No Depression’s Favorite Roots Music Albums of 2020 (So Far)
So 2020 isn’t shaping up to be anyone’s favorite year, is it? We had a decent few weeks there at the beginning, before COVID-19 slammed on the brakes, upending our personal and professional lives in profound ways. But that feels like about 100 years ago. Since then, music venues have gone dark (as have the bars and restaurants we all used to enjoy before and after the show, in many places), tours have been put on hold indefinitely, and livestreams are seeking to fill the gap — falling somewhat short of the real thing, most everyone agrees, but far better than nothing.
But albums have been coming out steadily despite all the upheaval, albeit sometimes a bit later than anticipated. And music – as it always has been – is good medicine for all that ails us. Now, at the halfway point of this year like no other, we wanted to look back our favorite roots music albums so far, as voted by No Depression staff, columnists, reviewers, and writers. Each item on the list is accompanied by a video and an excerpt of the album’s ND review (click the album title for the full review).
Best Roots Music Albums of 2020 (So Far)
Reunions is the most musically rich of all of Isbell and The 400 Unit’s albums to date, in no small part due once again to Dave Cobb’s golden ear in Nashville’s RCA Studio A. However, what has mainly driven Isbell’s current status as the King of Americana is his peerless observations of our everyday lives, the small moments that hide away in our subconscious while the big moments take up all the room. – Mike Elliott
Bonny Light Horseman, the self-titled record from the group formed by Anais Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D. Johnson, is a stunning, transportive reimagining of transatlantic folk tunes. The songs about lovers scorned and conquering great distances are hundreds of years old, but in the hands of this trio, they are transformed into epic pop songs that feel contemporary and, daresay, cool. – Maeri Ferguson
“The dictionary’s definition of lament is simply an extreme expression of sorrow or grief,” American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham says, “but look at the biblical version. There is a central character who cries out to God, who questions the very existence of God, because God has turned his back on this man and this man’s country. I saw a lot of parallels between questioning God’s existence because of political turmoil and what we’re experiencing. That’s originally where I got the idea for Lamentations.” – Chuck Armstrong
4. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (March 27)
(Not yet reviewed.)
5. Tami Neilson – CHICKABOOM! (Feb. 14)
CHICKABOOM! illustrates Neilson’s expert way with a song: her phrasing is impeccable, and she gets inside the song, turns it inside and out, and makes it her own. She can soar on the rockers on the album, she can deliver the heart-rending ache of a ballad of lost love, and she can capture the playfulness of a schoolyard rhyme with a joyous seriousness. Neilson’s powerful vocals and her canny songwriting, and the sheer pleasure of this music, certainly make CHICKABOOM! a contender for one of the year’s best albums. – Henry Carrigan
6. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (June 19)
Bridgers never takes herself too seriously, finding humility in every detail and living in that discomfort. In quiet, tense moments and when she’s letting loose, Bridgers is wholly herself, awkward and antisocial, or self-assured and accepting. The wrestling with that duality in oneself is deeply felt and explored on Punisher. – Maeri Ferguson
7. Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof (March 27)
Walking Proof affirms Hiatt’s gift for writing the just-right lyrics and for delivering them in emotion-drenched vocals that float on her sonically spacious instrumentation. Every song on Walking Proof reveals Hiatt’s peripatetic lyricism and her ceaseless musical creativity. – Henry Carrigan
8. Jake Blount – Spider Tales (May 29)
Sometimes an album is more than the sum of its parts, providing a little something extra on top of a good listen. So it is with Jake Blount’s Spider Tales, a collection of black American roots music whose title refers to Anansi the Spider, a trickster who battles the powerful in the Akan people’s folklore and remained a presence in storytelling by enslaved peoples in the American colonies. At one level, the work is a quasi-historical dive into the nearly forgotten contribution African Americans made to country, bluegrass, and folk. But it’s no dispassionate retelling of history. – Jeremy Gaunt
World on the Ground moves the setting of Jarosz’s songs a little farther outside of herself, telling stories of small-town life from several perspectives. Jarosz herself grew up in Wimberley, Texas, a town about 45 minutes southwest of Austin with a population around 3,000 people, and she brings a few of its characters and many of its landscapes to life on World on the Ground. – Stacy Chandler
Throughout the album’s 60 minutes, it can feel like the walls are closing in; the darkness is all-encompassing. Stuart Mathis’ guitar screeches and attacks as if it’s waging battle, cutting through the despair like a righteous sword, while Williams digs deep into the delta dirt that first inspired her. Decades into her impressive career, she’s still first and foremost a ferocious blues singer. She spits, croons, moans, and cries out these lyrics with the authority of the damned or the saved, depending on your perspective. – Mike Elliott
Input for this list (including many more great albums that were well loved but didn’t quite make the top 10) came from ND Managing Editor Hilary Saunders; Assistant Editor Stacy Chandler; Ad Manager Sonja Nelson; Digital and Retail Marketing Manager Adam Kirr; columnists Henry Carrigan, Chris Griffy, Ed Maxin, and Amos Perrine; and reviewers John Amen, Chuck Armstrong, Rachel Cholst, Michael Davis, Mike Elliott, Maeri Ferguson, Jeremy Gaunt, Kelly McCartney, Steven Ovadia, Jim Shahen, Laura Stanley, and Jon Young.
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