In the pop/funk and RnB guitar world, 2021 feels like it’s been a year of reinvention. John Mayer bathed in retro cool, St. Vincent channelled 70s scuzz and Nile Rodgers recorded a bed time story. And that’s before we get to our winner...
Chris Buck (Cardinal Black)
Buck’s new rhythm and blues quartet Cardinal Black arrived to surprise us all earlier this year, but three of the group have previously played together as the Tom Hollister trio. A left-turn from Buck’s previous gigs, Cardinal Black sound like the complete package – big songs, in the pocket jams and a fine platform for Buck’s astonishingly soulful lead work. Fans clearly agreed, awarding Buck a massive 76% of the final vote tally, despite the more famous names on this list. A landslide, by any measure.
Mayer’s 2021 record Sob Rock bathes in 80s nostalgia. The production sounds like something from a lost John Hughes movie soundtrack, combining melodic synths and bouncing palm-muted rhythms with flourishes of overdriven lead lines. A surprising, inventive left-turn.
It’s probably easier for us just to list the records Cory Wong did not release in 2021. To say the guitarist and producer is prolific is an understatement: this year he put out four full-lengths and a new single, Smokeshow. Turbo, his collaboration with Dirty Loops is a must-listen – a frenetic, irresistibly funky melting pot of pop hooks, intricate arrangements and virtuosic performances.
The legendary hitmaker dedicated much of 2021 to collaborations, working with The Ramona Flowers, Jack Savoretti, Steven Wilson and UK saxophonist Alex Bone. He even recorded a six-track ‘bedtime’ tale on Apple Music, A Story For Sleep, presented in spatial audio. He remains, as ever, at the forefront of everything.
Santana returned in 2021 with Blessings And Miracles. The spiritual bedfellow to 1999’s mega-hit Supernatural, it features a star-studded line-up of collaborators (including Smooth vocalist Rob Thomas, Chick Corea and Chris Stapleton) but most of them were recorded remotely, making it a very 2021-flavoured sequel.
Annie Clark released Daddy’s Home in 2021. A scuzzy, psychedelic meditation on her father’s release from prison, it explored a grab-bag of retro rock, lounge-pop and jazz styles. As an interesting counterpoint, also released a mockumentary film The Nowhere Inn, complete with full soundtrack album.
The Stax Records icon gave us his first solo album in 10 years in the form of the Grammy-nominated Fire It Up. Cropper argues its his first ‘proper’ solo effort since 1969, but regardless, it is a rare outing in the spotlight for the legendary guitarist and writer. There’s no self-indulgent solo spots on it, though – just soulful turns and a supremely melodic ear. A masterclass in, well, class.
Most of the records released this year could be labelled as such, but the UK songwriter and guitarist really hit the nail on the head with his 2021 album Quarantine Sessions. A collection of five covers and three originals that originated as lockdown Instagram jams, Misch finds new worlds in old chord progressions – Smells Like Teen Spirit will never sound the same again.
The British guitarist and songwriter has had quite the year, releasing her empowering second record Stand For Myself – her second collaboration with producer Dan Auerbach. However, we expect 2022 to be another landmark year, when Yola’s turn as Sister Rosetta Tharpe is revealed to the world in Baz Lurhmann’s new film, Elvis.