2021 Was the Year of the Drummer

For most, the pandemic with its lockdowns and quarantines has meant days filled with repetition. Working from home, sticking to a routine, indulging in smaller circles of pre-vetted activities — the beat goes on and on and on.

If 2020 brought back the guitar (credit: Harry Styles), 2021 was the year of the drummer — a center keeping it all solid and moving, track after track. Rhythmic chic was on display everywhere including books, records and films. It seemed like, as the world slowed down, every beatmaker flipped the switch and kept going.

Drummers share a secret insight as to what makes it all groove: hold it down solid and everything will flow around you. The funk is everywhere you look, and so long as boom keeps moving to bap, it can all be made into music.

And those drummer jokes? Long the court jesters, they are the keepers of myths and tellers of tales — much needed for a world in isolation.

Marching to its own beat and beautifully syncopated, 2021 was a year where the wisdom of the Drum Throne shone through thanks to the likes of Anderson.Paak, Bruno Mars’ Silk Sonic collaborator and a longtime stickman; Travis Barker, whose time pounding away in Blink-182 made him not just a Gen Z hero but an in-demand producer; and Questlove, beloved rhythm man for the Roots, of “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” fame, and a noted author, pundit and now (possibly soon to be nominated) documentarian.

In the darkest days of the pandemic there was young drummer Nandi Bushell, the British social media phenom and human manifestation of direct sunlight, who, at 10 years old (she’s now 11), posted herself slaying high-energy rock tracks and proving could shred and keep up with the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Queen’s Roger Taylor and Lenny Kravitz, among others.

After challenging Dave Grohl to a drum-off in 2020, the back and forth battle videos between the two oozed good vibes, and especially once Grohl had to admit defeat. Later, making the most out of a narrow window of opportunity — that brief COVID respite we so enjoyed in the fall — Bushell was able to live out her rock star dreams by joining the Foo Fighters onstage at the Forum in Los Angeles. It was a teary affair for all, as a 15-minute aftermovie documents charmingly (watch it below). After being separated from friends and family for so long, seeing Nandi and Grohl together in person felt like a miracle. You might want to keep the tissues handy.

 

It should be noted that Bushell wasn’t the only girl to awe with her dexterity. In 2018, an eight-year-old Japanese prodigy named Yoyoka gleefully destroyed Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Good Times, Bad Times.” She was stuck at home too, and there’s no resisting her face erupting with joy after nailing the post-chorus cymbal catch. Many have doomed rock to death, but it’s hard to think that when watching Yoyoka’s right foot-ripping triplet bass drum patterns. It’s so alive.

Seeing as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are unlikely to reunite anytime soon, it’s Bushell who benefits from having the Foos’ Dave Grohl as her idol-mentor. And Grohl, too, had a busy year despite not being able to tour for much of it. Some six weeks after the Forum show, which had been rescheduled from a July date due to a COVID-positive test among the ranks, his band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by none other than Paul McCartney. That same month, he released a book, “The Storyteller,” which opens with a scene about fatherhood in which his daughter Harper (eight at the time of the book’s writing) gazes up at him with wide eyes and says, “Dad, I want to learn how to play the drums.” Grohl’s reaction — “Talk about an end-of-the-trough, entry-level mailroom position” — so typically aw shucks drummer-like as to almost justify the endless punchlines which the craft has weathered.

Between Grohl’s three daughters, Nandi and Yoyoka, can we hear it for the girls?

Of course, Grohl doesn’t play drums in the Foos; that taxing responsibility is left to Taylor Hawkins, who wore his flag proudly during the Foos’ Rock Hall induction, sporting a black T-shirt that read, “The Tempo Is Whatever I Say It Is.” But as the person who held down one-third of Nirvana, and also spent time drumming in sidegroup Them Crooked Vultures, Grohl remains the unofficial ambassador to all rock drummers young and old.

You could say the same of Questlove whose genre-agnostic curiosity and on-point curatorial taste has informed countless disciples — perhaps, even Paak. The Philadelphia native’s reach was already expansive thanks to a robust social media following and two well-received books (2018’s “Creative Quest” and October’s “Music Is History”), but it was his directorial turn with the documentary “Summer of Soul” that cemented his place as an iconoclast. Released in June, the film about a 1969 Harlem music festival loosely known as the “Black Woodstock” is poised for Awards recognition in 2022, and deservedly so. With “Summer of Soul,” the sense of timelessness is nothing short of inspiring as Quest mined archival footage for performances so strong they sound as vital today as they were 50 years ago. Think: the streaming version of crate-digging.

Two “Summer of Soul” musical moments stand out: Stevie Wonder’s turn on the drum kit mid-set, mixing James Brown jolts with skates of free jazz fills, and Sly and the Family Stone’s August headlining set featuring a funk engine of a drummer sitting sideways named Greg Errico. That he was white and fierce only drove home the group’s message of “Everyday People.”

Another movie with a distinctly drummer point of view was “Sound of Metal,” which was released in late 2020 on Amazon Prime Video and won two Oscars in April, for film editing and sound. The story of a heavy metal drummer (played by Riz Ahmed) who loses his hearing, it provided a visceral sense of a beat, even through silence.

Elsewhere on the musical spectrum, 46-year-old Travis Barker proved himself a vital collaborator for acts who are decades younger. Willow, Machine Gun Kelly, Yungblud, Lil Nas X and Iann Dior are just some of the artists to recently feature the Blink-182 drummer on a track. He also teamed up with Avril Lavigne for her long-awaited return to the pop-punk throne. Signed to Barker’s DTA Records, Lavigne released “Bite Me” in November, which Barker produced. Fans agree: the well-received single is the best damn thing she’s dropped in some time.

That goes for “Leave the Door Open,” too, as music fans hoping for new material by Bruno Mars were not disappointed by what Silk Sonic had to offer in 2021. The combination soul-funk-R&B throwback, which is among the 10 most-consumed songs of the year, has the sort of strut seasoned bands aim for, and much if it is due to Anderson .Paak’s playing. (Don’t take my word for it, just watch the video.) A drummer of rare grace and feel, as well as a deft vocalist, Paak is all pocket, driving Silk Sonic’s smooth groove and breaking the cumbia-meets-trap stranglehold on the pop charts.

Thanks to COVID, I saw very few live shows in 2021, but the last one I took in, I’m proud to say, was a Dec. 12 Pandora-sponsored performance by the Go-Go’s at Sunset Strip haunt the Whisky A Go Go, where the group got its start 40 years earlier. That night, Clem Burke, who famously played for Blondie, filled in for drummer Gina Schock, softening the disappointment of the O.G. Go-Go’s sick day (still in attendance, she revealed a carpal tunnel affliction) and reaffirming all that is glorious about the in-the-flesh skillmanship that comes from decades spent touring.

All of this is not to take away from the electronic drum sounds used overwhelmingly in pop music today. From perennial drum machines like the 808 to the subtle Afrobeat simplicity of WizKid’s effervescent “Essence,” the pandemic has forced so many musicians indoors and away from kits. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. Take an online sounds marketplace like Splice, for instance, where its most popular download in 2021 was the “one-shot” — single, ready-for-use drum hits that can be looped, manipulated or edited. It’s a small leap from building beats to composing hits wholesale, especially while in lockdown and avoiding in-person sessions.

You may be wondering where the Beatles’ Ringo Starr factors, especially considering the popularity of Disney Plus’ eight-hour “Get Back” series, which spawned its own deluge of think pieces and deep dives. Ringo is the steady one, the center of the strife between personalities, always holding the situation together. As the Peter Jackson documentary so brilliantly shows, in the moment of real decision, he’s the Beatle who, with a devilish grin, wryly made history when he said, “I want to go on the roof…” Give the drummer some, indeed.