The Best Music of 2020, Album of the Year: Brian Auger, Introspection; Plus My Picks for the Top Ten Starring A Girl Called Eddy, The Allman Betts Band, Mariah Carey, Melody Gardot, Diana Krall, Raul Midon, Gretchen Peters, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Hailey Whitters, Hayley Williams, and Many More

Photo courtesy of Brian Auger

Welcome, greetings, and thank you for stopping here to read my choices for the best music of 2020. You don't need another article about how weird a year we all had. I will say, however, that for the working musician it was mostly tough going. Those who earn their living on the road were reduced to the occasional live stream. That said, the psychology of the situation resulted in as many, if not more, album releases than your typical year. 

This list is purely based on my preferences. There is no algorithm or other gatekeeper and the result is unlike any other such list that you may see, read, or hear from any other source.  So, welcome to my unique take on 2020. 

I hope this time next year finds you happy, healthy, safe and vaccinated. I wish you peace for 2021.

Album of the Year: Brian Auger – Introspection

Brian Auger's epic career as a musician, composer, singer, producer, keyboard master, and band leader has now stretched into his seventh decade. Auger's music has touched many genres and he has been called "the father of acid jazz." It seems to me that most his music was recorded before acid jazz was even a thing, but nevertheless, he has amassed a catalog of music that can rightly be called jazz. It's a unique form of jazz that displays Auger's creative vision. 

In addition to three major groups, Auger has worked as a session musician as well as on numerous solo projects and collaborations. In the late 1960s, his band was known as Brian Auger and the Trinity featuring Julie Driscoll, with Driscoll handling the lead vocals. The early 70s found Auger reaching peak performance with Brian Auger's Oblivion Express. The lion's share of lead vocals were ably handled by Alex Ligertwood, who went on to sing with Santana, among others. During this time, Auger worked with some of the world's best drummers, bassists, and guitarists. The albums were dynamite, one better than the other, which ensured Auger a loyal audience who follow him still. After a spate of solo projects and one offs, the Oblivion Express was reborn. The second generation Express started in 1995 and features son Karma Auger on drums and live production, and daughter Savannah Auger on vocals, with more top drawer musicians joining on bass and guitar.

When the current band plays the older material live, Savannah handles the vocals so well that the new versions give up nothing to the originals. Behind the drum kit, Karma is a beast who could play any genre anytime. Which brings us to the album Introspection. The thirty-five tracks were personally selected by Brian. Of the thirty-five, eighteen were previously unreleased making this a 3 CD package, which totals 3 hours 23 minutes of pure bliss for Auger aficionados. It's not a greatest hits album, instead these are the tracks Auger is most proud of and perhaps wishes they had gotten more attention, if not airplay. 

For those who are new to Auger, there are plenty of guideposts for future listening. Many of those great albums are represented, including the title tracks from A Better Land and Second Wind. Also included are the original "Happiness Is Just Around the Bend" as well as a couple other tracks from the album Closer To It. In my mind, that album has always been a high water mark for the Oblivion Express, perhaps including the albums that came just before (Second Wind) and after (Straight Ahead). Julie Driscoll is on here, too, although some of those Trinity tracks live on in new versions both studio and live by the second generation Express. Speaking of which, Introspection contains a hot live version of Richie Havens' "Indian Rope Man." 

This album also includes Brian's daughter Ali Auger, who sings selections from the Great American Songbook on two tracks from her album, Soft and Furry. Brian and Karma play on it, and Brian produced it as well.

There are numerous rarities on Introspection. I'm not talking about demos and outtakes. I'm pretty familiar with Auger's catalog, and there are many tracks on here that I have not heard before; all delightful. The album opens with "Freddie's Flight," which sounds resplendent with horn flourishes and solos. You might not even know it's Auger until the 2:47 mark when he starts working out on his B3. I can't even think of an Auger album that has horns on it. It's a great way to start this set. 

Another Auger rarity rang a bell as soon as I heard it. Auger plays a rockin' live version of Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," which kicks into a fiery "Blue Rondo ala Turk." The latter was written by Dave Brubeck and adapted by Keith Emerson to "Rondo," which he performed throughout his career. In fact, both songs are associated with the late Emerson, who Auger has stated was his best friend (I was thrilled to hear that two of my favorite keyboard masters were best friends). The live track came from an Emerson tribute concert called Fanfare for the Uncommon Man.

I'd love to detail the other rare songs in this set, but as often happens, no liner notes are provided with digital download purchases or streaming. Still, those songs are glorious to hear. 

All told, Introspection is a gift, perfect for new, casual, and diehard fans of Brian Auger.

The Top Ten (Alphabetically by artist):

A Girl Call
ed Eddy – Been Around 
When this album was released in January (yes, there was actually normal life in 2020 pre-pandemic), I almost missed this one but something made me keep it nearby to listen to again, and again, and again. What may have caught my ear was the superior songwriting, although the vocals, instrumental performances, and production are quite remarkable as well. Erin Moran records as A Girl Called Eddy, and although her debut came out in 2004, this is only her second album. This unassuming record sometimes reminds me of Swing Out Sister backed by Chicago's horn section, occasionally veering into Steely Dan territory, all the while sounding like a really amazing off-Broadway musical. Burt Bacharach is often credited as a major influence, and that would certainly explain the abundance of melody here. There was plenty of good music released in 2020, but none I feel any finer than Been Around.

The Allman Betts Band – Bless Your Heart
The Allman Brothers Band accomplished a host of amazing things during their 45+ year career as standard bearers for Southern Rock. Not the least of those accomplishments is that they came back from the tragic deaths of two original members. Along the way they became such a powerhouse of live performance that even though they recorded their last studio album in 2003, their audience continued to grow to the point where they were one of the most beloved bands ever when they finally hung it up in 2014. Their musical legacy is not one to be trifled with. The Allman Betts Band (based on this, their second album) is more than ready to carry on the tradition. Three members of this ABB are the sons of original members: Devon Allman is the son of Gregg and he plays the guitar and sings, Duane Betts is the son of Dickey and also plays guitar and sings, and Berry Duane Oakley is the son of Berry Oakley and like his father also plays bass and he sings. Allman and Betts have done solo records before and they have had their moments of brilliance (loved Allman's Spinners cover), but nothing prepared me for the consistent excellence of this record. All the songs are originals with most written by some combination of Allman, Betts, and Stoll Vaughan. Listening to this album it's clear that all seven members are superior talents. There are a couple of ways that this band won't be confused with their fathers' generation: the lead vocals have a distinctly different timbre than Gregg's, and there is no blues-rock on the album. I've yet to have the pleasure, but I understand that they play some Allman Brothers covers in their live shows. The ABB plays somewhat more refined sounding music, and the only question now is whether this original material will have staying power; I'm betting that it will.

Mariah Carey – The Rarities
That's the way you do it, with a generous helping of fifteen rare tracks that are arranged chronologically. What's better yet, and this will give you cause to buy this CD rather than the download, in the liner notes Mariah explains about each reco\\ng and why it is rare. Most of the tracks are previously unreleased; the only exception being some single b-sides that had a limited audience. What's more, the album is a great listen. To my thinking, you could not do a rarities collection any better. That said, even though this album is reasonably priced as a single disc, it is fair to say that it also includes the ultimate bonus disc, Mariah Carey Live at the Tokyo Dome, 1996. This concert, from the Daydream Tour, offers superb song selection, performance, production, and recording quality. It sounds, to me, like this live album might have been huge if sold separately. Together, they make The Rarities an irresistible package, both for the collector and for the casual listener... and everyone in between.

Melody Gardot – Sunset In The Blue (Deluxe Version)
Although very different albums, Melody Gardot's Sunset In The Blue shares a mentality with Diana Krall's Tommy LiPuma recordings (see below). In order to turn on the quiet, so to speak, you must also turn off the noise. And that's what's required to get the full beauty of Gardot's new album, her fifth. Gardot wrote, or co-wrote, most of the tracks on the record. Compositionally, this sounds like her best work since that magnificent first album, Worrisome Heart (2006). When she self-released that one, the packed venues wherever she played in Philly and NY in retrospect make the Verve signing seem inevitable. The success of My One and Only Thrill (2009), which paired her with producer Larry Klein, confirmed her status as an international jazz artist and specifically an expatriate living in Paris. In addition to the gorgeous originals, there are a few very interesting covers on this record. "Love Song" is a beauty and it's that rare Elton John cover not written by John and Taupin; Leslie Duncan did the honors. Gardot also dips back to an earlier era for two jazz/pop standards, "Moon River" and "I Fall In Love Too Easily", which she easily handles. When you listen to Sunset In The Blue you can really feel the quietude. Drums are played delicately as they accompany upright bass adorned sometimes with a sweet sounding electric guitar and often the light touch of orchestration. Overall, the artistic success of Sunset In The Blue is the result of the triumphant reunion of Klein and Gardot.
Update April 2021: This listing has been updated to reflect the release of a deluxe version of the album with six additional tracks. Five of them amplify the achievement of the album with live and stripped down versions. As an additional bonus, there is Melody's duet with Sting. 

Diana Krall – This Dream Of You
For Diana Krall's seventeenth album, she has released a second volume of the sessions that produced 2017's Turn Up the Quiet. All of these sessions were recorded with longtime friend and uber-producer Tommy LiPuma (who died in 2017). LiPuma has helmed, arranged, or orchestrated a host of jazz and popular recordings that read like a who's who of amazing artists. Krall took these sessions and produced this finished album. The quietude of the recording catches you first. Both the vocals and instrumental backing are loaded with swing, finesse, and charm. Any one track from this record can tell you all you need to know. You could listen to "Autumn in New York" for example, or "Almost Like Being in Love." Krall has stated that LiPuma loved the recording of "But Beautiful" very much so she opens the album with it. The backing on this record is sublime; the lead role is taken by piano or a very mellow electric guitar. Strings are applied judiciously. Tommy LiPuma has a fantastic legacy and Diana Krall has done him proud with This Dream Of You.

Raul Midon – The Mirror
Sometimes I'm not sure what Raul Midon's strongest suit is: songwriting, singing, guitarist, or as a performing musician. For someone who I took to many years ago when he played the North Star Bar in Philadelphia, his progression from album to album has been a thing of beauty. The Mirror is Midon's eleventh album and it may just be his best. His skill at songwriting is evident throughout and when he multi-tracks his voice to be his own backup singers, the combination of voice and acoustic guitar is readymade for the melodic lines he delivers, and man does he ever! The tunes are sweet to the ear, but the music is hard to pin down. Midon incorporates elements of jazz, soul, pop, rock, folk, latin and even a little hip hop. Also, there are two spoken word tracks, which have a little music behind them; they only last about a minute each but the words are so powerful that the message will be quite indelible. The other eight tracks may seem on the short side, but to my ear they are perfectly constructed and perhaps they derive some of their power from their brevity. The production on The Mirror is relatively spare, a horn here, a sax there, or maybe piano or vibraphone. Midon breaks out his electric guitar on the Latin-style title track with the guitar lead sounding more Steely Dan than Santana. This one sounds like Raul Midon's most complete work to date and The Mirror is one of the most thoroughly satisfying listens that you'll find this year.

Gretchen Peters - 
The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury
Songs by Gretchen Peters have had remarkable success on the country chart with some crossover to the Hot 100 as well. She's been sung by most of the major country stars. Even so, for my money, no one does her songs any better than she does. When you make a living with your pen there is no greater tribute you can do than to record an album of another's songs. That's just what Gretchen Peters has done on her latest album, which is a tribute to singer-songwriter Mickey Newbury. The first time I listened to this record there was kind of a major surprise. When I was much younger, I had a 45 (vinyl single) of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" by The First Edition. Now, I knew that the lead singer had been a young Kenny Rogers. Long before he went country he sang on this early psychedelic rock hit, one so classic that they used it in the movie "The Big Lebowski". With all that, what I didn't know until this album, is that it was written by Mickey Newbury. Peters turns in a terrific cover played mostly on a very mellow electric guitar. Thinking of the original "Just Dropped In", I guess what's so astonishing is that Newbury was known for the thoughtful quietude of his songs. Nowhere is that more evident than on the title track, which like most of this record is done with a pleasing mix of acoustic guitar played by Will Kimbrough, piano by Barry Walsh, and vocals by Peters. Other instruments were added when needed, including some superb steel guitar. Peters selected her longtime favorites for this record eschewing many of Newbury's hits in the process. Gretchen Peters considers Mickey Newbury a major influence and she delivers a most fitting tribute to him on The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury.

Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You
A new album from Bruce Springsteen is a treat anytime, but we've been blessed with new ones in each of the last two years. Last year's Western Stars was a solo record replete with exquisite arrangements and nuanced lyrics that were full of details, stories, and big ideas. 

Letter To You, although it is an E-Street Band record, seems to pick up ("One Minute You're Here") where Western Stars left off. It may be that the easiest way to approach this material is to imagine the songs being played in concert, amidst other Springsteen compositions dating back up to 50 years to give the new songs some perspective. The tour that was planned to start this year will have to wait until at least 2022 on account of Covid-19. That should allow plenty of time to get to know Letter To You, which is a little different from the usual pattern which is to release the new record and head right out on tour. That's no small thing. When Wrecking Ball was released in 2012, they went out all over the world for a good five years. 

If you'd like to analyze some of the songs on Letter To You, check out E Street Shuffle. The author, Ken, is so thorough in his discussions I feel like I don't need to interject here. 

I will say that one of my early favorites on this record is a song called "House of A Thousand Guitars." In addition to the indelible melody, it seems like there is fairly uniform acceptance that the title phrase is a euphemism for the various venues where Springsteen's fans come together to hear his music, and as such, it's a celebration. The songs on Letter To You are of varying vintage, including three that have been been around since the 1970s. These are "Janey Needs a Shooter," "If I Was the Priest," and "Song For Orphans." In addition to the sense of closure, what I especially like about these songs is that the period songwriting style remains largely intact, but you get to hear them recorded by the latest state-of-the-art E Street Band. Whether you hear them live or on record, the songs on Letter To You form another strong chapter of Bruce Springsteen's story.

James Taylor – American Standard
American Standard is James Taylor's take on the Great American Songbook. Before you think that you've heard it before because so many other artists have done likewise, take a look at the song list. Outside of one or two selections, you won't find these songs on most other such records. Taylor goes freely to earlier eras and to the show tunes portion of the Songbook.The only other musical artist I can think of who shares his sensibility on these early songs (and this should come as no surprise) is his brother Livingston. We don't have to assume that they grew up with this material playing in the house; in interviews James has confirmed as much. Taylor has a most comfortable style when he sings, derived primarily from the mix of his voice with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. On this record, it's a real treat to hear him sing this material with occasional help from John Pizzarelli's guitars, Larry Goldings' Hammond B3 organ or even melodica, Lou Marini's clarinet or saxophone, Walt Fowler's trumpet or flugelhorn, and Stuart Duncan's violin. These artists join the rhythm section of Steve Gadd (drums) and Viktor Krauss (upright bass) or  Jimmy Johnson (bass) when needed. Taylor plays his trusty acoustic throughout and the whole thing seems so easy until you read all the work that went into the production of American Standard to make it sound easy. James Taylor is almost as much of a national treasure as are these songs.

Hailey Whitters – The Dream: Living The Dream (Deluxe)  I knew that Hailey Whitters was something special the minute I heard "Ten Year Town." I thought I'd heard it before, but I hadn't. It's the autobiographical story of a Nashville songwriter who hasn't "made it" yet, and she throws it all into one last try and that is this album, The Dream. She self-financed the recording with a combination of song writing, waitressing and savings. Whitters has said that if this album didn't do it, at least she would have something she could be proud of to take back home to Iowa. I don't think that will be necessary, based on the quality of the record and on the attention it has already received. Her band and production style is a joy to hear and her charming voice sometimes reminds me of Kacey Musgraves. This is the kind of album that you'll love more and more with each listen. 
Note: This listing has been updated to reflect the 2021 release of a deluxe edition with five additional bonus tracks and the update of the name.

Top Ten Bonus Disc

Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor
Review by Sara Vergis

Most people may know Hayley Williams as the lead singer of America’s genre-neutral band, Paramore, but that could all change with this knockout of a solo debut. I know her as the woman who wrote songs that got me through my worst days. Petals for Armor is no exception, and while I love to say music saved me, this album oozes lyrics and emotion that it was a healing process for Williams, too. Produced by Paramore’s guitarist, Taylor York, with songwriting and instrumentals by other members of the Paramore family (including Zac Farro and Joey Howard). Not only is this album's theme of overcoming and healing from the traumas in life very poignant for many, but the way she comes to terms with her femininity after years of being in an arguably misogynistic and male dominated alternative music scene is a sight for sore eyes and a sound for sore ears. Starting with ‘Simmer’ the thesis statement to the entire album, a song literally simmering with rage that bubbles over when you least expect it. This song had me sold on the album before I heard anything else. 15 tracks later and it became my favorite album of 2020 and probably the album to get me through this fever dream of a year. A real gem on this album is,  ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ off of the second EP for this album. The song features indie rock band boygenius, which is made up of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, on background vocals. A focus on navigating feminism and what it means to be feminine, tackling body image and reminding us to find self worth in ourselves and not to base it on others. As the album continues on, you get to listen to her heal, ending with ‘Crystal Clear’, a song about diving back into love and it being a good thing, unlike ‘Pool’ a song from After Laughter by Paramore that is the antithesis of this song. The influence of Bjork, 80’s pop, and R&B can be heard throughout, and it really demonstrates Williams’ range and growth as an artist. Still the vocal powerhouse she was on the Vans Warped Tour Stage 2000s, but much more matured and developed in her talent. 

If you ask anyone I know, including Bill, who asked me to write this, they’ll tell you my love for Paramore and Williams’ songwriting ability is immense. When I was younger I would go as far as to say it saved my life. Nowadays, I’m a bit less dramatic, but I will always hold true and say it did help me through my darkest days. Even if I mourned the loss of not seeing Hayley Williams perform this album live, I still find myself pulling out my record player and putting this vinyl on often, because this album helped my heart heal too. [Thank you Sara for a fine review.]

The Top Thirty: Numbers 11 - 30 (alphabetically by artist).

 Jon Anderson – 1000 Hands
The title is a reference to the many guests and the many years it took to make what just might be Anderson's finest solo album. From a compositional viewpoint, the songs get better the deeper into the record you go. 

Kelsea Ballerini – ballerini
Early in the year, Kelsea Ballerini released her new album kelsea and it was everything you could want in a pop /country production. Later in the year (after the world had locked down), she cut a completely new stripped down version of the album, which she called ballerini, and it is everything I could want in such a record.

Dave Brubeck – Lullabies
The first thing you need to know is that this record is not just for kids. Whenever Dave Brubeck sat down at the piano, something seriously artistic happened and Lullabies is a prime example.

Dave Brubeck - Time Outtakes
Time Out, perhaps the most beloved and quintessential jazz album of all time, has just been rereleased with an alternate version of each song. These tracks came from the original session master tapes, which were recently found by the Brubeck family (to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for producing this gem) to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Brubeck's birth. Read the full review.

Al Di Meola –
Across the Universe 
If Al DiMeola had stuck to the script, it wouldn't have mattered that he is one of the greatest guitarists ever, this might have been a borefest like so many other instrumental Beatles albums. Instead, he kept the music complex and took just enough liberties with his guitar work to make this intensely interesting. entertaining, and essential. 

John Fogerty – Fogerty's Factory (Expanded)
For this joyful pandemic project, Fogerty recorded some of his own favorite compositions along with some key covers. Playing with him on this album are his sons Shane and Tyler, who have their own band Harty Har.

Josh Groban – Harmony
If you like to sing along you can't go wrong with the latest from Josh Groban, who brings considerably more to the table than your typical Las Vegas act that sings something inspirational on the Jerry Lewis telethon. After touching some of the expected bases, Harmony holds some surprises like a fantastic version of Sting's "Shape of My Heart" and Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." An amazing version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" that not only features guest vocalist Sara Bareilles, but it hews closer to Joni's more recent, more sanguine redo than to Joni's original, which became Judy Collins' first hit in 1968.

Hot Club of Philadelphia – Gypsy - Americana
Guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli formed the Hot Club of France with a troupe of like-minded musicians in the 1930s. Today, there are numerous Hot Clubs for this, that, and the other thing, but you won't hear Gypsy Jazz played any better than by the Hot Club of Philadelphia who further that fine tradition on Gypsy - Americana, their third album. 

Shelby Lynne – The Healing: A-Tone Recordings 
Shelby sounds like a natural with full band and production on these soul flavored gems that remind me the most of her Just a Little Lovin' (2008). Because this album slipped out digitally at year's end with no fanfare or info, the source of these tracks and the status of release is unclear.

Shelby Lynne - Shelby Lynne
After three decades and fifteen prior LPs, Shelby's sixteenth is self-titled. She wrote or co-wrote, sang, played the instruments (including sax), and produced all of the songs on the record. The sparse production style left plenty of room for her torchy vocals, which she often doubled or mult-tracked to maximum effect.

Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Just listening to Laura Marling's seventh album, you might not not know that it was recorded at home. In addition to the basic rhythm section of bass and drums, these songs are played on either acoustic guitar or keyboard, with or without a string section, and the result is some of Marling's finest work.

Willie Nelson – First Rose of Spring
I was going say that this is Willie Nelson's ninety hundreth album, but in actual fact it's his 70th (Wikipedia tells us that doesn't include live, best of, collaboration or group albums). This time around, it's a mostly acoustic affair with a couple of originals along with mostly covers, with Nelson's fine voice still showing no sign of age. 

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – Presto
These guys are truly amazing musicians. Their intricately written material relies on their adept musicianship, especially the lyrical electric guitar solos that dominate their sound. 

Rumer – Nashville Tears
There is something about the tonal quality of Rumer's voice that makes me want to listen  to it anytime, anywhere. It's country pop this time with some well played pedal steel added to Rumer's normal sound as she takes on an album's worth of songs written by Hugh Prestwood.

Snowgoose – The Making of You
Snowgoose is the Scottish duo of Anna Sheard and Jim McCulloch, she sings and he plays guitars, melodica, and percussion. For their second album, The Making of You, they invited  many of their musician friends (the guest list looking like a who's who of indie folk rock) and they came up with an album so disarmingly delightful that I just can't get enough.

Kandace Springs - The Women Who Raised Me
Springs is a phenomenally talented jazz singer and pianist whose third album celebrates twelve of her female influences (Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, etc). The powerful, and yet soothing, record features guest artists on 9 of the 12 tracks, including a duet with Norah Jones on "Angel Eyes" and Avishai Cohen playing bass on a superb version of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." 

Yusuf / Cat Stevens – Tea For The Tillerman²
The original Tillerman was wildly successful, both artistically and commercially (with over 3 million US copies sold) and I was thinking that the 50 years later redo might be a gimmick. I was surely glad to be wrong as Tea For The Tillerman² turned out to differ in certain respects from the original and the mileage added a new dimension to Stevens' (now Yusuf's) vocals that is pleasing indeed. (Read the full review)

Emma Swift – Blonde On The Tracks (Deluxe Edition)
This collection of Dylan covers is totally captivating and puts Swift on the map quite nicely. For her debut she goes right to the Bard for eight of his best with the unbeatable name of Blonde On The Tracks.

Taylor Swift – folklore
Taylor Swift surprised the music world last July with the release of folklore. On this one, with assistance from Aaron Dessner (The National), she pivoted to a more singer-songwriter style, musically if not lyrically, and in so doing made an album that both you and your parents could love. Read the full review.

Various Artists – Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!
This is a glorious live album recorded at Harlem's Apollo Theater in NYC on the occasion of what would have been Ella Fitzgerald's 100th birthday. An array of amazing artists, such as Patti Austin, The Count Basie Orchestra, Cassandra Wilson, and many more, all performed the songs most associated with Ella. 

The Top Fifty: Numbers 31 - 50 (alphabetically)

Alex the Astronaut - The Theory of Absolutely Nothing 
Alex the Astronaut is the vehicle for Alexandra Lynn whose excellent compositions and endearing Australian accent makes this, her debut full length, completely captivating (and you've got to love that title).

The Bangles – Ladies and Gentlemen...The Bangles! 
If there had been a Battle of the Bands in the 1960s that included bands from the future, this previously unreleased set that predates The Bangles first album might have done very well indeed. 

Cindy Cashdollar – Waltz for Abilene
Guitar fans won't want to miss this: Cindy Cashdollar (yes, that's her real name), master of the pedal steel, plays all manner of guitars on this rare, solo album.

Madison Cunningham – Wednesday
I don't know which I like better, the performances or the song selection on this EP of four acoustic covers. 

Steve Forbert – Early Morning Rain
Forbert's unique southern singing style hasn't changed much over the decades and this friendly batch of covers may be just the ticket for an audience weary of the pandemic.

Eliza Gilkyson – 2020
This inspired album of originals and covers has excellent songwriting for the times in which we live, not to mention the fantastic performances and production. Gilkyson's new recording of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" makes you feel like you're hearing it for the first time.

Bill Kirchen – The Proper Years
Amongst the generous label archive of Kirchen tracks, which includes a number of great deep voice trucker songs, there is some solid evidence that he is also a world class guitarist (watch this to the end).

Leo Kottke, Mike Gordon – Noon
The only thing I like as well as Kottke's instrumental work on acoustic guitar is his singing, and this third collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon has both. I would consider their version of "Eight Miles High" reason enough to purchase this album. 

Sonny Landreth - Blacktop Run 
The New Orleans guitar-meister is in fine form on this, his 14th studio album. 

Ledisi – The Wild Card
Songs may be written by committee these days, but The Wild Card is definitely a soulful singer-songwriter record complete with Ledisi's excellent cover of Harry Nilsson's "Without You."

Huey Lewis & The News – Weather
Huey Lewis, arguably one of our best soul singers (despite his string of rock hits), releases his first new album in nearly twenty years, an excellent one that was recorded just prior to an unexplained hearing loss that robbed Lewis of his ability to perform.

Lori McKenna - The Balladeer
Perhaps best known for songwriting, her fans know that McKenna does her own songs better than anyone else, and The Balladeer is a prime example.

Katie Melua – Album No. 8 
Not as well know in the US as she ought to be, Album No. 8 is a mostly acoustic affair that provides the perfect setting for Melua's appealing voice.

Ashley Ray – Pauline
This album is a triumph of songwriting, so much so that if you look up Americana this album should be pictured.

Reckless Kelly – American Jackpot / American Girls
With two single albums released simultaneously, the resulting double album can only be described as real country rock, well written, well performed and well produced.

Phil Vassar – Stripped Down  
You may know Vassar from the A-list country stars who have recorded his songs, and on this pandemic project he recorded a full sounding eight song EP of the ones that got away. 
Suzanne Vega – An Evening of New York Songs and Stories
When you think New York, Suzanne Vega may not be the first name that comes to mind, but she is quintessentially New York and this set (recorded live at Cafe Carlyle) is a real charmer. 

Jessie Ware – What's Your Pleasure? 
Usually, I'm not that much interested in dance music, electronic or otherwise, but Jessie Ware injects an unstoppable combination of her musical sensibility and her superb vocals. 

Lindsey Webster – A Woman Like Me
Five albums in, Lindsey Webster's music still feels like a breath of fresh air, with ten new original tracks of sweet smooth jazz, plus her version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on this new album.

The Well Pennies – Covers
I love this covers record way more than its position on this list would suggest, and they sound terrific covering The Beatles.


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