Years from now, we’ll remember 2020 as the year of pandemic and quarantine and social distancing. We’ll remember 2020 as the year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. We’ll remember 2020 as the tipping point in our overly politicized culture as evidenced by the ongoing debate about the efficacy of masks that has wreaked havoc on some of our relationships.
But also — and less significantly, obviously — we should remember 2020 as a year of great music.
While being stuck in quarantine for months on end was a drag, it was cool that some of my favorite artists released music they had recorded prior to the COVID shutdown. And of course, Taylor Swift wins 2020 for surprising fans with not one, but two quarantine records. In a year filled with so much agony and anxiety, I’m more grateful than ever for the simple joy of finding new music from one of my favorite bands on my Release Radar playlist on Spotify.
It really is the little things, you know?
Every year, I’ll review some of my favorite records by making a year-end “Best Albums” list. It’s a fun way to recognize the music that shaped me over the past twelve months. Obviously the term “best” is subjective; as you can tell by looking through my past lists, I’m partial to indie rock and Americana. (You can check out my complete list here.) But I always look forward to developing these lists. I’d love to hear some of your favorites from the past year or so.
Anyway here’s my list and a corresponding Spotify playlist.
- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letter to You. I was very young during Springsteen’s commercial heyday. I vaguely remember people talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” when I was eight years old in 1984. And for years, I simply remembered the song as a bit of nationalistic propaganda, a la “Rocky IV.” So I largely came to Springsteen on the basis of his 21st century output and only then did I work my way back to the classics. I say all of this to say: I don’t think I’m being a homer when I laud Letter to You as a masterpiece, easily the best thing Bruce has recorded in the last 20 years. For starters, I can’t imagine that the band has ever sounded better. The production here is crisp and every player is on the top of their respective game, which is all the more impressive considering the band recorded the album in five days, live in the studio with no overdubs. And at 71 years young, The Boss sounds as vital as ever. (In the accompanying Apple TV+ documentary, he looks great, too.) Make no mistake: Letter to You is a rock-‘n-roll record through and through. But Springsteen’s years are evident in the wistfulness of this album (Springsteen’s 20th LP). He sings of being the last living member of his first band, The Castilles, on “Last Man Standing.” He mournfully remembers a lost loved one on “One Minute You’re Here,” a track that would feel equally at home on The Rising. The narrator of “Ghosts” is invigorated by a similar thought, an ode to the specter of a long lost bandmate. Letter to You is also brimming with spirituality as Bruce sings of the hope that “death is not the end” in “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” On “The Power of Prayer,” he cries, “I’m reachin’ for heaven / We’ll make it there.” But the strongest cuts here are nearly fifty years old. Springsteen originally wrote “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans” in the 1970s. Receiving the canonical “album treatment” here, these three songs blend young Bruce’s lyrics with the elder statesman’s voice and the E Street Band’s magisterial instrumentation. Of particular note for me is “Song for Orphans,” and the line, “The confederacy is in my name now.” This is my favorite line from my favorite song of 2020. Longtime fans will love Letter to Me, but even if you’re new to Springsteen’s stuff, you should check out this phenomenal album. Easily my favorite record of 2020.
- Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions. Released in May, Reunions was definitely the album I listened to the most over the course of 2020. If you’ve followed my music posts on this blog over the years, you know I’m a huge fan of Jason Isbell. His 2013 Southeastern was my favorite album of the 2010s; honestly, it’s my favorite LP of all time. Reunions continues Isbell’s hot streak by blending his typically strong songwriting with superb musicianship. The social consciousness the band exhibited on their last record (2017’s The Nashville Sound) carries a few of these tracks, most notably “Be Afraid” and “What’ve I Done to Help.” But for me, the heart of this record is the A-side run of “Dreamsicle,” “Only Children,” and “Overseas.” According to my Spotify “2020 Wrapped,” I’ve listened to “Overseas” more than any song this year. That’s fitting; it’s a song about the slow demise of a socially distanced love. But it would be misleading to intimate that this is some kind of tragic album. As the father of a sixteen-year-old daughter, I have to admit that “Letting You Go” kills me every time. The week this record was released, a good friend of mine texted me and said, “I guess we know what song will be playing when you dance with your daughter at her wedding reception.” Indeed. The hard part will be letting her go.
- Taylor Swift, folklore. I’ve always thought Taylor Swift was a great songwriter, especially for a pop star. But folklore has now become Exhibit A in this argument. Her quarantine collaboration with Aaron Dessner from The National is sonically rich, if subdued. But I’m telling you: “betty” is a darn good song. Do you know how hard it is to tell a compelling narrative in just under five minutes? To make you feel so much in such a short span of time? And she just keeps doing it over and over on this record, from “my tears ricochet” to “cardigan” to “august” to “this is me trying.” No wonder folklore has received so much love on the critics’ year-end lists. This record continues to surprise, even after months of listening. Hands down, the quarantine record of the year.
- Chris Stapleton, Starting Over. It’s a testament to the strength of the music released this year that Stapleton’s latest checks in at #4 on my list. He has seemingly perfected his formula, blending 70s honky tonk (“When I’m With You”), Southern rock (“Arkansas”), soul (“Cold”), and outlaw country (“Whiskey Sunrise”). But the ballads really stand out on this record. My favorite tracks here are “Starting Over,” “Maggie’s Song,” and “Joy of My Life.” Leave it to Stapleton to make a song about a dog one of the most emotional listens of the year.
- The Strokes, The New Abnormal. The Strokes win for most prescient album title. Released just before the COVID lockdown, “The New Abnormal” could be the tagline for our collective year. Catchy title aside, this is a great record. I read one reviewer who said this record sound so effortless, something to the effect of, “Who knew it was so easy for The Strokes to make a Strokes record?” Sort of wish they had just stayed in this lane for the last 20 years or so. Standout tracks include “The Adults are Talking” and “Bad Decisions.”
- The Secret Sisters, Saturn Return. I’m a sucker for the sepia-toned harmonies of The Secret Sisters. And this record asserts the full weight of their gifts. Every song here is solid, but you should especially listen to “Healer in the Sky,” “Hold You Dear,” and “Hand Over My Heart.”
- Khruangbin, Mordechai. I fell in love with Khruangbin a few years ago (their sophomore album Con Todo El Mundo was my Album of the Year for 2018) and I continue to be a big fan. Mordechai sounds like the next step in their evolution as a band as they continue to fuse a variety of genres of music from across the globe. Khruangbin is truly a melting pot band. “Pelota” is a standout track, along with “Time (You and I).”
- Fleet Foxes, Shore. This is a gorgeous record, a return to Fleet Foxes’ “classic” sound from a decade ago. I think my favorite track is probably “Sunblind.”
- Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started. I think the production on this record makes Margo Price sound better than she ever has. I’d love to hear “I’d Die For You” live at the Ryman Auditorium…what a killer track.
- Brian Fallon, Local Honey. Honestly, I could’ve chosen a few others in this spot, but I recently came across this solo LP by the former Gaslight Anthem frontman and I really like it. I’ll probably be listening to it on into early 2021.
Honorable mention: I also really liked John Moreland’s LP5. One of these days, he’s gonna crack my list. And I haven’t spent as much time with the entire record, but Phoebe Bridger’s “I Know The End” is one of the best songs of the year. I usually limit these lists to new music but I also have to point out that Sturgill Simpson has re-recorded some of his back catalog with a backing bluegrass band (the aptly titled “Cuttin’ Grass, Volumes 1 and 2.”) Really like the sound of this stuff.
Come to think of it, three of my all-time favorites (Sturgill, Isbell, Stapleton) released new music in 2020. At least we have that going for us!
Leave a comment and tell me about some of your favorite music from 2020.