rock nyc’s Steve Crawford’s Top Ten Albums Of 2020
10. Aftermath, Elizabeth Cook. Americana queen Elizabeth Cook makes a surprisingly successful foray into country pop on the “Aftermath” album. If I didn’t have the natural rhythm of a deformed walrus, I could even dance to tunes like “Bones” and “Perfect Girls of Pop.” Best of all is her rewrite of John Prine’s “Jesus the Missing Years” with “Mary, The Submissing Years”: “She don’t remember getting pregnant, but she did/And, by all accounts, she turned out one heck of a kid.”
9. The Sick Season, Becky Warren. Nashville singer/songwriter Becky Warren is in the Americana rock vein and poured a personal depression that lasted over a year into “The Sick Season.” It’s a record about not changing your jeans for weeks, abusing alcohol, taking pills, celebrating bad decisions, cheap motel flings, and fleeting relationships. It seems like a pretty solid summary of 2020.
8. The Theory of Absolutely Nothing, Alex the Astronaut. Aussie singer/folktronica purveyor Alexandra Lynn (a.k.a. “Alex the Astronaut”) provided a more positive outlook. “I Think You’re Great” bashes away, providing the thrill and hooks of a classic pop song. “Happy Song” is exactly as advertised, a singalong upbeat number, and a couple moves the couch to have room to play air guitar on “Caught in the Middle.” There’s nothing unsophisticated about LGBTQ stalwart Alex the Astronaut, but this album feels like a throwback to simpler, happier times.
7. Agricultural Tragic, Corb Lund. Canadian country singer Corb Lund has made a long career of being consistently good, rather (if ever) than being great. He brings an uncharacteristically funky groove to “90 Seconds of Your Time,” celebrates aging on “Old Men” (“I want old men makin’ my whiskey/ I want old men singin’ my blues/I want old men teachin’ my horses/’Cause there’s just some things young men can’t do/Like the old boys do”), and ponders what to do when encountering a bear. The latter concern is probably not an unlikely experience in rural Alberta, a place Lund once described as being “like Colorado with health care.”
6. Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee. Kate Crutchfield moved away from indie rock guitar driven rock to a folk pop sound on “Saint Cloud,” not losing any her skills in creating strong melodies in the process. The mood of the album? Where does one go when unconditional love still isn’t enough. Crutchfield sounds like she’s purging her soul, exorcising demons, but does so in such a matter of fact manner that you know she’s going to be fine. A sober, somber, yet resolute set of songs.
5. Blue Hearts, Bob Mould. It was Mould’s passionate anger/disgust that fueled Hüsker Dü and it’s just like old times on songs like “Next Generation” and “American Crisis.” His gift to the world has been emotional catharsis via tuneful thrashy punk and he parties like a 1985 new day rising on “Blue Hearts.” “Here’s the new American crises/Thanks to the evangelical ISIS” might be the best dismissal/critique of the year. Welcome back, my old friend.
4. folklore, Taylor Swift. Having conquered country and pop music, Taylor turns folkie by dropping the genre in the album title, but continues to mine the landscape of marked like a bloodstain “sensual politics.” Swift remains tied to the story telling narratives of country music and the observational lyric “The wedding was a charming, if a little gauche/There’s only so far new money goes” realigns the wit of Chuck Berry into modern day skepticism in the best possible way. If we’re lucky, love will remain eternally fatal for Swift.
3. “Welcome to Hard Times,” Charley Crockett. Crockett summed up the malaise that is 2020 in the most classic country terms possible. The plunky piano work on “Welcome to Hard Times” sounds like it was delivered straight from the 1970s. There’s no winking or sense of irony in Crockett’s take on country music. He sings like the old timers did, like he means every word, even when they are hokey. Crockett, an African-American twice convicted felon in real life, ends the album with the tale of a mob lynching.
2. The Preserving Machine, Ultimate Fakebook. After a break of more than a decade and a half, Ultimate Fakebook returned with more skill, wit, energy, and excitement than ever. The aesthetic? A tight, hard rocking trio with excellent melodies who can explode into a bridge or a chorus at the drop of a downbeat. Bill McShane sings with a constant yearning in his vocals, whether it’s about a girl (the usual subject) or his adopted hometown of Manhattan, Kansas. The songs are often delivered from a coming of age perspective, when emotions are at their biggest and most fatal. McShane’s naturally high pitched voice makes the songs about teenage love and roller skating still sound vibrant, instead of genre exercises. In short, the buzzsaw energy and euphoric rock ‘n’ roll of “The Preserving Machine” proves not only that you can go home again, but, sometimes, you can build a better mousetrap in the process.
1. The New OK, Drive-By Truckers. Their best release (easily) of the past decade and the best album I’ve heard since “Upland Stories” by Robbie Fulks in 2016. Patterson Hood has gone from ranting about the current day U.S. unraveling to writing music about it. Mike Cooley provides the takedown that Sarah Palin has always deserved. And bassist Matt Patton, who always looks like he’s about to explode from happiness when performing live, has more than earned his shot at a Ramones cover. The overall impact – songs for the new implosion.