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

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The Brandy Alexanders Debut with Intoxicating Melodic Psych Rock

A Brandy Alexander is a brandy-based dessert cocktail, which according to Wikipedia was John Lennon’s favorite drink. It wasted him and Harry Nilsson at the Troubador in March 1974, and eventually, they were kicked out of the prominent Los Angeles nightclub after they had heckled the performing act and Lennon reportedly had hit a waitress. The potent drink also inspired the name of Canadian psychedelic rock band The Brandy Alexanders who released their eponymous debut album last Friday (December 10). The sound is quite melodic and, yes, intoxicating.

The Brandy Alexanders were formed by brothers Alex Dick (lead vocals, guitar) and Daniel Dick (keyboards) in 2016, notes the band’s biography. The brothers, who write the group’s lyrics and music, had started their musical journey in high school where they formed two now-defunct bands. Sean Shepherd (lead guitar), Zack Vivier (bass) and Robbie Cervi (drums) complete the group’s line-up.

The Brandy Alexanders describe their music as follows: Somewhere in the expanse between the Dark Side of The Moon and Abbey Road – Psychedelic Rock band, The Brandy Alexanders, take you to a parallel universe. Introspective, and almost existential lyrics are expressed via dream like vocals that weave themselves into a wall of propulsive guitar riffs, textured synths and a bold rhythm section. Jeez, couldn’t have said it any better! 🙂

In 2019, Renan Yildizdogan, the founder of Gypsy Soul Records, saw The Brandy Alexanders at a local performance venue in Toronto. He subsequently signed them, and their debut appears on the independent label. During an interview with Canadian Beats, the band said the album’s album origin was a 2016 EP, which eventually developed into the nine tracks that are out now. Time for some music. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks are credited to Alexander Dick and Shawn Dawson.

Here’s the opener Ceiling Fan, Man. The tune first appeared as the album’s lead single on August 27. It’s got a cool riff and a big sound that drew me in. Here’s the official video – quite trippy!

Shiram is a nice rocker. In addition to the fuzzy guitar, I like the keyboard work on this track.

Hey, Why’d You Do It is another song with a great riff and a cool sound. It’s just catchy.

Next up: Live by the Light, a tune solely written by Alex Dick, and the band’s new single. “This song evolved over the course of two years, eventually adding the chorus and the unison guitar part after Alex and Dan did multiple demos,” the band told Canadian Beats. I dig the groove. And once again, the sound is great!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the closer Spaceopus, a co-write by the two brothers. And, yes, it’s spacey and has an epic feel to it!

I came across The Brandy Alexanders by coincidence. For some reason, I didn’t see their new album when I checked iTunes for new releases last Friday. While it does get a bit repetitive after some time, the sound of this band is pretty compelling. I look forward to more of their music in the future.

Sources: The Brandy Alexanders website; Canadian Beats; YouTube