We asked Globe writers and contributors — music explorers all — to share their favorite discoveries of the past year. Here are some of the treasures they unearthed.
One of my bookmarks is WKCR, the Columbia University radio station. I started listening because of Phil Schaap, jazz savant supreme, who died in September. Tuning into ‘KCR on Oct. 15, I encountered a Fela Kuti birthday celebration. I’d been vaguely aware of him — in the same way I’m vaguely aware of fractals and Novaya Zemlya and the Bundesliga — but didn’t know his music. Whoa, big mistake. That jubilant rasp of a voice, those gloriously churning polyrhythms: aural excitation and bliss.
A very different musical discovery also came in October, courtesy of Edgar Wright’s film “Last Night in Soho.” It’s London in 1966, and Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Jack (Matt Smith) are conquering the dance floor to an organ-driven arrangement of “Wade in the Water.” The version’s pretty clunky. It’s also pretty irresistible. Sometimes enthusiasm can count for more than authenticity. A little Googling revealed the band to be the Graham Bond Organisation. The rhythm section would become two-thirds of Cream: on bass, Jack Bruce; on drums, Ginger Baker. After Cream broke up, whom should Baker record an album with but Kuti (1970’s “Live!”). Some wading in the water is deeper than others. (Mark Feeney)
In 2021, I rediscovered my headphones and the pleasure of taking long walks alone. Early on, I tunneled into the ‘90s, seeking comfort in the primal screams of Pixies and Hole. As the world opened up again, I gravitated toward dreamy, surreal songs: “hypnotized” by Tune-Yards and the “Farewell Transmission” cover by Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee. I looked for fun and found it in many places, including the songs of Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers. I think I’ve watched the video for “New England” 20 times this year. (Brooke Hauser)
After the passing in August of folk great Nanci Griffith, I went down a rabbit hole of her many TV appearances and found a clip of her performing “Trouble in the Fields” with Irish singer Maura O’Connell. It comes from the “Transatlantic Sessions,” an annual summit that bridges Celtic and Americana stars under the direction of Scotland’s Aly Bain and Nashville’s Jerry Douglas. There are hours of spectacular collaborations from the original “Transatlantic Sessions” TV show on YouTube, beautifully filmed and all helpfully compiled on a playlist. (Noah Schaffer)
At the end of the lovely but criminally underseen film “Pig,” Nic Cage’s broken recluse pops in a cassette of his late wife singing to him. It’s a moving, emotionally true cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” The song has been covered to death, most notably by Phoebe Bridgers and John Mayer, but almost all of the versions completely miss the sensuality — it’s a song about raw sexual hunger, folks — at the heart of the lyric. This version by actor-musician Cassandra Violet gets it just right. It makes for the perfect punctuation for the lyrical film about yearning for the things we love and value most in life. The cover — available on Spotify and with various versions by Violet on YouTube — is a simple, simmering wonder. (Ken Capobianco)
I love hunting through old music because the mines are endless and you can come up with such gems. So I’m “late to the game” by a few decades on these, but they blew my mind.
One night, I was listening to one of those “we think you’ll like this” playlists on Spotify and Billy Lee Riley’s cover of “St. James Infirmary” blasted through my earbuds. It was one of those “holy [expletive], who is this?” moments. This funky, rockabilly, bluesy take is the best version of the song I’ve ever heard — topping Captain Beefheart’s. The best part is that every song on the 1966 live album “Billy Lee Riley — In Action!!!!” is a banger. A lot of the magic is due to the wild energy of the audience. I had his “Parchment Farm” on repeat for days.
A few other older discoveries that shaped my 2021 soundscape: Ramsay Midwood’s 2000 release “Shoot Out at the OK Chinese Restaurant,” (what hooked me: “Spinning on this Rock” — which also has a great music video); Rufus Thomas’s 1963 record “Walking the Dog”; Ted Hawkins’s “The Next Hundred Years,” and Fred Neil’s self-titled 1966 album — featuring “The Bag I’m In,” which sums up 2021, actually. (Lauren Daley)
Uncertain.FM, the pandemic project of former Fenway Park DJ-in-chief TJ Connelly, started out as a weekday 10 a.m. radio show fueled by love, loneliness, and coffee from 1369. Now it’s a full-fledged “privateer radio” station with several DJs (including frequent Globe contributor Maura Johnston), multiple shows, and overnight streaming of human-curated playlists. In the vortex of chaos that is the Internet, Connelly and Co. have built a sturdy life raft that never runs out of room. (A.Z. Madonna)
The curse of being a music hound is that you’ll never be able to hear everything; the blessing is that there’ll always be something new to discover. So it was for me with Sam Lee, who had escaped my notice until I finally came across his 2012 debut, “Ground of Its Own,” a marvelous admixture of ancient folk tones shot through with the squawks, bleeps, drones, and twangs of unexpected instrumentation. (Stuart Munro)
Season Two of Tyler Mahan Coe’s “Cocaine and Rhinestones” podcast takes the circuitous route to make a straightforward argument: George Jones was the greatest country singer of them all. With most episodes eclipsing the two-hour mark, the host gives a master class in Nashville’s musical evolution from the 1940s through the ‘80s, from taste-making producers Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill to the “A Team” of the city’s premier session players. He also finds time to explain how pinball and bullfighting, among other pastimes, helped define the genre. It’s the kind of deep dive that will give you the bends if you’re not prepared. (James Sullivan)
Last spring a friend asked if I’d heard the new St. Vincent album and if I planned to watch her on “SNL.” I hadn’t and I didn’t. Somehow, singer-songwriter-rocker-guitarist-former Berklee College student St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) had flown under my radar for the past decade and a half. I listened and I watched, but wasn’t impressed by either the album or the appearance. Yet I was intrigued, and looking her up on YouTube, encountered St. Vincent’s solo version of John Lennon’s “Dig a Pony” at the 2009 All Points West Festival. Yikes! Soulful singing, chops on her Hamer that would’ve made Hendrix smile (especially her nod to him at the start), and a hot reinvention of a great but challenging song. I’m still not a St. Vincent devotee, but what a performance! (Ed Symkus)
Peloton has gotten a lot of bad press, but it won’t get any from me. I’m that pandemic cliché who canceled her Planet Fitness membership when the world shut down and took advantage of zero percent interest to score a bike that goes nowhere. For more than a year now, it has been my daily escape, mood stabilizer, and mourning aid. It has also been my DJ. Yes, there are plenty of instructors whose classes I avoid because their taste in music doesn’t move me, but there are others I turn to regularly because they introduce me to musicians I might have missed otherwise — or because I can be sweating to the ‘80s within minutes if that’s the kind of the mood I’m in. (Often the case.) Some favorite music discoveries from a sweaty year? “Too Much” by English singer-songwriter Sampha and Fred Again..’s “Dermot (See Yourself In My Eyes).” And with sincere apologies to my tolerant family, I also discovered you can burn a lot of calories breathlessly belting out Broadway hits and, most recently, moving swiftly to Taylor Swift. (Chris Morris)
With his Netflix special “Inside,” Bo Burnham invited us into his tempest-tossed mind, and, oh my, what a ride that was. Few if any artists this year captured the psyche-splintering effects of pandemic quarantine more hauntingly than Burnham. But if the effect of “Inside” was to emphasize his (our) isolation, the effect of the album “Inside (The Songs),” devoid of the special’s visual evidence of Burnham’s solitude, is to emphasize his (our) inability to ever really escape the outside world. Burnham’s most lacerating songs have a Tom Lehrer-meets-Jonathan Swift savagery, and in “Welcome to the Internet” he catalogs the Web’s nightmarish paradoxes while acting as a kind of fiendish tour guide, crooning enticingly: “Could I interest you in everything/ All of the time?/ A little bit of everything/ All of the time?/ Apathy’s a tragedy/ And boredom is a crime.” Whatever else we risk with Bo Burnham, it’s not boredom. (Don Aucoin)
Clint Eastwood introduced me to a new artist this year — or rather, the soundtrack to his latest movie, “Cry Macho,” did. When I heard Will Banister sing “Find a New Home,” I just about fell off the couch; instead, I paused the movie and hit Google to find out more about this guy who sounded like he was channeling some combination of Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols. What I found was modern traditionalism at its finest. (Stuart Munro)
Earlier this year, my parents sent us an electric piano, and my 9-year-old son took an immediate interest, sounding out pieces he likes. It started with music from “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Spirited Away” and evolved into picking out notes from “Für Elise” and listening to “Rondo alla Turca,” “La campanella,” and Schumann’s “Papillons.” I grew up playing classical music (my mother is a piano teacher), but I haven’t played for years. The “treasure” has been watching my son discover an instrument — he’s taking lessons now — and hearing the sound of a piano in my house again. It’s definitely preferable to some of his other listening choices, like “10 hours of fork scratching plate” on YouTube. (Brooke Hauser)
I’m not a podcast guy. If I’m driving, I listen to music. Exercising is about pondering the universe. Who wants to stare into wall paint while listening to people yabbering on about the demise of democracy or diets? When I heard the popular music podcast “Song Exploder” was turned into a Netflix series, it was time to get a taste of what I was missing. The show, hosted by the informed and thoughtful Hrishikesh Hirway, is one of the best things on Netflix. Hirway, a Peabody native, does a 25- to 30-minute deep dive into one song and that artist’s creative process. The first two seasons of this series with Dua Lipa, R.E.M., Trent Reznor, and other artists from various genres are informative and entertaining without falling prey to music promotion. If you haven’t found this yet, check it out immediately. (Ken Capobianco)
There’s a long tradition of reggae albums in which every song uses the same musical backing track — known as the riddim. In the past I’ve found such compilations, well, repetitive, but I was won over by Boston’s Roots Alley Collective when it released “The Greater Cause Riddim” EP earlier this year. The riddim is the perfect platform to hear excellent local talents like JahRiffe and Chiney Kiki show their range. Word is that the collective has another riddim in the works for 2022. (Noah Schaffer)
My introduction to the music of Django Reinhardt happened in 1980, at the nine-minute mark of Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” when the Gypsy guitarist broke into “I’ll See You in My Dreams” on the soundtrack. I’d never heard a tone like the one he’d developed, or listened to anyone make a guitar swing like that. Though I bought every record I could find, I couldn’t unearth any film of his 1930s and ‘40s performances. But recently I was turned on to a colorized 1938 video of Reinhardt, with Stephane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, playing “J’attendrai.” Now I need to find more. (Ed Symkus)
The Sadies, a.k.a. the Swiss Army knife of alt-country, released a vinyl-only album last year. Who knew? “Archives, Vol. 1. Rarities, Oddities and Radio: 1995-2019″ is exactly what its title indicates. Says the band, “this collection may be an eclectic assortment of our material, but we are after all, a rather eclectic group.” True enough, but this ain’t leftovers; it’s prime Sadies. It’s available through Yep Roc Records or Dine Alone Records. (Stuart Munro)
A music book by a critic or theorist can be pompous and overly allusive or an exercise in fanboy/girl indulgence that evokes eye rolls. Thankfully, Australian writer Lesley Chow’s “You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women in Music” is neither. It’s an erudite, witty, and enjoyable look at the music and cultural significance of various women artists, including Neneh Cherry (a personal fave), Sade, Janet Jackson, Kate Bush, and TLC. Chow is a hell of a writer who cares deeply about the music and musicians she’s analyzing. “You’re History” made me reconsider every artist — that’s all you can ask from a book about music. (Ken Capobianco)
I’ve been a fan of the smart snark of YouTube critic Todd in the Shadows for some years now, but the trainwreck that was 2021 led me down the rabbit hole of “Trainwreckords,” his video essay series dissecting albums that kneecapped hitherto-successful careers. Ever wondered what possessed Richard Carpenter to think it was a good idea to hand Karen a white-bread calypso charade (“B’wana She No Home”) and a prog-rock UFO fantasia (“Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”) and put them on the same album? Whether you have or you haven’t (like me), Todd finds the answers, and reminds you that things could always be worse. (A.Z. Madonna)
In August I wrote a short piece on a long strand of New England music history: Decades ago local record label owner Aram Heller took it upon himself to catalog every obscure 1960s-era garage band that might be considered a bit player in the “Boston Sound” — the short-lived promotional campaign to make “Bosstown” the new hub of rock ‘n’ roll. During lockdown, musician and author Ryan Walsh put together a massive YouTube playlist of all the songs he could find from Heller’s “Til the Stroke of Dawn” discography. Still working my way through it, though it may be hard to top the shoulda-been dance craze “Temper Tantrum” by a band called the Warlocks: “It feels so good to be so bad!” (James Sullivan)
Although Jerry Lewis’s Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association is no more, the charity has an addictive YouTube channel devoted to highlights from its archive. While there’s plenty of Lewis and Tony Orlando, there are also jazz immortals like Buddy Rich and Keely Smith, country greats like John Anderson and Roy Clark, and a seemingly endless supply of long-forgotten magicians, ventriloquists, and dancers who all got their moment to shine. (Noah Schaffer)
I discovered Tom Rosenthal’s “If We All Die Tomorrow” through video creator Sam Newton’s “Super 8 Travel Film,” where the song played against clips of a pre-pandemic New Zealand trip shot on an 8mm camera and interspersed with soundbites of Newton’s voice mails. I’d forgotten about the song for months until I rewatched the video, which was tucked away on a YouTube playlist of mine, and I’ve been playing the tune on repeat ever since. Described as an “upbeat and positive end-of-the-world song” by Rosenthal himself, the song delivers on its promise with lyrics like “If we all die tomorrow then I’m dressing up/ like that episode of ‘Friends’ where Joey wore all his stuff.” (Riana Buchman)
For the second year in a row, I spent more hours than usual on my bike, social distancing. To gear up for a late-season fund-raising “century” (a 100-mile ride), I made a playlist of extra-long songs, any genre. The one rule: a 10-minute minimum. Some songs were obvious — “Marquee Moon,” the long version of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” almost anything by the relentless Fela Kuti. But there was plenty of room for discovery, too: Dr. John’s “Angola Anthem,” Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon.” Tortoise’s 21-minute “Djed” alone covered about 5 miles of road. (James Sullivan)
A couple of months after watching the 2020 documentary “Zappa,” I began revisiting my Frank Zappa-related vinyl, designating “Freak Out!” and “Hot Rats” as my favorite albums, and “Any Way the Wind Blows” and “Peaches En Regalia” as my songs of choice on each. When I checked YouTube for a live version of “Peaches,” I stumbled upon Italian guitarist (and cofounder of the Inventionis Mater Duo) Andrea Pennati tackling a cover of it by his lonesome on a nylon-string acoustic. I gasped, I laughed, I decided to spend more time practicing my guitar. (Ed Symkus)
My best friend doesn’t listen to much contemporary music, so when I tell him about a song, he usually says, “Oh, I just saw Rick Beato break it down on his YouTube show. You should watch it.” This year, I finally tuned in to one of Beato’s “Everything Music” programs analyzing pop. It is a music fan’s dream. Beato, who has millions of followers now, is a veteran musician and producer with daunting musical knowledge and a great ear. His shows are extremely varied as he enthusiastically deconstructs songs (the Billboard Top 10, classic rock hits, pop trends) on keyboards and guitar. The guy obviously loves music, and his passion is infectious. He doesn’t speak in music nerd language — this is for everyone, and he recently moved into in-depth interviews with musicians. (Ken Capobianco)