The Ledge #455: Best Albums of 2020
So let’s get this out of the way. 2020 was a dumpster fire of a year. A worldwide pandemic shut everything down. A contentious Presidential election tore apart friends and families. Race and sexual identity issues became online litmus tests. Everybody was angry.
One of the biggest industries affected by Covid was the music business, as any kind of public gathering was shut down. This affected not only the superstars playing stadiums but every level of live music. With streaming overtaking music ownership, the only way for the fledgling artist to make money in recent years has been to constantly tour. With that method of generating an income no longer available, how does the typical 2020 musician pay their bills?
Somehow we still have a banner year for music releases. Sure, a few big names have pushed back new albums hoping for a better 2021, but for many artists the forced down time has created an artistic opportunity. Many acts released more music this year than at any point in their career. Case in point is Canadian songwriter Daniel Romano, who unleashed almost a dozen different projects. Others, such as power popper Brad Marino, used the time to create tributes to influential records.
Other artists even redefined the live music experience with online concerts and other performances. Jeff Tweedy and his family hosted an acclaimed Instagram series where they not only collaborated on songs but bickered and joked around with each other. Lucinda Williams created Lu’s jukebox, a series of shows devoted to various musical themes.
Putting together this year’s list then became a tougher task than usual. The initial list for this task included almost 100 records, and the pairing down included cutting out quite a few artists that routinely end up in the upper portion in a typical year. Elvis Costello’s new album didn’t make the cut. Nor did the 2020 records by Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, or Chuck Prophet. Even the surprisingly great reunion records by Wire, Close Lobsters, and the Psychedelic Furs were reluctantly dismissed.
1. Bob Mould, Blue Hearts. While his last album, 2019’s Sunshine Rock, may have indicated Mould had finally found happiness, that mood clearly didn’t last long. He’s angry once again, and the result is the heaviest guitar attack since his Husker Du days.
2. X, Alphabetland. In a year full of surprise returns, the first X record in 35 years to feature the original lineup was the first Covid-related surprise release. It’s almost as if they had never stopped recording, though, as this blistering album proudly stands next to their legendary run of early ‘80’s albums.
3. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways. After years of odd records of Sinatra covers I’m not sure anybody was expecting a new record of Dylan originals. Even if they did, nobody expected a new Dylan record to be as great as this. The wordplay on this record is wild, blending classic historical figures with current pop culture. One can almost imagine a rare smile on his usual dour face as he recorded his best collection of songs in over 20 years.
4. The Exbats, Kicks, Hits, and Fits. With the success of The White Stripes, Black Keys, and a few others, garage rock duos are really nothing new. But when was the last time you saw a noisy father/daughter duo? Guitarist Ken McLain, who cites the Ramones and Blondie as his main influences, started writing songs and at some point daughter Inez jumped behind the drums and this exuberant band was born.
5. Geoff Palmer & Lucy Ellis, Your Face Is Weird. A little disclaimer here. I have strict rules for my end of the year lists, and generally EP’s and cover albums are not eligible. Rules are made to be broken, though, and while this 10” EP collaboration between Geoff Palmer (The Connection, Kurt Baker) and Lucy Ellis (Lucy and the Rats) may be 75% covers there’s such an infectious warmth to this project it rarely moved five feet away from my turntable. (Seriously. It’s even at this moment sitting on top of a pile of records just under my stereo.) Remember when Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield put out that I Don’t Cares album? That’s the feel of this fun little side project, and I hope there’s more to come.
6. Lucy and the Rats, Got Lucky. Along with her collaboration with Geoff Palmer, Lucy Ellis also put out an equally strong album with her band the Rats. Ellis is a fabulous pop songwriter, and the Rats punk-ish power pop garage sound is the perfect backing for her tunes.
7. Black Lips, Sing In A World That’s Falling Apart. Remember when Ween released a country album back in the ‘90’s? 25 years or so later the Black Lips sort of repeat the template. I say sort of as this one retains more of the band’s original quirky personality, but it’s still an unexpected turn for this crazy little and.
8. Lydia Loveless, Daughter. Much has changed in Loveless’ life since the release of her last album, 2016’s Real. She’s now divorced, has relocated to a new city, and has also left Bloodshot Records. What hasn’t changed is her songwriting and vocal skills, and Daughter is another top-notch release.
9. Nap Eyes, Snapshot Of A Beginner. Some bands get better with each album, and Nap Eyes certainly is one of them. Their fourth album in eight years is their most confident, adventurous record to date, highlighted by a songwriter, Nigel Chapman, who welcomes challenging himself to further his craft.
10. The Jayhawks, XOXO. Most Jayhawks albums are dominated by the songs of leader Gary Louris. On this album, the goal was for the entire band to contribute material and take lead vocals. The result is quite possibly their most varied album of their 35 year career.
11. Frankie and the Witch Fingers, Monsters Eating People Eating Monsters. Some groups defy labels, or combine so many genres that it’s almost impossible to describe. Frankie and the Witch Fingers are one of those bands, especially as their sound has expanded over the years. Psych, garage, and prog are just part of the sounds that battle each other not only on every album but almost every song, creating one of today’s most unique sounds.
12. Shadow Show, Silhouettes. 2020’s best new artist? This Detroit trio retains the punchy psychedelic sounds that made the city famous in the late ‘60’s, mixes in a few shades of current indie pop, and takes quite a few unusual songwriting twists and turns.
13. Old 97’s, Twelfth. It’s quite amazing that for over 25 years this country-tinged band has been so consistent. Has there ever really been a bad Old 97’s album? Even their Christmas record from a few years ago was pretty great. In fact, this record ranks up there with the other highlights of their career.
14. Country Westerns, S/T. Ok, let’s get the obvious statement out of the way. This is an awful name for a band. Just ignore that, and focus on the fact that members of the band were previously in Gentleman Jim and the Silver Jews. Let’s also focus on the fact that once the pandemic is over this is one of the raucous, roots-ish bands I want to see in a crowded, smoky dive bar.
15. Osees, Protean Threat. Speaking of names, collecting John Dwyer-related projects is a filing nightmare. His band’s 23 full-length albums (and various singles and EP’s) have come out as OCS, The Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, Oh Sees, and now Osees. (Even iTunes has trouble accurately listing the correct band name at times.) Dwyer is another artist that has installed prog elements into psych-garage, although this record arguably pares back some of the musical excesses of other recent albums.
16. Habibi, Anywhere But Here. This band features a true melting pot of styles, as not only are there Beach Boys-influenced harmonies and modern garage rock intensity but Iranian vocalist Rahill Jamalifard provides Middle Eastern influences that’s rarely, if ever, present in today’s rock and roll.
17. Guided By Voices, Mirrored Aztec. Another year, another trio of Guided By Voices albums. Are they now up to 120 releases? While none of this year’s three albums approach the greatness of 2017’s August By Cake or last year’s Zeppelin Over China, nobody can write a punchy two-minute tune like leder Robert Pollard.
18. Dead Ghosts, Automatic Charger. Although these lo-fi garage rockers have been together for so long that they were first noticed via MySpace, this is only their fourth full-length album. Partly recorded in a barn and a basement, any fan of trippy, surf-inspired guitar, reverb-soaked vocals, and quirky melodies will love this record.
19. David Nance, Staunch Honey. Omaha’s best kept songwriting secret is back with his fifth (regular) album, reportedly recorded by himself and a couple of friends in his home. A bit quieter than his last album, 2018’s Peaced and Slightly Pulverized, the songs are at the same time intense but low-key, sort of a modern-day version of Neil Young’s On the Beach/Zuma era.
20. Beach Slang, The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City. I have admittedly always had some issues with Beach Slang. No, it’s not the band as much as their hardcore fans who constantly proclaim them as today’s Replacements. Nope. I don’t hear that. Even though Tommy Stinson appears on this record, I still don’t get that connection sonically. This record, however, is the best collection of punk-inspired tunes I’ve heard from them in quite some time.
21. Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling. Honestly, your enjoyment of this record (and the accompanying followup The New OK) will be based less on the music and more on your political affiliation. This is the band’s state of the union address, and they hold nothing back.
22. Kevin Morby, Sundowner. Is Morby slowly becoming the new Leonard Cohen. It certainly seems that way, and I mean that as a compliment. The arrangements are quieter and more folk-ish. The lyrics are more poetic, which is perfect for a record that tries to describe Midwestern life.
23. Idles, Ultra Mono. It’s not often that I have any desire to quote Pitchfork, but I really can’t top their description of Idles - “ornery blokes from outside the capital charismatically proclaiming moral truths in a tone that suggests they could also annihilate you in a bar fight.”
24. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud. After an album of noisy, bitter breakup songs (2017’s Out in the Storm), Katie Crutchfield is in love again (with Kevin Morby), and this country-tinged record perfectly represents this happier change in her life. This is easily her best record to date, as the songwriting is honest and the pared-down musical backing perfectly reflects this new voice.
25. Fuzz, III. It was a surprisingly quiet year for the usually prolific Ty Segall, whose only release under his name was a collection of Harry Nilsson covers. His only other project was a resuscitation (after five years) of this proto-metal power trio collaboration with guitarist Charlie Moothart and bassist Chad Ubovich. Recorded by Steve Albini, this is a more back to basics collection when compared to the 2015’s more experimental II.
26. John Moreland, LP5. After four sparse albums of primarily voice and guitar, Moreland’s fifth albums widens the sonics a bit. There’s even some drum machines and synths. Yet these elements are no AOR department over-production. The focus is still on Moreland and his enormous voice, with the added instrumentation adding the proper amount of color.
27. Jeff Tweedy, Love Is The King. With nothing to do during quarantine, Tweedy and his sons had little to do but head a few blocks over to his studio to work on a few ideas. The result is a record that sort of harkens back to the country influences of the first Wilco album, A.M. Much like the book he also recently released, How To Write One Song, the record primarily showcases the power of daily writing as a craft.
28. The Flatmates, S/T. During their initial run in the late ‘80’s, this British band released a handful of singles but never completed a full-length album. After reuniting in 2013, they have now finally issued their debut album, and it’s full of killer indie pop songs.
29. Flat Worms, Antarctica. There’s quite a pedigree surrounding this band. One member also currently plays in Thee Oh Sees. Another was in Kevin Morby’s previous band, The Babies. This record was even recorded by Ty Segall and Steve Albini. The result is a record of hard-hitting psychedelic post-punk that may take a few listens to appreciate.
30. Fontaines D.C, A Hero’s Death. It’s hard for me to think of this band without also thinking of Idles. Not only have they toured together, but they also sort of forge the same angry Mark E. Smith-ish barrage of hard-hitting, subversive lyrics.
31. The Ratboys, Click. The story of this band apparently revolves around two musician friends meeting at a 2008 punk revival festival and forming a band based around that show’s lineup of The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, and The Kids. After a couple of previous records and a long breakup, they are back with a record that indeed incorporates the best of late ‘70’s punk. Yet this is no tribute record thanks to the band’s ability to create melodies that rival those of their heroes.
32. The Dream Syndicate, The Universe Inside. It’s refreshing that even after 40 years a band can still be experimental. The story behind this record is that the band convened for a 80 minute instrumental jam session that leader Steve Wynn then edited down (and overdubbed vocals) into five separate songs. One song is 20 minutes long. Only one song is shorter than nine minutes. Yet it does not sound pretentious or tedious at all. It works.
33. Mourn, Self Worth. Snotty post-punk full of pent-up frustration, catchy hooks, and fierce guitar riffs. Who are they angry at? Themselves, adulthood, misogyny, and even a shakeup in the band’s lineup. The term “coming of age” may be a cliche, but it certainly fits in the case of Mourn’s most fully-realized album to date.
34. Pavid Vermin, Cutting Corners. Glenn Robinson certainly had a busy quarantine, as his Pavid Vermin one man band project put out three Ramones-inspired records in just three months. This one gets the nod above the other two (one a tribute to Lookout Records), mainly due to a songwriting gimmick where every song shares a title with an Abbey Road tune.
35. Gallows Birds, Quaranteenage Kicks. Another project that would not have happened without the dreaded Covid. Guitarist Travis Woods found himself locked down in Wilmington, North Carolina, and began writing and recording. He then called upon a few friends to remotely add some additional instrumentation and lead vocals, and the result is a record that is equal parts Beach Boys and Ramones. Plus there’s covers of Graham Parker and Wreckless Eric!
36. Caleb Landry Jones, The Mother Stone. You probably know Caleb Landry Jones for his roles in Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Who knew he was also a musician? While working on two films, Jones also put together this record that to me is a mix of psych-era Beatles, early Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, and Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Blackstar albums. Yeah, it’s weird but yet intoxicating.
37. The No Ones, The Great Lost No Ones Album. What happens when two guys from Portland, Oregon collaborate with two musicians in Norway? Somehow in this case it turns into a great little bar band, but I guess it helps when the two Portland musicians are former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Minus 5 leader Scott McCaughey.
38. Muck and the Mires, Greetings From Muckingham Palace. If there’s one garage rock revivalist that deserves acclaim it’s these ambassadors of what’s been described as “a mix of the Hamburg-era Beatles and The Ramones at CBGB’s”. Add in a taste of Raspberries pop and MC5 power and you have what may be their best album to date.
39. Rookie, S/T. There’s something refreshing about good old fashioned rock and roll that hints at all the greats. A little bit of Big Star here, a pinch of Cheap Trick there, along with a good helping of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Yet their own songwriting is strong enough that this is no homage. It’s good old noisy bar band rock.
40. Curtiss A, Jerks of Fate. 33 after his late album the original Minneapolis punk is back with an album that’s primarily about his favorite subject - Curtiss A. Yet it’s not as self-indulgent as one would think, mainly because Curtiss is a master songwriter whose career has been hampered by an admitted lack of ambition.
This week's episode of The Ledge is a reverse order, Casey Kasem-ish countdown show featuring a track from each of these albums. After listening, please go purchase those albums or tracks you enjoy! These great artists deserve to be compensated for their hard work, and every purchase surely helps not only pay their bills but fund their next set of wonderful songs. You can find this show at almost any podcast site, including iTunes and Stitcher...or