2020 was uhhhh… quite a year. It upended most of American civil society, and turned the music industry upside down. Let’s hope that 2021 will turn it all around, and with that hopeful thought in mind, here are the new trad releases coming in early 2021 that I’m most excited about. We’re still not seeing as many albums released because artists are waiting for touring to open up, so the artists that are releasing music in this difficult time need your support more than ever! Have a listen and buy an album if you can to make 2021 a better year for our favorite artists.
Released January 1, 2021
Hanz Araki is one of the best flute players and singers in Irish traditional music. He came up in Portland, Oregon’s hot Irish scene, and for years has been one of my favorite Irish trad artists. But he’s also a sixth-generation shakuhachi master! I led with his Irish trad work, because I don’t think he’s recorded a shakuhachi album before now. His January 2021 album, Hankyo, of all Japanese shakuhachi has to be one of the album’s I’m looking forward to the most, since it sees him ascending to a lineage that’s borderline royalty in Japanese music. Under the name Araki Kodo VI, Hanz is heir to six generations of shakuhachi heritage from absolute master musicians. Though he’s been playing shakuhachi since he was a kid, this album I think is really his arrival on the scene. It’s a beautiful, powerful, and transcendent set of four compositions for the instrument, some from antiquity and some from the annals of his own family. “Kumoi Jishi” has some lovely doubling of the flute, and “Dokyo”, according to Araki, is a modern composition with fluttering lines and big open spaces that he attributes to his father, Araki V. Araki has spoken a bit about how quarantine inspired him to create this album, and it’s powerful to think about a grandmaster like this given the space and time to build the album he always wanted, but maybe that’s just me looking for a silver lining. He also talks about how he recently was able to get one of the shakuhachis made by his ancestor, and it’s incredible to think of how it must have felt for him to hold something a couple hundred years old that was made by his own family. This album is an essential new release from an artist finally looking to claim the richness of his own heritage.
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Maybe I’m a nerd for getting super excited about ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers bandmates Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird getting back together years later for a new album. But on the other hand, this album is absolutely spectacular. Sure, both Mathus and Bird came out of roots music and have long flirted with it, Mathus with blues and Bird with various fiddle traditions (his first album of solo fiddling is pretty great), but it hardly matters when the songs are so well crafted. The album sounds like it was made just for fun during quarantine, just two old friends having fun trying to show the other up with a better song. The songs clearly draw from folk and country blues, some old Hank Williams influences as well, and a fair amount of Andrew Bird’s fiddling. The album’s laidback, single-take vibe makes it seem like an amazing backstage jam, but I just keep coming back to how well built these songs are. They’re tossing off songs that most Americana songwriter would kill to be able to write like it’s no big deal. This is a Gillian Welch kind of power move, and I think the songs on this album are strong enough that they’d be worth learning as folk songs like folks learn Welch’s songs now. What a fun surprise to start off the new year! Bonus: I was even more excited to hear Bird reprising one of my favorite songs of his, “Three White Horses” from The Handsome Family. What a folk song!
Release Date: January 29, 2021
I’ve long held up The Macrae Sisters out of Oregon as some of the best old-time players in the US. They came up in Portland’s red-hot old-time scene, playing the square dances and gatherings, and their handmade album from 2008 is still one of my favorites. Playing banjo in the group, Gabrielle Macrae has now developed into one of my favorite old-time fiddlers, and with her new group, The Horsenecks, she’s bringing us one of the most beautiful old-time roots albums of 2021. The Horsenecks are Gabrielle plus her husband Liverpudlian Barry Southern. The two trade vocal lines back and forth, and Gabrielle’s deft fiddling mixes beautifully with Barry’s banjo playing, which ranges from clawhammer to three-finger bluegrass style. To my ears, the mix of Scruggs-style banjo with blazing hot old-time fiddling is the sound of Portland’s old-time scene, the sound that first marked Foghorn Stringband as an inspiration for the next gen players. Great to hear that sound continuing here, but the real draw is just how beautifully each of these musicians play individually and how tightly they play together. There’s no faking this music, though plenty have tried, and The Horsenecks remain true to the tradition while making it sound fresh and vibrant.
Release Date: January 22, 2021
Maybe it’s the dumpster fire that was 2020, or maybe it was the shocking events of Jan 2021, but I’m in the mood for some hopeful music to balance out all the darkness around us. Kristin Andreassen (of Uncle Earl) and Dr. Kari Groff have been working on this uplifting album of family music as The Bright Siders for a while now and it’s finally coming out on Smithsonian Folkways. Folkways has a great history of kids music, and it’s nice to see them continuing this. The album’s a lot of fun, with songs intended to help kids process some of the difficult emotions we’re all facing right now. There are songs for feeling mad, feeling sad, being the new kid, getting left out, getting bullied, being too busy with work to have fun, making mistakes… Even though it’s clearly meant for kids, these songs hit pretty hard for adults after 2020 too! Great guest list on the album, including The War and Treaty, Ed Helms, members of The Punch Brothers, Kaia Kater, Oh Pep!, Gaby Moreno, and more! I’ve always said that the best kids music is made with the whole family in mind, and the Bright Siders definitely have the same perspective. The songs are fun and catchy, not annoying or pandering, and they’d go down as well at a hootenanny with adult friends as they would singing with your kid in the living room. This is just the kind of release we need now.
Release Date: March 5, 2021
I don’t think any of us had “global sea shanty revival on TikTok” on our bingo cards for 2021? Nonetheless, TikTok is now awash (see what I did there?) with millennials happily harmonizing on sea shanties and we’re once again in the grips of a big sea shanty revival. So young British folk artist Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s new album is coming just in time! Kicking off with a rousing version of “New Barbary” complete with salty lyrics and a concertina, and I’ve had shanties on my mind with his new album. A renowned concertina and one-row accordion player, Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s album is stark indeed. In an era when folk singers usually have lush arrangements, this is really just him with his squeezeboxes. There’s something refreshing to this, a throwback to a folkier world of UK folk, and certainly he’s an excellent accordionist and able to pull this off. Braithwaite-Kilcoyne’s picked up a slew of great ballads of notorious British rakes and outlaws for this album, plus some hearty jigs from his repertoire as well. The album’s a fine addition to any collection of UK folk and a bold choice from a young voice on the scene.
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Nothing short of ambitious, the new album from Montréal singer-songwriter Dominique Fils-Aimé is the third in her series of albums examining African-American music and culture. The first album, Nameless, looked to the blues for inspiration, while the second album, Stay Tuned!, looked at the civil rights movement through jazz (and won a Juno, Canada’s Grammy award!). Her new album, Three Little Words, uses soul as a jumping off point for Fils-Aimé’s thoughts on change and personal growth. I’ve made the point before that soul music can basically be considered traditional now, having been passed down through at least three generations. That’s about the same historical point that saw bluegrass become a traditional music. For Fils-Aimé, the progressive vision that made soul so powerful in the 60s and 70s is clearly ringing true to her in 2021, and she’s not afraid to tap into the past to say something important about the present. Also, what a voice! I could listen to her sing all day long! BONUS: she wraps up the album with an absolutely killer cover of “Stand By Me”!
Released January 15, 2021
For as much as we all love Zydeco, it’s surprising how hard it is to find new Zydeco these days. The Creole communities that created this music and keep it going release albums on the downlow and have moved in interesting directions that foreground hip-hop in the music. They’re leaving behind the old Creole dancehalls for backwoods trail rides and the blues and R&B influences of Clifton Chenier for autotune-heavy modern aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this new Zydeco sound from folks like Chris Ardoin, but there’s certainly a lot of room for the traditionalists as well. Corey Ledet’s always been foremost in mind as one of the best young traditional Zydeco artists. I’ve seen him onstage in Texas backing up older legends of the music like fiddler Ed Poullard, and I know firsthand how humble he is about respecting the Creole roots of the music. And he’s not afraid to innovate as well! When I saw him in Denmark at the Tønder Festival, he was mixing in a Bob Marley cover or two as well. Ledet plays every kind of Zydeco accordion too, from Clifton’s piano accordion to Boozoo Chavis’ one-row melodeon, to Terrance Simien’s three row button accordion. With his new album, just released on Bandcamp, Ledet brings the old school sound, and also cites his many family connections to the music’s history. His grandfather, Buchanan Ledet, played drums with Clifton and Rockin’ Dopsie, and invented the double clutchin’ style of Zydeco drumming that hammers out double bass drum beats. This is a signature part of Zydeco’s sound and a big innovation. Ledet’s family reaches back to early New Orleans jazz, with a cousin playing cornet with Louis Armstrong, and a great-grandfater playing bass with Bunk Johnson. It’s a storied history from one of the best young players in the tradition and hopefully this is Ledet’s arrival moment on the scene nationally. It’s way past time he got some attention for the great music he’s been making. Bonus: I’m always so happy to see Kouri-Vini, the Louisiana Creole French language, getting a revival, so big shout out to Ledet for that!
Release Date: January 29, 2021
The great Malian diva Nahawa Doumbia is back with a brand new album and a new outlook on Mali today. Doumbia’s been performing for forty years and sings in the wassoulou style of Southern Mali. This music always reminds me somewhat of soul music, with powerful soaring vocals and strongly progressive lyrics. The music’s also known for the beauty of the kamala n’goni, or hunter’s harp. The kamele n’goni is similar to a kora, but with fewer strings, so it really is a harp. The n’goni itself is more like a proto-banjo, a small, lap-held, trough-like instrument played like a banjo. On Doumbia’s new album, coming in January from Awesome Tapes from Africa (one of my favorite record labels!!), the kamele n’goni and the n’goni trade lines back and forth, bringing out the beautiful melodies in the music. With Kanawa, Doumbia and many in Mali face a new decade after the brutal upheaval of the past years. With Mali torn between separatism and Islamic fundamentalist infiltration, there’s been a lot of emigration from the country. Doumbia sets her sights on this, asking why Malians risk their lives in dangerous sea crossings when they should be able to make lives at home. It’s a powerful question and a positive message to invest in growth at home in West Africa.
James Goodman was a professor and song collector who roamed the Southwest of Ireland in the 1800s collecting instrumental tunes and melodies from traditional players. His manuscripts track tunes collected from local master musicians (known as the “K” tunes, I’m not sure why), from lost manuscripts of the time, and from his own playing. For the past couple years, three great Irish trad players today, fiddler Aoife Ní Bhriain, and uilleann pipers and flute players Mick O’Brien and Emer Mayock have been recording and disseminating these tunes. If you’re not into Irish trad, maybe this sounds a little dry, so let me assure you that these tunes are pumped full of life, sounding both completely modern, but also strangely archaic and mysterious. The trio are all wonderful players and they know how to infuse the music with greatness and the strangeness of the old tunes shines through as well. I’ve listened to many many Irish trad albums in my life, but I’ve never heard a tune like “Siobhán Mór, or The Eagle’s Whistle.” It’s transportive, with a melody that slips the bonds of traditional Irish tune structures, and ends up sounding strangely like an actual eagle whistle, if there was such a thing. The tunes seem to come from a mostly lost era of Irish music, in between the baroque melodies of the famous harpist and composer Turlough O’Carolan in the early 1700s and before the well known Michael Coleman era of recorded Irish trad in the 1900s. Listen to the slow tune “Humours of Glynn” and you’ll hear a melody that slips in and out of this world, inextricably bound to a past we’ve forgotten, but finding unexpected relevance today. It’s a remarkable journey.