Words by Jonathan Stout
Jonathan Stout is an Ohio based freelance writer with a specialty in music. He has written about various topics for several outlets, including Lifestyle Magazine, Cincy Music, Pop-Daze, Herzog Music and more. He is heavily involved in the Cincinnati music scene and is the founder of DIY media label Lo Fi City Recordings.
X – Alphabetland (Fat Possum Records)
Although the first four albums by this legendary punk band are generally considered milestones of the genre, it’s no secret that they stumbled a bit throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. With lackluster albums and the exit of founding guitarist Billy Zoom, excitement surrounding the band dwindled considerably. But Alphabetland brings back the original lineup and finds them firing on all cylinders, as if the fumbles of yore never existed. Does this album reinvent the wheel? No. Is it fun, exciting and genuine? Yes.
Wasted Shirt – Fungus II (Famous Class)
It’s difficult to choose a favorite Ty Segall related release of 2020, as Segall Smeagol and Fuzz:III are also certified rippers, but I chose Fungus II by his new project, Wasted Shirt (with Brian Chippendale aka Black Pus of Lightning Bolt) because it’s perhaps his most surprising collaboration of the year. An absolutely seething and chaotic affair, this crackling, fuzzed out album is not recommended if you have a headache, but definitely recommended if you need a soundtrack to the many frustrations of 2020.
Neil Young – Homegrown (Reprise)
Although it’s not his only release of 2020, and not technically “new,” Homegrown serves as a genuine treat to any Neil Young fan. Collecting a group of songs recorded in Young’s prime (around 1975), Homegrown has an automatic familiar and comfortable nature that makes it slide quite nicely next to his most celebrated recordings. Featuring guest performances by Emmylou Harris as well as Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson of the Band, this album is hard to resist for any fan of 1970s folk rock.
Guided by Voices – Mirrored Aztec (Guided by Voices, Inc./Rockathon)
While keeping with the theme of hyper-prolific rock n’ rollers, we have Mirrored Aztec, the second album of 2020 by Dayton, Ohio’s Guided by Voices. It can be difficult to keep up with this band at times. If you’re like me, sometimes you only have enough cash for one record by a band, so you choose the record with the cooler album art. In that regard this record doesn’t disappoint, as Mirrored Aztec breaks from the band’s usual collage aesthetic to showcase a wonderful illustration by artist Courtney Latta. Luckily, the music doesn’t disappoint either, as the band still somehow manages to deliver new classics like “To Keep an Area” and “Easier Not Charming” which easily stand beside the band’s strongest work.
Damien Jurado – What’s New, Tomboy? (Mama Bird Recording, Co.)
Following in the stripped-back footsteps of his two previous albums, What’s New, Tomboy? finds Jurado delivering a grouping of direct and intimate recordings with sparse accompaniment. With intriguing lyrics that juxtapose both the melancholy and simple beauty of life, the album serves as an appropriate soundtrack to 2020; a time where many of us have been self-quarantined, often finding ourselves in states of reflection.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic)
Never one to rush her recording process, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is Apple’s first release in eight years, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan that’s complaining about the end result of the long wait. There’s so much passion and earnestness in Apple’s vocal delivery, it would be easy to simply focus on that, but the deliberate instrumental arrangements, each doing exactly what’s necessary and nothing more, are where the subtle genius of the compositions truly shine.
No Age – Goons Be Gone (Drag City)
Just as 2018’s Snares Like a Haircut returned to similar approaches of their earlier albums, Goons Be Gone finds No Age doing what they do best, while also slightly dialing up the experimental aspects of the band’s sound. This band originally pulled me in with their simple, raw, noisey punk numbers, but it’s the juxtaposition of their ambient experiments that has intrigued me in recent years. This album blends both styles quite well by mixing weird loops into songs with vocals, while still retaining catchy hooks with exuberant energy. This collection of songs is not necessarily a step in a new direction for the band, but a strong release that maintains the high standard of consistency that the band has established since the early 2000s.
The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin (Merge Records)
Who knew it would take a global pandemic for Mountain Goats’ chief songwriter John Darnielle to break out the boomboxes for a ‘return to form’ lo-fi recording? Although his songs have ultimately developed further by featuring expanded arrangements, rarely have any of the recent Mountain Goats albums hit with the same immediacy and urgency as Songs for Pierre Chuvin. Likewise, as listeners have heard Darnielle pivot to piano on some recent recordings, it’s nice to once again hear his hard-strumming attack on acoustic guitar.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge Records)
It’s rare that an artist can completely change their approach and still remain true to their songcraft at the same time. Such a move can often alienate older fans, but Waxahatchee’s 2020 offering, Saint Cloud, seems to not only have gained the band new listeners but also pleased most of their long-time fans as well. Saint Cloud sees Waxahatchee’s primary songwriter, Katie Crutchfield, applying some southern molasses drawl to her vocal inflections, a little added twang to her guitars and an occasional Dylan-esque application of humor with a hint of venom. The approach trades the distortion filled rock numbers of her previous albums with a decidedly more chilled-out vibe, but the listener ultimately gets a sense that Crutchfield is perhaps in a better place, emotionally, than before. Her vocal harmonies and delivery are still heart-breakingly beautiful, but far less fragile, and ultimately more confident. With the many great things Saint Cloud has going for it, it’s easy to understand why fans, both new and old, are climbing onto Crutchfield’s bandwagon, now more than ever.
Deerhoof – Love-Lore (Joyful Noise Recordings)
Yet another band that has kept busy during 2020, Deerhoof’s Love-Lore is not the band’s only release of the year, but essentially typifies everything that’s great about the band in a brief, 34-minute blast. For this album, the band chose some of their favorite songs by different composers, but instead of doing straight covers decided to mash them together in mind-blowing ways that only Deerhoof would be able to pull off. Who else would consider doing mashups of Ornette Coleman with Voivod or the Night Rider theme with Gary Numan and Eddie Grant? The result is a blissfully exciting experience that keeps the listener on the edge of their seat from beginning to end.