It’s that time of year where I sit down, create a spreadsheet, list all the albums that caught my ear and had me returning for repeat listens, and then begin the torturous task of putting them into some kind of ordered list. It’s a strange thing to rank artistic endeavours against each other but the music nerd in me secretly digs the challenge.
What initially felt like a quiet start to the year for standout releases quickly snowballed into a very strong year, both locally here in Australia and internationally. Here then are the albums that I enjoyed the most in 2021. There are plenty of returning faves but also some newcomers who released impressive albums and showed that the world of contemporary Americana, alt-country and folk music is in great hands as younger artists keep moving things forward while still paying homage to those that came before them.
50. Robert Connely Farr – Ain’t It Enough
49. Matt Ward – If I Was In Dallas Tonight
48. Kyle Jenkins – Love, Lost Love
47. Riley Catherall – When I Go
46. Hiss Golden Messenger – Quietly Blowing It
45. Tré Burt – You, Yeah, You
44. Charm of Finches – Wonderful Oblivion
43. Cedric Burnside – I Be Trying
42. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars
41. Willie Nelson – That’s Life
40. Robert Finley – Sharecropper’s Son
39. Cameron Knowler, Eli Winter – Anticipation
38. Tobacco City – Tobacco City, USA
37. Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
36. Georgia State Line – In Colour
35. Lucero – When You Found Me
34. Steve Earle – J.T.
33. Garrett T. Capps – I Love San Antone
32. Katie Brianna – This Way Or Some Other
31. Emily Scott Robinson – American Siren
30. Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Good & Juanita
29. Tony Joe White – Smoke From The Chimney
28. Melissa Carper – Daddy’s Country Gold
27. Liz Stringer – First Time Feeling
26. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof
25. Joshua Ray Walker – See You Next Time
24. Riley Downing – Start It Over
23. Alison Russell – Outside Child
22. Israel Nash – Topaz
21. The Black Keys – Delta Kream
20. Mitch Dillon’s Compulsive Ramblers – Mitch Dillon’s Compulsive Ramblers
19. Kyle Jenkins – Lost Love Lost
18. Tim Easton – You Don’t Really Know Me
17. Margo Cilker – Pohorylle
16. Malcolm Holcombe – Tricks Of The Trade
15. Steve Gunn – Other You
14. T. Wilds – Ten Songs
13. Bob Weatherall & Halfway – Restless Dream
12. Eagle & The Wolf – Two Lovers
11. Charley Crockett – Music City USA
10. Rose City Band – Earth Trip
9. Family Jordan – Big Grass
8. Vincent Neil Emerson – Vincent Neil Emerson
7. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny Haha
6. Riddy Arman – Riddy Arman
5. Suicide Swans – Reservations
4. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Barn
3. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Superwolves
#2 James McMurtry – The Horses & The Hounds
It’s been a long wait for McMurtry fans since his excellent Complicated Game came out six years ago but there was never any doubt that it’d be worth the wait. McMurtry, like a fine wine, seems to just get better and better with age.
The Horses and the Hounds hits the ground running with ‘Canola Fields’ and McMurtry casting a descriptive eye back to people and places – from Southern Alberta to Santa Cruz and Brooklyn. He has that special ability to sing about America, filtered through the eyes of characters and acute observational details of their circumstances, from burnt toast to stained rugs and rusty cedar. ’Operation Never Minds’ examines media and modern apathy, numerous bad decisions are documented, the hardships of ageing rockers are laid bare and facing up to past mistakes and missteps inhabit a number of songs.
McMurtry knows the power of music in giving atmosphere to his stories. Delivered with only an acoustic guitar they’d still stand tall as sublime compositions but with the full band treatment they sway in the wind and thunder down desert highways, heartache is amplified and damaged souls are conveyed with weight and depth. It’s essentially heartland rock of the Petty and Springsteen kind but rendered with economy and aplomb. McMurtry has rewarded the listener with another masterclass in songwriting.
#1 The Felice Brothers – From Dreams To Dust
The upstate New York group, based around the brothers Ian and James Felice, have been consistently evolving their sound for 15 years now, across a brace of increasingly diverse albums that showcase the progression of main songwriter Ian’s songs, from early folk facsimiles to wildly impressionistic cosmic Americana tales.
From Dreams To Dust is a clear contender for their best album to date. The influence of Dylan and The Band are still at the core of their sound yet here they show how much they’ve built on that, from injecting ragged, electrically charged guitar solos and heavily processed vocal samples to gothic slowcore moods and a maximalist 80s drum sounds. The way they blend a kind of backwoods gospel choir through some of the songs draws a line to latter day Nick Cave and his use of soulful soundscapes.
Ian Felice’s lyrics are the real star of the show. His ability to reference John Wayne, Jean-Claude Van Damme, AC/DC and Kurt Cobain, a cornucopia of insects, the autobahn and styrofoam – a mere snippet of the freewheeling poeticism in Felice’s wordplay – is quite mesmerising. There’s a stream of consciousness quality but it’s clearly considered and curated with real skill and artistry. That combo of the band’s range and masterful lyrics confirms The Felice Brothers as one of the finest bands of our time.