It’s time for an annual ritual in these parts, yet another meaningless awards segment, the 2020 Graham Awards. I have been giving these out practically since the beginning of Mixed Bag over 45 years ago, and they have not gotten any more significant or meaningful over all the decades. Years ago, I often used them to have a set of snarky commentaries on the state of the music business. But the world of the major labels was so long ago, and the little musical corner we occupy on Mixed Bag is so far from what passes for the pop charts, that it’s essentially an entirely different universe. And if the internet did not change the paradigm of recorded music, the year 2020 certainly upended the way music was made and performed in a way no one could have imagined. The COVID pandemic changed everything for millions, and was especially devastating for the arts. With the proliferation of streaming, and people watching music for free on video, musicians have had to rely on income from performing more than ever, and the pandemic brought everything to a halt, musicians were really hard-hit. Increasingly they have been turning to ticketed video streaming events, which of course, is nothing like a live in-person show. But for many, it’s all we have until things get better. The rise of technologies that has permitted the now ubiquitous video conferences has also allowed musicians to collaborate remotely to make recordings, something that had been going on for a few years before that. So that has permitted the production of a lot of new music in that manner, though one could argue that something might be lost if the musicians on a recording were never in the same room.
Nevertheless, 2020 was a rather prolific year for music, a lot of it recorded before the pandemic hit, but with artists trying to use the technology to their best advantage.
So the obvious having been said, let’s get to my list of favorite recordings of the year. These are taken from the over 500 recordings we featured during 2020 on the daily Mixed Bag new releases segments. Many of them were also the subject of our regular Wednesday night album reviews. The top couple of albums were easy choices for me. Further down, there might be some I would change my mind about in the rankings.
So let’s start with #10.
10. The Furious Seasons: La Fonda. A Los Angeles based folk-rock group who create thoughtful, sophisticated, mellow music.
9. The Mommyheads: New Kings of Pop. A long-running art-pop group who combine retro influences from Queen, the Beatles and XTC, with hints of alternative rock, and great writing.
8. Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile: Not Our First Goat Rodeo. Four instrumental virtuosos from classical and bluegrass reunite for a second session with creative, world-class original acoustic music. Features a guest appearance from vocalist Aoife O’Donovan.
7. Susan Werner: Flyover Country. Witty singer-songwriter reflects on childhood memories as well as the state of the world.
6. Michael Whalen: Sacred Spaces. An “old-fashioned” New Age styled electronic music album with superb orchestrations and beautiful sonics.
5. Joni Mitchell: Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years 1963-1967. Five-disc set of the great singer-songwriter’s work prior to the release of her first album. It’s remarkable to hear how developed as an artist she was at such an early age. Contains several songs that Ms. Mitchell says that even she forgot about, including including some humorous live monologues introducing the songs.
4. Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks: I Rather Lead a Band. Just when we needed a pick-me-up, Wainwright collaborates with today’s best 1930s-style band leader, to serve up a fun collection of songs from the 20s and 30s, with terrific, authentic arrangements.
3. John Doyle: The Path of Stones. Irish American guitarist, singer-songwriter and co-founder of Solas releases his first album in over a decade with superb Celtic-influenced music.
2. Shemekia Copeland: Uncivil War. One of today’s most important blues singers creates another winning album with articulate lyrics very relevant for the Black Lives Matter era.
1. John McCutcheon: Cabin Fever, Songs for the Quarantine. Arguably today’s finest folksinger was literally holed up in a cabin quarantining, and created a superb collection of songs relevant for this year of COVID.
And there we have it, our top ten albums for 2020. It has certainly been a strange and difficult year, but hopefully some of these recordings will help to raise the spirits as we look with hope toward 2021.
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