I’m likely stealing this from too many people, but I’ve always considered lists like these as soundtracks that shape a year.
Now, that comes a major caveat that, as a one-person operation, my soundtrack is strictly of a personal variety, because trying to objectively soundtrack 2020 is … messy, in a word. Of all the years I’ve done this, this was the hardest one to even assemble a top 50 favorites list, mostly because I found myself connecting more with full albums than I did individual songs. All things considered, though, it was a strong year, and I just may have connected with more music this year even in spite of that.
The key phrase there, though, is “all things considered,” because while I don’t think I have any pandemic-related songs here or kept up with the numerous surprise releases, EPs, deluxe albums or … meow-mixes, I still found a lot to love this year. As always, these are simply my personal favorite songs of the year and aren’t meant to meet any objective standards of quality. I’m not even sure what that would look like. I’m also entering uncharted territory with this list this year, as I’ve not only submitted a list of my favorite singles to This Is Country Music, I’ve also a submitted different one to Country Universe – one of which focuses on the hits, while the other focuses on a more wide-open scope. I do find it ironic that I review albums in arguably the most single-drive format in history, but this isn’t a list of the best singles. This is mostly open to those deep-cuts that got under my skin in the best – and often most uncomfortable – ways.
First, a couple of traditional house rules: these songs had to come from a project I covered this year – either here or for Country Universe – individual singles don’t count, and if you’re looking for the “radio hits,” again, my upcoming collaboration with TICM may be more your speed. Songs released last year, however, may be eligible if they were featured on an album released this year that I reviewed. Second, as always, I’ve capped the entries to three per album and artist, just in the interest of fairness and variety. And if there was a year that greatly tested that limit, it was this one.
And … that’s that. Let’s get this started:
No. 50 – Alecia Nugent, “I Might Have One Too” (from The Old Side of Town)
From the moment I heard this, I could tell it was an Erin Enderlin co-write. The devastating twist only comes after the scene and circumstances are established, and I think that’s what I love most about it. An admission of guilt over an affair from a husband to his significant other catches her by surprise, and the drama seems to linger on that surprise and ensuing reaction. There’s no anger or sadness quite yet in the shock and awe of the moment, but it continuously progresses to that point and unfurls a painful new detail with every line, enough to where the wife starts contemplating her own role in what led to the infidelity – which shouldn’t happen, but often does in these situations. And then the subtext suggests she may even have her own skeletons in the closet, meaning that the larger question focuses on whether there’s any love left between the two. And with Alecia Nugent’s hand to guide the tempered pain, it’s a particularly brutal listen, and the best way to start this list.
No. 49 – Jessi Alexander, “I Should Probably Go Now” (from Decatur County Red)
And hey, speaking of great songwriters who know how to guide a song, we have the best song off Jessi Alexander’s Decatur County Red exploring a bar-hookup utterly drenched in temptation. It’s more about what isn’t said here, like what drove this woman to abandon her senses and end up in a lonely bar to begin with, or whether the minor, atmospheric, hazy blend of acoustics and pedal steel is meant to suggest that she’s going to act against her better judgment anyway – a moment where the “should” in that title is the key word. A fine country song where the sin is a mystery and the moral ambiguity is more than just a little hazy.
No. 48 – Ward Davis, “Book of Matches” (from Black Cats and Crows)
OK, look, in terms of bearded country dudes slugging it out with their demons through alcohol-fueled binges, we’re not exactly facing a shortage of contenders for material. Ward Davis’ “Book of Matches” acts somewhat differently, though, a moment on his excellent divorce record Black Cats and Crows that’s meant to act as a cathartic way of starting over for him in regards to its placement within the sequencing. And even with that said, there’s no swaggering bravado that suggests he’s going to go further than he has to; it’s more of an acknowledgment of the good those memories brought him, but also a way of saying goodbye and starting the healing process. And when that huge chorus kicks in – a little later than expected, too, for greater effect – it’s hard not to view it as an anchor point for the project it stems from. It’s excellent on its own, though, and shows why that album is one of the best of the year.
No. 47 – Chris Stapleton, “Nashville, TN” (from Starting Over)
I think there’s more to say about what this song represents for Chris Stapleton’s next steps than anything else. I mean, we’ve heard the bittersweet love letter to an industry town that doesn’t care from artists who choose to tough it out in Nashville regardless, but this? This is coming from the artist who made it and just finally hit his breaking point. Yet between the gentle brushes of acoustics, piano and pedal steel, it’s more of a weary resignation that ends in a draw, where the artist escapes before they lose another part of themselves trying to feed a machine, rather than their very soul. And when examining the sort of clout Stapleton carries, that’s saying something. This isn’t the starving artist trying to make a name for themselves, this is the artist who found stardom uncomfortable and never wanted to do anything other than make music on his own terms. Again, as for what that says about Stapleton’s next move, I can’t wait to find out.
No. 46 – Taylor Swift, “the last great american dynasty” (from folklore)
I think the most notable element of Taylor Swift’s writing perspective on folklore is how it’s rarely her own story. She’s always had an eye for detail, and by crafting fictional stories this time around, she’s able to draw on that talent even further. At least, until you read between the lines and realize “the last great american dynasty” is just as much her acknowledging her reputation as it is telling Rebekah Harkness’ story – two women vilified by the public eye for just about everything they do, even when said public never has the full picture in front of them. Maybe not worth a dissertation, per se, but it’s easily Swift’s most cheekily fun song in years, and with the subtle groove driving it, there’s no reason not to enjoy it.
No. 45 – Tessy Lou Williams, “One More Night” (from Tessy Lou Williams)
What marked the best tracks off Tessy Lou Williams’ excellent self-titled debut album was a burning desire to overcome the heartache that shaded the majority of the album … yet always finding the solution just out of her grasp, mostly because of her own actions. And with “One More Night,” it’s a simple resignation that one more night of pure indulgence in that pain will help her find the answer. Only she knows better than that, and the endless cycle is only bringing her the sort of comfort that’s painful in the long-term, but at least good for a little while. Couple that with a fantastically rich production texture and instrumental palette with an equally fantastic melodic structure, and heartache rarely sounded better this year. Well, except for a few other tracks off of Williams’ debut, but more on that later.
No. 44 – Kody West, “October” (from Overgrown)
It seems like every year I have a soft spot for Texas-country dudes who indulge in ‘90s alt-rock – there’s a surprising amount of that, for some reason – and this year … yeah, this goes beyond the gimmick for something much darker – a song speaking to a person’s seasonal depression and how those final words from an ex-significant other just keep repeating over and over in his head. It’s a song that sounds as cold as the season it describes in the atmospheric production and thicker guitar strums, and one where Kody West’s howl to compete over it is actually a benefit, if only to highlight the level of insanity he faces as he constantly remembers his mistakes. It’s a dark song that earns that huge atmospheric swell in the hook, and is on par with “Green” as West’s best song yet.
No. 43 – Hot Country Knights, “Then It Rained” (The ‘K’ Is Silent)
… yep. This made it, and it’s probably one of the best parodies of an otherwise excellent time period in ‘90s country. And given how Garth Brooks’ anti-streaming agenda continues to roll on, this parody of “The Thunder Rolls” is all the more welcome and offers more than one may think upon first listen. It’s a stupidly Seinfeldian tale about nothing, but also constantly plays on audience expectations that something – anything – is bound to happen soon in this delightfully boring song. But it doesn’t, and even when you expect them to utter the title line one last time at the end, they don’t even do that. It’s a self-aware jab at stories that engage in bombast or overwrought sentimentalities and end up crumbling down on top of themselves, and while I truthfully wouldn’t say that’s the case with the song parodied here, it happened a lot within that decade. Of course, it’s all in good fun, too, in the best possible way.
No. 42 – Brett Eldredge, “Then You Do” (from Sunday Drive)
If I’m allowed to have at least one delightfully cheery entry here – beyond the last one, of course – it’d be this effectively simple track off Brett Eldredge’s excellent Sunday Drive album. And truthfully, upon my first few listens, I’m not sure it offered much beyond a delightfully catchy hook and generally warm presentation – a song about finding love that tries to shoehorn the audience in with the framing, which is, admittedly, a pet peeve of mine. But then that bridge swoops in and adds a touch of realism to the sentiment by acknowledging how finding love doesn’t necessarily always lead to a happy ending, and that you could have to end up repeating the cycle all over again. It’s a lighthearted way of expressing how there are lessons learned in even the situations that don’t work out, and considering how that shimmering optimism was an asset to Eldredge’s latest work, it was a nice listen to revisit this year.
No. 41 – Lydia Loveless, “Love Is Not Enough” (from Daughter)
If 2016’s Real was the direct untangling of Lydia Loveless’ divorce, Daughter is the tempered reexamination that seeks to question what actually happened and why. And on a track like “Love Is Not Enough,” there’s something effectively simple in both the bass groove and muted, recurring guitar riff and Loveless stating how their love simply wasn’t enough anymore. But it also speaks to how society in general gives and receives love, and that there’s no clear guideline for how to make it work when “being kind is just a phrase that you wear on a t-shirt,” where the actual work to get there matters. And then that blunt, brutal realism sweeps in. Emotionally complex in a way few writers could tackle, it’s still more even-keeled than certain other tracks from Daughter, but hey, we’ll get to those.
No. 40 – Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” (from Lady Like)
At this point, I’ve written about this song a fair amount of times and am not sure what else I can add. I wish Ingrid Andress’ debut album had lived up to the hype this brought, but I think it’s fitting that a single this heartwarming actually became a hit in the earliest days of 2020 … because meeting new family members probably isn’t something you should have done this year afterwards. And what stood out a year ago continues to do so, from the unique perspective in the framing and progression of questioning the implications of a breakup beyond how it affects the ex-significant other, to the huge, beautiful production and Andress’ equally huge voice to carry it through. As of right now, between the general mishandling of “The Stranger” and the title track going nowhere, I’m fearful for how country radio is going to receive her in the future, but this is the sort of career single that should help her sustain that momentum anyway, because it’s excellent.
No. 39 – Pam Tillis, “Dolly 1969” (from Looking for a Feeling)
Any track that idolized Dolly Parton certainly aged well this year, even if the focus centered around the past. Granted, Pam Tillis’ Looking For A Feeling mostly centers on reconnecting with familiar musical and personal roots to find a sense of rejuvenation, and here, that comes in coming across an old black-and-white photo of Dolly Parton and remembering why she’s a musical hero. It’s a relatable sentiment for anyone who idolized an important figure in their youth – and the female connection within country music is an important part of the framing here – yet also a purely fun remembrance and fantasy-driven look at the past from a now adult perspective. And when the song trades in that low, simmering guitar for an uptick in tempo on the chorus, it’s a journey simply made to be enjoyable, too, and free for anyone to indulge in with Tillis. Plus, she says she wants to “slap that little bitch, Jolene.” What further convincing do you need to listen to this?
No. 38 – Taylor Swift, “exile” (feat. Bon Iver)
And here’s the other highlight from Taylor Swift’s folklore, which probably captures Justin Vernon of Bon Iver better than he’s sounded in years as he plays opposite to Swift’s character. And just like with “the last great american dynasty,” the general strength comes in Swift’s eye for detail, especially when the cinematic framing in the lyrical structure and general shift from a muted, somber piano to swells of brighter, heightened keys, clicks of percussion, strings and buzzy bass makes this chance encounter between two ex-significant others far more interesting than it has any right to be. They know better than to cycle through those old memories on the spot, and they know better than to acknowledge the other’s presence after an implied bitter ending … but they’ll taunt each other anyway, in turn taunting themselves over what they’re hoping to get out of this and what they’ll actually end up with. It’s a masterclass in tension where Swift and Vernon have surprisingly excellent chemistry, and until recently, it was my favorite Swift song of the year.
No. 37 – Jaime Wyatt, “Neon Cross” (from Neon Cross)
OK, look, on a pure compositional level, it’s hard not to hear this as “Stone Hotel – Part Two” … which isn’t much of a complaint from me, considering that I love everything carried over from that track and that I honestly like this even more: the galloping, rickety groove echoed by the liquid pedal steel that builds to a stomping chorus, and some of the best hooks of the year, in which “you don’t love me, why don’t you nail me to a neon cross” became one of my personal favorites. And there’s bite to that sentiment, in which Jaime Wyatt delivers a tongue-in-cheek, swaggering acceptance that her years of hard living out on the road are wearing her down, and that any judgment thrown her away isn’t going to stand when she’s putting in the work to crawl out of that rut. It’s cheekily bouncy and even dares the audience to judge her, but all it did was make me love this even more.
No. 36 – Gabe Lee, “30 Seconds at a Time” (from Honky Tonk Hell)
I’ll be honest, for as much as an improvement as Honky Tonk Hell was for Gabe Lee across the board, I didn’t initially find a song that hit me quite as hard as, say, “Eveline” and “Last Country Song” from last year. The devil is in the detail, though, and across the weary smolder echoed in “30 Seconds at a Time” is a vivid, highly detailed sketch of misunderstood characters we see everyday and just ignore. And Lee is the sort of observational poet who frames their idiosyncrasies as ways they approach life – including Jesus blessing a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese – and in a much more adventurous manner than “normal” people who take life’s simplest pleasures for granted and fail to appreciate a moment in time every now and then. Thought-provoking in a way that I think reverberated even louder as 2020 wore on, and easily another high point in Lee’s discography.
No. 35 – Ward Davis, “Threads”
If “Book of Matches” was the moment of relief Ward Davis needed to finally move on with his life, “Threads” is the moment before that finds him at his lowest point. Not quite hopeless, but tortured enough to find himself in an endless cycle he has to eventually break, and observational enough to realize that, while he hasn’t yet changed, everything around him has, and that’s going to prompt some needed action soon. The sentiment is simple for what it is, but there’s so much emotive punch packed not only in Davis’ soulful delivery, but also one of the most beautifully produced piano accompaniments I heard all year, echoed against a crying fiddle for good measure. I’m not sure there’s much more that needs to be said than that, because sometimes a work just speaks for itself.
No. 34 – Juliet McConkey, “The Deep End” (from Disappearing Girl)
It’s a testament to Juliet McConkey’s writing abilities that this isn’t even the darkest moment on her excellent Disappearing Girl album … but it’s damn close, and it just may be the best anyway – a chance encounter with an old friend and failed musician who burned out too quickly from alcoholism. And yet while both characters can’t do much other than acknowledge the damage is done, McConkey questions her own culpability in failing to save this person from a fate she knows she saw coming. And that’s the thing about the subtext and the recurring line of “have your troubles drowned, or do they still float around like you do in this town,” because she’s likely as stuck in the deep end as her friend. Yet there’s still guilt felt from pulling someone back who could have made it, even though, ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own decisions. There’s not much to the track other than a smoldered guitar lead and hints of piano lingering for a hint of delicacy, yet it and McConkey subtly pick up the needed intensity to echo that frustration, especially when it’s revealed that the chance encounter occurs in a graveyard and that she’s, ultimately, talking to herself. Really heavy stuff, and thought-provoking in the bleakest way possible.
No. 33 – Lydia Loveless, “Never”
Of all the Lydia Loveless tracks I’m going to discuss for this list, this is probably the most direct – a moment where she tears into herself for her actions taken in a failed relationship harder than anyone who would ever dare judge her could anyway, and there’s something oddly good in that. I mean, for as bleak as the acknowledgment is that she’s alone and that things are really over, it’s also a learning process. And Loveless knows, ultimately, that she has to learn from her mistakes, rather than stew in them. But it’s easier said than done, and that’s why the murky atmospherics play against the surprisingly heavy, smoldered bass groove and piano fragments for something light yet bittersweet. And even when there’s a hook at the end, it’s only used to highlight the thoughts that constantly run through her head as she tries to make sense of the situation. Still not quite the heaviest moment off Daughter, but it’s close.
No. 32 – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, “Dreamsicle” (from Reunions)
Here’s a songwriting perspective I never expected Jason Isbell to adopt, talented as he is: a child caught in the throes of a divorce who grows less understanding and more jaded as time rolls on. Yet the ultimate point is that of an adult one, namely in understanding how certain actions that affect our childhood also affect our personal growth, and here, often for worse, especially when the things we didn’t understand then are things we still don’t later on, if only in theory. And Isbell himself acts more as the observer, never quite focusing on the divorce itself, so much as the aftermath of neglect that comes afterwards in shaping a person too restless to ever have that chance to find himself, until he strikes out on his own. And though it’s just subtext, it’s not hard to see that won’t end well. Different, for sure, but also painted with the sort of empathetic writing that’s made Isbell’s writing some of the best for the past few decades. Or put it this way, while some viewed Reunions as a weaker project, I could have easily swapped this out for “It Gets Easier” – that’s how consistent he’s been.
No. 31 – Austin Lucas, “Drive” (from Alive in the Hot Zone)
I’ll admit, while it was disappointing to see Austin Lucas shift away from his country-adjacent roots on his latest project, for a track that taps back into his punk roots, this is excellent. Fantasy-driven to a fault, for sure, but also in the best possible way – where the stark, echoed guitar fragment and driving percussion contributes the soundtrack to a character who just needs to get the hell out of town, likely for his own sanity and to just let his mind race, which is a surprisingly relatable detail, really. It’s never quite clear why, but there’s enough stomping firepower in the hard-charged presentation and Lucas’ growl to love it regardless. Not quite “fun,” but a biting slice of escapism that’s among the best of its kind.
No. 30 – The Chicks, “Young Man” (from Gaslighter)
For as complex as Gaslighter gets at points, to put it one way, “Young Man” is the moment of reflection and, in a sense, respite in the back half that carries more weight in the greater context of the album – a conversation between Natalie Maines and her son in the wake of her divorce, where she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that she knows how much that father figure meant to him. That melody plays out nearly like a lullaby, yet it’s a track that’s far heavier than that while still never asking for forgiveness or empathy for Maines herself. Rather, it’s a word for the future, in which he, too, will grow and form his own life – free to make his own mistakes, which he will, but also learn from past ones. I mean, coming off the “Dreamsicle” discussion, it’s a hard, even-keeled message that’s hard for any parent to deliver to a child, yet this one does it properly.
No. 29 – Tessy Lou Williams, “Mountain Time in Memphis”
To repeat an earlier point, the focus with Tessy Lou Williams’ tales of heartache on her debut rarely ever focused on the heartache itself, but rather the coping mechanisms used to get over it. And here, we have a track that focuses on how moving away to Memphis helped her find that escape, but not really the needed comfort and clarity, especially when she’s the one who said goodbye anyway. And while she thought leaving would help her grow and experience new horizons, there’s a nagging feeling that comes in feeling like you’ve lost a part of yourself to get there, echoed in the rootsy mandolin and dobro melodic interplay that works excellently for this track. Granted, the framing doesn’t cast either side in the wrong here, and there is optimism in knowing she can always return and realize that dream life she wanted was never that far away after all.
No. 28 – Gabe Lee, “Honky Tonk Hell”
Yeah, I’m surprised this ended up being the Gabe Lee song to stick with me most this year, if only because it’s unlike anything he’s ever done before. From the full bluster of the meatier guitar lick and ensuing snarled accompaniment of the organ and dobro, this is Lee displaying his full swagger and having an absolute blast with it. He’s got charisma to burn for days, and that self-aware, cheeky detail is a huge asset in framing an intentionally over-the-top trip to the titular location that country songs are made of. He makes it look easy, and in a year of misery, constantly replaying this track just to hear him sing about why he’s hitting certain patrons with a mile-long stare rolled right on through to rule the year. It’s easily the most fun I had with a song this year.
No. 27 – Lydia Loveless, “September” (feat. Laura Jane Grace)
We’re already approaching the part of the list where it feels like I could write an essay on the emotional core of these tracks, if I had to. And I’m not sure where to start here, a song speaking to the loss of innocence that comes with growing as a teenager and realizing you’re growing up and further apart from a person you thought you loved. Again, it all cycles back to the concept of Daughter acting as a learning process, but this is the one song to trace its steps back to near the beginning, at a time when not a lot makes sense and you’re very much on your own to learn who you are … which is important, but also means you’re bound to make mistakes that could have dire consequences later on, no matter the choice made. And I can’t capture how well the pure angst and frustration that comes with that natural navigation shines through here. Far too relatable for just about anyone, and even just rolling off a muted piano and Laura Jane Grace’s welcome backing vocals, it’s one of Loveless’ all-time bests.
No. 26 – Taylor Swift (feat. Bon Iver), “evermore” (from evermore)
Up until a week ago, “exile” was my favorite Taylor Swift duet with Justin Vernon … and I must admit, while he absolutely strengthens the narrative there, his oily, unexpected verse here is probably the only thing keeping this out of my top 10, because if there was one track that spoke specifically to the general angst, depression and frustrations we’ve all felt this year, it’s this one. It’s Swift stepping into a stark singer/songwriter soundscape, where that muted piano emphasizes the devastation in her delivery that comes with feeling genuinely hopeless in the moment while still holding out hope that tomorrow has to be better. Again, applicable for these specific circumstances, but also a note on how the general ebb and flow of crumbling mental health that doesn’t make Swift any different from you and I in the who or how it affects, and when factoring in the damage already done due to circumstances beyond our control, this was the evermore finale that just may have cemented the most appropriate song for this year, and one of Swift’s all-time best.
No. 25 – Ruston Kelly, “Rubber” (from Shape & Destroy)
In my rush to cover a bunch of albums for my 2018 year-end list, I ended up not putting any tracks from Dying Star on my “best songs” list. In hindsight, that’s more of a gross oversight than an intentional choice. So to start by making up for it, I have to admit, I’m surprised “Rubber” held up better for me than, say, “Changes,” “Radio Cloud” or “Alive.” It’s one of Kelly’s darkest yet, damn-near hypnotic in the low drawl of his delivery and the faint, murky, echoed atmospherics that permeate – no, drown – the track. And it’s all for Kelly to take stock of himself and realize how easily he can broken, only further amplified in the context of the Shape & Destroy album and its callbacks to Dying Star. There’s something scarily relatable about that admission, too, especially when no matter how hard you try to overcome depression and past addictions, there’s a genuine fear in knowing it can crash back down in a mere second, all because of you. Yeah, a little too frighteningly real for this year.
No. 24 – Katie Pruitt, “Out of the Blue” (from Expectations)
For as much as I tend to discuss these tracks within the context of the album they stem from, Katie Pruitt’s “Out of the Blue” is the sort of tragically romantic song that stands on its own. And you wouldn’t think it heads in that direction at first, a quaint, almost languid track that equally serves the dreamily lovestruck nature of its first verse and the bitter, empty sadness of its end. But there’s also a positive lesson that comes in only knowing someone for a short time and growing with them, even when their small stay ends up leaving a big impact and you’re left wishing you could relive some of those old memories. I listed the title track to Pruitt’s debut as my favorite in my midyear report, but there was something entrancing about this simple love song that stuck with me more over the general course of the year, and if you needed just one reason to check out that album, I’d suggest this.
No. 23 – Mickey Guyton, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” (from Bridges)
I guess I understand the cold reception this received from country radio in April, given the subject matter and how they’ve generally received Mickey Guyton thus far. I mean, I guess I should say I don’t get it, so much as I’m just not surprised. But now, in the aftermath of the year she had? There’s no excuse. Yet “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” rolls on anyway, a brutally honest blow to any woman who’d dare dream for higher aspirations … because society has failed them time and time again, and you can’t blame someone who gives in to fatigue after maintaining hope for so long. But it’s also a bit more universal in its message of gender, sexuality and race, not to mention that hard work isn’t necessarily the key driver for success anymore for many, if it ever really was. In an industry where it’s been proven – with data, I might add – that the deck is stacked against female artists and artists of color, especially at country radio, it hits a little too hard, especially when it’s, you know, Mickey Guyton behind the microphone. Let’s try and do better in 2021.
No. 22 – Tessy Lou Williams, “Someone Lonely”
Of all the excellent tracks off Tessy Lou Williams’ debut album, this is by far the most complex, an examination of her love for a traveling musician … and the devastation that comes in knowing she comes second to his craft, and that while he’s out on the road, she’s tempted to just move on. And the most bitter part of that realization is the jadedness that comes in questioning if, even if she did leave, whether she’d just end up falling for another rambling man and never find love. And unlike “One More Night” or “Mountain Time In Memphis,” where the solution to ending that pain is a bit easier to find, if she’s willing, there’s no easy solution for the character here. And that easily makes it the most brutally cutting song off Williams’ debut, and one of the best of the year.
No. 21 – American Aquarium, “How Wicked I Was” (from Lamentations)
As the penultimate track to American Aquarium’s Lamentations, this is lead singer BJ Barham’s way of untangling the demons explored on previous tracks and trying to salvage what’s left of himself. It’s not so much an example of him coming out on the other side unwounded, so much as examining what hard lessons he can learn from those wounds. And while he knows his time in the spotlight is done, he thinks of his daughter and the sort of legacy he’s leaving behind for her, self-aware of how messy it looks, but also hoping that the man he is today can be enough for her. It’s a song about maturing and putting a best foot forward in spite of the damage done and the demons left unkempt, and against the gentler brushes of acoustics, piano and pedal steel, it’s like the weary aftermath of a hard-fought battle he knows he lost in some ways, but won just by getting through it. Even in spite of that, though, he hasn’t given up and won’t, if only for her sake. That it’s only one of the best tracks off the album is the reason I gave it a perfect score in May, and you best believe these boys are in it for the long haul, indeed.
No. 20 – Reckless Kelly, “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed” (from American Jackpot/American Girls)
I’m still hoping for the day I can praise a Reckless Kelly album again instead of just one excellent song from it, but for now, I’ll easily take this. The ironic part is that, on a compositional level, it’s unlike anything they’ve done before, where the rich, atmospheric groove builds to new tensions as it progresses to echo the endless cycle this character goes through in the wake of a failed relationship. And even though it’s told through scattered images, the power is in the presentation and compositional build – especially in Jeff Crosby’s excellent guitar playing that defines the track by its end. Plus, it taps into the hazily reflective side I loved from “Long Night Moon.” At any rate, given that a return for this band was long overdue, this was one hell of a way to make a comeback, so let’s keep the momentum rolling.
No. 19 – Tim McGraw, “Doggone” (from Here on Earth)
No, I’m not kidding, this was the dog song that got to me in 2020, and this is coming from a cat person. And I’ll admit that, as a pet owner who lost a pet this year, I can’t reconcile my feelings of how I first heard this around that time from any objective thoughts surrounding it, especially when it is, admittedly, playing things very broadly and sounds damn-near like a breakup track in its first verse. The odd asset here, then? Tim McGraw, who has always been a warmly charismatic presence at his best. And while this is far from the most detailed song in this vein, he humanizes his furry friend to have that loss hit with the sort of impact that colors, say, “My Old Friend.” On top of the echoed fragments of the production for that same amount of warmth, it was enough to make this an uncomfortable listen for me this year, but also offered comfort when I needed it most.
No. 18 – Ashley McBryde, “Stone” (from Never Will)
I admit, I’m a bit amazed at how much mileage Ashley McBryde gets out of the “stone” metaphor for yet another one of the most devastating songs of the year. It’s a dedication to her late brother that doesn’t shy away from addressing the good parts of their relationship, but also the complicated ones that caused some friction between them in his time on Earth and, as such, only made her realize how much they actually had in common afterwards. A tale of tough sibling love that stems from good intentions but gets a bit more revealing as it progresses, only for that to not matter when all that’s left is to remember the good anyway. And in a year where it’s important to keep those similarities in mind, this is another song that took on a new meaning. The pain is personal, but also resonates louder than we think.
No. 17 – Ruston Kelly, “Mid-Morning Lament”
If “Rubber” finds Ruston Kelly questioning his own strength, “Mid-Morning Lament” is just part of the reason why he’s left doing so, a song where the downward spiral comes through pure normalcy. And that’s reflected in the surprisingly warm, quaint production, which emphasizes how a day can be shattered right out of the blue, which is a side of depression that doesn’t quite get addressed enough. There’s no bombast or ultimate reckoning here, just a man lost in his own dark thoughts and trying to remind himself of what’s worth fighting for. That’s the thing, too, for as quiet as this track feels, Kelly isn’t one to wallow in that darkness – he wants to recover, but it’s a fight he knows he has to fight alone. And while there’s no easy solution in sight, he’s going to push on ahead to find one regardless, and that’s where the real fight is, anyway.
(Not on YouTube, for some reason – can be found here, though)
No. 16 – Nora Jane Struthers, “The Turnpike” (from Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words)
This is a song about loving your small town and reconnecting with old memories you won’t get back … and, surprise, surprise, it’s actually not a song you’re going to hear on mainstream country radio, because Nora Jane Struthers’ reconnection is a bit more complex and well-nuanced than your typical affair there. Whereas the album is a journey of finding a personal catharsis and a part of yourself you thought you lost, “The Turnpike” is the shattering of any false illusions that you’d do anything differently if you had that time back. Struthers will walk back through those memories with fondness, for sure, and while she and her friends didn’t achieve what they thought they would by this point in life, she’s OK with where she is now, too, and that’s a humbling sentiment that’s easy to forget in that journey. Still, it’s complicated not thinking of the “what could’ve beens” anyway, which is why I love the cathartic, somewhat bittersweet snarl of that fantastic guitar solo and its ragged edges echoed in the bass groove to imply that subtle frustration. It’s the huge, stomping, roaring moment on Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words, and easily its best moment. Why it’s not on YouTube is beyond me, though.
No. 15 – Ashley McBryde, “Never Will”
Yes, this was the Ashley McBryde song that connected with me most this year, if only because, while there are objectively better cuts on Never Will, they’ll connect more depending on your personal circumstances. “Never Will,” to me, is universal, and whereas “Girl Going Nowhere” was the humble ode from an artist who succeeded but hadn’t quite “made it” yet, this is the stomping, deserved victory lap and snarl to detractors from the artist who finally did. And it’s awesome, from the simmering, atmospheric guitar snarl in the low-end to McBryde’s howl that’s a little weary but even more ferocious from a hardbitten fight, and though it’s more applicable for 2019 than 2020 – because no one really got ahead this year – its sentiment echoes. Not just for her, either, but for anyone who thought they’d never succeed at something and finally did. And as for when I think I’ll grow tired of it, well, I know I never will.
No. 14 – John Moreland, “Harder Dreams” (from LP5)
From the moment I heard this as the opening track to John Moreland’s LP5, one of the first albums of 2020 I really loved, I remembered why he’s one of the best songwriters working today. And it’s as much about you and I as it is him, a starkly modern examination of how media of all varieties influences the person we are and become – and no, the irony of typing that out on a blog isn’t lost on me – and sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. It’s up for further debate and interpretation beyond that, but I’ve always thought of it as a reminder that what we see – or rather, what we’re trained to see – doesn’t echo real life, and that actual personal happiness is only going to come when we realize that. Not quite hopeless, but more contemplative enough to be a bit darker than the gentle brushes of acoustics and harmonica against the drum machine would have you believe. And there’s definitely a lot of truth in the sentiment, too.
No. 13 – Lilly Hiatt, “Some Kind of Drug” (from Walking Proof)
So, OK, to echo the earlier Chris Stapleton conversation, this is an examination of Nashville … but not the country music industry side of it. Rather, it’s about Nashville as the cultural melting pot it’s become, and how this now big city that holds dreamers of all kinds is starting to offer more and more opportunities, but also plenty of ways to crush those dreams, too, as all of the big cities do. It’s welcoming, but unforgiving, too. The ultimate gentrification has given birth to new characters, but also has washed away old ones trying to keep up, and it may be losing a bit of its soul in the process. Again, that it’s not limited exclusively to those starving artists on Music Row is why it affords to get a bit darker with that whirring organ, wired synthetic riff and simmering guitar groove that’s creaking with unsettling tension. And it just may make for Lilly Hiatt’s best song yet.
No. 12 – American Aquarium, “A Better South”
As a whole, I’d describe Lamentations as BJ Barham’s way of remaining headstrong even despite hitting rock bottom – which includes those personal demons that have colored his best work and the moments of societal upheaval. And to touch upon the latter, “A Better South” is easily one of the most forward-thinking songs he’s made, by not only touching upon current events shaping history, but also going back to the roots of just one systemic problem facing the attempted progress made. And he understands that an entire generation can define how people view certain historical symbols for worse, like the Confederate flag with a certain amount of pride. But it’s also why he’s optimistic that the current and next ones will view it for the hateful symbol it actually is – and the problems go beyond that, too – and that the fight for a better south is far from over. If anything, it’s within view and reach, and that’s why it’s likely one of few Barham cuts one could describe as anthemic or catchy. And hey, after this year, that’s the appropriate sort of bite this needed to connect.
No. 11 – Futurebirds, “Waiting On a Call” (from Teamwork)
This nearly knocked me out when I first heard it, and was the first song of 2020 I really loved. Like with “Doggone,” too, its meaning took on a whole new personal form for me as the year progressed – an examination of death that finds both characters in the moment saying their final goodbyes, and where the pure emotional core packs one hell of a gut-punch; and again, I should stress that this came out in January. Here, though, the goodbye is purely human and real, where the person in question assures a loved one that she’ll be alright, and that life is a precious gift that can’t be wasted. It’s a broad slice of advice, but one that hits so much harder in that precise moment where the last thing one can do with their time is to try and offer comfort for those left to endure the days, months and years ahead. It’s damn-near climatic in its hazy progression, and while it’s not the most tuneful listen, that messiness is intentional, and the composition knows what it’s doing with each note. When that ending comes, it hits, and that’s about all I’m comfortable saying about it.
This, on the other hand, is tuneful and just about as equally devastating, the penultimate moment on Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers that almost finds her destroying the progress she’s made in moving past a bad breakup. What’s still notable, though, is how self-aware Andrews is of that, and that even though she cycles through old memories in her mind – and knows her significant other is doing the same thing, too – rekindling that fire is only an answer, not a solution. But she desperately wants to, and the weight behind that sentiment is crushingly relatable in its framing. Plus, if there was ever a modern-day singer who just lent so much natural emotional pathos to the track against the gentle brush of piano, it’s Andrews, and as one of the final steps in the process of moving on, she makes it look easier than it really is.
No. 9 – Brett Eldredge, “Sunday Drive”
And speaking of soulful singers who lend themselves well to piano ballads, we have what is easily the best thing Brett Eldredge has ever done. And I’m not sure there was a better example of a song that highlighted an unlikely benefit of 2020 – that, being the time to engage in the mundanity we wouldn’t have time for otherwise and find personal fulfillment because of it. I’ve been on Sunday drives like the ones described here – I get what he’s going for here in sketching how the details and observations of those drives change every time, and that the real meaning behind it is appreciating a moment in time we won’t get back, no matter how beautifully simplistic it is. And like with “Then You Do,” the twist forms in the final verse, and this is more devastating in framing it from the perspective of a grown man now taking his elderly parents on those drives he used to go on as a kid, and sadly questioning how many ordinary Sunday drives he has left with them. I know it’s easy to compare the deeper meaning behind every song to events in 2020, but if there was one that truly resonated a little louder because of it, it was this one.
No. 8 – Brandy Clark, “Pawn Shop” (from Your Life Is A Record)
“Pawn Shop” brings the same eye for detail and character portraits I desperately missed from earlier Brandy Clark works on Your Life Is A Record, and I knew it was the easy highlight from the moment I heard it. She’s always had a theatrical flair for setting her stages, and while that’s reflected more in the plucky, liquid, bouncy mandolin touches, the low-key, subtler emotive territory only gains more weight as the track progresses, where we watch others’ dreams die and begin anew in other forms. It puts an optimistic spin on an otherwise gloomy narrative, and while the titular pawn shop is just a setting, it’s also the place that knows the secrets behind the items sold and the future they’ll begin with someone else, be it a lovelorn woman returning her wedding band or a failed musician offering his guitar to someone else, all while keeping a sense of darker realism that’s colored Clark’s best work. And when approaching that category, this absolutely belongs in that upper echelon, and this one, too.
No. 7 – American Aquarium, “Six Years Come September”
Perhaps a more appropriate discussion for a certain other list, but what I loved most about American Aquarium’s Lamentations was BJ Barham’s ways of reconciling his responses to past actions and how he can use those hard lessons learned not only to benefit him, but the larger world around him. And it’s worth noting that the latter cuts stem from his direct perspective, while the tracks focusing on the past center around characters who took things took far, be it from the crushing weight of societal expectations or their own personal vices. Like this one, who lost it all to alcoholism and a drunk-driving incident, and is trying his best now to just … survive. It doesn’t seek to draw sympathy or empathy from the listener, but rather seeks to focus more on the permanent guilt and consequences that haunt him, and hopefully dissuade someone from making the same mistake. Which, in an indirect sense, manages to draw that empathy from the listener, and is a testament to Barham’s writing abilities. A tough song to listen to, even without any relatability surrounding it, and between the subtle touches of keys and reverb to echo that ghostly swell that pick up intensity toward the end – you’ll know the moment when you hear it – it’s easily the best American Aquarium song of the year.
No. 6 – Futurebirds, “Killing Ground”
I’ll echo what I said in the review: I wish Futurebirds utilized Daniel Womack more as a vocalist, because his husky, full-throated, lived-in tone always gives the band some of its best moments. And beyond spotlighting another fantastic melody, sweeping, atmospheric rush and well-balanced, rich mix of guitar and keys, this is another moment speaking to personal burnout that hit a bit too hard this year. I can’t even say there’s a note of optimism here, just an acknowledgment of a wave coming to crash down, and that despite seeing the metaphorical light beyond it, you’ve got to endure it first, come hell or high water. It’s the sort of hazy, reflective downward spiral reminiscent of why I loved, say, Austin Meade’s “Waves” last year. And while I still think “Waiting on a Call” is the more universal connector, this was the Futurebirds song that got under my skin a little too well this year.
No. 5 – Caylee Hammack, “Small Town Hypocrite” (from If It Wasn’t For You)
I’m imaging an alternate timeline where this got the actual radio push it deserved over “Just Friends,” because it’s easily the high point in Caylee Hammack’s discography thus far. Then again, it’s hard to imagine this taking off anyway, a starkly honest and brutal examination of wasted potential and dreams, where the only person to blame is yourself. And “Small Town Hypocrite” gets to its point quickly, framing the scenarios as easy to see for what they were in hindsight, but leaving enough room to explain why being young, optimistic and in love made Hammack think otherwise. And when her subtle delivery picks up the touch of restrained anger it needs to express that, the ending is pretty clear, but no less effective in its execution as it gets there. It’s the small town love story that ends with a note of realism, rather than the fairytale ending portrayed otherwise, and when the actual details used to sketch that are some of the best of the year, I guess country radio didn’t deserve something this emotionally scarred and vulnerable anyway, or something this good, for that matter.
No. 4 – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, “Overseas”
Compared to past Jason Isbell projects, I think what separates Reunions is its scope and framing. It’s still largely about Isbell’s own struggles coping with his past, and there’s cuts like “It Gets Easier” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” that speak directly to that experience. But a track like “Overseas,” like “Dreamsicle,” is more about framing that struggle through characters similar to – but not directly representative of – Isbell, like a single father struggling to keep it together in a dying town while his significant other chases her musical dream halfway across the world. And the messy gamut of emotions is fully intentional. Just like “Dreamsicle,” too, it’s never trying to frame either party as in the wrong for their decisions, be it her for leaving or him for staying behind and lashing out at her. Rather, it speaks more to the natural split that’s been occurring between them for too long, where the subtext suggests the trip overseas was the result of that falling out, not the instigator. And then that thunderous guitar riff comes crashing down like a literal wave – one of my favorite musical moments of the year, honestly – and next to “Cumberland Gap,” it just may be one of his most overtly angry-sounding tracks to date. But unlike that album, the anger here is unstable and a bit more explosive, and though the framing speaks more to Isbell’s excellent storytelling abilities, the pure emotive core was a bit too relatable this year.
No. 3 – Ruston Kelly, “Under The Sun”
Let’s get the easy criticism out of the way now – this is a broadly written inspirational track that, on its own, might not hit as hard without the context of the album it stems from. But there’s also the artist to consider, too, and coming from Ruston Kelly, “Under The Sun” is less that than it is a promise to himself to overcome his personal demons, however hard it may be. And that’s a subtle touch that helps this hit with a rare sort of weight, where the performer strengthens it in ways that can’t really be properly described without revealing too much of yourself along the way. And when factoring in that much of Shape & Destroy found Kelly fighting for hope even as old vices crept back in, this wasn’t so much a victory lap as it was a checkpoint, a needed and earned one, at that. To put it another way, I’m not sure there was a song I enjoyed singing along to more this year – especially when both of our voices strained on that phenomenal final chorus – not so much for its pure, tempered catchiness, but because it offered comfort of the best variety this year.
No. 2 – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, “Only Children”
If there’s a reason why people draw comparisons to Jason Isbell’s past work with his current output – beyond the quality, of course – it’s because of the thread connecting them, which I briefly touched upon with “Overseas,” but would like to expand upon here. For as abstract as “Only Children” is in its framing and deeper meaning – a friendship christened in childhood that ended way too soon – the not-so-subtle point echoed is how that friend who died from his own vices could have easily been Isbell himself, the person who sobered up and saw what the rest of his life had to offer him. Again, one can interpret it to a fault, and while I constantly bring up Isbell’s empathetic lyrical perspective, it’s truly at its best here. The complex run of emotions ranging from guilt to anger over feeling that the wrong person died is among the most devastating of the year, and there’s nothing like the ghostly, atmospheric swell running across the background to echo that sorrowful haunting still felt today – maybe even indirectly in some of Isbell’s other best songs. Which is to say that, yes, for me, it’s as good as “Elephant,” “If We Were Vampires” or whatever else you want to throw in the ring – “Anxiety,” for me, on a personal level. But as far as this year is concerned, there was just one that hit a little harder.
No. 1 – Sierra Hull, “Escape” (from 25 Trips)
I’m not sure I knew what my favorite song of the year was, prior to making this list. I never rank these by often I play them, but rather how much they get under my skin when they’re on – how I return to them, in a sense. On that note, Sierra Hull’s “Escape” was that song this year, even when I didn’t want it to be, if only for what it said about me. But it’s also another case of me interpreting it to fit what I needed to this year, rather than what it is – a complex, sorrowful spiral that almost acts as a painful interlude on an album about the personal anxieties that come with questioning how young you really still are and how much you’ve yet to accomplish, if not for the world then for yourself. It’s unlike anything Hull has done yet, either, where that baritone electric mandolin is the perfect addition to capture the moody, rhythmic sway that oozes uneasy tension. It’s damn-near hypnotic in its progression and equally as perfect, yet it’s muted in a way that supports the content, where the echoed vocal pickups highlight the questions and anxieties running through Hull’s mind and works for anyone who felt more than a little lost this year. And that’s the thing, it’s not an optimistic promise to slay those demons, but rather try and keep your head above water as you just … understand them, and even then, where do you turn for a solution? It was released in February, but I first heard it in June, and I’m not sure I can reconcile those general feelings of hopelessness and despair from any objective feelings surrounding it … which is how this song formulated anyway, really. So … maybe that’s not such a bad thing. And while I don’t think it’s the song that will describe next year, in trying to capture this eventful year, “Escape” was the one that resonated on a much different level than the other ones here, for far too many parts of the year. It’s my favorite song of 2020, but let’s hope we really do find some sort of escape in 2021.