The year that took a stranglehold on us all is nearly in the books.
Yes, 2020 brought a mountain of life-altering challenges and Groundhog’s Day-like frustrations, as we awoke every day hoping for some positive change in the perpetual cycle of bullshit. Arguably the hardest part of all of it was not knowing when life could and would resume to some form of “normalcy”- and we still don’t know.
There’s no guarantee 2021 won’t bring about landsharks of fire that breathe murder hornets equip with a new virus, but at least we won’t be surprised. (maybe a little) Just the four numbers that are 2-0-2-0 will forever be etched to a year of insurmountable hardship to say the least, and 2021 at least has a chance to prove itself as a new door of hope, as new years always are. Time will soon tell.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2020.
We got to spend quality time with our animals, plants, and ourselves, experience the unfathomable world of Tiger King, and to the relief of many logical, compassionate Americans, welcomed a new leader who induces far less shame, dread, and despair.
More than that, our ears were blessed with heaps of wonderful new music. Some from familiar voices, some up and coming.
With that, I present my humble list of ten albums released in 2020 that made the year more bearable and forgiving with their sweet sonic escape. We published 264 articles this year and received thousands of submissions from all kinds of artists, and these ten albums were some that made lasting impressions on us, and perhaps for you too.
And a reminder: this ain’t no list of today’s top-charting Billboard artists, no.
This is delivering recognition to the more “underground” songwriters and instrument-driven artists who aren’t doing it for Red Bull endorsements and to please ivory tower fat cats. (at least that we know of)
So without further adieu…
10. The Rally Club- I Know What’s Real
I like to think I know what’s real too, and I would put The Rally Club’s newest album among that standing. This is another one of those albums that brings a freeing, feel-good vintage vibe throughout. This Nashville indie group that dubs their sound “anti-chaos lucid groove pop” offers a kaleidoscope of sound with a range of feels. Songs like “Cuckoo” and “No Room” offer bouncy melodies that hearken to dare I say a Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s era with delightful, semi-trippy pop-rock sounds. And then tracks like “She’ll Never Let You Down” and “Diana” offer tranquil, delicate songwriting and soundscapes to help calm the nerves. The album flows with a rose-colored, indie pop-soaked charm, and delights to the very end.
9. Afton Wolfe- Petronius’ Last Meal
This EP from Avant-Garde songsmith Afton Wolfe offers five badass songs that can take you back in time, as it’s not hard to imagine yourself drinking gin at last call with a cigarette in hand on a rainy night, thinking about the one that got away. It has a dark, lounge-like vibe throughout, with Wolfe’s gritty Tom Waits-like vocals atop his carefully crafted acoustic jazz-soaked songs. He offers much depth and intrigue to his lyrics, and it undoubtedly offers something different. This EP scratches an itch you didn’t know you had.
8. Bison Bone- Find Your Way Out
I’m realizing now the numbers on this list are merely irrelevant placeholders for the sake of structure, because this album is worthy of a top spot. What makes a great album is one that just seems to get better as it goes on. Colorado’s Bison Bone has been releasing quality music for awhile now, and Find Your Way Out is chock full of Americana-fueled rock and roots jams. It was their singles “Drinking to Do” and “Downtown” that caught our ear and drew us into the whole shebang. Lots of Bruce Springsteen vibes among other similar blue-collar songwriters. For anybody on the hunt for some quality mountain music, you oughta check this one out.
7. Lachy Doley- Double Figures
Hailing from The Land Down Under, this master of the Hammond Organ and Whammy Clavinet known as Lachy Doley delivers a damn fine covers album, chock full of hard-hitting rock energy underneath his deep, guttural vocals. Covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and the opening track, “Gimme Some Lovin'” by The Spencer Davis Group hits hard, and reels you in immediately with its electricity. Doley’s music is perfect for festivals, to which he’s been well acquainted with, and will again in due time. He is prodigious on his instruments, and brings about a storm of energy like few others with his playing. Double Figures is a badass and unique ode to some classic songs.
6. Daniel Donato- A Young Man’s Country
This Cosmic Country titan of the Telecaster who ruled the mean streets of Broadway as an early teen has taken the guitar world by storm with his masterful playing, blending a fantastic mix of country and rock and roll. I may be biased as someone who does in fact love The Grateful Dead, but Daniel Donato is one to lay down the lumber on a number of Dead tracks (probably a high number), and he displays that in his rendition of “Fire on the Mountain” on the album. I saw him perform at a Dead night at The Basement East (now a golden memory in retrospect) and he brought the house down as he fired through “Slipknot/Help on the Way.” Aside from that, he is well-versed in his songwriting, and weaves spacey country-pop vibes with his expert rock guitar play, thus creating his version of Cosmic Country. Donato has great charisma and a dialed-in online presence, and the sky’s the limit for this young cosmic shredder.
5. Jarrod Dickenson- Ready the Horses
As a roving Texas troubadour who pinballed between California, Austin, Nashville, and some places in between (and across the pond), Americana songsmith Jarrod Dickenson delivered a most authentic country, roots, and southern soul-rock album this past spring in Ready the Horses. It brims with vintage old cowboy western songwriting, perhaps most notably in “A Cowboy & the Moon.” The song hearkens to a Red Headed Stranger-era Willie Nelson, and has all the sleepy cowboy feels. Songs like “Gold Rush” and the opening track, “Faint of Heart” offer an almost gritty waltz-like charm akin to that of Tom Waits. “In the Meantime” and “Take It From Me” offer a soulful, swaying melody with heavy gospel-like harmonies and powerful singing. This album offers a great spectrum of country, roots, soul, and endearing storytelling.
4. Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar- The Reckless One
Canada’s funk and soul scene is alive and well. Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar offer dare I say a semblance of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and their record The Reckless One brings a much welcomed and similar soulful funky energy with dynamite vocals. It was their single “Don’t Have to Be” that initially drew us in, and after one full listen to the album, we were hooked. There will always be a home for some damn fine funk, soul, and rock fusion bands, and Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar fit that mold perfectly. Again a perfect sound for all-night dance parties music festivals. (please God bring them back ASAP)
3. Hula Hi-Fi- The Isle of Forgotten Dreams
If the worlds of James Bond and David Lynch collided on the beaches of Waikiki and music resulted, it might sound like Hula Hi-Fi. Their debut album, The Isle of Forgotten Dreams, offers something incredibly unique not only to the Nashville musical landscape, but the musical landscape as a whole. The duo that is singer-songwriter and uke shredder Danica Dora and steel guitar maestro and producer Josh Kaler join forces to make the most beautifully melancholy and haunting melodies beneath enchanting vocals. They take the breezy feel-good Hawaiian slack-key sound and make it into something mysterious and dangerously alluring. They had the help of The Brno Philharmonic Orchestra of the Czech Republic on the album, which obviously bolsters the theatrics and depth of the music. This is a fantastic album if you want something truly different, and most euphorically magnetic.
2. Pete Bernhard- Harmony Ascension Division
Sometimes stripped down folk music with lyrics that breakthrough and guitar picking that soothes the soul is just what the doctor ordered. Pete Bernhard of The Devil Makes Three dropped his solo album, Harmony Ascension Division, this spring, and it’s a true songwriter’s album. It can be really hard to standout with just a guitar and vocals these days, but when you have it, you have it, and Bernhard has it. From the jump with “I Knew You” and later on with “Long Night,” Bernhard has a way of getting inside your head and heart, much like a Nick Drake or even Marc Bolan. This is a must-listen for fans of great songwriting and amazing guitar picking.
- Brit Taylor- Real Me
I’ve listened to so many new songs this year, and I must say the songs on this album are some that struck me the most. Brit Taylor’s debut album, Real Me, hits on every level: angelic and beautiful vocals, charming and original lyrics, great country and rock instrumentation, and that magic X-factor that you can’t quite put your finger on. It doesn’t hurt that Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys helped write a handful of songs on this album, but make no mistake, Taylor has a slam dunk with this her first album. I can’t help but feel like big things lie ahead for this talented songstress of the south. If this is the real Brit Taylor, we’re all in.
South For Winter- Luxumbra
Casey Jo & The Friday Night Dads- Twin Mind
Caravan 222- Patagonia
Josh Halper- Alrightnik
Barbaro- Dressed in Roses
Robert Connely Farr- Country Supper
Jon Stickley- Scripting the Flip
Jordan Tice- Motivational Speakeasy
Nocona- Los Dos