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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Southern Avenue Mature on New Album

Be the Love You Want “still got that church vibe, it still has the soul”

Southern Avenue’s new album Be the Love You Want dropped today, and it’s another beauty by the five piece from Memphis, Tenn. Their third studio album had been on my radar screen since the June 11 release of the excellent Push Now, the first of three upfront singles I covered here. 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 on Move Into the Light, the second upfront single I reviewed here, Be the Love You Want at its core 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.

Be the One You Love kicks of with the title track. It sets the tone for an album that according to Southern Avenue’s website “showcases an exhilarating, and deeply emotional collection of songs that captures all of the shared experiences that bring us together—joy and sorrow, unity and separation, love and hate.” Like most of the other tracks, it was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson, who co-founded Southern Avenue in 2015, together with drummer Tikyra Jackson, Tierinii’s sister. It’s a strong opener featuring Tierinii’s seductive voice, beautiful harmony vocals by Tikyra, nice work by Naftali and keyboarder Jeremy Powell, and a great grove fueled by Tikyra and bassist Evan Sarver.

I’m skipping the funky Control, which I previously reviewed here, and go right to Don’t Hesitate (Call Me) where the band slows it down a bit. It’s a beautiful tune full of soul and a cool sound. I also really like Naftaly’s guitar work. Check it out!

Again, I’m skipping a track, the above noted Push Now, and go right to Fences, another soulful gem on the slower side. It was co-written by Naftaly, Jackson and Itay Shimoni.

Let’s Get It Together picks up the groove again. In addition to Naftaly and Tierinii Jackson, the tune is credited to the rhythm engine of Evan Sarver and Tikyra Jackson. Great funky stuff – I love it!

Let’s skip the aforementioned Move Into the Light and do one more: Move On, the excellent closer. It’s got some more of that great funky groove. The lyrics in a broader sense seem to reflect Tierinii Jackson’s struggle for acceptance by her church and her parents who reprimanded her for pursuing music outside the church. “I had a few viral videos out at some point,” Jackson told American Songwriter. “But I became this embarrassment to the church. I was openly reprimanded in front of the church. So, I just walked out and never went back. That drove a rift through me and my parents for a while. But we grew through it and we’re still growing.”

Be the Love You Want, which appears on Renew Records/BMG, was co-produced by Naftaly and Steve Berlin who has won multiple Grammys and worked with the likes of Los Lobos, Deer Tick and Jackie Greene. The album follows Keep On (May 2019) and the self-titled Southern Avenue (February 2017). You can read more about Keep On here. I’ve also repeatedly covered music from the band’s eponymous debut, for example here.

The last word shall belong to Tierinii Jackson. “We reworked it with the band and made it all churchy and soulful and as Memphis-y as we could,” she previously explained to American Songwriter, referring to Move Into the Light, the album’s second upfront single featuring Jason Mraz. “It turned out really, really great. It’s kind of a wild card, because it’s more of a dance song, but it’s still got that church vibe, it still has the soul.” While her statement is more fitting to that particular tune, I feel it also nicely sums up the entire album – more mature and contemporary production but still Southern Avenue!

Sources: Wikipedia; Southern Avenue website; American Songwriter; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Time to take another look at newly released music. My latest picks include the new single by one of my favorite contemporary bands, from Memphis, Tenn. The remaining three artists – a singer-songwriter from Nashville, an Irish pop rock band from Dublin and an indie rock outfit from New York – are new to me. Except for the last tune, all music was released yesterday (July 9).

Southern Avenue/Move Into the Light

Move Into the Light is the second upfront single from Southern Avenue’s upcoming third album Be the Love You Want slated for August 27. This five-piece from Memphis, Tenn. is one of my favorite contemporary bands, and I’ve covered them on various previous occasions. Founded in 2015, Southern Avenue, blend blues and soul with contemporary R&B. This new song introduces more of a dance feel to the band’s sound. It was co-written by Southern Avenue’s guitarist and lead vocalist Ori Naftaly and Tierinii Jackson, respectively, together with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and producer Michael Goldwasser. The band’s other members include Jackson’s sister Tikyra Jackson (drums), Jeremy Powell (keyboards) and Evan Sarver (bass). Commenting on the new tune, Tierinii told American Songwriter, “We reworked it with the band and made it all churchy and soulful and as Memphis-y as we could…It’s kind of a wild card, because it’s more of a dance song, but it’s still got that church vibe, it still has the soul.” I agree and dig the funky sound and the horns. Check it out!

Joy Oladokun/jordan

Joy Oladokum is a singer-songwriter based in Nashville, Tenn. According to her Apple Music profile, her music fuses the deep emotions and confessional nature of classic singer/songwriters with music that encompasses contemporary folk, R&B, and pop…Raised in a small rural community in Arizona, Joy Oladokun began playing guitar when she was ten years old. Inspired by artists like Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley, and singer/songwriters of the ’70s, Oladokun started writing songs but initially had no intention of pursuing music as a career, preferring to perform for family and friends, sometimes writing them new tunes as gifts…In April 2015, she released a solo acoustic EP, Cathedrals, and later that year launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money to record a full-length album. Titled Carry, it appeared in April 2016. jordan is the opener of Oladukum’s new album in defense of my own happiness (complete). “I wrote ‘jordan’ the day I decided to come out [as a queer woman],” she told Atwood Magazine. “I had spent a lot of time in self isolation dreaming of what it meant to be fully known. Letting myself imagine a life where I could be loved and happy was my first step into that journey.”

Inhaler/Totally

Inhaler are an Irish pop rock band from Dublin. Initially founded as a trio in 2012, they adopted the name Inhaler in 2015 and shortly thereafter became a four-piece. The current line-up includes co-founders Elijah Hewson (lead vocals, guitar), Robert Keating (bass, backing vocals) and Ryan McMahon (drums), together with Josh Jenkinson (guitar) who has been with the group since 2015. Hewson is one of Bono’s sons. In 2018, the band self-released their debut single I Want You. Inhaler were voted no. 5 in BBC’s “Sound of 2020” poll and were also included in the NME 100: Essential New Artists for 2020 list. Totally is a nice melodic pop rock tune from their debut album It Won’t Always Be Like This. And, while the band doesn’t sound like U2, Elijah’s vocals can’t deny his father, though since I know the connection to the U2 frontman, there may be a certain degree of bias.

Wild Pink/Leferever

Wild Pink are an indie rock band from New York. They were formed in 2015 by singer-songwriter John Ross (vocals, guitar), T.C. Brownell (bass) and Dan Keegan (drums). After self-releasing their debut single 2 Songs in 2015, Wild Pink got a deal with Texas is Funny Records (actually a funny name for a label!), which was followed by their debut EP Good Life in May of the same year. The band’s eponymous first full-length album appeared in early 2017 on Tiny Engines. They have since released two additional studio albums, most recently A Billion Little Lights in February this year. Leferever, written by Ross, is a track from their latest single 3 Songs that came out on June 25. I find the atmospheric sound quite soothing.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; Apple Music; Atwood Magazine; YouTube