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Best of 2020

December 5, 2020
Courtesy of The Electric Fetus

In general 2020 has sucked, but the music has not. Lots of great albums this year. Here is my top ten and several honorable mentions. The list is dominated by old favorites – no new discoveries this year.

The War On Drugs – Live Drugs

#10 I didn’t get a chance to write a formal review of The War On Drugs live album Live Drugs. Their last two albums were fantastic. I assumed they were a studio band that would not translate well live – well they sound great live. The album takes an unusual approach: splicing songs from ten years of shows and in some cases they seamlessly edited multiple versions of a song – I would have never known that if I had not read an interview with the Drugs’ main man Adam Granduciel:

“I wanted to go through the wormhole a little bit,” he explains. “Taking six versions of ‘Under The Pressure’ and getting it down to one.”

Stereogum
Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started (with COVID puppy Margo)

#9 Margo Price refuses to conform and rather than make another country album she made a rock album. In my original review I said: “There is not a bad song on the album, but some of the highlights for me are:

  • ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’ – the titular track has a Fleetwood Mac vibe with Margo purring like Stevie Nicks
  • ‘Hey Child’ a remake of an old song from her Buffalo Clover band that has a Delaney & Bonnie psychedelic gospel feel
  • ‘I’d Die For You’ an epic power ballad the is begging to be covered by Lady Gaga
  • ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ a catchy rock song that is Margo’s autobiography in three and a half minutes”
Pat Metheny – From This Place

#8 I have been a Pat Metheny fan for over 40 years and he has never failed to delight and challenge my ears. From This Place does not break the chain. In my original review I said:

I can’t listen to this new Pat Metheny album without thinking of Metheny’s long time collaborator Lyle Mays who recently passed away. From This Place is a guitar, piano and orchestra album. These last two features were the kind of contributions Lyle Mays typically made as keyboardist, composer and arranger in the Pat Metheny Group. Although this album’s creation predates Mays’ passing, I choose to savor it in Mays’ memory. Fortunately for us and in remembrance of Mays, From This Place is an extraordinary album.

Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You

# 7 Bruce returned to his roots and made an E Street Band album. According to interviews and the documentary about the making of the album, Bruce took a more spontaneous approach for this album. Instead of demos, he played the songs for the band and they quickly arranged and recorded them. He combined new songs with songs from early in his career that had never been released. The results are an unsentimental reflection of a lifetime as a rocker and the spirituality of rock music.

Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King

#6 This is my favorite Tweedy solo album thus far and it rivals the last few Wilco albums too. It is the most Americana/country thing he has done in a long time. In Wilco, Tweedy rightly defers the guitar solos to Nils Cline, but here it is all Tweedy. I forgot what a great guitar player he is.

The Flaming Lips – American Head

#5 in my original review I said: “This album sounds as good as their best work. I like the juxtaposition of down to earth narrative lyrics in a psychedelic context. In the past The Flaming Lips have been weird just to be weird – almost a novelty act. American Head sounds honest and sincere. An added bonus is that fellow stoner Kacey Musgraves (whose 2018 Golden Hour is one of my favorite albums of all time) guests on several tracks.”

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

#4 I am not much of a Pearl Jam fan (I was a Soundgarden guy) but as I said in my original review: “It is hard not to be a rock fan of a certain age and not be a Pearl Jam fan. Their first three albums (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) were great. Those three albums, plus being a great live act, have allowed them to be the grunge Grateful Dead for thirty years.”

I went on to say: “The new album sounds fresh and energetic. It is a mix of punk attitude and classic rock influences – my definition of Seattle grunge. Like their 90s best, the songs have great hooks. Eddie Vedder’s vocals sound fantastic. It is probably not fair to call this a comeback, but it is for me – I have comeback to Pearl Jam because of the quality of this album.”

Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

#3 Jonathan Wilson produces Father John Misty and plays the David Gilmour role in Roger Waters band. I am a huge fan of Wilson’s solo work which typically has a psychedelic rock vibe. On this album he mixes in an Americana vibe and pulled fiddler Mark O’Connor out of retirement to add some amazing textures to the Wilson sound.

In my original review I said: “It is a delightful album. Wilson has successfully mixed his Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter schtick with his psychedelic Pink Floyd vibe and Americana to create a Jonathan Wilson sound. It results in Wilson’s most original album to date. That is all you can ask from a recording artist – to develop their own voice. It has the perfect album title Dixie Blur. He has brilliantly blurred several styles with down-home southern charm.”

Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

#2 I assumed this would be number one album of 2020. It is so good. In my original review I said: “At 79 Bob Dylan remains relevant as ever on his 39th studio album. After an 8 year dalliance with the Sinatra songbook, he returns with an inspiring collection of new original material. It is yet another masterpiece in his catalog – an amazing feat.”

Taylor Swift – folklore & evermore

#1 If ten years ago you told me that a Taylor Swift album would be at the top of my list, let alone beating out a Bob Dylan masterpiece, I would have told you, that you were crazy. After years of dismissing TSwift as a mere pop star I now officially get her genius.

I have spent a lot of time with folklore and just a little bit of time with evermore. They are birds of a feather and should be taken as one artist statement.

In my original review of folklore I said “This is adult music and teenage lyrics (in a good way) or as one reviewer said: bildungsroman obsession. This is a brilliant pivot for a pop star – hook up with an indie rock cult hero and make some magic. This is not a gimmick or desperate posturing by Taylor to ‘take me seriously.’ Instead, it is the right move at the right time. Without bombastic big arrangements, I really hear Taylor. Turns out she was hiding in plain sight for a guy like me. I now realize what a great storyteller she is and like all great rock and pop stars, an actor.”

Catchlore/Groovemore

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

  • Sturgill Simpson: Cuttin’ Grass Volumes 1 & 2 – bluegrass reimagining of the Simpson catalog
  • John Scofield: Swallow Tales – a collaboration forty years in the making
  • Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels – the queen of Americana rocks out
  • Norah Jones: Pick Me Up Off the Floor – she has never made a bad album; this is on the jazzier side of her spectrum
  • Khruangbin: Mordechai – mellow funk with a world music vibe
  • Haim: Women In Music Pt. III – girl group fun accented with singer-songwriter gravitas
  • Jason Isbell: Reunions – my first time truly getting him
  • Laura Marling: Song for Our Daughter – continues to be my favorite Joni inspired heir
  • Bob Mould: Blue Hearts – no Sunshine this time around, just a lot of righteousness indignation
  • Rose City Band: Summerlong – if you like JJ Cale you will like the RCB
  • Jayhawks: XOXO – Gary Lourdes pushes the rest of the band to the front
  • Secret Sisters: Saturn Return – reminds me of the Everly Brothers, mid-70s Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and of course their producer Brandi Carlile
  • Jeremy Ivey: Waiting Out The Storm – don’t listen once, listen ten times
  • Stephen Malkmus: Traditional Techniques – his folk album
  • Texas Sun: Khruangbin and Leon Bridges together at last – it really works – only disappointment is this is an EP vs. LP
  • Puss n Boots: Sister – alternative country band from Brooklyn featuring Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper
  • Jamie Wyatt: Neon Cross – outlaw country
  • Atmosphere: The Day Before Halloween – a different sound – European techno vibe
  • Ryan Adams: Wednesdays – he is back and sounds mournful – can we forgive him?
  • Lady Gaga: Chromatica – back to the dance floor
  • Paul McCartney: McCartney III – quarantine recordings from one of the Titans – as Macca says “recorded in Rockdown”
Prince – Sign O’ The Times

Best Reissue: There were some great deluxe reissues this year but the best of the best was the massive (13 LPs + DVD + Book) deluxe reissue of Sign O’ The Times. In my original review I said: “Prince has always been known as a prolific artist and this super deluxe reissue of his 1987 classic Sign O’ The Times is evidence of that prolificity. It includes nearly four hours of previously unreleased material. The collection captures the scope of the Prince’s boundless genius: funk, jazz, gospel, rock, new wave, pop, singer songwriter of pop symphonies – it goes on and on. The new material, is at its worst, intriguing experiments, most of it is good and there are some absolute gems. This is what bonus reissues are supposed to be: a true treasure chest.”

Other notable reissues:

  • Tom Petty: Wildflower & All The Rest – After all these years we get to hear the rest of the album and bonus material
  • The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me Deluxe – a rawer original mix and some great demos
  • Wilco: Summerteeth Deluxe – Demos and outtakes along with a live show
  • Uncle Tupelo: Uncle Tupelo Live March 24, 1994 Lounge Ax Chicago – I never saw this band live, so it is fun to hear them live – sorry RSD only release
  • Neal Casal: Fade Away Diamond Time – A gorgeous vinyl reissue of Casal’s solo debut from 1995 – sorry RSD only release
3 Comments
  1. Always dig your choices. Will be tying into a few of these for sure.

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