It’s that time of year again as we approach mid-December to take a hard look back at the past 12 months and the best albums of 2021.
It’s fair to say that with little else to do or spend their money on, music fans picked up a lot of titles in 2021 and music stores sold a lot of vinyl. Consumers purchased over 20M new records in the United States alone in H1 2021. We won’t have the final 2021 numbers until late-January 2022, but it was clearly the best year for new record sales in almost 30 years.
Although I listen to music in a variety of genres, my bread and butter is jazz, so that’s where I’m going to focus my attention. There were some outstanding new releases and reissues in 2021, and I know from my Instagram feed and follows that interest in jazz music – audiophile reissues, Tone Poet remasters, previously unreleased vault finds, Record Store Day limited editions — has never been higher.
What’s the most fascinating to me is that the age of jazz listeners is dropping and that’s a very positive trend; classical music has a very different problem which isn’t good for the genre.
Favorite RSD Titles
Including the low-key Black Friday Record Store Day there were three RSD events in 2021, with the first two taking place in June and July. Read my thoughts on the RSD concept and the June event here. As a jazz fan RSD can be hit-and-miss, but I ended up taking home some stellar releases, and am glad I hit the lines early for all three. My two favorites were:
Thelonious Monk – Palo Alto (The Custodian’s Mix)
I’m not a huge Monk fan, but bought this on a whim, thinking a high school performance would be more accessible than his other stuff. I was right, and the sound quality, considering it was recorded by the school janitor, is excellent.
Kenny Dorham – Quiet Kenny (Riverside/Craft Recordings reissue)
Some controversy over this release as so few copies (3900 worldwide) were pressed. An exquisite record, beautifully remastered by Kevin Gray, and one I feel lucky to own.
Favorite Audiophile Vinyl Reissues
If you’re looking for an easy way to get better sound quality out of your stereo system, audiophile vinyl pressings are a great place to start. I wrote about audiophile reissues here, and these were my top two releases in 2021:
Shoji Yokouchi – Greensleeves (Three Blind Mice/Impex reissue)
When audiophiles speak of reference albums to show off an audio system, they’ll typically have one album for highs, another for mids, another for bass, for soundstage, for atmospherics… This one shows off everything in one. Remarkable recording from TBM, mastering by Chris Bellman, and pressing by RTI make this Impex release a must have.
The Gil Evans Orchestra – Out Of The Cool (Impulse/Acoustic Sounds reissue) (Buy at Amazon)
To help celebrate Impulse Records’ 60thAnniversary, Acoustic Sounds (parent company of Analogue Productions) remastered and reissued a slew of Impulse albums. I was never a big fan of orchestral or big-band jazz, but this one really grabbed me, and the Ryan Smith remaster sounds truly stunning. Glad I took a chance on this.
Favorite Blue Note Tone Poet Reissues
Blue Note Records has been killing it over the last couple of years with the “Tone Poet” series of classic and contemporary jazz reissues. The all-analogue, Joe Harley curated, Kevin Gray remastered series launched in 2019. Each release is mastered from the original master tapes, pressed on 180 gram audiophile vinyl at RTI and packaged in an old-style Stoughton “Tip-On” jacket. Mitch Anderson and I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe and Kevin as part of the eCoustics podcast series (listen here). Suffice it to say I’m a real fanboy; choosing just two favorite releases was almost impossible, but I settled on the following titles.
Paul Chambers Quartet – Bass On Top (Blue Note Tone Poet reissue)
As mentioned, I love everything from the Tone Poet series, but from the opening bowed bass notes of “Yesterdays,” you just know this one’s going to be a crackerjack, and it does not disappoint. Stunning dynamics and atmosphere here from the masterful hands of Kevin Gray.
Curtis Amy – Katanga (Blue Note Tone Poet reissue) (Buy at Amazon)
The Easter egg of the Tone Poets? This one came out of nowhere, but is a firm favourite within serious collector circles. The synergy in this sextet of virtual unknowns and interplay between Amy and co-leader DuPree Bolton is remarkable. Kudos to Joe Harley for selecting this one and bringing it some deserved attention.
Favorite New Jazz Albums
Most of my top picks for 2021 are reissues of material originally released decades ago and kissed with modern mastering and pressing technology. I also picked up several releases this year of material never available before on vinyl, including quite a few “from the vaults” live performances. Both of my top two 2021 new albums feature Japanese artists; one is a live album, and the other a compilation.
Ryo Fukui – 1977 Live At Vidro
Previously unknown live performance recorded shortly before Fukui entered the studio for his second album, Mellow Dream. Fun to hear variations on tunes from his first, Scenery, and gestational musings on those laid down a few months later on Mellow Dream. This two-record set quickly became my favourite Fukui release.
Various Artists – J-Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan (Volume 3) (Buy at Amazon)
Jazz listeners outside Japan are quickly discovering the amazing jazz produced there from the late ‘60s to mid ‘80s. They’re also learning that original and early pressings are hard to find, and seriously hard on the wallet. Styles vary, but inventiveness, technical ability and recording quality are all top-notch. The 3-volume (so far) J-Jazz series is a great way to discover this music without breaking the bank.
Favorite New Artist
It’s always a pleasure when a bright new talent emerges. For new artists I’m sure the pandemic has been a huge challenge, but even so breaks have been made in the close-on two years we’ve been locked down and restricted in our activities. My favorite is still a relative unknown, but I don’t think that will be the case for long.
Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul (Buy at Amazon)
Not yet released in North America, but coming in early 2022. This record is going to be HUGE! Lady Blackbird has a million-dollar voice – soulful, passionate, raw – and the songs on Black Acid Soul, a mix of covers and originals mastered lovingly by Bernie Grundman, are all crackers. This one may not quite be jazz, but it’s certainly jazzy. If you love the Black Pumas, this will be right up your alley.
Several other albums either didn’t fit my categories, or were just tipped out by the chosen two; they got spun a lot though and are worthy of mention, and deserving of a spot in my (and your) collection.
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So (Buy at Amazon)
Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club (Buy at Amazon)
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Three Little Words (Buy at Amazon)
Celeste – Not Your Muse (Buy at Amazon)
Abbey Lincoln – Abbey Is Blue (Buy at Amazon)
Ron Carter – Golden Striker (Live)
Bill Evans Trio – On A Friday Evening (Live) (Buy at Amazon)
Oscar Peterson – A Time For Love (RSD, Live) (Buy at Amazon)
What were your picks for 2021? Would love to hear about them in the comments, or drop me a message at @audioloveyyc. Here’s to another great year in music in 2022!