Well, 2021 was quite the year. Despite the hardships we all faced, one thing’s for sure – we learned artists are incredibly inspiring at both adapting and creating under difficult circumstances, helping us to navigate through trying times and challenging situations, and for that we are exceedingly grateful. And so, as we step into the new year, Radio Bristol wanted to be sure to share some of our top albums of 2021 with you.
Amidst the isolation of the pandemic, many artists took time off from touring, and quite a few returned with a multitude of creative work. This list highlights some standout records that were in heavy rotation at Radio Bristol in 2021, but is certainly by no means a comprehensive list of all the music that we loved this year. We hope there are some artists listed here that you may not be familiar with. If so, we encourage you to go check them out (just click on the links provided). We bet you’ll love them too! And don’t forget the importance of supporting the arts by purchasing music and merchandise directly from the artist.
Melissa Carper’s Daddy’s Country Gold is a rare, sparkling nugget of country music realness. After wandering all over the United States as a working musician, playing breweries, festivals, and street corners, Carper wheeled into Nashville to make 12 of the most thoughtfully executed tunes of 2021. Recorded to tape at Nashville’s vintage gear clad studio, The Bomb Shelter, and produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), this album offers a warm reel to reel sound, and Carper’s exceptional vocals and timeless songwriting create a country-western meets earthy jazz lounge feeling.
Melissa Carper from a recent performance on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time singing “Would You Like to Get Some Goats.”
Charley Crockett, the “do-it-yourself” cowboy, has officially arrived on the national country music stage with six critically acclaimed self-released albums, millions of YouTube views, and a Grand Ole Opry debut under his belt. Amidst the pandemic, Crockett released Welcome to Hard Times to a growing audience, and with its timely lyrics and hard-core “classic country” production, Crockett’s fanbase expanded exponentially. In 2021 Crockett released two further albums: one a tribute to Texas songwriting legend James Hand, and the other Music City USA. Charlie Crockett amazes us with his ability to turn out high-quality albums at a record pace, and this one is no exception. From the R&B drenched “I Need Your Love” to the witty title track chock-full of commentary on the music industry to the reflective tear-in-my-beer ballad “The World Just Broke My Heart,” Music City USA makes it clear that Crockett is on one heck of a roll!
Layered loops of twinkling Kalimbas over clawhammer banjo and swelling fiddle reels, all nestled among lush vocal harmonies, make this collection of Uncle David Macon tunes recorded by Joachim Cooder on Over That Road I’m Bound absolutely unique and spellbinding. Released on Nonesuch Records, Cooder reveals an atypical approach to old-time music while paying homage to the Opry star and song collector who also bent melodies to his own purposes. And don’t just listen to the record – check out live performances of the songs, which showcase the influence of world and folk music alongside Cooder’s innovative performance style.
Album artwork for Charley Crockett’s Music City USA and Joachim Cooder’s Over That Road I’m Bound.
Currently selling out venues across the country, West Virginia native Sierra Ferrell and her 2021 release Long Time Coming are well worth the hype! Released this past August on Rounder Records, Long Time Coming chronicles unrequited love, thoughts on the struggle of existence, and an un-ending search for genuineness. Co-produced by 10-time Grammy winner Gary Paczosa, and featuring cameo performances by popular bluegrass artists such as Billy Strings and Sarah Jarosz, Ferrell’s album mixes together musical ideas from bluegrass, jazz, and early country to create a sound that seems like it’s being played from the horn of an old Victrola. Now a rising star of the Americana music scene, Ferrell has been igniting music enthusiasts nationwide. We’ve been lucky to work with her numerous times at Radio Bristol!
Raised in Lubbock, Texas, Noel McKay’s rust-dusted vocals and reflective and undeniably engaging songwriting makes him a natural successor to legendary Texas songwriters such as Guy Clark who discovered McKay singing at a small venue back in 1993. In Blue Blue Blue, his most recent release, McKay unveils a solid collection of some of the best country-folk around. Accompanied by old-timey fiddles, well-curated acoustic guitar solos, and tasty percussion shuffles, this album is sure to satisfy listeners looking for a real-deal country-and-western sound. McKay’s knack for writing catchy and humorous tunes make listening to Blue Blue Blue an absolute treat.
Album artwork for Sierra Ferrell’s Long Time Coming and Noel McKay’s Blue Blue Blue.
Regional favorite Amythyst Kiah released debut album Wary + Strange on Rounder Records this year, and the album has since exploded onto the Americana music scene. After recording with the all-women-of-color supergroup, Our Native Daughters, and writing the single “Black Myself,” which gained Kiah a Grammy nomination, Wary + Strange was one of our most anticipated albums of 2021. Blaring with alt-rock-tinged summits, alongside virtuosic valleys of old-time inspired fingerpicking and harmonic pedal steel, Kiah’s remarkable powerhouse vocals shine through in expressive vistas of political discourse and raw vulnerability. This album is a must-listen and delivers on every level of musicality.
An intimate performance from Amythyst Kiah at the Radio Bristol studio where she did a debut performance of the song “Firewater” from her 2021 release Wary + Strange on Rounder Records.
Galax, Virginia-based artist Dori Freeman’s newest release Ten Thousand Roses effortlessly explores a wealth of musical genres including indie, rock, and pop while holding true to her Appalachian roots and distinctive vocal vibrato. Observations about socioeconomics, classism, and the female experience dance across well-crafted melody lines as Freeman once again proclaims her extraordinary talent for songwriting. We’ve been on team Dori for a long time, and it’s been amazing watching her journey.
Recorded at the acclaimed Rubber Room Recording Studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with producer Joseph Terrell (Mipso), Shay Martin Lovette’s sophomore album, Scatter & Gather, has been a breakthrough favorite on Radio Bristol this year. The Western North Carolina-native takes you on a sonic journey where bluegrass and progressive indie-folk brush shoulders. The album is embellished with polished folk-rock arrangements and mindful poetics, offering self-actualized philosophies on ecology, relationships, present-ness, and compassion.
Portrait of Dori Freeman, and album artwork for Shay Martin Lovette’s Scatter & Gather.
Duff Thompson is co-founder of New Orleans-based label Mashed Potato Records – which records to old Ampex tape and specializes in capturing the glimmering and organic. He recently released his debut album Haywire, a record filled with mindful orchestral arrangements, slapback echo, and swishing stripped-down percussion. This album feels like a Phil Spector pop-infused daydream. Atmospheric standout tracks like “You’re Pretty Good’” and “Sleight of Hand” make it a perfect soundtrack for a lazy day, or one for envisioning positive vibes for the new year.
New Orleans musician Duff Thompson performing “Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart” in a live session shot this past year in the Radio Bristol studio.
Materializing seductive country nods way out on the West coast, LA-based band Lord Huron’s newest album Long Lost is a transformational soundtrack. Theatrical strings swirl around a silhouette of hazy Western meets surf rock-inspired guitar lines. Swimming with dreamy vocal harmonies that drift along to a jangling laid-back tambourine, fuzzy radio excerpts introduce the tracks, and accompanying music videos feature mysterious blurred-out faces in classic country attire. Long Lost has created an expansive buzz around the band, which was originally formed in 2010.
Asheville-based artist Alexa Rose’s release Headwaters is a beautiful snapshot inside the mind of a blossoming songwriter. Recorded at Delta-Sonic Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and produced by Bruce Watson of Big Legal Mess Records, the album displays lucid lyrical realizations amidst a mesmerizing auditory backdrop. Headwaters fuses the droning of heavy progressive rock guitars with Appalachian folk-influenced narrative ballads, creating a fresh approach to the form. This new album has been winning Rose a dedicated following and landing the emerging artist opening slots for major national acts such as Watch House, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Parker Milsap.
Album artwork for Lord Huron’s Long Lost and Alexa Rose’s Headwaters.
Growing up in Floyd, Virginia, a town known for its ties to early country music, Morgan Wade absorbed music from an early age while attending bluegrass jams with her grandfather. Now in her mid-20s, this past year Wade signed a major recording contract with Sony and released her debut album Reckless to a growing fanbase. Produced by Sadler Vaden, well known as the lead guitarist for Jason Isbell & the 400 unit, the album merges influences from pop, rock, folk, and country. The album’s pop-country adjacent sound claims new ground by employing hues of late 1980s grunge and authentic songwriting that exposes Wade’s struggle with addiction and mental health.
Blasting synths and catchy 1980s inspired glam-rocks choruses make the 2021 release Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! a gleaming cluster of outstanding tunes. Taking sonic cues from the likes of David Bowie and Tom Petty, and combining them with folk storytelling sensibilities, Tasjan has excelled with an innovative take on the craft of songwriting. Introspective lyrics about inner-truth, gender identity, and disillusionment with technology make this album an extremely compelling listen.
Cover artwork for Morgan Wade’s Reckless and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!.
Following Sturgill Simpson’s wildly successful releases of Grass Cutting Vol I & II, his most recent concept album, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, is an immersive 27-minute long experience, dedicated to telling the tale of a historical Appalachian couple in a poetic western-inspired fashion. Employing the same group of all-star players from his last two albums – the “Hillbilly Avengers,” comprised of bluegrass heavy hitters such as Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, and Stewart Duncan – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is an alluring stylistic departure from Simpson’s previous recordings.
Cover artwork for Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood & Juanita.
And so there you have it – just a few of the records that captivated us in 2021. We’d love to hear what caught your ear! We can’t thank you enough for your overwhelming support and for being a part of our community. We look forward to 2022 and talented musicians bringing us another great year of music. We’ll do our best to keep you up-to-date on the most exciting and upcoming talent.
Happy New Year from Radio Bristol!!
Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol, and Ella Patrick is the Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. Both are also working musicians.