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Did anyone believe we’d be back to “normal” by 2021? If anything, this year was even more unpredictable than the last. For a brief time, it seemed like we were in the home stretch of the pandemic, with swarms of people getting vaccinated and mask mandates being lifted, but it seems now – with variant after variant cropping up – we’re back to square one.

The astounding thing about Philadelphia, though: we’re adaptable. We may complain about the state of the world, sure, but we have each other’s back in the end. When times are tough, you have a community of support to fall back on; just ask any number of musicians’ whose touring vans and gear was stolen this year. Out of all the turmoil, there were some memorable success stories in the Philly music scene this year, on a variety of levels — the people who made the records that got us through, and the behind-the-scenes faces and spaces that helped make that happen. Read on for our rundown of the Best of Philly Music in 2021 — and listen to our roundtable conversation about it on the XPN Local Show. – Paige Walter, Rahman Wortman, and John Vettese

WXPN Local Best of Philly 2021 Roundtable

Artists

To start off with a quick roll-call: Anika Pyle, Another Michael, Beach Fuzz, Catbite, Cosmic Guilt, Japanese Breakfast, Mannequin Pussy, Mesh, Rosali, Shamir, Tigers Jaw, and The War on Drugs. These are just a few artists out of Philly that earned some well-deserved national attention and praise this year, and they’ve all been shouted out on XPN’s own year-end lists already (read about our favorite albums here, and our favorite songs here). Moor Mother‘s free-jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements also landed on our songs list too, but let’s not forget she released an incredible album of her own, Black Encyclopedia of the Air, her debut for ANTI- Records.

But those are far from the only artists doing the regional music community proud this year. Rising stars Grace Vonderkuhn and Ali Awan also released new music that stood out for its timeless quality and daring genre-blending — Pleasure Pain and Cherry Pits, respectively. Kississippi went full-on pop on their latest record, the remarkable Mood Ring, while Harmony Woods released the powerful and cathartic Graceful Rage, their best album yet, and Jazmine Sullivan started the year off on a thematic — and dare we say journalistic — note with the new Heaux Tales. Punk powerhouse Froggy kicked ass and took names, from Doylestown Pride to an opening set at Catbite’s album release, to a somewhat viral song and music video about nachos and a certain convenience store that sells them; Hurry‘s Fake Ideas was a reliably awesome serving of Philly-bred power pop. And DIY powerhouses Full Bush, UgLi, and Kelsey Cork & The Swigs all had solid and raging releases (which you can see them play live this Thursday at Johnny Brenda’s).

On the heaveier side of the spectrum, Heavy Templereleased a riveting album of thrash anthems, while their frequent gig-mates Ruby The Hatchet announced plans to release their latest record next year. RedTouchBlack‘s self-titled debut channeled the spacey sludge and riveting riffs of Black Sabbath. Punk scene favorites Soul Glo signed to Epitaph and dropped two gripping EPs. New singer-songwriters made striking debuts and seasoned veterans made terrific offerings, from Justmadnice to Kayleigh Goldsorthy to Dominic Angelella and Taylor Kelly. Rappers Chuck Acid and Queen Jo formidably stepped back onto the scene, and Orion Sunreleased her gorgeous new single “Concrete,” with a new EP on the way next year. Even projects that were released in the chaos of last year, that due to the shut-down never had a proper release celebration, were played live for the first time, like Ellen Siberian Tiger’s haunting Cinderblock Cindy, Mo Lowda and the Humble‘s rocked-up Ready Coat or American Trappist’s beautiful The Gate

To look more deeply at the hip-hop scene, 2021 saw artists turning soulful (“Free” by Evita Colon ft. Sinnia Brown) and jazzy (“Holy Temple” by Dahi Divine) with infectious grooves (“Lupita’s Song” by Ninja Santos) and crossover potential (Tierra Whack‘s two-EP set Pop? and Rap?, the single “Dangerous” by MC Ivy Sole and singer Kingsley Ibeneche). R&B songs like “F.A.B.” by Dom B, and “Unrequited” by Mare caught our ear, as well as lush cuts like “On Our Way” by West Philly collective Omar’s Hat. Philly is known for top-tier bar work, and you can hear it in action on “Watch Your Self” by Armani White, “BeAllaDat” by Lady Sarkazym, “Seasick” by Chexz, “Sage Music” by B-Eazyyy, and “Apples, Oranges, Bananas” by The Bul Bey. Many of those songs found their way into XPN’s rotation this year, and if you liked that Bul Bey song, we urge you to check out “Be Nice,” another single he released this year. And while we’re on the subject of artists and their singles, “Coconut Oil” by James Weldon and “Money Man” by Arthur Thomas & The Funkitorium are must-hears. As our Rahman Wortman says, “I know the words to ‘Coconut Oil’ by heart and I two-step like Steve Hightower whenever I hear ‘Money Man.’ I used to see those guys record every day at The Artistry Collective Studios so it’s dope to see their music end up in my most played songs in 2021 according to Apple Music too.”

Is that a lot to take in? Maybe, but it’s a good problem for a city’s music scene to have. Dive deeper by listening to every artist we’ve mentioned so far in this Spotify playlist.

Venues

2021 also saw great change in the venue landscape of the city. Now that shows are happening again, it was abundantly clear to the community that we suffered some heavy losses last year, like the closing of venues Bourbon & Branch and Boot & Saddle. But from the ashes emerged new spaces like the loading dock at Original 13 Ciderworks, and Boot & Saddle’s Broad Street neighbor, The Dolphin Tavern, which is hosting shows for the first time. Venues that survived months of closure came back even stronger, like the Northern Liberties staple Ortlieb’s or the professionally-DIY PhilaMOCA. House venues made a safe comeback as well, with longest-running basement venue Tralfamadore inviting back local favorites and touring acts all with proof of vaccination required. 

Speaking of venues surviving months of closure, someone please give Phantom Power a trophy or something. A very cool room situated snugly on the Millersville University campus a 90-minute drive from Philly, the space — run by Gregg Barley, formerly of Lancaster’s Tellus360 and Chameleon Club — hosted its first show on March 5th, 2020…and we all know how the story went from there. Thankfully the room came back in a big way this summer with a killer headliner by Mannequin Pussy and Kississippi, and they’ve since hosted many awesome gigs worth traveling for…including Anthony Green, mewithoutYou and more. It’s kind of a compact Union Transfer in central PA, and very much worth a visit.

On the topic of Union Transfer, talk about re-opening in the best way possible — a historic five-show, sold-out run with Japanese Breakfast, an impeccably organized and efficient vax-check system, a pro-masking and anti-bullshit outlook. As Philly re-opened, they provided the model; shoutouts also to Ardmore Music Hall, Johnny Brenda’s, and World Cafe Live for their amazing work getting their doors back open and their staff (and audiences) back up to speed. The new Anchor Rock Club made a splash down the shore, City Winery also offered audiences great tunes and great hospitality (particularly when Bilal and Khemist performed in October) — and Franklin Music Hall was a great host for bigger ticket shows, like Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and GZA.

Yet our favorite spots are possibly the ones we weren’t expecting; as an outdoor park and beer garden in the heart of Kensington, Sunflower Philly was able to host live music before anybody else this year — as well as DJ parties, yoga classes, foodie events and community happenings. With a terrific live and local music series curated by Marley McNamara of Johnny Brenda’s, the venue created a warm and welcoming atmosphere with beautiful strings of lights, a collection of international flags, a wildflower garden, and walls that acted as an ever-changing canvas for local graffiti art. Similarly, out on 52nd and Pentridge in West Philly, was Pentridge Station, a beer garden that hosted film screenings, comedy nights, and music. The scenery and the size of this lot is amazing, making it the perfect place to chill and vibe out amongst good company. Bonus points for outside games, hookah, affordable drinks, and a grill for some good food (especially when it’s some jerk chicken made by Fat Daddies).

Dominy at Sunflower Philly | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Movers and Shakers

Besides the hard-working musicians, the creatively-explosive year Philadelphia experienced would not have been possible without the behind-the-scenes players. Show bookers and promoters took extra care to stay up to date with COVID precautions and gauge interest from emotionally-exhausted but thirsty crowds. Newcomers 4333 Collective organized countless shows for all ages across the city this year, and put hundreds of new faces on our stages. Photographers like Bob Sweeney and Skylar Watkins of Sad Punk Press were there to capture the excitement and candid moments of the scene coming back to life. This rebirth was also supported by designers like Corinne Dodenhoff, James Everhart, and Margot Whipps whose poster artwork alerted fans to the hottest shows. 

Organizers of festivals and and large-scale events were big advocates for the regional music scene. That happened at smaller, community levels — Erica Corbo‘s Warp Factor 9 series of jazz and experimental livestreams / socially-distanced in-person gigs out of the Suzuki Piano Academy, and Jeremy Prouty’s Monthly Fund roving showcase aimed spotlighting artists and the nonprofits they support — as well as huge, region-wide levels — the fifth year of Philly Music Fest bounced back with its biggest and best year yet, bringing five nights of stellar music to six venues, as well as daytime industry panels and fundraising for a handful of music education nonprofits like Beyond the Bars and GRP. We also have to give props to the summertime fun of Smorefest, a joyous day of hip-hop and R&B at One Art Community Center, and Porchfest, a day-long, West Philly concert that found everything from choirs to jazz quartets to DJs playing on front porches from Cedar Park to Kingsessing.

Speaking of advocates for Philly’s music community, major shoutouts to poet Lenora Elaine, who spread the Philly love by taking local artists like Rae Dianz and Seraiah Nicole, as well as the duo of Jacqueline Constance and Joie Kathos (better known as Gentle Jawns) to her hometown in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the Resonance Live Music & Art Show this past November. This was perfect timing for Jacqueline, since she recently announced that she’s dropping her sophomore album in the new year.

On the club scene, DJs seemed excited and prepared to make moves in the city after being deprived of doing what they love for a year. DJ Na$h started the summer off with her party Interna$hional Bounce for Juneteenth — which was great, since the annual Odunde festival wasn’t around this year. Bobby Flowers, fka DJ Lean Wit It, kept that same energy mixing up dancehall, Afro beats, and soca with his event Issa Whine. DJ Taaj and Kingspy came through with mad love this summer for their annual All Love Block Party. DJ Hvnlee and Dirty South Joe came back with the vibes of October’s very own for their monthly event So Far Gone, aka Drake Night. It’s always a good time whenever R&B is played, so the city was excited when DJ HBK, AMH and the good folks of 6ix Eight marketing brought back their quarterly popular event U + Me + RnB, along with special guest Kehlani and Lil Mo.

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For those who couldn’t get out to in-person events, podcasts kept us connected, and long-time podcaster Dan Drago at 25 O’Clock continued to produce thoughtful conversations with artists that made us all feel a little more in touch with our city. Phound Sounds’ Paul Giess and Dust and Dignity’s Dr. Bruce Campbell also did great work in this regard, honing in on jazz, folk, and singer-songwriter circles in Philly. Left of the Dial expanded their reach from podcast to live sessions with an incredible video series produced at their Northwest Philly studio space. Coping Skills‘ excellent More Talk, Less Rock provided a great snapshot of two persons in the music industry (and their friends) finding a way to get by when the rug was pulled out from under them. Pri and La La are doing great work with the Itspredestined Podcast; they both have good personalities for media and bring incredible guests in the mix, and their shows are filled with jokes for days along with food-for-thought conversations. Jill Scott‘s J.ill: The Podcast is also a great listen, as her chats with long-time friends Aja Graydon-Dantzler (of Kindred the Family Soul) and Laiya St. Clair about an array of topics from mental health to ancestry offer a refreshingly candid and vulnerable window into one of the greatest songwriters to ever do it in Philly.

A final note to spotlight a group that in many ways ties the whole community together: the Philly chapter of UMAW (Union of Musicians and Allied Workers) launched this year. They’re a collective of players in the music community who decided to take a stand for their own livelihood, and their first action is an instrument drive, which you can read more about here.

With so much goodness to spring out of the chaos of 2021, we’re encouraged and optimistic about what the future holds in store for the Philly music community — bring it on, 2022.

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