Here, in alphabetical order, are the artists who made some of my favourite music of 2021. These are the albums that excited me most and that I turned to again and again throughout the year. Some, like Adele, Rhiannon Giddens and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, are international musicians I’ve been following from the start of their careers. Others, like Arooj Aftab and Mdou Moctar, are more recent global discoveries. The rest all come from closer to home and stand alongside the best I’ve heard in the past 12 months.
Adele - 30
England’s Adele has a habit of naming albums after her age. She also has a tendency to belt out ballads, the kind that huge numbers of people respond to, something that’s helped her win 15 Grammy Awards and become the biggest-selling pop star in history. I thought I knew what to expect from the ubiquitous London-born singer, but I wasn’t at all prepared for 30. Steeped in the turmoil of Adele’s divorce, it’s raw, bracing and painfully honest in the way you don’t expect from pop stars. Listening to the dozen tracks, including the big singles “Easy on Me” and “I Drink Wine,” is to be drawn deep into her full spectrum of emotional states, from heartache and despair to hope and, eventually, resolution. It’s like being privy to Adele’s therapy sessions and intimate conversations with her son. In fact, “My Little Love” includes voice notes she recorded in which she tearfully tells her little boy about her feelings of loss and loneliness. It’s uncomfortable listening but, like other numbers on this stunning album, there’s no questioning Adele’s talent for plumbing the depths of personal truths.
Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince
The best music has the ability to transport you to other places. The work of Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer-composer Arooj Aftab does just that, taking the listener on journeys of loss, solace, wonder and ecstasy. Over minimal strings and the occasional flugelhorn or piano, Aftab’s voice floats like drifting mist on a tranquil lake. Although she sings in her native language, with the exception of “Last Night,” a shimmering celebration of love and moonlight, her Urdu vocals serve as just another ornamental layer of instrumentation in a deftly woven tapestry. On “Mohabbat,” her ethereal voice and an angelic harp come together like intertwined lovers, while on “Saans Lo” she is accompanied by only guitar and synth. Aftab grew up listening to Jeff Buckley and qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but there’s not a trace of that direct influence in her music. She sounds like no one else around.
Bria - Cuntry Covers
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a conflict of interest here: my son Duncan Hay Jennings co-produced, arranged and played most of instruments on this six-song EP. With that out of the way, I can freely state that the combination of Bria Salmena’s husky vocals and Duncan’s twanging, reverb-heavy slide is, to my ears, a match made in alt-country heaven. Bandmates backing Orville Peck as well as fronting their own band Frigs, Bria and Duncan spent lockdown time woodshedding on a rural Ontario farm, covering some of their favourite songs by artists like Lucinda Williams, John Cale and Waylon Jennings. Their version of “Green Rocky Road,” once covered by Karen Dalton, reinvents the folk classic as sultry western-noir. They deliver an aching rendition of the Walker Brothers’ hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and surprise with a shuffling cover of “I Don’t Wanna Love Ya Now,” an obscure, drowsy song by California housewife-turned-singer Mistress Mary.
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi - They’re Calling Me Home
I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed Rhiannon Giddens’ talent, performing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band from North Carolina. Singing or banjoing, she stood out with focussed intensity and palpable emotion. Her solo releases,Tomorrow is My Turn and Freedom Highway, remain two of my favourite recent albums. Since then, she’s recorded with Our Native Daughters and performed a glorious cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” at the White House with Canada’s Colin Linden (check it out on YouTube). Giddens’ second collaboration with her husband, Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, recorded at their Irish home during lockdown, is another wondrous display of Giddens’ talent and vision. Mixing the music of Ireland, Italy and Appalachia, the album includes such highlights as a transcendent Italian lullaby “Nenna Nenna,” a funky, life-affirming take on “O Death” and the luminous title track, which features Giddens in all her soaring, show-stopping glory.
Mdou Moctar - Afrique Victime
He’s known as the Hendrix of the Sahara and Mdou Moctar certainly shares similarities with the “Purple Haze” legend. Along with being a left-handed guitarist, Moctar plays with an incendiary ferocity that shoots fireballs down from the sky. Like the members of Tinariwen, he’s a Tuareg musician from West Africa but comes from Niger rather than Mali. I first discovered his wondrous sound on the Music from Saharan Cellphones: Volume 1 compilation. After making five albums for Sahel Sounds, Moctar has now upped his game by releasing Afrique Victime on Matador Records. The album is rich in his trademark pyrotechnics, particularly on the explosive seven-minute title track, a potent protest about colonial exploitation. But Moctar is also capable of gentler emotions, best heard on the acoustic gem “Tala Tannam.” The overall effect is hypnotic music with the power to stir souls.
Mustafa - When Smoke Rises
Mustafa Ahmed was a poet first, writing observations about life growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park housing project. The son of Sudanese parents, Mustafa experienced the loving bonds of a tight-knit community but also the constant threat of violence; several close friends died in shooting deaths. But rather than succumb to revenge or hate, Mustafa chose to honour the memory of his friends in song. When Smoke Rises, his tender but powerful tribute to them, is an album of a kind of hip-hop he calls “inner city folk music.” Over acoustic guitar or solitary piano, Mustafa delivers heartbreaking remembrances. “There’s a war outside and I can’t lose all my dawgs,” he sings in “The Hearse.” On “Ali,” he laments “now what am I to say, when you’re beyond the grave.” Ultimately, Mustafa offers hope for peace in a world of guns, cops and surveillance cameras on “Stay Alive,” an inner-city folk masterpiece.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raise the Roof
We’ve waited a long, long time for this followup from music’s odd couple. It’s been 14 years since the watershed Raising Sand came out—the same year as the first iPhone—but well worth the wait. The pairing of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss once again proves that unlikely alchemies can spark magic. Their choice of covers this time leans more to British folk, due to Plant’s influence, and songs like Bert Jansch’s “It Don’t Bother Me” and Anne Briggs’ “Go Your Way,” sung by Krauss and Plant respectively, are welcome additions to an already stellar roots repertoire. Others include such standouts as a rollicking version of Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go” and a spellbinding take on the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love.” There are harmony-drenched covers of songs by Merle Haggard and Allen Toussaint, all enhanced by T-Bone Burnett’s brilliant production, Marc Ribot’s superb guitar and Jay Bellerose’s distinctive drumming. And Krauss and Plant transform Geeshie Wiley’s blues classic “Last Kind Words” into a shimmering, otherworldly number that tops even Rhiannon Giddens’ amazing rendition.
Allison Russell - Outside Child
She honed her musical chops in Vancouver’s Po Girl and then Birds of Chicago, before Rhiannon Giddens invited her to join Our Native Daughters. Those projects explored a myriad of rootsy styles and mostly songs written from the perspective of others. By the time Allison Russell made her solo debut, Outside Child, the singer-banjoist-clarinetist was ready to tell her own harrowing, but life-affirming story. Russell, who suffered abuse at the hands of an adoptive father, speaks plainly about her childhood torment. “Father used me like a wife,” she sings on “4th Day Prayer,” “mother turned the blindest eye.” “Oh Papa, oh Mama, it is of you I am afraid,” she sings on “The Hunters.” But it would be wrong to assume Russell’s album is a sorry tale of victimization. “Persephone” is a country-tinged homage to the restorative power of the first love Russell experienced as a teenage runaway. And “Nightflyer” is a gospel-inflected celebration of self-discovery that perfectly sums up Russell’s ultimately jubilant story.
The Weather Station - Ignorance
After a series of folky, introspective albums, Tamara Lindeman, who records under the name the Weather Station, has spread her musical wings and created a jazzy, urgent allegory for our troubled times. Ignorance’s 10 songs appear to chart a romantic breakup but also address the larger theme of climate grief, feelings of profound sadness, helplessness, guilt, anxiety or numbness related to the climate crisis. “Separated” is about the growing distance between two individuals who share the same bed, but also the obliviousness of people to global warming. On the metaphorical “Robber,” she addresses the culprit: the failing capitalist system and its thieving ways. But those cautionary tales are offset by wonder-filled observations of the natural world like “Atlantic” and “Parking Lot,” sung in hushed tones and soaring falsetto. Admirably, Lindeman refuses to surrender to cynicism or paralysis in the face of planetary dangers. “There are many things you may ask of me,” she sings on “Heart,” but don’t ask me for indifference.”