45 Reasons to Purchase Music

2021’s “45 RPM (Reasons to Purchase Music)” with Playlist

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2021’s “45 RPM (Reasons to Purchase Music)” with Playlist

After the absolute stillness of 2020, I would take the anticipation found in a 2021 merch line injected into my veins. And that’s what most of this year was – a shot to the musical system, where both concertgoers and artists found themselves stunned at how much they’d missed the give-and-take of a dark room filled with (hopefully vaccinated) strangers. The two disparate years did share one commonality – too much good music to squeeze into mere Top 10 lists. Here, then, are my 45 RPM (Reasons to Purchase Music) in 2021:

Favorite 10 Albums:

10) Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes – The trio of songwriters and longtime friends returned to their greatest sources of inspiration, the desert region of West Texas, and shared some of their best songs around a crackling campfire and a microphone (and a coyote or two). .https://store.mirandalambert.com/products/the-marfa-tapes-vinyl

9) Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! – While there’s still plenty of excellent guitar work here, there’s much more to find on ALT’s latest – the mood is bouncier, the music is synthy-er, and Tasjan is more open about what makes him tick. https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/aaron-lee-tasjan-tasjan-tasjan-tasjan

8) John R. Miller, Depreciated – This West Virginian’s breakthrough record dishes out stories from the road with a subtle sense of humor and a side of gorgeous, unfussy guitar work. https://store.jrmillermusic.com/

7) Son Volt, Electro Melodier – After 2019’s Union had Jay Farrar’s band delving deeper into politics than ever before, 2021 returned to a subtler, more melodic approach, even if, as lead track “Reverie” (“The system grinds dreams to dirt’) makes clear, Farrar still ain’t ready to make nice https://artist-stores.com/pages/son-volt

6) Hayes Carll, You Get It All – Straight-up sincerity hasn’t always been Carll’s game (that’s what happens when you hang with Ray Wylie Hubbard, I suppose), but mixed in with doses of his trademark humor, he goes for the gut with tunes like “Help Me Remember.” It’s heartening to see one of our best songwriters continue to add colors to his palette. https://www.dualtonestore.com/collections/hayes-carll

5) Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren – This may be my favorite surprise of the year. I’ve enjoyed Robinson’s work since hearing the devastating “The Dress” a couple of years ago, but I didn’t expect the now-Coloradan to hit me with great song after great song on her latest album. It’s old-school country storytelling told with one of our most beautiful voices. https://ohboy.com/collections/emily-scott-robinson

4) The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore – The indie-Dad-rock progenitors may not slide easily into the Americana genre, but this album is full of sad stories, guitar solos and even a bit of steel. They’re one of our best live acts, and they’re probably the band I listened to the most this year. https://shop.thewarondrugs.net/

3) Allison Russell, Outside Child – The Birds of Chicago/Our Native Daughters partner took center stage for the first time on her debut, and it’s a stunner. Russell plays a little less banjo (and a lot of pretty much everything else) while making beautiful art out of her horrific Montreal upbringing. https://store.fantasyrecordings.com/collections/allison-russell

2) James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds – You’ll seldom hear a better Tracks 1 and 2 than this album’s “Canola Fields” and “If It Don’t Bleed,” and the record doesn’t let down after that – 10 great songs from the man who always finds just the right word. https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/james-mcmurtry-the-horses-and-the-hounds

1) Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic – This South Carolinian nails the nature of today’s South by funneling it through the (not wholly biographical) life of one young woman. There’s no happy ending here. Not even an ending, really. But that’s OK – I want to hear more. https://store.warnermusic.com/canvasback/artists/adia-victoria.html

Favorite 25 Songs:

25) Steve Earle & The Dukes, “Last Words” from J.T. – It’s the song I wish I didn’t have to like at all. Earle’s goodbye to his son, Justin Townes Earle, is full of regret, love and confusion, all hallmarks of a passing too soon. https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/steve-earle-the-dukes-j-t

24) Lucero, “Coffin Nails” from When You Found Me – The latest record from Ben Nichols and the boys took a move toward synths and sci-fi, but there was still room for some good ol’ Southern Goth in lines like, “I weigh my deeds on my father’s scales/And I balance them with coffin nails.” https://lucero.merchtable.com/?ffm=FFM_65f14a9786ada52f6cb87f64bd800ddc

23) Of Monsters and Men, “Phantom” from My Head in an Animal, 10th Anniversary Edition – Written before the Icelandic band’s worldwide smash album but not released until late this year, it’s a beautiful-cold look at melancholy and wasted years. https://omam.lnk.to/MHIAATAEVD

22) Joy Oladokun, “i see america” from in defense of my own happiness (complete) – “Violence and rumors in a Southern town” may be the headliner grabber, both on cable news and in Oladakun’s words, but the singer also sees hope in change. https://joyoladokun.lnk.to/idomoh-complete

21) Suzanne Santo feat. Gary Clark Jr, “Fall for That” from Yard Sale – The multi-instrumentalist with the howl of a voice invites good friend Clark to contribute a scorching guitar solo to her pulsing takedown of a guy with no warmth in his heart. https://stores.portmerch.com/suzannesanto/

20) Heartless Bastards, “Revolution” from A Beautiful Life – Erika Wennerstrom got the band back together for the first time in five years, and this lead track set the tone for an album full of new, expansive sounds and boundless optimism and good will. https://heartlessbastards.shop.redstarmerch.com/store?ffm=FFM_ffb8cecc2442a19ece5ce5b3b6d35cd2

19) Morgan Wade, “Don’t Cry” from Reckless – The debut LP from the pride of Southwest Virginia was best summed up in this track – a struggle for independence, soaring vocals, and a subtle pop finish. This is the stuff that hits are made of.  https://morganwade.presspressmerch.com/

18) John R. Miller, “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder” from Depreciated – Led off by as funky a bassline as you’ll hear in these parts, Miller cheekily reminds us of the reason we can’t go home again (hint – it’s a woman scorned). https://store.jrmillermusic.com/

17) Anna Tivel, “Alleyway” from Blue World – This album featured mostly previous tracks in a reimagined form, and this stunner was good enough to merit inclusion on this list for its Prine-esque use of small details to slowly reveal the bigger (heartbreaking) story. https://fluffandgravy.com/store/anna-tivel-blue-world/

16) Hayes Carll, “Help Me Remember” from You Get It All – No well-earned chuckles or clever wordplay from Carll on this one – just a damn good song about memories slipping away, inspired by his grandfather. Important work, too – Carll used the video to direct those in need to alz.org. https://www.dualtonestore.com/collections/hayes-carll

15} Noel McKay, “Flying and Falling” from Blue, Blue, Blue. – McKay wrote this one with mentor Guy Clark, and it features that familiar humor (“The ground was comin’ at me like some mean old lady’s purse) and simple acoustic guitar loveliness that we’ve missed the past few years. No one will ever replace Mr. Clark, but folks like McKay ably help fill a little bit of that void. https://my-site-108364-106496.square.site/s/shop

14) Japanese Breakfast, “Posing for Cars” from Jubilee – Michelle Zauner had herself some kind of 2021, becoming a New York Times bestselling author (for the memoir Crying in H Mart), releasing a breakthrough new record, and ripping off one hell of dreamy a guitar solo on “Posing for Cars.” http://japanesebreakfast.rocks/shop

13) Watchhouse, “Beautiful Flowers” from Watchhouse – The newly-named Mandolin Orange hasn’t changed their approach  – gorgeous harmonies, expert playing and wispy string-folk odes to love and nature. https://kf-merch.com/collections/watchhouse

12) Emily Scott Robinson, “If Trouble Comes A Lookin’” from American Siren – This is the type of classic country ballad that lured so many of this to this music in the first place – a lonely wife, a disillusioned man of the cloth, and a hotel that provides equal doses of sadness and release. https://ohboy.com/collections/emily-scott-robinson

11) Amythyst Kiah, “Black Myself” from Wary + Strange – A first-ever second appearance on this list means it must be something special. Kiah originally performed her tune with Our Native Daughters, but her own take is grungier, while reinforcing its status as a damn fine rock song. https://warystrangestore.amythystkiah.com/

10) Covenhoven, “Monterey” from IV – Colorado’s DYI master, Joel Van Horne, sets a rolling boil on this driving tune, where even the gradual layering of keys and synths leave you not entirely convinced that he’s going to reach his destination. It’s that kind of uncertainty that makes a great road song. https://www.covenhoven.com/store

9) Tom Petty, “You Saw Me Comin’” from Finding Wildflowers – This collection of alternate takes from the Wildflowers sessions included a new-to-us song and, with Angel Dream, represents the last of the releases from the most productive time in Petty’s amazing career. https://store.tompetty.com/collections/wildflowers

8) Big Thief, “Change” from Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You – A bit of a cheat here, as this is one of the early teases from 2022’s double LP, but all of the tracks released so far have proven irresistible, including this cataloging of changes both necessary and heartbreaking. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll  see the album listed as an RPM come December 2022. https://store.bigthief.net/?ffm=FFM_b960bdc78362a8f60e754b78bb0752d6

7) Lightning Bug, “The Right Thing Is Hard to Do” from A Color of the Sky – Swirling keys, Audrey Kang’s light-as-air vocals and just a wisp of steel guitar make this plea for climate awareness go down like a dream. https://fatpossum.com/products/a-color-of-the-sky

6) Adia Victoria, “Troubled Mind” from A Southern Gothic – On a record full of great songs that combine to serve as a cultural reckoning, it’s tough to pick just ONE standout track. But a line like “I been in that gin, Lord/I been in my sin, Lord” makes it a little easier. https://store.warnermusic.com/canvasback/artists/adia-victoria.html

5) Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, “Like I Used To” – This (so-far) one-off between the two indie favorites is all kinds of big 80s superstars-duet goodness. More, please. https://jagjag.co/like-i-used-to

4) Allison Russell, “Nightflyer” from Outside Child  – Both stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful and catchy as all get-out. That ain’t easy, friends. https://store.fantasyrecordings.com/collections/allison-russell

3) The War on Drugs, “Living Proof” from I Don’t Live Here Anymore – Most surprising for its lack of big musical drama, this mostly acoustic tune is the kind of song you hear at the end of the movie as the hero drives away without the girl. Pretty much the kind of thing that Adam Granduciel’s band was born to play. https://shop.thewarondrugs.net/

2) Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Up All Night” from Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! – I’ll admit, I didn’t love this song on the first listen. The second through one millionth listens, however, have proven it to be perfectly addictive. And “Broke up with my boyfriend/To go out with my girlfriend/’Cause love is like that” befits a man who’s found comfort with himself, even if the world hasn’t. https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/aaron-lee-tasjan-tasjan-tasjan-tasjan

1) James McMurtry, “Canola Fields” from The Horses and the Hounds – Maybe it’s because I turned 50 this year that this song (and album) hit so hard. McMurtry’s acceptance of age and its consequences is the star of the show, and never more so than in the line “Cashing in on a thirty-year crush/You can’t be young and do that.” One of the best ever has never been better. https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/james-mcmurtry-the-horses-and-the-hounds

2021 Class Superlatives:

Favorite music documentaryWithout Getting Killed or Caught – Tamara Saviano’s look at Guy Clark, based on her book as well as Susanna Clark’s diaries and recordings, zooms out to include the complicated relationship between Clark, wife Susanna and friend Townes Van Zandt. The story is told with honesty, respect, affection and a bucketful of great music. https://www.withoutgettingkilledorcaught.com/

Favorite cover songs – Adia Victoria, “You Was Born to Die” and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit feat. Sadler Vaden, “Honeysuckle Blue” – Victoria takes the ancient Blind Willie McTell tune and, with the help of Kyshona Armstrong, Margo Price and a devilish slide solo from Jason Isbell, irretrievably makes it her own. Isbell and his band, on their cover record Georgia Blue (which benefits voting rights organizations) take a Drivin N Cryin tune and hands it back to Vaden (who was in the band, although not at the time the song was originally recorded). Sadler nails the most Southern of rock songs, and he and Isbell burn down the joint with two solos. https://store.warnermusic.com/canvasback/artists/adia-victoria.html


Favorite compilation albumBroken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2 – A ridiculous list of artists all gathered to honor a man they loved. The two standouts are Nathaniel Rateliff’s “Pretty Good” and Amanda Shires’ “Saddle in the Rain,” but as a whole, it’s probably my favorite thing I’ve heard this year. https://store.johnprine.com/collections/broken-hearts-dirty-windows-vol-2/products/broken-hearts-dirty-windows-songs-of-john-prine-vol-2

Favorite guitar album – Cristina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely  – Her amazing slide work, along with an occasional banjo appearance, mark this travelog as a major breakthrough for an immensely gifted player and writer. https://cristinavane.bandcamp.com/album/nowhere-sounds-lovely

Favorite live album – Lucero, Live from Red Rocks – I’ll admit to being a bit of a homer on this one – Red Rocks is my second home in the summer, and Lucero’s May show was my first time back at the world’s greatest outdoor music venue in 594 days. Still, hearing the boys from Memphis bust out the new ones for the first time, as well as dipping DEEP into their catalog, made for one amazing night. http://smarturl.it/LuceroRedRocks?fbclid=IwAR2UWUo7dMnfctu3BBMLlw0GR6Zu1LdIXbjACrzlvPfDXu_bFdjzrh9FdOA

Favorite live showSuzanne Santo at Lost Lake Lounge in Denver on July 3 – Truly, every show this year was special, after having so few in 2020. Brandi Carlile’s Red Rocks show in September (opened by Mavis Staples!) was a tour de force, but Santo’s sold-out appearance in a small, hot room on a holiday weekend playing new songs that virtually no one had heard was such an unexpected cathartic WHOOSH that even the singer herself was pleasantly taken aback (see my interview with her below).


Interview: Suzanne Santo on “Yard Sale” and more

Favorite musical momentBrittney Spencer joining Jason Isbell at the Ryman for “Gimme Shelter” – After blistering us with her own set plus joining the 400 Unit for their cover of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” they couldn’t possibly give us more, could they? They did, and the band’s honoring of late drummer Charlie Watts turned into a celebration of the Stones and the generations of influence they continue to have.  https://www.brittneyspencer.com/

Favorite “feat.” – Lucius – the former Brooklynites have turned up on recordings from The War on Drugs (“I Don’t Live Here Anymore”) and Brandi Carlile (“You and Me on the Rock”), and they’ll be playing dates with Carlile in 2022. They provide some indie punch to our favorites – check out their own stuff next time you’re looking for a new listen. https://ilovelucius.store/collections/albums

The one review I wish I hadn’t had to write in 2021 – Steve Earle’s J.T. is sad and beautiful in all of the unfortunately right ways. The combination of the excellent, restrained musicianship from The Dukes and Steve’s emotionally ragged voice singing the songs that his late son Justin Townes Earle wrote is a listening experience I won’t soon forget. https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/steve-earle-the-dukes-j-t

As always, thank you to the artists and musicians we cover each week, the publicists who work so hard to get their music into our ears, Melissa for chasing down all of that music, and the other fine writers at Americana Highways. A special word of gratitude goes out to anyone who worked at a music venue over the past couple of years – you’ve all gone above and beyond reasonable expectations so that we could indulge our passion. For these folks especially, PLEASE get vaccinated, get boosted, and follow any regulations and requests so that we can keep getting together. #listenbetter



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