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.

Album Review — Daniel Donato’s ‘A Young Man’s Country’

Cosmic Country is certainly a name that catches the eye. It’s not something that is common in country music and as someone who spent a fair amount of time diving into the various sub genres of country music, the little bit of cosmic country I did find I found to be…well not very good. It also doesn’t help for artists wanting to explore this sound that the bar was set quite high by Sturgill Simpson with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, one of the best albums of the past decade.

Sometimes though there’s exceptions to the norm and Daniel Donato’s A Young Man’s Country is certainly in this vein. This is by far the best cosmic country album I’ve heard since Metamodern. Even more impressive that this is the debut album of Donato. Combining obvious Grateful Dead influences and sounds with old school country, Donato delivers an album that captivates my attention from beginning to end.

There are a couple of things that immediately stand out about this album. First, is the approach, as Donato and producer Robben Ford lay out the songs like a live album despite it being a studio album. Most of the songs are stretched to their max with extended guitar solos that one is accustom to hearing at rock concerts. I absolutely love this this, as it gives the songs personality and also shows off the impressive guitar skills of Daniel Donato.

That leads to the other immediate impression: Donato is a kick ass guitar player. He absolutely shreds throughout this album. Whether it’s quieter, more melodic strumming or trippy solos, the guitar playing is the absolute hero of this album. In terms of magnetic and mesmerizing production, this album reminds me so much Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush. And just like that album it can kind of overshadow the other aspects of A Young Man’s Country.

The other aspects of this album though are by no means weak, just weaker looking in comparison to the absolute strength of the guitar playing. The songwriting is actually quite solid, albeit most of it centers around love and touring on the open road. While it would nice to have some more variety in terms of theme, these limited themes suit the feeling this album is going for, which is one of a traveller on the search for happiness and love as he explores the western landscape.

Opening songs “Justice” and “Always Been a Lover” show the yearning for a love that’s true with the appropriate amount of aching and hooks that catch the ear. But it’s the songs that deal with loneliness that shine the brightest like “Meet Me in Dallas” and “Broke Down.” The former hints at optimism, as someone waits for a lover to meet them and embraces the feeling of being alone. Not to mention it features a mind-blowing guitar outro. The latter is quite dark, going into vivid detail of how broken down the narrator feels. If Donato can continue to deliver songs with excellent details like these ones, combined with his excellent guitar skills, then the sky is the limit for him.

I would be remise if I didn’t also commend Donato for his absolute bold choice of cover songs. He does the Grateful Dead proud with “Fire on the Mountain” and his soulful rendition of the late great John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” is both respectful of the original’s message while being decidedly original and fresh to the ears. Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This” is a great choice to close the album, as it allows Donato to go off both vocally and on the guitar to put an exciting exclamation point on the album.

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.

Grade: 9/10

Side note: When putting tags for this review, I noticed that Daniel Donato has actually been mentioned on Country Perspective before. Turns out he was a guitarist on The Black Lillies’ album Hard to Please, which Derek covered five years ago. I found that to be quite interesting, so I thought I would pass that on to you the reader too. 

Album Review – The Black Lillies ‘Hard to Please’

The Black Lillies raised the funds for their fourth studio album, Hard to Please, with the help of Pledgemusic. The goals were met, the studio time was booked, a producer was hired, then life threw the band a curveball: two of the band members left, leaving the remaining three in a tight spot. Frontman Cruz Contreras ultimately decided to move forward with the recording as scheduled and wrote the album in two weeks. Session players Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses on bass, Matt Smith on pedal steel and Daniel Donato on guitar joined the Black Lillies (Contreras, Bowman Townsend on drums and Trisha Gene Brady on vocals) for the recording of Hard to Please alongside prouder Ryan Hewitt.

The album kicks off with the title track, a rocking number about a man lamenting over the fact that his woman is impossible to please. The guitars play a key role in the instrumentation with Contreras singing lead while Trisha Gene Brady provides some great harmonies. The Black Lillies fuse country and rock together seamlessly throughout the album, and “That’s the Way It Goes Down” is a prime example of that fusion. A song about moving forward and learning from the mistakes you make, “That the Way It Goes Down” has a driving production that builds to a roaring guitar solo.

The Black Lillies explore love on the next few songs. The bluesy, gospel-like “Mercy” finds two people who are shamelessly in need of one another. Contreras and Gene Brady sing the song as a duet, brilliantly using both singers’ vocal power to deliver the emotional punch of the song. “The First Time” is a mid-tempo heartbreak song where Trisha takes the lead on vocals. Here she sings of consistently falling for a man who continues to let her down and leave her heartbroken. “The First Time” uses what appears to be the pedal steel within a rock setting, and it sounds great out of its usual country element.

“Bound to Roam” chronicles a dysfunctional couple in their last moments together. Contreras sings as a rambling man, Willy, who believes he’s bound to roam and travel, while Gene Brady sings as his love, Sarah, who doesn’t want him to leave her alone and heartbroken. Sarah uses Willy’s devoted love to her to manipulate him into staying by her side forever. It’s a story you should hear for yourself, aided by a great acoustic country production. The Black Lillies sing of a happier love in “Dancin’.” Fittingly, it’s an upbeat country dancing number loaded with steel guitar and a driving guitar and drum beat. The song details a couple who look to reignite their passion and love by going out dancing: the one area in their life where they constantly shine together. It’s a well done song from the lyrics to the production, but I feel like “Dancin'” is too long as the outro of the song gets rather repetitive.

Contreras sings solo in the acoustic “Desire.” He holds onto the love and desire he feels for the one that stole his heart, even he’s been left alone and broken. The country fans reading this will love the steel guitar solo found in “Desire.” The music gets cranked up on the rocking “40 Days”, a song influenced by the band’s first national tour where they played 40 shows in 40 days. It’s the ups and downs of life on the road with an old-time rock n’ roll production led by a piano and electric guitars.

Cruz Contreras wrote “Broken Shore” about his grandfather, who fought in Iwo Jima. This country rock epic is led with a mandolin with heavy guitars and pianos chiming in at various times. “Broken Shore” is a song where the lyrics introduce the settings and feelings of our character, but it’s the production that tells the story. The production rises and falls, moving from simple to chaotic, keeping a song with few lyrics moving forward. It’s another one of those songs that needs to be heard to fully appreciate what The Black Lillies accomplish with it. Hard to Please ends with “Fade.” This piano ballad steadily builds as Contreras sings to his love not to fade away from him. The relationship is facing a rough patch and he doesn’t want to see them give in to the pressure of the situation.

The Black Lillies have accomplished a lot within their short, six-year lifespan. Their previous album, Runaway Freeway Blues, was an Americana staple back in 2013, and it’s hard not to consider Hard to Please in the same way. In spite of all the challenges the band faced before going into record the album, The Black Lillies still deliver a great Americana album with perfect fusions of rock and country with some blues and gospel influences splashed in. Even with songs that are decidedly rock and decidedly country on the same album, every song has a place and purpose on Hard to Please.

Grade: 9/10