Country Perspective’s Top Five Pop Albums of 2020

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 five pop albums of 2020. Pop had a pretty good year in my eyes. More artists embrace melody in their music than they have in recent memory, which was great to see. It’s been my biggest criticism of the genre in the modern era, as too many artists try to ape a watered-down alternative or hip hop flavored sound. Pop needs to stick to what makes people like pop: sticky hooks, catchy melody and singalong quality. I would also like to see the throwback/retro trend that seemed to emerge this year to continue into 2021, as I think there are many modern artists who can bring fresh takes to classic approaches. This is always the hardest genre to evaluate in my opinion, as there’s just so many releases and determining what’s pop is more ambiguous than any other genre. So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top Five Pop Albums of 2020:

5. Niall Horan — Heartbreak Weather

Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather is an enjoyably solid album of soft rock meets pop love songs. Although I will say it’s not all straight-ahead love songs, as Horan weaves in themes throughout the album of insecurity, doubt and details of the hard road one can experience in finding love. The album has an overall sound of being bouncy, fun and upbeat, while Horan demonstrates himself to be a charismatic vocalist with range. And while there’s many fun moments like on “Everywhere,” there’s also some more serious and introspective moments that give this album a softness to balance it out (“Put a Little Love on Me” and “Still”).

4. Taylor Swift — folklore

The first thing of course that stands out about this Taylor Swift’s folklore is the production, helmed by her longtime producer Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Both of their influences shine through in the music, but especially Dessner’s, as this album certainly embraces indie and folk aesthetics. It’s not an indie folk album as many have erroneously called it, but rather a pop album that incorporates elements of modern indie, folk, bedroom pop and lo-fi. Swift cherrypicks some of the more obvious and basic elements of these styles and makes them work with her style of pop for the most part. Combined with her most mature and arguably best songwriting to date, this makes folklore one of Swift’s best albums.

3. 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.

2. Kylie Minogue — DISCO

This album is full of soaring production that lives up to it’s album name while also giving it a fresh, modern feel. The songwriting focuses around love, excitement and just pure joy. To me it’s one of those albums that if you love pop and disco music, it’s impossible to come away not smiling. Minogue meant for this album to be enjoyable escapism and DISCO is absolutely phenomenal in this regard.

1. 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. Once again she’s showing her “B material” is better than many artists’ A material. Every song on this album is enjoyable and shows why she is one of the best pop artists in music today. 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.

The Hodgepodge: Dear Music Row, Call a Spade a Spade and Start Labeling Your Music Pop

This is probably a recycled thought/topic for this feature, but non-country “country” music has been on my mind all week. It all started with Maren Morris’ HERO. Another recent pop release wrapped up in the label of country music include Keith Urban’s RipcordLittle Big Town is stepping into true pop music with their upcoming project with Pharrell, Wanderlust. This is the direction mainstream country music appears to be taking if last night’s CMT awards are any indication. Little Big Town and Pharrell performed a pop song from Wanderlust. Cam performed with pop group Fifth Harmony, and Cassadee Pope sang backup to Pitbull. Over the years, we’ve seen pop acts like Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Nick Jonas, and Katy Perry all make appearances at “country music” award shows. And for good measure, country music sites like Taste of Country still haven’t let go of Taylor Swift, who officially moved to pop almost two years ago.

I’m not going to sit here and rehash complaints about how Nashville is killing country’s tradition. It’s dead, and I’ve accepted it. The Murder on Music Row has become a full-fledged massacre, despite Chris Stapleton’s best efforts. My plea today is for Music Row to stop calling this music country. Sam Hunt still isn’t country. Ripcord and HERO are not country albums by any stretch of the imagination. With all of their experiment’s with pop music, they’re starting to get it to sound good. Maren Morris and producer busbee have a good pop album on their hands with HERO. She delivers the songs well, with confidence and authenticity from Morris as a singer. And I’ll admit that I enjoy “80’s Mercedes” as a song. It’s a catchy, fun pop song. But let’s stop pretending this is country music; it’s not.

For the last few years, the only reason they defended it as country was due to the fact that the songs sucked, and wouldn’t stand a chance on pop radio. But if future albums follow HERO and turn out to be well-produced pop albums with good pop songs, then call it pop! There’d me no more shame! Everyone, including Thomas Rhett, knows “Vacation” is a joke and wouldn’t stand a chance on any respectable pop radio station, but country radio will play it because that’s where the spotlight hits the bottom of the barrel. Music Row has done everything it could to make country music a joke and piss on the graves of Hank, Cash, Waylon, and now Merle. But now it looks like they’re ready to put forth effort on the pop front. Maybe.

We’re still being treated to half-assed adult contemporary albums like Black, I’m Coming Over, If I’m Honest, and whatever Florida Georgia Line will do. “H.O.L.Y.” certainly paints a picture of an A/C album coming from the duo. I’d call that music closer to pop than country, but it certainly isn’t good. These are albums where no one included seems to care about the music being released. But it seems like their albums are serving as a stepping stone toward moving more in the pop direction.

So, Music Row, start moving your pop music away from the country music landscape so artists like Maddie & Tae, Jon Pardi, Chris Stapleton, and Kacey Musgraves can clean up the mess you’ve made. You’re way past the point of no return, and no one will take any of your b and c level pop singers (aka top “country” singers) seriously if they turn back to country. You’ve completely alienated many of the fans you’ve had at the cost of chasing after a different demographic – a demographic only interested in the hot trend and not the history of a beautiful genre of music. Stop giving this genre a bad name. By putting this music on national TV and calling it country, you’re letting these faces and songs represent the entire genre. Meanwhile, there are several artists like Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours, Margo Price, and Michaela Anne, to name a few, who are carrying the rich tradition of country music in their music. Let artists like that represent the name “country music” while you and your singers continue to do your pop music under a different name.

So call a spade a spade and, Music Row, start calling your music pop.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow, Brandy Clark‘s Big Day in a Small Town will be released.
  • Frankie Ballard‘s El Rio will also be released tomorrow.
  • Jon Pardi‘s California Sunrise will be released next week on June 17th.
  • Luke Bell‘s self-titled album will be released on the 17th.
  • Scott Low‘s The New Vintage will also be released on the 17th.
  • Hey everybody! Josh here with some album news I wanted to pass along to you. I saw Brandi Carlile a couple of nights back (excellent show by the way) and she revealed that they’re going to do a re-release of her most well-known album The Story next year, marking the 10th anniversary of the album. All of the proceeds for the album will be going to the Looking Out Foundation, which helps children who’s lives have been torn apart by wars. Carlile said she and the band won’t be performing the songs on the re-release, but rather a list of guests and friends. She also mentioned one of her idols will be performing the title track.

Throwback Thursday Song

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. You can never go wrong with Hank Williams. Despite what Music Row sells, there will always be someone out there respecting the music Hank made.

Non-Country Suggestion

“Hurricane Love” L.A. Woman. How many of you have heard of Cymbal? It’s a music social media app where you simply share a song with your followers, and you can play samples of the songs that are posted directly through the app. It’s a cool concept for an app, but I think it’s still rather new and used mostly on the indie circuit. This is a song I discovered through Cymbal.

Tweets of the Week: CMT Awards Edition

There was no reason to watch the CMT Awards after Chris Stapleton performed “Parachute.” And there was no reason to watch before Chris Stapleton performed “Parachute.”

iTunes Review

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This was left under Jon Pardi’s newest album. California Sunrise has the potential to be the best mainstream album released this year, and if the few songs pre-released are indication, then it could be in a conversation with this year’s best.

Note: The Hodgepodge will return in two weeks, as we will be featuring our mid-year best and worst posts next week.

Album Review – Maren Morris’ ‘HERO’

Maren Morris HERO

Remember my pop album review of Keith Urban’s Ripcord a few weeks back? If you haven’t read it, I would recommend you at least read the point at the end. To give you the short version of it, I’ve pretty much come to conclusion now that there’s no such thing as bad country, good pop. There’s only good music and bad music. It’s important to say this up front as I discuss Maren Morris’ new album HERO. This is probably one of the most anticipated albums in country music this year as Morris’ single “My Church” has been a big hit and really helped her rise in popularity. Morris has really caught a lot of eyes and with this album it would determine just how high she can go in the immediate future. After hearing her self-titled EP released late last year, I knew coming in that there would undeniably be a pop influence on this album. And I was right. By right I mean more than I would ever realize because HERO is not a country record and calling it as such would be an outright lie. This is a pop soul record with a couple of country songs and a country influence in spots. However I’m not going to spend an entire review shouting it’s not country because that would be a waste of time and foolish. No, I’m going to review HERO for what it is because this album is too enjoyable at times not to talk about.

Some heavy acoustic guitar plays in “Sugar.” This lingers throughout the song in combination with an upbeat pop production as the song revolves around a crush Morris has on a guy. This includes a few too many comparisons to how this crush makes her feel. In comparison to the rest of the album, this is one of the more forgettable songs due to the lyrics being a little clumsy and the production being a bit too overdone. It can get annoying after a while. “Rich” is where you get a good indication of where this album is willing to go. The song is about Morris saying if she had a dollar for every time she swore her ex off and every time he made her feel pain, she would be pretty rich. And she paints a pretty vivid picture of just how rich she would be in the chorus. These chorus lines work for the most part, although I find the line about diamonds and P Diddy to be cheesy and outdated. I imagine this is where the staunch country fan stopped listening.

The lead single and the song I imagine many thought would indicate the direction of this entire album, “My Church,” follows. This anthemic, gospel-inspired tune is about how Maren’s church is country music (although the rest of the album says otherwise). When she turns on her favorite country music (Hank and Johnny Cash, as mentioned in the song), it feels like a spiritual experience to her. She genuinely loves country music. Part country, part rock and part gospel, this song is catchy and fun as hell. I’ve listened to this song a lot and it just doesn’t get old. One of the most mature songs on HERO is “I Could Use a Love Song.” In a world dominated by the hook-up culture and dating apps, Morris speaks for many young adults who have a negative outlook on finding love and feeling disheartened about capturing that feeling. It’s really kind of melancholy, yet in a way kind of hopeful too. It’s definitely one of my favorites on the album.

This is followed by “80s Mercedes,” an upbeat song about a woman and her 80s Mercedes-Benz. When she’s driving it she feels confident and beautiful, clearly holding some strong sentimental value to her. This is a pop country song, with a heavy dosage on the former. Despite the heavy pop influence that would normally annoy me, there’s just something about this song that is infectious and likable that I can’t knock it. It’s something I can’t explain, I just know I enjoy hearing it and I have no problem admitting it. It’s been announced as the second single from the album and I think this could be a big summer hit. Morris shows off her humorous side on “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry.” The song is about a woman telling her friend to leave her boyfriend after cheating on her yet again. As the woman tells her friend, this is the third time he’s been caught, so it’s past time for another chance and time to kick him to the curb. She tells her though that he’s a really nice guy, but then her friend retorts back, “That’s like saying drunk girls don’t cry.” It’s a sassy, honest and funny take on the classic breakup song upon first listen. However after hearing it multiple times, it can become skippable and best left as an album cut.

“How It’s Done” is one of those songs you can either take or leave. The song is about a relationship going to the next level, which is sex. Now many popular country artists do a terrible job at describing sex in songs because the lyrics suck, are immature or are just clumsy. Morris does a better job than most of them, but it’s one of those songs that can wear thin after a while. The production kind of reminds of an album cut off The Weeknd’s latest album. Overall it’s a decent song I guess. Morris sings about regret on “Just Another Thing.” From late-night calls to an ex to drinking and smoking, she knows it’s just a list of things she shouldn’t do and yet she keeps indulging them. The song has a bluesy, soulful sound with pop sensibilities. Combined with the witty lyrics, it’s subtly one of the better tracks on the album.

“I Wish I Was” is a more traditional country song with some blues added in. It’s about a woman who is in a relationship and makes the realization that it isn’t going to work. The man thinks it’s true love and he’s found the one, but she breaks it to him that it isn’t true love. She wishes however it was true love and that she was the “hero” in the story who got all of the glory of being in love. Personally I find this to be one of the best tracks on the album because once again Morris takes a mature approach to relationships and describes it so well. It’s arguably the best vocal performance from Morris too. I think it would be a mistake to not release this as a single, although I have a feeling the more pop sounding songs would take precedence over it.

The inspirational-themed “Second Wind” is next. One of the songs I immediately thought of in comparison with it is Maddie & Tae’s “Fly.” Both really don’t have a concrete them and are just centered around the tropes of “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” and “never give up.” Although I would say “Fly” is better because of the production and instrumentation. This isn’t a bad song and has a nice sound, but it’s one of the more forgettable on HERO. The album closes with “Once,” a waltzing pop song on love. Specifically it’s after both sides of the relationship have called it quits, but thoughts of once was still lingering. Morris acknowledges from her point of view while she still can’t shake it completely and knows it’s over; she still wants him to remember that he loved her once and that’s something that will never disappear. The swell in the chorus really gives this song a punch and really ends the album on a good note.

HERO will probably be the most polarizing album of 2016. Undoubtedly the biggest sin this album commits is it being called a country album. It shouldn’t have any business charting on the country albums chart too. If you’re angry about this and this prevents you from enjoying it, I don’t blame you because it would get a zero as a country record. But once you get past this, you find yourself listening to a really enjoyable pop album. Morris does such a great job at times looking at relationships and feelings from a mature point of view. When her and the songwriters on this album (busbee, Natalie Hemby, Laura Veltz, Jimmy Robbins, Jessie Jo Dillon, Luke Laird amongst them) get it right, the songs really shine. Everything that comes out of Morris’ mouth comes off as genuine, honest and sincere. Her career though may not be in country music and more suited for pop. But as a music fan I can’t help but appreciate HERO as a pop album (key descriptor). I think this album will primarily appeal to younger listeners and fans of pop music/people open to pop over older listeners and staunch country fans. Not everyone is going to like this album. But for those who do, you’ll really find some enjoyable songs.

Grade: 7/10

*parts of this review are taken from my review of Morris’ self-titled EP last year

 

You can listen to the entire album on Morris’ YouTube page here.

Review – Brandy Clark’s “Girl Next Door”

Brandy Clark hit the country music scene like a train crashing through a wall at full speed. Her 2013 debut album, 12 Stories, was released to critical acclaim and considered one of the best albums of the year. Clark’s traditional approach to the songs’ production was noteworthy and her no-nonsense writing set her apart from most other country songwriters. Brandy Clark has been a critical darling since 12 Stories‘ release, and it’s fair to say that her eventual next album has been highly anticipated. While most details for the album remain hush-hush, we finally have a taste of what’s to come with her first single from the new album, “Girl Next Door.”

“Girl Next Door” is a big shift for Brandy Clark because the song abandons any semblance of country music in exchange for a dance beat melody and pop anthem production. The opening chords of an electric guitar combined with a percussion beat that sounds like it came out of a computer program set the stage in the first 10 seconds of the song. That beat holds throughout the verse and then gets cranked to eleven for the chorus. “Girl Next Door” is an over produced pop dance song produced by the one and only Jay Joyce. The production drowns the rest of the song. Clark’s voice is almost unrecognizable as she screams over the music of the chorus.

The real shame of the production is that it distracts from Clark’s signature, no bullshit sass in her lyrics. “When you took me home, you knew who you were taking. Not some Debbie Debutante standing in an apron, frying up your bacon. My house and my mouth and my mind get kind of trashy. I’ve never been to jail but hell I wouldn’t put it past me.” That is 100% Brandy Clark. As the song continues, she tells this man to accept that she isn’t the girl next door, or to leave for good and go next door. She’s not Marcia Brady and she’s not sorry about it, so take your pick. “Girl Next Door” is a well written song, but you can’t catch the lyrics right away because of the overproduced mess.

I’m not quite sure what to expect with Clark’s upcoming album, but “Girl Next Door” doesn’t get me excited for it. I wasn’t a fan to read that Jay Joyce was her producer, and this song confirms some of my worry for the album. Go listen to “Stripes” and hear how a sassy song like this can be upbeat and country. This “edgy” production doesn’t suit Clark’s voice. She’s really at her best with a simple production behind her, best exemplified in “Hold My Hand.” I hope the rest of her album isn’t like “Girl Next Door” and features some actual country music, but at least Clark didn’t abandon all her roots for this song. “Girl Next Door’s” lyrics are a saving grace; the only good thing about this song.

Grade: 5/10

Review – Brett Eldredge’s “Drunk On Your Love”

One of the lyrical trends in pop country this year that really draws my ire is songs where males compare their affection to females with being high/drunk. It’s not an interesting way to describe your infatuation, and it’s certainly an overused trope ever since Ke$ha’s “Your Love is my Drug.” Brett Eldredge’s new single is aptly titled “Drunk On Your Love,” and I’m sure you can connect the dots of where this is heading. We opted not to do a full review of Illinois because the album was rather bland and uninteresting, but reviewing the singles released from the album will suffice.

“Drunk On Your Love” doesn’t even try to be original or different. Eldredge co-wrote the song with Ross Copperman and right away the clichés begin pouring out. “The second she walked through the door, I caught a buzz. One taste from your lips knocked me out just like a drug.” All Brett Eldredge wants to do is continue to feel this high from her touch and her love. There’s no attempt to bring any sort of natural story to this song. It’s like a teenager who just discovered the effects of drugs and alcohol and lost his virginity all in the same night. Then he decided to write a song about it. Simply put, the lyrics are stupid, simple, and childish.

Perhaps the most obnoxious thing about “Drunk On Your Love” is the constant repetition of words in the chorus. “Now I know why, why I’m feelin’ so high, high ’cause I’m still drunk, drunk on your love, on your love.” Nearly every other word gets echoed because the hook is terrible and there needed to be some inflection or effect added so it could stand out to listeners. There’s a unique, yet intriguing production to the song, though. A percussion sound of hand drums mixed behind a sort of accordion sounding ring certainly helps the song stand out among the hip hop influences of most songs. However, on top of that intrigue are random pops and sound effects that still turn “Drunk On Your Love” into an overproduced, non-country mess. This unique pop production was chosen because something in this song needed to stand out among the crowd for it to be a radio single contender.

I liked Brett Eldredge’s debut album. “Raymond” is a wonderful country song, and I’m quite fond of “Beat of the Music.” Bring You Back had just enough quality to instill some hope that Brett would carve his own path. Only now do I realize how naive I was to think that. Illinois as a whole is a sophomore slump in album quality with “Drunk On Your Love” joining “Lose My Mind” as a leading example of that slump. Here’s just another stupid, boring song to add to mainstream country’s over saturated pot of crappy pop songs.

Grade: 1/10