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 Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 1: Hot Country Knights, Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers, and more

The Hot Country Knights deliver even more than I expected with their debut album The K is Silent. You can spend a lot of time analyzing all of the puns and hilarious references (some time will be spent on this of course). But in my opinion the best thing to sum up about this album can be found in the music video for the lead single of this album, “Pick Her Up.” In this clear parody of bro country (as well as 90s country too), the video opens with the modern country male concert goer in his flannel shirt and vest. It’s a little detail, but it struck me because of it’s accuracy because this is literally how the vast majority of guys I see at concerts dress. At The Cadillac Three concert I attended back in February (what will highly likely be my one and only show in 2020), pretty much every dude at show looked like the guy in the music video.

Now to why I point this out and to me it’s symbolism for modern country. Every thing looks and sounds the same just like the listeners who consume it. I don’t mean this as a shot at these listeners or anybody at all, nor did Dierks Bentley and his band mean to make this some sort of symbolism. But for myself I couldn’t help but make the connection. I just found it fascinating how so much of popular modern music makes things so cookie cutter to the point even the listener is a cardboard cutout. It shows the cascading effect art and culture can have on people. As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

Back to the Hot Country Knights and the video, they give the guy a 90s makeover (or 80s?) and set him up with a souped up truck to impress his date. It’s completely corny, out of style and yet brimming so much with the personality that lacks in country music today. It doesn’t feel like calculated marketing and it’s just being itself, which easier said than done in today’s world. Yes, this album goes on to point out how even 90s country was formulaic in it’s approach and relied on copy and paste imagery for songs. But it was fun and didn’t take itself so seriously, yet it could also find balance with serious songs occasionally too. It felt natural and had an accessibility about it that could resonate with the average person because it didn’t try so hard to be cool or appeal to certain demographics. Of course I will fully admit too that nostalgia makes me see things slightly through rose-colored glasses. But it’s the fun-loving spirit of this album that resonates mostly with me and how it’s not afraid to go “out there” and be a little weird and kooky.

The features on this album are perfect with Travis Tritt and Terri Clark each shining brightly in their roles. “Asphalt” is non-stop chuckles with it’s non-stop ass-based references (and another hilarious music video). “Moose Knuckle Shuffle” actually makes me want to dance and do the Moose Knuckle Shuffle while also doing a perfect parody of the line-dancing phase of the 90s. The highlight of the album for me though has to be “Then It Rained.” At first I was like wait a minute this is familiar and then I realized it was a dead-on take of Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and I absolutely lost it. It’s quite “Seinfeldian” as my friend Zack at The Musical Divide perfectly puts it, with it’s take on the average boring moment followed by rain. This type of humor is right up my alley. The best line is “I ordered up a hot dog and a glass of chardonnay/Somewhere I thought I heard George Strait/And then it rained.” It’s just so randomly hilarious!

The album’s title track rhymes whiskey with whiskey, which feels like the ultimate meta reference to how asinine modern country songwriting can be at times while also referencing how critics like myself can never help ourselves in pointing things like this out in reviews. “Mull It Over” is both funny and manages to incorporate a mullet reference right under your nose (while lines throughout reference the hair style too). “You Make It Hard” is the ultimate dick joke song. Finally you have “The USA Begins with US,” which casually and flawlessly mocks the absurdity that is so many patriotic country songs and how some artists inauthentically pander so hard with the USA stuff in their music (think songs like “Chicken Fried”).

While this was just a “casual” side project for Dierks Bentley and his band, you can tell a lot of love and work went into this fun idea. And I hope this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the Hot Country Knights, as the cornier, fun side of country music is something we need again. Speaking of more fun country music, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers returned with another collaboration album, Hold My Beer, Vol. 2. The first addition got high praise from yours truly and I flipped when I saw the news that they were coming back with another edition in May.

While I really enjoyed this album for the most part, I unfortunately have to point the huge flaw in this project before getting to what I enjoy. And I have to point it out first because I was enjoying it so much upon initial listens and then I finally did my “deep” listen of it. The huge flaw I discovered was “Her.” Now I know I pointed out above that music today should have a more casual nature about it and not be so overthought. But it’s hard not to come away from “Her” as anything but disappointing. A song about a guy getting his friend drunk and stealing his girl away is just not something I can get behind, no matter how “fun-loving” it tries to come off. This song is no different than the horrible Old Dominion song “Break Up with Him.” It’s just in bad taste all-around and unlike Ashley McBryde’s new album Never Will, this song doesn’t try to view the flawed characters as neutral or bad actors, but rather quite the opposite.

So after making this discovery it felt like I had just eaten a piece of delicious chocolate cake only for the chef to come up to me afterwards and whisper in my ear that there was a fly baked into it. Nevertheless, the rest of this album is the kind of fun traditional country I can get behind and put on repeat. While there are no true highlights that resonate with me like on the first volume, there was still several fun moments. “Rodeo Clown” is an hilarious song about a guy being left by his woman for a rodeo clown. While it’s an embarrassing and sad thing for the guy, it’s quite a funny image from the outside looking in. While at first “Rhinestoned” and “Speak to Me Jukebox” felt a bit on the nose, I’ve ultimately come to really enjoy these little homages to country music and previous standards that so many country listeners enjoy.

“Am/Fm” is admittedly a bit too close to the very songs these two mocked with “Standards,” but damn if it isn’t admittedly catchy too. So I can understand anybody who decidedly falls on either side of the fence with this song. “Let Merle Be Merle” can kind of come off a bit tone deaf upon first listen of the chorus, but I realized upon more listens the message is really about letting people be what they are. Particularly with country music the song is saying to let the past be the past, don’t try to be the next Haggard. And these are messages I can get behind. “Ode to Ben Dorcy” surprised me as I was greeted by the welcoming voice of Waylon Jennings. And I found the song to be even more cool when I read about the origins of it, as it pays tribute to the long-time roady who supported so many artists.

“Mi Amigo”, even with the nice feature of Asleep at the Wheel, is a bit generic and forgettable. “Warm Beer” is a bit cliché, but I’ll admit I can enjoy it too for it’s easy-going nature. “Hold My Beer” is definitely better and is the kind of song that encapsulates the entertaining, buddy-buddy personalities of Bowen and Rogers. I wish “Her” could have been replaced with another song like this one. Or another song like “This Ain’t My Town,” which I would have to pick as the best on the record. It’s a poignant commentary on the gentrification of towns like Austin and Nashville, stripping away the soul and characteristics that made the places once resonate with the city’s original residents who now feel like strangers. It’s a nice balance also with the fun moments on this album, much like how “El Dorado” served on the first volume.

Hold My Beer, Vol. 2 is a really solid album that shines for the most part, despite the flaws. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to make an observation of this album and The K is Silent. Each album shares multiple writers (Jon Randall, the Beavers brothers), despite the fact that some Texas Country supporters will insist that Wade and Randy’s album is much more authentic and country. But I would make the argument that these albums are essentially the same, as each have the same fun attitude and themes throughout.

The only difference is packaging and marketing. One is trying to be “serious” and the other is a “parody.” But you could argue both for well both. The point I’m ultimately trying to make here is how hung up in perceptions us listeners can have when it comes to music and the perception we think we give by listening to a certain type of music. Really at the end of the day it’s just a matter of how it makes you feel and if you enjoy it. The other stuff is just noise artists, labels and industry people trying to suck you into this fake us vs them plot to sell more music and tickets. And unfortunately this fuels the divides that exist in music too. In the words of the Doobie Brothers, just listen to the music and you can’t go wrong.

Hot Country Knights – The K is Silent – Strong 8/10

Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer, Vol. 2 – Light 8/10


And more…

  • After enjoying the Hot Country Knights album, it actually prompted me to re-listen to Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain. And I’m glad I did. Originally I was in the very small minority of not enjoying the album. But now you can count me in the camp of liking it. I’m not sure why I originally didn’t enjoy it, and while I wouldn’t put it as one of Bentley’s best (such as Modern Day Drifter, Riser, Up on the Ridge), it’s a really solid album full of great messages that deal with overcoming fears, anxiety and finding love. “Burning Man” is the perfect opener and the Brothers Osborne are the ideal feature for this type of song. The album’s title track feels like a good summation of this album, “You Can’t Bring Me Down” is an uplifting anthem and “Son of the Sun” is where you can really tells Dierks lets his inspiration from Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives’ Way Out West shine through. And his collaboration with Brandi Carlile on “Travelin’ Light” is so enjoyable. I’m not sure I’ll ever warm up to Black, but The Mountain is an album worthy of recommendation from yours truly now.
  • Run the Jewels is dropping RTJ4 on June 5 and I am pumped! All three albums they’ve released have been great (RTJ2 in particular is one of the best albums of the past decade), so I’m quite confident that this will be another can’t miss record from the dynamic duo of El-P and Killer Mike. I got even more excited when I saw the all-star features list for the album, including the likes of 2 Chainz, Zack De La Rocha, Pharrell Williams and Mavis Staples. I’ve only listened to small snippets and plan to not listen to any of the full songs before the album to go in completely blind. Needless to say this is an album that on paper has a great shot of making my top albums of the year list.
  • I just reposted my review of Kenny Chesney’s great Songs of the Saints album. But unfortunately his new album is right back to the generic garbage I’ve come to hate from him. I didn’t even make it halfway through before shutting it off. It’s a shame how his mediocre stuff is what always ends up as hits while his better material never seems to resonate with listeners as much. Then again when you condition your audience into coming to concerts to get blackout drunk and trash venues up, it’s not really that surprising I guess.
  • I recently started to explore the discography of the Carpenters and I wish I would have done so sooner. Their melodies are gorgeous and Karen Carpenter has to be one of the most underrated artists of all-time. It’s a shame her life was cut so short. Close To You is the standard recommendation with this duo and for good reason, as I enjoy it front to back. The love songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “They Long To Be Close To You” easily standout thanks to the beautiful voice of Karen and their different take on the cover of “Help” holds up right next to The Beatles.
  • I gotta say I’m not a fan of the COVID-19-inspired songs being released. It’s bad enough to be profiting off a deadly virus, but then the songs themselves are so boring and uninspiring. I don’t really think anybody needs another reminder of it either. Country music in particular seems to be releasing the most songs about the topic and it reminds me so much of immediate post-9/11 country music. Luke Combs has the most popular song with “Six Feet Apart.” It’s just decent and for me it’s starting feel like all of his songs have the same cadence and feel about him. They just sort of blend together, so I hope he plans for more variety in future songs. Brad Paisley though has released the worst with “No I in Beer.” It’s so lazy, the pandering is tacked on at the end and it feels like a watered down conglomeration of his past songs. Please start doing better, Brad.
  • I don’t really pay a lot of attention to country radio nowadays, but I glanced through the chart the other day and I was happy to see LOCASH’s “One Big Country Song” is rising up the charts and becoming a hit. I’ve never been a big fan of the duo, but this song really caught my ear when I heard it last year. While the topic of the song is quite overused in country music, LOCASH manages to pull it off thanks to the fun, singalong nature and the catchy guitar licks.

Thanks for reading the first edition of The Endless Music Odyssey! This will be not necessarily a weekly feature, but a regular feature for sure. I will still do regular reviews when I have a ton to say about the album, but otherwise my thoughts will be in this feature. Josh’s Jukebox Journal will still be a feature and I plan to reveal at least one more feature very soon. I hope you enjoy my new approach to writing as much as I do! As always be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below!

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.