Years ago, a friend of mine good-naturedly challenged me with, “How are you qualified to be a music critic?” Without thinking about it, I responded, “I’m not a music critic. I’m a music liker.” I listen to a lot of music. Then I write about the stuff I like. (I mean, why write about the stuff you don’t like?”)
Anyway, as bad as Covid has been for live music, all those sequestered musicians churned out some great studio stuff. In fact, I had such a hard time narrowing down my 2020 Best of… list that I sort of cheated. I created a Spotify playlist called “Cultural Bias is 2020” and filled it with contenders. Then I picked 25 of those for my final list.
Cultural Bias is 2020 is open to anyone with a Spotify account. Go ahead and give it a listen. If you like it, you might also like my Fresh Music for a Stale Quarantine playlist. It’s got 10+ hours of songs, the majority of which were released in 2020.
On to the songs:
- “In My Girlish Days” by Rory Block – Off Prove It On Me. Talk about lady sings the blues! A pro who has never gotten her due, Rory’s voice and slide guitar are both first rate and compelling. Real deal stuff here. “I flagged a train. Didn’t have a dime. Tryin’ to run away from that home of mine. But I didn’t know no better in my girlish days…”
- “Local Radio” by Bad Moves – This is probably the only song on this list that I’ve seen on other “Best Of” lists. (Not sure if that says something about the song or about me.) I learned about Bad Moves on NPR’s weekly music review show. Probably my fave running song of the year. (Swear it makes me faster…)
- “Middle of the Night” by Loudon Wainwright – He opens with, “Here’s another song about how terrible things are. Although it’s maybe a little more optimistic, I don’t know.” Then he serves up a song for our times: “It’s not the end of the world, good people. It’s just the middle of the night.”
- “Marathon” by Chuck Prophet – Off The Land that Time Forgot. Becoming a big fan of this guy. “It’s a marathon; we’re gonna dance ’til dawn.” After you listen to this, check out “Summertime Thing.”
- “You’ve Got This” by Jim Lauderdale. “I don’t believe in a lot of things. But I believe in you.” An old pro serves up an anthem for our times.
- “Overtime” by The Rad Trads – Never heard of these guys, but they’re catchy. A little bit of Barenaked Ladies thing goin’ on here, only with a little more rock than pop.
- “Ashamed” by P.J. Norton w/ Tobe Nwigwe – Off Gospel According to PJ. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Maroon 5 keyboardist takes us to church. Reminds me of Stevie Wonder.
- “Do You Believe?” by P. J. Morton with Yolanda Adams – Off Gospel According to PJ. PJ came in so hot with this album in 2020 that I just had to double dip. (Yolanda sounds great!)
- “Don’t Believe in Love” by Shelby Lynne – Play this song three times and you’ll keep clicking on it. “I don’t want you near…”
- “Under Pressure” by Karen O & Willie Nelson – South Korean-born O (lead singer for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) teams up with American country music royalty to give sweet and soft cover to a British rock legend’s hit song.
- “In the Air” by The California Honeydrops – Mellow and soothing. Just what you expect from a Cali band. “Without music in the air…”
- “Believe Me, Angela” by Whitney Rose – Jilted lover reaches out to her successor.“ Hey, Angela, I like that name. I know you’re not who I should blame. I talked it over with my friends. Went and keyed his car instead.”
- “Champagne Corolla” by Steve Earle & The Dukes – In August, Steve Earle lost his singer-songwriter son Justin Townes Earle to a presumed accidental drug overdose. Named for Townes Van Zandt, Justin released 8 albums and had a number of critically acclaimed and popularly received songs, including this one. In tribute to his son, Steve decided to pull his band The Dukes together and let it all out. This is great!
- “New York Is Rockin’” by Willie Nile. I’ll get in some trouble for this, but, to me, New York is America’s Varsity City and everything else is JV. Hard to imagine any other city that could claim this range of quality name-checks across so many genres:
“Frank Sinatra singin’ ‘bout the little town blues;
Baryshnikov is puttin’ on his blue suede shoes.
Bird is boppin’ down on 52nd Street.
The Ramones at CBGB’s got ‘em on their feet;
Pavarotti singing up at Carnegie Hall;
Yeah, everybody’s swingin’, man, we’re havin’ a ball!”
- “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” by Bob Dylan – Off Rough and Rowdy Ways. Never, ever count this man out! Great song about my fave blues man. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed, indeed. Gimme that old time religion. It’s just what I need.”
- “Perfect Girls of Pop” by Elizabeth Cook – Off Aftermath. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I discovered her show “Elizabeth Cook Apron Strings” on Sirius Outlaw Country.
- “Shack in the Back” by The California Honey Drops – Off Just One More, and Then Some. Finally, an answer to the timeless teenage question: “How we gonna have a party, if your mama and your daddy home?”
- “The Late Great John Prine Blues” by Will Kimbrough – These times have been hard, but I’ve had it pretty good. After all, my music-listening life has coincided with the work of John Prine, RIP. “His songs would still a room. Handsome Johnny’s comin’ home, the late, great John Prine Blues.”
- “The Next Best Thing” by San Gabriel 7 (Femi Knight, vocals) – Off Red Dress. Where have Femi and this band been all my life? Probably my fave album of 2020. Jazz, blues, soothe… Also love their cover of the classic “Never Make Your Move too Soon.”
- “Going Down to Sing in Texas” by Iris DeMent – Gotta love Iris Dement! Such a distinctive, unique, compelling voice. If you’re gonna release a 9+ minute song, you better have Dylanesque game. She brings it here. Catchy.
- “Stars Explode” by Matthew Sweet – Nice rocker. Good guitar. Harmonies in the vocals. Would have hit potential in any era.
- “Do Re Mi” by Front Country – Wikipedia calls this 10-year-old San Francisco ensemble “an American folk pop and progressive bluegrass band.” This reworked cover of a Woody Guthrie classic might be my favorite number on this whole list. Special kudos to vocalist Melody Walker. “Believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got that Do Re Mi!”
- “Shake Your Money Maker” by The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Never trust a rockin’ blues ensemble that does not do this song. I mean, I think it’s a law or something. “I gotta gal that lives up on the hill. She say she gonna love me but I don’t think she will.”
- “Cloud Vision” by Bay Ledges – I always tell Bay Ledges front man Zach Hurd (Hyde ’99) that he’s got some David Byrne in him. Some of it comes out here. “Livin’ like a wise man, in this land.”
- “Deep South 61 Delta Highway Blues” by Jimmy LaFave – Off Highway Angels… Full Moon Rain. “And it’s this way, maybe that way, anyway you feel is right.” One number off a great new blues album, complete with awesome cover art. Remember album covers?
BONUS: “Quarantine Blues” by Steve Poltz – Fifty years from now, people studying our time will listen to this song. “I need a nurse, I suppose; to shove a Q-Tip up my nose. I’m gettin’ kinda grouchy; I’m in love with Dr. Fauci. Uh-huh”
Onward, Malcolm Gauld