Music For All Seasons: A Dozen of 2020’s Best Indie Albums

As in years past, it was the music shared by indie artists that helped define rock, pop and alt-country’s forward progression. While many of these artists sadly remain well under the radar, we at American Songwriter are pleased to help bring their efforts to the wider realms they so decidedly deserve. Here then are our picks for the year’s best indie albums, one each for the twelve days of  Christmas, and hopefully well beyond…

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Lovetta, Shadow Self

After helping to helm the young up-and-coming Nashville-based band Roanoke, singer Taylor Dupuis has opted to make a momentary departure with a five-song EP aptly titled Shadow Self. Released under the aegis of a side project dubbed Lovetta (“One which I am very excited about,” she says), it bears a certain similarity to Roanoke’s gentle country rock sound, but delivers it instead from a decidedly personal perspective. Enlisting singer/songwriter Erin Rae as support, Dupuis emotes with an effusive and expressive exuberance that finds songs such as “Just Like the Rain” and “Oh Mother” literally seem to soar. So too, the material shimmers and sparkles with an illuminating gaze and a suggested sense of urgency and intent. At times, she sounds like a budding Joni Mitchell, but overall it’s also apparent that Dupuis herself  is a singer that is eager to share her own tender tapestry and knowing point of view.

Nicholas Altobelli, Kids

“I’m a rock and roll believer,” Nicholas Altobelli insists on “Midnight Radio,” the second song on his otherwise softly subdued album Kids. While the hushed tones may belie that aforementioned intent, his independent attitude also offers the impression that he’s capable of letting loose on a whim. The Dallas-based singer/songwriter has quietly pursued his ever-active muse for the better part of the past 12 years, courtesy of half a dozen earlier albums and a sole EP, each of which is a testament to a restless spirit and ability to mine an obvious allure. Available only through Bandcamp, Kids finds Altobelli offering up a dozen deliriously beautiful songs in a spare setting, using no added embellishment other than a solo acoustic guitar and his wistful, reflective vocals. Perfect for a quiet respite after a frenzied encounter with today’s topsy turvy world.

Andrew Grimm, A Little Heat
Andrew Grimm’s latest opus provides a study in darkness and despair, a statement that sums up the anguish and anxiety of a nation still dealing with a pandemic that rages out of control and a lack of the leadership to contain it. As the opening track, “Out of Control,” suggests, it’s indeed a messy malaise that we find ourselves in:

“Slowly this storm rises up from behind
Somehow it got us right between the eyes
Hope is just a flicker in the pitch-black night
Reminding everyone that there used to be light”

Fortunately, despite the bleak picture Grimm paints so pointedly throughout this illuminating new album, the writing is literate, the delivery dynamic, and Grimm’s weary vocals — a craggy blend of Tom Waits’ sturdier sensibilities and Lou Reed’s ominous overtures — make an immediate impression. “Don’t Die For Their Money” is a hushed sermon of sorts, while the otherwise unhinged “Lie Until It Is True” sounds like a pointed rebuke of the lies and manipulation spewed by the current administration. Defiance and determination find equal ground, resulting in a battlecry for those fed up with all that’s transpired for far too long. An English professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, Grimm comes by his artful expression naturally and appily, he’s sharing it with the rest of us as well.

Jakko Jakszyk, Secrets & Lies

The singer, guitarist and frontman who’s at the fore of the latest incarnation of the legendary King Crimson, Jakko Jakszyk has earned his prog rock pedigree and applied it well, with the Crimson crew as well as on his own. His latest solo outing is dynamic, compelling and flush with intrigue, and yet, its musical and melodic all at the same time. Jakszyk freely calls upon his Crimson compatriots — Robert Fripp, Gavin Harrison and Tony Levin in particular — throughout this two-disc set (the second of which boasts stereo, DTS and Dolby remixes as well as visual content), and their contributions add to the illuminating aura achieved throughout. In a sense, Secrets & Lies is a throwback to earlier King Crimson epics as expressed in such albums as In the Wake of Poseidon, Islands and Lizards, each of which offered an alluring blend of tone, texture and tapestry. That said, Secrets & Lies is an epic of sorts, one that’s stirred with remarkable musicianship and the seductive sensibility that the title implies. It’s beautiful and beguiling, and as quite brilliant.

The Well Wishers, Shelf Life

Power pop is a genre that never goes out of style, one that essentially began with the Beatles, flourished with the Raspberries and Cheap Trick, and continues to thrive nowadays with bands like The Well Wishers in particular. This latest offering is a case in point, a vivid, vibrant exercise in effusive rock and roll that finds the band fully invested in their own rock and roll dynamic. It’s the kind of music guaranteed to shake its listeners out of their stupor, take the old air guitar out of storage and fully indulge themselves in this driving, dynamic sound. Having originated in the midst of the pandemic, Shelf Life provides a much-needed antidote to its despair, at least as far as an uplift in outlook and attitude. Songs such as “We Grow Up,” “Secrets & Lies” and “All the Same” boast an energy, optimism and enthusiasm that clearly allow these Well Wishers to live up to their name. So too, when they share the theme that underscores “You Never Have To Sing a Lonely Song,” they decidedly demonstrate the fact that the sentiment is sincere.

Tobin Sprout, Empty Horses
Tobin Sprout boasts an impressive resume. Aside from an exceptional string of solo albums, he’s well known for his work with Robert Pollard in the band Guided By Voices. He can be similarly swayed by psychedelic in his own right, but with his latest effort, Empty Horses, he takes a serious turn in his stance, stirring up a melancholy musical tapestry informed by the divide and dysfunction that’s plagued this nation for the past four years. Not surprisingly then, it’s an unceasingly thoughtful set of songs, yet one that’s wholly vibrant in both its methods and musicality. The mood veers from the ominous undertow of “The Man I Used to Know” and “All in My Sleep,” to the softer, subdued sentiment of “On Golden Rivers” and the spare acoustic settings of “Every Sweet Soul,” “Antietam” and “The Return.” Indeed, Sprout’s emotive approach remains steady and stoic throughout. Taken in tandem, it’s an evocative set of songs, one that leaves a wholly emphatic impression. At this point in his storied career, it’s clear that Sprout has made his masterpiece, an album that resonates with passion, purpose and true accomplishment.

John Stewart, Old Forgotten Altars: The 1960s Demos

One of America’s great singers and songwriters, John Stewart received a relatively small measure of recognition during his lifetime. His career began with the venerable folk group The Kingston Trio, and later found him penning the irrepressibly upbeat singalong “Daydream Believer,” famously recorded by both the Monkees and Anne Murray. His early albums, under the aegis of Capitol Records and Warner Bros. Records, helped spearhead the folk-rock movement of the mid to late ‘60s, making him a natural choice to appear on the campaign trail with Robert Kennedy during Bobby’s pursuit of the presidency in 1968. Later, Stewart achieved his first — and only — modicum of solo success with the song “Gold,” featuring the support of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in one of their early ventures beyond Fleetwood Mac. Old Forgotten Altars, a collection of demos assembled by his wife and frequent collaborator Buffy Ford, offers a rare look into Stewart’s creative mindset courtesy of early versions of his seminal songs, among them, “Mother Country,” “The Pirates of Stone County Road” and “July, You’re a Woman,” efforts which rank among the most memorable songs of his career. Stewart had a gift for relating poignant tales about love and loneliness in equal measure, and combined with his craggy vocals and assured sentiment, hose qualities seep through even in these stripped down settings. Consider this a must for fans as well as anyone needing a preliminary introduction. 

Luke Brindley, The Devil’s Drum and Thin Spaces
Singer/songwriter is a prolific artist and prodigious musician to boot. In 2013, he made a point of releasing a song every week for an entire year. This year, he released two excellent albums simultaneously — The Devil’s Drum and Thin Spaces. Notably too, they’re very different and distinct from one another. The former is a fully fleshed-out collection of songs that resonate with the driving delivery that Brindley’s made his stock in trade since his early recordings with the sibling duo, the Brindley Brothers. The latter effort sees him following in a different direction, one that focuses on solo finger-style guitar, sans vocals and any other accompaniment other than an agile acoustic guitar. It’s not without precedent; he previously released a Christmas album that emphasized the same set-up. Once again, despite its sparse setting, it’s a passionate piece of work. The Devil’s Drum is equally prescient, but the added resolve and Brindley’s knowing point of view make it the more emphatic effort of the two, one that resonates with clarity and conviction. Taken in tandem, both recordings reflect the full range of Brindley’s ample abilities.

Various Artists/ Willie Nile Uncovered

When an artist receives any kind of tribute treatment, it’s generally a sign of some well-deserved recognition. It means that the music has become so iconic, reverence is readily assured. Likewise, when a salute of that sort spans two discs, it’s also evident that there’s plenty of source material that can be considered.  Not surprisingly then, the iconic rocker Willie Nile gave the musicians that contribute to his particular tribute, Willie Nile Uncovered, plenty of songs to choose from. Nile, whose career was originally spawned during the Greenwich village folk scene of the mid to late ‘70s, eventually turned his gaze towards the insurgent sounds that drew Springsteen, Patti Smith, Elliott Murphy, and various arch denizens of his city’s post-punk scene. That said, the music represented here is strikingly diverse, whether it’s Emily Duff’s take on the celebratory sing-along “Hell Yeah,” the appropriate Band-like sound given Quarter Horse’ read of “When Levon Sings,” the tender tones of James Maddocks’ version of “She’s Got My Heart,” or, naturally enough, the rousing revelry found in Nils Lofgren’s performance of “All God’s Children.  A varied list of rock, folk and Americana luminaries take part — which, aside from those mentioned above, include Graham Parker, John Gorka, Caroline Doctorow, Slaid Cleaves, Richard Shindell, Richard Barone and Lucy Kaplinsky — and they not only offer appropriate homage, but also ensure that the appreciation Nile so decidedly deserves is served up quite sufficiently.

Gillian Welch, The Lost Songs, Boots Vol. 1, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3
Working in tandem with her erstwhile musical collaborator David Rawlings, singer/songwriter Gillian Welch searched through her vault and uncovered a rich cache of home demos and reel-to-reel recordings that she then assembled into three volumes of archival offerings. Collectively titled The Lost Songs and delineated as Boots Vol. 1, 2 and 3, she shares 48 songs in total, thus allowing fans and followers an opportunity to bear witness to Welch’s creative sensibilities and the unreleased music she and Rawlings recorded in the fertile period between her critically-acclaimed albums Time (The Revelator) and Soul Journey. An aural sketchbook of sorts, the three volumes reflect a certain creative consistency and Welch’s willingness to indulge her muse wherever it might lead. While most of the offerings are rendered in stripped-down settings, all reflect a propensity to tap traditional sources and pay heed to a strong roots regimen. It’s music that’s rendered with a genuine folk finesse and a sound of a vintage variety.  The charm is manifest in both the novelty and the nuance.

Elliott Brood, Keeper

Rarely does an album title suggest the truth in advertising that Keeper conveys with this, the seventh outing by the Canadian alt-country conglomerate that shares the name Elliott Brood. For the better part of the past 20 years, this talented trio has been making music that’s tasteful, tuneful and easy on the ear, and indeed, this latest release is no exception. These shimmering acoustic melodies are both hopeful and uplifting, a welcome respite from today’s troubled times. Various upbeat entries — “Bird Dog,” “Oh Me” and “Stay Out” — find an ideal fit with the reflective ballads “Merciless Wind” and “A Month of Sundays,” as well as with the tempered twang of “Full of Wires.” Indeed, the combination provides a reassuring sound that resonates throughout. That’s appropriate; according to the press material, the album’s overall theme revolves around “loyalty and longevity…the strength of conviction, and how that strength is tested over time.”  No wonder then that the overall delivery is both buoyant and engaging, with every encounter as satisfying as the first. Consider this a keeper indeed.

Fernando Perdomo, Leo August, Out to Sea 3, Yacht, Open Sound
Fernando Perdomo’s chameleon-like ability to cross the vast musical terrain that extends from pop to prog is matched only by his incredibly prolific prowess. In the past year alone, Perdomo released four distinctive albums, each reflecting his remarkable musical dexterity and a seemingly tireless pursuit of an ever-present creative muse. It seems Perdomo never rests; in addition to building an impressive production resume — one that includes the final work by the late Emitt Rhodes and the comeback efforts shared by Andy Pratt and Linda Perhacs, among the many others. His own projects encompass approximately 20 solo outings and various other projects recorded  under the aegis of various aliases and side ensembles. That’s not even mentioning his role as part of the house band in the film Echo of the Canyon or his role as musical director of the all-star tribute to the late Greg Lake that took place on the prog rock journey Cruise to the Edge in 2017. Not surprisingly, each of his current albums reflect his further commitment to craft. Leo August, his latest alter-ego, is a darkly defiant set of songs, while Yacht and Open Sound (the latter a collaborative effort with Justin Paul Sanders) show a penchant for power pop that finds every song sounding like a well-seasoned standard. The latter’s “Spotlight Smile,””Thinking of You” and “Free As I Can Be” emulate the Philly soul sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with more than a few nods to the Bee Gees and Hall & Oates. Yacht, in turn,boasts a distinctive power pop motif, one that pays respects to a lineage that stretches from the Beach Boys and Grassroots, through to The Raspberries, The Knack and Cheap Trick. Out to Sea 3, meanwhile, continues to explore a progressive posture in its instrumental outlays initiated with the two previous Out To Sea ventures. What’s especially striking is the fact that in all four of these efforts, Perdomo plays the bulk of the instrumentation while also having a hand in writing all the material. Perdomo is indeed one prodigious individual and an artist well worth remembering.

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