Campfire Tales: Albums of the year 2020
Well what a year. 2020 is something that will go down in the ages, a genuine once in a century 12 months. Never to be repeated. Some sanctity came in the form of some really cracking music. It's lifted the spirits, it's asked some tough questions of us as listeners, and it's given an outlet to creativity. As always this list isn't trying to tell you what the "best" album is - whatever that actually means - this is a list, in no particular order, of our favourite albums of 2020, the ones we enjoyed, the ones that made us think, the ones that really made us feel.
'Ten Year Town' is the perfect song for Hailey, in fact it's the perfect song for all the believers in Nashville. It might be a well-worn phrase in the town, but it's the gateway to an album of terrific songwriting. 'The Days' has a Taylor Swift Folklore vibe to it, 'Red Wine & Blue' is wistful and longing, 'Dream, Girl' a hint of 80s So-Cal, and her cover of Stapleton's 'The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice' is familiar yet new. The completely perfect melodies are everywhere, and the lyrics bite home throughout.
Another long-time Nashville songwriter breaking out in 2020 was Jessi Alexander. Best known for songs like 'The Climb' and 'I Drive Your Truck', Decatur County Red is a proper mainstream country record. What does that mean? Well, the stories resonate, the music gives you tingles, and Jessi's voice laces everything with an honesty you can't fake. Lead single 'Mama Drank' set the tone, and the 29 minutes you spend with the record properly deliver.
Another of Nashville's songwriters turned artists in their own right, Ashley's Pauline lets her shine in her own right, showcasing her songwriting on music of her own. When you've a voice laced with this much character you deserve your own vehicle. Take the title track, the story of the song, the slowburn build of the music, and the descriptiveness of Ashley's voice all join to create something special. There's lashings of slide guitar, some scuzzy electric guitar, a duet with songwriting peer Caroline Spence, and an overall confidence that serves the songs well. This is a debut to live long in the memory.
Three years on from her debut, Raye's follow-up satisfies in all the right ways. From its descriptive and honest lyrics, especially on songs like 'Fight Like A Girl' and 'Red', to Raye silken voice, this is a record of real quality. Dealing with topics of race, gender, alienation, immigration, Raye delivers a masterclass in accessibility as these serious topics are approached with a lightness of touch to the music that doesn't cloud or detract from the stories or messages.
As with his songwriting peer, and TDF fave, Natalie Hemby, Luke is known for writing hits for the like of Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Dierks Bentley, and Eric Church. Also like Hemby, he breaks out on his own with a collection of his own written alongside a documentary, this time about the club he grew up in. Full of easy-going melodies, taking their time to draw you into their trace. Tracks like 'Polyester', 'Guy Named Rachel', 'B Level Hustler', and 'Mothers and Sons' are laced with clever lyrics, by turns touching and razor-sharp. Red Dog is that rare thing, a most personal record that's accessible for all. A rare trick to pull off.
It's probably not a surprise that Starting Over is on this list. If you like Stapleton then this is just what you need/expect, and we like Stapleton. From the moment modern classic 'Cold' came onto the TDF office stereo we were in. It's pure Stapleton from track one to track 14, there are the rip-roaring guitar and voice tracks like 'Arkansas' and 'Whiskey Sunrise', the softer ballad-esque tracks like 'Joy Of My Life' and 'Old Friends' and then there's the heartbreaker; 'Maggie's Song'. Country music is wrongly associated with songs about dead dogs, but this is one that will genuinely bring a tear to your eye. Only Stapleton could do that and not be trite.
How best to describe Chelsea's debut? Rambunctious? Rollicking? Unruly? Well it's all of those things and more. The attitude of songs like 'Beanstalk' and 'Anybody Else' are the platform for everything else on her debut, while the driving indie-rock beat of 'If Stupid People Could Fly' show the other side to her coin. It might have been recorded in Nashville but the spunk is all Chelsea's.
Now, we all know this is supposed to be a piss-take, but
Dierks Bentley Douglas "Doug" Douglason, along with the rest of the Knights, has crafted the best pure country album to come out of Nashville in 2020. From the self-titles opening track ("To Measure how much fun we're havin' / You would need a big ruler"), the record strikes a perfect blend of humour, witty lyrics (very near the knuckle at times both in terms of its audience and NSFW), and proper country music. Culminating in 'The USA Begins With US' is a masterstroke. It's a completely ego-free ten tracks of fun and bloody good music.
Do what Kyshona tells you and just listen. From the opening title track on Listen is a powerful set of songs, both in voice and lyrics, that carve a voice for Kyshona to "make" you hear what she's got to say. 'We The People' frames it a wider context, while the theme of 'Fear' is one that pervades, and 'More In Common' draws everything together at its close. One of the powerful statements by a Black artist in 2020, Listen really needs to b heard,
Back before many around the world really knew what COVID-19 was or had heard to word "coronavirus" this album was released, and it's a corker. From the moment the quiet start of the title track slams into 'My Love Will Not Change', Aubrie's duet with Steve Earle, you can feel in your bones this is something special. There's an industrial echo to things that chimes with the world that 2020 became, something a bit on the edges of expectation, whether it's the dark backroom sound of 'Worried Mind' or the pugnaciousness of 'Glad'.
After the double whammy of 2019's pair of EPs (which *cough* somehow made this list last year), the duo got to deliver their full vision. It's a mix of those two EPs, tracks in a different order, and with another five added. This is the album we should have got last year. Should we edit last year's list? Nah, these songs were terrific then, they're just up another notch now.
Despite mostly stellar feedback on Vol. 1 of Sturgill's Cutting Grass collection, there have been some slightly sniffy responses suggesting new music would have been better, but we disrespectfully disagree. In terms of timing and the need for pure joy there wasn't a better moment in 2020 for a surprise release of Vol. 1. With the world tiring of COVID and lockdowns, this is fan service at its best; Sturgill, with a group of the best players he could muster, playing bluegrass versions of his songs. Some are a very different experience, such as 'Breakers Roar', some are closer to their natural environment, like Life Ain't Fair And The World Is Mean' and 'Long White Line', both made for pickin'.
Another of our choices that seems from another lifetime, but only released in February 2020. Katie's beautiful voice floats across these ten tracks of luscious instrumentation. Expectations is very much a refined record, each note and melody thought through and delivered exquisitely. There's a touch of the Laurel Canyon vibe to it at times, such as the title track, but it also lyrically delves into real life such as the haunting 'Normal'. Possibly the most impressive thing is the patience shown with the songs, they're given time to breath, and room to deliver their stories.
Prolific. That's one word for someone who released their fourth album in five years. And it's Karen's best. From the moment the steel guitar underpins opener, 'The Last Cowboy (At The Bowling Alley)', it's pretty clear The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams is a proper country record. All guitar, southern twang, and two-step melodies, this is ten tracks of pure enjoyment, especially listen out for the rumbling 'Pink Leather Boots', the character-driven 'Farmer John', and softly spoken but heartbreaking 'Barely Breathing'.
CF (or Caitlin) is new to TDF ears, and her Babygirl album moves deftly between a reasonably trad country sound on tracks like opener 'The Tell', and more overtly indie-pop sounding songs like the title track. What lifts it is it's focus on the positive aspects of relationships, even those that don't end well. And it's that honesty and reflection that stands it apart from others on similar topics.
We can't be alone in thinking that TC3 veer from the sublime to the ridiculous? That's a bit harsh but after our disappointment in February's Country Fuzz which leaned a bit too heavily on some of the bro-country traits from days gone by, October's Tabasco & Sweet Tea smoothly, funk rocked our socks off. There've always been some incredible songs in their oeuvre but with their fifth release they've bundled a bunch of them into half an hour. 'Stop That Girl' douses a touch of their usual heavy backline in swaggering rhythm, while 'Road Soda' comes off like a 70s funk riff classic, then 'Money Ain't Shit' moves it onto an 80s vibe. Uplifting stuff to get your feet moving. Just what 2020 needed.
From speaking her mind on social media, to dealing with a close to home COVID experience that led to delaying her third album, 2020 has been a ride for Margo. The grungy guitar of lead single 'Twinkle Twinkle' signaled the slight readjustment made on That's How Rumors... but all roads lead to Margo here. Her sound has been evolving over the course of her first two records, released close enough together (2016 & 2017) that they feel like part one of the journey. If part two is to continue like this then we can wait to hear what's in store next.
One of the most mundane things about 2020 was just how great a record Brandy released. That's meant in a positive way of course, this is just the level of quality we expect now, three albums in. But this is a new more mature Brandy, or it is until the second song, then 'Long Walk' shows that sassy middle finger-ness that's one of her trademarks. Mostly though, Your Life Is A Record is full of thoughtful, beautiful, sad, and human songs like 'Pawn Shop', 'Apologies', and 'Can We Be Strangers'. It's honestly a wonderful eleven songs.
Forgetting 2016's little misstep, Little Big Town are on a terrific run of albums, starting with Tornado, through Pain Killer and The Breaker they've absolutely nailed their mainstream country-pop sound. Writing with some of the best songwriters Nashville has to offer certainly helps but the harmonies are perfect on this seventh album. Karen and Kimberly lead on most songs but they're more than ably supported by the guys. They've perfected heartfelt ballads, and now started on nailing Fleetwood Mac-esque ballad-y pop-rock songs (like the title track), and extend their repertoire of drinking songs with not one but two. 'Wine, Beer, Whiskey' does an admirable job of name checking almost every type of drink and many brands. Nightfall is just one of the most enjoyable records of 2020.
Ever since 'Family Tree' hit playlists the anticipation for this debut from Caylee was building. Blending a slice of straight down the line pop with some light country stylings was a winning recipe, and If It Wasn't For You builds on that, adding a sprinkle of rock ('Just Friends'), some touching balladry ('Looking For A Lighter'), and some top-level collaborations, including Ashley McBryde and Tenille Townes on the fab 'Mean Something'. Possibly the best mainstream debut of 2020. The future's bright, the future's orange.
There's a lot of noise in the "trad" country community about whether The Chicks new record is actually country. In most of its sound it isn't, but in its heart and its lyrics it most certainly is. And yes, Natalie Maines dominates, these are her stories, her lyrics, and her voice, ,but all that does is give the album its heart and soul. Whether its the calling card of 'Gaslighter' or the how-do-you-live-with-yourself nut kick of the likes of 'Sleep At Night' and 'Everybody Love You', or the cutting 'Tights On My Boat', you feel every heartstring tug, every tear, and every furrowed brow of anger.
Look, we've spent two years raving about Caitlyn's 2018 debut Starfire to anyone that will listen, but now we can finally move on to something new: her follow-up, Supernova. It's just as great. Whether it's the drama of 'Long Time Coming', the soaring chorus of 'Rare Bird', or the double whammy heartache of 'Damn You For Breaking My Heart' and 'Put Me Back Together Again' two things stand out: the songwriting and the voice. And Caitlyn has a rare skill for dropping the odd "fuck" into a song at the perfect place for maximum effect. It's a skill. The evolution of her songwriting and singing here is seamless, this is a perfect sequel.
One of the most honest albums of 2020 came from an unexpected source. We loved Lindsay's 2017 debut, it was a guitar-heavy country-pop beauty. But nothing to led you to expect heart theory. On the surface, it's the same MO; lots of guitar, great melodies, totally enjoyable. Listen though and it's a different matter, with sections linking to the seven stages of grief. The centre-piece of 'Make Me' exposes Lindsay's past trauma of abuse. As part of the album promotion she's spoken open and honestly about her experiences, partly in the hope of encouraging others. We love Lindsay's sound, but here her lyrics take heart theory to another place.
Another highly anticipated record that didn't disappoint was the return of Ashley McBryde with her guitar-y rock-country sound. It's a story-driven eleven tracks, as you'd expect from such a prodigious songwriter. Lead single 'One Night Standard' is a future classic, 'First thing I Reach For' is a country foot-tapper, and 'Martha Divine' is the switch-up on a murder ballad that 2020 needed, and 'Velvet Red' a folksy hoedown.
And the EPs that we've loved in 2020.
What a year for Mickey! Well known in Nashville circles for a while, her voice on social media, her stance on gender and racial equality, and ultimately her excellent, ground-breaking songs 'Black Like Me' and 'What Are You Gonna Tell Her?' gave her broader recognition in the second half of 2020. Forgetting all the important societal impact that she's had, it's her music that puts her on this list. An EP is all good and well, but let's hope she gets her deserved album asap.
There's an infectiousness to Raelynn that comes through in her music as well as it does in her personality. Tiding us over between 2017's Wildhorse and whenever we hear the next full lengther from the Texan, this EP, named after her hometown, is stuffed with country bangers. From opener 'Keep Up' to closer 'Bra Off' these are singalong anthems where Raelynn keeps the tempo mostly high.
In a year where global pandemics took the front page for most of the 365 days, it was a surprise that anything else got a look in. But it did, particularly the Black Lives Matters marches of summer 2020. With so much going on in the world it's probably not a shock that protest albums were released. Kelsey's EP collected up songs from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, John Prine and Bob Dylan, added the perfect twang of her voice, and a twist of her interperitations to deliver an excellent set. 'Mississippi Goddam (with Adia Victoria and Kyshona) is dramatic, driving, and foreboding, while her version of Kristofferson's 'The Law Is For The Protection Of The People' is terrific.
Much like Maddie & Tae in 2019, Lauren forwent a full record for two EPs in 2020. And much like the duo, she's hit both out of the park, and in a way that makes them feel like two parts of one whole, despite a gap of six months. Thankfully Getting Good included the excellent country-popper 'Ladies In The 90s', and Lauren's other hit, 'Getting Good'. The twelve tracks show Lauren's penchant for picking a cracking country-pop song. Whether they're slower paced or bar room jukebox ready like 'If I Was A Beer'. With co-writes across the EPs, it's not just the voice that the Georgian contributes. But that voice, well, it's the star here and what lifts Getting Over Him onto this list.