2020’s “45 RPM (Reasons to Purchase Music)” with Playlist

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45 RPM

Last year, I titled my year-end list “33 RPM (Reasons to Purchase Music).” Well, in a year of great music and dumpster fire everything else, 33 ain’t gonna cut it. Here are 45 reasons you need to scrape together some cash – RIGHT NOW – and support your favorite artists.

Top 10(ish) Favorite Albums:

10) Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels – Williams embraced two new approaches on this record – co-writing and overtly singing about politics. The result was a sharp, guitar-driven collection venting its anger at devils both political and personal. Producer/co-writer Tom Overby and guitar player Stuart Mathis have a heavy presence on Good Souls, but songs like “Wakin’ Up,” which lashes out at an abusive partner, are all Lu. https://stores.portmerch.com/lucindawilliams/

9) Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started and Jeremy Ivey, Waiting Out the Storm – Yes, they’re married. Yes, they figure heavily into each others’ albums. But, beyond making good music separately and together, they espouse a sense of rebellion and a Nashville cool that seems sorely lacking these days. Whether it’s Ivey (fighting off a vicious bout with COVID-19 to make one of the best guitar albums of the year) or Price (going against labels and critics to make a good gotdamn ROCK record), these two are among a small handful of Music City pairs whose influence extends far past their own excellent music.

https://bodega.lomavistarecordings.com/collections/margo-price

https://jeremyivey.colortestmerch.com/

8) Becky Warren, The Sick Season – Any year that Ms. Warren releases new material, it’s going to shove its way onto this list. Her 2020 offering explains her near-complete absence from the scene since the release of 2018’s Undesirable – a crippling bout with depression. “Appointment with the Blues” is an ominous intro to a raw, punk-inflected rock record. The reason for laying out all this pain in a rapid-fire 37-ish minutes? Simple – you might just find some part of yourself in these songs, and you’ll realize that someone else understands. https://beckywarren.bandcamp.com/merch

7) Katie Pruitt, Expectations – In a pandemic-free world, 2020 would’ve been Katie Pruitt’s year. An amazing collection of songs backed by a raw, out-of-this-world voice would’ve conquered intimate venues across America. Until then, we’ll keep loving her full-length debut, where she unapologetically details her coming out and the world she lives in, regardless of what others might think. http://katiepruitt.limitedrun.com/

6) Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud – Katie Crutchfield has dipped her indie rock toes into Americana before, but she dove full in this year, and the result is an album that feels like it’s been with us forever, right down to the aging Ford truck on the cover. The relative calm springs from both Crutchfield’s newfound sobriety and making her own world a little bit smaller, leaving behind that which she could not control. This is one of those records you’ll put on and leave on, not wanting to break its spell. https://www.mergerecords.com/product/saint_cloud

5) Brennen Leigh, Prairie Love Letter – Leigh’s love of, and honesty about, her neck of the woods is what makes this record special. Whether she’s singing about a bittersweet trip home (“Don’t You Know I’m From Here”), encroaching development (“You’ve Never Been to North Dakota”) or even farm implements (“The John Deere H”), the songs, along with the beauty and  maturity in Leigh’s voice, might have you making plans to visit America’s Great Plains. https://www.brennenleigh.net/merchandise

4) Courtney Marie Andrews, Old Flowers – As breakup records go, this one is not so much a sharp sting as a slow twist in the gut that won’t go away. There’s both finding fault and accepting blame here, as well as the natural sadness in a relationship that’s run its course. And the album’s full sound, provided mainly by three musicians (including Andrews), is achingly beautiful. https://courtneymarieandrews.store-08.com/featured/

3) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions – Isbell continues a stunning run of songwriting that goes back to 2013’s Southeastern (and a talent that he’s been honing ever since his Drive-By Truckers days). His band is simply the best rock ‘n’ roll outfit around, and the guitar work on this album may be his and Sadler Vaden’s best ever, which, if you’ve ever seen them live, is high praise. https://stores.portmerch.com/jasonisbell/catalogsearch/result/?q=reunions

2) Arlo McKinley, Die Midwestern – Americana fans buy sad by the bushel, and this album (the first released on the Oh Boy label following Mr. Prine’s passing) vies with Old Flowers for the saddest of the year. This record, though, isn’t break-up material, but more tied into personal failings, self-doubt and poor life choices. And if you can’t find some measure of solace in a man singing on those topics, you’re listening to the wrong damn genre. https://store.johnprine.com/collections/arlo-mckinley

1) American Aquarium, Lamentations – It’s partially a sobriety record, sure, but there’s so much more to bandleader BJ Barham’s latest. He got plenty of social media flack for “Better South” (imagine the nerve of asking for less bigotry!), but the song reflected the tenor of the entire album – expecting more, starting with himself and asking the same of everyone else. That passion, plus great pedal steel work from Neil Jones, made this my favorite listen of 2020. http://www.americanaquarium.com/store?category=Vinyl

Top 20 Favorite Songs:

20) Stephanie Lambring, “Joy of Jesus” – Lambring finds spirituality not in judgment or shame, but in kindness and caring – “For we do not have a high priest who cannot empathize with all our weaknesses.” Seems simple enough, but, sadly, we know it’s not. https://stephanielambring.bigcartel.com/product/autonomy

19) Bruce Springsteen, “Ghosts” – This return to all-out rock from the E Street Band is both a recognition from The Boss that he’s the last survivor of his Jersey Shore peers – “I’m alive, and I’m out here on my own” – and a kick-out-the-jams bruiser that will sound great in arenas when we can all get sweaty together again. https://brucespringsteenstore.com/ 

18) Bo Armstrong, “Wearing out These Wings” – There just aren’t enough simple, sad love songs anymore, but this one is a welcomed return of the good old-fashioned pain of missing things like “your innocent smile/That I don’t have the strength to forget.” I don’t even know her, and I’m sad that she’s gone. https://www.boarmstrongmusic.com/vinyl

17) Pokey LaFarge, “F@ck Me Up” – Yes, it’s a song from a “wholesome Midwestern boy” that ain’t, but it’s really all about irresistible groove that has you swaying before you know what’s happened. https://pokeylafarge.shop.redstarmerch.com/dept/music?cp=108995_108996

16) The Jayhawks, “This Forgotten Town”  – The fantastic, multi-faceted 2020 release from the Minnesota vets, XOXO, led off with this song about the kind of town where everything, and nothing, changes – “Where the river don’t flow/Where the grass don’t grow.” 

https://stores.portmerch.com/jayhawksofficial/xoxo.html

15) Jess Jocoy, “Castles Made of Sand” – Her subtly gorgeous Such A Long Way includes this slowburner (unsurprisingly, NOT a Hendrix cover) about finding the wrong one – “”But you went and ended up being everything I hoped you wouldn’t.” https://www.jessjocoy.com/merch/p/such-a-long-way-cd

14) Drive-By Truckers, “Thoughts and Prayers” – On their (unfortunately) prophetically titled The Unraveling (released in January, approximately 700 months ago), DBT continues the political arc they explored on American Band, most bluntly in this mini-epic about our epidemic of gun violence, summed up perfectly with the line, “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.” https://www.drivebytruckers.com/records.html

13) Elizabeth Cook, “Bones” – 2020 was full of artists playing against type and getting flack for it. America’s best radio host started off her decidedly non-country record with this thumper of a tribute to her deceased parents who are always with her in ash form – “I wear your bones around my neck.” https://elizabeth-cook.myshopify.com/

12) Waxahatchee, “Can’t Do Much” – The song’s jangly groove belies the jarred nerves Katie Crutchfield is feeling between the bloom of new love – “When you see me, I’m honey on a spoon” and her discomfort with that level of vulnerability – “I hold my breath, I don’t make a sound.” https://www.mergerecords.com/product/saint_cloud

11) Khruangbin and Leon Bridges, “Texas Sun” – The psychedelic band and the old-school soul singer (Texans both) released a joint EP early this year, and the title track feels like a hot, day-long, top-down road trip across the Lone Star State – “You say you like the wind blowing through your hair/Well, come on, roll with me ‘til the sun goes down.” https://www.secretlystore.com/texas-sun-khruangbin-leon-bridges

10) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Dreamsicle” – The brilliance in this song lies in the fact that it can play both ways: the innocent summer tune found in the soaring chorus (“A dreamsicle on a summer night/In a folding lawn chair”) or the tough story, revealed verse by verse, of a boy’s family splitting up (“Why can’t Daddy just come home?/Forget whatever he did wrong”). It’s all about being a careful listener. https://stores.portmerch.com/jasonisbell/catalogsearch/result/?q=reunions

9) Brennen Leigh, “Don’t You Know I’m From Here” – There are the kind of homecomings you see in Hallmark Christmas movies, and then there are the real kind, like when you’re reminded why you and your hometown have a bit of any icy relationship – “I looked down my nose at friends, turns out I might need them again.” The latter makes a MUCH better song. https://www.brennenleigh.net/merchandise

8) Courtney Marie Andrews, “Burlap String” – This ambling country rock tune would feel at home on Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and the sadness and reflection in the lyrics are a hell of a way to start a breakup record – “There’s a family and a house/Where the memories of us belong .” https://courtneymarieandrews.store-08.com/featured/

7) Jerry Joseph, “Dead Confederate” – On an album (The Beautiful Madness) produced by Patterson Hood and featuring the Drive-By Truckers as the house band, the stand-out track is told from the very-2020 perspective of a Confederate statue about to be torn down. The true witchcraft lies not in Jason Isbell’s slide guitar guest spot (although that doesn’t suck), but Joseph’s ability to write from a hateful place (“Jim Crow benediction, ropes and hoods and local cheer”) to show us what more than a few of our neighbors are still thinking.. https://cosmosexschool.com/collections/all-music/products/the-beautiful-madness

6) Becky Warren, “Appointment with the Blues” – This is another great lead track from a record (The Sick Season) that sets the tone for the entire album. It’s dark, and it’s honest about where this particular road trip may be headed – “I got a .22 in the backseat with the booze.” Add in some jagged guitars, and you’ve got a genuinely foreboding song. https://beckywarren.bandcamp.com/merch

5) Tom Petty, “Confusion Wheel” – There’s a good reason I don’t have Wildflowers & All the Rest on my Top Albums (we’ll get to that below), but I couldn’t keep this new-to-us song off this list. It’s a slow-build of a tune that tells us where Petty was, emotionally, at the time – “So much confusion has made me afraid/And I don’t know how to love.” Songs like this are a happy/sad proposition – happy that we get to finally hear it, sad that he won’t write any more. https://store.tompetty.com/collections/music

4) Adia Victoria, “South Gotta Change” – This one-off from the South Carolina-via-Nashville singer was my first exposure to this uncategorizable artist, and it’s an unvarnished call-out of the a land that won’t let itself be fully dragged into the 21st century – “The veil before your face is falling, and it’s falling fast” – while still filled with love for her home – “‘Cause I love you, I won’t leave you/Won’t let you slip away.” https://www.adiavictoria.com/

3) Katie Pruitt, “Expectations” – The title track from Pruitt’s full-length debut is irresistibly poppy, jangly, bouncy, hooky – it’s DIFFERENT. Throw in some attitude – “She said you’re being way too generous/With all the f@cks you’re giving” – and that VOICE, and you’ve got a song that, in a better world, would’ve been all over the FM dial. http://katiepruitt.limitedrun.com/

2) Arlo McKinley, “We Were Alright” – It starts off all positive(ish) – “I said tell me where you’re wanting to be and that’s where we’re gonna go/If it takes my life” – and then the bottom drops out. Turns out, that happy road trip is just a dream. Devastating. https://store.johnprine.com/collections/arlo-mckinley

1) American Aquarium, “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” – It’s the song that defined 2020 for me, and the one I most want to hear live when the world comes back. It’s the story of generations of unmet promises – “What are you supposed to do/When the god you’re prayin’ to/Up and goes missin’?” – and a singer who’s tired of having to sing about them – “These lamentations/Are gonna be the death of me.” Plus, that damn CODA… http://www.americanaquarium.com/store?category=Vinyl

Favorite Re-issue

Tom Petty – Wildflowers & All The Rest – This is just too easy. I’m not a fan of putting live records, greatest hits collections or re-issues on a best album list, but this was simply the most fun I had listening to music all year. https://store.tompetty.com/collections/music

Favorite Cover Song

Aubrie Sellers featuring Steve Earle, “My Love Will Not Change” – In a year where everyone took to releasing covers as a way to get new music out, my favorite cover came all the way from the distant land of February, a place where two singers could comfortably share a microphone. Sellers turns a bluegrass tune into a gritty, garage country back-and-forth with Earle. Sellers would go on to release an EP of covers, World on Fire, in August. https://stores.portmerch.com/aubriesellers/music.html

Favorite Cover Album

Kelsey Waldon, They’ll Never Keep Us Down – Covering Nina Simone’s “Mississippi” was…ballsy. But, with help from Adia Victoria and Kyshona Armstrong, she absolutely nails it. Throw in “Ohio” and John Prine’s “Sam Stone” (along with four additional covers), and we can see the undeniable talent that Mr. Prine saw in Waldon when he signed her to Oh Boy Records. 

https://www.ohboy.com/kelsey-waldon

Favorite Live Album

The War on Drugs, Live Drugs – Recorded across a number of shows during the band’s most recent tour (remember those?), the resulting album is both seamless and flawless. Throw in a Warren Zevon cover (“Accidentally Like a Martyr”), and you’ll be missing the days when you could be uncomfortably close to sweaty strangers. https://store.thewarondrugs.net/featured/

Favorite Live Stream Not Brought To You By Americana Highways

Grace Potter, “Monday Night Twilight” – Fun, sexy, and sometimes just a little bit vulgar, the Vermont singer’s weekly stream is always a great time. One week, she performed from an old “Star Trek” set. In uniform. Another time, she took us back a few months to a full-band set performed for a small group of fans just after learning that her tour had been canceled. Check out a special December 22nd holiday edition here: https://gracepotter.veeps.com/stream/schedule

Favorite Live Stream Group Effort

Sequestered Songwriters – This weekly Monday night tribute, highlighting a different songwriter each time, has been a weekly gem. Artists like Courtney Patton, Jason Eady, Jamie Lin Wilson, Brennen Leigh, Adam Hood and Cody Jinks have covered legends like Bruce Springsteen, Waylon Jennings, Tom Petty and Robert Earl Keen. As the show bounces around Texas, funds are raised and fans are entertained. Be sure to check out the group’s Christmas special on December 21st. https://www.facebook.com/sequesteredsongwriters/

Favorite Artist I Just Missed in 2019

Heather Valley – The Canadian singer’s album of Americana noir, Desert Message, came out late last year. In particular, the quiet-loud-quiet of “Ohio River” is dark and theatrical enough to soundtrack a grimy Ontario crime drama. https://www.heathervalleymusic.com/

Favorite Artist to Pay More Attention to in 2021

Zach Bryan – His November EP, Quiet, Heavy Dreams was his second release of 2020 (after May’s Elisabeth). Also, he’s serving in the US Navy. Kinda makes me ashamed of my lazy-ass year. https://www.zachlanebryan.com/music

Favorite Live Show

Amanda Shires, Bluebird Theater, Denver – In a year in which much live music was planned, this ended up, on March 2, being the my last unfettered show of 2020. Turns out that the Nashville tornado hit right about the time Shires left the stage, and nothing’s been the same since. But, for a few hours that night, 2020 was still a kick-ass year. https://stores.portmerch.com/amandashires/

Favorite Interview

Bonnie Whitmore – We had a wonderful hour-long conversation late in the summer, just before the release of her excellent new album, Last Will & Testament. We discussed artistic mentors, writing about tough topics, and shared musical interests. I haven’t had the chance to see her play live, but given her songwriting and her engaging and generous nature, I’ll be first in line next time she’s in Colorado. https://americanahighways.org/2020/09/30/interview-bonnie-whitmore-on-delivering-emotional-impact-of-serious-subjects/

https://shop.merchcentral.com/collections/bonnie-whitmore

Favorite Musical Moment

Ryan Bingham’s re-appearance in “Yellowstone” – Had Walker actually left Montana, as ordered to by Kayce in an effort to spare his life? Uhm, no. But, when Rip and Lloyd find him playing “Tell My Mother I MIss Her So” in a dive across state, it was a genuinely unexpected musical thrill in an otherwise bereft summer. https://www.ryanbingham.com/music-2

Favorite Career Move

Sturgill Simpson, Cuttin’ Grass Vols. 1 and 2 – After receiving Grammy nominations in the Americana, Country and Rock categories (winning in Country), Simpson decided to strip down a large chunk of his catalog, recruit some of the best pickers in town, and record two – TWO – bluegrass records. The man’s versatility astounds, because both albums are fantastic, fun listens. https://www.sturgillsimpson.com/music

Best Song about a Dog

Brennen Leigh, “Little Blue Eyed Dog” – Kathleen Edwards (“Who Rescued Who”) and Chris Stapleton (“Maggie’s Song”) also had heartfelt tributes to rescue pups, but their dogs died in the end, and you just can’t do that to me in 2020! https://www.brennenleigh.net/merchandise

Finally, a goodbye

We lost so many good ones this year (including Justin Townes Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, Charley Pride), but for many of us, John Prine’s death seemed to hit the hardest. Maybe it’s because it was early in the pandemic, and it made COVID feel real for the first time. Maybe it’s because so many artists in our little sphere idolized, and more importantly LOVED, the man. Or maybe it was because he just seemed like such a damn good human being. His legacy will live on for a long, LONG time, from the songs he’s written and the albums he’s recorded to the small but amazing roster of artists he picked for Oh Boy Records, headed up by Kelsey Waldon and Arlo McKinley. It didn’t feel right to put his work on a best-of list, but his family released one last recording this year – “I Remember Everything” – and it’s quietly beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. Typical John Prine. https://www.johnprine.com/description?albumId=61

Thanks to the artists and publicists that I worked with this year – you faced an incredibly tough task in 2020, but you kept us entertained and informed and made the time pass a little more easily. Thanks also to Americana Highways followers for reading us, writing to us and, most importantly, buying music. I hope to see some of y’all out at a show soon, maybe before 2021 is half over. Until then, stay safe and #listenbetter.

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