All aspects of a civilization relate: its laws, architecture, literature, politics, art, economics. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Americana music in 2020 connected to what was happening during this turbulent year: concerns such as COVID-19, Trumpism, Black Lives Matter, climate change, and such regularly made appearances in these chosen records. In addition, the new albums also told stories of love and life, humorously offered observations about the world, and displayed the magic of well-told narratives. The artists empathetically dealt with the things that bind us together and keep us apart. The items on this list encourage hope for the future based on a belief in the human spirit. Whether the songs pointed out social injustices or described romantic love gone wrong, the implicit message was the same, the future can and will be better.
We are living in strange times. One might think that the fact musicians could not jam together or perform live on stage because of lockdowns and safety issues would limit creativity and there would be fewer new records. Instead, the opposite was true. Musicians as different as the Drive-By Truckers, Molly Tuttle, and Taylor Swift (among many others) used the change in circumstances to learn new skills and create fresh music. When the PopMatters staff first met to discuss the year-end column, we thought that we might have to limit the number of highlight records to 15 albums instead of the usual 20 because of the negative circumstances. Instead, we discovered that there were a plethora of wonderful albums released in 2020. We could easily have added more as there are many deserving records.
Those worthy of an honorable mention include Lilly Hiatt’s
Walking Proof, Whitney Rose’s We Still Goes to Rodeos, John Moreland’s LP5, Elizabeth Cook’s Aftermath, Eliza Gilkyson’s 2020, Dave Alvin’s From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, The Band of Heathens’ Strange, Jess Williamson’s Sorceress, Jeff Tweedy’s Love Is King, Blitzen Trapper’s Holy Smokes Future Jokes, My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II, Stephanie Lambring’s Autonomy, Leslie Barth’s Big Time Baby, Anthony Garcia’s Acres of Diamonds, Great Peacock’s Forever Worse Better, Jason Wilber’s Time Traveler, Anders & O’Bitz’s American Bardo, Della Mae’s Headlight, Paisley Fields’ Electric Park Ballroom, Golden Shoals’ Self-Titled, Front Country’s Impossible World, Dustbowl Revival’s Is It You, Is It Me, and Letitia Van Sant’s Circadian.
25. Frank Jacket – You Say Adios (Mula)
Chilean artist Frank Jacket is a living testament to the far-reaching quality of honest-to-goodness classic country movement. Inspired by the honky-tonk of Roger Miller more than anything, Jacket recalls the likes of recent revivalist artists like Luke Bell, but with the offbeat charm of being entirely self-made. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, producer, and graphic artist,
You Say Adios is Jacket’s own development from every angle. Rounding out at 15 tracks, it’s a fun, retro romp that mostly evades sugary sentiment.
On the right occasion, though, Jacket draws full-tilt into the hokey—in a splendid “enough said” moment, one track on the album is endearingly titled “When I Pee on Me”. Still, You Say Adios makes for an easy listen from the Chilean Americana artist. It rounds out on a high note with “Dices Adios”, a yearning ranchera ballad replete with impressive self-harmonization and gritos abound. Besides being an effortless performance in his native language, it also showcases Jacket’s skill as an instrumentalist without frills with its unfettered guitar tones and bass-plucking. – Jonathan Frahm
24. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (Columbia)
Bruce Springsteen has been on a roll lately by moving backwards as a way of heading forward. He wrote an acclaimed autobiography ( Born to Run) and developed a successful show (Springsteen on Broadway) about his personal history. He then came out with Western Stars, an album rooted in the country rock of the seventies. And now he gathered the remnants of his old group back together for the first time in more than ten years for a new record where they even recorded three colorful songs (“Janey Needs a Shooter”, “If I Were the Priest”, “Song For Orphans”) from the beginning of his career that were never officially released. The other nine tracks address his youthful concerns salted with the experience of age. On cuts such as “One Minute You’re Here” and “Last Man Standing”, Springsteen acknowledges that memories will always haunt us in a positive manner, as he celebrates the power of friendship and song. And as he points out on the title track, getting older can make one stronger and better as a human being. – Steve Horowitz
23. The Mavericks – En Español (Mono Mundo Recordings)
The Mavericks‘ En Español is a viable reminder that Americana does not only reflect the continental US. En Español is a palpable marker of the veracity of the Spanish language while also unifying Latin and Americana musicalities. Delving into love and heartbreak, dreams realized and lost, The Mavericks underscore these universal themes with noticeably hybrid instrumentation. A muted trumpet aligning with a steely guitar, a mariachi band flirting with twangy vocals, and an 11-piece string section all support bandleader Raul Malo as he shifts between bravado and vulnerability. More so, the album’s energy is expanded by Tejano accordion great Flaco Jimenez and Santana/Los Lobos keyboard player Alberto Salas. As a first-generation Cuban American, some of the album’s covers define Malo’s heritage while the originals reflect the band’s unique vision. Essentially, En Español is a study in the subjectivity of conventions. The Mavericks have defied this singularity and use the album to establish a musical common ground. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
22. The Mastersons – No Time For Love Songs (Red House)
The Mastersons are done mincing words. The musical and marital duo, Chris and Eleanor Masterson, tap into contemporary consciousness to situate No Time For Love Songs. True to the album’s title, the Mastersons centralize social and societal issues. Calling out apathy and those who “worship a monster/Such a foolish endeavor”, the Mastersons are overt in their standpoint. The duo channel a range of emotion, never overextending their display of affect, thereby avoiding alienation. This mediation is likely the result of Shooter Jennings‘ astute production work.
Yet, their lyrics are critical and welcomed contributions to a time when civil discourses have become endangered. Likewise, their musicianship renders the topics’ approachability. The duo’s harmonies are cherubic, as their instrumentation is compelling. Eleanor’s violin playing is especially breathtaking, much as Chris’ guitarmanship is staggering. When the duo sings, “And this world is hard enough/Try and find a better way for you and me” they unequivocally position this album as that ‘better way’. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
21. Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started (Loma Vista Recordings)
Margo Price has paid her dues, both professionally and personally. Whereas she honors those challenges, she rejects singularity as the underlying factor in defining her music and identity. In That’s How Rumors Get Started, Price reimagines Americana’s sound as well as her position within the genre. Produced by Sturgill Simpson, That’s How Rumors Get Started uses a multitude of instruments to create an expansive sound. Notably, her use of 1980s pop-synths, or crisper rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities, enshrines her arresting vocals. All the while, she ensures a visceral Americana energy, judiciously using her twang but forgoing genre staples such as the steel guitar and fiddle. Price sees Americana’s fluidity and extends it to her lyrics. She interlaces her struggles with national themes such as criticizing the American healthcare system and economic depression. In Mid-West Farmer’s Daughter, Price described herself as an outsider. Indeed, That’s How Rumors Get Started finds her using her position on the margins to deconstruct Americana’s center in an empowering and provoking way. — Elisabeth Woronzoff