2020 gave us a fine new collection of Americana/roots music. Bob Dylan at 79 showed his genius once more and Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band came through with a classic-sounding album. Other notable releases came from Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams and Welch & Rawlings. Here are our picks in two batches, 22 in all, each shown in alphabetical order rather than ranking.
Our Top 10
American Aquarium, Lamentations
This is simply a terrific album. Serious themes, sophisticated songwriting, good tunes, with a dollop of hope and optimism creeping through. The title track is inspired by the Old Testament’s Book of Lamentations, where PJ Barham he relates Jeremiah’s sufferings to someone who has “woke up from the American dream.” “He’s watching his entire country fall apart before his eyes, calling up to ask God for help, and nobody’s answering,” says Barham. “I thought that was a really great parallel [to] 2020 America.”
The Avett Brothers, The Third Gleam
In the third of their Gleam series, Scott and Seth Avett with long-time bass player Bob Crawford give us eight pared-back songs focusing on family, romantic love and spirituality. The harmonies are lovely, the songs are strong and the sparse acoustic arrangements work wonderfully well.,
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Songs like I Contain Multitudes and I’ve Made up My Mind to Give Myself to You are, like the rest of the album, quite brilliant, With its apocalyptic overtones and searching questions like, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” Rough and Rowdy Ways is a majestic piece of work from the 79 year-old, something of a masterpiece.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions
Another really fine album from Jason Isbell, the seventh album from the former Drive By Truckers artist, Backed by the excellent 400 Unit, this is a great set of intelligent songs, which, though personal, sound universal. The band play effortlessly together with terrific energy throughout, beautifully accompanying Isbell’s and Amanda Shires’s spine-tingling harmonizing. Outstanding.
The Jayhawks, Xoxo
Hard to believe the Jayhawks have been on the go for 35 years. This, their 11th studio album, is classic Jayhawks, and features songwriting and vocals from all four members of the band. There’s a nice bit of musical diversity in this album which will appeal to long-time fans and newcomers alike.
Diana Jones, Song to a Refugee
Song to a Refugee is a quite remarkable piece of work by singer-songwriter, Diana Jones – an album entirely given to highlighting the global refugee problem. It’s a serious listen – you’ll enjoy Jones’ acoustic, guitar-driven, folky Americana, but feel downright uncomfortable as she tells story after story about desperate people escaping war and violence and seeking refuge and safety.
Marcus King, El Dorado
First rate set of bluesy, soulful Americana from a man whose guitar chops and richly textured vocals are making a lot of people sit up and take notice. The band graced Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival last year and this album is sure to enhance its reputation even more. Produced and co-written with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, there’s a fine balance of approaches here, from powerful blues rock here in The Well to the late-night blues of Wildflowers and Wine to the 70s Southern rock of Sweet Mariona.
Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You
Classic E-Street rock from the Boss, who seems to have more energy than ever. With more road behind him than ahead, Springsteen waxes philosophical on the subjects of loss and frailty of the human condition. But Springsteen, in the way only he can, gives us hope and celebration as well, and the album is surely his best of recent years.
Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, All the Good Times
Wonderful album of covers from the talented duo, sparse and beautiful renditions of traditional and songs from other artists. Rawlings’ take on Bob Dylan’s Seǹor is masterful while Welch’s Hello In There is a lovely tribute to John Prine whom we sadly lost this past year. Together they breathe new life into this beautifully chosen set of songs, and somehow hit the right note for the year that is past.
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls, Better Angels
Williams’ raspy, edgy growl adorns a bluesy, gnarly set of apocalyptic songs which explore a world coming apart. Full of punk-rock energy, as Jesse Malin said of it, “It’s like Muddy Waters meets the Stooges. It’s a badass record.” It’s real and it’s raw and Williams takes no prisoners – certainly not Trump who is firmly in her sights in Man Without A Soul. “Help me stay fearless,” she sings towards the end of the album, “Help me stay strong.” Her prayer’s been answered in this album.
And the next 12
Dave Alvin, From An Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings
“There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both,” says Alvin, and that’s what you get here. It’s mostly covers in this generous 16 song set, and Alvin’s crusty, attention-grabbing vocals take centre stage. Alvin said the album was recorded for “the sheer kicks of going into a recording studio to make some joyous noise with musicians and singers that I love and admire.” Sums it up nicely.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Dirt and the Stars
Mary Chapin Carpenter is in the sharpest form of her 30 year career with incisive songwriting in a beautiful, intimate album. But watch out for the stinging American Stooge, which takes aim at hypocritical politicians.
The Chicks, Gaslighter
Having dropped the “Dixie” from their name, the three Chicks have released their first album in 14 years. Punchy country pop and defiant take on relationship-gone-bad and politics.
Brandy Clark, Your Life is a Record
Heart-break album, which never descends into melancholy. That’s a feat in itself. Clark proves herself to be, once again, a top-notch song-writer and singer.
Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground
In this, her 5th album, Jarosz’s songs draw inspiration from her home in Texas, after her world tours and sojourn in New York City. Fine album of folk-pop, featuring Jarosz’s finger-picked guitars and banjo and her meditative vocals.
Brian Fallon, Local Honey
Short, at just over 30 minutes, but it’s fine stuff on this 3rd solo release from Brian Fallon. Local Honey sees the former Gaslight Anthem man move into country folk territory in these fine acoustic-led ballads.
Lori McKenna, The Balladeer
Peerless songwriter McKenna draws inspiration from her family to create an upbeat album of the hugely enjoyable songs we’ve come to expect from her.
Larkin Poe, Kindred Spirits (Read our review here.)
Two voices, two guitars, gorgeous harmonies and eleven classic songs reimagined in a rootsy, fresh manner.
Chris Smither, More From the Levee
From a master song-writer come 10 more songs from his 2014 New Orleans Still On the Levee sessions. His wry wit, rhythmic finger picking an authentic, world-weary singing make any Chris Smither album worth listening to.
Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
It’s more of the same from the current king of country, despite the album’s title. Solid country rock with some nice bluesy moment. And two Guy Clark covers can’t be bad, right?
Watkins Family Hour, Brother Sister
Siblings Sean and Sara are excellent songwriters, singers and musicians, all on display in this lovely album, bluegrass based, but with tinges of Americana, jazz and ragtime.
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
Apparently inspired by Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Katie Crutchfield veers away from melancholy indie-rock back to her country roots – very successfully. Excellent stuff.