As the managing editor of Americana Highways I really listen to a lot of new music, and even with so much quality new music available, there are some albums that stand out to my ear personally. I can really get into single songs as earworms too, but some albums hold your attention from start to finish.
I don’t (and can’t) hear everything, so please take this 2021 top favorite albums list with that caveat. On the other hand, this list IS a group of brilliantly satisfying albums that graced us this year. If you haven’t heard them, I really do insist you must.
Hereby presenting my top dozen favorite dozen albums of 2021.
[Click on anything in bold to read more about the artist; click to purchase for your very own if you haven’t already; then scroll to the bottom for a playlist for Spotify and follow all of the artists. Play it on shuffle!!! ]
[Click here for our New Americana Music playlist. Follow and heart so Spotify’s algorithm will bring it to more folks to listen: “New Americana Music,” playlist by Americana Highways ]
[Click here for my favorite songs, the earworms of 2021: Editor’s Pick: Road Trip Earworms 2021 ]
[Click here to vote for your own favorites of this year: Vote For Favorite Album of 2021]
James McMurtry The Horses and the Hounds is bloody exceptional. Every. single. song on this album is brilliant. James’ songcraft is honed and has grown ever more excellent in this year’s highly anticipated album. And it’s full of intense relationship observations and thrilling lines, like “cashing in on a 30-year crush, you can’t be young and do that.” Oh my! You’ll find there’s not a single one to fast forward through.
Todd Snider First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder appeared in spring 2021 like a funky raw ray of hope. The title almost says it all, except it doesn’t tell you about the glorious funk. This album was on repeat for me for weeks. Produced by Todd with Brian Kinkaid and the interesting Tchad Blake, this one is unique among Todd Snider records both lyrically and musically. Amidst the funk, he tackles organized religion, the state of society, and mortality all with absolutely nimble grace and a trace of humor.
Drayton Farley A Hard Up Life is wonderful. This is one of those perfect Americana albums that should be in everyone’s playlists and on everyone’s lips this year, and I really hope it is. Especially if you are a fan of music in the Tyler Childers vein, this one will really hit you. Lines like “I wonder if I’m living, or if I’m just alive” on “Blue Collar,” and every part of the song “Higher Than the Vulcan” are places to start.
Ryan Adams Wednesdays was released in December 2020 and it thereby counts in the 2021 pool. This album is beautiful. Just beautiful. Starting with “I remember you, before you hated me.” Then a song about “Crossing Over,” and the title track, with “woman your silence brought me to my knees where I needed to be,” and the exquisite “Birmingham,” echoing Neil Young in tone, “in some broken down hotel in Birmingham.”
Nathan Bell Red, White, and American Blues I was caught off guard and really blown away at how great this album was but that’s the best way to find a new favorite. One listen and there’s no denying it. Powerful, direct heavy hitting songs with strong vocals and equally strong vocal harmonies (courtesy of Patty Griffin, Regina McCrary, and Aubrey Sellers). I hope you’ll try it. All of it.
Margo Cilker Pohorylle. This is some good, real good, storyteller’s songwriting and the requisite sad-song Americana musical style with a certain intangible level of professional crispness. “Tehachapi” is perfect Americana. “That River” is melancholy excellence. The whole project is pretty. Listen and see.
Rod Picott Wood, Steel Dust, and Dreams. This is a cool album that Rod did solo acoustic during the pandemic of all his co-writes with Slaid Cleaves. Their songwriting is superb and compelling. So many great stories over Rod’s raw gritty vocal tones. I don’t believe this one is available through streaming. You need to order the CD. But there’s a Spotify playlist that has the songs if you need some version of them immediately. https://open.spotify.com/user/12168923310/playlist/4YDgzy0IEGIKnCVA3chjhY?si=77es5TRXTBmDiW0qtkONSw
Mala Oreen Awake produced by Neilson Hubbard is sung in Oreen’s clear Celtic-style fragile soprano with a slightly minor twist and it’s fantastic. The songwriting is full of natural imagery — the moon, the wind is her lover, shadows — and will bring out your inner forest dweller and powerful moon child.
Grace Pettis Working Woman Her songwriting is flush with memorable lines all through the album like “favorite child of a single mother” and she tapped the Indigo Girls, Mary Bragg, Dar Williams, Ruthie Foster, Gina Chavez and the Watson Twins on this project — a real wow factor.
Malcolm Holcombe Tricks of the Trade. His songwriting is full of imagery and often ducks into alleys on the darker side along its journey. “Money Train” features throaty harmony vocals and a cynical observation of the suckers born every minute. “Higher Ground” reminds us of the “freedom to choose higher ground,” and builds up to glorious gritty heights.
Sunny War Simple Syrup There is some intangible quality that just emanates from Sunny War’s aura that keeps your attention. She has an offbeat syncopated delivery, great guitar chops, and she covers unique songwriting ground. Might I suggest starting with “Kiss A Loser.”
Ana Egge Between Us. There’s hurt, hope, secrets and shaming the devil, and the wonderful centerpieces: “Wait A Minute” and “Heartbroken Kind.” Produced by Lorenzo Wolff, who also has produced Taylor Swift, Edie Brickell and Steve Earle. An especially strong album well worth many listens.