Top 10 Albums of 2021

Last Updated on December 27, 2021

1. James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds

James McMurtry’s first album in six years, ‘The Horses and the Hounds’, is stunning. It was written and mostly recorded before the pandemic hit, before his father, novelist Larry McMurtry, passed away last March. Most of the songs were finished a month before most of the album was recorded in the summer of 2019 at Jackson Browne’s Groovemasters Studio in Los Angeles with producer Ross Hogarth, who had engineered and mixed McMurtry’s first (‘Too Long in the Wasteland’), second (‘Candyland’) and sixth album (‘Saint Mary of the Woods’).

The band was a mixture of L.A. studio pros and McMurtry’s pals from Austin. Hogarth and guitarist David Grissom proved so crucial to the project that they each got a co-writing credit on a different song. McMurtry plays acoustic guitar on “Canola Fields”, “Vaquero”, and “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call.” David Grissom (acoustic, electric guitars, and mando guitar) performs on all ten tracks.

Much as his father Larry did in novels, James’ work is the same: linking word to word to tell a story.

McMurtry confesses that he doesn’t usually write songs about specific people, but when he received a text that Bill Wittliff (1940-2019) had passed, James started writing and the song “Vaquero” came to him. A lot of the lines in the song are from Bill’s book of photos: Vaquero: Genesis of a Texas Cowboy. James spent nine months on the set of ‘Lonesome Dove’ (father’s novel turned into a mini-series) in which Wittliff wrote screenplays for.

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2. Allison Russell – Outside Child

‘Outside Child’ is Allison Russell’s first solo release. The Montreal-born singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet, and activist was formerly of Vancouver’s Po’ Girl and then part of folk and roots music supergroup Our Native Daughters. For the last nine years, with JT Nero, the husband-and-wife duo have been performing as the music collective Birds of Chicago.

Russell’s dramatic story has now been widely told, how she grew up in Montreal trapped in a home with a stepfather who was a serial sexual abuser and how she ran away at 15 years old to face an uncertain future.

Allison says that ‘Outside Child’ is acutely personal and that it was hard for her to write, harder still to sing, play, and share. Despite its heavy inspirations, ‘Outside Child’ is an album of strength and affirmation. Allison Russell sings beautifully in English and French on four songs starting with the album opener, “Montreal.”

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3. John Hiat with The Jerry Douglas Band – Leftover Feelings

Eighteen years ago, beneath John Hiatt’s gruff exterior, he did his best thinking when sitting on his ass. Nothing has changed with ‘Leftover Feelings’, the first collaboration between Hiatt and dobro master and 14-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas.

Fifty years ago and before hanging around the observatory, Hiatt lived in a ratty, $15-a-week room on Nashville’s 16th Avenue, less than a mile away from the RCA and Columbia studios that were the heartbeat of what had come to be known as “Music Row.”

John Hiatt has a story about twenty miles long and a tune like a No. 1 song with the stunning song “The Music Is Hot”. There’s also a deeply personal one, “Light of the Burning Sun,” about the suicide of Hiatt’s eldest brother, and the resulting dissolution of his family.

The album answers the question Hiatt posed thirty years ago in “Listening to Old Voices”: “Is it true we are possessed by all the ones we leave behind, or is it by their lives we are inspired?”

The answer is “Yes.”

Here, then, is a meeting of bruised and triumphant American giants creating the meant-to-be: Love songs and road songs, sly songs and hurt songs.

John Hiatt – Acoustic Guitar & Vocals
Jerry Douglas – Dobro, Lap Steel, and Backing Vocals
Daniel Kimbro – Bass, Tic-Toc Bass, and String Arrangements
Mike Seal – Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Christian Sedelmyer – Violin and String Arrangements
Carmella Ramsey – Background Vocals

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4. Rodney Crowell – Triage

‘Triage’ is Rodney Crowell’s 18th album and his most personal to date, tackling important themes from environmentalism to forgiveness to mortality.

Working with producer/son-in-law Dan Knobler, Crowell had almost completed the record when he had a health crisis. On the morning of October 9, 2020, Crowell was having a normal day when his memory suddenly went missing for four hours, a condition known as transient global amnesia. Within days of his recovery he’d recorded “Transient Global Amnesia Blues.” It was the last song to go on the album.

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5. Peter Bruntnell – Journey To The Sun

Peter Bruntnell continues to be UK’s best kept secret. The New Zealand-born, Devon-based singer-songwriter released another incredibly beautiful album, the gorgeous, haunting and folky, ‘Journey To The Sun’, the follow-up to 2019’s ‘King Of Madrid’.

Bruntnell wanted to make more of a solo record, which just so happened to coincide with the pandemic. That meant more acoustic guitar, and
the purchase of a bouzouki (Greek musical instrument resembling a mandolin), which was a catalyst for quite a few songs.

The album was recorded and self-produced in Peter’s home basement studio.

“Dandelion”, “Lucifer Morning Star”, “Runaway Car”, “You’d Make a Great Widow”, and “Dharma Liar” were co-written with Bruntnell’s long-time collaborator, Bill Ritchie of Vancouver. A great cover of the traditional folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme” also made it on the record.

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6. Sara Petite – Rare Bird

Born and raised in the countryside of Sumner, Washington, singer-songwriter Sara Petite now calls San Diego home. But more than just calling it home, she has found it to be a place where she thrives. Her band has been named San Diego’s best country/Americana band four times. Sara Petite covers a lot of bases, her music can be described as outlaw country with dabs of Americana and rock ‘n’ roll. The creation of the album is partly inspired by Petite’s artist great-grandmother who painted a lot of birds.

Petite recorded ‘Rare Bird’ with collaborators like fiddle legend Bobby Furgo, guitarist Mike Butler, and members of her touring band. ‘Rare Bird’ also marks the final appearance of Grammy-winning producer David Bianco, who began recording “The Misfits” with Petite before passing away during the album’s early stages. After a multi-month break, Petite teamed up with co-producer/engineer Ben Moore to finish the record, taking a principal role in the songs’ creation and their arrangements.

“Rare Bird,” the gorgeously-arranged title track clocks in at 6 min, 25 seconds. It is followed by the rocker, “The Misfits” where Petite sings “We are the misfits… we are the thieves; we’ll steal your heart with a broken melody.” ‘Rare Bird’ is everything its title suggests: a career-defining album.

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7. Israel Nash – Topaz

The color blue has been proven to lift your mood, bring feelings of serenity, and remind us of blue skies. And this is exactly what ‘Topaz’ does here. All ten songs were written by Israel Nash. What also really works on this album is the horns.

Jonathan Wilson revitalized the Laurel Canyon music scene in L.A. Israel Nash has brought it to Texas.

The album was produced by Israel Nash, and co-produced by Adrian Quesada (of Black Pumas fame).

Israel Nash is an exceptionally talented musician (Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Bass, Drums, Programming, Harmonies, Synth, Mellotron, Harmonica, Arrangements), and there would be no ‘Topaz’ without the additional musicians which include Adrian Quesada (Electric Guitar), Josh Fleischmann (Drums, Percussion), Scott Davis (Bass), Edward Braillif (Piano, Organ, Synth), Eric Swanson (Pedal Steel), Derek Phelps (Trumpet), Joseph Woullard (Baritone Saxophone), Jason Frey (Tenor Saxophone), Roger Sollenberger (Electric Guitar), Sam Powell (Piano, Organ), Curtis Roush (Electric Guitar), Ed Jarusinsky (Drums), Seth Kauffman (Bass, Drums, Mellotron, Percussion), Jacob Rodriguez (Baritone Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone), Rockyanne Bullwinkle, Jenny Carson (Background Vocals)

‘Topaz’ is a musician’s best friend.

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8. Robert Plant | Alison Krauss – Raise the Roof

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss follow up their multi-Grammy award-winning album ‘Raising Sand’ after 14 years, with ‘Raise The Roof’, reviving much the same irresistibly-blended harmonies that won over critics to this unlikely pair.

Producer T Bone Burnett returns, and some excellent choices of guests including guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo, Buddy Miller (including electric mandolin), Colin Linden (resonator), pedal steel guitarist Russ Pahl, Stuart Duncan (mandolin), and Lucinda Williams (background vocals) transforms them into something a bit more special.

‘Raise The Roof’ is a selection of covers that span from modern indie-folk band Calexico to Anne Briggs classic “Go Your Way”. Their cover of Calexico’s “Quattro (World Drifts In),” ignited Krauss’ desire for a second duo record. “High and Lonesome”, co-written by Burnett and Plant is the only original song on this great follow up album.

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9. Sean Rowe  – The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights

Singer-songwrite Sean Rowe’s voice brings power to his compelling new album, ‘The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights’. The album’s title is taken from it’s first single, “To Make It Real.” “All this darkness, dressed in colored lights. Everything is wrong but you look so damn beautiful tonight.”

Rowe recorded the album at Hive Studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, so he could work with Bon Iver engineer Brian Joseph. He also partnered, once again, with friend and longtime collaborator, producer Troy Pohl. The pair tapped a strong cohort of musicians to bring Rowe’s new music to life, including Shane Leonard (drums/percussion), Jeremy Boetcher (bass), Ben Lester (keys/pedal steel), Courtney Hartman (background vocals/guitar) and John DeHaven, Jeff Nania and Joel Yannuzzi (brass section). Chris Carey provided additional bass.

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10. Sonny & the Sunsets – New Day with New Possibilities

Helmed by the singer/songwriter, playwright, author and onetime troubadour Sonny Smith, San Francisco multi-genre indie & country rockers Sonny & The Sunsets released ‘New Day with New Possibilities’, the title and cover image borrowed from Sonny’s longtime record art cover muse and favourite artist Chris Johansen.

The album opener, “The Lonely Men”, like the rest of the record, comes from a period pre-Covid when Smith retreated to a backwoods studio, initially planning to devote his time to painting. But before long, those plans changed, and Smith found himself writing song after song attached to themes of loneliness, failure, and longing – all influenced by the words of old western paperbacks, hence the country approach. ‘New Day with New Possibilities’ targets the familiar country stylings of 2012’s ‘Longtime Companion’.

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