Well, it’s all come down to this. Despite what you think of 2020 in general it was a pretty good year for music as you’re about to find out. For my best of the year list, I trimmed approximately 250 reviews down to an initial list of 70 titles, and from there down to a final twenty. Then I had to put them in order- that was the hard part. Off all the albums I heard and reviewed in 2020, here are #20 through #11. My thanks go out to all of the record labels and promoters that kept the music coming. Grab a bowl of chips, something to drink, and let’s get to it…
#20: A GULF COAST CHRISTMAS Various Artists (Gulf Coast Records)
This is one of the coolest holiday records ever, and I’m a guy with a Grinchy reputation. A Gulf Coast Christmas features a pile of label artists giving Santa a delicious case of the blues- 7 original tunes plus 9 holiday classics, all superbly played. GCC is at least the equal of Alligator Records’ holiday compilations, and I friggin’ LOVE those.
KEY CUTS: All I Got For Christmas is The Blues (Mike Zito), Who Da Baby Daddy? (Leroux), Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ (Tony Campanella)
#19: LET’S GO Cousin Harley (independent)
This is the 7th album for a trio of hillbilly rockers out of Vancouver dubbed “the Motorhead of rockabilly” by a delirious Dutch fan after a show in Holland. Let’s Go is a parcel of seriously well played tunes and a bunch of fun.
KEY CUTS: Let’s Go, Right Back With The Blues, Merle The Gypsy
#18: O Orianthi (Frontiers)
It’s the 4th solo record (and first in six years) from the Australian singer/ guitarist, and it’s a scorcher. She played in Alice Cooper’s touring band from 2011 to 2014 and was the guitarist for Michael Jackson’s ill-fated “This Is It” thing. O is gritty heaviosity and premium hard rock that’s been a real bugger to get out of my CD player.
KEY CUTS: Impulsive, Contagious, Blow, Rescue Me
#17: BLUES WITH FRIENDS Dion (Keeping The Blues Alive Records)
Here is one of the few first generation rock & rollers still seriously pursuing new avenues of expression. In recent years he’s come out with riveting blues records and Blues With Friends, featuring many high profile collaborators, absolutely kills.
KEY CUTS: Blues Comin’ On (with Joe Bonamassa), Bam Bang Boom (with Billy Gibbons), Told You Once In August (with John Hammond & Rory Block)
#16: 100 YEARS OF BLUES Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite (Alligator)
If you’re on the lookout for an authentic, down home, front porch blues experience, look no further. 100 Years Of Blues, the first album length collaboration between two the blues’ mightiest practitioners is raw, rootsy and spirited. Bishop and Musselwhite trade licks and vocals across 9 originals and 3 re-imagined classics, and the results are magic.
KEY CUTS: Birds Of A Feather, South Side Slide, Midnight Hour Blues
#15: BROTHERHOOD Terminal Station (Hard Rain Records)
It often takes me a few spins to get into an album, to figure out how it makes me feel. With Brotherhood, the 3rd record for Vancouver’s Terminal Station, I got excited pretty much right away. If you’re into the blues, jam bands or even classic rock, this disc has things to say and show you that you’ll want to hear.
KEY CUTS: Barrelhouse, Voodoo Queen, One More Bottle, Booker D
#14: NIGHT WITHOUT LOVE Webb Wilder (Landslide Records)
When Webb Wilder puts out a new record you can be sure he’s going to show you a good time. Night Without Love is rock & roll with a strong side of outlaw country, what he calls ‘progressive country’; Buddy Holly meets Hank Williams. It’s gloriously cool.
KEY CUTS: Tell Me What’s Wrong, Holdin’ On To Myself, High Heeled Sneakers
#13: THE SYMBOL REMAINS Blue Oyster Cult (Frontiers)
The Symbol Remains is BOC’s 15th studio record, their first in nearly two decades. After all that time, it’s pleasantly shocking how much this sounds like classic Blue Oyster Cult. Great musicianship, hooky songs, those voices and the kind of lyrics they’re famous for make this one I come back to repeatedly.
KEY CUTS: Tainted Blood, Stand And Fight, The Alchemist
#12: COME ON IN Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado (Ruf)
Have you ever followed an artist and thought “their last album was so great I don’t see how they can top it”? That’s how I feel about Thorbjorn Risgar & The Black Tornado, and be damned if they haven’t done just that with their 10th album, Come On In. The melancholy swing that powers many of these tunes is compelling.
KEY CUTS: Love So Fine, Come On In, Last Train, Two Lovers
#11: BUFFALO ROCK CITY: WESTERN NEW YORK’S TRIBUTE TO KISS Various Artists (independent)
I’ve been a Kiss fan since first seeing the band on TV in early 1974. There have been over 50 tribute albums, and Buffalo Rock City is in the top 5 of that long list for me. It’s a consistently great sounding record packed with muscular performances.
KEY CUTS: Jungle (DoDriver), Black Diamond (Bumblefoot & Deen Castronovo), Hard Times (John Jeffrey)
2020 was weird, but the music was excellent. Last time up we covered #20 through to #11. Now we start at #10 and work our way down to my favourite album of the year. Get yourself another snack, refresh your drink, and let’s go for the gold…
#10: STONE CRAZY Kevin Burt (Gulf Coast Records)
Stone Crazy is blues with an abundance of soul, or maybe soulful blues. As a singer Kevin has been compared to Bill Withers and Aaron Neville, his voice as warm and comforting as it is smooth and passionate. After listening to Stone Crazy, you come away feeling like everything is going to be okay.
KEY CUTS: Got To Make A Change, I Ain’t Got No Problem With It, Same Old Thing
#09: LETTER TO YOU Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band (Columbia)
Letter To You is Bruce’s first album with the E-Street Band since 2014’s High Hopes, bristling with the life, spiritual and sonic energy of records like Born In The USA and The Rising. It’s just what we need right now.
KEY CUTS: House Of A Thousand Guitars, One Minute You’re Here, Last Man Standing
#08: IF YOU DON’T KNOW BY NOW Casey James (independent)
This is the 3rd album from 2010 American Idol finalist Casey James. It will shock some, especially those that think they have him dialed in. If You Don’t Know By Now, produced by Tom Hambridge (George Thorogood, Buddy Guy), is a brawny exercise in funk, soul and blues that never ever lets you down.
KEY CUTS: Shake Some Salt, Come On Saturday Night, Faith
#07: BLUESWOMAN Nora Jean Wallace (Severn)
Blueswoman is Chicago blues of the highest order, and if anybody was ever born to sing the blues it’s Nora. Comparisons to Koko Taylor and Katie Webster are entirely valid; when she sings, the earth shakes.
KEY CUTS: I’ve Been Watching You, I’m A Blues Woman, Martell
#06: FORCE OF WILL Dave Fields (independent)
Listening to Dave Fields’ sixth album is like being hit by a truck… a big truck. Roughly equal parts Stevie Ray, Colin James and Jeff Beck, Force Of Will is bristling with primal energy that will leave you spent by the time the album is done. You’ll beg for more.
KEY CUTS: I Love My Baby, Why Can’t You Treat Me Right, Chloe & Otis
#05: ONE OF THESE DAYS Louisiana’s Leroux (Gulf Coast Records)
In the business of writing record reviews, every once in awhile you get blown out of the water- it makes all the lonely hours holed up in the basement worthwhile. Such is the case with One Of These Days.. Soulful and brimming with life this is one of the best records you’ll ever hear.
KEY CUTS: Lifeline (Redux), One Of Those Days, Nothing Left to Lose, Sauce Piquante
#04: NEW WORLD, NEW EYES House Of Lords (Frontiers)
Here we are with the band’s 12th record, 8th for Frontiers. It had been quite awhile since I checked up on them, but when the label sent me 3 singles from New World, New Eyes dammit, I was hooked all over again. This is catchy melodic hard rock, and it felt great to be reminded how good this band is all over again.
KEY CUTS: New World New Eyes, Chemical Rush, Better Off Broken
#03: OLD SCHOOL Tom Gilberts (Polymerase Records)
When it comes to the blues I like all kinds, but guitar-based stuff tops the list. Old School, Gilberts’ 2nd release for this label, absolutely kills. There are vocal cuts and there are instrumentals, which only the best players can carry off well and Old School is a masterpiece of fine guitar playing.
KEY CUTS: Lady Luck, Nighttime, Old School
#02: HEART ON THE LINE Vanessa Collier (Phenix Fire Records)
Consider me blown away. Heart On The Line, Vanessa’s 4th album, is a soulful explosion of muscular funk ‘n’ blues and heartfelt stories. Spectacular’ is an understatement for this album.
KEY CUTS: Superbad, Leave Your Hat On, Freshly Squozen
#01: SOLAR POWERED TOO Rick Fines (independent)
This is one of those records that punches you right in the heart. With a power and imagery that combines the magic of O Brother Where Art thou and Johnny Cash’s American recordings, Solar Powered Too is intimate, deep, and priceless. Unforgettable.
KEY CUTS: Dark Days, Laundry On The Line, Fundamental Nature
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