2020. Yikes, right?
It's been a year like no other. Circumstances have changed rather drastically, we've all had to adapt, and the business of music is looking rather different now than it was at the beginning of 2020. The usual festival dates have passed and gone without the usual festivals taking place, and most of us can't even remember the last time we tried to order a pint over the noise of a live band.
But it's been a really good year for music. We're not just saying that because it's our job to get excited, we're saying it because we have the evidence: the albums. From old stagers like Bob Dylan to young guns like Larkin Poe, it's been a year of unexpected brilliance and often startling originality.
These are the 20 best albums from the first six months of 2020, released up until June 30.
The Airborne Toxic Event - Hollywood Park
The album acts as an impressionistic reflection of a tumultuous life, building on the grandiosity that made their single Sometime Around Midnight so revelatory in 2008 to create an hour of sheer roar-along brilliance.
Lacing ornate atmospheres to Bruce Springsteen’s noble Americana, the title track (named after a racetrack) is a fanfare rock gallop you could imagine Flash Gordon roping steers to, while Everything I Love Is Broken, Carry Me and rehab-ready alt.country beast The Common Touch imagine The National hurling themselves into the Grand Canyon. .
The Cadillac Three - Country Fuzz
Their country is almost to the point of parody, with a harder southern rock edge to keep things interesting, and there’s not a single song on here that doesn’t tip its weathered trucker cap to the simple wonders of ice-cold beers and/or whiskey, while the rolling, swaggering Hard Out Here is nothing short of a rollicking game of redneck bingo, taking in brews, “hot girls”, NASCAR, smokes, hound dogs and chicken wings for a Nashville full house.
Mainly, this isn’t music intended to inspire soul-searching. With its fat, fuzzy riffs and living-for-the-weekend vibe, it’s made entirely for boozy barbecues and blokey banter, and maybe the odd trip to a monster truck rally. And you can be sure that The Cadillac Three wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cherie Currie - Blvds Of Splendor
Exploding out of the traps with the all-Gunners-blazing Mr X, Blvds clearly means business and compounds the muscular groove with Roxy Roller (where You Drive Me Wild riffing meets Suzi Q dynamics). Billy Corgan makes his mark with a Pumpkins-esque title track (all emphatic strings, pinging guitar harmonics, scrubbing acoustics and co-sung choruses).
Force To Be Reckoned With swaggers with loose-ass Stooges hand claps and delinquent ‘na-na-na’s, while Rock & Roll Oblivion cranks up the drama to compelling effect, leaving the listener baffled as to why Cherie Currie hasn’t been making records like this for the last 40 years.
Dion - Blues With Friends
For the most part, though, Blues With Friends is exuberant and coltish, be it the frisky Blues Comin’ On (with Joe Bonamassa), a redemptive Bam Bang Boom (with Billy Gibbons) or the bruising Chicago thump of Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More), enlivened by Steve Van Zandt.
Van Morrison, Brian Setzer, Samantha Fish and Joe Louis Walker are also among his guests, while Bob Dylan takes care of writing the sleeve notes. All of which shores up the notion of Dion as a truly singular treasure.
Drive-By Truckers - The Unraveling
Drive-By Truckers always sounded like a good idea: super-smart lyrics, a rocky twist on country and an unashamedly progressive outlook. Alas their actual sound hasn’t always delivered, and too often they’ve surrendered to stodge.
The Unraveling (recorded at Sam Phillips’s place in Memphis) sees their righteous anger complemented by a musical surge, where the Steve Forbert-esque 21st Century USA is propelled by strings, and the spartan, atmospheric near-nine-minute Awaiting Resurrection is a slower, spooked state-of-the-nation address which evokes major-label-era Butthole Surfers.
Drive-By Truckers have never been angrier, but, just as crucially, they’ve never been more musically eloquent.
Greg Dulli - Random Desire
Having come up through the grunge era but never really fitting in with the sound of the time, it’s fitting that his first solo album is a master class in mining the musical spectrum, taking in everything from Prince’s carnal yelps on Scorpio to a sparse, desert-bound echo of Nick Cave’s devil-baiting gothic drama on A Ghost, somehow combining it with a backbone of Dr John hoodoo in a manner that seems entirely natural.
Taken as a whole, though, Random Desire could only ever have come from Dulli. It’s a deeply intimate, deeply beautiful examination of regret, loss, disappointment, solitude and personal demons, made all the more alluring by his warm, frank, subtly emotional vocals. As he reaches the status of elder statesman, here he takes the mantle with the utmost grace.
Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways
Yes, this is an old man, a much slower man, living off hindsight. He no longer sounds like himself, but more like the singer Tom Waits affects to be, his voice husky with accrued experience. There’s barely a toot from his trademark harmonica.
Rough And Rowdy Ways is unique, precious testimony from an elderly rock’n’roll survivor who, for all the games he plays, is a seer nonetheless. And what he has seen, in his mind’s eye, no one else has or will.
Green Day - Father Of All Motherfuckers
Having delivered their latest bruising and brilliant portrait of gun-rampaging, post-truth America on 2016’s Revolution Radio, Green Day have knocked together a breezy pop-punk party record about, according to Billie Joe Armstrong, “not giving a fuck”.
There’s an age-defying playfulness in the glam hand-claps decorating White Stripes-blasted shimmy rockers like Fire, Ready, Aim and the title track, or the euphoric indie synth-pop of Oh Yeah!. On Take The Money And Crawl they come on like the love child of AC/DC and Arctic Monkeys.
Such carefree, nostalgic hedonism might be as untimely as offering Prince Andrew out for a Pizza Express, but it’s refreshing, comforting even, to have Green Day back in their exuberant element, unburdened by message or morality.
Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit - Reunions
The Grammy-winning former Drive-By Trucker is the country-rock (or alt. country) star who even non-fans of the genre like, so indisputable is his gift for the astute, poetic line, the yearning but not overcooked vocal and the anthemic yet intimate tune.
Whether he’s musing insightfully over alcoholism or parenthood, his band are blazing and Isbell takes a tired format and charges it up with passion and perceptiveness. An admirable anomaly.
H.e.a.t - H.e.a.t II
H.e.a.t II is a gleaming chrome comet of pure class, its core DNA made up of 10 per cent cheekbone and 90 per cent ‘whoah-oah-oah’s. It’s all the more glorious because the band who made it know full well that it’s never going to sell enough to enable them to buy mansions in the Hollywood Hills with underground cineplexes and taps that run hot and cold cocaine.
In an age when truly blockbusting choruses are rare, H.e.a.t II possesses an embarrassment of riches. And therein lies the great tragedy of H.e.a.t: no matter how good a record they make, they’re destined to be overlooked for something trendier, shallower and way less exciting. But as long as they keep making records this good, there’s still hope in the world.
Mark Lanegan - Straight Songs Of Sorrow
A masterful companion piece to Mark Lanegan’s unflinching memoir Sing Backwards And Weep, which details painfully the singer’s tumultuous years with Screaming Trees and his struggles with addiction as a redneck waster in Seattle, Straight Songs Of Sorrow draws from the same deep well of emotional experience.
Greg Dulli, John Paul Jones and the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis are among the guests, but this is very much a personal project, as Lanegan exorcises his ghosts on songs built from nervy electronica and wounded ambience.
Larkin Poe - Self Made Man
There’s something about Rebecca Lovell’s booming, bluesy voice that simply brooks no argument, and on Larkin Poe's fifth studio album she sounds more authoritative than ever.
Opening salvo She’s A Self Made Man may have a sardonic side to it, but there’s a non-ironic conviction underpinning it that reflects a belief in earthy roots rock values.
While Larkin Poe are worthy, though, they’re never dull – the Tyler Bryant-guesting Back Down South accompanies a loving evocation of their home region’s musical legacy with a winningly gnarly riff.
Magnum - The Serpent Rings
The band succeed in weaving subtle twists into the song structures without taking outlandish risks, keeping things fresh without straying too far. The Archway Of Tears builds gradually with harmonious layers of keyboards and guitars to deliver a 10-storey chorus, retaining the orchestral flourishes of previous album Lost On The Road To Eternity, and strings also enliven opening rocker Where Are You Eden?
Tony Clarkin’s skill in crafting enduring melodies is in plentiful evidence; Not Forgiven and Madman Or Messiah featuring especially keen hooklines, belted with grit by Catley. As ever, the lyrics alternate between fantasy (the title track) and stark reality (Man). Free of any filler, The Serpent Rings looks set to continue Magnum’s hard-won late-career revival.
The Night Flight Orchestra - Aeromantic
Although not billed explicitly as such, Aeromantic is effectively a concept album, thematically driven by the bittersweet consequences of jet-set romance, each of its 13 tracks a cinematic vignette in an ambitious, opulent aero-opera.
The classic 70s and 80s rock is complemented by cheeky nods to ABBA (If Tonight Is Our Only Chance and This Boy’s Last Summer), Elton John (the fabulous title track), throbbing disco (Transmissions) and smooth 70s soul (Curves).
Aeromantic is euphoric, life-affirming, joyously over-the-top and all the better for it.
Ozzy Osbourne - Ordinary Man
There’s a case that Ozzy Osbourne operates best with his back to the wall, and his twelfth album comes off the ropes swinging. Eat Me has the album’s toughest riff and an enjoyably literal lyric (‘My meat is nice and tender’).
Today Is The End kicks off like Enter Sandman’s maladjusted cousin, before Ozzy’s melodic instincts sugar the pill. Holy For Tonight’s instrumental break is pure Beatles, as is the title ballad, with Elton John tickling ivories and taking the second verse.
If this is Ozzy’s swansong – and his lyric sheet, advancing age and post-millennial work rate suggest that’s not inconceivable – then, like Sabbath’s 13, it’s a credible end to an extraordinary career. But if history has taught us anything, it’s to never write him off.
Pearl Jam - Gigaton
It’s been seven years since the last Pearl Jam studio album, and the world has changed irrevocably since then. But thankfully some things remain reliably the same. Opener Who Ever Said is a by-the-book Pearl Jam rocker, its chorus a plea to check ourselves and not give up – ‘Whoever said: “It’s all been said”, gave up on satisfaction’ – and offers a solution that: ‘All the answers will be found/In the mistakes that we have made…’
And mistakes the human race has made are writ large and discussed throughout, from global warming – the melting icebergs on its sleeve, and references to ‘seas raising’ and ‘oceans rising’ – to political dissatisfaction and rage. But, ultimately, in these uncertain times, Pearl Jam have given us an unexpected album of hope.
Stone Temple Pilots - Perdida
STP’s new album will, on first listen, surprise and likely disappoint some fans of the band’s hard, power-chord-driven delivery and overall oomph. Basically because there isn’t any of it here.
On Perida (Spanish for ‘loss’) there isn’t a power chord in sight; in fact the electric guitars spent the vast majority of the recording sessions collecting dust in their racks, while the four-pice made a mostly light-touch, airy, virtually acoustic collection.
Exuding a melancholic, longing feel – both musically and lyrically – but without sounding at all gloomy, it’s a record focused sharply on looking back, recalling times good and bad, some to be cherished and some best forgotten.
Those Damn Crows - Point Of No Return
This follow-up to Murder And The Motive takes the promise inherent in their debut, ratchets up the intensity 10-fold and positively rams home the qualities that made that record special. Here we have titanic riffs and instantly memorable choruses in blissful harmony, kind of like a Welsh Alter Bridge or Shinedown.
With Colin Richardson and Andy Sneap producing there was no chance this was going to sound anything other than immense – Send The Reaper with its Metallica-sized riffing, Kingdom Of Dust, Go Get It, Devil In My Pocket, just take your pick and prepare to be flattened by the breathless momentum.
Difficult second album? Nope.
Various Artists - Earache Presents: The New Wave Of Rock N Roll
Earache Presents: The New Wave Of Rock N Roll is an essential state-of-the-nation address. Rightly celebrating the scene’s British wing, it brings together 15 uniformly brilliant bands, all of whom are bringing something new and something different to the table.
What’s striking is how many bands here go beyond the usual suspects influence-wise. Sure, all of them have the DNA of Led Zeppelin, and The Black Crowes too. But you can hear The White Stripes in Jack J Hutchinson’s frantic howl, and Lzzy Hale would have been proud to call Tomorrow Is Lost’s We Are The Lost her own.
What’s even more striking is how many of these artists are female. Yeah, we should be over that conversation by now, but the sad fact is we aren’t. This album goes some way to redressing that, front-loading it with a run of superior-quality numbers such as Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin’ Stones’ Bomb Through The Breeze, Elles Bailey’s swampy Medicine Man and Verity White’s scything Inside Your Love.
Wishbone Ash - Coat Of Arms
In contrast to the overly bluesy direction of their latter-day albums, Coat Of Arms has pleasing, prominent overtones of their classic sound. Powell has credited recent addition Mark Abrahams (guitar) with re-energising the band, and, sure enough, strident opener We Stand As One bursts out of the traps with a renewed edge and hunger, twin guitar riffs to the fore.
The blustery title track and the folky Empty Man hit the mark with intricate long-form arrangements, allowing Powell and Abrahams to weave harmonised leads over shifting rhythms. A couple of weaker tracks (Floreana, Back In The Day) fail to connect, but the overriding consistency and variety make Coat Of Arms their strongest record in years.