The year started auspiciously with Grammy-nominated newcomer Yola at the Fine Line, the splashy opening of the Fillmore Minneapolis with three nights of beloved Brandi Carlile, and ultra-warm winter theater shows by Michael Kiwanuka, Kamasi Washington and King Princess.
And then came COVID-19.
Suddenly, all our grand concert plans disappeared. No Kenny Chesney, Rolling Stones or Green Day in Minneapolis stadiums. No arena extravaganzas by the Weeknd, Harry Styles or Rage Against the Machine. No festivals with Carrie Underwood or Luke Combs or the all-female Rock the Garden lineup. Heck, we would've been happy just to see the Doobie Brothers again at the State Fair.
Still, there were plenty of chances — and reasons — to listen to the music. A lot of interesting and inspiring albums and singles entered our playlists, and a widespread, albeit hit-and-miss, array of livestreams were available to enjoy, too.
Here's a look back on the musical high points of a year we can never forget.
Jon Bream's favorites
No concerts. No problem. Some artists got busy in other ways to make their music and messages matter in 2020.
Big shout-out to Taylor Swift, who not only dropped two excellent and unexpected albums (including the year's bestseller) but spoke out louder than ever about voting, women's rights and artists' rights. Bravo, too, to veteran voices Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams for not only delivering noteworthy albums but keeping a steady presence all year long, on SiriusXM and with the themed concert series "Lu's Jukebox," respectively.
In a year in which racial and political unrest gripped America, no voice spoke more forcefully than Killer Mike's. Not only did his Run the Jewels deliver the year's most vibrant and impactful hip-hop album but the MC, the son of a cop, spoke up at a timely rally in his exploding hometown of Atlanta. Other musicians from the Chicks to the Twin Cities' own Sounds of Blackness addressed issues roiling America in 2020. So my year-end lists address the best albums and topical songs that mattered.
BREAM'S 10 BEST ALBUMS
1. Fiona Apple, "Fetch the Bolt Cutters." On her first album in eight years, the intense, emotionally raw singer examines her troubled psyche and complicated relationships, set to quirky music filled with percussive rhythms, hip-hop forays and unpredictable turns. Shape-shifting never sounded so urgent and personal.
2. Bob Dylan, "Rough and Rowdy Ways." Without notice, he dropped three singles and then his first album of original material in eight years. Whether swaggering blues, melancholy meditations or pop-culture poetry, the bard is still delivering trenchant, fresh and confoundingly provocative music at age 79.
3. Maria Schneider, "Data Lords." Known for her feisty and thoughtful speeches and articles, big band jazz's brightest star slices, dices and scolds Big Data for all its privacy violations with this remarkably riveting double album, one disc dark and ominous, the other playful and pastoral. This is as profound as modern-day instrumental music gets.
4. The Chicks, "Gaslighter." Protests, both highly personal and liberatingly universal, make for harmony-filled explosions on the first album in 14 years by the trio formerly known as the Dixie Chicks.
5. Taylor Swift, "Folklore" and "Evermore." The planet's biggest pop supernova goes indie rock, with the help of the National's Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, displaying unexpected range, a newly focused vision and a continuing ability to thrust herself into America's moment. And then, five months later, she does it again with a second album that's equally impressive. Talk about pandemic productivity.
6. Run the Jewels, "RTJ4." Killer Mike and El-P compel with their potent flow and timely words, reaching new heights on collabs — "Pulling the Pin" with Mavis Staples and Josh Homme and "Ju$t" with Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha.
7. Lucinda Williams, "Good Souls Better Angels." In the climate of 2020, the Americana ace's 13th studio album resonates like a protest record with roaring guitars, rattling rhythms and cut-to-the-bone lyrics. But there's a hint of optimism amid all the anger.
8. Chloe x Halle, "Ungodly Hour." Protegées of Beyoncé, the sister act, ages 20 and 22, delivers a seamless sophomore collection of modern R&B/pop with nods to past eras, asserting that sisterhood is powerful at any age.
9. Lianne La Havas, "Lianne La Havas." Evoking at turns Sade and Corinne Bailey Rae, the London singer/guitarist chronicles the bittersweet arc of a relationship with her alluring jazzy/folkie third album.
10. Chris Stapleton, "Starting Over." With gritty soulfulness, country music's Tennessee stud proclaims his love for the blues, Southern rock, country ballads, heartfelt folk and Southern soul and ends by announcing that he's leaving Nashville to keep his soul intact.
10 TOPICAL SONGS THAT MATTER
1. Sounds of Blackness, "Sick and Tired." After five decades of preaching positivity, the Twin Cities ensemble got fired up post-George Floyd, adapting civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer's classic 1964 refrain into the fiercest, most powerful song in their repertoire. This horn-blasted, gospel-infused call to action is the perfect sound coming from Minneapolis in 2020.
2. The Chicks, "March March." No strangers to controversy, the Chicks declare "march, march to my own drum. I'm an army of one." In this eerie and arresting protest piece framed by haunting fiddle, banjo and slide guitar, they celebrate the importance of letting your voice — and vote — be heard.
3. H.E.R., "I Can't Breathe." Backed by a spare beat and atmospheric choir, the 23-year-old R&B star sings with a soulfully aching, yearning voice and adds potent spoken-word passages about generations of pain, fear and anxiety. She demands justice, not revenge.
4. Anderson .Paak, "Lockdown." Released on Juneteenth, this slinky, jazzy hip-hop piece finds the Los Angeles singer/rapper detailing reasons to protest and then having to deal with riot cops downtown during the coronavirus lockdown. Right on!
5. Lucinda Williams, "Man Without a Soul." With its warbly, slashing guitar, this slow-burn blues tears into a certain president without mentioning his name. The song has more dignity and soul than its target.
6. Bob Dylan, "Murder Most Foul." On the surface, this epic 17-minute incantation is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but it's really more about all the great cultural things that society gave us and how America has lost its spirit, soul and sense of leadership.
7. Run the Jewels, "Ju$t." With an assist from Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha, the passionate duo protests America's economic ills. "Look at all these slave masters posin' on yo dollar." 'Nuff said.
8. Rosanne Cash, "Crawl Into the Promised Land." The oft-outspoken singer-songwriter serves up a haunting, hopeful, swampy acoustic blues anthem. "Deliver me from tweets and lies/ and purify me in the sun," she sings.
9. Nur-D, "Band Aid." With a fast flow reminiscent of Eminem at his best, the Twin Cities MC raps about cops doing racial profiling. He's not afraid to defend his Blackness even it means losing some followers in the process.
10. Mickey Guyton, "Black Like Me." Sonically, this piano ballad could fit seamlessly on contemporary country radio. Her heartbreak is about being different in a small town and in Nashville. "If you think we live in the land of the free," the Black country vocalist croons with pain in her voice, "you should try to be Black like me."
Chris Riemenschneider's picks
Was it a year meant for topical albums that reflect the troubled times, emotional personal epics in touch with our newly isolated lifestyles, or soothing escapist recordings to take us away? Yes, yes, and yes. All of those qualities can be found in the year's best albums, leading with one of the most important singer-songwriter LPs of the 21st century; which happens to potently fill those first two prescriptions.
Much more on the escapist end, livestreamed and televised performances filled in for concerts in 2020 as best as could be expected. Nothing came close to replacing the power of live music, but at least we can still watch the videos listed below while we wait for 2021's rejuvenation.
RIEMENSCHNEIDER'S 10 BEST ALBUMS
1. Fiona Apple, "Fetch the Bolt Cutters." Few albums that elicit this kind of immediate wow with its deliberate sonic punch (trash-can rhythms, guttural vocals, high-wire piano) also offer such simmering lyrical fascination and lingering hooks. Those who were paying attention to rock's most underrated '90s singer could see that she had been working toward this opus for 15 uneasy years, and the payoff is sweet.
2. Waxahatchee, "Saint Cloud." As if she were a year ahead of the rest of us, Alabama indie-rocker Katie Crutchfield seemed to come out of her own anxiety-ridden quarantine on this comforting exhale of a record, part Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and Neko Case.
3. Run the Jewels, "RTJ4." Hip-hop's unlikely middle-age heroes Killer Mike and El-P — who were supposed to tour with Rage Against the Machine this summer — rage against systemic racism, police violence and MAGA lies on this ticking time bomb of a record, which coincidentally dropped a week after the George Floyd tragedy but not so coincidentally fit the times.
4. Idles, "Ultra Mono." It's hard to decipher all the myriad topics these bombastic Bristol, England, punks are ranting about on their third LP, but it was easy to absorb all their middle-finger energy in the year 2020.
5. The Chicks, "Gaslighter." With the tried-and-true topic of D-I-V-O-R-C-E and twangy, old-school harmonies at the fore, their long-awaited comeback record amounted to this year's best country album; never mind that the ex-queens of Dixie veer closer to rock here and are way too feminist for Nashville.
6. Moses Sumney, "Grae." Harp on an R&B album? Falsetto and synths on a classical record? However you categorize this seductively voiced North Carolina singer's 20-song second LP, the listening experience comes off like a long, bold, captivating free-form jazz performance.
7. Sturgill Simpson, "Cuttin' the Grass, Vol. 1." The alt-twang experimenter went back to his Kentucky roots and remade some of his best songs with help from an ace crew of bluegrass pickers, ironically resulting in his most straight-up electrifying album yet.
8. Open Mike Eagle, "Anime, Trauma and Divorce." Chicago rapper Michael Eagle turned in a touching and surprisingly funny record that stares down personal strife with his smart, self-inflicting writing style and love for comic-book culture.
9. Kehlani, "It Was Good Until It Wasn't." An intoxicating mix of chilled-out R&B grooves and stone-cold lyrics all about toxic relationships from the Oakland singer and rapper.
10. Bob Mould, "Blue Hearts." The ex-Hüsker Dü punk hero planned to take the year off but instead hammered out his angriest record in two decades, railing against faux-Christian haters the way he did way back when on "Zen Arcade."
10 GREAT ON-SCREEN PERFORMANCES
(*Ones you can still view online or on TV.)
1. David Byrne, "American Utopia." Filmmaker Spike Lee's concert film for HBO offered a close-up view of the oddly alluring, constantly moving, onstage energy of the ex-Talking Heads singer's tour-turned-Broadway-show without spoiling the magic of it.
2. Beyoncé, "Black Is King." Though not actually based on a live performance, this truly spectacular eye-candy art film unfolded on the Disney-Plus channel very much like a good concert, complete with dazzling costume and backdrop changes.
3. Run the Jewels, "RTJ4" Adult Swim concert. One of the best live acts of the past decade lived up to that reputation with this high-adrenaline hi-fi tear through their new album, with guest vocalists Pharrell Williams and Mavis Staples playfully (and safely) piped in.
4. Post Malone's Nirvana tribute. We knew the Dallas singer with the tattooed face was more talented than his often boneheaded pop hits suggest, but we didn't know he could rock as impressively and purely as he did to raise $3 million for COVID relief.
5. Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires, "Live at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville." The royal Americana couple had to mark the release of his "Reunions" album sans the full band, but with the added charm of an intimate, cozy setting in a real venue.
6. Megan Thee Stallion, "Live at Red Rocks." With two of the year's biggest hits to her name ("W.A.P." and "Savage"), the Houston rapper struck the red-hot iron with this sizzling virtual concert co-helmed by the same choreography team as Beyoncé's legendary Coachella set.
7. Jackie Venson and Mavis Staples, "Austin City Limits." The blues-rocker rose to the stature of fellow homegrown "ACL" forbears Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr., even without a studio audience, while also powerfully addressing racial tensions. Which made Staples a great pairing with a 2012 rebroadcast from rock's most uplifting voice.
8. The Hold Steady, "Massive Nights." This fifth annual three-night run by New York's favorite band of Midwesterners at Brooklyn Bowl nobly tried to be as close as possible to the real thing and, to paraphrase Edina expat Craig Finn, I'm pretty sure we all partied.
9. Neil Young, "Fireside Sessions." His down-home approach and wing-it attitude in these series of mountainside mini-concerts were nicely offset by his political purposefulness and wife Darryl Hannah's filmmaker know-how. Part of a trove of free stuff now up at NeilYoungArchives.com.
10. One World: Together at Home. While hardly the virtual answer to Live Aid — not when no one's actually performing live — this mega-telethon back in April did produce memorable at-home performances by the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder and Lizzo, whose "A Change Is Gonna Come" sounds even more powerful at year's end.
@JonBream • 612-673-1719
@ChrisRStrib • 612-673-4658