’Twas a strange, saddening and maddening year, 2020. The world writ large flitted like a moth above a flame, its wings increasingly singed and brittle and unable to provide the lift needed to escape a fiery end. Too many people fell ill. Too many perished. Too many lost jobs. In decades to come, historians will undoubtedly study the whys and wherefores of the pandemic, including how it impacted almost every aspect of daily life. One hopes they’ll focus on more than just the death toll, politics and economic fallout, however, and celebrate the stuck-at-home troubadours – many facing hardship themselves – who bucked our spirits.
The biggest change within my realm arrived in mid-March, when – like many others – I began working from home, which it looks like I’ll be doing through next spring. Prior, much of my music listening occurred in the car, stereo blasting while I rode the 15/501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. Now? Aside from once-a-week grocery runs and the occasional doctor visit, it’s here in the den. Early on, I often pulled up the SiriusXM app on my phone and listened to E Street Radio for hours on end – or just played favorite albums. Part of that nostalgic indulgence hailed from the pre-pandemic life, to be honest, as last winter found me musing on the days that used to be even more than usual. From January through June, for example, I penned 17 entries in my Essentials series…but only three in the months since.
Somewhere in the middle of the year, the flip switched.
I share that because music – as all art – is neither created nor experienced in a vacuum, though we sometimes tell ourselves different. The rush and crush of life colors our aspirations, perceptions and opinions, with – when it comes to us fans – tossed-off takes becoming gospel until, years later, we discover we were wrong. (Or not. Sometimes we were right all along.) Add to that this: I’m a 55-year-old, long-married white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my time but not a prisoner of it. (To borrow a lyric from Paul Simon, “I know what I know.”)
Such has been the case with my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year, at any rate. It’s an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom in 1978, when I was 13, for no other reason than…well, why not? It’s a fun, if occasionally frustrating endeavor to rank one’s favorites for the year. The selection process, then and now, is the same. As I explained in a long-ago Facebook post that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” I amended that, ever-so-slightly, last year: “The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.” (That said, I still buy a lot.)
The only real difference between then and now: The lobbying campaigns. Since I revealed the 25 top contenders last week, for instance, I’ve been deluged with emails and phone calls from their courtiers explaining why they should receive the OGC plaque. (Diane nudged me to choose her No. 1 as my No. 1, in other words. Though she shouldn’t have worried.)
And, with that…drumroll, please…here’s my Top 5 Albums of 2020 (links to my original reviews can be had by clicking on the titles):
1) Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. As I said above, Diane need not have worried. Springsteen’s studio reunion with the E Street Band is an album-long rumination on life, death and the ghosts that haunt the night – as well as the solace that only rock ’n’ roll can bring. As I summarized in my review, “It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.”
2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. Simply put, this is a sterling treatise on heartache, heartbreak, forgiveness and moving on. From my review: “Often, such as with the hypnotic ‘Carnival Dream,’ the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating ‘Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in’ again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night.” I’d only add that Andrew Sarlo’s production is note-perfect.
3) Melody Gardot – Sunset in the Blue. As noted in my review, the album “finds the soft hues of the chanteuse’s heart lilting like a leaf lifted from the ground by a gentle breeze on an autumn afternoon.” And: “[W]ords alone can’t quantify the beauty inherent in Sunset in the Blue. My wife says she hears hints of Billie Holiday within some songs; that may be so, but most of all I hear Melody, her heart and her soul. The music stops time for me in a way few other releases have this year.”
4) Stone Foundation – Is Love Enough? From my review: “These are days of worry and fear, of not knowing whether or if ‘normal’ life will return, but these songs strip away those unsettling concerns, albeit for just under an hour. The Midlands-based band is providing much-needed sustenance to my weary soul, in other words, and in the best way possible. Their music, as I used to say on my old website, ‘takes you there, wherever there is.’” ‘Nuff said.
5) Natalie Duncan – Free. Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements fuse together in hypnotic fashion in this delectable outing from the British singer-songwriter, who first turned my ears way back in 2012. As I noted upon its release, “With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack…the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.”
And, in alphabetical order, two honorable mentions:
Malin Pettersen – Wildhorse. I often feel instant kinship with an album or artist – it’s as if they’ve been with me forever and a day. Such is the case here. The atmospheric song cycle seamlessly blends the past, present and future of country music; and, when the album comes to an end, you’ll want to play it again – at least, that’s what I do.
Zach Phillips – The Wine of Youth. This album buoys my spirits every time I listen to it, which is quite often. From my review: “Stylistic shifts notwithstanding, the 13 tracks ebb and flow as one. At heart, it’s a literate singer-songwriter’s album that, to my ears, conjures the long-ago time when dollops of other genres were often mixed into tasty morsels. ‘It sounds like it’s from the 1970s,’ Diane said after hearing it earlier this week – and she meant it in the best way possible. To an extent, on this album at least, Phillips reminds me of another Illinois native who rose like a phoenix during that latter part of that decade and flew high during the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg.”