2020 in Music

Welp. It’s December, so the only “new” music being released, bar the odd over-hyped McCartney album, are the cash-in “holiday” records or greatest hits, so I can look back at my additions for 2020 and decide what’s best.

As with so many years, some of the things I added this year come from earlier eras, so it’s probably the case that my favourite new record of 2020 is from 2012. On the other hand, 2020 seemed like it was a pretty good year for some exciting music, which was a comfort in these times of annoyance.

Early in the year came Nightfall from Little Big Town, released in January, which is a really odd decision, to release it then. Still it came in advance of the prawndemic, so sits in that island of blissful unknowing, when the trouble had already started but we didn’t know it yet. Most of the songs, bar the trying-too-hard drinking one (yawn) are in my playlist still, and the opener, “Next to You” was an instant favourite.

At the end of January, I added Never Will by Ashley McBride, which is a solid set of songs from one of Nashville’s three (or four) best songwriters (another of them is immediately below). Again, however, it sits in my playlist and hasn’t jumped out at me much, beyond the opening track and lead single, “One Night Standards”, which is a corker. The main reason I haven’t been growing more aware of individual songs is that I’ve done far fewer long journeys this year, so there’s that.

Next up is Your Life is a Record from Brandy Clark. This was released early in February, and while it didn’t exactly sink without trace (it’s all still in the Big Playlist, except for the Randy Newman one – cannot stand him), I couldn’t point you to a favourite. A solid bof, then. I suppose all three of these artists would have expected to tour these albums or at least promote them more heavily with radio/online sessions, but, well.

March saw the release of Saturn Return by The Secret Sisters. This was an impulse download, done in the old style – having read about, but not heard them. I think there’s a Brandi Carlile connection, so I would have seen her tweeting it or something. It’s a good record, with a few decent numbers, including “Nowhere Baby”, “Healer in the Sky” and “Late Bloomer.”

Also in March, Jason Isbell released Reunions, which I am more familiar with, thanks to playing it a lot, and also because of its marketing push, with several songs pre-released. These include “What’ve I Done to Help”, “Be Afraid” and “Dreamsicle”. If I had to pick a favourite though, it would be “It Gets Easier”. Jason Isbell is a Good Egg.

In April, I added Local Honey by Brian Fallon (of Gaslight Anthem fame). This is a more low-key singer-songwriter record than his usual fare, and there’s some great stuff on it. At 32 minutes, it’s 1964-level album making, and of the eight songs, the one that absolutely kills me is “21 Days.”

In June, I added Neon Cross by Jaime Wyatt, her follow-up to Felony Blues from 2017. She’s got a strong voice and an edgy vibe, though as with most of the others listed here, the only standout for me so far is the title track, and the one I really hate is “Demon To a Chair in My Brain”, which I hated to even type its title.

June also saw the release of something called Rough and Rowdy Ways by a cat named Bob Dylan. It was a blast of shockdown in lockdown that there was suddenly new music from the nobel prize winner, with virtually no fanfare. It’s pretty good, though it’s hardly bang-the-dashboard music. I do like “Key West” though, and the extraordinary “Murder Most Foul” was an absolute highlight of the early pandemic.

Gaslighter from the Dixie Chicks, released in July, was probably going to be huge, and accompanied by a triumphant world tour. I still feel that odd hollow feeling that what ought to have been something big seemed to pass most people by. 2006, people, was when we last had new Chicks music, fourteen years ago, and here we were again. Still, no do-overs allowed. The title track is strong, and I also love “Juliana Calm Down”.

Did August’s Here on Earth by Tim McGraw suffer the same fate? He’s had an unsettled time with record labels recently, and never seems content to just do an Alan Jackson, and release a Tim McGraw record every couple of years. (That said, Alan Jackson has been quiet lately… too quiet.) It seems like McGraw wants to be relevant, whatever that is. This came out in late summer, and would have been a highlight of many a long journey, and backyard pizza party, I’m sure. It’s all still there in the playlist, but there are too many tracks (16!) and I couldn’t pick you one, apart from “Good Taste in Women”, which I (also) have.

(Incidentally, while I’ve been writing this, I’ve been listening to By the Way, I Forgive You by Brandi Carlile from 2018, and it’s better than anything here.)

I frankly couldn’t be arsed with the Springsteen album in October. Maybe I’ll get to it. I watched the TV documentary, and it was all right, but I wasn’t in the mood for anything too overwrought. There will come a day when I’ll want to play it, but not right now. Maybe when the spring comes and I’m on my bike.

Also in October, I added Skeletons by the Brothers Osborne, which is far too recent for me to have even noticed any of the titles. It’s all right, anyway, although tending towards the boogie somewhat.

A couple more bits before we get to the best of the year. I recently reviewed Wreckless Abandon by The Dirty Knobs, which is enjoyable. I won’t repeat myself here, although it’s a fun listen.

The one before that (also November) was the much anticipated Starting Over by Chris Stapleton, which is probably exactly the record you need to listen to right now. The title track is gorgeous, and so is “You Should Probably Leave”, but the album runs the gamut, from a whisper of whiskey to a scream of frustration and rage. There’s a bit of Mike Campbell (and Benmont) on here too, and this is so Country that there’s even a song about a dead dog. Another major artist who would doubtless have supported this record with a tour. Who knows when that will be?

Finally, my joint record(s) of the year are the two fund-raising live albums put out by Hiss Golden Messenger. The first was called Forward Children, and the second (with no duplicate tracks) School Daze. Both were raising money for Durham Public Schools and both sound great, packed with wonderful songs. Buy from Bandcamp and support a great artist, a Good Egg, and a good cause. There’s something about the sound of HGM, the sort of music you’ll be playing in your classroom and someone who walks in will ask who it is, because it sounds so great. Get some into your life.

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