2020 might not have been the best year for going to gigs, but that didn’t stop artists releasing some wonderful records to keep us all entertained and comforted during the past, present and indeed future lockdowns. As ever, 2020 demonstrated that the guitar remains a wonderfully diverse and interesting instrument, with artists new and old finding fresh ways to make those humble six strings feel exciting and vital.
If we wanted to, we could have probably made this end-of-year list twice or three times as long, such has been the cornucopia of wonderful and interesting new guitar music we’ve come across in 2020. But while space on the internet is infinite, your attention span is not, and so instead we asked Guitar.com’s team of writers from all across the globe to pick their very favourite record of the year and tell us why they loved it – some will be records you’ve heard, some won’t be, some will be by megastars, some of them don’t even have a record deal.
What it does show, however, is that guitar music remains in rude health, and is a more diverse place than ever before – two facts that are entirely related. Enjoy the list, we’ll see you in 2021.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
How do you follow a breathtaking debut album and a string of essential collaborations? For Phoebe Bridgers, the answer was apparently quite simple: release a second, equally wonderful solo LP that propels you towards mainstream success and bags four Grammy nominations in the process. It helps if you are a generational talent, of course, and although the 26-year-old Angeleno has assembled a team of canny co-conspirators – the likes of Tony Berg, Ethan Gruska, Marshall Vore and Harrison Whitford help flesh out her acoustic and baritone-driven songs into lush studio arrangements – it’s Bridgers’ star that always shines brightest. In common with her hero Elliott Smith, Phoebe Bridgers has a knack for combining disarmingly pretty melodies with devastating lyrics that stop you in your tracks, and it’s this rare sophistication as a songwriter – in addition to her ability to sing the phone book and make it sound good – that elevates Bridgers above her contemporaries. For all its brilliance, Punisher feels like it’s only the beginning of an artistic journey with almost limitless potential.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions
Isbell’s been on a roll since 2013’s Southeastern, his LP first after rehab and his first with lauded producer Dave Cobb. The two are still hand in glove for Reunions, which is arguably the Alabaman’s finest outing yet. The music this time is more polished that the rambunctious The Nashville Sound (2018), with Isbell weaving Mark Knopfler-esque subtleties into his vintage country-soul palette of licks, though he still leaves room for big, blasting rock solos: buying an old Marshall that used to belong to Neil Young clearly suits him, as does his recent purchase of Ed King’s ’59 Les Paul.
But it’s the heartfelt songcraft that the real key here, more so even than his truly jaw-dropping guitar playing. Isbell has a knack for effortlessly finding poignancy in obvious truths, homespun wisdom and warm nostalgia that’s hugely endearing, and shows that he’s well on his on his way to becoming his own generation’s Springsteen. Yes, he’s that good.
Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
It seems absurd to talk about ‘transformation’ when an artist is barely 20 years old and has a grand total of one studio album, but Beatrice Laus is clearly no ordinary artist. In 2017 Beabadoobee posted Coffee on YouTube and had record labels queuing round the block from her London front door to sign her. But how many of those suits would have imagined that three years later the girl singing over a delicately strummed acoustic on YouTube would be onstage in front of thousands, Fender Lead II in hand, standard bearer of a grunge-pop revival and one of the most exciting new artists on the planet?
It’s a credit to Laus’ label, Dirty Hit, that she’s been given the freedom and encouragement to blossom into the artist that she wanted to be. Smashing together everything from Pavement, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine to Alanis Morrissette, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Lemonheads she’s create a heady brew of infectious guitar hooks, searing grungey solos and brutally honest songcraft that is Fake It Flowers. If you remember the 90s, songs like Worth It and Sorry will have you marvelling at how it manages to sound both fresh and authentic at the same time. If you weren’t, you’ll probably just marvel. A sign of very, very big things to come.
Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman
Bonny Light Horseman are a supergroup comprising Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman and Eric D Johnson, and their debut album is a collection of ancient British and Irish folk songs retold in a modern American setting. Everything is played on gorgeous vintage guitars in open tunings and the fluid interplay between the three members seems effortlessly intuitive. The emotive flutter of Mitchell’s voice and Johnson’s folky Dylanisms are an enchanting match, too. Guest appearances from Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner help to elevate a deeply affecting collection that breathes fresh life into these centuries-old standards.
Nova Twins – Who Are The Girls?
The incendiary, utterly invigorating debut album from London’s Nova Twins formally introduced us to two future stars-in-the-making: vocalist and guitarist Amy Love and bassist Georgia South, a duo whose unwillingness to conform to genre makes them all the more enticing. A wild-eyed crossover of distorted rock and electronic influences, Who Are The Girls? made for one of the most exhilarating and assured releases of the year. It built mountains of coruscating noise via scything riffs, metal thrashing and bass pedals alone, and rewarded the listener with its defiant lyrical content, with the no-shit stance refrain of ‘Bullet’ being a blazing example: “It’s my body, it’s my mind, do what I want with it’. More power to them.
Bad Moves – Untenable
There are few more valuable skills in music than the ability to craft undeniable fuzz-pop jams that reliably get in and out in under three minutes. Washington DC’s Bad Moves proved that they had that in their locker on their 2018 debut LP Tell No One, a fizzing head rush of a record that set the table nicely for this year’s exceptional Untenable. From the title on down the record unpicks the meat grinder relationship between a capitalist world and its workers, fusing this bone-deep anxiety with giddy, hook-filled jangle and wiry leads that flip the whole thing on its head. You know that feeling you have all the time that everything is going to collapse? Imagine it was delivered in four-part harmony. That’s Untenable.
Loathe – I Let It In And It Took Everything
Imagine the heavier side of Slipknot, the dreamier side of Deftones and the most brutal elements of Code Orange all fused together, and you have Loathe’s I Let It In And It Took Everything. The result is a stunning record that covers a lot of musical ground: songs like Red Room, Gored and Aggressive Evolution are some of the most punishing tracks of the year, while Two Way Mirror, Is It Really You? and A Sad Cartoon are gorgeous, soaring soundscapes that are no less enthralling. Only on their second record, Loathe are not just a band with potential: they are a band that have truly arrived. From here, they can go anywhere they want.
Martin Simpson – Home Recordings
In times of adversity, we can take comfort from the intimate immediacy of the acoustic guitar, and if it’s perfectly recorded, that also helps. That makes British fingerstyle legend Martin Simpson’s album Home Recordings one of the most beautiful albums of the year. From the mournful slide guitar on Plains of Waterloo to the nostalgia of An Englishman Abroad the whole record can only be described as The Real Thing. Martin Simpson is an evocative storyteller and Home Recordings will often catch you off-guard with a perfectly delivered lyric coupled with world class guitar work on instruments made the cream of British guitar making. Also his version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’Changing will kick your arse.
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Some artists are in a league of their own, Laura Marling is at the top of that league. At 30, Song For Our Daughter is the Berkshire guitarist’s seventh solo album. That’s rare. Rarer still is how Marling’s sound is still innovative, and never half-baked. Song For Our Daughter is a primarily acoustic affair, varying from triumphant strummed chord progressions on tracks like Alexandra, to cinematic fingerpicking drenched in emotion as with The End of the Affair. Each song is refined to the point of perfection. From mesmerising sequences to soundscapes that make you think you’ve never heard a guitar before, not even an acoustic. Marling is an example of mastery. Not a note, not a frequency is out of place. Add to this a voice like no other and a pen sharper than the edge of a nine-gauge, and you have a near-perfect album from an exceptional artist.
Sex Swing – Type II
There are no flashy guitar moments on this album. Instead, Type II is an argument for the guitar as a buttress. From the drop-tuned chugs of Skimmington Ride to the feedback that catapults slow-build squall-stomp closer Garden of Eden – 2000 AD to its conclusion, every sound emitted by Jodie Cox’s Fender Squier Vintage Modified Baritone Jazzmaster strengthens the band’s bilious psych-noise screed, forming the critical bed for the screeching sax, monotone vocals and more. With songs that melt into the best kind of textural melange, Sex Swing seem uniquely equipped to dig their fingers into the fabric of time and stretch it all out of shape. Perfect listening, then, for a punishing year that’s felt as much like a whistle-stop tour of Hell as it has an eternity in Limbo.
Metz – Atlas Vending
“Hands tied, throw the old plan out, Because I need to leave this place now more than ever” Alex Edkins crows in the sprawling, yet somehow tightly wound closer A Boat to Drown In. Released at the height of US Presidential Election campaign, the Canadian noise-aficionados captured the mood of the moment for many of us. Couple that with a year spent couped up in our homes, Metz – a band that almost exclusively trades in tension and claustrophobia – have pretty well soundtracked 2020. While there is a certain vibe you can expect from any Metz album, Atlas Vending sees them at their most expansive and progressive, bringing in new textures and otherworldly guitar tones to their already unique palette. Already a huge influence on much bigger bands like Idles, you’ll be hard pressed a better example of modern-day post-punk than this.
Doves – The Universal Want
After over a decade pursuing other projects, Doves chose a fittingly miserable year to release their fifth studio album. Opening with a wash of dreamy sci-fi ambience that seems to deliberately recall their first two records, first single Carousels offers their patient fanbase instant reassurance – it’s a powerful dose of lyrical and sonic nostalgia, underpinned by floating atmospheric guitars and crisp rhythms.
Here, as throughout, guitarist Jez Williams daubs the sonic landscapes with his trademark arpeggios, stark acoustics, washes of tension-building effects and soaring riffery, providing an endless supply of six-string hooks. The towering guitar assaults of Prisoners and Cycle Of Hurt, nestling unobtrusively at the heart of the running order, are worth the entrance fee alone. The sonics may have been refreshed rather than transformed since their last outing, but the all-important tension between rainy melancholy and anthemic melody that Doves do so well remains – and The Universal Want is a gloomy, epic return to form.
Taylor Swift – Folklore
Taylor Swift surprised everyone with her eighth studio album, recording it in secret during the spring and only announcing its release hours before it dropped at midnight on 24 July. What was even more surprising was how it sounded – Folklore was Swift ignoring the needs of pop radio and fans at the back of stadiums she couldn’t tour anyway to produce a record of sparse instrumentation and intricate detail.
The National’s Aaron Dessner took up production duties, and supplied understated but elegant guitar and piano accompaniment to some of Swift’s best songwriting in her storied and awards-laden career. The delayed, circular acoustic picking underneath the beautiful Illicit Affairs is a particular guitar highlight, and perhaps sounds even better stripped back on the live Long Pond Session version released in late November… just before Swift dropped another surprise album with Dessner, Evermore, on 11 December. There’s plenty of guitar on that one too, but Folklore is the sound of 2020.
Willie J Healey – Twin Heavy
Fresh from his major label debut, Willie J Healey’s sophomore offering on Yala! Records sees the former boxer offer up lyrical buoyancy and wit in abundance. Recorded to tape, it moves between psychedelic nostalgia and guitar work that channels both country twang and echoes of surf in abundance, with a healthy dose of Beatles influences thrown in for good measure. A record that’s prepared to have you falling head over heels, whether it’s the guitar solo on coming of age or the slow-burn of the title track, we’re sure to be talking about this as a modern classic in no time at all. It cements Healey as a future guitar hero.
Halsey – Manic
Despite apparently suffering almost as many deaths over the last 20 years as the collective lives of three cats, the immortal guitar continues to demonstrate its pivotal role in practically every music genre – and none more so than pop. Amongst all the productional glitz and glamour of Manic, the humble guitar is the foundation of its most memorable songs.
The fingerpicked acoustic on Graveyard is a lesson in simple elegant playing, and how guitar can harmoniously co-exist with modern synths; whereas the picked acoustic on You Should Be Sad gives the ubiquitous thumping modern pop bass drum a lesson in dynamic control. These unsung guitar players and their parts provide the perfect platform for Halsey’s wondrous melodies.
Kevin & The Bikes – Ironic Songs
Can a parody band grow into its own skin to pen ‘real’ songs and still be good? Ironic Songs, the second album from Kevin & The Bikes, seems to prove so. Dorkcore 101, the musical duo’s debut opus was a four-hour long concept album written around the universe of 2000s Cartoon Network TV show Ed, Edd ’n’ Eddy – you read that right. Aside from the novelty, the 101-song affair packed unexpected moments of candid artistry.
Ironic Songs, by comparison, is a much more refined lo-fi rock adventure, and one with a surprising amount of heart. Songs feel more complete, brimmed with witty lyrics, catchy hooks and super fun instrumentation. It’s a smart record, with true “dingus” spirit, and it’s fantastic.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
On Saint Cloud we see the very best of Waxahatchee. Shifting her sound out to further forays of Americana, Katie Crutchfield delights within simplicity here, with a trio of acoustic guitar, piano and vocals often providing the impetus behind these songs. The tapping’s of acoustic guitar provide the basis for a plethora of irresistible melodies, from the silk laden The Eye to the distant tremors of War. There is a path within this album that is storied yet not chronological, as we hear of places, people and loves past and present scattered throughout. Saint Cloud pays joyful testament to unpredictability, whilst accepting that we can face conflict and disappointments, there’s something to be celebrated in being along for the ride.