Country music (for those who want to call it such nowadays) is among the mot popular of genres across the musical universe. From radio to television, it seems like it is inescapable. Just look at how many so-called country musicians get onto all of the karaoke contests across all of the TV networks. Look at all of the pomp and circumstance around all of the country music awards shows on television. While country music gets so much attention, sadly its brethren (of sorts) in the realms of bluegrass, Americana and folk get far less attention and credit from the mainstream. This is the case despite the reality that all of the genres are so tightly interwoven. That is why each year, Phil’s Picks has put them all together into one year-end list honoring the best of all four of those genres, which are all really part of one bigger family of music.
This year has seen plenty of notable releases from across those genres, too. Case in point is Delta Rae’s latest album, The Dark. This group, originally from Durham, North Carolina, has walked that blurred line of country and Americana so well over the years and continues to do so to this day, and its new record proves that so well. Bela Fleck’s latest album, My Bluegrass Heart, is unquestionably among the best of the year’s new bluegrass albums, on another hand. Ronnie Milsap also returned with a great new, pure country music record in the form of A Better Word For Love, showing that thankfully, real country music is not dead yet. Even Alan Jackson – another pure country artist – thankfully released new material this year that is noteworthy in the form of Where Have You Gone. The record is another nice reminder that there is still hope for real country in a sea that is so awash in pop music that masquerades as country. All of these records and more are part of Phil’s Picks’ 2021 Top 10 New Country/Bluegrass/Americana/Folk Albums list.
As with each list done annually, it consists of the year’s Top 10 New titles, plus five additional honorable mention titles. That brings the total to 15, yes, but the title remains, Top 10. Those honorable mention titles just deserve their own special recognition.
Without any further ado, here for your consideration is Phil’s Picks’ 2021 Top 10 New Country/Bluegrass/Folk/Americana Albums list.
PHIL’S PICKS 2021 TOP 10 NEW COUNTRY/BLUEGRASS/FOLK/AMERICANA ALBUMS
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band – Leftover Feelings
Delta Rae – The Dark
David Crosby – For Free
Bela Fleck – By Bluegrass Heart
Ronnie Milsap – A Better Word for Love
Stoney Creek Bluegrass Band – A Miner’s Life
Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – The Future
Langhorne Slim – Strawberry Mansion
Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia
Valerie June — The Moon and the Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof
The Felice Brothers – From Dreams to Dust
Son Volt – Electro Melodier
Rick Faris – The Next Mountain
That’s all for this year’s list of top new Country/Bluegrass/Americana/Folk records. It is still not the end of this year’s top new music lists, though. Still on tap are lists for the year’s top new rock and hard rock/metal albums, new live CDs, and the year’s top new albums overall. That is all on the way, so stay tuned!
Valerie June has remained over the course of her past three albums, one of the most unique singer-songwriters in the music industry. Her latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers further cements that reputation. Originally scheduled for release in January, that date was pushed back to Friday. Much as with her existing catalog, this 44-minute presentation stands out because of its combined musical and lyrical content. The musical arrangement blend elements of folk, soul, and R&B for a whole that itself, ensures listeners’ engagement and entertainment. The lyrical themes are deep, heartfelt presentations that will touch listeners at the same time. Collectively, that content makes for so much to like. ‘Smile’ is just one example of how much the record’s content has to offer. It will be discussed shortly. ‘You and I,’ which comes early in the album’s run, does its own part to make the album in whole so powerful. It will be discussed a little later. ‘Why The Bright Stars Glow,’ another late entry to the album, is yet another example of what makes Valerie June’s new album stand out. It will also be discussed later. When it is considered along with the other songs noted here and the rest of the album’s songs, that whole makes June’s new album one of the year’s best overall works.
Valerie June’s new album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers stands out among this year’s field of new albums just as much as its predecessors. It is a record that easily holds its own against this year’s current field of new albums. That is proven in part through the late entry, ‘Smile.’ This song stands out in part because of its musical arrangement. The arrangement in question blends elements of soul and funk, with its bass line and occasional horns, with a more neo-folk style approach and sound what with the use of the Hammond organ, strings, and piano. That collective blends together so well, thanks to those behind the glass, and makes the overall arrangement so infectious. It is a radio-ready composition that is certain to become a fan favorite. The arrangement is just one part of what makes the song stand out. Its lyrical accompaniment adds its own share of appeal to the song.
The lyrical theme featured in ‘Smile’ does quite well to translate the positive vibes established in the song’s title. June even recently said herself of the song, ‘It’s a song of transcendence, a song of hope and possibilities and being reborn.” That message is delivered clearly as she sings in her Macy Gray-esque style, “All I could do/All I could do was smile/Life started keeping me/Getting me down/Mm, all I could do was smile/Well, I dusted off/Guess I’ll get back up/It was worth the fall/When the times got tough/There’s a risk involved/Everything a cost/I’ll make it through/I’ll make it through somehow/So weathered and worn/Ever dreaming so wild/Mm, all I could do was smile.” She continues, stating, “If you never leap/Then your heart won’t know/So you take the chance/So you just let go/And you’ll get knocked down/But that’s how you grow.” There is no doubt here. June’s message is delivered clearly, and will be openly welcomed. That positive message and the equally positive vibes generated through the song’s equally catchy musical arrangement makes the song in whole a wonderful example of what makes The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers such an enjoyable album. It is just one of the album’s most notable works. ‘You and I,’ which comes early in the album, is another work that exhibits the album’s strength.
The musical arrangement that opens ‘You and I’ is so unique in its own right. Its opening bars come across as something akin to a Native American chant. As the song progresses, the arrangement takes more of a neo-folk style work while still maintaining that “chanting” as a supporting element. The gentle guitar and subtle bass drum hits join with June’s vocal delivery and the tambourine to make the song stand out even more. The overall sense that the whole creates is so warm and moving thanks, again, to the song’s production. It in itself will generate so much engagement and entertainment among listeners. When the appeal created through the song’s musical arrangement pairs with the song’s equally positive lyrical theme, that whole makes the song even more appealing.
According to comments from June herself, ‘You and I’ is a song that promotes unity. “It’s a song for sharing, it’s a song for friendship, for discovery,” she said. “And for realizing that our thoughts and our intentions, when we join them together with others, that’s what’s creating the world we see. And we can’t have anything without each other.”
June’s comments are illustrated well in the song as she sings, “When the love left just a friendship/That’s when we found our greatest gift/Little distance for perspective/Gentle patience, sit reflective, oh/You and I/I hope you feel it/I hope you feel it too/Feel it too/Feel it too/You and I, you and I.” She continues in the song’s second verse and chorus refrain, “It’s to reach for something greater/Doesn’t matter now or later/I heard somebody mention/It’s the thought, it’s the intention, oh/I hope you feel it/I hope you feel it too/Feel it too/Feel it too/You and I/You and I/You and I/We wait for each other/Stronger than lovers/So much to discover/For you and I/You and I.” Listeners can understand clearly, June’s attempt to get her message of unity across here. It ensures even more, listeners’ enjoyment of ‘You and I.’ When that enjoyment is paired with the positive mood established through the song’s musical arrangement, that whole shows even more clearly why this song and the album overall are so engaging and entertaining. It is not the last of the albums most notable works, either. ‘Why The Bright Stars Shine’ is yet another example of what makes June’s new album so enjoyable.
‘Why The Bright Stars Glow’ is easily the most marketable of the songs featured in Valerie June’s new album. That is due in no small part to the song’s musical arrangement. The combination of June’s gentle vocal delivery here, the light electronic drum keeping the time, and the emotionally moving piano line makes this song such an easy fit for any Top 40 radio programmer’s playlist. It will tug at any listener’s heart strings. The addition of the subtle string arrangement adds even more appeal to the song, making it just as valid a work for any dramatic movie’s soundtrack. That emotional depth exhibited through the song’s musical arrangement is heightened through the song’s lyrical theme.
Lyrically speaking, this song comes across as one of those songs that centers on relationships. This is inferred as June sings in the song’s lead verse and chorus, “When our race is run/And the gold is won/Look how far we’ve come/Dancing in the sun/It is then I know/I can’t let you go/It is then I know/It’s not suitable/To say I/To say I, to say I/To say I/To say I/To say I.” That note in the lead verse of looking back “how far we’ve come” coupled with the statement that “It’s not suitable to say I” hints at the relationship advice that in such discussions, saying “I” is not always good, nor is pointing the finger and saying “you.” This verse paints the picture of someone who sees where things are, and realizes what she has. Thus the statement, “I can’t let you go.” June adds in the second verse, “Cause what would we do?/And where would we be?/If it’s not you/And if it’s not you and me (If it’s not you)/You and me/And if it’s not you (If it’s not you, if it’s not you, if it’s not you)/As the curtains close/On a sold-out show/Look how far we’ve come/Dancing in the sun/It is then I know/Why the bright stars glow/It is then I know/It’s impossible” Again, here is that seeming statement about that connection. Together with the statement in the song’s lead verse and the song’s overall musical arrangement, the whole becomes a work that is among this record’s highest points. When the overall song is considered along with the other songs examined here and the rest of the album’s works, the album in whole shows unquestionably that it is among this year’s top new overall albums.
Valerie June’s new album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, is a strong new effort from the established singer-songwriter. That is thanks to its musical and lyrical content alike. The record’s musical arrangements once more display June’s unique talent at composing arrangements while the lyrical content presents its own interest in how it delivers songs. Each of the songs examined here support those noted statements. When they are considered along with the rest of the album’s works, the whole of the album more than makes its case for a spot on any critic’s list of the year’s top new albums overall. The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is available now. More information on the album is available along with all of Valerie June’s latest news at: