As I sit here thinking about albums that came out this past year, I think of them as children with birthdays.
I imagine them getting various birthday cakes with candles poking out throughout the years. These things that didn’t exist before were brought into this world at a certain time and place, and will be acknowledged if not celebrated as such with each passing year.
It feels not unlike a small town local newspaper publishing newborn announcement articles for the townsfolk. Except in this case, we’d be choosing our favorite infants – ten to be precise – and discuss why they stood out to us among all the others. It would be a Top 10 Baby Ranking, essentially.
Bringing this train back around, I’ve assembled a list of ten more under-the-radar albums (depending on who you ask) that resonated with me, largely in the Americana, country, singer-songwriter, and bluegrass realm with a few exceptions. It’s kind of like those containers of Pub Mix snacks you get with sesame sticks, bread sticks, pretzels, and that kind of thing. Similar, but different.
So without further baby and snack talk, please enjoy this selection of new “Americana” albums that will celebrate birthdays in the year 2021.
10. Humbird – Still Life
As expected, the pandemic gave birth to countless lockdown-inspired songs and albums, with no shortage on the way. But how does one make them stand out among the crowd?
That’s where the more gifted songwriters emerge.
One such artist that fits the bill is Minneapolis folk trio Humbird, pioneered by singer-songwriter Siri Undlin, who released their sophomore album, Still Life, back in October. A record born from circumstance, moreover an unforeseen and traumatic circumstance, Still Life offers ten deeply personal and philosophical songs from Undlin and her bandmates.
“This record is in many ways a surprise; an act of survival and coping, which I didn’t expect. It wouldn’t exist without the circumstances,” she told me via Zoom chat back in October.
Still Life offers a delicate balance – a yin and yang – with soothing, meditative instrumentation paired with more pressing, thought-provoking lyrics sung over top. Each song on the album melts into the next seamlessly, and captures your attention in a most gentle and reassuring way.
9. Henhouse Prowlers – The Departure
Shy of two decades ago, six musically inclined Chicagoans got together to make something out of nothing, and form what we know now as the Henhouse Prowlers.
The band – made up of Chris Dollar, (guitar and lead vocal) Jon Goldfine, (bass and vocals) Jake Howard, (mandolin and vocals) and Ben Wright, (banjo and vocals) – released their seventh studio album, The Departure, this past spring.
The record, which was recorded at a little church in Bloomington, Indiana, opens with “Rich Man’s Dream”, an uptempo foot-stomper that sheds light on the irony of how wealthy people glamorize the lives of struggling musicians. Displaying beautiful harmonies that live throughout the album in its entirety, “Wishing Well,” is another stand-out track that focuses on the reality that our troubles can’t simply be wished away, as ideal as that would be.
Thoroughly entertaining throughout, The Departure is worth all the praise from their amusing anecdotes, to their outstanding compositions, to their captivating storytelling lyrics.
Goldfine told me back in May, “While it was a challenge, if I have to call it that, it was honestly pleasant,” when asked about the writing/recording process. Fair enough.
8. The Freeway Jubilee – On The Horizon Vol. 1
Consisting of Adam Clayton (keyboards, vocals), Jonathan Clayton (guitar, vocals), Kenny Crowley (bass, vocals), Hunter Parker (saxophone), and Cartwright Brandon (drums), The Freeway Jubilee initially formed in 2015, and through their dynamic ensemble sound has sought to cultivate positivity, especially through life’s challenges.
Primarily self-produced at their home studio in Asheville and pressed at Citizen Vinyl, the band’s latest record, On The Horizon Vol. 1, is a collection of songs that incorporates a variety of genres: from classic rock, to funk, to jazz, to blues and back again. Although a modest seven songs, the tracklist consists of not one, but two 9-minute tracks (“Not The Same” and “Rugged & Free,” respectively) that seamlessly blend the worlds of Trey Anastasio and Miles Davis.
On The Horizon Vol. 1 is their latest and (arguably) greatest sonic creation, and you better believe I’ll have my eyes and ears peeled for Vol. II.
7. Caleb Stine – The Life and Times of a Handyman
Having emerged from the Baltimore roots scene, Caleb Stine has released a dozen albums, opened shows for Jason Isbell and Sam Bush, acted Off-Broadway, and has even drawn story-boards for John Waters. (I would love to see them)
This fall, he released one of the best true-blue folk albums of the year in The Life and Times of a Handyman. It has all the folk and roots feels a lover of such might crave: vivid storytelling, thought-provoking metaphors, delicate instrumentation, etc.
“Sometimes the part is new / Sometimes you gotta make due / It might take nails / It might take glue / But you can solve any problem if you think that you can / That’s the life and the time of a handyman,” Stine sings throughout the resonating “Handyman” ballad.
The record rings with unique perspectives, heartfelt inflections, and shines a light of positivity both in lyric and instrumentation. It is a stellar notch in the belt that is 21st Century Americana music.
6. Afton Wolfe – Kings For Sale
Sometimes you need something that hits just a little different. Maybe something you can’t quite put your finger on when trying to describe it. Afton Wolfe’s summer album, Kings For Sale, and his previous EP, Petronius’ Last Meal, fit the bill for this sentiment.
Recorded at Welcome to 1979 studios in Nashville and released via Grandiflora Records, Wolfe expertly crafts his songs in a way that can’t be pigeon-holed into one simple genre. Kings For Sale is a rolling tide of folk, jazz, roots rock, blues, and a little western swing. Tom Waits definitely comes to mind when listening to Wolfe. He offers a bounty of lucid and off-kilter lyrics, full of existentialism and niche subject matter. His signature raspy vocals drape over the unique percussive instrumentation throughout in a most satisfying way.
From the New Orleans-shuffle tune “Dirty Girl” to the more raucous “Cemetery Blues,” to the final ballad to his home state of Mississippi in “O’ Magnolia”, the album never gets stale with one repetitive sound and feel.
“You can put your butter on my guitar strings / That ain’t gonna make it toast.” Those lyrics from the opening track “Paper Piano” alone should get you listening.
5. Paul DeFiglia – In Daylight
Known for his music production prowess and multi-instrumental mastery for artists like The Avett Brothers and Charles Bradley to name a few, Nashville’s Paul DeFiglia put himself in the spotlight this time with his debut album, In Daylight, which dropped in February.
The 11-song covers album spans a range of notable artists and vintage classics, from the Native American peyote-chant-influenced track “Witchi Tai To,” by Jim Pepper, to one of the earliest known Appalachian folk tunes, “Country Blues,” by Dock Boggs. But you won’t reach those songs when listening from start to finish without kicking things off with the opening track, “Asshole,” by Beck Hansen. DeFiglia also covers “Woe Unto Me” by Beck on the record.
In Daylight offers a delightful and swirling range of songs, along with an impressive supporting cast making appearances throughout. DeFiglia has long been steeped in the music composition world, and operates his own Nashville studio, aptly named Daylight, which go figure, is where this album was recorded.
DeFiglia’s collaborations with the likes of Seth Avett, Scott Avett, Erin Rae, and others on the album are what give it a special edge, and is as unique an album as I’ve heard this year.
4. Brit Taylor – Real Me (Deluxe)
As it suggests, the album shows Taylor’s raw and vulnerable side with radiant vocals that sweep you off your feet from start to finish. Songs like “Wagon” and “Waking Up Ain’t Easy” are right on the money and fully loaded with country charm. The production is sparkling clean, and Taylor’s vocals are just velvet throughout.
Real Me is chock full of smooth, contemporary easy-listening country songs that leave you hanging on every verse. Taylor turns over a new leaf with this record, most notably with the track, “Married Again,” which offers a true Nashville honky tonk feel in this anti-matrimony number. She is truly one of the best vocalists I can think of in recent memory.
3. Leah Blevins – First Time Feeling
I used to work at a little boutique pet supplies store in what was essentially a basement in East Nashville, and we would get all kinds of artists and their dogs in. As a dog lover and father of two, it was actually pretty cool. From Hank Sr., to Marcus King, to Leah Blevins, they would all stop in for various canine needs.
Blevins, a more vintage country leaning songstress, was someone I’d heard about here and there, but I became an official fan after hearing her new album, First Time Feeling.
The album lifts off with “Afraid,” which has a killer driving bass line that reminds me of dare I say “Billie Jean.” The groove is tight and the overall vibe is slightly mysterious. The song builds with ascending instrumentation, and Blevins’ high-pitched and powerful vocals suck you in like a tractor-beam. “We all pay to feel something / We all weep for some comfort / Yeah we trust what we know / Should we ever really take it that far,” she belts out in the chorus.
From the guitar pickin’ percussive country groove of the sophomore track, “Beautiful Disaster,” to the heartfelt folk-feel of “Mexican Restaurant,” Blevins delivers a colorful palette of songs that will undoubtedly strike a chord with traditional and modern country music enthusiasts alike.
My first time feeling when listening to Blevins’ new album was “damn, this sounds great.”
2. Todd Snider – First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder
Directly across from said boutique pet shop stands a notable purple building that is both the subject of our next artist’s album art as well as the recording space.
This spring, Todd Snider released his 19th solo album, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, and it’s chock full of bold, brazen, and badass tracks we’ve come to love from the artist. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter who keeps you hanging on every line like a John Prine or Townes Van Zandt. However, this new album isn’t a simple acoustic country or folk album, no.
The opening track, “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be The Same)”, sounds like a Beck and Dr. John mashup. Prominent drums ripe with energy lead the song, and the song oozes rogue charm with his signature smoky vocals taking charge, and a subtle smattering of amplified harp throughout.
His lyrics and subjects – while often manic and pleading – hit on the human condition in the most unique and Snider-esque ways, but also touches on issues that need addressing. Case in point, “That Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which shines a light on the global threat of mismanaged waste. Again it’s delivered in an uninhibited way that’s particular only to him.
The tenth and final track, “The Resignation vs. The Comeback Special” is one that stood out and is very much on par with the opening track in terms of feel and energy. “I’m steppin’ down” he sings, with background vocals retorting back “That’s right you dumb motherfuckers, he’s stepping down,” which appears to be “a searing message to the former Big Wigs of Aimless Records.”
If you’re ever tired of the same old same old, Snider and his new album might just give you what you want and then some.
1. Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
I had the pleasure of catching burgeoning country songstress Sierra Ferrell not once, but twice at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival this past September. To say her performances were mesmerizing and entrancing would be an egregious understatement. In fact, I had a stumbling man approach me and talk my ear off about his unfettered love for her (he also talked about his wife) while at the Lauderdale Stage at said festival, and I can tell you he’s not the first who’s expressed to me their infatuation with her.
One song that instantly comes to mind was her version of Charley Pride’s “The Snakes Crawl At Night,” but she and her band delivered it in a most haunting minor key. It sounded like a song that could raise a King Cobra out of a wicker basket.
Her distinct sound blends traditional country, bluegrass, and Appalachian folk, often sprinkled with Spanish waltz-like melodies that creates sonic magic rarely heard. Songs like “Jeremiah”, “Bells of Every Chapel” (ft. Billy Strings) and “In Dreams” seem to be the big three of this album. Personally I’m a fan of “West Virginia Waltz” and “Far Away Across The Sea,” but start to finish, Long Time Coming is a no-skip album.
Ferrell has definitely made her mark on the Americana scene, and it looks like the sky’s the limit for this hypnotic songstress.