2021 was not an easy year. It wasn’t a good year. In fact, it might just be my least favorite year ever.
I know — it wasn’t 2020. But 2021…well, for me, it was almost worse. The thing that kept me going, the bright spot in some really dark moments, was the music I got to listen to on Folk Alley. Check out some of my top picks from 2021…and hey. Here’s hoping 2022 is a good one.
Miko Marks & the Resurrectors, Our Country – feature track, “Travel Light”
I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Miko Marks & the Resurrectors before this album — their third, and their first release in more than twelve years. Marks’ vocal range is so impressive and her ability to move seamlessly between styles makes the music she shares accessible to anyone; she’s the kind of musician you can’t pigeonhole into just one genre. “Travel Light” acknowledges that sometimes it’s hard to let yourself get close to anyone or anything. Is it worth it to take the risk? Sometimes yes…but sometimes…no.
Parker Millsap, Be Here Instead – feature track, “The Real Thing”
I’ve been a fan of Parker Millsap’s for a while now — he creates some really great characters. In his new album Be Here Instead, though, he seems to be more interested in what’s going on in his own head and heart. He’s open, he’s vulnerable, he’s learning and growing. “The Real Thing” wonders how you find — and then keep — real connections.
Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood – feature track, “Sunshowers”
Yasmin Williams is from Northern Virginia. She’s a singer, a songwriter, and an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist who’s not only amazing to hear but also amazing to watch. She is skilled. Her second album, Urban Driftwood, showcases all of her skills; “Sunshowers,” an optimistic and hopeful track, gives you a chance to smile and to breathe deep.
Hayes Carll, You Get It All – feature track, “Help Me Remember”
This might be one of Hayes Carll’s most intimate songs. The whole album is great — the usual fare from the guy Rolling Stone calls “Americana’s sardonic observer”: good stories, interesting lyrics, and solid musicianship. THIS song stands out because it is incredibly personal; Carll co-wrote it with Josh Morningstar from the perspective of someone coping with Alzheimer’s dementia. It’ll break your heart and its message is a meaningful one.
Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren – feature track,“Let ‘Em Burn”
There’s a lot to love in Emily Scott Robinson’s third album, American Siren. The Greensboro, NC-reared singer/songwriter, who now calls Colorado home, recorded her newest album in a church; while there’s plenty of religious imagery throughout, the recording is not about religion per se. Instead, it’s about disillusionment and the realization that the American dream isn’t meant for every American. It’s not hard to hear why she’s one of the few musicians recording on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records label; one of the standouts from the new album is “Let ‘Em Burn,” a song filled to the brim with quiet desperation and even quieter resolution. Life, after all, doesn’t always turn out the way we think it will.
Tré Burt, You, Yeah, You – feature track, “Sweet Misery”
Speaking of musicians recording on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records label, let’s all tip our proverbial caps to Sacramento musician Tré Burt. His sophomore album is a knock out from start to finish, showcasing Burt’s amazing eye for detail and his innate sense of poetry. He’s a storyteller in his heart, I think, and his songs offer up detailed and developed visuals that make the story he’s telling that much stronger. Love the harmonica on “Sweet Misery,” and also that Tré Burt wants to make his songs OURS: “Sometimes [a song] can feel like it’s something hung up in a museum,” he said during an interview, “Meant to be observed behind a velvet rope from 10 feet away. My songs are as much yours as they are mine. I wanted to try and show that.”
The Steel Wheels, Everyone A Song, Vol. Two – feature track, “Time is All I Need”
During the early days of the shelter-in-place orders, in the wake of Covid19, The Steel Wheels, decided to do something…different. The project was meant as a gift to their fans and it was also a way for the band to keep working their creative muscles. The band asked fans for personal experiences and then turned those fan stories into a podcast AND into a new album. It was so successful that the band decided to do it again this year, too. The result, Everyone A Song, Vol. Two, is a powerful piece of musical storytelling that feels quite relevant to what’s happening in the world. “Time is All I Need” is one of my favorites — just because it is. And, it’s worth noting, too, that The Steel Wheels are closing a chapter in 2021: founding member and bass player Brian Dickel is moving on to a new chapter next year. The band will be joined by one of their good friends, bassist Derek Kratzer.
Charley Crockett, Music City USA – feature track, “Round This World”
Not going to lie — I saw Charley Crockett in his cowboy hat on the cover of his newest album, Music City USA, and I thought: “Hard pass.” Too country, I thought. Too twangy. I proudly admit I was VERY WRONG. This guy — originally from Texas who spent time in Paris, France and in NYC, too…not to mention New Orleans — describes his sound as soul and country R&B from the deep south and his mix of influences means he fits right in on Folk Alley. One of the stand out tracks on Music City USA is a song called “Round This World.” The lyrics, Crockett says, tell the story plain and simple — everyone knows what it’s like to leave a loved one on the road of life, hoping you make it back somehow, someday.
Jimmy Cliff, “Human Touch” [single]
When I first saw that Jimmy Cliff — musician, actor, singer, songwriter, producer, and humanitarian — was going to release a new single this year, I was a little disappointed. Why just a single, I wondered? Why not a whole new album? Then I listened to “Human Touch” and realized, pretty quickly, that it was a perfectly packaged piece of music, just right for our time. Cliff wrote it on tour several years back — he was alone, and really missing his family. That sorrow and longing made him think about the power and importance of personal connections. In the wake of Covid19, it’s a song with exactly the right message.
Various Artists, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2 – feature track, “I Remember Everything” (Brandi Carlile)
The world lost one of the greats last year and I think many of us are still trying to wrap our heads and hearts around it. John Prine died in 2020 and in a new tribute to the maestro this year, twelve talented voices acknowledge Prine’s incredible influence on generations of musicians. Guests on the recording include Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell, Bonnie Raitt, and, on the last song that John Prine recorded, a song that looks at his lengthy career and some of its highlights, Brandi Carlile. Her cover of “I Remember Everything” is a stand out track on one of the best albums of 2021.