It’s safe to say 2020 is a year that we’re unlikely to forget any time soon. We all had to get through it in our own way, and music played a big role in my survival.
I picked five of my favorite albums that you might’ve missed in all that happened. Here’s hoping for a better year ahead.
Brian Fallon - Local Honey
For my money, New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem was one of the best rock groups of the first decade (and change) of this century. The group specialized in a hybrid of Bruce Springsteen’s love-drunk nostalgia and Social Distortion-esque punk rock. When the group went on hiatus, lead singer and songwriter Brian Fallon started releasing solo records at a steady clip, and “Local Honey” might be his best release yet.
Clearly influenced by Dylan and roots-rock artists like Lucinda Williams, the album finds Fallon playing with acoustic and steel guitars and using his subtle pen to dig deeper than ever before. On “When You’re Ready,” he explores the pain and joy of fatherhood and “Hard Feelings” is a stunning ballad that chronicles the challenges of heartbreak and moving on. The album’s quiet is one of the loudest things Fallon has ever made.
Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated Side B
Taylor Swift dominated the pop music conversation by releasing two of the least “pop” records of the year. But those looking for something to get them dancing at the club (a word that here means living room or kitchen) need look no further than this b-sides collection from queen Carly.
Her 2015 release, “E-MO-TION,” is a perfect album, so it’s understandable that 2019’s “Dedicated” was less rapturously received (even though it also bangs). “Dedicated Side B” is a bridge between the two, blending some of the more obvious pop sensibilities from the former with the relatively subtler approach of the latter. Tracks like “Window,” have an impossible-to-resist bounce, while all the sexy slink of “Felt This Way” positively shimmers.
It says everything about Jepsen’s talent that a collection of songs that didn’t make her album “proper” have more legs than some of the best of efforts of her peers. Long live the queen.
Nation of Language - Introduction, Presence
Despite the fact that a lot of 80’s music doesn’t do much for me, I’ve really become enamored of contemporary pop that uses the stylistic elements from the tunes of the decade. It can be kitschy when done wrong, but when an artist gets it really right, the thing hums.
Brooklyn’s Nation of Language hits the exact right sweet spot between 80’s synth and modern alt-rock on their long-awaited debut, “Introduction, Presence.” The album has a dreamy mood that’s easy to get lost in, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s boring — there’s a propulsion to tracks like “Automobile” that make perfect soundtracks to driving around a neon-lit city at night. And “The Wall & I” is the best album-closer of the year — a marriage of The Cure and LCD Soundsystem that proves there’s always a way to make the familiar sound thrillingly new.
St. South - Get Well Soon
In a year where events often reached overwhelming levels, I can’t describe how much I appreciated “Get Well Soon,” the debut full-length from St. South. The Australian singer/songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist made a headphone masterpiece, the kind of release that reveals itself to the listener best in the intimacy of two small speakers and your mind.
The album is a hushed, inviting affair that does its bewitching by using R&B beats, soft keys and the artfully deployed touch of horns. Tracks like “I’m Still Me” can absolutely flatten you with the emotional honestly — on it St. South delves into a broken relationship, personal doubts and what it takes to exert control on your own life. The introspective among us have a new bard — don’t miss her.
Hailey Whitters - The Dream
One of the best things you can say about a performer is that they’re authentic, and the term certainly applies to Hailey Whitters. A native of Shueyville, Iowa, she did her time in Nashville and found her footing when she started writing with contemporary country greats like Brandy Clark. And now we’ve been gifted with her debut, “The Dream.”
The album is at times funny, heartbreaking, inspiring and insightful. Whitters uses her sharp wit empoweringly on “Dream, Girl” and “The Faker,” while “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” is the kind of story song you don’t hear often enough these days. Whitters can go wherever she wants to next, and we should all be excited to follow along.
Clarke Reader’s column on culture apears on a weekly basis. He can be reached at Clarke.Reader@hotmail.com.
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