5. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall—The Marfa Tapes [Vanner]
Country superstars don’t make them like this anymore. So Miranda Lambert did. She and Texas songwriters Jon Randall and Jack Ingram holed up at a ranch outside of Marfa, Texas, wrote a pile of songs, and recorded them with nothing more than their three voices and two acoustic guitars. Low-fi, demo-sounding, rough-hewn; you can hear chairs creak, the wind blow, the tap of boots on the wooden floor, the fire crackling, a plane flying overhead. The Marfa Tapes is the sound of three country buddies in a late-night guitar-pull with a couple of notebooks and a table full of empties.
Only musicians this good could make warts-and-all first-takes sound this great. You’ll never hear Lambert’s voice so naked, and she’s all the more impressive for it. The record is a joy to listen to for the songs’ uniform excellence and the exuberant fun you can hear in their creation. During “Homegrown Tomatoes”, led by Randall, the singers work out harmonies on the fly, laughing after each attempt. Finally, mid-song, Lambert declares, “Nailed it”. Damn right.
4. Brandi Carlile—In These Silent Days [Elektra]
Brandi Carlile is on some kind of roll. In the last two years, she has formed the Highwomen (a siren summit named PopMatters’ Best Country Album of 2019), produced Tanya Tucker’s comeback album, published her memoir, and last month, performed Joni Mitchell’s Blue at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. So, to top it all off, she figured she might as well release a new album of stunning new originals. The album title and the piano-and-voice opening to lead track “Right on Time” signal that In These Silent Days is a gentler affair than Carlile’s more fist-pumpable, hell-raising previous albums.
As a result, the record is filled top-to-bottom with sonically pristine, heart-engorged performances. “This Time Tomorrow” is an acoustic beauty that has Carlile once again flanked by twin-killer wingmen Phil and Tim Hanseroth, and the flawless blend of the trio’s voices matches the song’s message of having faith in one another. “Letter to the Past”, accompanied by piano only, is a showcase for Brandi’s singular vocals, that silvery tone, that wide vibrato, those cracks at the edges. Brandi even allowed herself one Joni replica (“You and Me on the Rock”) on an album that proves that Carlile is the best-suited artist alive to inherit Joni’s musical spirit, both vocally and compositionally.
3. Valerie June—The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers [June Tunes]
In these stalled-out and tumbledown times, Valerie June writes Prescriptions for Dreamers. On her fifth full-length album, the Tennessee native tells us that The Moon and Stars remain within our reach, and the visionary who has brought a fresh amalgamation of roots styles to the Americana scene has made a luminous new artistic statement in 2021.
The Moon and Stars remains dedicated to traditionalist, straightforward melody lines rooted in blues, folk, gospel, and soul. But June’s delivery of those foundational shapes this time is enhanced by a mystical ambience—a blanket of echoing voices, swirling synths, white noise, flute frolics, timpani drums, and other treatments that give the album an astral quality worthy of its title. Despite the layered production, June’s voice is pushed up front, and her enchanting vocal character is a mesmerizing complement to these lush, transcendent arrangements. Soul legend Carla Thomas shows up on a couple of tracks, another moving embellishment to an album that radiates spirituality, positivity, and shimmering beauty.
2. Béla Fleck—My Bluegrass Heart [Bela Fleck Productions]
Béla Fleck is not only one of history’s greatest banjoists but also the instrument’s boldest genre explorer. As a synthesizing conceptualist, he has become the sole proprietor of any number of post-bluegrass genres, uniting with the world’s greatest jazz, world, and classical virtuosos to such an extent that Bélaphiliacs have had to work overtime to keep up with the breadth of Fleck’s talent and ambition. But this year, the Fellini of the Five came home, so to speak, to make his first bluegrass album in over 20 years.
Still, fans of Fleck’s progressive jazzgrass need not fret. For My Bluegrass Heart, Fleck wrote a set of feloniously complex instrumentals and assembled the only superpickers in the world capable of playing them. The results? Un-Flecking-believable. With a roster of Telluride Bluegrass icons—Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton—alongside heir-apparent wizards like Chris Thile, Billy Strings, and Noam Pikelny, this nearly two-hour, thrill-a-second mix of composition and improvisation is the jaw-droppingly hot, death-defyingly fast, cortex-rearranging modern bluegrass set of your dreams. An astounding musical accomplishment.
1. Allison Russell—Outside Child [Birds of Chicago]
When Allison Russell made her Grand Ole Opry debut this year, she was already a veteran of the roots music scene, as one-half of duo Birds of Chicago with husband and songwriting partner Jeremy Lindsay (aka JT Nero) and in the banjo-based folk supergroup Our Native Daughters alongside Rhiannon Giddens. Now, with her tremendous debut album, Outside Child, Russell proves to be a powerhouse solo artist. The record is an honest, sometimes harrowing, deeply musical personal memoir that chronicles Russell’s life from early childhood memories (the tranquil opener “Montreal”) to forbidden teenage love (the soft-roots gem “Persephone”) to sexual assault at the hands of her adoptive father (“4th Day Prayer”) to finding salvation in music (“The Runner”) to the protective fears of motherhood (“The Hunters”).
They are songs delivered with Russell’s achingly lovely alto and decorated with rich instrumental textures, including Russell’s ghostly banjo. As much trauma as Russell unpacks, Outside Child is ultimately an album about survival and overcoming her old negative self-perceptions. The incredible “Nightflyer” is a Whitmanesque reminder that she can’t be pinned down or counted out, and on “Poison Arrow”, featuring Russell’s clarinet solo, she extends (in French) her hope for us all. “I wish for you peace / I wish for you acceptance / I wish for you a second chance / And the heart, the heart of a child.”