Music may have been the redeeming feature of 2020

It’s our 6th annual music blog, it seems like years since the 5th. In the middle of the global pandemic, we found some fantastic music among the recorded works of 2020. And in the absence of live shows, there was a new phenomenon, the artists who showed up to perform in our family room and kept us engaged.

You can find the playlists on my YouTube channel. This includes 2020’s best plus a variety of pandemic related playlists.

In this year of all years, I am not sure anyone needs an explanation of the value of music. It’s power to lift us up, to articulate our feelings and to allow us to reflect on what’s going on around us.

The Top 10 list (and more)

I’ve spent the last month listening to some of the best that 2020 had to offer – it was so rich and varied. After some deliberation, here are 10 albums that I think you should check out.

  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
  • Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
  • Taylor Swift – Folklore (*) 
  • Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
  • Sault – Untitled (Black is) (*)
  • Fleet Foxes – Shore
  • Nubya Garcia – Source
  • Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
  • Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
  • Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas

(*) 1 of 2 albums this artist released in 2020

So much more music deserves a mention – some artists I have referenced in previous years, and in some cases I am still playing these records to get more familiar… 

  • Lone Bellow – Half Moon Light
  • Nick Cave – Idiot Prayer
  • Sufjan Stevens – Ascension
  • Songhoy Blues – Optimisme
  • Margo Price – That’s how rumors get started
  • Bill Callahan – Gold Record
  • Laura Marling – Song for our Daughter
  • Lucinda Williams – Good Souls, Better Angels

Some newer artists I am still listening to – definitely worth a listen:

  • Black Pumas – Black Pumas
  • Marcus King – El Dorado

There were also great songs that reflected the turbulence of 2020 – songs that showed up on some of my pandemic playlists:

  • Sweeter – Leon Bridges
  • I Can’t Breathe – H.E.R.

More detail on the essential stuff

  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions – this was on the list early. I heard a couple of songs on one of those virtual live shows and they were so memorable. Often catchy choruses get old, but for not with these songs – ‘Running with eyes closed’ and ‘What’ve I done to Help’ stayed fresh and energizing through every playing.
  • Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways – never imagined that I’d have a new Bob Dylan record in my new release Top 10 again. The flagship song is ‘Murder Most Foul’ about the death of JFK – it’s an unbelievable song by an artist that is absolutely beyond categorization.
  • Taylor Swift – Folklore – my daughter’s favorite album of the year and a point of connection for us. Definitely more in the style of the National and Bon Iver than her previous work. I’m sure this won’t show up on everyone’s list but being able to hear it with an open mind was huge.
  • Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher – there’s a beautiful, haunting quality to this album. I seem to be drawn to albums that have songs about Kyoto in them, although it’s more than that – the songs, the simple arrangements, and the voice. Check it out!
  • Sault – Untitled (Black Is) – one of 2 albums they made in 2020, both showed up in many of the lists. First thing that struck me was the nod to one of my favorite bands, Massive Attack. It’s much more than that, lyrically, it’s firmly grounded in the pursuit of racial justice, and musically it’s complicated – harmonies, at times some really sparse bass and drum sound, and an intensity that is a feature of both albums.
  • Fleet Foxes – Shore – some reviews talked about how this was a return to the sound of their early records. Some might see that as a backward step, but for me recapturing the harmonies, the beauty and the fragility of that sound was perfect for the year we’ve just had.
  • Nubya Garcia – Source – don’t know much about this artist, but the sweeping, uplifting sound reminds me of the modern jazz of Kamasi Washington. It’s definitely jazz, but it’s also taken on board many global influences. I think Fela Kuti and King Tubby would identify with the energy and the feeling in this music.
  • Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters – I picked the vinyl version up at my local record store – Squeezebox in Wilmington, DE, after Rich told me it had unbelievable reviews. It really has an unbelievable energy to it and this chaotic quality that’s hard to describe (feels very pandemic). 
  • Waxahatchee – St. Cloud – this falls under Americana, if you have to label it. I was convinced it was recorded in Nashville, it has great musicians and a sort of Gillian Welch sound to it. (It was recorded in NYC and Texas actually).  
  • Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas – she describes this album as the album she’d always wanted to make. I haven’t heard her other work, but this series of beautiful soulful songs is worth a listen.

Other music to check out:

Usually I touch on reissues, but this year, I want to reflect on artists that made an impact on me in 2020 for a variety of reasons:

  • We lost John Prine this year to Covid. So many of his albums were re-released this year. Time to hear ‘Angel from Montgomery’ and more of his work at least one more time.
  • Multiple artists appeared in our family room (we signed up to let them in). Richard ThompsonLucinda WilliamsJosh RitterThe LumineersJohny Flynn and John Smith (a new name to me, he’s in the English folk tradition) and were just some of the artists that we enjoyed (and probably kept us sane) through 2020 with their live performances specially for us at home.

If you need more

I rely on NPR’s All Songs Considered to identify new music – if you have an hour, take a listen to their listeners’ picks end of year show 

More lists to explore:

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