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Mark’s Picks For 2021

Mark Smotroff saves his best of list for last…

Well folks, here is my round-up of some of the best, the zest and the rest which I simply like a whole bunch in 2021. Be sure to click on the album titles to jump to my original reviews. 

Best Debut Album

Black Acid Soul by Lady Blackbird came out of nowhere (for me at least) and knocked my socks off. Be sure to listen to her stunning Nina Simone-inspired vocal overlay to Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece.”  And the interpretation of Joe Walsh’s “Collage” is mesmerizing. 

Best Interim Release By A Promising New Band

Ok, so I guess I was a little late to the party coming on board with this fantastic modern rock ’n soul band on the first anniversary of their eponymous debut, Black Pumas.  So I was at the ready with the release of their fine live-and-direct-to-disc studio session called Capitol Cuts. That will just about hold me over until their sophomore release, hopefully in 2022. 

Best First Time Vinyl Original Cast Recording

My review will tell you just how much the original cast recording of Hedwig & The Angry Inch means to me.  It will also tell you how happy I was to finally hear it on vinyl. 

Most Overdue First Time Vinyl Releases From Ireland’s Best Band Everyone Should Know

Pugwash’s Jollity and Eleven Modern Antiquities were given first time vinyl pressings courtesy of Sugarbush Records. But they might as well be first time releases in many ways as finding Pugwash’s original CDs are next to impossible to track down here in the United States (save for a fine compilation and their 2015 release on Omnivore Recordings). For those interested in checking out this wonderful music from Thomas Walsh and company, Pugwash’s music is also streaming on many platforms including Qobuz (click here), Tidal (click here) and Spotify (click here).

Best Archival Concert Video

Hands down, Bruce Springsteen’s The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts video from Madison Square Garden is an immediate, must-see-and-hear rock ’n roll essential. A time capsule in the best sense of the phrase, it captures The Boss as he takes control of the nearly 20,000 seat arena and turns it into a sweaty intimate club. Classic. 

Best Digital Restoration That Sounded Better Than A Vinyl Counterpart

David Crosby’s debut album — If I Could Only Remember My Name — celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year. And for some reason there were two different editions released. The digital versions — on compact disc as well as high resolution streams found on the Tidal and Qobuz services — sounded remarkable.  The vinyl edition sounded as good as my original vinyl if not better which was fine but it more or less was overshadowed by the streams. What was the difference?  The digital editions were restored using technology from Plangent Processes.  Read the review for more insights…

Best Perspective-Changing Remix

The Band’s Stage Fright super deluxe edition is remarkable, changing my opinion on this album 100 percent. Now it plays and sounds like the classic third album it was meant to be. Including a sweet Blu-ray with surround mixes, live tracks and more.

Best New Soul/Groove Jazz 

Colemine Records is a tastemaker type label developing great new soul-leaning artists. One of them, Delvon Lamarr and his band, infuse the time tested organ groove jazz trio concept with a fresh sense of heart, soul and love.  I Told You So is a fine place to start with this group. 

Most Anticipated Vinyl Edition After A Digital Pre-release

Fleet Foxes is one of my favorite bands of the past 10 or so years and their latest is a fine follow up to one of my favorite albums of 2017, Crack Up. Indeed, Shore is a beautiful album, whether you stream it or play the vinyl edition. 

Best Album With The Most Color Vinyl Variations

Sir Paul McCartney no doubt gets the gold star for not only putting out a great new solo album McCartney III (digitally in late 2020, vinyl in 2021) plus a fine new remix project in 2021 (McCartney III Imagined). But, his epic delivery of different colored vinyl variants of these albums must be acknowledged! That both albums hold up well as listening experiences in their own right speaks to the strength of the project.

Best Vintage Jazz Reissues

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is admittedly one of my favorite albums by this legendary jazz bassist. That it sounds dramatically better than versions I’ve heard for decades says a lot.  That it looks fantastic on the new Acoustic Sounds vinyl reissue is a bonus. Essential listening. 

However, I had to also include the Paul Chambers’ 1956 Blue Note album Bass On Top simply because it is another one of those instances where the fidelity is much better than the original. And given that true originals are super rare, this is a no brainer release to get — an important album to get from the bassist who later played on no less than Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue as well as Monk’s Brilliant Corners, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth.  ‘Nuff said.

Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue received its first global official reissue this year and that is cause for celebration on many levels as well!

Most Important Archival Jazz Releases

There were two important live releases this year of particular note. Actually, there were three as Thelonious Monk’s 1968 Palo Alto concert was released in a few different incarnations.  There was the original edition of Palo Alto which also received a limited colored vinyl run courtesy of the good folks at Vinyl Me Please. But then a little later in the year the so-called “Custodian’s Mix” of Palo Alto was issued. Which version is better is a matter of taste. I’m happy to own both versions of this historic concert. 

Equally significant and no less mesmerizing is the 1965 concert by John Coltrane which sat in a collector’s archive for decades prior to this release. That this contains one of the only known complete performances of his landmark composition, A Love Supreme Live In Seattle makes it a cause for celebration. That it sounds better and more engaged than the prior festival recording from France makes this an essential release to get. 

An honorable mention must go to the Montreux Jazz Festival and BMG for its archive series which began this year. The Nina Simone Montreux Years album is a fine fine listen on CD and vinyl.

Most Anticipated Beatle Solo Remix

I’m not going to take sides with either solo Beatle. Both super deluxe editions are great, each with strengths and weaknesses. But at the end of the day, if you are fan of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, you’ll need these special ultimate listening experiences. 

Best Record Store Day Edition Surprise First Time Vinyl Release

Don’t get thrown by the somewhat surreal subject matter, Bug is the best solo release to date by Kinks co-founder Dave Davies. And now it is finally on vinyl for the first time. This was a very welcome surprise this year on Record Store Day!

Best New Soul Sampler From Colemine 

Colemine Records is my new go-to label for all things modern classic soul. Their two compilations, Brighter Days Ahead and Soul Slabs Vol. 3, are fantastic. It is a toss up for me as to which one you get but you should listen to the music this label is putting out. 

Best World Music Boxed Set

The Changui boxed set is a stunning experience from the moment you open the package through all the music which takes you on a journey to some far reaching communities in Cuba. 

Best Comeback Album From A Band You Probably Never Heard Of Before

They are called Wanderlust and their new album is great. They had some regional success many years ago but this album feels like a fine place to start listening. 

Best New Documentary Not By The Beatles

My favorite new documentary release in physical form this year was Alex Winter’s fabulous film Zappa which not only was issued on Blu-ray Disc but there was also a fine soundtrack issued on CD and vinyl

Most Epic Beatle Film & Music Release

The 2021 campaign for The Beatles’ Get Back documentary (created by Peter Jackson) and the accompanying super-deluxe edition boxed set featuring the music recorded at that time — ie. for what became know as the Let It Be album — was nothing short of epic.  All that would have been for naught had the final product been inferior but Jackson’s Get Back film and the complimentary Let It Be boxed set — including the new Stereo and Surround Sound remixes as well as Glyn Johns’ legendary original mix — proved revelatory. I just have high hopes that in 2022 we will get a formalized official soundtrack album and commercial release of the Get Back film on Blu-ray Disc. Fingers crossed! 

Wishing you all a very healthy, safe and Happy New Year!

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