By Eleni P. Austin
“Sitting here in limbo, waiting for the dice to roll. Yeah, now sitting here in limbo. Got some time to search my soul. Well, they’re putting up a resistance. But I know my faith will lead me on.”
Jimmy Cliff wrote and recorded that song over 50 years ago, in response to the death of his mentor and producer, Leslie Kong. But it drifted into my mind this morning, as I contemplated this last year, and I realized it seemed completely apropos when summing up 2021, especially for the music community. After more than a year of Covid lockdowns and limitations, venues have finally begun to reopen, bands are back out on the road, but with the emergence of the Omicron variant, everything may shudder to a stop once again. After 800,000 Covid deaths, you would think people would mask up, get their shots and get back to their freedom-lovin’ lives. But that rant is for a different kind of column. Right now, I’m just going to fully record-nerd out and tell you about my 10 favorite albums of 2021.
- Ani DiFranco Revolutionary Love (Righteous Babe Records) – Ani DiFranco’s songs have been a staple of my musical diet since I first discovered her (six years into her career), in 1996. For me, it all started with her seventh long-player, Dilate, the perfect soundtrack to mirror my broken heart. Since then, the self-described Lil’ Folksinger has accompanied me through highs, lows and everything in-between. Over the years her sound has evolved from her own brand of Folk-Punk, and began incorporating elements of Jazz, Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop and Rock.
For Ani, the personal has always intersected with the political. Those themes beautifully coalesce on her 20th studio album. The songs unfurl slowly, echoing the intimacy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, (epochal 1971 albums that both hit the half-century mark this year). Marital bliss sustains a blow on Bad Dream, while “Simultaneously” untangles the duality of human nature. Her POV expands globally on the both the languid title track, as well as the effervescent first single, “Do Or Die.” Meanwhile, on the sleek and serpentine “Contagious” she borrows Michelle Obama’s sagacious mantra, “When they go low, we go high.” Throughout her 31-year career, Ani has made watershed records, beginning with “Out Of Range,” and continuing with “Dilate,” “Little Plastic Castle” and “Knuckle Down.” Stacked with tracks that limn domestic discord, deep introspection and what John Lewis characterized as good trouble, “Revolutionary Love” can be added to that august pantheon.
- Paul Weller “Fat Pop (Volume 1)” (Polydor Records) – Paul Weller’s music continues to dazzle and delight. Since 1977, he has consistently topped the charts in Great Britain. Beginning with his seminal Punk trio, The Jam, then as half of the Sophisto-Pop- Jazz-Soul duo, The Style Council and as a solo artist since 1990. Nicknamed “The Modfather” by his adoring British fans, going solo has allowed him to follow his muse. In the process, he has continued to create music at a furious clip.
15 long-players, six EPs, several live efforts and a soundtrack score later, he has released Fat Pop (Volume One), written and recorded from scratch, during the pandemic. Tackling a plethora of styles, the songs hopscotch from Electronica, stripped-down Punk, Creamy Soul, introspective acoustic-Folk, Gospel, Funk, Blues and Jazz. Following in the footsteps of heroes like John Lennon, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, “That Pleasure” offers a veiled response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The title-track is a stone-cold gas, blending squiggly synths and skittery guitars, as lyrics salute the salubrious effect Rock & Roll has on the soul. Then there’s “Testify,” Paul’s electrifying call to arms is a combustible combo-platter of sounds. But then, every track on this album is a mind-blower.
- The Bootheels 1988: The Original Demos (Omnivore Recordings) – As a card-carrying record nerd, I typically adhere to some strict rules when choosing my Top 10. Usually, no live albums, greatest hits or previously released collections allowed. That’s cheating. But, fuck it, it’s my list. I bent the rules once before a couple of years before when I included a career retrospective from Luther Russell. My justification was I’d never heard those songs before, and fell completely in love. Luther became my new spiritual boyfriend and that ardor hasn’t dimmed. So, once again, I am violating my own code of ethics for The Bootheels, a 16-song demo collection that features the earliest music from (you guessed it), Luther, as well as Wallflowers-to-be, Tobi Miller and Jakob Dylan. These guys, along with Aaron A. Brooks, weren’t old enough to drink or vote, but they managed to create a body of work that belied their tender age. Drawing on mutual musical inspirations like The Replacements, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Husker Du, Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr. Big Star and
R.E.M. their sound was equal parts sharp and shambolic. Trace elements of Punk, Country and Stones-y swagger can be found in these demos, which should have secured a record deal. Obviously, Luther, Tobi, Jakob and Aaron went on to bigger and better things. But for one brief shining moment, The Bootheels created some righteous, raucous and ramshackle noise.
- Yola Stand For Myself (Easy Eye Records) – Yola’s music isn’t easily classified or pigeonholed, and that’s exactly the way she likes it. The British singer-songwriter’s sound is an astute amalgam of Country, Soul, Gospel and Jazz. After honing her craft and paying her dues on her home turf, she landed in the U.S. a few years ago. Connecting with Black Keys front-man Dan Auerbach opened a lot of doors. He not only signed her to his Easy Eye label, but he also produced her first official long-player, 2019’s Walk Through Fire. But it’s her newest effort that has proved to be the revelation. She’s added some new colors to her musical palette, incorporating hints of AM Pop and Disco. Every track is single-worthy. To paraphrase from the iconic film, Sunset Blvd., Yola is ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.
- Son Of The Velvet Rat Solitary Company (Fluff & Gravy Records) – Austrian natives Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder formed Son Of the Velvet Rat (SOtVR) in their hometown of Graz, around the turn of the 21st century. By the time they relocated to Joshua Tree in 2015, they had released nine LPs and four EPs. Since their arrival in the desolate desert enclave, they have recorded Dorado locally, as well as a live effort. Following a world tour, they returned to the High Desert and began recording Solitary Company, it was finished in Austria, where the couple sat out the Covid lockdown. Their 11th studio album offers a rich tapestry of sandblasted chansons, rustic Soul, smoky noir, baroque hoedowns, and restless farewells. Evocative narratives, chockablock with vivid vignettes are matched by plaintive and painterly melodies. It’s their most assured album to date.
- David Crosby For Free (BMG Records) – Since jumpstarting his solo career in 2014, the ex-Byrd, ex-CSNYer and full-time churlish cherub has experienced a late-life creative renaissance with albums like Croz, Lighthouse, Sky Trails and Here, If You Listen. As brilliant as those efforts were, they can’t match the poignant beauty of For Free. Anchored by the presence of David’s musically talented son, James Raymond (the apple and the tree, that whole thing), the pair have created a mordant meditation on life that is sleek in places and endearingly ragged in others. From the sun-dappled “I Think I,” to the Jazzy “Rodrigues For A Night,” to the autumnal ache of “Secret Dancer,” his remarkably elastic tenor seems untouched by the ravages of time and decades of abuse. The closing track, “I Won’t Stay,” written by James, through his father’s eyes, offers a tender (albeit premature) farewell.
- Steve Barton Love + Destruction (STEVEBARTONMUSIC) – Los Angeles native Steve Barton is best known as the laconic lead singer of Bay Area-based band, Translator. Their 1982 hit, “Everywhere That I’m Not” was a staple of New Wave radio stations like KROQ and 91.X. Sandwiched between angular Synth Pop hits from A Flock Of Seagulls and Talk Talk, their guitar-driven sound stood out from the pack. After four albums together, the band amicably parted ways and Steve has carved out a rewarding solo career. His latest finds him leapfrogging through a surfeit of styles, Folk, Power Pop, Jazz and Punk. His mien shapeshifts from introspective to sardonic to droll and humble. Jittery thrash rockers co-exist next to moodily elegant ballads and spare melodies steeped in Country comfort. He distills a lifetime of influences, from the Fab Four, to Dylan, the Stones and the Band, down to their essence, filtering them into his own sui generis style.
- BEAU BOW de LUNE BEAU BOW de LUNE (Dear Stella Recordings) – BBdL is a super-group of sorts, comprised of acclaimed singer-songwriters Val McCallum (Beau), Bow Thayer (um, duh) and producer/multi-instrumentalist Greg Wells (inexplicably saddled with the musical moniker de Lune). Val is the trio’s lynchpin. A brilliant guitarist who began his professional career as a teen playing on a Harry Nilsson album, he made his bones playing sessions with everyone from Sheryl Crow to Lucinda Williams. He currently earns his keep as Jackson Browne’s touring guitarist, and recently played guitar on the newest Wallflowers album.
The album is the perfect blend of instrumental prowess and laid-back attitude. On “Brush Strokes,” Humor and humility are equally on display Meanwhile, on “Reverence Al Green Dream,” the Sunshiny AM Pop melody pairs nicely with stacked, Beach Boy-esque harmonies and lyrics that pay obeisance to sanctified Soul giant Al Green. Then there’s the irresistible ‘70s AOR crunch of “No Trouble In The Bubble.” These guys already have steady, fulltime gigs, but BBdL offers a pleasant detour.
- Los Lobos Native Sons (New West Records) – I have been ride-or-die for Los Lobos del Este (de Los Angeles) -which translated from Spanish means The Wolves Of East Los Angeles-since they signed with the Punk label, Slash, in 1983. The band began the decade before, playing weddings, quinceañeras, and Mexican restaurants, somehow ending up in Punk clubs alongside bands like X, Public Image Limited and the Blasters. Their intoxicating mix of traditional Mexican instruments and original Rootsy Rock struck a chord with Punks and Cholos alike. Their latest album pays homage to their California roots by covering Golden State songs that inspired them as they began writing their own music. Not only do they honor antecedents like Thee Midniters, War and Lalo Guerrero, but they also dip back into their Hippie years, offering up piquant versions of songs by the Beach Boys, Jackson Browne and Buffalo Springfield. They include Soul nuggets from Percy Mayfield and Barrett Strong, and tip their hat to peers like The Blasters. The title track is a new composition. Native Sons allows the guys to reflect and reconnect with their hometown heroes.
- The Wallflowers Exit Wounds (New West Records) – It’s been nearly 30 years since Jakob Dylan and his band, The Wallflowers released their self-titled debut. Although it sorta slipped through the cracks, it paved the way for their juggernaut second effort, Bringing Down The Horse. In the ensuing years the band made great albums and Jakob even released a couple of well-received solo records, but nothing came close to the musical alchemy achieved on “…Horse.” Until now. Much like Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, these days, The Wallflowers is basically Jakob and whomever he chooses to record with. The latest iteration includes guitarist extraordinaire, Val McCallum bassist Whynot Jansveld, drummers Brian Griffin and Mark Stepro, plus Aaron Embry on keys. The record is by turns pensive and reflective, snarling and sarcastic. “Who’s Walking Around In My Garden” kinda-sorta takes a page from (Jakob’s late mentor) Tom Petty’s musical playbook. Country/Folk stands side by side with slow-cooked Soul ballads and swaggering Rockers.
So that’s it, my Top 10 for this year, I would remiss if I didn’t take a moment to shout-out a few albums that nearly made it onto this list. That includes Wes Stace’s stylistic about-face, Late Style, the blast of pure Punk energy found on Beebe Gallini’s debut, Pandemos and Tony Marsico and his recently resuscitated Cruzados return, She’s Automatic. And…even though it’s not music, per se, I must genuflect to Rickie Lee Jones’ brilliant autobiography, LAST CHANCE TEXACO: Chronicles Of An American Troubadour. Not only does it chart the course of Rickie’s first quarter of a century, it does so with humor, heart and a stunning measure of candor. This no-holds-barred account of her tumultuous childhood, wild-child teen years and struggle to make it as a singer-songwriter made me love her all the more. I didn’t think that was possible. But enough mushy stuff. Onward and upward to 2022. More music, more shows, less Covid, no masks. Maybe we can finally party like it’s 1999.