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Of all the times to relish being in a small, crowded, low-ceilinged rock club, 2021 somehow managed to be the year I had my first-ever love affair with 7th St. Entry.

Consider it another small sign of how unpredictable, weird but surprisingly wonderful a year it was in Minnesota music.

A historical room, for sure, the Entry has always just been functional in my mind. But it got emotional for me two weekends ago as I watched riveting performances by Kiss the Tiger and Gully Boys — the two young Twin Cities bands that best managed to eke out an impressive year out of what was really just half a year of gigging.

First Ave's junior-varsity room is also where I saw my first real indoor gig in 18 months, when the Suburbs kicked open the doors with two album-release shows at the start of July. Obviously, that one got emotional, too. The not-so-young Twin Cities band still managed to deliver an intense and wild live music fix despite being older than the Entry itself (41 years).

Thanks to some smart and proactive thinkers/hustlers at venues like the Hook & Ladder and Icehouse — who erected outdoor stages to safely host concerts — I had already seen quite a few live gigs well before July. Really, it's amazing how many gigs I caught all over town in 2021 even while staying on top of my own COVID safety concerns.

It's not accurate to say Minnesota's music scene came back roaring like a flood. It was more of a contemplative trickle, as everyone picked and chose what felt right to them, and made hard decisions about safety vs. fun vs. breaking even.

You can't really say the scene is fully back, either. But it's feeling pretty damn alive despite everything. Here are 10 signs of that resurgence.

1. The pivot to outdoor shows. Live music cranked back up again in earnest as early as April thanks to folks who literally thought outside the box at the Hook & Ladder, Crooners, Icehouse, Palmer's Bar and the Minnesota Music Café — all venues that set up outdoor stages for COVID safety.

2. Ponying up. Remember all the free or $5 cover charges for local music gigs pre-COVID? You can forget them now. Fans and venues stepped up to support struggling musicians in 2021 by making a $15-$20 cover more the norm. Congrats, everyone who paid up; you bought yourselves a healthy music scene.

3. White Squirrel Bar opening. It's small (capacity: 75) and only a part-time music venue, but this summer's debut of St. Paul's cozy W. 7th Street neighborhood joint felt enormous. Not only was someone (also the co-owners of the Amsterdam Bar and 331 Club) actually investing in the scene again, but they did so with a lot of love and style.

4. The Turf Club's reopening. First Ave's team didn't bat an eye at refurbishing one of St. Paul's oldest music bars after it was scourged by fire and sprinkler damage during the summer 2020 riots. That, too, showed new investment, but even better was the fact that they returned the venue to its old, ragged glory.

5. Rappers in strange places. Dua Saleh landed in the cast of Netflix's hit comedy "Sex Education." Dessa hosted the NPR science podcast "Deeply Human." I Self Devine curated the MIA exhibit "Rituals of Resistance." Just last week, Maria Isa announced a run for the Minnesota Senate. What's next? Nur-D joining the Timberwolves? Slug getting his own HG-TV show?

6. Artists who defy categories. Musical cross-pollination was as strong as ever around town, but many of the year's buzziest scenemakers also pressed against the conforms of gender and sexual identity, including Saleh, Gully Boys, Evv, Vial and (big enough to have gotten their own First Ave star in 2021) the Flip Phone drag crew. Plenty to learn from and love here.

7. Artists who fit their mold. Not every hot new act was pushing the boundaries; some just pushed the right buttons. Kiss the Tiger delivered an album that could've fit the KQRS-FM playlist as easily as the Current. Annie Mack beautifully channeled Mavis Staples and Lucinda Williams. Low Rats sounded like the Stooges and an assortment of other classic punk bands.

8. The TikTok boom. Not just for teenybopper hits and goofy parody videos, the youthful social media platform helped expose some undiscovered Twin Citians with genuine talent and moxie, including fun-loving rapper Xavier Goodman, Nirvana-esque sibling duo Durry and even dance-pop band Hot Freaks, who actually broke up in 2015 way back when people thought Spotify might be good for the industry. Yeah, right.

9. On the road again. Once the light turned green, a surprisingly large fleet of touring Minnesota acts hit the road again, including Yam Haus (who have a homecoming gig Friday at the Palace Theatre), Soul Asylum (Friday at First Ave), the Jayhawks (Saturday at the Palace), Dessa, Trampled by Turtles, Bad Bad Hats, Davina & the Vagabonds, Charlie Parr, the Cactus Blossoms, Gully Boys, Night Moves and more.

10. Another record year. There was no lull in album releases despite the pandemic. Actually, a lot of this year's records were started before COVID. So we likely can look forward to a trove of still-untapped material written during lockdown.

My favorite Minnesota albums of 2021

  1. Kiss the Tiger, "Vicious Kid"
  2. Low, "Hey What"
  3. Lanue, "Lanue"
  4. Humbird, "Still Life"
  5. Dua Saleh, "Crossover"
  6. The Suburbs, "Poets Party"
  7. David Huckfelt, "Room Enough, Time Enough"
  8. Gully Boys, "Favorite Son"
  9. Big $ilky, "Vol. 3"
  10. Stokley, "Sankofa"