2020 was a year that presented all of us with a number of challenges and curve balls, to say the least. One industry that ground to a complete halt was live music. It was impacted so severely that may take years to regain its proper footing. It didn’t end there for the music world. Recording artists wrestled with whether it was appropriate to still move forward with their already-scheduled album releases. That said, some really great rock and roll made its way to us in 2020.
I don’t know if finding new music was easy or challenging for you over these past twelve months. I decided to assemble what I consider to be the top 20 tracks of 2020. I’ll bet that you haven’t heard of a lot of these artists before, and to be honest, that makes tossing this list your way even more enjoyable. I’m hopeful that you take away a few songs that launch a new musical journey and tee up a 2021 that every one of us can agree should be better than 2020.
Bands on this list hail from all over the globe, and for me, that’s fitting. In the end it’s the music that connects us all, and within this list are tracks that were made to get you on your feet and shakin’ your hips.
- Matthew Sweet: “At A Loss”
Sweet has returned with a solo offering called Catspaw, and with the newly-released single “At A Loss” he demonstrates that he has lost none of that musical charm that made him sound like an Indy version of Badfinger all those years ago when he blasted out with his Girlfriend album. The music is 60s infused with Beatle-esque harmonies and steely guitars. “I play free form,” he notes. “Nothing [was] too labored-over and that was important. It’s spontaneous. The more you can do that, the more organic it is. I’ve taken comfort in that as I’ve grown older. Success and people come and go in life, but I know I will always be making music and that it continues to be fun and intriguing – that mystery of discovering what a song is going to become.”
- Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen: “There Are No Secrets Here”
The music video for “There Are No Secrets Here” is a black and white film noir with broad brushstrokes of 1950s Italian cinema. Images jitter on screen and are supported with scenes of cars speeding recklessly and girls clenching the bedsheets in fear. It was shot in isolation at the peak of quarantine, using only an iPhone and three flashlights. The black and white video features public domain footage lifted from 1957s Dementia/Daughter of Horror and 1962’s Carnival of Souls. This retro approach is well-thought out. “Our goal is to play original rock and roll, in the style of the pioneers, but update it lyrically and sonically,” says Castro. “What if Buddy Holly had access to a stack of effects pedals and some Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds records?” That’s pretty spot-on for this band from Philly and warrants lending an ear to this haunting new track.
- VAR: “Run”
Other than Björk and the Sugarcubes, it’s not often that we get to hear rock music from such faraway places as Iceland. That’s too bad, because great music that is exciting and makes your heart race is being created everywhere. VAR’s new single, “Run,” fits melody into a space that creates devastatingly beautiful sound that’s both refined and explosive.
The entire process of writing and recording the album took one year. Stretching the process out across this span of time helped create a sound that is one part anxious and angelic; the other resonating and responsive.
- Kirby Sybert: “My Maker”
Philadelphia-based modern-age songster, singer, multi-instrumentalist, photographer and videographer Kirby Sybert makes his solo LP debut with Happy People Make Happy Things. The music here channels to spirit of those early Hall and Oates spins. It sits somewhere between that kind of Philly soul, the basement intimacy of The Band’s first two albums and the music they made at Big Pink with Bob Dylan.
Here Kirby sings and plays guitar, keys and drums. Moreover, much of the recording and production for the album happened in his Philadelphia bedroom. Happy People Make Happy Things is an introspective sonic journey highlighted by Kirby’s soulful vocals, psychedelic guitar riffs, and rubbery bass lines and drums that hit right in the pocket. This is an experiential record of accomplished musical productions, with sounds that are just left of center but fit perfectly into the music.
Arguably the finest track is the soul-stirrer “My Maker.” It begins with an echo-drenched electric guitar that plucks out with a purposeful slinky rhythm. This soon launches into a full blown burner complete with lilting horns and simmering keys. All along the way you are treated to a vocal delivery that suggests that Kirby Sybert was doing exactly what his album title proposes, and then some.
- The Bookends: “It’s Your Turn”
With a sound that feels as if it were lifted straight off of an Austin Powers car chase, The Bookends (not to be confused with the Celtic band of the same name) are a psychedelic go go act that would have fit right into the 1960s swinging London scene. Their music would snap right into place at Tiles, the Oxford Street club where teenage Mods would dance the night away, taunt local authorities and flaunt social norms. Like that London scene, The Bookends’ music is fast, fun and splashy.
- Evening’s Empire: “Tonight”
Evening’s Empire is a high energy rock outfit from San Diego. They have built a name for themselves by delivering powerful live performances. Formed in 2019, they are just about to release their debut album Alive For Us, featuring the hard-driving guitar work of former Dinettes member Shannon Sabin. She is joined by Sam Strohbehn on guitar/synths, David Skolnik on bass/synths and Charles Wile on drums. This is an all-out rock record that channels acts like The Killers and Joy Division. Already the band seems destined for a much better future than the fictional British band featured in Bill Flanagan’s book of the same name. Their song “Tonight” has been licensed for an upcoming movie called “Eat Wheaties,” so the album should enjoy some momentum out of the gates. This is 1980s synth rock meets the arena, with a nod to bands like Kings of Leon, and some really terrific synth and guitar work.
- Tremendous: “Don’t Leave Our Love (Open To Closing)”
Strap yourself in and get ready for a ride! The debut album Relentless from the band Tremendous is out and it’s lively and loud! They’re a glam-rock trio from Birmingham, England that took its name from the catchphrase of the Cuban-American comedian Joey Diaz. Bowie meets Babyshambles with the spirit and energy of the Lower East Side’s D Generation. Almost every song sounds like a car burning rubber as it peels out of a high school parking lot. What holds everything together are the stirring vocals of Mark Dudzinski. They soar with the skills and range heard from most of metal’s leading men, but are more grounded, earthy and soulful. This is where contemporary rock should be headed.
- The Gasoline Lollipops: “All The Misery Money Can Buy”
The Gasoline Lollipops have a sound that’s difficult to define. There are moments when they remind me of an old New England outfit called Girls Guns and Glory. They slide in between country, rock and Americana with an attitude that evokes the Black Crowes and Deadstring Brothers. All the Misery Money Can Buy, the title track from their new album, is as hot and steamy as a New Orleans August afternoon. Clay Rose’s vocals shift from the lilting vibrato of Elvis in Memphis to the earthiness of early Jim Morrison, and the music is rock solid.
- The Moon Kids: “Touch of Venice”
Out of Scotland comes the rightful torch bearers of the sounds that both The Verve and Oasis helped define. The Moon Kids have released their new single. “Touch of Venice.” and it sounds like The Verve by way of a Munich dance club. It’s thoroughly European, framed by sonics that are broad and anthemic. It’s also highly addictive.
- Bonnie Whitmore: “None Of My Business”
Whitmore’s vocals are truly bewitching. Her voice and material remind me quite a bit of The Mavericks front man Raul Malo. Like Malo, Whitmore demonstrates remarkable control while singing about heady topics like personal loss and the great American divide, in music that’s styled but not glossy. She’s been characterized as setting casual conversations to music, and that music taps into elements of 1960s AM pop, country and Memphis. Here she shares a kind of kinship with Shelby Lynne in her ability to bring forward a soulfulness that’s reminiscent of some of classic country’s best songstresses.
- Ricky Byrd: Every track on Sobering Times
Anyone who’s told you rock and roll is dead hasn’t heard Sobering Times, the new album from Ricky Byrd, guitarist/singer/songwriter for Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Sobering Times is an intimate reflection of recovery, delivered via rock and roll. As Goldmine magazine notes, “…The Faces and the Rolling Stones with a dash of Otis…It rocks like a b*tch…early indications make it seem likely that this will be his career statement.” Byrd’s sound blends Big Star, ELO, The Faces, and his own Blackhearts. The music is four-on-the-floor rock but with enough complexity to get you to turn your head and lean in toward your speakers. Byrd delivers his message of hope to those recovering from addiction with frank honesty about the trials of surviving and thriving in a sober life.
- Kurt Baker: “Outta Sight”
“Outta Sight” from Kurt Baker’s latest record, After Party, is power pop on a race track where every lap seems to gain speed and height. Imagine Fountains of Wayne amped up and wilder. Of the new track “Outta Sight,” Baker says, “The main influence on this track is the band Single Bullet Theory. They had one record in the early 80s and are mostly unheard of, but [producer] Wyatt Funderburk and I love them. Wyatt actually found two vintage Single Bullet Theory T-shirts on eBay and picked them up for us. When they came in the mail we sat down and wrote this song off of an idea I had for the chorus. We wanted to build up each chorus so that by the very end it was really big. I think it’s the perfect closer to the record.” It sure is.
- The Midnight Callers: “Return the Favor”
Not since The Strokes arrived has a New York City-based band done so much to carve out their own rock path – and music that can appeal to more than the few folks who can fit into an underground Chelsea club. Enter The Midnight Callers, whose 10-track album has all the grit and grime of the city they call home.
The music is something like what The Byrds might have sounded like if Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds were their backing band. The vocals soar over four-on-the-floor hip shakin’ tracks. It’s no surprise that Kurt Reil of The Grip Weeds was involved with the engineering and production. On tracks like “Return The Favor” they sound like an amped-up Jesse Malin. No matter where you drop the needle on this fast and fun record you’ll find something that makes you want to move.
- STONE HORSES: “Good Ol Days”
Boom! Get ready to hear some “Back In The Saddle”-era Aerosmith on “Good Ole Days,” the first single off STONE HORSES self-titled debut. The song drips with swagger, with elements of metal but with enough polish and panache to live on the edges of Hagar-led Van Halen. It’s fist-in-the-air, MTV video-era rock and roll with attitude. Singer John Allen explains, “with this new record, I wanted to give the listener some escapism. As I started to write the song ‘Good Ol’ Days’ at the beginning of 2020, it was already looking a little like we were in for a f#@$d up year, so I figured, Man, let’s remember the good times. Let’s remember the times when we could hang out, go to parties, go to concerts and music festivals! Hopefully, we can get back to that place really really soon. We need some fun back in our lives. I know that might seem childish these days, but it might not hurt to think of those ‘Good Ol’ Days’ when we didn’t have a care in the world.”
- Diane Gentile: “Motorcycle”
Diane Gentile, with her band The Gentle Men has just released her first full-length album, The White Sea. The LP is comprised of ten tracks penned by Gentile and features production by Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate), Jesse Malin and producer/songwriter Matt Basile. “Motorcycle” and “Perfect People” have been played in heavy rotation by Steven Van Zandt on his SiriusXM channel, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage.”
The LP opens with the rollicking road-trip anthem “Motorcycle.” Diane paints a picture of a carefree excursion seen from the back of a bike; “Blame it on summer heat when the moon is high and the air is clear and the sky is wide.” It’s the quintessential summer song.
- Teddy Thompson: Heartbreaker Please
Teddy Thompson’s eighth album. Heartbreaker Please is a welcome return to the blue-eyed country soul that was so endearing on his 2000 self-titled debut. It’s an album chronicling the end of a relationship, and like its sister record, 2011’s Bella, it’s a mix of Memphis soul, waltzes, light rockers and steady ballads. However, unlike Bella, this is not a lush, lavishly arranged affair with strings sweeping in and out of songs like mighty winds. Instead, the songs on Heartbreaker Please are tight, with plenty of room between each instrument. The album opener “Why Wait” is a Stax-like soul shaker with horns providing punctuation but never overly prominent. This is where it belongs – on Teddy’s emotion-laden voice, which has lost little if anything over the years.
The title track is a nod to the kind of late 1970s Southern California sound that back-up band The Section created for so many artists, tight and tasty from start to finish.
- Paul Weller: “Earth Beat”
An incredibly prolific artist, Paul Weller continues to record a remarkable amount of new music even as he has entered his seventh decade. On June 12th he released his 15th solo album, On Sunset. Weller has always been one to explore a variety of sounds, and with this record he experiments with electronic and orchestral elements. That said, at its heart this is a soul record with pop sensibilities and heart-tugging ballads.
Weller continues to move forward musically, incorporating up-to-the-minute contemporary sounds and collaborators like Col3trane, who appears on “Earth Beat.” But lyrically, Weller, back on his old label Polydor Records for the first time since The Style Council days, is committed to looking back on his past with the insight of age.
- Lucinda Williams: “You Can’t Rule Me”
As soon as Lucinda Williams’ new record Good Souls Better Angels begins you know that it’s going to be one great ride. The album opener, “You Can’t Rule Me,” is a 1960s back-beat grinder that has grit, muscle, soul, and a whole ‘lotta attitude. The time she and her husband Tom Overby spent helping Jesse Malin produce his last two records has left a mark on Williams’ new release. The band and the fuzzy guitars have a real Bowery garage band vibe even on the slow songs. Brilliant music all around.
- Jesse Malin: “Backstabbers”
Like many artists, Jesse Malin has dealt with the impact of the pandemic by hosting a weekly live show. Broadcast from his East Village, New York apartment, the program is called “The Art Of Self Distancing” – a play on the name of his celebrated debut album, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, hasn’t kept him from releasing new studio material. The ever-prolific rocker who last year released the exceptional album Sunset Kids is preparing a follow-up, Lust For Life, largely composed of songs also written and recorded during the Sunset sessions. He’s again produced by Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby here.
Based upon the sound of the first Lust single, “Backstabbers,” it seems like Lust could be Sunset, Act Two. “Backstabbers” has a Boss-infused pop feel and features a glockenspiel that somehow works. Malin noted, “the story is pretty much [about] coming of age, getting out of your small town and coming into the city searching for something new.” “Backstabbers” struts along, sneers and head-bobs with the earmarks of a bona fide hit.
- Alex Harris: “Rollin”
“Rollin” is the feel-good song of the fall. The powerful, soulful single was written by Sam Ashworth, Zachary Hall and Joshua Scott Chasez and produced by Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Go-Go’s, the Raveonettes). If you haven’t heard of Harris it’s likely because most of his time is spent running ACT (Arts Conservatory for Teens) and lecturing worldwide. Alex Harris is a modern soul singer with gospel roots and has shared the stage with Al Green, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, H.E.R., Brandy, and Lionel Richie. “Rollin” in included on Harris’ newly-released six-song EP, Frequency, a blend of southern soul, alternative-music grooves, and gospel. “Rollin” is that perfect kind of soul song. Its sparse arrangement sways and glides with lazy horn lines that pull it forward, yet ensure that nothing overshadows Alex Harris’ remarkable vocals. He combines the delicate delivery of an Al Green with the anguish of Otis Redding and the fire of Wilson Pickett. It’s a powerful and irresistible combination.