Favorite Songs Of 2020 So Far (Collaboration Post)

It’s not quite time for the “list-pocalypse,” but for something fun in an otherwise dark time, I’ve teamed up to discuss some of my favorite songs of the year with Grant (of Critically Country). He and I went about this in slightly different ways. I, for instance, am choosing only to include songs from albums I’ve reviewed this year (and as I ease back into writing reviews, I’m sure this list will look outdated soon enough, and I should note I finalized this list before my recent album review roundup post). Grant is more fluid than I, though his selections aren’t ranked. I’ve ranked my list solely in reverse alphabetical order by artist name.

Without further ado, here we are!

Kody West, “October

Overgrown is a heavy listen, and “October” is one of its bleakest moments – where seasonal depression kicks in and this man remembers the haunting final words his ex-lover left with him before she moved on, filled with blame he know he deserves and destined to have it replay over and over in his mind. It’s definitely a shift away from Kody West’s Texas-country roots, but it may be a better fit for him anyway. The echoed fragments of burnished guitars contribute greatly to the song’s lonely atmosphere, and the soft-loud dynamic on the chorus only serves to highlight just how much he realizes he was to blame in that relationship. – Zackary Kephart

Josh Grider, “Dollar on the Wall”

Catchy? Check! Great storytelling? You bet! This song, featuring Drew Kennedy, is one of the best songs of 2020 so far. The friends in this song describe all of the things they did and people they met as they get ready to head back home from vacation the next day. They decide to write their names on a dollar and stick it to the wall so that even after they leave, a piece of them will always remain. – Grant

(No audio, unfortunately)

Nora Jane Struthers, “The Turnpike”

Nostalgia hasn’t sounded this cathartic in a long time, and given the current times, that’s a feeling I’ll definitely take for now. But what makes Nora Jane Struthers’ “The Turnpike” such a fantastic listen is how much those little details of her childhood and teenage years really meant to her, even if she’s far enough away from that time period to not get too wrapped up in the past. The guitar work has a ton of heft and blazes through with a ton of raw intensity, and though these lists are usually reserved for bleaker moments, sometimes it’s good to smile, too. – Z

Sierra Hull, “Beautifully Out Of Place

Bluegrass artist Sierra Hull’s 2020 album 25 Trips didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved, but it is a good one (Editor’s note – it’s in my backlog of albums to review). This track describes someone in her life seeing the potential that she possesses, even though she does not yet realize it. She wonders how long it will take her to believe in herself and realize her potential. – G

Porter Union, “Laundry

I wasn’t blown away by Porter Union’s Loved & Lost album, but “Laundry” was one huge exception to that. It’s a bare-bones acoustic track (with some burnished electric guitar eventually finding its way into the mix) that finds Kendra Porter in the throes of discovering her husband’s infidelity. And because it’s about the shock of the discovery, her delivery is incredibly devastating as she realizes those years of hard work toward their marriage were all for nothing. Cheating is a common subject in country music, but rarely is it delivered with this much pure ache and devastation. Fantastic work. – Z

William Michael Morgan, “Whiskey Kinda Night

William Michael Morgan is what country music sounds like. Since being dropped from his label Warner, he’s released some really good songs, but none as good as this traditional number about getting over a lost love. – G

The Panhandlers, “No Handle”

I’ll eventually talk about this song without referring to the fact that I was initially lukewarm on it, but to reiterate: I was dead wrong about the Panhandlers’ “No Handle.” It’s a song that’s not offering much in the way of stellar vocal performances or tight instrumental prowess, but with every listen I love its ragged touches more and more: like how every member is singing with a tongue-in-cheek affection for a desolate land, the way they’re going to lean into that with the jabs and jokes in the lyrics, and how it turns into a loose jam session by its end. I don’t know, maybe it’s just because we need some levity right now, but this song is a bright listen for right now. – Z

Kaitlin Butts, “White River”

Vocally, it’s hard to point to many songs that sound better than Kaitlin Butts’ “White River.” The storytelling on this song is also outstanding, detailing a woman in her 20s murdering her abusive father. She describes a man that always acted tough, but when he had the barrel of a gun pointed at him he begs for forgiveness and his life to no avail. – G

Ashley McBryde, “Stone”

I must admit I interpreted this song much differently when I reviewed in the context of the album, but the ultimate conclusion still amounts to this: Ashley McBryde sings about the toughest subjects with poetic ease. And as she honors her late brother, she turns what other artists might view as lost time or regrets into positive elements. She’s only now just realizing how much the two had in common, and though that may mean there’s no way for her to tell him that, she can at least use that to honor his memory. It will (or has) quickly become cliché to say certain songs offer hope in these bleak times, but if there’s one moment where I truly mean it, it’s this one. – Z

Whitney Rose, “Believe Me, Angela”

One of the most underrated artists in all of country music has to be Whitney Rose. “Believe Me, Angela” was released prior to her new album and is a great example of the power of storytelling in the country genre. A woman loses her man to another woman but, instead of holding a grudge, she warns her of the kind of man that he is so she too doesn’t suffer the same fate as her. – G

Ashley McBryde, “Never Will”

Yes, it’s basically just “Girl Going Nowhere” part two, but that’s not a bad thing. Plus, given how that song was her humble acknowledgment of “making it” in spite of navigating through a tough industry, “Never Will” is her moment to say she did climb over those obstacles – lack of radio airplay be damned (for whatever reason). And given how much lived-in poise and pure firepower she offers as a performer, that anthemic chorus is an absolute highlight of the track. – Z

Hot Country Knights, “Pick Her Up (w/ Travis Tritt)”

Dierks Bentley’s new Hot Country Knights side project brings back that classic ’90s country sound. In this lead single from the group they partner with ’90s country star Travis Tritt for a hilarious song about how to pick up a girl. – G

Little Big Town, “Trouble With Forever”

Like their 2017 album The Breaker, Little Big Town end their latest album with a depressing breakup song, in which the band details how even the happy moments had their fair share of tension to them. And while I interpret the ended relationships as separate stories here, it all ends the same with that bleak message in the title. It may have been released early in the year, but it still cuts deeply now. – Z

Randall King, “Hey Cowgirl”

Rising Texas country star Randall King has been gaining in popularity with his traditional country sound. King’s 2018 debut album was a great collection of songs, and all of the tracks from his upcoming sophomore album have been just as good. “Hey Cowgirl” takes the country trope of a cowboy that can’t be tied down and applies it to a woman. – G

Logan Ledger, “Starlight”

Whereas other critics and listeners have found the elongated solo (in which the main guitar riff is simply repeated) unnecessary, to me it’s what has made this track such a blast to listen through since March of last year. Truthfully, that may be the only reason, even as I struggle to find anything else to say other than how awesome that jam session in the middle is. Maybe I’ll come up with a better reason in December. – Z

Curtis Grimes, “River Road Dream”

The musical production of this song is what really makes it shine. “River Road Dream” tells the story of a couple that dream of one day owning a small piece of land and a home they can call their own. They don’t have much and are struggling to get by, but this dream keeps them going. – G

Futurebirds, “Waiting On A Call”

One fault of mine, as a critic, is that there are times when I don’t know when to separate a song’s quality from my personal experience with it. Truthfully, though, I don’t see it as a fault – if we can’t find our own beauty in art, what’s the point? As such, Futurebirds’ “Waiting On A Call” has taken on a whole new meaning over the past few weeks as I’ve grappled with the loss of a loved one. It’s great anyway, catching itself in one’s final moments on Earth as they relay the common final words we’d like people to hear – keep love in your heart and focus on the future. Sure, it can be a bit cliché, but there’s something to be said for how it catches itself in that exact moment where death is imminent, and when someone you love is about to go, the advice hits much harder and the desire to live by it is much stronger. – Z

Caylee Hammack, “Small Town Hypocrite”

The newly released single from Caylee Hammack details how the narrator’s life got to where it is now. The decisions that were made for love caused her to pass on a scholarship to college and settle down with the man she loved. Unfortunately, after seven years they never get married, and he eventually leaves her to move in with another woman. – G

(Editor’s note: I’m also a fan, and this will definitely make my list for “best singles” later on).

Futurebirds, “Killing Ground”

If anything, this track makes me wish Futurebirds utilized Daniel Womack’s rougher, more distinctive vocal tone more often, as they often get their best songs when he’s at the front of the microphone. “Killing Ground” is no exception, finding itself on the edges of burnout as the character here can’t repair the damage done between him and his lover, all because his depression constantly gets the best of him. It’s a lonely track, with the only note of optimism coming through from him at least happy to have the chance to know her. Great song, and I know the band has the potential to make an album full of moments like this, too. – Z

American Aquarium, “Long Haul”

American Aquarium is back with a new album, which includes this song about lead singer BJ Barham getting sober. He explains the struggle that it has been and how he is in this fight until the end. His wife helped him get through all of it by standing by his side no matter what. – G

Ruthie Collins, “Wish You Were Here

This song crept up on me, mostly because my early impressions of Ruthie Collins’ music weren’t entirely favorable. But “Wish You Were Here” is, without question, an excellent example of how she’s finally playing to her strengths. The acoustics are firm and rich, the pedal steel lingers to highlight the brokenness of the situation, and the piano is only further punctuating that situation. And as for what it is, it’s a moment that finds Collins coming to grips with knowing her lover is still thinking about an ex-lover, and for as much as he’s trying to move on, she can see letting him go is just for the better. It’s a heartbreaking realization that doesn’t cast any judgment either way, and though it’s obviously not the note she hoped to end on, there is something refreshing in how it ends for the better for both parties. – Z

Maddie and Tae, “Water In His Wine Glass”

We waited a long time for Maddie and Tae’s sophomore album. What we got over the last few years were singles and EPs, and by the time the album was finally released, we had already heard most of the songs. Overall, I don’t believe their sophomore album was quite as strong as their debut, but “Water in his Wine Glass” is a real standout. – G

Brandy Clark, “Pawn Shop”

One element of Brandy Clark’s writing I missed from her latest album was her ability to tell stories with broken characters. The personal focus was understandable and noted, but “Pawn Shop,” at least to me, is emblematic of what Clark does best. She won’t shy away from the bleaker aspects of this situation – two people are giving up on their dreams and there’s no happy ending for them – but through the items these characters donate to a pawn shop, their dead dreams eventually get reborn and live on through someone else, even if they’ll never know it. With the punchy, minor interplay between the acoustics and mandolin, it’s the kind of track I wish country radio still played, but as it is, it’s one of Clark’s best songs yet. – Z

Triston Marez, “Forgot About You”

My first exposure to Triston Marez’s music was his new song “Forgot About You.” With a great traditional sound, the Texas country singer describes the moment that he realized he had completely forgotten about a past love. It’s a great song about moving on, even if at the time of the heartbreak it doesn’t seem possible. – G

Jessi Alexander, “I Should Probably Go Now

This may be as insightful as saying water is wet, but songwriters are always the best interpreters of their own work (well, there may be a few exceptions). Jessi Alexander’s “I Should Probably Go Now” is no exception – finding her in that classic country situation of being in a lonely bar trying to find some solace from a loveless marriage, yet when the opportunity presents itself for her to cheat, she doesn’t. Her delivery and the subtext suggests she’d like to, but she’s also aware of how it would only make a bad situation worse. Like most songs here, it’s lonely, dark, bleak and not offering any easy answers for this character. – Z

Flatland Cavalry, “War With My Mind”

From The Next Waltz soundtrack, “War With My Mind” is yet another excellent track from Flatland Cavalry. The song is about being in complete despair, turning to alcohol and later pills to try and feel better. The song never explains what is causing this anguish, but he vows to continue fighting the battle, and in time, his feelings may change. – G

Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine”

I’ve already discussed why I like this song here and here, and since I’m including songs from albums I reviewed this year, well … this fits the criteria. I’m glad this finally went to No. 1 on the airplay charts. – Z

Kip Moore, “Southpaw”

“Southpaw” is just a straight up country-rock jam. The idea behind the song fits Kip Moore well, with the man regretting not being more of a wild and free cowboy. The song conjures up images expected from an old western movie with references to outlaw “Wild Bill” and being wanted by the law. – G

John Anderson, “Tuesday I’ll be Gone (w/ Blake Shelton)”

Another example of a song hitting just a bit harder than it otherwise might, what with several country (and country adjacent) performers passing away in the first quarter of the year. It has to be great outside of that context, though, and “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” really does have so much going for it: a warm, bright melody; a fantastic groove and great interplay with the fiddle, piano, harmonica and electric guitar; and a positive outlook on the future for Anderson and a friend in Blake Shelton along the way. Years isn’t a particularly heavy album (its main theme focuses more on optimism and confidence in what’s ahead, really), but this is a needed moment of levity for the album. – Z

Jenee Fleenor, “Good Ole Girls

Holy fiddle! This track by fiddle player Jenee Fleenor is a fun ’90s country production with loads of great fiddle play. The lyrics of the song are nothing groundbreaking but the production is so good it’s hard not to want to dance to it. – G

2 thoughts on “Favorite Songs Of 2020 So Far (Collaboration Post)

  1. Good stuff! A lot of these ones I haven’t heard yet but Long Haul and Tuesday (I’ll be Gone) are both really good.

    A few of my favourites so far:
    Ashley McBryde – First Thing I Reach For (probably my #1)
    Porter Union – Loved and Lost
    Jesse Daniel – St. Claire’s Retreat
    Brandy Clark – Who You Thought I Was

    Liked by 1 person

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