Editor’s Note:Welcome to Vanyaland’s Year in ReView coverage for 2021. It’s been a year, huh? Luckily, we’ve had incredible art across the spectrum of music, comedy, and film to help prevent us from going totally insane. As we raise a glass to the year that was, check out all our 2021 Year In ReView coverage as it surfaces throughout the week and into the holidays.
Ask an artist what they accomplished in 2021 and the answer will surely be along the lines of “not nearly as much as I wanted.” In some ways, 2021 was even stranger than the hell year that preceded it, as we struggled to acclimate to a new world where shows are kinda safe, vaccines kinda make you feel more comfortable, and the rules of society remain in awkward limbo. But Boston’s thriving music scene refused to be paralyzed by the the uncertainty of it all, and instead bounced back with everything from hell-raising industrial hip-hop to gloves-off breakup pop. Perhaps some ceaselessly self-critical artists will lament that their year didn’t go exactly as planned, but according to the digital ink of Vanyaland, Boston musicians equipped us with everything we needed to make it through another year with COVID-19. Hey, maybe we even were able enjoy the year a little bit. Here are 21 homegrown tracks from 2021 that Vanyaland kept on repeat.
To rephrase a piece of wisdom without the misogynistic language: “Life’s just a waiting game / Then you die.” So sings Sam Nazaretian on “Champange,” one of the most upbeat deliveries of existential dread you’ve ever heard. The tune opens 5ever’s debut EP Forever with fizzy pop-punk (or are we calling that “bubblegrunge” now?) that introduces the band’s bright-eyed knack for polishing anxiety until it shines so brilliantly that you don’t even notice how tormented it is. 5ever act out what it means to suffer with a smile, even when your guts are rotting like a fetid “Trashpit” — but that’s a song for a different breakdown.
Haasan Barclay, “Call My Phone”
Fuck a heartfelt text; Haasan Barclay wants to hear you when you profess your love, ASAP. Barclay’s solo project goes gushy for this standalone single composed during — when else? — quarantine. “I can’t get your voice up out my head,” he sings, pleading for a ring. Given the context, “Call My Phone” brims with appreciation for the simple pleasures we’ve long taken for granted, down to the sweet sound of a static-y phone call. Beyond its hopelessly hooky chorus, “Call My Phone” conjures memories of simpler times, like when you could wrap the phone cord around your fingers as your beloved breathed romantic rambles into the receiver for hours on end. “Hotline Bling” who?
The Breakbomb Project, “Drugs Don’t Work”
The Breakbomb Project’s May banger has a title that suggests it belongs behind a glittery “break in case of emergency” glass box in the club, like a special single reserved solely for get-togethers gone limp. But the EDM track from Lynnfield teen Brandon Greenstein warrants spins at every post-pandemic dance party, even if the pills and potions are getting the job done, so to speak. A D.A.R.E. campaign tune it ain’t; “Drugs Don’t Work” heaves with bass that encourages a primal urge to get rowdy after a year and a half indoors, whether drunk, stoned, or stone-cold sober. Go ahead, shatter the glass. You earned it.
Camp Blood, “Cenobite”
And now for something completely different from Haasan Barclay. With Barclay working alongside Shaka Dendy, the industrial hip-hop duo creep to the sound of their own catastrophic beats with “Cenobite,” a song whose stomps mimics the pummeling forces of racism and capitalism (or worse: Both, working together). As another hell-raising hit from Camp Blood, “Cenobite” addresses something bigger — and more sinister — than most people can ever imagine. And for that, Clive Barker would be pleased.
daisybones’ 2020 album Candy goes spiritually sour right around the time “Alligator” comes on. The band’s quivering lead single tries to find balance while on the brink of breaking down, with fervent fuzz rock holding their mental health together like some last resort glue. “Alligator” depicts the days when anxiety takes a bite out of your life and leaves you hollowed out and haggard — sensations surely everyone has been subject to since early 2020. Yet “Alligator” shrinks two years of agitated insecurity to just two minutes, conveniently condensing a crackup into the perfect size for your smoke break. That’s sorrow you can really sink your teeth into.
D-Tension, “Kenmore Square”
Who can claim that the Kenmore Square of 2021 holds a candle to the same historic “square” from just a few decades prior? An ill-formed 20-something, that’s who, but they won’t be making that argument once they hear D-Tension’s tune “Kenmore Square” from his spring album D-Tension’s Secret Rock & Roll Project. The longtime staple of the Lowell music scene could have made “Kenmore Square” a full-on whinefest and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he flips his lament into a history lesson that chronicles the cultural collapse of the now-commercialized Boston neighborhood. Now the kids know what they were missing. Hell, now the squares who once turned their nose up at it do, too.
G-Eyez, “Ride for Me”
Did Drake circa 2013 just enter the building? This standout track from G-Eyez’s May tape So Close yet So Far smoothes a daunting question into a slick slide-into-your-DMs remark: Are you in this for the long haul, or nah? We’ll never know what his boo said, but G-Eyez’s soft delivery no doubt locked in a league of ride-or-die Boston listenership with a vibe that calls to mind the suave sensitivity of Drizzy’s Nothing Was The Same.
Malia the Model, “I’M HOT!”
Malia the Model has the very specific anthem for when your bangs are curled, your lashes are twirled, and the world needs to know how on fire your bars are. There’s no shame in Malia’s superior rap game in “I’M HOT,” as the Boston emcee sneaks jabs into this plainly-worded confidence credo. Hey, there’s no need to be verbose when you’re verbally smacking the shit out of your haters with fiery one-liners that range from humorous (“I’m a boss bitch / Don’t try me / Try Crossfit”) to hellish (“Bitch, I ain’t backing down / You dyin’ first”). Your local fire department is shaking.
Miranda Rae, “Moonlight” (feat. Durand Bernarr)
Miranda Rae’s “Moonlight” was the glow that gave meaning to a bleak month like a mid-pandemic January. Her single serenades listeners with a scenic view from her judgement-free happy place, where the the cheap wine flows freely and society’s rigid rules are nonexistent. “Stop wondering why you can’t fit in / Come see what life’s about,” she invites, dressing her voice up with fearless funk instrumentation. It’s an inspired moondance anyone would be a fool to turn down.
Neemz, “Damaged Feelings”
Neemz makes diamonds out of damage with this heavy highlight from her fall album It’s Above Me. The Boston rapper reclaims her successes with “Damaged Feelings,” a bass-heavy clapback that dismisses envious colleagues eager to “give [her] a leash.” By the end of the track, Neemz zips ahead of the competition: “Baby keep doin’ you / I’m in my lane, where are you?” she raps, a quite polite version of “I know your lane sucks, but stay in it.” Turns out, the only thing that clings harder than a hater is a good hook — and “Damaged Feelings” brims with ‘em.
Onbloom, “Lover Girl”
Onbloom’s cry to lose control feels surprisingly calm on “Lover Girl,” the final track of her September EP Momentum. “I’ve been dyin’ tryin’ to get to you,” the Everett singer croons, steeping her R&B slow jam in languid lust. The word “momentum” usually calls to mind a race to the finish line, but “Lover Girl” proves that a slow chase can be the sexiest pace of them all. Pipes like Onbloom’s don’t hurt the unhurried sensual vibe, either. Take your time, girl. We’re hanging on every word.
Oompa, “AMEN”(feat. Benji)
Sure, Oompa’s singles “Go” and “Lebron” launched her new era of mindful in-the-moment gratitude, but no track from UNBOTHERED better encapsulates the album’s mentality than “AMEN.” The emcee’s prayer opens her 2020 album with a wholesome approach to life that doesn’t sacrifice any of her witty wordplay (“If I gotta choose beef / Let it come with a steak,” she raps on the refrain). “Happy-go-lucky” would come off as a corny descriptor for most hip-hop, but here, it feels natural. Better yet, it proves that Oompa is just as powerful when she’s at peace as when she’s in pain.
Zola Simone, “Not Like Other Girls”
Zola Simone might have taken home hardware at the Boston Music Awards for her song “Easy,” but let’s not overlook the snark that snuck into her August album Now You See Me via “Not Like Other Girls.” Simone’s gloves-off breakup pop gripes about a fame-hungry phony who “reeked of privilege and Urban Outfitters perfume” (they’re nearly the same thing, no?). Somehow, somewhere, the joke’s on her; Simone’s made one girl’s charade into a caustic deep cut that’s racking up replays on Spotify.
Smoke Bulga, “Water Whip’n”(feat. Rick Ross)
We all have Smoke Bulga to thank for putting the word “Boston” in Rick Ross’ raps this year. The rapper ascended to Maybach Music Group signee status this year (alongside labelmates like Wale, Meek Mill, and Gunplay) and nabbed a collab with label founder Rick Ross in the process, a full-flex anthem called “Water Whip’n.” Look, Boston’s been always been “on the map” — but Smoke circling it in red ink for all of national hip-hop to see can’t hurt, either.
STL GLD, “MSK“
STL GLD aren’t just the moment, they preserve the moment. The Boston hip-hop vets use their single “MSK” to tackle aspects of racism through the modern lens of a masked world where the scumbags mingle with the saints, all cloaked by the anonymity that excuses prejudiced behavior. All the while, oppressed groups of people feel a mounting pressure to metaphorically mask parts of their identity and culture just to preserve their own safety. It’s not fair — and if there’s one thing STL GLD have mastered, it’s calling bullshit. On “MSK,” they scream bullshit.
Old Moon, “Ephemeral”
Parched fallen leaves, rotting pumpkins, decay hiding under a pure white snowfall: Old Moon’s Tom Weir has witnessed it all, over and over again, as New England seasons endlessly crumble over time. The Lyme, New Hampshire musician observes the impermanence with “Ephemeral,” the lead single from his July album Altars. If Weir’s grown indifferent to the passing seasons, his guitar riffs don’t show it; “Ephemeral” shares post-punk at its moodiest, brewing brooding melodies to play as you sulk by the picture window through Daylight Savings time. (Don’t ask, it’s a New England thing).
Paper Citizen, “Scratching the Surface”
When everyone’s lives remain on digital marquees across the Internet, but the human connections are few and far between, what does that mean for the future of romance — nay, humanity? Claire Gohst shares a pop rock philosophy essay with “Scratching the Surface,” her first work since 2019’s “Hands Dirty” and the lead single of her EP Wandering Ghost. The Berklee grad and Paper Citizen head honcho opens up about how she wishes you would open up already, damnit, but curbs her frustration with one of the catchiest complaints about the modern age you’ve ever heard.
PLBK, “Hit Low”
There comes a time in every PLBK listener’s life when they realize that maybe — just maybe — they shouldn’t be dancing to “Hit Low.” The song from Aaron Garcia’s January album El Primer Paso reflects on his adolescence through snapshots of abuse, framed with roaring basslines that beg for some dance floor airplay. Yet the message behind Garcia’s potent grunge-pop will burst your bubble once you realize what he’s divulging — then again, maybe that’s the brilliance of it.
Van Buren Records, “Cash Rules”
Sorry, that’s wrong, we meant to say “CULT.” No, wait, it’s “BRAINDEAD.” Actually… is there really any way to choose which Van Buren Records song ruled supreme in 2021? The Brockton rap collective boasted a non-stop release schedule this year, spanning singles, an EP, and a full-length album — and that’s not even counting any of the members’ myriad solo projects. Still, “Cash Rules” feels like the best example of the group’s startling ascent towards superstardom. Has any record label secured that Brinks truck Luke Bar$ requested yet? If not, they missed out on a bargain; Van Buren is probably worth two or three at this point.
Valleyheart have made an art form out of purging impurities. “Can I keep my conscience clean? / With all of the thoughts I keep?” frontman Kevin Klein ponders, as the mournful melodies of “T.I.K.” threaten to close in on him. The single from the Salem band’s EP Scenery struggles to breathe as it rattles off the few details delaying the narrator’s slip into full-on existential dread. Key word: Delaying, since the unraveling guitar riffs in “T.I.K.” make a descent into madness feel inevitable. It’s beautiful. It’s brutal. It’s the sound of 2020 and every crisis to come.
Weakened Friends, “Quitter“
When Weakened Friends find themselves to be quite literally weakened from the strain of burnout, frontwoman Sonia Sturino’s rebel yell only grows bolder. Prior to the release of their fall album Quitter, the Portland, Maine band recorded a riotous plea for relief in the face of exhaustion. “They say no one loves a quitter,” Sturino sings, trudging through creative competition and the bitter paranoia that tags along. Yet you don’t love Weakened Friends because they didn’t quit. You love ‘em because they had the gall to reject a FOMO-forward lifestyle of being overworked and (likely) underpaid. Hustle culture, here’s your pink slip.