No one will blame you if you’re chugging into the new year on fumes with no appropriate descriptors left for the last 9 months. 2020 was a stack of heartbreaks piled high, but for it’s many, many faults, it was also a year of clarity for music fans. It was the year of the livestream, fundraising compilations, Bandcamp Fridays, covers records, live albums. It was the year of Keep Music Live, Save Our Stages, legislators fighting for (or ignoring) our pleas for help preserving our venues, our cultural icons, our collective sanity. It was the year where artists were forced to become content creators from their own homes, which rebels against most of their natural instinct of routine and life on the road; not to mention their entire economy of income. For every anti-masker rushing the capitol building demanding to “open up,” there was an artist at home opening up their hearts to help those very same people.
Below is an unranked list of the best records this year, with honorable mentions following. Listen to the playlist below:
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It will forever have “2020” under it’s release date, but it is as authentic of a country soul record you will hear regardless of decade. Jerry Williams, Aka Swamp Dogg manages to pack in all of the classic soul tropes, into his own personal story full of love, heartbreak, family, swagger, lust and the hard straight truth.
Buy/Listen to Sorry You Couldn’t Make It – > Buy
Few artists radiate positivity the way Lilly Hiatt does. Either live on stage or from her home in Nashville, Hiatt usually has something nice to say. Lilly Hiatt is walking proof you can do what you love and do it your own way. That’s not to say maddening obstacles won’t pop out of nowhere, (like releasing a record during a global pandemic and mandated quarantine), but Hiatt manages to brush them all off and look on the bright side.
Buy/Listen to Walking Proof -> Buy
Listening to Sorceress feels like chatting with your best friend, sitting in a candle-lit room with a faint whiff of incense sneaking out of an open window with a slightly warm wind flapping the curtains. It’s a vibe and a mindset we’d all be lucky to call home.
Buy/Listen to Sorceress -> Buy
A record for the times (chillin at home). Also a record that sounds like it looks. Beautifully natural, mellow but a lot going on. West Coast breeze personified.
Buy/Listen to High Upon The Mountain Top -> Buy
Doug Stuart aka Dougie Stu is a bassist and producer from Oakland, California. Mostly a collaborator to this point in his career, Stu just released his debut solo record, Familiar Future. Aptly titled, the 10 track collection feels both forward-looking yet deeply rooted in classic jazz.
Buy/Listen to Familiar Future -> Buy
Old Flowers is as stripped down as Courtney Marie Andrews been in some years, but with clear confidence in her writing and fresh new perspective coming out a 9 year relationship. The mark of a truly great songwriter, Andrews conjures up specific emotions that you can tangibly feel, whether you’ve felt similarly at one point or not. With as unique and powerful of a voice as you will hear, Andrews leans on the power of the English language just the same.
Buy/Listen to Old Flowers -> Buy
After a pair of records with Madlib, Freddie Gibbs kept his sting of top-notch producer collaborations rolling by teaming up with The Alchemist for Alfredo. It’s Italian mobster theme and mellow piano-based tracks provided the perfect, smooth backdrop for Freddie to do this thing, and do it beautifully. Features from Rick Ross, Benny The Butcher, Tyler The Creator and Conway the Machine made this not only one of the absolute best records hip hope records of the year, but best records in general.
Buy/Listen to Alfredo -> Buy
Deep Sea Diver’s 3rd record, Impossible Weight is an incredibly bold step towards adding her own name to the short list of indie rock luminaries above. Each Deep Sea Diver record has been a step in this direction, but Impossible Weight leans on Jessica Dobson’s voice and guitar sound in new ways. The album packs extreme punch in the production and can get quite loud at times which adds to the joy and arc of emotion throughout.
Buy/Listen to Impossible Weight -> Buy
A far cry from her “roots” but not at all a shock, Caroline Rose released a wonderfully straight up POP record, Superstar. After 2018’s incredibly blended pop rock masterpiece, LONER, moving toward the full-fledged pop star was probably inevitable. For Superstar, Rose created a “character,” but one with many parallels to her personal artistic career arc. Underneath the Prince-like glitter and confidence, Rose lays it all out. Songs like Freak Like Me and Someone New venture far beyond the classic pop tropes. Amidst the glamour and satire, there are moments of true introspection and intimacy. Fans who have fallen for Rose will only get to know her more, which in turn, makes her all the more charming.
Buy/Listen to Superstar -> Buy
“Folk music” can be more so a genre these days, as opposed to actually leaning into the “folk”-lore of the songs. Eric D. Johnson, Anais Mitchell and Josh Kauffman, all musical lifers pay true homage to the tradition of folk music’s spirit on Bonny Light Horseman, the record AND the group itself. Despite the age and history of some of the lyrics, the trio added new choruses, new arrangements, and in some cases, creating something entirely new in the spirit of the rest of the collection. The album never feels like a reenactment, and it is in no way a “covers album.” It feels eerily modern as it is ancient.
Buy/Listen to Bonny Light Horseman -> Buy
It doesn’t take too much detective work to assume Margo Price was moving away from the born and bred country music of her fantastic debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and follow up, All American Made. Personally and musically Price has come a long way since then. After gaining supreme status as one of country music’s true stars for good reason, Margo Price is staking her claim as a bonafide rock star. Her 3rd record, That’s How Rumors Get Started is a glitzy and incredibly comforting rock record that you’d find in the jukebox alongside Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, and Bob Dylan at their peak. The album has nostalgic sensibilities, yet you can’t help but feel a glimpse of the future of rock n roll.
Buy/Listen to That’s How Rumors Get Started -> Buy
Jeffrey Silverstein is not originally from the Pacific Northwest, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by listening to his debut LP, You Become The Mountain. The nine tracks are delicately crafted and seem to personify the dreamy landscapes of the upper left corner of the USA. Standing on a patio overlooking dewy grass, steam from a mug of hot coffee in your eyes, purple and green shadows, the remnants of snow, You Become The Mountain is the type of musical piece to plug in, get comfortable, get lost and identify whatever it is you need at the moment.
Buy/Listen to You Become The Mountain -> Buy
Mapache is a two-man, acoustic machine of harmonies and guitar intricacies. For just two men, they create multiple layers of rich, California country sounds. Their second LP, From Liberty Street is a continuation of their self-titled debut. It’s a beautiful blend of Spanish-infused sunny-day country folk tunes.
Buy/Listen to From Liberty Street -> Buy
Relatively hot on the heels of his 2018 album Rare Birds, which saw him venture more into electronic synths, Jonathan Wilson changed things up all over again. For the new record, and per the advice of Steve Earle, Wilson went to Nashville and compiled an impressive all-star band for some studio time at the legendary Jack Clement studio. Wilson wished to create a classic studio sessions-type record. With new songs that lent themselves nicely to a more southern sensibility, the opportunity was there for him to “go country” in a sense. Country as only Wilson could, of course with long, lush arrangements with subtle, yet complex intricacies as usual.
Buy/Listen to Dixie Blur -> Buy
Kevin Morby’s 6th full length record, Sundowner, is a DIY effort written entirely in his hometown of Kansas City. An old shed in his backyard became the new writing room, just Morby and a 4-track tape. Sundowner stands on it’s own entirely, but it’s fun to imagine 15 years into the future sitting back and squabbling with friends about where it stands in Morby’s catalog. Similar to the type of conversations folks have about how Springsteen’s Nebraska compares to Born To Run or The River.
Buy/Listen to Sundowner -> Buy
Budding young Rnb star Parisalexa can sing, rap, dance and enlighten you in the same minute. If there’s anyone in Seattle still sleeping on Parisalexa turn off the snooze. It’s starting to feel the same for anyone outside Seattle though too.
Buy/Listen to 2 Real -> Buy
Jim James and the MMJ crew were ready to reunite this summer with a rumored album already ready to go. Like everyone, they had to adjust their plans by releasing an older record sitting on the shelf to ease themselves back. Five years after its counterpart, The Waterfall, the open secret to another record from the Stinson Beach sessions was well worth the wait. The Waterfall II honestly feels like a Waterfall. It starts slow before really hitting its stride towards the middle and saving the heaviest for the end. A little funky and experimental and as melty as ever.
Buy/Listen to The Waterfall II -> Buy
Alicia Bognanno’s first “solo” Bully record is a confessional DIY power dynamo
Buy/Listen to Sugaregg -> Buy
Portland songwriter Tommy Alexander’s record becomes one of the years’ most favorite upon first listen. Been many listens since. Just really good songs. Each different than the last. It’s a gritty, DIY and sounds like Paul Westerberg formed a country band. Pardon the comparison (hate that) but Mats’ and some honky-tonk guitar are two of ears’ best medicine.
Buy/Listen to Waves -> Buy
Ripley Johnson of Moon Duo and Wooden Shijps other project, the hazy psychedelic Rose City Band’s 2nd record. Don’t care if it’s been said 109 times already but this record WAS played all summer long. Such a groove. Vibe. Feeling.
Buy/Listen to Summerlong -> Buy
Southern spokesman and songwriter who lives at the top of his game, Jason Isbell gathered his band The 400 Unit for another wonderful collection of songs. Reunions is cleaned up, rock n roll record with the few stunners, with lines that stop you in your tracks. It’s a nice listen on a sunny evening and a nice listen on a rainy morning.
Buy/Listen to Reunions -> Buy
Modern day jazz and funk lord, Thundercat released another chapter in his odyssey to mashup jazz, funk, video games, anime, cats, memes to into soulful and listenable music. As goofy as he can be, It Is What It Is proves that Thundercat takes his craft seriously and is damn good at what he does.
Buy/Listen to It Is What It Is -> Buy
London based musician and drummer from Yussef’s Kamaal’s project, Black Focus, Kamaal Williams dropped a solo record in July. Wu Hen is incredibly atmospheric broken beat jazz. A vibe unlike most.
Buy/Listen to Wu Hen –> Buy
Midwest funk legend, Steve Arrington came out with his first album in 10 years. After collaborating with Tyler The Creator and modern artists, he got back in the studio and released this kinda goofy, very groovy record on Stones Throw.
Buy/Listen to Down To The Lowest Terms: The Soul Sessions –> Buy
Tyler Childers spent part of the early part of quarantine teaching himself to play the fiddle. Out of the blue, in the heat of our countries racial tension, he released Long Violent History. It’s quite beautiful and extremely gutsy coming from someone of his ilk as one of the poster boys for Appalachian culture. Even if you don’t like fiddle music, his accompanying explanation video is worth the watch HERE.
Buy/Listen to Long Violent History –> Buy
Katie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud record feels like a folk classic already. It has a subtle, perfect amount of synth and pop flair to make it sound fresh every listen.
Buy/Listen to Saint Cloud –> Buy
Recorded during June 1974 and January 1975 between On The Beach and Zuma, Homegrown is every bit the classic as those two. Neil Young’s 40th album, it seems hard to image he has been sitting on this for as long as he did. The day Homegrown was released was one of the year’s purest joys.
Buy/Listen to Homegrown -> Buy
The posthumous record from Mac Miller. It sort of acts as an accompaniment record to Swimming, but the vibe is entirely new. It’s mellow and artsy and truly sounds better over time. Miller had been recording this record before his death. With permission of his family, Circles was completed by producer, Jon Brion.
Buy/Listen to Circles -> Buy
Partially inspired by the legendary Bruce Springsteen live box set from 1978-1985, LIVE DRUGS is a collection of hand selected live tracks from War On Drugs shows over the span of 6 years. As their popularity has soared, the crowds have gotten larger, as has their sound. They are one of today’s best arena rock bands and LIVE DRUGS proves it through the headphones
Buy/Listen to LIVE DRUGS -> Buy
You know 2020 is a weird year when Bill Callahan stayed in the news all year. Normally one to take his time between output, Callahan released Gold Record right off the heels of last year’s 20 track beast Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. Gold Record is a bare, stripped effort that highlights Callahan’s songwriting chops. Songs like The Mackenzies and Pigeons are truly top notch.
Buy/Listen to Gold Record -> Buy
Recorded in the woods back east, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker added two more records to her solo catalog. Songs and Instrumentals are exactly what it sounds like. Two wonderful additions to the continuous moody music season.
Buy/Listen to Songs and Instrumentals -> Buy
Have you sold the world itself? How good is the virtual sex? Are you high right now? Do your dreams have commercials? These are all questions Jeremy Ivey asks right out of the gate on the first track, Tomorrow People. It’s hard to label, Waiting Out The Storm as a doomsday record when it is all already true in the modern day.
Buy/Listen to Waiting Out The Storm -> Buy
An impressive amount of noise and sound for simply Steven Gunn’s guitar amp and John Truscinski’s drum kit. 71 minutes of transfixing, droning free jazz and pysch rock. It’ll wake ya right up.
Buy/Listen to Soundkeeper -> Buy
A daily route of listening to Fetch The Bolt Cutters every mourning would still yield a spectrum of feelings. It’s well documented how wonderful this record is. It’s all true.
Never one to stop experimenting or stop creating. Berlin based powerhouse King Khan tried his hand at a full blown jazz record. Like most things he does, it’s fantastic.
Houston trio Khruangbin took another step in the quest for global domination. Name one person who listens to Khruangbin and has a negative reaction. That person does not exist.
Buy/Listen to Mordechai -> Buy
Sturgill Simpson is getting Grammy nominations for his Sound & Fury record for best rock record. He spent his time in quarantine at The Butcher Shoppe, as studio owned and operated by engineer Dave Ferguson and the late John Prine. Those sessions yielded classic bluegrass renditions of nearly his entire back-catalog excluding Sound & Fury. If Volume 1 was a surprise, the reverb of Volume 2 is still being felt.
Buy/Listen to Cutting Grass -> Buy
LA beatmaker and 1/2 of NxWorries with Anderson.Paak, Knxledge released this solo project earlier in the year on Stones Throw.
Buy/Listen to 1988 -> Buy
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy essentially lives at his Chicago studio, The Loft” and by all accounts finds inspiration in every day life. The man stays constantly at work, whether for Wilco of his solo projects which feature his two sons as his backing band. Love Is The King is a standout from his recent output.
Buy/Listen to Love Is The King -> Buy
The Seattle rapper, singer, beatmaker’s latest project is more expansive, more experimental yet even more accessible. DIY hip hop is the best hip hop.
Buy/Listen to Cadmium Sagas -> Buy
A true authentic throwback, Welcome to Hard Times came out earlier this year following an impressive string of records from Charley Crockett. Certainly fits the times. The dude keeps ’em comin’.
Buy/Listen to Welcome To Hard Times -> Buy
A Light In The Attic Records compilation of rare funk, disco soul tracks. A DJ’s dream.
Buy/Listen to Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987 -> Buy
Enough has been said about 2020, but the fact that Neil Young and Bob Dylan both released some of their best in music is telling.. of something?
New York based artist Dan Knishkowy who creates music under Adeline Hotel bakes up warmly lush songs that are not country, psych or soul, yet somehow all three. This collection of songs feels comforting above all else
Buy/Listen to Solid Love -> Buy
Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer Leon Micheals is known for his work with the Daptone crew, Lee Fields, Lady Wray and others. A cinematic piece. There are moods, #mood and there is mooooooods like this record.
Buy/Listen to Solid Love -> Buy
Dua Lipa has been on the steady climb for the last few years, but this was the year she shot to worldwide stardom. For good reason. Her music is fun, sexy and full of 80s basslines and she is a great singer. Future Nostalgia is the type of great pop record where every track could be a single.
London Guitarist and producer Tom Misch teamed up with London drummer Yussef Dayes for a smooth broken beat jazzy, smooth guitar rnb wonder with divers features including rapper Freddie Gibbs.
Nashville by way of the Bay Area, Logan Ledger sings with a 60’s croon. His songs are both modern and a blast from the past. There is a tenderness in his songs that create an underlying comforting.
Buy/Listen to Logan Ledger -> Buy
Modern jazz legends and producers Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, 9th Wonder and Robert Glasper teamed up for an an incredible EP with apt title, Dinner Party.
Listen to the BEST WHATEVER RECORDS OF 2020 (PLAYLIST)
More great records worth the time and spins:
Lee Fields – Big Crown Vault: Volume 1
Woods – Strange To Explain
Nude Party – Midnight Manor
Izaak Opatz – Hot & Heavy Handed
Michael Nau – Demo Versions: 2014-2017
Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts
Blitzen Trapper – Holy Smokes Future Jokes
Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Kearney Barton – Architect of NW sound (V/A)
Basia Bulet – Are You In Love
Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling and The New OK
Leon Bridges & Khruangbin – Texas Sun
Kurt Vile – Speed, Sound, Loneliness
Spillage Village – Spilligon
Gillian Welch – Lost Songs
Thelma & The Sleaze – Sacred As Hell
Skyway Man – The World Only Ends When You Die
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Samantha Crain – A Small Death
Whitney – Candid
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Damien Jurado – What’s New, Tomboy?
Andy Shauf – Neon Skyline
Kaytranada – Bubba