15. Victoria Bailey – Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline (Rock Ridge)
Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline recalls the era of its titular star without the sense of emulation that so often plagues such well-intended releases. Such is the songwriting sense, then, of Victoria Bailey, who made an impressive full-album debut with the LP earlier this year. Rather than becoming another imitation of the Bakersfield sound, Bailey is the catalyst through which it sees its natural extension. An expressive, committed performer with an ounce of grit in her back pocket, Bailey is California honky-tonk sans novelty.
Sometimes, it’s a modern arrangement that the older-school influences are backing up—such is the case of “The Beginning”—but even when Bailey takes us full-on into the honky-tonk, her palpable authenticity instantly besmirches any attempts at discrediting her sound. In a world of persistent change—and, often, in 2020, not necessarily for the better—Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline comes across with a warm familiarity thanks to where it sews its roots, with Bailey being the fresh new face to carry that Bakersfield sound back to the forefront. — Jonathan Frahm
14. Steve Earle & The Dukes – The Ghosts of West Virginia (New West)
From even a glance at Steve Earle’s oeuvre, it is unequivocally apparent that he uses his music to tell the stories of the voiceless. The Ghosts of West Virginia finds Steve Earle & The Dukes portraying the 2010 West Virginia mining explosion that killed 29 miners. In “It’s About Blood”, for example, Earle names the 29 victims in a poignant interlude tinged with a bluesy sadness and punk rock ferociousness. Thematically, the album focuses on that particular event, but Earle makes room for considerations of the dehumanizing work conditions that miners endure, ultimately leading to lifelong illnesses such as “Black Lung”. Critical of capitalism’s need for human sacrifices, Earle masterfully balances righteous indignation with empathy and grief. When he presents the narrative of a miner’s widow, her devastation is tangible and raw. For Earle, this album is not a political issue, although this topic is greatly affected by politics. Rather, this is a call to bridge political divisiveness, and in solidarity, realize capitalism is the ultimate oppressor. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
13. Sarah Jarosz – World on the Ground (Rounder)
Sarah Jarosz‘s World on the Ground is a heartfelt reminder that a period of flailing is temporary, often the period before a transition. The album’s title is derived from the track “Pay It No Mind”, where Jarosz takes on the vantage point of a fledgling inflight. As such, the album is a consideration of identity, a reflection of the past as an informant of the present while finding the artist squarely focused on the future. Jarosz tackles existentialism with a springy lens, she is clear-eyed and hopeful throughout. Her storytelling is compelling, often showing affinity with Gillian Welch or Mary Gauthier. As a multi-instrumentalist, she shifts between mandolins, multiple guitars, a clawhammer banjo, and piano, all the while her vocals are at the forefront. She relies on folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, and bluegrass genres to centralize her roots but manages to define a musical space endowing Jarosz’s caliber. Listen closely, her drawl occasionally emphasizes her melodies while concretizing her position in Americana music. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
12. Molly Tuttle – …but I’d rather be with you (Compass)
There’s something comforting about the sound of familiar music. No matter how dark the outside world may seem, we can huddle by ourselves and play our favorite songs for consolation and reassurance. Nashville’s Molly Tuttle has taken this a process a step further. The multi-talented singer-songwriter and instrumentalist taught herself how to use Pro Tools digital audio workstation to record and engineer while stuck at home alone. She then sent them to producer Tony Berg in Los Angeles, who employed session musicians to fill in the parts from their home studios. The result,
…but I’d rather be with you is a lovely, low-key, intimate affair.
Tuttle’s list is esoteric and reveals the pleasures of having catholic tastes. She chose a wide range of material, including one track each from the National, the Rolling Stones, Arthur Russell, Karen Dalton, FKA Twigs, Rancid, Grateful Dead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Harry Styles, and Cat Stevens. Tuttle keeps the arrangements simple and uncluttered. She plays flawlessly here without ever showing off. The same thing is true for her voice. She lets it sparkle and shine when the song calls for it, such as on her version of the Stones’ semi-psychedelic “She’s a Rainbow” or in the giddy moments of falling love as on Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost”. – Steve Horowitz
11. Drive-By Truckers – The New OK (ATO Records)
Drive-By Truckers‘ penchant towards political observation and criticism is as evident as ever in The New Ok. The album’s title spins the ‘new normal’ cliché, often used to describe the apathy towards and acceptance of the dysfunction caterwauling from the politically powerful. Indeed, the album overtly opposes ICE and the caging of children at the border. More so, Drive by Truckers use their album to lend support to the Black Lives Matter movement while questioning white-identity politics and rejecting far-right discourses. Drive by Truckers are not content to examine contemporary political angst as a singular historical moment.
“Sarah’s Flame”, for example, contextualizes Sarah Palin’s role in paving the way for Trumpism, leading up to the white supremacist march through Charlottesville, North Carolina. The New Ok‘s strength is derived from its overtness. Drive-By Truckers do not hide their intent in symbolism or purple lyricism. By utilizing a conversation-style delivery, their purpose is apparent. Whereas The New Ok is decidedly a bleak portrait of the now, Drive-By Truckers urge their audience to acknowledge the deceitful political artery that led society to 2020, then prevent the devastation from further continuing. – Elisabeth Woronzoff