My Favorite Albums of 2021

This year my musical tastes took me to a wide range of places, from soul to Americana to pop to blues and everything in between. It was also a year in which some old favorites returned, some with albums that really landed and a few that, for me, disappointed. I’m not sure what one can expect when an artist returns after a lengthy hiatus — do I want more of what made me appreciate them in the first place or something different? I suppose I can only take them as they come.

I had high hopes for new music from Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, and Crowded House, but ultimately these left me feeling empty and longing for their old stuff. On the other hand, new records from The Wallflowers, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and The Connells brought back 80s and 90s sounds that still worked for me.

Before I get to my 10 favorites, here are a few honorable mentions: I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs; Steadman’s Wake by The Connells; Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice; and Life by Misadventure by Rag’n’Bone Man. The latter delivered one of my favorite singles of the year, the beautiful soulful duet from Rag’n’Bone Man and P!nk entitled Anywhere From Here.

Now on to my 10 favorites:

Long Lost by Lord Huron. This indie folk band from Michigan has become regulars on my year-end list since their debut in 2012 and has never disappointed. Long Lost is hard to define, just as the band is hard to categorize. To me, the band feels part country, part folk, a little rockabilly, with a touch of the old west. The title track is a great example of their unique throwback sound.

Exit Wounds by The Wallflowers. Maybe you forgot about The Wallflowers or you relegated them to the one-hit-wonder pile whenever you heard One Headlight on the radio. I mean, Bringing Down the Horse was released in 1997. I sorta forgot about them too. But a few years ago lead singer Jakob Dylan reemerged as the narrator/tour guide of a wonderful documentary film about the Laurel Canyon sound called Echo in the Canyon and I marveled at how much history Dylan knew and loved how he brought together modern artists like Beck, Cat Power and Fiona Apple to cover classics from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, and others. I was reminded how good Dylan is and was excited to learn he was bringing The Wallflowers back together to release this new record. And it’s really solid.

The Future by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Nathaniel Rateliff is another artist that defies category, typically filed under soul or blues. I’m really into neo-soul, blues rock, blue-eyed soul, or whatever you call artists that sound like they grew up on Al Green, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. There has been a tremendous resurgence in this genre of late and I don’t care if the artist is white or black if they sound like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. I loved their debut album in 2015 and the new album is super.

Obviously by Lake Street Dive. I’ve been a fan of these guys for a few years now mostly because they have a great pop/jazz sound and frankly I think Aussie-born lead singer Rachael Price is adorable. The band came together in the early 2000s at the New England Conservatory of Music, were named after a dive bar in Minneapolis, but is now based in Brooklyn. No question Hypotheticals is one of my favorite songs of the year and the whole album simply makes me happy. LSD is getting more notice thanks in large part to the Colbert Bump.

Starting Now by Toad the Wet Sprocket. This was the best surprise for me this year. I had low expectations for a new Toad album, but Glen Phillips could sing the alphabet song and I’d be all in so I gave it a listen and it transported me back to the early 90s in a good way. The band’s last good album, Coil, came out in 1997, and while Glen made some very solid solo records since that time I missed the Toad of the 90s. Starting Now is vintage and unlike some other older bands I found I wanted more and this album hits the mark. If like me you love Pale, Fear, Dulcinea, and Coil you’ll enjoy Starting Now.

Delta Kream by Black Keys. Every Black Keys record since Brothers has made my top 10 list over the years so it should come as no surprise Delta Kream lands on this list at no. 5. What is surprising though is that this record is unapologetically pure delta blues and not a rock record. In fact, it recently earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album, and rightfully so. Recorded over a couple of days in Nashville, Pat and Dan brought in some powerhouse blues musicians like guitarist Kenny Brown, bassist Eric Deaton, and organist Ray Jacildo and covered some special songs that Dan and Pat say they grew up on. It’s 54 minutes of down-home Mississippi blues and it shreds.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Jake Bugg. Twenty-seven-year-old Brit Jake Bugg released his first record as a teenager, but he has matured into a great rock and roll singer-songwriter. I first got hooked when I saw him open for the Black Keys, and at that time he was heavy into blues-oriented rock just like the Keys. Then in 2017, he released Hearts That Strain which sounded more like a Cat Stevens record, and his follow-up this year follows in that mold…weaving in some blues, rock, and even a little electronic. It’s beautiful and he has earned his place among my favorite artists.

When You See Yourself by Kings of Leon. 2021 was a rough year for the Followill clan as shortly after they released their new record and headed out on the road they lost their mother to cancer. The band canceled their remaining U.S. tour dates for the year but are expected to head back out on the road in 2022. When You See Yourself is a great KoL record and if you’re a fan of the band you’ll undoubtedly love it as I do. The Bandit is one of my favorite songs of the year.

Private Space by Durand Jones & The Indications. My love affair with neo-soul bands continued this year and no soul record got more airtime on my Spotify account than this one. These guys formed in Bloomington, Indiana and have been together for almost 10 years but for my money this album should put them into the upper echelons of the modern soul revival. Durand’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and that’s saying something. This record is smooth and soulful and a joy to listen to. If this song doesn’t make you want to dance I can’t help you.

In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile. One thing is clear — Brandi Carlile’s time has come. On the heels of her 2017 Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You she toured for a while, made Barack Obama’s popular year-end playlist, formed supergroup The Highwomen with Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, covered a pair of Soundgarden songs to critical acclaim, and then finally went back into the studio to release a new album that even before this week’s five Grammy nominations I knew was going to redefine her once again. By the Way, I Forgive You gave her wins in three categories — Americana, American Roots, and the all-genre song of the year category. This year the Grammy goofballs put her in pop, but to her credit, she doesn’t give a shit. She just makes her music and lets the cards fall where they may, but she did tweet: “Americana/American Roots music is more than a genre to me…it represents my community, my family, my friends, and my beautiful island of misfits.”

In These Silent Days may not win any Grammy’s (which would be criminal), but it’s the best album of the year by far and also my favorite album of the year. If you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll agree. But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and find an hour to be by yourself and give this record a listen from start to finish. It’s flat-out gorgeous and Brandi is truly a genre-busting megastar. When she hits the crescendo on Right on Time I get chills. And because this album is so great I’ve included a bonus song!

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