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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.