I struggled mightily with even putting this list together this year. Plain and simple, 2020 sucked. We all know it, and we’ve all experienced it. But for many of us, the suckiness really hit home in regards to our music, and how we experienced it. Like most, I love albums. But my passion is mostly reserved for live music. So, while there certainly were some outstanding releases this year, there was an undeniable void when it came to the live experiences. My comfort zone has always been immersing myself in the magic spell artists create while presenting their creations live. Other than a handful of shows early in the year, the live music scene quickly dried up. After seeing 150 plus sets of music in 2019, this ill-gotten year was a slap in the face. 10 shows is all I saw in 2020 before everything went south. To say there were withdrawls is an understatement. Especially when I consider the investment I made purchasing a new top of the line camera. Hopefully next year plays out a bit better. Nonetheless, there was plenty to celebrate music-wise in 2020, so in an effort to acknowledge the beauty in the midst of chaos, here’s what I found redeemably remarkable in a year we’ll likely never forget.
1. American Aquarium Lamentations – BJ Barham is simply one of the best songwriters and hardest working dudes in the business. You just won’t find a more unwavering work ethic out there today. BJ’s success is 100% a result of Barham’s vision, tenacity and also his special relationship with his fans. As such, Lamentations is a striking collection of honest, heartfelt songs that Barham, his band and producer Shooter Jennings put together to create American Aquarium‘s finest album to date. Until the next one. Mark my words.
2. John Moreland LP5 – Honestly, Moreland’s newest could have easily been in the top spot as well. Smart, current and breathtaking. It’s a damn shame this one didn’t get its scheduled tour.
3. Scott “Wino” Weinrich Forver Gone – Not an Americana record per se, regardless, it tapped into perhaps an unintended roots vibe. Doom guitar master Weinrich’s acoustic solo release is one that was in a constant rotation throughout my year.
4. John Calvin Abney Familiar Ground – All too often Abney is regarded as just a sideman, or simply, John Moreland’s guitarist. He’s so much more. He’s a brilliant lyricist, and that this album rose from the midst of 2020 proves it.
5. Fiona Apple Fetch The Bolt Cutters – Does it really count as Americana? I’d argue yes, but then again, I often find genres to be too conforming. For sure, it’s quirky and beautiful, and for our purposes, I’d say much like Weinrich’s release, it’s another album that manages to expand the realm of Americana masterfully.
6. Samantha Crain A Small Death – Like John Calvin Abney’s release, Samantha’s was an unexpected, haunting masterpiece. One that didn’t get the appreciation it deserved commercially.
7. Joshua Ray Walker Glad You Made It – I’ve been fortunate to see Joshua opening for countless acts over the past few years. His songs have a way of silencing a room. His sophomore release captures a rising star on the scene. Definitely one to watch.
8. Bonnie Whitmore Last Will & Testament – Distinctly unique, and most of all unforgettable.
9. Mary Chapin Carpenter The Dirt and the Stars – Anyone that doesn’t consider MCC as one of the founding women of Americana can’t be trusted. A remarkably solid album track after track. This is another that I didn’t expect, but treasure as much as any other gem that I found this year.
10. Bob Dylan Rough and Rowdy Ways – Timely and special, this is one of Dylan’s finest efforts in decades.
1. Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty 50th Anniversary – Arguably the band’s finest studio album efforts, these anniversary reissues finally get the attention they deserve. Not to be missed, the two reissues also include two complete live recordings from the famed 1971 Capitol Theater run in NYC, including one of my all-time favorite shows, 2-18-71.
2. Bobby Bare Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus – Bear Family went all out here, creating a striking 8 CD set with an incredible coffee table sized book complete with discographies, lyrics and a stunning collection of photos. Everything about it is an absolute must have.
3. Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1 The Early Years 1963-1967 – History runs deep with this one. Perhaps a bit much for the casual listener to take in, it’s undeniably an important glimpse at the spell a young and aspiring songwriter could cast early on.
4. Neil Young Archives Vol. 2 (1972-1976) – There’s certainly something to be said about those young Canadian songwriters and their Archive releases. Young’s second release of his massive Archive series is just as remarkable as it looks. Neil continues to raise the bar every opportunity.
5. Merle and Doc Watson Never the Same Way Once May 1st to 4th 1974 – A limited release via the Owsley Stanley Foundation, this one just saw a second vinyl printing made available. This is Doc and Merle at their absolute best. Don’t miss out.
Top Live performances:
1.John Moreland & John Calvin Abney 2/7/20 – Album release performance for Moreland’s LP5, this was a short, but very memorable chance to hear live performances of his new songs.
2. Kamasi Washington 3/7/20 – Just mind blowingly good. Washington had been on my bucket list to see for years, and it didn’t disappoint. I have no doubt that someday I’ll look back on this night much the same way those that saw Coltrane or early Miles do.
3. Lost Dog Street Band w/Casper Allen 2/20/20 – Benjamin Tod is a songwriter that manages to capture heartbreak and angst like few have or ever will. There’s a sincerity and truthfulness to his songs that manage to cut through all the noise and resonate deep within. Seeing the band perform live is an emotional exorcism. Despite battling a cold, Casper Allen was the perfect support for the evening.
4. Derek Paul & The Aints 3/2/20 – Holding down 7pm slot Monday night at Norman OK’s The Deli, Paul and band quickly became one of my favorite new discoveries of the year.
5. Chloe Beth, Nellie Clay and Ali Harter 3/2/20 – This was a really special song swap night that showcased the incredible talent here in the OKC area.
Top Live Streams:
1. Billy Strings Streaming Strings Tour – Young William Apostl has been one of my most wanted to see live acts for a while now. Unfortunately, he’s never ventured into the great state of Oklahoma. I had hoped 2020 would be the year, but well, you know. Instead, I settled in for his 9-night streaming tour and had the time of my life. I personally think these performances set the standard for all streaming shows that followed.
2. Woody Guthrie Festival 2020 Virtual Festival Yeah, I was crushed when it was announced that the 2020 WoodyFest would only be held virtually. The Okemah, OK fest I attended in 2019 was easily the best festival experience I’ve had. So, while 2020’s fest was different, it still managed to capture the family vibe and inclusiveness that makes the true festival special. Still, I hope to spend some magical July evenings at the Pastures of Plenty in 2021.
3. John Calvin Abney Wednesday’s with JCA – This one definitely helped fill a void early in the pandemic. I found more hope and serenity in John Calvin’s earnest performances than just about anywhere else. While uncertainties and life in general saw the frequency of these performances dwindle, I eagerly tuned in whenever John would revive them, and still will.
4. Carter Sampson – The Happy Hour w/Carter & Bubba – Much like fellow Okie John Calvin Abney, Carter Sampson’s (and cutie canine rescue Bubba) often daily performances became a lifeblood early on. The ability to watch new songs debut and often be perfected live was truly special. Songs like Sampson’s noteworthy new single “There’s Always Next Year”. Among all the livestreams I joined this year I collectively spent more time with Carter and John Calvin than anyone else. I feel really good about that.
5. Ted Russell Kamp We’re Gonna Make It – Right there with the previous two as to how many hours I’ve watched. Ted’s livestreams are as memorable for the history and tales as the great songwriting. These performances often showcased spirited covers, as well as songs from his newest release, Down in the Den and earlier works.
6. The Mavericks Episode 3 – Probably the best production of any livestreams I watched this year. Put together in a live variety show format, nonetheless it was the music that made it extraordinary. The episode I enjoyed the most was this one, that featured producer Tony Brown as well as songs from the band’s latest, En Espanol.
7. A Night For Austin – Paul Simon/Edie Brickell and Willie and Annie Nelson put this one together along with an eclectic group of friends. An early pandemic relief fund for Austin musicians and venue owners, this one was pretty neat.
8. Todd Snider First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder– It was definitely a tough year for Todd, and maybe in many ways, worse than most of us experienced. Todd’s a social dude, and the lockdown had to be hard on him. As if that wasn’t enough, the sudden losses of Snider’s heroes John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker had to sting badly. Thankfully, Todd turned to us, and we to him. Sunday mornings became bearable.
9. Allison Moorer Live From the Library/Soul Soothing Sundays – Moorer’s livestreams were another that I spent a whole bunch of time with. I really got serious about them after tuning in for the episode with guitarist Kenny Greenberg sitting in for the performance of The Hardest Part album. Allison’s performances are personal, homey, and fun. Heck, you even got to see house husband Hayes Carl from time to time.
10. Abby Owens Live – If you’re not familiar with Florida’s Abby Owens, you might want to get that resolved. I first discovered her via her backing vocal contributions on Jason Isbell’s album Here We Rest, which led me to her now out of print albums, Indiantown and ‘Fore the Light Comes. Abby streams most of her live gigs, often several times a day (weather permitting). She’s vulnerable and pugnacious, sultry and goofy. But most of all, she’s a damn gifted songwriter.
Lastly, at the top of the page you can scroll through a few of my favorite photographs from the small number of shows I was able to attend.
1 thought on “Beauty in the Midst of Chaos: Top Picks of 2020”
Really loved John Moreland’s album as well. I was going to fly up to Portland to see him live at Doug Fir and was so excited. Hopefully another day. I’m still enjoying The Murderers of Love “Motel” EP that came out right at the end of 2019 and were gearing up for live shows when things went downhill. Also loved Jeffrey Foucault’s live streams…his story telling between songs is very engaging. And I don’t know where it fits in, but Jeff Tweedy’s countless family live streams on Instagram deserve some recognition. And although I’m late to the party, I really got obsessed with Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest. 2020 sucked, but I sure enjoyed some of the ashes that emerged from the fire.