Monday, December 20, 2021

Top 10 for 2021

Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2021. As in past years, I started with the list of hundreds of new albums (including reissues) that I listened to over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 30. I’ve been over the short list several times over the past couple of weeks and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 10 lists. Today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice.

1. Allison Russell
Outside Child (Fantasy). On this brave and compelling song-cycle, Allison Russell – known for her work with Po’ Girl, Sankofa, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters – documents the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her step-father and how she was able to overcome and break that cycle of abuse. On a personal note, I’m about 25 years older than Allison and didn’t yet know her at the time of the abuse she writes and sings about – we first met in 2003 when she was a member of Po’ Girl and they were guests on my Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program in Montreal – but Allison as a child lived about a block away from me. I had no idea, at the time, that such things were happening in my neighborhood. Now, of course, we understand that such things happen in virtually every neighborhood.

2. Diana Jones
Song to a Refugee (Goldmine). Over the course of 13 poignant and moving songs, Diana Jones sings about the plight of refugees in the modern world. Some of these songs, like “We Believe You,” with Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Peggy Seeger joining Diana, are addressed to refugees. Others, like “The Sea is My Mother,” are sung from the perspective of refugees. As I mentioned to Diana when she was my guest on the July 13 edition of Stranger Songs, these are magnificent songs that I wish did not have to be written.

3. Joni Mitchell
Archives – Volume 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) (Rhino). This 5-CD set includes home demos, studio outtakes and alternate versions, and several concerts recorded live, including a 1968 set recorded here in Ottawa at the legendary Le Hibou coffee house – which I featured in its entirety on the December 7 edition of Stranger Songs. These often-enthralling recordings provide valuable insight into Joni Mitchell’s masterful songwriting as she developed and went beyond her folk roots.

4. Reggie Harris
On Solid Ground (Reggie Harris). On his second solo album, after many as a duo with Kim Harris, Reggie Harris offers another inspired and inspiring set of mostly original songs including topical songs, civil rights songs, love songs, and a glorious tribute to Pete Seeger. He also includes superb interpretations of songs from Malvina Reynolds, John Prine, and, perhaps surprisingly, The Beatles.

5. Murray McLauchlan
– Hourglass (True North). On one of the finest albums of a career that has stretched back more than a half-century, Murray McLauchlan offers a largely topical set of songs that comments on such contemporary issues as income inequality, racism, refugees, and threats to democracy. Most of the songs were played when Murray was my guest on the July 27 edition of Stranger Songs.

6. Maria Dunn
– Joyful Banner Blazing (Distant Whisper). Maria Dunn’s inspiring original songs, deeply rooted in folk and Celtic music traditions, capture the good in the human spirit and the essence of communal common cause. She also includes a stunning version of “From Dublin with Love,” written by the late, great Newfoundland songwriting legend, Ron Hynes.

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter
– One Night Lonely (Lambent Light). In November 2020, during the pandemic, Mary Chapin Carpenter was filmed and recorded at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia, near Washington, DC, performing a PBS concert with no audience. Now available as a 2-CD set, One Night Lonely, is a beautiful solo performance of many of the finest songs from throughout her career.

8. Hans Theessink & Big Daddy Wilson
Pay Day (Blue Groove). Hans Theessink is a Dutch-born, Austrian-based, singer and guitarist who has long been one of my favorite blues artists. On Pay Day, he offers a wonderful and subtle collaboration with Big Daddy Wilson, a fine North Carolina blues singer, who has primarily toured and recorded in Europe over the past several decades. The album includes in-the-tradition original songs from both, and exceptional interpretations of classics drawn from Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Washington Phillips.

9. Maria Muldaur with Tuba Skinny
Let’s Get Happy Together (Stony Plain). On her latest collection, Maria Muldaur is backed by Tuba Skinny, a marvelous group of traditional New Orleans jazz musicians, for a set of wonderful old, mostly obscure, songs from the New Orleans tradition. There’s much joy in Maria’s singing and Tuba Skinny’s playing.

10. Peter Keane
Blues/Ballads/Cowboy Songs (Peter Keane). As indicated by the title, Peter Keane’s latest album is a terrific collection of mostly old songs from blues, folk and country sources (plus one original), that are mostly performed solo by just Peter and his archtop Gibson guitar – with some limited and tasteful overdubs on a few tracks. If I have one criticism of this set it’s that at just 26 minutes, it’s over much too soon.

I will be featuring songs from each of these albums on Stranger Songs, Tuesday December 28, 3:30-5 pm, on CKCU. The program is now available 24/7 for on-demand streaming by clicking "Listen Now" at this link.

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–Mike Regenstreif

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