In past years we’ve done a companion year-end list to our annual heavy metal one where we dump everything else “non-metal” into one bucket. It always wound up being a smorgasbord of genres – country, folk, blues, indie rock, neo-classical – you name it, it was probably represented. This year I decided to switch things up and focus solely on albums that fall somewhere along the very broad spectrum of Americana music, partly because it aligns with what we spent the year spinning on the Wrong Side of the Tracks radio show.
Some notes about this list before we get started. First, I’ve taken some liberties with what you would typically call “Americana” music. Basically, if you can tie what you’re hearing to some form of folk, country, or blues then the album was up for consideration. As with my other year-end lists this is reserved for full-length albums only. We’ll be showing some EPs love in a separate post. Lastly, I’m loathe to call this a “best of” list because I am but one person trying to listen to as much music as possible. I’m privileged enough to catch a lot, but certainly not all. Instead consider this the order I’d have you go searching for each album if we got dropped in the middle of the coolest record store in existence.
20. Ak’Chamel – The Totemist
We immediately start our list with a band that stretches the boundaries of what we consider “Americana”; a band that takes folk music from various corners of the globe and runs it through a psychedelic lens. Ak’Chamel (their current full name, which has changed in the past, is Ak’Chamel, The Ecstatic Brotherhood of Nux Vomica) is a Texas collective I’ve been high on for a long time – no pun intended. No two Ak’Chamel records are alike and The Totemist is one of their most cohesive musical visions to date. Here’s a brief description from their Bandcamp page about the recording of this album that should give you some idea of what you’re in for: Written and recorded in a ghost-town in the Chihuahuan Desert in far West Texas – a place where the dead outnumber the living. Various overdubs and field recordings were captured in the historic Terlingua cemetery, an ancient burial ground filled with small grottoes and graves made of sticks and stones.
19. Little Albert – Swamp King
The best blues album from 2020 didn’t come crawling out of the swamps of New Orleans or exploding out of Chicago. No, the best blues album from 2020 came from Italy of all places. Little Albert is the moniker of guitarist/songwriter Alberto Piccolo and Swamp King is this project’s debut album. Here’s what we had to say about this album upon its release back in March: Little Albert take their blues on road trips through the dusty, desert sands of stoner rock and into heavier territories than virtually any other modern blues artist, yet the basis of these jams always remains firmly rooted in the swampy deltas of the blues. A truly awesome, modern take on the blues and one that even electric blues traditionalists should be fawning all over.
18. Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia
Few artists today could write a loose concept album about a mining explosion and truly give the album and the story the grit it deserves the way Steve Earle has on Ghosts of West Virginia. For his twentieth album Earle takes his penchant as a master storyteller to the next level as every track really does feel as if the ghosts of West Virginia are seeping right through your speakers. They never really did make them like Steve Earle, and I’m happy to report that they still don’t.
17. Sturgill Simpsons – Cutting Grass Vol. 1
There’s not much praise about Sturgill Simpson that I could pen here that hasn’t been written before in a hundred other places. He’s easily one of modern country music’s saving graces. It might be slightly cheating to include a record on this list of songs that have already been recorded, but trust when I say you haven’t really heard these songs before, not with how they’ve been re-recorded here. Simpson re-imagines some of his most endearing work as bluegrass cuts, complete with the backing of some seriously exceptional pickers. I have to be perfectly honest here when I say as much as I adore Simpson’s back catalogue he may have struck sonic gold with these tracks. If Simpson decides to eschew his alt country leanings and just set up shop on the bluegrass side of the fence I’m not complaining. (Note: Vol. 2 just dropped three days prior to this writing. I urge you to check out both albums while you’re at it.)
16. Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels
An absolute Americana legend, it’s fair to say that Lucinda Williams has never put out a bad record. Good Souls Better Angels is filled with bluesy grit and back road aesthetics. Perhaps it was a product of the times but this album feels like one of Williams’ darkest to date. There’s a certain middle finger attitude combined with a general worry for humanity’s soul that gives these songs a lot of punch. Both long time fans and newcomers to Williams will find a lot to relate to on this record.
15. Kariti – Covered Mirrors
One of the darker entries on this list comes from Russian born singer/songwriter Kariti. It took a couple extra months for this album to finally touch down as the Covid outbreak delayed its release date for a few months. It was worth the wait as Covered Mirrors wound up being the perfect sonic interpretation of the despair we were all feeling throughout most of 2020. It’s a sparse, delicate neo-folk record whose beauty lies in both the atmosphere it creates and the performance itself. Armed with not much more than an acoustic guitar and a hauntingly beautiful voice Kariti has created an album that absolutely captivates from note one. If you’re looking for an album to be a backdrop while you contemplate what it all means then absolutely dig into this record immediately.
14. Jaime Wyatt – Neon Crosses
Mixing elements of alt country and roots rock, one of the most rollicking albums of the year came from singer/songwriter Jaime Wyatt. Her Bandcamp bio makes references to Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, and Chrissie Hynde. None of those comparisons are far off the mark, but I’d argue Wyatt does a better job channeling the up-yours attitude of the original outlaw country movement than any of her influences ever did. In fact, after repeat listens you’d could argue that Wyatt has become one of the current artists best equipped to carry the torch that musicians like Waylon Jennings first lit. (It’s also not lost on us that Waylon’s son Shooter produced this record and sat in on some songs.) Neon Crosses is the type of record that has enough rock appeal that the average music fan who turns their nose up at country music will find a lot to like, yet old school country curmudgeons (you know, like me) will also find plenty to love here.
13. Native Harrow – Closeness
Philadelphia’s Native Harrow are one of several acts on this list who take a wide array of aural influences and manage to condense them into a delectably unique sound. Their brand of soul-influenced indie folk is equal parts contemplative and dance-able, and Closeness is an album that will have you doing both, often times within the same track. There are times when they take cues from the haunting melodies of ’70s neo-folk, and others where the blue-eyed soul of their native Philly soars to prominence. Yet Native Harrow somehow takes these varying genres, that on paper maybe shouldn’t work, and creates something powerful in both delivery and execution. Easily their best album to date and I’m excited to see where they head to next in their musical journeys.
12. The Secret Sisters – Saturn Return
Indie folk duo The Secret Sisters returned at the beginning of the year with another stellar collection of dreamy songs that once again highlighted their songwriting prowess. Taking an array of Americana influences and once again drenching them in their patented vocal harmonies, Saturn Return is a captivating record and now stands as a gorgeous beacon of simpler times amidst the chaos. It’s a record worth revisiting when in need of something to further prove that the world can still hold beauty within it.
11. The White Buffalo – On The Widow’s Walk
Singer/songwriter Jake Smith, known as The White Buffalo, speaks truths. There’s really no other way to describe the tracks on his newest album On The Widow’s Walk. One of Americana’s most passionate songwriters, Smith has once again pieced together an album that’s wholly relatable on so many levels. You could argue this is The White Buffalo’s best material to date, and I personally wouldn’t put too much stock in arguing back. It’s certainly some of his most memorable material and tracks like “The Drifter” deserve a place in conversations revolving around songs of the year.
10. Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started
There’s really nothing I could write here that hasn’t already be said about Margo Price and her highly anticipated new album That’s How Rumors Get Started. Price has become the darling of both mainstream and alt country fans, and with good reason. She’s one of just a handful of artists who can write pop and rock-infused country music that doesn’t sell its soul in exchange for Facebook likes and YouTube views. Fans of ’70s southern rock and the SoCal alt-country sound should be all over this record in a hurry.
9. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings – All The Good Times Are Past & Gone
One of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters is Gillian Welch. I’ve been a fan for damn near two decades and was pleasantly surprised when she and long-time collaborator David Rawlings (and exceptional songwriter in his own right) dropped this album over the summer. Welch and Rawlings’ penchant for channeling the early folk and blues progenitors is once again prevalent here. This is simply two fantastic musicians trading stories and songs, and All The Good Times Are Past & Gone feels like you’ve been invited to sit around the campfire with them while they dazzle some friends in between sets at a folk fest.
8. Elijah Ocean – Blue Jeans and Barstools
For well over a decade now L.A.-based musician Elijah Ocean has been generating some of the best throwback honky-tonk music around. Blue Jeans and Barstools is an unadulterated, unapologetic country record of the highest order. There’s no undercutting what you’re hearing here with any other genre descriptors, and music fans who don’t like to do a little shit-kickin’ should probably just keep moving on. Highly recommended for fans of such country luminaries as Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Gary Stewart, and John Anderson.
7. Sarah Jarosz – World On The Ground
One of the more intimate albums on this list is the newest offering from singer/songwriter Sarah Jarosz. World On the Ground is a collection of powerful stories about life and its thousands of twists and turns that can leave you dizzy. Jarosz is a master storyteller and is at her best when she’s creating songs that read like excerpts from the next Great American Novel – something she does on seemingly every track. From a purely sonic perspective Jarosz waxes and wanes between indie folk and indie pop aesthetics, which adds to the atmosphere she successfully creates on each track. It’s a stunning album and arguably her best material to date.
6. Whitney Rose – We Still Go To Rodeos
The title of this record alone should give you some inclination into what you’re in for here. Whitney Rose indeed still heads off to various sonic rodeos on this album, but she also heads to the drive-in on a musty summer night, and heads down various dusty back roads to local watering holes where the meaning of life gets discussed under starry skies. Rose drenches this country record in enough rock aesthetics that it truly puts the “alt” in alt-country. This is hands-down some of the best material Rose has created in a growing catalogue of excellent releases.
5. Kristian Harting – The Fumes
Released all the way back in January it would not be a stretch to say that The Fumes from Danish singer/songwriter Kristian Harting was the first truly great album released in 2020. Full disclosure, I’ve been a massive fan of Harting’s since the 2014 release of his album Float. I’m on record as saying that Harting is one of my favorite songwriters in the world, and The Fumes perfectly adds to what is becoming an absolutely astounding back catalogue. Taking folk songs and weaving them through a psychedelic kaleidoscope, Harting is able to create some of the most atmospheric and wholly gorgeous indie folk music in existence. I implore everyone who isn’t already familiar with this man’s work to get on board post haste.
4. Karen Jonas – The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams
An album I spent an exorbitant amount of time with since its August release is the newest full-length from Virginia based artist Karen Jonas. The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams is about as Americana as they come, mixing in elements of old school and outlaw country with folk, and even some bluesy nods. Jonas is another artist who is almost unparalleled in her storytelling prowess, creating one act plays with each track, documenting various colorful characters that Jonas makes you feel for each time out. This is the type of album that’s easy to revisit and never tire of. Trust me, I speak from experience.
3. Rachel Brooke – The Loneliness In Me
Another artist I’ve been a huge fan of for close to a decade now is Michigan’s Rachel Brooke. It’s been eight long years since Brooke gifted us with a solo full-length album, and while I don’t ever want to wait that long again the wait was worth it when you hear what she’s penned on The Loneliness In Me. Brooke’s sound has always existed somewhere in the musical universe where early rock ‘n’ roll and country where still kissing cousins, and on this album she doubles-down, creating something that feels like it could have existed in a long ago decade. Yet Brooke’s sound is a fresh one as well, her twangy take on the alt country pantheon being a unique one where she has few peers.
2. Lily Hiatt – Walking Proof
One of the more recognizable names on this list, Lilly Hiatt has been an Americana powerhouse since her debut solo album. I’ll cut to the chase here, everything in Hiatt’s discography is worth owning, but it’s not a stretch at all to say that Walking Proof is her best album to date. Every song is a memorable one and Hiatt’s ability to take her folk/country roots and wash them in rock and pop aesthetics is unparalleled. This is the type of record I listen to and start to get perturbed that it hasn’t reached higher levels of popularity. Hiatt keeps creating records this good she’s bound to catch the attention of even the laziest music fans.
1. Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern
There is possibly no record I spent more time with in 2020 than the newest release from Cincinnati songwriter Arlo McKinley. There are few songwriters who have penned albums as brutally honest as Die Midwestern. There are songs on here that connect with the listener on a purely organic level, a shared human experience through music. McKinley’s brand of folksy alt country is as catchy as it is sincere and there isn’t a single song on this record that you couldn’t relate to on some level. McKinley spends these ten tracks baring his soul in the way that only truly phenomenal songwriters can, and anyone who listens to what he has penned is better for it.