Live music was BACK! Well, mostly. Tours staggered along with a few covid scare-cancellations or were called short, but many went off safely and to completion. For the most part, live music was very much a part of our lives this year. What really never stopped during the entirety of the recent madness however, was folks dropping records. Lots and lots of new records.
Dreaded words, the “global supply chain” is currently rocking the vinyl industry to a halt, but nothing is holding back the massive wave of releases these days. Tapes and CDs are making a comeback, not because they’re hip, but because they are necessary. Well, they’re hip now too. The ever-fluid music “industry” has pushed many of our favorite artists to the outer margins, which has inspired (forced) a whole new wave of DIY attitude and entrepreneurship. It’s not an equitable, efficient or sustainable economic model, but if you like an album and have a few dollars to spare, buy it. Go see a show. Buy a $5 koozie. Purchase directly from the artist, or outlets like Bandcamp which has become a vital way to support your favorite artists by picking up a digital download or T-shirt.
In these quarters, 2021 was a time for introspection, time alone and mindfulness, which lead to a lot more instrumental music, a deep dive into jazz, re-educating on the classics, modern songwriters with their own spin on things, and keeping an ear to the ground for the good stuff. As impractical and idealistic it is to encompass a whole year’s listening habits into a singular list, here’s the best go of it.
Below is an unranked list of the best records & EPs of the year. Listen to the playlist at the bottom:
Earth Trip does feel like a momentary vacation from reality. Rose City Band‘s 3rd record in as many trips around the sun is perhaps the most focused and country tinged effort yet.
Buy/Listen to Earth Trip – > Buy
Few places in the world are more naturally beautiful than the forests and hills of Oregon. Margo Cilker has lived across many time zones for a time, but her songs are deeply rooted from the soil of the Pacific Northwest. Pohorylle is a record to be enjoyed no matter where you stand on the globe
Buy/Listen to Pohorylle -> Buy
If you’ve ever been listening to a Deslondes record and gotten caught off-guard by the slow, burly voice, you’ve already heard Riley Downing. The proud Kansas City native released his first proper solo record, Start It Over on New West Records. It’s a heavy, jaunty affair highlighting life’s simple pleasures.
Buy/Listen to Start It Over -> Buy
New York based artist Cassandra Jenkins‘ new record stuns in entirely new ways. The title itself is the first giveaway, An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature. It reads more like an instructional pamphlet you’d find at a weekend retreat. In a way, that’s how the record plays too. It’s meditative, full of chakras, spoken word, horns that feel miles away
Buy/Listen to An Overview on Phenomenal Nature -> Buy
The Sons of Rainier are exactly that, a group of Northwest songwriters as Northwest as it gets. The ringleader of the band is Devin Champlin. Champlin, based in Bellingham, Washington recently released a solo recording of folky, synth-y meanderings titled How to Change From Blue to Green.
Buy/Listen to How To Change From Blue To Green -> Buy
Steve Gunn went next level on this one. Less meandering guitar sound than his previous records, but perfectly placed when he does venture there. His voice sounds clearer and more confident than ever. Other You is airy and full and fantastic.
Buy/Listen to Other You -> Buy
Houston, Texas artist Blk Oddysy dropped an instant classic for his debut album. It’s jazzy flow brings in elements of hip hop, funk and southern soul. Truly an impeccably produced record.
Buy/Listen to Blk Vintage -> Buy
With all of the archival Neil Young recordings being released, Lee Baggett’s incredible new record sounds like something discovered from a similar vault. Much of Just A Minute appears to be a mystery. It was recorded somewhere on the west coast near Washington and sounds every bit the beachy, jazzy odyssey you’d expect from a project like that.
Buy/Listen to Just A Minute -> Buy
You, Yeah, You is noticeably a leveled-up sound from Tre Burt’s equally incredible first record Caught It From The Rye, but it’s still the simplicity of voice and guitar that hit the hardest. He blends a poetic potion. The 12-song collection is special piece work of art that feels both extremely present and from an era a time ago.
Perhaps the most listened to record of the year. Long Time Coming is an old-timey, jazzy, Appalachian dream.
Buy/Listen to Long Time Coming -> Buy
Veteran songwriters from the Catskills are some of the best music makers out there and somehow keep getting better.
Buy/Listen to From Dreams to Dust -> Buy
Nashville by way of South Carolina writer/poet/singer/songwriter/creative force Adia Victoria delivered a stunning collection of southern lore that permeates into the bloodstream more upon each listen.
Buy/Listen to A Southern Gothic -> Buy
When you’re talking about the new wave of truly great songwriters, Vincent Neil Emerson better be near the top of the list. A true Texas born poet with a well-traveled voice to match. Emerson has been climbing the ladder and introducing himself to folks’ ears since his debut record Fried Chicken & Evil Women in 2019. The new record, self-titled Vincent Neil Emerson acts as a finishing head on the nail to fans and newcomers alike.
Buy/Listen to Vincent Neil Emerson -> Buy
Snoh Aalegra’s star continues to grow as her fanbase include Pharell, Drake, Tyler the Creator. She get compared to Sade often to which she calls unnecessary. Temporary Highs is a more produced, hip hop affair, but her subtle soul singing roots remain the hook.
Buy/Listen to Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies-> Buy
There was a point this year where if anyone were to ask “what are you listening to?” It was this. It No Medium is a fantastic record. Crazy Horse shit. Lovely and lively.
Buy/Listen to No Medium -> Buy
Chicago’s Sam Cantor creates wonderfully assorted rock n roll under the moniker Minor Moon. His new record Tethers is a self-proclaimed sci-fi concept album, but each song stands firmly on its own. Over the course of the 10 tracks Sam Cantor dips into jam band, country slide and wavy laurel canyon rock.
Buy/Listen to Tethers -> Buy
Aquatic Flowers is more stripped down compared to Tristen’s more straightforward pop records like Sneaker Waves and Caves, and feels more immediate. It comes from motherhood, from being at home and having the time to analyze the world around her that she has created.
Buy/Listen to Aquatic Flowers -> Buy
Chris Acker lays his head in New Orleans these days, but his gem status reigns in the Pacific Northwest as well, having spent time in Seattle and Bellingham. The record title alone really says it all. A truly wonderful songwriter, Acker sings of odd tales, ordinary observations and just about anything otherwise.
Buy/Listen to Odd, Ordinary & Otherwise -> Buy
Two years in Ty Segall’s world is the equivalent of 10 years for most artists. Usually one to release 2 records a year, it had been since 2019 since the last proper Ty Segall drop. Harmonizer is still loud and fuzzy, but dare say, dancy? It’s a synthy, sometimes disco affair that brings joy to Ty Segall fans of all kinds.
Buy/Listen to Harmonizer-> Buy
Virginia artist Dori Freeman has always been a wonderful writer and wonderful singer. Her latest effort is bit more produced and a beautiful effort in southern rock gold. Ten Thousand Roses is the type of record you could listen to all night, then wake up and want to hear it again in the morning.
Buy/Listen to Ten Thousand Roses-> Buy
Joe Bourdet’s mellow, wonderfully written Meadow Rock is a coastal classic.
Buy/Listen to Meadow Rock -> Buy
Ben Schwab discovered songs his father had recorded in the 70’s and used them as inspiration to bring his own songs to life with his friends Sam Burton and Marina Allen to create a beautiful 4 track EP that sets a distinctly sunny tone.
Buy/Listen to Sylvie EP -> Buy
Ryley Walker is constantly in motion dreaming up new ideas and forming new teams. 2021 saw the release of 4 Walker records, including the incredible solo record, Course In Fable. On top of that, he released 3 collaborative records. Deep Friend Grandeur is an instrumental, two-18 minute jam tracks with Japanese psychrockers, Kikagaku Moyo.
Buy/Listen to Deep Friend Grandeur –> Buy
Some records are made for cold, crisp mornings. Valerie June has the voice to warm the soul and the heart to lift your spirit. Prescriptions for Dreamers is an exercise in slowing down, meditation and thoughtfulness.
Buy/Listen to The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers –> Buy
Damien Jurado is in a creative groove most writers dream of. His output has been prolific in recent years and there is no sign of slowing down. The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania is his first release on his new, own label, Maraqopa Records. As masterful as he is, he does not seem overly precious about his work. He writes, records and releases and keeps it moving. Each record acts as a snapshot in time in his creative life and as a fan, it’s all interesting.
Buy/Listen to The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania –> Buy
Esther Rose has a bit more traditional sensibilities than some of her counterparts, leaning heavily on the lap steel and country fiddle, but How Many Times expands further into proper folk and pop jaunts.
Buy/Listen to How Many Times –> Buy
Hard to go wrong with any Madlib. Sound Ancestors is a smooth, worldly wall of sound.
Buy/Listen to Sound Ancestors -> Buy
Some records were meant for Sunday mornings. Natalie Bergman’s version of gospel music is soulful, sweet and spiritual.
Buy/Listen to Mercy -> Buy
In recent years T. Hardy Morris has transitioned to more family man than road dog, well before the world came to a halt. Years spent fronting Athens-based Dead Confederate and three additional solo records has turned to spending more time at home, which of course draws new types of inspiration. For T. Hardy Morris, catching the sunset in a shopping center parking lot can become a song.
Buy/Listen to The Digital Age of Rome -> Buy
Cookbook, John Andrews & The Yawns’ 3rd full length is a beautifully sleepy record that sure, does sound good while making dinner, but mostly mirrors a slow walk in the sun. Gentle piano ballads with wispy drums and subtle synths fill the 10 track effort. Andrews’ gentle voice hums over 70’s country guitar licks and honky-tonk grooves. It’s nostalgic, comforting and inviting.
Buy/Listen to Cookbook -> Buy
Farmer Dave Scher released his first record of solo material in a long while with his new band, The Wizards of the West. It’s a bit of a space odyssey with sounds along the country and acid jazz spectrum.
Buy/Listen to FDWOW -> Buy
If we’re being honest, this record was hands down the most played record of 2021. Leon Bridges said he lived, breathed, recorded, breathed and drank at Gold Diggers in Los Angeles for two years and it sure sounds like it.
Buy/Listen to Gold Digger’s Sound -> Buy
A mainstay in the Northwestern punk and country western scene for more than a decade, Jenny Dont & the Spurs released their 3rd proper LP, Fire On The Ridge via Fluff & Gravy Records.
North Carolina’s Seth Kauffman’s solo project continues to create new sounds out of the atmosphere.
Buy/Listen to Jinx Protecting -> Listen
English instrumental, spacey folk ambience. Yes please.
Buy/Listen to Origin Myths -> Listen
Cochemea’s indigenous jazz which pulls from latin, funk, jazz, percussion. He has performed with the Dap-Kings as part of Sharon Jones’ band and most recently as the incredible saxophone for Kevin Morby’s touring band. His solo work is a vibe of its own entirely.
New York shapeshifter Adeline Hotel released two records this year, both fantastic. Though both extremely wound down, Cherries is a jazzy journey with strings and piano that truly floats in your head.
Buy/Listen to The Cherries Are Speaking -> Buy
Billed as supposedly Sturgill Simpson’s last solo record, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is a 29 minute short story set in 1820’s Kentucky. Always one to follow the trail no matter where it leads, being on set acting in the new Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon clearly inspired Simpson.
Buy/Listen to The Ballad of Dood & Juanita-> Buy
Lilly Hiatt was gearing up to hit the road in support of her phenomenal record, Walking Proof when the virus damn near killed the entire music industry. The time off was incredibly painful for a lot of touring artists, but writers like Hiatt used it as an opportunity to go further inward. Lately is a record born out of urgency and frustration and yet a beautiful time stamp.
Buy/Listen to Lately -> Buy
Jeffrey Silverstein is a teacher by occupation, but artist by trade. He has come into his own since relocating from New York to Portland. Creatively, Silverstein is on a roll with his music, music curation and DJ sets. Fresh off last year’s full length, You Become The Mountain, Silverstein jumped right back into occupying a similar headspace, but seemingly diving deeper into nature, mindfulness and serenity. His new EP, Torii Gates, also released via Arrowhawk Records is 24 minutes of absolutely medicinal musical pieces.
Buy/Listen to Torri Gates -> Buy
Windless Day is a soundtrack to a perfect day.
Buy/Listen to Windless Day -> Buy
If you’ve ever wanted to know that Nashville meets Montreal sounds like, it’s Allison Russell and it’s quite lovely. Outside Child is full of many sounds and feelings.
Buy/Listen to Outside Child -> Buy
Portland songwriter Taylor Kingman leads his incredible heat machine of a country bar band, the Holy Know-Nothings. Their 2nd record still brings the boogie, but shares a bit more tenderness than 2019’s debut.
Buy/Listen to The Incredible Heat Machine -> Buy
The entire 10-track collection is intentional. Johanna Samuels‘ record Excelsior! may be an ode to her grandfather, but it is a gift to the rest of us. It’s a lesson in empathy and kindness and being comfortable with oneself.
Buy/Listen to Excelsior! -> Buy
Tyler The Creator is an artist at the top of his game and it’s a joy to watch and listen to.
Buy/Listen to CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST -> Listen
John Coltrane live at the Penthouse in Seattle in 1965. Need to say more? It’s an amazing performance and one of the few known recordings of the legendary A Love Supreme
Buy/Listen A Love Supreme Live in Seattle – Listen
Of any state in the country, Kentucky is the leading export in quality country music these days. Jeremy Pinnell’s been singing and making the rounds with his ripping band since 2014 and Goodbye LA might be best yet.
Buy/Listen to Goodbye LA -> Buy
Riddy Arman has spent a chunk of her life in nearly every part of the country, and she has the songs to back it up. A wonderful songwriter who had a big year. Her self-titled is out on La Honda Records (Vincent Neil Emerson, Colter Wall)
Buy/Listen to Riddy Arman -> Buy
Just beautiful. New instrumental piano record from the masterful Phil Cook. Certainly will be listening to this for a long, long time time.
Buy/Listen to All These Years -> Buy
If it was puzzling to see My Morning Jacket wait until their 10th studio record to release a self-titled record, it’s apparent why upon a few listens. MMJ the album, spins together all of the tempos and sounds and feelings of love that MMJ the band has given us for years. Songs about love and humanity may seem corny, but never coming from the mouth of Jim James. We need songs like this more than ever.
Buy/Listen to My Morning Jacket -> Buy
A record like Due North brings a smile to your face for more reasons than one. First, Chicago musician Liam Kazar, who has been involved in many projects over the years with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Steve Gunn, and others, finally gets his chance to shine as a solo artist. Secondly, and more importantly, his debut album is the type of modern rock n roll that you can’t help but enjoy. It’s got a little something for everyone. It’s a fun, goofy and groovy affair that switches gears on you at the perfect moments.
Buy/Listen to Due North -> Buy
In some circles, The War On Drugs are biggest rock band in America and when ya stop and think it, that’s pretty good for we rock n roll fans considering the state of the country and music industry. They have paid their dues, are extremely talented, and by all accounts very nice dudes. I Don’t Live Here Anymore was billed as the major-major arena rock and TWOD delivered a fantastic record.
Buy/Listen to I Don’t Live Here Anymore -> Listen
Chicago’s Cooper Crain, Rob Frye, Daniel Quinlivan are the Bitchin’ Bajas. Their version of Sun Ra Arkestra’s
Buy/Listen to Switched on Ra -> Listen
It can be argued no one broke out harder than Michelle Zauner in 2021. Her book, Crying in H Mart is a mega New York Times Bestseller and her record Jubilee is exactly that. She deserves all the success.
Buy/Listen to Jubilee -> Listen
M.C. Taylor spent the majority of quarantine like the rest of us Americans; sitting alone in a room stressing about the political climate while trying to find solace in the things that mean most. In Taylor’s case, it’s records, books, guitars, notebooks of writings and putting his thoughts into music form. Always fresh off the heels of a previous album release, Hiss Golden Messenger is to the point in his career where it’s fun to analyze each record as a chapter in part of a larger story. Quietly Blowing It, is subtle, gentle and full of life.
Buy/Listen to Quietly Blowing It -> Listen
As it comes to modern country music writers, few are better than Joshua Ray Walker. Texas troubadour sings of cowboys, long haul trucking and dive bars with a singular voice.
Buy/Listen to See You Next Time -> Listen
Recorded in Memphis, the home of this own Wat-Sun Studios, Dale Watson and a band of Memphians recorded his new album made up of instrumental tracks honoring the deep roots of the music from the city. Despite owning one of the best pure country voices around, Watson let his guitar do the talking across the 10 track album.
Buy/Listen to The Mempians -> Listen
London singer Arlo Parks’ debut record took off as soon as it released and for good reason.
Buy/Listen to Collapsed In Sunbeams -> Buy
Listen to the BEST RECORDS OF 2021 (PLAYLIST)
Other good records of note:
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
Ron Gallo – PEACEMEAL
Menahan Street Band – The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band
Ryley Walker – Course In Fable
Silver Synthetic – Silver Synthetic
Sam Evian – Time to Melt
Various Artists – Country Funk Vol. III
Charley Crockett – Music City, USA
Spencer Cullum – Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection (2020 reissue)
Lana Del Rey – Blue Bannisters
Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club