The Best of 2021
Our look back at 2021 continues with the lower half of our albums list.
Things to Come
A warm, inviting album on the surface that’s more tempered and welcoming over anything else, Things to Come stands as a triumphant comeback for Jeremy Parsons. What kept me coming back was the honest vulnerability Parsons displayed in his culpability with his past and his alcoholism and his refusal to let it define who he is now. It’s an album from someone finding the light again for the first time in a while yet still exercising caution in his approach, and that notion of taking things one day at a time is what helps this album turn the personal into the relatable. – Zackary Kephart
Recommended Tracks: “Lillian,” “Masquerade,” “Things to Come”
Steve Earle & The Dukes
We’ve had some great tribute albums over the years done by the children of legendary parents, but tributes from legendary artists to their children are few and far between. J.T. is borne of the most tragic circumstances, so it is to Steve Earle’s credit that he his able to make the proceedings so joyful, even as he processes his grief.
Justin Townes Earle was a hell of a songwriter, and his dad has picked some of his best songs to showcase. The specificity surrounding his death makes “Harlem River Blues” the album’s biggest gut punch, and it being followed by the only Steve Earle original, “Last Words,” closes the album on a somber note. But Earle also showcases his son’s talent as a storyteller, with story songs like “Lone Pine Hill” having the timelessness of an American folk tale. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Harlem River Blues,” “Lone Pine Hill,” “Turn My Lights Out”
On which the Bluegrass wunderkind fully embraces his status as a generational talent by writing a set of songs that hold up on their own merits while still suggesting that they’ll be even better as part of a live show. Strings is already a legendary performer, and Renewal points toward a future wherein he’s also a legendary “albums artist.” It makes for a riveting listen that embraces Bluegrass traditions while sounding contemporary. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Love and Regret,” “Hellbender,” “Hide and Seek”
In These Silent Days
Following up Carlile’s Grammy-winning By the Way, I Forgive You was never going to be easy, and she responded by going more fully inward. In These Silent Days is an intimate, stripped down collection of songs that probe her relationships with her inner self, her growing children, and the world around her.
The best moments come when she leans in fully to her own story, like on “Broken Horses,” where she draws strength from the toughness of her father and applies those lessons to her inner resolve. When singing to her children, she speaks candidly in a way that we often avoid with young ones, preparing them for the potential brutality of the world around them while also committing herself to support them as they navigate it.
She also gets sharply political, with “Sinners, Saints, and Fools” constructing an eternity surrounded by walls as the divine punishment for those who would turn away the other here on earth. It’s a hallelujah moment for those of us long tired of Christ’s message being perverted by those who most loudly claim to follow him. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Broken Horses,” “Sinners, Saints, and Fools,” “This Time Tomorrow”
Miko Marks & The Resurrectors
A history lesson– or, more pointedly, a perfect example of critical race theory in practice– in the guise of a note-perfect EP, Race Records proves definitively that country music can be and always has been black music. Marks leaves few corners of the country genre untouched in this set of perfectly-selected covers, and she and The Resurrectors perform their country music with unimpeachable skill and verve. There’s not a more joyful noise from 2021 than their rendition of “Long Journey Home.” – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Whiskey River,” “Long As I Can See the Light,” “Long Journey Home.”
Margo Cilker’s Pohorylle carries the sort of weathered maturity in its songwriting and presentation that other artists don’t find within their work until years or even decades into their careers. Her songwriting feels lived-in, made all the more powerful by little details that don’t shy from a dark and melancholic reality. It’s a melancholic slow-burn that will likely take time to grow, but this collection of memories from her time touring out on the road reveals more with every listen. It’s not quite her debut, but it’s a fantastic start nonetheless. – ZK
Recommended Tracks: “Broken Arm in Oregon,” “Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl),” “All the Wine in the World”
Stand For Myself
I’m not sure I heard better singing this year than I did on Yola’s Stand For Myself, a confident sophomore set that expands her sonic palette alongside her growing confidence as a singer and songwriter.
“Diamond Studded Shoes” is deceptively sweet, with its playful melody and singalong chorus putting a smiling face on a devastating indictment of a society that demands so much and gives so little in return. The title track rejects the narrow boxes placed around her as an artist, as she refuses to dilute her own talent and ambition to make others feel more comfortable.
The most dazzling moment is “Break the Bough,” a surprisingly buoyant seventies disco number that celebrates her recently departed mother: “Silently free the soul, oh let it be released. Let it spread and find a home, and maybe then you will find peace.” It’s a message Yola herself has taken to heart, and her liberation is all over this wonderful record. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Break the Bough,” “Stand For Myself,” “Diamond Studded Shoes”
Calico Jim is framed specifically around Georgia in its references, but the overall examination of living in the American South feels distinctly modern in its framing and approach. The duality is the key to its approach, from its admiration for the physical setting one inhabits – sometimes out of heritage and obligations toward it – to also confronting the history behind it and its darkest points to learn from them and forge something new, all while erasing old stereotypes along the way. Celebratory and hopeful yet cautious and anxious, it’s another slow burn. But in a year full of new discoveries, it’s absolutely an essential listen for the year. – ZK
Recommended Tracks: “Calico Jim,” “Hillbilly Possessed,” “Bodark”
The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
With her knotty lyrics that focus as much on distinctive images and mood as on linear narratives, Valerie June brings a true sense of poetry to modern country songwriting. As someone who often rolls his eyes when something is described as a “tone poem,” imagine my surprise to have found June’s latest album, The Moon and Stars, to be so evocative and resonant. Admittedly, June’s idiosyncratic warble of a voice can still be an acquired taste, but the rewards are bountiful on what’s easily her best album to date. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Call Me a Fool” (feat. Carla Thomas), “Colors,” “You and I”
Charles Wesley Godwin
How the Mighty Fall
Compared to his 2019 solo debut album, Charles Wesley Godwin’s How the Mighty Fall opens the doors wide open to deliver something much more universal, desperate and darker – a project that somehow feels even more frantic in its pacing and framing yet no less grander in capturing the windswept beauty of finding a sense of place, both physically and mentally. Godwin’s full-throated howl has a lived-in richness that can speak truth to power, and in a year that’s been filled with some excellent Appalachian-influenced albums, this is absolutely one of the best. – ZK
Recommended Tracks: “Gas Well,” “Blood Feud,” “How the Mighty Fall”
The Best of 2021