Country Perspective’s Top Five Pop Albums of 2020

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 five pop albums of 2020. Pop had a pretty good year in my eyes. More artists embrace melody in their music than they have in recent memory, which was great to see. It’s been my biggest criticism of the genre in the modern era, as too many artists try to ape a watered-down alternative or hip hop flavored sound. Pop needs to stick to what makes people like pop: sticky hooks, catchy melody and singalong quality. I would also like to see the throwback/retro trend that seemed to emerge this year to continue into 2021, as I think there are many modern artists who can bring fresh takes to classic approaches. This is always the hardest genre to evaluate in my opinion, as there’s just so many releases and determining what’s pop is more ambiguous than any other genre. So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top Five Pop Albums of 2020:

5. Niall Horan — Heartbreak Weather

Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather is an enjoyably solid album of soft rock meets pop love songs. Although I will say it’s not all straight-ahead love songs, as Horan weaves in themes throughout the album of insecurity, doubt and details of the hard road one can experience in finding love. The album has an overall sound of being bouncy, fun and upbeat, while Horan demonstrates himself to be a charismatic vocalist with range. And while there’s many fun moments like on “Everywhere,” there’s also some more serious and introspective moments that give this album a softness to balance it out (“Put a Little Love on Me” and “Still”).

4. Taylor Swift — folklore

The first thing of course that stands out about this Taylor Swift’s folklore is the production, helmed by her longtime producer Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Both of their influences shine through in the music, but especially Dessner’s, as this album certainly embraces indie and folk aesthetics. It’s not an indie folk album as many have erroneously called it, but rather a pop album that incorporates elements of modern indie, folk, bedroom pop and lo-fi. Swift cherrypicks some of the more obvious and basic elements of these styles and makes them work with her style of pop for the most part. Combined with her most mature and arguably best songwriting to date, this makes folklore one of Swift’s best albums.

3. Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia 

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening.

2. Kylie Minogue — DISCO

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.

1. Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated Side B

Dedicated Side B is yet another pop masterpiece from Carly Rae Jepsen. I can’t believe how she just continues to blow me away with fantastic project after fantastic project. Once again she’s showing her “B material” is better than many artists’ A material. Every song on this album is enjoyable and shows why she is one of the best pop artists in music today. Jepsen won Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year with Dedicated and she’s putting herself in the unprecedented position to win it again in 2020 to make it back-to-back. It’s simply incredible.

Country Perspective’s Top Five Hip Hop Albums of 2020

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 hip hop albums of 2020. Hip hop didn’t get off to the best of starts in 2020. It’s not entirely surprising, as I feel the quality has dropped off a bit in the genre the last couple of years due to it’s rise as the most popular genre. When a genre becomes the “it” sound, it invites in trend chasing, many artists conforming around one sound and a general lack of innovation. Hip hop is also the most singles driven genre and albums don’t have as much emphasis placed on them. Thankfully though there’s still plenty of fantastic artists in this genre who place focus on making albums and aren’t driven by what’s popular. From the midpoint of the year on the quality steadily rose in hip hop and really peaked at year’s end. I hope this momentum can carry into 2021 and see hip hop get back to it’s best modern form like it was in the mid-2010s (each year from 2016-’18 a hip hop album was my top album of the year). So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top Five Hip Hop Albums of 2020:

5. Westside Gunn — WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE

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”).

4. Conway the Machine — From King to a GOD

While it feels like most of hip hop is going pop, the Griselda group is perfectly content doing what they do best and that’s delivering some of the grimiest beats and hardest hitting bars in the game. While all three of Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine all bring something great to the table, it feels like Conway in particular has had a rapidly rising 2020. From King to a GOD is a fantastic proper debut album from Conway The Machine, as he brings his signature sound and high quality lyricism that longtime fans have come to appreciate him for while also bringing a level of accessibility in the music that will surely attract new fans too.

3. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats — UNLOCKED

The songs themselves don’t have any big messages and are essentially bangers that focus on delivering fun bars. So many hip-hop albums are like this today and many are largely forgotten because the delivery just flat-out sucks. But Curry brings so much aggressive passion and rawness in his voice, along with his choice of diction in his delivery makes what would be an average banger into something that’s truly memorable. And this big reason is why UNLOCKED is the first great hip-hop album I’ve heard in 2020. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ZUU (an album I’m ashamed I omitted from my best of 2019 list), this is yet another high-quality project from Denzel Curry (and another great one from Kenny Beats too).

2. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist — Alfredo

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist both solidify themselves as two of the most consistent artists in hip hop with Alfredo. Gibbs’ rapping and flow are flawless while The Alchemist’s beats are smooth and his sampling is completely on point throughout. The lyricism is what you come to expect from Gibbs, which is not a knock at all, as he raps about cocaine, the dark sides of the street and mixes in his trademark dark humor. He also has more social commentary, as on “Scottie Beam” he ominously raps his execution may be televised, highlighting the systemic racism in the country. All the features on this album fit well, especially Rick Ross and Benny The Butcher. This is a pretty great project and for many artists this would be amongst their best, but Gibbs sets the bar pretty damn high with previous projects like Piñata and Bandana. But seriously don’t sleep on this album, as it’s one of the best you’ll hear out of hip hop in 2020.

1. Benny The Butcher — Burden of Proof

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. It’s the 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. 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.

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