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Nightsounds' Favorite Albums of 2021

Record store
Todd Gehman (flickr.com/pugetive)

Meet the new year….same as the old year. But there was outstanding music to comfort and inspire us despite a second year of pandemicized performance. This is only a smattering. Get out there and listen!

Allison Russell                                            “Outside Child”                 

The former member of such outfits as Birds of Chicago and Po’ Boy, this release was only a matter of time. Her voice was simply the more engaging and subtly commanding of any of her previous bands. Folk-soul; pop; folk-rock. She does it all. Talk about musical fluency? She sings in French, aussi! Her voice is malleable; determined. Delivery fits each and every song’s time signature and mood.

The compositions are sharp and poetic. And the subject matter - her harrowing upbringing at the hands of an abusive adoptive father, should render it a challenging listen. In fact, it is relaxed but focused. Nightsounds became obsessed with the breezy “Persephone”; and the single “Nightflyer” sums up her psyche- “Yeah, I'm a midnight rider/Stone bonafide night flyer/I'm an angel of the morning to/Promise that the dawn will bring you”.  Survive the dark to greet the light of a new day. Hopefully the first of many great solo collections to come from Russell.

Yola                                                               “Stand for Myself”

The Bristol, England to Nashville singer returns to the initial formula of her first record for “Stand for Myself”

The folk-soul, singer-songwriter offers up her second full pressing with R&B and roots songcraft, her preternatural world-worn voice front-and-center buoyed by unobtrusive production from Dan Auerbach yet again. Crackling, twangy country guitars; crunchy power chords; ringing piano all anchored by acoustic guitars.

The single “Diamond Studded Shoes” choogles along with a retro-revival, mid-sixties rhythm – to parade us to justice as – “Some of us will barely get by/they buy diamond-studded shoes with our taxes/Anything to keep us divided”

Much of this wouldn’t have been out of place on a mid-60’s Staples Singers l.p. Carrying the torch for racial and economic justice. Rousing and introspective; anthems for complicated times.

No-No Boy                                                    “1975”

A newcomer to, well, what genre exactly? No-No Boy is one Julian Saporiti – of Vietnamese & Italian lineage. “1975” presents a time-capsule of American history and a broadside of sorts in its insightful and gently-scalding indictment of the Asian-American experience.

Soft rock and indie-folk mix on songs of the Vietnam War and growing up in the south with racism – summed up nicely by these words “A soft language barrier/The child of an immigrant / Before the Banh Mi trucks were cool / Lunch table embarrassment.”

“Imperial Twist” -harkening across four decades between Southeast Asia and the United States –“I didn’t know my mother’s maiden name/That time in Texas we were detained/And I’ve been back to old Saigon/but how much of you is lost/ when they change your name?”

The best part is the honest and melodic compositions – dancing away to geo-political and socio-economic themes; touching on the Khmer Rouge; the US-Mexico border situation and Pacific imperialism – by listening you give your own world a twist – “just by doing the twist”. Still on continuous play at Chez Leonatti.

Lake Street Dive                                        “Obviously”

The quartet added a permanent keyboardist and adopted a slicker pop sheen, but riding on the gusto, richness and soul of lead singer Rachael Price, LSD has continued a winning streak of solid and tunefully danceable albums.

As a father of two young and independent women, it was easy to love “Being a Woman” – a document of contemporary feminine challenges – but the real kicker for me were the final few lines; “Being a woman is a full-time job/And when we stand up and protest, we’re called an angry mob/while another lone gunman, loads up his shots….” – powerful coda to call attention to a prominent American social ill.

LSD has its customary whiffs of 60’s and 70’s R&B and funk. Throughout ……………. skittering soul, chopping guitar chords; percolating Fender Rhodes and dry, punchy percussion. And my heart goes out to those following us “OK, Boomers”, as we’re referenced. In “Making Do” – “To the next generation- Merry Christmas/You’re working harder than ever now”- as the song catalogs our daily newsfeed of burgeoning ecological, social and financial disasters. Oh….and Rachael Price’ voice!

Charles Lloyd & The Marvels                 “Anthem”

This one literally floats somewhere between jazz and folk; a blend of ambient Americana and subdued, improvised instrumentals.

This is the celebrated Lloyd’s third collaboration with The Marvels -- guitarist Bill Frisell, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Ruben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland. Earthy, warm, fluid; this back line has defined the new genre of colloquial free-twang and drifting folkloric syncopation. Sometimes there’s nary a traceable beat; only a simple suggestion of forward movement.

The whole affair floats on open and echoey, shimmering steel guitar and the drift notes of Frisell – plucked and ping-ponging in the vapor. The coup de gras is the floating, burnished tone of the saxophone of Charles Lloyd – a veteran and survivor of the decades and stylistic shifts in jazz (for newcomers - search for his live “Forest Flower” at the 1968 Monterey Jazz and be astounded he has landed in the musical setting)

The songs are reflective, vulnerable yet subtly sophisticated and emotionally potent. Worth it alone for the nourishing and vulnerable “Anthem”. Accessible and resonant.

Micah Walk                                                  “Among the Stars”-

On the local front, one-third of the Deep Hollow worked some late hour magic in Nashville for this stellar release. Micah Walk worked with Jason Isbell’s guitarist/producer Sadler Vaden in off-studio hours during the pandemic to forge a graceful and full realized, life worn album. Tackling religious disillusionment to health care worker burnout, this is cracker-jack songwriting and generous, melodic music.

“Shades of Blue”, with its atmospheric, floating keyboards and chiming guitars is about acceptance, or maybe resignation?” Stay With Me” is rich with longing and has that near-grand anthemic pleading.

This record has an easy, gruff grace and longing to belong. After all, he inquires - “Who do you think you are?/We’re all spinning in the dark/Out here among the stars.”

Also Noted:  Individual Songs of 2021 that I believe you will enjoy:

Pearl Charles - “As Long As You’re Mine” – Bluesy, forward folk-soul.  Nice little ear worm from 2021.

Paul Thorn  “Never Too Late to Call” – A stern warning and heartfelt plea to us and to his late sister.  This pandemic sh******t is starting to real anger me.

Faye Webster  “In A Good Way” – Clever, moody little ballad from Atlanta Braves fangirl Webster.  Something about her delivery and voice….

Fruit Bats  “The Balcony” – Indi-Pop-Rock bliss from a band and artist who refuses to go away – aka Eric Johnson who has an ear for melody and a warm yet slightly odd voice.

The Weather Station  “Tried to Tell You” – Indie-folk’s Tamara Lindeman’s insistent charmer of a single - from a hard to categorize but instantly winning album Ignorance

The Little Unsaid  “Flux” – Englishman John Elliot doing business as TLU- with a jerky gallop; ricocheting from banging pop to piano driven folk-rock.

Lord Huron  “Long Lost” – The jangle-meisters put together a backward looking, future referencing album and nifty single that showcases their signature sound while paying homage to the likes of Roy Orbison; maybe the Everly Brothers.

Lauren Housley  “What’s Troubling You Child” – Blue eyed soul from Yorkshire, England.  Housely has a fully expressive and rich delivery on this great single.

Phoebe Bridgers  “That Funny Feeling– Whisper to a howl categorization of the current Zeitgeist – superb wordplay that has you laughing out loud and wincing all at once. Just terrific.

Dave Leonatti, Nightsounds
217-725-1239 Cell
Email: theleos1@juno.com

Dave Leonatti is an architect, freelance writer and self-professed music nut based in Springfield. He wrote music and performing arts reviews for the State Journal-Register. Dave started the Nightsounds program in the late 1980's.
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