This … is usually a much happier affair.
I suppose it still could be, even amid a global pandemic and riots for social justice filling the streets of the United States; music is the one entity that’s supposed to connect us, after all. OK, so even resorting to a cliché didn’t make that sound any better – it’s the one entity preserving some semblance of sanity, then.
To pause, though, for just a moment, country music – as well as its many musical offshoots and close cousins – has had a surprisingly strong year so far: certain veterans have made strong comebacks, certain artists have added to consistently strong discographies, and certain artists have made music that’s timely, too. Plus, one of my favorite personal parts of the critical review process is discovering new music from new names, even if they’re just new to me.
So, in the spirit of keeping with tradition, here are my 12 favorite albums of the year at the midway point for 2020, with a note on some favorite songs from albums that didn’t make this list, too. As always, I’m only including albums I’ve reviewed thus far, so if you don’t see your favorite album or song featured here, all I can say is to check the archives. Also, I’ve included links to reviews from albums featured here, so if you’re looking for a deeper analysis, you’ll find it through there. Additionally, keep in mind that initial ratings given to albums in those reviews are not necessarily indicative of what I think of them today. Thoughts and opinions can change with time, and this list slightly reflects that.
Anyway, let’s get started.
12. If it was any other year, I’d have probably rounded out this list with the Hot Country Knights or the Randy Rogers/Wade Bowen Hold My Beer collaboration, but I just don’t feel much like laughing right now, folks.
Favorite tracks: “Eddie’s Attic,” “The Tobogganist,” “One Night In Hungary”
So I’ll listen, instead. And to be honest, I’m surprised how much this grew on me over the course of the year – an instrumental project from a progressive bluegrass outfit, where the greatest assets to its creativity are its instrumental balance, fantastic melodic progressions and excellent transitions. And even if there’s no lyrical content to discuss here, it’s amazing how this band is able to evoke images and feelings based off simple song titles. In other words, it’s the sort of expansive-sounding music that, while not for everyone, has provided endless entertainment for me with each listen. It’s designed for musical nerds, but should be getting so much more attention.
11. We waited 13 years to hear again from this artist, and judging by her latest album, it was well worth the wait.
Favorite tracks: “Dolly 1969,” “Last Summer’s Wine,” “Burning Star”
Looking For A Feeling, however, isn’t the return of ‘90s-era Pam Tillis. Her influences for this project are among the lines of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, and the production has the natural warmth and soul needed to evoke them, too. Which, safe to say, shows an entirely new side to Tillis that’s welcome, especially when this album mostly centers around her own musical journey. It’s an album where a love for the music-making process truly shines and a veteran artist gets to expand her creative horizons, all while sticking the landing in top form.
10. It dropped early in the year and features the worst song on it as a country radio single now, but I’ll gladly vouch for this album any day of the week.
Favorite tracks: “Trouble With Forever,” “Questions,” “Nightfall”
Not only is Nightfall an improved build off the atmospheric, lusher tendencies of 2017’s The Breaker, it’s the best Little Big Town have sounded in years. Granted, the team behind this album also helped craft Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, so while I’m not surprised the production is a highlight, what makes this specific album great is how the expansive mix allows the harmonies to soar. And that’s before mentioning the much sharper lyrical focus bolstering the incredibly strong backhalf of the album. For as much as fans and critics have made the Fleetwood Mac comparisons over the years, this is the first album where it feels like Little Big Town have actually earned them.
9. It feels like every fan and critic is rooting for this guy, and just one listen through either of his two albums will help you understand why.
Favorite tracks: “30 Seconds at a Time,” “Imogene,” “Honky Tonk Hell”
Honky Tonk Hell, however, is a different sort of beast for Gabe Lee, improving on nearly every element of his debut album – and in less than a year, at that. It’s a high-octane listen with a hefty sonic palette, showing how Lee, in a way, is learning how to move on from being the broken mess he was on farmland and just revel in that honky tonk hell. His jubilant charisma and earnest passion is easy to like, and it feels like an overall natural transition for him to flesh out his sound and bring a set of genuinely great songs to bear. In other words, this is far from a sophomore slump; Lee’s just getting the party started.
8. Not that we need much convincing after this year so far, but sometimes you have no choice but to embrace those dark, lonely nights with nothing but time on your hands.
Favorite tracks: “Mountain Time In Memphis,” “Someone Lonely,” “One More Night”
Of course, Tessy Lou Williams’ self-titled debut evokes the sort of heartache that manages to be crushing while still sounding heavenly. Part of that is because of Williams herself, who’s honest about her pain felt from these songs but able to sketch the fuller picture of why these relationships ended the way they did, lending a refreshingly emphatic viewpoint to it all. Even if I wasn’t sold on the writing, though, the organic production would likely be enough, letting every sound and swell simmer in the mix. I’ll take a good, crying fiddle wrapped in a classic country aesthetic any day of the week, especially when it sounds somewhere between Pam Tillis and Alison Krauss. Williams, however, ultimately proves on her own why she’s one to watch in 2020.
7. Again, I haven’t found solace in a lot of “fun” music this year. I’m all for a needed shot of catharsis, though.
Favorite tracks: “The Turnpike,” “I Feel Like My Old Self,” “We Made It”
Yet on the surface, Nora Jane Struthers draws that relief out of the mundane details. Whereas it’s common to hear of artists sing about life on the road, Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words is about the return home – not just to a physical location, mind you, but a return to normalcy. And in that self-reflective journey, Struthers is able to breathe and take a moment to find a part of herself she thought she lost along the way. Touring musician or not, it’s a relatable sentiment, and the production is tempered to reflect that weariness, yet snarls at the just right moments to reflect that rekindled joy. It’s not often I feel an album on a purely primal level, but even if I can’t directly relate to Struthers’ own journey, I can relate to the sentiment and heart behind it – and, oh, how I’ve needed that this year.
And now that we’re at the midway point of the midyear list, I’d like to spotlight great songs from albums that missed the cut for this list, in no particular order.
- Brandy Clark – “Pawn Shop” (from Your Life Is A Record)
- Trè Burt – “Real You” (from Caught It From The Rye)
- The Panhandlers – “No Handle” (from The Panhandlers)
- John Baumann – “Flight Anxiety” (from Country Shade)
- Ingrid Andress – “More Hearts Than Mine” (from Lady Like)
- Logan Ledger – “Starlight” (from Logan Ledger)
- Ruthie Collins – “Wish You Were Here” (from Cold Comfort)
- Futurebirds – “Killing Ground” (from Teamwork)
- Katie Pruitt – “Expectations” (from Expectations)
- Kody West – “October” (from Overgrown)
- Reckless Kelly – “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed” (from American Jackpot/American Girls)
- Jessi Alexander – “I Should Probably Go Now” (from Decatur County Red)
- Porter Union – “Laundry” (from Loved & Lost)
- Tami Neilson – “You Were Mine” (from Chickaboom!)
- Aubrie Sellers – “One Town’s Trash” (from Far From Home)
Back to our regularly scheduled programming:
6. I’d call this a low-tier release for this next artist, and the fact that it’s still this high on this list is a testament to his consistency.
Favorite tracks: “Harder Dreams,” “Terrestrial,” “I Always Let You Burn Me To The Ground”
Of course, this may also be the only selection for this list that feels awkward to place – a shift in sound for John Moreland that he’s basically described as a way to stave off musical boredom. Even with that in mind, however, the nucleus for what makes Moreland a compelling performer is still intact: poetic lyricism that features the sort of dense wordplay that’s just begging to be decoded, a rich tone to the delivery and execution, and an unsettled core where Moreland is forced to let go of impossible expectations he set for himself as he grapples with mortality (and it’s not even the only album released in 2020 to do just that). Ironically, though, it’s likely Moreland’s most accessible album to date, so while there may be better points in his discography, this is still a performer at the top of his game.
5. This is an album centered around mortality and endings … and while those are timely topics, this album only dropped in early January.
Favorite tracks: “Pirate Jenny,” “Death Of The Last Stripper,” “Houdini Didn’t Like The Spiritualists”
It’s also the one selection here that I’m disappointed hasn’t received more coverage elsewhere, because this is a late career high from a musical veteran. I also understand it, though; Terry Allen isn’t looking to make easy music. But there’s enough to draw in listeners on the warm, haggard production and delivery alone. And though the stories are off-kilter – as they always are on an Allen album – they speak for themselves more than mere words about them ever could. The best part is it’s all delivered with his usual wry, lighthearted humor and witty perspective, and that’s something we could all use right now.
4. She released her debut single in 2017 and is just now scoring her biggest hit yet … with a song almost in the top 20. *Sigh*
Favorite tracks: “Never Will,” “Stone,” “Voodoo Doll”
If anything, though, Ashley McBryde’s strong grassroots fan base and industry support means she possesses a greater freedom with her work than most artists at this stage in the game. And with Jay Joyce behind the production wheel … well, anything can happen. And Never Will sees McBryde pushing her sonic palette to daring highs, balancing old-school country with rockers that go harder than just about anything else right now. Couple that, too, with a front woman who’s a force behind the microphone and delivers her material with a fiercely independent attitude, and Never Will, if anything, has to stand as one of the boldest projects of the year thus far.
3. On an otherwise celebratory list, this is the most sobering selection.
Favorite tracks: “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone (w/ Blake Shelton),” “You’re Nearly Nothing,” “Years”
And I’ll admit my reasons for really loving this project go beyond just the music at hand. This is a musical veteran pouring every bit of himself into this material like it’s his last record, and though that is the way John Anderson intended it, it also makes for his most inspired set of songs in years. I wasn’t sure Dan Auerbach would be the right fit for Anderson’s more ramshackle personality, but there’s a lushness to Years that adds an air of levity even in the air of sobering darkness ahead. And while Anderson tries to face it with as much optimism as anyone in his position would have, there is a sense of weariness to this album. Speaking as a longtime fan, while I’ve heard slightly better projects this year so far, this is the one that truly *got* to me.
2. Y’all understand “Be Afraid” now, right?
Favorite tracks: “Only Children,” “Overseas,” “Dreamsicle”
I predict that in about 10 years or so, this will be an underrated selection in Jason Isbell’s discography. Releasing the weaker singles first didn’t help, but it goes beyond that, too: the stakes seem smaller, the writing seems more opaque, the arrangements are more burnished and unsettled, and even Isbell himself seems frail and uneasy here … which he knows. It’s not just an album centered around an artist living up to lofty expectations – it’s about a father, husband and friend frozen in time as he better understands his place in the world and finds that his story is no longer the one in the spotlight. It’s about watching friends die, relationships unfurl and a world that his daughter is supposed to inherit crumble to the ground around him, all while Isbell is trying desperately to keep it all together as his own demons resurface. There’s a more righteous fury to The Nashville Sound; there’s a greater sense of optimism to Something More Than Free; there’s even a greater sense of wisdom to Southeastern. But Reunions is the album where Isbell is forced to juggle all of those elements, and not even for himself this time around.
1. If I’m being frank, this band only just won me over with their last album before this … which makes sense, given how it was a complete reworking of the band around the front man. But time and experience? That will make all of that seething potential erupt into a white-hot core, and though one could argue otherwise – it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Favorite tracks: “Six Years Come September,” “How Wicked I Was,” “Brightleaf + Burley”
To step away from the musical conversation for a second, most of the turmoil surrounding current events boils down to a regard of empathy for fellow human beings – not strict left or right politics. On Lamentations, front man BJ Barham not only understands that, but seeks to challenge those different perspectives. And like any great songwriter, he’s going to offer a voice to the oppressed, all while uncomfortably acknowledging he’s one of the lucky ones: he didn’t have that late night drunk driving escapade; and he isn’t the father who threw it all away hoping his daughter will someday be able to see some shred of good in him; he rose above his demons. His stories, however, often show those who didn’t, either by choice or by situation – sometimes both, which makes the celebratory tracks of enduring that long haul seem more cathartic in comparison. And when Shooter Jennings’ weathered production cracks depict the ragged edges of that journey, it makes for the band’s most tempered project, but also their best yet. But like the final track suggests, it’s all a battle of survival, and it could snap out of place at any moment; so appreciate the good moments while you’re able to. And as of the writing of this list, American Aquarium survived that haul long enough to make my favorite album of the year at the midway point. Let’s see if we can find more beacons of hope in the next six months to match it.
What were your favorites, though? Let me know in the comments below.