Our Favourite Releases 2021
Best Albums 2021
By Rob Dickens
Another pandemic year.
Another twelve months where the music industry has been battered, where it and other forms of entertainment are, to a too large extent, forgotten by the powers that be.
The nature and economics of the live music experience is in total disharmony with the transmission of COVID-19 and its growing variants. Activities like top-line sport have the infrastructure, wide-spread support and lobby power to work around the ever-changing viral environment. Live music, on the other hand, ranges from large-scale and cosy audiences to the smallest clubs where artist merchandise sales remains the vital financial return channel. Alas, gigs of all sizes, if not all gone for an extended period around the globe, have had to be rescheduled over and over again like a frog having to hop to a new lily pad as the last one sinks like a stone.
From here in Melbourne Australia, the year was more lockdown than not. In fact we were recognised as the lockdown capital of the world, with well over 300 days of domestic incarceration over two years. Personally I found the going pretty tough in a number of ways. For me there were few live shows and festivals, little meaningful musical exchange and shared experiences with friends, so much less to report on this site and the idea of renewing my musical tours of the USA south in 2021 laughable.
Artist resilience. Talent. Strength of mind. A capacity, nay imperative, to forge on and an inability to store for the never-never beloved new material has meant that artists’ new releases have kept coming. And that being despite the lack of potential or real earnings from a new release tour.
So, like 2020, we have been graced with some outstanding new albums and I present humbly my favourites below.
This year there are less words and more clips.
Maybe I’ve been locked up too long and my social skills are wanting.
Enjoy the top twenty!
2020 Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
2019 Yola – Walk Through Fire
2018 Colter Wall – Songs Of The Plains
2017 Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
2016 Darrell Scott – The Couchville Sessions
2015 Chris Stapleton – Traveller
2014 Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
2013 Jason Isbell – Southeastern
20. Billy Strings – Renewal
The new breeze of bluegrass that is Billy Strings solidified his position again this year. Bold, awesomely talented and edgy – a master class of genre warping.
19. Mike and the Moonpies – One To Grow On
Is it Mike’s perfectly timbred voice? Is it the liveliness of the original country and western swing setting? Yes. Yes. But listen to the band mesh perfectly and fill in all the spaces with tricks and frills effortlessly. Put on your boots and get on the DF!
18. Shane Nicholson – Living In Colour
Shane Nicholson knows his way around a lyric, a melody and a recording studio. He’s been making classy albums with Kasey Chambers and solo for a long time. He’s an in-demand producer. I sometimes wonder whether his relationships have left their mark a little too deeply? I hope not but, if that is the case, we should all thank and support him in his glorious muse.
17. Rodney Crowell – Triage
Did I mention happy artists? No one does scalpel-style self reflection better than Rodney Crowell. And sometimes the words are so crisp and the tongue so sharp, I feel like he should give himself a break and think more about his consumate achievements. But then I guess what would be the point of that dilution for us?
16. Riley Catherall – When I Go
A new voice. And what a voice – somewhat reminiscent of the aforementioned Mr Nicholson. This debut album I found late and couldn’t manage to do a review during the year (my bad). But I kept coming back to it. Simple but effective arrangements, recorded beautifully. Oh, and did I mention the voice?
15. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes
Ok, some might consider Miranda Lambert a little twangy and too much at the big, muscly end of Music City, but I love this concept. Recording in the open, stripped back, no frills. Just artful and unpretentious cohesion of the talented kind. Glorious harmonies and light and shade.
14. Hayes Carll – You Get It All
Country blues with a blend of intensely serious topics, sharp insights and wry observations. Lessons for us in yet another top flight Hayes Carll release. Steve Earle, you’re a legend but you can’t call Hayes ‘less talented’.
13. Vincent Neil Emerson – Vincent Neil Emerson
Produced by Rodney Crowell (see above) all these songs are Emerson originals penned at his home in Fort Worth, Texas. Western swing, country and western but also Irish balladry, laconic folk, bluegrass and country blues (all the good stuff). I love his ability to meld humour, tragedy and wonder.
12. Morgan Wade – Reckless
Hailing from Floyd, Virginia, this 27-year has an appealing ragged edge to her music, with lyrics displaying experiences beyond her years. She sounds like she’s lived every minute of her many narratives. Authentic and gripping.
11. Charley Crockett – Music City USA
Ever song sounds like it was stripped from a movie soundtrack (particularly Westerns). In fact, Charley Crockett looks like he’s in these films, cast as an outsider, bystander and sidewinder.
He’s prolific but that doesn’t impinge on his high achievement levels. Get on the Crockett stagecoach and see where it takes you.
10. Adia Victoria – A Southern Gothic
A South Carolinian now based in Nashville, this collection was recorded in Paris with T Bone Burnett.
Compelling soulful gothic gospel oozing from every track, electric guitar soaring majestically.
9. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
This Memphian gets down-and-dirty personal in another giddy mix of folk, soul, blues and ambient sounds. Along with the ambitious sonics, there’s a heavier emotional tone here compared with previous releases. Engrossing revisits to love lost and scarred moments.
8. Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita
Another prolific artist who’s wasted no time or skill during the pandemic with this, his third, release during that period. A bluegrass concept album with A-grade players and a vivid, cinematic landscape. Sturgill does it different again – what’s next – Waylon Jennings cover album maybe?
7.Riddy Arman – Riddy Arman
Imagine if Bobbie Gentry wasn’t raised in the US South. Instead she came from the mid-west and spent her pre-recording life as a ranch hand. There you have it. Riddy Arman and her debut record, where you can see the dust, the pastures, horse pens and barbed wire. She knows what she’s singing about and she sings pretty darn great.
6. Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
An artist I first saw on the Tennessee/Virginia border many years back. Amythyst Kiah has been kicking goals (to use a probably totally inappropriate metaphor) ever since. Her stint with the powerful girl group Our Native Daughters was a smart move, increasing her profile. This is her most potent statement to date. “Black Myself” worth the admission ticket alone.
5. Robert Plant / Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof
Rock legend Plant, bluegrass queen Krauss and feted auteur producer Burnett decide on a follow up to the groundbreaking Raising Sand, issued fourteen years ago. Well, it’s not as groundbreaking but it’s just as superior.
4. Yola – Stand For Myself
Speaking of successors to innovative projects. Yola’s Walk Through Fire collaboration with Dan Auerbach produced a Bacharach/David- league group of heavenly songs and arrangements. So too here only two years on. Yola’s star in many ways has been stymied due to the pandemic. But on this record there’s ample evidence that her’s will be a more famous name soon enough.
3. Lucero – When You Found Me
In some ways, I can’t explain my fascination with Memphis-based Lucero’s latest effort. Lead singer Ben Nichols has a voice with the attributes of a sturdy path. The lyrics are not complex or intricate. But here is a classic alt. country rock record, built on songs of re-discovered love and joy of a life unusually spent at home with family and friends caused by events of the past two years. Get the chorus and the riffs right and the rest will follow. My most-played record of the year.
2. James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds
It’s been a seven-year wait for another full-length release. The Horses and the Hounds is a reunion of sorts. McMurtry recorded the album with producer Ross Hogarth, the pair having first worked together thirty years ago, recording McMurtry’s first two albums and mixing McMurtry’s first self-produced album. Another veteran of those three releases is guitarist David Grissom who also appears here. One of roots music’s most profound lyricists, McMurtry shines.
1. Allison Russell – Outside Child
Through the outfits Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, Allison Russell has wielded her considerable vocal, banjo and clarinet talents, not to mention her way-more-than-average kindness and empathy. Now she strikes out on her own (Birds of Chicago and life partner JT Nero contributes significantly here), the material being born out of a violent, dark past. But Russell does not take us down to that bleakness, instead the journey is one of renewal and hope, showcasing her courage and generosity. Nominated for three Grammy Awards, Outside Child is a precious gift.
More Music Adventures Await!
Our Favourite Releases 2021