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

Neil Young’s Carnegie Hall 1970 is Another Early Live Gem

Live solo performance is first release in new official bootleg series

Neil Young keeps cranking out new albums. Just a little over six months after his latest archives release Young Shakespeare, the 75-year-old Canadian-American singer-songwriter issued Carnegie Hall 1970 last Friday (October 1), the first of six releases in a new official bootleg series. And just like Young Shakespeare, Carnegie Hall 1970 is a true live gem featuring solo renditions of early Young tunes on acoustic guitar and piano.

As Young notes on his Neil Young Archives website, the album captures a performance at New York City’s famous concert venue from December 4, 1970. Young makes it a point to specify that it is the early show, given there is a released bootleg for the midnight show. Not only is this a previously unreleased solo concert, but it is based on mixes made from the multi-track recording that was made by sound engineer Henry Lewy that night. The quality is superb and far superior to your usual bootleg.

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the first track Down by the River. The tune initially appeared on Young’s sophomore album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere from May 1969. This is a great stripped back version of what originally is an electric rock-oriented tune.

I Am a Child is a song Young first recorded with Buffalo Springfield for the band’s third and final album Last Time Around that appeared in July 1968. Love this version!

Next up: Southern Man, another great acoustic rendition of a tune that originally was recorded as an electric rock song. It first appeared on Young’s third studio album After the Gold Rush, which at the time of the Carnegie show was his new album that had come out in September 1970.

One of my favorite early Neil Young tunes is Sugar Mountain, a song he composed on November 12, 1964, his 19th birthday. It was first formally released as the B-side to Young’s 1969 single The Loner in the form of a live recording that been captured during a November 1968 performance. What I love about the Carnegie version are Young’s attempts to involve the audience. Since it doesn’t work, he keeps starting over, getting a bit frustrated in the process. You really can picture it!

Let’s do a tune Young performed on piano: After the Gold Rush. The title track of the above noted album is another of my all-time favorite Young songs. Some of the notes he hits sound a bit peculiar. I think Young was still in his early years of learning the piano. Nevertheless, it’s a great rendition.

I could go on and on here, but all things must pass. The final track I’d like to call out is Bad Fog of Loneliness, then a new tune that had not been released at the time of the show. In fact, it had not even been recorded yet. Young would do so in 1971 but not release the song until 2007 on the album Live at Massey Hall 1971.

Here is the album’s full track list:

  1. Down By The River

  2. Cinnamon Girl

  3. I Am A Child

  4. Expecting To Fly

  5. The Loner

  6. Wonderin’

  7. Helpless

  8. Southern Man

  9. Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing

10. Sugar Mountain

11. On The Way Home

12. Tell Me Why

13. Only Love Can Break Your Heart

14. Old Man

15. After The Gold Rush

16. Flying On The Ground

17. Cowgirl In The Sand

18. Don’t Let It Bring You Down

19. Birds

20. Bad Fog Of Lonliness

21. Ohio

22. See The Sky About To Rain

23. Dance Dance Dance

Originally, Young had planned to launch his official bootleg series in April 2021 with the release of six albums. Then things changed. “But you know what happened…Fires and floods, Covid…”, he wrote on his website. Upcoming releases in the bootleg series include Royce Hall. January 30, 1971, Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Feb 1, 1971, Under the Rainbow. Nov 3, 1973, The Bottom Line. Citizen Kane Jr. Blues’ May 16, 1974 and The Ducks – ‘Trick of Disaster’ August 1977.

“Of the six releases still coming at you [now five – CMM], four [now three – CMM] are our own multi track masters, so they will sound amazing – much better than the original bootlegs you may have heard,” Young further wrote. “One of the other two is the original tape it was recorded on. We remastered it.” Sounds like Neil Young fans have much they can look forward to.

Sources: Wikipedia; Neil Young Archives website; YouTube