The Best Albums of 2021
by Andrew Elias
IT'S ALWAYS BEEN DIFFICULT picking the ‘best’ albums of the year. Tastes vary widely and, especially these days with so many streaming services, websites and the ability for individual artists to release their own music, it’s impossible to hear every artist and every release. These are the albums that I have enjoyed most throughout 2021 — some probably on many other ‘best of’ lists and some by lesser-known artists that are worthy of your attention. Check them out on your favored streaming service.
This is the album I found myself listening to more than any other from the day it was released to today. Batiste received eight of his eleven Grammy nominations for this album and four songs on it: ‘Freedom,’ ‘‘I Need You’, ‘Cry’ and ‘Movement 11’ — for overall Best Album and Best Record as well as in the Traditional R&B, American Roots and Contemporary Classical categories. And that doesn’t even include tracks like ‘Tell the Truth’ (reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s best albums of the 1970s), ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Adulthood’ (soulful raps with smart lyrics), and ‘Show Me the Way’ (think Marvin Gaye meets Silk Sonic).
A remarkably joyous set of songs showcasing Batiste’s formidable talents as a musician, arranger, vocalist and performer. After releasing a few exceptional jazz albums, with We Are he has entered a new musical stratosphere few have attained.
Music City USA
With a storied past and a long career as a street musician in New York and New Orleans, Crockett has released six outstanding albums in the last five years. His newest, Music City U.S.A., is as good as the others, chock full of catchy tunes, heartfelt lyrics, soulful singing and enough twang to remind you that he’s a Texan through and through. His music is unquestionably country (owing much to the likes of George Jones and Johnny Cash), but is heavily infused with the blues as well. The album boasts one great song after another, with no two alike. ‘The World Just Broke My Heart,’ ’Just So You Know,’ and ‘Honest Fight’ feature his doleful drawl. ‘I Need Your Love’ and ‘I Won’t Cry’ are buoyed with horns. ‘Are We Lonesome Yet’ is fired up with a fiddle and pedal steel guitar, and he even uses a banjo to fire up ‘Round This World.’
These are songs that sound like they could be by the legends of the genre and Crockett performs them with a clear reverence for those greats. He calls his sound ‘Gulf & Western’ and that fairly sums up his unique brand of country blues.
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert
& Jon Randall
The Marfa Tapes
Nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Album, the album was recorded quickly in that remote, yet arty, West Texas town by three of the state’s best troubadours. Sparse, simple and soulful, the tracks are incredibly intimate and seemingly spontaneous even though several are years old (a few recorded for, but not included on past Lambert albums). They even include between song chatter to make you feel like you’ve been invited to a special session.
Highlights among a strong set are ‘In His Arms,’ sung by Lambert, a gorgeous lament, Jack Ingram’s woeful ‘I Don’t Like It’ and the mournful and sweet ‘Waxahatchee.’ But they can have fun, too, like on Guy Clark’s ‘Homegrown Tomatoes’ and the classic, ‘Am I Right or Amarillo.’ These emotional songs sound like they could have been written by fellow Texan songwriting icon, Townes van Zandt, as high a compliment as you can give. A strong collection of beautiful songs enhanced with excellent harmonies. The Best Country Album of the Year.
You Get It All
Carll is one of the brightest stars in the Americana scene, making music with the finesse of folk, the swagger of rock and the twang of country. Influenced by the likes of John Prine, Steve Earle, and Kris Kristofferson, his songs stir your heart as much as provoke your mind, with wisdom (‘If It Was Up to Me’) and wit (‘Any Other Way’ and ‘Different Boats’). He can write with dark humor (‘Nice Things’ and ‘She’ll Come Back to Me’) and intense insight (‘Help Me Remember’ and ‘In the Meantime,’ a duet with Brandi Carlisle) — all with a charming casual confidence.
As Carll sings in ‘Different Boats,’ “We get what we are given/And we hope that it floats.” With this album, as the title says, you get it all.
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
An album that incorporates the stylings of American roots music, from the stringbands of Appalachia to the twang of Nashville to Cajun rhythms of Louisiana. Songs like ‘Leaving on Our Minds,’ ‘My Teardrops Say,’ ‘Biding All My Time,’ and ‘Will You’ explore the themes of regret and heartbreak. But not all songs are forlorn, as ‘Good and Gone’ and ‘On Account of You’ are a bit more upbeat and hopeful.
Although a collection of mostly moody and melancholy songs, Leva’s sweet vocals and the outstanding musicianship make for an enjoyable album by a young duo on the rise.
Cande y Paulo
Cande y Paulo
Although half of this stunning album by Argentinians Cande Buasso and Paulo Carrizo is sung in Spanish, including the song that made them famous, ‘Barro Tal Vez’, it is the covers that stand out. Leonard Cohen’s biting but beautiful ‘Treaty,‘ George Gershwin’s classic ‘Summertime,’ and Neil Young’s playful ‘Sugar Mountain’ are impressive, but it is ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ and ‘The Thrill is Gone,’ where Cande matches Chet Baker’s versions with heartwrenchingly melancholy vocals, that are the best. Not that the Spanish songs are not wonderful. ‘Deja Atras’ (‘Walk on By’) is especially delicious, with its infectious bossa nova beat.
Produced by Larry Klein, fans of Melody Gardot, Madeleine Peyroux and Joni Mitchell (all whom he has also produced) will love this Argentinian duo’s soft passion.
A Southern Gothic
Barack Obama named ‘Magnolia Blues’ as one of the songs on his 2021 year-end playlist and it’s no surprise. The album is of and about the South. A native of South Carolina, Adia delves into the darker sides of life in ‘Dixie,’ which could be especially hellish for Black women.
This is roots music — dense music with deep roots. Some songs sound almost like the field recordings made about 100 years ago by musicologist Alan Lomax or some of the earliest blues records by the likes of Memphis Minnie, Bukka White, Bessie Smith, and Charley Patton. On an album of otherwise original songs, she includes a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘You Was Born to Die’ (with Jason Isbell on guitar). In addition to ‘Magnolia Blues’ standouts are ‘Mean-Hearted Woman’ and ‘My Oh My.
Fans of Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Gillian Welch will enjoy an artist and musician with similar influences, sensibilities and styles. Music that is direct and unadorned, superb in its simplicity and strength.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Raise the Roof
It’s been 14 years since Plant & Krauss released their Grammy-winning album, Raising Sand, and Raise the Roof picks up where they left off — making intense music steeped in the most dramatic of American roots and music. Again exquisitely produced by T Bone Burnett, the album finds the duo offering their unique interpretations of songs by Lucinda Williams’ (‘Can’t Let Go’), Merle Haggard (‘Going Where the Lonely Go’), the Everly Brothers (‘The Price of Love’), Charley Patton (‘Last Kind Words Blues’), and Allen Toussaint (‘Trouble with My Lover’), among other lesser-know gems such as ‘You Led Me to the Wrong,’ by long-overlooked Olla Belle Reed.
No one sings with Robert Plant’s wild abandon and few sing with the cool sweetness of Krauss, making their duets a mix of very striking solos and incredible harmonies. Another album destined for many ‘best of’ lists.
Daddy’s Country Gold
Carper has been called the bluegrass Billie Holiday and the country Janis Joplin, but Daddy’s Country Gold makes it clear that the bassist and vocalist is very much her own woman. Infused with western swing and old-timey jazz, the album is full of original songs filled with whimsy and tenderness. ‘Makin’ Memories’ is the standout, a hilarious jazzy sendup about drinking a bit too much but not really caring. ‘I Almost Forgot About You,’ ‘Back When,’ ‘It’s Better If You Didn’t Know,’ and ‘You’re Still My Love’ are clever laments about love lost. The swinging ‘Would You Like to Get Some Goats’ is a fun song only Carper would write.
Not unlike a female Leon Redbone, Carper offers much needed good time music that swings through these hard and crazy times. Her daddy should be proud.
Teddy Thompson & Jenni Muldaur
Do Porter & Dolly
A Tribute to the Duets of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton
This release pairs the son of Richard & Linda Thompson (of 1960s British folk-rock legends, Fairport Convention) with the daughter of Geoff & Maria Muldaur (he was in 1960s folk group Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, she had a big hit in 1973 with ‘Midnight at the Oasis’). Some 50 years ago, Parton & Wagoner released 13 hits, when he was one of country music’s biggest stars and she was just starting her career. Although only four songs, it is a touching tribute, including two songs by Jack Clement (‘Just Someone I Used to Know,’ more familiar as a hit for George Jones), and ‘Just Between You and Me,’ also a hit for Charley Pride), as well as ‘Once More,’ originally a hit in 1956 by Dusty Owens & Donna Darlene and The Rodeo Boys. Dolly’s own ‘Put It Off Until Tomorrow,’ showcases her remarkable songwriting skills.
Teddy has released a slew of acclaimed solo albums and continues his winning streak here with an all too brief compilation of timeless tunes carefully honored with gorgeous harmonies that stand up to the originals.