The Best Albums of 2020

Preamble

When I put together my midyear report for the year, it almost didn’t make sense. Yes, it’s fun to take stock of some favorites of the year at any given time, but not when the industry is hurting as bad it is right now, nor when the general mood is down across the board.

With this, it generally feels like the same thing while also feeling like something I needed to write. Like I said when discussing my favorite songs of the year, I’ve always considered these lists to be soundtracks for the year … which is just one more reason not to do this, I know. I’m referring, however, to more of a personal connection, and how, as a one-person operation, I can’t speak to any objective measures of quality or highlight the best music of the year from a cultural perspective. To do that would be to deny what connected with me the most this year, and considering the releases just kept on coming anyway, I certainly had enough material for this list.

In fact, that brings up another point. Despite the general circumstances, country music churned out another banner year across the board, with a melting pot of comeback efforts from veterans, promising debuts and career-best efforts. Now, that does come with the caveat that some artists had to get creative with their approaches, in that 2020 was the year of the cover album, EP and deluxe edition. But outside of some excellent cover albums from Gretchen Peters and Josh Turner, along with other oddities in Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass projects – which all didn’t make it here, but deserve the attention nevertheless – I didn’t engage with those releases. I gravitated more toward full-length albums that could take me to another world, not for escapism, but for greater fulfillment and purpose. On that note, I might as well go over some traditional house rules for this list.

One, if I didn’t cover it – either here or at Country Universe – it’s not here. Also, if you’re looking for the deeper discussion surrounding these albums, links to my reviews can be found down below. Two, I’ve never cared about meeting a critical consensus with anyone, so if your favorite album isn’t featured here … look, there’s plenty more to get worked up about than a list like this. Three, while this list fell together much more quickly than the list of best songs did, I’d be remiss not to mention some painful cuts I made here.

For honorable mentions, Corb Lund made a fine return with Agricultural Tragic; The Secret Sisters found much-needed clarity with Saturn Return that deserved so much more attention this year, and I can’t wait to see where they take their creative vision next; Brothers Osborne delivered one hell of a good time with Skeletons; Arlo McKinley made John Prine proud with Die Midwestern; And while it was the last cut for this list, A Young’s Man Country is an excellent debut album for Daniel Donato, an artist blazing his own trail of cosmic-country.


Without further ado, these are my picks for the top 25 best albums of the year:

No. 25 – Perhaps it’s just the experience of feeling much older than my actual age this year, but I’m starting to notice a change in my musical preferences, namely that I’m starting to prefer more mature, thoughtful lyricism over catchier melodies and hooks – and it used to be the other way around for me! As such, it feels weird stating that this is the first time this artist has made the cut for making one of my favorite albums of the year, especially when some have argued this is a weaker effort from her as a whole. But when it’s this good anyway, I’m not about to pass it up:

Lori McKenna The Balladeer

Lori McKenna, The Balladeer

Favorite tracks: “Marie,” “Stuck in High School,” “Two Birds”

Lori McKenna’s The Balladeer is an album that excels off her well-known songwriting strengths, yet bolsters her content with a sharper presentation and precision that I’ve missed from her most recent works. And even if the content can feel familiar for her at points, there are very few writers who can make their material feel as lived-in as she does, made all the more powerful from the subtler details that don’t shy away from a darker reality. In a year where that felt all the more relevant, this often felt like a needed yet comforting listen.

No. 24 – This is the album that grew on me the most in 2020. I had originally pegged it as a project that wore its influences on its sleeve a bit too much at points … and then I revisited it, and then I revisited it again, only to find more than what I found when I initially reviewed it:

Katie Pruitt Expectations

Katie Pruitt, Expectations

Favorite tracks: “Out of the Blue,” “Expectations,” “Wishful Thinking”

While country music has slowly become more accepting of queerness, it’s the culture surrounding it that informs Katie Pruitt’s debut album, namely in the Catholic framing that stems from a young girl growing up in the American South. And for as much as that tragedy of trying to conform to societal expectations colors much of this album – both for her and for anyone like her – there’s a note of optimism that comes in reshaping those expectations to be her own personal ones for who she wants to become. And judging from the direction this album takes, it’s clear she’s ready to blow past them and find her own acceptance, and you best not stand in her way.

No. 23 – Continuing on the path of fantastic debut albums, here’s a subtly great one:

Juliet McConkey Disappearing Girl

Juliet McConkey, Disappearing Girl

Favorite tracks: “The Deep End,” “Disappearing Girl,” “River Run”

What I think I love most about this album is how many little details I notice with every revisit, like how the production, while quaint, always serves to support Juliet McConkey. And while her tone is noticeably weathered throughout, she’s able to command a room anyway. And that’s before saying that, on songwriting alone, this is an absolute standout in 2020 – featuring drawn-out, complex stories of characters at their lowest point yet never completely hopeless, always counterbalancing the heaviness with a sense of empathy and lesson for how to approach tomorrow, come what may. In other words, a fantastic start. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

No. 22 – In some ways, this may as well be a debut for this next artist. It took her eight years to release a new solo album, and with its noticeable pivot in overall tone and presentation, it’s a fresh new direction, more than anything else … but also a very welcome return:

Rachel Brooke The Loneliness In Me

Rachel Brooke, The Loneliness in Me

Favorite tracks: “Ghost of You,” “The Loneliness in Me,” “Undecided Love”

Yet it’s also worth noting how the fresh direction Brooke takes comes from tapping into something simple – a traditional country album that pulls from those older styles, themes and melodies without restricting itself to just a mere “throwback” effort, if only because of the sharper production and presentation that marks this release. And while this isn’t aiming for the same sort of bluntly humorous darkness that colored her early work – even if there are some fantastic little Easter-eggs dispersed throughout that I dare not spoil – her sharp songwriting wit makes certain tracks like “Ghost of You” and “Undecided Love” some of the most cutting of the year. And when it comes to pure heartbreak music this year, few albums cut as well as this one did this year.

No. 21 – Hey, here’s another album that may as well act as a debut … or rather, a creative rebirth for a talented songwriter:

Waylon payne blue eyes the Harlot the Queer the Pusher and me

Waylon Payne, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me

Favorite tracks: “Shiver,” “Old Blue-Eyes,” “Born to Lose”

In a simple sense, this is the sort of album I love discussing, a highly detailed, self-reflective journey of love and personal understanding that ends on a high note, but only after a lot of hard nights of losing it all. Granted, that’s me assuming that the art imitates life, but it’s hard not to hear this album as a personal and artistic rebirth for Waylon Payne, where the album’s darkest moments paint the sort of downward spiral one can tell has been repeated over and over again, but also one where the attempts at grandeur have long faded and the hope shifts toward crawling out of that hole. And when the tone feels damn-near cinematic in its progression, it’s a personal journey that offers a hardbitten, relatable lesson for anyone – especially in the empathy it paints for its characters, which is one element that marks 2020’s best releases. More on that later, too!

No. 20 – Ironically enough, this is probably the first year where I’d say there’s a considerable portion of “fun” music on this list. But I’d also say this is a year I spent looking for a personal catharsis, and sometimes I found it in the most unlikely of places:

Hawktail Formations

Hawktail, Formations

Favorite tracks: “Eddie’s Attic,” “One Night In Hungary,” “The Tobogganist”

Which is to say that, yes, this is an instrumental project and doesn’t offer a lot of discussion points, outside of an overall warm production that bolsters the fantastic instrumental balance, huge melodic progressions with a Celtic flair, and seamless transitions. And … that was all good enough for me, though I’ll also add that the music critic nerd in me appreciated the subtle attention to sequencing, too, namely in the tension build between certain tracks that ends on a refreshing end note. I can’t say it’s for everyone – I can’t say that for any of these albums, really – but there’s a lot to appreciate here in the little details.

No. 19 – So, OK, she missed the ‘90s resurgence last year, when acts like Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn and George Strait released new projects and dominated the conversation for a brief moment in time; that doesn’t mean this project should have gone as criminally overlooked as it did:

Pam Tillis Looking for a Feeling

Pam Tillis, Looking For A Feeling

Favorite tracks: “Dolly 1969,” “Last Summer’s Wine,” “Burning Star”

To be blunt, my favorite projects in 2020 either made me want to scream into the void or offered the complete opposite effect in their hope and levity. I wouldn’t call it escapism, mind you – not when the material remains sharp – but every revisit of Looking For A Feeling couldn’t help but bring a sense of needed comfort. The artistic rebirth is the thematic arc itself, finding a veteran reconnecting with her personal and musical roots and finding pure joy while also pivoting in a new direction along the way. And the best part about the meta subtext is how simply being a fan and listener makes you a part of that journey, too, and that was more than enough to bring a smile to my face this year.

No. 18 – Even if their record label can’t properly market them or pick a decent single to push this project, I’d still champion it as the band’s best yet. And it’s definitely an album worth getting lost in:

Little Big Town Nightfall

Little Big Town, Nightfall

Favorite tracks: “The Trouble With Forever,” “Nightfall,” “River of Stars”

Over the course of the year, my appreciation for this album has slightly shifted away from the refined production and more toward its sharper, underrated lyrical focus, which shows Little Big Town writing the sort of mature relationship songs that country radio would be too afraid to touch anyway. Of course, that it’s also the band’s lushest, most expansive effort to date is also a plus, especially when it finally feels like they have the backdrop they need to let their harmonies and melodies soar. I stood by my praise for it at the beginning of the year, and even after a baffling single choice of “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” I still stand by it. Don’t let these deep cuts fade into the night, folks.

No. 17 – To be blunt, the general mood around the world was way too sour to include this in my midyear report. Things … haven’t really changed, sadly, but if I’m looking for the best example of escapism that I found this year, well …

The Hot Country Knights The K is Silent

Hot Country Knights, The ‘K’ Is Silent

Favorite tracks: “Then It Rained,” “Kings of Neon,” “The U.S.A. Begins With US”

Of course, I’ll also freely admit that, while I had originally pegged this project as a way to subtly sell good ass jokes and party anthems, there’s so much more going on beneath the surface, that it earns that “parody” label on wit and charm alone – and this isn’t the sort of project where you expect to pick up more details you didn’t notice before with every revisit. As a whole, though, it’s a simultaneous love letter to and satire of ‘90s country that isn’t afraid to make being utterly crass and stupid part of the overall point behind it. Other acts within mainstream country may try to replicate the sound to … more serious degrees, but Dierks Bentley and Doug Douglason understands it better than they ever could anyway.

No. 16 – Cynical as it sounds, when you’re so used to talented artists within the mainstream completely squandering their potential just for a vapid hit, it’s easy to be utterly shocked when they finally measure up to their standards. I shouldn’t be surprised this next artist delivered something this good, and yet …

Brett Eldredge Sunday Drive

Brett Eldredge, Sunday Drive

Favorite tracks: “Sunday Drive,” “Then You Do,” “Magnolia”

Sunday Drive is a rebirth for Brett Eldredge, both artistically and personally, pivoting toward a throwback country-soul sound that, while more than a bit prevalent in the independent circuit in recent years – for better and worse – compliments his smoother vocal timbre better than anything else he’s recorded. Even with that said, there’s so much unique charm to the writing and overall presentation, mostly because Eldredge has always idolized crooners and finally has an opportunity to showcase that side. Couple that with an overall thematic arc that centers around finding pure joy and happiness from a personal reconnection, and kicking the Nashville industry to the curb has rarely sounded like a better career move for an artist, if only for personal and artistic growth.

No. 15 – Hey, speaking of albums that excel off easygoing charm and charisma …

Gabe lee Honky Tonk Hell

Gabe Lee, Honky Tonk Hell

Favorite tracks: “Honky Tonk Hell,” “30 Seconds at a Time,” “Imogene”

To be blunt, I didn’t expect Gabe Lee to release a new project so soon after his debut from last year. Those quick turnarounds are understandable, if only from a business perspective – but as for the art in general, that’s a different conversation. Yet Honky Tonk Hell is nearly a step up in just about every area, from lyrics that feel more intricately detailed in the pictures and scenes painted, to presentation that feels much more varied and equally as intricate in serving either those nights spent in the titular namesake or those quieter, introspective moments that made farmland so compelling. And it’s all led by a lead singer who feels more confident at the front of the microphone and is out to prove it. There’s a few other sophomore triumphs here, but none quite as charismatic as this release, at least.

No. 14 – I was hooked on this album from the first listen, and in a year with some pretty heavy releases, it’s easily the best debut I heard all year:

Tessy Lou Williams

Tessy Lou Williams, Tessy Lou Williams

Favorite tracks: “Someone Lonely,” “Mountain Time In Memphis,” “One More Night”

Really, on a pure fundamental level, Tessy Lou Williams’ self-titled debut hits most of my sweet spots and preferences for country music, with the rich production balance lending itself nicely to some phenomenal instrumental tones, particularly in the fiddle lines. What elevates it further, though, is the writing, most notably the attention to detail in Williams’ complex untangling of the relationships and her slow-paced response to moving on, always understanding that she’ll have to put it past her eventually, but that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Couple that with some personal intricacies in the larger details that helped shape songs like “Mountain Time In Memphis,” and you have an example of how heartbreak can sometimes sound incredibly rewarding and enriching, for everyone involved.

No. 13 – Four albums in, I’ve come to rely on this artist for consistently great projects and have been there for even some of the more experimental rides. Even in a weird year, she delivered:

Karen Jonas The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams

Karen Jonas, The Southwest Sky & Other Dreams

Favorite tracks: “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then,” “Farmer John,” “Barely Breathing”

No, if anything beyond that, this may be Karen Jonas’ best release since her 2014 debut, bringing back some of the darker details and framing devices in the overall lyrics and stories that I’ve desperately missed from her. Yes, country artists do love their wild west fantasies, but what’s remained striking about this album is its blunt honesty in acknowledging these lone troubadours’ misspent expectations in chasing down dreams that either ended in loneliness, or would have anyway, had they succeeded; every day in the sun has to end at some point. Couple that with a dustier, more ragged edge to the overall sound that I’ve also missed, and you have an example of a career highlight in the works.

No. 12 – Because sometimes I actually agree with the critical consensus on certain acts and albums? Then again, some of my highlights from this next project are likely a bit different from others. Whatever, it’s all awesome:

Ashley McBryde Never Will

Ashley McBryde, Never Will

Favorite tracks: “Never Will,” “Stone,” “Voodoo Doll”

I’ll say it, too, Never Will is a righteous victory lap that Ashley McBryde earned, mostly because all of the groundswell support over the years has blossomed into something fierce – and it’s worth noting that country radio was the last entity to support her, if you can even call that “support.” It’s why there’s a dramatic flair to the personality and performances on display here, where McBryde will howl on the rockers that other mainstream acts wouldn’t dare even touch, and where Jay Joyce’s weird production tactics actually end up flattering the overall tone of the project. I stand by it, too – the title track is the album’s thesis statement and is one of her best tracks, and it marks an excellent sophomore effort that will inevitably pave the way to something just as awesome, if not more.

No. 11 – It’s his first album of original material since 2013, and some have speculated it’s his swan song. I hope not, but if so, what a stellar finish:

Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band Just Like Moby Dick

Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band, Just Like Moby Dick

Favorite tracks: “Pirate Jenny,” “Death of the Last Stripper,” “Sailing on Through”

Yet if there was just one album here where I’d encourage folks to go back to the original review for the full discussion, not so much for me but for Terry Allen, it’d be here. That’s mostly because the reasons why it stuck with me all year long are pretty simple: the poetry is subtle in its brilliance, the production is some of the warmest and most colorful I’ve heard all year, and … it’s Terry Allen, so there’s also a distinctive texture in the framing to mostly keep it an acquired taste that ended up being right up my alley. But it shouldn’t be here, especially when there’s a careful balance between the weight of mortality and the general collaborative effort that makes this hit much harder between the lines. I’ll also remind folks that this is an artist in his mid-70s whose talent hasn’t dulled a bit, and that this was a simultaneously warm yet unsettling project to have in 2020. I think we needed it.

No. 10 – I would honestly say this is my least favorite album from this next artist. That it’s still one of the best albums of the year speaks volumes to her discography and talents:

Lydia Loveless Daughter

Lydia Loveless, Daughter

Favorite tracks: “September” (feat. Laura Jane Grace), “Never,” “Love Is Not Enough”

If anything, though, I would mark Daughter as a transitional album, above all else – a deep-dive into Lydia Loveless’ crumbled marriage that finds her exploring every angle of where she and her ex-significant other went wrong … and pulling no punches, either. No, if anything, Loveless’ way of never absolving herself of culpability only paints a much grimmer picture, where the lessons learned eventually came, but only after hard nights of self-reflection that just seemed to offer more deeply uncomfortable insights. The pure burnout is never directly stated, but it’s always implied, and that’s what colors the purely incredible back half. Not the easiest listen here, but certainly a rewarding one, all the same.

No. 9 – This is a strange album for me to discuss, mostly because I heard it in February – before the general tone of the year really soured – and because its main theme of personal rejuvenation took on a whole meaning in the wake of the widespread destruction of the pandemic. I didn’t revisit it for the longest time, out of fear that it might just not have the same impact. But when I did, I remembered why I loved it in the first place and knew it belonged here:

Nora Jane Struthers Bright Lights Long Drives First Words

Nora Jane Struthers, Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words

Favorite tracks: “The Turnpike,” “I Feel Like My Old Self,” “We Made It”

More than any album here, this is likely the one I needed most this year. It’s an album about getting back in touch with yourself by appreciating the stillness and quaintness in the mundanity – where nostalgic memories come rushing over old places you’ll revisit, but won’t restrict you from taking that next step forward. It’s also an album that revels in stopping for just a moment to take a needed breath, and while it comes from the perspective of a touring musician returning home, it’s relatable for anyone who feels lost at times, especially this year. And between songs like “The Turnpike” and “We Made It,” this album had those needed cathartic anthems to deliver on all fronts. It hit for me in February – and it hits for a much different reason now, if only to inspire optimism for a better year ahead. Let’s hope.

No. 8 – For a long time, I held this album’s worth in comparison with its predecessor, where that dying star somehow found new life, but also sounded more fried and tired than before. Over time, the beauty has come in appreciating how it embraces that change head-on:

Ruston Kelly Shape and Destroy

Ruston Kelly, Shape & Destroy

Favorite tracks: “Under the Sun,” “Mid-Morning Lament,” “Rubber”

On some level, though, comparing Shape & Destroy to Dying Star was inevitable; it’s the next logical step for Ruston Kelly to work through his personal struggles with depression and addiction, all while balancing his role as a husband and accepting a responsibility he’s not sure if he’s ready for quite yet. And yes, it’s hard to ignore the details revolving around those changing circumstances that occurred after the album’s recording, but there’s a lot of fantastic parallels to Jason Isbell’s work in the overall framing, namely in how Kelly is still prone to having those dark thoughts and doing his best to overcome them with a surefire confidence and genuine optimism, even if it’s impossible to completely silence a demon. If it was easy to relate to Kelly’s blackouts and depression on his previous work, it’s genuinely inspiring to hear a sense of closure and happiness on this project. Far from a sophomore slump, indeed.

No. 7 – As a longtime fan of this next artist, this is the one release that always makes me uncomfortable to revisit. Ironic, I know, given its optimism for that great beyond:

John Anderson Years

John Anderson, Years

Favorite tracks: “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone (w/ Blake Shelton),” “You’re Nearly Nothing,” “Years”

It’s strange to think of this as a comeback effort for John Anderson, given that he’s a veteran artist. But his material sounds livelier than it has in a long time under Dan Auerbach’s wing. For as much as the pure mystery of what waits at the end looms over this album, it never feels like the main focus. Yes, Anderson did intend for this to be his final record, but it focuses more on appreciating those tinier elements in life we all take for granted – love, company, health, the freedom to chase down a dream – thus showing how they’re the elements that shape us the most as individuals anyway. Sure, it’s a bit on-the-nose in that regard, but it’s framed with a sobering sincerity that manages to resonate even more because of it, and while I hope that aforementioned point about this album isn’t true … if it is, what a way to go.

No. 6 – Apparently the only entity that agreed with me on how great this is was the Grammy nominating committee. Someone help me:

Courtney Marie Andrews, Old Flowers

Favorite tracks: “How You Get Hurt,” “Together or Alone,” “Carnival Dream”

On some level, I get why certain critics and fans have called Old Flowers an overall step down for Courtney Marie Andrews. It’s a breakup album that’s not aiming for the same grand scope as its predecessor, and the production often reflects that. Here’s my counterpoint: that messiness is all part of the point in establishing Old Flowers as a quietly devastating listen. The writing is among Andrews’ best, working its way through the various emotional complexities that come with enduring that sort of pain, if only because more time spent together means the pain will be that much worse in the end. But what I love about this record most is its maturity and optimism in regarding that time as an overall positive learning experience, with an obvious amount of love still felt for that significant other … but also self-aware enough to know it’s time to start that next chapter. Criminally underrated in the wrong circles, so let’s change that.

No. 5 – I struggled with whether or not I could think this highly of this album. Even the artist himself described it as a way to stave off musical boredom, at least, in its sonic soundscape. But when the poetry is this dense and consistently excellent, well …

John moreland lp5

John Moreland, LP5

Favorite tracks: “Harder Dreams,” “Terrestrial,” “I Always Let You Burn Me To The Ground”

It’s ironic; I’ve discussed a lot of albums already centering around resurfacing demons, and – spoiler alert – there’s even more to come. LP5 is the one album, however, to actually embrace that freedom for an overall cathartic experience, where the quaint, ambient production offers a bit of warmth on the journey there, but also keeps in mind what’s been released. For Moreland, it’s shutting the door on past transgressions and learning how to tell himself the truth, and it’s that bit of closure that’s made this one of the most sobering experiences of the year. Even if the execution is low-key, the message rings as loud as it needs to, and while I wouldn’t even call this Moreland’s best, this provided a bit of ease with each listen.

No. 4 – I must admit, I usually enjoy letting these albums sit with me throughout the course of the year – let my thoughts simmer, discover something new, and foster a stronger bond with it in general. I didn’t get much of a chance to do that with this next entry, given how it late it dropped. Yet if there was ever a release where I wish I had had that chance, this would have been it:

Ward davis black Cats and Crows

Ward Davis, Black Cats and Crows

Favorite tracks: “Threads,” “Book of Matches,” “Black Cats and Crows”

There are certain artists that delve into themes of alcoholism and downward spirals with a rare sort of wit and insight – almost to the point of questioning how much the art truly impacts the person making it. And that’s the driving catalyst behind Ward Davis’ excellent sophomore album, a divorce album that spews its anger and regrets, but not without making peace with it and the past along the way, all with the sort of graceful precision that colors the best country albums in this vein. Even for as heavy as it gets at times, and for as dark as it ends, there’s a desire to kill those demons that shades this album with a sense of optimism for what’s ahead, and as far as the arc beyond that is concerned, this is the work of an artist just getting started. And I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

No. 3 – Of the heavier listens on this list, this is probably the one that’s the most flagrantly accessible, but not for the reasons you’d think. And if you saw my post of my favorite songs of the year and haven’t heard this yet, that previous statement probably won’t make a lot of sense for now.

Sierra Hull 25 Trips

Sierra Hull, 25 Trips

Favorite tracks: “Escape,” “25 Trips,” “How Long

Sierra Hull’s 25 Trips is easily her best effort to date, pushing her scope beyond a pure bluegrass palette by experimenting with the genre’s mood and textures, rather than an outright switch in sound. It’s an album that centers around the complicated game of growing older and questioning the personal progress made thus far, where the frequent solos are awesome, for sure – you expect it from bluegrass – but are aiming for a mood that feels unhinged and, well, scary. The closure comes naturally, never offering any easy answers because … part of growing older is embracing those fears head-on and refusing to let the clock dominate your life. If anything, I’d love to hear Hull push even further with the experimentation, because this was an excellent first trip around the sun.

No. 2 – Here’s the thing – when you have a discography as consistently excellent as this next artist, even something just “really good” can scan as a disappointment, and I think that’s where this next album fell with most critics. I didn’t agree with that notion then, and here’s why I don’t now:

Jason isbell & the 400 Unit Reunions

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Reunions

Favorite tracks: “Only Children,” “Overseas,” “Dreamsicle

OK, I will admit that I questioned how well Reunions would hold up over the course of the year. It doesn’t carry the grandiose scope of Southeastern; it’s not as stable as Something More Than Free; and any fire left from The Nashville Sound hasn’t so much burned out as it has … shifted course. There’s an unstable core to Reunions that means that, for once, the greatness is in the subtler details, capturing Jason Isbell continuously wrestling with the demons that have plagued him for years now, but now from the perspective of a father and husband trying to hold it all together. It gets easier, but it never gets easy. And yet Isbell’s poetry is as strong as ever, leaning head-on not only into his own fears and anxieties, but also finding him trying his best to understand others at their own breaking points, metaphorical or otherwise. I’ve never judged or ranked music by often I go back to it, but there was something more relatable about this project than I’ve ever felt before from Isbell, and every revisit was like checking in with a much-needed friend who understood that weight all too well.

No. 1 – Really, my favorite album of the year hasn’t changed since I first heard it in May. If anything, of the few perfect scores I’ve given out on this blog, this is one album that only continues to earn it with each passing day, month … and listen. I had always been of the opinion that this band only started winning me over with their last release, but part of the growth process is hearing music in a different framework and hearing something there you didn’t before. Even with that in mind, I’m still comfortable in calling this album the band’s best release, so here it is:

American Aquarium Lamentations

American Aquarium, Lamentations

Favorite tracks: “Six Years Come September,” “A Better South,” “How Wicked I Was”

What I think gets lost in the larger political discourse, beyond the doomscrolling on social media, that is, is the subtler complexities imbued within the music itself, and how we don’t consider the deeper meaning beneath those messages. For this album – as well as Reunions – there’s a sense of basic empathy that underscores a lot of why American Aquarium lead singer BJ Barham has always been adept at sketching the broader scene around him. Not that he won’t grant his characters their own hardships, but one always gets the sense that, for as low as they are, things could always be much worse. If anything, he’s the lucky one who found sobriety and love, with the bigger battle coming down the road in hoping his child never has to realize how wicked he was or fight that sort of battle for herself. Which plays into the other theme of how class inequality will lead good people to make dangerous decisions – intentional or not – out of mere survival, and how, for them, there is no way back. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the chance to grow and adapt, if they have the chance at all anyway.

It’s a record where the anger is blatantly there underneath the fried, burnt-out expressions, and one where the focus is for everyone to hopefully band together and fix the core issues plaguing their everyday lives, so that the next generation isn’t caught in the same vicious cycle. It’s a record where the happy ending and reward comes in the work itself to get there, not only for one’s own self, but for society in general. For me, nothing else really came close to being my favorite album of the year, and while we’re all likely more than a bit weary, we need to settle in that for long haul. Thankfully, music like this helps to fuel that fight.


And that’s that for me this year, as far as the Musical Divide is concerned. I’ll still be around to contribute to year-end ballots for Country Universe and This Is Country Music, as well as the Nashville Scene Critics’ Poll. But other than that, I’m ready to kick TMD into high gear for the new year, so I’ll see you then. Have a happy holiday, and stay safe.

4 thoughts on “The Best Albums of 2020

  1. Great list, man! There’s a couple on here that slipped through my own cracks, so thanks for the reminder I need to check them out haha. I haven’t had a chance to check out the Ward Davis album yet either, but based on what you’ve wrote about it I look forward to giving it a listen. And I’m glad to see the high praise for Sierra Hull! I unfortunately never got around to reviewing it, but I completely agree with you on her going to a new level with this album. Her involvement on Sturgill’s bluegrass albums will hopefully encourage people to check out her work who didn’t know about her before.

    I hope you have a safe and happy holidays!

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    1. Thanks, man! I definitely want to comment on yours before too long as well.

      Yeah, I really wish I had given Sierra a full review instead of just a roundup review (definitely tooling with those for next year). It’s an interesting, if difficult album to discuss, haha! As I said with your list, I’m glad to see someone else think so highly of the Brett Eldredge and John Anderson albums.

      Thanks man! You have a safe and happy holiday too!

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  2. What’s great about the volume of good country/Americana music these days is that, even though you and I have similar tastes, there are some albums here that I simply haven’t had the time to listen to or that I just didn’t connect with as much as you did. There are also a number of albums on my top 10/top 15 list that aren’t included here, but I’ve no doubt that you enjoyed them and they simply aren’t included here since there has to be a cut-off somewhere.

    Glad to see both Pam Tillis and John Anderson included here. John Anderson is one of my all-time favourites and I’m glad he released this album. I had heard a bit about some health problems, but I didn’t realize that this was planned to be his final album. I’m hoping it’s not, but, if it is, he’s retiring on a high note. I was a big fan of Pam Tillis back in the 90s and it’s good to have her back with a solid album. I particularly like “Lady Music” as one of my top songs of the year.

    Courtney Marie Andrews had my favourite album of 2018, but I just can’t seem to get into her new one. Similarly, I really enjoyed Lori McKenna’s “The Tree” album, but I couldn’t really get into “The Balladeer.” I’ve also tried a few times, but I just can’t get into the Ward Davis album.

    Great choice for #1. This is one of the top albums for me this year (although not my #1) and it’s their best album to date, in my opinion.

    I haven’t finalized my personal best of list yet, but “Disappearing Girl” is a late entry for me (as I just listened to it for the first time last week), but it’s rising fast.

    Thanks for all the great work this year and I hope you can relax over the holidays. Looking forward to 2021!

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    1. Yep, it’s just a huge tent nowadays, and like I say, as a one-person operation, this is basically just a summary of my own personal tastes. But I love seeing what connects most with others, too. I can never tell if 25 slots is too much or not enough these days!

      Yeah, you’re not the only one I’ve seen express that regarding the Andrews and McKenna projects. I would say I’ve warmed up to their discographies in general in ways I hadn’t in past years, so it’s definitely not lost on me that I have weaker projects from them here now. Can totally see the Ward Davis album not being for everyone, either.

      Glad to hear you like “Disappearing Girl”!

      Lastly, thanks! I’m looking forward to a short break, for sure. But I’m even more excited to better structure the website for the new year … hopefully it works out! At any rate, thanks for reading. I guess I’m surprised anyone cares about my ramblings, haha. You have a safe and happy holiday, Frank.

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