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KCBX Albums of the Year 2021

We all faced another difficult year together. But one of 2021’s saving graces was the excellent music released by artists who seemed especially prolific during the pandemic. The KCBX family — both staff and DJs — is pleased to share some of our favorite albums from the past calendar year, and what made these releases special.

Morning Cup - Neal Losey, KCBX Music Director

  • Sierra Ferrell - Long Time Coming

When I played singles from Sierra Ferrell at the end of 2020, I said it was very likely the full album would get played a lot on the Morning Cup when it was released in 2021. And it did. Cool songs and good playing.
*Neal stresses that you should consider this the “Most played album on the Morning Cup” or “one favorite on the Morning Cup,” as he doesn’t believe in making personal end-of-year lists.

The Broken Spoke - Janelle Younger

  • Piers Faccini - Shapes of the Fall
  • Billie Marten - Flora Fauna 
  • The Staves - Good Woman 
  • Jose Gonzales - Local Valley 
  • Flock of Dimes - Head of Roses 

Piers Faccini, who lives in the Cévennes mountain region of France, pulls together influences and musicians from Europe, Africa and the Near East in his muscular, evocative masterpiece, Shapes of the Fall. Collaborators on this album include Ballake Sissoko, Vincent Segal, Ben Harper, and Rokia Traore. For an online bonus, you can view Songs of Earth and Sky, a documentary series following Faccini’s creative process during the making of the album.

It’s hard to know what to expect from looking at the cover of Flora Fauna, Billie Marten’s third full-length album. There’s a photo of an impossibly young and fresh Isabella Sophie Tweddle (who performs as Billie Marten) beaming angelically, with a face full of what looks like fresh playground dirt. The album is full of such contrasts, as when crunchy percussion spontaneously breaks into a sun-drenched chorus on “Garden of Eden.” She’ll leave us swooning with the luscious, languid “Liquid Love,” then turn menacing on tracks like “Human Replacement.” Marten isn’t afraid to experiment.

There are so many levels to The Staves’ newest release, Good Woman. You’ll be immediately blown away by the shimmering three-part harmonies, then you’ll stay for the lyrics that explore female powerlessness, and how to reclaim that power — all told in anecdotes, rather than sermons. Finally, the genius that went into ordering the tracks becomes evident on repeated listening of the full-length CD, covering the full arc of the heroine’s journey.

José Gonzales’s first release in several years, Local Valley delivers on his brand of metaphysical meditations (“El Invento”) and the propulsive rhythms of his acoustic guitar (“Head On”). He’s said the recent birth of his second child and a move to the country have brought out a more playful side, heard on “Swing” and “Honey Honey.” He sings in three languages on this album: English, Swedish, and his native Spanish.

Jenn Wasner has collaborated with other artists in several projects, including Wye Oak. Head of Roses, her first solo album as Flock of Dimes, covers musical territory from celebratory pop-tinged anthems to smoky night themes, all threaded with nostalgia for a past that may never have happened.

KCBX News - Rachel Showalter, Reporter

  • Still Woozy - If This Isn't Nice, I Don't Know What Is
  • Lake Street Dive - Obviously
  • Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever 

After a year of hibernation in 2020, my goal for 2021 was to learn, play and regain personal strength. All three of these albums served as my soundtrack for growth this year. They all speak to fun, freedom and power in a time when so many of us have felt helpless.

KCBX News - Benjamin Purper, News Director

  • First Aid Kit - Who by Fire (Live Tribute to Leonard Cohen)
  • Pinegrove - Amperland, NY
  • Origami Angel - Gami Gang
  • Rise Against - Nowhere Generation

I once called First Aid Kit's Who by Fire - Live Tribute to Leonard Cohen a masterpiece and I stand by it. Something about Cohen's words in First Aid Kit’s' voices is magical; it's like he wrote them for Klara and Johanna Soderberg (and friends) to sing. Songs like “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “So Long Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire” are given new life in this album and it's a thing to behold. I recommend listening to it a few times before passing judgment; it will definitely grow on you!

Pinegrove's Amperland, NY is a stunning collection of the band's past songs all collected in one place. There's an accompanying short film that goes with the album and it, too, is a delight. I remember lead singer Evan Stephens Hall saying in an interview once that the key to good songwriting is being a good editor — and he's put editing skills to use here in choosing and presenting old songs that perfectly mesh together into one album. Watch the short film, too!

Origami Angel's Gami Gang is a solid follow-up to their first album, which I recently discovered and love. Gami Gang continues the earnest and sweet emo alt-rock that the band's first album presented so well, and has much of the same silliness and sense of humor accompanied by genuine affirmations. I love the guitar work on this album.

Rise Against's Nowhere Generation makes my list because I had the privilege of seeing the Chicago punk band at the Vina Robles Amphitheater in Paso Robles this year, which really helped the album grow on me. I wouldn't say it's their best album — that honor goes to The Sufferer and the Witness — but it's a solid entry in a discography I've followed for a long time, so it makes the list maybe by nostalgia alone.

Freedom Jazz Dance - Rick Mathews

  • Pat Metheny - Side Eye-NYC (V1.IV)
  • Ledisi - Ledisi Sings Nina
  • Kenny Garrett - Sounds from the Ancestors
  • Lady Blackbird - Black Acid Soul
  • Los Lobos - Native Sons

On Side-Eye, Pat Metheny continues to produce exciting and relevant music, working with some of the best young musicians in the world. For this recording, James Francies plays keyboards and Marcus Gilmore plays drums. It’s an energetic live date: sounding so Metheny, but still fresh to my ears.

Meanwhile, Ledisi has the chops to interpret Nina Simone's songbook with reverence and respect and without copying. She offers up extremely strong performances on Simone classics like "Feeling Good" and "Wild Is the Wind", and the powerful "Four Women", where she is joined by Lisa Fischer, Alice Smith and Liz Wright.

Kenny Garrett's deeply personal album, Sounds from the Ancestors, ventures into a vast range of expression, while remaining grounded in a soulful, accessible and joyful foundation (check out "Hargrove"). He embodies his truth and makes great listening for us in the process, like the master he is becoming.

Black Acid Soul was an unexpected, almost shocking delight late this year. Like NPR Music said: "one of the most unique voices of the year...A stunning debut from the singer Lady Blackbird... The jazz she sings is timeless. Her voice is timeless." From the choice of covers and strong original songs, to the clear, spare instrumentation, to her presence...Lady Blackbird has arrived.

And on Native Sons, my favorite rock band sums it up for Angelenos and all lovers of iconic musical gifts from 20th Century Southern California. There are many joys here but, for me, none better than hearing Little Willie G (from L.A.'s Thee Midnighters) take his turn on "The World Is a Ghetto." This album gives us the best kind of L.A. nostalgia: authentic, soulful, diverse and danceable. Who else could keep it real covering Lalo Guerrero, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys, Willie Bobo and War?

Trotamundos - David Figueroa

  • Gonzalo Rubalcaba - Skyline
  • Havana D'Primera - Sera Que Se Acabo
  • Mon Laferte - Seis
  • Chabuco - Chabuco en la Habana

As always, too much music and too little time! But these four albums stood out for Trotamundos as shining stars of 2021.
Skyline, the most recent work from master Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, is a gem of trio jazz produced on his 5Passion record label. Jazz heroes of his childhood, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, join Rubalcaba on this richly-satisfying collection of music from three jazz giants.

Havana D'Primera, led by the great Alexander Abreu, is one of the top bands in Cuban contemporary music, and the two-CD album, Sera Se Qeu Acabo, is a fun, expertly-crafted Cuban dance party harking back to popular Cuban music of the '80s and ‘90s.

The exciting and versatile Chilean singer-songwriter Mon Laferte put out a couple of albums in 2021 but Trotamundos puts a spotlight on her Seis project, which embraces Mexican songs and musical styles, with distinct influences from the Mexican iconic artist Chavela Vargas.

Chabuco is a wonderful Colombian vocalist who is building an increasingly impressive body of work, mainly within popular styles, and particularly his Vallenato roots. Chabuco en la Habana was recorded in Havana, Cuba and has a refined Cuban jazz feel to nearly all of the tracks. It's very easy to listen to, and the album's great musicianship and dynamic feeling can't be denied.

Jukebox Revival - Monica Fiscalini

  • Mike and the Moonpies - One to Grow On
  • Jesse Daniel - Beyond These Walls
  • Sierra Ferrell - Long Time Coming
  • Los Lobos - Native Sons
  • Alejandro Escovedo - La Cruzada

Mike and the Moonpies and Jesse Daniel keep getting better and better. Los Lobos and Alejandro Escovedo continue to rule. Sierra Ferrell gets the exposure she deserves.

Pickin’ Up the Tempo - Laura Joines

  • Billy Strings - Renewal
  • Watchhouse - Watchhouse
  • Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats - The Future
  • Valerie June - The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers 
  • Buffalo Nichols - Lost and Lonesome

Billy Strings totally redefines the music of bluegrass. On Renewal he combines the sound and speed of bluegrass and folds in elements of rock, jazz, and psychedelia.

Formerly Mandolin Orange, Watchhouse’s self-titled album is The Moody Blues meets indie folk in a wonderful way.

Nathaniel Rateliff’s The Future is for sure a classic for years to come.

Valerie June’s Prescriptions for Dreamers is such a dreamy, wonderful, moody album. Her voice shines through along with her interesting songwriting.

Buffalo Nichols is a young artist who just released his first album, Lost and Lonesome, which has an authentic folk and blues feel to it.

Beyond the Fringe - Sal España

  • Gary Numan - Intruder
  • Ciccada - Harvest
  • Colin Rayment - Polyphonic Memories
  • Bill Nelson - New Vibrato Wonderland
  • Jim Ottaway - Threshold Of The Universe

Intruder is dark, edgy, yet fully accessible synthpop from a constant innovator. Gary Numan pairs insightful lyrics with hummable melodies. If you appreciated David Bowie's Blackstar, check this out!

Ciccada’s Harvest is beautifully composed progressive rock from Greece. Wonderful instrumental passages paired with lovely vocal themes (in English and Greek) create a marvelous entry point for those interested in exploring contemporary progressive rock.

Colin Rayment’s Polyphonic Memories is Berlin School electronic music from a rising star of the field. A great assortment of textures and sequences combine for a thoroughly enjoyable musical journey.

Bill Nelson, the ever-prolific multi-instrumentalist, adds to his vast catalog with an eclectic mix of vocal and instrumental tracks on New Vibrato Wonderland. Encompassing a wide range of styles — as always — Nelson delivers yet another disc of catchy songs performed entirely by himself, showcasing his vocal and legendary guitar skills.

Threshold Of The Universe is another fine disc of electronica from the talented Australian composer Jim Ottaway. His latest release moves a bit more abstract than his recent albums, but still features a marvelous mix of textures and melodies.

The Road Home - Marisa Waddell, KCBX Director of Programming & Content

  • Sierra Ferrell - Long Time Coming
  • Eric Bibb - Dear America
  • Sunny War - Simple Syrup
  • Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real - A Few Stars Apart
  • Graybill - High Tide/Low Tide

End-of-the-year lists are so doggone hard for me. Picking favorite albums means I have to leave out so many good ones! So, to make it easier, I’m sticking to albums that fall under the Americana umbrella, which is what I play on The Road Home. Here are five that stood out to me, which I think you’ll like, too — in no particular order.

Like so many of us at KCBX, Sierra Ferrell’s Long Time Coming quickly became a favorite of mine. It’s the young singer-songwriter’s strong, reedy voice that captured me immediately — sounding a bit like a mix of Dolly Parton and Billie Holliday. And she clearly has attracted the attention of the best in Nashville, too, with a lineup on the album that includes Jerry Douglas, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings and Tim O’Brien, among others. The songs range from traditional country to gypsy to bluegrass — all with her contemporary twist.

Eric Bibb’s Dear America is exactly what the title suggests: a letter in song form to our nation in a time of distress and awakening. The lyrics on this album call for attention and action, and provide both encouragement and rebuke. Bibb’s roots blues sound is augmented by an impressive band on this album, including Shaneeka Simon, Eric Gales, Steve Jordan, Tommy Sims and others.

Sunny War’s Simple Syrup is filled with beauty and brilliance. The album highlights her virtuosic guitar playing and mellifluous voice in equal measure with her truly original songwriting. I really can’t think of anything else that sounds like what Sunny War does. She combines folk, blues, pop, punk, funk and even something that sounds like what you might hear in a Tuareg camp in the Sahara. Tip: it’s worth going to YouTube to check out the videos for two songs on this record: “Lucid Lucy” and “Mama’s Milk.”

Lukas Nelson just keeps getting better. His 2021 album, A Few Stars Apart opens with him sounding a whole lot like his dad, Willie, in the gentle country song, “We’ll Be Alright,” which offers solace to a lover in hard times. And from there he and his band offer up irresistible song after irresistible song — from rockers to soul ballads — all firmly anchored by country roots.

I always like to include a local album in my year-end list, and this year it's Graybill's High Tide/Low Tide. Kevin Graybill’s new two-disc, 12-song album is perfect if you need some laid-back California folk pop to ease your stressed-out soul. It’s produced by the ever-gifted and generous Damon Castillo, in whose hands it is perfectly mixed — and it features a bevy of talented Central Coast musicians, including Castillo, Dorian Michael, Bob Liepman and many others. It clearly struck a chord with local music fans, since it won Best Album at this year’s New Times Music Awards.

Across the Tracks - Blair Gillespie

  • Billy Strings - Renewal
  • Mike and the Moonpies - One To Grow One
  • Melissa Carper - Daddy’s Country Gold
  • James McMurtry - The Horses and the Hounds
  • Sarah Jarosz - Blue Heron Suite

These are in no particular order. Just some of the many great albums that came out in 2021.

Jazz Liner Notes - Fred Friedman

  • Charles Lloyd & The Marvels - Tone Poem
  • Michael Dease - Give It All You Got
  • Vijay Iyer - Uneasy
  • Dusty Springfield - The Complete Atlantic Singles: 1968-1971
  • Dion - Stomping Ground

Tone Poem is my favorite of the three Charles Lloyd & The Marvels albums. In addition to his regular bass player and drummer, Ruben Rogers and Eric Harland, the group includes Bill Frisell on Guitar and Greg Liesz on pedal steel guitar. There are a few covers and a few originals, every one outstanding.

Michael Dease is a trombone player starting to get more notice. The sound of the Hammond B3 on Give It All You Got adds a lot to the album’s mostly original compositions. Great straight-ahead jazz.

I have seen Vijay Iyer in person twice, and he is truly amazing. Linda May Han Oh is one of the most respected bass players in jazz, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums has to be seen to be believed. I expect to see Uneasy on many top 10 lists this year.

The Dusty Springfield Complete Atlantic Singles: 1968-1971 is the first of my two guilty pleasures this year. Springfield had one of the greatest voices in music. When she started recording for Atlantic Records, she got more of a soul sound. This album has 24 songs, all of the singles she recorded for Atlantic.

Dion is my second guilty pleasure. He also has one of the great voices in music: doo-wop, rock and blues. Stomping Ground has more of a blues sound. Each track has a special guest recording with him, including Keb' Mo', Mark Knopfler, Boz Scaggs, Eric Clapton and more.

Evening Blues - Dee-troit Deb

  • Ben Levin - Still Here

This young man, Ben Levin, continues to amaze me. I first became aware of him and his dedication to the sounds of my favorite era of music a year or so ago, with covers of such classics as “Confessin’ the Blues” and “I Feel So Good,” along with his originals (and in some cases, co-authored by his dad and guitarist, Aron Levin) such as “Load Off My Back.” Ben Levin’s total recorded output so far consists of four albums, starting in 2017 with “Ben’s Blues” when he was the ripe “old” age of 17 going on 18. I’m not a musician, but I have to say nonetheless that, to my ears, he is a phenomenal piano player and vocalist. I cannot recommend him and his recordings highly enough. I hope he continues to explore and contribute to this great cannon of blues music.

Evening Blues - Big Daddy Cain

  • Joey Quinones - “Love Me Like You Used To” (single)
  • Various Artists - Sacred Soul of North Carolina
  • Robert Finley - Sharecropper's Son
  • Sue Foley - Pinky's Blues
  • Christone "Kingfish" Ingram - 662

“Love Me Like You Used To” is a single from Colemine Records. This is my favorite song of 2021. Joey is out of East Los Angeles and is part of a cool movement that is putting a modern spin on soul. It's an old school sound with a modern feel, and it's perfect.
Sacred Soul of North Carolina is an album from Bible & Tire/Fat Possum Records. Eleven gospel groups were recorded in an abandoned storefront in Fountain, North Carolina. My favorite songs on the album are "Stand Up," "Have You Tried Jesus" and "No Ways Tired."

Sharecropper's Son is my favorite album of the year. The Louisiana native, Robert Finley, began recording in his 60's with Dan Auerbach on Easy Eye Sound Records. Songs like "Better Than I Treat Myself" and "Country Boy" are just a couple of great examples from a stand-out record for 2021.

Sue Foley’s Pinky's Blues, on Stony Plain Records, is a record that is still growing on me. It has so many good songs. Foley's cover of Gatemouth Brown's "Okie Dokie Stomp" is a stand out, as are her originals "Hurricane Girl" with Jimmie Vaughn on guitar, and "Dallas Man," which is an ode to all the great Texas blues heroes.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram continues to impress with 662, his second release on Alligator Records. Songs like "662," which happens to be the area code of his hometown in Mississippi, and "Something in the Dirt" are glimpses into modern-day life on the Mississippi Delta. "662" flat out rocks, and was very close to being my favorite song of the year. And it was just announced that 662 received a Grammy nomination for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year. No sophomore jinx in sight with this release!

Global Spin - Jim Dee

  • Susana Baca - Palabras Urgentes
  • Ballake Sissoko - Djourou
  • Los Lobos - Native Sons
  • Los Mocosos - All Grown Up (2020)

Susana Baca's new album Palabras Urgentes is her best in years, produced by Snarky Puppy's Michael League. Ballake Sissoke continues to explore new music with his instrument, the kora, on Djourou. Los Lobos recorded an album of covers with their trademark spin on Native Sons. And Los Mocosos recorded All Grown Up during the pandemic, returning to their Latin-ska roots.

Speak Low - Tom di Santo

  • The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio - I Told You So
  • Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - Just Coolin' (2020)
  • Carla Bruni - Carla Bruni (2020)
  • Khruangbin - Mordechai (2020)
  • Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - The Big Beat (1960)

For some contemporary jazz, I really enjoyed the soul-jazz/funk combo from Seattle, The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. I have played all three of their albums religiously in the years they were recorded. This year’s masterpiece, I Told You So, on Blue Note Records featured Delvon Lamarr on the organ, Jimmy James on guitar and Grant Schroff on the drums. Some numbers to keep on your radar: “Aces,” “Hole in One,” and a very credible cover of George Michaels’ and Andrew Ridgely’s “Careless Whisper” from their Wham! days.

I also enjoyed Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers this year. There were two albums new to the station from them — both on my favorite list. In the first half of the year I was playing Just Coolin’ primarily. It was recorded at the Rudy Van Gelder studios in Hackensack, N.J. in March 1959, but the album eluded release until July 2020 on Blue Note Records. The second album, The Big Beat, was also amazing, and under more influence from Wayne Shorter as he penned three of the best tracks on the Hard Bop album recorded on Blue Note in 1960. I liked all three of Shorter’s compositions on the album: “The Chess Players,” “Sakena’s Vision” and “Lester Left Town”. Both albums boasted incredible lineups, including the bandleader Art Blakey on the drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass. Hank Mobley played tenor sax on Just Coolin’, but was replaced by Wayne Shorter on The Big Beat.

Carla Bruni also had two albums new to the station in 2021. The first was simply titled Carla Bruni and was produced by Albin de la Simone on Teorema Records. She sings in English, French, Italian and Spanish, so it is good for lovers of our world and Americana/AAA shows as well as Indie/Alternative listeners. In my opinion the best tracks are "Un Secret" and "Le Garcon Triste" (the latter is written about her imprisoned husband and ex-Prime Minister of France: Nicolas Sarkozy). And if you like to hark back to 60s era French pop: "Rien Que L'Extase" and "Comme si s'etait hier." I also like the duet she does with her also famous sister, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. They sing in Italian together on the track “Voglio L’Amore”. The whole album is pretty even though, so all the songs are good.

The last album on my list is last year’s musical collage from Khruangbin, Mordechai and the “Remixes” out this year under “Dead Oceans” and “Night Time Stories”. The trio never fails on their extraordinary instrumentals, but surprisingly they introduce a lot of vocals on this album which only helps the “decoupage” nature of their sound.

Citizen Sound - Francisco Martinez

  • Black Country, New Road - For the First Time
  • Marissa Nadler - The Path of the Clouds
  • Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra - Promises
  • Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
  • Betcover!! - 時間 (Time)

Trust me: It's downright dirty to narrow down 2021 to just five projects, but these captivated my year in the most surefire way, given the circumstances.
Black Country, New Road's highly anticipated debut, For the First Time, proved rock music has avenues left to explore; contemporaries like Squid and black midi are doing their part in fighting that fight too.

Innately lush worlds, like the ones Marissa Nadler composes in her gem of an album, The Path of the Clouds, are so easily accessible — yet so intricate — that it makes no sense how they exist in the first place. It doesn't hurt that one third of the Cocteau Twins worked on the album, either!

A jazz legend, an electronic musician and an orchestra — sounds like the beginning of a joke. But it’s actually a musical intersection that is jaw-dropping at times. Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra come together in the impressive collaboration, Promises.

There are MCs like Little Simz establishing their dominance in the rap game, planting a flag that flies high and says, "This is my world now. You're in it." And then there are nobodies from halfway across the world who become somebodies, thanks to niche internet music forums that so masterfully scratch itches you never knew you had — or felt they were long overdue for scratching. Betcover!! somehow scratched both with the album 時間 (Time).

Oh, how I love music.