A Year to Remember in Music
I listened to a lot of music in 2020. I suppose being housebound can do that to a guy. Of course, I'm a music nut without a pandemic forcing me to isolate. This year, as we all know, was weird as Hell though and usually the highlight of my day was making a playlist and going for a 3-4 mile walk around the neighborhood.
In my life - through all the sadness and loss - music has sustained and saved and soothed me. It certainly still does. I was lucky to grow up in the 1960's and be literally raised on Rock and Roll. That experience, along with my parents influences and my enduring love for American roots music, still affects me. A day with out music is like - well, I wouldn't know - I never go a day without music.
In my youth I was an absurd music snob and dismissed anyone who didn't know and appreciate the music of Bob Dylan, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.
That has changed. Goodness, it has changed. I now enjoy LOTS of different kinds of music and that openness has enriched my life. Nevertheless, you will see my tastes are still limited - I don't listen to current pop very much. So, I'm going to tell you about my favorites this year and it is important to note that this is a narrow look at 2020. As much as I enjoy listening to new music - there are only 24 hours in a day and when I find something I love it gets played and replayed...(and replayed).
I was going to rank the music from last year and I've been agonizing over it, I started several blog posts - got frustrated - moved music rankings around - then my computer went on the fritz and I just decided, "FORGET RANKING!" So, here is an unranked and mostly chronological list of the music that moved me in the strange year of 2020. I'll make a few comments about these albums and you can determine if there might be something you'd enjoy putting on your playlist. That is, after all, the point of this blog post. I will mention if an album would be in my personal "Top 10" list.
I should also say that I do purchase nearly all this music - streaming services shortchange our artists and since they can't go on the road they need our money more than ever. Please consider doing the same. It's the right thing.
1. Technically this one was released in late 2019 but I listened to the latest Who album, WHO, quite a bit at the start of the year. It's a fine album - not great - and didn't grow on me. Still, it was nice to hear a new album from those old guys who once proclaimed that they hoped they'd die before they grew old - too late guys...
2. The Drive-by Truckers released TWO excellent albums - The Unraveling and The New OK. Timely, topical and with typical Hood/Cooley musical charm and sharp lyrics, I listened to them both - a lot. Which is best? Ah, depends on the day and my mood but The Unraveling hit hard all year long. The song 21st Century USA was my second most played this year - and it oozes Patterson Hood angst from his always observant perspective.
3. Just before the virus hit Nathaniel Rateliff released a new album And It's Still Alright - his last album was so big and this is a bit slower and was released when our minds were elsewhere but the title track was a year long favorite and perhaps a bit of an anthem for those of us who scraped by in 2020.
4. A band that I think deserves greater recognition (you'll hear that frequently through this post) is The James Hunter Six. They released another fun and old school cool album, Nick of Time, in March. I grooved to it as the lock downs descended on us and the vibes provided a good salve to the world's problems.
5. Dave Simonett also released a fine solo album that deserved more notice. Red Tail is a slower more relaxed Simonett from his work with Trampled By Turtles. It's a soothing journey and offers timely wisdom. It should have made more of a splash and I highly recommend it.
6. A top 10 album of the year, for me, rolled out at the end of March and it stayed in heavy regular rotation all year long. The fantastic Lilly Hiatt released, Walking Proof, and I immediately liked it - the songs were lively and fun and insightful. I didn't know it would grow and grow and grow on me all year. Turns out, I LOVE IT. Lilly's father John is a lifetime favorite and, well, talk about the apple and tree... what an album.
7. Also at the end of March the remarkable album, Saint Cloud, by Waxahatchee (Katie Crutchfield) was released and has found near universal acclaim. It was ranked number 2 by Rolling Stone and was mentioned on most of the Top Album lists at years end. It was my introduction to her music and it is a creative and rootsy album that I continue to listen to on an almost daily basis. Obviously recommended and a solid top 10 choice.
8. Several years ago I discovered a band - Clem Snide (Eef Barzelay) - that had a moving and lyrically intriguing aspect to their music that was unique. In Spring of 2020 Eef released a beautiful album, Forever Just Beyond. Mr. Barzelay isn't afraid to tackle the great philosophical questions sometimes tongue in cheek and sometimes with a dagger to the heart - and the song Roger Ebert has haunted me since the first time I heard it. This is comforting music about unsettling issues. Excellent.
9. Good old Pokey LaFarge released a very enjoyable (in a Bukowski kind of way - ha) album this year called, Rock Bottom Rhapsody. I like Pokey's old school approach and it always lends itself to his ironic and poetic lyrics. This is a fine album and did manage to make a few year end lists - which makes me happy. Pokey is cool. My favorite track is, "Lucky Sometimes" which was on my playlists all year long.
10. The Strokes put out an album this year that is very good and I'm a bit surprised to see that it hasn't garnered more attention. The New Abnormal is a bit uneven but has some downright catchy tunes and the title was certainly prescient. Recommended.
11. While I focus on many underrated bands in this post the next album was, by far, the most overrated of 2020 in my opinion. That's probably sacrilege to many but while I liked, Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple it wasn't ALL THAT. I know many of the hipsters reading this are aghast and well - sorry, not sorry. I get that it fits right into the zeitgeist and while that's always powerful it just didn't resonate with me as it obviously did with many others. It's on almost every Top 10 list (but wouldn't make mine).
12. Lucinda Williams had a fine album this year with, Good Souls Better Angels. It's about as topical and political as Lucinda gets and it didn't disappoint. Man Without A Soul is fine song about, well, you know who it's about.
13. An early album of the year candidate, Lamentations, by American Aquarium was released in the spring and hit me right in the heart. The songs are hard hitting and powerful and "Six Years Come September" may be the best alcoholic regret song I have ever heard - and reminds me far too much of some of my drinking days. BJ Barham is a heckuva guy - we communicate occasionally on social media - he gets it. This, for me, is a top 10 album.
14, I didn't realize for some reason that the LA based punk band X released an album in 2020 (some of the songs in 2019). It's called, ALPHABETLAND and, hey, it's still punk and it's good!
15. A little known fellow, Joe Nolan, released a very nice and folksy album, Drifters, in May. If you don't know the name it might be worth your while to find him and listen - he's a singer/songwriter guy with excellent lyrics. Letters to Juliet is a song that I've been spinning since May.
16. I listen to a lot of music but, man, do I miss a lot of great music too. This year I finally discovered Samantha Crain and it was long overdue. Her music often has a 60's sound with penetrating lyrics and I'm stoked to have found her. From Oklahoma, she is Choctaw and has won several Native American music awards. Her album, A Small Death, has been on my daily playlists all year and in exploring her entire catalog I've found songs I'll listen to the rest of my life.
17. The USA has 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners. We are a society that loves locking people up. It's pathological. NPR says, "Each incarcerated person has a story. The new album from The Prison Music Project called Long Time Gone highlights a few of those stories. It features songs by nine incarcerated or formerly incarcerated writers and was put together by musician Zoe Boekbinder." Not a lot of songs on this album but it's important to hear them all - oh, and throw a few dollars to the Innocence Project if you can afford it.
18. The "ALBUM OF THE YEAR" no matter what anyone says, has to be, Rough and Rowdy Ways, by Bob Dylan. Bob stunned us with "Murder Most Foul" a song that managed to capture, with precision, the essence of America in the last 60 years in 17 minutes. We were blown away further when he released an entirely new album a few weeks later. It is, simply put, a masterpiece. How anyone could leave it off a Top 10 list is beyond me. The guy is 79 years old and still writing Nobel prize winning type lyrics. Remarkable.
19. Jason Isbell released another very good album and Reunions was met with listener and critical acclaim. The song, Dreamsicle, is magnificent. Another solid effort from Jason even if it is not up to Southeastern or Something More Than Free standards. It certainly should be considered as a Top 10 album - even not at his best Isbell towers above many other contemporary artists.
20. Neil Young dropped an album of some old songs and, like comfort food, Homegrown hit the spot. I listen to Neil and feel my entire body say....ah... and I breathe more easily.
21. The great Sarah Jarosz released an Album of the Year candidate with, World on the Ground. Sarah is a musical prodigy - plays several instruments - and watching her mature as a songwriter and artist is a joy. Each of the songs on this album has received over 30 plays this year and Johnny was my most played song in all of 2020. Fabulous, top 10 album.
22. Ultra cool Larkin Poe gave us some of their trademark Blues with Self-Made Man. Sisters Megan and Rebecca Lowell have some of the most raw, swampy, rootsy and traditional music being made these days. This is REAL American music and Larkin Poe are among the best practitioners today. Fine album.
23. Speaking of coolness and REAL American music it really doesn't get much more authentic than my pal, Ray Wylie Hubbard. I am occasionally asked if we are related and I always answer in that trite but apt way, "we are brothers from another mother". Ray even looks a little like me and he's a fellow friend of Bill W. He follows me on social media and when I was lamenting the troubles of 2020 sent me a private message of encouragement. What a guy. Let's talk about his music - Ray is a bit of a Texas legend for a number of reasons and oddly had never been featured on Austin City Limits until last year - an injustice that took too long to correct but, thankfully, they finally got it right. His show will air this year. Last year he released Co-Starring which is a fun and entertaining and endlessly listenable album. Ray teams up with many friends including Ringo Starr on this excellent effort. Listen to to the song Bad Trick - and, yep, Top 10 stuff in my humble opinion. And in 2021 let's remember Ray's words - "The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations...I have real good days".
24. I discovered another new artist this year who blew my mind. John Craigie is an LA boy and sounds to me a bit like a new Ramblin' Jack Elliott with a modern folk spin. Like Samantha Crain finding him this year was a major highlight. His album Asterisk the Universe has been on repeat for several of my walks. Check out Part Wolf and Nomads if you get a chance. Pretty sure you too will become a fan.
25. You know Chuck Prophet, right? I sure hope so because if there was ever a guy who deserved a larger audience it's him. Each of his albums the last few years have been excellent and he has a devoted following - and I am one of those devoted followers. This year the gift he gave us is called The Land That Time Forgot. The song Get Off the Stage about the imbecilic criminal in the White House was perhaps the most timely and apt song of the year. Chuck is a rocker for sure but it is his clever and at times satirical lyrics that always move me. He is the real deal. Check him out (and sign up for his newsletters - I promise you won't be disappointed).
26. Speaking of music that deserves a greater audience the always excellent Jayhawks released xoxo this year and it got lots of attention on the Americana stations but didn't make many Top 10 end of the year lists - too bad. It's a rock solid album. Dogtown days and Living in a Bubble are two of the best song so the year. You can't go wrong with the Jayhawks who are probably over the last few decades the most critically acclaimed band with the fewest sales. I'll never understand it.
27. Taylor Swift released two albums this year, Evermore and Folklore, and while her music doesn't always resonate - these are two excellent albums. I don't need to say much more, right? Taylor is doing just fine.
28. Lydia Loveless, one of my favorites, also released an album called Daughter in 2020. Unfortunately, the album lacks the vitality and energy of her previous albums. I am hoping she can turn things around. In the meantime, check out her album Somewhere Else from 2014.
29. The group Mipso also gave us a new album - Mipso - and it too lacks the vibrancy of previous albums. Still, this is another underrated group that merits more attention.
30. The Boss also released Letter to You and it's wonderful. I don't think it's quite as good as Western Stars (which I adored) but it's close. I always feel connected to Bruce's songs and this album does feel a bit like a letter to those of us who have loved the man since the mid 1970's. Hope you get a chance to hear it.
31. Gillian Welch's All the Good Times is a terrific LP (as she always gives us). This is a collection of 10 covers and she and David Rawlings are marvelous - they even cover Mr. Dylan.
So, that's enough. It gives you a taste of what I have been listening to and perhaps gives you something new to hear. I have to also mention an excellent EP called A Field Guide to Loneliness by Jamestown Revival. Love those guys. Another couple of must mentions are Stay by one of my favorite musicians in the planet Valerie June (an EP) and Hoosier National by rootsy Otis Gibbs.
Here then is an additional list of songs released in 2020 that you might check out too. In some instances I have listened to the album they come from and not listed them above or, in most instances, I still haven't given enough time to the entire album yet and had to leave it off the list. Or - it was only released as a single. Some really inspired stuff here.
1. Options Open - Kathleen Edwards
2. Headstart - Jade Bird
3. Crawl Into the Promised Land - Rosanne Cash
4. Leave Virginia Alone - Tom Petty
5. The Problem - Amanda Shires
6. Long Violent History - Tyler Childers
7. Over That Road I'm Bound to Go - Joachim Cooder
8. Love is the King - Jeff Tweedy
9. Are We Alright Again - Eels
10. Can Anyone Hear Me? - Dusty Wright
11. High Feeling - Cordovas
12. You'll Be Mine - Pyschedelic Furs
13. Ablaze - Alanis Morissette
14. Welcome to Hard Times - Charley Crockett
15. Letting Me Down - Margo Price
16. California - The Mammals
17. Days of Heaven - Jerry Joseph
18. Living in a Ghost Town - Rolling Stones
19. Punk Rock Girl - Sarah Siskind
20. Black Crow Moan - Eliza Neals
21. Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues - Steve Forbert
22. 24/5 - The Claudettes
23. Wreckless Abandon - The Dirty Knobs
24. It's Not Easy - Puss N Boots
25. Living for Yesterday - Jamie Webster
26. Better Luck - Heather Anne Lomax
27. Count on Me - The Lone Bellow
28. Feel the Way I Want - Caroline Rose
29. No Handle - The Panhandlers
30. Southern Rock Will Never Die - The Outlaws
31. When My Fever Breaks - John Moreland
32. Dawn - Fruition
33. The Well - Marcus King
34. Stay Down Man - Dan Reeder
35. Living Life - Kathy McCarty
Thanks for reading. My hope is that you find something here and that you will share some of your favorites from 2020 in the comments or in an email to me. I love finding new music and would love to hear your thoughts. May music continue to soothe and enlighten us in 2021 and beyond.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.