It’s been a rough year around the world, and though artists everywhere are struggling to stay afloat and to keep making music, 2021 has still been a year when many great albums of traditional music were released. Over the course of this year I reviewed 110 total albums for Folk Alley as part of my monthly series on Bandcamp Fridays. (Huge thanks to Folk Alley for providing the platform for all my ramblings on roots music.) In writing up a list of the Best Trad Albums of 2021, I wanted to go beyond albums that were excellent, or enjoyable, or showed great mastery. I wanted to focus on albums that changed the conversation. Albums that presented traditional music in a new, fresh way, or reworked old traditions into something utterly modern, or that used traditional music to craft a powerful message. With that in mind, here’s my list of the Best Trad Albums of 2021.
Enjoy and don’t forget to support the artists!
Inuit throat singing, or katajjaq, has had an incredible cultural renaissance over the past few decades. Originating as a vocal game between women with ties to circumpolar Arctic culture, katajjaq was adapted famously by Tanya Tagaq and used as the bedrock to her incredibly far-reaching and adventurous musical works. With all that this tradition has been embraced in Canada and around the world, it’s easy to forget that it was forbidden by the Catholic church and Catholic missionaries. As 2021 brought a year of reckoning across Canada for horrific injustices practiced against Inuit and First Nations peoples (and continued aggression towards First Nations protesters even today), this album from Piqsiq makes an incredibly powerful statement. Made up of two sisters, Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik, Piqsiq recorded this live album inside the Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia. The huge ceilings and the echo chamber of the Catholic edifice show the stunning internal architecture of katajjaq, a near boundless aural expanse of breath and voice. Tagaq heard this architecture early on, and Piqsiq really show what this can do when put in a truly majestic venue and combined with larger vocal compositions and harmonies. Mackay and Ayalik chose the location very carefully, intending the performance to be a subversion against the church’s long and shameful history of repression against Inuit and First Nations communities, specifically its oppression of katajjaq, with missionaries evidently fining practitioners and actively banning it in the 1950s. It’s transcendent work with an intense message that uses traditional music and culture to make a very modern statement.
Pakistani artist Arooj Aftab picking up a Best New Artist nomination from the 2022 Grammys should have been an arrival moment, but in truth Aftab had already been racking up accolades for her re-envisioning of South Asian ghazals. Her 2021 album Vulture Prince is a tour-de-force, setting her majestic vocal interpretations of these beautiful religious poems (Rumi is one of the poets tapped in her ghazals) around minimalist Western classical and electronic elements. The gentle rolling harp lines around these vocals are a highlight of the album, and if it seem fusion-y to blend these old South Asian traditions with modern arrangements, certainly the greats like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had much love for fusion. Aftab makes these cross-cultural creations of hers sound so natural, but attests that crafting new melodies for old poems and working them into modern arrangements is a huge labor of love.
I wrote about Rosier for Folk Alley earlier this year way back in January, but I wanted to include their new album Légèrement in this list of Best Trad Albums because of their inventive and delightful work shape-shifting old ballads into modern minimalist compositions. I know these old ballads well, but even I have trouble recognizing them in their new settings; you might be forgiven for thinking of Rosier’s new music as excellent Montréal indie rock. It takes great skill to rework the shape of a tradition and it’s eerie to see it being done with artists so young. Most Québécois artists seem to have turned inwards this year, making music primarily for Québec without as much regard to presenting these traditions to the rest of the world. That’s fine, but there’s something exciting about a band with something to prove on the international scene and a whole raft of fresh new ideas.
Blues master Corey Harris’ new album (released just a month ago) is a cutting, incisive look at the blues in a new century. With a title like “Insurrection Blues,” you’d think it would be all political, but the title track makes the key statement and the rest of the tracks hew to the more traditional. Corey Harris is easily one of the best traditional blues artists around today and unafraid to speak out against the long legacy of racism in American folk music (his excellent 2015 essay “Can White People Play the Blues” created a firestorm of controversy in the blues community). Harris has spent years playing and studying West African music as well, learning from the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure to the point that he was able to pen Touré’s only biography (the very excellent book Jahtigui). On Insurrection Blues he fuses West African guitar with American blues guitar, effortlessly moving between the two, pulling from both traditions and invoking the shared spirit of both with the kind of ease that only a master musician like this can pull off. “Cut your chains and you free yourself, cut your roots and you die,” he sings on the title track, calling out the fact that if the Jan 6 insurrection surprised anyone, it was because we weren’t paying attention to history.
Contradancing is known to few outside the trad/folk world, a particularly New England-focused tradition that fuses a multitude of N. American traditions into a hybrid tradition of instrumental dance music. Since this is dance music, it’s not often heard outside of rural dancehalls, which is too bad since it’s fiery fiddle-driven tunes can be a lot of fun. For years, the van Norstrand brothers, Andrew and Noah, have been at the forefront of contra dance music (first with their band Great Bear), and their new formation as The Faux Paws brings their dance fiddling and tune craftsmanship together with Chris Miller’s saxophone (Chris plays with Louisiana band The Revelers) and original songwriting. The contra dance world has long been a home to great queer artists and dancers, and it’s great to see Andrew van Norstrand bringing his own perspective to his songs and bringing it all together in a group that can rock on the dance floor as easily as the concert hall.
I wrote about Fawn Wood’s new album, Kâkike, for Folk Alley in my Bandcamp Friday coverage, but I’ve been listening to it over and over and can’t get it out of my head. Fawn comes from a family of great pow-wow and round dance singers and is a beloved figure in First Nations music circles. Round Dance songs have gorgeous melodies and often interweave English lyrics (with topical, funny, or heartfelt messages) with Native vocables. Fawn’s known for her round dance songwriting; songs of hers like “Mommy’s Little Boy” or “Lonesome for You,” are well known and loved. Here she brings beautiful new songs like “Hopelessly Devoted” as well as traditional songs like “Uncle’s Hand Game Song.” If you haven’t listened to much First Nations music, this album is a great introduction.
Though not an album, the once daily videos on the Quarantine Happy Hour’s private Facebook group are perhaps the most exciting thing to happen in traditional music since the start of COVID. Organized by old-time band The Horsenecks (who also put out one of my favorite old-time albums of the year), each day for much of 2021 and 2022, traditional artists from across the US and Canada were invited to perform a one hour livestream. The Horsenecks brought together a remarkably diverse bunch of artists, many of whom don’t have recordings, to present all kinds of different traditions with an emphasis on old-time. The recordings are fascinating, often just shot in folks’ living rooms, traditional music made the old way, among friends and families.
You can access all of the concerts HERE and it’s well worth checking out.
Bluegrass wunderkind Billy Strings rolled into 2021 with some of the biggest expectations of any bluegrass artist I’ve ever known. He was hot off a 2021 Grammy win for Best Bluegrass Album and he was rubbing shoulders with Post Malone and collaborating with mysterious provocateur RMR. I assumed he was going to explode the genre with his new album, but found instead that his 2022 album on Rounder Records, Renewal, was more of a return to form. It’s bluegrass through and through, filled with incendiary picking and a whole heap of onstage attitude. It’s great fun, and at this point it seems to effortless for him. Billy’s absolutely going to change bluegrass for a new generation; he’s poised to be the next Tony Rice. And best of all, it’s impossible to predict where he’ll go next.
My friend Mark Rubin turned me on to Romanian trad star Simion Bogdan-Mihai, saying he blended the haunting rawness of American old-time musician Frank Fairfield with the culinary impresario nature of Anthony Bourdain. A bold claim, but I found Bogdan-Mihai’s 2021 album Valahia in Demol to be utterly captivating. I don’t understand any Romanian, there are no liner notes in English that I could find, and it opens with a spoken word Romanian track that’s a bit forbidding, but Bogdan-Mihai’s voice is one of a kind and he’s riveting as a performer. In Romania, he’s a fashion star with a doctorate in literature who runs a popular video series documenting old Romanian foodways in the countryside. He collaborates frequently with excellent Roma musicians and he’s one of the last few cobza masters (a Romanian version of the oud). While he’s almost totally unknown in the States, listen to “Lunca Lunculita” from his new album and you’ll understand his potential. Thanks to Mark Rubin for getting me hip to his music (Mark had a powerful trad album that he released this year also).
A prodigious vocalist and artistic visionary, Montréal’s Dominique Fils-Aimé’s 2021 album, Three Little Words, is the conclusion to her trilogy of albums exploring the roots of Black music in North America. Her 2018 album, Nameless, explored the blues, and her 2019 album Stay Tuned! explored jazz. Three Little Words looks to soul for inspiration, bringing in subtle moments of doo wop as well. Fils-Aimé is singing about modern issues, but using Black traditions to focus her gaze. Fils-Aimé makes this musical vision seem easy, and though she can create effortlessly in the soul idiom, she’s really making a larger point about how the roots of Black music thread through so many genres of American music. Of special note, her re-working of the classic “Stand By Me” is spectacular.