Cindy Howes’ Picks for Best of 2021
Yes the world is on fire. But listen, the soundtrack is killer. Rhiannon Giddens (who released a very rad, Grammy-nominated record this year) urges us to “go down singing.” There were lots of great albums and movements in our little folk world that are rippling out with positive impact. For my part, I’d like to share my top ten list for 2021 (technically it’s a top 13! I snuck a couple more in!) as well as my artist of the year, album of the year, favorite 2021 discovery, favorite podcast episode, and favorite book. It’s a joy being a connector to the most radical musicians who mess with the status quo and blow us away with life-affirming poetry. Thank you for giving us another great year of getting this music to you in an otherwise dismal year.
Artist Who Ruled 2021:
Allison Russell, Outside Child
Everywhere you looked in 2021, Allison Russell was doing something cool in the folk movement from curating the closing set of Newport to opening for Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks to getting three Grammy nominations for her debut solo record. After being around for 20 years in outfits like Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, her star is on the rise this year thanks to her album Outside Child. The bravery in telling her story of abuse gave listeners and survivors a story of hope and healing despite the trauma she endured as a child. This album grooves, is beautifully produced, and stretches the definition of Americana.
Personal Favorite Album:
Rachel Baiman – Cycles
I kept coming back to this record. Rachel’s writing and voice sear through my nervous system hitting every emotion along the way. Starting out as a fiddle player and known for her duo 10 String Symphony, Cycles is Rachel’s third solo album. It bites and snarls in only the way a woman who likes to make good trouble can. The song that kills me the most is “No Good Time for Dying,” which chronicles, in candid detail, the hardships her grandmother faced at the end of life.
Favorite Discovery of 2021:
Lady Nade – Willing
I am so excited to fully immerse myself in Lady Nade! From the UK, her voice is unnerving and unusual, like she and Nico have the same vocal chord structure, but her tone is higher. She’s the type of artist that’s pushing the boundaries of folk music in a very fancy and friendly way.
Basic Folk podcast – ‘neath the banner of the Black Eclectic
It seems egotistical to love my own podcast, but hey(!), it’s really good! Especially this episode featuring a roundtable lead by Basic Folk’s guest host, Lizzie No along with Allison Russell, Kaia Kater and Jake Blount. The musicians talk about the state of things for Black people who play folk music. This all came about in reaction to a hurtful and thoughtless article that clumped a bunch of folk artists who are Black together, pitted them against each other and was generally uniformed. We get a candid conversation from some of the best and most respected players in Americana about their experience as Black people in the folk space.
Favorite Folk Book:
Mary Gauthier – Save By a Song
I sobbed like a small baby reading Mary’s new book. I want to underline every page and send a copy to everyone I know. There are lessons here for undoing trauma and Mary writes through the lens of songwriting. However, it would be very easy to apply them for non-writers. If you experience suffering or plan on suffering, you must read this book. It will be your true north for navigating life’s difficult moments.
Top 10 Albums (in addition to Baiman and Russell!)
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats – The Future
Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood
Hiss Golden Messenger – Quietly Blowing It
Ana Egge – Between Us
Watchhouse – Watchhouse
Dori Freeman – Ten Thousand Roses
Courtney Hartman – Glade
David Wax Museum – Euphoric Ouroboric
The Brother Brothers – Calla Lily
Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange