📜 Feature 2021 Music of the Year

Feature article
It's that time of year again, when I look back at some of my favorites for the year. There were some new releases I enjoyed, some reissues I rediscovered, and some new (to me) music I hadn't yet explored.

So, without further ado, here is my look back at 2021.

Song/Record of the Year

1641320371196.png Lyle Mays

I normally would not feature a single song, but since this was a single-track release and made such an impression on myself and others, I make the exception to include it here.

Indeed, if Lyle Mays were still with us, we probably would have seen "Eberhard" released as part of an entire album of new compositions. As it stands, Lyle was with us long enough to complete work on "Eberhard," a tune he had composed for Nancy Zeltsman to perform at her Zeltsman Marimba Festival in 2009. In 2019, Lyle assembled a group to record the piece, an all-star assemblage of musicians and vocalists (including his niece Aubrey Johnson, who is also the executive producer).

One could use the adjective "cinematic" to describe many of Lyle's works, and this one is no exception. While Lyle has long been associated with jazz, and spent a good portion of his adult life as the keyboardist in the Pat Metheny Group, he has always considered himself a composer first and foremost. Even his improvised jazz solos were devised as compositions. One hears echoes of many classical composers in his compositions as well--his influences are wide and varied.

"Eberhard" is a lengthy composition, formatted as a suite. Within the work, Lyle revisits many of his influences, summarizing all the experiences in his musical career, and combining all the best parts of his five solo recordings. It's as though he were anticipating it may be his last recording. Eberhard, of course, acknowledges legendary ECM Records bassist Eberhard Weber, who was instrumental in assisting Lyle on his first major recording date (Weber and Mays first met and recorded together on Pat Metheny's Watercolors album).

At any rate, it's a first rate composition, haunting, beautifully performed. One to add to the desert island list if you admire the work of Lyle Mays, or if you've never heard his music before, it's a fantastic entry point.

Album of the Year

1641319855126.pngNik Bärtsch

Nik Bärtsch surprised me this year with a new release--I had expected Bärtsch to present us an album with either his Ronin or Mobile (MO-bee-lay...this is Swiss, after all) ensembles. Instead, he released his first solo piano recording since 2002's Hishiryo. On Entendre, Bärtsch revisits past works, framing them in a new context. For those not familiar, Bartsch does not compose songs, but presents his pieces as "moduls," which in the grand scheme of things are more like blueprints for musical themes, rhythms and ideas. This allows Bärtsch to reinterpret past moduls as he did on Entendre, or combine them with other moduls as he's done on past albums with his other groups. Having heard these moduls in their ensemble settings, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Entendre surpassed my expectations. The tour-de-force "Modul 58" from Awase translated into a flurry of notes, followed by a sparse, calm section.

Given the slim pickings of notable new releases this year, this one rose to the top of my list. Bärtsch's music can take a little effort to understand but like his other recordings, multiple listenings reveal layers and surprises. Another fascinating album from this Switzerland-based artist.

Honorable Mention, Album of the Year

1641319802296.pngBéla Bartók: Orchestral Works
(Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta; Concerto for Orchestra)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki conducting

There are more brisk renditions of these two works, my favorites being those conducted by Fritz Reiner for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the RCA Red Seal label (both immaculately reissued on vinyl by Classic Records and Analogue Productions). With this new recording, the conductor gives a unique interpretation, often changing up the tempo to highlight certain segments. The recording quality is immaculate. A fine release from the Bis label.

Honorable Mention, Album of the Year

1641319777127.pngLady Blackbird
Black Acid Soul

This album came out of left field for me. While Lady Blackbird had a minor single in "Boomerang" several years ago (billed as Marley Monroe), this album, her first, is a stunner. The backing music is sparse, and her vocal styling to my ears resembles Sade, with hints of other greats like Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, among others. A great late-night album, the tracks feature many cover versions of tunes. The surprise to me was the track "Fix It," which adds vocals to the Bill Evans (pianist) tune "Peace Piece," giving it a haunting yet uplifting mood. Other covers include Nina Simone's "Blackbird," Tim Hardin's "It'll Never Happen Again," Allen Toussaint's "Ruler of My Heart," "Collage" by Joe Walsh, and the single from the album "It's Not That Easy" which is a revival of a 1967 recording by Reuben Bell with The Casanovas.

A good, late-night-by-the-fire album. And a promising debut from Lady Blackbird.

Honorable Mention, Album of the Year

Mixed Up

This album might just win my best album cover award for 2021! 2020 marked the release of Straight Round, the first recording of new material by Four80East since 2015's Positraction. 2021 was a year of marking time during the pandemic with a total of three releases, one of them being their first live recording, and the other their first compilation, Cherry Picked. Mixed Up features house/dub remixes of their tunes; Rob DeBoer and Tony Grace are no stranger to remixes, having made many as the Boomtang Boys for popular Canadian artists over the years. It's an enjoyable revisiting of some of their past works, and who better to remix these tunes?

Stepping Back: Music I Discovered This Year

(My summary of albums, artists and/or bands I explored in 2021.)

1641319739648.pngThe most noteworthy composer/musician I explored this year was the music of Joao Donato. I had seen his name credited in many places, heard many of his compositions, yet never looked more fully into his work. Donato has led a busy life. Many of his compositions became Brazilian standards. He was also noted for piano and trombone--he played the latter in one of Eddie Palmieri's earliest bands, La Perfecta. He's performed as a sideman on countless albums, and has had many more under his own name. For an early look at Donato's recordings, the two-fer CD, A Bossa Muito Moderna/Muito a Vontade, is a winner. It is a Brazilian jazz trio format, and introduces a handful of tunes that others would cover. Another early record is The New Sound of Brazil for RCA--a lush, warm recording with strings by Claus Ogerman.

Luiz Eça & Cordas was an album I discovered after rereading the Ruy Castro book Bossa Nova. There was a hole in the early Tamba Trio catalog, and this was the reason. The album, briefly released digitally in Japan, features the rest of the Tamba Trio, but the album is completely instrumental, and the strings were arranged by the classically-trained Eça, whose piano of course is front and center. Worth owning if you can find a copy! This album was also released as Imagem on the Philips label in Japan with an alternate cover. I also managed to find a couple of the early 70s Tamba Trio releases that were only available as import CDs.

2021 also rekindled my interest in Pete Jolly's recordings, and I discovered a handful I had never seen available before, such as the Eight Brothers recording with Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank, and The Five featuring Jolly with the Conte Candoli Quintet. Jolly's earliest albums for RCA were finally found as well--Jolly Jumps In, and Duo, Trio, Quartet. For Ava, Jolly's hit album Little Bird and its follow-up Sweet September were also noteworthy additions.

Finally, 2021 was the year I completed my A&M/CTi Records collection. Some good, some just average, but it's an interesting ride from the first album to the last. And it leaves wide open the opportunity to explore CTi beyond A&M, which I have already been doing throughout the year.

Disappointment of the Year

Unfortunately, as much as I'm a fan of Donald Fagen and Steely Dan, the two live releases this year just seemed like they were treading water. The music, of course, is unquestionable, and The Nightfly has become a modern-day classic. Yet the by-the-numbers live performances, while competently played, don't break any new ground. What really could have spiced up a live Steely Dan album would have been the inclusion of the rare tracks that we've heard on many bootleg demos for decades now, like "The Second Arrangement," "This All Too Mobile Home," and a handful of others. A lost opportunity. But, those only sell albums to the most rabid of fans, where typical music buyers want only the hits. It's not like these albums are bad by any means--you can't fault the crack Steely Dan Band for their top caliber execution of the catalog. But these aren't albums I would want to return to anytime soon. Like most live recordings, they leave me longing for the studio originals and by and large, are retreads of the studio recordings or live versions we've already heard for decades now.
What are your musical highlights of 2021? Let us know in the comments below!
There were three big releases in my world of popular music in 2021, they were Richard Carpenter's PIANO SONGBOOK, Herb Alpert's CATCH THE WIND, and ABBA's VOYAGE.

RIchard Carpenters PIANO SONGBOOK was released in Japan - not yet here, so most will hear it in 2022. It's a pleasant listen, but, as I described it, it's as if you invited Richard to play some Carpenters songs for your dinner party. Nothing loud and obnoxious - more background music.

Herb Alpert treated is to yet another in his ever elongating string of post-2000 releases with CATCH THE WIND. This one is more memorable than some of the other ones, and makes for a good listen. I enjoy this one.

Rumors of a new ABBA recording surfaced a few years ago and while they were figuring out the technology of the live "ABBAtars", they actually managed to flesh out a full album. Two songs were released as early singles, "I Still Have Faith In You" and "Don't Shut Me Down". Fans seemed to grab onto "Don't Shut Me Down" as the better of the two early on, but more and more, the first one has ear-wormed its way into a lot of brains. The album is a decent latter-day attempt at a new ABBA album, and the thing sold like wildfire, topping a lot of charts in a lot of countries. Like other recent albums, it was available in multiple formats and colored vinyl, along with different covers on CDs. I found myself purchasing a standard CD on the ABBA website, and then picking up an alternate cover version at the local Target store.

All of these are fine and dandy, but one (actually two) releases really tickled my fancy. I've long had a thing for soundtrack music, and an outfit called La-La Land Records specializes in the more esoteric of soundtracks. In 2021, my sentimental favorite old television show from 1966-1967 got a total release of its soundtrack through this company. THE TIME TUNNEL was a sci-fi adventure series about a couple of scientists hurled about in time from week to week. It was an Irwin Allen production, and like all of his shows, it started really great and went steadily downhill as budgets were downsized. Back then, TV series got 30 or so episodes per season, and THE TIME TUNNEL was no exception. The theme song and pilot score was written and conducted by "Johnny" Williams, well-known later in his career as John Williams, probably the best-known composer of some of the finest film music ever written, like STAR WARS, JAWS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SUPERMAN, etc. 12 of the episodes of THE TIME TUNNEL got full, newly-written scores, and all are present on the two releases from La-La Land records. Naturally, unless you know the series, there'd be little to grab onto, unless you like soundtrack music to something you've never seen. For me, it was a lifelong wait for this, and is a release that I cherish.

1641324863854.png 1641324928299.png
Naturally, unless you know the series, there'd be little to grab onto, unless you like soundtrack music to something you've never seen.
I may be guilty of this also--I listened to many soundtrack albums for decades before seeing the films they were written for. 😁
Harry, do you own the Time Tunnel DVD Boxed sets? On one of them a "reboot" with a new Time Tunnel pilot episode is featured. It's as different from the original, yet pays homage in the same way the Battlestar Galactica reboot does with the original Battlestar Galactica. Where the original Time Tunnel was as much a history lesson disguised as action adventure, this "reboot" explored the paradox aspects of time travel to an extent that was slightly touched on in the series Sliders and to a greater extent in the recent Timeless TV series.

(Yeah, time travel and alternate history are probably my favorite sub-categories of science fiction).

--Mr Bill
Yes, not only do I own both of THE TIME TUNNEL sets on DVD, I also own the Blu-ray from the UK. It was made Region Free, so it plays just fine on US Blu-ray players. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray sets offer that 2002 pilot that FOX was interested in airing. Ironically, the powers that be thought that pilot was too similar to SLIDERS and didn't pick it up.

The Blu-ray set has one oddity, probably due to PAL conversions. The non high-def stuff - like that pilot and a TV movie and other extras that are still in SD, all have oddities about their timing. One runs too slow, one runs too fast, and one just looks really bad - worse than my DVD sets.
I really wish that Time Tunnel was picked up as a series. Not only was Sliders thought to be too similar, Fox went with Joss Whedon's Firefly as their SF series of choice for that season. I love Firefly, but I think both shows could've been picked up (if not for the probable expense they likely would've incurred with the network) and would've made a great Friday night two-hour SF programming block... Fox already balked at Firefly's budget and did a piss poor job of promoting it, including running episodes out of order, much to Whedon's chagrin. While he vowed he'd never do another show for Fox again his series Dollhouse followed a few years later.... So much keeping your vows, LoL!
My own Top Ten favorite albums of the year were:
10) Gold Diggers Sound, Leon Bridges [who's sadly still yet to even so much as score a Hot 100 hit from any of his albums but has put out several of my favorite R&B songs of the last decade, especially "If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)" (how that one failed to become a pop hit is beyond me)]
9) Voyage, Abba [amazing how good they still sound even a forty-year hiatus!]
8) Sob Rock, John Mayer [my favorite album he's made since Battle Studies]
7) Insolo, Gary Kemp [a rare solo outing from the guitarist and songwriter for Spandau Ballet; the lead-off single "Ahead of the Game" was without a doubt my favorite song of the year; the man can still write an amazing pop song]
6) 30, Adele [quite possibly her best album yet; I definitely prefer it over her last album, which just felt too ballad-heavy for my own tastes]
5) Music of the Spheres, Coldplay [my favorite album they've done in at least eight years]
4) Fatal Mistakes, Del Amitri [a delightfully unexpected reunion album from one of my all-time favorite bands - and a former A&M act, I might add! - and their first album since 2002]
3) Gestureland, David Duchovny [always liked him as an actor but had no idea until a few months ago that he moonlights as a recording artist; a surprisingly good album!]
2) Dreamers Are Waiting, Crowded House [their first album in eleven years and my favorite album of theirs since at least Time on Earth and possibly even Woodface; interestingly enough, their longtime producer Mitchell Froom is now an officially credited full member of the band]
1) An Evening with SilkSonic, SilkSonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak) [a very fun listen for '70s R&B/soul buffs]
10) Gold Diggers Sound, Leon Bridges [who's sadly still yet to even so much as score a Hot 100 hit from any of his albums but has put out several of my favorite R&B songs of the last decade, especially "If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)" (how that one failed to become a pop hit is beyond me)]
I think I saw that one but forgot to give it a play when it came out. I have his earlier album Coming Home and really liked the old-school vibe he had on those tunes. Of all places, the tune "Smooth Sailing" came up on my 70s soul channel on Pandora, and that got me hooked on it.
I'm going to have to bow out of this one -- I don't think I bought any new releases on 2021 (not even Herb's newest one yet). Most of the year I spent listening to selections from my own collection that were released long ago...

--Mr Bill
One thing I credit my Qobuz account for is that I am able to preview albums before I decide to buy them, whether it's on vinyl, CD or download. I've sampled a few that had good reviews but, I just didn't care for them. Others like the Black Acid Soul album kept popping up in recommendations, and when I finally gave in and listened, it was a stunner. Even reissues grab my attention--it's good to be able to hear them and compare to past versions to see if I should upgrade, or keep what I have. And it has helped me discover classic recordings I never knew existed.

I can't really say it has saved me money. But it has redirected money towards buying music I really want to own, vs. taking numerous chances and more often than not, being disappointed.
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