Music Of The Year: 2021

Since I made the effort to do a full year of monthly record reviews, it seems like sort of a given that I should draw the year to a close by picking an overall favorite. I find that I simply can’t do it. First of all, I love all the records I picked each month, as well as the others that I mentioned along the way. Second, I simply can’t find a way to decide between two particular outstanding releases. I can’t get enough of either record, and each is my favorite when I’m listening to it. So the tie for my pick of the picks of 2021 are:

Buck Meek Two Saviors

A line from Pitchforks’ review of this record said “The whole album sounds like it just spilled out of a junk drawer you pulled open looking for something else…,” and that captures the tone better than anything I could come up with on my own. The whole project was recorded, in single takes, in a Victorian house in New Orleans, and that distinct, immediacy of place is palpable throughout. Each song becomes its own comfortably ramshackle space where I’m persistently eager to spend more of my time.

Valerie June The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers

As I said in my original blurb about this record back in March, I’ve been a fan of Valerie June for many years. There isn’t a bad record in her catalog, but this one blows my mind. So much more expansive, without sacrificing any of what made her previous work so wonderful. Every time I finish listening, I just want to listen again. I guess that’s about the best thing you can say about a record.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: December 2021

Phil Cook All These Years

Michael Hurley, who turned 80 on December 20th, put out a great new album this month, The Time Of The Foxgloves. It sounds like he’s just sitting out on my front porch playing through a batch of new tunes along with any musicians who might happen down the street as the afternoon rolls by. I feel like it will be one I listen to pretty regularly when the weather turns and I’m sitting out on the porch myself. But however worthy it may be, it’s not quite my pick of the month.


I’m sure it says something about my current state of mind that for two months running my pick is an instrumental record. I guess these more contemplative albums just fit my mood as Suzy and I are progressively shutting ourselves down again to wait out the omicron storm.


And so it is that this month’s pick is Phil Cook’s All These Years. According to Cook, he used his time during the initial Covid shutdown to dedicate himself to “re-learning” the piano. The result is a mostly quiet record of solo piano pieces. Elements from all his usual influences are here, from folk to jazz to gospel, blended into an intimate, meditative whole. Beautiful. 


Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: November 2021

Sally Anne Morgan Cups

Since I went off on a tangent last month about the Beatles in general, and specifically the new deluxe edition of the Let It Be album, I’m not going to spend a lot of time this month telling you how much I love Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary, “Get Back”. Suffice to say that Suzy and I watched the entire 7-hour (8-hour?) series in less than 24 hours, and the first thing Suzy said when we finished was, “I’m going to need to see this again.” Brilliant. It’s streaming on the Disney+ service. If you don’t have that, this is the perfect opportunity to impose on a friend or relative who does.

As far as this month’s record releases go, there were quite a few good ones to pick from. Houndmouth, Curtis Harding, Courtney Barnett, and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats all brought us some seriously good music this month. I’m especially fond of Snail Mail’s Valentine. And I imagine it would come as no surprise to anyone reading this if I said my pick of the month was the new offering from Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Raise The Roof. Both these records are excellent, and will no doubt be in steady rotation in our playlist.

 But this month’s honors go to Sally Anne Morgan’s new album, Cups. Exceedingly pared-down, spare arrangements of instrumental music. Identifiable as “folk” primarily by way of the chosen instrumentation, each tune has an almost hypnotic effect (in the best possible sense of the phrase). For me, it conjures echoes of Phillip Glass, Michael Hedges, Harry Manx, and perhaps Laurie Anderson in a power outage. Although Morgan has apparently been around for some time, I’m not familiar with any of her previous work. But this album is definitely a keeper. 

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: October 2021

Pokey LaFarge In The Blossom Of Their Shade

This month’s pick comes with a couple caveats:

First, October 15 brought us the Beatles’ new Let It Be: Special Edition – Super Deluxe box set. This is, without question, the October ‘21 release I’m going to listen to most over the rest of my life. I know this because it has been, in its previous form(s), one of the records I’ve listened to most over the *past* years of my life. But that’s exactly why it won’t be my pick of the month. Obviously these little reviews I’m doing don’t have any rules other than the ones I decide to set for myself, but I’m disqualifying this box set because, in my mind, the Beatles effectively pose an insurmountable hurdle to comparison. In general, I hate terms like “favorite” and “best” in relation to bands and music; they’re too amorphous to have any meaning. But that said, if I judge any given new release, from any given month, next to any given Beatles album, the Beatles are almost certainly going to win out. It’s just not a level playing field. I’m also disqualifying it because, ya know, it was actually recorded 51 years ago.

The second caveat is that I could literally flip a coin between the other two records I considered this month. 

I’m putting Jackson+Sellers’ Breaking Point in the runner-up position based solely on the fact that at one point in one song it got a little too frenetic for me while I was cooking. That’s right; the only thing I can find wrong with this record is that there are a few seconds on it that are not 100% conducive to following a recipe. So don’t overlook it. It’s a great record. In any room of my house except the kitchen, it might have been my pick of the month. 

Taking all this into consideration, then, Pokey LaFarge takes the honors this month with In The Blossom Of Their Shade. I must admit I’m marginally less enamored with LaFarge as his music has strayed farther and farther from the ‘30s/‘40s sound of his first years. Even so, I’m always eager to hear his next record and I’m never disappointed when I do. The band is always tight, the rhythm is always directly in the pocket, and my head has absolutely no choice other than to bob along with every single tune. Go ahead, I dare you. Try to sit still through this record. You know you can’t.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: September 2021

Adia Victoria A Southern Gothic

The best individual song from September has to be Parker Millsap’s version of Vigilante Man from the Woodie Guthrie tribute album Home In This World. In addition to a top-notch musical arrangement, the idea of updating the lyrics for today’s times —in true folk-music tradition— is a stroke of genius. And man, those screaming guitars come in and do their job at just precisely the right moment.

Another high-water mark for the month was the release of a found musical document. Thirty-one years ago, Emmylou Harris and (her then band) The Nash Ramblers performed a concert at TPAC in Nashville. The show was recorded, the tape was shelved, and nobody ever thought about it again. Until now, with the release of Ramble In Music City. The Nash Ramblers period is one of my favorite points in Emmy’s career, and their At The Ryman record, which was released in their heyday, is one of only a handful of live recordings I really love. Any other time, Ramble In Music City would quite likely have been my pick of the month.

But this month the nod has to go to Adia Victoria with her new record, A Southern Gothic. It’s laid back, bluesy, swampy, and something in her voice lends just the slightest hint of a jazz undercurrent to a portion of the proceedings. Several guest artists make appearances throughout, adding exactly what each song calls for and keeping the flow going, without ever calling unnecessary attention to themselves. Every song grabs my full attention, and I want to hear them all over and over again. What else can you want from a record?

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: August 2021

Liam Kazar Due North

Due to the way the dates fell, plus some unusually busy weekends, I’m late getting my August recommendations posted. But just like July, there were not a lot of releases in August that really grabbed me.

Having inexplicably jettisoned their clever and memorable band name Mandolin Orange, the duo (and married couple) Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz brought us their first record under their new more pedestrian moniker, Watchhouse. The album is self-titled, and it’s a good one.

James McMurtry’s new record, The Horses And The Hounds, also came out this month. I always look forward to new music from McMurtry; for my money one of the best lyricists out there today. This latest entry does not disappoint, and the song “Canola Fields,” in particular, is a real winner.

This month’s top recommendation, though, is the album Due North from singer/songwriter Liam Kazar. Throughout I hear notes of Talking Heads, classic soul, and bubble-gum pop. Here and there just the tiniest glimpse of a Jeff Lynne flourish. I find a few of the tracks to be a bit over-produced for my personal taste, but every song is a toe-tapper, and it’s also great music for driving. (Trust me on this; my daily commute is 90 minutes each way.) It’s far and away the new release I’ve turned to most often this month.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

The “Circle” Album

Once upon a time The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was flying high on the popularity of their cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles. In 1971 the recording eventually climbed all the way to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While that was happening, the band tried something unusual. Band member John McEuen asked Earl Scuggs if he’d be willing to record with The NGDB, and Scruggs accepted. Soon after, Doc Watson accepted the same invitation, and from there the party kept growing.

Fifty years ago this month (that is, August 1971), the band entered Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville along with Scruggs, Watson, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, Norman Blake, and Pete “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, among others, and they spent six days recording together. Heading into second grade at the time, of course I knew absolutely nothing about it. Probably very few people did. But the result of that session was the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken triple-LP set, released in November of the following year.

There was never a time in my life when I didn’t have at least a passing interest in all sorts of music, but in those days my friends and I had our heads wrapped up in the Beatles, Animals, Rolling Stones. Some of us were starting to dip our toes into Led Zeppelin. In my house country and bluegrass ruled the roost because that’s what my Dad liked, and the rest of us, including myself, were totally fine with it. I was just too cool, or at least too concerned about the appearance of coolness, to admit it.

Anyway, sometime in (I’m guessing) late 1973 or early ’74 my cousin, Lee Templeton, paid my Dad a visit one Saturday afternoon with a new record in hand. I’m pretty sure Lee was aware that my Dad had recently recorded a bunch of (8-Track) tapes of old, rare-to-unknown country songs from a stash of records a friend of his had removed from a broken jukebox, which made Lee think my Dad might be interested in his new find.

So off they go the basement, to the ol’ console record player. Something pretty similar to this baby:

Upstairs, my afternoon loped along like any other 4th- or 5th-grader’s Saturday does, until my mom asked me to go to the basement and get something from the freezer. I headed down, paying no particular mind to my Dad, my cousin, or the music, and dug around in the freezer for awhile to find whatever I was looking for. As I was about to go back up, from the stereo I heard what I now know is Doc Watson’s voice say “…I’ll start it out like this” just before they blasted into (again, what I now know is) Black Mountain Rag. I was dumbstruck. I don’t know why, really. Doc was a big figure in our house; it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard him play. It probably wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard him play that tune. But it was definitely the first time it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

I was still way too preoccupied with my self-perceived notion of my coolness to let on what was happening. I went back upstairs like nothing was going on, but that was the moment in my life when I realized there was much more to this music my Dad loved so much than I had ever given it credit for.

That summer I went to spend a week with my aunt June in Raleigh, a tradition that had started a year or two before. She took me shopping, and the first thing I got was my own copy of the Circle album. My aunt was NOT a fan. I imagine when it was time for me to leave that year, she was well ready to be rid of me.

By the time I went off to college, I had been playing regularly in my bluegrass band for over five years and my copy of the Circle album was worn out. I bought it again. Sometime in 1988, Suzy and I converted our music collection over to CDs, sold our turntable, and traded in all our vinyl. I kept one copy of each of my band’s three records, a copy of John & Yoko’s Two Virgins, and the Circle album. But since we no longer had a turntable, I bought the Circle album yet again, this time on CD. Today, all our music lives in The Cloud, so I likely won’t ever have need to buy it again. But it never leaves my rotation for more than a few months at a time.

If you don’t know this record, give it a spin. If you haven’t heard it in awhile, spin it again. It’s perfect.

Music Of The Month: July 2021

Yola Stand For Myself

I wasn’t exactly bowled over by a lot of this month’s releases, so it was relatively easy to make a pick this time around.

Jackson Browne brought us a good batch of new material on his new album Downhill From Everywhere. We also got a new record from Son Volt, Electro Melodier. I always love Son Volt’s sound, although I will readily admit I’m pretty sure I couldn’t distinguish any one album from another.

Early on, my favorite contender for this month was an album called Click Click Domino by the husband & wife duo who call themselves Ida Mae. I hadn’t heard of these guys before, but I very much enjoy their bluesy sound and for several weeks I thought this record might be this month’s pick of the litter.

But then, on the last Friday of the month, along comes Yola’s Stand For Myself. Suzy and I have been big fans of Yola since we found out about her a couple years ago, but I’ve always personally been of the opinion that her records –as much as I enjoy them– haven’t effectively showcased her voice to its best advantage. Well, look no further. This is the album I’ve been waiting for. Great from start to finish.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: June 2021

Amythyst Kiah Wary + Strange

Some of the best music I heard this month, by far, was in the form of live streams from Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY. On Saturday, June 12, Stephane Wrembel performed two shows that were streamed for free, and both were extraordinary (as his shows tend to be). Both the early show and the late show are available to watch on YouTube. If you want to see a true master plying his trade, click on these links and enjoy.

But this is my monthly record recommendation, so it seems more appropriate —call me crazy— to recommend an actual record. Luckily there are quite a few good ones to choose from this month.

There were new records from a couple of people I wasn’t familiar with. K.C. Jones brought us Queen Of The In Between, and Rachel Baiman released Cycles. Both achieve the accomplishment of offering up intensely personal lyrics, often about very dark subject matter, without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic. Well worth repeated listening.

The month also saw new material from a few familiar faces. Hiss Golden Messenger’s new Quietly Blowing It stands as a bright light as we begin to make our way out of the trauma of the pandemic. I have similar thoughts about Tim O’Brien’s latest, He Walked On, though this record is a bit more pointedly topical. And Amy Helm continues to impress with What The Flood Leaves Behind.

Early on I was pretty convinced that Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real were probably going to win my recommendation this month for A Few Stars Apart. Back in the day, I was firmly of the opinion that Willie could do no wrong. Lukas is currently making it pretty clear the same is true for him. Alas, this month his record got edged into runner-up position because…

Amythyst Kiah’s new record Wary + Strange is off the hook good. Big, bold, butt-kicking good. Like a lot of folks, I learned about Kiah by way of 2019’s Songs Of Our Native Daughters album, on which she was featured alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Layla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Kiah definitely stood out on that record, which is no small feat for anyone working next to Giddens. But even so, I did not see this new record coming. I can’t say enough good things about it, so I’m not going to try. Just go listen. Now. What are you waiting for!? Go!!

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: May 2021

Lord Huron Long Lost

There was a LOT of good music released this month, once again making it very hard to pick just one record to recommend. The Black Keys dropped a pretty much straight forward blues album called Delta Kream which, front to back, might be my favorite record from their catalog. I’m also really digging Rising Appalachia’s latest, The Lost Mystique Of Being In The Know. Oliver Wood (of The Wood Brothers) delivered an excellent solo record, Always Smilin. And another new solo album, Start It Over, from The Deslondes singer/songwriter Riley Downing, is also great.

As much as I like all those, my runner-up for May’s pick of the month is another blues record: Little Black Flies by Eddie 9V. Every single track on this record will make your toes tap and your head bob. So. Much. Fun. Neither Suzy nor I had ever heard of this guy before, but we will definitely be keeping an ear out for him from now on.

But in the end, my #1 May recommendation is Lord Huron’s new release, Long Lost. I hear a little of everything on this record. It’s folky, of course. (Who would imagine me recommending anything that wasn’t?) But in addition to that, there are huge helpings of Spaghetti Western, some psychedelia, a smattering of ’40s -’50s era American Songbook-like stylistic flourishes, not to mention any number of passages straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti / David Lynch toy box. And I don’t mean that I hear all this from one track to another; these influences are all stirred together in different combinations on every song. Hopeful. Mournful. Melancholy. Optimistic. It’s really good.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!