Top 10 Albums of 2020

Last Updated on June 27, 2021

1. Chuck Prophet – ‘The Land That Time Forgot’

2020 will go down as one of the most eventful years in our lifetimes, even though we sat at home for most of it. It wreaked havoc regardless.

‘The Land That Time Forgot’ is not set in the jungles of Africa or the alien landscapes of Mars, but in America. Chuck Prophet and his long-time co-conspirator Kurt Lipschutz have done it again. Prophet always has his best shirt on and keeps re-inventing himself. No albums are alike.

Produced by Kenny Siegal, Matt Winegar and Chuck Prophet, most of the album was recorded at Siegal’s Old Soul Studios in a historical mansion in Catskill, New York. Some great musicians were brought in, including the talented Zach Djanikian (saxophones, accordion, pump organ, air organ, melodicas, glockenspiel, electric sitar, mandolin) and Dave Sherman (clavinet, piano, synthesizer, organ, harpsichord, arpa, wurlitzer electric piano).

“Marathon” channels the dance-a-thons of the Great Depression. Chuck and his wife Stephanie Finch are ready from the get-go, singing in response back and forth, “step to the right, step to the left”.

In the era before airplanes and interstate highways, the train was a practical part of the presidential burial proceedings, conveying a casket from one place to another. “Paying My Respects to the Train” is gorgeous in every way. What a beautiful song with the added weeping slide from James DePrato.

Chuck Prophet never forgot where he came from. “Nixonland” deals with Prophet being born in Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California.

“Get Off the Stage” is a song that Randy Newman could have easily written. What a perfect song in every way you can think of. It’s not only one of the highlights of the album, but perfectly placed as a closer.

Chuck Prophet was able to use a photograph from one of his favourite photographers, Jim Goldberg, for the album cover. Prophet encourages people to get the vinyl, saying “you buy the first Velvet Underground record on vinyl and not only have a masterpiece of an album, but you also have a Warhol in your home.”

 

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2. Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan continues to reshape folk, rock, and pop. ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is Dylan’s best album since 9/11s ‘Love and Theft’. Listening to Dylan’s 39th studio album in its entirety can immediately bring you back to that day in 2001.

Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Last March 26th on a late Thursday night, Dylan surprised his fans with the release of the epic “Murder Most Foul”, and at almost 17 minutes, it is Dylan’s longest song.

Here we are in 2020 and Bob Dylan releases another masterpiece at the age of 79, and during one of the saddest periods in history. We might not remember the exact release date this time around, but we will certainly not forget the period or year in what could well be Bob’s last musical release.

Today and tomorrow and yesterday too
The flowers are dying like all things do

Rough and rowdy ways. What a career.

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3. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

Bruce Springsteen’s new album might not have existed except for a fan possibly from Italy who gifted Bruce with an acoustic guitar outside of Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City during ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ concert residency. The guitar, made by a company Springsteen has never heard of, sat in his living room for months, until Springsteen picked it up around April of last year.

All the songs from the album came out of that guitar in less than 10 days. On a snowy day in November 2019, the album was recorded at his home studio in New Jersey in four days. ‘Letter To You’, Springsteen’s 20th studio album deals with mortality and aging in a profound manner. It is the first time since ‘Born in the U.S.A. that Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded live in the studio to this extent with close to zero overdubs.

The album includes nine recently written Springsteen songs, as well as new recordings of three of his legendary, but previously unreleased, compositions from the 1970s, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans.”

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4. Otis Gibbs – Hoosier National

‘Hoosier National’ is Otis Gibbs’ ninth release and his first album to be pressed on vinyl is an all-electric album, also a first for Gibbs. A great band of musicians/friends were pieced together. Thomm Jutz (electric guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Lynn Williams (drums), and Jen Gunderman (organ and piano). The album, recorded at Thomm’s place, was co-produced by Otis and Thomm. Otis sings and also plays electric guitar on this great set of songs. The great artwork is also by Gibbs.

After twelve years in Nashville, Otis and longtime partner, Amy Lashley decided to move back home to the land of Vonnegut last October where they purchased a 115 year old Victorian in a historic neighbourhood.

The album title refers to the Hoosier National Forest, a Southern Indiana destination mentioned in the song “Panhead”, a true story of his father’s quest to build a chopper motorcycle after buying a Harley-Davidson engine for $30 at a Beech Grove swap meet.

Otis Gibbs sings about a once proud factory town that has fallen victim to changing economic conditions on the album opener, “Nine Foot Problem”.

“Sons and Daughters” is one of the many stand-out tracks off the album. It manages to evoke Victoria, BC’s singer/songwriter Wyckham Porteous’ 1995 ‘Looking for Ground’ (produced by the late Jimmy LaFave).

“Lord Open Road” is about the 1981 murder of Missouri-born James Langford (Lord Open Road), the legendary hobo who was robbed and killed in the train yards at Dalhart, Texas.

“Bill Traylor” is a song about an African-American born into slavery in Alabama who became a self-taught artist after moving to Montgomery in 1939 “painted from the heart all day”.

Otis Gibbs is a national treasure.

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5. William Elliott Whitmore – I’m With You

Iowa-based singer-songwriter William Elliott Whitmore is a calming voice amongst chaos with the release of his eighth album, ‘I’m With You’, a collection of nine folks and twangy punked-up country songs aided by his gravelly, world weary voice, his banjo, and acoustic guitar.

‘Put It to Use’ starts things off with banjo and fiddle.

Strumming his acoustic guitar, Whitmore sings about how a solar flare could knock out an entire grid and he’d be satisfied of the life that he’s lived on ‘Solar Flare’.

William Elliott says that ‘My Mind Can Be Cruel to Me’ is about perception. “Our memories and thoughts can be torturous at times. Mark Twain called it the ‘devil’s race track’, when a line of thought and worry goes around and around in a circle inside our brains. Is the mind a separate entity from the body? At what point does it feel as though our brains are actually betraying us? Human beings are a complicated animal, and with that comes complicated emotions, fears, and habits.”

The banjo-led story song ‘MK Ultra Blues’ is about ‘MK-Ultra’ the top-secret CIA project that lasted from 1953 until about 1973 in which the agency conducted hundreds of clandestine experiments—sometimes on unwitting U.S. citizens—to assess the potential use of LSD and other drugs for mind control, information gathering and psychological torture. Details of the illicit program didn’t become public until 1975, during a congressional investigation into widespread illegal CIA activities within the United States and around the world.

WEW keeps his eyes on a forward path with ‘History’ singing / History walks beside me / Teaches me everything it can /.

In 2020, ‘I’m With You’ William Elliott Whitmore, just like I have for years.

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6. Teddy Thompson – Heartbreaker Please

Beautiful, soulful.

Teddy Thompson sings /And it only happens now/That I’m lonely/See the world is a cold place/ on “What Now”. The singer-songwriter has lived in New York City since moving there as a teen with his parents British folks singers Linda and Richard Thompson. The city also helped him fuse together his sixth studio album ‘Heartbreaker Please’, his first album since 2011’s ‘Bella’.

The horns add to the heartbreak of the two opening tracks, “Why Wait” and “At A Light” before Teddy’s father, Richard Thompson’s signature guitar sound is added to the mix on the title track, “Heartbreaker”.

“Record Player”, co-written with Kathryn Williams and Elle-Kari Larson is a great pop song.

Where are the songs that I love
Where is the music that I care for
Is it only in my head
Or on my record player

 

‘Heartbreaker Please’ was produced by Teddy Thompson.

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7. Jeremy Ivey & The Extraterrestrials – Waiting Out The Storm

Jeremy Ivey follows up 2019’s debut ‘The Dream and the Dreamer’ with another stunning release. On the album opener, “Tomorrow People”, Ivey sings /Hey tomorrow people / Don’t look at me man / I may have made a deal with the devil / But I never shook his hand./ The only hands involved here are that of his wife Margo Price (production) and Jeremy Ivey and The Extraterrestrials (co-production).

“Things Could Get Much Worse” couldn’t be more relevant coming from someone who spent 70 days battling Covid-19. “Someone Else’s Problem”, co-written with Ivey’s wife, Margo Price traces the steps of a well-to-do businessman who doesn’t initially think issues like war, famine, and immigration affect him. “There’s no such thing as someone else’s problem,” Ivey said.

The Extraterrestrials are:

Evan Donahue – guitar, vocals

Coley Hinson – bass, vocals
Alex Munoz – guitar, lap steel
Josh Minyard – drums, percussion

Special guests:

Margo Price – vocals, percussion
Dillion Napier – drums, percussion
Micah Hulscher – organ, piano, synth, electric piano

Dexter Green – vocals and additional arrangement on ‘Movies’

They don’t make movies like they used to, but they sure make albums like they used to and ‘Waiting Out The Storm’ is one of them. Nothing more could have been extracted from these extraterrestrial bodies.

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8. Gill Landry – Skeleton at the Banquet

Louisiana-Born singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Gill Landry’s fifth solo album features the rhythm section of Seth Ford-Young and Josh Collazo alongside Stewart Cole on trumpet and violinist Odessa Jorgensen. Landry plays guitar, pedal steel, keys and harmonica.

After 11 years as a member of the Grammy-award-winning Old Crow Medicine Show, Gill Landry struck out on his own following the release of his third solo, self-titled album in 2015.

‘Skeleton at the Banquet’ was written two summers ago in Meschers-sur-Gironde, a coastal commune north of Bordeaux, the famed wine-growing region in southwestern France. Landry spent a month there living off baguettes, cheap wine, and the generosity of his neighbours. His experience there led him to “writing this series of reflections on the collective hallucination of America and a few love songs for good measure.”

Beautifully poetic, Landry’s vivid narratives sung in his rich baritone recalls the bard, Leonard Cohen. The brilliant lead-off track, “I Love You Too”, is a song about a man who’s not in touch with himself.

The harmonica is the beacon for the song that follows, “The Wolf” where Landry sings /The wolf is at the door again / Dressed like my best friend / Promising me everything / If I’ll only let her in /

Gill Landry used a vintage German Olympia Traveller typewriter when writing ‘Skeleton at the Banquet’. It’s only fitting that the instrumental “Portrait of Astrid (A Nocturne)” would close this stunning album, acting like a margin bell and time for Side A again.

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9. Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jonathan Wilson recorded ‘Dixie Blur’ in six days in Nashville with first-rate session musicians, including legendary fiddler Mark O’Connor, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and bassist Dennis Crouch. “It was so fast it was a blur.” Hence the title, ‘Dixie Blur’.

All songs written by Jonathan Wilson except for the album opener, “Just For Love”, written by Dino Valente of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

In 2019 Wilson appeared on nationally-syndicated live music radio show eTown where he was played with Steve Earle who advised Wilson that he ought to take his new songs to Nashville. “And that’s how I got into the idea of going to Nashville and tapping into that sound,” says Wilson. The album was produced by Jonathan Wilson and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone. From the Laurel Canyon music scene to the music scene in Nashville, Jonathan Wilson rides high in 2020.

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10. Paul Bolger – Self-Titled

Paul J Bolger is an accomplished artist who’s made a successful career in publishing and film. Working his way back into music, Paul returned to recording and released new music for the first time in twenty-five years. The self-titled album is a mix of old and new songs, with some of them written more than twenty years ago. The songs were worked up from ideas and demos brought to Canadian producer and multi-instrumentalist Hugh Christopher Brown on Wolfe Island, Ontario in the summer 2018. Bolger calls the self-titled release his “Canadian album.” It was released on Brown’s independent, artist-driven label, Wolfe Island Records.

The recurring themes of infatuation (‘Swim’), death (‘Wedding Gown’, ‘Unkind’), forgiveness (‘All Those Things’), and love (‘I Believe’) are the makeup of the eight songs behind Paul’s cover art. And like his drawings, you stick them together to tell a story.

The front cover art is a painting Paul did one night when he had a bad bout of jet lag after a long trip home some years ago. Titled ‘(At The Point Of) Resurrection’ the image is a tongue in cheek take on the expression Jesus Christ might have had when he woke up on Easter Sunday morning shouting, “WTF just happened?”

If you want to be surrounded by music and art, look no further than Paul J Bolger.

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