We made it to the end of another year. How’s everyone holding up? Yeah, same. Somehow 2021 lasted forever and flew by at the same time. Let’s hope we haven’t damaged the space-time continuum.
A lot of people have had a rough time of it lately, especially anyone who depends on public gatherings for their livelihood. Unfortunately, this list includes working musicians. Once upon a time, musicians made the bulk of their money off album sales. That’s all changed in recent years. Album sales have plummeted inversely with the rise of streaming services. These services are great for increased exposure, but not so much for artists’ pocket books. Nowadays musicians need the touring revenue to survive. Even the smaller acts that don’t make as much from ticket sales reap the benefits of selling merchandise.
So what’s my point? Great question. My point is we need to collectively find ways to support our favorite artists. Order a vinyl album. Buy a few t-shirts or some festive underwear. Every little bit helps. This applies to our local music venues as well. With our powers combined we can accomplish two important goals. First and foremost, let’s help the musicians and small venues survive. These are real human beings with real human bills. Don’t force them to get boring, full-time pedestrian jobs. There’s also a more self-serving goal. We can make sure when the world is ready for regular touring schedules, there will still be artists ready to perform and venues to perform in. I for one cannot wait to get back to frequenting live shows. It’s the bologna in my sandwich. The Pooh to my Piglet. It’s the wind and I’m Bette Midler’s wings. You get my drift.
Let’s get to the music. As always, for each highlighted artist I try to include an official music video if possible in an effort to keep the artform alive.
Low – HEY WHAT
How does a band peak at album number thirteen? Settle down. It’s rhetorical. I don’t know either. I do know that Low is a case study in creative longevity. HEY WHAT might be a better representation of our current world than any album released this year.
Their use of noise and space is nothing short of audio wizardry. The album is perfectly produced, yet still feels raw and sincere. The moments of extended repetition force the listener to acknowledge where we are, now, in our shared space. And once we’ve given in to contemplation and reflection, they pull us out of the depths with a piercing hook or flawless vocal harmony.
My intent in this space is never to simply rank my favorite albums of the year. Most years I can’t even pick a favorite, but this is the one I’ve found myself coming back to again and again.
If you like this, you might also dig: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – CARNAGE, Marissa Nadler – The Path of the Clouds
Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
It’s a fairly regular occurrence for a new country artist to come along and revive a traditional sound. It’s not so common for someone to do it from multiple angles on the same album. But that’s exactly what Sierra Ferrell did with her debut album, Long Time Coming. From bluegrass, to southern jazz, to country waltz numbers that would make Bob Wills proud, Ferrell confidently flexes her versatility.
What stands out most on Long Time Coming is the captivating vocals of Ferrell. Her voice warbles like Loretta Lynn and soars like Linda Ronstadt, refusing to be painted into a corner. There’s also an intangible quality in her delivery that’s just so damn likeable.
BONUS: The 2nd stop on Sierra Ferrell’s North American tour just happens to be right up the road in Eureka Springs, AR. She’s playing the Eureka Springs Auditorium on Friday, February 18th. As of this writing, tickets are still available.*
If you like this, you might also dig: Pearl Charles – Magic Mirror, Esther Rose – How Many Times, Emily Scott Robinson – American Siren
*Dear Santa – Please make COVID magically disappear or at least be reasonably under control by February 18th.
VHS – I Heard They Suck Blood
I have two simple rules for metal bands: #1 – Kick ass, and #2 – Don’t take yourselves too seriously. Basically, play monster jams without literally burning down any churches. VHS easily checks both boxes. I Heard They Suck Blood is an album based entirely off classic vampire movies: The Lost Boys, Near Dark, Horror of Dracula (see video link below), Monster Squad (“So what’s German for ‘please don’t murder us’?”), and more.
This is not a serious album, but it is seriously good metal. The band mainly sticks to traditional grind, thrash, & death metal elements, but then they’ll surprise you with a bluesy guitar solo and even a lengthy saxophone number in “The Frog Brothers.” I Heard They Suck Blood might not be the best metal album of the year (that crown probably belongs to Employed to Serve), but it’s definitely the most fun.
If you like this, you might also dig: Employed To Serve – Conquering, Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon: I, Turnstile – Glow On, The Telescopes – Songs of Love and Revolution
Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Wait. Don’t go. I’m sorry about the death metal. I know it’s not for everyone. Wrap yourself in a blanket of Valerie June and all your troubles will fade away.
Hailing from Memphis, TN, Valerie June has a voice that is both comforting and powerful, and a style that is difficult to label. As someone who enjoys making up music genres, hearing June refer to her work as “organic moonshine roots music” commands a tip o’ the hat.
I was leaning toward atmospheric dream soul, but I like hers better. The Moon and Stars is an album for sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, or a daytime road-trip through the hills. This is mood music. In a world that can beat us down at times, Valerie June is here to throw open the curtains and let the light back in.
If you like this, you might also dig: Spelling – The Turning Wheel, Jazzmeia Horn & Her Noble Force – Dear Love, The Weather Station – Ignorance
Boldy James & The Alchemist – Bo Jackson
Rap’s dream team did it again. Fresh off the heels of 2020’s The Price of Tea in China, Boldy James once again unites with producer The Alchemist to create a hip-hop masterpiece. At this point in his career, The Alchemist has piled up an impressive resume. From Dilated Peoples to Action Bronson to Kendrick Lamar, The Alchemist has crafted beats for a long list of heavy hitters. There seems to be real chemistry working with Boldy James.
The patient, deliberate delivery of James’ lyrics flows effortlessly over the slick beats of The Alchemist. A perfect example of this phenomenon is listening to James nonchalantly glide through “First 48 Freestyle” like it’s not one of the best beats to drop this year (It is!). On “Fake Flowers” the Alchemist shows he knows when to reign it in too, creating a subdued backdrop as heavyweights Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y join James for a rap tag-team match. If this is the way it’s going to be, I’ll take a release from Boldy James & The Alchemist every year.
If you like this, you might also dig: Dave – We’re All Alone in This Together, Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Damu the Fudgemunk – Conversation Peace, Ghetts – Conflict of Interest
DARKSIDE – Spiral
DARKSIDE is the on-again, off-again project of Nicolas Jaar & Dave Harrington. In Spiral, the duo lay down an arrangement of funky, bass-heavy grooves, but underneath the playfulness is an inescapable feeling that something is terribly wrong.
There is an error in the programming. A glitch in the matrix that short-circuits and sputters in all the best ways. The entire album is entertaining, but three tracks stand out above the rest. “Liberty Bell” marches confidently through a cryptic dystopian landscape. “Lawmaker” sounds like a twisted play on Nick Cave’s classic “Red Right Hand.” And “The Limit” is hands down one of the best tracks of 2021. While other bands have focused on themes of detachment and separation, Darkside has decided to get out and enjoy the chaos.
If you like this, you might also dig: Jungle – Loving In Stereo, Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg, Writhing Squares – Chart For The Solution
Buffalo Nichols – S/T
Blues music isn’t usually my thing (Sorry, Dad!), but the self-titled debut album by Buffalo Nichols is too good to ignore. Apparently Fat Possum Records agrees. A label originally founded on blues, Austin-based Nichols is the first solo blues artist they have signed in twenty years.
At just 30 years old, his voice is thick with experience well beyond his age, lending credibility to the heavy song choices. The guitar playing is equally adept, whether Nichols is fingerpicking or working the lost art of the slide guitar. I’m not saying he pulled a Robert Johnson, but let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me to find out he cut some nefarious deals for his prolific guitar skills.
If you like this, you might also dig: Eric Bibb – Dear America, Robert Finley – Sharecropper’s Son
Makthaverskan – För Allting
In a world where fame is commensurate with artistic output, Makthaverskan would be a household name. On För Allting, their fourth full-length album, the band has pushed their sound to new heights. The album is an emotional assortment of jangly garage pop. Too wild for the bedroom. Too mild for the basement. Is surfer goth pop a genre? Doesn’t matter. The echoing vocals of Maja Milner will transport you to another world and another time. It’s a sound that is completely unique one minute, and the next minute you’d swear you’re listening to Belinda Carlisle on The Go-Go’s.
Drummer shout-out! Throughout För Allting, Andreas Palle Wettmark seems to be on a higher energy level than the rest of the band. It’s funny to close your eyes and picture him abusing the skins while the rest of the band stares at their shoelaces.
If you like this, you might also dig: Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World, Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend, Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
King Buffalo – The Burden of Restlessness / Acheron
What does a creative touring band do when the world of live music gets shut down due to a stupid pandemic? Apparently, they write a prog rock trilogy of killer new tunes. King Buffalo released not one, but two stellar albums in 2021. The first of the trilogy, The Burden of Restlessness, is a slow-burning, riff-driven collection of seven interwoven songs.
The opening tracks convey the frustration and restlessness (duh, it’s in the title) of living in unfamiliar isolation. The Burden saves the best for last with the closing two tracks. The band’s pent-up energy is unleashed in the Tool-esque “The Knocks” and they finish it off with a hint of hopefulness in “Loam.”
It all feels like a setup for the second album, Acheron. A fusion of sci-fi and Greek mythology, Acheron was recorded live inside Howe Caverns in New York, creating a wild cacophony of reverb.
For King Buffalo, the “progressive” in prog rock derives more from the music than the lyrics, and these guys are talented musicians. It’s hard to believe a 3-piece band can create such a big sound. Part three of the trilogy is scheduled to be released in early 2022. Finally, something to look forward to!
If you like this, you might also dig: Here Lies Man – Ritual Divination, King Woman – Celestial Blues, Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – The Helm of Sorrow
Nick Shoulders – Home on the Rage
To finish with a bit of local flavor, we look to Fayetteville’s own Nick Shoulders. Our resident country crooner really outdid himself with his latest release. An album filled with yodeling, whistling, and something called a mouthbow, Home on the Rage encapsulates all the quirkiness, passion, and flare that’s helped Shoulders garner a growing rabid fanbase.
Apparently he also caught the attention of the aforementioned Sierra Ferrell. He’s set to be the opening act on the first half of her 2022 tour, including the Eureka Springs stop.
If you’ve been lucky enough to catch one of his live shows, you understand the appeal.
If not, do yourself a favor and take the opportunity when it presents itself. Like a runaway tumbleweed, the inimitable Nick Shoulders is on the move.
Other local(ish) releases to check out: Elise Davis – Anxious. Happy. Chill., Bones of the Earth – II. Eternal Meditations of the Deathless Crown, The Phenomenal Self – Satori