Monday, December 28, 2020

That Nashville Sound's Best Albums Of 2020 - A Year-End Best Of List

Despite our Covid shutdown for much of the year, the amount of great music that has been released into 2020 has been nothing short of remarkable. We live in an incredible time. The internet, YouTube and a variety of digital platforms give independent artists a more playing field to get their music heard than ever before- and as a result, we have more options at receiving that music than at any time in our history. From all parts of the world, artists are contributing to this incredible umbrella of music we call country music. True, a few stakeholders have a clear stranglehold on what's being heard on country radio, but clearly the tide has shifted and we are seeing time and time again, the ability of cream to rise to the top and artists become wildly successful without the support of the radio dial.

Albums still matter. Patrick McGuire wrote this in ReverbNation and I've read it several times and wanted to share: "Albums still matter because they tell the unique story of who a band is at a specific moment of time that one or two singles just don’t have the ability to do. Imagine if the songs from ... The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were released one at a time over the course of a year. Yes, the songs would still be incredible, but the meaning of these hugely important albums would be far less impactful. Whether it’s a concept album or not, good albums feature some sort of story or larger narrative whether it’s in the lyrics or instrumentation. Singles can’t tell the stories albums can." The platform of the album continues to be a tapestry that unites songs into a thematic quilt.

A handful of those 2020 country music releases stand out above all others. That's where this list comes in.

Here's a list of our favorite albums over the last few years for comparison:

2005 - Gary Allan - Tough All Over (tie)
           Lee Ann Womack - There’s More Where That Came From
2006 - Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways
2007 - Alison Krauss & Robert Plant - Raising Sand
2008 - Lee Ann Womack - Call Me Crazy
2009 - Eric Church - Carolina
2010 - Zac Brown Band - You Get What You Give
2011 - Pistol Annies - Hell on Heels
2012 - Marty Stuart - Nashville Volume 1- Tear The Woodpile Down
2013 - Brandy Clark - 12 Stories
2014 - Don Williams - Reflections
2015 - Chris Stapleton - Traveler
2016 - Ryan Beaver - RX
2017 - Jason Eady - Jason Eady
2018 - Ashley McBryde - Girl Goin' Nowhere
2019 - Erin Enderlin - Faulkner County

These are the albums that struck an emotional chord and moved this listener to fall in love with their projects over and over again.

1. Hailey Whitters – The Dream - If the Devil is in the details, then the tell is certainly in the story. In an album that doesn't waste a song, a note or a line, Whitters pines pragmatically about topics like getting ahead in the music business ("Ten Year Town") and waxes poetically on detailed studies of fascinating people. Nowhere is this more the case than in the phenomenal track "Janice at the Hotel Bar" where a lady who's been around the block once or twice (or thrice) passes along her advice to Hailey on a barstool. It's easy to believe that if Janice is a real person- Whitters has taken her advice. She provides an example of living a worthy life without being limited by social conventions or the expectations of others. Whitters has done just that on this incredible album. She's thrown out country radio conventions out along with the baby and the water and created something that's real, authentic, poetic and most of all, interesting. 

2. Ashley McBryde – Never Will - In her sophomore follow-up to our favorite album of 2018, Girl Goin' Nowhere, McBryde picks up right where she left off, producing heartfelt and engaging musical fare. Never Will has a more textured, more produced feel in a good way than her debut album and the tracks offer up a great diversity of radio-friendly songs and songs with depth. "Hang In There Girl" shows off her ability to drive home a passionate lyrical plea and "Velvet Red" might just be a nod to some of the very best of Loretta Lynn. She's like a modern-day Joni Mitchell with lyrical sensibilities of an Emmylou Harris. She's a storyteller in her own right and we're blessed to have her delivering them to us. 

3. Chris Stapleton – Starting Over - One of the hardest things to do in entertainment is to follow-up an amazing performance/project with another one- particularly when that first one is a your solo debut like Traveler was for Stapleton. That's where the story is wrong, however. Stapleton can't suffer from the sophomore (or in this case, a junior) slump because he's a seasoned pro with bands like the Steeldrivers and Brothers Jompson under his belt. This project doesn't transcend Traveler, but it certainly extends that story, delivering emotive fare with that distinctive delivery that is pure Chris Stapleton and no one else. His secret weapon is that powerhouse voice of his that combines country with a bluesy soul that hasn't yet been matched since he hit the scene there in Nashville. He has earned the right to expand his offerings past the traditional acoustic country production and we're all better for it. When he dials up the blues on songs like "Cold," the passion behind those vocals will give you goosebumps. 

4. Stephanie Lambring – Autonomy - If there was a New Artist of the Year Award for That Nashville Sound, Lambring would win it for this incredibly honest and sometimes heartbreaking album that brims with emotion. Tackling heavy and confronting topics head on, the project unrelentingly rips the skin off of the human experience and isn't afraid to showcase the dirty guts rarely put in song. Dealing with topics such as eating disorders, religious controversy, broken family relationships, suicide and the afflictions like Alzheimers, it's emotionally tactile and hurts your heart to listen to it at times. But that's the genius of the album. Instead of just glossing over the topics, Lambring makes you feel the angst through her protagonists and deals with these delicate topics with a brutal honesty with a graceful and poetic hand. 

5. Lori McKenna – The Balladeer - Our favorite songwriter's new album is another highly intelligent and introspective collection told from a powerful and personal place. She has woven a patchwork of life moments- mostly relationship-oriented ones- that are hypnotically autobiographical. McKenna has channeled her own experiences into song and brought with them all of her own hopes and dreams. The songs bathe themselves in insecurities, vulnerabilities and celebrations of life. It results in an emotional history that a listener can actually feel and hear in sound.

6. Brandy Clark – Life Is A Record - Clark writes realistic snapshots from the underbelly of real life in this fantastic collection of tales of cheating, smoking, break-ups- all with a wit that bites the listener and won't let go.  She's aware of the flaws of both herself and her community and celebrates them both in a way that gives both a depth rarely heard from an artist- and even rarely done so with such poetic lyrics. She’s added retro-pop strings and horns to nearly every one of the otherwise folky songs on this release, giving it a new feel and flavor. You don’t have to read up on how she was coming off the end of a 15-year relationship to guess that several of these songs were written in darker place. Bob Marley once said that "One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain." Clark's healing album ends up healing us all. 

7. Brothers Osborne – Skeletons - This album has a groove that grabs you by the lapel and doesn't let go. Ironically, it's going to play incredibly well in the arenas that Brothers Osborne has/will be graduating to, but didn't get the opportunity to because of Covid-19. Skeletons continues Brother Osborne’s long-term partnership with producer Jay Joyce and front to back, it's their best effort following two excellent previous albums. Skeletons is the rallying cry of a band that’s well-and-truly found where they fit in the genre. The energy is high, the melodies strong and John’s guitar playing truly jaw-dropping at every turn. It's proof that up-tempo doesn't have to be formulatic in the genre. 

8. Hill Country/Wilder Blue – Hill Country - Consisting of solo artist and songwriter Zane Williams, songwriter and performer Paul Eason who also plays guitar for Kevin Fowler, Houston drummer Lyndon Hughes, Austin bassist Sean Rodriguez, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Rogers, Hill Country pulled the ultimate switcheroo, renaming the band to The Wilder Blue in October. But prior to that change, they delivered a fantastic Texas record that combined smart lyrics with impeccable musicianship. The group offers impeccable storytelling, as well as often sharing traditional Bluegrass elements.

9. Brent Cobb – Keep ‘Em On They Toes - This album goes back to the more mellow rootsy vibe of Cobb's terrific 2016 album, Shine On Rainy Day. Brent Cobb has released a great record that speaks to a lot of the current conditions of the world without being tied to any particular side one way or the other. It preaches patience and loving your fellow man.  The production leaves space and a sparseness that leaves one little choice but to focus on his lyrics, which are smart, engaging and authentic. 

10. Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive - Eldredge has always been a bit of a paradox. He's a fan of the classics whether they be the Cubs or Frank Sinatra. His voice lends itself to the slower ballads and while he's had significant success with upbeat radio hits, it always felt a bit like putting a square peg in a round hole. Until this album. Eldredge went all adult on us and delivered a sentimental and incredibly well-written album that we've been waiting for. What’s truly fantastic about this album is how it manages to capture such a broad range of emotions in a painstakingly honest and human way. They convey a deep emotional depth because they come from a place of true introspection and personal experience. It's a personal reveal of the best kind. 

11. Jessi Alexander – Decatur County Red - This new album from the respected Music Row songwriter features eight new songs that blend stories of hell-raising, blue-collar characters like the barn-burner “Country Music Made Me Do It” feat. Randy Houser, with more sultry, fragile numbers like “I Should Probably Go Now”, where Alexander fearlessly wears her heart on her sleeve to create a candid snapshot of two lovers coping with infidelity. The album takes a more personal turn as she dives into her time grinding on Music Row with “Damn Country Music” and “How I’m Going Out”, where she reflects on the loss of her friend and fellow songwriter Andrew Dorff and all other ghosts that live on Music Row. It's short and sweet, but brilliantly told. 

12. John Anderson – Years - Terrific age-appropriate lyrics that draw on a lifetime of living on the highway and the life a musician leads. It's our favorite sentimental album of the year, a great reminder of the brilliant uniqueness of Anderson's voice and music. 

13. Panhandlers – Panhandlers
14. Sarah Jarosz – Hometown
15. Band of Heathens - Stranger
16. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions
17. David Nail – Bootheel EP
18. Tessy Lou Williams – Tessy Lou Williams
19. Josh Turner – Country State of Mind
20. Steeldrivers – Bad For You
21. Aubrie Sellers – Far From Home
22. Mike & The Moonpies – Touch of You
23. Gone West - Canyons
24. Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer, Vol. 2
25. Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
26. Cam – The Otherside
27. The Chicks – Gaslighter
28. Willie Nelson – First Rose of Spring
29. Katie Pruitt - Expectations
30. Little Big Town – Nightfall
31. Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
32. Carly Pearce – Carly Pearce
33. Pam Tillis – Looking for a Feeling
34. Corb Lund – Agriculture Tragic

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