The Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am The Moon, Vol. 1-4 – It’s actually four full albums, each one stellar in its own right. Taken together, this 12-piece band hits all the right notes on everything from ballads to jams with influences that run the gamut from the American south to south Asia and all points in between. The selections run from tightly arranged to the expansively improvised while emotionally embracing love, life, and losses.
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Crooked Tree – An elite acoustic guitar picker that is also a fine singer and songwriter returns to her bluegrass roots with a crack band. The strength of this album combined with the consistent power of the band’s live sets has Molly Tuttle nominated for several Grammy awards. Not just in the Best Bluegrass Album category either: Tuttle garnered a Best New Artist nomination. Bet the little girl who grew up learning to pick around campfires at the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival (she sings of this on the album) never imagined that could happen! Yet surely she’s the only one of us that’s truly surprised.
Amy Ray, If It All Goes South – You may know her as one half of the Indigo Girls, but it’s on her solo albums that she really shines. Here she pledges her love to the American South, all the while looking squarely at the ugliest parts of its past and the challenges of its present.
Danielle Ponder, Some of Us Are Brave – A progressive public defender in Rochester, NY until just recently when she left for a full-time career in music, Ponder was the surprise of the weekend during an unscheduled appearance on a big stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. She proceeded to steal the show just by being her talented, loving, and bad-ass self. Somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Yola, and with conscious thoughts fueling her soul and R&B, Ponder has control of some extremely powerful instruments: her voice and her mind.
Vince Herman, Enjoy The Ride – For over three decades the co-founder of Leftover Salmon (as well as a member of The High Hawks, and Great American Taxi), shied away from the role of fronting his own band and serving as chief song writer… until now. He’s on a mission too, wanting “to bring the hippies back to country music.” When you consider all the great things that happen when the hippies are active in country music (think Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Doug Sahm, and the New Riders of The Purple Sage just for starters), you know this is an important calling. Nobody is better suited for the task than Vince Herman.
Will Bernard, Pond Life – A product of the famous Berkeley High School jazz program back in the day, the guitarist had to move to Brooklyn before the full measure of his talents were noticed around the nation and around the world. This collection (which also features John Medeski, Ches Smith, Chris Lightcap, and Tim Berne) is classic Bernard in that it moves from the funky to the abstract and back again in deeply engaging and unique ways. The jazz world has indeed taken notice, and for good reason.
Robert Glasper, Black Radio III – Who doesn’t want to collaborate with Robert Glasper? That list may be shorter than the list of those that do. This collection lives, as Rolling Stone put it, “in the territory where jazz, hip hop, and R&B overlap” and features collaborations with Common, India.Arie, Lalah Hathaway, Meshell Ndegecello, Esperanza Spaulding, as well as many, many more.
California Honeydrops, Soft Spot – With elements derived the sounds of Oakland, Memphis, New Orleans and the Delta infusing and animating it, the California Honeydrops serve up dance parties full of funky soul, R&B, and blues. Something sexy is always going on these grooves.
Infamous Stringdusters, Toward The Fray – These five gentlemen can do no wrong in the studio or on the stage. Another super solid collection of bluegrass that thrills both the jam community and straighter audiences alike.
Bill Scozari, The Crosswinds of Kansas – Scozari’s latest offering explores the shock of the sudden demise of a long-term love relationship. The grizzled old voice is supported by a remarkable production job. Layers of distorted electric guitars set the tone on “I-70 East,” while shakuhachi, mandolin, and fiddle create lush atmospherics elsewhere, such as on “Multnomah Falls” and “Broken Heart Side of The Road.” “Tryin’, Tryin’, Tryin’, Tryin’” is a long and psychedelic meditation, the sonic representation of the immediacy of a grief that will not be denied.
Steven Bernstein, Community Music, Vol 2-4 – The only reason Volume 1 isn’t included here is that it was released in 2021. Another graduate of Berkeley High’s jazz program, Bernstein explores various facets of popular music in jazz styles in this series. Volume 2 features “good time music” such as Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can,” with Claudia Russell on vocals and a seven-piece band. The group expands to a nonet on Vol. 3’s tribute to the late great Henry Butler, is back to a septet for Vol. 4’s explorations of “Popular Culture” which includes takes on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and the Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter.”
Anais Mitchell, Anais Mitchell – She is the creative force behind the smash Broadway hit Hadestown and is one third of Bonny Light Horseman. Here she is hypnotic and reflective, ethereal and emotional. She delights in romance on “Brooklyn Bridge,” longs for genuine connection in “Real World,” enjoys a moment of nostalgia in “Backroads,” and lays out the depth and complexity of emotion in “Now You Know.”
Kelsey Waldon, No Regular Dog; Kaitlin Butts, What Else Can She Do; Sunny Sweeny, Married Alone – It was the year of women in country music ‘round here in many ways and the latest releases from Kelsey Waldon, Kaitlin Butts, and Sunny Sweeny are big parts of the reason why. Waldon explores what it means to stay true to oneself, whether creatively or emotionally, when faced with challenging situations or self-doubt. Butts tells stories from women who married too young, are in relationships with the wrong men, are considering stepping out, or are otherwise looking for hope in what can feel like a hopeless world. Old school country is alive and well when Sweeny reflects on a marriage – or two – gone wrong. Replete with steel guitars, regret, independence, and hope, Sunny Sweeny has decided she’d much rather try her luck being on her own than to be married and alone.
Greensky Bluegrass, Stress Dreams – Continuing to plow the fertile ground where rock people think they are playing bluegrass and the bluegrass people simply must insist that this is rock’n’roll, thank you very much, Greensky delves deep in the uncertainties, vulnerabilities and fears created by the combination of creating new families during a worldwide pandemic. There’s optimism sure, but it never fully escapes the shadows of doubt that must plague any clear-eyed realist in this day and age. With lyrics from bassist Mike Devol and dobro player Anders Beck complementing those from the usual writers in the band, Paul Hoffman and Dave Bruzza.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Perspective – Sometimes you just gotta have some fun, and the funky jam rock of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong is nothing if not danceable fun.
Pharis & Jason Romero, Tell ‘Em You Were Gold – An old-timey pair making music that seems ancient and current at the same time. There’s something earthy yet spiritually uplifting here.
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters, The Devil & The Deep Blue Sea – This two-CD album topped my 2021 list of faves, but it was actually released in 2022. It’s just that they dribbled the whole thing out two songs at a time over the course of 2021, so by the time of its actual release arrived I had been spinning it for quite a while. Still, it might be new to many of you, and this Americana, country, and rock is holding up to the test of time.
Honorable Mention: Billy Strings, Me & Dad; Weyes Blood, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow; Willie Nelson, A Beautiful Time; Peter Rowan, Calling You From My Mountain; Ruthie Foster, Soul Searching; Yungchen Lhamo, Awakening; Wreckless Strangers, When the Sun and a Blue Star Collide; Howell Devine, Strange Time Blues.