It’s easy to get into a musical rut, so I look forward to tracking the newest music every year.  In December I take some time to reflect on the new albums that I have listened to, and I put together a list of my picks for the year.  While I don’t consider this list a “Best Albums of 2021”  I instead consider this a list of recommendations for new music that might broaden your musical listening.  Of course, my musical bias tends to be in the jazz rock and progressive acoustic, but I also try to discover new music no matter the genre, continuing to go by Duke Ellington’s wise quote “If it sounds good, it is good.”

So here are my picks for 2021:

1)  Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)–Pat Metheny   Guitarist Pat Metheny continues to expand his musical efforts by this time bringing together two young and upcoming artists to play some Metheny classics and new tunes destined to be classics.  On this outing, keyboardist James Francies and  drummer Marcus Gilmore are given plenty of time to show us what they have as they collaborate with likely the finest jazz guitarist in the last 40 years.  Highlights for me include three new tunes, It Starts When We Disappear, Zenith Blue, and the rocker Lodger.  Metheny, who has won many Grammys over the years is destined for another with this amazing album.

2)  My Bluegrass Heart–Bela Fleck  Producer, composer, band leader, and Banjo player extraordinaire Fleck has been an innovator in progressive Bluegrass, folk, and jazz with his many outing, but this album brings him back to his roots with some of the best players in the bluegrass world today including Chris Thile, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman, Sierra Hull, Billy Strings, Edgar Meyer, Michael Cleveland,  the list goes on and on. It’s a fresh look at a formidable genre, and a great listen. 

3)  Eberhard–Lyle Mays  In this spectacular swan song, late composer Lyle Mays gives us a remarkable 13-minute suite to thrill still mourning fans of his formidable career and artistry.  Mays, who passed away in February 2020, gave us some great solo albums along in addition  to his fine work with the Pat Metheny Group.  Named for the bass player Eberhard Weber, Mays’ composition uses a large ensemble of amazing musicians including bassist and album producer Steve Rodby, drummer Alex Acuna, and May’s niece, Aubrey Johnson.  The 13 minutes piece takes you on a musical journey of May’s career, instilled with Weber’s influence, and for me, even some passages that seem inspired by Frank Zappa.  Sit down in front of the fire, close up the laptop, close your eyes and savor every second of this extraordinary composition.

4) Battle at Garden’s Gate– Great Van Fleet   Buckle up for some new, seventies style rock and roll.  While the critics have been only slightly enthused by the album, I listened through the whole set and found a modern rock album highly influenced by Led Zeppelin, The Band, Rush, Kansas, Styx, Boston, and many more.  While my daughter says the vocals remind her of Robert Plant, I think they are more like Geddy Lee.  It’s an album that brings me back to high school, while still hearing new material.  I mean, you can only listen to 2012 or Led Zep IV so many times in a week.  Must be played very loud.

5)  “12 Movements” –Floating Points, Pharoah Saunders, and the London Symphony Orchestra.  When I listened to this new album, it brought me immediately back to some of the classic Brian Eno ambient albums, like Music for Films or Music for Airports.  Sam Shephard, a.k.a. Floating Points, provides the electronic textures, along with the acoustic orchestral layers from the LSO.  Saunder’s saxophone is a lyrical compliment for the most part, with his signature “squonk factor” minimized. It feels like a disc meant as contemplative background music for late night listening, and I really like it. 

6)  Ladies of the Canyon–Joni Mitchell, and Deja Vu–Crosby Stills Nash and Young.  Quite possibly the two signature albums of the early 70s Laurel Canyon scene have been re-released this year, remastered and cleaned up.  It is such a pleasure to give these two a listen and reflect on how they have become relevant again today.  Everything Joni Mitchell did before was amplified in this great album, with such tunes as Woodstock and big Yellow taxi.  Deja Vu has been called by critics “the most anticipated second rock album ever”, and most of the set has become signature for these four Laurel Canyon inhabitants.  You know you love these songs, time to play them again.

7)  Another Land–Dave Holland  Bassist Dave Holland gives us the next generation recording from his Gateway albums, with a Tony Williams Lifetime vibe thrown in.  Working with guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire, we get a set of jazz power trio tunes that keep me tapping my toes, nodding my head and smiling broadly.  Give this one a shot, you’ll like it.

8)  Renewal–Billy Strings  Playing like a studio version of one of his live shows, Billy Strings gives us an “A set” of progressive bluegrass music on this outing.  The boyish 29-year-old has major league chops on whatever stringed instrument he picks up, and his mature vocals deceive his looks.  The record’s been nominated for a Grammy, so everyone who listens remembers the name Billy Strings and his great music.  This one is just right for a backyard porch party during a January Indian Summer evening.

9)  The Nightfly Live–Donald Fagen  Steely Dan has not been keen on bootlegs, and fortunately, I was able to collect many of the old 1974 tour and more recent shows before the lawyers cracked down a decade ago.  It’s a good move by Donald Fagen to start releasing live shows. For this first release, he picks a fine concert where he plays the entirety of the Nightfly, Fagen’s masterpiece from 1981 that has been called the next best thing to a real Steely Dan Album.  Well worth a listen.

I have put together a playlist of these albums, listen to it here:

Steve Chase is in Unison, looking for new music for 2022,  Happy Holidays, everyone!

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