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 Hodgepodge: The Mainstream Country Music Bubble is About to Burst

Waylon warned you, country music.
Waylon warned you, country music.

Lord it’s the same old tune…

This past weekend the 50th ACM Awards took place and the reviews for it haven’t been pretty. From Trigger at Saving Country Music to Grady Smith at The Guardian to the consensus on Twitter, they all found the show to be pretty bad. I myself found it to be weird and boring. Many of you weighed in on that post and whole heartedly agreed. The show was plagued with production errors and enough medleys to set a person insane. It wasn’t easy to sit through. Really this whole year in mainstream country music hasn’t been easy to stomach. When it looked like we were going to get more traditional country songs on the radio, the hope for that quickly evaporated. Instead we’ve gotten a heavy dose of Sam Hunt’s pop music, bro country rehashes, trend chasing, female artists continuing to get ignored and Thomas Rhett trying to be Bruno Mars. It’s the same old stuff country music has been doing for years now.

Where do we take it from here?

It was clear as day to anyone who watched the 2015 ACM Awards that country music has two big problems. The first problem is that country music has no idea what it is anymore. There’s a clear identity crisis taking place. This show featured performances from George Strait, Sam Hunt, Christina Aguilera and Nick Jonas. Do you see hip-hop awards shows with such a melting pot of performers? Do you rock awards shows with so many different sounds? No because they know who they are. This variety of sounds was touted during the ACM Awards, like this is a great thing. It’s clearly not because you’re sending mixed signals to viewers. They have no idea what the hell country music is because you’re throwing so many different sounds at them. The second problem is country music has zero direction on where to go. They’re chasing the R&B sound. They’re chasing the EDM sound. They’re rehashing bro country stuff. Country music is like a 12-headed monster and each head is going a different way. There’s no cohesion and no identity.

It’s been the same way for years/We need to change

Country music clearly needs to change and quickly. I think that’s obvious to a lot of people. But nobody wants to make the first move. Everyone is too afraid to make a move or say something. Some people will say, “Well what about Sturgill Simpson? He can save country music!” To them I repeat what I’ve said before and what Sturgill himself has said: he’s no savior. One artist can’t save the genre. I find Sturgill to be a trailblazer and a shining example to other independent country artists on how to do it your own way. Regardless of what happens in mainstream country music, Sturgill Simpson will be safe and continue to do his own thing. Atlantic Records will wisely keep him out of that racket and market him more like an indie rock artist rather than a mainstream country artist.

Another thing people will bring up is splitting country music, something that looked very possible last year. The top 40 country artists could go do their thing and the traditional, older country artists could go do their music. It would establish a clear line and everyone could be happy. I’ve advocated for this. But that convenient dream isn’t going to happen. It’s pretty much dead right now. You’re better off dismissing this fantasy as unrealistic. There are other ideas I’ve seen floated out there that could “save” mainstream country music and bring it change, but they’re not even worth addressing because I only see one change on the horizon for mainstream country music happening. It’s a change that they’re in the midst of doing right now and they’re not even aware it’s about to happen.

The mainstream country music bubble is about to pop. No splitting. No country music civil war is going to happen. It’s simply going to break into pieces, something I forewarned of months ago if country music didn’t start to get its act together. It reminds me a lot of how rock music shattered into pieces, became irrelevant as a mainstream genre and disappeared completely off radio. Rock reached its peak in popularity in the 80s with hair metal, which bro country is often compared to. At the beginning of the 90s, Nirvana became huge and grunge became the popular style in rock. The arrival of this group was a godsend for the genre because hair metal along with some other terrible rock sub-genres had made the public bored with rock music. Nirvana brought something fresh and new to the genre. Then Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, tragically shot himself. Some people say this was the day rock music died too. Rock music lost its icon and symbol of hope.

Slowly but surely rock music devolved into multiple sub-genres, as several groups failed to duplicate the sound and success of Nirvana. The genre lost direction and popularity. Hip-hop made its rise into mainstream prominence at this time and essentially bumped rock off radio, taking its place. Now look at rock music. You don’t hear any new rock music on the radio. All there’s left of rock music on the radio is a local classic rock station playing hits from rock’s heyday. I see country music going down the exact same path minus the Nirvana part. There’s won’t be a Nirvana because country music doesn’t want a Nirvana walking through the door. Country music would rather continue down the same path it’s on and fall flat on its face. It’s afraid of trying something new, fresh and different. Taking risks isn’t considered business sound, even though business is stagnant and terrible right now.

Somebody told me when I came to Nashville
Son you finally got it made
Old Hank made it here, we’re all sure that you will
But I don’t think Hank done it this way, no
I don’t think Hank done it this way, okay

Now this gloom and doom prediction I’ve just thrown out at you is a real bummer. But ultimately I think country music would become better as a result. A new genre will rise out of the ashes. There would no longer be a mainstream or radio presence by country music. This would mean only the best country artists would get noticed. People would take to the Internet to find country music, just like independent country fans do now. It’s what rock fans do too. The B-list artists that are only known because of manufactured radio pushes by major labels would fall off the radar. This would be anyone who isn’t at a Carrie Underwood/Blake Shelton type level. So you would say goodbye to the Michael Rays and Kelsea Ballerinis of country music. The fluff would be out the door. I wouldn’t have to review terrible music being passed off as country anymore. Come to think of it, this sounds like an ideal scenario.

Heed the words of Waylon and make proactive change, country music. Or a crashing change will eat you alive.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Zac Brown Band will release their new album Jekyll + Hyde next Tuesday. I have no idea what to expect in terms of sound with this album, which makes me even more excited to give it a listen. If you haven’t read it yet, check out the album’s track listing. Also Aircheck confirmed the rumor that the group’s next single will be “Loving You Easy” and will impact radio on the first week of May.
  • Tyler Farr’s new album Suffer in Peace will also come out next Tuesday. The track listing for it suggests a mixed bag. I expect a few good songs and a few terrible songs. Speaking of terrible, I found out via Windmills on the song “C.O.U.N.T.R.Y.” Farr sings about his love of truck nuts. I’ll let you imagine what that song is like.
  • For those who missed it, Jason Isbell announced his new album will be released on July 17 and will be called Something More Than Free. That’s the same day Alan Jackson’s new album comes out too. This is also a significant day because it’s the first week where major releases start coming out on Fridays rather than Tuesdays.
  • Sammy Kershaw just announced recently that he will be releasing his first full-original album in five years on June 9. It will be called I Won’t Back Down. He signed a deal with Cleopatra Records to release the album. This is a great surprise and I’m definitely looking forward to this one.
  • Also for those that aren’t on Twitter: I saw Gary Allen live in concert last Friday and it was a fantastic show. From what I’ve gathered from the show, his new album should be classic Gary. He mentioned that “Hangover Tonight” was the last song written onto the album, which leads me to believe he threw it in to appease his label. Allen played two new songs from the album and they sounded like great country songs. The one was called “Mess Me Up” and I think it has great potential to be a single.

Throwback Thursday Song

Randy Travis – “Forever and Even, Amen” – It was so great to see Lee Brice give a shout out to Randy Travis at the ACM Awards. It was also classy of him to play a couple of lines acoustically from Travis’ classic song “Forever and Ever, Amen.” So I thought it was only appropriate this iconic song would be this week’s throwback song.

Non-Country Album Recommendation 

Rap music’s great year continues, as another fantastic rap album just came out. It’s Yelawolf’s Love Story and it has one of the most different sounds I’ve ever heard on a rap album. Probably because it’s a rap album with heavy country and southern rock influences. What? Yes, you read that correctly. The wording is key: it’s a rap album with country influences and not the other way around. It’s in the right genre too. I always thought though you couldn’t mix these two genres period, but Yelawolf, a southern hip-hop artist from Alabama, proves me wrong. What separates Yelawolf from hick-hop artists like Colt Ford is Yelawolf’s got bars. He understands the craft of rap. The album is a whopping 18 songs long and complex, but it’s well worth listening to from start to finish. Ironically it has even more country moments than many mainstream country albums. Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” can be heard in the opening song! Rap music is now sounding more country than country music. What world am I living in?

Tweet of the Week

So many great candidates for tweet of the week, thanks to the ACM Awards. But this one took the cake. It’s the perfect analogy.

An iTunes Review That Will Make You Face Palm

Hunt Fans Being Hunt Fans

This was under Sam Hunt’s Montevallo. I…just…I got nothing. What can I say to this?

That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments!