Last week, Local Spins writers piped in with their “best of” lists for 2021. Today, some West Michigan musicians and Local Spins readers reveal their favorite releases and concerts, from Allison Russell, Nigel Hall and Jon Batiste to Billy Strings, Stratos and Michigan Rattlers.
Year-end “best of” lists are fertile ground for musical discovery, partly because no one can listen to EVERYTHING over the course of 12 months — Spotify, YouTube and Soundcloud be damned.
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West Michigan's music scene
Last week, Local Spins kicked off this annual journey of exploration with our writers revealing the albums, songs and concerts that most captivated them in 2021.
Today, it’s musicians’ and readers’ turn.
We asked a handful of West Michigan musicians for their picks of best songs, albums and concerts, and they responded with eclectic rosters of releases covering a mind-boggling swath of genres and styles. Same goes for readers who offered up their picks via Facebook, email and online comments.
Browse this wondrous array as we close out the final week of 2021.
BEST MUSIC OF 2021: THE MUSICIANS’ PICKSDUTCHER SNEDEKER (Keyboardist for Earth Radio, Normal Mode, Mark Lavengood; Local Spins writer)
1. Nigel Hall, “Spiritual” – This album rarely left my listening rotation this year and it is made of the stuff I love in a tasty album: soulful vibes, a blend of black american music styles, stellar musicians (Nigel Hall’s studio band was Butcher Brown + awesome guests like Jeff Coffin, Marcus King, & Patrice Rushen), and solid songwriting! Everybody shines bright on this record and it’s hard to ignore their light in these dark times. The tune I picked is Nigel’s fun arrangement of a Greg Philliganes tune featuring the talented keyboardist and songwriter, Patrice Rushen!
2. Esperanza Spalding, “Songwriters Apothecary Lab” – From the lab’s website: “All Formwelas (songs) from the S.A.L. are created through our research, divination, intuition, musicianship, taste, inspiration, and collaborative effort to design songs that enhance a specific salutary affect.” It’s a beautiful record that delights in intimate storytelling while also exploring more freeing aspects of improvisatory and expressive music-making from such high performing creatives pairing with Esperanza’s masterful blending of healing, storytelling, improvisation, and diverse musical vocabularies. I picked an intimate track to showcase that I’m currently learning!
3. Andris Mattson, “North” – I was already excited for this release because it’s a solo venture from one of the talented folks who collaborates in Moonchild, but the warmth, soul, and production on this record kept me coming back. I even started figuring out the track I shared below, and it is a healing thing to explore in these colder months.
4. Mirrors, “Mirrors” – This was an album I knew I’d enjoy, but didn’t think I’d come back to right away, but this collaborative venture showcases the talents of a few — Justin Stanton, Gisela João, Michael League, Louis Cato and Becca Stevens — under one directive: Each member had to co-write a song for the record with the other. The result is a delightful blend of styles, production, and musicianship that cements why folks in this project are in-demand touring and studio artists. Go ahead, Google the names, and you’ll see projects ranging from Snarky Puppy to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
5. Cory Henry, “Best of Me” – This was a go-to for me this year for pre/post gig music, whether it was played through the PA or in the car ride home. Its Grammy-winning, hyper-talented musician crafts an album where he plays every instrument, showcasing his diverse knowledge of keyboards, songwriting, and skillful mastery of music. It’s groovy, soulful and filled with a lot of cool sounds and moments that tickle my fancy as a keyboardist!
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Mother” by Cleo Sol, “In Plain Sight” by Neal Francis, “Basquiat & Skittles” by MonoNeon, “Kinfolk 2: See The Birds” by Nate Smith, “Outside World 2” by Logan Kane and Henry Solomon (with tons of great collaborators), “Eatsleeprepeatsleep” by Max Ox, “Mood Valiant” by Hiatus Kaiyote, “Dawn” by Yebba, “An Evening with Silk Sonic” by Silk Sonic
FAVORITE CONCERT: Marc Rebellit in Royal Oak, Sept. 9 – So this was tricky, because the only two concerts I saw were this one and my friends in Dandu opening up for the Louis Cole Big Band, so I had to also mention that one. I picked this concert because it was my first concert back as an attendee, and I watched as a packed Royal Oak Theatre went out of their minds with excitement over a set where nothing was planned. If you’re unfamiliar with Marc Rebellit, he performs on keys and sings using a loop station to craft songs and experiences on the fly. He’s part DJ, hype man for life, part talented artist, and part curator of an audience, pulling members and ideas directly from concert goers on stage. It was a beautiful reminder of the shared community around live music experiences and a hope for more of these experiences to come back again.
SERITA CROWLEY (Serita’s Black Rose)
1. Jon Batiste, “We Are” – Probably our favorite of all this year. Original style is awesome. Definitely one of our favorites and inspirations – him and Eric Gales. Absolutely what’s up for 2021.
2. Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars & Anderson.Paak), “An Evening With Silk Sonic” – Great old-school soul sound!
3. Billy Strings, “Renewal” – Of course, Billy Strings as our local awesomeness.
And of course Serita’s Black Rose – Grand Rapids’ own holding it down, working hard at what we do! Look out for much anticipated fabulous and exciting things coming your way to sparkle smiles and fill hearts with love everywhere soon.
THE ACCIDENTALS (Traverse City/Nashville alt-folk band)
1. Allison Russell, “Outside Child” – Allison is a brilliant musician and person, and she deserves 100 percent of the success and acclaim this record is getting. Hailing from the self-described “secular gospel” band Birds of Chicago, her solo project is such a beautiful and diverse departure from almost every mainstream genre, while somehow impressively maintaining all the good familiarity of a classic album. It has the easy listening of Brittany Howard’s work with Alabama Shakes, with all the nostalgia of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “Montreal” has a noir, yearning vibe, while “Nightflyer” has the folk bluesy momentum of a late-night train rolling through the countryside and goosebump-inducing lines like “I’m the sick light of a hurricane’s eye / I’m a violent lullaby.” This album is up for a Grammy this year, and deservedly so. Fans of Traverse City power songwriter May Erlewine will love it.
2. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, “A Beginner’s Mind” – This album perfectly represents what has always been wonderful about Sufjan’s music: gentle, patient songs that unfold into lush soundscapes while maintaining interesting lyricism and melody. The collaboration with Angelo De Augustine on this record is perfect. The two songwriters complement each other so well that sometimes it’s hard to tell who is singing or playing at any given time. Not to mention, some of our favorite bass lines of the year live on tracks like “Back to Oz” and “Lady MacBeth in Chains.” It’s an album that you can relax into very easily. Fans of Ypsilanti indie-folk musician Chris Dupont should definitely check it out.
3. Hiatus Kaiyote, “Mood Valiant” – This band emerged from a long, well, hiatus, to release a record so beautiful and vibrant, it’s like standing in the middle of a Studio Ghibli backdrop. On songs like “Sip Into Something Soft,” keys sparkle and arpeggiate like harp strings; the drum loops stagger and stumble like a lovesick couple through a late-night park strung up with Christmas lights; even the strings have the sonic energy of a black-and-white Hallmark movie (in the best way). “Chivalry Is Not Dead” has such a deep-pocket groove and enthralling bassline on the drop, you can’t help but squeeze your eyes shut and bob your head and vibe with it. This album is like a venus flytrap to anyone who loves the thriving progressive jazz-funk fusion genre, with its modulations and intelligent musicianship that define artists like Jacob Collier and KNOWER. If you’re a fan of Grand Rapids future soul act Earth Radio, you’ll dig this record. It’s sonically gorgeous.
4. Orla Gartland, “Woman on the Internet” – On our “Vessel” album-release tour, we had Grand Rapids multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter Patty PerShayla helping fill out the sound on vocals, electric guitar, bass, ukulele and even octave mandolin. A lot of the van rides had us swapping music and sharing playlists, and this pick was Patty-inspired. If My Brightest Diamond and Fiona Apple collaborated, it would sound like this album. With ear-catching percussion time signature changes, hooky refrains and subtle electronic elements interweaving with prominent piano, the sonic texture of this record is like a neon-colored quilt of minimalist pop. Wrap it around you: It’ll keep you warm and happy in these long winter months. If you like Patty PerShayla’s music, you’ll dig this. You can definitely hear Patty in these lyrics and vocals.
5. IDLES, “Crawler” – This album is not for everyone. I’m sure people will listen to this record and think, “The Accidentals listen to this?!” Somehow they have managed to be a mutual favorite among the three of us. This music is really good for late night drives (of which we do a lot), dancing alone in your living room at the end of a very difficult day, or, as I described to Michael (much to his amusement), “easy-listening punk rock do to the dishes to.” Though they claim not to be a punk band, lines like “Yeah, I’m a f*&king crawler / Crawling hurts, but it works for me” and feminist and anti-fascist messages on previous records scream and rave for change in a way that feels very trademark punk. Also, Kenny Beats produced this record, which is just kinda one of those “parallel universe” moments, and it works. Out of the substance abuse and motorcycle wrecks that lead singer Joe Talbot writes about on this latest IDLES record, he does reach a conclusion that really resonated with us: “In spite of it all / life is beautiful.”
FAVORITE CONCERTS: SAV – Arcadian Wild, Dawson Hollow, Good Morning Bedlam and The Accidentals, Roots Festival at The Venue, Aurora, Ill., Aug. 28 – First of all, our friends Good Morning Bedlam, who hail from Minneapolis, rocked out the beginning of the night with their trio of acoustic guitar, upright bass and violin coming together to create theatrical, beautiful and sometimes angry pirate-folk music that said “Avett Brothers” at some moments, “Punch Brothers” in others, all while maintaining that sparkly three-part harmony they’re so known for. Then Dawson Hollow took the stage, a five-piece family band of disgustingly talented siblings from the Ozark Mountains. Each of them switches instruments and sings vocals on music that’s hard to pin down. They put on a hell of a show; so fun to watch. After our rock-out night-time set, Nashville trio Arcadian Wild quietly took the stage and had the whole audience hanging on every single word. It’s hard to believe so much sound can come out of acoustic guitar, violin and mandolin, but they’re so dang coordinated. They evoked the same emotion you might get watching a ballet routine: You know how hard it is to do what they’re doing, and yet they make it look as effortless as water. They capped off their performance with a three-movement instrumental concept piece that had everyone silent and speechless under a canopy of string lights, huddled outside on a warm summer night in Illinois. Bravo to this lineup. Bravo to these bands. This was a night where I felt like I could shake off some of the weight from the last two years and feel truly happy.
MICHAEL – Seth Bernard and Jordan Hamilton at Camp Blodgett, West Olive, July 31 – Seth and Jordan have such a smooth way of playing off each other when they perform live together. They opened their set with an immense ambient piece — a sonic wall that blended the crowd into a blissful equilibrium and stayed there for most of the set. Toward the end of the night, the power blew on stage, so Seth and Jordan (joined at this point by Mark Lavengood) played the rest of the set unplugged with everyone on the hillside having to come in close to hear. It was a very fluid show to watch and was wonderful to hear renditions of songs from Seth and Jordan’s most recent releases.
KATIE – The Sound Garden at Bayview Music Festival, Petoskey, July 30 – I’d never seen a classical ensemble perform like this before. It’s hard to beat a summer evening in Michigan. The air was drifting in through the open windows of the historic auditorium, and standing alone onstage the french horn player began the concert with a single, sustained note. One by one the other members of the quintet gently layered clarinet, flute, oboe and bassoon as they emerged from each corner of the audience. The acoustics of the instruments wrapped around the audience like a hug, we were laser-focused on what would come next. I was waiting to see if they’d sit down but they performed the whole concert on their feet, engaging each other, the audience and their music with a rebellious joyful energy.
MARK BLAAUW-HARA (Frontman for Boyne City/Petoskey’s The Lonely Lovers)
1. Jackson+Sellers, “Breaking Point” – Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers have put out an album that’s equally replete with dirty guitars and clean vocal harmonies. This is 100 percent Americana, but it sounds fresh and bold.
2. Brandi Carlile, “In These Silent Days” – Carlile is one of music’s treasures, and every album she releases is a gift.
3. Mo Kenney, “Slow Death” (song from “Covers”) – this album is a little spotty, but this song is perfect. Turn it up loud when you’re driving at night.
4. Graham Wright, “Bridget” (song from “The Cost of Doing Business”) – Wright is a member of the Toronto band Tokyo Police Club and his solo album has some standout tracks, including this one. Poignant and personal.
BEST LOCAL/REGIONAL RELEASE: Michigan Rattlers, “That Kind of Life” – Outstanding songs that are populated by hard-bitten characters with real desires and regrets. The songwriting never feels forced, but rather, as each verse unfolds, it feels like it’s the only way it could have happened. The production on this album is also perfect for the content.
MICHAEL CRITTENDEN (Troll for Trout frontman, owner of Mackinaw Harvest Studios)
Local/Regional Album of the Year: “Vessel,” The Accidentals – Hardest-working and motivated band from our area. These guys are on the verge of becoming a household name worldwide!
Local/Regional Song of the Year: “Welcome Back,” The Accidentals with Ralston Bowles – This song was written by Savannah Buist and Ralston Bowles and recorded specifically for The Accidentals’ Meijer Gardens show in July – the first of the Gardens’ live shows since COVID shut everything down. It’s got a great warm and welcoming message and feel.
JOHN PIATEK (Traverse City singer-songwriter)
1. Dwaal Troupe, “Lucky Dog” – Emerging from the Chicago-based Hallogallo collective of musicians and artists, Dwaal Troupe’s second “proper” album finds the lo-fi power pop band exploding with energy and emotion.
2. Ohtis, “Schatze” – This single collaboration with Detroit’s Stef Chura is an absolute blast to play on repeat, on repeat, on repeat. I hope we get a full album from Ohtis with the pounding momentum of this standout single.
3. Monogamy, “Tonight Looks Bad” – Monogamy’s lo-fi fusion of soundscapes and pop really hits its stride on track 2, “Low Morale.”
4. Horsegirl, “Billy” – Each single coming from Chicago’s Horsegirl shows the trio gaining confidence in their shoegazy pop sound. Their debut album can’t come soon enough.
5. Lifeguard, “Taking Radar” – Another young Chicago group to keep your eyes and ears on. Lifeguard plays around with noise and dissonance to create a haunting and roaring single. I can’t wait to see what this group does next.
JEFF SOCIA (Traverse City singer-songwriter)
1. Steve Earle, “J.T.” – A tragic celebration of life (of his son, Justin Townes Earle).
2. Lucas Powell, “Michigan” – Front to back, a great collection of songs.
3. Gary Louris, “Jump for Joy” – A solid release from the leader of The Jayhawks. Delayed by COVID, it was worth the wait.
4. Brandi Carlile, “In These Silent Days” – “You and Me on the Rock” is a standout here.
5. Legal Matters, “Chapter 3” – Great songwriting. Outstanding musicianship. It delivers.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Jason Eady, “To the Passage of Time”; The Verve Pipe, “Threads”; Toad the Wet Sprocket, “Starting Now”
FAVORITE CONCERT: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Brittney Spencer, Aug. 26, DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids
JUSTIN AVDEK (Earth Radio, Eric Engblade)
1. Moses Sumney, “Blackalachia”– I always wonder why Moses isn’t the king of the pop music world. Maybe because he is pushing the envelope for the next generation. “Blackalachia” is a compilation of his past songs most off of the masterful, “Grae” in which he reimagines them and records them in the woods or on a mountainside. His songwriting and all encompassing artistic virtuosity is unprecendented, and everytime I watch or listen I want to create. Inspiration on a dime. https://youtu.be/LX47qMIw_2o
2. Nigel Hall, “Spiritual”- As trends tend to be cyclic, they come back around in a drab and predictable way. I’ve heard it quite a bit with artists trying to recreate the 70s soul sound. “Spiritual” does it in a hip, modern way that if your head isn’t bobbing your heart isn’t beating.
3. Black Midi, “Cavalcade” – Strap on your helmet boys and girls. I have always been one to take on originality before an ear-pleasing melody. Reminiscent of a Mr. Bungle jaunt, “Cavalcade” is piece of art that is not for everyone, maybe not for anyone, and that’s why I can’t stop listening.
4. Hiatus Kaiyote,”Mood Valiant”– Brilliance. Textural avalanches to put out the mundane music fire. Colors to fill up the blank canvas that has been modern music. In love with the simple, mantra driven lyricism.
5. Moor Mother, “Black Encyclopedia Of The Air”– Initally brought in by arguably the best album cover I’ve ever seen. The blend of experimental beats, sounds, and poetry has brought some originality to a familiar mix-tape style hip-hop record. So hip it hurts.
Local Release- Eli Kahn, “How Are You? No, Really… How Are You?”– So technically not “local” But Eli has been invested in the West Michigan music community for a while now, so he feels as local as any. This recording is a serene scene flowing through a multi-instrumentalist that could bring someone down from the red and make them close their eyes and move their head from side-to-side. You know what I mean. “That feel good.”
Best Concert- Hands down Erykah Badu with Thundercat – Yikes. Erykah is a master of her craft. Having each and every person in the crowd in the palm of her hand. Having her band play a hypnotizing groove for 15 minutes before she even came out. You could know every inch of her catalog and still have the constant element of surprise. Although Sterling Heights turned the sound off on her because of sound curfew. That being maybe the biggest surprise.
BEST MUSIC OF 2021: THE READERS’ PICKS — CLICK HERE
BEST CONCERTS OF 2021: THE READERS’ PICKS
Jack Clark – Lord Huron, Moon River Music Festival, Chattanooga
Steve Sly – I am going to go with The Strutts at The Intersection. Still hard to believe these guys are not playing bigger places. Honorable mention, Squeeze at Meijer Gardens which was my first post-pandemic show. Lindsey Buckingham at Four Winds, Genesis in Detroit, The Allman Family Revival in Ann Arbor, Judas Priest / Sabaton at Van Andel, James Taylor / Jackson Browne at Van Andel were all good ones too.
Andy O’Riley – Genesis. Limited choices tho.
Isaac Powrie – Phish, night one at Deer Creek
Greg S. Lewis – Ani DiFranco @ Meijer Gardens
Karen Dunnam – Jazz in the Park, Kanola Band who invited me to sit in on “Iko Iko.” I’d been dancing around with a Mardi Gras parasol, so when I shouldered the fat horn, their tuba player, Chance Huiet picked up the umbrella and took over the choreography.
Chris Meyer – Upheaval Festival was special; Breakaway Music Festival set its own bar even higher this year.
Jake Perez – I went to one show this year, so that must be the one: Greensky @ Shagbark Farm, Sunday night.
Angie Chase – The best show I attended was Hyryder // MeSo // Biomassive // and More – Jedi Cookout 2021. Look out for Jedi Cookout -Episode II in 2022!
Kikki Lone – Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange), Bonny Light Horseman and The Milk Carton Kids at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. Also, The Milk Carton Kids at St. Cecilia Music Center.
Sara Tea – Leon Bridges
David Kuzma – Went to one show: Robbie Fulks at Listening Room. Always excellent.
Debbie Young – Billy Strings!
Cris Bradley – Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
Rhonda Drews – Smiling Acres Music Festival
Rich Houtteman – Jason Isbell
Christina Louise – Billy Strings at Hoxeyville Music Festival
Raven Adams – Billy Strings’ Halloween show
Ben Taylor – Spafford.
Mike Mullins – BMFS at Hoxeyville 2021
Jill Wylie Wenger – Benzing Graves Collective
Vicki Stein – Indigo Girls, Frederik Meijer Gardens, 9/13
Dean Roelofs – HomeFest 2021 Makin Bliss, featuring Bruce Vanderkooi, Jonathan Beaver, Stacy Slikkers Noonan, Nicholas James Thomasma, Red Herring, Cole Hansen, Drew Nelson, and headliner Desmond Jones. Best music day of the year for me, off the beaten path for most. Front yard seat for me.
Stacy Slikkers Noonan – I just can’t pick only one, because there was also Tamarack Creek Soap & Gifts , Forest Trail Music Festival , Farmfest – Michigan , GSBG Cowpie Music Festival farm, and Hippie Fest. Loved them all!
Nicholas James Thomasma – The Camp Blodgett 100-year celebration was fantastic. Especially that set from Jordan Hamilton and Seth Bernard. So good! Best concert of the year? Hoxeyville Music Festival. Hands down.
Scott Steiner – Eleventh Dream Day at the Storehouse in Galien outside in the middle of nowhere with about 50 other vaccinated masked EDD fans who did not talk while the band played.
Chad Michael Wedeven – Smiling Acres Festival was a huge first year success. And the Go Rounds’ two farewell shows this weekend were epic. Otherwise, it’s mostly been the Listening Room: Alison Russell, Los Lobos, Loudon Wainwright III, Cameron Blake, and The Verve Pipe’s new album/request show.
Dan Lynn – The last Farmfest was pretty awesome!
Michael Grosvenor – Mine were this past weekend and the only two shows I saw this year: Metallica’s 40th Anniversary shows in San Francisco – two nights, 36 songs, not a single repeat, classics, deep cuts, and one song making its live debut. It was a GREAT weekend!
Tom VanHammen – Drew Nelson and Mark R. Schrock in our front yard, The Schrock Brothers outside in Fennville, Code West in the park in Saugatuck, and The Strapping Owls at the Goose Festival in Fennville.
Tom Slendebroek – Did not go out that much but saw Todd Rundgren for a great night of greatest hits and Kathy Lamar at GLC twice in October.
John Harvey – Tamarack music fest
Lee Chase – Robbie Fulks at the Listening Room
Craig Carrick – Joshua Davis in a private outdoor show in Northeast Michigan.
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