In some ways, it’s hard to believe that we’re already past the halfway mark of the year. But then again, in other ways, it seems like 2020 is the year that will never end. In the absence of sports, concerts, and traveling, music has been one of the last modes of escape and distraction left for many of us. I know I’ve been listening to more music than ever before. (See my comprehensive Best Albums list for evidence.)
Thankfully, there have been some great musical releases in the last six months to help get us through these crazy days. Here are some of my favorites:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions
This one should come as no surprise.
I was honestly a little underwhelmed with “Be Afraid” and “What’ve I Done to Help,” the early singles from this album. But they fit perfectly as part of the overall tone of Reunions. I heard Isbell doing a pre-release interview and he said there’s a theme of “ghosts” running through the whole record. You find the ghost of a former love running around “St. Peter’s Autograph” and a former life haunts “It Gets Easier.” There’s the specter of existential crisis in the running chorus of “What’ve I Done to Help.” Even the Holy Ghost makes a cameo in “Only Children.” The album’s thesis is found in a line from “Only Children,” the first song Isbell wrote for Reunions: “And do the dead believe in ghosts?”
I guess the ghost metaphor is pretty appropriate for an album so fixated on reckoning with the past. But I love this album because it is also eerily pertinent to our current circumstances. “St. Peter’s Autograph” contains the line that best describes my assessment of the last six months: “We’re all struggling with the world on fire / And the fear we’re taught.” Much like “Hope the High Road” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, “Be Afraid” is an anthemic call to activism and moral courage:
If your words add up to nothing, then you’re making a choice
To sing a cover when we need a battle cry
I’ve listened to this album so many times and it just gets better with each listen. A front runner for my favorite album of the year.
The Strokes, The New Abnormal
When this record was released, I tweeted that this was the best Strokes album since Is This It dropped nearly 20 years ago. That record came out almost a month after 9/11, which delayed their album release and prompted the band to cut “New York City Cops” from the CD release. Is This It was hailed as revolutionary, when in reality it was merely a great rock album. And although The Strokes hardly proved to be saviors of the genre, here they are two decades later, still releasing great music in the wake of a national crisis.
The New Abnormal is certainly a prescient title considering how drastically life has changed in the last six months, particularly in the band’s hometown of New York. Producer Rick Rubin has pushed all the right buttons here to restore the band’s original sound. The tone here is nothing like the largely forgettable Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). It makes you wonder how many great “Strokes” albums these guys could’ve made if they weren’t so bent on whatever preoccupations consumed them in the last 10-12 years.
The Secret Sisters, Saturn Return
I recently came across Saturn Return, the latest release from Muscle Shoals duo The Secret Sisters. And I have to say: it’s amazing. Their harmonies remain intact but the production puts this record over the top for me. I’m still absorbing some of the lyrics, but my early favorites are “Silver,” “Late Bloomer,” “Hold You Dear,” and “Healer in the Sky.”
Aretha Franklin (feat. The Boys Choir of Harlem), “Never Gonna Break My Faith”
The hymn we need right now.
These are some of my favorite albums and songs that have come out in 2020 so far. I’d love to know some of your favorites.