Another year rolls by and, as we get ready for our festive fun, it’s time to look back at the turbulent ride that was 2021. We were promised that this year was going to be better. In many respects, that didn’t quite work out. However, this has been a memorable year for music. Perhaps because of enforced isolation leading to greater introspection or because cancelled tours have gifted artists the time to really refine their songs, there has been huge amount of truly brilliant Americana. There have been songs to give us joy and hope, intimate songs to make us reflect and wonder, political songs that give voice to the disenfranchised and songs that just make us want to dance. Music carries the transcendent power to transport us away from where we are. We needed that in 2021. It was a year that began with rioters breaching the hallowed halls of a grand democratic institution and is ending with a mutated virus swirling all around us. Thank goodness, then, for the music. Let’s start with John Murry, whose 2021 album ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’ is possibly his best yet. Varied, atmospheric and lyrically brilliant, this was one of the records of the year. We posted the video for the single ‘Ones + Zeros’ in April. It’s a perfect example of Murry’s absorbing melancholic introspection. He said of this one, “Sometimes songs almost write themselves.” Wow – that’s some gift. After that opener, we have selected one video we posted from each month of the year. It’s quite a collection. And it proves that 2021 wasn’t all bad.
January – Amy Speace ‘There Used to Be Horse Here’
This beautifully shot video, directed and edited by Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard, really captures the essence of the song. Speace has a talent for writing music that is at once new and yet feels familiar, and the title track from this year’s album demonstrates this well. ‘There Used to Be Horses Here’ is beautifully arranged and layered with a gorgeous melody. She manages to channel such sorrow and emotional depth into this. There’s a specific, personal narrative here but Speace manages to make the song universally nostalgic and appealing.
February – Dean Owens ‘New Mexico’
Dean Owens has been in prolific form recently. He released a series of excellent EPs as a prelude to his next album. ‘New Mexico’ was the first single from ‘The Burning Heart – The Desert Trilogy EPs, Vol 1’ and features the considerable talents of Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico. With their help, Owens captures a sound and mood that perfectly reflects his love for the desert states of the American Southwest. The video features the performers recording interspersed with atmospheric footage of those impressive desert landscapes. And, for the record, this is fabulous live.
March – Chris Pierce ‘American Silence’
This is a striking song, full of lyrical power and purpose. Pierce’s soulful vocal soars above his rhythmic strum and tuneful harmonica; he asks: “Will you rise up when your comfort is in jeopardy?” Here, in the 21st century, there is still so much injustice in the world and Pierce invites us to raise our voices alongside his. This was the title track from his ninth album, one of the year’s highlights. Pierce would return later in the year with his new band, Leon Creek, releasing another fine album that Americana fans should check out.
April – Trevor Sensor ‘Chiron Galactus’
On his two albums in 2021 (that’s right, two), Trevor Sensor gives the vocal performance of the year. We were delighted to premiere this moody video. ‘Chiron, Galactus’ was inspired by the bloody revenge-horror movie ‘Mandy’, starring Nicholas Cage. Sensor was so affected by it that he wrote this song in under an hour after he finished watching the film with friends. There’s so much loss and pain and Sensor manages to convey that in one of the most intense songs you’ll hear. It’s sweeping, dramatic and full of sonic tension. Brilliant.
May – VanWyck ‘I Wish You Well’
We premiered a delicate live performance of this disarmingly beautiful song. The emotionally raw lyrics are stark and direct: “You’ve made your choices // You’re gonna see them through // So there’s nothing left for me to do // But to wish you well.” The depth of sadness and resignation is hugely powerful but delivered with such tenderness that you’re left spellbound. It’s taken from her lovely 2020 album ‘God is in the Detour’, which is worth checking out.
June – Foy Vance ‘Sapling’
Foy Vance’s vocal in ‘Sapling’ is full of character and emotional power. The melody that unfolds is simply gorgeous, perfectly matched to the reflective, intimate lyrics, which speak of rebirth, renewal and regeneration. It’s the hugely effective and affecting opening track from the new album ‘Signs of Life’, the follow-up to the intense, well-received ‘Wild Swan’. Vance is an elegant songwriter, who manages to create timeless songs with a rare melodic warmth and richness; ‘Sapling’ is such a song.
July – The Felice Brothers ‘Silverfish’
‘From Dreams to Dust’, the new album from The Felice Brothers, is a remarkable album. Varied, sophisticated and musically fresh and adventurous, it’s a record that takes us through life’s journey and all the emotions we experience along the way. It’s characterised by wry observations, clever humour and irreverent madness. The band are in the habit of recording in unusual places and this record was put together in an 1873 church in upstate New York that Ian renovated himself. In ‘Silverfish’, the third single from the album, the flowing keys and tuneful vocal are mesmerising. With the subtly powerful repetition of: “I gotta do something // I know what it is,” Ian Felice invites into his frustrations. The video features a combination of found footage and micro insect video shot by James Felice himself. He explains: “I found all the bugs in this video just walking around where I live or work. I have a lens that I attach to my phone, and I keep a keen eye out. Little brings me more joy than seeing a speck of something on a leaf or a sidewalk, getting in close and observing a little life unfolding before my eyes.” Lovely stuff.
August – Howe Gelb & The Colorist Orchestra ‘Sweet Pretender’ (feat. Pieta Brown)
This is one of the best songs of the year from one of the best albums of the year. The collaboration between The Colorist Orchestra and Howe Gelb is intriguing, innovative, creative and, above all, utterly absorbing. This atmospheric song is adventurous music, cleverly orchestrated and arranged and full of sonic and rhythmic surprises. Pieta Brown’s vocal, alongside Gelb’s, is simply beautiful. The blend of their voices is enchanting. Premiering ‘Sweet Pretender’ was a highlight of my year and it’s a song I’ve returned to constantly, often on repeat. It’s taken from the fresh, vibrant album ‘Not on the Map’, which is a must-listen if you haven’t already.
September – Tré Burt ‘Dixie Red’ (feat. Kelsey Waldon)
Tré Burt releases his music through Oh Boy Records, set up by the great John Prine and his manager Al Bunetta back in 1981. ‘Dixie Red’ is a heartfelt tribute to Prine and his wonderful musical legacy, full of smart lyrical references to the great man and his work. His music shines on, providing inspiration to artists like Tré Burt. Burt said: “I prayed under an old oak tree in my neighborhood a lot for John and his family while he was in the hospital last year. In the days following his passing I was mostly silent and listened to ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ non-stop. One night, I was standing on my porch looking at the full moon through a break in the trees over my street. It was especially silver and awfully large. The moon looked as if it were signaling John’s safe arrival to the other side. I felt privileged to witness this message sent for his family. ‘Dixie Red’ is a southern grown peach and that line from ‘Spanish Pipedream’ has always been so potent to me. So I used a peach as imagery to represent John’s body of work he left behind for all of us.” Burt is a fine songwriter himself. check out his recent album ‘You, Yeah, You’, which treads similar musical paths to those that Prine walked.
October – Beans on Toast ‘A Beautiful Place’
If there’s one song that will stick in my mind from 2021, it will be this one. The message of hope and positivity is so welcome and so necessary. In troubled times, this has been created with the express intention of making you feel better. Lyrically and musically, it is delightful. The album it’s taken from, ‘Survival of the Friendliest’, is designed to be a balance to all the negativity out there. As Beans explained: “I wrote ‘Survival of the Friendliest’ when the bad news was everywhere. I switched off social media, looked to nature and zoomed out to write songs about a bigger, longer, stranger story. There are no songs about Brexit, about coronavirus, about climate catastrophe. I’d sung those songs already. I’m not naive to the challenges we face as a species and I’m not ignoring that. But in order to tackle our current predicament, I feel we need to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. This is an album about finding that peace in preparation for the road ahead.” I couldn’t put it better. These are wise words. Let’s take this sentiment with us into 2022.
November – Houndmouth ‘Las Vegas’
November’s choice is all about the glorious escapism. It’s a foot-tapping, energetic, rousing song, featuring a great bassline and powerful rhythms. The chorus is sonically uplifting and the voices of Shane Cody, Matt Myers and Zak Appleby sound brilliant together. The adventure is balanced by realism: “Now I’m listening to the stories that you’re spinning // About how you got burned when the tables turned cold,” as the luck runs out. The video, in which Myers is dressed as Evel Knievel, is full of adventure, camaraderie and good humour. ‘Las Vegas’ is the closing track from Houndmouth’s new album ‘Good for you’ – essential listening for 2021.
December – Thomas Dollbaum ‘Florida’
Amongst the final few videos posted in 2021 was this wonderfully atmospheric song from Thomas Dollbaum. Dollbaum is inspired by the everyday people and places he was surrounded by as he grew up in small-town America and this song is filled with such details. Dollbaum’s excellent vocal performance is stirring as the song builds and grows. With such a characterful voice and engaging songwriting, Dollbaum will be an artist I’m looking out for in 2022. It’s a perfect way to close out a year of terrific Americana. Thanks to all the artists who have poured their creativity into their music this year – you’ve brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. Thanks also to all the agents, managers, PR folks and others working behind the scenes keeping everything going. As always it’s been a pleasure. Here’s to a great musical year and more to come in 2022.
Having completed my journey through the musical months of 2021, I shall leave you with two final videos from Justin Bernasconi and The Winnie Blues, two acts whose music I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this year. Bernasconi’s ‘The Right Height’ is a gentle, understated melodic beauty, with his pure voice rising and falling over fluttering guitar. On ‘Lonely Love’ by The Winnie Blues, the vocal combination of Alice Beatty and Cameron Potts really soars. It’s wearily emotional and raw and the instrumental final minute is brilliant. Hope you’ve found something to enjoy here and I wish all our readers a happy, healthy 2022.
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