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:
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”).
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.
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 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.
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.
You know a blog with country in the name reviewing a folk-influenced Taylor Swift album doesn’t seem so farfetched. But this is surprisingly the first time I’ve ever reviewed a Taylor Swift album. It’s not that I haven’t listened to Swift’s music. If you’re a millennial you hear her music whether you want to or not. The timing simply hasn’t worked out for me to review it, as this was an only country blog when she went pop and her last two albums were quite frankly forgettable and not worth talking about. But her surprise new album folklore is certainly an album I have a lot to say about.
The first thing of course that stands out about this album 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.
That leads me to the obvious comparison for this album, which is Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. While folklore may lack the subtlety of NFR and feels like a poor imitator of it to some listeners, I would argue folklore does a much better job in terms of memorable melody and catchy lyrics. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Swift has an established history of this while Del Rey is more of a niche sound and audience. The TL;DR for this album is Swift is taking a bunch of elements of several albums and popular styles in the indie world in recent years and putting on pop polish with her own style. This comes off as either too simplistic or an enjoyable compromise. For me it’s the latter.
“the 1” is a great opener to the album, as the song sets the overarching theme and that’s regrets, what-ifs and trying to learn from the loss of a meaningful relationship. I also enjoy how well Swift conveys both wistfulness and heartache, as it shows how caught between emotions you are when wondering what could have been. “cardigan” continues this theme, but it’s the first of a handful of songs on this album that just completely overstay their welcome and ultimately lead to a slightly longer album runtime than necessary.
“the last great american dynasty” took several listens to grow on me, as I kind of struggled to find the point this song is trying to make and what I come up with is it’s a critical commentary on wealth, privilege and sex. The middle class wife is solely blamed for the downfall of a wealthy family, even though there’s nothing to judge by this other than the snide judgements casted from onlookers. The song appropriately ends from the first-person point of view of the wife, who seems to sarcastically agree with the speculation. It’s great storytelling from Swift.
Bon Iver joins Swift on “exile” and while I normally don’t enjoy his voice, I think Bon Iver and Swift sound pretty good together. This song about casting away exes surprisingly works well as a duet and I enjoy the climactic build in the second half of the song as the duo harmonizes. “my tears ricochet” is about questioning how an ex can be so dishonest about the nature of the relationship and feeling like your emotions about the relationship don’t mean anything to them. The mental image of tears ricocheting off the ex is such an excellent metaphor, perfectly showcasing their heartlessness and disregard on the outside. But internally the ex is not okay and their former partner rightly sees their outward righteousness as hollow and insincere. Or at least they like to think this. This song is such a fantastic display of the complexity of emotions when in the immediate fallout of a relationship.
“mirrorball” is about being a mirror for your partner and while this is an intriguing concept supported by great lyrics, the production is the highlight of this song. The sweeping and relax, Enya-like sound is gorgeous and easy to get wrapped up in. “seven” is a brooding and meditative story of hanging onto love. The modern meets classical, string-driven sound gives the song an appropriately nostalgic feel. “august” is about realizing your relationship was never what you thought it was when you were in it. It was just a fun summer memory that leaves one side of the relationship feeling a mix of regret and fondness. I really enjoy the soaring nature of Swift’s voice and the production throughout and then concluding in a symphonic-like finale, much like the relationship described in the song.
“this is me trying” features some of the sharpest one liners I’ve heard from Swift. The obvious one of course is “So I got wasted like all my potential,” which is a sharp rebuke to the criticisms being lobbed at the protagonist. “I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting” is another clever conveyance of the disappointment of the protagonist, who after what sounds like a long time of regret is at the front door of their ex and trying to fix what was done. The droning organ that lingers throughout gives the song a hypnotically melancholy sound and gives it such swelling emotion.
There are three songs on this album that I can hands down say are now amongst my favorite Swift songs and the first is “illicit affairs.” Again, Swift does so well at describing the fallout of a breakup. The beginning of the song is level-headed introspection about how the relationship failed and learning from it. It also features the superb use of “clandestine” and yes I’m a music nerd because I love when a song takes a rarely used word in songs and uses it perfectly (see also Eric Church with incandescent). The second half of the song is an enjoyable burst of righteous indignation and anger that comes in admitting that an ex has changed you as painful as it is to admit. The depth and maturity on display in this song is so good and it’s easily one of my most played songs on this record.
Remember how I said “cardigan” is one of a handful of songs that would have been better with a shorter runtime? Well “invisible string” and “mad woman” are amongst these songs. The concepts for these songs are good and they very much fit the theme of the album, but they’re not really necessary and the album would benefit more for their absence than their presence, as this album’s biggest flaw is it’s too long. If this album was a bit tighter, this album is maybe a challenger for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year. “epiphany” is a beautiful sounding song that’s contrasted by war imagery as the story is of a soldier who seeks a reassuring dream as they bleed to death on a hospital bed. It’s dark, haunting and tragic, capturing all the emotions of a solider of war. It’s one of Swift’s finest songs she’s ever written.
And of course “betty” is the third song that’s now amongst my favorites from Swift. I was hooked from the moment I heard the sweet sounds of the harmonica. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old boy, he recounts over a summer how he hurt a girl he loved and lives with regret for months as he tries to figure out how to apologize. It’s a song about finding growth and learning how it’s okay to admit when you make a mistake. As everyone knows, Swift became a household name on songs about high school romance. Most of those songs made me gag for their immaturity, mawkishness and being completely out of touch with reality. But this song is the opposite of all these criticisms. And damn it’s so catchy too. Can Swift come back to country music?
“peace” is another production standout on this album. The combination of the Mellotron, bass and synthesizers is so smooth and infectious. It’s such an overall minimalist approach, yet it’s one of the most powerful sounding tracks on the album. Antonoff and Dessner hit a real home run and I think it would have been great to conclude the album here. It’s not that closing track “hoax” is bad though, as it’s actually quite good. It’s a somber piano ballad where all the sadness of a relationship being over is swallowed with crushing pain and aches. It’s the reaching of a total state of being broke with the only thing to show for now being the road ahead and a body and mind covered in scars.
Let’s be honest: I wasn’t exactly a fan of Little Big Town’s last album Pain Killer. I went back and re-read it. I was actually quite brutal with my remarks. Man, did I go in on the 80s rock comparisons. In my defense though these comparisons weren’t off and I can honestly say I only remember two songs from that album, “Day Drinking” and “Girl Crush.” The latter of course went on to become Little Big Town’s biggest hit yet and racked up tons of awards. So at least the best song went on to earn the most praise. Coming into this veteran group’s new album The Breaker, I was kind of cautiously optimistic based off the Taylor Swift-penned lead single “Better Man.” But in the back of my mind I still remembered the previous album being a disappointment. After all Jay Joyce returns as producer, who was a big part of why the last album was underwhelming and forgettable. Well after listening to The Breaker, it’s definitely a step up and into the right direction for this group.
The opening song “Happy People” really establishes the overall tone and vibe of this album. It’s a very easy-going, light, roots-y type sound that permeates throughout this song and album. The song is about doing whatever floats your boat and how happy people do a lot more than unhappy people in this life. It takes a few listens, but the lyrics kind of subtly impress. It’s no surprise considering two great songwriters in Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters wrote it. One of the more upbeat tracks on this album is “Night On Our Side.” It’s catchy, but the song itself really doesn’t have much to say and is greatly aided by the vibrant instrumentation. Moody and mellow would best describe “Lost In California.” This might be the most different song I’ve heard from Little Big Town, as this song is very much driven by tone. The song is a love ballad and features some illustrative songwriting that really paints a picture in your head, a credit to the famous troika of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and McKenna. Then we have the production, which perfectly compliments it with it’s dreamy, almost hazy like feel. It might be Jay Joyce’s best work he’s ever done.
This is before we get to what I would deem the best track on the album, “Free.” I knew right away that McKenna helped write this, as it just has the markings of her best work. The song is instantly feel good, along the same lines of “Humble and Kind.” It’s about how the things we want most in life are free and some of our best qualities are free too (how we get our sense of humor from a parent, our eye color from a relative). The harmonies are also perfectly timed. This is one of Little Big Town’s best songs it’s ever released and deserves to be a single. “Drivin’ Around” is a breezy, summer song you play with the windows down as you well drive around. I enjoy how the harmonies drives this song, but I wish the production were toned back a bit to let the song be more breezy and less overbearing at times (“Rollin'” is along the same lines). Nostalgia will determine how much you love “We Went To The Beach.” Most of the time nostalgia songs usually don’t work for me, but this one does because well I can relate to the first part of the song. If you can connect with a part of the song, it’s enjoyable. If not, it’s probably just okay. I also have to say Phillip Sweet was a good choice for lead vocals here, as his voice suites the overall mood of the song.
Kimberly Schlapman takes the lead on “Beat Up Bible.” It’s about the meaning of a Bible that’s been passed down through a family. The memories it holds and the lessons learned are what make it so special, even though it’s nearly fallen apart. Usually these types of songs devolve into cliché territory quickly, but this one has heart and comes across sincerely. Schlapman is a great choice for lead vocals, as her sweeter, more restrained voice suits it. Little Big Town do a really job tackling heartbreak on “When Someone Stops Loving You.” The song explores the feelings you go through after a breakup: having to trudge through the normal routine, forced to face life without that person and a little part still hoping they come crawling back. It’s well written and Jimi Westbrook really shines on lead vocals. The album’s title track closes the album out. With Sweet on lead vocals, the song is about a man who thought he would be the man of his woman’s dreams. But he ends up turning out to be the one to break her heart in the end. I enjoy the concept of this song, but I think it would have been even better if it were a duet between the man and woman, explaining each side. It would have really added some depth, but as is it’s a decent song.
Little Big Town delivers a pretty solid album in The Breaker. It’s a nice rebound from the group and mostly a return to where this group shines: more organic, restrained, harmony driven songs. Everything on this album is a step up, most notably the songwriting. Five co-writes from Lori McKenna, along with contributions from the likes of Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose and Hailey Whitters is likely to help an album in the songwriting department. Overall I like the sonic direction this album takes and the themes explored, but I felt like if it could have been taken further this could have been a great album. It felt like some potential was left on the table, but hopefully the group stays on its current path and takes these steps on the next album. Little Big Town should be proud though of their effort on The Breaker, as I think this will be one of the best albums from mainstream country in 2017.
Recommend? – Yes
Album Highlights: Free, Lost In California, When Someone Stops Loving You, Happy People, Beat Up Bible, Better Man
Bad Songs: None
Wallpaper: Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old; Night On Our Side
When it comes to Little Big Town, I’ve always had mixed feelings about them. Earlier songs from the group such as “Little White Church” and “Boondocks” impressed me, but then they follow it up with songs that annoy me like “Pontoon.” Their last album’s lead single “Day Drinking” was probably one of the worst singles they’ve put out, as I harshly criticized it in my review. But then they followed this up with the biggest hit of their career and one of the most talked about country singles of 2015, “Girl Crush.” After being wrongly perceived as a song about a lesbian relationship and getting rebuked initially by country radio, it went on to be a smash hit and racked up numerous awards. With the huge success of this single, it basically defined the Pain Killer era as good, despite the rest of the album being generic 80s rock and featuring producer Jay Joyce at his worst. So now after a bizarre side project with pop artist Pharrell Williams earlier in 2016, Little Big Town returns with a new lead single for their next album, titled “Better Man.”
I have to say coming in I didn’t have high expectations for this song and I only had slight hope they would return to their earlier sound. Fortunately they actually do this because “Better Man” is much closer to their earlier work than their latest music and I couldn’t be happier about this development. Right away we hear a piano and some percussion to open the song and Karen Fairchild’s smokey vocals, who sings lead on the single. The song is about a heartbroken woman who misses the man she used to be in love with, hoping he could be a better man again. She knows it was for the best they split, but she can’t let go of the good memories they had and she’s heartbroken over the loss of something so close to her heart. It’s really solid songwriting with some actual depth and story behind the heartbreak. The harmonizing by the group in the chorus gives the song a good punch and makes it memorable for the listener. The production could have been dialed back a bit and can be a little too loud at times for some listeners, but the blending of pop sounds and country sounds really works well.
I wouldn’t say this is the best single of Little Big Town’s career, but “Better Man” is definitely near the top for them. They did with this song what I’ve been saying for a while: get back to a more organic sound and put focus back on the harmonies. This song accomplishes both and they were able to even give it enough polish that radio should give it some kind of chance. The songwriting is notably improved and shouldn’t be overlooked either. I hope this is an indication of what’s come on their new album because this is the Little Big Town country music needs.
This is the Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country Airplay Chart from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top 30 songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9[+4], 8[+3], 7[+2], 6[+1], 5, 4[-1], 3[-2], 2[-3], 1[-4], 0[-5].
The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past pulse of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Country Airplay Chart from March 15th, 2008.
Carrie Underwood – “All American Girl” +1 (Cliché, but the sound and vocals are good)
Rodney Atkins – “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)” 0
Alan Jackson – “Small Town Southern Man” +4 (One of his best in my opinion)
Kenny Chesney & George Strait – “Shiftwork” 0
Chuck Wicks – “Stealing Cinderella” +1 (cheesy as all hell, but it’s played with enough sincerity to work for me)
Trace Adkins – “You’re Gonna Miss This” +4
Gary Allan – “Watching Airplanes” +2
George Strait – “I Saw God Today” +4
Chris Cagle – “What Kinda Gone” +2
Jason Aldean – “Laughed Until We Cried” +3 (Yeah, a positive Aldean score. I’m as shocked as you all are)
Brooks & Dunn – “God Must be Busy” +2
James Otto – “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” 0 (Eh…)
Taylor Swift – “Picture To Burn” +1
Phil Vassar – “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” +1 (Cheesy as all hell, but at least it sort of incorporates a story)
Bucky Covington – “It’s Good To Be Us” -1
Lady Antebellum – “Love Don’t Live Here” +3
Kellie Pickler – “Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind” +1
Joe Nichols – “It Ain’t No Crime” +1
Jewel – “Stronger Woman” -1[Worst Song] (Man, never heard a song by here before. Don’t care for her voice at all. Plus the song is too preachy for me. Sorry)
Garth Brooks & Huey Lewis – “Workin’ For A Livin'” +2 (Yes, I’ve heard this Garth song)
Ashton Shepherd – “Takin’ Off This Pain” +2
Jack Ingram – “Maybe She’ll Get Lonely” 0
Rascal Flatts – “Every Day” -1
Brad Paisley – “I’m Still A Guy” +2
Montgomery Gentry – “Back When I Knew It All” +3
Josh Gracin – “We Weren’t Crazy” +2 (Yes, people on country radio used to sing from the perspective of ONCE being young instead of pretending they’re still young…)
The Eagles – “Busy Being Fabulous” 0
The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +45
So yeah this kind of a weird week. On one hand, there’s a plethora of great songs. Even compared to some charts in the 90’s I’d say there’s more good songs here. In other words, quantity versus quality. In fact, picking the best song was absolutely brutal.
The problem is that there’s also a lot of mediocrity here. Nothing inherently terrible or anything, but there are too many songs that play it safe here and don’t really stand out that much. Still this is a damn good week. I’m happy with the results.
As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!