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

After more than 50 installments of a weekly recurring feature, the intros must sound a bit like a broken record for more frequent visitors of the blog. So I’m keeping this pretty brief. If you’re visiting for the first time, these posts feature four to six new or recently released songs. In this case, all tracks appeared yesterday (June 10).

Southern Avenue/Push Now

I’m happy to kick things off with one of my favorite contemporary bands: Southern Avenue. I covered this group from Memphis, Tenn. on various occasions in the past, for example here and here. Founded in Memphis in 2015, Southern Avenue blend traditional blues and soul with elements of modern R&B. Their members are Ori Naftaly (guitar), Tierinii Jackson (lead vocals), her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, backing vocals), Jeremy Powell (keyboards) and Evan Sarver (bass). Less than a year after their formation, Southern Avenue signed with none other than Stax Records. The band’s eponymous debut album appeared in February 2017. Their sophomore, Keep On, was released in May 2019. Push Now is the lead single from Southern Avenue’s upcoming new album Be the Love You Want set to come out on August 27. The music and vocals are great as usual, and I look forward to hearing more from the album!

AFI/Dulcería

AFI are a rock band formed by three high school students in Ukiah, Calif. in 1991. Initially, they didn’t know how to play any instruments. Unlike The Monkees (for the record, I dig this band!), they didn’t have session musicians to play their music, so they started to learn their instruments right away. Originally a hardcore punk band, AFI have since evolved into other genres, which according to Wikipedia include horror punk (didn’t even know this genre exists!), post-hardcore, EMO, gothic rock and alternative rock. The band’s current line-up has existed since 1998 and includes founding members Davey Havok (lead vocals) and Adam Carson (drums, backing vocals), along with Hunter Burgan (bass, keyboards, backing vocals) and Jade Puget (guitar, keyboards, piano, synthesizer, backing vocals). After two EPs, AFI released their first full-length album Answer That and Stay Fashionable in July 1995. Their sixth and breakthrough album Sing the Sorrow from March 2003 was followed by Decemberunderground in June 2006, their best-selling album to date. It topped the U.S. Billboard 200; climbed to no. 2 and 3 in Canada and Australia, respectively; and also charted in many other countries. Dulcería is a track from AFI’s new album Bodies, their 11th. The tune is credited to all members of the band and William Patrick Corgan, aka Billy Corgan, lead vocalist and guitarist of The Smashing Pumpkins. Sounds like RFI have come a long way from their early days – there’s certainly no horror in this cool sounding and rather melodic tune!

Mammoth WVH/Horribly Right

Mammoth WVH is the new solo project of Wolfgang Van Halen who just released his eponymous debut album. The son of the late Eddie Van Halen is best known as the former bassist for Van Halen (2006-2020) and American heavy metal band Tremonti (2012-2016). According to his profile on Apple Music, Wolfgang was steadily working on songs of his own, but he kept his original material under wraps until his father died in October 2020. He formed Mammoth WVH the next month, repurposing the name Mammoth from the first iterations of Van Halen, which featured his father on lead vocals. A talented singer and multi-instrumentalist, Wolfgang recorded every instrument for his new project himself. His first song, “Distance,” debuted in November 2020, and an accompanying video was montaged from home movies of him and his father in different stages of his early life through to the hour at hand. Here is Horribly Right. “This is a song I wrote in New York when we had a week off on the 2015 Van Halen tour,” Van Halen told Apple Music. “It was really fun to take a quick break from tour and just lock myself in my room and write.” The tune is definitely on the heavy side, which doesn’t always work for me, but after a somewhat grim opening riff, it evolves into a more melodic hard rock song.

Julian Lage/Etude

I’d like to close this post on the quieter side with some great jazz by American guitarist and composer Julian Lage. I’m completely new to his music, but when I sampled a few tracks from his new album Squint, I immediately knew I’d dig it. According to Apple Music’s profile, Lage has been widely acclaimed as one of the most prodigious guitarists of his generation. The New York-based musician boasts a long resume as a desired sideman with artists as diverse as Gary Burton, Taylor Eigsti, John Zorn, Nels Cline, Chris Eldridge, Eric Harland, and Fred Hersch, to name just a few. Equally important is his reputation as a soloist and bandleader. He is equally versed in jazz, classical, pop, and show tunes, and has spent more than a decade searching through the myriad strains of American musical history via an impeccable technique and a gift for freely associating between styles, tempos, keys, and textures that adds to his limitless improvisational spirit. Lage’s debut album Sounding Point was released in March 2009. Eleven additional studio and live albums led by Lage have since appeared. This includes his latest, Squint, which also features Jorge Roeder (bass) and Dave King (drums). Here’s the beautiful opener Etude featuring Lage all by himself. Check out that guitar tone and tell this doesn’t sound awesome!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube