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 Horse Has Left the Barn

Recorded high in the Rocky Mountains, Neil Young’s new album with Crazy Horse sounds spontaneous and relaxed

Neil Young’s new album with Crazy Horse is out today (December 10). While Barn doesn’t break new ground, its classic Neil Young feel makes for a great listening experience fans of the Canadian-turned-American singer-songwriter will love. His 41st studio release appears 52 years after 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and follows Colorado from October 2019, the first and most recent albums, respectively, which Young recorded with his longtime backing band.

The title of the new album couldn’t be more fitting: It was recorded in June this year in a converted barn high in the Rocky Mountains, using Le Mobile Recording Studio. “Made it just like in the old drawings and photographs,” Young told Apple Music about the barn. “It used to be a stage stop, so you’d see these pictures with the carriages and the horses and the ladies with their big dresses with the metal ring and everything.”

From left: Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, Nils Lofgren and Neil Young

Young also explained the album’s unusual recording process to Apple. The sessions were scheduled at night, so he and his Crazy Horse members Nils Lofgren (piano, backing vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, backing vocals) and Ralph Molina (drums) could work in the moonlight. Getting to the barn involved walking for a couple of miles “across the meadows, through the valley.” Further describing the scene Young added, “The Rockies are everywhere. And it’s just beautiful. I like that.” 

Three of the 10 tracks, Song of the Seasons, Heading West and Welcome Back, had been released upfront. I previously covered these tunes here, here and here. As such, I’m skipping them in this post. Let’s take a look at some of the other songs. All tunes were written by Young.

Change Ain’t Never Gonna has a bluesy vibe. Young, a strong supporter of biofuels, criticizes the opponents of alternative fuels: Ten men workin’ had to get a new job/Try to save the planet from a fuel-burnin’ mob/Who turned on everyone for bein’ so controllin’/Takin’ away all the freedom they’ve been knowin’…

On crunchy rocker Canerican, Young who became an American citizen in 2020 reflects on his new status: …I am American, American is what I am/I was born in Canada, came south to join a band/got caught up in the big time, traveling through the land/Up on the stage I see the changes coming to this country/I am Canerican/ Canerican is what I am…

They Might Be Lost is one of the acoustic tunes on the album. It’s not clear to me what the song is about. This review in Riff Magazine notes it may or may not be about a marijuana grower waiting for couriers to come pick up the latest shipment. While I guess it’s possible, I’m not sure how they came up with this explanation.

On Human Race, the speed picks up and the sound gets crunchy again. There’s also less ambiguity about the lyrics…Who’s gonna save the human race/Where are all the children gonna run and hide (children of the fires and floods/From the fires and floods today’s people have left behind

The last track I’d like to highlight is Tumblin’ Thru the Years. The piano-driven ballad appears to be a thank you to Young’s wife Daryl Hannah for sticking with him. They started a relationship in 2014 and got married three years ago. Well, I was walking down the road/one step at a time heading home/I was thinkin’ about the love we share, you and me/It’s a complicated thing, this life/If I wasn’t here with you/Tumblin’ thru the years without our love

Barn was co-produced by Young and Niko Bolas, who also worked in this capacity on Young’s previous albums Living with War (2006), Freedom (1989) and This Note’s for You (1988). On Barn, nothing seems to be overthought, a common characteristic of other Crazy Horse albums. In fact, the recordings sound pretty spontaneous, occasionally somewhat imperfect and relaxed. Perhaps those moonlight recording sessions and walks to the barn contributed to this feel!

Barn’s release is accompanied by a documentary about the making of the album, BARN/A Band – A Brotherhood – A Barn, directed by Hannah. The film was screened on December 9 for one night only at select theaters in Chicago; Santa Monica, Calif. and New York City. Another screening is scheduled in Toronto for tomorrow evening. The documentary will also stream on Young’s website NeilYoungArchives.com and streaming services in January.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Riff Magazine; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Welcome Back

Neil Young has shared a video of Welcome Back, the third upfront track from his upcoming new album. Recorded with his longtime backing band Crazy Horse, Barn is scheduled for this Friday, December 10. The eight-and-a-half-minute track is a slow-burning, crunchy jam rocker. Its feel reminds me a bit of Cortez the Killer, the epic tune from Young’s 1975 Zuma album, which he also made with Crazy Horse. This sounds like classic Neil – check it out!

A note published on Young’s website NeilYoungArchives.com on December 3 reads as follows: Welcome Back! The Horse is in the Barn playing a song like only the Horse can. Enjoy! We had a great time making this record for you and of course for us!

Apart from Young (guitar, vocals), the clip features Crazy Horse members Nils Lofgren (guitar), Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums). Like the previously released Heading West, Welcome Back was recorded on June 21 this year at Le Mobile Remote Recording Studio in the Rocky Mountains. According to Wikipedia, Barn is Young’s 41st studio album and his 14th with Crazy Horse.

In addition to the album, there will be a companion documentary titled BARN/A Band – A Brotherhood – A Barn, directed by Young’s wife Daryl Hannah. The film will be screened at select theaters for one night only. Current locations listed on NeilYoungArchives.com include venues in Chicago; Santa Monica, Calif.; New York City and Toronto. Here’s a trailer.

Sources: Wikipedia; NeilYoungArchives.com; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Heading West

On October 28, Neil Young announced Heading West on his Neil Young Archives website, the second upfront tune from his upcoming new album with Crazy Horse, Barn. The below official video appeared on November 4.

The crunchy electric rocker follows the acoustic folk tune Song of the Seasons from October 15, which I previously featured here. Both of these tracks sound like classic Neil, and I’m looking forward to the album that’s scheduled to drop on December 10.

My mom and I travelled across the country together, heading west, Young wrote on his website. She was on her way back home to start over. I was on my way there with her. Here’s a song about me and my mom and those ‘growing up’ times. It’s so great to remember her this way!

Heading West features Young (guitar, lead vocals) and his Crazy Horse band mates Nils Lofgren (piano, backing vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, backing vocals) and Ralph Molina (drums). The tune was recorded in the Rocky Mountains on June 21 this year at Le Mobile Remote Recording Studio. Housed in a remote recording truck, Le Mobile is a rolling recording studio that over its nearly 50-year history has been used by countless music artists from AC/DC to ZZ Top.

I think this comment by Young perfectly sums the ragged melodic tune: What a great ride with the Horse on this one! Larry Cragg [Young’s longtime guitar tech – CMM] had my guitar sounding so alive.

Neil Young with his mother Edna Blow Ragland “Rassy” Young (1918–1990) – undated photo from Neil Young Archives

In a separate statement on his website, Young also had this to say about the forthcoming album: All of BARN is real. It came from the heart. We may have cried after some takes…in happiness…in elation…A band of brothers, we have all known one another since our beginnings. We made ‘Only love can break your Heart’ and ‘Southern Man’ on the same album. We made ‘Round and Round’ and ‘Down by the River’ on the same album. We made ‘Don’t forget about Love’ and ‘Human Race’ on the same album. Welcome back. It’s not the same. Barn may be our best album ever.

That conclusion certainly doesn’t suggest a lack of confidence. One of the things I find intriguing about Neil Young is his spontaneity. He doesn’t seem to overthink his recording projects. Overall, I feel this approach has served him well, though it’s also fair to say the outcomes have varied.

Young is also known for having made impulsive decisions and having scrapped entire albums at the last minute. It doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case for Barn. If anything, for the past few years, Young seems to have been on a mission to release more of his music, as evidenced by his Archives Performance Series, not withhold it. Keeping fingers crossed!

Sources: Wikipedia; NeilYoungArchives.com; Le Mobile website; YouTube