My favorite albums of 2020

The way you live your life has an effect on the music in your life; at least it does for me. This year, I was not listening through headphones on the El as I watched Northeast Philadelphia pass by, something atmospheric turned up loud to drown out strangers’ phone conversations and ramblings. Nor was I blasting some old favorite through a bluetooth speaker at work while cranking out batches of dough, picking an absolute mistake of a karaoke song and not realizing it until I got up there, or dancing with a room full of people in a venue that feels as much like a basement as it does anything else. No stadium shows, no basement shows; just records arriving in the mail or appearing on Spotify. 

Probably the biggest affect this had on my listening choices was a desire for comfort. I spent more time listening to and looking forward to new releases from my established favorites than I did in search of anything new and fresh. Being inside since March felt stale, and I found myself so rarely in the mood to put in the mental work of listening to something not knowing whether or not I would like it. That energy went more into film and television—something that could engage me both aurally and visually, thereby encompassing my brain fully in its world and not mine. I did ultimately listen to about as many new albums as I usually do a year (~75) but the ones I returned to enough to begin to love were by artists I’ve listened to before. My favorite of the year was Good Luck With Whatever by one of my favorite bands, Dawes. Likewise, albums by Ruston Kelly, The Killers, Jason Isbell, Old 97s, Josh Ritter, Taylor Swift, and Brian Fallon also found their way into my top 10. 

Good Luck With Whatever, is, I think, the best Dawes album since All Your Favorite Bands at least, and probably since Nothing is Wrong. Even accepting the fact that I’m not really a fan of the opener, the next eight songs are perfect Dawes with just the right amount of ragged tweaking and they hit me in exactly the right spot. Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics walk that line between Jackson Browne and Shel Silverstein without ever tipping too far in either direction (well, maybe too much Shel on the aforementioned “Still Feel Like A Kid”). As someone from a small beach town who still works shit jobs, “St. Augustine at Night” helps me remember to focus on what I can control. There are at least five songs on this album that I think are going to be canonized as top tier Dawes songs eventually: “St. Augustine at Night”, “Didn’t Fix Me”, “Me Especially”, “Between the Zero and the One”, and “Free As We Wanna Be.”

The highest newcomer was Katie Pruitt’s Expectations, although I had been a big fan of her EP and live performances previous to the album’s release. I value a big expansive voice, a willingness to take your time, folk and Americana-inspired guitars, and idiosyncratic lyrics, and Expectations is a fastball in these respects. 

Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud is a different kind of newcomer for me: I’ve listened to all of their previous work and even seen them live once, but it never left enough of an impression for me to consider it for a year-end list or a release-day listen. The Minnesota-to-Philly transplant injected a little more heft into the instrumentation and a little more country with Saint Cloud and something just clicked for me. It even unlocked some previous Waxahatchee albums for me, too.

The truest new music on my list here is probably Samia’s The Baby. I’d never heard of Samia before listening to it, but something about it feels completely familiar and warm. It’s lyrics are bold, coming-of-age poetics while the sound is sunny and lovely without feeling like a rip-off of any other act. It’s the only album I listened to this year that made me feel like I was already a fan of the artist, and that brought with it some comfort in itself.

I love the narrative behind Mandy Moore’s Silver Landings, but I love the music even more. Moore was in a toxic marriage to Ryan Adams for many years, and in a New York Times take-down, she was quoted as saying that he frequently blocked her path to continuing her music career, telling people not to work with her and promising that so-and-so shouldn’t produce her album because he would do it himself. It’s how you end up with an 11-year gap between releases, with the last being Amanda Leigh in 2009 — the year they got married. Well, after a year or so married to Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, she’s got a new album with writing and performing credits to Goldsmith and his bandmates and they were all set to tour together before all tours were cancelled. The true catharsis of redemption will have to be delayed a little while longer, but there’s honestly no live act I look forward to more than Mandy Moore playing songs from Silver Landings backed by Dawes.

There is, of course, no real reason that the single digit at the end of our arbitrary method for tracking time will bring about huge change. But at the very least, hopefully 2021 will bring us back to bars with DJs, karaoke rooms, sold out concerts, and singing together.

1. Dawes – Good Luck With Whatever
Check out: “St. Augustine at Night”, “Free As We Wanna Be”, and “Me Especially”

2. Katie Pruitt – Expectations
Check out: “My Mind’s A Ship (That’s Going Down)”, “Loving Her”, and “It’s Always Been You”

3. Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy
Check out: “Brave”, “Under the Sun”, “Closest Thing”

4. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Check out: “Can’t Do Much”, “Lilacs”, “War”

5. The Killers – Imploding the Mirage
Check out: “Caution”, “My God”, “My Own Soul’s Warning”

6. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions
Check out: “Dreamsicle”, “Only Children”, “River”

7. Old 97s – Twelfth
Check out: “The Dropouts”, “Turn Off The TV”, “Belmont Hotel”, “Diamonds on Neptune”

8. Taylor Swift – folklore
Check out: “exile”, “my tears ricochet”, and “betty”

9. Mandy Moore – Silver Landings
Check out: “I’d Rather Lose”, “Fifteen”, “Tryin’ My Best, Los Angeles”

10. Josh Ritter – See Here, I Have Built You A Mansion
Check out: “Time is Wasting”, “Miles Away”

11. Brian Fallon – Local Honey
Check out: “Vincent”, “Hard Feelings”, or the whole thing, it’s only 30 minutes long

12. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Check out: “Kyoto”, “ICU”, “I Know The End”

13. Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You
Check out: “Janey Needs a Shooter”, “Rainmaker”, “If I Was the Priest”

14. Samia – The Baby
Check out: “Big Wheel”, “Waverly”, “Is There Something in the Movies?”

15. Mt. Joy – Rearrange Us
Check out: “Rearrange Us”, “Every Holiday”, “Us”

16. Taylor Swift – evermore
Check out: “willow”, “’tis the damn season”, “coney island”

17. Donovan Woods – Without People
Check out: “Without People”, “Seeing Other People”, “She Waits For Me to Come Back Down”

18. Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers
Check out: “How You Get Hurt”, “Old Flowers”, “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault”

19. The Chicks – Gaslighter
Check out: “Julianna Calm Down”, “Everybody Loves You”, “Sleep At Night”

20. David Ramirez – My Love is a Hurricane
Check out: “Lover, Will You Lead Me?”, “My Love is a Hurricane”, “Hallelujah, Love is Real!”

21. Yusuf / Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman 2
Check out: “Where Do The Children Play”, “Longer Boats”, “Father and Son”

22. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Check out: “The Steps”, “Summer Girl”, “3 AM”

23. Lori McKenna – The Balladeer
Check out: “This Town is a Woman”, “Good Fight”, “When You’re My Age”

24. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Check out: “Murder Most Foul”, “I Contain Multitudes”, “My Own Version of You”

25. Alex the Astronaut – The Theory of Absolutely Everything
Check out: “Happy Song”, “Banksia”, “I Think You’re Great”

26. Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom
Check out: “Glenfern”, “Options Open”, “Hard on Everyone”

27. Diet Cig – Do You Wonder About Me?
Check out: “Thriving”, “Night Terrors”

28. Tenille Townes – The Lemonade Stand
Check out: Honestly, her EP because the production on this nearly ruins the great songs, but “Jersey on the Wall – I’m Just Asking”, “Come As You Are”, “Somebody’s Daughter”

29. Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves Of Your Life
Check out: “The Stars of Tomorrow”, “Here They Come”, “Stars & Rats”

30. Jeff Tweedy – Love is the King
Check out: “Love is the King”, “Guess Again”

31. Eels – Earth to Dora
Check out: “Earth to Dora”, “Are You Fucking Your Ex”, “Anything for Boo”

32. Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling
Check out: “Babies in Cages”, “21st Century USA”, “Armageddon’s Back in Town”

33. John Moreland – LP5
Check out: “A Thought is Just a Passing Train”, “I Always Let You Burn Me To The Ground”, “Let Me Be Understood”

34. Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started
Check out: “That’s How Rumors Get Started”, “Prisoner of the Highway”

35. Esme Patterson – There Will Come Soft Rains
Check out: “Light in Your Window”, “Shelby Tell Me Everything”, “Take It Easy”

36. Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Check out: “Forced Convalescence”, “Hot Car in the Sun”, “Persona Non Grata”

37. Blitzen Trapper – Holy Smokes Future Jokes
Check out: “Dead Billie Jean”, “Don’t Let Me Run”, “Holy Smokes Future Jokes”

38. The Lemon Twigs – Songs for the General Public
Check out: “The One”, “No One Holds You (Closer Than The One You Haven’t Met)”, Live in Favor of Tomorrow”

39. Cheerleader – Almost Forever
Check out: “Providence”, “Chimera”, “Back on Board”

40. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Check out: “Don’t Start Now”, “Pretty Please”, “Boys Will Be Boys”

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