My Top Ten Favorite CDs of 2020

These are my favorite CDs released in 2020. My tastes lean towards Americana, roots, alt-country, and folk. In the case of close calls, I am likely to err on the side of the lesser-known performers who need more exposure.


Strange Chemistry by Have Gun Will Travel

Have Gun Will Travel (known also as HGWT) is singer-songwriter Matt Burke, bassist Danny Burke, Matt's younger brother; guitarist Scott Anderson and drummer J.P. Beaubien. Over a decade, the group has matured both musically and literally. The members are now in their 40s and have 11 kids and a grandchild between them.

During that decade, they have identified and been with the Bradenton – Sarasota -- Tampa areas of Florida.

One might assume that with Matt Burke writing the songs and even putting out demos of his work that HGWT is just a backup band, but he is open about the collaborative process. It’s always a good sign to see band members producing the album as in this case with Scott Anderson.

“Blood on the Stage”

All the late nights in the 813
At the Crowbar and the New World Brewery
Baby we ain't as reckless as we used to be
But we can run with the devil when the drinks are free

We learn our lessons the hard way
We lay it all on the line
We pay our dues on the highway
So many miles behind
We bare our souls in the barlight
We leave our blood on the stage
It's only chords on a fretboard


Strange Chemistry is technically a 2019 release, but I missed it between downloading Matt Burke’s album of demos and not seeing any mention of a release by the band. That’s because HGWT opted to take a full year off to focus on personal matters. After a period of uncertainty about their future, they collectively decided they would persist. And not just persist; this event would steer the direction of Strange Chemistry.

“American History”

We belong to a legacy
From the past like a memory
I remember when you said to me
We walk around in the dark

We keep searching for the melody

Something found in the reverie
We hear the sound, feel the energy
We break our own restless hearts

We're not getting any younger
We'll never let them pull us under
We're not ready to surrender
We can render our own American history


The track “Tidal Wave” deals with panic attacks and anxiety disorder, a condition that has sent Matt to the hospital multiple times.

“It’s helpful to put something into a song,” Matt said. “It feels like you’re letting it out a little bit, so there’s some relief, there’s some kind of catharsis to writing a song about something like that. It definitely made its way into a few of the songs.”

By becoming open about his own mental health in his songs, he hopes to destigmatize others and encourage someone who may be silently suffering to get help.

“Mystery of Mine”

Flipping through the pages, looking for some kind of sign
Staring at the words and trying to read between the lines
Searching for the patterns, but they're too hard to define

Weigh the facts and figures, read the writing on the wall
Hoping for a tip from some anonymous phone call
Questioning the witnesses, but no one here knows anything at all

It's weighing heavy on my mind
The more I seek the less I find
Can't get the truth to unwind
Can't see to the end of the line

This mystery of mine


“I’ve been a student of songwriting for most of my life. And I just want to continue to work toward getting better and writing good songs. But these songs are more open to interpretation. I’m not trying to tell the listener how to feel.  Once I’ve sufficiently expressed what I felt I needed to express, and a song is released into the universe, then it’s out of my hands. It belongs to the listener.”

“Dark and the Light”

I believe that the worst is behind us
It's the winter of our discontent
In the blink of an eye, so many years have gone by
Man, I'm not really sure where they went

Now it feels a weight has been lifted
From my shoulders like a ton of lead
So many years that I've tried
to push these feelings inside
Maybe put all my demons to bed



On the Widow’s Walk by The White Buffalo

It’s hard to know how to refer to this performer. White Buffalo appears to be Jacob Smith’s pseudonym for his creative endeavors. He refers to himself in the third person as The White Buffalo. Not sure one could call him White? Or Mr. Buffalo? His website states Jake Smith was born in Eugene, Oregon, but raised in Huntington Beach, California. Maybe he transformed into a White Buffalo.

“People come up to me with life-changing stories. They tell me how my music helped them to deal with the loss of people close to them. The White Buffalo is about engagement.”

Not that it matters to me, because as White Buffalo his songs and songwriting are phenomenal, carefully crafted, and unique.

“For me, that’s the ultimate goal,” he confirms, “to be something original.”

“Widow’s Walk”

Well, she goes walking at night
Up the stairs with her prayers into the moonlight
She’s floating like a fizzled-out satellite
With no aim to her feet
And she gets lost in a fog
Pacing like a zombie on the widows walk
The wind it screams but the ghosts don’t talk


“I am able to put myself into the situation of the character, even though that character may not represent my point of view,” he reflects. “I try to take it to a human level and keep it as honest as I can.”

“The Drifter”

I'm a dog, I'm a drifter
I don't even miss them at all
Stars align and they fall
Burn out and wait for last call

I'm a memory, your shadow
A distant and fleeting refrain
Lost in my dreams, in my shame
Yet a flicker of hope still remains


“I’m drawn to stuff that’s honest and real,” he explains. “When I got a guitar, I started to listen to artists such as John Prine, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zant, and this opened my eyes and my mind to just how vast and how heartfelt song-writing can be.”

“We weren’t a church-going family, I was never in a choir when I was young, so it wasn’t until I started playing and creating these stories that were primitive and dark that I got a sense of it. In all honestly, though, I had no idea I could sing at all! I remember writing a song and singing it to my mom when I was 18 or 19, and she was as shocked as I was!”

“No History”

I feel when the future comes
That there won't be a love for everyone
You can't hold the hands of time
There's only here and now and nothing more
Whoa
There's only one way to be free
No History
No History


About the new album, he says: “I was in a weird place, one of those places where I hadn't been doing shit for a while, and one of those darker places that I go to sometimes, where I'm asking all the big questions. What's my purpose? What's fucking life worth? What's the point? And Shooter Jennings (the producer on the CD) helped me get out of that.”

“Problem Solution”

Tell me what's wrong with my brain
Does it like to be stuck in the drain?
Swimming 'til I'm going insane
Or do you wanna sit there and complain?

Oh, tell me what's wrong with my mind
Does it take me to a place unkind?
Chasing something that I won't find
Or does it want to sit there and rewind?


“I guess what I’ve tried to do with this new album is to represent a broad range of emotions. There’s dark moments here, more uplifting moments, questioning moments, it’s not just one thing.



Lamentations by American Aquarium

I am something of a late arrival to the Aquarium. I don’t why or how I missed getting on the bandwagon earlier. Seven studio albums had been released in the 15 years before Lamentations. I plan to dedicate myself to backlogging the history of the band which aside from singer-songwriter BJ Barham has also played through several personnel changes.

“I write songs and yell at people on the internet.” – BJ Barham

Their previous albums have been produced by the likes of Jason Isbell and John Fullbright. This one is produced by Shooter Jennings (who may sound familiar on this list), and there isn’t a weak song on the album. The theme of the album is enunciated clearly in the opening song:

“Me + Mine Lamentations”

Me and mine have worked this land
As long as my grandfather can remember
Plowin' soil, diggin' holes
Haulin' coal, to strippin' down the timber

Then they showed up, they shut us down
Same old story, the same old town
"It's like we don't matter", momma said "At least that's how it seems"
And that's the day I woke up From the American dream


“I wanted to write a record about the things that break us as human beings,” Barham says. “Financial ruin, the loss of a significant other, loss of a child, addiction, vices, divorce — all of these things appear on the record. Each song represents a different way that someone can be tested in their faith. Not just in God, [but] faith in humanity, faith in yourself.”

“Before the Dogwood Blooms”

Kiss me quick honey, can't stay long
By this time tomorrow, I'll be good as gone
You know I'd stay longer, baby if I could
But I got to get to getting while the getting's good

So, I'll see you around this town in a week or two
Running low on money, honey and the bills are coming due
Just need a couple days until I find a way like I always do
But this,I swear, I'll be back here
Before the dogwood blooms


"I started American Aquarium in my college dorm room back in 2005 with the hopes of building a band to bring my songs to life,” Barham says.

“Luckier You Get”

So, I set off to college, but it weren't for me
So, I bought a guitar and started playin' for free
Wrote a couple hundred bad ones 'til I had two or three
That I thought were good enough folks might pay me
to sing

[Chorus]
The harder you work, the luckier you get
The more you get done, boy, the less you'll regret
Write it down so you never forget
The harder you work, the luckier you get
The harder you work, the luckier you get


“No matter what we’re tested with as humans, no matter what adversity gets presented to us, we have a choice,” says Barham. “Ultimately, we get to make the decision on whether or not we get back up and fight.”

“Brightleaf & Burley”

Yeah, we got the infrastructure
Lord know's we got the will
But a solution to a problem
Doesn't pay that problem's bills
So, they'll keep calling it illegal
Keep pumping us with pills
Tell Roosevelt what the Bible Belt
Went and did to his New Deal

We could pay for oil Coal and steel
If the factory work ain't left yet
Bet a dollar that it will
We redefined resilience
We'll make it somehow
But if God was going to save us,
he'd have done it by now
If your god was going to save us,
he'd have done it by now


Whatever line-up is playing for American Aquarium, they still play nearly 300 shows a year; so definitely a working band. I’ll have to catch up on their past CDs and watch for a chance to see them live when the scourge has passed. I love them sad songs.


“Starts With You”

Any day that ends in "y" is a good day to wreck it
Rip it all to pieces just to start brand new
But then I met you and changed my way of thinking
Now I don't want a day that doesn't start with you
Don't want a day that doesn't start with you
 
She said, "Why do you play all them sad songs?
Who went and hurt you so badly?"
I just laughed and said, "Baby, them sad songs
Is the only thing that make me happy"
Yeah, sad songs they make me happy




Reunions by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Well, Isbell has done it again. He’s back on my Top Ten list after having a run of odd years on my lists: 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017. As usual, this one is solid, top to bottom.

“Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” David Crosby, who sings harmonies on “What’ve I Done to Help?,” on Reunion. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.”

Isbell tells his story with the 400 Unit, a band comprised of musicians primarily from Muscle Shoals, Ala., with both the pedigree and the talent to help Isbell accumulate a slew of Grammy Awards and Americana Music Association honors. Fiddle player Amanda Shires, part of that ensemble, also is Isbell’s wife, whom he credits (along with fellow musician Ryan Adams) for helping him enter rehab.

“It Gets Easier”

Last night I dreamed that I'd been drinking
Cold burn of whiskey down my throat
My hand turned into a rattlesnake
And I laughed myself awake
And that's how I knew it was a joke

[Chorus]
It gets easier but it never gets easy
I can say it's all worth it, but you won't believe me
Hold down your liquor or swallow your pride
You'd rather keep it inside
It gets easier but it never gets easy


There’s a lot of nostalgia and contemplation of the past in the songs of Reunions. Memories of people who populated the past maybe a few regrets, a few wishes for different outcomes.

“Only Children”

Walking around at night
Fighting my appetite
Every kid in cutoffs could be you
Remember when we used to meet?
At the bottom of Mobile Street
And do what the broken people do

Are you still taking notes?
The Holy Ghost could get inside you
You'd do whatever you put your mind to
Will you read me what you wrote?
When we were locked outside the building
Over encouraged, only children


“I just didn’t think that people cared as much about this kind of music anymore. And I also didn’t necessarily know if I was going to be good enough or strong enough to pull that off. You know, there was a time when just getting up and going about my daily business took all the effort that I could muster,” he points out.

“Running With Our Eyes Closed”

Took forever to get you to trust me
Like I was feeding a bird from my hand
And if this isn't love, then it must be
Another answer I don't understand

To a prayer that was "please" and not "thank you"
To a question I wrote in the sand
To a wish that I made on a satellite
From a witness in tears on the stand

Running with our eyes closed
Running with our eyes closed


There is also looking to the future with a song for his young daughter, letting her know what she meant to him and his wife, and envisioning her impact as she grows up.

“Letting You Go”

It didn't take long to see
you got the best of me
And your mama's merciful heart in your eyes
And helping her raise you
has taught me to see through
The great fog of loneliness, the devil's disguise

Being your daddy comes natural
The roses just know how to grow
It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going
But the hard part is letting you go
The hard part is letting you go


Starting Over by Chris Stapleton

Chris said that he and Mike Henderson (of the SteelDrivers) like to get together at Mike’s place where they have a drink and talk about life – that’s how “Starting Over” came to be. They talked about how some people, whether voluntarily or by circumstance, make a change in their lives. It was written in 2018, but in 2020 with the world changing, Chris revisited the song. He thought it fit the mood of what was going on. He also tapped the song as the title to his fourth studio album released in November 2020.

He and his band booked a studio in Muscle Shoals, intent on recording.

"All the power went out in the entire town of Muscle Shoals," the Grammy winner says, "I was kind of like, maybe this isn't happening. Maybe we just need to shut down and write some more, live some more, tour some more. And that's what we did."

"Starting Over"

But nobody wins afraid of losin'
And the hard roads are the ones worth choosin'
Someday we'll look back and smile
And know it was worth every mile
And I can be your lucky penny
You can be my four leaf clover
Starting over
Starting over


The supporting cast included three of Stapleton's longtime bandmates: his wife, vocalist and tambourine player Morgane Stapleton plus bassist J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon. They collaborate with pedal steel icon Paul Franklin and two members of Tom Petty's backing band The Heartbreakers: Hammond B3 organist Benmont Tench and electric guitarist Mike Campbell.

"When I'm With You"

I'm forty years old
And it looks like the end of the rainbow ain't no pot of gold
The things that I've done I doubt anyone will remember after I'm gone
The places I've been
There's some I'd go back to and some where I won't go again
And most of the time I'm feelin' like I'm fadin' into the night

But when I'm with you
I feel like a dreamer
That's had all his dreams come true
Like my skies are all blue
When I'm with you


He acknowledges there were “some speed bumps making this record in 2018. We were meant to not finish that record in that space and have that time to write and reflect and let the record come into focus a little bit more and finish it up in the winter of 2019 and early this year. So, it allowed things come into focus and it allowed room to breathe and kind of examine what we were doing in a way that we haven’t done in the past.”

"Whiskey Sunrise"

There's a tear in the mud on the banks of the river
And the sound of a lover's goodbye
And a pain in my heart 'cause I could not forgive her
That's as deep as the river is wide

I'm lost and I'm lonesome when I look in the mirror
I don't like the man that I see
And the more that I look, the more it gets clearer
Pride made a fool out of me


“The silver lining and the mixed blessing during the pandemic for me is I’ve gotten to spend more time being a dad and being with my children than I’ve ever gotten to do certainly as a touring musician. I have three children under the age of three and I have two older ones that are 12 and 10,” he said in April 2021. “When I go in to get the boys in the morning, and I open the door, they say ‘Daddy’ before I even open the door, and I’ve never really had that before. So, that’s kind of a neat thing for me to get to have that, so I’m thankful for that and I’m grateful for that. As much as I look forward to getting back out on the road, I’ll miss a little bit of that.”

"In Times Between"

We needed holy answers, we needed tougher words
We're curing all our cancers on your stolen hummingbird
You're sliding into town, you're sleeping on the floor
You're filling in the frequencies I tried to ignore

And if the body had the strength of the spirit, you'd be here
We'd drink out in the parking lot, and then you'd disappear
But lately I've been feeling like l'll never sleep again
I sit up in a satellite and watch the cold world spin
Well, damn it all to hell, don't it mean a thing?
The love we knew so well was barely hanging on a string


“If I could have enough success that my music led the label I was on to take chances on “left of center” people, that would be the best influence I could possibly have on music.”



Looking Up by Mike McClure

In 2020, Mike McClure used the pandemic and a bunch of life changes to come out firing:

"Sword and Saddle"

I rode off into battle 
without a sword or a saddle
but while everybody else just rattled
on at least I went riding in
to speak my truth and walk like fire
was burning through my hearts desires
no more walking on the wires
but I may fly from time to time again

chorus:
I’ll see ya, next winter
if the sky doesn’t fall in the middle of December
if the moon don’t drop right on top of our heads
remember that if I’m not dead
then I’m gaining on the life I should have led,
surrendering instead
of always living on the run
it’s been said before now it’s said and done


“I’ve been through a ton of changes. I got sober in the last year. I was pretty much a bit of a mess. I got a divorce from being in a marriage for 21 years that I should have done a longer ago. Anyway, I found new love and she’s an artist herself, and we’ve been together for two years. She’s really brought a lot of focus and some grounding to my life.”

"Little Bit of Love"

my baby comes from way out West
I swear I love her so I love her half to death
and dying was the one thing I never used to fear
now it terrifies me that I’m running out of years
I want to see them through
what a little bit of love can do
what a little bit of love can do now

when I say way out West I’m talking West Texas
I mean rattlesnakes and the muddy, rolling, Brazos
out there where the land is filling in the unmarked graves
she rose up like a phoenix from her own ashes and she saved me it’s true
what a little bit of love can do
what a little bit of love can do


Within the last few years, McClure has not only seen his marriage die, but has also lost his producer/mixer and close friend, Joe Hardy and his long-time bass player Tom Skinner to death as well. It made his comeback all the more remarkable.

"Dying to Try"

Well, there was a time and there was a way
but the colors faded into grey
and there’s something that you’d kill to say
but your words just lay there they won’t play
and there’s something in you scared and torn
and it’s dying to try to be born

There’s a million colors in the sun
and they burn so bright they look like one
but you would be the last to feel
them falling on your frozen fields
heaven help me you have sworn
and you’re dying to try to be born


Since the pandemic forced touring acts off the road, he's been at home more, using the time to garden, raise chickens and write, as well as to enjoy the company of his partner and 21-year-old and 17-year-old daughters. "Being here at home with them, and being truly present for the first time, has allowed some healing to begin for us all," McClure admits. "It’s been so peaceful and grounding. I'm really grateful for it all."

"Your Kind of Blue"

I’m ready to move up to
somewhere steady next to the light
I see inside of you
yes, I’m ready, I’m ready to fall into
your kind of blue

Don’t forget me and I will not forget what darkness brings
and if you’ll let me I will work on all the things
you shine a little bit brighter than anyone
I’m coming up, I’m stepping out into the sun


“I’ve played acoustic, I’ve played with bands, I can be all over the map! It was more a process of taming my inner self where I could focus and find 10 songs that I thought really spoke from where I was at as a person on a soul level.

"I Am Not Broken"

I woke up in a parking lot
sun was burning down on me hot
as west hell, in the summer
brother, it ain’t been nothing but one big bummer
right after another as far as I can tell

And as it turns out, I got a little bit burned out
but I’m still smoking
yeah, I mighta got bent up as the days got spent up
but I am not broken


Waiting Out the Storm by Jeremy Ivey

Backed by a group of musicians going by The Extraterrestrials, Ivey, who is married to Margo Price, brings a bouncy, pop groove to songs with alt country sensibilities and Dylanesque subject matter and rhymes.

Ivey has decades of music business experience, but this is only his second full-length album.

“The first record I was really timid,” he recalls, “and on this one, I have a lot more confidence, and I know that I sound like me, and how I sing is how I sing.”

“In high school, I was that nerd who was reading poetry outside,” he says. “So, I really wanted to prove myself, that the melody wasn't getting in the way of the lyrics.”

"Tomorrow People"

Hey tomorrow people
Do you still blame the shit you do
On different colored people
That arе not just like you?

Hey tomorrow people
Is it worth it to pretend
That life is like a movie
When you already know the end?


“I didn't necessarily want it to be a doom and gloom thing, but we need to point out the fact that humanity is full of madness. And we need to figure out what the right and the wrong are.”

"Paradise Alley"

He never spoke
but I knew his name was greed
He stole the world with no trace of need
And he’s taken more lives than anyone could tally
Now he’s the king of Saturday night
Down in paradise alley

Everywhere she goes, the queen of doom
She takes her writer
Who hands her scripts to read aloud
Whеn someone tries to indict hеr


“I experienced a wave of inspiration, because for so many years, and rightfully so, I was supporting Margo,” Ivey says. “I've got a lot of pent-up inspiration. Because there are just certain freedoms I can take when I'm singing the song that I can't take when I'm writing it for someone else to sing.”

"Movies"

When I was young I fought in the war
I was shot three times and left for dead
The doc gave me codeine
Said now the fight was in my head

They don’t make movies like they used to
They don’t write those stories anymore
They don’t make heroes out of celluloid like before


“To write a song, or at least a good one, I have to create some self-affliction and induce some sort of madness, and I find it to be an uncomfortable place to be in sometimes.”

"Things Could Get Much Worse"

Beware the man with everything and the man with nothing too
They wear the same kind of pain and they’ll try to put it on you
When you’re swimming in the rain and headed for the drain
And a child's prayer sounds like a curse
Just know things could get much worse,
Things could get much worse
Oh you know they could



Good Luck with Whatever by Dawes

I think Taylor Goldsmith, front man for Dawes, may be my favorite current performer. I think he is an incredibly talented songwriter and has worked to improve his guitar playing and overall musicianship to the point he is always surprising me with his skill, inventiveness, and energy. On top of that, he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. Every time I’ve seen him live, signing albums or other merchandise, he always asks my name. He insists other group members sign along with him. It’s clear he’s supremely confident in his own abilities, but also recognizes the essential nature of the band.

"Still Feel Like a Kid"

I can't stay up past midnight anymore
But I still feel like a kid
There's always part of me that's a little sore
But I still feel like a kid
I got dreams of coaching little league
But I still feel like a kid
And I bet the day that I turn eighty three
I will still feel like a kid


“He said if you had more narcissism, narcissism isn’t only a bad thing. It’s a spectrum. And if you’re too high or too low on it, it can be a problem for different reasons,” Goldsmith says referring to a conversation with his therapist. “And he’s like, Taylor, your knob is pretty low. If you had more narcissism, if you really could step into… I’m fucking good at this. You might not be as good of a friend to a lot of people in your life, but you would be a lot more successful.”

"Didn't Fix Me"

I went to see a healer
With that mic strapped to his face
Talked about which habits to surrender And which habits to embrace
And for the next few days or so I was Feeling pretty good
But it didn't fix me

Finally found someone that loves me
And to her I will be true
She sees the ways in which I'm ugly
And loves me for those reasons too
And even though I'm feeling stronger
than I Ever thought I could
It still didn't fix me
It didn't fix me
It didn't fix me like I thought it would


“I really want you to feel Griffin (Goldsmith, his drumming brother). I want you to feel Wylie (Gelber, bassist) and Lee (Pardini, keyboardist) and myself. And I don’t feel like I’m the greatest guitar player, not even close. But I do feel like I have a better sense of reading—and reacting to—Griffin and Wylie and Lee, and them to me, than anybody else possibly could.”

"None of My Business"

He grabbed me by the shirt while I was paying for my beer
And screamed "There you are, Balthazar! I knew I'd find you here!"
He hit me in the teeth and then he spit into my face
Took the keys to my Mercedes as he quickly left the place
Well, if I were in his shoes maybe I woulda done the same
But I don't know who he was and Balthazar is not my name

And it's really none of my business
It's really none of my business
It's really none of my business
I should be minding my own


“So for us, as time has gone on, I’ve always been like, “You know, I have no control over this, because you don’t get to invent your own signature, you don’t get to invent your own fingerprint.” It’s a synthesis, and it just happens on its own. And with every record that we make, we’re tuning the focus a little more and making it that much clearer who we are and how we’re separate from everything else.”

"Who Do You Think You're Talking To?"

Who, who do you think you're talkin' to?
Is it the man that was here before me?
The one that wrecked you hard and walked?
'Cause if it is, then I'll let you talk
It's clear, that's somethin' you're still workin' through
But who, who do you think you're talkin' to?

Where, where do you think you are right now?
Is there a reason you're still diggin' up the past?
Because you haven't touched your drink
And you haven't stopped to think
If that holds you back from anyone that cares for you
But who, who do you think you're talkin' to?


“We had family there, and whenever we were on tour and had a show in, or near, St. Augustine, we would ask our agent for a day off so we could all hang out and go fishing or whatever.
So, it’s a composite, not about one person in particular, but based on my experiences there, and based on my conversations with family, and just seeing how that town is. It’s about St. Augustine in name and references, but I’m hoping it will be relatable to anybody that has a home town. Which is everyone.”

"St. Augustine at Night"

But I didn't want it any other way
This town was the one thing that felt right
All these tourists could be kings during the day
But not in St. Augustine at night

I have never had much say in how I felt
I've been guided by my barroom appetites
So, if this world belongs to everybody else
Just leave me St. Augustine at night


A note: This is the third CD in this Top Ten for 2020 to be produced by Dave Cobb. Also, Dawes had CDs in my Top Ten in 2011 and 2015 as well.



What in the World by Michael McDermott

Sober for over half a decade and spending a lot more time at home during the pandemic produced some interesting observations from Michael McDermott, a performer who Stephen King called, “one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock & roll talent of the last 20 years.”

His unavoidable exposure to the political, social, and economic scene unfolding before us all was also a stunner.

“I think the mood or the energy we felt as a nation here was palpable. I think everybody saw this was a slow moving train for destruction. Racism, bigotry was on full display from Pennsylvania Avenue to Main street. The dye had been cast. We will be recovering from these four years for a while.”

“What in the World”

Yeah, you’re looking like a car wreck
Dealing with a stacked deck
Peter’s robbing Paul and they’re drinking
with your rent check
It’s a new world order
Walls along the border
Kids in cages Executive order
Welfare for billionaires
People hungry everywhere
Stop and frisk, Socialist
You ain’t goin’ anywhere
I think it’s time we take a Good look in the mirror
What in the world... is happening here?


“What makes this different is the way we are communicating and spreading information or disinformation. Am I hopeful? I’ll use a James Baldwin quote, “I can’t be a pessimist, because I am alive.”

"Contender"

Through the years, And through the maze,
I tried my best to change my ways,
Tried to become a better man
I screwed things up pretty good,
And anybody that even stood
fairly close to me,
Became my enemy
Yeah, I hurt the ones I loved most,
I burned bridges from coast to coast,
I just didn’t fit, I was an idiot
I’ve been weak and I’ve been strong,
I’ll keep fighting all along,
These things I swear I’ll never understand
Hey Charlie, man, I could have been a contender
Aw, I could have been a contender

Yeah, I could have been a contender
Not like the pretender
that I am


“I think that even in “the old days” I never was interested in writing hopeless or downtrodden songs. I always wanted to believe there was a way out … or a way through rather … I do think the tone of the songs has changed. I’m still a drunk and a depressive drug addict. As they say, “Once you’re a pickle, you’ll never be a cucumber again.” But as we know, you need the darkness in order to see the light.”

"Blue-Eyed Barmaid"

I was seeking shelter from the rain,
So I ducked inside this tavern door
She said, “Can I offer you a drink, sir?”
I said, “I don’t drink anymore.”
She said, “Boy, you must get thirsty.”
I said, “You’re damn right about that!”
She said, “Can I pour you some coffee?”
I smiled and removed my hat
And I’m sure there’s a trail of men,
Up around each and every bend
That she leaves scattered along the way
There she goes, there she goes
A blue eyed barmaid


“It’s so easy to become sentimental or overly romantic. So it is a real challenge to write something about relationships or love that doesn’t make you wanna puke. Love songs are tricky. Anger, resentment, disappointment and shame - those are my defaults. Those are my wheelhouse. It’s the vulnerable stuff that is scary.”

"Until I Found You"

I never knew about heartache
I never knew about the daybreak
Life was always like a rattlesnake,
Until I found you I never knew about tenderness
I never knew about openness I only knew about helplessness,
Until I found you I never knew about the highway
I had the heart of a runaway
I never knew what love was,
Until I found you


McDermott landed CDs on my Top Ten lists in 2016 and 2012.



LP5 by John Moreland

On this album, Moreland found he needed to include some more varied aspects of his musical abilities. “Since I was 18, I’ve made a lot more hip-hop music than folk music.” He decided the electronic loops and drum machines he’d been using since his youth might open up possibilities in his current music. The new avenues don’t subvert what makes a Moreland song a Moreland song. They just add new layers and help him get the feel he is after.

"When My Fever Break Breaks"

Hold my hand and ease my aches
Wake me up when my fever breaks
I'm laying down my soul,
the answers that I can't know
And the pain I thought I never would let go of


He still wants his words and melody to carry the meaning. “Through the years, I’ve felt like I’m increasingly talking to myself in my songs, more and more,” he says. “Maybe in the past, I wasn’t aware of it, but now, I am. I think doing that has helped me be less hard on myself, which makes you more generous and compassionate in general.”

"Let Me Be Understood"

Well, mama's little martyr woke up with her face drawn on
What you gonna do? Twenty-two, with your youth all gone
And all your awful glory don't feel like it should
Before you hang me for my story, Lord, let me be understood

Oh, 'cause it ain't about if, it's about when
They put a weapon in my hand,
now here I am, a heretic again
But I feel sure-footed, hope l'm going somewhere good
No time to sit and wonder, Lord, let me be understood


Even if Moreland is reaching out to someone else, there is no judgment. “I’m in the same boat with whoever I’m talking to,” he says. “I want to talk one-on-one to someone in a song. I don’t want to address a group, really, because I think that’s when it’s easy to start pontificating––and it gets less honest.”

"I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground"

We never talked about survival
I don't know what good talking would've done
My long lost revival
Withered up in the adolescent sun

Lost, let down
I always let you burn me to the ground
I am unwound
I always let you burn me to the ground


Moreland also had CDs in my Top Ten in 2013 (In the Throes) and 2017 (Big Bad Luv).


Honorable Mention:

New York at Night by Willie Nile

Cuttin’ Grass, Vol 1 by Sturgill Simpson

Twelfth by Old 97’s

Saturn Return by Secret Sisters