Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Roots Albums of 2020

I’ve been writing about roots music for 20 years, and have been assembling self-indulgent ‘favourite roots albums of the year’ lists for most of that time. While always a pleasant challenge, this year’s list was the most difficult for me to assemble. COVID-19 kept me even more tied to my remote music world this year, and I listened to albums over and over again; that may be the reason why it was so problematic to pick between albums with which I became so intimately familiar.

It could also be, quite honestly, that the quality of albums released in 2020 was pretty freakin’ spectacular. Whether coming locally from Edmonton, regionally from Alberta and western Canada, the expanse that is my country, or internationally, a lot of very good to excellent albums were released this year. Therefore, on the list that follows you will not find a single ‘good’ album—these are great albums, and I feel privileged that I have been able to hear them and, in many cases, write about them.

In a typical year, some of the albums listed below in the teens and twenties would be Top Ten, testament to the bounty that was 2020. Confidently, I could make a lengthy if not persuasive argument for just about any of the albums on this list to be Top Ten. Musically, at least via albums, all is right in the world.

I had to decide that Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Letter To You was not a roots album; ditto, Ron Sexsmith’s Hermitage. Another favourite, Sparks’ A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip definitely wasn’t. However, as most years, the vast majority of the music I immersed myself in was roots, in all of its shades and varieties. Links to the original reviews (where available) included.

1. Ayla Brook & the Sound Men- Desolation Sounds Alberta band takes #1. This is an incredible record, a roots rock spectacular.

2. Tami Neilson- Chickaboom! Country and rockabilly, Patsy Cline comes back with Loretta Lynn’s gumption and Emmylou’s vision. Nobody had better sell New Zealand’s—by way of Ontario—Tami Neilson short. Whether crooning, smirking, or revealing the truth, she’s badass; when you deliver an album this powerful you deserve a spot on Fervor Coulee’s annual favourites list. Buttercream vinyl didn’t hurt, but had no impact on its position on my list.

3. Special Consensus- Chicago Barn Dance

4. Chris Stapleton- Starting Over No filler; Stapleton revived. Whether singing a Dear John letter to Nashville (it is definitely You, not Me), lamenting senseless murder and mayhem, whiskey (natch), relationships, or paying tribute to Guy Clark and a sorely missed family member, Stapleton has unleased another masterpiece, by my count his sixth including his work with The SteelDrivers. Is he the best country artist recording today? Not sure, but he has to be in the conversation. Where and when will he peak? Let’s hope not for a long while.

5. Scott Cook- Tangle of Souls

5. Skinny Dyck- Get To Know Lonesome

6. Otis Gibbs- Hoosier National- Amazing- death, heroes, confusion, hope, sons and dads, stories, choppers, and the road—Otis Gibbs takes us on a journey we can revisit with the press of a button. I don’t know how Otis Gibbs does it, but he makes music I can’t help but appreciate, and when I lean in and follow the narratives, I am blown away each and every time. He uncovers and creates stories, lionizing and elevating every day stories and events to the level of epic.

7. Rachel Brooke- The Loneliness In Me

8. Dale Ann Bradley & Tina Adair- Oh Darlin

9. Lynn Jackson- Lionheart

10. Corb Lund- Agricultural Tragic

11. The Chicks-Gaslighter The line ‘never cheat on a songwriter’ has never been so true as with Gaslighter, an album of scorn, vindication, and ultimately triumph; tremendous quality.

12. Gasoline Lollipops- All The Misery Money Can Buy

13. Mark Erelli- Blindsided

14. The Jerry Cans- Echoes Northern Canadian roots group continues to expand their sound, incorporating elements typical of progressive, popular music while infusing all their influences—Celtic, traditional Inuk music and throat singing, folk, electro, and rock ‘n’ roll drums and guitars—into a music that is invigorating, vibrant, and essential.

15. The SteelDrivers- Bad For You

16. High Fidelity- Banjo Player’s Blues

17. Mike Plume- Lonesome Stretch of Highway Mike Plume has long been a favourite, since well before I caught him opening for Fred Eaglesmith in a long-closed Red Deer beer joint called Cass’ Stagger Inn. I never had the opportunity to review this album as the disc never arrived, but the unadorned download confirmed it a much-more than solid, a worthy follow-up to Born By The Radio, one of my absolute faves of 2018.

18. Dione Taylor- Spirits in the Water

19. Eric Brace & Last Train Home- Daytime Highs & Overnight Lows

20. Bonnie Whitmore- Last Will & Testament

21. Rodney Rice- Same Shirt, Different Day

22. Johnny & the Mongrels- Creole Skies

23. Bai Kamara, Jr.- Salone

24. Matt Eckstine- Lil’ Blue

25. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings- King of This Town Canada’s kings of roots come through again.

26. Sean Harrison- Halfway From Nashville

27. Pharis & Jason Romero- Bet On Love Old-timey, Canadian roots perfection, two voices, instruments, hearts, and lives intertwined, the bramble and the rose.

28. Brandy Clark- Your Life Is A Record  Along with her singles “You’re Drunk” and “Same Devil” with Brandi Carlile, Clark released some of the best mainstream country of this year.

29. John Shipe- The Beast Is Back

30. Elizabeth Cook- Aftermath Not as genuinely rootsy as earlier albums, this one has some of that Kacey Musgraves modern bite to it; not my preference, but can’t argue with the results. Good and catchy, and the voice remains absolutely incredible. “Stanley By God Terry,” “Bayonette,” “Thick Georgia Woman,” “Half Hanged Mary,” “Mary, The Submissing Years” (nice nod to Mr. Prine,) “Two Chords and a Lie.” How did this get knocked out of my Top 30? Fixing that now with a bit of ‘cut and paste.’ Sorry to the album that got bumped.

Bubbling Under- honourable mentions, in no particular order

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