Songs in the Key of Life, 2021


Truly a year of singles for me. The 2021 Covid endemic forced many musicians to get busy during their isolation and so creativity sprang forth like a polluted river being purified by the healing holy spirit of music. I did like a handful albums. Not much time to ingest entire albums unless I played them on vinyl. And one of which I did not discover until December from another critic's list!

Billie Eilish's performance of the song "Male Fantasy" on SNL a few weeks ago cemented the deal for me. I knew she had writing and performing chops, but witnessing her live performance on my flat screen was revelatory. I needed to spend some quality time exploring her latest album in depth. Damn, Happier Than Ever (Universal) is so authentic, soul baring; mature beyond years, she is quickly becoming a generational talent. If you want to peak inside the zeitgeist of her peer youth culture... proceed with caution. Honorable mention: London-based Arlo Parks is no slouch either. Her song "Hurt" is one of my favorite songs from her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. (Watch video at top.)

One of my favorite albums of original music this year belonged to Chicago-based singer/songwriter/pianist/blues-funk-soul-pop-rocker Neal Francis. In Plain Sight (ATO/Fontana) is nine inspired and memorable songs; a collection of funky, fun, bluesy rock, and retro pop-rock tunes that harken back to the early '70s FM radio. Think Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Billy Preston, even The Allman Brothers. Recorded to tape and mixed by Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Spoon, Tame Impala), he's given the proceedings that retro hue that is so infectious. Guitar hero Derek Trucks lent his tasty slide guitar chops to the killer track "Can't Stop the Rain." 

Promises, promises. Promises (Luaka Bop), indeed. Veteran jazz musician/saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (81 years young) along with electronic music producer/keyboardist Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd), and the London Symphony Orchestra have taken improvisational jazz, ambient and classical music and created an album of subtle, hypnotic magic. A nine-movement, 46 minute meditation comprised of delicate textures and divine harmonies with a repeating keyboard motif, Sander's improv sax, and delicate orchestral strings. Whether you use it to relax or disengage from some high stress activity, it will create a calmness that we all can defiantly use/need. Listeners should proceed with unburdened breathing while playing this blissful, majestic album. 

Ghost of Vroom (Ghost of Vroom 1) is Soul Coughing 2.0, a band that I hailed when it was roughing up crowds in NYC. If you know and dig singer/songwriter Mike Doughty's music and stream of conscious lyrics then that should not come as a surprise. Now living in Memphis and partnered up with bassist/cellist/longtime collaborator Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, their debut album is an unstoppable slithering  king snake of blues-soaked, funky hip-hop grooved songs, top to bottom. Ain't no ghosts, just GIANT music freaks leaving a trail of 11 tremendous tunes for all to witness.

 I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself (Compass Records) is my favorite cover album of the year.  And it contains one of my favorite songs of the year. "Driving with the Brakes On" was originally written and performed by the most-excellent Del Amitri. (Check out the original.) Here Mr. Colin Hay (Men At Work) shares his rendition, claiming it as his own. In fine vocal form, too, his plaintive voice as raw and emotive as any recorded performance you will hear this year (or next). I hope you can take the time to appreciate this song and his entire album with iconic songs from The Beatles, Jimmy Webb, Faces, Traffic, The Kinks, and other. You will be rewarded. And hopefully, moved.

So what of the deluge of singles released this past year? Here's my ever-expanding list of favorites songs from 2021. I suspect I've missed some hidden gems. Feel free to share you faves in the comment section below.

Not often (or ever) that you find Billie Eilush and Pharoah Sanders in the same list and kudos for turning me on to the new Pharoah. Big fan from the 60s on.

Submitted by Larry on December 31, 2021 - 14:00

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