This collection of albums is not simply a “best of” 2021. That would be selling every single collection included herein far too short. These roots and roots-adjacent releases each stood as a testament to the music makers and communities that spawned them. Not simply in the face of a globe-halting, existentially challenging pandemic, but in the face of an industry, government, and culture that would just as soon have all of us pretend the last two years — and beyond — simply didn’t happen.
These artists and creators refused to let the pandemic define their artistic output through it, while simultaneously acknowledging, processing, and healing from the pandemic through this music. Not a single album below is a “pandemic record,” yet every single one is a resounding, joyful balm because the intention in each is not simply a reaction to a global disaster or an attempt to commodify it or its by-products. Not a single one is an attempt to “return to normalcy.” They’re each challenging us as listeners, in both overt and subtle ways, to walk into our collective new reality together, wide-eyed and open-armed, and with intention.
Daddy’s Country Gold, Melissa Carper
It was a sly move on Melissa Carper’s part to give her album, Daddy’s Country Gold, a title that works on so many levels, nodding to the passing down of sounds, to her road nickname and to her ability to casually loosen postwar country perceptions of masculinity and femininity. In her songs and performances, her gestures are even more beguilingly subtle. Enlisting a fellow upright bassist to produce with her, the Time Jumpers’ Dennis Crouch, Carper claimed western swing and early honky-tonk eras as her playground, and the shrewd, crooning intimacy of Billie Holiday as her guide. Carper sings in a slight, reedy rasp, deftly phrasing her lines and curling her words to suggest the lasting nature of longing and fleeting nature of pleasure. She’s written a movingly clever ballad of broken commitment (“My Old Chevy Van”), elegantly pining tunes of both torchy and down-home varieties (“I Almost Forgot About You,” “It’s Better If You Never Know”) and whimsical fantasies of rural homesteading, sometimes making clear that she’s cast a female partner in those stories (“Old Fashioned Gal,” “Would You Like to Get Some Goats?”) Her artful knowledgeable nudging of tradition is a revelation. — Jewly Hight
Music City USA, Charley Crockett
Few artists in the last few years have us as fired up as Charley Crockett. His unapologetically individual sound and aesthetic shine through once again on his 2021 release, Music City USA. The irony, of course, is that the album sounds nothing like most of what comes out of modern-day Nashville. It’s an amalgamation of influences both old and new — blues and classic country and soul with a peppering of Texas-tinged Americana on top. Charley Crockett absolutely represents what the future of Music City sounds (and looks) like in our book. — Amy Reitnouer Jacobs
Home Video, Lucy Dacus
We must forgo the existential “Is it roots?” question at this juncture, simply because this stunning and resplendent work by Lucy Dacus refused to be excluded from this list. Perhaps the superlative album of 2021, in a year filled to bursting with objectively and subjectively superlative albums, Home Video is impossibly resonant, relatable, down-to-earth, and touching — despite its intricate specificity and deeply vulnerable personality. Dacus’ queerness, and the beautiful, humane ways it refuses categorization and labels, is the crack beneath the door through which the light of this gorgeous, fully-realized universe is let into our hearts. Her post-evangelical pondering; the challenging while awe-inspiring abstract, amorphous gray zones she doesn’t just examine, but celebrates; the anger of rock and roll paired with the tenderness of folk and the spilled ink of singer-songwriters — whether taken as a masterpiece of genre-fluid postmodernity or an experiment on the fringes of roots music, Dacus’ Home Video establishes this ineffable artist as a subtle, intellect-defying (and -encouraging), empathetic genius of our time. — Justin Hiltner
My Bluegrass Heart, Béla Fleck
It’s been over twenty years since the eminent master of the banjo, Béla Fleck, recorded a bluegrass record. My Bluegrass Heart completes a trilogy of albums (following 1988’s Drive and 1999’s The Bluegrass Sessions) and is as much a who’s who of modern bluegrass – featuring the likes of Billy Strings, Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, Bryan Sutton, Molly Tuttle, Michael Cleveland, Sam Bush and many others – as it is a showcase of Fleck’s still-virtuoso level talent.
But as much as My Bluegrass Heart is an album for a bluegrass band, we would be hard pressed to call it a bluegrass album (in the best possible way). As he has done countless times before, Fleck effectively breaks every rule and pushes every boundary by surrounding himself with fellow legendary rule breakers, creating something wholly beautiful and unique in the process. — Amy Reitnouer Jacobs
A Tribute to Bill Monroe, The Infamous Stringdusters
Bluegrass loves a “back to bluegrass” album, no matter how far an artist or band may or may not have traveled from bluegrass before coming back to it. On A Tribute to Bill Monroe, the Infamous Stringdusters cement ‘80s and ‘90s ‘grass – “mash” and its subsidiaries – as an ancestor to the current generation of jamgrass. Or, at the very least, it cements that these two modern forms of bluegrass cooperatively evolved. It’s crisp, driving, bouncing bluegrass that’s as much traditional as it isn’t. Sounds like quintessential Stringdusters, doesn’t it? Their collective and individual personalities ooze through the Big Mon’s material, which is what we all want cover projects to do, in the end: Cast classics in a new light, into impossibly complicated refractions. And, in this case, infusing postgrass sensibilities back into the bluegrass forms that birthed them. — Justin Hiltner
Race Records, Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
One of the best bluegrass albums of the year most likely would not be “binned” as bluegrass, and that this album is titled Race Records demonstrates exactly why. Miko Marks returns to the primordial ooze aesthetic of country, old-time, blues and bluegrass — without a whiff of essentialism — and accomplishes a Bristol Sessions or ‘40s-era Grand Ole Opry sound that’s as firmly anchored in the present as it is elemental. Marks’ musical perspective has always highlighted her awareness that the death of genre, as it were, is nothing new, but a return to the traditions that birthed all of these roots genres, many of which can be attributed to the exact communities race records originally sought to erase. Marks & the Resurrectors joyfully and radically occupy songs and space on Race Records. The result is as light and carefree as it is profound; it’s devastatingly singular yet feels like a sing along. All quintessential elements of bluegrass and country. — Justin Hiltner
Dark in Here, Mountain Goats
John Darnielle sings at the velocity of a firehose torrent, and he writes songs with titles like “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light” and “The Destruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower.” But rather than death metal, Mountain Goats play elegantly arranged folk-rock dressed up with saxophones and the occasional keyboard freak-out. Dark in Here, the best of five Mountain Goats albums released the past two years, coheres into tunefulness despite the clashing contrasts — especially “Mobile,” a gently gliding Biblical meditation on hurricane season, and also Darnielle’s prettiest song ever. Perfect for the whiplash jitters of this modern life. — David Menconi
In Defense Of My Own Happiness, Joy Oladokun
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so immediately captivated by an artist as I was when I first heard Joy Oladokun’s single, “Jordan,” earlier this year. On that song — and every other one on In Defense of My Own Happiness that I played over and over this year — her clear voice and searingly personal lyrics emerge as a calm, universal call to pursue something better, melting down her own painful past and re-molding it in the image of self-love, inner peace and … well, joy. Oladokun is indeed building her own promised land, and we’re all lucky to bear witness. — Dacey Orr Sivewright
Outside Child, Allison Russell
One might assume an album covering the subject of abuse could intimidate a listener with its potential heaviness. While Outside Child does indeed venture into the depths of those dark experiences, Allison Russell gleans profound lessons learned and treasures discovered from each and every detail of her experiences in her youth. The result is ethereal and uplifting — and a release of trauma through a bright musical experience swelling and overflowing with hope for the future. — Shelby Williamson
The Fray, John Smith
Most artists are pretty keen to play down the idea of a “lockdown record,” because they’re worried it will limit the music’s appeal or longevity. But the emotions John Smith pours into The Fray — born of that period when we were all taking stock of our lives, and wondering what to do next — will hold their currency for a long while yet. It’s honest, yes, but also pretty soothing on the ear, showcasing Smith’s fullest sound to date — both heart’s cry and soul’s balm at once. — Emma John
See You Next Time, Joshua Ray Walker
I wasn’t out after “Three Strikes.” Instead, I was all in. With the steel guitar weaving like a drunkard in a Buick, it sometimes seems like this Dallas musician’s third album is about to go off the rails, along with the lives of the people he’s created in these songs. It never does, though, and that’s a credit to Joshua Ray Walker’s commanding vocal and a willingness to bring his dry sense of humor to the country music landscape. From the pretty poser in “Cowboy” to the unsightly barfly known as “Welfare Chet,” these folks feel like true honky-tonk characters. — Craig Shelburne
Simple Syrup, Sunny War
“Tell me that I look like Nina,” sings Los Angeles singer-songwriter Sunny War in “Like Nina,” the keystone song of her fourth album, Simple Syrup. The Nina in question is, of course, Nina Simone. The look is the “same sad look in my eyes,” though in concert War often flashes a bright, disarmingly shy smile — that of a young Black artist demanding to be taken on her own, singular terms, not the terms of cultural expectations. She continues: She can’t dance like Tina, sing like Aretha, be styled like Beyoncé. But she can see injustice, seek love and respect, seek a sense of self, and sing about it, captivatingly, with her earthy voice and folk-blues-rooted fingerpicking, enhanced by a small cadre of friends led by producer Harlan Steinberger. Like Nina? No. Like Sunny War. — Steve Hochman
Sixteen Kings’ Daughters, Libby Weitnauer
There’s a new artist on the folk scene — Libby Weitnauer. Weitnauer is a fiddle player, violinist, singer and songwriter raised in East Tennessee and currently based in Nashville. Her debut EP and first solo effort, Sixteen Kings’ Daughters, was produced by Mike Robinson (Sarah Jarosz, Railroad Earth) and presents centuries-old Appalachian ballads that have been recast into a lush and unsettling sonic landscape. Weitnauer’s high lilting voice is reminiscent of Jean Ritchie, and she glides with ease atop eerie backdrops of electric guitar, bass, fiddle and pedal steel. A strong debut to say the least, and we’re excited to hear more. — Kaïa Kater
Urban Driftwood, Yasmin Williams
Watching Yasmin Williams play guitar can boggle your mind. She uses her full body to coax noise from the instrument, her fingers pounding on the strings, her feet clicking out counter rhythms in tap shoes, one hand even accompanying herself on kalimba. As impressive as her technique is, it’s less remarkable than her facility for compositions that are melodically direct yet structurally intricate. Urban Driftwood is a carefully and beautifully written album, and Williams’ songs lose none of their flair when she transfers them from the stage to the studio. Dense with earworm riffs and evocative textures, the album represents a crucial pivot away from the increasingly staid world of folk guitar, which has recently been dominated by white men indebted to the historical American Primitivism pioneered by John Fahey. Williams is opening that world up to new sounds and influences, insisting that her guitar can speak about our present moment in ways that are meaningful, moving, and subversive. — Stephen Deusner
First published @ BGS Class of 2021: Our Favorite Albums, Made With Intention (The Bluegrass Situation, December 2021).
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Photo Credits: (1) Charley Crockett, (2) Béla Fleck, (3) The Infamous Stringdusters, (4) Joy Oladokun, (6) Allison Russell, (7) Sunny War, (8) Libby Weitnauer, (9) Yasmin Williams, (10) The Bluegrass Situation, (11) Doc Watson, (12) Thomm Jutz (unknown/website); (5) John Smith (by Michael Engstfeld).