Isn’t it too late to post year-end lists?

Not for me. I like to wait until I can give good attention to even those things that were arriving right at the end of the year.

Then I need time to reflect, revisit, reconsider… and write. 

For me, writing is the best practice of thinking, and I often come to new discoveries and new understanding as I write. And part of good writing is reading — I want to engage the conversation beyond my own experience, learn from others’ listening, and deepen my appreciation of what’s in front of me. I don’t want to join my list to just be a bunch of “likes.” I want to share something personal, a story about how a work of art has made a difference — big or small — in my life, knowing well that our experiences, beliefs, passions, education, and questions influence our appreciation of art.

“Your mileage may vary,” as they say, because we are very different, you and I.

But I offer these recommendations not as any claim that these are “the Best” — nobody is qualified to make such a claim about something as subjective as art. (I make this disclaimer with stubborn regularity.) Rather, I would testify that I was blessed by these contributions of imagination, beauty, and truth. I hope some of them open doors of discovery, delight, and challenge for you.

So… before I post my list of more than 30 favorites, I’ll begin with a bunch of “honorable mentions” — albums I enjoyed for one reason or another, and that I think are worth mentioning. While there were very few records released this year that are likely to stand with my all-time favorites, there were so many wonderful sounds worth recommending. And in a year of relentless troubles and hardships, I needed music more than ever.

If you have thoughts about any of these records — general impressions, favorite tracks, declarations of passion — feel free to share them. I might even excerpt some of those notes and add them to this post!

Let’s begin.

Overstreet’s Favorite Recordings of 2020: Honorable Mentions

Ásgeir — BURY THE MOON

Bury The Moon | Ásgeir
If there were an award for Best Josh Garrels Impression, Ásgeir would be a strong contender. On this English-language album from the 27-year-old Icelandic artist, his lyrics aren’t as poetic as Garrels’ writing, but he does write from a place of deep conscience. His sound is richly layered, lush, and melodious. His writing leans sentimental at times, but the songs are catchy, singable, and often beautiful. He shows a lot of promise here; I’ll be watching for his next record.

HIGHLIGHTS: “Breathe,” “Living Water”


 

Sam Lee — OLD WOW

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'OLD WOW SAM LEE'

“Old Wow,” the title of Sam Lee’s third album, is a reference to the awe and inspiration we often feel when we attend to the natural world. You can sense the deep roots of these songs — new arrangements and interpretations of traditional songs — and you’ll appreciate the gift of Lee’s voice. If you’re a fan of Cocteau Twins, take note: There’s a duet here with Elizabeth Fraser on “Wild Mountain Thyme.” But the big highlight, for me, is “Lay This Body Down.”


The Dream Syndicate — THE UNIVERSE INSIDE

No photo description available.

If that album cover art gives you any suspicion that this might be a psychedelic experience, one that opens a portal to some danger and some beauty, you’re on the right track. The Universe Inside sounds like a series of strange, drawn-out performances by an aging jazz-rock combo playing at the Roadhouse — the bar imagined by David Lynch for the Twin Peaks universe, where every live band has one foot in hell and one foot in the real world singing about their longing for heaven. Droning guitars, relentless percussion, and saxophones veering from ecstasy to anxiety to anguish. This music kind of felt like the world I lived in throughout 2020, every day an excruciating struggle between despair (when I look at America’s disintegration) and longing (when I am rescued by the beauty of memory and dreams).

Mark Deming at AllMusic knows more about the band’s history than I do. He writes, “While this music is a long way off from the Dream Syndicate’s roots, it’s smart and visionary music built out of jamming that avoids being lazy or poorly focused. The group’s first two post-reunion albums were fine and deeply satisfying, but The Universe Inside goes someplace most fans would never have expected. It’s bold, challenging, and dreamlike stuff that stakes out new territory for the band and unexpectedly succeeds on the level of their best work.”

Highlights: The 20-minute long nightmare jam called “The Regulator” and the restlessly determined riffing called “Dusting Off the Rust.”


Poliça — WHEN WE STAY ALIVE

No photo description available.

Do you miss Portishead as much as I do? When I listen to Channy Leaneagh’s voice slipping and sliding over slick electronica, I’m playing on a similar playground. But if you pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll find her making much of the ordeal she’s been through. This is the sound of an artist taking the stuff of her calamity and sculpting it into a thoughtful vocabulary of metaphors.

From Pitchfork: “In the winter of 2018, Poliça singer Channy Leaneagh was clearing ice off her roof when she slipped and fell 10 feet to the ground. The landing broke a vertebra, damaged her spine, and left her unable to walk. What at first seemed like a curse—being stuck in a brace prevented her from working or taking care of her children—quickly became an opportunity, giving Leaneagh time to sit with her thoughts and confront traumas old and new.

“Poliça’s fifth album, When We Stay Alive, features some of the most piercing lyrics of Leaneagh’s career, half of which were written after the accident.”

Highlights: “Fold Up,” “Forget Me Now,” “Driving”


HAIM — WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III

HAIM's Women in Music Pt. III Brims with Nuance and a Smorgasbord of Sounds | Review | Consequence of Sound

You don’t need me to convince you of this one, I suspect. It’s been one of the year’s most beloved and celebrated albums. And yet, it took me a while to warm to it. Somehow, I’ve never seen this band — either live or even onscreen. And their songs have subtle virtues. But I eventually started humming along, and the band’s chemistry took hold.

Then I started reading, and I started to understand the difficult circumstances within which this band somehow found the strength and will to keep working. At AllMusic, Heather Phares — who is far more familiar with Haim than I am — writes:

Alana’s best friend died; Este struggled with her health — and career-threatening Type 1 diabetes; and Danielle had the double whammy of post-tour depression and her partner Ariel Rechtshaid’s cancer diagnosis. They confronted these issues head-on in their life and in their music, and the directness — and genuine emotion — of ‘Women in Music Pt. III’ adds welcome depth to their catchy, genre-mashing songs.

My admiration grew.

And now, I’ve come around to putting it on just for hooks and the harmonies.

Highlights: “The Steps,” “I Know Alone,” “Man From the Magazine,” “Hallelujah”


Elvis Costello — HEY CLOCKFACE

Image may contain: text that says 'LNISCOSTELLO 12 HEY CLOCKFACE'

“Love is the one thing we can save.”

Is that line a lament or an encouragement? It sounds more dire to me than anything… and timely, as the future teeters on a precipice while madmen in power rampage unchecked.

It’s a surprisingly bold beginning for anybody, even Elvis Costello. And what follows that spoken-word opening is an album that sounds like he wants to record ALL of the albums left in him right now, before it’s too late. The result is all over the place. But there is more than enough here to remind me of the master at his peaks (which, for me, are Imperial Bedroom, All This Useless Beauty, When I Was Cruel, and Painted From Memory).

Highlights: “No Flag,” “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now,” “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”


Drive-By Truckers — THE UNRAVELING

Image may contain: one or more people, ocean, sky and outdoor, text that says 'DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS THE UNRAVELING UNRA'

The nation that preaches to the world about freedom, generosity, equality, and “justice for all” has, in the last several years, seemed to say “Just kidding!” Specifically, the Republican party has pledged allegiance to a man who idolizes tyrants and war criminals. For the sake of power, wealth, and white supremacy, they have performed a downward spiral into cruelty and injustice, confirming the most exaggerated caricatures of their hard-heartedness — abusing immigrants, torturing refugees, sanctioning the slaughter of Black Americans, locking children in cages, and fanning the flames of a pandemic until the disease is devouring its own people.

In the middle of this, Drive-By Truckers take the position of the prophet at the gates of the city, raging and lamenting in sackcloth and ashes. The Unraveling is their Apocalypse Now, a diagnosis of malignant tumors called Greed, Hate, and Madness. It also features, as Mark Deming declares at AllMusic, “the most potent and nuanced performances this band has ever summoned. … [T]hey’ve rarely merged words and music quite as skillful as they have here.”

Highlights: “Armageddon’s Back in Town,” “Thoughts and Prayers”


EOB — EARTH

EOB: Earth Album Review | Pitchfork

On the strength of its irresistible opening track, Ed O’Brien’s uneven solo debut Earth is full of cool surprises, catchy melodies, and reminders that he is essential to the layered genius of Radiohead. It’s co-produced by Flood — the genius who produced Zooropa, Is This Desire?, and so many more of my favorite records. There’s even a duet with Laura Marling to wrap it up. In an interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen, O’Brien talked about living in Brazil with his family several years ago and how that time of withdrawing from the familiar and the busy into isolation and quiet resulted in inspiration that exploded into this colorful record.

Highlights: “Shangri-La,” “Brasil,” “Cloak of the Night”


Moses Boyd — DARK MATTER

Image may contain: night

Why was it the UK that offered us — from my vantage point, at least — the best artistic expressions of the suffering, the rage, and the hope so many of us felt in 2020? I’d argue it was the London scene that best amplified laments over injustice, affirmed that Black Lives Matter, vented righteous anger, and celebrated the Truth that we are all brothers and sisters.

Moses Boyd’s album Dark Matter was a force to be reckoned with on my stereo this year, empowering my spirit as I blasted these tunes in the car on my way to and from work. These sounds often helped me transcend anger and bitterness into a remembrance that the darkness of prejudice cannot overcome the exultant glory of Black imaginations in art.

Boyd’s percussion weaves delirious jams — jazz, pop, psychedelic trippiness, and danceable electronica — together with a host of spirited collaborators here into something I find difficult to classify. Along with the Dream Syndicate album I mentioned earlier, Dark Matter expands 2020’s dreamscapes — and I needed the escape that these dreams provided

Highlights: “B.T.B.”, “Only You,” “2 Far Gone”


Ethan Gruska — EN GARDE

Image may contain: 1 person, child

I get such strong Elliott Smith vibes from Ethan Gruska — not what I would expect from somebody I looked up simply because of the curious detail that this is the son of John Williams. (Yes — THAT John Williams.) And, in this record’s finer moments, I hear the potential for melodies on a Paul Simon level.

And when I start reading, I find that, yes… Smith and Simon are two of the most common connections for critics listening to this record.

I love the how every song is richly layered without ever sounding overcrowded or demanding. It’s a fizzy, groovy, light-hearted affair. Its flashiest track is the one with Phoebe Bridgers (“Enough for Now”), its strangest is “Haiku4U,” its most sonically adventurous is an instrumental surprise package full of twitchy sound effects, and its most ambitious anthem may be “Event Horizon.” But the quieter moments (“Drunk Dialing”) are good too, and he saves the best for last — the irresistible “Teenage Drug.”

Also worth mentioning: One of the most delightful album covers of the year!

Highlights: “Teenage Drug,” “Event Horizon,” “Enough for Now”


Andrew Bird — HARK!

No photo description available.

File with the Over the Rhine Christmas albums under “Why do you hate Christmas?”

This is full of beautifully sad, gloriously melancholy originals, covers, and creative reinterpretations of classics — including an Andrew Bird special: “O Holy Night,” the whistling version.


Midnight Oil — THE MAKARRATA PROJECT

Image may contain: text that says 'FROM MIDNIGHT OIL THE MAKARRATA PROJECT FROM THE HEART. WE. GATHERED CONSTITUTIONAL SOUTHERN STATEMENT INVITE WE BASE HISTORY. ACROSS THIS AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE FOR BETTER FUTURE.'

It’s one thing for a once-great band to resurface and jam like the good old days for a good cause.

It’s another thing for them to sound like they never took a break; like they’re still able play like they did at their peak; like the music is an event in itself, even before you attend to the What & Why of the lyrics.

Looking around at what has already been written, it seems the proper focus for a critic here is the *purpose* of this music — so let me sum up what I understand:

The First Nations National Constitutional Convention, calling for a “Makarrata Commission,” prepared the Uluru Statement of the Heart. It gave new life to the old Aboriginal Australian term ‘Makarrata,’ which means “coming together to find peace and enact justice following a conflict” (See the AllMusic.com review — link in Comments below).

If that sounds like the kind of social-justice cause that bands of the late ’80s like Midnight Oil would get excited about, you’re right. Peter Garrett and company have always been a cause-driven band. They’ve always summoned their audiences to concerts and then to a living-out of the ideals elevated by and embodied by the music. This EP of new songs is directly focused on the plight of indigenous peoples of Australia and the case for reparations. Nobody’s going to praise this album as a work of subtle poetry — this is activism, meant to educate, inspire, and fire people up for the sake of love and justice.

Okay, there are plenty of places to read in more detail about the history and hope at the heart of this project. But messages are messages and music is music. And I just want to say how great it is to hear Midnight Oil resurrected and as riveting as ever. I’m tempted to complain about the guest voices — but that’s my weakness, my sentimentality, my nostalgia talking. It’s better for me to say that they’re doing what’s important to them — thank God! — and if I respect them, I will pay attention to the What and the Why. They’re bringing their own inspirations directly into their music, directly onto the stage to share their microphones, because it isn’t about them. It never has been.

Still, it’s no small thing to say that it’s that music again — that sound. It doesn’t matter how grand your cause is — if your music is mediocre, if it doesn’t reinforce a sense of mystery and beauty and something grander than ourselves, then you’re just a marketer making commercials and enhancing speeches with soundtracks.

Other than U2 and R.E.M., I can’t think of another ’80s band with a sound that energizes me in a way that makes me want to take to the streets and march for the dignity and the liberation of the oppressed. Garrett and company worked so hard in the ’80s and ’90s to build such righteous associations into their sound — they worked those guitars, those drums, those melodies into not only my consciousness but my *conscience.* I would say they’re a band that has done things right and done them well. We need more like them. The education, the motivation, the moral conviction — these things have taken root in me because I fell in love a sound and stepped into it. That’s where I started to care.

Highlights: “First Nation,” “Gadigal Land”


Sylvan Esso — FREE LOVE
Kelly Lee Owens — INNER SONG

Image may contain: text that says 'FREE OVE'Image may contain: one or more people and closeup

Two albums I played a lot while driving just for the playfulness and energy of the beats and the sweetness of the vocals. Also, it takes guts to start your record with a surprising Radiohead cover, but Kelly Lee Owens pulls it off by making it something new.


Adrianne Lenker — SONGS AND INSTRUMENTALS

Taylor Swift — FOLKLORE

Norah Jones — PICK ME UP OFF THE FLOOR

Taylor Swift's 'Folklore' made me feel all the things. It's just what I needed. | America Magazine

Norah Jones - Pick Me Up Off The Floor - Amazon.com Music

Two gifted songwriters of strikingly different styles and — Adrianne Lenker and Taylor Swift — turned their pandemic isolation into a workshop. I prefer the Lenker project, particularly for the lengthy instrumentals that made for moody and inspiring writing soundtracks. Her lyrics are always challenging, deeply personal, and full of rich observations and poetic imagination. She sounds 30 going on 40 in her wisdom.

By contrast, Taylor Swift sounds 30 going on 21. I’ve never been a Swift fan — believe me, I’ve tried to catch the fever, album after album. (I might have been a fan if I’d heard her when I was 16, during my Amy-Grant/Belinda-Carlisle phase.) But her lyrics have never particularly inspired me. Her preoccupation with love affairs keeps her songs squarely in the zone of Freshman-in-College-Obsessed-With-Boys rather than someone exploring larger questions or the world beyond her own feelings. But I acknowledge her strengths when it comes to pop song-craft, and this mellower, more introspective, more narrative-driven project was the first record of hers I’ve enjoyed enough to play several times. (Oh, and if you’re wondering — I listened to Evermore once and nothing really grabbed me. I knew I would do better to invest my time elsewhere.)

Now, Norah Jones, by contrast, may not be a detailed storyteller in the songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, but she sounds like someone who spends a lot more time thinking about the world beyond her own social calendar and romantic history. As a result, she’s so much more interesting. Her voice is as enchanting as ever, and there’s an improvisational character to these songs that makes listening feel like an intimate performance where you’re right up close to the piano. Also, she has Brian Blade at the drums beside her. And the whole thing is warm, human, and fulfilling. A good end-of-the-day record.