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NPR Music's Best Live Sessions of 2021

Valerie June performed "Call Me A Fool" for WUNC.
Graham Denholm
Getty Images
Valerie June performed "Call Me A Fool" for WUNC.

Even if 2021 hasn't quite brought the return to normal we'd hoped for, NPR's Member stations have had a busy year producing some great live music sessions. For your listening pleasure, here are the best of the bunch, featuring studio performances, home recordings and socially-distanced outdoor sets.

For more sessions from all your favorite public radio stations, be sure to visit ourLive Sessions page.

Arlo Parks, "Hurt"

"Hurt" was the second single from Arlo Parks' breakthrough 2021 release, Collapsed In Sunbeams. Parks shot this KXT Dallas "On the Couch" video from London, where she made coffee on her patio and then stepped into her studio to record "Hurt." —Mike Henry, KXT


For our first session in over 21 months, we rebranded our performance studio to make it more cozy and intimate — which was the perfect vibe to welcome the lo-fi, viral pop musician Beabadoobee. The London artist stopped by early in the day after arriving in Denver during her first headlining tour across the states. She played her 2017 debut single "Coffee" that she wrote in her bedroom with an acoustic guitar complimenting her hushed vocals. Beabadoobee commented that the success of this sweet song about making coffee for her boyfriend is "weird" and "cool" as it has amassed over 85 million streams on Spotify and over four billion plays on TikTok in one single month, which may be the most Gen Z thing you read all day. —Alisha Sweeney, Indie 102.3

Fruit Bats

Earlier this year Eric Johnson, lead singer-songwriter of indie rock band the Fruit Bats, recorded a special acoustic performance exclusively for the Colorado Sound. The songs include "All in One Go," "On the Avalon Stairs," and "The Balcony," all from the Fruit Bats' 2021 album The Pet Parade. —Kurt Wolff, Colorado Sound


Don't let their appearance or the abrasiveness of their music fool you — the members of Britain's IDLES are as kind and thoughtful as they are raucous. The band visited WNXP's Sonic Cathedral to preview the new album CRAWLER and play standout tracks from their 2020 effort Ultra Mono. Frontman Joe Talbot and bandmate Mark Bowen explained how Ultra Mono served as an effigy of the band, solidifying IDLES's identity with fans. Now the band is pushing the boundaries of that identity with the new album, produced by Kenny Beats. That sonic expansion is immediately evident in the first single "The Beachland Ballroom," which they perform here along with "Mr. Motivator" and "Grounds." —Emily Young, WNXP

Japanese Breakfast

At WXPN in Philadelphia, 2021 was the year of Japanese Breakfast. The band released a sensational new album, Jubilee, and guitarist and singer-songwriter Michell Zauner wrote a beautiful and deeply moving memoir Crying in H Mart, about her Korean mother who passed away from cancer. On Japanese Breakfast's album, Zauner took her grief and indie-rock roots and turned that into sparkling pop and rock songs like "Be Sweet," "Savage Good Boy," and "Kokomo, IN" which the band performed along with "Tactics" live from Spice House Sound in Philadelphia. —Bruce Warren, WXPN

Samm Henshaw

The son of a reverend, British-Nigerian R&B soul artist Samm Henshaw grew up on gospel music and began writing worship songs for church at the age of 15. Naming Kirk Franklin, Lauryn Hill, and Marvin Gaye among his early inspirations, Henshaw made his debut with a 2015 EP called The Sound Experiment, and soon began touring with artists including Chance the Rapper and Tori Kelly.

At the end of 2020, Henshaw released the "upbeat and positive anthem" (NPR Music) "All Good," and landed on NPR Music's 2021 Slingshot's Artists To Watch list. Enjoy this four song jolt of joy (including adorable French Bulldogs!) filmed at Blundell Studios in London. —Deidre Gott, KUTX

Natalie Hemby

The Highwomen's Natalie Hemby seems like a friend who is fun to just hang with, no matter what you are doing. She is also an uber-talented writer, performer and collaborator, and WMOT was so happy to dig deep into her album Pins And Needles. In this year's first halting steps back to normal, the music we got to present live felt even more special, and this one transcended the technology to grab us. See if you don't agree – here is Natalie Hemby at East Side Bowl in Madison during AmericanaFest this past September. —Jessie Scott, WMOT Roots Radio

Orrin Evans, "Oh Freedom"

In February PBS presented The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, a series examining the centuries-old history of the Black church in America. WRTI supported the launch with a jazz-inspired ministry from Mother Bethel AME in Philadelphia, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the country. Pianist Orrin Evans augmented his trio with rising saxophonist Morgan Guerin and Ruth Naomi Floyd, a singer and composer. They performeda sacred hymn,original music by Floyd,John Coltrane's monumental A Love Supreme suite in its entirety, and this powerful anthem of liberation, "Oh Freedom," arranged by James Weidman. —Josh Jackson, WRTI

Paul Benjaman, "Ball and Chain"

In this video, Paul Benjaman performs "Ball and Chain" at Tulsa's historic Cain's Ballroom accompanied by John Fullbright on keys, Paddy Ryan on drums, Aaron Boehler on bass, plus Dustin Pittsley and Cooper Waugh on guitar. Building on the groove-based classic Tulsa Sound pioneered by J.J. Cale and Leon Russell, Benjaman covers most styles of American music. His ventures as a bandleader and sideman have placed him all over the musical map, working with artists like Steve Earle, Jamie Johnson, George Porter Junior and many more. His road experience includes an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon as sideman for the T Bone Burnett-produced Secret Sisters. —Julie Watson, Live from Cain's

Shakey Graves, "Evergreen" and "Ready or Not"

For one of his only in-studio sessions of the year, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who performs as Shakey Graves, pulled out a true treat debuting two songs he crafted during the pandemic: "Evergreen" and "Ready or Not." With a rare, stripped-down setup that features neither a suitcase drum nor a rollicking full-band, both songs are nothing short of stunning, rounded out by Taylor Craft on keys and Cameron Neal on guitar. Rose-Garcia concludes his set with an acoustic version of the 2018 track "Kids These Days," and chats with WNRN about the 10th anniversary deluxe reissue of his debut Roll the Bones X and future Shakey Graves projects. —Desiré Moses, WNRN

Sierra Ferrell, "Jeremiah"

West Virginian Sierra Ferrell has had a tremendous year. After leaving her home base of Charleston, she spent years hopping trains and busking around America before finding a home in Nashville where she released her debut on Rounder Records. "For you are all like wine / You'll even get sweeter with time," she sings on "Jeremiah" and it has proven true for Ferrell in 2021. —Vasilia Scouras, Mountain Stage

Squirrel Flower, "Streetlight Blues"

Squirrel Flower performs live at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA, for a Front Row Boston socially-distant session. Ella O'Connor Williams discovered the Boston DIY and folk music scenes when she was a teenager. Last year, she released her debut I Was Born Swimming, a poetically-charged album that landscapes change and the shift within relationships. "There's so much in the record about movement and stagnation," Williams said. "Feeling stuck, needing to move, needing to stay still, swimming, falling, running, growing, etc etc. The album's lyrics feel like an effortless expression of exactly the way it feels to change — abstract, sad and hopeful." Williams took home the award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the 2020 Boston Music Awards. —Stacy Buchanan, GBH

Valerie June, "Call Me A Fool"

It was such an honor to talk with Valerie June earlier this year about her brilliant new album The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers. "Call Me A Fool" was a huge song for us at WUNC Music in 2021. The studio version is a lush and extravagant recording, with horn and string sections lifting June's beautiful voice to the sky. This acoustic version also shines, proving that even without the orchestration 'Call Me A Fool' is a perfectly crafted song and June's unique voice is transcendent. —Brian Burns, WUNC

Yola, "Diamond Studded Shoes"

Yola wouldn't call her second album Stand For Myself a political one, but the British musician does aim the scathing "Diamond Studded Shoes" directly at the austerity policies of Britain's Tory government. The designer footwear of former prime minister Theresa May inspired the title, but Yola's sardonic lyrics and biting delivery elevate that metaphor into a potent protest anthem. In a 2021 FUV Live session filmed in Nashville, with Yola on acoustic guitar and Ray Jacildo on keys, she brings a more wistful nuance to her performance, giving the song a resounding emotional punch. —Kara Manning, WFUV

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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