10. Taylor Swift – folklore (Republic)
Taylor Swift was set to tour before the recent pandemic brought live performances to a close. She used her new-found time to create a lowkey, (even the title of the album and each of its 16 songs are spelled without a capital first letter) album with the help of the alt rock band the National’s Aaron Dessner. Swift sings in a quiet voice, often whispering, as she tells tales of teen love (“Betty”, “Cardigan”), a rebellious socialite (” the last great american dynasty”, a “mad woman”, and other narratives of those who find themselves alone. In fact, her characters find strength in their individuality. They might find solace and love in the arms of others but remain true to their solitary nature. Swift still has an ear for clever word play and a smart line that has layers of meaning that one can ponder long after the 16-tracks on folklore have ended. The musical accompaniment is atmospheric more than melodic and creatively sets the lyrics into a netherworld where dreams and reality elastically merge. – Steve Horowitz
9. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
This is Bob Dylan’s first album of original material since 2012. While the 17 minute single “Murder Most Foul” about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the death of American innocence has received the bulk of attention, the other nine tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways show that Bob Dylan has kept in touch with the modern world. On songs such as “I Contain Multitudes,” and “False Prophet”, the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter combines myth, popular culture, literature, and autobiography to address where we are now as a society.
Dylan shamelessly invokes everyone from Anne Frank and William Blake to personify his thoughts and feelings about how we got here and what it means. Lyrically, he’s a Whitmanian witness testifying with his tongue in cheek. He has a sense of humor lest one take him too seriously. Life may not be a joke but that doesn’t mean one can’t laugh at its absurdity. Musically, the songs seem mostly rooted in the Blues. He even pays tribute to the late great Jimmy Reed. Dylan’s not a purist and is not afraid to rock out, go Gospel, or use rhythm & blues licks as needed for impact. – Steve Horowitz
8. Neil Young – Homegrown (Reprise)
“Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away,” writes the artist for the Neil Young Archive. Apologizing for the delay, Young admits the album was reflective of his devastating heartbreak, rendering him too fragile to release such a personal artifact. Homegrown was cut between 1974-1975, right after Young endured the breakup from Carrie Snodgress. After emptying his heart into the music, Young hid the album away to avoid exposing his emotional ruination. Indeed, Homegrown enshrines Young’s fragility and vulnerability, while also adroitly capturing love’s magnitude. Each track finds value in human connection regardless of the emotional fallout.
Whereas some of these songs appeared in live performances and subsequent bootlegs, the tracks’ mixings are entirely new. Throughout, Young’s sprawling guitar playing is piqued with the steely harmonica and melancholic piano, resituating Young’s musicianship to be as powerful as his songwriting. More so, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris, Karl T Himmel, Tim Drummond, and Ben Keith lend their musical support to the album. Essentially, Homegrown is an emotional picture of an artist at the zenith of his career. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
7. Brennen Leigh – Prairie Love Letter (Independent)
Inspired by the Minnesota-North Dakota state line, Brennen Leigh’s Prairie Love Letter intertwines traditional heartland musicality with progressive narratives. For all the novelty that one might presume of this meshing in the hands of a lesser songwriter, Leigh’s consummate disposition ensures that her message cannot be interpreted in any way other than authentic. Leigh revitalizes old-time Appalachian bluegrass and country-folk but tailors it for modernity. There’s room for pure nostalgia, such as with “The John Deere H”, but that it recounts Leigh’s genuine childhood makes it out to be more touching than mawkish. Where Prairie Love Letter shines the most is where Leigh gives a nod to those who the Midwest has often trod down upon; for instance, “Billy and Beau” is a subtly sweet Appalachian love song that just so happens to be written about gay love, while Leigh makes for a convincing call to action against Big Oil on the hot button “Pipeline”. – Jonathan Frahm
6. Raye Zaragoza – Woman in Color (Rebel River/RAYEMUSIC)
Of Japanese-American, Mexican, and Indigenous descent, Raye Zaragoza’s earlier years were spent with many an unsuccessful crack at assimilating into a society built on the bones of her ancestors in honor of whiteness. Now, though, she is a thunderous voice in the fight for human rights, leveraging her artistic talents to spotlight injustices that are plaguing people—and particularly women—of color today. Politically relevant and strikingly confident in delivery, Zaragoza’s Woman in Color is a feminist protest album that she delivers with a consistently iron will. Through Woman in Color, Zaragoza is an active voice against misogyny, chauvinism, environmental injustices, gentrification, colonization, and imperialism. That she takes such hefty subject matter and transforms it into an accessible, spirited collection of music is a testament to her musical abilities as a songwriter. While she sings truth to power, she sounds great doing it. – Jonathan Frahm