2020: The Power Of Music

by Jason Warburg

In the middle of a year that redefined the term “rolling disaster,” the world’s musical artists came through in a big way. Yes, by and large 2020 suuuuuuuucked—but the music didn’t. To the contrary, a number of artists stepped up to deliver some of their most pointed and poignant work ever, a testament to the power of music to engage and inspire, and the power of artists to transmute human experience into stories rich with meaning and resonance.


Context Matters Award

The Chicks – Gaslighter

This long-awaited, somewhat uneven return might not make my top five albums of the year, but in “Gaslighter” and “March March,” The Chicks came through with two of the most relevant and resonant anthems of summer 2020.


Unplugged and On Fire Award

Ben Bostick – Among The Faceless Crowd

Bostick’s first two full-lengths were full of storming honky-tonk rockers. Here he dials the volume down, leans into his songwriting craft, and delivers a tremendous song-cycle about struggle and deceit and the price everyone pays when our dreams outstrip our ability to achieve them.


The Waiting Was The Hardest Part Award

Tom Petty – Wildflowers & All The Rest

Rumored for years and delayed by disagreements among Petty’s surviving family, this expanded edition of his classic 1994 solo album Wildflowers reveals at long last the full, expansive range of the songwriting and recording he did for what was originally imagined as a double album.


I’m A Believer Award

Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof

It’s not easy being a second-generation singer-songwriter; for every Rufus Wainwright, there’s a Julian Lennon. Lilly Hiatt, daughter of renowned songsmith John, won both respect and affection with this collection of “smart, witty, big-hearted songs.”


All The Redemption I Can Offer Award

Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

Fans have waited decades for The Boss to revisit the widescreen cinematic sound he created on albums like Born To Run. Here he deploys the full E Street Band in support of a set of powerfully rendered songs that stare Father Time in the face and never flinch.


Truth Bomb Award

Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels

“Ferocious” is the adjective that leaps to mind each time I’ve been called on to describe the darkly potent latest from one of America’s greatest living songwriters, featuring the nuclear-tipped cruise missile known as “Man Without A Soul.”


Comfort Food for the Soul Award

Semisonic – You’re Not Alone

Semisonic never broke up, they just took time off to do other things—a book, a band or two, and a ton of songwriting for others—for the better part of two decades before reconvening for a five-song EP that finds them picking up right where they left off. It’s another set of charming, hooky, insightful tunes full of indie-rock flair and pulsing positivity.



Indies of the Year Award

Last Charge Of The Light Horse – The Sand Reckoner

Musical craftsman extraordinaire Jean-Paul Vest returned this year with a fresh take on the brooding, artfully-rendered singer-songwriter fare that has made his group/vehicle Last Charge Of The Light Horse one of my favorite acts of this century. Alternately rocking and dreamy, intense and beguiling, The Sand Reckoner takes the measure of the artistic impulse and illustrates how it enriches the lives of both artist and audience.

Becky Warren – The Sick Season

“If you’re going through hell, keep going” said Winston Churchill, maybe, unless it was someone else. In any case, Becky Warren followed the advice through and out the other side of a 16-month battle with depression that sparked the first set of genuinely autobiographical songs from an artist more known for her striking, vibrant portraits of others. It turns out her feisty-smart barroom rock and roll hits just as hard, maybe even harder, when she turns the camera on herself.



Album of the Year

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell’s 2013 album Southeastern marked a turning point for the Alabama singer-songwriter-guitarist, the moment where his craft and his heart became fully engaged with one another. The two albums that followed featured flashes of that same sort of white-hot creative fire, while only intermittently scaling the same heights of emotional resonance. And then came Reunions, in which Isbell again throws open the door to his closet of anxieties to deliver a set of songs whose powerful impact is matched only by their silvery beauty.

Honorable Mention

(in alphabetical order)

AC/DC – Power Up
Not long after the band appeared to be coming apart at the seams, AC/DC reassembled to deliver an album’s worth of vintage riffage.

Andrew Adkins – The Echoist
“Adkins appears equally at home with Nashville country-rock, Philly soul, Muscle Shoals rhythm and blues, and reality-warping electric psychedelia.”

Big Big Train – Summer’s Lease
The first Big Big Train collection, a two-disc offering for the Japanese market, features several unreleased tracks among its two full discs of proggy greatness.

Ultan Conlon – There’s A Waltz
“…feels like just the album we need, a thoughtful, unhurried meditation on solitude and connection, love and loss, endowed with a warmth and authenticity that can’t be faked or synthesized.”

Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling / The New OK
If you’re still on the fence about the state of America in 2020, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have a few thoughts to share on this raw and merciless pair of albums.

Eric Hutchinson -- Class Of '98
Answering the musical question, what if you re-set Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1998 and asked Fountains Of Wayne to do the soundtrack?

The Jayhawks – XOXO
This album—featuring all four Jayhawks writing and singing—is unlikely to bowl you over, but its rumpled majesty promises to further polish the group’s legend.

Kansas – The Absence Of Presence
Infusing a long-lived band with new blood is always risky, but less so when you add a keyboardist-songwriter-harmony vocalist of the caliber of Tom Brislin (Yes, Spiraling).

Paul Melancon – The Get Gos Action Hour
My affinity for power-pop, concept albums, and manic-depressive smart-alecks pretty much guaranteed I would enjoy stepping through the looking glass into the imagination of Paul Melancon.

Gilbert Neal – Mistakes Of Memory
If Frank Zappa, Leonard Cohen, and Lin-Manuel Miranda made a rock opera about life in 21st century America, it would probably sound nothing like this, other than being equally smart and cool.

Pretenders – Hate For Sale
Chrissie Hynde seems to be living her best life in her 60s, delivering yet another strong album, this time under the Pretenders banner, with co-founder Martin Chambers back in the fold.

The Sideshow Tragedy – After The Fall
The Texas guitar-drums duo returns with another album of raw, visceral blues-rock that makes the Black Keys sound like Josie & The Pussycats.

Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
Can this guy write a bad song? The world can keep wondering a little longer.

Sadler Vaden – Anybody Out There?
Jason Isbell’s ace guitarist steps up to the mic and delivers an explosion of sun-drenched, hook-filled ’70s rock.

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