Is music getting better every year or am I just getting more sentimental about the artistry and courage and persistence that being a musician requires? I don’t know, but it was literally painful to assemble this list, knowing how much truly excellent music I had to omit, even with the loophole of these honorable mentions. Take this not as a ranking (much less a referendum on quality through some claiming-to-be-objective lens) but as a series of shout-outs and an invitation to dig some (or if you’re ambitious all) of the wonderful music cited below. There are over 100 other albums that made my first draft of this list, so if you are jonesing for more, let me know – and that doesn’t even include other awesome things like videos or books (the great singer-songwriter Don White’s The Hitchhiking Years collection of stories deserves a particular spotlight and is one of the most engaging things I’ve read in recent memory). In the meantime, enjoy this list, presented in no particular order.
1 ) Alchemy Sound Project: Afrika Love
With all the isolation of pandemic-era life, I have a soft spot for music that revolves around collaboration. Or maybe collaboration is just a good formula for good music. Whatever, there was a lot of music this year that I found moving that was created either by assemblages co-led by two different artists or by leader-less collectives. The third album by the Alchemy Sound Project (co-led by Sumi Tonooka, Salim Washington, Erica Lindsay, Samantha Boshnack, and David Arend) is one of the most inspiring of the many jazz albums I’ve heard this year, with fiery playing, intricate writing, and sensitive group interplay.
Honorable mention – collaborative/co-led projects:
– Miguel Zenon/Luis Perdomo: El Arte del Bolero
– Ted Nash/Glenn Close (with other spoken word artists): Transformation
– Two Much (Reut Regev/Igal Foni): Never Enough
– Jared Schonig (with various arrangers): Two Takes, Vol. 2: Big Band
– Jasmine Lovell-Smith/Jake Baxendale: Sanctuary
– Jon Secada/Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Solos
– John Hiatt/Jerry Douglas: Leftover Feelings
– New Faces: New Sounds (feat. Nicole Glover, Caili O’Doherty, Cory Cox, others)
– John Chin with Richard Julian: Anything Mose
– Kenny G with the ghost of Stan Getz . . . okay, never mind
2 ) Eric Bibb: Dear America
A new Eric Bibb record is always cause for celebration, and this one is one of the most emotionally potent and thought-provoking he’s ever produced. That’s true throughout, but the song “Emmett’s Ghost” has to be one of the most heart-wrenching examinations of our country’s track record of racial injustice that has ever been composed. Buoying this performance is the soulful bass playing of everyone’s favorite octogenarian, Ron Carter, who himself had quite a year as a recording artist.
Honorable mention – albums featuring Ron Carter:
– Gonzalo Rubalcaba (w. Ron and Jack DeJohnette): Skyline
– Brandee Younger: Somewhere Different
– Nicholas Payton: Smoke Sessions
3 ) Marilyn McCoo/Billy Davis Jr.: Blackbird: Lennon-McCartney Icons
I’d already been geeking out to the records below by Los Lobos (of whom I’m a longtime fan) and Tom Jones (not so much, but damn!) quite a bit when I stumbled upon this one by the two icons (one pushing 80, the other already north of that threshold) central to the Fifth Dimension, who themselves played a role in the important cinematic release Summer of Soul this year. Beatles songs in ANY style aren’t exactly new territory, and yet this is still delightful work, with versions of several songs (“Blackbird,” “Help,” Lennon’s solo hit “Just Like Starting Over”) that have vaulted towards the top of my rather exclusive favorite Beatles covers list alongside Al Green, Stevie, Johnny Cash, and Wilson Pickett.
Honorable mention – senior citizen artists doing covers albums:
– Los Lobos: Native Sons
– Tom Jones: Surrounded by Time
– Freda Payne: Let There Be Love (EP) (and I know “standards” albums aren’t the same thing, but . . .)
4 ) Johnathan Blake: Homeward Bound
I love this album (and this band, Pentad) so much. If it weren’t a tribute to Ana Grace Marquez-Greene this would still be one of my favorite records of the year, and that makes it all the more so. The playing and writing are impeccable, and all the soul and skill JB displays so often in others’ bands are amplified here. It is delightful to see him signed to Blue Note and I only hope it leads to the type of recognition he deserves.
Honorable mention – albums featuring Johnathan Blake:
Lonnie Smith: Move Your Hand
Vincent Herring: Preaching to the Choir
5 ) Weedie Braimah: The Hands of Time
I was looking forward to hearing the great percussionist’s debut as a bandleader and it lived up to the hype and then some. The guest artists add cool stuff to the mix and “Bongo Genie” might just be the funniest thing I heard on an album all year, but the real stars (aside from Weedie himself) are the members of his working band, an assemblage that includes Sam Dickey on guitar and ngoni and Shea Pierre (who also deserves a shout-out for his vegan southern cookbook Food and Mood and the album available to those who buy it) on keyboards.
Honorable mention – other drummer/percussionist-led records:
– Adonis y Osain del Monte: Sin Comentarios
– Lost Tribe: “Redefinition” (single)
– Donald Edwards: Color of Us Suite
– Nate Smith: Kinfolk 2: See the Birds
6 ) Martial Solal: Coming Yesterday
Because my own musical proclivities are so centered around the blues, my admiration of the European masters of jazz tends to be a bit more distant, with a few notable exceptions. One of the most notable of those exceptions is the superlatively brilliant French pianist Martial Solal, who gave us this gorgeous musical gift in 2019 (at age 91) prior to making the decision to retire from playing. The whole thing is stunning, and if you think that some songs are just too corny or hackneyed to be turned into works of art, hear him playing “Happy Birthday” and reconsider.
Honorable mention – solo records by pianists aged 80+:
– Abdullah Ibrahim: Solotude
– Kirk Lightsey: I Will Never Stop Loving You
7 ) Jon Irabagon: Bird With Streams
If you’re looking for a role model for masterful eclecticism and a balance between rigor and wit, you’d do well to explore the full scope of Jon Irabagon’s work. This on-location recording (at the edge of the Black Hills National Forest in Falling Rock, SD) of solo saxophone performances of tunes associated with Charlie Parker ranges from bop-tastic to far-out (dig the trading fours with the birds) and nails it on all fronts.
Honorable mention – solo instrumental albums, non-senior citizen category:
– Edward Simon: Solo Live
– Will Vinson – Solo
– Falkner Evans – Invisible Words
– Craig Taborn – Shadow Plays
– Mark Pringle – Verzerren
8 ) Helen Sung: Quartet+
Helen’s work as a pianist and composer has inspired me for years, and this jazz quartet plus string quartet tribute to some of the great women composer/pianists in the jazz lexicon is at once reverent and unique, displaying her utter mastery on multiple fronts.
Honorable mention – piano-led small group albums:
– Keith Brown: African Ripples
– Benito Gonzalez: Sing to the World
– Orrin Evans: The Magic of Now
9 ) Various Artists: Kimbrough
This album would fit neatly in categories 1 or 14 on this list as well, as a collaborative tribute to the important and brilliant pianist Frank Kimbrough. Pianist and Newvelle Records head honcho Elan Mehler pulled together 67 musicians to form a several-day revolving door of bands interpreting 61 Kimbrough compositions, and that alone would be well worthy of mention as an act of both love and ambition, regardless of results. The results, meanwhile, are exceptional, with these deep tunes given life in a manner that reminds me of a wedding I once attended where guests were instructed, in lieu of gifts, to bring a dish to contribute to a potluck meal for the reception. It was an incredible and love-imbued smorgasbord, as is this collection of music.
Honorable mention – multi-artist projects:
– Various Artists: Sacred Soul of North Carolina
– Gerry Gibbs: Songs for My Father (featuring Kenny Barron, Geoffrey Keezer, Chick Corea, Patrice Rushen, Buster Williams, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, and Larry Goldings)
– Various Artists/Truth Revolution Records: Together Again
– Béla Fleck: My Bluegrass Heart
– Various Artists: Relief – A Benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America’s Musicians’ Emergency Fund
10 ) Charissa Hoffman: Different View (EP)
Technically this 5-song EP is not an album, but it’s my list and I want to trumpet the arrival (such as it were) of this wonderful young singer-songwriter and ukulele virtuoso. For those who find the last two words of the previous sentence to be self-contradicting because you associate the instrument with semi-competent strumming (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you will have yet one more reason to enjoy digging into Charissa’s musicianship (for which this lovely EP is only a sample) and being able to say you were hip to her before the rest of the world caught up.
Honorable mention – young singer-songwriters
– Jess Best: Clear (note: only available on SoundCloud)
– Daphne Gale: Nomadder
– Natalie Greffel: “O sol te faria bem” (single)
– Trot Fox: “Lil Peanut” (single)
11 ) Cedric Burnside: I Be Trying
Do you particularly love the version of the blues that revolves around macho white dudes playing long, shreddy guitar solos? Me neither. The raw, emotionally resonant work offers quite the antidote to that, mostly revolving around Cedric’s deep-pocketed drumming and gnarly guitar (usually without bass). Though those sensitive to such things should know the album isn’t 100% devoid of “I shot my woman” lyrics (here provided by Junior Kimbrough, who along with Cedric’s grandfather R.L. Burnside is one of the two legendary mentors of his whose songs fit aside Cedric’s own) it is also full of inspiring anthems that help challenge stereotypes about blues lyrical content.
Honorable mention – blues:
– Guy Davis: Be Ready When I Call You
– Alabama Slim (feat. Little Freddie King): The Parlor
– Robert Finley: Sharecropper’s Son
– Sue Foley: Pinky’s Blues
– Christone “Kingfish” Ingram: 662
12 ) Tedeschi Trucks Band: Layla Revisited (Live at LOCKN’)
I won’t get into Eric Clapton’s, uh, issues here, but I’ll admit some ambivalence over the fact that the studio double-album that Derek and the Dominoes released in the early 70s is full of music that I truly love. And then, as if conceived to solve my conundrum, I found this recent release of a 2019 performance of the entire album (with Doyle Bramhall III and Trey Anastasio as guests) that sounds at least as good as and (in spite of the superlativeness of Duane Allman, who along with keyboardist/singer Bobby Whitlock ultimately made those original performances) often better than the original. What a nice and unexpected gift.
Honorable mention – classic-sounding rock albums:
– Bell Helium (James Beaudreau, songwriter): Bell Helium
– Joanna Connor: 4801 South Indiana Avenue
– The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore
13 ) Joe Flood: All Roads
Is Joe Flood a bluesman? A folkie? An “Americana” artist? I don’t know. But two things I do know are that 1) if you’re not hip to his work, his latest long-time-in-the-making album provides you with a great point of entry and 2) you will get at least a couple of these songs stuck in your head even the first time you hear them, which is a small price to pay for the experience.
Honorable mention – hard-to-categorize song-based material:
– Yola: Stand for Myself
– Debbie Deane: Red Ruby Stars
– Jon Batiste: WE ARE
– My Tree (Caroline Davis and Ben Hoffmann): Where the Grace Is
14 ) Ralph Peterson Jr.: Raise Up Off Me
This posthumous album (mostly in a trio with Zaccai and Luques Curtis) is at once a document of a vibrant, very-much-alive musician and a tribute to quite possibly the most consequential casualty the jazz world experienced in 2021 when one considers how in-his-prime he was. As we all continue to reconcile the loss of Ralph Peterson, we at least have this fiery music that demonstrates his mastery of the drums, his deep conception as a bandleader, and his simultaneous commitment to forging his own path while honoring and nurturing the tradition.
Honorable mention – tributes to the departed:
– Nnenna Freelon: Time Traveler
– Kenny Garrett: “Hargrove” from Sounds from the Ancestors
– Christian McBride and Inside Straight: “Uncle James” from Live at the Village Vanguard
15 ) Leo Nocentelli: Another Side
To greatly oversimplify, in my mind there are two types of “historical” album releases. There are ones that offer people who love a particular thing more of that thing (the last two on the honorable mention list here being good examples) and ones that offer sonic information that provides new context or perspective on an artist’s body of work. The much-hyped Coltrane discovery was my no-brainer choice on this front until I heard the revelatory Hasaan recordings. And THEN someone hipped me to this 50 year old but just released album by Leo Nocentelli, who I knew through his groundbreaking work as a funk guitarist (mostly with the Meters, the reigning swamp funk royalty of New Orleans). Hearing him sing, play acoustic guitar, and generally channel his inner James Taylor was not something I ever expected and it’s wonderful.
Honorable mention – historical releases of archived material:
– Hasaan Ibn Ali: Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: the Solo Recordings
– John Coltrane: A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
– Roy Hargrove/Mulgrew Miller: In Harmony
– Roy Brooks (feat. Woody Shaw): Understanding
– Bruce Springsteen: The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts
– Lee Morgan: The Complete Live at the Lighthouse