KMUW's Best Music of 2020

KMUW music hosts Jedd Beaudoin and Chris Heim share their selections for the best music releases of 2020. Join our music programs throughout January 2021 for a month-long feature highlighting the Best of 2020.

Courtesy the artists

Best Local/Regional Albums 2020  

  1. My Getaway—Dustin Arbuckle & The Damnations
  2. Self-Acceptance Speech—Old News
  3. Forest Standards, Vol.2—David Lord
  4. Les Easterby Presents Pet Sounds—Les Easterby           
  5. Cars & Stars—Wayne Gottstine
  6. Pretend Friend & Friends—Pretend Friend
  7. Good God! I Want to be Whole—Travel Guide
  8. 5—Jim Vegas
  9. Truth & Intent—Terry Quiett Band
  10. Friends and Family—Heyleon
  11. Something To Say To You—Jordana
  12. Sun City Vices—The Ants
  13. Back To Paradise: A Tulsa Tribute To Okie Music—Various Artists
  14. Everybody’s Girl—Lindzey Butler
  15. Death From Space—Ghost Town Strays
  16. The Last Ray of Hope—The Candy Lords
  17. Birds of the Deep—The World Palestine
  18. Workin’ Woman—Jenna Rae
  19. Swagger—Uche and The Crash
  20. Papoose +—The Coma Calling
  21. Souvenir—Ben Dipper
  22. 9 Reflections—Golden Living Room
  23. Not Knowing—Moon Lagoon
  24. Live At Wave—Not Cops
  25. Psychic Weather Patterns—High Plains Drifter

Best Local/Regional EPs 2020  

  1. Thank Goodness—Kill Vargas
  2. What The Future Holds—Trent Gaddie
  3. Show Me A Smile—Milkwave
  4. Punch Me! This Is A Nightmare—Yasmin Nur
  5. From The Neck Up—Keeper
  6. Window Wonder—Enna and the Snapdragons
  7. No New Normal—False Flag ICT
  8. The People Around You—Lively Up
  9. Something Out of Nothing—NGNK
  10. Growing Pains—Faintheart

Best Local/Regional Singles 2020  

  1. “Up From Here”—Dusty Grant
  2. “Kingdumb”—The New Imperialism
  3. “Admiration”—BoldWine
  4. “Avalanche”/ “Liars”—Vehicles
  5. “Path Unknown”—J9
  6. “Vampiro”—Ghost Town Strays
  7. “Make Your Own Bed”—Jim Vegas
  8. “Ain’t Yer Mama”—Big Red Horse
  9. “What Have We Done To Our World?”— Lê Khoa
  10. “Mehtevas”—Rise Again

It pretty much goes without saying that if Shemekia Copeland has an album out, it will be on Best of the Year lists, though credit too to Will Kimbrough who co-wrote most of the songs, played guitar, and produced her latest album. We also couldn’t stop playing the 2020 release from soul blues veteran Frank Bey.

There were lots of fine classic and Chicago blues releases in 2020, including sets from Alex Dixon (Willie’s grandson), John Primer & Bob Corritore, Kim Wilson, and, happily back again, Nora Jean Wallace (Brusco).

Another great soul singer, Sonny Green, got his first full album after a decades-long career, while Maceo Parker returned with his first new release, a set of fun and funky favorites, in eight years.

Local favorites Dustin Arbuckle & the Damnations, and Mike Finnigan (with the Phantom Blues Band) did the town proud with their 2020 releases, while Quad Cities favorites, and 2020 International Blues Challenge Semi-Finalists, the Avey Grouws Band showed great promise with their debut release.

Among the acoustic blues offerings of the year were fine sets from Rory Block and Blind Lemon Pledge (who we would include if only for the name). Peter Parcek continues to prove he is among the most inventive of the blues guitarists on the scene today.

Speaking of inventive guitarists, Cindy Cashdollar — who has worked with Asleep at the Wheel, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, Sonny Landreth, Marcia Ball and scores more —released a star-studded set of her own, not strictly blues, but too good not to include.

The cigar box guitar and earth-shaking vocals of Gina Coleman made the Misty Blues Band release a stand out. Solid stuff too this year from veterans Robert Cray, Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray, and Lloyd Jones. And Savoy Brown, around now for 55 years (!) just keeps on keepin’ on – no surprises, but it’s hard not to like their trademark British blues rock sound.

Here are the Crossroads Top 25 Favorites of 2020 in alphabetical order:

1. Dustin Arbuckle & the Damnations – My Getaway (Dustin Arbuckle)
2. Avey Grouws Band – Devil May Care (Avey Grouws)
3. Frank Bey – All My Dues Are Paid (NOLA Blue)
4. Blind Lemon Pledge – Goin’ Home (Blind Lemon Pledge)
5. Rory Block – Prove It On Me (Stony Plain)
6. Cindy Cashdollar – Waltz for Abilene (Silver Shot)
7. Chickenbone Slim – Sleeper (Lo Fi Mob)
8. Shemekia Copeland – Uncivil War (Alligator)
9. Robert Cray – That’s What I Heard (Nozzle)
10. Alex Dixon – The Real McCoy (Dixon Landing)
11. Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters – Rise Up (Stony Plain)
12. Sonny Green – Found! One Soul Singer (Little Village Foundation)
13. Jimmy Johnson – Every Day of Your Life (Delmark)
14. Lloyd Jones – Tennessee Run (Vizztone)
15. Lisa Mills – The Triangle (BMG)
16. Misty Blues Band – Weed ‘Em & Reap (Misty Blues)
17. New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers – Vol. 1 (Stony Plain)
18. Peter Parcek – Mississippi Suitcase (Lightnin’)
19. Maceo Parker – Soul Food: Cooking with Maceo (The Funk Garage)
20. Phantom Blues Band – Still Cookin’ (Vizztone)
21. John Primer & Bob Corritore – The Gypsy Woman Told Me (Vizztone)
22. Savoy Brown – Ain’t Done Yet (Quarto Valley)
23. Sugar Ray and the Bluetones – Too Far from the Bar (Severn)
24. Nora Jean Wallace – Blues Woman (Severn)
25. Kim Wilson – Take Me Back (M.C. Records)

Despite a global pandemic, there continued to be a steady stream of global sounds throughout 2020. And if we couldn’t travel literally, perhaps more of us will be inclined to do so musically and discover some of the great work that musicians from all around the world have to offer.

This year you could travel the Silk Road from one end — with the Chinese band Manhu and Mongolian ensemble Khusugtun — to the other — with Turkish oud player Mehmet Polat — or explore the whole route with 3,14 (whose 2020 release takes its title from the scientific name for the silk worm.)

It’s hard to resist almost any Afrobeat, and there were quite a number of choices this year, but especially so if you go to the source (Nigeria’s Bantu) or one of its more unlikely outposts (Lithuania’s Ojibo Afrobeat).

As usual, there were so many great and different sounds and styles of Latin music to choose from; from the salsa jazz of master pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba with electric vocalist Aymee Nuviola (easy to see why she was chosen to play Celia Cruz in a Colombian telenovela), to the rock influenced approaches to Mexican marimba music (Son Rompe Pera) and cumbia (Santa Fe’s Nohe y Sus Santos), to classic son (Buena Vista guitarist Eliades Ochoa), and lively yet elegant Brazilian choro (Aquarela).

Reggae fans could savor the Ernest Ranglin-like reggae-jazz of guitarist Kubix, or the offbeat yet entrancing meeting of reggae and theremin from Italian artist Gaudi.

Speaking of music from unusual places, the Mexican brass band Los Rurales combined Oaxacan and Balkan music. Nation Beat seamlessly fused Brazilian and Crescent City sounds. Morocco’s Majid Bekkas served up inventive North African psychedelic jazz. And the always fascinating cellist Matthieu Saglio brought together an international cast of musicians for his own evocative world jazz fusion.

And old sounds got new treatments. Some of the finest township sounds to be released internationally since the heyday of Graceland appeared this year thanks to the great Vusi Mahlasela. Trio Tekke continued its fascinating exploration and re-invention of Greek rembetiko music. And Solas co-founder Seamus Egan stepped out on his own for a new and expressive take on traditional Irish music.

Those and many more fascinating musical excursions were available in 2020.

Here are the Global Village Top 25 Favorites of the year in alphabetical order:

1. 3,14 – Bombyx Mori (Worlds Within Worlds)
2. Alhousseini Anivolla & Girum Mezmur – Afropentatonism (Piranha)
3. Aquarela – A Bela Vida (Buda Musique)
4. Bab L’Bluz – Nayda! (Real World)
5. Bantu – Everybody Get Agenda (Soledad)
6. Majid Bekkas – Magic Spirit Quartet (ACT)
7. Xabier Diaz & Adufeiras de Salitre – The Silenced Cathedrals (Musicas de Salitre Spain)
8. Seamus Egan – Early Bright (THL)
9. Gaudi – 100 Years of Theremin (Dubmission)
10. Amir John Hadad – Andalucia (Galileo)
11. Khusugtun – Jangar (Buda Musique)
12. KUBIX – Guitar Chant (Attik)
13. Jaakko Laitinen & Vaara Raha – Borek (Playground)
14. Vusi Mahlasela – Shebeen Queen (ATO)
15. Manhu — Voices of the Sani (Riverboat)
16. Nation Beat – The Royal Chase (Nation Beat Music)
17. Nohe & Sus Santos – Tempestad (Avokado)
18. Eliades Ochoa — Vamos a Bailar un Son (Eliades Ochoa)
19. Ojibo Afrobeat – Ojiboland (Ojibo Afrobeat)
20. Mehmet Polat – The Promise (Aftab)
21. Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymee Nuviola – Viento y Tiempo (Top Stop)
22. Los Rurales – Ocotita (Classicos Latinos/Cugate)
23. Matthieu Saglio – El Camino de los Vientos (ACT)
24. Son Rompe Pera – Batuco (Aya)
25. Trio Tekke – Strovilos (Riverboat)

It probably had something to do with the kind of year we had, but the albums that seemed to stand out in 2020 were often ones that brought the most comfort: the balladry of Jeremy Pelt, the elegant and understated weave of strings used by Eric Alexander, the sunny effort from Bill Cunliffe, and especially (the one album not in alphabetical order here) the warm boleros featured in the quarantine project from John Daversa and his all-star group (Gonzalo Rubalcaba – who also shows up in the Global Village favorites, Dafnis Prieto, Sammy Figueroa, and Carol de Rosa).

Though vocal albums (with a few notable exceptions) have been rare on best-of lists, there were a few that stood out this year: the airy concept set from Kat Edmonson, the Latin balladry of Lauren Henderson, Kandace Springs’ salute to the women among her influences, and a powerful and moving jazz/roots project from Chanda Rule.

Meanwhile, a trend-let for all-female bands continued with the Artemis supergroup of Renee Rosnes, Anat Cohen, Melissa Aldana, Ingrid Jensen, Noriko Ueda, Allison Miller, and 2020 genius grant recipient Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Brazil’s Aquarela, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (and guests), and the elegant Latin-influenced compositions of John Finbury (performed by vocalis Magos Herrera, pianist Chano Domínguez, bassist John Patitucci, and  drummer Antonio Sánchez) were among the standouts in what continues to be a very strong Latin jazz scene, while on the soul jazz side we had live sets from Brazilian keyboardist Ricardo Bacelar, and KC favorites Guitar Elation.

One of the surprises of the year was Jordan Siegel’s inventive tribute to film composers, evoking their style with his own engaging original compositions.

Last but not least, for the first six months of the year we were treated to reissues of the remaining, long unavailable Erroll Garner Octave albums, a charming reminder of why he was once one of the most popular pianists in the land.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the Night Train Top 25 Favorites of 2020:

1. John Daversa Quintet – Cuarentena: With Family at Home (Tiger Turn)
2. Eric Alexander – With Strings (High Note)
3. Joey Alexander – Warna (Verve)
4. Aquarela – A Bela Vida (Buda Musique)
5. Artemis – Artemis (Blue Note)
6. Ricardo Bacelar – Ao Vivo No Rio (Bacelar)
7. John Beasley – MONK’estra Plays John Beasley (Mack Avenue)
8. Bill Cunliffe – Sunrise Over Molokai (Metre)
9. John DiMartino – Passion Flower (Sunnyside)
10. Kat Edmonson – Dreamers Do (MRI)
11. John Finbury – Quatro (Green Flash)
12. Bill Frisell – Valentine (Blue Note)
13. Erroll Garner Octave Reissues – That’s My Kick, Up In Erroll’s Room, Feeling Is Believing, Gemini, Magician and Gershwin & Kern (Octave/Mack Avenue)
14. Guitar Elation – Double Live at the Green Lady Lounge (Jazz Daddy)
15. Lauren Henderson – The Songbook Session (CD Baby)
16. Ian Hendrickson-Smith – The Lowdown (Cellar Music)
17. Harold Mabern – Mabern Plays Mabern (Smoke Sessions)
18. Delfeayo Marsalis & Uptown Jazz Orchestra – Jazz Party (Troubadour Jass)
19. Christian McBride Big Band – For Jimmy, Wes & Oliver (Mack Avenue)
20. Pearl Django – Simplicity (Modern Hot)
21. Jeremy Pelt – The Art of Intimacy Vol. 1 (High Note)
22. Chanda Rule + Sweet Emma Band – Hold On (PAO)
23. Jordan Siegel – Beyond Images (Wonderbird)
24. Spanish Harlem Orchestra – The Latin Jazz Project (Artist Share)
25. Kandace Springs – The Women Who Raised Me (Blue Note)

Creating Best Of the Year lists always presents its challenges and 2020 was no exception: Releases were pushed back, others arrived the early hours of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was easy to consider that they might be forgotten. In all, 2020 provided plenty of excellent releases, including some surprises from Drive-By Truckers and Andre LaFosse. Others, such as Laraaji and The Mountain Goats issued multiple recordings in 2020 while Paul McCartney’s long-awaited McCartney III has been pushed to a late 2020 release, which accounts for its absence from this list.

There were plenty of other strong contenders for the Top 25, including discs from The Soft Pink Truth, Sarah Peacock, and Bobby Rush.

1. Fetch The Bolt Cutters—Fiona Apple
2. When I Was A Writer—Matt Wilson and His Orchestra
3. Chickaboom!—Tami Neilson
4. Walking Proof—Lilly Hiatt
5. Houses of the Holy—Psychic Temple
6. The Universe Inside—The Dream Syndicate
7. Moon Piano—Laraaji
8. Sun Piano—Laraaji
9. Chamber Music From Hell—Chris Opperman
10. Private Lives—Low Cut Connie
11. Earth—EOB
12. Last Will & Testament—Bonnie Whitmore
13. New York At Night—Willie Nile
14. Getting Into Knives—The Mountain Goats
15. The Ascension—Sufjan Stevens
16. Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection—Spencer Cullum
17. Tales To Be Told—Lykantropi
18. Videorama—Flowers of America
19. Karma Suppression—Andre LaFosse
20. American Head—Flaming Lips
21. Forever Better Worse—Great Peacock
22. Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular—Johnny Iguana
23. The Loneliness In Me—Rachel Brooke
24. More From The Levee—Chris Smither
25. The New OK—Drive-By Truckers

The archival and reissue market continues to flourish and 2020 offered a number of riches in that department, including retrospective sets from Minneapolis’ Prince and The Replacements as both issued archival sets looking back at albums from 1987. Prince’s Sign O’ The Times not only demonstrated that the original album has held up remarkably well but that the Purple One had plenty of strong material floating around at the time of the record’s release. Moreover, we get to hear what a remarkable live performer he was on this new set.

The Replacements’ sole effort as a trio, Please To Meet Me, is back in expanded form as well with plenty of demos, including the band’s final recordings with original guitarist Bob Stinson from the summer of 1986. Stinson’s replacement in the band, Slim Dunlap, issued a live show from 2002, captured live at the Turf Club in St. Paul, where he frequently played in his post-Replacements days. It’s a firm reminder that he was a lively performer and leaves little question as to why he’s been mentioned more than once as a songwriter Bruce Springsteen pays attention to.

You can also hear him on the Record Store Day release from The Replacements, The Complete Inconcerated Live, which finds the band in fine form at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in June, 1989 while supporting the album Don’t Tell A Soul.

1. Sign O’ The Times—Prince
2. Wildflowers & All The Rest—Tom Petty
3. Pleased To Meet Me—The Replacements
4. The Complete Inconcerated Live—The Replacements
5. Thank You, Dancers—Slim Dunlap Band
6. Decade—Steve Wynn
7. Summerteeth—Wilco
8. Delicate Sound of Thunder—Pink Floyd
9. New York—Lou Reed
10. Flaming Pie—Paul McCartney