Top Picks of 2021 — David Nowels’ Self-Indulgence
Well, here we are at the end of another year aren’t we? How’d that happen? Anyway, I guess that means it’s time to compile that ever indulgent “best of” list. Here’s my dilemma, what if you basically took the year off? Sure I’m exaggerating, but it’s really not that far from the truth.
Personally, I found 2021 far more chaotic and frustrating than 2020, particularly towards my music consumption. Locally, I only saw two touring bands, which just might be my new all time low. The majority of venues here in the OKC area are just barely surviving, if open at all, and it’s all reminiscent of just a few years back, a kind of uncertainty. When I moved to Oklahoma from Texas back in 2005, I remember the dismay and frustration that so many tours went any and everywhere but OKC. It’s sorta happening again. Artists are just flat out skipping us right now. Add Covid concerns to the mix, as well as the resulting and never-ending, ever-changing venue protocols here, there and everywhere for live events and it’s quite the disappointment and headache. I’ve found going to shows are just too much of a pain in the ass right now. At least for me. Maybe 2022 will be different, but I have my doubts.
I also realized that it wasn’t just live music that eluded me in 2021. Album releases came and went, many of them I’d been eagerly anticipating. Most of those I still haven’t heard even yet. Isn’t that ridiculous? What’s more, there’s probably a bunch of others I didn’t even know about. Digging deeper, there were also releases I just had no interest in, and sadly, even a few artists/bands that I’ve realized that I’ve simply drifted away from. Probably my biggest revelation is going to sound kind of awkward here. I’ve kinda become bored with what “Americana” has evolved into in many ways. For me, there’s too much production polish, ego and condescension. And then, there’s the complacency. So much of it just sounds the same to me. Thankfully, there’s a whole new generation that I find vibrant and relevant. Dive into sources like GemsOnVHS and Anti-Corp to see countless numbers of brilliant songwriters and musicians that are having to fight to be heard.
I actually spent a lot of time digging into heavier music releases (if you need a recommendation, HMU). I also spent a silly amount of time with vintage Grateful Dead and Springsteen acrchival recordings. The Americana releases I did consume were perhaps lesser known than a lot of other lists, but I can assure you they’re all damn good. Really damn good.
My favorites included (listed in approximate order):
1. Senora May – All of My Love. Beautiful and timeless. I loved this album.
2. Matt Heckler – Blood Water & Coal. Stark and haunting. Heckler is going to be touring in 2022. Don’t miss a chance to see him.
3 Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita. Keep ’em coming Sturgill.
4. Every stinking release from AntiCorp’s Magnolia Sessions. Seriously. Every one of them is special.
5. Ryan Adams – Wednesdays. Adams is an eternal spring of quality material. It’s unfair to be so talented.
6. Lindsey Buckingham – Lindsey Buckingham. I love all of Buckingham’s solo albums, but this one is just ridiculously good. Might even top the original “Gift of Screws.”
7. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – Hunter and the Dog Star. Like comfort food. Took me back to a simpler time just before “adulting” happened.
8. Bill Fisher – Hallucinations of a Higher Truth. This one popped up suggested for me on YouTube. Once I realized Bill’s connection to Church of the Cosmic Skull, I understood why I dig this one so much.
9. Various Artists – Choctaw Ridge: New Fables Of The American South 1968-1973. Quite possibly the best stinkin’ compilation I’ve heard in a long time.
10. Waylon Payne – The Lost Act. I’m late to the Waylon Payne train I know. Great stuff, probably my favorite artist discovery this year.
As I mentioned earlier, my live music consumption was down even more. A metal show in March. (Weedeater, John Paul White knows what I’m talkin’ about.) Then, I hit WoodyFest in July, followed by an American Aquarium show, and lastly, down to Texas for the two Dead and Company shows.
WoodyFest is just special, and this year’s return to a physical festival was cathartic to fans and artists alike. For most it was the first real venturing out they’d do, into a large concert atmosphere. There was some awkwardness and uncertainty, but once the songs started flowing, the magic was still there. To reiterate my point regarding the upcoming generation of songwriters and musicians, nowhere is that element more prevalent than WoodyFest. Generations mingle and collaborate. David Amram, Jaimee Harris, Jared Tyler, Cassie Latshaw, Bonnie Whitmore, Betty Soo, Jesse Aycock, Ali Harter and so many, many more. I discovered several new voices that really connected with me at the fest this year too. Serena Guthrie absolutely blew me away. Same with Wink Burcham and Possessed By Paul James. First-time attendees Patty Griffin and Mary Gauthier w/Jaimee Harris, played memorable and stunning sets on the mainstage along with equally powerful performances by Samantha Crain, Carter Sampson and a particularly compelling set from John Fullbright. I’ll say it again for those in the back, WoodyFest is magical and special. Can’t wait for July 2022.
I’ve said it before and it’s still true. BJ Barham and American Aquarium are the hardest working band touring today. They returned with a fury, came to OKC for another phenomenal show, dropped two volumes of Slappers, Bangers and Certified Twangers, (90’s country covers), recorded their forthcoming album, Chicamacomico, and finished everything up back on tour. BJ and his team have been darn good to me over the years. I appreciate it, and his success is 100% deserved.
Driving back home to Texas for the Dead and Company run, I quickly fell in with my tribe of freaks and gypsies, collectively ‘searching for the sound.” I found both shows really, really solid, but it was Houston that stood out for me. I find it odd that so many people seem to prefer Dallas, which, at least to me, seemed a bit off in comparison to the 2019 show. Regardless, on this whole tour the band was on fire. Vocally, Weir sounded just fantastic, and the tempo (which has been a detriment in many’s eyes) seemed to pick up the pace a bit. They’ve already announced the Mexico dates of Playing in the Sand 2022, and hopefully an additional tour will follow. If not, undoubtedly Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers will be back at it.
Who knows what 2022 will have in store for us. Musically there’s a lot on the horizon to be sure. I’m already enthusiastically listening to Lost Dog Street Band‘s Glory which releases January 21st . It just could be their best yet. Also, I’m looking forward to a new Sarah Shook and the Disarmers release, Nightroamer that’s coming February 18th. There’s also Chicamacomico, the brand new American Aquarium album I mentioned above that is now in the pre-order stage. I’m sure several more will actually make it my way eventually too. But, we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s really something to see how Americana Highways has grown in the past, what 4 years now? Huge shout-out of appreciation to our managing editor, Melissa Clarke for everything she does to keep this ship on course and to still find some value in my ramblings and photo captures. To all my fellow contributors, you inspire and motivate me daily to stay involved, do more, and to do better. Lastly, to our readers, thank you for being here.
Lastly, the accompanying photos represent some of my personal favorites from this past year. Some music, and some others. If you see something you dig, let me know. Prints may be available. Until next year friends, be well.