By Chris Haise

Another year, and more great music to be found. This year felt more normal than the last.  Even with a new SummerFest schedule, they saw an increase in year-over-year attendance, and that format seems to be here to stay.  The livestream frenzy has died down as touring returns, and local venues are doing their part to continue the concert scene. A new(ish) social media platform is dominating perceptions of popularity and breaking new stars every day.

Sound familiar? Has anything really changed post-pandemic? No more than music changes every few years all on its own.

Trying to turn any year in art into a concise list is a huge challenge. Still, I always enjoy a recap of recent music. Here are 7 things I really liked this year. As usual, all parental advisories apply to these selections.

Zach Bryan – Zach Bryan

Perhaps you were among the crowd that made Zach Bryan’s Summerfest show one of the best of the year. Either way, this is one of the best collections of songs from one of the most prolific modern songwriters. I do not know how to describe Bryan’s lyrics and lines like “a place where they still put sugar in their iced tea” without referencing John Prine. So, I will just say he is always worth the listen, and we can expect more great songs from this budding, modern legend.

Joni Mitchell – Live at Newport

Modern legends tend to step aside when the greats take the stage. Joni Mitchell is no exception, with Brandi Carlisle orchestrating a stunning revival with this Newport folk set and live album. An unsung living legend working through a kaleidoscope of classic songs, the majesty of her songwriting is the true star of this live album. The timeless ballad “Both Sides Now” rings as true as ever, with Mitchell’s phrasing leaving the listener unsteady yet spellbound.  I love the triumphant nature of this return to form, but more so I love that these great songs are receiving the attention they deserve once again.

boygenius - the record

This record feels like an important moment in the twisting history of Indie Rock. A modern CSNY, three extremely accomplished musicians have teamed up for a sad, haunting, catchy, superlative laden record. The harmonies are what jump out first, and that makes sense.  But underneath the harmonic magic you find these songs are very self-reflective, ambitious, and witty.  While “Not Strong Enough” anchors the album, and might win Record of the Year, the song “Cool About It” sums up the sentiments of the album best for me.  “I’m trying to be cool about it / Feeling like an absolute fool about it.” The modern age in rhyme.

Inhaler – Cuts & Bruises

This Irish band (fronted by Bono’s son) brings a big sound and big swagger to a really well-composed collection of songs. The single “Love Will Get You there” is an obvious hit, with a thumping bass, driving drums, and addictive hook for a chorus. But the album has a lot of surprising tender moments as well.  I particularly enjoyed the Americana-esque ballad “If You’re Gonna Break My Heart,” from the twangy guitar and upright piano, to the saccharine chorus. This seems like a band coming into their sound, and this sophomore album was one of the best of the year.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit– Weathervanes

With a long and varied career between Drive-by Truckers and solo work, Jason Isbell continues to prove why he is one of the most poignant voices in music today.  A whirlwind of a record, cascading effortlessly between major and minor, fast and slow, hopefully and devastating.  There are several standout songs but Cast Iron Skillet was the one that drew me in the easiest. At face value, this is a soft acoustic song, but lyrically he takes aim at traditional wisdom, “turning it on its head” as he told Apple Music. Next to the powerful “Middle of the Morning” with its high notes and groove, the songs run the spectrum for this versatile songwriter. I think you will see him win another Grammy or two this year for this effort.

Bleachers – “Modern Girl”

His career so far has shown that Jack Antonoff has the magic touch.  Working with huge acts like Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey has only sharpened his pop forward skills. With his own band Bleachers, “Modern Girl” as a song is a toe tapping, 80’s Bowie, masterclass in pop songwriting.  Leading towards a new full-length record, this single is one of the most infectious songs I have heard in a long time and makes me very excited to see what Bleachers does next.

Beatles -- “Now and Then”

Last year, I wrote about how some techniques used in a Peter Jackson Beatles documentary led to a really good remaster of Revolver.  Fast forward to this year and those same techniques allowed the remaining Beatles to finally use an old John Lennon song by isolating his vocals enough to allow for a decent mix.  Paul and Ringo finished “Now and Then” with some guitar work from George that was recorded in the 90’s. What you are left with is the last Beatle song, a haunting late Lennon melody surrounded by the melodic and rhythmic touches the band is known for. Necessary? Absolutely not.  Wonderful? Absolutely.