There was plenty of good Americana and roots music in 2021, but I didn’t hear a lot of great music in those categories. Which is fine, and understandable. We’re all struggling to stay afloat. These selections mostly reflect music that came my way to review, rather than anything I might have sought out. Like, for instance, I know Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have a new one out, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. With that in mind, here’s my list; and I’d class at least the top three, maybe five, as great music.
Margo Cilker’s Pohorylle
This is the debut album from Cilker, a product of Oregon’s far northeastern corner. Her music is deeply country, deeply personal, and deeply Pacific Northwest. Cilker writes and sings most potently about the joys, sorrows and dangers of a life on the road as a traveling musician – particularly for a woman. The best of these is “Broken Arm In Oregon,” which is all about those hazards that face women out in the world, and how much energy and time and thought they have to waste just to try to stay safe. Other songs home in on what it’s like to be Margo Cilker, always either on the verge of leaving or coming home. My review is here.
This album was released quietly in November and I didn’t discover it until almost Christmas. Doran is four young musicians and conceptual artists: Channing Showalter and Annie Schermer, who perform as West of Roan; Brian Dolphin, ethnomusicologist, songwriter, performer and producer; and ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle of the duo Anna & Elizabeth. On their debut album they sing a mix of Appalachian type ballads and dirges, and modern folk ballads that sound ancient, all in harmonies that induce goosebumps. Sometimes a capella, sometimes with fiddle, dulcimer or harmonium accompanying, all of it quite perfect for a cozy night in front of the fire during these long dark nights. My review is here.
SUSS’s Night Suite
I wasn’t sure whether to put SUSS’s instrumental ambient country, in jazz/world or here in my roots list. The music for this conceptual road trip EP was finished just before the death of one of this New York band’s members earlier this year. This EP has five tracks, each named for a town on the Western end of Route 66: Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Ash Fork, and Kingman, Arizona; and Needles, California. It’s perfect late-night listening, whether you’re on the road or not. It’s music that evokes a particular landscape. The desert Southwest of the United States. The gritty towns that you pass through late at night on your way from somewhere to somewhere else.” My review is here.
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno’s Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
This young married duo wrote most of the songs on their debut album while living and attending university in different parts of the country. But they honed them during the long pandemic year, with demonstrations in the streets near their home and wildfires raging not far away, and then recorded them with Grammy-winning Cajun roots heavyweight Joel Savoy at his Louisiana studio. The result is a strong album of country music filled with poignant vocal duets on love songs that are hopeful, sad, and every mood in between. My review is here.
The Beths’ Auckland, New Zealand 2020
I don’t review much rock these days but a lot of my music-loving friends love The Beths. So in the summer when the chance arose to review this new live album, I listened and was immediately won over. The Beths are Elizabeth Stokes on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Jonathan Pearce on lead guitar, Benjamin Sinclair on bass and Tristan Deck on drums and percussion, and the latter three all contribute vocals, especially harmonies behind Stokes. They all met while at university studying jazz, their songs are catchy and propulsive, and I love New Zealand, the people, and their accent. My review is here.
Mellissa Carper’s Daddy’s Country Gold
Melissa Carper sings in a craggy voice that’s perfect for hard country music, and she writes catchy love songs about her girlfriend, her old Chevy van, country living, and lots more. This is finely honed Americana music. Musically and lyrically, Carper hits the bullseye on every song, but neither she nor any of her band ever overplay their parts. Sonically these songs come right out of some Western lounge circa 1960, but the lyrics subtly reflect more modern realities while remaining true to their genre. My review is here.
Nico Hedley’s Painterly
Hedley’s first full-length is genre bending but accessible Americana. Hedley and band paint from a broad pallette of sonic colors that include tenor sax and pedal steel, an unusual combination, the horn sometimes sounding like a guitar, the pedal steel sometimes like a horn. These jazz influenced musicians don’t make the easy or expected choices, and neither does Hedley in his songwriting, which skirts the line between confessional and abstract. My review is here.
Laurel Premo’s Golden Loam
An album of mostly instrumental guitar, but played on electric guitar in unexpected ways. Premo sings on a couple of these tracks, she plays in several different styles and with different instruments including a lap steel, and she’s accompanied by a couple of unique percussionists on three tracks as well. Her instrumentals include converted fiddle and banjo tunes, she’s joined by percussive dancer Nic Gareiss on two performances, and adds a lot of personal and creative touches to her vocals on the songs “Hop High” and “I Am A Pilgrim.” My review is here.
The Flatlanders’ Treasure of Love
These three Texas country folk troubadors turn out to have been early practitioners of what became Americana, and here they present a set of some of their favorite songs from their four decades occasionally singing together. It’s hard to go wrong with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely singing songs other Texans including Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Townes Van Zandt, George Jones, and Mickey Newbury, plus Leon Russell, Johnny Cash, Robert Dylan, and Paul Siebel. My review is here.
Devin Hoff’s Voices From the Empty Moor (Songs of Anne Briggs)
American double bass player Devin Hoff recruited singers and players from the indie, jazz, and world music ranks for this album. The songs of Anne Briggs are perfect for the somber colors and textures of the multilayered bass arrangements, and Hoff has found the appropriate voices and players to bring these songs and tunes fully to life. If you’re looking for a new disc of atmospheric autumnal music, this is it. My review is here.
Here’s a playlist with singles from these and other favorites from 2021.