By all accounts, 2021 has been an incredible year for folk, American, and country releases. Artists from all these genres have used familiar sounds to create bolder work than ever before – some incorporating new elements, like influences from electronica and chamber pop, and others reducing their music to its most basic components to start from scratch. .
Many releases on this list use this experimentation to give voice to deep musical narratives. In this list, you’ll find stories of existential reckoning, finding a home, and the ongoing struggle for racial and social justice. Here are ten boundary-pushing albums of 2021 that you may have missed.
Natalie Bergman, Pity
Songs Haunted by Christ by Natalie Bergman Pity have an eerie, timeless feel, evoking 1960s Christian psychedelia and the troubled cult of the Louvin brothers. His first solo effort outside of brother-sister duo Wild Belle, Pity is comprised of twelve spiritual tracks that Bergman wrote, performed, produced and mixed entirely on his own, an anchorite effort after an extended stay in a New Mexico monastery.
These aren’t your grandmother’s church songs, though, and Bergman’s faith produces incredible tension through Pity as she digs into an unthinkable tragedy. On “Home at Last”, her prayer takes on a pleading urgency as she asks, “Where have all the good people/people I love gone? Did they go to heaven? and compels God to answer him, before the heartbreaking culmination, “How can you teach a child about death over and over again?”
Ephraim Bugumba, Epoch, pt. 1
Epoch, pt. 1, the debut EP from folktronica musician Ephraim Bugumba, is a compelling release born out of an incredible story of survival. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bugumba and his family spent years in various refugee camps across Africa before finally settling in the United States. At Epoch, pt. 1, he combines modern musical currents with traditional African folk rhythms to explore trauma on both a global and deeply personal scale.
“Golden Blood” exemplifies this from the start of the EP, juxtaposing the impersonal phrase “victim of political violence” with the weary refrain, “God, I hate running.” Like Era unfolds, these tensions spill over into a complex reckoning of identity and culture across six lush tracks – including “Dirty River,” for which Bugumba released this meditative music video earlier this month after a stint of TikTok fame.
child of fire, Muscle Shoals Metaphysics
At Muscle Shoals Metaphysics, firekid’s experimental Appalachian music gets a grungier, weirder update. The band’s feel-good hooks and country beat-drops remain intact since their self-titled 2015 release, but the content feels more grounded — both in the geographic inspiration of their native Alabama and the bluegrass twang that pervades the band. ‘album.
This sense of security allows for plenty of play through Muscle Shoals Metaphysics, something that is extremely clear in both the single “Backwoods” and the lighter love ballad “Blue Roses”. On the juicy Woody Guthrie-inspired “Good and Greasy,” the band embraces a culinary bent, extrapolating a fascination with food to Lynchian proportions as the clip shows Heidi Feek playing with her food.
The “Freak-folk collective” Doran, which takes its name from a children’s fantasy novel, recorded this self-titled debut album during a month-long residency in an attic in Rural Retreat, Virginia. This backstory sets the stage perfectly for the album they’ve dubbed “the soundtrack to the upcoming A24 folk horror flick,” a bright release that evokes Joanna Newsom and Sam Amidon.
While the members of Doran bring strong Celtic folk, Appalachian and Eastern European influences to their work, the English ballad “Our Captain Cried All Hands” is the only traditional song featured on the album. Through a capella vocalizations and the reinvention of traditional instruments, Doran explores themes of death, rebirth and conflict between humans and nature, blurring the lines between old and new.
Lawrence Napier, mourning moon
Lauren Napier (also known as the Punk Rock Doll) swings between lo-fi bedroom pop and classic Johnny Cash country on mourning moon, his first “melancholic spaghetti western” feature. Drawing inspiration from Kafka, celestial bodies and “a desire to add a little sweetness to the world”, the album has a more upbeat feel than Napier’s previous work, dwelling on themes of romance. and calculation.
Bookended by the heady tracks “St. Charles Romance” and “Chapters of Lace”, “Hiding from the Sound of Fire” encapsulates these two moods. Over steady twangs, Napier croons a haunting ballad, declaring “I know my share of words, but I’ve been taught not to believe any of them.” The disturbing ambiguity of the lyrics leaves the listener guessing: is she lamenting the pain of the present or is she preparing for revolution? In any case, impossible not to be seduced.
Liz Harris brings a more earthy sound to Grouper’s ambient music on Shadow, a dreamy version that inhabits nature fixations as easily as domestic imagery of a basement and a crush’s hair falling around its face. Recorded in fits and starts over the past 15 years, it’s both delicate and polished, balancing restlessness with a deep desire for comfort and home.
On “Promise,” that desire is stripped down to its most basic parts in simple, gushing lyrics, whispered over acoustic guitar to create an intimate sense of awe. “You have the most beautiful eyes” sings Harris reverently, illustrating the fragile first steps of a new relationship as she professes, “And I promise to take good care of your pretty blue eyes and long blonde hair.”
Dan Reder, Every Way (Deluxe)
Dan Reeder’s deluxe edition of its 2020 release pell-mell is an extension of the original’s reflections on current events and societal surreality. Covering ground from scientific advancement to the 2016 election, the male gaze and the nature of aging itself, the 28-song release unfolds in just under an hour of listening time, maintaining a specificity fundamental in each byte-sized track.
The longest-serving Oh Boy Records artist behind John Prine himself, Reeder is considered an eccentric, known for building most of his instruments by hand and having a penchant for profanity and bizarre imagery in his lyrics. . Every Way (Deluxe) finds it experimenting even further, toying with AutoTune and ad-nauseam repetition on new additions like “She’s Rich, She’s Beautiful” and “Fighting Style” to give voice to the discordance of modern existence with an ironic twist.
Beatrice Cerf, SHIFT
Montreal artist Beatrice Deer combines folk, indie rock and traditional Inuit throat singing to create an innovative “inuindie” style. Through his latest outing SHIFT, she performs in English, French and Inuk, blending the songs and stories of her childhood in a triumphant reclamation and reaffirmation of Indigenous heritage.
In “UQAUTINNGA”, Deer reaches out to the next generation, encourages the children of his community and urges them in Inuk to “tell me you won’t give up”. Meanwhile, the song “MOTHER – French version” finds her looking back, reflecting in French on how her mother persevered through hardships and telling her in a beautiful chorus, “I wanna stand like you with grace / I wanna walk like you with grace / I wanna walk like you with grace / I wanna lead like you with grace.”
@, Spirit Palace Music
@, a new hyperfolk collaboration between musicians Brittle Brian (Victoria Rose) and Stone Filipczak, makes a soothing debut in Spirit Palace Music. Created remotely amid the pandemic, the album has a distinct concern for sanctuary and communication. “Right now you’re just on my screen, but I love you all the same,” Rose sings in “Letters” — a wistful longing for connection that nonetheless defies classification as a “quarantine album.”
True to its title, however, the memories cataloged in Spirit Palace Music aren’t always uplifting, and the sense of loss that colors “Where’d You Put Me” and “Major Blue Empty” is accompanied by a stylistic shift toward rootsy riffs and vocal harmonies that echo the fascination of the group for Neil Young. Still, @ retains their distinct vaporwave weirdness in both, promising great things to come from the Baltimore duo.
Sixteen Jackies, Hostile Architecture
At Hostile Architecture, Sixteen Jackies update their fluid, gothabilly sound with a roots-psych twist that suggests fellow Philadelphians Dr. Dog and Low Cut Connie. Returning to their fascination with retro horror movies, the six-track EP explores the baggage of growing up in the closet with a campy, spooky flair, complete with droning guitars and Jody DeMarco vocals that go on a roller coaster ride between screaming one line and whisper the next.
“Creature Feature” explicitly explores the band’s cinematic inspirations, combining queer lovesickness with an undercurrent of angst and nostalgia. “It’s about two guys who fall in love, have a mistake, and go to the movies,” DeMarco recently said. Vanyaland — a sentiment echoed in the dizzying lo-fi music video that accompanies the track.