Country Perspective’s Top 10 Country Albums of 2020

Ah, we’ve reached list season! The time of year when everybody releases their top music lists of the year and we all argue about why somebody’s personal list didn’t reflect our own personal taste. At the end of the day, remember it’s not worth getting angry about this stuff. The most important things these lists do is help us find an artist or release that fell through the cracks or you didn’t hear about. And they’re a nice way to recognize artists, especially smaller ones who need the coverage to help them reach more people. So be sure to just enjoy these lists and not feel insecure when your favorite artist doesn’t get the “proper” placement. It’s all opinions at the end of the day.

Country Perspective will be posting multiple best of albums lists this year to recognize the staggering amount of high quality album releases in 2020. It will ultimately conclude with Country Perspective’s Top 10 Albums of 2020, which will reflect all genres and crown this blog’s top award, Album of the Year.

Today I take a look at the top country albums of 2020. The genre had a fantastic year and it was actually quite difficult to round out the list. I could have posted a longer list, but I think it’s best to keep these short since there are so many lists and it cheapens the recognition if you make it longer. Both the mainstream and indie scenes delivered great albums this year and there was also a variety of sounds amongst the top country albums, which is awesome to see. Personally I would say the word surprise would best describe my top country albums list, as most of these albums surprised me in some way. If you had told me at the beginning of the year that this is what my list would like, I wouldn’t believe you, especially the top album. But I love it when music surprises me, so it was quite fun to put together this list and reflect back on these albums. So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top 10 Country Albums of 2020:

10. Brandy Clark — Your Life is a Record

Despite a few hiccups, Brandy Clark takes a big step up from her last album with Your Life is a Record. I think the production is the biggest improvement, as it flows together really well from start to finish. I really enjoy the incorporation of the flutes in this album, as it’s something not really utilized as much in country music. The songwriting stumbles in a few spots, but for the most part is pretty good and at times great. There’s a surprisingly nice mix of emotions on an album centered around a breakup too. Most importantly, Clark rewards you for listening to the whole album, giving you the emotional journey with the fittingly positive, yet realistic destination.

9. Texas Exit — Black Water

Texas Exit delivers an absolute blast of a debut album in Black Water. While they definitely let their cited influences above shine through, personally the two bands I thought of when listening to this album are Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot, as the sound feels like it fits right in with those bands. While it’s understandable how a band wearing it’s influences on it’s sleeves can be a bit annoying, I find that Texas Exit does this in a way that feels like a good combination of homage and putting their own flair on it. While it’s easy to get lost in the fun guitar play, it’s the lyrics of this album that are it’s secret weapon and what makes this band stand out amongst other groups who attempt these popular sounds.

8. Brothers Osborne — Skeletons 

Skeletons is easily the best album delivered by the Brothers Osborne so far. This duo at their best in my mind is the modern day version of Brooks & Dunn. What both of these duos excel at is delivering accessible, yet “smarter” versions of fun country music that doesn’t delve into mindless drivel like bro country nor does it feel forced like pop country. Then sprinkle in a few serious songs to give you a nice breather in between all of the partying and this is the perfect formula for the duo to follow. This is a really enjoyable album.

7. Mike and the Moonpies — Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart

Mike and the Moonpies continue to prove why many are quickly considering them one of the best acts in country music right now, as they’ve now released two great, back-to-back surprise releases. Not to mention the respect they pay towards Stewart is classy and a true homage to the late country star, as they do a great job bringing his old, unreleased songs to life. If you’re a country music fan and not familiar with Gary Stewart, I hope this urges you to dig into his music because it’s a real joy. And of course you should also familiarize yourself with Mike and the Moonpies, as this top ten country release in 2020 follows Country Perspective’s #1 country album of 2019.

6. John Anderson — Years

There have been many near death/mortality albums done throughout country music history, calling to my mind Johnny Cash’s famous American Recordings series, Wille Nelson’s hauntingly great Spirit, and the late great John Prine’s final album The Tree of Forgiveness grinning in the face of mortality. John Anderson’s Years is without a doubt worthy of standing right next to these pieces of work. The songwriting on this is incredibly strong, with Anderson impressively having a hand in writing every track. Auerbach and Ferguson also deliver production that shines for the most part and continues their streak of quality projects. Years shows John Anderson is not only still hanging on, but he’s thriving and smiling.

5. Daniel Donato — A Young Man’s Country

Daniel Donato delivers quite an impressive debut with A Young Man’s Country. It’s not too often an artist of his caliber on guitar comes along, as his style and skill reminds me of a cross between Marty Stuart and Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. It evokes a lot of emotion and color, giving Donato’s music a cinematic-like quality that draws the listener in. Needless to say I look forward to hearing more from Donato.

4. Chris Stapleton — Starting Over

Starting Over is what it says it is: it’s Chris Stapleton hitting a reset button on expectations. It’s him indulging in all of his influences and putting them all on display. It’s a reminder of who he is as an artist, even though this may not sound much different than what he’s released before. But again the expectations have to be kept in check because an artist’s image is more important than many listeners and reviewers realize. I think Stapleton realized he needed to reiterate who he sees himself as with this album. It’s him quietly and not so quietly voicing his displeasure at the world around him too. But really Stapleton does what he’s always focused on doing with his music on this album: making good music with no expectations. And that’s the best kind of music.

3. Ashley McBryde — Never Will

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

2. Tyler Childers — Long Violent History

The best surprises are not what you want, but what you need. Tyler Childers’ surprise album Long Violent History is a record we needed. Who would have predicted an Appalachian country album filled mostly with old fiddle standards would end up being one of the best albums of 2020? But that’s exactly what Tyler Childers delivers with Long Violent History. It’s eight great instrumental songs with beautiful and thoughtful melody packaged around one of the most powerful, well-written songs of this generation. Tyler Childers writes himself into the history books with this album.

1. Brett Eldredge — Sunday Drive

“What in the world are we all doin’ here?”

They say first impressions are important, whether it’s the first time you meet somebody or the first time you’re listening to a piece of music. Right away Brett Eldredge leaves an impactful first impression with his new album Sunday Drive. It’s such an important question that can resonate with anyone listening. Right away Eldredge reaches out to the listener and makes a connection, inviting them into the music.

There could not be more of a stark contrast between Sunday Drive and Brett Eldredge’s previous album. It’s simply night and day. Every moment on this album is absolutely enjoyable. The lyrics and production could not shine and compliment each other anymore. The reflecting theme of finding optimism and wisdom in times of trouble and uncertainty is brilliantly inspiring. Brett Eldredge has never sounded more energized and is at his absolute best on this record. There’s no other way to put it: Sunday Drive is a phenomenal album and it’s the best country album of 2020.

The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol, 7 — Kylie Minogue, AC/DC, Cam & more!

Kylie Minogue — DISCO 

I’ve written many times on this blog about Carly Rae Jepsen’s style of pop music and how it has such a refreshing, timeless sound. This sound couldn’t have come from nowhere. There had to be artists before her that undoubtedly inspired Jepsen’s sound. So that set me off on a music discovery that brought me to several artists who shaped her sound and one of those artists is Kylie Minogue.

Turns out she’s been churning out catchy pop music for decades! Yet she’s never really caught on in the United States, which is both shocking and unfortunate because her music is phenomenal. Lucky for me this discovery of her music happened months ago and gave me ample time to familiarize myself with her music, as it happened to be she had a new album in DISCO dropping in November. Her new album DISCO is not much different from the rest of her discography: it’s fun, catchy and makes you want to dance.

Opening song “Magic” has an effortless glide about it and invites you into the album to have a good time. “Miss a Thing” is a bouncy invitation to escape to the dance floor and “Monday Blues” while predictable in it’s songwriting, just has a likably infectious beat. “Supernova” lives up to it’s name: this song is just a burst of energy a la the explosion of a star. The energy is cranked to the max, in your face and I dare you not to want to dance when the “burst” happens in the hook. “Say Something” utilizes the synth to perfection. “Where Does The DJ Go?” and “Dance Floor Darling” are absolute in ear worms in the best possible definition of the phrase. And the album concludes with the uplifting, inspirational love song “Celebrate You” that encourages you to fall in love with someone that makes the best of you come out. 

This album is full of soaring production that lives up to it’s album name while also giving it a fresh, modern feel. The songwriting focuses around love, excitement and just pure joy. To me it’s one of those albums that if you love pop and disco music, it’s impossible to come away not smiling. Minogue meant for this album to be enjoyable escapism and DISCO is absolutely phenomenal in this regard. It’s easily one of my favorite pop albums of 2020.

Grade: 9/10

AC/DC — POWER UP

I never thought I would get an opportunity to review one of my favorite acts of all-time. The first album I ever enjoyed front to back is AC/DC’s Back In Black and they’re the band I credit for falling in love with rock music. I’m even happier that I get to write positively about their new music, as their last album Rock or Bust was mediocre at best (putting it nicely). Of course there were several issues surrounding this album, as Malcolm Young wad rapidly declining in health. Everybody in the band is getting up in age. And lead singer Brian Johnson lost enough of his hearing that he had to stop touring with the band.

AC/DC is a band you don’t count out though. Angus Young rallied the troops for this album, reuniting the band to cut songs that him and his brother had stored in a vault for years. And thanks to the brilliance of modern technology, Johnson’s hearing was restored. The result: POWER UP showcases this group at their best. There’s anthemic, blaring riffs, strong hooks and powerful vocals. Critics of this band say they never change and well that’s the point. AC/DC has never pretended to be songwriting savants nor producing the most complex chord structure. Their goal has always been pretty simple: providing the anthems to a loud and fun party. They want you to have a good time and forget about the world. And they once again do this with what is most likely their final album.

You know you’re in for something great from opening song “Realize.” You got the signature gang vocals, a grasping energy, catchy riffs and sticky hooks. “Rejection” is a really enjoyable revenge anthem and lead single “Shot In The Dark” has one of the strongest hooks I’ve heard from an AC/DC single in several years. “Through The Mists of Time” immediately caught my eye with it’s very un-AC/DC title, as it seems more like a Led Zeppelin song title. And it’s arguably the best song on the album, as it’s soaring sound gives it a mystical aura around it. The gang vocals are a real treat on “Kick You When You’re Down” and the riff has some real muscle behind it. The buildup on “Demon Fire” is exciting, as the crashing of the drums on the hook makes you want to bang your head in unison. That’s when you know you have a great rock song. Johnson sounds as great as ever on this particular track too. And then the album appropriate concludes with the easy-to-singalong with “Code Red.” I can already picture this being a huge hit live. 

This record is a fantastic swan song and a perfect way for a legendary band to take their final bow. The entire band is on their A game and you couldn’t ask for better performances from these guys. I’ve seen some say this one of the group’s best albums and I can absolutely buy this argument. Personally I wouldn’t put it in my top three, but maybe top five. Regardless, I find this album to be quite poetic. Everybody thought this group was done when Bon Scott passed, but then they made their career-defining album in Back In Black. And everybody again thought they were done when Malcolm Young passed amidst other group issues. But once again they have surpassed expectations and made a damn great album.

Grade: 9/10

Cam — The Otherside

I thought my friend Zack at The Musical Divide wrote a fantastic review on this album, as he summed up in great detail the absolute frustrations of this record. So I highly encourage you to read his review. I’ll reiterate one of his main takeaways: man, I really wanted to like this album more. Cam is such a fun and likable artist who brings a lot of sly intelligence to her songwriting (see a song like “My Mistake”). She also did a solid job with producer Jeff Bhasker of mixing country and pop on her debut album

She once again teams up with Bhasker on The Otherside and the results just aren’t as good. The production on this album is flat and doesn’t stand out in any significant way. It just sort of all blends together, very much reminding of the disappointing sophomore Maddie & Tae album. Outside of “Dianne” (a three-year old song that sounds like it came from a completely different project) and “Like A Movie,” I won’t remember anything else from this album. There’s no wow moment and it’s not that there is any bad songs on this album, it’s just a forgettable record all around. I can remember pretty much remember every song from Untamed

So unfortunately the sophomore slump has struck with Cam. I wouldn’t be surprised if she bounced back in a big way on the next album, as she’s just too talented to be limited to albums like this one. I hope she switches up producers, as I think it’s needed. Personally, I think she could make some real magic with Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, as I think their approaches would mesh well. 

Grade: 5/10

Brent Cobb — Keep ‘Em on They Toes

The same story of Cam’s album above is the case for Brent Cobb’s Keep ‘Em on They Toes. I had high hopes for Cobb after being really impressed by Providence Canyon (an album I hope to one day cover). I will say Cobb does have a good excuse in that this album was basically something he did to kill time during quarantine. But then again there have been plenty of great quarantine albums released too. Just like Cam, Cobb will undoubtedly bounce back. If I had to pick some songs worth listening to from this album, I would pick the title track, “Shut up and Sing” and “The World is Ending.” 

Grade: 5/10

Parker McCollum — Hollywood Gold EP

There’s always another artist getting buzz out of the Texas country scenes. For me, these buzz picks tend to be hit and miss. Unfortunately Parker McCollum falls more into the latter. There’s just nothing about this EP that catches my attention. It’s perfectly fine music and it’s not terrible. McCollum has a nice voice. But I could close my eyes and pick a record out of the pile pop country records produced in the last year and I could find an album or EP of songs identical to these ones. Songs like “Young Man’s Blues” and “Hallie Ray Light” of course sound great when you compare it to country radio or if you’re just looking at Texas country. But when you put it up against all of country music, it does not stand out from the crowd enough to catch my attention and keep it. 

Grade: 5/10

(Put it like this to give you an insight into my grading: When I give an album a 5 or 6, it’s something I’ll listen to if you play it for me. But I won’t seek it out. If I give an album a 7 or 8, it’s something I can see myself seeking out and listening to six months to a year from now. If I give an album a 9 or 10, it’s something I can see myself seeking out and listening to for years.)

The Cadillac Three — Tabasco & Sweet Tea

I got three song into this album and said nope. I’ll still maintain COUNTRY FUZZ was a solid album though, as it had much better focus and songwriting. 

Grade: Don’t bother

Album Review — Chris Stapleton’s ‘Starting Over’

Chris Stapleton isn’t just a country artist. He’s a rock, soul, pop and blues artist too. It’s why he crosses over betweens several groups of fans and he gives off what feels like universal appeal. Incorporating multiple influences of genres into his music is what he’s always done and always will do. Expecting anything less is quite frankly naive. Of course he’s marketed as a country artist because it’s what sells easiest to listeners and for people who like to have boxes for their music (plus artists seemingly aren’t allowed to be marketed beyond one genre, but that’s another can of worms). But as for me, I enjoy variety and I hate boxes. Starting Over is an album that refuses to stay in one box and damn do I enjoy this record because of this.

The jangling “Starting Over” is an appropriate opener. It feels like the beginning of a trip or journey thanks to it’s uplifting nature conveyed by it’s acoustic-driven sound and of course the lyrical content centering around hitting the reset button. It’s Stapleton at his core and that’s a songwriter with a guitar. He sets the base with this song and spends the rest of the album building on this with the different layers of his style. “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” is his twangy, “outlaw” country side. He shows off his bluesy, rawer side vocally that he demonstrated a lot in From A Room: Volume 1. And I love this because it’s so powerful and gives the song an enjoyable sing-a-long quality. Yes, the lyrics aren’t evolutionary. But they don’t need to be when Stapleton’s voice is the centerpiece of the song. The whole point is giving this raw and bluesy passion a platform.

“Cold” instantly became one of my favorites from Stapleton. Just like “Either Way,” this song blows me away with it’s powerful vocals. The piano and strings-driven, orchestral sound gives it an entertaining dramatic feel. It feels like something out of the climax of a movie. There’s a sense of urgency and gravitas behind each sound in this song, constantly building until the crescendo in the bridge as the guitars crash and Stapleton explodes vocally. Again, Stapleton doesn’t need lyrics to tell a compelling story with this song. He just uses his effortless vocals and grand instrumentation to create great emotion in the listener.

Stapleton though switches more into storytelling mode with “When I’m With You.” It’s set very much in the vein of “Tennessee Whiskey”: it’s slowed down, bluesy and reiterating an appreciation for your significant other. It goes beyond this slightly though, as it’s within the context of Stapleton turning 40 and being introspective of not only his relationship with his wife Morganne, but where he’s at in his life and reflecting on lessons learned so far. It’s not just an “I love my wife” song in the vein of the boyfriend country songs on radio. Stapleton also admits that life hasn’t been the “pot of gold” he imagined it to be either and isn’t exactly where he expected to be. It’s grounded in reality and doesn’t have a singular focus, which makes it more resonating.

“Arkansas” is a fun rocker. It’s a song where you crank the volume all the way up and sing along with like his cuts with The Jompson Brothers. Because an album with just introspective ballads would be boring and as I said at the start, Stapleton is many genres, including rock. Even though I must admit that a song about having fun in Arkansas is a bit funny because it’s not exactly Las Vegas in the minds of many. Stapleton then covers John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” and it’s another enjoyable love ballad from him. He knocks these out in his sleep. But it’s one of a couple songs that aren’t essential for this album. He already has a couple other ballads that are better on not just this album, but in other albums too.

One of the more seemingly underrated tracks on this album is “Hillbilly Blood.” Stapleton says this song takes inspiration from Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and you can definitely hear the influence in both the production and lyrics. It’s a thrilling story of an outlaw on the run for illegal activity (likely weed or moonshine, but it’s never specified). While I can understand wanting some more details, I believe the vagueness of the story gives it an appealing shroud of mystery similar to Eric Church’s “Knives of New Orleans.” Stapleton gets sentimental on “Maggie’s Song,” an ode to his dog that passed away that tells a synopsis of her life and the impact she had on him and his family. Normally this type of song elicits an eye-roll from me. It’s critic bait. It’s usually saccharine and it brings out my crankiness towards the unhealthy obsessiveness of today’s pet ownership culture. But damn does it win me over in a big way, in large part thanks to the intricate descriptiveness and reflection in the lyrics. It gets personal and that makes it so much more connectable than other songs in this vein. It has heart.

Just like “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” Stapleton’s voice is the centerpiece on “Whiskey Sunrise.” The theme and lyrics are nothing special, but that’s not the point. This is an exercise in showcasing his incredible vocals. For some this has become a boring and predictable aspect of Stapleton, but I’m still impressed by his voice and this song shows this in spades. Also the build up of the drums in the background of the hook gives the song a satisfying swell and excitement. “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends” are two unlikely covers of the legendary Guy Clark. On the former, it’s easy to dismiss it on the surface level as Stapleton’s standard weed song on an album. But reading into it more, you could interpret it as a subtle protest of the times and not fitting the mold of what others expect of him, which makes it a more interesting inclusion on the album. Maybe I’m just finding what I want to find. It’s all subjective of course. The latter is unfortunately my least favorite track of the album. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t fit Stapleton in my mind and the original from Clark feels like it should be left as is. This feels like the same situation of when Stapleton covered “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning.”

“Watch You Burn” was probably my most anticipated song on the album. It was sampled in the album teaser and it caught my eye because it sounds unlike any other Stapleton song to this point. It’s a viscerally angry response to the shooter at the 2017 country festival in Vegas. It rightfully rips the shooter a new ass and condemns him to hell for his monstrous actions. And quite frankly there shouldn’t be any other response to such an event. Shooters don’t deserve to be humanized in any way and their name should be forgotten. And you can’t solve the problems of the world in a song either (and certainly not through anger). But you can give voice to an emotion. This song gives voice to the angered and those wronged from the shooting.

I instantly enjoy “You Should Probably Leave” due it’s smooth and breezy R&B sound. The lyrics are arguably more enjoyable, as a potential romance is constantly teased and built up before it finally happens. There’s an internal resistance that doesn’t match the actions that builds up the sexual tension for both sides in the song, creating an intriguing doubt. This results in a clever twist at the end, where doubt is only doubled after indulging in passion. And the song rightfully doesn’t come to a conclusion because it’s the tantalizing doubt and flirting with danger that’s the whole point of it all. It’s enjoyable to be left wanting more, a la a cliffhanger in a movie.

The album concludes with “Nashville, TN” and it’s a breakup song between Stapleton and the city. He says he wrote the song in the wake of his rise to superstardom, something he’s admittedly not comfortable with. I think this is his quiet rebuke to those who expected him to rise to the occasion and be this superstar they envisioned him to be. So more than anything this feels like him divorcing himself from the expectations of the machine: producing radio hits, promoting himself and fitting the mold of a typical country star. Because as this album proves throughout, playing by the rules and meeting expectations is not something Stapleton is really interested in. Nor was it how he came to be the star he is today. Moving out of Nashville is symbolic of all of this.

Starting Over is what it says it is: it’s Chris Stapleton hitting a reset button on expectations. It’s him indulging in all of his influences and putting them all on display. It’s a reminder of who he is as an artist, even though this may not sound much different than what he’s released before. But again the expectations have to be kept in check because an artist’s image is more important than many listeners and reviewers realize. I think Stapleton realized he needed to reiterate who he sees himself as with this album. It’s him quietly and not so quietly voicing his displeasure at the world around him too. But really Stapleton does what he’s always focused on doing with his music on this album: making good music with no expectations. And that’s the best kind of music.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Benny The Butcher’s ‘Burden of Proof’

The quality of albums released in 2020 have been amazing. Across the board in every genre, there’s been a remarkable album to represent every genre. Except for hip hop, which saw a slow start to 2020 and raised concerns for me after a disappointing 2019. But hip hop has come on real strong in the second half of this year. All it’s been missing is a crown jewel release. Until now. Unsurprisingly it comes from one of the best up and comers in hip hop today in Griselda’s Benny The Butcher. After he delivered a top ten album in Country Perspective’s Top Albums of 2019 list, he’s delivering even more with his new record Burden of Proof.

The bouncing title track opens the album and right from the beginning Benny comes out firing with the bars. In this song goes into how him and Griselda did things differently and how now that they’re becoming more famous, more people are trying to copy their style. It also comes with more enemies. The line that best expresses this: “I know how it feels when they don’t like that you did it different/’Cause they dickridin’ trends just like them n***** you mimic.” It’s a great opener that tells you right away what you can expect from this project: hard-hitting bars with a message. The song ends with an entertaining skit too with Pain in Da Ass quoting The Sopranos and another quote from Carlito’s Way.

The spacey and smooth “Where Would I Go” has more fantastic bars from Benny as he reveals in this song his battle with asthma his entire life. Considering the circumstances of COVID-19 in the world right now and how especially important lung strength is in hip hop, this other side of Benny adds another compelling layer to his story and music. This song also has a really nice feature from Rick Ross and it’s a funny thing with Ross for me: I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an album all the way through from him, yet it feels like I enjoy every one of his features. It’s also a pretty big deal to hear the iconic Maybach Music tag next to the Griselda tag at the end, showing how far this scrappy group from Buffalo, New York has come and how they continue to rise.

“Sly Green” is fantastic, as the beat is classic east coast hip hop delivered from producer Hit-Boy. Benny tells stories of what he does best with his storytelling and that’s tales of the street. Like Pusha T and Freddie Gibbs, Benny does an excellent job of showing both sides of street life. While it’s easy from the outside to see the bad side with the obvious violence and dangers that come with it, there’s also the other side where this drug dealing and hustling feeds families. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. Speaking of Gibbs, he joins Benny on “One Way Flight.” These two were great together before on Gibbs’ “Frank Lucas” and they once again they deliver big together (when can we get an entire project with them together?). Butcher’s flow is flawless and at first you think Gibbs is only doing the hook, which sounds great from him, but you gotta have a Gibbs verse if you feature him. Thankfully he comes in at the end and it’s both equally great and hilarious, as he destroys the Los Angeles Clippers with this line: “Get fucked and sent home early just like the Clippers.”

“Famous” is another glimpse into the psyche of Benny The Butcher, as he goes into how he feels to be famous after spending years of hustling on the streets. His overall feeling seems to be a fish out of water and not really comfortable where he’s at now, as he feels caught between two different lives. Two brilliant lines that show this: “I chose money over fame, how I end up with ’em both?/I’m just a dealer to the judgе, and a sinner to the Pope” and “And I never thought I’d make it out the hood/And it don’t feel how I thought it should.” He then concludes the song proclaiming he’s made it, but also not forgetting his roots, as he shouts out the people who have stuck with him and those he’s lost.

“Timeless” is undoubtedly a play for mainstream appeal, as Benny is joined by big names in Lil Wayne and Big Sean. Despite the slicker production and features, it still feels like a Butcher song and something that fits on one of his albums. The production in particular manages to keep that grimy feel you’re used to hearing with Griselda while also having that mainstream polish. Both Wayne and Sean deliver solid features too. “New Streets” sees Benny breaking down how there’s two sides to the street life commonly rapped about in hip hop. As he explains in the song, there’s a lot more than the glamour and happy endings that many in hip hop only rap about and how at the end of the day there’s a lot more bad endings that go even beyond jail time. He also gets into how his mistakes and losses are what ultimately made him into who he is rather than the flashy wins.

It’s this realism and genuineness that shines through in Benny The Butcher’s work that’s quickly making him one of the best in the game, especially when so many in hip hop chase and promote the fake image he speaks out against throughout this album. Of course this isn’t an issue just in hip hop, as every genre struggles with the balance of reality and fantasy, as well as roots and tradition versus new school thoughts and ideas. If one becomes more lopsided, things go haywire. And Benny does such a good job of keeping this in mind with his music.

“Over The Limit” is about Benny getting out of the street game and how his past still haunts him, as federal authorities try to use the stories he raps about in songs against him to incriminate. While his past undoubtedly fuels his music and made him who he is with no regrets, he also doesn’t boast about this past, as he calls himself a survivor and he admits he got out as soon as he knew the consequences were too much as he was building his music career. Again the storytelling from him is excellent, Dom Kennedy is solid on the hook and the dramatic production really adds to the tension of the story being told.

Benny gets sentimental on “Trade It All,” as he gets into his relationships with his family. He raps about how important it is to him be a father to his daughter: “For the n***** in my position, take care of your daughters/No matter what they choose to do, they aware what you taught ’em/My kids took my advice ’cause I’m fair as a father.” This importance carries even more significance, as in the next song he reveals he was raised by a single mother, showing how he wants to be there for his kids like he didn’t have with his dad. Benny also goes into how the loss of his brother MachineGun Black shaped him and the cost he paid with this and how at the end of the day he would trade all of his fortune if he could get him back. It’s quite a deep moment from Benny, as it undoubtedly pulls at the heartstrings to hear such stirring reflection and sobering lessons learned from a hard life.

“Thank God I Made It” is more reflection and gratefulness from Benny, as he thanks his mother for all she did for him and making him the man he is today. He also goes into how the systemic racism in America combined with the broken households of many African American families across the country force so many into the dangers of street hustle, as it’s often the only option to provide for themselves and their families. Benny shouts out his brother again, as he says he feels his spirit as he writes this song. Every part of the lyricism throughout this song is just dripping with passion and impactful messages. Not to mention Queen Naija sounds fantastic on the hook and the soulful production is quite catchy.

“War Paint” is the traditional Griselda track with Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. The production on this track feels like a final boss level, as it has a cinematic gravitas about it. And as usual this trio sounds fantastic together. Conway steals the song though with these lines, as he delivers with such confidence: “HOV said, “You that boy”, I get acknowledged by the GOAT (What up, HOV?)/Woo, even shook the hand of Beyoncé/That story brought tears to the eye of my fiancée/But I don’t know if it’s because my shorty such a fan/Or did she realize in that moment, I’m the motherfuckin’ man.”

The album closes out with “Legend” and Benny essentially wraps up everything he covers throughout the album: the fame, his friends, family and announcing his arrival to the rest of the world unaware of him before now. Once again so many bars you could choose from throughout this song, as Benny is absolutely relentless. But the following are some of the best on the album: “My team got a will strong enough to beat cancer/Master’s in dope, before that, I had a Bachelor’s in coke/I’m like Ali, I fight better with my back on the ropes/Labels, I passed ’em up, it’s like they after the flow/And my legacy, it’s like they want a fraction of both/Nah, I was good by myself, this how I’m bettin’ now.” I mean you don’t get wordplay better than this, as it not only flows so well, but says so many things in such a short span.

Benny The Butcher gives you everything you want out of an excellent album and then some with Burden of Proof. The lyricism, production, the features and the themes are all flawless. He delivered so many great albums before this, but with this record he reaches a whole new level of greatness in my mind. As he says in the final track on the album, he’s ready to be a legend now. This album more than proves this high claim.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Westside Gunn’s ‘WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE’

Out of the Big Three of Griselda, it feels like Westside Gunn is the least heralded. It’s not a big surprise, as his style isn’t as accessible as Benny the Butcher and nor as lyrically compelling as Conway the Machine. But with his major label debut album WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE, Gunn has delivered what I arguably believe to be his best project yet. It shows what he’s best at and that’s delivering exciting flash.

“Sunshine Intro” leads off the album and not only sets the tone of it well with the eery beats, but it also features AA Rashid explaining the duality of lightness and darkness. It’s an interesting introduction that gives way to one of my favorite songs of 2020, “The Butcher and The Blade.” Paying homage to the AEW tag team of the same name (who also originate from Buffalo, New York like Griselda), the beat of this song is downright nasty. The exasperated exclaim of “fuck” at the beginning of the song is such a nice summation of how great this song is. It’s the standard Griselda joint, as each of the big three absolutely split fire over a swirling and surrealistic piano-driven beat. Big props to producers Daringer and Beat Butcha. And while each rapper on this song sounds great, Conway’s verse is absolutely incredible and further shows why he’s the lyricist king of the trio.

Gunn is joined by the iconic Black Thought on “Ishkabibble’s” and as always Black Thought delivers excellent bars. Also I’m impressed as always by his flow, as it’s just so smooth and flawless. Gunn holds his own though too and it’s one of many examples on this album show how when Gunn focuses he can be just as great as his Griselda brothers and the high-profile guests on this album. Boldy James and Jadakiss join “All Praises.” This song took a few listens to grow on me, as it just didn’t feel as strong as other songs on the album. It also has the misfortune of following up two great songs. James’ delivery still isn’t the most compelling to me, as I find it to be a bit stilted and dry for me. Jadakiss though sounds great, as his grimy delivery and solid bars add some much needed grit to this more polished sounding track.

“Big Basha’s” is the only solo Gunn track on the album and I wish we would have gotten more of this on the album. While the guest features on this are excellent, they also overshadow Gunn many times and it feels like he’s lost in his own album. It doesn’t help either that this song is so short too. Despite this song’s shortness, Gunn demonstrates great storytelling on the song, describing a grizzly scene that is common when drug deals go bad. “Liz Loves Luger” is the most controversial track on the album and that’s because it’s about Gunn busting a nut. And we also get to graphically hear him receiving this. Yeah, not something most people want to hear. But props to Armani Caesar for delivering a great feature, as she flows so naturally over the beat.

“Ocean Prime” is so slick and we get to hear two amazing features on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of delivery. First you have Busta Rhymes, who just goes absolutely ham over the beat. His crazy, frenetic, high energy he brings is so infectious. This is followed up by the legendary Slick Rick, who is the definition of cool, calm and collected with his delivery. I find it really cool to hear such differing deliveries in one song and how the versatility in styles in hip hop is what makes it so compelling. “Lessie” is one of my least favorite songs on the album, as it’s just not memorable lyrically and Keisha Plum’s spoken word features never really do anything for me.

“Frank Murphy” is a whopping eight minutes long and based on this runtime, your mileage will vary with this track. The production from Conductor Williams is without a doubt fantastic. It’s dirty, bleeding horns-driven beat is so much fun and it’s a sound you won’t forget after hearing it. It’s a long feature list on the track, but for me Stove God Cooks and Flee Lord deliver the best verses, as they bring the fire and intensity necessary for such a dominating beat. Gunn’s charisma shines well over the beat too. But I just don’t really see why this needed to be this long of a song. It’s not terrible, but it could have sounded just as great if not better at four minutes, as you run the risk of burning the listener out on such a long track with a beat, while compelling, that is also same-y sounding throughout.

“Good Night” features the best storytelling and lyrics on the album, as Gunn and Slick Rick tell an exciting story about a drug deal gone wrong between Gunn and a dealer and his cousin, who’s a rookie cop. The beginning of the song is from Gunn’s perspective and then later Rick comes in with the rookie cop’s side of the story. There’s so many twist and turns throughout the story, so be sure to listen to this until the end. And I’m glad to hear Slick Rick get an extended verse on this track, he once again delivers some cool, hard-hitting bars.

“98 Sabers” is the final track on the album and man does this record go out with an absolute bang. Just Blaze produces an absolute filthy, evil beat that shows why he’s one of the most respected producers in hip hop. Then Gunn, Caesar, Conway and Benny all sound their best, as it feels like each are trying to outdo the other. Everything about this song just feels epic, as it just keeps building and building, never letting up like “Monster” from Kanye’s My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s by far one of the best songs I’ve heard from Gunn.

WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE is a really fun album that’s enjoyable from front to back. Westside Gunn really steps up his game in his major label debut and shows why Griselda is the fastest rising group in hip hop. This album won’t compete for my top hip hop album of the year, but it’s definitely a record that is worthy of being in rotation for a long time and there are two songs on this album that absolutely belong on the best songs of the year list (“The Butcher and The Blade” and “98 Sabers”).

Grade: 8/10