2020 was a year of feast and famine in music. There was an incredible amount of new and archival material released, but live concerts came to a complete standstill. COVID-19 shut down the country and much of the world with an impact that continues to ripple through our lives. Travel, education, hospitality, retail, food, sports--it's hard to find an industry that hasn't been negatively affected. Live concerts and the peace of mind they provide are sorely missed, and countless venues, music-related jobs and artists hang in the balance. Large-scale events won't resume until at least six to nine months after a vaccine becomes widely available. For live music lovers, one of the unique-to-2020 questions is "What was the last show you saw?" For me it was the always-inspiring Sam Bush at the Boulder Theater on March 1st; my tickets for Patti Smith two weeks later were the first of many to fall by the wayside.
Searching for bright spots in 2020 isn't that hard, they were so few and far between. Any list of best films will be tempered by the inability to see movies on large screens in packed theaters. Any victory by your favorite sports team will have been achieved in empty or nearly empty arenas. Looking back, music was one of the few bright spots. The inability to tour or even be in the same room with other musicians stoked creative fires and caused a tidal wave of music, some of it material that otherwise might not have seen the light of day. Streaming services may have changed the way people consume music, but COVID-19 added a creative urgency that leveraged social media and the direct-to-consumer pipeline to keep people more engaged when they couldn't otherwise leave the house or connect in-person with their communities. TikTok further degraded musical attention spans, but it became a popular platform for music promotion and turned a new generation on to Fleetwood Mac.
I can't recall a year in which there was such an amazing amount of quality music released. Picking ten favorites was challenging and would've omitted many that I enjoyed. To help make sure you didn't miss anything--and unless you're currently homeschooling your kids, you probably have plenty of bandwidth to explore new music--here are my favorite LPs of 2020. My Top Five are head and shoulders above the rest, but everything listed below made life in lockdown better.
TOP FIVE (in order):
HAIM--WOMEN IN MUSIC PART III My favorite music reveals an artist finding a new gear I didn't know they possessed. Haim's third album takes the band to unexpected new levels of sophistication and accessibility. It set a bar that no other act reached, with its irresistible mix of pop, rock, and R&B, its deep beats and the multi-instrumentality of all three Haim sisters, combined with lyrics that address depression, anxiety and loneliness without sounding gloomy. (Favorite track: "Gasoline")
WAXAHATCHEE--SAINT CLOUD Waxahatchee aka Katie Crutchfield displays an unexpected musical maturity that's powerfully engaging on her fourth record. Saint Cloud distills its predecessors into a soul-baring Americana blend that grabs the listener from the first spin and never lets go. (Favorite track: "Lilacs")
TAME IMPALA--THE SLOW RUSH One-man-band Kevin Parker's prior release--2015's Currents--was one of the most popular and influential rock albums of the last decade. The Slow Rush, released on Valentine's Day, helped me through the early days of the pandemic. It may not reach the heights of Currents--what does?--but it gets much closer than anyone had any right to expect, and shows Parker honing his pop craft into music that sounds both fresh and directly descended from the best classic rock. (Favorite track: "Breathe Deeper")
MY MORNING JACKET--THE WATERFALL II Much to their fans' surprise, on July 4th My Morning Jacket announced an album they'd had in the can since 2015, one that is considerably better than The Waterfall, the original release birthed at the same Stinson Beach sessions. Jim James' spirituality and craving for nature and a better understanding of existence is an emotional balm that soothes the listener and makes life in isolation more rewarding and easier to deal with. (Favorite track: "Run It")
MATT BERNINGER--SERPENTINE PRISON Matt Berninger's first full-on solo record after twenty years with The National is a soulful, folk-rock epic that combines Booker T. Jones' production and organ playing into a mix both sublime and unforgettable. (Favorite track: "Take Me To Town") THE NEXT TEN (in Alpha order)
FIONA APPLE--FETCH THE BOLT-CUTTERS Just as the pandemic moved into cannot-and-will-not-be-ignored mode, Apple dropped her first record in eight years, a soul-baring sonic blast that demands attention and reminds everyone of her unique, influential standing in the singer/songwriter universe. (Favorite track: "Under The Table")
PHOEBE BRIDGERS--PUNISHER Bridgers builds on last year's great Better Community Oblivion Center collaboration with Conor Oberst on this ruminative, highly personal collection of alt-folk that makes it clear she is due to break through on a larger scale once she can take her art out to the masses. (Favorite track: "Kyoto")
CAR SEAT HEADREST--MAKING A DOOR LESS OPEN Car Seat Headrest leader Will Toledo went in an entirely different, techno direction on most of his twelfth release. The results are mixed, but at its best ("It Must Be More Than Blood," "Can't Cool Me Down") Making a Door Less Open is as good as anything the band has produced and aptly displays Toledo's gift for a turn-of-phrase and a catchy tune. (Favorite track: "It Must Be More Than Blood")
BOB DYLAN--ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS The pandemic was the perfect backdrop for Bob Dylan to release his first album of new compositions in eight years. Dylan's best record since 2009's Together Through Time is a nourishing, amusing word salad that rummages through recent history including the JFK assassination, Jimmy Reed, "those bad boys of rock'n'roll, the Rolling Stones" and more than a hundred other cultural references to cast 2020 in a new, original and revealing light. (Favorite track: "My Own Version of You")
KHRUANGBIN -- MORDECHAI Houston world-funk act Khruangbin's Mordechai is a solid continuation of their sophisticated grooves. Even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of Con Todo El Mundo, the LP, along with the four-song Texas Sun EP they released with soul crooner Leon Bridges, adds a more vocal element to their palette and makes for some of the chillest vibes of the year. (Favorite track: "Time (You and I)")
TOM PETTY--WILDFLOWERS AND ALL THE REST The year's best archival release is a deep dive into Petty's most personal album and includes numerous gems that stand up against anything else he produced during his long, legendary career. Hearing "Leave Virginia Alone," "There Goes Angela (Dream Away)" and "Something Could Happen" is a sad but stirring reminder that Petty had better material in his closet than most artists have on their greatest hits records. (Favorite track: "Leave Virginia Alone")
MARGO PRICE--THAT'S HOW RUMORS GET STARTED Margo Price was going to have a big year until touring put the kibosh on in-person album promotion. Her third studio release, recorded in Los Angeles, rocks harder and is far more mainstream than its predecessors, but still packs a lyrical punch and often sounds like a great lost Stevie Nicks record. (Favorite track: "That's How Rumors Get Started")
JEFF TWEEDY--LOVE IS THE KING Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy coped with the lockdown with a nearly-nightly Instagram Live show from his house with his family for support (musical and otherwise), culminating in an album as heartfelt and moving as anything he's done with Wilco in recent memory. (Out on vinyl/CD 1/15/21) (Favorite track: "Natural Disaster")
GILLIAN WELCH & DAVID RAWLINGS--ALL THE GOOD TIMES ARE PAST & GONE Americana acolytes Welch and Rawlings had their own pre-pandemic tragedy when the March tornado that tore through Nashville ravaged the studio containing the lifetime accumulation of their partnership. The pair responded with this album of covers that ranges from Dylan's "Senor" to the Johnny Cash/June Carter classic "Jackson." Like their own compositions, the silence between the notes is just as poignant as what they play, and this LP--like all their best work--sounds like it could've been created 100 years ago. (Favorite track: "Hello in There")
NEIL YOUNG--ARCHIVES VOL. 2 The second volume of Neil Young's Archives cover 1972 to 1976, arguably his most fertile creative period. Over ten discs, the set features his best already-available tracks, numerous alternate versions (including three separate takes on "Love/Art Blues" on disc six aka The Old Homestead) and more than a dozen previously unreleased compositions. "Goodbye Christians on the Shore" is shockingly good, and all of the new songs are notable additions to his considerable library. Whether it's showcasing Neil solo or with Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, the Santa Monica Flyers or CSNY, Archives Vol. 2 is a gift to Young lovers and testifies to his position on the Mount Rushmore of classic rock. (Retail CD edition out 3/5/21) (Favorite track: "Goodbye Christians on the Shore")
16-25 (in Alpha order): Courtney Barnett -- MTV Unplugged, Johnny Cash -- A Night to Remember, Elvis Costello -- Hey, Clockface, Fleet Foxes -- Shore, Chris Stapleton -- Starting Over, The Strokes -- The New Abnormal, U.S. Girls -- Heavy Light, Kurt Vile -- Speed, Sound, Lonely KV, Lucinda Williams -- Good Souls, Better Angels, Neil Young -- Return to Greendale