“Consider the source.”
Good advice before sharing “outrageous” news from PatriotsDrinkLibTears.com.
Also good advice before taking to heart a music list of any kind, Including this one, assembled by a guy who: 1.) has more than a half century on the odometer; 2.) has been frequently called an “idiot” by Lorrie Matheson, a man of wisdom and good taste; and, 3.) just doesn’t “get” Taylor Swift probably because of 1. and 2.
What follows is not a hipster’s objective list of the best albums of 2020, but rather a geezer’s list of subjective favourites from this year of pandemic.
And maybe, just maybe, they are — or could become — your favourites, too.
20. Blonde on the Tracks — Emma Swift: In a year when Bob Dylan loomed large, this Aussie singer-songwriter releases an outstanding album of Dylan covers with crisp and uncluttered arrangements. And although she doesn’t reinvent the songs, she approaches them from a womanly point of view, often softening Dylan’s sarcasm and scorn with warmth and empathy.
19. Unfollow the Rules — Rufus Wainwright: Wainwright’s stunning return to ornate pop. The songs overflow with sophisticated, skyscraping melodies; personal, heartfelt lyrics keep the record tethered to the nitty gritty of real life.
18. Been Around – A Girl Called Eddy: Arriving 16 years after her debut, Erin Moran’s sophomore album builds upon the predecessor’s Bacharach-David template to incorporate other classic influences (Steely Dan, Jimmy Webb, Chrissie Hynde, Laura Nyro). Every song is an earworm … and likely a diary entry. An open-hearted soul-pop gem.
17. Songs for the General Public — The Lemon Twigs: Long Island siblings Brian and Michael D’Addario indulge their love of arty, early-‘70s soft-rock songcraft with a third album that mixes and matches Todd Rundgren, 10cc and T. Rex. Too tuneful and fun to be merely retro.
16. England is a Garden — Cornershop: Tjinder Singh and company continue to do what they’ve always done but quality control here is high and their joyous noise — Rolling Stones/Velvet Underground riffs mingle with flutes and tamboura in a pan-cultural sonic melting pot — provides an antidote to nationalism and pandemic gloom.
15. Blue Hearts — Bob Mould: This is a public! Service! Announcement! With gee-tah! The former Husker Du and Sugar man — a veteran of Wars Against Reagan — again rallies the youth of America to save the soul of the nation, save the planet and save themselves. Manic pop thrills, equally angry and inspiring.
14. Shelby Lynne — Shelby Lynne: Every bit the equal of her 1999 classic I Am Shelby Lynne. Sparse, smouldering, heart-baring soul; worth noting Lynne produces, writes or co-writes everything, and plays almost everything herself.
13. U Kin B The Sun — Frazey Ford: The former Be Good Tanya’s soul metamorphosis is now complete on her third and best solo album. The arrangements are stripped back to voice, bass, drums, piano and maybe a fleck of guitar; the grooves are laidback but funky; and Ford’s vocal phrasing is captivating whether she’s expressing joy, sorrow or outrage. Behold the quiet storm.
12. Off Off On — This is the Kit: This is the Kit gathers familiar elements and assembles them in wholly original ways. There’s nothing quite like the group’s circling song structures; their blend of banjo, woodwinds and percolating rhythm; the airy arrangements, and Kate Stables’s chill but emotive vocals. Their fifth album is enchanting: folk, jazz and pop all mingling in different and wondrous permutations.
11. Source — Nubya Garcia: It’s always exciting when young talent shines new light through old windows. This debut album is rooted in jazz — there are more than a few echoes of Sonny Rollins here — but 29-year-old tenor saxophonist/composer/bandleader and her group effortlessly bring in elements of reggae, cumbia, fusion and soul to forge something all their own. Fresh and refreshing.
10. Letter To You — Bruce Springsteen: Now 71, Springsteen mostly reminiscing about the past and friends who’ve passed on. Yet his 20th studio album is hardly morose; quickly recorded with few overdubs, this might be the liveliest, best-sounding E-Street Band record since The River, and three early compositions with all their endearing young-Springsteenisms, offer a welcome reprieve from the older Bruce’s ruminations on aging and mortality.
9. Gold Record — Bill Callahan: The death of John Prine in April hurt but Gold Record is a reassuring reminder that Americana storytelling remains in good hands. Callahan unfurls odd, darkly funny and deeply moving tales speak-sung in his deep voice and over sparsely arranged, dryly recorded instrumentation. Pigeons and The Mackenzies are 2020 songwriting standouts.
8. Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers: “When I grow up/ I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life,” Bridgers sings in Garden Song, a highlight of this understated, beautiful, languid and at times womblike album. Infused with sadness and self-reflection, Punisher is for dark nights of the soul and an exemplary example of confessional songwriting in the post-Elliott Smith era.
7. The Night Chancers — Baxter Dury: Baxter has his old man’s way with lurid tales and expertly placed expletives, and here he applies these bequeathed talents to a songs of sex and violence and jealousy that capture a seedy, sensual Serge Gainsbourg vibe. Ian would be proud.
6. Saint Cloud — Waxahatchee: Katie Crutchfield’s fifth album chronicles her fight for sobriety and, with restored focus in her personal and professional lives, she delivers a corker — an Americana album that often recalls the rootsy soulfulness and hard-fought wisdom of Lucinda Williams’s best sides.
5. On Sunset — Paul Weller: The Modfather’s late-inning purple patch continues on his most soul-infused record since the days of the Style Council and his Traffic-influenced early solo works. Also mining classic rock and psych and musique concrete, Weller is clearly following his muse wherever it takes him; the onetime youth firebrand now pondering his own mortality. “Time will become you/ You’ll become time.” As vital, honest and creative as anything he’s recorded.
4. American Head — Flaming Lips: The band’s 16th studio album marks a return to the sumptuous, stealthily uplifting psychedelia of The Soft Bulletin for a song cycle about growing up in Oklahoma in the 1970s as the Vietnam War rages and mind-altering substances cause their own casualties. In its own way, a darker version of Dazed and Confused.
3. Old Flowers — Courtney Marie Andrews: At times I think nothing inspires art like a broken heart and this devastatingly poignant album offers more evidence to support the theory. The melodies are delicate and lovely; the arrangements sparse; the words convey ache, guilt, vulnerability and, in the end, moving on. Every note is perfect; every word rings true. It seems Old Flowers flew under the radar this year; I suspect it will be heralded one day as a singer-songwriter classic.
2. Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple: In a year of lockdown, Apple’s fifth album thrilled by its refusal to be confined — in lyrics, she finds freedom from bad relationships and expectations of others; throughout the album, her creative expression in unbound to convention, especially with the use of homemade percussion and unusual time signatures. This is her Swordfishtrombones or The Dreaming. Brilliant. Startling. Fearless.
1. Rough and Rowdy Ways — Bob Dylan: He contains multitudes, all right. Dylan’s first set of original material in eight years is rough, rowdy, ribald, romantic and reflective — and on the 17-minute fever dream Murder Most Foul, a song only Dylan would dare to attempt, he uses the assassination of JFK as an entry point to a requiem for his generation of musicians and artists, whose work lives on even when they do not. Rough and Rowdy Ways is the Dylan album we didn’t think we needed just when we needed it most.
David Veitch has off-set a total lack of musical talent with a lifelong passion for record buying, enabling him to pursue a passion for popular song without being able to play or sing a note. He was the music writer for the Calgary Sun from 1985-2000; has written about music for local, provincial and national magazines; and produced the web music series InnerView With Mike Bezzeg. When he’s not writing or thinking or talking about music, he’s … ah, who are we kidding? That’s all he does. Can be a drag, frankly. He really needs another hobby.