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 Wild Feathers Soar With Melodic Rock on New Album

My paying closer attention to new releases by contemporary artists is starting to pay off nicely. The most recent albums by The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dirty Honey and Lord Huron are some that come to mind. My latest “discovery” I feel quite excited about is Alvarado, the new album by The Wild Feathers, a band I first introduced on my blog last December with a tune from predecessor Medium Rarities.

Released on October 8, Alvarado is the band’s fifth studio album. The Wild Feathers were formed in 2010 in Nashville, Tenn. by high school friends Taylor Burns (guitar, vocals) and Preston Wimberly (guitar, vocals), along with Ricky Young (guitar, vocals) and Joel King (bass, vocals). Ben Dumas joined on drums following the August 2013 release of the group’s eponymous debut album. Burns, Young, King and Dumas remain part of the current line-up, which also includes Brett Moore (guitar, mandolin). Wimberly left in late 2015.

The Wild Feathers combine elements of country rock, southern rock, classic rock, blues and folk with multi-part harmony singing. And I should add catchy melodies, a joy to my pop ear I can’t deny always lingers in the background, no matter what genre of music I listen to! The group has cited Tom Petty, Eagles, The Band and Otis Redding as some of their influences. A bio on AllMusic also notes The Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band – all artists I love!

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According to an exclusive preview by American Songwriter, The Wild Feathers wrote and recorded the new album in a small cabin located an hour northwest of Nashville, the same place in which they conceived Medium Rarities. “We made every previous studio album with Jay Joyce [a prominent Nashville producer – CMM] in these big magical studios which was awesome,” Young told the publication. “But over the years, we’ve listened back to old demos like ‘Man there was really nothing wrong with that.’ It’s kind of cool there are mistakes…those things make it unique and human.”

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track. American Songwriter noted this tune was originally written for the band’s eponymous debut album, making it the oldest track on the record. “Some songs just can’t find their way onto the actual album, but we always loved that one and wanted to record it someday,” explained Young who wrote the tune. Well, I’m glad they finally did!

Ain’t Lookin’ is a great rocker written by country singer-songwriter Jeffrey Steele together with the band’s King, Young and Burns. It’s got some nice guitar work, and that sound is just awesome!

Next up: Over the Edge, a tune written by King about some of the challenges in present day America, including violence and political division. We’ve gone too far to go back/We don’t know how to turn around/We’ve gone too far, I think that we’re/Going over the edge, going over the edge/Going over the edge, going over the edge…I can hear some Tom Petty in here.

Since I included the excellent Side Street Shakedown in my latest Best of What’s New installment, I’m skipping this track and go to Out on the Road penned by Burns. While it’s certainly not the first tune that describes life as a touring musician and the challenges it can bring, it’s a nice rocker featuring some neat slide guitar action.

Off Your Shoulders, co-written by King and Young, has an Eagles vibe. I really love how this tune sounds. Once again, the guitar work is great and includes some nice harmony action. Check it out.

Let’s do one more, coz why not? Here’s Flashback, another tune solely written by King. In a flashback/Oh, we never knew how good we had it/Take me back/I wanna hold on to the memories as long as I can/Hold on to the memories as best as you can…The lyrics are on the sentimental side and perhaps a bit cliche, but I think it’s safe to assume many folks have thought about “the old times,” especially during this seemingly never-ending pandemic.

The final word shall belong to Ricky Young. Alvarado “is about us, taking the reins and being in control and doing exactly what we want to do, and taking it where we want to go—putting a blindfold on and hoping it works out,” he told American Songwriter. “By taking control musically, we can last a lot longer than just having a hit early on and trying to chase that for the rest of your career.” Well said – I certainly look forward to hearing more from The Wild Feathers.

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; American Songwriter; YouTube