This year has been like no other, to say the least, but even while most everything has sucked one thing that surprisingly has not sucked is new music from a wide array of artists. It’s almost as if the pandemic caused musical acts to dig deeper and record special albums. Either that, or it’s just luck. Regardless, 2020 has been music to my ears.
2020 has also proven to be a very diverse year in music for me. My tastes have certainly expanded over the years, but it’s becoming clear to me that I’m mellowing with age. Oh I still like to rock out on occasion, but truthfully I’ve just been drawn to more slow and thoughtful albums. I also have to say my ears have continued to open to music that in the past I would have just written off as “country” and never given it a second thought. And while I’m still not likely to ever listen to mainstream country, I am delving deeper and deeper into the murky waters of alt-country and Americana/roots music. This is reflected in the list below to be sure.
Usually I only choose to rank my top 10 favorite albums of the year, but because I’ve enjoyed so many different artists this year and because it’s 2020 I decided to go ahead give 20 albums some love. So I’ll skip the usual honorable mentions and get right to the count down.
20. Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it sure seems like the artists are getting younger these days. I have to admit, at first I was uncomfortable as a 54-year-old adult man listening to music by a twentysomething artist — especially a female artist. But I realized I wasn’t being true to my musical self by neglecting younger artists just because they are young. Yes, Phoebe Bridgers, at 26, is more than half my age. But the fact is, she’s talented, interesting, unique, a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and way cooler than I ever was at 26 or any age. She’s also a badass, having been one of the artists who called out ex-beau Ryan Adams for sexual misconduct. Punisher is a great album made up of interesting songs written and performed by a talented woman.
19. RoundAgain — Joshua Redman. The members of the original Joshua Redman Quartet—Redman (saxophone), Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—reunite with RoundAgain, the group’s first recording since 1994’s MoodSwing,
18. Jump Rope Gazers — The Beths. This New Zealand quartet is the definition of power pop. Jump Rope Gazers is only their second full-length record and it rocks. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes has one of those lovely pop rock voices that for me is reminiscent of one of my favorite female pop vocalists, Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, but with a little more rock. As they say in New Zealand, The Beths are choice.
17. Such Pretty Forks in the Road — Alanis Morissette. It has been 25 years since the release of Jagged Little Pill and while Morissette has worked steadily since then she’ll always be considered a 90s artist. That’s unfortunate because her best album in my opinion is 2002’s Under Rug Swept and now all these years later this, her ninth record, showcase’s a whole new side of her — a matured Morissette if you will. Hell, it’s downright motherly.
16. Gaslighter — The Chicks. The artists previously known as Dixie Chicks have officially shed their connection to country music (the genre rejected them in the early 2000s after lead singer Natalie Maines was quoted as saying she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas). Regardless, these chicks have been genre-defying from the start and I’m proud to be a fan. Gaslighter is solid rock and roll (with a country twang) and the band has continued to say “fuck you” to the Country music establishment, its fans, and anyone else who thinks they should shut up and play. I love them for that as much as their music. And if you cross Natalie, expect to be featured in their next song!
15. Shelby Lynne — Shelby Lynne. Now in her early 50s, if it feels like Shelby Lynn Moorer has been around forever that’s probably because she had her first breakthrough at 19. Over the years she’s been a rising country star, a Grammy-winning “Best New Artist,” a folk singer, an Americana artist, and a pop chanteuse. Categories aside, for me she’s just a great singer/songwriter.
14. Look Long — Indigo Girls. The first time I saw Indigo Girls live was in the late 80s in Berkeley, CA on Halloween night and it was an experience to say the least. I’ve been a fan since the first album and they never let me down. Look Long, in fact, is their 15th studio album and one of their best records in years. Emily and Amy write separately, but sing together better than any two women to ever share a stage.
13. Superstar — Caroline Rose. This New Yorker has been around for a few years but I’m just now discovering her work. I did enjoy her 2018 album “Loner” but Superstar is solid from top to bottom. She has a cool voice and plays multiple instruments. She is not a classic singer/songwriter but instead delivers really fun pop songs and has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this crazy good video. If Greta Gerwig was a pop star she’d be Caroline Rose.
12. St. Cloud — Waxahatchee. I’m not gonna lie, I’d never heard of Waxahatchee before mid-2020. Officially this band, fronted by Alabama-native Katie Crutchfield, is considered indie rock or indie folk, but I don’t care what you call it — it’s damn fine music by a wonderful songwriter. Can’t Do Much is my favorite track from the album and a good representation of her powerful voice.
11. Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas. For me London-based Lianne La Havas has the most soulful voice around with a sound that frankly reminds me of one of my all-time favorite artists — Sade. Which is to say, if you like smooth soul and music designed for a rainy day or quiet evening in you’re gonna love Lianne La Havas if you don’t already. She’s not just a singer either — she plays multiple instruments too. Plus, she’s not afraid to think outside her genre — she covers a Radiohead track on this her third studio album. I’ve been a fan for a while and trust me you should be too.
Stay tuned for the second half of my year-end top 20 albums post coming soon to a blog near you. In the meantime, enjoy these albums and let me know what you think.