No Depression’s Favorite Roots Music Albums of 2021 (So Far)
Clockwise from top left: Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Allison Russell, and Sarah Jarosz made albums that were voted Best Roots Music Albums of 2021 So Far by No Depression staff and writers.
With the world shut down for most of 2020, it was hard to predict what 2021 would bring in terms of music. The end of full-band rockers? A glut of lonely songs from people’s bedrooms? Nothing at all? Thankfully, the first half of the year has brought a bumper crop of quality albums, some recorded before the pandemic and some forged right amid the fires of it.
As we pass the halfway mark for 2021, we wanted to pause and recognize the albums that have brought us joy this year, or that at least have helped make some sense of the pain (which is sometimes the same thing). After votes from No Depression’s staff, columnists, reviewers, and writers, here’s what rose to our collective top 10. (Click the album name to find our review or story for each title.)
We’ll be taking stock of the year’s musical bounty once again in December, when we launch our annual Year-End Readers Poll and make a best-of list based on your votes!
On Home Video, Dacus tackles the shame of growing into yourself in an environment steeped in religion, navigating sexuality, queerness, friendships, and firsts, deftly chronicling coming of age in Richmond, Virginia. The lyrics across Home Video are profoundly specific, immersing us in Dacus’ history yet still allowing us to see ourselves in it. — Maeri Ferguson
Even though Hiatt and Douglas both have been making music for decades and each is revered as one of the greatest artists in his respective field, they never worked together before Leftover Feelings. “We’ve always seemed to miss each other on the broad highway over the years. He’s coming, I’m going,” Hiatt says. Eventually, though, their journeys lined up. — Chuck Armstrong
Quietly Blowing It asks how we can do and be better in the world, strip away the excess, and get to the root of ourselves. Or essentially, what we were all asking ourselves in 2020 amidst a raging global pandemic that forced us out of our comfort zones and back to the basics. Are we doing what we really want to do or are we just going through the motions? — Maeri Ferguson
Blue Heron Suite has flown along a different path than Jarosz usually takes to an album. It’s the result of a commission from the FreshGrass Foundation (the nonprofit organization that publishes No Depression) in 2017 that simply challenged her to create. When Jarosz received the commission in 2017, her mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and in dealing with the difficult emotions surrounding that, Jarosz found herself thinking a lot about family, childhood memories, and moments that she carries in her heart. — Stacy Chandler
This is the most honest, self-realized work of Tasjan’s career. The perils of living in a virtual world, anxiety and isolation, and most crucially, gender and the absolute exuberance of self-acceptance all play heavily into the songs on Tasjan!, making it feel, in many ways, like a coming out. Not in the typical sense, though. It’s more of a spiritual awakening and settling into oneself that can only occur with experience and seasoning, in the music industry and in life. — Maeri Ferguson
Recorded during the lockdown at a rural studio near Dublin, Ireland, where Rhiannon Giddens and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, have been riding out the pandemic, They’re Calling Me Home is, without reservation, her finest work to date. Intimately recorded and emotionally accessible, it is a near perfect album in which the diversity of Giddens’ musical interests coalesces to fulfill the promise hinted at in everything she has recorded up until this point. — Doug Heselgrave
Little Oblivions, Baker’s third full-length solo record and first since 2017, finds the singer-songwriter exploring a more textured instrumental terrain, with big, decadent arrangements behind that signature rip-your-heart-out voice. Baker’s sound has always been big thanks to that voice, but with Little Oblivions, the experience of hearing her is fully immersive, with keys, drums, and guitars giving her songs a louder, more cinematic scope. — Maeri Ferguson
Most of us struggling with demons tend to call a priest. Johnson City, Tennessee’s Amythyst Kiah recorded an LP. “For me, every song from the record comes from a deeply emotional place,” Kiah says of her latest record, Wary + Strange. “I’m trying to, in a way, exorcise my feelings.” — Andy Crump
Valerie June says she’s always been a dreamer. On her new album, The Moon and the Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, she fully embraces her own dream of making music and dispenses songs that help listeners light their own paths and discover their own dreams, whatever they might be. — Henry Carrigan
Russell describes Outside Child as a “community effort,” crediting the community of artists that had a hand in the album’s making. But it’s an intensely autobiographical album, a group of songs that tell a story that Russell knew she had to share, not only to bring closure for herself but to also offer a gift that could help others with similar stories. “This is my first solo album. It is acutely personal. It was hard for me to write, harder still to sing, play, and share,” she reflects. “Also, a relief. Like sucking the poison from a snake bite.” — Henry Carrigan
Thank you to the following for their participation in our Best Roots Music of 2021 (So Far) voting and for their keen ears all year long: ND Managing Editor Hilary Saunders; Assistant Editor Stacy Chandler; Ad Manager Sonja Nelson; Digital and Retail Marketing Manager Adam Kirr; columnists Rachel Baiman, Henry Carrigan, Chris Griffy, Kara Kundert, and Amos Perrine; and reviewers and writers John Amen, Chuck Armstrong, Rachel Cholst, Matt Conner, Nick Cristiano, Andy Crump, Mike Elliott, Maeri Ferguson, and Jon Young.