The Great Live Music Reawakening of 2021 has reminded me that experiencing music in person is one of the best parts of being alive. Nothing can match the energy of sharing space and time with strangers united by the sounds of stellar music. With so much time on their hands amidst the pandemic, we are in the depths of a (very welcome) flood of new music from artists across the industry. This list features a handful of my most-listened-to albums in 2021 – music that helped me remain creatively-inspired and musically-invigorated.
Watchhouse, Watchhouse – feature track, “New Star”
I’ll admit I had mixed feelings when Mandolin Orange changed their name to Watchhouse earlier this year. How could they do that me?! I wear my Mandolin Orange t-shirt more than any other band shirt in my collection! Well, at least it’s a collector’s item now. After the initial shock, I’ve grown to embrace their new name. What I love most about their music is how genuine it feels. I had the pleasure of seeing them headline at Red Rocks in Colorado this fall and it was as magical of an experience as you can imagine. On a blustery night in the mountains, Andrew and Emily had the crowd of thousands under a spell.
Sierra Ferrell, Long Time Coming – feature track, “West Virginia Waltz”
With a voice that’ll stop you in your tracks, Sierra Ferrell is quickly becoming one of the must-see acts in Americana and roots music. I first saw her live at the Red Wing Roots festival in the Shenandoah Valley in July, and I felt transported. Five days later, she played a house concert in my living room while passing through Baltimore on a day off. I can still feel her voice reverberating through my walls months later. Her debut release Long Time Coming illustrates Sierra’s full range from sultry ballads to bouncy ditties that are simultaneously vintage and contemporary. She’s the real deal.
Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange – feature track, “Wild Turkey”
For years, I’ve known of Amythyst and her distinctive guitar style and powerhouse voice through her previous solo work and collaboration with Our Native Daughters. I’ve always wondered when she’d really take off as a solo artist. Well, the time has come. Her new solo release Wary + Strange solidifies her place as a force in the Americana and roots world. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her play live; it was in the spring of 2019 at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Playing solo, she introduced her original “Wild Turkey,” a song about her mother taking her own life when Amythyst was just a teenager. Never have I wept so much during a concert. Her music hits deep and it’s about damn time the world hears her sing.
Billy Strings, Renewal – feature track “In The Morning Light”
One can make a case that Billy Strings is the most important act in bluegrass music right now – and they would win that argument. Packing arenas and amassing a sizable social media following along the way, we’re only seeing the beginning of his impact on bluegrass by energizing a new wave of fans. Fresh off a Grammy win for his prior release, he’s knocking on the door of another win for his latest album Renewal. His new record demonstrates the breadth of his dynamic musicality. Right when you think he’s going to bash you over the head with a sonic explosion, he reels it in with mesmerizing subtlety. There’s something on this album for everyone.
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno, Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno – feature track, “Will You”
Steeped in the roots of old-time music, Vivian and Riley have a musical chemistry that runs deep. Vivian is the daughter of Carol Elizabeth Jones, a renowned ballad singer, and James Leva, a widely influential old-time fiddler. Riley grew up in the vibrant Pacific Northwest roots music community and founded the powerhouse stringband The Onlies of which Vivian is now a full-time member. Vivian’s debut album Time Is Everything (2018) on Free Dirt Records established her as one of the most promising young voices on the Americana scene. Blending aesthetics from old-time, classic country and indie-folk, their self-titled debut release marks a new chapter in this budding duo’s promising future.
Eli West, Tapered Point of Stone – feature track, “I Know Your Wandering Heart”
In the age of singles and streaming, the art of a well-sculpted album from beginning to end is nearly lost. Fortunately, it’s not entirely lost thanks to folks like Eli West. A trained designer, Eli showcases his thoughtful songcraft and tasteful instrumental sensibilities on his new release Tapered Point of Stone. The core band features Eli on guitar, mandolin and banjo with Andrew Marlin (Watchhouse) on mandolin, Christian Sedelmeyer (10 String Symphony) on fiddle and Clint Mullican (Watchhouse) on bass – the same quartet heard on Andrew Marlin’s and Christian Sedelmeyer’s recent instrumental albums. To say this quartet has a musical synergy would be an understatement. A standout track from the album is a sparse take on Chris Coole’s “I Know Your Wandering Heart,” a duet featuring Eli and his groovy clawhammer playing along with the Scottish folksinger Julie Fowlis. Curl up by the fire and just hit play from the top of this wonderful album.
Béla Fleck, My Bluegrass Heart – feature track, “Wheels Up”
When you’re the most influential bluegrass banjo player on the planet and you don’t release a bluegrass album in nearly 20 years, the expectations are going to be sky high. Not only did Béla deliver but he showcased some of the finest young pickers on the scene today in the process. The music is stellar but sharing the glory with so many other musicians really sealed the deal. My favorite track, “Wheels Up,” features Molly Tuttle on guitar and Sierra Hull who dazzle with their virtuosity. It’s also the tune I have playing in my head whenever I’m on a flight about to take off. An all-instrumental album of original bluegrass music these days has the potential to get too heady but Béla finds the sweet spot. Coming in at a whopping 105 minutes, My Bluegrass Heart is an instant classic and will be a reference point for banjo players for generations to come.
Laurel Premo, Golden Loam – feature track, “Hop High”
I like to think of old-time tunes as living beings. They pass through each generation and take on a new form with time. They were here before us and they will be here after us. I’m always in favor of those who embrace their creative desires to reshape and recast these melodies forward while acknowledging their history. In her latest project, Golden Loam, musical visionary Laurel Premo reimagines a collection of old-time melodies via electric and slide guitar. Her previous album The Iron Trios (2019) pushed the boundaries of old-time with unique arrangements featuring bowed upright bass, electric guitar and fiddle. This new project goes one step further as she creates ethereal soundscapes that evoke a nuanced feeling, something old-time music often lacks when it clings too much to tradition.