Best Albums Of 2020: Two Views

My good friend Larry Van Cleve and I share our annual lists of what we considered to be the best albums of the past year.

Best CDs of 2020 by Larry Van Cleve

Though the trend of new rock oriented music not being in the mainstream has continued, there’s still a lot of really good stuff being released every year, this year being no exception. The scope of what is considered “rock” is still wide ranging from hard rock to country rock to folk rock to pop rock to…well, whatever designation you want to give it. That’s the appeal of this music. This year, releases that immediately prove to be “best of” worthy were in abundance. There were thirteen this year (apt number for a very strange year indeed). Following those thirteen are numerous “recommended” releases. Enjoy the music.

1.) “Rough and Rowdy Ways” – Bob Dylan. This album is an instant classic for the ages. Not much else needs to be said. In many ways it seems like the summary of an important career and an apt one at that. My suspicion is it feels like Mr. Dylan might have more in store for us in the future. “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul” tell us as much about the artist and America itself as anything out there. Listen to "I Contain Multitudes" 

2.) “Letter to You” - Bruce Springsteen. Bruce brings back the E-Street Band to the recording studio for the first time since 2009. Unlike previous work together, they played the tracks live in the studio with little overdubbing. The result contains the density of their live shows along with the intimacy of the slower and quieter songs. Three songs date back to the time of leaving his first band, The Castiles and the death of one of the last band members. The newer songs look back and revisit places Bruce has been to before (with a nod to the future?). For this listener there is a feeling of “welcome home” to the sounds that I’ve been missing. Watch the video for "Letter To You" Fiona AppleFiona Apple

3.) “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” - Fiona Apple. It’s been eight years since we’ve gotten a look into the psyche of Fiona Apple and it’s a more than encouraging re-introduction. Unexpected and sudden sounds, vocals and emotions bombard each track. It really shouldn’t work at all. Apple’s genius is that in some way it does all work and calls for repeated listening. At the core these are great songs. It is the embellishments she adds and the musical approach that makes them seem “odd” to many listeners. I only wish that many other artists would be so “odd”. Watch the video for "Shameika"

4.) “Gigaton” – Pearl Jam. Their eleventh (!) studio album is a return to form. They seemed to have gotten away from the song craft evident on earlier releases. Well folks, it’s back. There’s an outward layer of political and personal rage here (which the times validate). The excitingly crafted hard rock songs are back. Pearl Jam’s skill with the slower, intense tracks is also well in evidence. Interestingly structured and making good use of Eddie Vedder’s emotional vocal range, these tunes should play well on stage. If you’ve been away from Pearl Jam for a while, “Gigaton” might be a good place to jump back in.Watch the video for "Superblood Halfmoon"

5.) “The New Abnormal” – The Strokes. 2001’s “Is This It” by the Strokes hit the rock critic scene like a thunderbolt. Thing was, the album lived up to the hype. Nineteen years later, “The New Abnormal” delivers on that promise to this listener’s ears. Not quite the rocker the earlier albums have been, what would you expect? Nineteen years later, one’s life is going to be a bit different. That difference is reflected on this album. Julian Casablancas’ vocals reflect more of an “I’ve been around for awhile and have experienced things that changed me” vibe. This album grows on you. Mature rock? Not quite ready to state that.Watch the video for "The Adults Are Talking" The StrokesThe Strokes

6.) “Mind Hive” – Wire. Influential English band from the late seventies, Wire made their initial post punk statement with “Pink Flag” in 1977. The following 1978 album “Chairs Missing” moved into a more alternative experimental arty sound while still delivering solid songs and 1979’s “154” moved more electronics into the mix while retaining their quirky hooks. Since then they’ve explored their electronic, noise, art rock experiments for decades. Always an interesting band to keep up with, their latest “Mind Hive” is a return to form of the earlier albums. Still retaining three original members (Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey), this album is very listenable and a great introduction to their legacy. (Also of interest is 2020’s “10:20” consisting of remade rarities and live cuts from their past). Watch the video for "Cactused"

7.) “Making A Door Less Open” - Car Seat Headrest. The follow up full album to 2016’s “Teens of Denial” (considered album of the year by yours truly). Will Toledo hasn’t been sitting on his laurels since then. The darling of indie rock at the time, his music was basic, at times sloppy (in a good way) and at times incredibly tight. Mumbled yet distinctive vocals took one through the jumbled process of being an adolescent in the current world. He’s come out the other end now and the music and the vocals have changed yet retain that independent feel. Guitars augmented by keyboards and electronics, the song structures are tighter and straight forward. This is not a guy who’s going to stand still for anyone. I’m looking forward to the ride. (Since 2018 Toledo has a side group with his drummer Andrew Katz called 1 Trait Danger that’s heavy on electronics with ventures into hip hop and humor. The influence on Car Seat Headrest is major). Watch the video for "Hollywood"

8.) “Skeletons” – Brothers Osborne. The Brothers also made the list in 2018. Their blend of country, rock, blues, americana and pop is still in evidence. The production is top notch. The groove is continuous and runs from hard banging to a melodic lope. These guys would be comfortable playing in a barn or doing anthems in an arena. The Brothers are entertaining stuff. Watch the video for "Allo Night" The Dirty KnobsThe Dirty Knobs

9.) “Wreckless Abandon” - The Dirty Knobs. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell’s side project for years, this is their first album. As one of the closest collaborators (and friend) of the late Tom Petty, the sound is as expected even though there’s only one Heartbreaker here. One of the highlights of every Petty album was the contribution of Campbell’s guitar work. Leaning towards the harder rock and blues side of things this collection delivers. I wasn’t surprised how hot the music was but did wonder about the vocals. While certainly not Petty, Mike Campbell’s vocals do have a familiar twang which makes one wonder if there is a particular Gainesville Florida vocal accent? He’s certainly learned a lot about making an album through his years with Petty and it’s fully on display here. Oh yeah, it’s also a helluva fun listen. Watch the video for "Wreckless Abandon"

10) “Post Neo Anti” - Close Lobsters. A Scottish indie band that had an almost three decade layoff, they come back with their third full album. Similar to their eighties albums, “Post New Anti” takes advantage of a cleaner updated studio sound but retains what made them stand out years ago. These are tight pop tunes with a wry, wicked twist that keeps them interesting. This is a band worth a good listen. Their past work is also worth looking back at. Watch the video for "Godless"

11.) “The Great Lost No Ones Album” - The No Ones. They are a side band of sorts for R.E.M’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5. McCaughey was a regular with R.E.M for their live shows and appears on many of their later studio albums. They combined with two players from the Norwegian band I Was a King to form the No Ones. This is their first full album (great title) and the music is as expected. This is indie rock with a poppy guitar flavor. The tracks vary quite a bit and there is a definitive wink and a nod within the material. Worth repeated listens. Watch the video for "Stright Into The Bridge" The No OnesThe No Ones

12.) “Football Money” – Kiwi Jr. One of those albums I come across every year that seems to constantly get played. “Football Money” is the debut album for this Toronto group. Tight hook laden rock tunes, the album has ten songs in just short of 28 minutes and each one is an indie pop gem. Vocalist Jeremy Gaudet reminds one of a Jonathan Richman Modern Lovers meets Lou Reed vibe which adds a welcome edge to each tune. A band you get into early in their career and watch develop. One of the reasons I love this stuff. Watch the video for "Gimme More"

13) “Rookie” – Rookie. This is a sextet out of Chicago that features three guitarists. As you could imagine, the sound is huge but very familiar to classic rock fans. Unsurprisingly, their main influence is city mates Cheap Trick, but they’re no cover band. Seventies rock abounds. The album features great individual and harmony vocals. The twelve tracks are all distinctive and show an understanding of the “earworm” phenomenon of song construction. Oh yeah, this is their rookie album. Watch the video for "Sunglasses"

Recommended List.

“The Who” – The Who. Not trying to be anyone but themselves I consider this December 2019 release a return to form for Townsend and Daltry. “The Who” is an album for true Who fans. It took them just 55 years to name an album “The Who”.

“Hollywood Park” – Airborne Toxic Event – There’s a big anthemic arena sound to this California band. They can come off like Springsteen with the E-Street Band then switch to emotional ballads that lushly sweep you along. Give a listen.

“High Times In the Dark” – The Claudettes. Songwriter/keyboardist Johnny Iguana combines with singer Berit Ulseth on this amazing, bouncy, lovely album. They call it “garage cabaret” and it’s a combo of deft rock, blues, jazz, soul, pop and what have you. “High Times” is indeed highly listenable.

“Hate for Sale” – The Pretenders. A big theme this year is “return to form”. This is certainly true for Chrissie Hynde and Pretenders original Martin Chambers. Using the experience of her 2016 solo “Alone” this is a true regeneration of the Pretenders sound from the early 80s. ‘Nuff said.

“Twelfth” – Old 97’s. These folks appear somewhere in my list every year. This, their twelfth album, is as strong an album as the others. If you’re a fan you’re already listening to it. If not, hey, get on the bar band train.


Gary (Dr. J) Johnson’s Best Albums of 2020 (Alphabetical order by artist)

Beach Bunny – “Honeymoon”. Beach Bunny started as Lili Trifilio’s solo project in Chicago before expanding into a four-piece band in 2017. “Honeymoon” is the group’s debut album after releasing an EP in 2018. Beach Bunny employs an interesting use of instrumental dynamics on the album to effectively put some punch into Trifilio’s indie pop songs. Favorite tracks: “Dream Boy”, “Promises”, and “Ms. California”. Watch the video for “Dream Boy”

Bob Dylan – “Rough And Rowdy Ways”. After a series of rather disappointing albums that were forays into the Great American Songbook, Dylan’s first album of original songs in eight years was one of the pleasant surprises of 2020. Full of sly, cryptic, and haunting songs that include a multitude of historical and cultural references, “Rough And Rowdy Ways” stands with some of Dylan’s finest work and reminds us that he has not lost his touch as a master songwriter. Favorite tracks: “Murder Most Foul”, “False Prophet”, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, and “My Own Version Of You”. Listen to “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen – “Letter To You”. Springsteen’s best albums seem to be those that are centered on a general theme, and “Letter To You” was inspired to a large degree by the death of George Thiess, his friend and bandmate in The Castiles. Speaking of the song “I’ll See You In My Dreams” in the documentary film that accompanied the release of the album, a tearful Jon Landau said: “It has a magnificence to it.” To me, Landau’s words also serve to describe the entire project. Springsteen’s songs, mostly dealing with one’s mortality and the loss of a friend, pack an emotional punch that has helped produce an album that ranks with his best. Favorite Tracks: “The Power Of Prayer”, “Letter To You”, “Ghosts”, and “Last Man Standing”. Watch the video for “The Power of Prayer”.

Cloud Nothings – “The Black Hole Understands”. Self-released on Bandcamp, this great little album was put together during the pandemic when band founder Dylan Baldi and drummer Jayson Gerycz started sending files back and forth. The end result was “The Black Hole Understands”, an upbeat recording that features the more melodic and power pop side of Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings. Favorite tracks: “Story That I Live”, “An Average World”, “The Mess Is Permanent”, and “The Black Hole Understands”. Listen to “Story That I Live”

Drive-By Truckers – “The Unraveling” and “The New OK”. Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1998, the Drive-By Truckers have went through a host of lineup changes over the years but founding members, and principal songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have enabled the band to continue to release quality recordings. Starting with 2016’s “American Band”, Drive-By Truckers’ songs became more politically oriented. This has provoked the ire of thin-skinned folks that flood sites like iTunes with one star reviews of anything the band releases, seemingly without bothering to actually listen to the albums. This ‘shut up and sing’ mentality has not served to quiet Hood and Cooley one bit as evidenced by their release of two albums in 2020, both of which have solidified their position as rock’s leading protest singers. Favorite tracks: “Thoughts and Prayers”, “Grievance Merchants”, “The New OK”, and “The Unraveling”. Watch the video for “The New OK” The JayhawksThe Jayhawks

Jayhawks – “Xoxo”. The other members of the Jayhawks play more prominent roles in both the songwriting and lead vocals on “Xoxo” but Gary Louris still defines what is truly great about the band. Despite the move to more democracy in the recording process, it is still Louris’ songs and vocals that are the highlights on what is another fine Jayhawks’ album. Favorite tracks: “This Forgotten Town”, “Living In A Bubble”, “Homecoming”, and “Bitter Pill”. Watch a performance of “This Forgotten Town”

Lucinda Williams – “Good Souls Better Angels”. Lucinda’s new album represents her best work in some time. It was nominated for a 2021 Grammy for Best Americana Album, and “Man Without A Soul” was nominated in the Best American Roots Song category. Raw as an open wound, this intense album was seemingly inspired in part from an abusive relationship, her battles with the music industry, and the nation’s political climate. Favorite tracks: “Man Without A Soul”, “You Can’t Rule Me”, “When The Way Gets Dark”, and “Down Past The Bottom”. Watch a performance of “Man Without A Soul”

Lydia Loveless – “Daughter”. Lydia’s music started to evolve from the country punk sound of her early recordings with 2016’s “Real” album. She continues this trend on “Daughter”, with a set of songs that seem to deal both with the breakup of a romantic relationship and the emotional tug of starting over with her own label and the continued refining of her music. Although it’s a little more downbeat than her previous releases, Lydia’s great vocals, along with the album’s subtle production touches, carry the day. Favorite tracks: “Wringer”, “Can’t Think”, “Never”, and “Daughter”. Watch the video for “Wringer” Lydia LovelessLydia Loveless

Moaning – “Uneasy Laughter”. The L.A. band’s second album definitely has an 80’s new wave feel to it. If Ian Curtis hadn’t committed suicide and Joy Division had kept on, they might have sounded much like Moaning does in 2020. Favorite tracks: “Ego”, “Running”, “Fall In Love”, and “What Separates Us”. Watch the video for “Ego”.

Pearl Jam – “Gigaton”. Pearl Jam’s new album is their first in seven years, and their first without long-time producer Brendan O’Brien. The band is in top form; and the new collection of songs deal in large part with climate change and the current state of our government. “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” throws a fun change of pace at the fans by incorporating some dance elements and an Eddie Vedder vocal that would be right at home on a Talking Heads album. Favorite tracks: “Whoever Said”, “Superblood Wolfmoon”, “Dance Of The Clairvoyants”, and “Never Destination”. Watch the video for “Dance Of The Clairvoyants (Mach III)”

Psychedelic Furs – “Made Of Rain”. Being a big fan of the Psychedelic Furs and Richard Butler’s vocals, I was eagerly anticipating the band’s first studio album in 29 years. Although the current lineup contains two other original members, bassist Tim Butler and Mars Williams on sax, the band is not quite the same without distinctive guitarist John Ashton. That being said, the album’s sparkling production, best appreciated on a quality stereo system, makes up for his loss. Not all of the new songs are winners, but “Made Of Rain” contains more than enough to make this a welcome and highly enjoyable return. Favorite tracks: “Don’t Believe”, “You’ll Be Mine”, “This’ll Never Be Like Love’, and “Come All Ye Faithful”. Watch a video for “You’ll be Mine” The Psychedelic FursThe Psychedelic Furs

Rolling Stones – “Goat’s Head Soup Deluxe” 2 CD. Following up a masterwork like “Exile On Main St.” was no easy task, and “Goat’s Head Soup” was considered to be something of a disappointment when it was released in 1973. Giles Martin’s new remix enhances the sound of the album which contained some of the Stones’ best ballads; “Angie”, “Winter”, and my all-time favorite Keith Richards’ performance on “Coming Down Again”. The bonus disc contains three rockers that are fun to hear and interesting additions to the band’s catalogue. The real grabber, however, is the Mick Jagger piano demo of “100 Years Ago”, a ballad that was rocked up on the original album. Even though “Goat’s Head Soup” has become something of a cliché as the beginning of what some perceive as the Stones’ decline, this latest reissue makes it sound much more significant and historic than it did 47 years ago. Favorite Tracks: “Criss Cross”, “100 Years Ago (piano demo)”, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, “Coming Down Again”. Watch the video for “Criss Cross”

Whiskey Myers – “Whiskey Myers”. I discovered this Texas band after they appeared on the television series Yellowstone. The “Whiskey Myers” album is a captivating blend of Southern hard rock, country music, and Americana. Like the Rolling Stones, who they opened for at Chicago’s Soldier’s Field and namecheck on the opening song, Whiskey Myers not only write pedal to the metal rockers, but can also effectively slow it down some as well. Every song on their self-titled album is strong - no filler here! Favorite tracks: “Die Rockin’”, “Rolling Stone”, “Bitch”, and “Little More Money”. Watch the video for “Die Rockin’” WireWire

Wire – “Mind Hive” and “10:20”. Wire’s “Pink Flag”, from 1977, was one of my all-time favorite punk rock albums, and the English band has issued an interesting and varied batch of post-punk releases in the over four dozen years since their debut. 2020 saw Wire put out two excellent albums on their own Pink Flag label. “Mind Hive” is composed of all new songs, while “10:20” is a collection of outtakes from 2011’s “Red Bark Trees” as well as songs left over from “Mind Hive”. Although I like both, I’m surprised how well the outtakes fit together into a cohesive album. Although I recommend both, I have to give the nod to “10:20” as the better listening experience. Favorite tracks: “Primed and Ready”, “Hung”, “The Art Of Persistence”, and “Small Black Reptile”. Listen to “Primed and Ready”

Also Recommended:

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Reunions”. A very well-produced follow-up to “The Nashville Sound”.

Moby – “All Visible Objects”. An album composed of the type of electronic dance music that made him famous.

Old 97’s – “Twelfth”. A fine album that, once again, features the band’s unique combination of country and rockabilly with offbeat lyrics.

Pretenders – “Hate For Sale”. A return to the classic Pretenders’ sound of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Waxahatchee – “Saint Cloud”. Katie Crutchfield addresses themes of addiction and co-dependency on this excellent, folk-tinged album.

Whitney Rose – “We Still Go To Rodeos”. Lots of good songs and a bigger guitar sound on Whitney’s best album yet.