The year 2021 saw the pandemic drag on, but it didn’t stop Rochester-area musicians from writing and recording plenty of vibrant new music. From pop-rock to hip-hop to country — as well as plenty of music that defies genre classification — there is plenty for local music fans to rejoice this past year.
Here is some favorite local music from the year that was, created and released in this new era of quarantines, mask requirements, and fewer live performances.
“I Feel Alive” and “Under Control” by Coral Moons
The emergent, soul-infused pop-rock quartet Coral Moons was the surprise musical act of the year for me. Led by the dynamic vocalist Carly Kraft, a Webster native, the band’s 2021 album “Fieldcrest” is loaded with impeccable, catchy-as-hell melodies, tightly crafted arrangements, and the kind of electric energy that music lovers crave. Though Coral Moons was formed in Boston, Craft and guitarist Justin Bartlett moved to Canandaigua during the pandemic, making them the secret Rochester band you need to hear. — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“Lonely As I Ever Was” by Spencer.
Across his debut album “Are U Down?,” Spencer., the Brooklyn lo-fi virtuoso with Rochester roots, flexes his talent for piling on hooks. On “Lonely As I Ever Was,” which he wrote and recorded during last year’s lockdown, his catchy melodies are in service of a universal feeling: unrequited love. “Want you to be mine / You say, ‘In my next lifetime,’” the 2016 Penfield grad sings, sounding like a one-man pop group. His layers of harmony, guitar lines, and laid-back beats make this solitary lament feel a little more like a party. — BY PATRICK HOSKEN
“Rough Around Town” by Aaron Lipp
The multi-instrumentalist Aaron Lipp is a titan of the Finger Lakes music scene, and his Americana-bluegrass acumen is well-documented. On the 2021 album “Nothing to Lose,” Lipp casts a wider pop-rock net, but not without dipping his toes into the country-music pool on songs such as “Rough Around Town.” This tune has the added benefit of featuring backing vocals from Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers. — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“Warm Beer & Cold Red Wine” by Max Flansburg
Max Flansburg, frontman of the Finger Lakes Americana band Dirty Blanket, took his turn as solo artist in a big way this year with the album “Long Hard Year.” Recorded at Temple Cabin Studios with musician-producer Aaron Lipp, this collection get’s my vote as the best local country album of the year. “Warm Beet & Cold Red Wine,” written by Jon Itkin of The Crooked North, is a quintessential example of the genre at its best, with exceedingly clever lyrics and plenty of musical sophistication that give the signature sound a new twist. — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“Reset” by Negus Irap
Negus Irap, aka Corey Waterman, has been on the Rochester hip-hop scene for several years now. And although those in-the-know were already familiar with the rapper’s spunky delivery and sharp lyrical acumen, his 2021 album “My Name Is Guss” found the artist taking his craft to a new level of polish, without losing his edge. Negus Irap’s ability to stop you in your tracks with one devastating, thought-provoking phrase shows up big-time on “Reset.” — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“Fool’s Paradise” by Suburban Plaza
The Rochester-born group Suburban Plaza continued to impress in 2021 with its distinct brand of hip-hop-infused pop and R&B. Although this family band featuring Yone, Jerry Rescue, Wave, and Dave Hamilton has spend the last several years in Los Angeles producing songs for other artists, they’ve stayed connected to their hometown with music like the “TULSA EP. With the single “Fool’s Paradise,” Suburban Plaza turns their impossibly smooth production and radio-ready hooks to the topic of failed romance, with undeniable results. — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“Honey, Hold On” by Sally Louise
Opera singer-turned poignant singer-songwriter Sally Louise has used the quarantine to her advantage, churning out quality music that draws liberally from pop, rock, soul, R&B, and even a little classical. Her debut full-length album “My Hands Are on Fire” is a definitive statement on her direction as a formidable artist creating substantive pop music you’ll want to keep listening to. “Honey, Hold on” has a simple song structure, but the maturity of the writing combined with Sally Louise’s vocal prowess reminds me of the late Jeff Buckley somehow. Well worth the listen. — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“I Have Never Loved Someone” by My Brightest Diamond with conductor Andreas Delfs and Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
This beautiful lullaby by vocalist-composer Shara Nova, aka My Brightest Diamond, was originally released 10 years ago on the art-rock musician’s album “All Things Will Unwind.” Though Nova has local connections, she’s not from Rochester. So why does this song make the list? Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director Andreas Delfs’s deliberate and sensitive direction of this newly released live performance with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra can’t be ignored, and it could be a sign of Delfs’s future programming choices with the RPO. — BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
“Told You So” by Phylicia Rae
One of an instrumentalist’s key roles is to draw the audience in without the aid of vocals. For Phylicia Rae Sealy, that’s not a hard task. She has her bass guitar singing it’s way onto the jazz radio stations with her distinctive and stylish playing. P Rae’s song “Told you So,” with its prominent R&B riffs, has been a breakout single this year, currently playing on SiriusXM’s Watercolors music channel. The song delivers R&B riffs prominently with her playing fashion. — BY GEARY ANN LEWIN
“Celebrate” by Glenn French
“Quality music feeds the spirit”, says hip-hop artist Glenn French. He released a variety of songs in 2021 on his EP “Day N Night (Trinity),” and this body of work has unbroken consistency in terms of meeting his own expectations for substantial music. French’s song “ Celebrate” generated over 12,000 streams on Spotify this year. I predict this song going down as one of his classics. In general, we need more Glenn French come 2022. — BY GEARY ANN LEWIN
“When You Call” by Cammy Enaharo
Cammy Enaharo has performed on stages across the city in bands such as Ben Morey & the Eyes, Pleistocene, and Gold Koa. But this year, she’s leaned further into her solo career, allowing her skills as a songwriter to shine. On “When You Call,” Enaharo tells the story of a strained relationship between a parental figure and a child. She delivers carefully chosen, minimalist phrases with a singing voice that feels pulled from a different era, reaching back to the R&B singers of the ’60s. The arrangement of “When You Call” is understated, featuring soft, gradually building keyboard parts and slow-tempo acoustic guitar samples. But its impact is profound, subtly drawing listeners into an intimate moment in the songwriter’s life. — BY EMMARAE STEIN
“Ain’t Ever Goin’ Back” by Alyssa Trahan
Alyssa Trahan is one of Rochester’s country music gems. It’s difficult to pinpoint the best song on her standout album “Baby Blues & Stilettos.”
But the more I listened to the album, I realized that the heavy kick drum and electrifying guitar on “Ain’t Ever Goin’ Back” married well with Trahan’s sweet, country-girl vocals.
The song’s chorus has a daunting feel, while the verses offer its listeners a “calm-before-the-storm” sensibility. The fun, passionate, and soulful “Ain’t Ever Goin’ Back” belongs right up there with today’s top pop-country music. — BY GEARY ANN LEWIN
“Don’t Stop Now” by Mikaela Davis & Southern Star
For Mikaela Davis’s sole new original recording of 2021, New York State’s premier rootsy harpist added a touch of glam. “Don’t Stop Now” finds Davis — a nimble songwriter whose sound generously keeps expanding outward — and her band Southern Star balancing bright plucking with edgier blues-guitar licks. The result is a five-minute entreaty to stay positive and “let our spirits grow” amid a world careening toward catastrophe. With a vibe this good and a wide-open sonic landscape, the only thing left to do is enjoy Cian McCarthy’s warm Mellotron coda and use the song’s title as a mini-prayer. — BY PATRICK HOSKEN
“Brushstrokes” by Two Truths
Two Truths is an electro-folk project that came together during the height of the pandemic. But on “Brushstrokes,” the band members sound well-acquainted with one another, creating an abundantly clever arrangement with colorful, lively lyricism. While Two Truths takes cues from “indie” bands such as Radiohead and Fleet Foxes, the sound of this single is unique, combining more antiquated elements such as the mandolin with new-age electronic drum beats. Frontman Blake Pattengale’s voice is smooth and sweet, carrying the song’s central message of nostalgic romance with an irresistible eloquence. — BY EMMARAE STEIN
“Spill” by Cusp
Cusp entered the Rochester indie scene this year as the brainchild of musicians from two different bands: Full Body 2 and Rut. On “Spill,” the self-titled track off its debut EP, the band displays their talents at writing headbang-worthy, deceptively catchy hooks. The garage-rock foursome is adept at turning up the fuzz, but it refuses to get lost underneath it. Frontwoman Jen Bender’s direct, vulnerable vocals demand to be heard, jumping from droning melodies to commanding shouts as the song progresses. “Spill” brings the best pieces of the garage-rock genre forward — combining complex, thrashing guitar lines with emotionally evocative, confessional verses. — BY EMMARAE STEIN
“I Was the Devil” by Calicoco
Songwriter Giana Caliolo’s “I Was the Devil” began as a sparse acoustic ballad. The Rochester-area native, now based in Long Island, first released it in 2019 on a demo collection for their indie-rock project Calicoco. The following year, at the University of Rochester, producer Stephen Roessner helped transform it into a synthesizer-heavy closer for “Underneath” — Calicoco’s impressive, often ferocious new album. Caliolo poured literal tears into recording it, and the music reflects their emotion. With penitent lyrics and dense keyboards, the song feels immense and overwhelming, like looking at a Rothko painting up close. In its shifting arrangement, though, lies a tale of graceful self-discovery. — BY PATRICK HOSKEN
The complete CITY 2021 Playlist can be found on Spotify.
Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.