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 (Sunset Sound)
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
20. The Jayhawks – XOXO (Sham / Thirty Tigers)
Previous Jayhawks’ records primarily featured the work of leader Gary Louris (or if one goes back far enough Louris and Mark Olson). XOXO features significant contributions from every longstanding member in the band. Each one is in charge of how his/her songs were arranged and recorded, as well as their parts on the co-written material. The album’s title was intended as a nod to Elliot Smith’s sensitive masterwork XO. Indeed, songs such as “Homecoming” and “This Forgotten Town” would fit right in with Smith’s delicate yet noisy oeuvre. XOXO does not have a cohesive theme as much as a consistent sunshiny tone in the land of gloom: the silver lining to the dark cloud. Even the sad songs seem to contain a wistful smile. We may be “Living in a Bubble” due to COVID-19, where Big Brother and the television news seem to control how we see the world when we are afraid to go outside, but things could be worse. “Life may be full of trouble”, but it beats the alternative. And there are ways to escape and find our sanity, if only momentarily. – Steve Horowitz
19. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions (Southeastern)
Reunions, the seventh studio album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is a powerful and reflective release. Whereas the album was created on the heels of the anxiety caused by commercial and audience expectations, Reunions lacks any notes of trepidation. Rather, Isbell and the 400 Unit revel in strength and collectivity. That album is fueled by explosive solos and back-and-forths, finding the musicians garnering inspiration in each other’s talents. This sense of unity is also channeled outward. “What’ve I Done to Help” ponders the role of the individual, especially as guilt and hopelessness seem so overpowering. More so, on “Be Afraid” he defends the use of his cultural platform and music to trumpet his political beliefs. For Isbell, the strength he demonstrates now is the result of his struggles. Contending with sobriety, parenthood, and childhood trauma, Isbell delivers his lyrics as a testament affirming that trials often lead to empowerment. The message is universal and a poignant rumination in 2020’s wake. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
18. The Northern Belle – We Wither, We Bloom (Die with Your Boots On)
One of Americana’s biggest head-turners in 2020 hails from Norway. The Northern Belle became a blip on the Americana radar this year with We Wither, We Bloom. Navigating rocking, high-octane arrangements with soaring crescendos and crisp, tasty guitar tones and harmonies, the septet have often drawn comparison to 1970s-era Fleetwood Mac and others that fall within the “desert rock” aesthetic. The band ultimately creates an atmosphere all their own thanks to the efforts of powerhouse frontwoman Stine Andreassen acting as the soulful staple to their sound. Expressive, ebullient, and instantly impressionable, We Wither, We Bloom is one slick production that tastefully elevates Americana further onto the pop stage. – Jonathan Frahm
17. Charley Crockett – Welcome to Hard Times (Son of Davy)
Charley Crockett’s old school style country-western blues songs take place in the present with an overlay of the past to show the connections between the modern world and its historical antecedents. His lyrics feature such tropes as bad outlaws, fast horses, gruesome killings, deceitful lovers, and such. Crockett’s also a romantic who peppers his tunes with words like “darlin'”, “my dear”, “honey”, and other sweet endearments even though he knows his relationships with lovers will never last and end with betrayal or even murder. The melodic accompaniment often features strummed banjos, steel guitars, saloon piano playing, and other past affectations. Crockett’s tracks could be obscure folk songs sung around the campfire dressed up for recording, except they are not. Crockett wrote all the material except for Red Lane’s “Blackjack County Chain”, a violent chain-gang/revenge song. Lane’s song fits right in with the other 12 cuts in terms of its evocation of good and evil and how the line between them is often grey and fuzzy. – Steve Horowitz
16. William Prince – Gospel First Nation (Glassnote)
Observing the general discord caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, William Prince looked inward to find healing. Gospel First Nation is the culmination of Prince’s inner reflection, reflecting on the crossroads between two seemingly unrelated topics: Christianity and growing up in the First Nation. Gospel First Nation is a firsthand account of Prince’s childhood, recalling the roots of his faith and culture to examine how they inform each other. It’s best told in the album’s title track, penned by Prince, but exists throughout the album’s entirety.
Countrified takes on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, “Does Jesus Care?”, and his own father’s “This One I Know” round out Prince’s worldview. Altogether, Gospel First Nation intrigues with its expression of an Indigenous, Christian upbringing, but keeps listeners going with its expression of serenity and hope in such a time of uncertainty. Prince never preaches to his audience, earnestly expressing his faith in the way that others may think that they exhibit it, but so often fall off the mark. – Jonathan Frahm
15. Victoria Bailey – Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline (Rock Ridge)
Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline recalls the era of its titular star without the sense of emulation that so often plagues such well-intended releases. Such is the songwriting sense, then, of Victoria Bailey, who made an impressive full-album debut with the LP earlier this year. Rather than becoming another imitation of the Bakersfield sound, Bailey is the catalyst through which it sees its natural extension. An expressive, committed performer with an ounce of grit in her back pocket, Bailey is California honky-tonk sans novelty.
Sometimes, it’s a modern arrangement that the older-school influences are backing up—such is the case of “The Beginning”—but even when Bailey takes us full-on into the honky-tonk, her palpable authenticity instantly besmirches any attempts at discrediting her sound. In a world of persistent change—and, often, in 2020, not necessarily for the better—Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline comes across with a warm familiarity thanks to where it sews its roots, with Bailey being the fresh new face to carry that Bakersfield sound back to the forefront. — Jonathan Frahm
14. Steve Earle & The Dukes – The Ghosts of West Virginia (New West)
From even a glance at Steve Earle’s oeuvre, it is unequivocally apparent that he uses his music to tell the stories of the voiceless. The Ghosts of West Virginia finds Steve Earle & The Dukes portraying the 2010 West Virginia mining explosion that killed 29 miners. In “It’s About Blood”, for example, Earle names the 29 victims in a poignant interlude tinged with a bluesy sadness and punk rock ferociousness. Thematically, the album focuses on that particular event, but Earle makes room for considerations of the dehumanizing work conditions that miners endure, ultimately leading to lifelong illnesses such as “Black Lung”. Critical of capitalism’s need for human sacrifices, Earle masterfully balances righteous indignation with empathy and grief. When he presents the narrative of a miner’s widow, her devastation is tangible and raw. For Earle, this album is not a political issue, although this topic is greatly affected by politics. Rather, this is a call to bridge political divisiveness, and in solidarity, realize capitalism is the ultimate oppressor. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
13. Sarah Jarosz – World on the Ground (Rounder)
Sarah Jarosz’s World on the Ground is a heartfelt reminder that a period of flailing is temporary, often the period before a transition. The album’s title is derived from the track “Pay It No Mind”, where Jarosz takes on the vantage point of a fledgling inflight. As such, the album is a consideration of identity, a reflection of the past as an informant of the present while finding the artist squarely focused on the future. Jarosz tackles existentialism with a springy lens, she is clear-eyed and hopeful throughout. Her storytelling is compelling, often showing affinity with Gillian Welch or Mary Gauthier. As a multi-instrumentalist, she shifts between mandolins, multiple guitars, a clawhammer banjo, and piano, all the while her vocals are at the forefront. She relies on folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, and bluegrass genres to centralize her roots but manages to define a musical space endowing Jarosz’s caliber. Listen closely, her drawl occasionally emphasizes her melodies while concretizing her position in Americana music. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
12. Molly Tuttle – …but I’d rather be with you (Compass)
There’s something comforting about the sound of familiar music. No matter how dark the outside world may seem, we can huddle by ourselves and play our favorite songs for consolation and reassurance. Nashville’s Molly Tuttle has taken this a process a step further. The multi-talented singer-songwriter and instrumentalist taught herself how to use Pro Tools digital audio workstation to record and engineer while stuck at home alone. She then sent them to producer Tony Berg in Los Angeles, who employed session musicians to fill in the parts from their home studios. The result,
…but I’d rather be with you is a lovely, low-key, intimate affair.
Tuttle’s list is esoteric and reveals the pleasures of having catholic tastes. She chose a wide range of material, including one track each from the National, the Rolling Stones, Arthur Russell, Karen Dalton, FKA Twigs, Rancid, Grateful Dead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Harry Styles, and Cat Stevens. Tuttle keeps the arrangements simple and uncluttered. She plays flawlessly here without ever showing off. The same thing is true for her voice. She lets it sparkle and shine when the song calls for it, such as on her version of the Stones’ semi-psychedelic “She’s a Rainbow” or in the giddy moments of falling love as on Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost”. – Steve Horowitz
11. Drive-By Truckers – The New OK (ATO Records)
Drive by Truckers’ penchant towards political observation and criticism is as evident as ever in The New Ok. The album’s title spins the ‘new normal’ cliché, often used to describe the apathy towards and acceptance of the dysfunction caterwauling from the politically powerful. Indeed, the album overtly opposes ICE and the caging of children at the border. More so, Drive by Truckers use their album to lend support to the Black Lives Matter movement while questioning white-identity politics and rejecting far-right discourses. Drive by Truckers are not content to examine contemporary political angst as a singular historical moment.
“Sarah’s Flame”, for example, contextualizes Sarah Palin’s role in paving the way for Trumpism, leading up to the white supremacist march through Charlottesville, North Carolina. The New Ok‘s strength is derived from its overtness. Drive by Truckers do not hide their intent in symbolism or purple lyricism. By utilizing a conversation-style delivery, their purpose is apparent. Whereas The New Ok is decidedly a bleak portrait of the now, Drive By Truckers urge their audience to acknowledge the deceitful political artery that led society to 2020, then prevent the devastation from further continuing. – Elisabeth Woronzoff
10. Taylor Swift – folklore (Republic)
Taylor Swift was set to tour before the recent pandemic brought live performances to a close. She used her new-found time to create a lowkey, (even the title of the album and each of its 16 songs are spelled without a capital first letter) album with the help of the alt rock band the National’s Aaron Dessner. Swift sings in a quiet voice, often whispering, as she tells tales of teen love (“Betty”, “Cardigan”), a rebellious socialite (” the last great american dynasty”, a “mad woman”, and other narratives of those who find themselves alone. In fact, her characters find strength in their individuality. They might find solace and love in the arms of others but remain true to their solitary nature. Swift still has an ear for clever word play and a smart line that has layers of meaning that one can ponder long after the 16-tracks on folklore have ended. The musical accompaniment is atmospheric more than melodic and creatively sets the lyrics into a netherworld where dreams and reality elastically merge. – Steve Horowitz
9. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
This is Bob Dylan’s first album of original material since 2012. While the 17 minute single “Murder Most Foul” about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the death of American innocence has received the bulk of attention, the other nine tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways show that Bob Dylan has kept in touch with the modern world. On songs such as “I Contain Multitudes,” and “False Prophet”, the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter combines myth, popular culture, literature, and autobiography to address where we are now as a society.
Dylan shamelessly invokes everyone from Anne Frank and William Blake to personify his thoughts and feelings about how we got here and what it means. Lyrically, he’s a Whitmanian witness testifying with his tongue in cheek. He has a sense of humor lest one take him too seriously. Life may not be a joke but that doesn’t mean one can’t laugh at its absurdity. Musically, the songs seem mostly rooted in the Blues. He even pays tribute to the late great Jimmy Reed. Dylan’s not a purist and is not afraid to rock out, go Gospel, or use rhythm & blues licks as needed for impact. – Steve Horowitz
8. Neil Young – Homegrown (Reprise)
“Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away,” writes the artist for the Neil Young Archive. Apologizing for the delay, Young admits the album was reflective of his devastating heartbreak, rendering him too fragile to release such a personal artifact. Homegrown was cut between 1974-1975, right after Young endured the breakup from Carrie Snodgress. After emptying his heart into the music, Young hid the album away to avoid exposing his emotional ruination. Indeed, Homegrown enshrines Young’s fragility and vulnerability, while also adroitly capturing love’s magnitude. Each track finds value in human connection regardless of the emotional fallout.
Whereas some of these songs appeared in live performances and subsequent bootlegs, the tracks’ mixings are entirely new. Throughout, Young’s sprawling guitar playing is piqued with the steely harmonica and melancholic piano, resituating Young’s musicianship to be as powerful as his songwriting. More so, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris, Karl T Himmel, Tim Drummond, and Ben Keith lend their musical support to the album. Essentially, Homegrown is an emotional picture of an artist at the zenith of his career. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
7. Brennen Leigh – Prairie Love Letter (Independent)
Inspired by the Minnesota-North Dakota state line, Brennen Leigh’s Prairie Love Letter intertwines traditional heartland musicality with progressive narratives. For all the novelty that one might presume of this meshing in the hands of a lesser songwriter, Leigh’s consummate disposition ensures that her message cannot be interpreted in any way other than authentic. Leigh revitalizes old-time Appalachian bluegrass and country-folk but tailors it for modernity. There’s room for pure nostalgia, such as with “The John Deere H”, but that it recounts Leigh’s genuine childhood makes it out to be more touching than mawkish. Where Prairie Love Letter shines the most is where Leigh gives a nod to those who the Midwest has often trod down upon; for instance, “Billy and Beau” is a subtly sweet Appalachian love song that just so happens to be written about gay love, while Leigh makes for a convincing call to action against Big Oil on the hot button “Pipeline”. – Jonathan Frahm
6. Raye Zaragoza – Woman in Color (Rebel River/RAYEMUSIC)
Of Japanese-American, Mexican, and Indigenous descent, Raye Zaragoza’s earlier years were spent with many an unsuccessful crack at assimilating into a society built on the bones of her ancestors in honor of whiteness. Now, though, she is a thunderous voice in the fight for human rights, leveraging her artistic talents to spotlight injustices that are plaguing people—and particularly women—of color today. Politically relevant and strikingly confident in delivery, Zaragoza’s Woman in Color is a feminist protest album that she delivers with a consistently iron will. Through Woman in Color, Zaragoza is an active voice against misogyny, chauvinism, environmental injustices, gentrification, colonization, and imperialism. That she takes such hefty subject matter and transforms it into an accessible, spirited collection of music is a testament to her musical abilities as a songwriter. While she sings truth to power, she sounds great doing it. – Jonathan Frahm
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