While 2021 has been another tumultuous year for live music as society deals with a worldwide pandemic, it has been fruitful in recorded sounds. Tahoe Onstage album critic Tom Clarke was tasked with listing his 10 favorite albums of the year, along with his top live record. Here is a look at the best of 2021:
- Gov’t Mule ‘Heavy Load Blues,’ Fantasy Records
That Warren Haynes waited 40 years into his celebrated career to cut a full-blooded blues album is somewhat surprising. After all, Haynes has long been immersed in the blues as a songwriter, guitarist and singer, proving himself a champion of the genre in every sense of the word. Whatever the reason, “Heavy Load Blues” vaporizes the long wait with explosive, back-to-the-source enjoyment. Cut live off the floor on vintage equipment, new songs such as the velvety, heartbreaking “Hole in My Soul” tower in unity with remarkable covers such as Howlin’ Wolf’s heavy, edgy “I Asked Her for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).” Buy the deluxe version for Savoy Brown’s stalking “Street Corner Talking” and a smoky take on Elton John’s “Have Mercy on the Criminal.” They’re every bit as moving as anything on the main album. And that’s saying something.
- 2 John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band ‘Leftover Feelings,’ New West Records
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band clicks like steel on a magnet. Or more precisely, steel on wood. They’re natural together, and have cut an album that ranks among the top half-dozen in Hiatt’s vast catalog. “Leftover Feelings” proves in 11 poetically-rich songs why John Hiatt is, and forever will be, one of America’s most treasured songwriters. Douglas, a legend on the dobro, leads the band —standup bassist Daniel Kimbro, guitarist Mike Seal, fiddler Christian Sedelmyer, and Hiatt also on guitar — through shimmering blends of bluegrass, blues and folk. Hiatt remains in strong voice at 69, obviously exhilarated and at ease all the same. “Mississippi Phone Booth” and “Light of the Burning Sun” are brutally personal, so they stand out for that. But really, every song stands out here.
- 3 Los Lobos ‘Native Sons,’ New West Records
Mixing traditional Mexican, American soul, rock, and other styles threaded in between, Los Lobos not only play vivid originals, but just about any song by anyone you could throw at them. They play them sounding like the originator, but also like Los Lobos all the same. An incredible feat. “Native Sons” is their tribute to the music that impacted them as Chicanos coming of age in East L.A. in the 1960s through the ‘80s. They blow the top off the Blasters’ “Flat Top Joint” with real rock and roll heart, and rock Lalo Guerrero’s “Los Chucos Suares” traditionally, and with the same intensity. Different, but very connected worlds. Rousing turns through Stephen Stills’ “For What it’s Worth” and War’s “The World is a Ghetto” add present relevance. A veritable feast of culture and entertainment.
- 4 Various Artists ‘Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal,’ Royal Potato Family
A member of Blackfoot, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Hard Working Americans and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the late Neal Casal was widely revered as a guitarist. But this 41-song collection focuses on the exceptional songs he wrote for his own albums. A very impressive roster of artists — marquee names and others headed that way — deliver Casal’s songs in highly inimitable styles. Wildly contrasting, the music nonetheless flows naturally, because of, and to the source. Apexes? Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks sing and play radiant affection. Marcus King reveals an old soul. Beachwood Sparks offshoot GospelbeacH put Casal’s pain into a box of sunshine. While the focus is squarely on Casal, these three CDs serve as an eye and ear-opener to a plethora of incredible talent.
- 5 Robert Finley ‘Sharecropper’s Son,’ Easy Eye Sound
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach has described Robert Finley as the greatest living soul singer, an assertion validated 10 times over on “Sharecropper’s Son,” Finley’s third album and the second that Auerbach produced and played guitar on. The first two were awe-inspiring. This one’s a stone-cold killer. The music is full-bodied, but as soon as Finley croaks the opening lyrics “Souled out on you,” the raw nature of the proceedings hits like a freight train. Pushing 70 years of age, Finley actually made the lyrics to these songs up on the spot, as the band played, singing in a cracked falsetto of frustration and desperation, and in gritty outbursts of fed-up determination. He calls it “Speaking my mind, straight from my soul.” I call it astounding.
- 6 Tony Joe White ‘Smoke from the Chimney’ Easy Eye Sound
Tony Joe White sang in hushed tones that if you could smell them, would be smoked pine tar and moss dripping with heat. You felt Tony Joe before you heard him. And if “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” were the only songs he ever wrote, the so-called “Swamp Fox” would have been a huge success. But White wrote a ton of amazing songs. These are nine of the beauties he left behind, unrecorded. Dan Auerbach got a hold of the tapes of White’s voice on them and put together an arresting combo to wake them from the dead. White sings in the album’s title song, “Some things are special, they don’t never fade away.” Tony Joe White’s swamp-drenched patchwork of rock, country and hoodoo juju endures here, magnificently. Pray for more.
- 7 Colin Linden ‘bLow,” Dualtone
Blow. Be Low. Below? Read it how you like. They all fit in describing both Colin Linden and this fantastic album. Revered in his native Canada, and in Nashville among roots music insiders, the guitarist, songwriter, singer, producer, and one third of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, still flies unjustly below the radar. “bLow” contains every great aspect of him, and should cause him to explode. It gets low, but has plenty of spunk too. His blues in “Angel Next to Me,” “Boogie Let Me Be,” and “When I Get to Galilee” move from tavern boogie, to Hound Dog Taylor-like tussling, to Robbie Robertson-inspired mountain-craftiness. And that’s just at the center. “Cars” screams out of the gate, and “Honey on My Tongue” moves languidly like Blackie, to close it down.
- 8 Amy Helm ‘What the Flood Leaves Behind,’ Renew/BMG OR Wonderland…
Levon Helm gifted his daughter Amy with the voice of an angel soaring like an eagle over the mountains. Amy Helm started shining and turning heads 20 years ago as one of the two front women in the exquisite, gospel-folk-country-blues group Ollabelle. For her third solo album, Helm recorded in Woodstock with a cast of superb players tuned in to her talents, history, and most of all, her songs. And these are deep, provoking songs, most of which Helm had a hand in writing. Natural and elegant, the band’s music lifts each one, while Helm captures the moment, and takes you there. By far the most cohesive and accomplished of her recordings, “What the Flood Leaves Behind” is the kind of album that obliterates boundaries by the force of sheer talent.
- 9 Curtis Salgado ‘Damage Control,’ Alligator Records
“The longer that I live, the older I wanna get,” and “You’re gonna miss my sorry ass when I’m gone” contradict, but both lines illustrate Curtis Salgado’s reality, hope and sardonic, bullet-proof persona. Salgado’s beaten health issues that would have felled Hercules, but he blows harp like a monsoon on the wane, and sings in his best voice — literally and figuratively — ever, here. Whatever damage control he’s engaged in, is working wonders. The music on “Damage Control” bangs into and careens off the wheelhouses he started playing inside of decades ago, and that Solomon Burke, Delbert McClinton and so many of the blues greats, had built. This is a man having a blast blending the blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll into highly addictive cocktails of melody and memo too.
With dogged determination and supreme talent, the guitarist, singer and songwriter Scott Sharrard seems on a mission to keep spreading his wings. He was the musical director in Gregg Allman’s solo band for 10 years. Now, he stands front and center in the revitalized Little Feat. All the while, he’s led his own bands across a spectrum of jazz, blues, rock, and southern soul. “Rustbelt,” Sharrard’s sixth solo album, features his road band and notable guests painting deeply personal songs in broad strokes. The majestic “On the Run Again” alone justifies this album. Go see Little Feat. I’m an old fan, and I’m excited to. And get prepped by spinning their classics, of course. But spin “Rustbelt” too, to get acquainted with Sharrard, and be prepared to be blown away.
Tom Clarke’ Favorite Live Album of 2021
Tedeschi Trucks Band with Trey Anastasio ‘Layla Revisited: Live at Lockn’’ Fantasy Records
Eric Clapton had the songs and a fiery new, mysteriously christened band. When 23 year-old Duane Allman joined the sessions, the iconic album “Layla and other Assorted Love Songs” took flight. For a surprise celebration of its 50th anniversary, the 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band and guitarist/singers Trey Anastasio and Doyle Bramhall II played it front to back at Virginia’s Lockn’ Festival. Many rightly compare Derek Trucks’ prowess on guitar to that of Duane Allman. But he’s so much more than even the direct connection to it all that he actually is. Boundless talent, ingenuity, and magnetism bounce around the stage at a TTB show like carnival lights. Trucks and his spouse, the fiery singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, led their ensemble through Layla’s songs with the astonishing integrity and musical improvisation that they absolutely only, could conjure.