The Best Music of 2021, Album of the Year: Joni Mitchell, Blue (Remastered); Plus My Picks for the Top Thirty Starring (in the Top Ten) Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, Samara Joy, James McMurtry, Shannon McNally, Willie Nelson, Nobody's Girl, Chrissi Poland, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Tyrell

Joni Mitchell - Jack Robinson / Hulton Archive / Getty

Welcome to the best music of 2021.  For whatever reason, there was more good music released this year than ever. The most likely scenario is simply that musicians, forced off the road by the pandemic, had plenty of time to do what they do best. 

In late spring it seemed (for about five minutes) like we had really turned the corner and that, as a result, venues began booking shows and some musicians ventured out upon the road. Japanese Breakfast had no sooner announced a mostly sold out five show run at Philadelphia's Union Transfer than the Delta variant kicked in with a vengeance. Although some vaccinated people got mildly infected, the unvaccinated filled hospitals to the breaking point. Most folks returned to preventive measures to avoid Covid infection. The music industry, like most others, is caught in the middle of trying to open up while the pandemic still rages. 

Now, as I complete this post, the Omicron variant is threatening to put us back to square one. It can't really be square one because we have many tools that we didn't have two years ago. Even still, the idea of going to a crowded indoor venue is a deal breaker for portions of the potential audience. With serges infecting large numbers, including players of professional sports teams, we are seeing frequent shutdowns all over the entertainment industry. Not to mention some schools going back to remote learning. I won't say that this is the new normal, but it may be awhile before the music industry, or any other industry for that matter, gets really back to some semblance of normal. So, strap in, keep watching and supporting those live streams and let the music pull you through.

Album of the Year: Joni Mitchell - Blue (Remastered)

Joni Mitchell's fourth album,
Blue, turned 50 in 2021 and the music industry came together in a big way to celebrate her life and career, and rightly so. Perhaps the best part is that she is still here to enjoy the accolades. Consider that she has excelled as a songwriter, as a musician, and as a singer on her strikingly original material since before day one. I'll tell you what I mean by that in a minute. 

Consider also that although every album has its merits, Blue is universally regarded as her first major masterpiece and most artists don't even get to have one. Without even thinking about it, I could name two more, Court and Spark and Hejira; there may be more. Mitchell is the subject of not one, but two, series of box sets right now.  One, the remasters series, reissues each of her albums. The first set contains her first four albums (The Reprise Years, 1968-1971). In addition to remastering, the first album was remixed correcting a problem that was reportedly bugging Mitchell for years.

The other series, The Live Archive offers previously unreleased live and studio recordings. The first set, Volume 1, consists of five CDs worth of material from the period before her first album (this is what I meant by before day one). That treasure was released in 2020. This year brought release of Volume 2, containing five more CDs worth of previously unreleased rare and live material made during the same period as The Reprise Years

I also am happy to report that the Joni Mitchell celebration will continue forward into 2022. When the music industry convenes in LA for the Grammy Awards, there will be a tribute concert during which Mitchell will receive the honor of becoming the MusiCares Person of the Year. The event is usually filmed and released on DVD/Blu-ray.

Blue is not only totally original and new, it was groundbreaking when it came out in any number of regards, not the least of which were her open tunings. If you wanted to play one of these songs, you had to retune your guitar first. The titles are iconic, such as "A Case of You", "Carey", "California", "All I Want", I could go on and name them all. 

I was in high school, already a fan, when this came out. But, Blue was an album that I didn't need to buy, at least initially. I have a younger sister who bought Blue immediately upon release, and it seemed to me that she played it continually (every time I walked by her room it seemed to be on). Although I generally react negatively to music in repetition, Blue insinuated itself into my central nervous system, joining the likes of the Beatles, C, S & N and The Who's Tommy. Eventually, I did pick up my own copy of the record.

The fact that Blue marks 50 years this year has brought it some well deserved attention. Brandi Carlile has been known to cover the entire Blue album in concert. And don't forget the boatload of "River" covers, which have made this gorgeous tale of desperation and regret into a massive Christmas standard. I can't leave this subject without mentioning Nazareth's excellent version of "This Flight Tonight", which just might be the first cover by anyone of a song from Blue. Which reminds me of a review, that always cracked me up, in Creem (who billed themselves as America's Only Rock 'n Roll Magazine). They were reviewing For The Roses or Court and Spark, as memory serves, and they wrote something to the effect that Joni should go back to writing more songs that Nazareth could do. I don't think they were joking...

The Top Ten (Alphabetically by Artist):

Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga - Love For Sale (Deluxe)
On their second album together, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performed a program of all Cole Porter compositions. Love For Sale is another amazing achievement for this duo. A number of thing hit you when you put this on. First, it is remarkable how good Bennett sounds, even now that he is into his nineties. The second thing that strikes you is just how perfect Lady Gaga sings this type of material. One cannot help wondering if she will continue this style of music after Bennett retires. Gaga is so talented that she could pull off a two track career, doing this concurrently with the futuristic pop music that keeps her at the top of the charts. Listening to this album it's easy to draw the conclusion that performing the work of one songwriter produces a more complete and complex album that we might have expected. 

Don't get me wrong, I love Cheek to Cheek, their first joint full length project, but after the gee whiz razzmatazz fades out, what you have here is something with (let's say) a little more depth. Many of the songs on Love For Sale will be instantly recognizable, even to the casual listener. They are the tracks to love while the lesser known tunes give it its depth. I'd like to say that these two are at the top of their game, but it's a little more complicated than that. Bennett has recently announced his retirement from live performing, acknowledging somewhat the ravages of age. Television profiles show that, in his case, even while the normality of life is a struggle for him now, the music remains seemingly unaltered. We can cherish this moment. 

Christone "Kingfish" Ingram - 662
Christone Ingram, who also goes by the name Kingfish,  is a complete blues recording artist and this year he released his second album for the Alligator Records label, writing, singing, and playing dynamite blues guitar, all at the tender age of 22. Kingfish came to the attention of the blues community when he was a teenage phenom. He has had the good fortune to work with, and learn from, Buddy Guy, Keb Mo, and numerous others. The title of his album, 662, is a reference to the area code for his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

Beyond his incredible technique on the electric guitar, Ingram has a gift for songwriting and a knack for incorporating personal experiences into songs like "Too Young to Remember," "That's What You Do," and many more. As impressive as he is burning down the house on the title track or "She Calls Me Kingfish," I find that when he slows down the tempo on songs, like "Something in the Dirt", the results are quite amazing.  Before Kingfish gets lost in the giant pool of talents on Alligator Records, it is my great pleasure to listen to and write about this fine musician. See my full review.

Samara Joy - Samara Joy
Samara Joy (McLendon) did not have your typical college education.  Between the time she was accepted into the jazz program at SUNY Purchase and graduation day, she was named the Ella Fitzgerald Scholar, she won the Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Competition and she recorded this amazing debut album. Joined by jazz guitarist Pasquale Grasso and his trio (Ari Roland on upright bass and Kenny Washington on drums), Joy sang the program with beautiful tone and seemingly easy assured phrasing.
James McMurtry - The Horses and the Hounds
By my count, The Horses and the Hounds represents James McMurtry's eleventh studio album. Comprised of all original songs that McMurtry wrote or co-wrote, they all are powered by his strong, yet sparkling, guitar tone. He generally falls into the categories of rock, folk, folk-rock, or Americana reflecting, I suppose, that we don't really have a good genre to put him in.  There is a razor-thin line between some of McMurtry's wordier material and that of someone like Bruce Springsteen. Similarly, there's not much of a stretch from the talking blues of "Ft. Walton Wake Up Call" to some rap tracks. The bottom line here is that The Horses and the Hounds sounds good initially, and it's one of those albums that keeps getting better the more you listen.

Shannon McNally - The Waylon Sessions
As someone who has listened to Shannon McNally and seen her live ever since the time of her first album 20 years ago, I was thrilled when she was signed to Compass Records because I think she has tremendous upside potential. A bit of that potential was realized on her first Compass release Black Irish (2017), and The Waylon Sessions is her second release for the label. For this project, McNally undertook the idea to record a tribute to the late country star. Jennings is also known for forming The Outlaws with his wife Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, and is credited with starting the Outlaw Movement in country music. He also was in the country supergroup The Highwaymen with Willie NelsonKris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash

Let me say that McNally excels as she goes pure country to totally nail this selection of Jennings' classics. For more detail, I invite you to read the following from the press release. "...The Waylon Sessions, isn't so much a tribute to Waylon Jennings as it is a recontextualization: a nuanced, feminine rendering of a catalog long considered a bastion of hetero-masculinity. That's not to say McNally has a softer, gentler take on the songs of Jennings and his outlaw compatriots here; in fact, just the opposite. Over and over again, she manages to locate a smoldering intensity - a searing hurt buried deep within the music's deceptively simple poetry - and she hones in on it with a surgical precision. McNally doesn't swap pronouns or couch her delivery with a wink; she simply plays it straight, singing her truth as a divorced single mother in her 40's in all its beauty, pain, and power. The result is that rare covers record that furthers our understanding of the originals, an album of classics that challenges our perceptions and assumptions about just what made them classics in the first place."

Willie Nelson – That's Life
Willie Nelson might not be the first person you think of when it comes to recording a Frank Sinatra tribute album, but the red headed stranger is no stranger to the wonders of the Great American Songbook. Nelson has turned to that fountain of classic tunes many times in his career. He has a great understanding and passion for this material. In that, he's more than equal to the task.

Nelson and his band made the pilgrimage to Hollywood to the studio that Sinatra made famous in the Capitol Records building to record That's Life. Together with his producers, Nelson chose a lineup of songs that are neither obvious nor predictable. Everything on here sounds terrific, but the album really knocked it out of the park for me with Nelson's superb version of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Perhaps the most surprising thing about That's Life is that Nelson doesn't try to sound like Sinatra; he just sounds like himself. He clearly has an affection for these songs and therein may lie the genius of these two singers. Read the complete article.

Nobody's Girl - 
Nobody's Girl
The star of this show is said to be the songwriting of this Austin trio consisting of BettySoo, Rebecca Loebe and Grace Pettis. The compositions here may be extraordinary, but the real attraction could be the sounds of their voices on this self-titled, full length debut. 

Ironically, perhaps, on the first spin I was knocked out by a cover of Carole King's "So Far Away." The version here has a gorgeous vocal and the artful production is faithful to the original, with one exception. Nobody's Girl substitutes a french horn for the flute in the King original, and the way that the horn and voice seem to riff on the song was so sublime that I blissed out. I also happened upon the information that the piano used on "So Far Away." is the same one that Carole King played while recording Tapestry and what's more, it's the same that Joni Mitchell used for Blue. 

Elsewhere, the songwriting really does steal the spotlight. The album opens with strength and just keeps getting better the deeper you go. With nine of the eleven tracks being originals, the excellence of the album is a function of the songwriting and the vocals, the musicianship and the superb production. No slouch on guitar herself, Betty Soo was accompanied on the album by some of Texas' best players, "We have David Grissom, David Pulkingham, Charlie Sexton, and Doug Pettibone on one album (Doug Pettibone plays pedal steel). We also have Glenn Fukunaga on the bass guitar (it counts—it’s a guitar, y’all). Those guys were all brought in by way of Michael Ramos, our producer, who also plays keys on the record." Follow this link for a live performance webcast by Nobody's Girl. 

Chrissi Poland - Destination Home
Destination Home is the latest release from singer-songwriter Chrissi Poland. The five track EP contains four originals and a cover of Paul Simon's "Slip Slidin' Away." The EP opens with the title track, a song that deals with the emotional fall out for a working musician who feels the strong pull of home. The pandemic may provide a dual meaning in that so many of us have avoided that proverbial trip back home. In any case, it is a treat to hear her voice on this subject and to hear a classic Chrissi melody. 

"Sleepy Girl" follows the same theme and the fact that Poland has become a mom provides an additional reason for wanting to be home. "Wanna Be You" and "Missing You" are slices of soul-pop as only Poland can do it. "Slip Slidin' Away" is not only one of the best Paul Simon covers that you might hear, but it's one of those covers that allows you to hear meaning in the song that you might have missed in the original. As such, it fits right into the concept of this EP. 

Even though I might still be a hold out on the full length album, I am coming around to the thought that there is an art to getting in, making your point, and getting out within a few tracks, five in this case. Throughout her original compositions, Poland continues to have a mastery of her songcraft. This entire EP is superbly co-produced by Chrissi Poland and Stu Mindeman and should not be missed.

Bruce Springsteen - 
The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts
The No Nukes Concerts were held at Madison Square Garden in NYC as a fundraiser for Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE). The artist lineups for these shows were extraordinary. This CD is drawn from two performances on nights when the bill included headliners Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band. Naturally, with that kind of firepower in the lineup, each artist couldn't do their complete live show. Springsteen had roughly 90 minutes (to do what's usually a 3 hour show), so this track list presents everything that's great about a live Bruce show truncated to a more digestible length. 

The album includes staples like "Prove It All Night" and "Badlands,"  a nice two song preview of the next album The River that included the title track and "Sherry Darling." Just for this show, he played a great version of "Stay" that included the other artists on the bill. "Stay" was a cover of the Maurice Williams oldie that Jackson Browne had recently (at the time) combined with his own "The Load Out" to form the signature ending to his live Running On Empty album. Bruce's version included featured vocal turns by Rosemary Butler and Clarence Clemons, with The Big Man also providing a dynamite sax solo. 

Most importantly, the record includes a healthy chunk of the larger than life tracks that still populate Springsteen's encore sets, with material like "Born to Run," "Jungleland, "Rosalita" "Quarter to Three" and the "Detroit Medley." The CD also comes with a Blu-Ray of the film of these performances. Even though this is a crystallization of his complete live show, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts might just might be the best live Bruce Springsteen album yet. 

Steve Tyrell - Shades of Ray: The Songs of Ray Charles
Shades of Ray is a tribute to the late Ray Charles that has one thing in common with Willie Nelson's Sinatra tribute (see above). Tyrell does not attempt to be a sound-alike. That job was already filled quite nicely by Jamie Foxx in the movie Ray. Tyrell's vocals on this album have all the love of the music, all the soul, if you will, that is necessary to do justice to this material. The song selections here are terrific, it's not just the standard greatest hits, Tyrell does some of the hits, but he goes much deeper, and anyone who loves the music of Ray Charles is going to love this. 

In case you're unfamiliar with Tyrell, this is how he's described on his website: "Grammy Award winning producer and vocalist Steve Tyrell is the definition of a renaissance man. In his nearly five decades in the music business, he has achieved success as a singer, songwriter, producer, music supervisor, and most recently, radio host." This album was exquisitely produced by Tyrell himself. The songs that need it get the full big band treatment, the slower bluesier tracks are more wide open; every track gets the perfect sound - no more, no less. Tyrell saved a nice surprise for last. Appearing as a bonus track is "Curiosity," a 1989 duet with Charles and Tyrell singing on a song commissioned by CBS for the theme from the series SnoopsShades of Ray: The Songs of Ray Charles is a triumph on every level.

The Top Thirty: Numbers 11 - 30 (Alphabetically by Artist)

Jon Batiste - 
WE ARE (Deluxe)
To say that Jon Batiste’s daily gig with Stephen Colbert only scratches the surface of his talent sounds like a cliche, but in this case it could not be more true. His latest album, WE ARE, is so jam packed with the musical styles that Batiste has chosen (soul, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, blues, funk, gospel and probably a half dozen more that I haven’t mentioned), that it's the kind of album that you can’t grasp in one or two passes. I must add that some of the bass notes are so deep that they will give your subwoofer a good workout, so good that my sub gives this record its seal of approval and the neighbors have yet to complain.

Jackson Browne - 
Downhill from Everywhere
I am still so in awe of his first six albums that it would be unfair to compare his current work. However if you haven't heard him lately, Jackson Browne's Downhill from Everywhere sounds like he hasn't missed a beat. In fact, the musicianship, especially the guitar work and the production, are so good that it renders the question of whether Browne's lyrics still have that magic, secondary.

Caravan - It's None of Your Business
Of all the progressive rock bands I used to play 50 years ago, I never expected to see a new one from Caravan in the current day. But Caravan did release in 2021 the very listenable It's None of Your Business. The reason that it still sounds like Caravan is that lead singer and songwriter Pye Hastings, the band's only original member, is still working. Caravan shows quite a bit of growth on the new album with a sound that relies on acoustic instruments, for the most part, with leads played on violin or flute. Though maybe not as progressive as they once were, this new Caravan is both accessible and totally enjoyable. 

Chapel Hart - The Girls Are Back in Town
Chapel Hart is essentially a vocal trio consisting of sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle who all grew up in a small Mississippi town. Their voices sound terrific together and although their background is soul and gospel, this record is pure country, and you won't hear country music better than this. One ingredient is superlative songwriting that sounds totally sincere no matter the subject. Another ingredient is the musicianship of the band, especially the guitars. Closing the deal is sure-handed production by Jeff Glixman. I'm loving all the songs, but I've got to mention three killer tracks: "Grown Ass Woman," "You Can Have Him Jolene," and the title track. Empowerment is the order of the day here including a very humorous answer song to Dolly Parton's "Jolene."

David Crosby - For Free
As one whose central nervous system bears the indelible imprint of Crosby, Stills and Nash's first two albums, and as someone who also carries good memories of Crosby's first solo album, I've been waiting for that later in life killer album. I'm not sure that this is it, but I'm here to say that For Free comes close, closer than anything else I've heard him do in the last decade or so. Just listen to his voice and you can forget the picture of the old guy on the cover. In addition to the many new originals, Crosby gives us an exquisite cover of Joni Mitchell's "For Free" (on which he sings with Sarah Jarosz) and it sounds real good.

Bobby Dove - Hopeless Romantic
"Hopeless Romantic", the title track leads off and tells you everything you need to know about this new album from Bobby Dove. I'm loving the songwriting, the singing, the playing, and the production. One of the amazing things about Hopeless Romantic is the way that Dove seems to feel at home with music that sounds like it was written before she was born. This Montreal native has previously released one full length album and her debut EP. This is Canadian country music and from what I'm hearing on Hopeless Romantic, it doesn't get any better in Nashville.

Peter Frampton Band – Peter Frampton Forgets The Words
The title Peter Frampton Forgets The Words is a clever way to tell you that this is an instrumental album of a dozen songs that he loves. In 2019, Frampton went public with his diagnosis of IBM, which is a degenerative nerve disease. Because his condition would one day affect his ability to play the guitar, he embarked on a farewell tour with plans to go into the studio to record as much as he could, while he still could. On this, his first release from those sessions, you may recognize Sly Stone's "If You Want Me To Stay" and George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity" (video below). Less familiar (at least to me) are Radiohead's "Reckoner" and Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," just to name a couple. Regardless of your frame of reference, these twelve tracks are winners and we can only hope for more. There is a thoroughly interesting interview here.

John Hall - Reclaiming My Time
John Hall has led a fascinating life as a singer, songwriter, musician, environmentalist, activist, politician, and school board president. He touched on these things and more during an epic interview on a recent Bob Lefsetz podcast. In his music career, while he's been an occasional member of Orleans (a band he co-founded), along the way he has released solo albums of which this is his tenth. If you were aware of John Hall and Orleans back in the 1970's and they somehow slipped off your radar, fear not for they are still going strong. On Reclaiming My Time the singing, playing, and songwriting are all so good it seems like no time has passed. I must also mention the excellent production. You've got the perfect mix of acoustic and electric instruments with guitar solos and background vocals that sound superior to most other stuff that's out there. I'm loving the sax solo on "Alone Too Long". There are some high powered guests on here too. Dar Williams sounds great on the shared vocal on "Save the Monarch." Country legend Steve Wariner co-wrote and performs on "Another Sunset." Hall mentioned in an interview that in addition to singing, Wariner also plays one of Chet Atkins' guitars on the track. Back in the day, I might have placed John Hall (and Orleans) somewhere between The Eagles and The Doobie Brothers but clearly now he's working at a much higher level.

Colin Hay - 
I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself
You might remember Colin Hay as the lead singer of Australia's Men @ Work who had a number of hits like "Down Under". For his 14th solo album, Hay decided to record, or rather "reimagined", some of his favorite songs. As I listened to it, I began to realize that most of the songs are favorites of mine as well. When he gets to "Ooh La La" by The Faces, I have to say that although I've heard this song a million times I never connected it with The Faces. It played so often in the Philadelphia area, and probably other cities too, as part of a health insurance commercial that I never felt the need to look it up. The next track is the coup de gras, Del Amitri's "Driving With the Brakes On", arguably the finest cut on Del Amitri's finest album. As the first strains played, I found myself saying "Colin Hay get out of my head!". If you don't know that album, you are not alone; it didn't get much play here in the States. If I were producing this cover album, I might have picked every one of these songs. The versions of all this material are lovely and don't stray far from the originals. Colin Hay you've done a great job with I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself and I must commend you on your cover choices.

The Hobbs Sisters - Turn It Up
The Hobbs Sisters are two identical twins, Hannah and Lauren Hobbs, who fill their debut full-length album with sisterly harmonies, excellent songwriting, playing and production. The sisters, who grew up in Pittsburgh, have been singing all their lives and now call Nashville home. You can hear the difference between Turn It Up and the typical mainstream country album right away. The songwriting on these 10 tracks, which are all original Hobbs Sisters co-writes, seem somehow more honest and true, more borne of actual experience than you might expect. Just listen to a track like "Mistakes Like You" and you'll see what I mean; the whole thing has a warm mix of electric and acoustic guitars. When you add the contributions of the Hobbs Sisters to production that sounds this good, you get a record that must be heard to be believed. 

Norah Jones – ‘Til We Meet Again (Live)
Norah Jones' first proper live album was inspired by the pandemic. As Jones tells it, during 2020 she began to listen to her live recordings from 2019 and was blown away by the quality. Adding to that, she missed the live interaction with her band and with her audience, so she had the idea to release a live album. Although best versions of some songs were sourced from her world tours between 2017-19, the core of the album comes from a show she gave in Brazil in December 2019. A large part of the reason that her first album was so good was the unique way in which she combined genres such as jazz, blues and country. In addition, the original material rose to the level of the songs she covered, all with Arif Mardin's understated production. That sound can be heard on this live album. ‘Til We Meet Again opens with a full band that includes piano and organ, which sound terrific together. During the solo set and the piano trio that follows, you realize that the piano is the prime ingredient in her sound, not to mention her voice. Among the excellent material on this album are "Cold, Cold Heart," her big hit penned by Jesse Harris, "Don't Know Why," and "Black Hole Sun"in honor of Chris Cornell. I've seen Jones many times in many types of venues over the years, and I found this album to be the best she's sounded on record since Come Away With Me. I am moved by this album every time I play it. Click here for an interview with Jones and Blue Note president Don Was.

Maria Muldaur, Tuba Skinny - 
Let's Get Happy Together
Blues and jazz have never been a stranger to Maria Muldaur in her 42 album career. She joined forces with New Orleans band Tuba Skinny for a performance at the International Folk Alliance Conference in 2020. The combination worked so well that they decided to go right into the studio to make an album. Let's Get Happy Together is that album and the one thing you need to know about it is that, like a time machine, it will take you back to the Big Easy of the 1920's and '30s. According to the label Stony Plain, they selected "twelve songs as close as possible in feeling to the original recordings, Tuba Skinny and Maria Muldaur breathed life into rarely heard gems from this incredible era." This is traditional New Orleans jazz with vocals in the familiar voice of Muldaur.

Old Dominion - Time, Tequila & Therapy
The first thing that caught my ear about Old Dominion was their songwriting, which sounded exceptional when I first heard them on EP some time back. On their fourth album, Time, Tequila & Therapy, their songwriting excellence continues and the lead vocals by Matthew Ramsey and the level of musicianship of this band is equal to the level of the songwriting. Producer Shane McAnally puts it all together to create one of the best listens that you'll hear. The songwriting is wordy, but it's obvious that a lot of work went into these lyrics and they are at once clever, revealing, and fun. Fun is the key word here. There is one guest appearance; Gladys Knight sings with the band on "Lonely Side of Town." I would single out other notable tracks here, but you could just list all of them. It's unusual to find an album in country, or any other genre for that matter, that sounds this damn good. 

Freda Payne - 
Let There Be Love
Many listeners may know Freda Payne from the 1970 hit "Band of Gold." If you remember the song, you know that Payne can sing, but you've probably never heard her sing like this. Let There Be Love is a 7 track EP that includes some jaw-dropping duets on standards, all recorded in that magic studio in the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, with a 31 piece jazz orchestra. The lead single with dynamite video is her incredible duet with Johnny Mathis on the Gershwin classic "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The terrific vocals, instrumental performance, arrangement, and superb production by Rodrigo Rios would be accomplishment enough, but the track also features some flirtatious banter that's like icing on the cake. The same is true for the duet with Kurt Elling. The record also includes priceless duets with Kenny Lattimore and Dee Dee Bridgewater. All told, this EP gives us six jazz classics from The Great American Songbook plus one shortened bonus track. I think, based on the early preview of the Mathis duet, I was expecting more of a full length album, but truly this EP is so good I would gratefully accept it at any size. 

Texas - Hi (Deluxe)
I started listening to Texas as soon as I heard their first album in 1989. Their original music sounded like a thinking person's rock band, and with excellent blues-based writing and vocals by Sharleen Spiteri they quickly set themselves apart and just as quickly became a favorite in these quarters. With Texas focusing on the U.K. and Europe, their U.S. fanbase had to be a resilient lot. 

Although I had a close call in the early '90s, I've never seen them play live. During their first ten years, their musical expertise grew to include a knack for writing and playing soul music (White On Blonde) while numerous singles kept them on the chart on their side of the pond, as it were. Texas, by the way, hails from Scotland and has no connection to the state of Texas except for an appreciation for Wim Wender's film Paris, Texas. After their first five albums, around 2000, they summed up their first decade with a greatest hits album that went 6x platinum (just in the U.K.) and a live video. 

Although I've loved the four albums that they released since, for me the magic has returned with Hi, their tenth and latest album. Both the standard and deluxe editions of Hi contain two versions of the title track, and they are both good, with or without the Wu-Tang Clan. I also took an immediate shine to "You Can Call Me." A little research revealed that Texas discovered a cache of unfinished songs from their White on Blonde album and they intended to make them the centerpiece of Hi. The story goes that they got so enthused with writing new songs for the band that they abandoned their original intention. If you take the plunge, I would recommend the deluxe edition as its additional two tracks are well worth it. This album has gone Top Ten in both the U.K. and Europe. 

Various Artists - After Hours: Black 47
After Hours is a seven track EP released this year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Black 47, an Irish/American band from New York City that leader Larry Kirwan disbanded in 2016 after 25 years as a group. As the lead singer and chief songwriter, Kirwan has amassed a considerable catalog. These fine songs bring together rock, folk, Irish, soul, reggae, punk, and probably a few genres I haven't mentioned. On this EP, other artists and groups interpret the beloved songs of Black 47. I'm liking all seven of the tracks, especially the songs by Celtic Cross, Screaming Orphans, and The Gobshites. Kathleen Fee and her band Celtic Cross do a phenomenal job with "40 Shades of Blue" to start the record.  In addition to offering seven excellent artists that you may not be familiar with, what After Hours really does is to shine a light on the phenomenal compositions of Larry Kirwan and Black 47. Read the complete article.

Various Artists - Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal
When I first saw this album in the new release list, I had a general knowledge of Neal Casal and I associated the name with good music. It turns out that Highway Butterfly is an epic tribute to the life and work of Neal Casal. This compendium is 41 tracks, each written by Casal and performed by a different artist. 

Casal and his music touched a wide array of artists in this business and every one of these tracks sounds amazing. The album runs well over 3 hours on 3 CDs, 5 LPs, or digital download at the resolution of your choice at Bandcamp. Although I only knew about half the artists who participated, the breadth of talent on this project is staggering. During Casal's career, he was a member of numerous bands including Hard Working Americans, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Phil Lesh and Friends, Beachwood Sparks, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, among others. In addition, he was a talented session musician and an accomplished producer helming many more projects. He also released fourteen solo albums. 

To say he was prolific would be an understatement. Among the artists contributing to this tribute are Susan Tedeschi, Teddy Thompson, Oteil Burbridge, Warren Haynes, The Allman Betts Band, Bob Weir, Courtney Jaye, Steve Earle, Puss N Boots, Shooter Jennings, Leslie Mendelson, and many, many more. On top of the phenomenal line up and performances, one thing that is really surprising is the cohesiveness of this production. According to recent interviews, a Kickstarter campaign was way more successful than anticipated allowing the producers Dave Schools and Jim Scott (who also engineered and mixed) to record in a manner that gave these tracks what they deserved. This explains how all these disparate artists all sound like their tracks are unified by a consistent level of quality. 

Tony Joe White - Smoke From the Chimney
Tony Joe White's career began with the single "Folk Salad Annie", a slice of life story from his corner of Louisiana that was released in 1968 and went Top 10 in 1969. Brooke Benton had an enormous hit with White's composition "Rainy Night in Georgia" in 1970. Benton's soulful weathered voice is not all that different from White's. Tony Joe is also credited for inspiring John Fogerty with the swampy guitar style that Creedence Clearwater Revival became known for. Over the years White has released much music that is hard to categorize save for White's ability to tell a story, sing it, and play a mean guitar. In 2019, about a year after White succumbed to a heart attack, Producer Dan Auerbach produced some demos that White recorded the last few years before his untimely death. This album is a welcome addition to White's catalog and a huge treat for his audience. 

Dar Williams - 
I'll Meet You Here
I remember one gorgeous summer day in 1997 when I brought the family to WXPN's Singer-Songwriter Weekend to see an excellent line-up that included both Dar Williams and John Hiatt. Our teenage kids were not the least amused by Hiatt's humorous raunch (his then latest record was Little Head), but they loved seeing Dar. A couple of decades later, we all have a little more mileage on the odometer and I should not be at all surprised by how much I'm enjoying I'll Meet You Here, Dar's thirteenth (and latest) album, or how much she really nails it with this record. Back in  '97, I may have been Team Hiatt, but I am grateful now for the opportunity to give Dar her due, even if it's long overdue. 

Hayley Williams – FLOWERS for VASES / descansos
Last year Hayley Williams, lead singer and front woman of Paramore, released her long awaited and favorably received debut solo LP Petals for Armor. Although the pandemic interfered with her plans to take the record on the road, the lockdown gave her time and opportunity to record another album, this time composing all of the songs herself. The result, Flowers for Vases/Descansos, was released earlier this year with Williams playing all the instruments. This is a quieter album with simpler instrumentation and more of an acoustic sound than previous. All that might be expected from a lockdown project, but I am especially liking her production on these songs. They all have breathing room that I like a lot. The Pitchfork review takes the position that this is essentially a second try at dealing with the same breakup that inspired Petals for Armor.

Watch Peter Frampton's instrumental cover of George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity"


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