This was an amazing year for creativity of all sorts, not least in roots music. This list could easily be twice as long, especially as everybody else’s year-end lists come out and I learn about releases that I haven’t heard yet! But here is some of the roots and Americana music that most affected me in 2020.
Gillian Welch – Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs
I have to confess I haven’t even listened to all of this sprawling three-disc set yet as I write this, but what a treat! Not since Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) nurtured me through the aftermath of 9/11 have I so badly needed this. Welch and Rawlings released a single disc of kitchen-table cover songs earlier this year, which was fine, but these spruced-up demos rescued from the vaults are amazing.
M. Ward – Think of Spring
Dropped very late in the year (Dec. 11) and the second album released by the Portland singer-songwriter in 2020 following last spring’s Migration Stories, this one was the balm I didn’t know I was craving. It’s an entire album of Billie Holiday songs, sung by Ward accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar. Alternate tunings abound, as does his intricate picking and his inimitable honeycomb-full-of-gravel vocals. I had tickets to see M. Ward in Portland with some family members last spring; here’s hoping he’s one of the first shows I get to see when this frightful pandemic is a thing of the past.
Teddy Thompson – Heartbreaker Please
A near-perfect folk-pop gem, calling on folk, country, and girl-group pop, as Teddy marks his 20th anniversary of living and making music in the U.S.A.
Felix Hatfield – False God
Portland roots folkie Hatfield writes, sings and plays songs in the Have Moicy! spirit of Ramblin’ Jack, Baby Gramps, Michael Hurley, the Holy Modal Rounders, and Jeff Frederick and The Clamtones. Loosey-goosey arrangements, wobbly vocals, bluesy horns and select accompanists like Jolie Holland complete the package.
Western Centuries – Call the Captain
The ever dependable Western Centuries’ third album is packed with deep, soulful country. Post-modern lyrical concepts are set to Memphis-style arrangements that include organ, funky bass lines, and electric guitars, in addition to plenty of fiddle and pedal steel. Not to mention the lead vocals and harmonies of the three front guys Cahalen Morrison, Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton.
Elliott BROOD – Keeper
The Canadian alt-folk trio is back with a collection of somewhat introspective songs featuring their signature high-lonesome harmonies, energetic picking, psychedelic production and rollicking rhythms. Not to mention those often inscrutable lyrics, which is why a lyric video like this one for “Bird Dog” comes in handy.
Fay Hield – Wrackline
This is a beautifully realized album of traditional and trad-style folk song steeped in English lore. Fay sings in a buttery contralto and accompanies herself on banjo, with minimal accompaniment from a few other musicians. Some contemporary songs as well as many curious old songs, dark and mysterious and set to lovely arrangements that give them a modern edge.
Pat Keen – Cells Remain
Keen’s songs are layered with complexities both lyrical and musical, full of poetic twists and turns and dead ends, alternately plodding, swimming and soaring in a soundscape of drones, whooshes, clatters, swishes and found sounds. The opening track and first single “Cell Song” is one of the loveliest songs to come out this year, Keen’s deep, laconic vocals matched by the low fingerpicked guitar line and gently loping percussion on the main verses, and Adelyn Strei’s blue-tinged vocals on the alternating choruses, which are introduced by lightly chiming electric guitar arpeggios.
Jake Blount – Spider Tales
This African-American banjo player, fiddler and singer’s album of Black stringband tunes and songs is deceptively simple but actually deep and complexly layered. The title of the album is a nod to Anansi, a west African trickster-god. Blount is abetted here by a couple of other queer artists, fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves and step-dancer Nic Gareiss for a set of stripped-down but powerful tunes and songs.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – KG
OK, these guys don’t really fit under roots and Americana, but it’s still one of my favorite albums of the year. The prolific Australian psych rockers (this is their 16th release, or so) play it pretty straight on KG. Pretty straight-ahead psychedelic rock with wild lyrics, lots of guitars and lots of distortion, with but a few elements of prog and jazz and metal. I find them highly entertaining in most of their modes except the heaviest of heavy metal, which this isn’t.
Here’s a playlist of some of my favorite Americana, roots, country and rock songs of 2020.