Best Albums of 2020
Premier Guitar editors reveal the records that helped them cope during COVID-19 quarantine. Plus, their most-anticipated releases of 2021.
We made it. To the end of a year that has already gone down in infamy as one of the weirdest (and worst) in decades.
As the pandemic turned the world upside down nine months ago, many musicians and their livelihoods were heavily impacted. No concerts, no touring, album release dates postponed, restricted studio access, and let’s not forget the dangers of actually being in the same room with other humans (sometimes that’s necessary to make songs). But let’s try to forget all that for a moment and focus on what really matters: music! The silver linings of tough times can be sweet: beautiful and amazing albums were made this year, connecting us isolated social distancers, and helping us tread water.
At best, this list will open up some new tunes for you to spin at home this holiday season as you’re welcoming a new year ahead. At worst, you can just skip what you don’t like. (But surely listening to any of these albums would be better than reliving this year!) Either way, let us know which albums were your favorites in the comments below.
As we say good riddance to 2020, we wish you this sentiment with more oomph than you know: Happy Freakin’ New Year!
I’ve sought refuge during the pandemic—mental deliverance and comfort food for the soul—in my roots. Blues has long been a source of the latter for me. And Mississippi Suitcase is elemental: a celebratory bonfire, radiating Parcek’s virtuosity, creativity, and musical intelligence.
It’s not simply his world-class and richly original guitar playing, which dances on an emotional high wire between transcendent invention and deep tradition, or his songwriting, which illuminates all the corners of our humanity, that makes him such an important and hauntingly expressive artist in today’s blues and roots scene. Or even the way his singing breathes with life and wisdom. There’s also his ability to reframe classic material, whether by Sonny Boy Williamson or Lou Reed, in a way that’s respectful of history and yet resonant in the present. He can be wild and unpredictable, yet resolute as granite. And, like a bonfire, he burns. He is truly a master, and I love this album.
Delicate Sound of Thunder
Pink Floyd has been my shelter in this year’s storm. I revisit everything in the band’s and David Gilmour’s catalogs constantly, finding warmth in the weirdness and beauty, and in the empathy of their finest lyrics, and uplift in Syd Barrett’s and David’s performances. So it felt like this reissue, recorded during the 1987 Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, was a gift made for me. The remastered sound and the performances are killer—a sonic, psychedelic spa I can soak in infinitely, and there’s music not on the original release, including the wordless wonder “The Great Gig in the Sky.” And while I love Syd’s left-field virtuosity, nobody has a more beautiful, burnished tone than David, and the delicate precision of his bends and phrasing cut to my heart. I really get lost in his playing, in the best way possible. Adding to my Floydian refuge was the also-just-reissued book Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion, by Russell Beecher and Will Shutes, packed with early photos of Syd, with and without the band, and his paintings and drawings, including work through the early mid-2000s. It’s a fascination look inside a wonderful and difficult mind.
Henry Kaiser, Mike Watt, Vinny Golia, Wayne Peet, and John Hanrahan
A Love Supreme Electric: A Salvo Inspired By John Coltrane—A Love Supreme & Meditations
This two-album set answers a theoretical: What if Coltrane had survived cancer and joined Miles Davis in pioneering electric jazz? Five of the world’s finest improvisors weigh in via compositions from the two brilliant ’Trane albums in the title. There’s a lot of mystery, satisfaction, and surprise in these 12 performances, as instrumental voices blend and fracture, melodies skyrocket and flare, and notes tumble in a stampeding herd or slowly and elegantly stretch like lazy cats in the sun. Kaiser’s guitar playing is full of energy and invention, but, honestly, so is everyone’s. At times there are clear nods to Sonny Sharrock, who was himself a Coltrane disciple, and the improv supergroup Last Exit. During pandemic isolation, this rune to chaos and control (and Coltrane, of course!) is a marvelous reminder of freedom—and a reminder that free jazz has always been about human, rather than musical, liberation.
Most-anticipated 2021 releases: Please, Tom Waits … please, this year! Any unreleased Sonny Sharrock, R.L. Burnside, or Junior Kimbrough recordings. More great discoveries and productions from Dan Auerbach and his Easy Eye label. And new music from Julian Lage, Anthony Pirog, and Valerie June.
CHIEF CONTENT OFFICER
Dana Margolin’s manic, unvarnished vocals and jangly 6-string work on the Brighton, U.K., quartet’s fifth outing land it in the realm of the paradoxically bittersweet—a feel-good-feeling-bad 21st-century rebirth of the Cure,
Must-hear tracks: “Pop Song,” “Long,” “Circling”
Division of Laura Lee
Division of Laura Lee’s first release since 2013’s Tree largely harkens back to a more straightforward post-hardcore esthetic, with founding guitarist Per Stålberg and coguitarist Viktor Lager recently telling PG that Tree’s more layered and “mature” songcraft had been exhausting. Those yearning for the rawer, more punk-infused side of DOLL’s breakout album Black City will thrill to the lip-curling defiance and pistoning palm mutes of “Hollow Pricks,” “Apartment,” and “Sit up Straight,” while fans of the more melodic and textured adventures on Black City and Das Not Compute will be thrilled by the melancholy Sonic Youth vibes in the closer, “Always Around.” The latter is so lovely it’s got me begging DOLL not to undervalue or abandon their more sophisticated side on future releases.
Must-hear tracks: “Always Around,” “Hollow Pricks”
Three Mile Ditch
Three Mile Ditch finds guitarist/vocalist/bandleader Kristian Bell and bassist Dan Rumsey bringing the wailing garage-rock catharsis of the Wytches’ 2014 debut, Annabel Dream Reader, and 2016’s All Your Happy Life back with a vicious vengeance, while also mixing in new emotions and instrumentation. “Midnight Ride” marries vintage Mellotron with wistful, semi-clean fingerpicking, the pensive “Silver Trees” features delicate nylon-string work, the title track is driven by a stoner-doom spy-movie riff, and the midtempo “A Love You’ll Never Know” is powered by hypnotically jittery tremolo. Meanwhile, “Meat Chuck” begins with an ever-so-faint Eastern-sounding drone for a bit before building up to a wiry-toned guitar groove that, by far, is the album’s most lip-smackingly nasty.
Must-hear track: “Meat Chuck”
Most-anticipated releases of 2021: The Raveonettes, Behemoth, Death from Above 1979, Family of the Year, Dinosaur Jr.
This album has what I desperately wanted in my headphones in 2020: fangs, rage, unbridled humor, and a middle finger to all the grief humans are bearing on unprecedented levels. This band cranks up to 11 and they do it consistently well and with abandon.
Must-hear tracks: “Model Village,” “Hymn”
Run the Jewels
The hip-hop duo of Killer Mike and El-P penned my most played song of the year (Spotify told me so), “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck).” But that track is from their 2014 LP, which I was listening to long before they dropped this fresh diamond of an album right smack in the middle of a horrendous season of chaos. These heroes are my benchmark for boundless, relevant art; their prescience gave me inspiration and hope this year. Run the Jewels moves my mind, my body, my anger, my passion. This album makes my blood pump faster and it makes my feet sweat. Maybe it’s just pandemic angst but my 2020 energy feels like it found a home in songs not afraid to hold a mirror up to the times. Their choice words and razor-precision deliveries and cadence are the instruments here. I have no guitar epiphanies to convince closed-minders that this album is worth their time, but if you need something to grasp onto, Run the Jewels remixed “The Ground Below” with British rockers Royal Blood and Zack de la Rocha is a frequent collaborator. I heard a quote from Father John Misty on the radio the other day, where someone asked him about the darkness in some of his music. He said something like: “Entertainment is for escaping your life. Art is for remembering it.” RTJ is a double-threat in that respect and deliver it all for me: a perfect combination of thrill and reflection, a vital injection of social and political confrontation, and beats so bangin’ they make my head swoon.
Must-hear tracks: “Ooh La La,” “The Ground Below (featuring Royal Blood),” “Walking in the Snow”
Most-anticipated releases of 2021: Deftones’ Black Stallion on vinyl, Foo Fighters’ Medicine at Midnight, anything by John Frusciante
ATW’s catalog is like an art gallery. Individually the are a snapshot of time and emotion, while collectively, they show a connected history to each other and their creator(s).
All Them Witches
Nothing as the Ideal
Must-hear tracks: “Rats in Ruin,” “Everest,” and “See You Next Fall”
The Alabama native’s hotshot guitar skills earned him a spot with the Drive-By Truckers in 2001. He’s since flipped the script and forged a soaring solo career (with seven albums and four Grammys) becoming a modern Southern man’s storyteller. His pen, as sharp as his playing, has often been turned inward or through the eyes of a third-person muse. 2017’s The Nashville Sound saw him challenge his loyal audience with “White Man’s World” and continues demanding more introspection and awakening of everyman’s social conscience with Reunions’ “What’ve I Done to Help” and "Be Afraid." Isbell’s wit shines best with the whimsical “Dreamsicle,” the thoughtful, “Elephant”-esque “St. Peter’s Autograph,” and the loving look forward in “Letting You Go.” And if you thought the pen was mightier than the sword, or in this case, the guitar, he and his “Redeye” ’burst squawk and burn bright throughout Reunions.
Must-hear tracks: “Dreamsicle,” “St. Peter’s Autograph,” “Letting You Go”
Cutting Grass - Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions)
Sturgill Simpson’s most pure, authentic work might be a covers album. The catch being—he covered himself. (No, there isn’t a looming courtroom battle similar to Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc.) Cutting Grass – Vol. 1 strips back down (he mostly writes on an old Martin) his entire discography (including little-known Sunday Valley songs) to their bluegrass roots. Simpson surrounds himself with ace musicians like Sierra Hull (mandolin), Tim O’Brien (guitar), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle), while producer David Ferguson steers the ship. Instrument swaps include a moaning fiddle for pedal steel in “Water in a Well,” swerving mandolin effortlessly replacing the orchestral strings in “Breakers Roar,” and the banging banjo goes in place of a twanging Tele in “Railroad of Sin.” The traditional instrumentation and altered tempos (speedy “Turtles All the Way Down” and bouncy “Just Let Go”) breathes fresh life into old songs and the new enthusiasm bristles within each note.
Must-hear tracks: “Turtles All the Way Down,” “Old King Coal,” “Railroad of Sin”
Other notable 2020 releases (used for coping): Idles’ Ultra Mono (rage), Khruangbin’s Mordechai (meta chill), Action Bronson’s Only For Dolphins (distracting fun), and Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over (hopeful)
Most-anticipated 2021 releases: Every Time I Die ... beyond that, I say shelve the records and hit the road! I need concerts!
Even if you’ve only casually followed Stephen Malkmus’ evolution as an artist over the years, you probably know you can confidently count on brilliantly quirky prose and songwriting.
Must-hear tracks: “Xian Man,” “Shadowbanned,” “Amberjack”
Soccer Mommy’s debut studio-album, Clean, wound up on a bunch of “best of” lists among critics and fans in 2018. And it quickly earned Nashville’s indie-darling Sophie Allison not only praise, but also tours and slots at some of the world’s biggest music festivals. With no sophomore slump in sight whatsoever: The 23-year-old Allison’s follow-up Color Theory is another testament to her songwriting prowess throughout it 10 tracks, from the acoustic-driven songs such as “Royal Screw Up” and “Circle the Drain,” to the ’90s-esque “Lucy” and its shoegaze-y reverb and chorus work that would make Lush proud. Allison’s serious talent for arranging, melodies, and guitar speaks loud and clear as the perfect musical backdrop for her often-heavy lyrics, which deal with depression, loss, her mom’s battle with cancer, and more. Melancholy? For sure, but these tracks represent another batch of beautifully melodic and unique indie-pop goodness.
Must-hear tracks: “Bloodstream,” “Lucy,” “Royal Screw Up”
In an ordinary year, Neil Young fanatics would be frothing over the release of Homegrown, a lost classic that he shelved in favor of Tonight’s the Night and released 45 years later this spring. But in November, Neil unleashed the second volume of his Archives project, revealing yet another trove of priceless, unreleased, gobsmacking diamonds that almost make Homegrown (which is also included in the set) feel like a footnote.
Neil Young Archives Vol. 2 (1972-1976)
If Neil Young Archives Vol. 2 (1972-1976) just covered his official releases from this four-year period it would be a mind-blowing front-to-back listen. But the tracks that didn’t make it to Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach, and Zuma, could make up another two classic LPs. If you want to hear what a mad scientist on a blistering hot streak sounds like, spend a weekend with these 10 slabs.
Fans of Neil’s more rambunctious side will find a cache of Crazy Horse and Santa Monica Flyers outtakes that rank among Young’s loose and unhinged. But the most thrilling cuts are often the most intimate ones, where you are witness to flashpoints of creativity—typically Young recording alone or in spare combos at his Broken Arrow Ranch, weaving song after song that would find form in other tunes down the line, or remain hidden for decades.
Must-hear tracks: “L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys,” “No One Seems to Know,” “Frozen Man”
Most-anticipated releases of 2021: New Bums, Roy Montgomery
Live music was sorely missed in 2020 and the Phish frontman’s eight-night residency at NYC’s Beacon Theatre was a cathartic release and a reminder of what’s to come on the other side of this mess.
The Beacon Jams 11/27/20
Each night, Anastasio would bring a surprise lineup to plow through his catalog and—not surprisingly—he didn’t repeat a single song. The final night brought out the full version of his solo band with a horn section, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and a cameo from the Rescue Squad string quartet. It’s a great intro to the funky side with blistering takes on “Mozambique,” “Night Speaks to a Woman,” and the set-closing burner “First Tube.”
On top of it all, the performances raised more than 1 million dollars to build an addiction recovery center in Anastasio’s home state of Vermont.
Must-hear tracks: “Carini,” “Pebbles and Marbles”
Wildflowers & All the Rest
Just over three years after Petty’s untimely passing, we finally get to hear one of the gems of his catalog presented as he originally intended. There’s so much to unravel here. First, you get the “second disc” of unreleased material, then a bunch of home demos, and finally a wide-spanning collection of live versions that were recorded over the last 20 years. It’s amazing to hear the full arc of songs like “To Find a Friend,” and “Wake Up Time” from home demo to the sonic prism of the studio with producer Rick Rubin, and then finally onstage with his brothers in the Heartbreakers. It’s likely the most complete picture of Petty’s visionary songwriting we will get.
Must-hear tracks: “Leave Virginia Alone, “California,” “Cabin Down Below (live)”
Winter Is for Lovers
When I spoke with Ben about his Call It What It Is album, he told me about his lap steel that John Monteleone was building for him. The instrument was going to be the lynchpin for an instrumental album that had been floating in his mind for quite some time. The result is a collection of beautifully woven pieces that Ben has composed, refined, and explored over the last 20 years. His touch on the instrument moves from the rustic strumming on “London,” to the gentle waves of “Inland Empire,” a harmonious ode to his hometown. It’s a soundtrack that doesn’t need a movie. Fun fact: There’s an entirely different version of this album in the vaults that was recorded with a full band.
Must-hear tracks: “Inland Empire,” “Joshua Tree,” “Manhattan”
Most-anticipated releases of 2021: Ben Rector, St. Vincent, and every single live album recorded in ’21