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 (May 29, 2020)

Wow, just wow. One of the best weeks of the year on the music release front and that isn’t just because Lady Gaga and Jimmy Buffett both have records out this week. The shelter in place policies has yielded some positive benefits in the form of a new E.P. by John Forgety and his family where he takes recent quarantine performances and gathers them all in one place for our listening pleasure. Highlights here include intimate renditions of “Down on the Corner,” “Proud Mary,” and “Bad Moon Rising” along with a version of “Centerfield” recorded in the actual centerfield of an empty Dodger Stadium. Pretty cool, actually.

Here are five properly cool albums that have made our ears tingle this week.

The Reflectors – First Impression

What a spot-on perfect name for the debut record from one of the best Power Pop bands to cross our ear-paths in quite a long time. Citing the Raspberries along with The Buzzcocks as major influences, the crunchy guitar chords and deceptively timeless lyrics will bring you back to the late ’60s early ’70’s at the blink of an ear. All Killer, no filler, every song’s a winner on this one especially on the Big Star vibing “Champagne” and the Garage Rock banging “U Should Be My Girl.” It will be impossible to be in a bad mood after listening to this record.

Nicole Atkins -Italian Ice

Ever since the release of her excellent 2017 record Goodnight Rhonda Lee Nicole Atkins has been on our radar. Here, with her new record Italian Ice she takes her retro wardrobe to the next level. Recorded in Alabama at the Muscle Shoals Studios with two members of the vintage Muscle Shoals rhythm section, bassist David Hood and Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, this elegant record does a lot of genre-hopping. There are sprinkles of ’60s girl group, plenty of Dusty Springfield influences, as well as splashes of Disco-Lite and Classic Country. Guest turns from Spoon’s Brit Daniels, Civil Wars veteran John Paul White, and Avett Brother Seth Avett take this one up to next-level coolness.

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.

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.

Vickie Kristina Barcelona – Pawn Shop Radio

This trio of talented female singer-songwriters seems to have come together specifically to pay homage and make this album as a tribute to gravelly-voiced barfly Tom Waits. Individually, they have played with the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Peter Gabriel, and Jackson Browne, but here with their collective voices, they may have found their true calling. Presenting the semi-deep cuts of the Wait’s canon, “Jersey Girl” displays their newfound found harmonic convergence brilliantly, and “Tango Till They’re Sore” takes on a Middle Eastern broadway stage quality with their arrangement here. The song made famous with its appearance on The Wire, “Down In The Hole” is also a stellar standout. This is a layered listen with each round yielding more sonic gems courtesy of a master songwriter lovingly covered by three fangirls that, here’s hoping, won’t make this a one and done affair.