Saturday in the Triangle, you’d think it was the 4th of December. I’d love to say that all the nominees and their hangers-on gathered beneath a large canopy at The Old Grey Cat’s much-ballyhooed Album of the Year soiree in Gold Park in Hillsborough, NC, where they enjoyed a buffet prepared by the famed Hillsborough BBQ Company before the charismatic emcee, one Tyler the Cat, announced the top platters of 2021. And that the jam session that followed was one for the ages. But I can’t. Even my delusions observe COVID protocols, it seems.
Seriously, this is my 96th post of the year. Sixty have been “First Impressions,” aka reviews, of new releases—a substantial increase over last year even when the three books and six archival offerings I lumped into the category are subtracted from the mix. Add to that this: Hundreds more were returned to their respective digital shelves and/or set to the side due to the constraints that come from this blog being a weekend endeavor. The mere fact that I wrote about an album or EP means that, at least to my ears, it was a damn good release.
Of my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year: It’s an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom way back in 1978, when I was 13, for no other reason than…well, why not? It’s a fun, if occasionally frustrating, endeavor. In years past, my oft-voluminous playlist contracted when I came across something I liked, as I’d play it again and again and again to the detriment of other new music, so it was relatively easy for me to make my pick (or picks). I still do that to an extent but, due to the work-at-home life, have more listening time at my disposal. Interruptions now come via email or Slack messages, not people stopping by my desk.
What else? My usual caveat: I’m a 56-year-old, long-married white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my times but not a prisoner of them. (As I noted in a recent review, “Growing old sucks, but growing old without new music sucks all the more.”) I find much joy in discovering young artists that speak to my aging soul.
My No. 1 album of the year, however, is not from one of those young artists. Rather, it’s by someone who’s contributed to the ever-expanding soundtrack of my life since the early 1980s yet, until now, had never topped my year-end list: Paul Weller.
With that, here are my Top 5 picks along with brief excerpts from my reviews. (To read my thoughts in full, click on the album titles.)
- Paul Weller – Fat Pop (Volume 1) Deluxe Edition. “My opinion hasn’t wavered a whisker since I offered my thoughts on the non-deluxe Fat Pop album in mid-May. I still hear it as a stack of 45s, all A-sides, that drop to the turntable in succession. They’re a diverse lot of strong songs, from straight-up rock to heavy soul, with the connective tissue being Weller’s weathered vocals. Some tracks sport sick beats, others plaintive melodies, and all circulate and percolate through the cosmos of the mind like a comet shooting through the galaxy.”
- Richard Haswell – With the Changing Light. “It’s an album that conjures the 1980s like few other new works I’ve heard in recent years. In a blink, I found myself transported from my den to a near-empty commuter train, circa February 1983, jostling its way from Philadelphia to my suburban home.” (A non-review addition: One of my favorite songs from it, “From the Bleachers,” sums up its placement in this list quite nicely: “Always second place, always second place/what is it to be human in the human race?/Always second place, always second place…”)
- Southern Avenue – Be the Love You Want. “No doubt due to my many Fringe binges, as well as a layman’s fascination with theoretical physics brought on by many repeat Big Bang Theory viewings, I subscribe to a multitude of theories involving spacetime, parallel universes and the like, with many of those hypotheses making their way into these pages. For instance, Southern Avenue, a five-piece soul/R&B band from the cradle of the blues, Memphis, is the latest proof that gravitational-induced curvatures in spacetime have caused the past, present and future to collide. Be the Love You Want, their third album, conjures the classic sides found on the mammoth Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 box set while simultaneously sounding fresh and new.”
- Elizabeth & the Catapult – sincerely, e. “The songs float in from the great beyond with such force that you’ll swear they’ve been with you forever and a day. And did I mention Ziman’s vocals? At times, they swoop high and then low in a delectable manner—and, when not, are the sonic equivalent of one of those velvety black-light posters of yore. Her voice shades plush but never fuzzy, grainy but never coarse, and is always warm, always hypnotic. In short, if you listen to one new album today, tomorrow, next week or this month, make it this one. You’ll be left slack-jawed, guaranteed. It’s great.
- Jane Willow – Burn So Bright. “She possesses a lovely lilt that drifts through the ether and into the soul. On the slower tunes, especially, she sounds like she’s standing behind you and singing into your ear. Vocal talent alone doesn’t mean much without the songs to back them up, however, and therein is the reason I’ve turned to the album again and again (and again). It’s almost as if Mary Black recorded an album of Glen Hansard compositions.”
And, since I am something of an evangelist for the music I love, here are the next five:
- Joana Serrat – Hardcore From the Heart. “It’s moody and mercurial, somewhat akin to how Mazzy Star might have sounded if Daniel Lanois had manned the production board or if Curve, the ‘90s-era British alternative band, had gone country. In a less theoretical sense, the dense, windswept sound reminds me of Jessie Baylin’s Little Spark – atmospheric as all get out, with vocals riding just above or below the gusts of instruments blowing forth from the horizon. Soon enough, you find yourself gliding through a dreamscape accented by darkness and only a little light. It’s an intense yet ethereal journey.”
- Charles Wesley Godwin – How the Mighty Fall. “He’s not a good ol’ boy singing ‘bout beer, flatbeds, hunting and fishing, but a Coal Country poet who digs up hardscrabble truths through character-driven story-songs. Some, such as the opening “Over Yonder,” are accented by country music conventions, including steel guitar and fiddle; others, such as “Bones,” feature charred moods and fiery guitars; and all contain echoes of singers and songwriters who came before, from George Jones to Woody Guthrie to Kate Wolf to Hank Williams Jr., not to mention Steve Earle and Jason Isbell.”
- Charlie Marie – Ramble On. “Hers is the sound of traditional country injected with what she calls on her website ‘a fresh perspective,’ similar in many respects to how Dwight Yoakam gave new life to the Bakersfield sound in the ’80s. ‘Soul Train,’ which kicks off the 12-track Ramble On, is a great example. (No, it’s not the theme from the long-running TV dance party, which actually had quite a few theme songs during its 15 years on the air, though it does hold a cool groove one can two-step to.) If anything, it’s an infectious statement of purpose: ‘Rolling ‘round the bend/peace and love is where we’re headin’/it’s all about the country, not the fame/come on take a ride on a soul train…’”
- Fretland – Could Have Loved You. “Theirs is a sound that features shimmering shades of folk, folk-rock and country, with an electric guitar often glistening above an acoustic bed. The band’s namesake vocalist, Hillary Grace Fretland, sings soft one moment, the tear streaks on her cheeks somehow audible through the headphones or speakers; the next, her voice engulfs the room like a wounded heart in bloom.”
- Calista Garcia – A Beautiful World. “While echoes of the folk rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s can be heard in the grooves, so too do the sounds of such modern folkies as Caroline Spence and Courtney Marie Andrews (among others). What keeps me coming back, however, is the unfettered passion she brings when she sings. These aren’t cookie-cutter songs designed to fit a specific niche, as is often the case, but songs that reflect her heart and soul.” (FYI, this likely would’ve made my Top 5 if it was a full album and not an EP.)