Favorites of 2021
By Bill Bentley
It’s the time of year when it’s fun to look back, rummage through all the releases of the past 12 months and see what rises to the surface as music that will last forever. And help put some of the glide in the stride of the present. To each his own, always, and these are the ten albums in 2021 that feel like they fit right into my eternity.
Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days. Every great singer usually comes to that point where they go right to the top of their talent and bring everything all the way home. And that’s exactly where Brandi Carlile ascends on her new album. It is an overwhelming achievement of vocal beauty, crossed with a human power that doesn’t hit earth very often. Not only that, these are the level of songs that will last forever. Listening to Carlile sing now feels like the center of the world has just opened up and let humanity all the way in to discover what lives at the core of us all. Go there now.
Brian Eno and Roger Eno, Mixing Colours (Expanded). Life now often seems like a
time where the most productive thing that can be done is to find music that allays the fear emanating from the world’s many challenges. Not as easy a task as it might seem. The Eno brothers are naturally predisposed to create sounds that go a long way to slow the negatives down. What a gift.
Williams Harries Graham, St. Claire. Why is it that every decade one of the brightest hopes on the musical horizon can be found hiding in Austin? Right now, that person would be William Harries Graham, and his recent album is the one that finally shows he has all the goods to go the distance. Now it’s just a matter of people finding that out and listening. It will happen.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days. It’s not every day that a gospel singer in her 80s is hitting all the notes and opening the gates to heaven. But Elizabeth King does just that–and then some. In a time when gospel music should be a daily requirement for the masses to hear, this woman proves that without a doubt she is the embodiment of the glory radiating from the spiritual side of the sidewalk. Ms. King’s Queen.
Daniel Lanois, Heavy Sun. There aren’t many musicians who sound like they set out on a different quest on each new album, and hope beyond hope, find a way to get to that place where the sunshine bursts through the clouds and the power of the human heart reigns supreme. Experimenting is a guiding force in everything they do, and when they strike the mother lode life explodes. Daniel Lanois has found another area where it feels like he’s in the outer zone. Recording with gospel singer-organist Johnny Shepherd and longtime steel guitarist Rocca DeLucca along with bassist Jim Wilson, they carry the weight of the righteous and make the perfect match for Lanois’ musical visions. Then, in the end, they walk into the Hallelujah Land together. What a dream.
Los Lobos, Native Sons. There’s a case to be made that Los Lobos is the official Band of Los Angeles. They cover such a diverse range of music that calls the City of Angels home, how can it be otherwise? Now that they’ve recorded an album covering songs ranging from Lalo Guerreo, Buffalo Springfield, Thee Midniters, The Blasters, War and beyond, the greatness of it all is such a dizzying joy that it feels like the world is finally in agreement about everything. The key to Lobos’ ultimate power is how they can play everything, all with equal velocity, and in vocalists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas their singing range is beyond equal. They are closing in on a half-century of togetherness, and still sound like they’re flying at their highest altitude ever. Vamos al gitdown.
Sara Petite, Rare Bird. On this alluring singer-songwriter’s sixth album, it sounds like Sara Petite has found the spirit world–and likes it there. There is something otherworldly on many of these songs, like the woman was able to enter a zone beyond sheer physical existence and commune with things that cannot be seen. It’s such a striking revelation to hear her on songs like this, and luckily she can take listeners with her to that place. Southern California-based, Sara Petite is actually from another plane altogether. Even with rootsy musical influences and perfectly stripped-down production, it appears she has found her way into the outre outlands of ability, and isn’t coming back. It’s not always possible to explain how artists get there, but the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. The trick is to know it when it arrives, and then revel in that glory that a new level has been discovered. Rare bird indeed.
Connie Smith, The Cry of the Heart. Country music has a way of zigging and zagging all over the playing field. There are periods when it’s obvious the singers are really bearing down on what makes that music so timeless, and then there are other moments when it feels like the fads have taken over and no one is thinking much beyond the radio charts and cash register. Connie Smith doesn’t touch that stuff, because she has been around long enough that she knows selling your true talents short is a fool’s folly. Her new album will stand every test of time there can possibly be, and should be required listening for all who care for what happens to reality. The woman abides.
Yola, Stand for Myself. The world needs a Yola. Someone who can take the gyrations of modern rhythm & blues and lace it with rock & roll, and even a bit of Martian moves, and come out with an amalgamation which will not be denied. Yola has it all, and coming from England gets to take in the entire grandeur of American music and then twist it into her own idea of what the sonic pretzel should sound like. She is a wonder on everything she tries to do, and while her voice bows to no one, it’s more in the totality of what she pulls together that makes her an all-timer. It feels like on her second album that she still is just loading up to make the devastating impact which awaits her future, and finding out how she wants to get there will be one of the regal rewards of this decade. Burn Yola burn.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Barn. No one has the comparable career right now of Neil Young. Since his earliest days in Buffalo Springfield in the mid-’60s, Young has focused a laser vision on what he wants to do, and then does it. He hasn’t wavered or wiggled at all. Which isn’t to say all his albums are of equal import, but that’s not the point. Rather, the point is he listens to himself and does exactly what he feels. Truth matters. Neil Young’s latest album is as honest and moving as anything he’s ever recorded, and shows how he is the guiding light of modern music. No matter where he goes. Don’t forget love.
O.V. Wright, A Nickel and a Nail and Ace of Spades. There lived a soul singer who was so devastating in his ability to wrench the human heart into knots that it seemed like only a matter of time he would be known in the same realm as Otis Redding, Bobby “Blue” Bland and all the other greats. But it never really happened, for all kinds of reasons. But to listen to O.V. Wright singing songs like “Born All Over,” “Afflicted” and the devastating “Nickel and a Nail” is to hear the beauty of life at its most overwhelming, and know that existence on this good earth is never for naught. Produced by Memphis magician Willie Mitchell and backed by the Royal Studio band, this truly is the place that Sun Records kingpin Sam Phillips once described: “where the soul of man never dies.” Overton Vertis Wright.
Rickie Lee Jones Last Chance Texaco This incredible memoir of life and music from one of the great artists of the past 40-plus years is really beyond being just a book. It is like a physical injection of what it feels like to live through a childhood and, then, adulthood that is so far beyond the charts that it defies description. But somehow Rickie Lee Jones does just that. She writes so strongly that it imparts exactly what she went through in every aspect of her life, and it now seems like we are plugged into an electrical socket so we sense it all the way to the very core of our neurons. Without Jones’ true artistry as a writer, the amazement of her life experiences might not have come through so directly. But they do, because it turns out the woman is as great an author as she is a singer and songwriter. Here’s hoping there’s an audio book coming read only by her. Accept no substitute.
Hayes Carll, “Help Me Remember.” Aging ain’t for sissies. As the body begins to creak and crunch, even more worrisome is when the mind starts to fog up. Not everyone is hit with equal infirments, but be assured something is waiting around the corner for all. Hayes Carll has always been a songwriter of astounding ability to really tell it like it is, and on this new song he conveys the tale of someone starting to lose their memory in a way that not only stops time, it brings a tear and a fear for what happens to those hit by the avalanche. To no longer remember the pictures on the walls, let alone your own identity, is the ultimate loss. And to be able to tell that story in a way that conveys the slide into the darker corners left of life like Carll does is beyond poetry, really, and more like a gift of understanding. No other song has ever really done it, but now someone finally has. Lord have mercy.
Favorites of 2021 by Bill Bentley
Favorites of 2021 by Bill Bentley
Favorites of 2021 by Bill Bentley