THROUGH THE LENS: 2021 in Review – The Best of Everything
Joni Mitchell - The Opry House, Nashville, TN 1974 - Photo by Mary Andrews
With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and its variants as a backdrop, how could there be good news in 2021? The good news is the year was an outstanding one for roots music releases. So many that one article, let alone one list, cannot do them full justice. But this intrepid reporter will try to cover as many bases as possible in as few words as possible.
My personal highlight was the archival releases — along with the overwhelming outpouring of love, appreciation, and admiration — of Joni Mitchell. There’s a special treat in the gallery below: three never-before-published photos. Two are by ND regular contributor Mary Andrews, taken in 1974 at the Opry House in Nashville, the other at the 1968 Philadelphia Folk Festival by Julian Breen, a friend’s uncle. Below are the rest of my personal highlights. (Don’t miss favorite albums, photos, and concerts of 2021 from the whole ND photography crew posted in recent weeks.)
THE ESSENTIAL TEN
1. Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – They’re Calling Me Home
The first thing that strikes you about this album is the tone, the purity of Giddens’ voice. As invigorating as her other work has been, here she’s centered, more contemplative, as if by looking out on the ocean’s horizon a quiet, compelling, uninhibited strength has been revealed.
2. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
The album’s title suggests she’s on a spiritual journey amid the chaos, and the genius is how she combines instrumental arrangements, ambience, static, and African rhythms into a mediative, yet invigorating masterpiece.
3. Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
As I noted in a 2019 column, “Singular is too inadequate a word to describe Ferrell. Her mixture of tempo, melody, and imagery — each often changed multiple times within a single song” is like hearing a new genre unfolding in front of you. Two years on that seems too poor a description about what’s on this album. No one sounds like Ferrell, no one is doing what she’s doing.
4. Allison Russell – Outside Child
Russell has said these songs are “like sucking the poison from a snake bite.” She likens hope, love, empathy, and forgiveness to superpowers, powers that may not cure but certainly can heal, enabling each of us to be the hero of our own histories.
5. Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
This album personifies Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Revolutionary Dreams,” which concludes with these lines: “… if I dreamed natural / dreams of being a natural / woman doing what a woman / does when she’s natural / I would have a revolution.” Kiah is that natural woman.
6. David Olney & Anana Kaye – Whispers and Sighs
This album feels as though Olney and Kaye are hovering from above, and in the watching they share with us self-portraits, myths, and existential tales that expose the various crutches we use to cope with our own impermanence.
7. John R. Miller – Depreciated
Miller is your anti-John Denver whose dark and nuanced songs come from a variety of life experiences from years on the road, some by happenstance, others self-inflicted. Comparisons to Townes Van Zandt and Tyler Childers are not unfounded.
8. Mary Hott – Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning
With Hott’s crystalline voice and soulful tone, this album is a searing indictment of the many injustices and degradations — some of which have just recently come to light — done not just to coal miners, but most egregiously to the their wives and young daughters. It’s the definitive coal-themed album.
9. Yola – Stand for Myself
This album showcases Yola’s empowerment, her vulnerability, her sense of history, taking you to places you hadn’t previously thought existed. If time is a river, Yola’s country-soul sound is the river of now.
10. Jason Ringenberg – Rhinestoned
Henry Carrigan said it best in his ND review, “Ringenberg shines … with his canny songwriting, his propulsive and bright guitar work, and his raw vocals. He’s an expert at going straight to our hearts with a lyric wrapped in a tune so danceable that the words linger long after the song’s finished.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES
Joni Mitchell – The Reprise Albums (1968-1971); Archives, Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971)
Mitchell did not play by the rules, she changed the game. In so doing she created a blueprint that every singer-songwriter has basically followed ever since. In the Archives set, which begins in late 1967 and ends just shy of recording Blue, we hear demos, outtakes, and live recordings from apartments, a coffee house, a BBC broadcast (with James Taylor), and Carnegie Hall. The Albums set offers superb remasters of the first four albums. This is not nostalgia, Mitchell’s journeys as a woman of heart and mind remain fresh, immediate, necessary.
Susana Baca – Palabras Urgentes
Immersed in her country’s political landscape, the legendary Peruvian vocalist and activist sings for liberty, social equality, and the end of racism. Such records can be difficult listening, but not this one, as Baca has the most beautiful, captivating voice in the world.
Guy Davis – Be Ready When I Call You
Be it a wanderer’s sacrificial denouement to a lover (“Got Your Letter in My Pocket”) or singing about the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre (“God’s Gonna Make Things Over”), no one encompasses the blues as completely as Guy Davis.
Sue Foley – Pinky’s Blues
While Foley can play hot, she can also play the cool, Austin blues. The album’s a full-throttled roar from start to finish.
Zoe & Cloyd – Rebuild
The songs on this album not only seek to rebuild and reconnect, but also to reconstruct. By combining the musical traditions of Natalya Zoe Weinstein’s classical and klezmer with John Cloyd Miller’s rural North Carolina roots, the reconstruction carries tradition forward with values that promote both family and the whole of humanity. Isn’t that what The Carter Family did?
The Brother Brothers – Calla Lily
Much has been made, and rightfully so, of these twin brothers’ harmonies, but it’s how they intertwine those harmonies with a sparse instrumentation that makes them and this album so special. Bluegrass or not, they are our Simon & Garfunkel.
Melissa Carper – Daddy’s Country Gold
With guest appearances from Brennen Leigh and Sierra Ferrell, Carper swings it country style. But she can just as easily bring a tear to your eye when pining over a lost lover as frolic in the beautiful come-on, “Would You Like To Get Some Goats,” which invites a lover to settle down on a farm, bake cherry pies, and let peppers grow, nice and slow.
Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood
While there are some bigger names out there, this album is like watching flowers blossom after a gentle spring rain.
Margo Price – A Series of Rumors; Live From the Other Side
The former is a limited edition set of seven 45 RPM singles housed in a box autographed by Price. The A sides consist of tracks from That’s How Rumors Get Started, with covers and collaborations on the B sides. The latter is a three-song live EP (digital only) featuring Allison Russell, Adia Victoria, Kam Franklin, and Kyshona Armstrong.
Billy Joe Shaver & Kinky Friedman – Live Down Under
These songs were recorded in 2002 in Sydney, Australia, but if you close your eyes and pop open a Lone Star, you’re back in Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters of the 1970s.
Jon Byrd – Me & Paul
This five-song EP, with Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, reminds me one of the many honky-tonks my parents paraded me through when I was a boy, with a live feel that makes it necessarily authentic.
Various Artists – KIMBROUGH
Pianist and composer Frank Kimbrough passed away last December. Over a four-day period in May, a who’s-who of jazz paid tribute to him by recording 61 of his compositions. All proceeds from this $20 Bandcamp collection go to the Frank Kimbrough Jazz Scholarship at The Juilliard School, where he also taught. Personnel and full credits on the album can be found here.
The End of America – Night Is Alive
While they describe Night Is Alive as “Appalachian seriousness with a classic rock background,” it is also layered like a painter’s strokes on a canvas. Their three-part harmony could well be the best since Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Rickie Lee Jones – Last Chance Texaco
From hitchhiking across the country in 1969 to a fateful meeting with Lowell George to the present day, Jones is an original. In this memoir her storytelling is just as compelling as her songs.
MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHY DOCUMENTARY
A Year In the Pit: A Journey Into Music Photography
Following its premiere at the Culver City Film Festival, and before returning to the festival circuit, this documentary is available to view online through Jan. 5. Among the photographers featured is ND contributor Jim Brock, and after seeing the film in its entirety he told me, “I was pretty knocked out … It is a pit’s eye view that captures the joy and challenges that go unseen, behind the photos fans love to see.”
Now, the photos. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.