Yes, 2020 has sucked like a turbo-charged Hoover but quarantine life has given you the opportunity to summon your inner me and sit on the you the opportunity to do what comes so naturally: to sit on your living room floor with a stack of brand new records and meditate on their magnificence. Haven't started yet? Don't know where to begin? Allow me to assist. One thing that jumps out to me immediately that I want to highlight is there have been some sensational records from women! They make up half of my list and there are a couple additional albums from women I already know are likely contenders. Here are 10 of my favorite albums from the first half of 2020 -- in no particular order -- with a few thoughts and key tracks.
Sarah Jarosz - World On The Ground: Jarosz and veteran producer John Leventhal have fashioned what might be the best album I've heard this year, pairing character sketches with sublime melodies, all delivered with by her captivating vocals. Begin with "Johnny," "Maggie," and "Pay It No Mind" and you'll find you need to hear the rest.
Mark Lanegan - Straight Songs of Sorrow: Lanegan disturbed the ghosts and stirred up the dust of days gone by for an unsparing memoir, Sing Backwards And Weep, which has yielded a collection of equally unflinching songs. His lyrical and vocal precision are at their best while he musically marries the rustic underpinnings of early solo records with the Euro-flavored electronica of more recent efforts. "Stockholm City Blues" stands among the best songs he's penned. The disquieting "Skeleton Key" gives the album its title, and the ominous "At Zero Below" also stand out.
Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways: Dylan settled upon this particular voice and soundscape several albums ago and we can no longer be surprised by his command of language or ability to spin a yarn but the vitality in these songs are powerful reminders of his unsurpassed mastery. "I Contain Multitudes" and "False Prophet" are a bit more digestible than the 17-minute epic "Murder Most Foul."
Lilly Hiatt - Walking Proof: I expected to like this one but I was unprepared to love it this much. This batch of expertly crafted and executed songs make confessional moments feel conversational and universal. Start with "P-Town," "Candy Lunch," and "Scream."
The Secret Sisters - Saturn Return: My first favorite record of the year! Hard lessons of the past and hope for the future is the lens through which Laura and Lydia Rogers view themselves and a world that has become only more turbulent since the album's February release. These personal narratives of steps and missteps connect them to familial roots as they build families of their own. This effort boasts their finest songwriting yet as heard in the scathing "Cabin," the spiritual "Healer In The Sky," and "Hand Over My Heart," a song I imagine Christine McVie would have been proud to submit for a Fleetwood Mac record.
Pat Metheny - From This Place: This latest batch of songs is more a showcase for Metheny as composer than an exhibition of his guitar prowess. "America Undefined" is both an appropriate title for the music he has written as well as a prescient sentiment for this moment in time.
Norah Jones - Pick Me Up Off The Floor: It is a credit to Jones' considerable skill that she can make an engaging record with songs that were, in a sense, leftovers and without altering the sonic niche she has carved out as home. Check out "Were You Watching?" and "Hurts To Be Alone."
Nicole Atkins - Italian Ice: Goodnight, Rhonda Lee is a tough album to follow but Atkins hunkered down in Muscle Shoals and let her incredible voice give life and light to songs like the magical "A.M. Gold" and "Far From Home."
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Reunions: Isbell is arguably the most acclaimed songwriter of his generation and that skill is on full display on his latest. The reunions the title speaks of are between the present day father, husband, acclaimed singer/songwriter and the self-destructive wanderer of his younger days. "Only Children" and "Running With Our Eyes Closed" are examples of regrets and recriminations met with grace and acceptance, if not outright forgiveness, and "Overseas" is among the best songs he's written.
GoGo Penguin - GoGo Penguin: It is quite a feat to compose and perform songs that are simultaneously percussive, melodic, ambient, and active. That's made all the more impressive for an instrumental trio that plays jazz electronica using acoustic instruments. This fascinating alchemy is brought to life on tracks like "Signal In The Noise" and "F Maj Pixie."
That's a great list for an entire year, yet we've only reached the midpoint! Could the best be yet to come? Well, I am still waiting on the physical release of Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters and I've already heard the early singles from Lianne La Havas' forthcoming self-titled release as well as those from Joshua Redman Quartet. Who knows what other treasures are waiting to be discovered. So be safe, be good to yourselves and each other, and let the records spin freely!