The Year That Was – Part 1 of 2

My six favorite albums of 2021

After feeling a bit lukewarm initially about the thought of looking back at 2021, a year I’d rather forget in many regards, I’m glad I decided to proceed. After all, there was lots of great new music – music that undoubtedly helped me cope with challenges this tiresome pandemic presented.

This review is split into two parts. Part 1 revisits my favorite 2021 albums I covered during the past year. Part 2 presents highlights from Best of What’s New, my weekly recurring feature looking at newly released songs. While it would have been easy to feature some of the same artists in both parts, I deliberately avoided overlap.

Altogether, I reviewed more than 20 albums over the past 12 months. After excluding archives releases, such as Neil Young’s Carnegie Hall 1970 and Young Shakespeare, and reissues like Tom Petty’s Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”), I narrowed the list to 17 albums. Following are six I like in particular.

Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band/Dance Songs for Hard Times

Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band is an unusual country blues trio, and it’s not only because of their funny name. The group, which has been around since 2003, consists of Josh “The Reverend” Peyton (guitar, lead vocals), his wife  “Washboard” Breezy Peyton (washboard) and Max Senteney (drums). Notably, they don’t have a bassist. Peyton, a great guitarist, compensates with skillful fingerstyle playing that includes the prominent use of his thumb to play bass lines. Dance Songs for Hard Times, the trio’s 10th full-length album, was released on April 9. You can read more about it here. To get an idea, check out the amazing Too Cool to Dance and tell me this doesn’t rock!

John Hiatt with The Jerry Douglas Band/Leftover Feelings

One of my big “discoveries” this year is John Hiatt, an artist whose name I’ve known for 30-plus years but had not started to explore until earlier this year – well, better late than never! On May 21, Hiatt released a great collaboration album with Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas. They were backed by Jerry Douglas Band members Mike Seal (acoustic and electric guitar), Daniel Kimbro (bass, string arrangements) and Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle). You can read more about Leftover Feelings here, which was recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B during the Covid shutdown. Here’s a little sample: Mississippi Phone Booth, written by Hiatt.

Southern Avenue/Be the Love You Want

Southern Avenue, a five-piece from Memphis, Tenn., are one of my favorite contemporary groups, blending blues and soul with contemporary R&B. Founded in 2015, this great band features Ori Naftaly (guitar), Tierinii Jackson (lead vocals), her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, backing vocals), Jeremy Powell (keyboards) and Evan Sarver (bass). On August 27, their third album Be the Love You Want came out. While it feels like a bigger and more contemporary production compared to the band’s first two records and there’s a guest appearance by pop artist Jason Mraz, at its core, this still sounds very much like Southern Avenue’s music I’ve come to love: A tasty blend of blues, soul, funk and gospel, combined with elements of modern R&B. You can read more about it here. And here’s Push Now.

The Wild Feathers/Alvarado

The Wild Feathers, formed in Nashville, Tenn. in 2010, combine elements of country rock, southern rock, classic rock, blues and folk with multi-part harmony singing – a quite attractive combination! The group’s current lineup includes founding members Taylor Burns (guitar, vocals), Ricky Young (guitar, vocals), Brett Moore (guitar, mandolin) and Joel King (bass, vocals), together with Ben Dumas (drums). On October 8, they released their fifth studio album Alvarado. According to an exclusive preview by American SongwriterThe Wild Feathers wrote and recorded the album in a small cabin located an hour northwest of Nashville, the same place in which they conceived predecessor Medium Rarities. You can read more about Alvarado here. To get an idea, I give you Side Street Shakedown, a great rocker co-written by King, Young and Burns.

The Brandy Alexanders/The Brandy Alexanders

The Brandy Alexanders are a psychedelic pop-rock band from Canada, which was formed in 2016. The members include brothers Alex Dick (lead vocals, guitar) and Daniel Dick (keyboards), along with Sean Shepherd (lead guitar), Zack Vivier (bass) and Robbie Cervi (drums). They were discovered in 2019 by Renan Yildizdogan, the founder of independent label Gypsy Soul Records, who saw the group at a local performance venue in Toronto and subsequently signed them. On December 10, The Brandy Alexanders released their eponymous debut album. For more on that, click here. And here’s the great-sounding opener Ceiling Fan, Man

Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Barn

Neil Young has been on a roll this year. In addition to the aforementioned solo releases from his archives, he put out Way Down in the Rust Bucket, another excellent archives release of a 1990 live concert with Crazy Horse. Speaking of Young’s longtime backing band, there was a record with new songs, Barn, his 41st studio release and 14th album with Crazy Horse. It appeared on December 10 as well. Recorded in a converted barn high in the Rocky Mountains, Barn sounds charmingly ragged, relaxed and spontaneous – like classic Crazy Horse! Click here for my album review and check out Heading West!

Additional 2021 albums I’d like to at least briefly acknowledge include Exit Wounds (The Wallflowers), Many a Mile (Blue Rodeo), Long Lost (Lord Huron), Dirty Honey (Dirty Honey) and The Battle at Garden’s Gate (Greta Van Fleet). Stay tuned for Part 2 of this year-in-review feature, which will include songs from these artists.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; YouTube

Another Posthumous Album Highlights Some of Tom Petty’s Most Productive Years

“Angel Dream” is reconfigured and remastered 25th anniversary version of 1996 “She’s the One” soundtrack album

While I would call myself a Tom Petty fan and dearly miss him, I’m mostly familiar with his catalog until 1994. Except for his final album with the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye, my knowledge gets spotty when it comes to anything Petty released after his second solo album Wildflowers, alone or together with his longtime band. Among the latter was the August 1996 soundtrack Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”. That changed over the past few days with Angel Dream, a reconfigured and remastered 25th anniversary edition released on July 2. Listening to the anniversary issue not only led me to check out the original, but also to discover Tom Petty music I really like.

Officially titled Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”), the latest Tom Petty posthumous release is being characterized as a “reimagined reissue.” This 25th anniversary edition keeps eight tunes of the original album, eliminates seven and adds four previously unreleased songs. As such, I’m okay with the characterization. But I can also see how some music fans like hotfox63 view the “reimagined reissue” label as a cynical marketing gimmick. Whatever the main motives behind a reissue may be, I think there can be no doubt that money is always part of the equation. Notably, Petty was involved in working on the mixes for Angel Dream with his longtime engineer and co-producer Ryan Ulate prior to his untimely death in October 2017.

I’d like to start this review with Angel Dream (No. 2), the album’s beautiful opener, a tune that also appeared on the original edition. During a recent interview on SiriusXM’s Tom Petty Radio (channel 31), Heartbreakers co-founder and keyboarder Benmont Tench called it “one of the loveliest songs Tom ever wrote,” as transcribed in this Rock Cellar Magazine review. Essentially, Angel Dream (No. 2) bookends the album, with the second bookend being an instrumental reprise titled French Disconnection, one of the previously unreleased tracks.

Among the highlights of the original album and this reissue is Change the Locks, a tune written by Lucinda Williams, which she recorded for her 1988 eponymous third studio album under the slightly different title Changed the Locks. Petty’s cover is more straight rock than the more bluesy original. Nice!

One of Life’s Little Mysteries is among the previously unreleased tracks. The song’s jazzy groove reminds me a bit of Full Grown Body, a tune from the aforementioned Hypnotic Eye. The music certainly fits the lyrics. An excerpt: Go to work in the morning/Try to make a buck/Do everything you’re told/And you’re still outta luck/It’s one of life’s little mysteries…

Here’s another cool cover and previously unreleased track: Thirteen Days, a J.J. Cale tune included on his fifth studio album 5 that came out in August 1979. “We had a lot of fun playing that song live and it’s great to have a recording of it from the studio,” said Mike Campbell, ex-Heartbreakers guitarist, during the above SiriusXM interview. I can definitely see why!

The last song I’d like to call out is yet another previously unreleased tune: 105 Degrees, which also is the album’s lead single. I realize I already covered this song in my last Best of What’s New installment, but since it’s an early favorite, I simply couldn’t skip it. I just love how this tune is shuffling along!

“‘She’s The One’ was originally a great way to include some of the songs that didn’t make it on to Wildflowers, but it has its own thing to it, its own charm, and putting it out now in a restructured form makes for a sweet little treat,” Benmont further noted. “At the time in the studio, it was fun working as a band to improvise the scoring cues for the movie rather than playing to preset click tracks and a written score. And it was interesting to try to cut covers of others’ songs for a record, instead of learning covers just for live shows.”

Here’s another tidbit I learned about “She’s the One” when doing some research for this post. It’s only album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that was recorded without an official drummer. The studio sessions happened following the departure of the band’s original drummer Stan Lynch. The album featured contributions from three other drummers: Curt Bisquera, Ringo Starr and Steve Ferrone. Ferrone, who had also played on Wildflowers, became the official drummer of the Heartbreakers shortly after “She’s the One” had been recorded.

Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture She's the One) CD – Tom  Petty
CD softpak with 12-page booklet.

“These songs are extremely special,” added Petty’s widow Dana Petty, who together with their two daughters Adria and Annakim manages the Tom Petty estate. “I am grateful this record is getting the recognition it deserves. The remix Ryan Ulyate did sounds amazing, and the unreleased gems are a lovely bonus. Annakim, Adria, and I took a lot of time finding artwork that reflects the mood of the album. I think we finally achieved that with Alia Penner’s work. It is surreal and beautiful, just like life during that time.”

Angel Dream, which appears on Warner Records and is available in CD and vinyl formats, as well as in digital music platforms, is the fifth posthumous Tom Petty album. It is also the third album with a connection to Wildflowers, widely considered to be one of Petty’s best records. October 2020 saw the release of Wildflowers & All the Rest. The super deluxe edition of that reissue, titled Finding Wildflowers, included a disc featuring alternate versions of Wildflowers’ 15 tracks, plus You Saw Me Comin’, a previously unreleased original song. That CD was released as a standalone under the title Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions) in April this year.

I will admit the standalone release does smack a bit like a money grab, since they could have offered it as a separate option when Wildflowers & All the Rest came out. Instead, they waited for six months. In the meantime, if fans wanted to own the alternate versions and that new song, they needed to buy the whole enchilada. I wonder how Tom Petty would have felt about that. After all, he once successfully battled his label MCA when they wanted to sell his then-latest record Damn the Torpedoes at a premium price of $9.98 instead of the usual list price of $8.98.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tom Petty website; Rock Cellar Magazine; YouTube