MY FAVORITE 40 (20+20) ALBUMS OF 2020: Everything else!

Last week I put forth my favorite 20 jazz albums of 2020. Here are my favorite 20 albums of everything else: rock, country, prog, and, yes, sacred music.

• “Companion” by Sainte Olympia: I’m biased here, as the singer, pianist, and songwriter here is my younger sister. Regardless, this is the anti-2020 album: contemplative, deceptively simply, deep, and rich with lyrical and melodic mystery. I’m both proud and moved by this release.

• “The Nashville Songbook” by Mandy Barnett: Now in her forties, Barnett’s magical voice has become even more magnificent over time. This lush and often hair-raising record reveals that Barnett is also a top tier interpreter of classic songs. Magical!

• “No One Sings Like You Anymore” by Chris Cornell: This was actually recorded in 2016, not long before his death. Cornell was multi-talented; what comes through here is, of course, that voice–but also a unique approach to interpreting songs, as all ten cuts are covers. ELO’s “Showdown” is a favorite.

•  “Italian Ice” by Nicole Atkins: Speaking of voices, this New Jersey native has one of the finest pop/rock voices around and her music is always compelling. Ranging from atmospheric to anthemic, edgy to heart-breaking, this is perhaps Atkins’ best album, which is saying something.

• “Rise Radiant” by Caligula’s Horse: The talented Aussie prog-rockers never disappoint, as the Jim Grey (singer) and Sam Vallen (lead guitarist)-led unit is dynamic, soulful, restless, and intense. And, as always, featuring perfect production. Hard but melodic prog at its best.

• “La Vita Nuova” by Maria McKee: The former Lone Justice singer is now in her 50s and has made some major changes in her life, but the unreal voice and the stunning writing are still there. In fact, this is her best overall album since 1996’s “Life is Sweet”. Challenging and most rewarding. One of the very best of 2020.

• “The Women Who Raised Me” by Kandace Springs: The incredibly talented Nashville singer and keyboardist (she’s also a mechanic and visual artist) navigates the famous songs here with relaxed confidence and soulful, jazzy verve. Like fine wine. Impressive.

• “En Español” by The Mavericks: It’s entirely in Spanish, but the language barrier (for me, at least) disappears quickly as Raul Malo and Company bring an immediacy and intimacy that cannot be denied. The opening track “La Sitiera” grabs you from the first notes and the album never relents.

• “Nice ‘n’ Easy (2020 Mix)” by Frank Sinatra: Originally released in 1960, this #1 album captured Sinatra at the peak of his powers. The remaster brings a noticeable new clarity and definition, and highlights the many subtle aspects of a classic album. The 2020 release “Reprise Rarities” is also worth seeking out, although the material is not as consistently brilliant.

• “The Absence of Presence” by Kansas: My all-time favorite prog band does it again, following up 2016’s terrific “The Prelude Implicit” with another set of superbly crafted American prog. The longevity and quality of these Midwestern rockers continue to amaze.

• “Through Shaded Woods” by Lunatic Soul: A surprise for me, as the more electronica-oriented LS albums were enjoyable, but this driving, acoustic-based album is a revelation in urgency, mystery, and dusky beauty. Both lovely and a bit unsettling.

• “Color of Noize” by Derrick Hodge:  Pure aural jazz-soul-R&B-electronica candy–but with plenty of musical meat and potatoes. Incredible playing and superb production. This is why headphones were invented.

• “Keaggy, Blazier, & Lunn” (An American Garage Band)” by Phil Keaggy. This was recorded years ago by Keaggy and drummer Bobby Blazier in a jam session, with bass by Gary Lunn dubbed in later. Yet it sounds completely organic and warm, a sophisticated jam session by one of the most eclectic and tasteful guitarists of all time.

• “Monovision” by Ray Lamontagne: I do like some of Lamontagne’s more experimental albums (“Ouroboros”!), but this is the sweet spot for me: the gentle, backwoods vibe that marries Americana and folk with early 1970s Van Morrison. This is fine whisky in musical form.

• “Revisiting This Planet” by Kevin Max: I was never a big Larry Norman fan (his voice bugs me), but Max wins me over with this modern, punchy, and on-point rendering of several Norman songs. Max is true to the music, but also makes the songs his own. Great stuff.

• “Panther” by Pain of Salvation: Daniel Gildenlöw has gone through a lot in recent years (nearly dying in 2017) and so this is a welcome return to full-blown form for the Swedish musician and crew. This is a prog diamond: hard, clear, and multi-faceted, featuring one of the best rock singers out there.

• “Inescapable” by Godsticks: Previous albums were good, but a bit repetitious. Not so here. Vocalist and guitarist Darran Charles has expanded his range, the songwriting is equally expansive, and the band is tight. A deeply personal and powerful album.

• “Fireworker” by Gazpacho: Arguably the most remarkable prog album of year. Huge, intimate, byzantine, beautiful, and never predictable. Those who think prog is about long solos and wonkiness need to listen to this masterpiece. Spellbinding.

• “Terminal Velocity” by John Petrucci: Fantastic instrumental album from Dream Theater legend. Yes, he’s a technical wizard, but Petrucci’s mastery of mood and attitude is at the forefront here. And it’s fun without ever being silly or derivative.

• “Liturgy by Saint John Chrysostom” by Benedict Sheehan: Glorious, glorious, glorious. Enough said. Just listen.

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