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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Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This week was a bit of a drag, so I’m not unhappy it’s over. Of course, this also means it’s time to take another look at newly released music. Between an unusual but great sounding bluesy country trio, gospel from an amazing singer who is primarily known as a backing vocalist, as well as some alternative and indie rock, I think I’ve put together a pretty solid collection of songs. Unless noted otherwise, all music appeared yesterday, April 9. Let’s get to it!

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band/Too Cool to Dance

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (this has got to be one of the coolest band names!) are an American country blues trio from Brown County, Ind. and have been around since 2003. Their members include Josh “The Reverend” Peyton (guitar, lead vocals), his wife “Washboard” Breezy Peyton (washboard) and Max Senteney (drums). According to Apple Music, the band’s sound is characterized by thick, bass-heavy, blues-based guitar figures and growling vocals accompanied by muscular but minimal drumming and the metallic percussive scratch of a washboard (making them one of the first rock bands to regularly feature the latter instrument since Black Oak Arkansas). Their style is informed by rural blues, honky-tonk country, and the rebellious spirit of rock & roll, as Reverend Peyton’s raw and wiry guitar figures add texture to their straightforward melodies. To date, they have released 10 full-length albums and one EP. Too Cool to Dance is from their new album Dance Songs for Hard Times, which addresses the hopes and fears of life during this seemingly never-ending pandemic. But, as the band’s website notes, don’t expect to hear depressing music. “I like songs that sound happy but are actually very sad,” Peyton says. “I don’t know why it is, but I just do.” Well, he isn’t kidding – check this out!

Merry Clayton/A Song For You

American soul and gospel singer Merry Clayton, who began her recording career in 1962, is best known for providing killer backing vocals on Gimme Shelter, the 1969 tune by The Rolling Stones. Moreover, Clayton sang backing vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama and recorded with Elvis Presley, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King, among others. In addition, Clayton was a member of Charles’ vocal backing group The Raelettes from 1966-1968. In 1963, her solo debut single When the Doorbell Rings appeared. Clayton has also released various solo albums since 1970. In the ’80s, she did some acting as well. A Song for You, which was written by Leon Russell and included on his eponymous debut solo album from March 1970, is a track from Clayton’s new album Beautiful Scars. She first covered the tune on her eponymous third solo album released in 1971. This may be an old tune and “only” a cover, but I just love Clayton’s singing!

The Natvral/New Moon

According to his Bandcamp profile, The Natvral is the new project of Kip Berman, who previously founded American indie rock band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and was their main songwriter. Between 2009 and 2017, the New York group released four studio albums. As reported by Paste, in November 2019, Berman announced the band had dissolved and that he intended to focus on his new project The Natvral. Well, he did, and the result is Tethers, Berman’s debut album under his new name, which came out on April 2nd. Call me crazy, I seem to hear some Bob Dylan in this tune! Regardless, it sounds great to me!

Major Murphy/In the Meantime

Let wrap things up with Major Murphy, an indie rock from Grand Rapids, Mich. According to their artist profile on Apple Music, they were formed in 2015 behind the songwriting of singer/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Bullard. Jacki Warren (synth, bass, vocals) and Brian Voortman (drums) rounded out the lineup. A home-recorded debut EP called Future Release was issued by Winspear later in 2015, and the trio soon committed to performing live regularly and went on their first tours. Winspear released the follow-up EP On & Off Again in July 2017. That November, Major Murphy previewed a more vibrant sound with “Mary,” the lead track off their full-length debut. Recorded mostly live in the studio with producer/mixer Mike Bridavsky, No. 1 arrived on Winspear in March 2018. That same year, Chad Houseman joined Major Murphy on guitar, keyboards and percussion. He is on the band’s new sophomore album Access, which came out on April 2nd. Here’s In the Meantime, written by Bullard. It’s a catchy tune that has a bit of a Tom Petty vibe.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band website; YouTube