Tom Clarke: My Favorite 10 Studio Albums of 2020

Randall Bramblett has the honor of making Tom Clarke’s favorite album of 2020.
Photo by Ian McFarlane

10 — John Nemeth – ‘Stronger Than Strong’ – Memphis Grease Records

The album’s title and the record company’s name, stitched together, aptly describe the rhythm and blues found on John Nemeth’s latest album. These are massive grooves, dripping with spirit and tenderness, but also the fury and sweat of a man railing against the filth he sees in government and society. The songs are articulately written and Nemeth sings them with both hair-raising urgency and bottomless soul in his voice. And if that’s not enough, he blows a mean harp. The guitar playing by 19-year old wunderkind John Hay adds yet one more layer of fascination to the proceedings, making “Stronger Than Strong” stand taller than most.

9 — The SteelDrivers – ‘Bad For You’ – Rounder Records

They not only survived Chris Stapleton’s exit, they thrived. The SteelDrivers hammer down into the fertile soil of Southern roots music, and then adorn it all in mountain bluegrass. There’s nothing like them, and on “Bad for You,” singer Kelvin Damrell sounds born for the job with his raspy voice and heavy metal-inspired exuberance. Vivid images of Appalachia rise through the banjo and fiddle-led tunes, some dark and daring in nature. Whether the tough “Bad for You,” or lamenting “Forgive,” righteous, serious paths beckon, but they’re always brightly-lit. Incredible writing, singing, picking and sawing makes “Bad for You” very, very good.

8 — Bobby Rush – ‘Rawer Than Raw’ – Deep Rush Records

Done with the Chitlin Circuit horseplay that he once reveled in, Bobby Rush stripped to his blues skivvies for “Rawer than Raw.” Rush presents blues music here exactly as it was at its origins, and does so with astonishing dexterity, power and clarity. Astonishingly, he was in his mid-80s when he cut this even mix of classic covers and engaging originals. A man of that age running his fingers nimbly across guitar strings, tunefully pumping joy from his harmonica, tapping his foot to set a beat, and singing, with gravel in his pipes, “I got high down there, high as a Georgia pine,” is surely cause for celebration!

7 — Pam Tillis – ‘Looking For a Feeling’ – Stellar Cat Records

Pam Tillis, daughter of Country Music Hall of Fame legend Mel Tillis, enjoyed peaks on the country charts in the 1980s and ‘90s. After a long layoff, she evidently found what she was looking for, and exposed the heart of it on her delightful, shimmering “Looking for a Feeling.” That feeling feels generally laid back, with gentle twang and plenty of soul; perfect settings for Tillis to showcase her sumptuous voice. But there is some venom behind the modern-rocking “Demolition Angel,” and a big wink in her eye during the loving, reverential story of “Dolly 1969.” Tillis proves herself vital and full of wisdom. This is country music as it should be, in spades.   

6 — Tinsley Ellis – ‘Ice Cream in Hell’ – Alligator Records

Tinsley Ellis serves hard-hitting blues songs that exude an everyman’s outlook on life. They’re filled with Georgia heart, oftentimes sprinkled with wit, and always powered by Ellis’ robust, tone-cool guitar playing. “Ice Cream in Hell” features Ellis and his band at their rollicking best. Whether singing — in his gruff, affable voice — about closure (“When they serve ice cream in hell, I’m gonna take you back”) or an unbreakable, unhealthy bond (“Your love’s like heroin”), relationships take center stage. The music rocks with a vengeance, rolls smoothly and bleeds slowly. But whatever the case, “Ice Cream in Hell” burns bridges, melts the soul, and feels so damn good going down.     

5 — Mike Mattison – ‘Afterglow’ – Landslide Records

Mike Mattison spends the lion’s share of his time projecting his eloquent, oftentimes sardonic points of view from within the Tedeschi Trucks Band. On “Afterglow,” he makes entirely different big impressions with his songwriting and his smoky, cayenne-buttery voice. The album expands on the colorful soul and blues palette Mattison worked from to create his first solo album, and his four leading the band Scrapomatic. Strangely addicting cowboy grooves propel “Charlie Idaho” into a set that includes the honest-as-dirt irritability and urbanized blues of “Deadbeat,” as well as the gentle, plaintive, falsetto-soul-fired “I Really Miss You.” It’s all quite invigorating, to say the least.  

Doubly good: Larkin Poe released 2 fine CDs.
Photo by Robby Klein

4 — Larkin Poe – ‘Self Made Man’ & ‘Kindred Spirits’ – Trick-Woo Records

Larkin Poe earned this double accolade. Their “Self Made Man” arrived in June as a breakthrough album of lap steel guitar-whipped artistry. Its snappy, captivating songs stretch the blues to lengths that kiss rock’s mainstream with great results. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell and their band burst with greasy abandon and impeccable control. Fearlessness reigns. Five months later, their “Kindred Spirits” arose from a productive void of quarantine. For that album, the Lovell sisters explored the past, singing gorgeously, and reimagining confidently and boldly, 11 nostalgic gems that inspired them from their childhoods on. The far-reaching variety astounds.  

3 — The Allman Betts Band – ‘Bless Your Heart’ – BMG

Led by three sons — Devon Allman, Duane Betts and Berry Duane Oakley — of original Allman Brothers Band members, this septet proves again, on their second Muscle Shoals-recorded album that their success lies in their abundant, individual talents, and the dazzling results of their collaboration. Famous father influences surface occasionally, most notably in Betts’ guitar tone, and in his galloping, melody-rich instrumental opus, “Savannah’s Dream,” which recalls with magnificence the mid-1970s Allman Brothers in jazzy lockstep. “Bless Your Heart” does more than invigorate Southern rock; it promises the world for this new band of brothers.

2 — Pat Metheny – ‘From This Place’ – Nonesuch Records

Christmas arrived in February for fans of jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny, just in time for them to luxuriate in his music during quarantine. “From This Place” contains everything that has made Pat Metheny one of the most singular and important musical artists of our generation. The album’s 10 pieces are far-reaching in scope and cinematic in nature. They expand upon the styles played by the classic Pat Metheny Group, always in fascinating fashion. Metheny’s guitar playing sweeps, soars, peeks around corners, and opens doors into wondrous places. Gwilym Simcock plays piano gracefully, and the rhythms of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sanchez ripple, or hit like hammers. The Hollywood Symphony adds rainbows of color. Bravo!         

1 — Randall Bramblett – ‘Pine Needle Fire’ – Blue Ceiling Records

Celebrated singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett returned with his 13th studio album brimming with his distinctive views on the highs and lows of the human condition, and everything in the world that affects it. Bramblett’s wry twists of phrase are wrapped, as always, in ingenious melodies of uncharacteristically Southern-spirited rock and rhythm and blues, and are played by world-class musicians. From “Some Poor Soul” to “My Lucky Day,” Bramblett sings the gamut of scenarios and emotions in his reedy, very engaging tenor. There are very cool albums, and there are Randall Bramblett albums.       

My Favorite Live Album of 2020

The Brothers – ‘March 10, 2020 / Madison Square Garden / New York, N.Y.’ – nugs.net

I witnessed this event, then prayed for the album. The music of The Allman Brothers Band was celebrated this night with honor and blistering enthusiasm. Without the late Duane and Gregg Allman present, this performance for a packed, deliriously happy Garden crowd nonetheless glimmered with their spirits, and showed that the standard they set 50 years ago still sounds pertinent, and magnificent, and will for eternity. The timeless songs were presented by a band with only one original Brother, the swinging drummer, Jaimoe. But latter-day members, including guitarist/lead singer Warren Haynes, guitarist Derek Trucks, and pianist Chuck Leavell, are each and every one, maestros. This one-night-only aggregation played one-of-a-kind thrilling music at perhaps the last-of-a-kind concert experience. This album captures it all in clear, punchy sound.     

-Tom Clarke

Coming Monday: Tahoe Onstage editor Tim Parsons lists his favorite 10 studio albums of 2020.

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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