Welcome to my new music blog! I’m Rhett and this is my first attempt at doing something a little creative. Do I have any special musical or journalism background that gives me the credentials to create a blog like this? Absolutely not. I am just a guy who loves music. And not just the music itself, but the people behind the music, how songs and albums are written, the evolution of a songwriter, and the stories behind a song. I like to think this is the small town Saskatchewan in me where it is just as important to know about the people and where they are coming from as it is about the product that they produce. It adds value to the end result for me. I’ve also always been someone who ties memories to music. I can recall exact feelings of a trip or be transported to a specific moment in time the second I hear a certain song. I love this about music.
A few years ago, Jay Onrait and Dave Hodge from TSN started putting out an “Annually Tolerated List of Top Albums” around Christmas time each year. I always loved this list. I found that I had a very similar taste in music to these two and I loved the way they talked about the albums. There were always a couple albums on the list that I knew and loved, but also a bunch that I didn’t know. Some of my favourite albums of the last 5 years I found on that list (ex: The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding). In recent years, they have stopped compiling their list. And while I hold out hope every winter that they will rekindle that fire, I thought this maybe gives me something to think about myself. What are some of my favourite albums this year? What songs are the ones I find myself singing in the shower or playing on my morning commute the most? And what is on everyone else list? What are other people listening to that I am missing out on?
All this has spawned an idea to create a blog. While I don’t have everything fully thought out, I do have some ideas on content that I can create to keep this going for a while and hopefully entertain some friends and spread the joy of finding new-to-you music. And this brings me to Nathan Jones. The guy is one of the most creative people I know. A master photographer with a great appetite for music. When I was thinking about this idea I knew Nathan would be game to help me get the ball rolling.
Nathan: I am always keen for a creative collab, and this seemed like a great way to reflect on some great albums from 2020, a year in which I spent a lot of time sitting at home listening to music. I love hearing what people are listening to and getting introduced to new artists. My one complaint with this list is that I allowed Rhett to go first, as Colter Wall, Jason Isbell and Kacey & Clayton all likely would have made my list. I’m looking forward to finding more music and hopefully getting to check out some shows with y’all in the near future.
So without further adieu, here are our lists:
KURT VILE – SPEED, SOUND, LONELY KV – EP
This guy cracks me up. The most, “jean jacket pharmacist” looking guy with a calm, cool, laidback personality. And while I also find his songs to be laid back, they are complex and show the genius of his guitar playing and song writing. One of my favourite things about his songs is the irregularity. He throws riffs and notes in that feel out of place at times, but in a way that surprises you with how well it fits. Ever since I first heard his song “Pretty Pimpin’” I have been following along closely. This new EP is written with a lot of influence from John Prine. He covers some of his songs and also copilots “How Lucky” with him. An absolutely amazing feel good song.
Best Enjoyed: Sitting on your porch looking out at the morning sun and thinking, “it’s good to have land.”
MUSIC BAND – CELEBRATION
A new discovery this year for me was Music Band. The songs rock and are catchy as hell. I love that it is rock and roll but that at times it also feels a little surfer-rock too. Something you can listen to at anytime and isn’t going to piss of your neighbours too much either. My favourite song is “Superstition” which starts out in this sort of rock trance but then transitions into something completely different. I don’t have much else to say about this one other than that I have listened to it a lot this year.
Best Enjoyed: While driving out to a sandbar on a nice hot summer day
10. SARAH HARMER – ARE YOU GONE
I’ve got to be honest, I had never heard of Sarah Harmer before my friend Eric asked me if I had listened to her new album. After a quick Google search upon returning home, I found out that she has been making music for almost as long as I have been alive and has played in or along side many of Canada’s biggest bands over the last 30 years. 10 years removed from her last album she comes in with a solid return. Her voice is unbelievably easy to enjoy and the songs are wonderful top to bottom. Throw “Squeaking Voices” on your headphones and float away from whatever had you in a funk that day.
Best Enjoyed: When you’re washing the dishes after a week of letting them pile up to a point where they don’t all fit in the dishwasher.
9. SLOW LEAVES – SHELF LIFE
I have a bit of a personal attachment to Slow Leaves. Another smaller Canadian songwriter who you can still find playing shows at your local bar or church (ie. The Bethany in Hazlet, SK.). My girlfriend, who at the time was still living in Germany, was visiting me and we stumbled by accident into the Legion in Jasper, AB and got to see him play. It was one of those very Canadian moments I was so happy to experience with Jessi. Drinking rye & ginger’s at the Legion with some Jasper locals, listening to a guy from Winnipeg on stage. Kinda funny that one of his songs that night was “How Do I Say?” which is about falling in love with a foreign woman and then learning that it won’t work and trying to figure out how to communicate that in a different language to each other. Luckily, we don’t believe in bad omens. This new album took me a while to get into because I have such an attachment to his older songs, but I’ve grown to love it. If you are needing a good song to cry to, try out “Sentimental Teardrops”. That should do the trick.
Best Enjoyed: After a long day of work as you slide out of your work clothes and into a nice pair of slippers.
8. KEVIN MORBY – SUNDOWNER
Right in my wheelhouse as far as music style goes. A little indie folk with some fun guitar riffs to keep you whistling along the whole way. It feels like the perfect soundtrack for laying under the big blue Saskatchewan sky and watching the world go by. There is something about the album that makes me feel like I’m caught in a lucid dream of sorts. He has a comfort in his voice that makes you feel like you know him as well as the people and places he sings about. This also might be my favourite album cover of the year as well. It’s a perfect one to lean up next to your record player to show that you are a hipster.
Best Enjoyed: While you head out on an afternoon stroll through the neighbourhood.
7. JACK GARRATT – LOVE, DEATH & DANCING
The most pop heavy album in my list. This guy just blows my mind. He is one of those people you just marvel at. I went to ACL in Austin, TX with my friend Jaelee a few years ago and we saw this guy perform by accident. Just happened to walk up to a stage and he was the next guy up. He stood up there by himself surrounded by gear. Very Neil Pert esque. He played and looped guitar, piano, and a drum pad kit and then sang over top of it all as he was going. It was such an amazing thing to watch. He was doing so much and his songs were so god damn catchy and creative. I instantly thought of my friend Kelby watching him because I knew he would appreciate the creativity of it all. I remember some people standing near us that had one of those big signs so the group can find each other in the crowd that said “If you are lost, dance with us”. I loved that. Love, Death & Dancing is another album that took me a while to get into because I had such an attachment to the old album. But let me tell you this, I’ve probably listened to “Time” and “Mara” more than any songs this year. They just have something about that them that is a little different than my usual. I want you to listen to this album but also please Youtube “Jack Garratt – A Cardinal Sessions Performance”. I’ve watched that 100 times in the last few years.
Best Enjoyed: As a pick-me-up on your morning drive to work.
6. KACY & CLAYTON & MARLON WILLIAMS – PLASTIC BOUQUET
The Wood Mountain duo join forces with a Kiwi troubadour for this one. If you can find it, I used to watch this old video of Marlon Williams playing a song called “The Ballad of Minnie Dean” on a show called BalconyTV. It’s a murder ballad about a New Zealand lady in 1895 who was found guilty of infanticide. Super dark stuff but the song is so beautifully sang and performed on that video. Kacy & Clayton, on the other hand, have become one of my favourites in more recent years. They definitely have a bit of a throw back style to some older generations of country/americana, but it reminds me of home in that way. Kacy’s voice isn’t everyones cup of tea, but I just can’t get enough of these songs. I love Clayton’s guitar playing as well. The guitar riffs in “Isn’t It” are incredible. The addition of Marlon Williams couldn’t have fit in any better. Their voices and style are a match made in heaven. You can still see these guys play at some smaller venues like the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon, but I don’t know how long that will last. It’s only a matter of time before these guys really take off.
Best Enjoyed: At your hometown minor sports fundraiser
5. COLTER WALL – WESTERN SWINGS & WALTZES and OTHER PUNCHY SONGS
I don’t know how much explaining I need to do here. If you’ve already clicked on this blog then you likely already have listed to this album as much as I have. Another album from our favourite Saskatchewan cowboy that absolutely hits the mark. It does make me laugh to think about a 90’s kid from Speedy Creek singing about life like he was out on the plains 100 years ago, but christ, he sure paints the picture for me. I’ll be the first to admit that my SW Sask pride shines bright every time I hear his voice.
Best Enjoyed: Listening in the car while driving from Climax to Cypress Hills via the cut across
4. FLEET FOXES – SHORE
This is one of those bands that has had a career running perfectly parallel to my taste but never really crossing into my tracks. Back in high school when I was watching The O.C. and starting to branch out into bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, and LCD Sound System I had come across Fleet Foxes self titled album. That album was big and if you look up the album cover you have probably seen it in passing at some point in your life. At the time I didn’t love it and since then I have looked away anytime I saw their albums come across my screen. Flash forward to 2020 and I’m willing to give anything a shot, old or new, just to occupy my time. With a refreshed set of ears I gave them another chance and I’m glad I did. This album is good anytime music and I played it a lot this summer. “Can I Believe You” was my most played song of the season.
Best Enjoyed: On your long weekend camping trip
3. IAN WAYNE – RISKING ILLNESS
Every year I try and find a “Winter Album”. One of those ones where you can stay in all day when it’s freezing cold out, drink coffee and just enjoy some tunes. I’ve got a couple favourites for this, like John K. Samson – Winter Wheat, but was looking to add to the repertoire this year. While perusing a music website at my lunch break one day, I came across Ian Wayne. I had no idea who he was or what kind of music he played but I wrote his name down on a sticky note and threw it in my pocket. It turned into the exact album I was looking for. It is calm and relaxing but has some songs that pick it up a bit like, “Gimme Something”. Much like another favourite of mine, Pinegrove, it has a raw sound to it that I find endearing. As if it was recorded in your basement. This was one of my favourite discoveries of the year.
Best Enjoyed: Put your headphones on, turn it up loud, and crawl into bed.
2. JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS
I am 100% a Jason Isbell fanboy and I have no shame in admitting it. If there was a Church of Isbell, I would get ordained. I really hope someone reading this will get to discover him for the first time. Personally, I started with the album “Southeastern” in 2013 and since then he has continued to put out my favourite songs and albums, time and time again. I was lucky enough to catch him at Regina Folk Fest last year and he lived up to every expectation I had. His songwriting is next level, his guitar playing ability is out of this world, and he also just seems like a small town stand up guy. This new album has it all and is as good as ever, top to bottom. His wife Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle in his band to compliment her own solo career, can be heard singing harmony with him throughout which I love. That was one of my favourite things about watching live was to see the way those two interact and play to each other. I love “Only Children” and “Be Afraid” the most, but if you’re looking for your next father/daughter dance song “Letting You Go” might be your jam.
Best Enjoyed: Anytime, anywhere. GO LISTEN TO JASON ISBELL!
1. ANDY SHAUF – THE NEON SKYLINE
My earliest memory of Andy Shauf was hearing someone in Climax or Frontier talk about this guy who played Christian punk music in Caronport, SK. Christian punk wasn’t exactly a genre I was looking to explore at that time and so it passed by without a thought. Fast forward to 2015 and I discovered a video on Youtube for the song “Wendell Walker” from his album The Bearer of Bad News. I was hooked. I loved the simplicity. From there, I fell in love with the song “Hometown Hero”. It’s a classic small town story which I’ve heard he based on a guy from Bienfait, SK. His next album titled The Party which came out in 2016 is a concept album. The whole album is written as a fictional story about a house party with each song depicting a different scene throughout the night. What a creative way to write music! And that’s not even the most creative part about it. Andy recorded every instrument on the album himself except for the strings (ie. violin, etc.). Pardon?! I can barely play one instrument. This instantly became one of my top plays. One of my best memories about this album was while traveling a couple years ago, my girlfriend and I heard the song, “Quite Like You” while we were having breakfast in a hotel in Amsterdam and it completely made my day.
So how does someone follow up that last masterpiece? With another masterpiece. And another concept album. This one centered around a barfly drinking away his sorrows at his local bar The Neon Skyline. I love the way he writes about scenarios that everyone can relate to in some way. I feel like I’ve been in that bar and seen these people. I watched an interview where he was asked what song in history he wished he had written. His answer was “Paul Simon – 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”. Ever since then I can hear the Paul Simon influence in his writing. His story telling in a song and the way his lyrics are almost talked instead of sang in some parts. The whole album is amazing. It is absolutely my favourite album of 2020. Now, scroll out of this blog, put on “Things I Do” and try not to grove. I dare you.
Best enjoyed: In a dark smoky room with a drink in hand.
MASEGO – STUDY ABROAD
A funky mix of saxophone, rapping, scatting and R&B. One of the more unique artists I listened to this year.
KATHLEEN EDWARDS – TOTAL FREEDOM
I saw Kathleen play at the Regina Folk Fest last year and was beguiled. Another well written release from her that is fun, honest and relatable.
10. KIRBY – SIS
I stumbled across Kirby on an NPR Tiny Desk and was immediately infatuated. I have a bit of a thing for sultry R&B, and she hits all the notes. I don’t have much to say on this album beyond that, give it a listen
Best Listened To: Tucked in the corner of a speakeasy drinking pricey cocktails.
9. DAVID RAMIREZ – MY LOVE IS A HURRICANE
Ramirez is a hard man to pin down genre-wise. His earlier work offers a classic singer-songwriter sound, but this albums adds a pop-synth vibe that pairs well with his smooth voice. Listening to this album sounds like a bit of a daydream, staring out the window and pondering relationships gone awry and thinking of those to come. My favourite song on the album is “Hell”, which is a collaboration with Sir Woman (whose EP Bitch is also worth checking out). The songs in the album, in many ways, hit the different notes of relationships; excitement, lust, love, shame, frustration, all of which are relatable in different ways.
Best Listened To: Staring at the sunset reflecting on lovers come and gone.
8. EARLY JAMES – SINGING FOR MY SUPPER
Early James seems like someone threw Shel Silverstein, a telecaster, a lounge singer in a slow cooker, set it to high and left it to stew for a few years. James’ raspy croon pairs well with his appearance, giving the sense that he stepped out of an alternate reality where the 60’s were somehow mashed up with the future. While at times this album seems to drag on and can be a bit repetitive, it won me over with its unique sound. With playful songwriting and a standout voice, very excited to see what the future looks like for James. Things are still early.
Best Enjoyed: Crafting your alter-ego
7. CHARLEY CROCKETT – WELCOME TO HARD TIMES
Is there anything more outlaw country than being an actual descendant of Davey Crockett? Well, perhaps if said descendant was involved in a stock fraud scheme, spent years selling weed to make ends meet on the road and has proclaimed he doesn’t embellish his story in his song, but in fact has had to tone things down. All paired with some of the finest Nudie Suits in the game. Charley Crocket sings with a dated urgency that makes you want to sleep with the sheriffs wife, rob a bank and make like dodge out of town. His songs about the struggles of life come off with a wry sense of fun while welcoming you to the club. His latest offering is similar to past, a raucous tone that draws you and spits you out bewildered and grinning like a mad man.
Best Enjoyed: Trying to outrun the sun on some dirt road somewhere.
6. MAC MILLER – CIRCLES
I am admittedly rarely in the know with hip-hop and was never in tune with what Mac Miller was doing, outside of the Knock-Knock phase that took the world by storm. This post-humous release paired well with the early days of quarantine, a chill album that was easy to throw on and bop along to.
Best Listened To: Sitting on your front step watching the world go by with a smile on.
5. THE SCOUNDRELS – MUSIC FROM THE ARCH
I came across this album a few weeks ago and it has been on repeat. I have yet to purchase bellbottoms and take jive lessons, but goddamn if those are not both on my list of things to do in 2021. Throw this album on and wherever you are immediately is transformed into a hip warehouse with cheap beer, a hot dog stand and funky people smoking cigarettes and making it look cool. I know absolutely nothing about this band, but if you don’t get up and grove to this album there something seriously wrong with you.
Best Enjoyed: Dancing in your house, dancing on the streets, dancing at work, dancing anywhere really.
4. WILLIAM PRINCE – RELIEVER
The pride of Winnipeg, Manitoba, William Prince has secured his place on my list of favourite songwriters with his release Reliever. A man who undoubtably has overcome his fair share of obstacles in becoming a working musician, Prince writes with a sense of gratitude that wraps itself around his tales of divorce, love and pain. “ain’t bringing bout my vengeance anymore…take the blame and cut the righteous out” he sings in Always Have What We Had, discussing working through the bitterness of divorce and finding the silver linings in the children that came from that relationship. In may way’s this album acts as a harbinger of wisdom. The songs offering understanding in pain but suggesting transcendence through suffering. This album offers sage life advice, not through lecture, but empathy in suggesting you take the high road, but knowing why you might not.
Best Enjoyed: Sunday morning drinking coffee and noticing how good the sun feels on your face
3. STURGILL SIMPSON – CUTTING GRASS VOL 2
As certified Sturgill fanboy (we are both gemenis ya know), I was curious to see where he would go after his last release, which was a rock & roll departure, paired with corresponding anime film. Cutting Grass was a hard return to his roots, offering covers of his earlier work with a bluegrass spin. I’m partial to Vol 2, as the addition of the mandolin gives it more of a country twang, but both albums are worth a listen. I don’t think they will vault ahead of his previous work in my books, but add another unique offering to his catalogue. Whether he is plotting his next big fuck you to the CMA’s or travelling to Japan to produce another anime flick, I’m always amused and inspired by what Sturgill is up to.
Best Enjoyed: Researching your astrological signs to justify your behavior.
2. KHRUANGBIN (Everything they did this year)
I can’t recall whether I was in love in Austin (this band’s hometown) when I was introduced to Khruangbin, but I do know it was the focus of my affections who brought them into my life. Hard to pronounce, but easy to enjoy, Khruangbin offers blissed out synths and funky guitar that works both as a great background soundtrack to your work from home set up or a funky groove to set the mood while having fiends over and having a few bevy’s. It helps that the band looks like the cooler and more refined older cousins of the Black Eyed peas. Not to be outdone by an annoying virus, Khruanbin released a killer collab album with Leon Bridges (Texas Sun), a handful of groovy singles and Mordecai, a full release. All of them are worth exploring.
Best enjoyed: Drinking cocktails and swaying along to the beat while telling all your stressors kick rocks
1. NATHANIEL RATELIFF – AND IT’S STILL ALRIGHT
I first fell in love with the Sultan of Sad a few years ago when I stumbled across his album In Memory of Loss. It seemed a lot more honest and packed more of an emotional punch than his work with the Night Sweats. I listened on repeat and was excited when I saw he was releasing a new solo album. I was not disappointed. There is an angst in this album that is apparent, even more saw if you watched Nathaniel choke back tears singing at the Willie and Friends online festival in the early days of quarantine. The ammunition for his sorrow is well packed, with his wife divorcing him, in part due to his struggles with alcoholism, followed by the death of his friend and produce. His earnest attempt to process his emotions and struggle to find the positives are relatable and poignant. “The glass is clear, but all this fear starts leaving a mark” is a line in And It’s Still Alright that sticks out to me, acknowledging the residue that tough times leave even after they are gone. Benjamin Tod said once in an interview that it was the duty of people who had sunk to great depths and survived to tell about it. There are a few artists that have become trusty companions on my low days, and Nathaniel has secured his stake there.
Best Enjoyed: Laying on the floor with a glass of whisky staring at the ceiling
- ANDY SHAUF – THE NEON SKYLINE
- JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS
- IAN WAYNE – RISKING ILLNESS
- FLEET FOXES – SHORE
- COLTER WALL – WESTERN SWINGS & WALTZES and OTHER PUNCHY SONGS
- KACY & CLAYTON & MARLON WILLIAMS – PLASTIC BOUQUET
- JACK GARRATT – LOVE, DEATH & DANCING
- KEVIN MORBY – SUNDOWNER
- SLOW LEAVES – SHELF LIFE
- SARAH HARMER – ARE YOU GONE
- MUSIC BAND – CELEBRATION
- KURT VILE – SPEED, SOUND, LONELY KV – EP
- NATHANIEL RATELIFF – AND IT’S STILL ALRIGHT
- KHRUANGBIN (Everything they did this year)
- STURGILL SIMPSON – CUTTING GRASS VOL 2
- WILLIAM PRINCE – RELIEVER
- THE SCOUNDRELS – MUSIC FROM THE ARCH
- MAC MILLER – CIRCLES
- CHARLEY CROCKETT – WELCOME TO HARD TIMES
- EARLY JAMES – SINGING FOR MY SUPPER
- DAVID RAMIREZ – MY LOVE IS A HURRICANE
- KIRBY – SIS
- KATHLEEN EDWARDS – TOTAL FREEDOM
- MASEGO – STUDY ABROAD