Country Perspective’s Top Ten Albums Mid-Way Through 2020

2020 has been a tumultuous and crazy year around the world. But throughout all the madness of this year, I’ve found this year in albums to be pretty damn amazing in terms of quality. In fact it’s already surpassed the last couple of years and 2020 is easily on pace to be at the fantastic levels of 2014-2016, which saw some of my absolute favorite albums of the 2010s released. By year’s end some really good albums won’t even crack the top ten that would easily make it in average years. From your usual suspects and new contenders to surprise releases and comebacks, my best albums of 2020 list has a little bit of everything in terms of sound and artists. So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top Ten Best Albums of 2020 so far (in no particular order)…

(Click on the titles to read the full review)

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. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

John Moreland — LP5

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

Khruangbin — Mordechai 

While I wouldn’t put it at the level of their great, southwestern-flavored 2018 album Con Todo El Mundo, this album is another pretty damn good record from the trio. This album centers mostly around a groovy, psychedelic funk sound with tinges of disco and jam pop mixed in at times. The band also surprises by mixing in some vocals on this record and they actually work pretty well. Most importantly they don’t detract from the hypnotic sounds of the band, which will always be the focus and strength of the group. If I had to pick my favorites they would be “Time (You and I)”, “Father Bird, Mother Bird” and album closer “Shida.” The latter is probably the top song for me, as the bass line is simply flawless. And if you’re looking for a relaxing album, you will be hard-pressed to find one more chill than this one in 2020.

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.

Tennis — Swimmer

With Swimmer, Tennis delivers an excellent album about love. It’s quickly became one of my favorite love albums. And this isn’t rash hyperbole on my end. I’m being serious when I say that this album truly delivers a heartfelt, genuine and truly touching take on true love. Love albums and love song are an absolute dime-a-dozen. They’re churned out every day. Most only focus on the surface level of love and the flip-side with heartbreak. What they don’t ever seem to focus on are the little things, the nitty gritty of relationships that aren’t easy to convey in an informative and interesting way. But that takes brilliant songwriting with equally high-quality production that aids it. Tennis delivers this.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Reunions 

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

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).

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. 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. And oh yeah she still has another album on the way.

The Weeknd — After Hours

After Hours is a phenomenal achievement by The Weeknd. This album is a rich, cinematic experience of love, losing it, fighting to regain it and ultimately reaching the realistic conclusion of realizing that it’s lost. The production team absolutely nails every emotion on this album and takes the lyricism to a whole new level. The juxtaposition of the breezy, mixed cocktail of genres (R&B, pop, hip-hop, dream pop, 80s) feels perfect on this album of frenetic, dark emotions that permeate throughout it. This is without a doubt an album of the year contender.

Tame Impala — The Slow Rush

The Slow Rush is another great album from Tame Impala without a doubt. But it’s also hard not to see this album is a few missteps away from equaling the brilliance of Currents. It lacks focus in a few spots and there’s one song that just isn’t needed. But this is also a bit nitpicking admittedly. The production from Parker is once again deeply rich and textured, engulfing you with it’s fantastic details. And the songwriting mostly hits. So ultimately I can say this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Honorable Mentions (just missed the top ten)

The Brilliance of the Hot Country Knights & Why Fun Music is Important Too

Starting in 2014, Dierks Bentley and his band started a side project dubbed the Hot Country Knights. It was a clear tongue in cheek, winking the whole way, gag of his band putting on purposely tacky 90s country gear and acting like the biggest deal of that decade. So basically, Wheeler Walker Jr. without becoming too self-aware of the joke and ruining it. The side gag then eventually morphed into an opening act for Dierks himself on his tours. Now in 2020 this band is officially dropping music. The music leans hard on all the 90s country elements, has over-the-top lyrics and doesn’t take itself that seriously.

And I absolutely love it. In fact, I would go as far to say it’s brilliant and I’ll tell you why: country music has forgotten how to have fun and this band can help bring it back. This has been a quiet fear of mine ever since the rise and fall of bro country. But you can go back even further than this to see where country lost its way in being fun.

A lot of proponents of 90s country like to say this era of music was a great because of all the pedal steel guitar, fiddles and the general presence of more traditional country elements. And I would agree that it’s a big part of what made that era of country music so enjoyable. But also Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were the biggest artists of this decade. I don’t see anyone flying the traditional country flag for them, but their music was still great and beloved by many. What these two did have in common with the traditional artists of this era though is the fun factor. Pretty much all the popular country music of this decade was fun.

Then we get to the 2000s and the party stopped. 9/11 happened and gave rise to patriotic country, which took on a more serious tone (and also started the slide into more politics in the genre). The Dixie Chicks were ran off and grocery store country made its presence known once patriotic country was beaten like a dead horse. Then the transitional period of checklist country gave rise to the biggest boom the genre had seen since the 90s: bro country. The fun element this genre had missed for so long had returned (the surge in popularity of country in this time is undeniable), but the baggage of creepy lyrics and the stripping of country elements came with it.

Critics like myself rightly ripped the shit out of this, but in the process this led to the overcorrection that we’re still in the midst of now. The rightful, yet intense criticism of this sub-genre compounded with the industry overplaying it’s hand (and throw in the rise of Stapleton), it scared artists of mainstream country into the soupy, soulless, vanilla “boyfriend country” that has slowly permeated over the last couple of years into the current “it” trend of the genre.

See now what I meant about the quiet fear I’ve had since the fall of bro country? While the unsavory elements of bro country were rightfully knocked down, it also led to the fun element being brushed aside too and it explains why enthusiasm for the genre has waned so much over the last couple years. Who wants to go to a party where everyone is being so straight-laced and serious? It’s important of course to have serious songs that speak to the heart and soul of the human condition, conveying important life lessons and stories that help you grow. But this is a drum that critics always have and always will beat.

We need to have balance. We need to have fun, not-so-serious music too. Because as much I love Willie Nelson’s Spirit, it’s not the album I want to listen to after working a 40-hour week. I want something more along the lines of the Hot Country Knights. I want something that’s fun to sing along with and it’s catchy. I want some drive in my country. Country music has given the world of music so many meaningful and heartfelt songs and I hope that these types of songs will continue to be delivered. But country music has demonstrated it knows how to throw a damn good party too. It’s time the genre rediscovers this side of itself. And don’t forget to bring the fiddle.

Zac Brown Band’s New Strategic Partnership for Southern Ground

Zac_Brown_USO_tour

On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.

Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.

For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.

Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.

Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.

Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.

Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.

More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.

Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.

Breaking Down Luke Bryan Songs [Infographic]

After conducting the Dallas Davidson infographic, I began to think about my next one. And decided to research one of the artists that relies on him the most: Luke Bryan. He’s one of the most popular superstars in country music today and was one of the forefathers of bro country (that isn’t something to be proud of). So once again I crunched some numbers and found some interesting facts about the Georgia artist:

 

Breaking Down Luke Bryan Songs (1)

Notes:

  • To view every song Luke Bryan has ever recorded, click here
  • The one holiday song that wasn’t included in the infographic data was “Run Rudolph Run”
  • If you have anymore questions about this infographic or data I found, feel free to reach out to me.
  • If you would like to share this infographic on social media or your own website, feel free to do so. However I ask you to please site Country Perspective as the source. I would greatly appreciate it.