Favorite Albums of 2020

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I heard this album only because someone put one of S.G. Goodman’s songs on a Spotify playlist that I happened to check out. I liked it and listened to the whole album. And then I just kept on listening, again and again. What a solid record, filled with one terrific song after another. This singer-songwriter from rural Kentucky probably fits best into the Americana genre, but she pulls together elements from other styles of rock, pop and folk on this gorgeous collection (produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James). Like her voice, the sonic aura of the recordings is entrancing.

Goodman laces her music with poetic turns of phrase. I’m particularly taken with the lyrics of the title song, which comment on the rural-urban political divide in America. “The south has a very complex history of social and economic injustice,” Goodman said in a Consequence of Sound article. “It was important for me as a proud southerner to vocalize that many of us are working hard to undo those generational cycles that have long held us back. Many of us are not living in that old time feeling.”

In the song’s second verse, she sings:

Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change
And then the most of them do something strange
They move where everybody feels the same
About the southern state behind
The southern state is a condition, it’s true
I’ve got a little proposition for you
Stick around and work your way through
Be the change you hope to find

sggoodman.net

2. Gillian Welch, Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vols. 1, 2 and 3 (Acony)

I’m amazed that Welch, one of the best songwriters of recent decades, sat on this trove of 48 wonderful songs for 18 years before releasing them. Pitchfork explains the unusual circumstances of how she made these recordings with her longtime partner David Rawlings: “Welch resolved she could finally break from the publishing contract she’d signed nine years earlier—she was a successful singer-songwriter now, not merely a writer for hire. During one productive weekend at home in December 2002, six months before releasing the aching Soul Journey, she and Rawlings pored through more than 100 notebooks. They turned scraps of discarded songs into enough quick recordings to fulfill her contract before it renewed January 1.”

In other words, this was a hastily produced batch of tapes recorded as a sort of contractual obligation. That sounds unpromising, and yet, there’s something to be said for working fast and not worrying about production. For Welch and Rawlings, it resulted in a few hours of beautiful folk music telling evocative stories — rivaling anything else they’ve released. gillianwelch.com

3. Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven, We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (XL Recordings)

This is not an entirely new piece of music, but this version of it is fresh and exciting — and the lyrics are as moving and relevant as they were when Scott-Heron wrote and recited them near the end of his life. They originally appeared on his final record, 2010’s I’m New Here, which didn’t feel like a fully realized Gil Scott-Heron album. More like a rough first draft. Here, the Chicago jazz drummer and producer Makaya McCraven fleshes out those old recordings of Scott-Heron’s voice with a colorful and funky tapestry. I found it mesmerizing. XL Recordings

4. Sault, Untitled (Black Is) (Forever Living Originals)

This is the one record where my top 10 overlaps with the major critical consensus for 2020. It ranks at No. 10 on the spreadsheet compiled by writer Rob Mitchum, ranking albums based on the lists posted by various publications. Delivered by a mysterious British musical collective, this is such a powerful record about the Black experience — with a compelling mix of musical styles and perfect pacing. Bandcamp

5. Close Lobsters, Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols (Shelflife)

For me, this was the year’s most unlikely comeback. I was a fan of Close Lobsters back in 1987, when the this Scottish indie rock band released an outstanding album called Foxheads Stalk This Land, replete with that 1980s “jangly guitars” sound. I saw Close Lobsters perform in concert at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro in 1989, but then they seemed to disappear. Out of nowhere, Close Lobsters reunited in 2014 and released two new songs — including “New York City in Space,” which includes lyrics about traveling to New York and Chicago during that tour back in the 1980s. (“It was originally entitled ‘Chicago’ because that’s where we were headed at the time. In a bus,” the band told The Big Takeover.)

Those 2014 tracks are now part of this album, which sounds like a throwback to that 1980s era, but with contemporary-sounding production. Sure, it’s all very retro … but I love it. There’s something thrilling about hearing Close Lobsters declare, “This is the London of the Clash,” in their song “Under London Skies.” Explaining that song, the band calls it an ode to London, “the capital of punk rock insurrection and its renewed shambolic expression in 1986. As we in the North would seek to bid adieu, we salute and stand in solidarity with that London. That England. The England of The Clash, The Mob, The June Brides, Swell Maps and John A. Rivers.” Bandcamp

6. Melenas, Dias Raros (Trouble in Mind)

The next two records on my list were released by Chicago’s reliably great label Trouble in Mind, and they’re both rock bands from overseas led by women. Melenas are from Pamplona, Spain, making catchy tunes with oft layers of harmony vocals floating above organ and guitar riffs anchored in the garage rock tradition. Bandcamp

7. En Attendant Ana, Juillet (Trouble in Mind)

This coed quintet from Paris has a bit of that elegant French vibe associated with artists like Stereolab, but its music is rooted more in fuzzy guitar riffs. Margaux Bouchaudon’s lovely vocals carry her band through a variety of musical settings, including some pretty orchestral flourishes, all on a quest for perfect pop earworms. Bandcamp

8. The Necks, Three (Northern Spy)

I had a ticket to see this Australian instrumental trio this spring, but of course, that concert was canceled, like so many others. In place of that experience, I was left with this album of the group’s latest improvised pieces. With intricate music that moves from driving momentum to serene contemplation, it was my soundtrack for much of 2020. Bandcamp

9. Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem)

Parker is best known as a guitarist — most famously, as a member of Tortoise — but his stellar guitar playing is just one facet of this jazz album (dedicated to his mother, whose maiden name was Maxine Brown). Parker plays multiple instruments and draws on eclectic influences as he creates the sense of a story shifting scenery with each chapter. Bandcamp

10. Three Queens in Mourning & Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Hello Sorrow / Hello Joy (Textile)

Will Oldham, the Louisville singer-songwriter known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, continues to play by his own rules, releasing many records that wouldn’t fit into a traditional discography, including collaborations and multiple interpretations of his songs. That makes it challenging to keep track of Oldham’s musical output, but it’s always worth paying attention, even to his more obscure releases. Most of this album is the Scottish trio Three Queens in Mourning performing covers of songs by Oldham, making them sound more than ever like folk songs from the British Isles. But the record also includes Oldham singing a few songs by Three Queens in Mourning and contributing one new song. So this is something of a grab-bag — but quite an enjoyable one. Bandcamp

Runners-up:

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels
Nathan Salsburg, Landwerk
Kevin Morby, Sundowner
Bill Callahan, Gold Record
Tré Burt, Caught It From the Rye
Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter
Smokescreens, A Strange Dream
Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You?
Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings E&F Sides
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Jason Isbell, Reunions
Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling
Mekons, Exquisite
Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman
Jeff Tweedy, Love Is the King
The Flat Five, Another World
John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet, Lines Made by Walking
William Basinski, Lamentations
Jeff Lescher, All Is Grace
The Jayhawks, Xoxo
Joan Shelley, Live at the Bomhard
M. Ward, Migration Stories
William Tyler, Music From First Cow
Rose City Band, Summerlong
X, Alphabetland
Laura Veirs, My Echo
Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Last Flight Out
Woods, Strange to Explain
Steve Earle and the Dukes, Ghosts of West Virginia
Yo La Tengo, We Have Amnesia Sometimes
Yo La Tengo, Sleepless Night