American Songwriter: Our Top Albums of the Year

Suffice it to say, 2020 sucked.
There have been plenty of shining moments from the year and many of them came musically. It is in that most silver of linings that we commemorate a lot of excellent offerings.

The team at American Songwriter took the nominations of our favorites by polling our staff and compiling the list of favorites. The answers came in impressively diverse with a range from mainstream to discovery opportunities.

Take a look at our selections — which are in no particular order — and maybe meet your new favorite artist. If you haven’t added to your collection in some time, you can also support the act with the link.

Fiona Apple | Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Listen | Buy)

To not just return, but to bring such a polyrhythmic exploration of the male/female engagement takes Apple’s always provocative songcraft to a new level. Aggressive, smart, minimal, she stands almost naked with that sangfroid vocal staring the listener down. Languishing on the largely spoken “Ladies,” sing-songing through the double dutchery of “For Her” or the humid command of the title track, these are complicated equations of desire, dynamics and truth with a Joni Mitchell construction for modern times.

Thurston Moore | By the Fire (Listen | Buy)

On his sixth solo album, released in September, former Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore proves that he is still on the vanguard of alternative rock. Deliriously off-kilter opening track “Hashish” sets the tone for an exquisite album that is every bit as innovative and daring as anything Moore has ever done. In a time when many longtime artists seem to be playing it safe, it’s refreshing to see someone with Moore stature still pushing all the boundaries.

Ashley McBryde |  Never Will (Listen | Buy)

A celebrated sophomore effort that deserved so much more than being buried under Covid. Superb storytelling songwriting, a throwback at times and adventurous at others. McBryde is the female Eric Church in that she makes sure that every song is a 5-star gem. In a normal world, this album would have exploded and catapulted McBryde to superstardom. 

Bruce Springsteen | Letter to You (Listen | Buy)

Meditative, reflective and sentimental, Letter to You is hands down one of Springsteen’s most personal albums. A storyteller like no other, Bruce switches gears from his largely fictional characters to stories and fears of his own life and realities. Letter to You wasn’t intended to shake your ass, it was meant to move your soul.

Ray Scott | Nowhere Near Done (Listen | Buy)

For those that say true country is dead, this Nowhere Near Done will restore your faith. Songs like “Bottle of Whiskey” and “Better As I Go” are deep and personal and the kind of country that reaches inside your heart and gives it a two fisted squeeze.

Public Enemy | What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? (Listen | Buy)

Public Enemy’s fifteenth album is a fierce narrative that resonates as potently as the rap group’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, did 30 years earlier, fueled by the march of its anthemic “Fight the Power.” Unwavering in fighting the powers that be, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? poses the question in the midst of the socio-political plight of America, fueled by police violence against black people, shattered systems, and a society dictated by technology. Lyrics are fixed on the time and place—one that still needs to change—with an all-star cast of collaborators, including Ice-T, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Sen Dong, Run and DMC, The Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Mike D, and George Clinton. PE also revisit “Fight the Power” on Grid with a remix featuring Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Questlove, TG, and Jahi.

Colony House | Leave What’s Lost Behind (Listen | Buy)

The Franklin-based rock band emphasized to listeners that with their third full length record the group wanted to return to what their songs should say, less than how they should sound. The result: a beautifully dynamic record, touching on the raw pain of human existence while clinging to tinges of hope, even the faintest ones. Set up as a story, the record brings the sound of Colony House full circle. Jumpy rock anthems such as “El Capitan” follow powerful ballads like “Everybody’s Looking For Some Light,” show that the band’s identity is deeply tied to their lyrical expression, just as much as their sonic choices. 

Wild Rivers | Songs To Break-Up To (Listen | Buy)

We write this full well knowing the weight it carries: If Fleetwood Mac had a 2020 version, it would be Wild Rivers. ‘Songs To Break Up To’ was the third studio release for the Toronto-based indie-pop band, and it was the best effort to date. The whole of the six-song list explores the different sides of a break-up and the coexistence of emotion. Two tracks — “Thinking ‘Bout Love” and “Kinda Feels Alright” — are two of our favorite songs of the year. This group is criminally underfollowed, and if Wild Rivers has a bad song, we have yet to hear it.

Taylor Swift | Folklore (Listen | Buy)

Taylor showed us a new side of her artistry with this record, combining her signature unique storytelling with a fresh, edgier sound, thanks in part to her collaborators Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff. This album was a surprise, not only because it was dropped unexpectedly, but because these songs are such a departure from the pop anthems we’ve come to expect from her. She’s proved that she can truly do it all.

Waxahatchee Saint Cloud (Listen | Buy)

Katie Crutchfield’s fifth album as Waxahatchee terrifies me. It terrifies me because each of its eleven tracks make me feel like I’m about to burst into tears—ugly, gasping tears, not pretty, restrained tears. Importantly, Crutchfield got sober to write Saint Cloud, and the final product pairs her scarily vivid songwriting with decisive, driving melodies and warm, folk-y instrumentation. “I take flight on borrowed time / I was once terrified of heights,” Crutchfield sings in “Ruby Falls,” the album’s calm-after-the-storm, penultimate number. “I say a prayer, I look down and I’m ready to die / If you cross over tonight / You see beyond the darkest sky / You taste the blood as something wild and alive.” Saint Cloud, too, tastes wild and alive. It’s Crutchfield’s most evocative work to date and a major step forward for the self-professed Lucinda Williams devotee.

Grey Daze | Amends (Listen | Buy)

Amends by Grey Daze is a quintessential album that proves music lives beyond one life. It is a cumulation of Chester Bennington’s lasting impact that spans every stage of his career. Listeners will never fight the urge to skip over any one track, as every song is single-worthy and equally powerful.    

Mickey Guyton | Bridges EP (Listen | Buy)

Mickey Guyton’s Bridges EP is the most earnest, thought-provoking, and soul-crushing release of 2020. From songs like “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me,” both potent statements about what it means to be a Black woman in America, to “Heaven Down Here,” a prayer for answers and hope, the six-track release fully demonstrates her strengths as a storyteller. Then, entries like “Salt” and “Rosé” highlight Guyton’s contagious and bubbly personality. Now a Grammy Award nominee, as the first solo Black woman to ever land in the country categories, Guyton is not going anywhere. 

J Balvin | Colores (Listen | Buy)

As one of the top hitmakers in the Latin music industry, J Balvin stretched his boundaries again and tried his hand at a cohesive audiovisual album and didn’t disappoint. Each song is titled a different color and vibrantly showcases the breadth of reggaeton in a playful but artistic way. 

Jimmy LaFave | Highway Angels…Full Moon Rain (Listen | Buy)

Three and a half years after he passed away from cancer at 61, Jimmy LaFave’s folk-world friends and fans still mourn his loss — which is why Highway Angels…Full Moon Rain feels like a particularly special gift. This remastered version of his debut album, recorded in 1987-88 and originally released only on cassette, is a gorgeous time capsule, illuminating the early-career vocal and songwriting skills that would make this beloved Dylan-Guthrie disciple anything but one more “minstrel boy howling at the moon.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers | Arm In Arm (Listen | Buy)

Following on the heels of two 2019 Steep Canyon Band releases that each debuted at number one on Billboard’s Bluegrass chart — North Carolina Songbook, an eloquent live album recorded at last year’s Merlefest and featuring songs spawned from their home state environs, and Be Still Moses, a collaboration between the band and the Asheville Symphony — Arm In Arm found the group effectively navigating an evocative middle ground between traditional bluegrass and their readily identifiable populist approach. It’s another strong and assertive effort, one that veers from the emotional empathy of the banjo-laced “One Drop of Rain” and the casual sway of “In the Next Life,” to the sensual suggestion of “A Body Like Yours,” the sheer drive and determination of “Sunny Days,” the quiet yet contemplative “Bullet in the Fire,” and the softer sentiments evoked within the beautiful closing ballad, “Crystal Ship.” Although they reference The Band on some of the more laidback entries— “Everything You Know” and the reflective “Every River in particular — it’ clear that they continues to set the standard when it comes to celebrating this uniquely American genre and guiding it forward as a throughly vital and dynamic modern musical medium.

Kip Moore | Wild World (Listen | Buy)

Wild World ─ dueling against dark and light, anger and joy, need and want ─ is at its core redemptive. Kip Moore confronts his mistakes, shouts down his demons, and straps in for the rest of life’s unexpected thrill ride. Regardless of what has come before, Kip Moore accepts that whatever will be will be. Days might pass with longer, more weary shadows, but that doesn’t mean the sun can’t still shine bright as ever. Wild World is his manifesto, dropping in a time when we need all the hope we can get.

Bongeziwe Mabandla | iimi (Listen | Buy)

South African singer-songwriter Bongeziwe Mabandla released his second album right as the pandemic started taking hold of the world and lockdowns rolled out around the world. Made as a meditation on a relationship that didn’t work out, the album, titled iimini, loosely meaning days, tracked the romance from its bright start to the grief of its demise. With each song acting as a chapter in the book of their story together, Bongeziwe brought out all the passion and pain that comes from opening one’s heart to another. His voice, the balm to calm and soothe even the saddest of hearts that, during a time of quarantine, had nowhere else to go but in. 

Chris Stapleton | Starting Over (Listen | Buy)

So lean, so real, so soulful. Stapleton stepped back after getting stymied, then came back with the help of Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench for a steamy reckoning on fame, the loss of origin and the power of love. If the doggie-elegy “Maggie’s Song” doesn’t lump your throat, his take on Guy Clark’s “Old Friends” will scrape your heart – and then there’s the down-in-it rock & roll of the good-timin’ “Arkansas,” bluesy “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” and the reckoning “Watch You Burn.” With that voice, that smolder, perfect harmonies from wife Morgane, this is a masterclass in coming to terms with what matters beyond success.

The Chicks | Gaslighter (Listen | Buy)

Sweeping, swooping, unafraid and unabashed, not since Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear has divorce been so deliciously served up. Natalie Maines has never been in better voice, and the pop/rock arrangements glisten with the acoustic/bluegrass instruments played with deft emotional clarity by Emliy Robison and Martie McGuire. To have this many genres converging is a miracle and a delight – and now we also all get to know what “he did on that boat.” Revenge is best served musical, and with Jack Antonoff helping dial in the same glee that made “GoodBye Earl” a Grammy winner.

All Time Low | Wake Up, Sunshine (Listen | Buy)

From start to finish this is not only the best All Time Low record the band has crafted it may be one of the best from the pop-punk genre in the last five-years, if not longer. There are hints of ‘So Wrong It’s Right’ mixed in with darker, regretful and reflective elements that make the entire album a near flawless effort. Curiously, the influences of the band seem to weave in and out of who it is playing with. Its earliest efforts had the aspirational direction to follow in the footsteps of Green Day, it mellowed in the middle of their career with a tour with Fallout Boy, and now has some definitive tones of recent 5 Seconds of Summer, which they were set to tour with before Covid — and we would have lined up for. 

Run the Jewels | RTJ4 (Listen | Buy)

Those unfamiliar with Run the Jewels’ El-P and Killer Mike might get thrown when going from a clean, bright pink album cover to the dynamically arresting punch of the record’s drum beats, piercing rap enunciation, and downright torturously honest narratives outlined in each track. Some of the most powerful pieces, like “Walking in the Snow,” draw stylistic intrigue with unconventional digital instrument tones and curious melodic motifs. Inevitably however, truths aren’t left unsaid for long. Bar after bar gets harder to sit through unfazed. Whether a point made is crafted from rhythmically gripping but conceptually distant lyric like like “Ju$t’s” ‘Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars’ or through “Walking in the Snow’s” matter-of-fact wording and unintentionally predictive lines And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe,’ each track provokes thought, reflection, discomfort, and likely for many, a revelation of others’ perceptions, not sanded for personal comfort. This is a challenging listen but an applaudable one. Regardless of whether rap and hip-hop is your thing, RTJ4 reached the masses this year – electronically, emotionally, socially, and truthfully.

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