5. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge)
It doesn’t take Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield averting anxieties for Saint Cloud to hop on the hope kinetic. Rather, its greatest realization comes in seeing the world for whatever it is — beautiful in its complexity, but also dark and difficult and sometimes hard to see the bright side through even in its better moments. Then, Crutchfield acts as a medium for humanity to navigate the world through when it feels irresolute, all without being schmaltzy or purblind about it. As it often has been throughout our Best Americana Albums of 2020, authenticity is key, and Saint Cloud has it in spades. It makes for one of the most scintillating listens of the year in painting a vision of hope without tunnel vision, pining for keys to genuine resolution. Well, it’s all of that with the bonus of the album, musically, being damn good. Crutchfield revitalizes the Waxahatchee sound with folk and roots rock inflections, acting as a natural musical catalyst for the artist to slide in and out of moments of heartache with a righteous wit. – Jonathan Frahm
4. The War and Treaty – Hearts Town (Rounder)
Michael J. Trotter and Tanya Blount Trotter—a couple of lovebirds from Albion, MI—have been some of Americana’s most notable since their 2016 debut as the War & Treaty. From its precipice, Hearts Town, their third studio effort, erupts with victorious determination. Eschewing the saccharine, the War & Treaty offer tidings of hope and messages of survival throughout, but not without addressing the struggles that we face.
“Five More Minutes”—a steady-moving soul tune with 70s-era clavinet inflections that sweetly showcases the couples’ effortless vocals—perhaps tells it best. For Michael and Tanya, the tune is rooted in self-reflection; its chorus is a direct quote from Tanya during a time where she was fighting to save her husband from suicide. Afflicted with PTSD after serving in Iraq, Trotter thought that his life insurance policy might be the answer to saving his wife and son from their financial woes. He listened to his wife’s plea of having “five more minutes” to love him, and so the crux of Hearts Town was born.
Elsewhere, the Americana power couple peregrinate to refine their blend of roots sounds even further than before. Influenced by all manner of soul, rock, and folk alike, Hearts Town is the War & Treaty’s most matured and moving collection of songs yet. – Jonathan Frahm
3. Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20 / Thirty Tigers)
Lucinda Williams makes her independence clear from the beginning of her anarchic Good Souls Better Angels. She announces this in the title of the very first song “You Can’t Rule Me” and establishes that fact with a gnarly attitude and a nasty sounding electric guitar throughout the album. She knows the world is falling apart. But that doesn’t mean she has to accept it or change herself. Life is full of bad news on both a public and a personal level. Williams specifically castigates Donald Trump on “Man Without a Soul”. She may have “Shadows and Doubts”, but Williams claims her soul as her own. She’s gonna “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. Williams sings in a rough voice that suggests the pain of her past experiences and petitions the Lord with electric feedback that expresses the depth of her feelings. The combination provides a potent remedy to feeling blue. “Don’t give up when the days get dark,” Williams tells us, she is with us in spirit.—Steve Horowitz
2. The Secret Sisters – Saturn Return (New West)
The Secret Sisters believe change is inevitable, and very often, will lead to promising new beginnings. The album’s title, Saturn Return, for example, refers to the occurrence when Saturn returns to the same astrological place as the day of one’s birth. Often Saturn’s journey spans between 27-30 years, with many believing the event marks a period of awakening. The fourth album from the Alabama sibling duo, Laura and Lydia Rogers, finds the artists embracing transformation. Long time collaborators with singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, she returns to co-produce Saturn Return but leaves a subtle mark.
Rather, the album emphasizes the Secret Sisters’ captivating vocals. Their elegant vocal harmonies hearten the sparse instrumentation while providing a touch of warmth to heavy topics. On “Nowhere Baby,” they sing “It’s not glamour, it ain’t fortune,” enshrining beauty on mystifying human experiences such as death and pregnancy. They also undertake larger social issues like domestic abuse and toxic relationships to model resilience as an act of agency. The moments of joy are present, especially with subversive rejections of gender norms. Saturn Return reiterates the power found in cherishing the connections that usher metamorphosis. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
1. Low Cut Connie – Private Lives (Contender)
Low Cut Connie’s Private Lives is chock full of songs that inspire and lift one up. Life may be hard, but we have to do what we do to survive. The 17 tracks here offer compassion for those who live on life’s margins whether because of poverty, race, gender identity, or personal circumstance. Using a musical vocabulary rooted in everything from Jerry Lee Lewis-style rockabilly to Philly R&B to glam rock to the Great American Songbook, frontman/songwriter/piano monster Adam Weiner urges listeners to keep on punching and never give up. The contributions of guitarist extraordinaire Will Donnelly should also be noted.
Low Cut Connie invite listeners to celebrate the “Wild Ride” life offers. Sure, there are those that may want to hold us down (The band name check Donald Trump’s impact on the working poor of Atlantic City on “Look What They Did”), but we are all welcome in Low Cut Connie’s world. The album demonstrates how the joy of music can bring us together. Low Cut Connie have spent the last nine months creating a community of fans by doing twice a week live streams under the heading of Tough Cookies, which is a highly recommended way of hearing this music if you don’t already own it. — Steve Horowitz