Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

While it is true that we have not been able to experience as much music as we did at the mid-point of last year while we wait for records by Chuck Prophet, Willie Nelson, Paul Weller, and Margo Price to see the light of day, there are still plenty of musical morsels to savor so far in 2020.

01.) Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

With his first album of new material since 2012’s Tempest, on this, his latest, Dylan is once again in a fine form combining Blues, Folk, Country, Rockabilly, and Gospel with a bit of protest thrown in for good measure. As we have come to expect, the songwriting on this one is a master-class level history and pop culture lesson with each verse.

There are Road-House Blues on “Crossing the Rubicon,” Jimmy Reed inspired Blues on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” and on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate) we are taken on a stripped-down 9:00 journey down the acknowledgment path of mortality. And, the epic “Murder Most Foul” brings us face to face with the Kennedy Assassination for good measure.

This one might be the best album of the year.

02.) American Aquarium – Lamentations

This is a band that quite simply is getting better and better with each subsequent release. Their 2018 record, Things Change, was pretty great, and the band has even turned it up a notch with their latest, Lamentations, part Whiskeytown by way of Jason Isbell era Drive-By Truckers and part Bruce Springsteen inspired storytelling. With the knob-twirling production of former dB’s frontman Chris Stamey, this one is one of the better releases of the year, any genre. The opener, “Me+Mine (Lamentations)” is epic in all its 6 minute and 40 seconds glory.

03.) Mark Lanegan – Straight Songs of Sorrow

Mark Lanegan has a dark poetic sensibility that brings to mind Nick Cave or Scott Walker. His latest record coming on the heels of the release of his no holds barred bare-knuckle autobiography features guest turns from the likes of John Paul Jones, Greg Dulli, and Ed Harcourt.

04.) Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Fresh off her critically acclaimed collaboration on the Better Oblivion Community Center record with Conor Oberst. Phoebe Bridgers is back in short order with her unique brand of Folk-Pop elegance. The record is a meandering beauty with hushed vocals and lush arrangements with lyrics that can be dark at times against a template of sunshine melodies. The mood is pensive in places, especially on “Halloween” and jaunty in others as displayed on the travelogue inspired “Kyoto.” Exquisitely produced as tight as the skin on an apple this is an elegant release with plenty of high points and very few low ones.

05.) Jason Isbell – Reunions

As expected, the new Jason Isbell record is spectacular. His band, The Four Hundred Unit is one of the cracker-jack units in the business, and this one might surpass Southeastern as the best album in the Jason Isbell canon given enough listening time. Extra credit to Jason for releasing the album exclusively to independent record stores one week in advance of delivering the finished product to the unwashed masses.

06.) Marcus King – El Dorado

Proving in full measure that he can step out from The Marcus King Band and show that he is no guitar whiz one-trick pony, Marcus King shows his songwriting chops and his ability to deliver roots-based melodic masterpieces. Blues and Southern Soul is the order of the day and the top of the mark backing band provided by producer Dan Auerbach and his team at Easy Eye Sound is ‘Wrecking Crew’ worthy. What this record lacks in King’s trademark guitar-shredding is more than made up with the emotional depth and heartfelt vintage soul of an artist that will be on our radar for many years to come.

07.) Mapache – From Liberty Street

This one has so many Laurel Canyon vibes wafting all over it the record might as well have been recorded on Joni Mitchell’s couch. This, their sophomore record is a breezy harmony-ladened gem.

08.) Mystery Jets – A Billion Heartaches

This eclectic blend of a band combines Kaleidoscopic Folk, Post Punk, and Indie Rock into an infectious ’60s influenced brand of Rock and Roll. From the earworm worthy song “Hospital Radio” to the delicately soaring “History Has Its Eyes On You” there is something for everyone on this fine record.

09.) Ashley McBryde – Never Will

As official members of the Ashley McBryde fan club from the days when she was hanging out in “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” we are calling our shot now. Never Will, her latest record will be on many of the year-end best-of lists, genre be damned. Rocking it up a bit more than her prior efforts yet maintaining her 80’s ladies charm, this one will put her right up there with Lilly Hiatt and Margo Price in the reigning queen of Country music sweepstakes.

10.) Elijah Ocean – Blue Jeans & Barstools

Opening for the likes of Dale Watson and Charley Crockett this L.A. based by way of Maine troubadour should very soon be carving his own Outlaw Country niche right alongside Chris Stapelton, Whitey Morgan, and Tennessee Jet. His latest record, Blue Jeans and Barstools will be on the shortlist for Texas-style Hony Tonk record of the year. With highlights like the title track, “Blue Jeans & Barstools” his tribute to Buck and Dwight on “Bring Back That Bakersfield Sound,” and “I Left My One Spot (Back at the Five Spot)” his Outlaw Country street cred passport is stamped, sealed, and delivered.

11.) Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross

Just when we thought that Ashley McBryde was our favorite bad-ass rocker du jour, Jaime Wyatt jumps into the fray with Neon Cross. Such a bad-ass that she was once arrested for robbing her heroin dealer. Produced by Shooter Jennings, it seems that he is everywhere these days, from the vulnerable opener “Sweet Mess” her whiskey worn voice that falls somewhere between worn-hard era Tanya Tucker and early-era Melissa Etheridge signals that everything about this used to be lost soul is entirely authentic. The title song is a bit of a rocker while “Rattlesnake Girl,” a song that addresses her sexuality, is Country Rock with an emphasis on the country. Having produced 2019’s fine Tanya Tucker record, While I’m Livin’, Shooter Jennings along with Jamie Wyatt has come up with another stellar performance to add to their respective resumes.

12.) Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

The hills of Laurel Canyon are well represented on Dixie Blur, the latest record from Pop artist Jonathan Wilson. From the wistful throwback vibe of “’69 Corvette” to the rollicking Bob Wills inspired “In Heaven Making Love” there is a new gem to be discovered around every turn.

13.) The Orielles – Disco Volador

Having released in 2018 the best album of the ’90s twenty years too late with their debut album Silver Dollar Moment, now, with their latest record, the band has quite simply outdone themselves. Bright and bouncy in all the right places there are influences of ’60s as well as ’80s girl group, Bossa Nova Jazz, Funk, and Disco all rolled into a melting pot of what is sure to be one of our best albums of the year.

14.) Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves of Your Life

After his band The Walkmen disbanded in 2013 it seems to have taken a while for front-man Hamilton Leithauser to find his footing, but with The Loves of Your Life, his latest solo effort, he seems to be well on his way to next-level stardom. Inspired by random moments and characters crossing his path, case in point, “The Old King” written as sort of a Pogues style shuffle about a friend he happened to run into that he had not seen in over 10 years. Each little vignette presented here celebrates extraordinary people leading ordinary lives. This is one of the best records to be released this year.

15.) Rookie – Rookie

From the first couple of guitar chords that jump from the speakers on “Hold On Tight” the lead-off track from the band Rookie’s self-titled debut record, you can tell that you are in for a Rock and Roll swagger sort of listen. Part Slade infested Glam, Part Greg Kihn Band with a side order of The Replacements thrown into the milkshake, this Bloodshot Records release is spectacularly delicious.

16.) Early James – Singing For My Supper

It almost seems that we are contractually required to like any record that comes from Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound record company, but we have no problem with that. From Yola, Dee Smith, on to Kendell Marvel and beyond everything that they touch seems to turn into ear-pleasing gold. And the new one from Early James, Singing For My Supper, is certainly no exception. From the opener, “Blue Pill Blues” we are treated to a semi-lengthy instrumental solo before the song turns into some sort of 70’s inspired warp zone that floats somewhere between Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull. As it turns out, the opener simply opens the door to the time travel portal that is fully realized with “Gone as the Ghost” and beyond.

17.) David Myles – Leave Tonight

There is a bit of a timeless quality in the ten song-set that David Myles delivers on Leave Tonight. With a slight nod of the fedora to the ’50s crooners of days gone by along with a West Coast Jazz and Laurel Canyon vibe, the resulting collection paints a picture that a collaboration between Joao Gilberto might have generated.

18.) Bad Touch – Kiss The Sky

One of the more recent additions to our “Rock and Roll is Not Dead” list of bands, Bad touch is a 5-piece Classic Rock inspired band that based on their sound could have easily come from Alabama or Muscle Shoals Alabama instead of across the band in the U.K. where they are actually from.

Drawing inspiration from The Black Crowes, The Faces, as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bad Touch should be a musical force to reckon that surely will break out in a big way in 2020. “Let Go” is Black Crowes inspired Blues-Rock standout, and the title track “Kiss The Sky” is a bit more of a rocker with singer Stevie Westwood doing his best Glen Hughes impersonation. Covering Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got The Music In Me” may seem like an odd choice, but here it works quite nicely and serves to show off the versatility of one of the best new Rock and Roll bands to come around in quite some time.

19.) 2nd Grade – Hit To Hit

Formed by a collective of like-minded musicians gathered up from the ashes of various Philadelphia area Pop-Punk band, 2nd Grade with their debut record Hit To Hit, deliver an infectious set of Indie inspired Power Pop gems. 24 tightly knit songs in just under 42 minutes, the ride takes you on a gentle roller coaster of jubilance on “Sunkist,” Beach Boys-inspired harmonies on “Not in the Band,” and Replacements worthy energy on the short but extremely sweet “Boys In Heat.” With musical touchpoints, the likes of The Rubinoos, The Replacements, The Greg Khin Band, and Teenage Fan Club your summer Jam just might be here a little bit early.

20.) Wyldlife – Year of the Snake

It has been back in the days of yore, the days of  The Biters and The Struts, since a real live Rock and Roll band has garnered as much praise within the hallowed halls of Rock is the New Roll HQ as we have heard in recent days with the release of Year of the Snake, the new record from Wyldlife. All killer, no filler, as they say with that intoxicating flair of blending ’80s Brit-rock, ’70’s Glam, and CBGB’s Ramones era Post-Punk, all in one blender. Anthems galore on this one including “Sacre Bleu,” “Automatic,” and naturally, our favorite, the album closer, “The Falcon.”

Five Cool Ones: Five New Albums Released This Week (April 17, 2020)

When Fiona Apple, Shelby Lynne, and The Vapors, yes those “Turning Japanese” Vapors, come out with new records in the same week, it must be a sparkling week for new music.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Boltcutters

One of the most intimate records to come out so far this year, Fiona Apple lays it all on the line with Fetch the Boltcutters, her first album since 2012. From the opener “I Want You to Love Me” you can feel the pain expressed in her voice with a heart laid bare for all to endure the pain right alongside her. With sudden starts, stops and tempo changes the listener is asked to listen attentively and allow themselves to be immersed in a world that is uniquely Fiona Apple’s.

Bobby Bare – Great American Saturday Night

With 2 top-notch records already released with Bare and Sleeper Wherever They Fall, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for the live Great American Saturday Night back in 1978 when it was recorded, or, that is what the record company said anyway. Having been shelved for the better part of 21 years the album finally gets to see the light of day in all its Honky Tonk Glory. And what a party record it is. Filled with plenty of raucous sing-alongs right alongside tawdry ballads, along with the between-song storytelling that has long been a fixture at Bobby Bare shows, this one is hands down the tonk release of the year.

Soul Asylum – Hurry Up and Wait

No, this is certainly not “Runaway Train” Soul Asylum and it has been 28 years since Grave Dancer’s Union came out, but does it really matter. As long as Dave Pirner is involved, here he is the only original band member, we are ears all in. Rocking it up on “Got It Pretty Good” and going a bit lower and slower on “Social Butterfly” this record stops short of being excellent but is uniquely satisfying in its own right as long as you consider this a Dave Pirner solo effort and not a Soul Asylum album.

Ron Sexmith – Hermitage

Recorded in his home studio collaborating with his longtime drummer and producer Don Kerr, this set of intimate sounding gems has a bit of a Kinks feel to it that is quite pleasing to the ear. With the typical Sexmith whimsey inherent in songs like “Winery Blues” and “Apparently Au Pair” this one proves once again that the escapism that is generated when music is done well is pleasing to the soul and healing to the heart.

Datura4 – West Coast Highway Cosmic

The band, named after a two-lane blacktop along the coast of Western Australia is a Blues Rock boogie band that sorts of floats between The Black Keys and Deep Purple with Charlie Musselwhite joining them for the ride.

Described as Garagey but not Grungey, Power Poppy but not cheesy, muddy but not sludgy, Blues respecting but not formulaic, trippy but not spacey this is a band that seems to be carving out their own musical niche.

The title track has a certain “Highway Star” feel to it complete with Hammond B-3 and the extended instrumental interludes on most of these songs would make this record and epic road trip soundscape. The songs “Give” and “You’re the Only One” are, to our ears, pound for pound two of the best that have heard all year.

And yes, Datura4 is one of our favorite new bands.

 

 

The Top Twenty Albums of the Year (So Far)

We are the quarter pole of the year and there have already been a lot of stellar records that have been released. And, we haven’t even yet been able to hear the new John Anderson record or the latest from Jason Isbell. We have likely missed a couple of your favorites, The Drive-By Truckers just missed the list, The James Hunter Six album was pretty great, and Lily Hiatt’s newest effort was pretty spectacular. But hey, after a few more listens this list will likely change. It always does.

20. U.S. Girls – Heavy Light

U.S. Girls is essentially Meghan Remy along with a collective of like-minded musicians who are into the eerie soul of girl group melodrama. For Heavy Light, her latest effort, she combines Disco-Funk, Glam, and 60’s Girl Group Pop on a set of sometimes spooky but always beautifully compelling songs. The song to song cycle features a different sonic palate for each tune with the various textures all playing together quite nicely. The delicate piano ballad that is “Woodstock ’99” morphs into “McArthur Park” right before your very ears. Jimmy Webb would be proud.

19. The Orielles – Disco Volador

Having released in 2018 the best album of the ’90s twenty years too late with their debut album Silver Dollar Moment, now, with their latest record, the band has quite simply outdone themselves. Bright and bouncy in all the right places there are influences of the ’60s as well as ’80s girl group, Bossa Nova Jazz, Funk, and Disco all rolled into a melting pot of what is sure to be one of our best albums of the year.

18. Logan Ledger – Logan Ledger

After just a cursory listen of Logan Ledger’s fine debut self-titled it will come as no surprise that he grew up on a steady diet of Roy Orbison. Picking up where Orville Peck, 2019’s breakout Country-Noir star left off, Ledger combines Hank Sr. Lyrics with Scott Walker by way of Chris Isaak vocal stylings on this mood-setting record that will surely be in consideration for one of the best debut records of the year. Produced by T-Bone Burnett with songs like “Nobody Knows” that is one of the best last call songs we have heard in a while along with “The Lights of San Francisco,” a song from the perspective of a prisoner on Alcatraz island, Logan Ledger is announcing himself as a songwriter to be reckoned with.

17. Honey Harper – StarMaker

It is fair to say that this hard to label record from Honey Harper just might be the debut album of the year. It is part County-Noir, part Chris Isaak, part Scott Walker, and all cool. There is an other-worldly mystical perfume that washes over you when you are listening to this record. His web site pretty much hits on the head when they say that Harper seeks to revitalize country music for people who don’t like country music. Honey Harper is the cowboy angel you never knew you wanted.

16. Ashley McBryde – Never Will

As official members of the Ashley McBryde fan club from the days when she was hanging out in “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” we are calling our shot now. Never Will, her latest record will be on many of the year-end best-of lists, genre be damned. Rocking it up a bit more than her prior efforts yet maintaining her 80’s ladies charm, this one will put her right up there with Lilly Hiatt and Margo Price in the reigning queen of Country music sweepstakes.

15. Terry Allen – Just Like Moby Dick

Having pretty much written the template for Outlaw Country with his records Juarez, and Lubbock (On Everything) Terry is back with a bevy of collaborators with his first album in over 13 years. From the lonesome blues partnership with Folk stalwart Shannon McNally on “All These Blues Goe Walkin’ By” to the extended songwriting grace on the opener “Houdini Didn’t Like The Spiritualists” this is definitely every song’s a story record of the highest order. Just listen to “Death of the Last Stripper” and tell us we’re wrong.

14. Early James – Singing For My Supper

It almost seems that we are contractually required to like any record that comes from Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound record company, but we have no problem with that. From Yola, Dee Smith, on to Kendell Marvel and beyond everything that they touch seems to turn into ear-pleasing gold. And the new one from Early James, Singing For My Supper, is certainly no exception. From the opener, “Blue Pill Blues” we are treated to a semi-lengthy instrumental solo before the song turns into some sort of 70’s inspired warp zone that floats somewhere between Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull. As it turns out, the opener simply opens the door to the time travel portal that is fully realized with “Gone as the Ghost” and beyond.

13. A Girl Called Eddy – Been Around

Having been on semi-hiatus since 2004 and with her highly excellent eponymous debut record, Erin Moran, doing business as A Girl Called Eddy is back and better than ever. Been Around, her 2020 record could very well be a classic in the making.

With a chocolaty smooth voice that brings to mind a young Chrissie Hynde, the record ebbs and flows with little mini-orchestral marvels. With Daniel Tashian of The Silver Seas twirling the knobs as a producer, different layers and textures are employed on every track. There is a bit of a Sheryl Crowe by way of Mary Chapin Carpenter going on in places, and in others, this girl called Eddy goes low and slow Laura Nyro style. “NY Man,” and “Two Hearts,” are just two of the stand-out tracks on this one. Sure, it’s really early, but this one is the leader in the clubhouse for the album of the year.

12. Sam Doores – Sam Doores

With a moody atmospheric vibe that could very well be the soundtrack of some hipster New Orleans dirge after-hours party, Sam Doores uses strings, vintage organs, marimbas, vibraphones, and even an autoharp to create a moody, psychedelic vibe. This eclectic record also includes a stellar guest turn from Alynda Segarra from Hurray for the Riff Raff.

11. Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

Straying ever so slightly from his Topanga Canyon Laurel Canyon vibing previous efforts, Jonathan Wilson headed over to Nashville for his latest record, Dixie Blur. Employing an iconic batch of sidemen including Mark O’Connor, guitarist Kenny Vaughan along with bassist Dennis Crouch and several others to create an angelic soundscape of one stunning song after another. ’69 Corvette is worth the price of admission alone.

10. Gabe Lee – Honky Tonk Hell

Thus none comes from a recommendation from my mate Scott Ashworth from Scotland. After one listen this one already made the top twenty list and could very well move up with a bullet after we send some more time with it. With his second record, Gabe Lee combines intricate songwriting with old school instrumentation to create minds-eye vignettes that include small towns, lovers that leave and men on the run. Look for any of these Honky Tonk worthy tunes to be playing on your local dancehall jukebox very soon.

09. Rookie – Rookie

With their self-titled debut record Rookie, these Bloodshot Record artists don’t re-invent the Rock and Roll wheel here, but they definitely embrace it front and center. Part Glam, part Thin Lizzy with a little T-Tex thrown in for good measure, this one is a great retro listen.

08. Mapache – From Liberty Street

Think Byrds, Geronimo’s Caddilac era Michael Martin Murphey, or Loggins and Messina on this one, a spectacular ode to the Laurel Canyon soundscape.

07. Whyte Horses – Hard Times

This exotically diverse record has glimpses of Psychedelia, Tropicalia, Acid Pop, Lounge-Noir and other really cool genres that we really love. Their version of the 60’s classic “Bang Bang” with an assist from Chrysta Bell is worth the price of admission alone.

06. The Just Joans – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of The Just Joans

This Glasgow based band has been around since 2005 and is still going strong with their original line up that features songwriter David Pope along with his sister vocalist Katie Pope. Their latest record features a wide array of Jangle Pop gems with Their ode to The Ramones “Hey Ho, Let’s Not Go,” “Dear Diary, I Died Again Today,” and “When Nietsche Dies” standing out as highlights.

05. Sonny Landreth – Blacktop Run

Slide Guitar icon Sonny Landreleased has released another backwoods bad-ass set of electric Blues Rock that will curl your spine in all the best of ways. “Groovy Goddess” is a burn your ears off instrumental stunner that could have been an Allman Brothers Duane Allman mid-set solo from back in the day and “Somebody Gotta Make a Move” describes the dance of love perfectly. And if that’s not enough “Lover, Dance With Me” might be the driving tune of the year. Crank this one up!

04. Best Coast – Always Tomorrow

This Southern California Rock duo that consists of guitarist and Multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno and singer Bethany Cosentino are pretty much the poster people for sun-drenched Los Angeles Indie Pop. Their new record tightens up the sound a bit and celebrates the joys of sobriety and standing on your own two feet. “For The First Time” will set the stage for you, but the rest of the record is pretty special as well.

03. Starbenders – Love Potions

The only thing not cool about this fantastic Power-Glam group is that they are from Atlanta, not London, Austin, or Glasgow. Pretty much every song is an earworm. Think David Bowie playing 7 minutes of Rumors era Fleetwood Mac while watching ABBA videos and you would have their blend of androgynous rock and roll power pretty much nailed. The Starbenders are our new favorite band.

02. Blackwater Conspiracy – Two Tails & The Dirty Truth of Love & Revolution

You are unlikely to hear a better straight-ahead Rock and Roll record this year. You can trace the lineage of this band straight back tom The Faces and Exile-era Rolling stones with a stoop on the way back machine to The Black Crowes and The Georgia Satellites. Hailing from Northern Ireland, their latest record full of radio Rock and late-night whiskey-soaked Blues should be the breakthrough that this band richly deserves.

01. Marcus King – El Dorado

It should come as no surprise that Marcus King’s debut album comes from the good folks at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound after all birds of a feather do what they do. A new school record with a vintage sound the subtle goes down instrumentation and the Soul drenched vocal style goes down super smooth like a shot of Pappy’s bourbon. This is a perfect laid-back record to engulf yourself in during these trying times.