We’ve reached the end of perhaps the most unconventional year in most of our lifetimes, but music has been that constant companion, even though our capacity to cope with acoustic covers albums has perhaps been pushed to its limit. As usual, AUK writers have each chosen the album that meant the most to them this year, and a handful have had more than one vote – namely Bob Dylan, Ruston Kelly and Austin Lucas which we can probably consider our top albums of 2020 by default. But there are lots of hidden treasures in the list too. All of these records have been covered by AUK over the last 12 months.
Austin Lucas ‘Alive in the Hot Zone’ (Cornelious Chapel) “I am a warrior – I take no prisoners”: that was John Lydon, but it could equally apply to Austin Lucas. ‘Alive in the Hot Zone’ is angry and literate and has no time to skirt around the unpleasant issues bedevilling the politics of Lucas’ homeland. If ever there was a year to make such an album this was the year. (Jon Aird) Being a bit late to Austin Lucas I found a wealth of material that blended folk, country and punk with lyrics that skewered a few of the targets I’d be sticking it to myself. A match made in punk heaven. ‘Alive in the Hot Zone’ strips back a few of the folky influences to a rawer angry sound. (Peter Tomkins)
Bob Dylan ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ (Columbia) I haven’t myself considered Dylan to be necessary since sometime in the mid-seventies. But cometh the hour cometh the man. This record was absolutely tailor-made for the times (our times). You can do all the referencing you like, all the research you like or all of the academic flimflammery you like this record referenced the year for me perfectly. It was by turns ominous, uplifting, preaching, crying, threatening and promising. It didn’t even matter about the subjects addressed in the tunes. It just felt right. Thanks Bob. (Paul Villers) When deciding the best of the year, we often want to go a different way than all the big music magazines. Still, there are times when we just have to agree with them. This year is one of them, as Dylan proves that he can still write both great music and lyrics. (Ljubinko Zivkovic)
Ruston Kelly ‘Shape & Destroy’ (Rounder) After the brilliance that was ‘Dying Star’ the follow up couldn’t be even better could it? Well, as it happens, it was. Not a duff track to be found and this reviewer’s most played album of the year. I must also give an honourable mention here to the outrageously talented Lori McKenna and her latest slice of songwriting genius, ‘The Balladeer’. (Pete Churchill) Being a massive fan of Ruston Kelly’s debut album ‘Dying Star’, I had high expectations for his follow up ‘Shape & Destroy’, and those expectations were not only met, but surpassed with what he produced. No one does devastating quite like Kelly does, and I challenge anyone not to feel his pain on the last chorus of ‘Under the Sun’ with the utter desperation in his voice, or indeed to not be moved by opening to ‘Brave’: “Who am I and how will I / Be remembered when I die? / What will I leave behind?”. (Helen Jones)
Laura Marling ‘Song For Our Daughter’ (Chrysalis) A tough pick, in a year with great albums by longstanding favourite artists including Lucinda Williams and Lynn Miles, and new artists to me including Wayne Graham, but my choice is ‘Song For Our Daughter’, by Laura Marling, which has been my ‘most played’ album of the year. With a strong nod to the early years of Joni Mitchell, with stripped back arrangements, but sounding fresh and relevant, the album already feels like a familiar old friend, hard to pick one song, in such a strong set, but if pushed ‘Alexandra’ will be on my playlist for a long time to come. (David Jarman)
Kathleen Edwards ‘Total Freedom’ (Dualtone) Disillusioned by the music industry, Edwards opened a coffee shop in Ontario called Quitters! She returns gloriously 8 years later with an autographical set of strong songs of reflection and optimism. Her voice as distinct as ever, lovingly produced, real life vivid here. Even the love song to her deceased dog, and obvious best friend during her troubles, is beautiful. (Mark Johnson)
Zach Aaron ‘Fill Dirt Wanted’ (Independent) ‘Fill Dirt Wanted’ is an album I’ve returned to time and again over the past eight months. Its relatively simple delivery and the quality of the songs remind me of some classic rough-hewn albums from the past – think of Terry Allen and Guy Clark. Aaron offers talking blues, Appalachia and Texas waltzes with style. (Paul Kerr)
Lucinda Williams ‘Good Souls Better Angels’ (Thirty Tigers) Quarantine has brought the best from many artists with fabulous releases this year by the likes of Springsteen, Austin Lucas, Sam Lee, William Prince, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald and Jerry Joseph. But, for me, the album of the year is from Americana royalty Lucinda Williams. ‘Good Souls Better Angels’ is such a powerful, cohesive statement that it’s right up there with Williams’ best work. The sense of purpose is matched by musicianship of the highest standard. This album reflects 2020. Moments of hopefulness balance the intensity. Timeless rebellion. (Andrew Frolish)
Diana Jones ‘Song to a Refugee’ (Proper) Diana Jones’ first studio album for seven years shone a light on the dehumanisation of refugees. Focusing largely, but not exclusively, on the plight of those on the southern border of her own country. Dave Mansfield’s sparse production and instrumentation pushed Jones’ haunting voice and compassionate words to front stage. A genuinely moving listen. (Clint West)
The Secret Sisters ‘Saturn Return’ (New West) Always known for their sublime harmonies, Saturn Return by the Secret Sisters highlights yet again this extraordinary talent, but this record also includes more solo contributions, encouraged by producer Brandi Carlile, which begs the question why they have waited so long. Beautiful soulful country, thoughtful folk, with hints of Sunday service anthems, this album has something for all. Stunning. (Russell Murphy)
Michael McDermott ‘What in the World’ (Pauper Sky) McDermott hit a quantum leap in his already impressive mature and introspective songwriting with this year’s album. We would all be better off if we took our cue from McDermott and aspired to look back at our error-prone younger selves with empathy and humour. The recent world events that trammelled so many other creative people have instead provided him with new clarity and fire. (Kimberly Bright)
Emma Swift ‘Blonde On The Tracks’ (Tiny Ghost) An album of Dylan covers is hardly a new idea, but Swift’s Australian background possibly separates her from some of the reverence for Dylan that always seems present when Americans cover his songs. She just sings them. ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ drips Dylan and Emmylou Harris in about equal measure. (Tim Martin)
Arlo McKinley ‘Die Midwestern’ (Oh Boy Records) What makes 40-year-old Arlo McKinley’s debut album so powerful? Partly the contrast between rip-roaring bar-room country music and no-holds-barred lyrics ranging from the devastation wreaked by Cincinnati’s drug scene to McKinley’s love-hate relationship with Ohio. But above all his voice packs the kind of heart-wrenching punch that leaves no emotional stone unturned. (Alasdair Fotheringham)
Justin Farren ‘Pretty Free’ (Independent) A pure delight from beginning to end – a real labour of love. There isn’t a bad track ranging in style from folk to talking blues a la Guthrie (Woody and Arlo) to delightful ballads – all of which mesh wonderfully together in an album that cries out for repeat listening. (Alan Fitter)
Kelley Swindall ‘You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want’ (Velvet Elk) Spirited, amusing, self-assured, charming, and plainspoken this debut album is also musically accomplished, bold, reckless, tender, and moving. Swindall packages it all into the title track alone, yet, together with her conversational style and dynamic range, sustains the sensational chemistry throughout. Exceptional. Americana at its best. (Viv Fish)
The Hanging Stars ‘A New Kind of Sky’ (Crimson Crow) London cosmic country band The Hanging Stars are steeped in the sounds of The Byrds, Bert Jansch and Spaghetti Western scores, but also add their own brand of shimmering psychedelia into the mix. In these dark times, ‘A New Kind of Sky’ is a truly magical record to lose yourself in. (Sean Hannam)
Scott Cook ‘Tangle of Souls’(Independent) It’s a toss-up between Stornoway’s joyously played and joyously received valedictory live album, ‘The Farewell Show’, or Scott Cook’s ‘Tangle of Souls’, – serious-minded, well written honest words and music that still manage to entertain in both musical and literary form. It’s a close-run thing – but Scott Cook it is. (Gordon Sharpe)
The Kronos Quartet ‘Long Time Passing: The Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger’ (Smithsonian Folkways) In such a turbulent and challenging year politically, the Kronos Quartet has produced a record that truly celebrates Pete Seeger the man and not just the musician. The result is that Pete Seeger’s true reputation as an activist and a world-class musician is restored from the rather twee uncle figure he may have become in some eyes. If ever he was needed again it is at times like today. (Martin Johnson)
Liv Greene ‘Every Bright Penny’ (Independent) ‘Every Bright Penny’ draws on Greene’s personal experiences over the past four years, ranging from the excitement and fear inherent in the early stages of a relationship to the pain of moving on. Her crystalline vocals are augmented with this album’s empathic instrumentation of guitar, banjo and fiddle; a joy to behold. (Richard Phillips)
Chatham Rabbits ‘The Yoke is Easy, the Burden is Full’ (Robust Records) The second album by this duo is full of sweet harmonies and a sense of quiet joy. The singing is relaxed and confident, and the songs gently stay with you. It opens with ‘Clean Slate’, an optimistic piece that I have discovered is the perfect start to a day. (Paul Campbell)
Robert Vincent ‘In This Town You’re Owned’ (Thirty Tigers) Picking the best Americana album of 2020 is well-nigh impossible so I made life a little easier for myself by restricting the choice to albums I’ve the pleasure (mostly!) of reviewing. There were some surprise contenders such as Richard Townend and The Mighty Bosscats fine album ‘Ticket to Memphis’ but in the end the pick has to be Robert Vincent with the exceptional ‘In This Town You’re Owned’. In my review back in February (just before the world turned mad) I commented that from the first few notes of the opening track to the fade-out notes on the last, the quality of the songwriting, the performance and the production was outstanding and in the intervening months that opinion is unchanged. Bravo. (Jim Finnie)
Darlingside ‘Fish Pond Fish’ (Thirty Tigers) Nobody does four-part harmonies like Boston’s Darlingside, but then without the reverence you might expect from folk purists – they play around with arrangements and different instruments to create something exquisite but daring. Honestly you will not hear a better minute of music this year than this point in this song. If DMT were a band it’d be Darlingside, and the world would be a happier place. (Mark Whitfield).
The Wood Brothers ‘Kingdom in my Mind’ (Thirty Tigers) ‘Kingdom in My Mind’ is a stripped-down, inventive approach to roots music, that is a journey to the soul of Americana. The Wood Brothers took a gamble recording this record in a different style to their previous, but it’s a gamble that definitely paid off. (Tim Newby)
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