While musicians were unable to tour much due to the COVID19 pandemic, a big blessing that came out of 2020 was the plethora of outstanding records. Here are my favorites of the past twelve months.
1. Phish Sigma Oasis One can certainly make an argument that Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist and songwriter of Phish has experienced a resurgence and rejuvenation in his songwriting in recent years. Ghosts of the Forest, 2019’s complex tribute to his long-time friend Chris Cottrell who passed away from cancer, was an exceptional release worth checking out. Joining up with the Phish crew of Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell, Anastasio and company, dropped Sigma Oasis as a surprise record in early April. Sigma Oasis ranks as one of Phish's finest studio releases, if not their very best record in their over thirty year career, and served as a constant soundtrack to 2020 in so many ways for me. Simply put, Sigma Oasis often tackles the theme of uncertainty with an underlying notion of hope and positivity... a message most needed in this year of years.
There are many stand-out tracks on this nine song record, which clocks in at a little over an hour (a robust release by modern standards). “Sigma Oasis,” and “Mercury” are both stellar numbers. The slower ballads, “Shade,” and “A Life Beyond The Dream,” are stripped down, touching and earnest. However, the highlight of the record is the 12:22 “Everything’s Right,” a song that lyrically encapsulates 2020, as well as providing listeners with the closest Phish has ever gotten to capturing the magic of their live improvisational performance on record.
Stand out tracks: “Everything’s Right,” “Sigma Oasis,” “Mercury,” “Shade.”
2. Bonny Light Horsemen- Bonny Light Horsemen
Bonny Light Horsemen was a project that originated at the 2018 Eaux Claires music festival where three folk-aficionados, Eric Johnson (of the Fruit Bats), multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman and singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell first connected. Their aim was to reimagine tunes that are centuries old with a modern realism and relevance. In their 2020 self-titled release they more than accomplished their mission, adding soaring harmonies and lush arrangements to create a progressive folk masterpiece. In addition to the record, Bonny Light Horsemen released a series of singles throughout the year, which were also excellent.
Stand out tracks: “Deep in Love,” “Jane, Jane,” “Magpie’s Nest”
3. Waxahatchee- Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield certainly came into her own with Saint Cloud, her fifth record performing as “Waxahatchee.” Saint Cloud is a record that showcases the singer-songwriter’s beautiful vocal range, intimate lyrics and vivid storytelling. Simply put, it plays like a gentle summer’s evening, with lots of wonderful allusions to nature and finding joy in the mundanity of everyday life. Listening to Saint Cloud feels like Cruitchfield is right there with you in the living room, in the car, or wherever the record is played. There is nothing overly fancy here, and there doesn’t need to be, as sometimes the simplicity of songs is what makes them the most beautiful.
Stand out tracks: “Oxbow,” “Can’t Do Much,” “Lilacs”
4. Field Report- Brake Lights, Red Tide
Stand out tracks: “Begin to Begin,” “Breathe,” “Peoria”
5. Fleet Foxes- Shore On their fourth LP, Fleet Foxes’s principal songwriter, Robin Pecknold, delivers perhaps the band’s most consistent records of their career, ranking up there with their self-titled debut LP release from over a decade ago. This is a beautiful record, front-to-back, which deserves being listened to as a whole piece with the headphones on and a tasty beverage in hand. Excellent production and sound layering make this record an instant classic which delivers new surprises with each listen.
Stand out tracks: “Sunblind,” “Can I Believe You,” “Jara,”
6. Jeff Tweedy- Love Is King
7. Khruangbin- Mordechai
8. Sylvan Esso- Free LoveAmelia Meath and Nick Sanborn have certainly become a power couple of sorts in the indie music scene. The eclectic duo continue to innovate and reimagine their sound mixing Sanborn’s beats with Meath’s ethereal voice and lyrics. There is something refreshingly tangible about the ten songs on Free Love that make the record both incredibly intimate and accessible. Once again, upbeat tunes win on this record, which is impossible to sit still while enjoying.
Stand out tracks: “Ring,” “Ferris Wheel,” “Rooftop Dancing”
9. Sturgill Simpson- Cutting Grass Vol. 1 and 2
What do you do when you’ve become a national headlining outlaw country star? If your name is Sturgill Simpson, why not reimagine your work in bluegrass form. As a fan of the bluegrass genre and Simpson as a songwriter, listeners are in for a real smile and treat hearing the re-workings of many of these tunes. What is especially compelling about these two records is both the arrangements as well as the focus on Simpson’s lyrics and storytelling. This music makes you feel like Simpson and his all-star crew are sitting on your back porch picking away.
Stand out tracks: “I Don’t Mind,” “Old King Coal,” “Brace for the Impact (Live A Little),”
10. Phoebe Bridgers- Punisher
Stand out tracks: “Garden Song,” “Kyoto,” “I Know The End”
Stand out tracks: "Haha," "Loner," "Nobody"
- Dead Horses- Birds
Few artists can tell a story with more earnestness and warmth than Dead Horses's Sarah Vos. Vos and her collaborator, Daniel Wolfe, continue to hone their craft with their latest EP "Birds." Be sure to check out the tunes "Family Tapes," and "Birds Can Write the Chorus," both of which are stellar recent tracks.
- Kurt Vile- Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep)
Philadelphia's Americana troubadour, Kurt Vile, released a beautifully and apt titled EP Speed, Sound, Lonely KV, which clearly channeled quarantine feelings. In many ways, Vile's muse, the late, great John Prine's spirit is alive and well on this collection of tunes. The highlight, "How Lucky," a duet with Prine himself, emerges as a timeless and loving tale of two amazingly prolific songwriters. Vile's own "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" is one of his finer compositions as well.