Best of 2020
The diversity of this year’s list is a reflection of just how many wonderful albums we have been blessed with in 2020.
Here are the sets that make up the top 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 Two: #20-#1
folklore is Taylor Swift unplugged, for all intents and purposes. Swift has a knack for knowing the best production to complement a given set of songs, and this was definitely the way to go for a quarantine record. There’s an old teacher’s trick that says if you want to get the attention of a rowdy class, lower your voice. They’ll lean into hear you. Swift’s whispers had us all leaning in, and what we heard was arguably the best batch of compositions she’d ever put together. “The 1,” “Cardigan,” “Hoax,” “Peace,” and “Betty” all rank among her best work to date. – Kevin John Coyne
I don’t know what Capitol Nashville is thinking with their EP approach to Mickey Guyton. The six songs that make up her Bridges EP are uniformly excellent, and there were enough previously released tracks to make it a full-length album. Bridges is still a must-buy, featuring the Grammy-nominated “Black Like Me” and our singles list-topping “What are You Gonna Tell Her?” – KJC
While the songs on Hailey Whitters’ The Dream focus largely on the pursuit of stardom, the album’s overall theme is one of ambitions and at what point they reach their sell-by date. Whether decrying Nashville as a “Ten Year Town” that gives hopefuls a firm deadline, telling the story of “Janice At The Hotel Bar” who decidedly missed that deadline but keeps doing her thing anyway, or exposing the DGAF laissez-faire attitude Little Big Town completely missed on “Happy People,” Whitters’ perspective skillfully balances frustrations with a palpable sense of empathy. – Jonathan Keefe
Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1
Sturgill Simpson has come to a point where it can be hard to tell if he’s making decisions based upon what he truly wants to do artistically or if he’s actively trolling his harshest critics, who are still mad that he didn’t just keep recording albums that sounded like unearthed Wayon Jennings tracks. Whatever his intent, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1— and, to a slightly lesser extent, Vol. 2, released not long thereafter– is among the most start-to-finish satisfying releases of Simpson’s career. Culling highlights from each phase of his varied output, Simpson put together what amounts as a best-of set and re-recorded them as flat-out brilliant Bluegrass arrangements. That every single one of the re-recordings equals or surpasses the original versions is a testament to Simpson’s craft, and it makes Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 one of the year’s most essential albums. – JK
Daughter feels like a transitional work for Lydia Loveless, where the deep-dive into her crumbled marriage from 2016’s Real carries over here, yet now finds her exploring every angle of where she and her ex-significant other went wrong … and pulls 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 come, but only after hard nights of self-reflection that just seem 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 of the year, but worth it anyway. – Zackary Kephart
Tessy Lou Williams
Tessy Lou Williams
Singing like a young Rhonda Vincent is an easy way to make a great first impression, and Tessy Lou Williams’ self-titled debut is one of the most self-assured I’ve heard in a minute. There are no flourishes of nu-grass or bids for mainstream country airplay here: Williams’ music is doggedly traditional, with polished, contemporary arrangements that foreground acoustic instruments. Whether she’s elongating her vowels on a stone country weeper like “Your Forever Will Never Say Goodbye” or putting a clever spin on Psalm 23 on “Why Do I Still Want You,” Williams immediately announces herself as the next-gen Vincent, and what a fine goal that is. – JK
This album took me longer to review than any other in the history of Country Universe. I kept waiting for my “the Chicks are back” euphoria to fade, as I just couldn’t believe my own ears. Home is the gold standard of country albums for me, easily the best of the 21st century and possibly my favorite of all time. It simply wasn’t possible that they came back with a set of self-penned material about disintegrating marriages and matched it, was it?
It was. Gaslighter is a brilliant concept album that captures the collision of self-confidence and bravado with the reality of heartbreak and betrayal, and meaningfully explores the generational impact of divorce. Natalie Maines has never sounded better as a vocalist, and Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer seem completely liberated from any restraints as instrumentalists.
There’s a pop flavor to many of the tracks, but in many ways, Gaslighter is their most country-sounding album since Fly. Their rejection of the country music industry and wariness to be associated with the genre is understandable, but country music doesn’t belong to the gatekeepers and the radio programmers. Gaslighter succeeds better as country music and just as music than literally anything played on country radio this year. – KJC
Courtney Marie Andrews
While not quite as refined or robust as 2018’s May Your Kindness Remain, Old Flowers is equally as devastating in its deconstruction of Andrews’ breakup and subsequent aftermath in coping with it. The writing is among her 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. The biggest strength of this album, however, comes in 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 that it’s time to start that next chapter, too. – ZK
The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury
For a songwriter of Gretchen Peters’ caliber to record an album of covers seems like a loaded proposition, but what The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury reaffirms is that Peters has long deserved to be known as a captivating recording artist, not just for her gifts as a songwriter.
Paying homage to Mickey Newbury, whose eye for detail and ear for unexpected wordplays both figure as prominent influences on her writing, Peters leans into the compelling brand of smokey Americana that has defined her recent output. The choices she makes in her vocal phrasing on “Leavin’ Kentucky” and “Why You Been Gone So Long” are particularly effective, while “The Sailor” and a killer rendition of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” are wondrous mood pieces. The album works both as a thoughtful tribute to Newbury and a vital addition to Peters’ own catalogue. – JK
Another comeback effort from a veteran, intended to be his final one. But what ultimately marks Years is how much livelier John Anderson sounds 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. Instead, 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. Framed with a sobering sincerity that manages to resonate even more because of it, it’s quietly one of Anderson’s best. – ZK
25 Trips is a career-best effort for Sierra Hull, 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 centering around the complicated game of growing older and questioning the personal progress made thus far, where the frequent solos are awesome, for sure, but are aiming for a mood that feels purposefully unhinged, too. The closure comes naturally, never offering any easy answers, given that part of growing older is embracing those fears head-on and refusing to let the clock dominate a life. An excellent first trip into new sonic territory for Hull. – ZK
Already one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, John Moreland drills deeper into the firmament on LP5, offering his densest and most literary set of songs yet. He works just as well in the contexts of protracted metaphors (“A Thought is Just a Passing Train,” “East October”) as he does on brutally frank self-assessments (“I’m Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth,” “Let Me Be Understood”). LP5 continues in the cosmic, proggy strain of Americana of its two predecessors, which gives texture and heft to Moreland’s riveting songs and increasingly Tom Waits-like voice. – JK
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
I can see the easy criticism for this album: 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 has burned out; or rather, shifted course. But there’s an unstable core to Reunions, where, 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. Yet his 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. In other words, he’s still got it. – ZK
And coming just off the Jason Isbell discussion, 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 and characters around him. Not that he won’t grant his anti-heroes 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. 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. An album where the reward comes in the work itself, for us and for others. – ZK
Your Life is a Record
Brandy Clark’s first two records were both excellent, and my reaction to each of them was frustration at the broken Nashville ecosystem. Why weren’t artists picking tracks of these albums like they did from Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters, and Kim Richey albums in the nineties?
Your Life is a Record is even better than those first two albums, but I don’t find myself saying the same thing this time around. What’s changed here is the personal nature of Clark’s songwriting on her third album. She sounds like she’s singing about her own breakup this time around. Her uncanny knack for observing the human experience and capturing it in song is still here, but she’s turned her observations inward.
How can I tell the difference? She’s much tougher on herself than she is on others. Your Life is a Record is often brutal in its self-reflection, and even when she’s wishing she never met the woman who broke her heart (“Can We Be Strangers”), she’s kicking herself in the shins for going to the party where they met. If Gaslighter set a new standard for divorce albums, Your Life is a Record did so for plain old breakup albums. Those hurt, too. – KJC
Back in the nineties, there was an entire class of brilliant female artists who were heavily influenced by seventies female artists. You could draw a direct line back from Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and Pam Tillis to Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. For years now, as I’ve traversed this barren land of bro-country, I’ve been wondering: Where the hell are all of the new acts who were heavily influenced by the nineties women?
Oh hello, Ashley McBryde! Good to have you with us.
McBryde’s first two albums spotlighted her songwriting skills and vocal talent, but she really came into her own on this year’s Never Will. You can hear the influence of Fearless-era Terri Clark on her powerful vocals, and her ability to write sentimental songs without sap (“Sparrow,” “Stone”) recalls the best work of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Matraca Berg.
There wasn’t a better record eventually on the radio this year than “One Night Standards.” Here’s hoping that more of Never Will gets heavy airplay. To borrow from McBride with an “i”, the time has come for radio to let its resistance to female artists go. Ashley McBryde needs to be in front of the line when/if they finally do. – KJC
Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me
One of the things I’ve thought about often during 2020, particularly whenever ridiculous arguments about “cancel culture” come up, is the social pressure to forgive people who have inflicted sometimes irreparable harm. The songs on Waylon Payne’s extraordinary Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, & Me ask similar questions about whether forgiveness is something that should be expected of anyone, who truly does the emotional labor in choosing to forgive someone for the damage they’ve done, and when the time is right to dig in and fight for redemption.
Payne takes stock of what it means to stand beside someone who betrays your trust on “After the Storm” and considers death a position of privilege when conflicts remain unresolved on the extraordinary “What a High Horse.” Lead single “Sins of the Father” finds Payne rejecting generational abuses in the guise of personal salvation, while his reading of “All the Trouble” emphasizes that the road to redemption is a treacherous one. What impresses most about Payne’s songwriting here is his recognition that progress must be nurtured: It’s fragile, and it’s rare. As a whole, Blue Eyes… argues that forgiveness and growth are still worth that effort and that it’s as important to show yourself the same grace and compassion you extend to others. It’s a moody and, at times, difficult album that pulls no punches, but Payne’s Blue Eyes… is also the year’s most hopeful album. – JK
Tami Neilson feels otherworldly when you first hear her. Her fuse of country, blues, and rockabilly reclaims for female artists a style that was best exemplified by Wanda Jackson, but that only a handful of male artists (The Mavericks, Gary Allan, Dwight Yoakam) have been able to incorporate into a mainstream sound.
As good as their records were, they were best at co-opting the sound for melancholy ballads. What Tami Neilson has done over the years is reclaim the brassiness as well, and put it through a distinctly feminist filter that crackles with the same fire as “Fujiyama Mama” did a half century ago.
“Call Your Mama” is downright savage, absolutely decimating the cheating lover she’s showing the door. Rather than send him into his sidepiece’s arms with a tear in her eye, she reminds him that he can’t even function as an independent adult without her: “Why don’t you call your mama, see if she wanna set up the spare room for you to stay? Why don’t you call your mama, see if she gonna float you a loan ’til you get paid?”
She goes to bat for every damn woman on the planet on “Queenie, Queenie,” mocking those who claim that stay-at-home moms have spare time, and drawing blood with a pointed attack on the misogyny in her own industry: “Mama’s gotta hustle, do another show, ’cause they won’t play a lady on country radio.”
The album has a bleeding heart as well, with the romantic “Tell Me That You Love Me” and the career-best heartbreak number “You Were Mine” showing her vulnerability. But the album’s driving engine is Neilson’s insistence in taking up space and claiming it not just for herself, but for all womankind. Listening to “Sister Mavis,” which reinvents the Holy Trinity to include Mavis, Mahalia, and Rosetta, it’s easy to picture Neilson barreling through the door and then using her heel to keep it open, letting through the flood of women that are being held back.
Tami and Brandy and Ashley and Natalie and Emily and Martie and Pam and Sierra and Gretchen and Courtney and Tessy and Mickey and Rhiannon and Dolly and Jessi and Amanda and Caylee. Let’s make 2021 the year of the Queenies. After 2020, it’s what all of us deserve. – KJC
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, dangerous as it is to assume, even if one can’t help but wonder anyway. 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. The desire to move past it, though, rather than stew in that misery, is why Davis just getting started on a hot streak. – ZK
Looking For a Feeling
We knew all the way back in 2007, when she released Rhinestoned, that Pam Tillis was going to double-down on her artistic bona fides after her time as a commercial hit-maker ended. What we didn’t know then was that it would be a full thirteen years before we’d get another solo album from Tillis. Looking for a Feeling was certainly worth the wait, and it’s an album that makes it clear that Tillis is still following her own muses.
What has always made Tillis such a distinctive talent is her approach to genre: She can throw down a traditional barnstormer like “Put Yourself in My Place,” top the charts with a slick cover of Jackie DeShannon’s pop hit “When You Walk In The Room,” and define the very best of contemporary country with songs like “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Maybe It Was Memphis.” She’s never been bound by genre conventions and, instead, looks at them as more of a dare.
She brings that same willingness to defy convention to Looking for a Feeling. The songs themselves all scan as country in some meaningful sense: From the slow-burning regret of “Better Friends,” to the impulse to “slap that little bitch Jolene” on the recitation of “Dolly 1969,” and the paean to the seductive effects of “Lady Music.” But the album recasts these country tunes into some vintage Southern soul: The arrangements sound like old Candi Staton or James Carr sides, and they are, to a one, glorious. It’s revelatory to hear Tillis in this setting, because it highlights the natural empathy and warmth of her voice. She doesn’t so much revel in vices on Waylon Payne’s “Looking For a Feeling” so much as she bathes luxuriously in them, and she sounds utterly at-ease in the heartbreak on “The Scheme of Things.”
To say that Pam Tillis has never sounded better on record is the highest of praise, but that’s the case with Looking for a Feeling. It isn’t just the year’s most welcome comeback, it’s a career-best effort from an artist who was already one of her generation’s finest. – JK
Best of 2020