It is now July 2, the 183rd day of 2020, and we are now officially into the back half of the calendar year. As such, it only seems appropriate to look back at the first half and highlight some of the best musical releases.
The team at American Songwriter took to nominations of our favorites by polling our team of Paul Zollo, Holly Gleason, Chris Rutledge, Katherine Yeske Taylor, Kira Grunenberg, Macie Bennett, Deepa Lakshmin, Hal Horowitz, Madeleine O’Connell, Tricia Despres, Jim Beviglia, Jason Scott, Geoffrey Himes, Lynne Margolis, Matt Wallock, Tina Eves, and Lee Zimmerman.
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.
Wild Rivers | Songs To Break-Up To (Buy)
‘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 2020. Collaborating as a group allows everyone to pitch ideas and give input on how to best create music for their fans to consume, and it’s safe to say that Yassein, Glover, Laferrière and Oliver run like a well-oiled machine. This group is criminally underfollowed, and if Wild Rivers has a bad song, we have yet to hear it.
Kip Moore | Wild Word (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.
All Time Low | Wake Up, Sunshine (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.
Jason Isbell | Reunions (Buy)
Jason Isbell’s songs reflect the image of the perennial loner, an individual forced to grapple with his own failures and frustrations. Not surprisingly then, the 10 songs on Reunions find him singing from circumspect and questioning the choices he needs to make to ensure his success as an artist, a husband and a responsible human being. That’s why so many of these songs come across as so tender and touching. Still others affirm Isbell’s ability to stir his sentiment with anthemic insurgency. And likely inspire any number of crowd-pleasing moments as well. Isbell’s achieved a rarified status, one that indulges a need for creativity as well as contemplation. Reunions reminds us that it’s the rare artist that succeeds at both.
Dion | Blues With Friends (Buy)
Unlike similar projects where artists sometimes get lost in the midst of legendary invitees, Dion not only holds his own but shows that he’s every bit as vital and vibrant as in his younger days. The “friends” may bring more eyeballs, but Dion matches and even surpasses them on these fiery blues originals which, considering the stars involved, is an impressive achievement. After you push “play” that’s clear as Dion, now a spry 81 but sounding half that, tears into the blues with the enthusiasm and power of the finest practitioners of the art form, many of whom join him.
Pearl Jam | Gigaton (Buy)
With all the uncertainty that pervades the planet these days, consistency is still key, and it’s good to know that Pearl Jam still maintains the edged angst that’s served them well from the start. Seven years hasn’t mooted their unabated insurgence, and neither has it mitigated their drive and delivery. The fury and frenzy remain quite evident even as Eddie Vedder still appears to harbor a sense of turmoil and trepidation that festers directly below the surface. He still maintains membership in a brooding brotherhood whose ranks include Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and those whose musings veer from melodrama to melancholia.
Kelsea Ballerini | Kelsea (Buy)
On Kelsea, Ballerini goes on toreveal more about her true self, with stories revolving around her life, insecurities, and reminiscences of her hometown. Titling the album by her first name was a deliberate signal that this one is more personal than anything she’s done before. Kelsea, she said, is a “first-name basis album,” more revealing than what came before. As the songs emerged with a raw power, she realized they required little revision. Mixing R&B and Soul into this effortless pop-country fusion, Kelsea is a full expression of where she’s at today, a long way since her 2015 debut.
Little Big Town | Nightfall (Buy)
Little Big Town is unafraid to ask the hard questions. In fact, the band doesn’t even flinch. Nightfall is their first predominantly self-produced album, a considerable achievement even given their superstar status. Dark and light, joy and anger, bliss and angst – all these dichotomies intertwine and splinter apart – and the songwriting stands as among their best to-date. Nightfall barrels through such emotions as sadness, anger, and loneliness, but the story reaches a moment of sharp clarity and relief with the penultimate track, “Bluebird” before relenting to the overall messages of hope and empathy that are woven into organic arrangements and production that is enveloping and always intimate.
Craig Morgan | God, Family, Country (Buy)
Having the ability to walk through times of suffering with the same vigor as walking through times of good has always allowed this accomplished singer/songwriter to fill albums such as God, Family, Country with songsthat effortlessly hit on every single facet of life. This album, in particular, combines five new songs with remastered versions of past hits that continue to tug at Morgan’s heart. In the coming months and years, he will continue singing songs like “The Father, My Son, and The Holy Ghost” and watching the song make its impact, with or without radio support.
Lucinda Williams | Good Souls Better Angels (Buy)
This is Williams’ fifteenth release since her 1979 debut and arguably her most intense, which is saying a lot. She has never shied away from combining gripping, often poetic images with raw, alternately sensitive and muscular penetrating rocking. These twelve performances were recorded live in the studio, and they sound it. They unspool over 60 raging minutes as Williams howls, moans, groans and hollers words reflecting the gloomiest aspects of current events;even some that hadn’t occurred when she and co-writer/husband/co-producer Tom Overby detailed the darkness of ominous times reflected here.
Katie Pruitt | Expectations (Buy)
At the end of ten tracks and just over 45 minutes you not only have a reasonable understanding of who newcomer Katie Pruitt is as a person, but know that this near flawless introduction is the auspicious start of a career that shows incredible promise. Pruitt’s even keel of balancing stark, introspective and extremely personal lyrics with songs that are both stripped down and embellished with ornately arranged, multi-layered instrumentation helps make this such an immediately captivating listen. There’s a maturity and self-assurance on the appropriately titled Expectations that’s remarkable, especially for an artist’s initial release.
Mandy Moore | Silver Landings (Buy)
Mandy Moore radiates warmth, hope, joy. Her seventh studio album, Silver Landings, her first in 11 years, spins with a folk-rock sensibility, a style in which she is well-versed. Across the SoCal-bleached new record, she commands the conversation in a way she never has before. Moore calls upon a wide range of muses ⏤ from Joni Mitchell to Crosby, Stills & Nash ⏤ and peppers in some of her most magnetic vocal work to-date. Pain, trauma, and grief are injected in heavy, appropriate doses, and each decision was born out of vital creative rebirth. Moore’s tenacity for life soaks onto every inch of Silver Landings
and we love it.
Hailey Whitters | The Dream (Buy)
Whitters’ new record, The Dream, her first since 2015’s Black Sheep, shuffles through the wreckage of her life – mostly cobbled together mosaics of a broken industry and personal heartbreak. The hill to stardom is a steep one — even steeper for women. Where men are tasked with pushing one boulder, women get 10. The Dream — punctuated with spellbinding vulnerability (the Lindsey and Waylon Payne co-write “The Faker” shatters the heart) — represents a strong, independent woman who has never cow-towed to a male-dominated industry nor let her dreams go to waste. She showcases every shade of her truth across 12 songs, which come into a clearer, more pointed focus as a body of work here.
Ashley McBryde | Never Will (Buy)
The Arkansas born and bred singer songwriter ramps up the volume after her successful 2018 debut, cranking out a rock/country hybrid that’s more visceral than, well, country/rock, and hits harder too. That’s immediately apparent on the nail-sharp Stones-like opener “Hang in There Girl.” It’s a distinct sonic break from “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” her debut’s ballad title track, one that introduced McBryde to a wide audience. McBryde’s husky vocals and self-aware personality struts with confidence, occasionally regreting her hard living and loving ways, but generally, it’s McBryde’s more aggressive side that’s evident. It’s difficult to imagine a better, more confident follow-up to McBryde’s popular and critically hailed first release. Never Will proves the tough gal persona she established on that stunning debut was no fluke or act.
Kat Edmonson | Dreamers Do (Buy)
Her own composition, “Too Late To Dream,” the spark for her terrific new concept album, Dreamers Do, examines the traumatic crossing of the border between childhood and adulthood. That song sparked an album filled with songs about dreaming—from the most optimistic fantasy to the scariest nightmare. She sequenced the numbers so they traced the arc of a single night, from drifting off to sleep and into dreamland to being awakened by dead-of-night noises and worries to drifting off once again. For an artist that has been on the brink of stardom so many times, this feels like the final boost needed to set her trajectory.
Jeremi Duran | Kid (Buy)
Nashville songwriter Jeremi Duran’s debut solo EP is a meditation on growth and creativity in the face of rejection and isolation. Produced by Cage The Elephant’s Brad Shultz, Kid is five exceptionally written garage rock earworms with a psychedelic tinge. “Fear is a real thing / my oldest friend / it’s crippled my footsteps / beginning to end,” Duran sings on lead single “This Is Hope I Suppose”, which features Shultz on guitar and sounds like The Beatles meets Pavement. Be sure to check out the trippy music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLj082x-_tw&feature=emb_title) from claymation guru Nick Clark. Duran’s clever and perspective songwriting and infectious blend of indie rock and campfire folk can simultaneously break your heart and lift your spirits.
Jeff Rosenstock | NO DREAM (Buy)
NO DREAM breaks Jeff Rosenstock’s streak of album titles ending in some kind of ellipsis, but continues his tradition of quality songs. Soaked in nervous energy and existential dread, NO DREAM explores Rosenstock’s inner fears and deepest anxieties while still finding time to stick it to the man. “Fuck all the fakers acting like they’re interested / in hearing us when we yell / ‘Hold accountable the architects of hopelessness and neverending violence!’” Rosenstock screams over blast beats and distorted guitars in the title track. These songs manage to be very relevant and timeless in the same breath. NO DREAM is crucial 2020 listening.
Stephen Malkmus | Traditional Techniques (Buy)
Stephen Malkmus ditches longtime backing band The Jicks for a Mellow Candle/Fairport Convention-era inspired psychedelic folk record. Traditional Techniques see’s Malkmus instead backed by a supergroup featuring Chris Funk (The Decemberists), Matt Sweeney (Zwan), Joy Pearson and Qais Essar. It was recorded in and inspired by Funk’s Halfling Studios, which features a deep collection of acoustic and afghan instruments. Reinventing his sound with droning bouzouki’s and jangly 12 strings might sound strange at first, but the truth is this is the freshest and most exciting release from Malkmus in many years. Traditional Techniques see’s him fully sail the uncharted, cosmic outreaches of psychedelia and still find time to shitpost in the comment section. “Sky high on reddit karma fly / over amazon wheatfield and rivers of Redbull / Drip gush drip data driven ship / to the part where the left bros parody Ted Talks / Shadowbanned.” Absurd, bizarre, and undeniably Stephen Malkmus.
Matt Wilson and his Orchestra | When I Was a Writer (Buy)
Don’t let the fact that Matt Wilson and his Orchestra use banjo and harp as their lead instruments scare you away: their music probably sounds nothing like what that combination might lead you to expect. Instead, the former Trip Shakespeare frontman and his band create warm, percussive music that’s at once soothing and thought-provoking.https://youtu.be/5QvTwjcVj20
Robert Vincent | In This Town You’re Owned (Buy)
One of the best Americana artists around, Robert Vincent is actually from Liverpool, England. But you’d think he came from Tennessee, judging by his excellent third album, In This Town You’re Owned. With deeply insightful and intelligent lyrics, and immediately arresting hooks, Vincent is one of the best in the genre.https://youtu.be/xCJlaJNuj14
Sparks | A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (Buy)
Electropop pioneers Sparks – brothers Russell and Ron Mael – began releasing albums in the early 1970s, and with A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip – their 24th album – they’re still ahead of the curve. With intricate synth melodies and often bizarre (but clever) lyrics, they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
Grey Daze | Amends (Buy)
A seamless look into the early days of Chester Bennington and a record that you can hit play, without skipping any tracks. “Amends” has made me a forever Grey Daze fan.
Sepultura | Qaudra (Buy)
Despite the many lineup changes Sepultura has faced over the years, “Quadra” reminds everyone that Sepultura remains a staple in thrash music, leaning on their consistency in experimental percussion and interesting rhythmic signatures.
City Mouth | Coping Machine (Buy)
An album chock full of songs about being sad, feeling alone, and coming face to face with one’s own emotional shortcomings seems like the opposite of an enjoyable listening experience but City Mouth makes it work well. Through days where many of us might end up ticking off all the aforementioned boxes, the way Coping Machine blendsamelodic, upbeat, hook-driven pop punk sound with lyrics that, though heavy, provide validation of specific moods, results in a record that is the best of both worlds: fun and mentally cathartic.
Tycho | Simulcast (buy)
Tycho’s (Scott Hansen) clear, and smooth spin on chill electronica reemerges with each new album like a reliable perennial flower in a spring garden – you mostly know what to expect but, subtle differences come through every year. Simulcast took those beloved sonic expectations and gave fans a flower of a whole new color with Hansen’s new inclusion of vocals in his music. It’s the kind of bold change that’s been more than earned and that injects much fresh excitement into his work.
Watkins Family Hour | Brother Sister (Buy)
It’s refreshing to hear siblings Sean and Sara Watkins gather things in with their family-oriented band and for this sophomore LP, make music that’s centered around just the two of them. It’s a cleverly written acoustic folk record filled with light and bouncy fiddle and guitar melodies, alongside witty lyrics that prompt consideration of less than rosy truths about ourselves as individuals and society as a whole.
Halsey | Manic (Buy)
With her third LP, Halsey takes us inside her beautiful mind with songs that speak to the anguish and emotional intimacy that make us human. She is at her most vulnerable on “929,” and “3am” is a painful anthem for anyone who’s ever sent a drunk text they’ve regretted the next morning.
Kesha | High Road (Buy)
High Road marks Kesha’s joyful return after 2017’s powerful Rainbow. “Raising Hell,” featuring Big Freedia, is the ultimate confidence booster, “Birthday Suit” pairs video game sound effects with flirty banter, and “Summer” closes out the album with a bridge that drowns you in nostalgia and bliss.
Hayley Williams | Petals for Armor (Buy)
After bringing five Paramore albums to life, Hayley Williams goes solo for Petals for Armor and showcases her breadth as an artist. It feels like a twisted look inside a mirror, with the steady beats of “Simmer” and “Cinnamon” haunting you in the best way possible.
Carly Rae Jepsen | Dedicated Side B (Buy)
If you liked Carly Rae Jepsen’s infectious fourth album, Dedicated, you’re going to love its B-side. Turn up “This Love Isn’t Crazy” and “Solo” and have a “Party For One.
Ron Sexsmith | Hermitage (Buy)
He’s been consistently great for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted. But Hermitage stands out for how effortlessly it evokes warm feelings.
Fiona Apple | Fetch the Boltcutters (Buy)
The always vexing Fiona Apple delivers a tour du force that explores life dynamics, patchwork genres and that powdery voice that skewers artifice to deliver raw emotions. Polyrhythmic, acoustic instruments, unusual arrangements, Apple strings a strong commentary on social dynamics that conversationally waves away female divisiveness (“Ladies”), double Dutch acapella calls out/gospel wail indicts (“For Her”) and industrial percusses a Rickie Lee Jones-evoking emancipation cry (the title track). Savvy, smart, sinewy, Apple matures into an honest voice of pain, pleasure and especially solidarity.
Soccer Mommy | Color Theory (Buy)
Color Theory is indeed a kaleidoscopic portrayal of sorrow, but it never wallows. Sophie Allison is only two albums into her career and already a major force.
Caroline Rose | Loner (Buy)
On Superstar, Rose creates a character who straddles the line between ambition and delusion. It’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, but invigorating all the way.
Dua Lipa | Future Nostalgia (Buy)
When it’s time to get things done, pick up your mood, raise your aerobic level or merely exult in pure joy, Dua Lipa brings sass, sex, retro dance music and a lush ‘80s/’90s nostalgia that sounds fresh and delightfully throwback all at once. The Olivia Newton John channeling “Physical” tackles carnality, while “Good In Bed” is a delicious bit of staccato stretched vowels that’s straightforward in its intentions.
Drive-By Truckers |The Unraveling (Buy)
The same river, different tributaries. Social commentary from outliers in an America where the disaffected have much to say – and no one empowered to make change willing to listen. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and Killer Mike and El-P steep in the underdog realities of getting by, then create music that tears holes in the rhetoric of people think those lives look like. It’s a rough place they paint, one fed up with empty promises, leveraged opportunities, bankrupt invocations of God, “(personal) liberty” being used justify the oppressive status quo.
Run the Jewels | RTJ4 (Buy)
RTJ4 offers an immediacy that is the urgency and eruption of African Americans sick and tired of living with a target on their backs; hardcore, musical, beat forward, “Just $” calls out “all these slave masters posing on your dollars” with Pharrell Williams and Zack De La Rocha, and Mavis Staples offers a wallop on “Pull The Pin.” Signs of the times? Yes. But also, truth forward and powerful.
Larkin Poe | Self Made Man (Buy)
Don’t let the Lovell Sisters’ easy-on-the-eyes looks distract you from their rugged, raw and emotional blues rock, some of the most powerful contemporary blues released in recent years.
Nicole Atkins | Italian Ice (Buy)
It was a tall order to followup 2017’s superb Goodnight Rhonda Lee, but singer/auteur Atkins returned this year with an album every bit as impressive in its widescreen retro pop scope.
X | Alphabetland (Buy)
The original members of this iconic LA punk act slam out their first new studio music together in 35 years and sound as tight, energized and committed as they did in the early-mid’80s. An unexpectedly rousing return.
Beach Bunny | Honeymoon (Buy)
The Chicago pop-punk outfit earned a cult following through a string of scrappy, heartfelt singles and EPs. But their debut LP, Honeymoon, shows Lili Trifilio & co. delivering 9 break-up tunes that center her unsparing, self-reflexive songwriting. “Was I ever good enough for you?” Trifilio asks in “Rearview.” “There’s always someone / I’m tryna live up to / I can never get to you.” In Trifilio’s hands, these sentiments are fodder for the catchy, emotive hooks that surround them.
Summer Camp | Romantic Comedy (Buy)
Ten years after the release of their striking debut EP, Young, the British indie pop duo keep returning to the dual themes of love and heartbreak. Romantic Comedy sees the husband-and-wife duo of Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey slowing down and opening up over 15 tracks that range from tender ballads to atmospheric interludes to sweeping retro pop tunes. It’s their longest—and most emotionally complex—collection to date.
Dead Ghosts | Automatic Changer (Buy)
The Vancouver rock ‘n rollers deliver a jangly and joyful blend of surf, garage, and psych rock on their latest LP. “Holdin’ Me Down” and “Blackout” are back-to-back standout tracks, calling to mind the scuzzy shenanigans of Black Lips or the beachy hijinks of Dante Elephante.
Eliza Gilkyson | 2020 (Buy)
A true folkie, Eliza Gilkyson has always used music to fight injustice and speak truth to power, and on 2020, she exemplifies the very heart of folk tradition by drawing on the work of three folk icons to address current events. Setting Woody Guthrie’s 1952 “Letter to Beach Haven” to music for “Beach Haven,” she comments on racism via Guthrie’s chastising of his segregationist landlord, Fred Trump. She also covers Guthrie pal Pete Seeger’s anti-war song, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” and the tune that helped turn Guthrie disciple Bob Dylan into the countercultural voice of his generation: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Gilkyson has no trouble standing alongside these touchstones of her genre; in her seven powerful originals, she elegantly marries music and message while paying homage to her inspirations.
Quinn DeVeaux | Book of Soul (Buy)
Partly a love letter to soul and its pioneers like Sam Cooke and Al Green, Book of Soul isn’t a mere homage to the greats. Infused into DeVeaux’s musical DNA, it’s also a personal retrospect, and a regeneration of soul’s spirits past trickled out in slow dripping R & B, roots, classic rock, and an immutable soulfulness.
Outsider | Karma of Youth (Buy)
Karma of Youth opens and shuts on something soaring. Revealed in synthesized melodies and enrapturing choruses from opening “Saviour,” itfluidly expands into something more euphoric. Fused by new and dark waves of indie rock, pop, piercing vocals, and penetrating lyricism, Karma of Youth, unravels the feeling of hopelessness, an unexpected, conscious awakening, and perseverance.
Wolf Parade | Thin Mind (Buy)
Sonically induced in streaming synth and anthemic hooks, Thin Mind is a look at the binary state of living halfway in a social- and tech-driven world and outside of it—at one point told from the perspective of ancient vampires. Thin Mind, the band’s first release since 2017’s Cry, Cry Cry, is also a reflection of the Canadian rockers’ new state of camaraderie, “unspoken” codes, and an invisible “entity” they call Wolf Parade.
Brendan Benson | Dear Life (Buy)
A follow up to2013’s You Were Right, and his first under fellow Raconteur Jack White’s Third Man Records, Dear Life is Benson’s transfixion on domestic life, relationships, and the realization of his mortality. Dear Life is a collection of electrified and harmoniously erratic arrangements only Benson could concoct with 11 songs encapsulating his dynamic songwriting, bound by tight hooks and digitized beats.
The Grahams | Kids Like Us (Buy)
Locals’ stories, visuals of a bygone era, a descending of America, and love are rooted in The Grahams third studio album. Produced by the late Richard Swift (The Shins, The Black Keys), Kids Like Us is orchestrated, more bombastic, and electric with small elements of Motown, soul, and songs from another era pouring out of the couple’s melodic union.