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The Year: WMOT’s Essential And Outstanding Albums of 2021

Albums 2021 banner

By January 2021, our national relationship to recorded music had changed, because we’d spent almost a year mostly locked down and locked out of the live music experience. Streaming became a torrent. Vinyl sales continued to surge. Bandcamp became a juggernaut and the conscience of the music industry with its periodic Bandcamp Fridays, when they waived their sales commission on music and put more money in artists’ pockets. While the country was roiling politically and waiting for a Covid-19 vaccine, we listened for escape and emotional surrender, while artists created new music with insights from a bewildering, taxing plague year.

But if you’re looking for ennui and resignation, Americana music is the wrong place. This year’s outstanding albums were brimming with vigor, righteousness and principle. Artists like Maggie Rose, Southern Avenue and Nathaniel Rateliff brought big band R&B sounds to the mix. A cadre of extraordinary African American women showed remarkable individuality and compositional ideas that stretched the format in beautiful ways. Veterans like James McMurtry and Todd Snider released some of the best work of their careers. At a time when record producers enjoy a lot of freedom in the studio to layer and mix, projects like The Marfa Tapes and the first solo album from The Next Waltz honor the value of unadorned performance.

Lastly, I’d offer my takeaway from looking at this musical abundance. It’s famously easy to hear all of these albums on your choice of streaming services as much as you want. But the pandemic showed us, as if the pre-2020 business already hadn’t, the precariousness of careers and the sacrifices these artists make to live their lives of art. So in 2022, recommit to your physical music collection. Or buy download albums direct from artists on Bandcamp and add a t-shirt. Use the LP boom to inspire musical gift-giving. Ask how you’re directly supporting the artists you most appreciate. As I like to say, stream to discover; purchase what you love.

As always, I note that this is an unranked list of “outstanding and essential” albums, not a 30 Best list. It’s chosen by the author with input from the WMOT staff and informed by the station’s playlist. I’m spotlighting records that told a story, broke new ground and made news while engaging our minds and hearts. If I covered an album during the year, that is linked via the artist’s name.

Albums 2021

Allison Russell - Outside Child

The influence of supergroup Our Native Daughters keeps growing, as its individual members reach new heights. Allison Russell, respected for her work in duo Birds of Chicago, tackled the near impossible on her Fantasy Records debut - a song cycle rooted in the sexual abuse she experienced from her stepfather growing up in Montreal and her escape into realms of self-discovery and recovery. She uplifts even the heaviest of this material (and it can be dark) with moving lyricism and a sonic aura that blends crafty picking, judicious percussion, and luminous harmony vocals. Russell’s singing falls between Rhiannon Giddens’ opera-trained formality and Nina Simone’s earthy soul. She compliments that gorgeous tribune of a voice with passages of clarinet and emotion-tugging string arrangements. If compassion and redemption had a soundtrack, this would be it.

Amythyst Kiah - Wary + Strange

Russell’s “chosen sister” from Our Native Daughters Amythyst Kiah has surveyed her own path in roots music since graduating from the East Tennessee State country music program near where she grew up. Virtually the lone African American in her musical world for years, she interpreted old American folk with an assertive alto voice, while she felt her way into a style that let some of her early rock and indie influences into her roots outlook. It all came into focus on this daring head-trip of an album. We get the definitive version of Kiah’s signature song “Black Myself,” with the rocking swagger it deserves. “Wild Turkey” is her most vulnerable work, a lament about her mother. Her lyrics can be cryptic but they flow, and her voice has matured into a versatile, silky, emotional instrument that can pierce the heart and cry out for justice.

Valerie June - The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers

On her prior album in 2017, West Tennessee’s Valerie June convinced us she had easy access to the astral plane, and on this anticipated follow-up, she seems to have built a recording studio there. Utterly herself and confident like a country sorceress, June illuminates a sonic, spiritual journey through songs that range from sturdy folk to borderline avant-garde. Atmospheric interludes help a narrative unfold. June invited soul great Carla Thomas on board for a guest turn on the centerpiece “Call Me A Fool,” bringing some historic grounding to this future-forward album.

Albums 2021

Todd Snider - First Agnostic Church of Hope And Wonder

Recorded in Todd Snider’s funky bunker, the Big Purple Building, East Nashville’s hippie poet laureate accomplished something extraordinary - a Music City songwriter album with an entirely fresh sound from the very first beat. Indeed, the beats are a big part of the project, as Snider built his sardonic song cycle around his fascination with the fatback funk of the 1970s, while he lets guitars and banjos keep things frankly folky at the same time, which is no small feat. The songs are darkly hilarious with ruminations on police violence, lost friends (John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker), and a cynical evangelist preacher who gets more grace from God than he can handle. Even after three decades of punching up, Snider’s gifts for insight and humor are undimmed.

Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats - The Future

Denver’s deep-thinking R&B maximalist came back from a pensive solo album in 2020 with his full band for a career-shifting opus that overflows with sonic grandeur and enthralling songwriting. The lyrics, as in the opening title track, can be grim assessments of our time (“Yeah, they’ll come to steal and divide all that’s good”), but you can just waft along on the surging horns, the swirling organ and choir-like vocals. He’s one of the biggest live acts in roots rock and roll, so this new project debuted at #1 on the Americana album airplay chart in early November for good reasons.

Maggie Rose - Have A Seat

Maggie Rose was a gifted young singer who hit Nashville with contacts and trajectory in country music, but Rose proved she’s better off indie with this year’s inspired Have A Seat, an album about listening, respect and reconciliation. It’s not a debut, but it felt like a coming-out when she celebrated the project at a full Brooklyn Bowl with her longtime pals Them Vibes as part of her large, hot backing band. The album, recorded at FAME in Muscle Shoals, has a commensurate energy as the music finds novel ways to integrate classic soul with songwriter-driven pop. “For Your Consideration” takes us on a dynamic musical journey, while the bouncy “Telephone” skewers the internet rumor mill.

Albums 2021

Béla Fleck - My Bluegrass Heart

For two decades, bluegrass was too easy a target for banjo innovator Béla Fleck. He spent the time on a mission to prove that the banjo could do everything else - classical and jazz and avant-garde music. Then he realized that time was passing, and he felt the tug of the music that inspired him to play. Of course, Béla-grass is more complex and involved than the norm, but with the help of old comrades like Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, as well as a new generation of stellar pickers (Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, etc.), he made a double album masterwork of tricky but sturdy tunes and superjams. With its state-of-the-art personnel and its stratospheric craft, it’s one of the landmark string band albums of the 21st century.

Billy Strings - Renewal

In 2019, Billy Strings made this WMOT list for his trippy, experimental breakthrough album Home. He returns because this more straight bluegrass opus coincides with an unbelievable year as a performer. Strings toured more during Covid than most and didn’t miss a beat filling big arenas in the spring, culminating in an Entertainer of the Year win at the IBMA Awards. This sweeping 70 minutes of music gives Strings and his highly conditioned band room to run. “Heartbeat of America” is a long newgrass suite with a song/soliloquy in the middle about escaping dark times through an inner journey. “Hellbender” draws a remarkable character study that may become a ‘grass standard. The ballad “Love And Regret” meshes sturdy lyrics with a flowing musical form, and “Hide And Seek” is a serious song about mental illness with a ten-minute jazzgrass jam that could heal any troubled mind.

JP Harris’s Dreadful Wind & Rain - Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man

Old-time music is enjoying good times in the hands of younger artists, and no artist this year captured the hypnotic thrum of banjo and fiddle better than burly, bearded J.P. Harris. Working with former Old Crow fiddler Chance McCoy in a rustic studio they built for the occasion, Harris leans into traditional songs that he played hundreds of times during his folk apprenticeship. The centuries-old “House Carpenter” is a witty choice for the opening track given Harris’s daily trade of restoring historic houses. Also here are classics “Wild Bill Jones,” “Mole In The Ground,” and “Barbry Allen,” played with alacrity and given just enough contemporary indie sonic vibe to make it easy on newcomers to the old school.

Albums 2021

James McMurtry - The Horses And The Hounds

If James McMurtry had set up an online songwriting school during the pandemic, (hilariously unlikely but bear with me) Steve Earle and Tyler Childers might have signed up under assumed names. The Texas veteran writes fast-moving stories full of vigorous language, dark humor, incisive details, and crackling rhymes. This 10-song collection marries lyric to music with a sure hand. The portrait of the road dog musician with a stressed family at home in “What’s The Matter” is devastating. “Canola Fields” is a complete short story, and “Operation Never Mind” kicks our social complacency in the shins. The tone is Texas rock and roll, with a snarl and brains, because yes that’s allowed.

Brandi Carlile - In These Silent Days

After twenty years of relentless, high-caliber work, Brandi Carlile is probably the most admired and famous star in roots music, an award winning producer, and an important change agent. She follows her 2018 triumph By The Way, I Forgive You with this gorgeous and provocative collection, produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings at Nashville’s Studio A. Carlile delivers even more stylistic range here, from piano balladry to the furiously gorgeous centerpiece “Broken Horses.” Arriving to instant and universal acclaim, Silent Days is a signifier album of 2021.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno - self-titled

Vivian Leva is a second-generation old-time and country artist from Lexington, VA, daughter of the duo Jones and Leva and a talent coming into her own in her early 20s. This duo album with partner Riley Calcagno on voice and varied instruments has many colors and influences, but it rolls effortlessly on its clean tones, lovely melodies and storytelling. Opener “Will You” recalls the revelatory purity of Gillian Welch’s first album, while “Hollowed Hearts” is a simply gorgeous country waltz. “Love And Chains” touches on a more contemporary sound with great success. It promises much more acoustic Americana in the years ahead.

Albums 2021

Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall/ Jack Ingram - The Marfa Tapes

If you love pure country songwriters performing au naturale but find the Bluebird Cafe claustrophobic, cue up this in-the-round style session recorded under the wide Texas sky. The ambient sounds of the country play backup to country star Miranda Lambert kicking back and keeping it simple and sincere with her Americana pals Ingram and Randall. Lambert’s “Tin Man” makes a welcome appearance. It’s gratifying that this came out on a major country label.

John Hiatt and the Jerry Douglas Band - Leftover Feelings

It just had to happen, and it’s a wonder these mega-veterans of Music City hadn’t done more than a session or two before now. For inspiration and new direction, Hiatt followed up on The Eclipse Sessions of 2018 by collaborating with Jerry’s touring band, including guitarist Mike Seal and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer, in historic RCA Studio B. With no drums, it’s a sweltering roots and blues set (recalling Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Water at times) with all the raspy character and incisive storytelling we love about Hiatt. “All The Lilacs In Ohio” has a gorgeous flow that puts the dobro and voice on equal footing. “Light Of The Burning Sun” finds Hiatt revisiting his brother’s suicide with tender and vulnerable language. It’s old masters at work with a bright young ensemble.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Raise The Roof

A late-breaking entry into the 2021 sweepstakes, this sequel to the world-dominating 2007 release Raising Sand is an instant keeper for the long-term library. As before, the duo’s curatorial powers are inspired, covering songs by Calexico, Lucinda Williams (“Can’t Let Go” authored by Randy Weeks), Burt Janch, and Geeshie Wiley among others. The chemistry is as catalytic as before, with those worldly grooves Plant and producer T Bone Burnett love so much handled by drummer Jay Bellerose.

Albums 2021

Sierra Ferrell - Long Time Coming

West Virginia born Sierra Ferrellseemed to step out of time when she began lighting up the East Nashville honky tonk scene a few years ago. Her years of rambling, hopping trains and listening to American characters shaped an intuitive approach to country music that’s timeless, tender and risk-taking. She starts her Rounder debut with the sound of a bowed saw soloing over a dark gypsy lament that depicts “The Sea” as an ocean of loneliness. The best old-time country sidemen in town bring the swing and the rumba, while Sierra throws her supple, expressive voice around like a getaway car. Nashville’s old hillbilly ways and its respect for the novel live side by side in these grooves.

Leah Blevins - First Time Feeling

Vibrantly talented and passionate about every note, Leah Blevins of Sandy Hook, KY got on our radar about five years ago, and we’ve been waiting for a fully realized album all this time. In her patience, she found a sensitive producer in Texan Paul Cauthen. Just enough instrumentation makes a luxurious bed for her Dolly-like country voice, and the songs truly impress. The title track is sensual and snappy, while the superb “Little Birds” posits that love works best when we recognize our flaws. This is a heck of a debut by a young artist who lets her home ground shine through sophisticated music.

Morgan Wade - Reckless

Songwriter Morgan Wade earned a regional following for her pure roots songwriting, but when she teamed up with Nashville’s Sadler Vaden (of Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit) to produce her debut Reckless, she struck an uncanny balance between organic Americana and radio-friendly country pop. Reckless is sleek but never shallow, a superb road trip album. The subject matter is a familiar map of love, regret and what-ifs, set to truly punchy and catchy country tracks with Wade’s brazen, unmistakable voice telling the stories.

Albums 2021

Suzanne Santo - Yard Sale

New Austinite Suzanne Santo emerged as half of the post-modern LA folk-rock duo HoneyHoney, but in her solo mode, one feels a rock and roll spirit being set free. This is her second such project, following on Ruby Red of 2017, and it’s her best work yet, layered with poetry, enthralling sonic escapades and a voice that’s in the ranks of Brandi Carlile or Katie Pruitt. “Mercy” offers absorbing, loosely connected episodes from Santo’s early life in a best-of-the-year banger. “Afraid Of Heights” is a dark letter from codependency performed with Shakey Graves. “Since I’ve Had Your Love” explores the complex frontiers of happiness. The album title implies a little bit of everything, but this late August release guides us through a coherent album arc, a self-aware journey.

The Accidentals - Vessel

Eyes have been on this neo-acoustic trio since they started touring out of Traverse City, MI, where they formed as art academy high school kids. They even earned a major label drop a few years ago, but Vessel is the album they’ve been destined to make, one that shows all their strengths. Virtuoso multi-instrumentalists have limited outlets to shine, but by blending their string band plucks, fiddle lines and fat beats with pop songwriting savvy and an edge of rock and roll, they’re the most interesting ensemble of their type since Nickel Creek. “Go Getter” soars and grooves as it ponders mental health. The title track studies how what we see depends on where we stand, set to an utterly infectious track.

Southern Avenue - Be The Love You Want

The Memphis five-piece levels up on all fronts with their third LP, working with the mighty Steve Berlin as producer. The solid and youthful blues/soul band they’ve been since 2015 is still here, but so are waves of harmonic creativity and expert musicianship, a kind of Mississippi River Steely Dan. Lead singer Tierinii Jackson should be noted among the new Black stars of roots music, and her sister Tikyra is a fantastic drummer. Co-founder Ori Naftaly, an Israeli-born immigrant, gets very crafty on his guitar. Audacious horns and background vocals round out a new soul rock classic.

Albums 2021

Cedric Burnside - I Be Trying

The flip side of Southern Avenue’s musical extravagance is the unvarnished blues tradition, and nobody’s adding to the Mississippi canon these days like 43-year-old Cedric Burnside. He came up as a drummer for his grandfather R.L. Burnside, but his recent songcraft on acoustic and electric guitar swings low and easy. On his second Single Lock Records release, Burnside’s vocals are timeless and true, while the touch of his fingers on strings is palpable.

Tony Kamel - Back Down Home

Tony Kamel’s gifts as a soulful singer and songwriter have served his decade-old bluegrass band Wood & Wire well, but they deserved a spot on their own in the Gulf Coast sun. It took the great Bruce Robison to recognize that by producing these enthralling, all-live sessions at his analog studio in Lockhart, TX and releasing them as the first solo artist album on his Next Waltz label. Kamel documents a place and the spirit of its people in these ten songs, particularly the salty characters drawn in “The Surfer” and “Let It Slide.” “Who Am I Kidding?” takes a look inward at the ever-present temptation to quit the music game for something more reliable. With this nourishing roots country effort, Kamel assures us he should keep after it.

Charley Crockett - Music City USA

Charley Crockett has been for traditional country music what Billy Strings has been for bluegrass, a profoundly authentic new voice and a catalyst for new waves in roots music. Both had massive years, Crockett’s culminating in the Americana Emerging Act of the Year prize. The immensely prolific songwriter has released nine albums since 2015, none better than the double-sized Music City USA. The blues here are earned from years of hard traveling and obscurity. The honky tonk comes naturally. His rambling and his dues are summed up in the effortlessly melodic title track.

Albums 2021

Natalie Hemby - Pins And Needles

Natalie Hemby, a Nashville-raised star songwriter, made the solo album she’s had in her for decades, sparked in part by a couple of years with the Highwomen supergroup. Produced with her multi-instrumentalist husband, Pins And Needles is a smartly grooving collection that showcases her craft with the pen and her fine, smoky voice. “Heroes” leads off with a tart contrast of restrained verses and a jet-fueled chorus. “Radio Silence” shows the power of a simple idea worked to its potential. It’s not Hemby’s solo debut per se (that’s 2017’s Puxico) but it’s a big step forward that foretells more to come.

Garrison Starr - The Girl I Used To Be

Los Angeles based Garrison Starr said she wasn’t sure if she’d ever make another album again, as her career had steered from prominent folk rocker to studio-based film and TV work. But a series of writing encounters stirred her muse toward song cycle largely about her journey as a gay woman from the conservative South, starting with opener “The Devil In Me.” Her cathartic “Make Peace With It” is a universal song of forgiveness, external and internal. We in Nashville, where Starr spends a lot of time, are grateful to hear her luminous voice and new material.

Sunny War - Simple Syrup

On my third pass through Sunny War’s Simple Syrup, I tweeted that she’s one of the most remarkable folk guitarists I’ve heard in my life of seeking them out. “Elizabeth Cotten and Jerry Reed would go on a date to see her play,” I said in honor of her deft and imaginative fingerpicking. But there’s so much more. Nobody sings, writes or thinks like this former busker from LA.

Albums 2021

Los Lobos - Native Sons

Americana calls us to understand influences and embrace a sense of place. And what could be more fascinating than the Los Angeles geography and the musical roots of Los Lobos, Americana legends fast approaching 50 years together? On this Grammy nominated set, the wolves cover their teen Chicano faves like Thee Midnighters and Willie Bobo, roots rock contemporaries The Blasters and California staples Buffalo Springfield and the Beach Boys. They sound carefree and loose, just a great rock and roll band playing the music that inspired them.

The Flatlanders - Treasure of Love 

As with Los Lobos, supergroup the Flatlanders have more than enough original material to their individual credit to justify a (mostly) covers album. Jimmie Dale Gilmore sings lead on a Tex Ritter classic. Butch Hancock sings Townes Van Zandt. Joe Ely offers a stately take on the bluegrass standard “Love, Please Come Home.” Produced by Ely and icon Lloyd Maines, Treasure of Love is a distillation of Texas and its reverence for the song.

 Shannon McNally - The Waylon Sessions

Oft-underrated Americana siren Shannon McNally excels at covers, and she makes this tour of her hero’s work and influence a revealing statement about who she is and where she’s been. Her voice is confident, supple and entirely outlaw in her interpretations of Waylon originals like “I’ve Always Been Crazy” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” The best tracks include Billy Joe Shaver songs from the seminal Honky Tonk Heroes album. Waylon’s widow Jessi Colter blesses the effort with a duet vocal on the more obscure but lovely “Out Among The Stars.” You’ll learn a lot about Jennings and McNally on this proud, hard country homage.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org