The Best Albums of 2020, Part One: #40-#21

Best of 2020

Albums: Part One | Part Two

Singles: Part One | Part Two

Quarantines and working from home made discovering music easier than ever in 2020, so much so that forty albums were embraced by Country Universe as being among the year’s best.

Here are the sets that make up the bottom half of our Top 40 Albums of 2020, as voted on by staff writers Kevin John Coyne, Jonathan Keefe, and Zack Kephart.

The Best Albums of 2020, Part One: #40-#21

 

#40

Aubrie Sellers

Far From Home

With women being constantly sidelined by radio, 2020 was all about female artists removing the shackles of genre expectations.  Aubrie Sellers delivered a rocking country album that is loose in form but tight in focus, as she explores anxiety on “Worried Mind” and flips Nashville the bird on her way to LA (“One Town’s Trash.”) – Kevin John Coyne

 

#39

Bettye LaVette

Blackbirds

As ever, Bettye LaVette doesn’t interpret songs so much as she possesses them, and Blackbirds finds the inimitable vocalist imposing her will on a particularly well-chosen batch of songs. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#38

Lucinda Williams

Good Souls Better Angels

Lucinda Williams is at her best when she reaches out with humanity toward a world seemingly devoid of empathy. Her character studies range from Donald Trump (“Man Without a Soul”) to an abused woman (“Wakin’ Up”), the only common thread being her genuine belief that both of them can cast away their past and be stronger, wiser people moving forward. – KJC

 

#37

Little Big Town

Nightfall

Little Big Town’s lushest release yet, not just in the refined production and atmospheric sonic soundscape, but also in what can only be described as some of the band’s most mature songwriting narratives yet, all while carrying the needed backdrop to let those harmonies and melodies soar into the night. – Zackary Kephart

 

#36

Kree Harrison

Chosen Family Tree

On her sophomore set, Kree Harrison uses her lithe voice and spot-on interpretive instincts to explore how a person’s choices can come to define them, either for good or for decidedly less-than-good. – JK

 

#35

Jaime Wyatt

Neon Cross

I’m not one to champion the lie that great art only comes from personal suffering, but few artists are able to lean into their hardest times and sound positively triumphant when doing so to the extent that Jaime Wyatt does on the shit-kicking, honky-tonk-ready Neon Cross. – JK

 

#34

Hot Country Knights

The ‘K’ is Silent

It’s a good thing Kevin asked us to keep it brief for these first few entries, because this one … uh, speaks for itself. Oh, well – let’s ring in a new year by doing the Moose Knuckle Shuffle! – ZK

 

#33

Brett Eldredge

Sunday Drive

Sunday Drive is both a personal and artistic rejuvenation for Brett Eldredge, which finds him pivoting toward a throwback country-soul palette that’s one of the most easily enjoyable listens of the year, and compliments his vocal timbre and charisma incredibly well. – ZK

 

#32

Secret Sisters

Saturn Return

Brandi Carlile is emerging as one of the finest producers working today, able to bring out the very best from the already compelling artists that she works with.  Saturn Return is a new highwater mark for Secret Sisters, with the highlights being “Late Bloomer,” a long overdue anthem for those who peak later in life, and “Silver,” which is a wryly funny indictment of the youth obsessed culture that makes us overlook late bloomers in the first place. – KJC

 

#31

Josh Turner

Country State of Mind

In a year filled with some truly dreadful covers– I’m looking square at you, Sara Evans and Jon Pardi– it was an artist who had only rarely performed material worthy of his vocal skill, Josh Turner, who turned a cover album into a career-best. Turner simply hasn’t sounded so at ease or so natural on record since “Long Black Train” hit as he does on these glorious trad-country arrangements of classic songs that– and I’m looking square at you, again, Sara Evans and Jon Pardi– suit his voice perfectly. – JK

 

#30

Gabe Lee

Honky Tonk Hell

Every ounce of potential Gabe Lee offered on last year’s farmland simply explodes on Honky Tonk Hell, where his charisma and confidence come to control the room and roll right on through to rule it until the end. But along with offering one of the few genuine moments of joy this year, it’s also a collection that strengthens Lee’s eye for detail in the contemplative lyrical moments, leaving something for everyone to love. – ZK

 

#29

Margo Price

That’s How Rumors Get Started

If Aubrie Sellers flipped Nashville the bird over her shoulder while heading to L.A., Margo Price gives Music City the finger while looking it dead in the eye.  “Stone Me” is particularly eviscerating in its takedown of toxic masculinity and the patronizing paternalism of the music industry, and its impact is heightened by the album’s bold assimilation of rock and blues into its country palette.  If she was a man, we’d be celebrating her as genre-enriching outlaw, instead of pummeling her with stones. – KJC

 

#28

Kelsey Waldon

They’ll Never Keep Us Down

A withering State Of The Union for Appalachia, Kelsey Waldon’s They’ll Never Keep Us Down is an antidote to the condescension of something like Hillbilly Elegy: Over some ragged country blues that draws favorable comparisons to Ray Wylie Hubbard sound, Waldon drawls out a staggering portrait of rural poverty. – JK

 

#27

Karen Jonas

The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams

Not since 2014’s Oklahoma Lottery has Karen Jonas’ writing and vocal performances exploded with an unmatched dark swagger and gritty presentation. Country artists do love their wild west fantasies, but what’s remained striking about this album all year 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, after all. – ZK

 

#26

Taylor Swift

evermore

Swift’s second album this year, evermore, is a beautiful coda to this year’s folklore.  The approach can’t possibly have the same impact the second time around, but the songs are nearly as strong, a remarkable feat that speaks to her peerless talent as a singer-songwriter.  Around the edges, you can already hear Swift’s pop sensibilities pushing back at the sparse production that she’s embraced with this year’s pair of projects, with the dance mixes of “Willow” putting some sugar back on to the plate.  For all the times we’ve said it would be great to hear Swift’s songs stripped down, I’m quietly pulling for her pumped up takes on these excellent songs. – KJC

 

#25

Mike and the Moonpies

Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart

Criminally underrated during his lifetime and largely overlooked since his death, Gary Stewart is one of country music’s most tragic figures, and one most deserving of a proper tribute. Mike and the Moonpies provide exactly that on Touch of You, highlighting the depth of Stewart’s catalogue with a set of covers that pay homage to the vast well of heartache in Stewart’s best songs without being overly reverential to the original recordings.  – JK

 

#24

Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band

Just Like Moby Dick

For as complex of a poet as Terry Allen has been all throughout his career, the reasons why his latest offering resonates – which some have speculated to be his last, and I sure hope not – is because the poetry is subtle in its brilliance, and the production is some of the warmest and most colorful I’ve heard all year. But there’s also a careful balance between the weight of mortality and the general collaborative effort that makes this hit much harder between the lines. Still, this is an artist in his mid-70s whose talent hasn’t dulled a bit, and this was a simultaneously warm yet unsettling project to have in 2020. – ZK

 

#23

Nora Jane Struthers

Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words

An album – released at the beginning of the year, if I might add – about reconnecting with yourself by appreciating the stillness and quaintness in the mundanity of life may have aged a bit too well this year. Far from a nostalgia trip, though, this is an album that revels in stopping for a moment to regain needed ground, but also reminds listeners why it’s important to take that next step forward, if only to keep growing. And between songs like “The Turnpike” and “We Made It,” this album had those needed cathartic anthems to deliver on all fronts. – ZK

 

#22

Lori McKenna

The Balladeer

The Balladeer is a bit of a misnomer for Lori McKenna, as the powerful stories that she creates in her songs aren’t written with the distance of a third person observer.  Thank God for that.  The Balladeer continues the personal narrative that has been present in McKenna’s work since the beginning.  It’s not unprecedented to feel like you know a singer-songwriter personally after so many albums, but I can’t think of anyone other than McKenna who has also made me feel like I know her children, husband, parents, and siblings just as well.  How beautiful it is to connect with “Marie,” getting an in-depth portrait of the sister referenced at the end of “Lorraine” all those years ago.  How insightful it is to hear how she recalibrates her advice to her children as they grow, as she does on “When You’re My Age” and “Till You’re Grown.”  And how stunning it is to hear her flex her songwriter’s imagination on “The Dream,” where she reaches beyond time and space to introduce her child to a beloved ancestor who would’ve loved that kid, had they been able to walk the earth together. – KJC

 

#21

Ruston Kelly

Shape & Destroy

Shape & Destroy was the next logical step for Ruston Kelly to work through his personal struggles with depression and addiction, all while balancing his role as a changed man with the acknowledgment that those old demons may resurface at any point. 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, yet is doing his best to overcome them anyway, with a surefire confidence and genuine optimism – even if it’s impossible to completely silence a demon. Not so much closure as it is a promise to keep pushing on through, which, again, echoed the year a bit too well. – ZK

 

Best of 2020

Albums: Part One | Part Two

Singles: Part One | Part Two

 

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