2020 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our 50 Favorite Records of the Year
There are all kinds of websites and blogs and things known as "print magazines" making year-end lists at this time of year. If you're like me, you seek them out to get a 30,000-foot perspective on the musical year that was. Aggregated lists from any source serve a defined purpose—they let us know which records achieved that magical combination of artistic merit and industry hype. And make no mistake, you need both to make any aggregated list. That said, I've always been more interested in the lists of individual contributors because that's often where the real discoveries begin. Usually, unless the source is a "boutique" or specialized website, I've heard most of the albums on any aggregated list. Those are the records that got discussed the most. But individual lists show the "other" records writers (aka critics) were most passionate about throughout the year. I'll listen to any record at least once if anyone says it's their favorite of the year (and that's not limited to music writers, critics, musicians, and other industry people—it extends to my plumber, my cosmetologist, and my parole officer, too). It's amazing what you discover when you delve "off broadway" in search of new music. So here's my individual list. I find I am the world's best at finding records I personally love. It won't please anyone completely, but that's not the intent. But maybe you can find a couple things here and there that work for you. What I can tell you is that this list is built from hard work, passion, heart and humor. These are the 50 records that made this shitty year seem tolerable here at the Pickled Priest offices.
50 LYDIA LOVELESS / Daughter
Blurb: Lydia's always been a devil-may-care belter of songs, often engaging in pursuits not in her best interest along the way (she's drinking from a gasoline can on the cover of her debut record, smoking in an alley on her second), but on Daughter, she's swerved in a, gulp, almost mature direction. Which isn't to say she's been tamed or lost her penchant for brutal honesty, just that she's clearly learned some life lessons the hard way in the last couple years. She opens the record by singing, "Pour the booze down the drain / Cause I don't want to disappoint you anymore," but there's really no risk of that over the next nine songs, which are some of the best she's ever written.
Priest Picks: "Can't Think" | "Wringer" | "Daughter"
49 IRON WIGS / Your Birthday's Cancelled
Blurb: Chicago hip-hop is always churning out great new artists and collaborative projects and Iron Wigs had more bounce to the ounce than any other I heard this year. Chicago-based MCs Vic Spencer and Verbal Kent teamed up with UK rapper/producer Sonnyjim to deliver a dextrous and dizzying flow of supremely clever rapid-fire images sourced from a deep well of miscellaneous knowledge that leads one to believe that they'd positively kick ass on Jeopardy! if they wanted to. I recommend paying attention to the fine print or risk missing out on your next favorite potent quotable. Repeated listening is not only essential, but rewarded. Otherwise, you're doomed. The beats are just as interesting, thankfully. They rap with casual coolness over looped jazz samples, flute solos, and other atypical backdrops. These subtle grooves allow the words to lead the way and let the stories unfold. The US/UK connection leads to references as diverse as John Cusack, Anthony Bourdain, and Scrappy-Doo all the way to Banksy and (the late) Argentine football legend Diego Maradona. As soon as one tasty couplet goes down, another trots in from out of left field or streaks across the pitch in its birthday suit. Serves someone right for cancelling the party.
Priest Picks: "Rags to Riches" | "Problematic" | "Purple Alien"
48 ILLUMINATI HOTTIES / FREE I.H.: This is Not the One You've Been Waiting For
Blurb: Sarah Tudzin, the burning bulb behind the Illuminati Hotties name brand, is such an electric performer that even her slapped-together, 24-minute "contractual obligation" record, which could've easily been a total "fuck you" to her former label, turned out to be packed with more razor-sharp adventures per square minute than most any other record this year. I appreciate the artistic integrity. See our full write-up here.
Priest Picks: "Freequent Letdown" | "Content//Bedtime" | "Superiority Complex (Big Noise)"
47 CHUBBY AND THE GANG / Speed Kills
Blurb: You know a record titled Speed Kills is not going to be weighed down with love songs or syrupy ballads. Great punk bands instinctively understand that stop signs and speed limits are optional, as is the need to heed to a traffic cop tucked behind a roadside billboard. They're all just momentary complications solved by acceleration. We also know there's nothing more pathetic than a bratty kid who wants to drag race, but can't even get the car in gear. But these guys are pros, confident at the controls even when they're on two wheels or skidding into a fruit vendor's cart during a hairpin turn. (See our full write-up here.)
Priest Picks: "All Along the Uxbridge Road" | "Speed Kills" | "The Rise and Fall of the Gang"
46 SLIFT / Ummon
Blurb: Boutique item alert. Would you happen to be in the market for some space-prog with Krautrock overtones? What if I tell you the band is from France? Does that get you even the tiniest bit lubricated? I can understand if you're a little hesitant, but you'll have to trust me on this one. What else were you going to do to with your free time until you're vaccinated? This record is a 73-minute slingshot into space that somehow doesn't seem nearly long enough. Perhaps there was a break in the space/time continuum or something, because I couldn't get enough of this amazing band's audio mind-fuckery this year. It's like a swirling black hole folding in on itself over and over again, and I had no desire to get out.
Priest Picks: "Citadel on a Satellite" | "Lions, Tigers and Bears" | "It's Coming..."
45 DEHD / Flower of Devotion
Blurb: The Chicago indie-rock scene proved as vital as ever this year, so to save space, I've chosen to rotate this spot between several deserving bands at periodic intervals. A portion of the proceeds: Deeper's Auto-Pain, Ganser's Just Look at the Sky, FACS' Void Moments, Beach Bunny's Honeymoon, and Ratboys' Printer's Devil. My favorite of the bunch, however, was Dehd's Flowers of Devotion. The band's X-factor, songwriter and co-lead singer Emily Kempf, is what tipped the scales for me. Her playfully intuitive vocal inflections—whoops, stutters, yodels, and wails all a part of her likely spontaneous arsenal—add just the right amount of personality to the band's already well-written songs.
Priest Picks: "Haha" | "Nobody" | "Desire"
44 BEE BEE SEA / Day Ripper
Blurb: We just wrote about this deliriously spazzy Italian garage band a few weeks ago, so we ain't gonna do it again today. We don't have unlimited time to sit around writing a music blog all day! This record brought us some teenage kicks this year, which is exactly the trip we needed. And not just in the fucking daytime, either.
Priest Picks: "Mheer Sag" | "Horst Klub" | "Day Ripper"
43 MOLLY TUTTLE / ...but I'd rather be with you
Blurb: Generally, covers albums are a mixed bag. I much prefer a highly-curated covers EP. Or even, in a pinch, a single outstanding song brilliantly executed. But the fact is that most cover albums don't hold up to repeated listening. The buzz of hearing "clever" new takes on established songs normally wears off faster than drinking Michelob Ultra during a steambath. This album is a notable exception. Molly Tuttle is an accomplished and respected bluegrass musician who also has a keen eye for a song she can transform in her own unique and charming style, but without any cheek or irony. That last part is the key. In fact, this isn't a bluegrass album in the traditional sense; it's more of a singer-songwriter record. Just good songs, well chosen. She covers the waterfront, too, plucking songs from a wildly diverse pool of songs. She tackles everything from the Stones to Harry Styles, from The Grateful Dead to Rancid, from FKA Twigs to Arthur Russell. We did a song-by-song analysis previously if you'd like to dig deeper. And in this case, you should.
Priest Picks: "Olympia, WA" (Rancid) | "She's a Rainbow" (The Rolling Stones) | "A Little Lost" (Arthur Russell)
42 BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN / Letter to You
Blurb: I pretty much wrote a book, not a simple letter, about this album when it was released, complete with a song-by-song analysis. Some of you might've read it and thought I was too critical, but that's only because I have been trained to expect everything from the Boss (and preferably in four-hour increments). Overall, I was amazed at the vitality of the record and deeply touched by his attempt to reckon with his past while surrounded by his partners in crime, the E Street Band. Yes, I was more than a little disappointed in his biblical songwriting tropes at times and I stand by that criticism. It's the main reason why Letter to You got delivered to this suburban address, far from the real action downtown in the Top 10. That said, when we finally get to hear these songs live, I imagine we'll be able to meet him in the city once again. I can guarantee you these songs will be elevated by the experience. They always are.
Priest Picks: "If I Was the Priest" | "Ghosts" | "Song for Orphans"
41 ARLO MCKINLEY / Die Midwestern
Blurb: The loss of John Prine to Covid this year still hurts. It still feels like someone punched me in the gut yesterday. Musically, he was highly active to the very end. He gave us a late-career masterpiece in 2019 with The Tree of Forgiveness and this year he collaborated with artists from Kurt Vile to Swamp Dogg to great effect. He even left us with a fitting "last" single, "I Remember Everything" which was a real tear-jerker. But something I bet he'd be even more proud of is a couple records, both which made this list, by artists he signed personally to his imprint, Oh Boy Records. The first of the two is Arlo McKinley's Die Midwestern, a superb debut album by a 40-ish songwriter from Cincinnati whose musical arrival was long delayed by endless battles with personal demons. We're lucky John found him, because his new record holds up against any other Americana artist out there. John always said what he cared most about was finding "good songs" and he clearly knew them when he heard them. This record, which we wrote about passionately a few months ago, is piled high with a whole bunch of them.
Priest Picks: "We Were Alright" | "Die Midwestern" | "Bag of Pills"
40 THE EXBATS / Kicks, Hits and Fits
Blurb: One of my favorite discoveries of 2020 was tucked away in a small town in Arizona and featured a still-hip father (like me!) teaming up with his precocious singing daughter (not like me, I had all boys) to craft a batch of sparkling lo-fi pop songs I initially thought might be a fun little summer diversion, but soon turned into a full-year conversion with curious staying power. Read the rest of the story here.
Priest Picks: "I Got the Hots for Charlie Watts" | "You Don't Get It (You Don't Got It)" | "Doorman"
39 THE PRETENDERS / Hate for Sale
Blurb: This is no handout. This ain't the motherfucking Grammys either—we don't play catchup and reward an artist belatedly after ignoring their career for decades. There will be no patronizing pat on the back for anyone. This is a 69-year-old badass with the best voice in rock (still) proving yet again that age doesn't sap passion one bit nor does it mean you can't wear leather and still look cool. Don't assume your heroes have faded even though you might be right most of the time. Read our original review of the record here.
Priest Picks: "Turf Accountant Daddy" | "Didn't Want to Be This Lonely" | "Maybe Love is in NYC"
38 KELEKETLA! / Keleketla!
Blurb: We wrote about this record's album cover last week before we could write about the music contained inside. To quickly restate the basics: this a "project" record commissioned by a group that runs a cultural library in Africa. They called upon a collective of local voices and musicians, as well as artists from around the world inspired by the sounds of African music, and then asked English DJs Coldcut to curate and record the contributions. What resulted is a diverse yet remarkably cohesive record that simply oozes the sheer joy of making music. It must've been no small feat to take contributors ranging from (the late) Tony Allen, rapper Yugen Blakrok, American gospel greats the Watts Prophets, English jazz pianist Joe Armon-Jones, New York afropop band Antibalas, and an amazing cast of local scene ringers, and turn it into something this wonderful. It's a must-hear, with a little something for everyone depending on the song. My guess is that, no matter your musical taste, you'll get wrapped up in the joyous sprit so beautifully depicted on the album cover.
Priest Picks: "Papua Merdeka" | "Future Toyi Toyi" | "International Love Affair"
37 NICOLE ATKINS / Italian Ice
Blurb: We spent some serious time with this record this year mainly because it's all-purpose by design, so it fits almost every possible circumstance. We were enamored with it during our original review and our love for it hasn't moved one inch. Nicole, on the other hand, doesn't stay in one place for long. She's a genre drifter, a train hopper, a foot shuffler, a pig greaser, a pew fidgeter, a rock climber, a rhythm shifter, and a dice roller (but if you want to make enemies fast during a game of Yahtzee, start dropping the dice recklessly from height as depicted on the album's cover).
Priest Picks: "Captain" | "AM Gold" | "Mind Eraser"
36 NADINE SHAH / Kitchen Sink
Blurb: I appreciate truth in advertising, so if you're going to title an album Kitchen Sink, it had better live up to its promise. If I trust anyone to bring everything and anything to the creative table (literally—check out the spectacular fruit-skewer centerpiece on the album cover) it's England's uncompromising and eclectic Nadine Shah, an astute and bitingly amusing observer of the hypocrisies of the human condition, especially when it comes to the male/female dynamic. The record is all about her time adjusting to life now that she's in her 30s. In "Club Cougar" she takes down a guy who assumes she's a cougar despite the fact he's actually only "one year younger" than her. On the brilliant single "Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)," the target is cultures that expect women to remain in traditional roles all their lives. "Walk" takes on lecherous men who ogle women on the street ("Running gauntlets, swerving perverts, put my waist size to the wayside"). She has a way of making salient points with style, too. She has an independent spirit and a rich, seductive voice that can be dead-serious one moment and playfully sophisticated the next. She's a subversive party guest who has the ability to charm the boorish host while slyly dismissing them with a scoff into an imaginary camera, just like she's in an episode of Fleabag.
35 LUCY AND THE RATS / Got Lucky
Blurb: Built for sunshine (even during their great single "Dark Clouds," ironically), perfect for convertibles, dazzling on headphones, magical on blown speakers, and liberating during quarantine, the songs of London's Lucy and the Rats are unabashed indie-pop confections and they are all the better for it.
Priest Picks: "Dark Clouds" | "Lucky" | "On Fire"
34 SONGHOY BLUES / Optimisme
Blurb: I haven't had this record for long and it's already at #34, so who knows where it will end up in the end, but Mali's Songhoy Blues is undoubtedly one of the best rock bands in the world right now and their music transcends both language and boundaries. Yes, they have that unmistakably deep (and cracked) groove found in the deserts of Africa, but it only takes them about ten seconds into the first song, "Badala," to let you know they're coming for your old, stagnating record collection with the intent to pump some much-needed new life into it. If guitar is your jam, take special note of this record. You will be blown away.
Priest Picks: "Badala" | "Barre" | "Pour Toi"
33 CHELSEA WILLIAMS / Beautiful and Strange
Blurb: I have yet to ingrain this philosophy in my own children, but you should consider yourself lucky if you have, or had, parents (or a parent, singular) with a quality record collection. What kids often don't realize is that the answers to all of life's burning questions and personal dilemmas are there waiting for you if you take the time to look and listen. Chelsea Williams was named after Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and she grew up soaking in all kinds of music from her parent's record collection. From the Beatles to Bonnie Raitt, from the Pixies to Billie Holiday; and her new record is better for it (for proof, listen to "Something Sweet"). There are moments that will literally drop you to your knees (“Dust”) and others offering sage advice you will surely need someday or could've used long ago ("Red Flag"). Her amazing voice, unique songs, original arrangements, and effortless, likable disposition make all the medicine go down smoothly. One of the sleeper records of 2020. Put it on your shelf now and let your own kids discover it someday. Here's our original write-up from the earliest days of this blog.
Priest Picks: "Dust" | "Wasted" | "Beautiful and Strange"
32 JUNIORE / Un, Deux, Trois
Blurb: Our original write-up on this one says it all, so I re-post it here in its entirety for your convenience:
This is exactly what I wanted when I ordered the new record by French rock band Juniore. Of course, I got the seductive blasé female lead vocals that make me glisten with a sheen of nervous perspiration. I also got that hip underground 60s cabaret vibe that provides the illusion of temporary coolness. But this isn’t a genre exercise entirely. Juniore has, for simplicity’s sake, named their sound “yé-yé noir” in homage partly to the French girl pop from the 60s that we all love, but have added an air of back alley intrigue to it by recording it in HD. Everything is sharper, tones are deeper, production more dynamic. Like choosing a light French croissant at the patisserie and discovering it’s as heavy as a brick. They’ve made the guitar strings sound weighty, the bass ominous, the organ keys thick fingered. It’s no wonder they landed a song on Killing Eve this season (and if you’ve seen the show, that matches its exact vibe). As with any record not in our native language, the lyrics become just another part of the music (unless you spend some time translating, which I haven’t felt the need to do here). This is exquisite scene setting music at its core and I’m betting you need a change of scenery right now. Here’s your chance.
Priest Picks: "Bizarre" | "Soudain" | "Tu Mens"
31 TONY ALLEN & HUGH MASEKELA / Rejoice
Blurb: Recorded in 2010 and inexplicably released this year for the first time (mainly due to the death of Masekela in 2018), this is a collaboration of two geniuses from two different worlds (one jazz, one afrobeat), but the combination is nothing short of magical. Sadly, Tony Allen, one of history's greatest drummers, also passed this year, making this a double gift that's both welcome and bittersweet at once. Here's our full review of the record from earlier this year.
Priest Picks: "Robbers, Thugs and Muggers" | "Agbada Bougou" / "Obama Shuffle Strut Blues"
30 THROWING MUSES / Sun Racket
Blurb: This record has given me a new respect for the songwriting and singing talents of Kristin Hersch. She's always been an artist I liked, but admittedly didn't appreciate as much as I should've back when I was mainlining new albums at an addict's pace back in the 80s and 90s. (Not that things have changed at all.) This new collection of songs may be Hersch's best ever, which is saying something. I did quite a thorough assessment of the record here if you're interested, which you should be in my opinion.
Priest Picks: "Bo Diddley Bridge" | "Dark Blue" | "Bywater"
29 BOB MOULD / Blue Hearts
Blurb: There are few things on this planet more galvanizing than watching Bob Mould go "into the zone" during a live performance. And when he's angry, watch out, for he's a cyclone of frenetic energy, bringing down black sheets of rain heavy enough to make sinners repent and others see a little light. He may be well beyond his glory days with the seminal Hüsker Dü and Sugar, but his solo work at its best still proves the old magic is alive and well. In 2020, Bob Mould put all my frustrations and raging anger to music and I thank him for carrying the burden.
Priest Picks: "American Crisis" | "Siberian Butterfly" | "Forecast of Rain"
28 TINO CONTRERAS / La Noche De Los Dioses
Blurb: Tino Contreras is the oldest musician ever to make my year-end list of favorite records. Remember when Bob Beamon broke the world long jump record by a staggering 21-inches in 1968? That's what we're talking about here. My oldest artist to date was Leonard Cohen, who I believe was 78 when he made our list several years ago. Tino obliterates that record by roughly 18 years! If you're sans calculator or abacus, that makes him 96 years-young. I pause for a moment to let that sink in. The nonagenarian is a legendary Mexican jazz drummer who has released a record as full of life as any jazz record I've heard this year. It positively defies anything that can be defied—logic, time, common sense, physical limitations, you name it. I listened to a bunch of the most acclaimed jazz records this year and this entrancing date still came out on top for me. There's simply something about how this record moves. A subtle Latin flavor persists, driven by the insistent propulsive swing of its 96-year-old timekeeper, who simply can't be playing with so much life can he? But he is, and it's glorious.
Priest Picks: "Máscaras Blues" | "El Sacrificio" | "La Noche De Los Dioses"
27 JESS WILLIAMSON / Sorceress
Blurb: I've been meaning to write about Jess Williamson's Sorceress since it came out in May, but I kept putting it off. I didn't feel I had a good handle on it, to be honest. This is what I once called a "grower" record. Back in the day, I even used to give an award each year to just such a record—one that slowly but surely seeps into your consciousness. If I still had the trophy—a bronzed tomato plant—I would be shipping it to Jess immediately after this post. Sorceress is an album from another time; folky, maybe a little country, spiritual, political, mystical, ethereal. No wonder I had trouble getting a grip on it. The songs reveal their true beauty like time-release capsules. She's taken great effort here to craft songs that'll last. And since they sound simultaneously of the past and the future, it sounds to me like she's accomplished her goal.
Priest Picks: "Love's Not Hard to Find" | "Smoke" | "Harm None"
26 BOOTSY COLLINS / The Power of the One
Blurb, Baby: I blew a lot of my free time this year on trivial pursuits (strangely playing Trivial Pursuit wasn't one of them). Listening to six-hours of interviews with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins by Questlove on his excellent podcast Questlove Supreme wasn't one of them. In fact, the exact opposite is true—the conversations could've gone on forever and I would've been happy. If you have even a passing interest in funk music, they are beyond entertaining. One reason is because Bootsy Collins has always had an infectious spirit and a love for life that you cannot ignore. Being in his presence is life-affirming and just makes you feel good. I could put on star-shaped, bedazzled sunglasses, a purple and pink waistcoat, and a flamboyant top hat (from his collection that runs into the hundreds!) and I couldn't capture 1% of the magical vibe emanating from Bootsy when he enters a room. It's no surprise then that when he makes a Bootsy call, people answer. In this case, Branford Marsalis, Snoop Dogg, Kingfish Ingram, and George Benson came for a visit, to name but a few of his guest stars. They all want in on that special Bootsy feeling. Which is, if you haven't figure out the secret sauce behind true funk, The Power of the One. If you don't know what that is, Bootsy explains it for you on the title track and then takes you down an hour-long road to "Funktropolis." A place where everything feels better, sounds better, and looks better. It's a place you want to be as often as you can get there. It's where Bootsy lives and it's way better than what you've got going right now, by about a million lightyears. Good thing the mothership is still running smoothly. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Priest Picks: "Bewise" | "Bootsy Off Broadway" | "The Power of the One"
25 ROBERT VINCENT / In This Town You're Owned
Blurb: I find it mildly amusing that in the UK, they actually have their own Americana Awards show for British artists who play American-styled music. This year, Robert Vincent's drop-dead amazing new album, In This Town You're Owned, is nominated for Record of the Year. As it should be. But if the American equivalent, The Americana Music Association Awards, was smart, they'd nominate Liverpool's Vincent, too. He's released one of the best records of the year in any category. In the process, he's beaten most of our homegrown songwriters at their own game. Read our passionate endorsement of his record here from our mid-year Top 10 list.
Priest Picks: "This Town" | "The Kids Don't Dig God Anymore" | "Conundrum"
24 ANGELICA GARCIA / Cha Cha Palace
Blurb: When I commented in my review of this record earlier this year that "This is a record that evokes a state of mind," I didn't quite realize then how valuable that quality in a record could be. I know now. This record has been indispensable for me this year. It dances down the middle of a street festival while also managing to be a serious indictment of how American society treat its immigrants, particularly the sons and daughters of those immigrants born on American soil. Instead of complaining, Angelica's resolve to rise above becomes even stronger, her joy even brighter. Perhaps the best comment I've read about her in the past year, one I wish I'd come up with myself, is this: "She always sounds like she's about to break into song, even when she's already singing."
Priest Picks: "Penny in My Back Pocket" | "It Don't Hinder Me" | "Karma the Knife"
23 PILLOW QUEENS / In Waiting
Blurb: Every time I hear of an all-gay band these days, I hearken back to the Tom Robinson Band's anthem "Glad to Be Gay" from 1978, and I think what a bold, controversial statement it must've been back then. The Pillow Queens (blatantly and delightfully Irish and gay) show how far we've come in some ways. There's little shock anymore associated with sexual preference, especially in the music world (even though tolerance is still an ongoing issue everywhere). Their song "Gay Girls" shows that society hasn't come as far as it needed to since 1978 in many respects. It's another bold song to add to the growing list of inclusive anthems. It's a big part of their amazing new record, In Waiting, which we reviewed earlier this year.
Priest Picks: "Gay Girls" | "HowDoILook" | "Child of Prague"
22 STAR FEMININE BAND / Star Feminine Band
Blurb: The Star Feminine band has a great and inspiring origin story, but it's their music that got them into my Top 25 list this year. From Benin, Africa, a place not known for empowering women and encouraging young girls to dream beyond their expected traditional roles, comes a band created with the intent to reverse that long- running suppression. To make a long story short, one man, with two daughters of his own, put out a call to young girls asking those with an interest in making music to apply. This was back in 2016. Four years of intense instruction and practice later comes this album, a record that radiates pure and honest joy unlike any other I've heard this year. The band is comprised of seven young ladies from the ages of ten to seventeen, but this is no novelty project to applaud politely from the back of a school gymnasium. The music they create is raw and naive and playful, but it also brims with vitality and enthusiasm and most importantly, great songs with powerful messages (sung mostly in French, but if you do some work you'll get that there are girl-positive messages throughout). They are now a local sensation and had plans to tour the world prior to the pandemic. I cannot imagine that'll dampen their spirit one bit, though, as this is music of change and their message is both timeless and enlightening.
Priest Picks: "Montealla" | "Rew Be Me" | "Peba'
21 LORI MCKENNA / The Balladeer
Blurb: An acclaimed, revered songwriter already, Lori McKenna has released her masterpiece in The Balladeer. I could make a lot of proclamations, sign an executive order, issue an edict, or pass legislation mandating ownership, or I could strongly recommend you listen, really listen, to the album. Here is a master songwriter at work demonstrating her craft. For my full review, you know what to do.
Priest Picks: "When You're My Age" | "Stuck in High School" | "Marie"
20 IDLES / Ultra Mono
Blurb: Brace yourself. Contents under pressure. There's going to be an emergency, so I've already broken the glass for you. First off, reviews are futile for a record like this. Some will love it, some will hate it. The only way to find out if this band of wild hyenas is for you is to give them some of your time. I've been in this situation before. Back in the 90s, when the Jesus Lizard were active, they had a similar instrumental force and a wild animal on a thick chain for a lead singer. How interesting, then, that that same lead "singer," David Yow, guests on this very record. Perhaps Idles lead yeller, Joe Talbot, realized their common bond from across the pond and invited him over for tea. Talbot is the 21st century British equivalent of Yow, maybe a little less maniacal, considerably more pub-focused, but he similarly wastes no time igniting like a sonic blowtorch when the band kicks in. "Wa-ching! / That's the sound of the sword going in! / Clack clack, clang clang! / That's the sound of the gun going bang bang!" Who sings like this? It's simultaneously jarring and thrilling. Every lyric on this album needs an exclamation point or two!! This band will give you the annual ass-kicking you so badly need.
Priest Picks: "War" | "Kill Them With Kindness" | "Anxiety"
19 BETTE SMITH / The Good, the Bad, and the Bette
Blurb: I wish I had been at the recording sessions for this album. You can feel the excitement from the band and producer as this record unfolds. I love it raw and this is what I need to live, thrive, and survive. By the cover, you might think it to be a soul record of the Sharon Jones variety, and you'd be forgiven for that assumption, but what we really have here is rock and roll with a soulful undercurrent. If she'd been born in the 60s, she'd probably be singing backing vocals for the Stones. So, thank goodness she got her own time in the sun. This record is good, it's bad (in a good way), and it's 100% Bette. Our full review here.
Priest Picks: "I Felt It Too" | "I'm a Sinner" | "Song for a Friend"
18 THE BOBBY LEES / Skin Suit
Blurb: I don't like to be fed songs like a gerbil is given treats in his Habitrail. But that's what I was forced to do this year with the Bobby Lees. First they gave me their incredible single "Coin," then dangled the maniacal "Guttermilk," then the off-the-rails "Drive." Then silence. Not fair! I couldn't get enough. Thankfully, my vinyl copy of Skin Suit finally made its way to my grubby hands and I was satisfied. It rips from front to back with a furious, breathless, reckless pursuit of the the next guitar chord. Singer/dynamo Sam Quartin sings like she just ran a 100-yard dash after drinking a quart of Jim Beam. She's a hot-wired force of nature who sounds like she's constantly trying to convince the nurse at a mental institution that really, I'm fine now, I'm ready to go home. That makes for exciting, nasty garage rock. No wonder they got Jon Spencer to produce the record.
Priest Picks: "Coin" | "Guttermilk" | "Russell"
17 X / Alphabetland
Blurb: I was talking with a friend the other day and we agreed that this could be the best "comeback" record ever. There's been many occurrences of a long dead band coming out of hibernation with great success (Mission of Burma, The Sonics, and this year's return of Cabaret Voltaire), but many, many others who failed miserably. When we first reviewed this record back in May we fell in love with their sound all over again, amazed that it was very close to their classic 80s albums like Los Angeles, Wild Gift, and Under the Big Black Sun. It goes to show you that some chemical reactions work every time, even if blended decades apart.
Priest Picks: "Free" | "Cyrano deBerger's Back" | "Goodbye Year, Goodbye"
16 FRAZEY FORD / U kin B the Sun
Blurb: There's really not much to add to our initial review of this record. When we needed to get deep down into the soul of the matter this year, this was our record. Late at night, heading up to bed, time for one more record before retiring. That one record that relaxes muscles, stretches the toes, and puts a weary, troubled mind at ease. And if there's someone who says the word "motherfucker" better than Frazey, I'd like to hear it.
Priest Picks: "Holdin' It Down" | "Motherfucker" | "U and Me"
15 THE MAVERICKS / En Español
Blurb: The first of two Spanish-only passion projects on my list this year comes from the Mavericks and their incredible lead singer Raul Malo. I've always liked him, but we've lost touch in recent years. He sounds positively reenergized on this album, clearly enamored (literally on "Cuando Me Enamoro") with the traditional Spanish songs selected for this tribute to the soul of Mexican music. A magical affair done with passion and heart, two things we covet more than anything around here. For more, see our original review.
Priest Picks: "Recuerdos" | "Mujer" | "Me Voy a Pinar del Rio"
14 DAN REEDER / Every Which Way
Blurb: When I was talking about John Prine in the Arlo McKinley entry above, I mentioned that there were two records in our Top 50 this year on Prine's Oh Boy imprint. He clearly had an eye for talent—talent that nobody else might've been able to spot. But he did, and as a result, two artists that might've been lost to the world are now a part of it, and we're all better for it. I've written about my love for Reeder's low key, often humorous, subtly brilliant songs all year, first in our original write-up, then on our mid-year list, then on our mid-year mixtape, and now this. If I haven't convinced you to listen to this charming record by now, I guess I never will. But if I were you, I'd want to know what a great songwriter like John Prine saw in this fellow in the first place.
Priest Picks: "Nobody Wants to Be You" | "Young at Heart" | "Stay Down, Man"
13 THE BUTTERTONES / Jazzhound
Blurb: I like music that transports me to somewhere else. In this case, some fictitious nightclub where the coolest of the cool hangout, with the most interesting activities happening in the shadows, puffs of smoke emanating from behind velvet curtains, heavy brown drinks in thick glasses being delivered on round serving trays, fascinating conversations over small candles, a bandstand with a group that sounds both classically retro and futuristic simultaneously. I think you see where I'm going with this and I recommend you follow me there. Our initial review can be found here.
Priest Picks: "Bebop" | "Velour" | "Denial You Win Again"
12 ANTHONY GARCIA / Acres of Diamonds
Blurb: l wasn't kidding back in August when I said, in reaction to this album, "This is why I write about music." This album single-handedly restored my faith in my "process" of finding new music. Something about it must be working for me to be rewarded with this hidden gem.
Priest Picks: "Apparitions" | "The Wind" | "Santa Rosa"
11 THE NELS CLINE SINGERS / Share the Wealth
Blurb: If you want to see the real genius of Nels Cline, put down your Wilco records for an hour or two and check out Share the Wealth, his new album from his long-time band The Nels Cline Singers (band name is a lark, it's all instrumental). He's the not-so-secret sauce with Wilco, but he was jazz, or whatever the fuck you call this, before Jeff Tweedy smartly tapped him to elevate his songs to the next level. This is the headphone record of the year. Prepare to have your mind blown. I hesitate to try and explain it, perhaps because I can't. It's a futile pursuit. He starts with the mind-boggling "Segunda," a Caetano Veloso song, and then the album takes one wild tangent after another, featuring some beyond inventive, jaw-dropping Nels Cline guitar work along the way. I haven't been so happy to let myself be taken on such a wild ride in a long time. There were moments where I was shaking my head and mumbling to myself, "What the fuck is going on!?" It's possibly the best feeling in the world.
Priest Picks: "Segunda" | "Stump the Panel" | "The Pleather Patrol"
10 BLACK MARKET BRASS / Undying Thirst
Blurb: At Pickled Priest, our world revolves around the groove. If we could have any house band from history to play at our office while we work, it would be a unanimous no-brainer: Booker T & the MGs. We work hard, so we don't have time to focus on lyrics sometimes. We need something that turns our crank and puts us into perpetual motion without disturbing our mojo. Hence, we don't tolerate instrumental bands who aren't capable of delivering that sensation. This Minneapolis band not only delivers, it cooks the food, cuts it up, feeds it to you, digests it, and, well you get the idea.
Priest Picks: "Cheat and Start a Fight" | So Who (Pts. 1&2) | "Into the Thick'
09 TAYLOR SWIFT / folklore
Blurb: I wrote an 11-page assessment of this album earlier this year, so I implore you to go there for my detailed commentary about the record. It was only slightly less rambling than Jack Kerouac's original scroll of On the Road. There were a couple things I didn't realize at the time I was writing about folklore back then. One: I underestimated how the songs would stick with me. They did, and I ended up seeking them out way more than I ever expected. I really think the consistent tone of the record is the reason. With so much alone time this year (not complaining, for I am a classic introvert), I loved the relaxed feel of the record—no bombastic stage bangers or awkward dancing for once. Rather, this time we got a very comforting record. I was this close to buying myself a new cardigan (in a size up for maximum warmth). Two: I criticized Taylor's reliance on songwriting tropes (same issue I had with Springsteen earlier). I found that by the end of the record they became irritating. Plus, on a long record, it becomes more and more aggravating as it progresses. What I didn't think of then is that whenever a song of hers comes up on shuffle, I would never turn it off—even the ones I didn't love the first time around. I still stand by my comments—she could mix it up a little more—but I've forgiven even that issue over time because the record has done what you want every record to do: evolve with you over time, taking on more power as it moves forward. My people have just informed me that folklore now has a sequel, evermore, so I best be going. 11-page manifestos don't write themselves!
Priest Picks: "Exile" | "The Last Great American Dynasty" | "Seven"
08 THE SECRET SISTERS / Saturn Return
Blurb: I was a mild fan of the Secret Sisters before this year, but Saturn Return marks my official turning point from casual to formal admiration. There's nothing quite like real sisters harmonizing (as long as they can sing, I suppose). And on this set of spectacular, often moving (borderline soul crushing), songs, they have moved to the next level, which is apparently somewhere in our solar system. My full review can be read here as well as my mid-year Top 10 list here.
Priest Picks: "Late Bloomer" | "Fair" | "Cabin"
07 RUN THE JEWELS / RTJ4
Blurb: In my lifetime, this may be the most perfectly-timed album release I can remember. It also might be the most heartbreaking, mainly because it was written prior to the major events that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations around the world. Prior to George Floyd and several other similar events. Yet it sounds like it was written after, too. Which, sadly, means little has changed and nothing is new. Hopefully, that ends this time. Here is my original review written during those chaotic early moments. I felt overwhelmed and unqualified to write about it then just as I do now.
Priest Picks: "Walking in the Snow" | "JU$T" | "Holy Calamafuck"
06 FONTAINES D.C. / A Hero's Death
Blurb: It's wasn't the record some wanted, it certainly wasn't the record we expected, but it was the record they made. Such is the plight of a band that strikes gold with the first swing of the pick axe. Most would've loved them to mine the same vein as Dogrel, which will go down as one of the best records of the decade, and we would've gladly forgiven them for deferring artistic evolution for the next album—especially when we're still at the pub enjoying the last one. But truly great bands operate in their own creative headspace and let the fish and chips fall where they may. I admit I was initially nonplussed, but as the year pressed on and the beauty of these more sedate, brooding, post-pub ruminations revealed themselves, I found myself paying a different kind of attention this time. And its brilliance eventually revealed itself.
Priest Picks: "A Hero's Death" | "A Lucid Dream" | "Televised Mind"
05 FIONA APPLE / Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Blurb: If I didn't know better and you told me this record was made by a musical savant behind the walls of a mental institution, I probably would've believed you. It's so incredibly different, so completely in its own world, so creatively unhinged, that it would make almost more sense if it was the byproduct of an addled mind with a spooked therapy dog. It would also explain how someone could come up with such a body of work, which is light years away from anyone else on the planet right now. It rages and whoops and bangs and barks (literally) and follows no linear path (Frost's "road not taken" wasn't even taken). Following it can be difficult at times, catching up to it impossible, but submerging yourself in its brilliance is always rewarding. Since it requires total investment, which I don't always have time for, it fell a few places, but that doesn't mean it's not a masterpiece. It most definitely is.
Priest Picks: "Ladies" | "For Her" | "Heavy Balloon"
04 WAXAHATCHEE / Saint Cloud
Blurb: What elevates Katie Crutchfield's latest album above a monster creative statement like Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters is simple: versatility. I can use it in almost any situation. If I need a pleasing record to put on in the background, if I want a record that sounds good almost anywhere at anytime, if I want to roam the back roads of Alabama looking for her birthplace, if I feel like immersing myself in her poetry, or just want to hear her distinct windshield crack of a voice. The songs are always there for me.
Priest Picks: "Fire" | "Can't Do Much" | "Hell"
03 NATALIA LAFOURCADE / Un Canto Por México, Vol. 1
Blurb: Born in the quaint little town of Mexico City, Natalia is a casahold name in Mexico and she's recently shifted (temporarily, I assume) from her usual pop milieu to focus on a more traditional style, paying tribute to her country’s rich musical heritage by releasing collections of folkloric songs, this one to benefit an arts center in Veracruz. In English, the title translates to A Song for Mexico. The record celebrates local heritage with marvelously played, impeccably sung, new and traditional tunes that convey so much passion and heart one cannot help but feel warm in their embrace. She made the record to evoke the community and camaraderie of a Mexican marketplace and she’s succeeded brilliantly. This music is for living, laughing, loving, and dancing—often all at once. Sin defectos, mis amigos y amigas.
Priest Picks: "Mi Religión" | "Una Vida" | "Mi Tierra Veracruzana"
02 LAURA MARLING / Song for Our Daughter
Blurb: I've fallen hard for this simple yet profound record from an artist that defies any label. She's an English folk singer, to put it in hopelessly simplistic terms, but her music is folk like Joni Mitchell was folk; it pleads for an absence of genre—to exist on its own terms. Over the years, Marling has grown slowly but confidently into a lifetime artist—someone you’re likely to listen to for many decades to come. Read my full comments on Laura from our mid-year Top 10 list here.
Priest Picks: "Strange Girl" | "Only the Strong" | "For You"
01 LOW CUT CONNIE / Private Lives
Blurb: Herein lies the heart and soul of rock and roll. Some may assume that I'm writing the epitaph for the genre itself, which has been jammed into the trunk of the modern music machine for a long, long time now. But for those who fervently believe its survival is a cultural necessity, the music of Philadephia's Low Cut Connie has got to be manna from heaven. The driving force of the band since its inception ten years ago is Adam Weiner, one of the most openhearted, unabashed, and unselfconscious band leaders on the planet. He's the Jerry Lee Lewis of the 21st century, complete with an internal power plant that keeps his motor running hot at all times and an untamable head of hair with a life of its own. My initial reaction to him was, "Is this guy for real?" Admittedly, he can seem a bit much at first. Rest assured, he's the genuine article who simply can't contain his joy of making music and doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks (just subscribe to his pandemic-created online variety show Tough Cookies to find out for yourself). With the 17 song, double-LP, Private Lives, he has created a delightfully and intentionally imperfect rock and roll record that contains almost everything you want, but were becoming afraid to ask for anymore. Of course, there are loads of killer rock and roll songs (pun intended) as you might expect from what I've said so far ("Wild Ride," "Charyse," et al). But there are also heart-tugging ballads ("Stay as Long as You Like") stirring social commentary (the scathing Trump takedown "Look What They Did"), moments of church-like spiritual uplift ("Help Me"), and even some thigh-slapping, good hearted comic relief as well ("The Fuckin You Get For the Fuckin You Got"). Weiner, who I once put on a list of amusing and entertaining sideshow amusements, is now the ring leader of the big top and he's getting so good it's scary. In fact, his music is evolving to places I didn't know were possible. He's got the spirit of rock and roll in his back pocket and an arsenal of diverse styles at his fingertips, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Low Cut Connie is the perfect band to top Pickled Priest's first Top 50 list. They're the music we crave and after a while, to quote "What Has Happened to Me," "It starts to feel like religion / It starts to feel like love."
Priest Picks: "Wild Ride" | "Stay as Long as You Like" | "Help Me"
See you next week for our annual year-end mixtapes highlighting out favorite songs of 2020!