued listening out of faith that my first impression was fallacious. If you can’t tell from the song count listed in my 5×5, I went on to listen to the album fifteen times over the course of November. By my second or third listen, the obsession set in and I fell in love with just about every song on the album, eventually getting to the point where I liked some of the new songs more than the three EP songs. Honestly, it is so fulfilling for a new album to appear that captivates and enthralls me the way that my favorite albums used to back in junior high or during college. Old wisdom suggests that adults eventually fizzle out of their enthusiasm for new music, and it was beginning to feel like this was happening to me, as I would spend hours every Friday listening to new releases that rarely drew me back for repeat spins. Then Kaitei arrived to shine a light in the dark and give me a new album that I can now call one of my all-time favorite albums. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of everything I think rock music should be that I’m going to have trouble not directly ripping it off as I continue writing and recording new music of my own.From “What I’ve Been Listening To (November 2021)”
Although it will probably be hard to read, here is a 10×10 graphic of the 100 albums that I listened to the most throughout the year:
The Movies of 2021
As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, the most significant life events of 2021 revolved around my then-girlfriend moving to Nashville, becoming my fiancé and then my wife. Naturally, most of my movie-watching throughout the year happened with her. So while I didn’t do a great job of tracking and reviewing movies on Letterboxd like I would normally hope to do, there is one list that I kept regularly updated: Movies Paige and I Watch Together. (She didn’t get back to the States until late February, so there’s a two-month blank spot for movies I watched at the start of the year, but I don’t recall watching many movies during that season. There were also seldom instances of me watching a movie without her, which won’t be found on this list.) If you follow the link, you’ll see that I wrote about every movie we’ve watched, where I often commented upon the circumstances of watching it, what the movies mean to us, and how much we enjoyed them. There are a lot of fun details scattered throughout the 75~ entries of movies we watched together across those ten months.
One big detail missing from that Letterboxd list is: What were my favorite films of the year? In the past, ranking movies at the end of year was a big deal for me — so much so that, throughout the previous decade, I ended most years by creating my “Top 11 of ’11,” Top 15 of ’15,” etc. [Side note: I’m particularly proud of my “Top 19 and ’19” list, and I also created a lengthy “Favorites of the Decade” list.] I stopped making these lists predominantly because my intake of new releases took such a sharp decline during the pandemic. I no longer felt confident in the breadth of movies I watched in a year, (and I definitely wouldn’t be able to fill up “top 20” or “top 21” lists). So with an overwhelming slew of both wide releases and independent films that I didn’t see (many of which I’m sure that I’ll never get around to watching), my current favorites of 2021 were West Side Story, Dune, and Raya and the Last Dragon. Honorable mentions go to Belle, The Green Knight, No Time to Die, Shangi-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and The Matrix: Resurrections. Movies that I hope to see soon include: Pig, Licorice Pizza, Mass, CODA, Drive My Car, and tick, tick…BOOM.
If I get some extra time in the near future (which is doubtful), I would love to write a longer piece detailing the similarities that both Matrix: Resurrections and Spider-Man: No Way Home share with the Star Wars sequel trilogy. This would be a huge departure from the standard content of this website (not to mention a huge time commitment to compose properly); but if this is an article that you would like to see from me, be sure to sound off in the comments to let me know. Feel free to also post any other topics you’d like me to write about or things mentioned in this article that you’d like me to expand upon.
The Disappointments of 2021
On the movie and miniseries side of the equation, this past year was filled with disappointments. To be clear, I’m not referring simply to “bad” movies or to media that I didn’t enjoy. I’m specifically referring to movies (and in the case of Marvel, miniseries) that didn’t live up to my expectations for them. That’s my fault, to a certain extent, but I also don’t want to live in a world where I have to lower my standards in order to be entertained. So I put together yet another fun list on Letterboxd that “ranks” my disappointments from the biggest letdowns to the slightest ones, calculated and ranked based on the star rating I expected to give to a movie subtracted by the star rating I ended up giving to it. The biggest contributor to this list was Marvel, which — after owning the world in 2019 and then taking an unexpected year off in 2020 — provided a smattering of films and shows over the course of this past year, to vastly varied levels of quality. The only products that met or exceeded my expectations were Shang-Chi and the miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had become so thoroughly tired of Marvel content by the latter portion of the year that I didn’t even bother watching The Eternals, What If?, or Hawkeye, but I can imagine that at least two of those would also be on this list if not for my expectations now being so low that I doubt I’ll ever get around to consuming them.
Unfortunately, the disappointments don’t end in that corner of the entertainment industry. Out of my current roster of ten all-time favorite artists, a few of them released singles that I had mixed feelings about, three of them have been painfully quiet about new albums that should supposedly be on the horizon, and three of them released new albums that, to my dismay, quite possibly rank at the bottom of their respective discographies. One of those three, New Stage by Jesse McCartney, is aging quite well for me thus far, yet as much as I’ve come to enjoy it, I still don’t think it tops his first four full-lengths. The second of those three, Horizons/East by Thrice, is an album that I’ve tried enjoying so many times, yet as much as I’ve come to appreciate its opening half, my nitpicks about the album keep me from wholeheartedly loving a single track. I plan to write a full review of that album soon (one far more detailed and expansive than the mini-review seen earlier in this article). Meanwhile, to avoid disparaging this artist, I’ll leave the third album unnamed, with hopes that the worth of the album will reveal itself to me in time. I will continue loving and supporting all of these artists, of course, but it’s difficult for me to comprehend why or how I don’t love these new albums; for these three artists, I’ve basically loved every single album they’d released up until now. So again, we’ll see how these albums age, but for the most part, I just want them to turn around and quickly release another new album.
The Obsessions of 2021
To conclude on a more fun and positive note, I’ve decided to share what my biggest obsessions were last year, across all the different categories of entertainment, media, etc. The year was littered with obsessions of varying degrees, some of which simmered throughout the whole year while others consumed my life for a few months before aggressively dropping off.
An interconnected series of mini-obsessions manifested through slowly becoming a more frequent consumer of content made for YouTube. Yes, the dreaded YouTuber. I have spent much of my life using YouTube primarily for: 1) music videos, or 2) researching specific topics of interest. My love for film eventually turned me into a dedicated viewer of a few “video essayist” channels (Patrick H. Willems, Mr. Sunday Movies, Jenny Nicholson), but I still considered myself to be generally far-removed from the type of “cult of personality” YouTubers who release weekly videos about whatever fits their fancy. That changed when the site’s algorithm introduced me to Kurtis Conner, a curly-haired comedian whose hyper-edited videos are filled with skits, jokes, and antics. I found his channel pretty consistently hilarious, despite too many of his videos being TikTok-themed. However, his content eventually grew too cynical and crude for me, so I gravitated instead toward the cleaner, more wholesome content of Scott Cramer. His videos provided a pleasantly entertaining fix for a few months, during a season of time when I would use this variety of YouTube video to fill up lunch breaks, wind down during the evening, or keep me energized during the tedium that’s often required by my day job. Yet again, though, the satisfaction could not be sustained long-term, and I soon switched from Cramer to one Austin McConnell. My hunger to learn was starting to outweigh my desire to laugh, and McConnell’s content satiated my hunger by focusing on weird stories from history, with cool animation utilized to convey these well-researched tales.
This desire to learn and always be learning is taking root even more as I enter 2022, with YouTube slowly getting replaced by reading more non-fiction books. I’m hoping to weed out my YouTube usage even more, with goals of increasing my focus and my workday productivity. Part of this urgent shift toward educational resources originated through my observation that I wasn’t as mentally sharp as I used to be: I couldn’t recall words or perform mental math as well as I could back in my school days. To assist with that, I downloaded an app called Elevate, which (in the free version) allows me to play three games every day, based around increasing one’s skills in math, memory, reading, writing, or speaking. You unlock “achievements” for playing multiple days in a row, and by the end of 2020, I had reach a 100-day streak. It’s been fun, especially since it’s the only “game” app on my phone. I’ve historically been a minimalist in terms of how I use my phone and how many apps I have downloaded, so it’s been a cool change of pace to have a game that sharpens my mind through playing for just a few minutes per day.
But let’s be honest: we aren’t talking about the heavy hitters yet here. YouTube videos? iPhone apps? That’s child’s play. My largest obsessions were the ones that tended toward multimedia, the ones that influence greater proportions of what I do with my time and what my life looks like. Many of those obsessions were musical or music-related. I’ll try to be short while discussing the strictly musical obsessions, to avoid being redundant with what you’ve read earlier in this post, but I would be remiss to not spend more time talking about Weezer. Seven of their albums appear in my top 50 most-listened albums of 2021, and I’m fairly positive I listened to each one of their albums at least once over the course of the year. Their music became a road trip staple once Paige returned to the States, and a handful of their albums (Hurley in particular) functioned as bonding music for us as our trajectory headed closer and closer toward marriage. Thanks to this fact, we would go on to use Weezer’s song “Girl We Got A Good Thing” as the recessional song at the end of our wedding ceremony.
Another obsession directly related to my relationship with Paige was the Stitch franchise. I loved Lilo & Stitch when it first released in theaters twenty years ago, but something about his design, his aesthetic, his character, and his voice really attached itself to my psyche after I graduated college in 2014. When Paige arrived back in America in February, some of our first purchases together were matching Stitch t-shirts and a Stitch plush doll. We used ceramic Stitch figurines as the cake-toppers for our wedding reception, and come Christmas, we had plenty of family members who knew it was a safe bet to buy us gifts such as Stitch blankets and Stitch slippers.
A disproportionate number of my recent obsessions come directly from Asia, in particular from Japan and South Korea. I’ve never been shy about my appreciation for Asian cultures, cuisine, and art, and this past year was no different. I greatly enjoyed introducing Paige to my favorite Vietnamese restaurants in Arlington, Texas and my favorite Thai restaurants in Nashville; meanwhile, she managed to track down some genuinely great Korean restaurants that nearly measure up the quality she had just enjoyed for her year abroad. And while a number of my Asian fascinations fall into fairly cliché categories (i.e., the kid who grew up on Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, etc. and now considers himself an anime fan), I also try to perform my due diligence in searching for art and artists who are really worth supporting. For example, I went on a deep dive of Korean pop in mid-2020, hoping to find the best new artists in the genre; my favorite discovery during that search was TWICE, so it was really neat to be ahead of the curve and to watch them blow up into one of the world’s biggest artists during 2021. On the topic of K-pop, we also received new albums this year from my two all-time favorite Korean artists, the boy band Super Junior and the female solo artist IU. Later in the year, IU followed up her strong fourth album Lilac (which I wrote more about here) with December’s lovely little five-song EP titled Pieces.
Yet for anyone who’s read this whole article, it should come as no surprise that my love for Korean pop music could not compare with my newfound love for Japanese rock music. My good friend (and author) Kevin Morris has introduced me to a handful of incredibly talented “J-rock” bands, such as The Winking Owl and BAND-MAID, and it was likewise thanks to him that I discovered cinema staff. Far more than me, Kevin has long been engrossed in Japan’s history, culture, language, and art. His taste and recommendations are bar none when it comes to the music, anime, and video games exported from that country, and a vital bonding experience in the early days of my friendship with Kevin was when he introduced me to his all-time favorite anime, Steins;Gate. Paige has similarly spent much of her life enjoying manga and anime, so it only made sense, once Paige officially moved to Nashville, that we establish a weekly evening commitment for us to meet up and watch anime together. The three of us watched through Steins;Gate together and, come Halloween, dressed up as a trio of characters from that series. (Sadly, to our shame, we failed to get a picture taken.) Currently, we are watching a series titled Hunter X Hunter, which none of us have watched before (and which is slowly becoming a minor obsession of mine in its own right).
We started our Thursday evening sessions, however, with an anime of colossal proportions: a cultural phenomenon about which I knew next to nothing, yet which was a favorite of both Kevin’s and Paige’s. Again, it’s probably not hard to guess the reveal that I’m leading up to, especially since the soundtrack made three appearances in my top 100 albums of the year, but that show was Attack on Titan …and it took over my life.
If you’re unfamiliar, Attack on Titan is a hyper-dramatic (and frequently hyper-violent) historical epic where the final remnants of society are trapped inside towering walls that keep them safe from a terrifying threat: massive, human-like monsters (called “titans”) whose only apparent goal in existence is to eat humans. As wild a premise as that may sound to newcomers, it’s a mammoth work of art that ceaselessly overflows with worldbuilding, pathos, character-driven action and drama, surprises, foreshadowing, intrigue, etc. And while all of those praises could be heaped upon the manga source material as well, only the anime can be praised for its thrillingly kinetic animation, pitch-perfect voice acting, and addictively great musical score.
Hiroyuki Sawano’s work for this series, including both the orchestral scores and the lyrical songs, are otherworldly; yet sitting behind a show as engrossing as this one, the music can rarely be appreciated for how good it is unless ones listens to it in isolation from the episodes. Doing exactly that was how the Season 2 soundtrack landed in the #2 spot of my 2021 5×5, with Seasons 1 and 3 appearing later in the year’s 10×10 graphic; his music became my go-to background music for working and writing, especially during the months when Paige, Kevin, and I were meeting weekly to watch five-or-so episodes together, catching me up on the 70+ episodes that had released up to that point in time. (Kevin had seen every episode at least once while watching with us, meanwhile there came a point when Paige wasn’t caught up either, giving us the opportunity to experience a large chunk of the series for the first time simultaneously. As I write this article, the final 12 episodes of the series are airing, so the three of us are getting to watch these concluding chapters together, one at a time.) In many ways, the score for Attack on Titan became an obsession of mine in and of itself, detached from the amazing story and visuals of the show.
Alongside the original music created for the show, Attack on Titan is well-known for its curation of fantastic songs for its opening credits and end credits. This brings us back to cinema staff, who provided two of the end credits songs for the series: “Name of Love” and “The Great Escape.” The latter was one of my favorite musical cues from the series, and it was even better when Kevin showed it to me in its entirety on a drive once. The band had officially piqued my interest, so I was delighted to seek out their music online to discover their recent release of a three-song EP which, in turn, became my first musical obsession the year (in regards to newly-released material). At the time, I was beginning to fear that, as I grow older, I was losing my verve for discovering new music… or losing my emotional capacity for deeply connecting with anything new. 20th and 21st century adults are generally aware that their music taste is defined and solidified during their teenage years, and I know very few adults who, well into their 30’s and beyond, are still falling in love with new music and voraciously scouring concerts and blogs and playlists in search of their next favorite artist. The discovery of cinema staff assuaged these fears and gave me hope that my heart still has room for new music to become all-time favorites. I regularly listened to that three-song EP throughout the months to come, amassing over thirty listens through the EP before being gifted with the surprise of the aforementioned full-length, Kaitei. This might sound crazy, but if Kaitei — my runaway favorite album of the year — had never been released, I’m fairly certain that my favorite musical release of 2021 would’ve still been the three-song EP.
But don’t let that confuse you: the show itself also consumed me. I began collecting and reading the manga, I bought a few items of merchandise (such as matching shirts for me and Paige as well as a Funko Pop of fan-favorite character Levi), both Paige and I bought new laptops that we covered with Attack on Titan stickers (as seen above), and we bought a handful of posters with which we plan on decorating one of the rooms in our new house. In short, Attack on Titan is inspiring; it’s the the type of art that inspires more art to be created. I firmly believe that, for years to come, this series will be the catalyst for new storytellers to rise up, for new songs to be written, for new worlds to be explored. It has broadened my mind to the possibilities of what can be done within the mediums of manga and anime, and it has even inspired a collection of songs that Paige has been writing in recent years. Naturally, the series will also attract its fair share of imitators and copycats, but if anyone’s copy can even come close to recreating the imagination and scope of Attack on Titan, then it will be a copycat that stands tall and proud as its own worthy piece of art. As they say, good artists copy and great artists steal.
As a brief yet drastic change of pace, I remembered another 2021 obsession while writing the paragraphs above, and I have no way to smoothly segue into it. On July 6, 2021, Netflix released the second season of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, an absolutely wild and absurd comedy sketch series that interjects one crazy, unpredictable individual into silly situations; the writers and actors milk the scenarios for both dark and hilarious results, which often contain a depressing existential undercurrent that hits at some level of truth about the human experience, despite the absurdity of the proceedings. My brother introduced me to the series when the introductory season released in 2019, but I never watched the whole season; instead, I just enjoyed the “greatest hits” as curated my brother. Even when watching the best skits, there was a learning curve for me to “get” the comedy in the show — the insane, profane nature of the writing was an acquired taste. But it finally clicked, which had me extremely excited for the second season to drop two years later. Two nights before our July 10 wedding, Paige and I watched a few of the brand new episodes, and the hilarity overtook us. The show still had its misses, but the hits had us gasping for breath. Ever since that night, we’ve watched through both seasons in their entirety, re-watching some episodes and regularly introducing our favorites sketches to our friends. The wit and memorable line deliveries have ingrained themselves into our subconscious, blossoming into a plethora of references and highly-useful inside jokes that have become indispensable within the language of our marriage. Nary a day has passed in our first half-year of married life during which a reference to I Think You Should Leave hasn’t slipped into our daily conversations.
To conclude this section about my obsessions, I simply have to bring up the one that most of my friends and readers will already know very well: Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. For a movie that has now been out for over four years, some might assume that my obsession peaked back in 2018. I would also understand if anyone assumed that my obsession might have peaked in late 2019, before Episode IX ended the trilogy in lackluster fashion, neutering its predecessor within the context of the overarching franchise. Nevertheless, my love and appreciation for Rian Johnson’s 2017 space opera only continues to grow, to the extent where I’ve begun the preliminary work on two large-scope projects based on the movie (one non-fiction, the other fan-fiction). I’ve also realized that my Twitter account is most useful and gains the most engagement when I use it for discourse surrounding the movie; after spending years trying to use the social media platform to promote my music, blogs, and podcasts, I’ve more recently experienced a massive uptick in conversations and connections when I tweet about this movie, instead. (Pictured below: my most-liked-tweet of all time, followed by a thread about the movie that was seen and liked by the movie’s director.)
The next picture below is one of my “shrine” to The Last Jedi, which is a two-sided joke, referencing both my seemingly religious devotion to the movie as well as the shrine-like Jedi Temple seen within the movie itself. The shrine started in 2018 as a small corner of my bedroom, where I placed the special edition Blu-Ray of the movie on display next to the novelization, the “Art of” book, and the visual dictionary. The collection quickly outgrew its original spot in my bedroom, thanks to Etsy purchases, posters, Funko Pops, and additional books. The set graduated into my bookshelf, taking up a whole shelf, in 2019. Come 2021, before moving into Paige’s apartment, the shrine had expanded across two whole shelves (although I never took a picture of that arrangement). After moving in with Paige, the shrine was never officially setup, meanwhile additional purchases accumulated indefinitely. Toward the end of the year, my propensity toward buying Funko Pops from the movie’s series eventually led me to Ebay, where I swiped some of the rarer items out there in the world. I’m very excited about our plans to setup the shrine in the new house, and I plan on posting pictures alongside a topical blog post once that new display is complete.
I’m thankful that this obsession — for its capacity to be costly, time-consuming, and distracting — isn’t just something my wife humors but one that she truly appreciates and enjoys alongside me. The reason she supports it, rather than merely tolerating it, is thanks to her seeing the same qualities within the movie that I see in it. Just like how I described Attack on Titan a few paragraphs above, The Last Jedi is the type of imagination-expanding work of art that inspires more art to be created in its wake. Through my aforementioned escapades through Twitter, I’ve found hundreds of fellow artists who also find that their artistic whimsies are encouraged and spurred on by their shared love of this movie. We find ourselves motivated to make not only derivative works of art, like fan-art and fan-fiction, but energized likewise in making wholly unrelated and original works. For me and Paige, the shrine represents the oft-needed reminder that new stories are worth telling, that new songs are worth singing, and that grueling time spent toiling over these ideas is not time wasted.
Without a doubt, 2021 will go down in history as one of the most important years of my life. I’ve just written thousands of words about albums, movies, and TV shows, but every piece of entertainment, every purchase of merchandise, and every minute spent inside a movie theater or in front of a computer screen are all but peripheral footnotes in comparison to asking Paige to marry me, arranging the wedding, starting our life together, and ending the year with the purchase of our first house. 2021 was, first and foremost, a year of life-changing personal milestones.
Somewhere on the totem pole beneath my marriage, yet still above all the favorites and obsessions that I’ve been gushing about, you’ll find one more super important occurrence which can’t go unmentioned (yet which doesn’t need to be expanded upon in too great of detail here). I started 2021 by releasing my sophomore album, Development & Compromise, in January, only to spend hundreds of hours later in the year revising, re-imagining, remixing, and re-releasing the album in November. I expected that the release of the expanded, hour-long 2.0 version of the album would mark yet another milestone in my life, but oddly enough, its release came and went, without making much of a splash in my own personal life or in the music world at large (other than being listed on a select few publications and blogs as a year-end favorite).
So much has transpired in the time following the album’s November street date: my first Thanksgiving with Paige and her family; our first Christmas traveling between my family in Texas and hers in Arkansas; navigating all the complexities and nuances of buying a house for the first time; our first time celebrating our birthdays together in person, including a big blow-out that Paige orchestrated in honor of me turning 30; deciding to join a church plant in north Nashville while staying connected to our current church for as long as we can; committing ourselves to a new daily routine that includes waking up early to read and pray together every day; all atop my day job hitting its busy season. The overall effect, as I’m sure many of you will relate to, is one of the days feeling slow and elongated, while the weeks and months zip past as if they never even happened. From a pessimistic outlook, life seems so overwhelmingly busy that it’s hard to stay afloat or catch a breath; yet from a positive perspective, life is filled with so many wonderful blessings and exciting opportunities that it should be easy for me to go through every single day without a single wasted moment. That doesn’t happen, to be sure, but I certainly have no valid excuse to ever be bored.
As I look ahead to 2022 (or more realistically, as I look ahead to the remaining 11 months of the year, since writing this short-story-length blog post took the entirety of January), I’m excited for a multitude of things: for new albums and movies to release (I’m looking at you, The Batman); to record another album, to write new music, and to collaborate on music with Paige and with friends; to recommence promotions for Development & Compromise, with an eye on interviews, podcast appearances, and my hopes to eventually film a music video; to continue podcasting and writing regularly, both for this blog and for larger future projects; to see the church plant we’ve joined grow into a full-fledged church wherein we can get fully plugged into the community; and to see our house turn into a home, as we finish moving in, continue decorating, and transition from living in a bustling city to living in a small town.
At this point, I have nothing else to say except thank you. Thank you for reading and thank you for being along for the ride. The comment section is wide open if you’d like to share what 2021 meant to you or what you’re excited for in 2022. How can I rally in excitement beside you, and how can I support you? We’re all in this together, and I’m grateful to have you here with me.
Author’s Note: The reason I created this website and write these articles stems from my belief that artists should support other artists, in the same way that art inspires art. If you would like to hear my music, my sophomore album Development & Compromise and my debut album Unfall are available now, wherever you stream music or for purchase on Bandcamp, where you can find both exclusive sale prices and free acoustic cover albums.