I never thought I’d need music again like I did in 2020.
I spent big chunks of 2018 and 2019 sorting back through records that had been formative in my life, first from the 2000s and then the 2010s. If anything, those processes showed me that the way I listened to music and connected with it had largely changed. And that made sense: the 2000s were the decade where I came of age, where I fell in the love with music for the first time, and where I went through the tumult of high school and all the joys and stumbles that path entails; the 2010s were my college years, the decade where I fell in love with my wife, where I saw my big youthful dreams die, where I saw another set of dreams sprout up to take their place, where I got married, and where I found my way toward contentment in my professional and personal life.
That kind of contentment is a gift, but it can also change the way you connect with art. When you’re young, you latch onto music in a primal way, because your emotions are heightened and every year brings so many milestones and so much change. Settling into the routine of adulthood affords fewer reasons to rely on an album like it’s a lifeline, or to listen to a song and feel like it might have just saved your life. Looking back at my year-end lists from the past two years, it’s clear to me that I was losing that visceral bond with the songs I thought I loved. While there are albums I adore on those lists, there are also many that don’t have any true relationship with beyond simple appreciation. 2020 was different. The world was a storm and I turned to music again as my raincoat, not unlike the way I used to in high school or college and facing a broken heart or a moment of crisis.
In recent days and weeks, as countless music fans across the internet have shared their “best of 2020” lists, I’ve read time and time again that folks “didn’t listen to much new music in 2020.” Maybe they felt they lacked the mental or emotional capacity to process anything else that was new and unfamiliar when our entire way of life suddenly seemed alien. Maybe people were just retreating to albums and songs they’d loved for years, taking solace in sounds that felt like old friends.
That wasn’t me: I spent the year putting out a call to the music world to give me something, anything that made me feel alive, or that spoke to the hope or grief or resilience or frustration I was feeling at any given moment. And the artists more than answered that call, delivering music that kept me afloat through it all, from the early days of the pandemic to a summer that never quite was, and from the jitters of election night through to the melancholy sadness that floated over the holiday season. It’s my favorite single-year slate of albums in at least half a decade – a list where I feel a more emotional connection with the LP at number 26 than I did with last year’s number 6. For the sake of the world and my own mental health, I hope I don’t have a reason to lean on music as much in 2021 as I did in 2020. But during a time when almost everything around me felt like it was falling apart, these albums gave me the hope and faith to keep going. I’ll never forget that.
1. Katie Pruitt – Expectations
The first time I heard Katie Pruitt’s debut album Expectations, I knew it was a masterpiece. That was October 2019, right around the release of my favorite album from last year (Jimmy Eat World’s Surviving), and I remember thinking then that Expectations would handily top my 2019 list if it had actually been scheduled to come out in 2019. I didn’t know yet the full journey that I would take with this album: how my vinyl copy would arrive on February 21, at the end of one of the last weeks that truly felt normal; how the songs would take on a different character in the first weeks and months of the pandemic, as I looked for signs of better days on the horizon; how Pruitt herself would remain a present force throughout 2020, showing different sides of her musical identity with cover songs, live takes, and a remarkable non-album protest song called “Look the Other Way.” Not knowing any of that last fall, I still made a bet with myself that I’d be crowning Expectations as my album of the year when the time came to rank my favorite records from 2020. Even completely removed from context, the songs here were just too remarkable for me to think that anything was going to top them. Nothing ever did, but that’s partially because of just how resilient an anthem of hope this album is, and because of how dearly I needed to feel that hope over the past 10 months.
Expectations is hardly a happy album: it’s grounded in autobiographical tales of Pruitt’s southern upbringing, her coming-of-age, and her coming out as a gay woman. The songs grapple with confusion, fear, ignorance, familial rejection, denial, self-identity, depression, and quite a bit of pain. Occasionally, Pruitt sounds one verse shy of giving up, like on opener “Wishful Thinking,” where she writes off the idea of pining for a movie-screen-worthy romance as “just wastin’ all your time.” In “Grace Has a Gun,” the narrator describes a lost girl who does ultimately give up – who thinks “the scars on her arms means that she’s in control” and who, eventually, turns the gun at herself and pulls the trigger. But then you get songs like “Georgia,” about coming out to your parents and fearing the worst, only to have them surprise you; or the closing duo of “Loving Her” and “It’s Always Been You,” deeply impactful love songs that have that much more payoff after all the other emotional beats the album throws the listener’s way. Queer voices are more prevalent in music than they once were, across all genres, but they are still a relative rarity in Pruitt’s country/Americana wheelhouse. Ironically, the trappings of country music, as a storytelling medium first and foremost, give that much more space for Pruitt to go into detail about her experiences and tell the whole truth. The result is a searing, life-affirming piece of work that should have gotten more attention than it did. No hyperbole, Expectations is the kind of record that saves lives. On some of my darker days in 2020, it sure felt like it was saving mine.
2. Jason Isbell – Reunions
I don’t know how much more I have to say about Reunions. I spilled more of myself in my review for this record than in just about anything else I’ve ever written. But then again, a record as searchingly personal and disarmingly honest as Reunions deserved nothing less. Jason Isbell has bared his soul on record before, writing about his struggles with alcoholism, his love story with his wife, the birth of his daughter, and his anxiety about losing everything he’s gained. And yet, even by Isbell’s standards, Reunions feels intimate. It is, above all, an excavation of the past: of memories that have followed you around for years, sometimes slipping into the recesses at the back of your mind, sometimes nagging you incessantly when you can’t sleep at night, but never quite loosening their hold. These are songs about childhood scars you couldn’t understand back then (“Dreamsicle”) or lost friends you wish you could talk to one last time, just to say all the things you always wanted to say but didn’t (“Only Children”). It’s about the scathing doubts you have about yourself (“It Gets Easier”) and the fears you can have about things that are even years away (“Letting You Go,” where Isbell imagines his daughter’s wedding day). The elevator pitch for Reunions was that it was an album full of ghost stories, only the ghosts were memories and past traumas rather than actual specters. It’s a beguiling concept for a record, because we all have those kinds of ghosts somewhere in our rearview mirrors. But Reunions works because Isbell cares more about the songcraft than the concept, not only imbuing each song with stories that are relatable and honest, but also writing lyrics that are as beautiful for the way Isbell uses words as they are for the way he sings them.
3. Taylor Swift – evermore
Taylor Swift’s second surprise album of 2020, evermore, dropped on a chilly December Friday that just so happened to be the end of one of the worst weeks of my life. Perhaps that’s why the album resonated so deeply with me, or why its downbeat, sad, wintry songs felt immediately like old friends. The party line so far seems to be that evermore is inferior to folklore—a retread of similar musical territory with diminishing returns. To my ears, though, the albums are distinctly different and rewarding in different ways. folklore delivered the bigger immediate payoff, a product of both the surprise nature of the album’s release and a sound that felt new and fresh for Taylor. On repeat listens, though, I found myself feeling a deeper kinship with evermore’s characters: with the girl in “’tis the damn season” who doesn’t know what she wants and then stumbles upon it when she goes home for the holidays; with the neglected wife in “tolerate it” carrying around all the things she wants to say to her oblivious husband until they inevitably explode out of her; with the narrator(s) of “coney island,” revisiting sites of their glory days and wondering what they hell happened to the person that used to mean the world to them; certainly with the granddaughter in “marjorie,” mourning someone who’s been gone for years but feeling like they’re still right there in every word you sing. In my initial review of this album, I wrote that it was the saddest album that Taylor had ever made—packed, as it is, with songs about heartbreak, infidelity, divorce, and soul-deep heartache. In a weird way, though, evermore ultimately ended up playing a hugely uplifting role in my life when I needed that pick-me-up desperately. By the end of the album, even after Taylor and her characters have weathered a million different storms, the lesson is that the pain won’t last for evermore. As one of the last albums from 2020 that captured my attention and my heart, it felt like the first glimpse at the light at the end of a dark tunnel.
4. Bruce Springsteen - Letter to You
The last time I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live was in February of 2016, at a tour stop in Louisville, Kentucky where they played 1980’s The River front to back. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that it might be the last time I’d ever see an E Street show. I didn’t know that Springsteen wouldn’t release another proper album until 2019, or that he’d spend the better part of the next (now almost) five years sorting through his legacy, first with a memoir and then with a one-man Broadway show. There’s nothing quite like seeing Springsteen live, and it’ll break my heart if, after this pandemic is over, we don’t get at least one more tour full of marathon E Street shows. The good news is that Letter to You captures the sound and energy of a live E Street show perhaps better than any album in the Springsteen discography. With the band tracking live and producer Ron Aniello mostly getting out of the way, the songs here come across sounding rich, raw, and ready for an arena or stadium, whenever COVID allows. And like all Springsteen’s best albums, Letter to You mixes a big, bold, anthemic sound with songs that tackle key parts of the human condition – in this case, mortality, death, and loss. From the vantage point of 71, Bruce surveys his past, including bands whose other members have all passed through the gates of rock ‘n’ roll heaven (“Last Man Standing”) and old friends who are gone but far from forgotten (“Ghosts,” “See You in My Dreams”). It’s not all a downer: “Burnin’ Train” is one of the liveliest rockers Bruce has written since the ‘80s, while a trio of old, old songs (“Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was a Priest,” and “Song for Orphans”) time-warp Bruce and his listeners to the early days in poignant, rollicking ways. But even the fun songs carry immense emotional weight here, if only because Letter to You is the closest a Springsteen album has ever come to sounding like a goodbye.
5. Taylor Swift – folklore
I have a feeling it will be difficult to explain, to future generations, just how miraculous folklore felt in the moment. Dropped on July 24, less than 24 hours after it was announced and less than a year on the tails of 2019’s Lover, folklore struck like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. I vividly remember seeing the tweet that announced the record, glimpsing the rustic album cover, perusing the unexpected but exciting list of collaborators, reading Taylor’s introduction. Even before I heard a single note of single song, folklore was already arguably the most memorable music-related experience I had in 2020. Here was a distraction from 2020’s endless ticker scroll of bad news, a quarantine classic to keep us all company as we whiled away our summers not doing most of the things summers are made for. More than that, here was an album that seemed to promise a big pivot for Taylor, away from the Über Pop that had dominated the past six years of her career and back toward something more singer-songwriter driven. Actually listening to folklore for the first time was its own little miracle: a gorgeous summer morning, sun streaming through the windows, hearing one of my favorite songwriters in the world scale things back after years of maximizing them. The songs didn’t necessarily all click right away: folklore can sound samey in spots if you’re not in the right mood or if you’re not paying attention. But I’ll never forget that first listen and how the lyrics just seemed to wrap themselves around me: the summer sipped away like a bottle of wine in “august”; the coming of age come and gone in “peace”; the warning signs, given and overlooked, in “exile”; the rom-com happy ending in “Betty.” Even on that first playthrough, I felt like I was listening to a record bound for classic status. Who knows if folklore will reach that rarified air 10, 20, 30 years from now, once its context as both a quarantine classic and a gamechanger in Taylor’s career has blurred a bit. Even if I’m not able to explain to my kids why folklore mattered so much, though, I don’t think I’ll ever forget why it did to me.
6. Caitlyn Smith - Supernova
I vividly remember when Supernova was officially announced. After Caitlyn Smith made my favorite album of 2018 (her debut album, Starfire), I waited with bated breath to hear what she would do next. I was in the elevator heading down to the hotel lobby on the way to my brother’s rehearsal dinner last November when I saw on my phone that Smith had set a date for the release of the follow up: March 13. Little did I know at the time that March 13—the first of two Friday the Thirteenth occurrences in 2020—would be the day that the entire world would get turned upside down. Following a week of uncertainty—athletic events getting canceled, bad news filtering in from overseas, celebrities contracting COVID-19—March 13 is when everything started to shut down and the entire country started to descend into panic. I listened to Supernova on repeat for that entire day: on a surreal trip to the grocery store to stock up on supplies; as I tried (and failed) to concentrate on work; on a run where I got emotional thinking about the things I already missed about normal life (note: I had no fucking idea). It wasn’t the experience I’d expected to have with Supernova, an album Smith intended as a “reflection on the highs and lows that make life so beautiful.” Life didn’t feel remotely beautiful that day, and it hasn’t felt very beautiful during most days since. Even absent the normal beauty of the world, though, Supernova struck a deep chord with me. “Long Time Coming” felt apocalyptic. “Fly Away” felt like pipe-dream hopes for a normal summertime. “Midnight in New York City” felt like a distant memory of a romantic evening in a city that never sleeps, from way before everything went mad. Most presciently, the closer, a song called “Lonely Together,” came to capture the feeling of this year of quarantine better than any other: “You’ve got a heart like mine/I can name every color/You make me feel like I’m not going insane/And when you’re by my side/Oh, I get a little bit better/Hold me, let’s be lonely together.” Smith wrote the song while pregnant with her second child and finishing a long touring cycle, wracked with exhaustion and feeling an ache for home. Like all the songs on Supernova, though, it proved to be eerily elastic to the mood of this year, transmuting its very specific brand of loneliness onto the experiences that no one could have predicted or inhabited when this album was written, recorded, or announced. No album this year has comforted me in quite the same way, perhaps because no album this year is as irrevocably linked with everything that’s happened since that fateful, fearful mid-March Friday.
7. The Chicks - Gaslighter
The Chicks (formerly Dixie Chicks) took a 14-year recording break and still came back with arguably the year’s most vital country album. Leave it to these three, who have become masters of career reinvention since their late-1990s heyday. From the pitch-perfect radio country of 1999’s Fly to the backroads bluegrass of 2002’s Home to 2006’s classic-rock-indebted Taking the Long Way, The Chicks long ago proved themselves more adaptable than any of their fellow ‘90s country stars. Even with that track record, though, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gaslighter, an album that not only brought The Chicks into the era of streaming, but also paired them with one of modern pop’s most foundational producers in Jack Antonoff. I needn’t have worried. Taking the Long Way was grounded not just by producer Rick Rubin’s classic-leaning tendencies, but also by everything The Chicks had to say in the midst of the backlash, death threats, and pre-cancel-culture cancellation they received for daring to be the country artists who spoke out against a republican president and a directionless war. Gaslighter, similar, bears many of Antonoff’s trademarks, but keeps its own strong foundation, this one inspired by frontwoman Natalie Maines’ bitter divorce from her cheating ex-husband. The result is one of the most searing and emotionally affecting divorce albums of the 21st century, an album that revels in all the complicated feelings that come at the end of a relationship that was supposed to be forever. Rage at lies so innumerable they could stack up to the height of a skyscraper; emotional agony at losing a person who you’ll still always have at least a few positive memories of; empathy for your children as they sort through their own emotions about the wreckage of their family; excitement at the prospect of finding someone new; forgiveness and grace, or the act of finding your way toward them over time. These emotions and many others form the technicolor tapestry of Gaslighter, and of songs that can somehow be exuberant kiss-offs, jaw-dropping confessional tell-alls, and heartbreaking shards of human fragility, all at once.
8. Donovan Woods – Without People
There’s an old cliché in music writing about artists or bands that get better and better every time they put out a new album. Usually, it’s bullshit: the product of either hype or hyperbole. With Canadian singer-songwriter Donovan Woods, though, it might actually be the truth. After 2018’s Both Ways, a front-to-back masterclass in songwriting that saw the once folk-oriented Woods leaning further toward the Nashville writers rooms where he does his day job, I figured he’d have a hard time topping himself again. I underestimated him: Without People retreats a bit from the country music lean of Woods’ last few projects, but doesn’t drop the “songwriting first” mentality that’s become so central to his art. The result is an unpredictable, exciting, and deeply moving set of songs that expand Donovan’s sound in interesting ways. Though Woods is as good in whisper-quiet mode as ever (see wintry beauties like “Lonely People” and “High Season”), he’s also learned to use the studio as a tool to get his ideas across, whether that means looping an acoustic guitar riff and turning it into a little pop earworm (“Clean Slate”) or crafting an orchestral anthem to serve as the album’s climax (“God Forbid”). The moments of bombast pair with the moments of intimacy in a surprisingly effortless fashion, making Without People the most consistent and cohesive Donovan Woods album yet. Still, even with everything Woods seems to add to his arsenal every time he makes an album, it’s the words and stories that remain the centerfold. Here, he uses them to explore human relationships and the distance that can build up between them—likely inspired by COVID times (and likely the inspiration behind the incredibly melancholy album title). On “Last Time I Saw You,” he employs a last-line lyrical twist that is so deft it both changes the meaning of the entire song and breaks your heart in two. And on “Whatever Keeps You Going,” he muses about the little things people do to make life bearable—whether it’s clinging to an old beat-up car because it’s the only thing you have left of your late dad, or dreaming about someday having enough money to buy a little farmhouse “far enough out that you can see the stars.” That’s the great thing about Without People: even though Woods makes parts of it sound undeniably huge, it’s still ultimately an album about the little moments, memories, habits, and routines that make a life.
9. The Killers - Imploding the Mirage
Imploding the Mirage was framed as a comeback—as in, “Can you believe this legacy band released such a fantastic album in 2020?” Beyond the bizarre nature of trying to wrap my head around classifying The Killers—a band whose debut album I bought at a Walmart in the middle of eighth grade —as a legacy band, I also took issue with the word “comeback.” If you’re asking me, The Killers have been releasing great albums ever since that aforementioned debut—particularly 2012’s Battle Born, my pick for the most underrated rock album of the last 10 years. But I can hardly fault critics climbing aboard imploding the Mirage, a larger-than-life stadium rock record released in a time where it felt like stadium rock might never be a thing ever again. Just like Hot Fuss, Mirage burns exceedingly hot for its first half (“My Own Soul’s Warning,” “Blowback,” “Caution,” and “Dying Breed” is the year’s most miraculous four-track run) and eases off the gas deeper into the tracklist. Despite the top-heavy design of the record, though, Imploding the Mirage remains miraculous, stowing songs that would seem positively gargantuan in any other hands (the War on Drugs-aping “Running Towards a Place,” or the U2 cosplay of “When the Dreams Run Dry”) on a second half that feels modest for the simple reason that the first half is so comically outsized. My assumption is that those first four songs will always control the narrative around Mirage, just like the “Mr. Brightside”/”Smile Like You Mean It”/”Somebody Told Me”/”All These Things That I’ve Done” string dominates the legacy of Hot Fuss. Then again, when you’ve got songs as picture-perfect as “Caution,” with its rip-roaring Lindsey Buckingham guitar solo”; or “Dying Breed,” with its sheer adrenaline-boosting kinetic energy, you’ve got nothing to fear from having your legacy guided by just your A-list songs.
10. Ken Yates - Quiet Talkers
There were albums this year that hit me harder, but I’m not sure there was an album I came back to more in 2020 than Quiet Talkers. Something about the quiet, patient grace of this record kept me replaying it through the spring and summer months, and especially into the fall. Music writers often write off singer-songwriters—especially lesser-known talents like Ken Yates—saying that their music isn’t “unique” enough, or that it doesn’t have enough of a “narrative” to make it memorable. But on Quiet Talkers, Yates’s songs have this beguiling power of worming their way further under your skin with each successive listen. He drinks the seasons away and fights insatiable loneliness on “Grey County Blues.” He enjoys easy midnight conversations with a drunk girl on “Quiet Talkers.” On “Easy Way Out,” he tracks the progress of a restless dreamer who always gives up when the going gets tough. And on “Pretend We’re Alright,” he implores a lover in a dying relationship to put on a charade of a happiness for just one more night, to play-act happiness in hopes that it might become genuine. These are late-night songs meant for pensive evenings, long car rides, and relaxing dusks at home. They feel implicitly lonesome, which, in a year full of profound loneliness, had the ironic effect of repeatedly making me a feel a little less alone.
11. Dawes - Good Luck with Whatever
Good Luck with Whatever is, for me, a record that will probably always carry the specter of death. The album came out the day after I saw my grandma for the last time, and two days before she died. The next week, I stopped by my local record store and bought a copy on vinyl. I didn’t realize until I got the album home that it had a massive scrape on side two that rendered the last three songs unplayable. Fortunately, I knew the record store proprietor from an article I’d written earlier in the year about the resurgence of vinyl, and I knew he was an upstanding guy who would understand my plight. A few days later, he had a replacement copy in hand and took back the damaged copy, no questions asked. It was the last time I ever saw him or spoke to him: less than two months later, I read on Facebook that he’d passed away. Though not about death, specifically, Good Luck with Whatever can’t help by carry those ghosts for me within its songs—many of which happen to be about the process of getting older and realizing, at some point, that your youth is entirely gone. Sometimes, frontman Taylor Goldsmith comes at that idea humorously, as on the tongue-in-cheek opener “Still Feel Like a Kid.” Sometimes, he reckons with it in wistful and even painful fashion, as on “St. Augustine at Night,” a beautiful acoustic ballad about the ties you keep to your family and to your hometown; or on “Me Especially,” where Goldsmith tries to pretend, for one more night, that he’s still an innocent kid with the impossible possibility of youth at his fingertips. Most gripping of all is “Didn’t Fix Me,” a dizzying piano-led rumination on mental health and the never-ending search for total contentment. “It feels very natural to outsource our problems,” Goldsmith said of the song,.“Telling ourselves ‘once I have this job, this partner, this amount of money, etc, I will be happy’ is really effective and convenient. Unfortunately, no one’s life actually works that way…This song is about the efforts one makes to find some easy fix, unable to recognize that it will never work that way, that we are in the end our own responsibility.” It’s an idea we’ve probably all grappled with that, for whatever reason, no one has ever really written a song about—at least not a song quite like this one. That’s par for the course for Dawes, who spend Good Luck with Whatever exploring familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways; it’s another terrific entry in the most solid discography of the last 15 years.
12. Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy
Ruston Kelly is a country artist who writes songs like he’s an early 2000s emo/pop-punk artist. On Shape & Destroy (which he abbreviates as SAD), Kelly is drawing as much from Dashboard Confessional and Blink-182 as he is from country heroes like Patsy Cline and the Carter Family. The result is an album that is deeply intimate – sometimes uncomfortably so. Kelly’s willingness to tell the truth about his life – his daily struggles to stay sober, his deep love for now-ex-wife Kacey Musgraves, the lessons he’s learned on a long and sometimes dark road – colors his music and makes it hum with the electricity of hard-fought truths. When Kelly released the sparse acoustic “Brave” as this album’s first single, he called it “a sword song. “Writing it made me feel armed to face my lesser self,” he wrote, “Because becoming a better version of myself requires taking account of the painful missteps along the way and fighting the anguish of facing them. And to ultimately (and hopefully) come out better than who I was before. Taller and stronger. This is the highest achievement a human being can hope for, everything else is secondary.” Shape & Destroy is an album full of sword songs: of songs that feel like displays of immense resilience and strength, as well as songs that seem to be nearly buckling under the weight of it all. It’s a wrenching but hopeful album about the strength of the human spirit, and about how it’s sometimes the deepest moments of despair (“Mid-Morning Lament”) that make the flickers of bliss (“Alive”) feel so full of wonderment and life.
13. Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
One of my most memorable “first listen” experiences of 2020 came during my first play through Lady Like. I knew nothing of Andress at the time, beyond the fact that a few country music critics or websites I liked were posting about her then-brand-new debut album. The entire thing was enjoyable on that first listen, if not necessarily revelatory. But then I hit track six and it made me drop everything I was doing and pay attention. That song, “More Hearts Than Mine,” nearly topped the country charts this summer, in a rare occurrence of country radio actually latching onto something special. It’s a songwriter’s tour-de-force, about the way the shattering of a relationship can affect way more than just the two people deciding to go their separate ways, but also friends and especially family. I’ve heard country songs tackle that theme before, but never as deftly as Andress does here, and never with a punchline (“If we break up, I’ll be fine/But you’ll be breaking more hearts than mine”) that hits with such a well-placed twist of the knife. Andress, a former a cappella group leader (she was on the Ben Folds NBC show The Sing Off a few years back) and a songwriter for everyone from Sam Hunt to Charli XCX, does that repeatedly throughout Lady Like, taking familiar ideas and imbuing them with new depth or craft. Sometimes, her skill with a pen nets big laughs and lots of fun (“Bad Advice” and the bonus track “Waste of Lime,” both uproariously clever songs that make light of breakups); sometimes, it just breaks your heart (“The Stranger,” about two people trying to recapture the spark of their relationship, or “Life of the Party,” whose narrator isn’t doing half as well as she wants you to think she is). At eight songs, the standard edition of the album is a bit too short, with deluxe edition tracks like “Feeling Things” and the aforementioned “Waste of Lime” helping to create a more complete, cohesive work. Then again, the brief length might also be an asset: by the time Andress is singing about getting boys kicked out of the Garden of Eden on the closing title track, the addictive nature of the album’s sticky melodies and thoughtful lyrics might just make you want to play it twice in one sitting.
14. Cam - The Otherside
On her major label debut album, 2015’s Untamed, country singer Cameron Ochs made it clear that she had a lot of talent. As far as pure hooks go, there are very few in the country genre from the past 10 years that can measure up to “Half Broke Heart” or “My Mistake.” If anything held that album back from greatness, though, it was that it felt a bit like meddling A&R folk were occasionally pushing Cam toward styles that didn’t fit her quite right—specifically the Miranda Lambert-esque rough-and-tumble sound of the title track and “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty.” But a long five-year wait between albums seems to have finessed Cam’s sound significantly, with The Otherside sounding both more mature and more confident than its predecessor. It’s an album that bears a lot of similarity to what I consider golden age Taylor Swift, pairing the diaristic honesty of Speak Now with the chameleonic pop-country hybrids that defined Red. A dynamite list of collaborators doesn’t hurt, as Cam brings in songwriting partners who both help her play into her comfort zone (The Love Junkies on the radiant “Like a Movie,” or Natalie Hemby on the heart-wrenching album closer “Girl Like Me”) or push her outside of it (poppier plays like the title track, co-written with the late Avicii; “Classic,” a team-up with in-demand pop whisperer Jack Antonoff; or “Changes,” which features none other than Harry Styles on the writing credit list). The album still occasionally feels like it was pieced together over a long period of time from a very large batch of material, rather than carrying the electrically-charged cohesion you sometimes get from albums written and recorded quickly. But the album’s dual themes—of heartbreak and passing time—anchor The Otherside as one of the biggest triumphs out of the country genre this year.
15. Brothers Osborne – Skeletons
Skeletons was the most fun I had listening to music in 2020. In a different year, it would have been the soundtrack to windows-down summer drives and rowdy country-rock concerts. Who knows: it could come to play those roles yet in 2021, depending on what the coming months look like. Released as it was in the early part of October, though, Skeletons mostly served to offer 39+ minutes of gleeful escapism in the midst of a year that was otherwise severely lacking in fun. Now on their third LP, Brothers Osborne have always known how to have a good time but have never been quite this whip-smart before. Lighthearted rockers like “All the Good Ones Are” and “I’m Not for Everyone” are rapid-fire barrages of one wry, clever lyric after another. Even the album’s more poignant numbers (like “Make It a Good One,” about the brevity of life; or “Old Man’s Boots,” a cool little twist on the father-son song that’s become a country music trope) have a few lines guaranteed to make you smile, or laugh, or both. Skeletons is like that, though: an album that repeatedly shirks your expectations. It’s a record whose most melancholy and intimate song is the one about a one-night stand (the gorgeous “High Note”), where the drinking song hits a slew of metronomic tempo shifts sure to trip up any audience member a few beers deep (“Back on the Bottle”), and where a country band once more turns in more impressive guitar pyrotechnics than just about any rock band currently in business (the two-song suite of “Muskrat Greene” and “Dead Man’s Curve”). If hearing these songs in 2020 was this fun, imagine how much fun it will be when the world is no longer a dumpster fire.
16. Lindsay Ell – Heart Theory
Lindsay Ell’s first album, 2017’s The Project, was a promising debut that paired mainstream country trends with the soulful, guitar-driven pop-rock of John Mayer’s Continuum. It was a wholly enjoyable listen with a few tremendous songs, but it occasionally felt like an artist wandering in search of their niche. Heart Theory, Ell’s sophomore LP, is her quantum leap forward. Here, aided by a dynamite album concept—ostensibly, exploring the seven stages of grief in the context of a breakup—Ell has the chance to shape her sound around a built-in arc. She reckons with shock on the soulful opener “Hits Me,” talks herself through textbook denial on “I Don’t Love You,” spits anger at a former flame on the propulsive “Want Me Back,” diagrams a couple in the bargaining stage on “Body Language of a Breakup,” and nears acceptance on the euphoric “Go To.” Throughout, she unleashes her bluesy guitar leads like a woman possessed and sings with heart and wit in equal measure. She also gets brutally honest—particularly on the heartbreaking “Make You,” where she shares her personal experience as a rape survivor. Country radio—or at least country music publications—should have paid more attention to these songs, which work as well as playlist-able standalones as they do as a complete 12-track journey. Even if Ell doesn’t get the attention she deserves for Heart Theory, though, I personally can’t wait to hear what she does next. This much growth between freshman and sophomore albums is a rarity, and there’s little reason to doubt that Ell will continue to flourish as an artist in the years to come.
17. Chris Stapleton - Starting Over
Sometimes, I wish Chris Stapleton was a little more ambitious. On the one hand, there’s something so relatable about his superstardom: a guy who just happens to have a dynamite voice makes a heartfelt record for his late father, earns accolades from underground country sites, scores a breakthrough on live TV by teaming up with a pop music celebrity, and rides that one appearance to a career of performing in arenas. Since then, Stapleton has mostly been keeping his head down, making lovely but unflashy music and keeping his band on the road for (at least before 2020) what felt like it could be a never-ending tour. Whenever Stapleton does stretch a bit outside of his comfort zone, though, the results are absolute magic. That happens a few times on Starting Over, like on the string-drenched “Cold,” which sounds like his twist on a 007 theme; or “Watch You Burn,” a black-magic rocker loaded with some of the loudest gospel choir backups I’ve ever heard on a record. The less risky songs are terrific, too—especially no-frills acoustic strummers like the title track and “Nashville, TN,” or soulful covers like “Joy of My Life” and “Old Friends.” But for how electric things sound when Stapleton lets things get a little weirder, it’s thrilling to imagine what a full album of risk-taking, no-holds-barred songwriting might bring. In the meantime, Starting Over is another crowd-pleasing chapter in the unlikely superstar’s story, and an album I imagine I’ll reach for many times when I’m looking for a good evening spin on the turntable.
18. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Pound for pound, Punisher was the most acclaimed album of the year. folklore was more talked about, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters had more critics tripping over themselves to declare it a perfect-10 classic, but when all the numbers shook out, Phoebe Bridgers still had an overall stronger showing on year-end lists. It’s not surprising: Punisher is one of those albums that you could probably play for anyone and at least have them get it. Where Taylor Swift still has her mainstream pop baggage with some listeners, and where Fiona Apple is almost the definition of acquired taste, Phoebe’s brand of sad singer/songwriter music feels somehow universal. At different points, her music draws from folk and country, from the ‘90s brand of radio rock that led to her recent cover of “Iris” with fellow millennial Maggie Rogers, from early 2000s rock records from the likes of The Killers and Arcade Fire, and from the current crop of indie singer-songwriters (collaborators like Julien Baker and Noah Gundersen). The result is a sound that is approachable and comforting for a whole lot of people, hence the near-unanimous adoration that Punisher received throughout 2020. Fittingly, it’s an album where just about everyone had a different favorite song, whether that was the singles (“Kyoto” and “Garden Song”), or the woozy slow dance of “Moon Song,” or the Neon Bible-esque chamber pop of “I See You,” or the shout into the apocalyptic void of “I Know the End.” The winner, for me, is “Chinese Satellite,” a painful atmospheric sting of a song that grapples with spiritual doubt and with the way that losing a loved one can make you want to believe in the religious ideas of a higher power and an afterlife. My grandma, who passed away this fall, was a deeply religious person who believed wholeheartedly in those ideas. Most days, I can’t make that leap, but when she died, it was comforting to think of her reuniting with my grandfather in something resembling heaven. I haven’t heard many songs about that seesaw of doubt and desperate belief, but “Chinese Satellite” captures it perfectly. “I’d stand on the corner embarrassed with a picket sign/If it meant I would see you when I die,” Bridgers sings in the second verse; it might be my favorite lyric of the year.
19. Maddie & Tae - The Way It Feels
Maddie & Tae were one of the most promising new acts in mainstream country music when they released their 2015 debut Start Here, a collection of bright, hooky songs about young love and sitting on the cusp of adulthood. The set’s biggest hit, a country number one called “Girl in a Country Song,” is arguably the most subversive chart-topper in the country genre from the past 10 years—a song that somehow managed huge radio airplay while simultaneously ripping every sexist trope country radio had been embracing since the dawn of the “bro country” era. Five years later, Maddie & Tae finally came back with their second full-length, and while the wait was a frustrating and heartbreaking example of the way out-of-touch record labels often mess with the careers of up-and-coming country artists, The Way It Feels manages to pick up like almost no time has passed at all. With “Die from a Broken Heart,” the duo earned their second country number one, and with the rest of the album’s sprawling 15-song tracklist, they explore everything from post-breakup vulnerability to wedding day bliss. Poor sequencing betrays some of the album’s conceptual themes, of forging on past heartbreak to find the right person to spend your life with. But the songs themselves are solid gold, whether Maddie & Tae are sending a big ol’ “fuck you” to a waffling ex-boyfriend (“Drunk or Lonely,” the biggest country “should-have-been smash hit” of 2020) or swooning in the midst of forever-love infatuation (the should-be-closer “Trying on Rings”).
20. Hailey Whitters – The Dream
One of the bizarre things about this music year, looking back, is trying to compare the albums from before COVID-19 hit with the albums that came out after. The music that arrived after early March or so, whether it was recorded in the midst of the pandemic or weeks/months/years before its arrival, simply feels different than the music that came before. There’s this weird innocence to pre-March records that has made me prematurely nostalgic for them and the things they remind me of—things that, in some cases, seem like they will never happen again. Perhaps no 2020 record feels more “pre-COVID” to me than The Dream, the album I was listening to on repeat in the final weeks leading up to the first stateside COVID cancellations, closures, and shutdowns. In what now feels like another lifetime, Hailey Whitters was poised to have a massive year. She’d spent 2019 building buzz for herself, thanks in large part to “Ten Year Town,” a sobering account of shooting your shot in Nashville (and missing) that opens this album. The first Whitters song that caught my ear, meanwhile, was “The Days,” which became my personal “song of the summer” in 2019. “It seems like just yesterday/We were posing in knock-off frames/Spiking up our lemonade/Smiling in a cap and gown,” the song starts, before reaching the kind of knockout, writerly chorus punchline that only a country song can give you: “Instead of counting up the days/I just want to make ‘em count.” Back then, those lines and this song felt like a reminder to cherish every moment of a golden summertime and everything it had to offer: glorious beach days and tipsy nights with friends and outdoor concerts and road trip adventures. “The Days” made me ache then, with the feeling you get when you know that good times are fleeting. It positively breaks me in half now, when the simple idea of “making the days count” clashes so completely with the monotony of quarantine life. Then again, most of the songs on The Dream are reminders that the best things in life are often the simplest, and the most taken for granted: a partner who can make you laugh; a home that makes your heart feel full; a paycheck at the end of the week. At the end of the worst year that most of us have spent on this planet, there’s something incredibly comforting about hearing someone as empathetic as Whitters sing a song like “Living the Dream,” about mundane things that maybe aren’t so mundane after all. “Ain’t we all down here livin’ the dream?” she asks in the chorus; we aren’t right now, but I can pretty safely say that, if we ever get “normal” back, I won’t be stupid enough to take it for granted again.
21. Mandy Moore – Silver Landings
Once a world-famous pop star, Mandy Moore seemingly vanished from the music business after her 2009 record, Amanda Leigh. Her star began to fade at that point on the big and small screens, too, with Moore largely taking smaller roles or parts in lower-profile projects. Even at the time, Moore’s disappearance from the limelight felt strange. While plenty of other young stars who had come to prominence alongside Moore took steps back, too, few of them had her clear musical talent, her magnetism on screen, or her sheer charisma and likeability. It turned out that Moore’s marriage to disgraced rock star Ryan Adams was the kryptonite holding her back. After filing for divorce in 2015, a few things happened in Moore’s world. First, she started dating Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, who she’d eventually marry. Second, she was cast in the NBC family drama This Is Us, which made her one of the biggest stars on television. Third, she and a slew of other woman came forward with allegations against Adams, ranging from manipulative and vindictive behavior to sexual misconduct; Moore said he was an emotionally abusive husband and that he killed her confidence in her own music to the point where she stopped making it. Fourth, and finally, Moore released Silver Landings, her first album in 11 years and the most hard-won LP of 2020. Freed from the shackles that Adams tied around her—and fully supported by Goldsmith, who offers up his band here to back her up—Moore crafted a set of songs that is in turns inspiringly confident and deeply vulnerable.
22. Kelsea Ballerini - kelsea / ballerini
When Kelsea Ballerini announced her third full-length album, titled kelsea, my initial assumption was that it was going to be her mainstream pop breakthrough. On her debut album, 2015’s The First Time, Ballerini became the first female artist in history to send her first three singles to the top of the country charts. 2017’s Unapologetically, while probably less of a radio smash, was an artistic leap forward, using a heartbreak-to-new-love arc to make her version of Taylor Swift’s Red. Based on early singles like “club” and “la,” kelsea sounded like the natural next step: Ballerini’s 1989. Things didn’t quite work out like that. Released into the world on March 20, kelsea was one of the many albums released this year—particularly in the late winter/early spring—that got absolutely swept aside by the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. It’s a shame, because kelsea features some of Ballerini’s finest pop songs to date: the propulsive “club,” about outgrowing the nightlife scene and everything it represents; “bragger,” a kinetic, confident, sexy love song that belongs on pop radio; “la,” an irresistible country-pop combo that sees Ballerini excavating her own insecurities with wit and self-awareness. If there was a blessing to be gleaned from the album missing its mark, it was that Ballerini felt inclined to go back into the studio to reimagine it as a more stripped-down, country-leaning singer-songwriter record. A handful of the songs (including the aforementioned trio) remain stronger on the original version, but the re-recording (called ballerini) also redeems some of the bigger “identity crisis” moments. Where many of the album’s more country-driven songs sound a bit suffocated under the pop production of kelsea, ballerini lets those songs (“overshare,” “love me like a girl,” “half of my hometown,” “needy”) thrive in more radiant, relaxed versions. Rather than placing the emphasis on production, the re-recordings shine a light on Ballerini’s confessional lyrics and underrated voice. Both versions of the album are worthwhile, and both have their unique strengths. They do, however, make an argument for Ballerini committing to a direction next time out—whether that’s a full-on embrace of pop or a true singer/songwriter moment. Either way, I’m excited for album number four.
23. Brian Fallon - Local Honey
Brian Fallon making what is ostensibly a country record would not have been on my bingo card for the former Gaslight Anthem frontman 10 years ago. For years, Fallon looked like the “savior of rock ‘n’ roll” – and got labeled as such so many times in press coverage that he eventually started to bristle against the very concept. Still, his music has never strayed too far from that world, adding lots of other flourishes (see the R&B influences all over 2010’s American Slang and 2018’s Sleepwalkers, or the Full Moon Fever-esque Americana of 2016’s Painkillers) but always centering the music around that familiar, raspy Gaslight howl. Local Honey is different: it starts with a song written for Fallon’s daughter (“When You’re Ready”) and ends with his most direct love song ever (“You Have Stolen My Heart”), both plaintive acoustic ballads. In between, Fallon writes honest, stripped-back songs that split the difference between the dark, atmospheric longing of his work with The Horrible Crowes (the late-album 1-2 punch of “Horses” and “Hard Feelings” sounds like Elsie: Part II) and classic country (“Vincent,” a detail-rich murder ballad that references a Dolly Parton song; someone call the Nashville kingmakers). At just eight tracks in length, Local Honey is sparse and fleet, and feels instantly like the classic pieces of vinyl your parents handed down to you when you first started showing interest in music. It’s not Fallon’s masterpiece, but it’s a quietly assured piece of work from a songwriter who has realized that he’s free to do whatever he wants.
24. Tenille Townes – The Lemonade Stand
Tenille Townes has it in her to make a record much, much better than The Lemonade Stand. Her peerlessly empathetic songwriting skill; her talent as a guitarist; her quirky, unique voice; her influences, grounded as much in classic rock as in country music: these ingredients deserve more than the overproduced, oddly sequenced album that is her debut. In 2018, Townes burst on the scene with a four-song acoustic EP that absolutely blew my mind. It was a perfect example of the “less is more” approach in record-making, where two wonderstruck songs about love (“Where You Are” and “White Horse”) and two devastating songs about injustice and loss (“Jersey on the Wall” and “Somebody’s Daughter”) somehow coalesced into a mini supernova of talent. The Lightning Stand airbrushes the magic away from all four of those songs, so it’s a testament to Townes’ monumental talent that the album still finds itself at 24 on my “favorite albums of the year” list. Townes still grasps moments of transcendence here, particularly on the songs that put the most focus on her emotive vocal delivery. “When I Meet My Maker,” for instance, is a spine-tingling song about reckoning with one’s own mortality and facing down the possibility of an afterlife, while “The Most Beautiful Things” is a celestial beauty about how the greatest marvels of life are the things you can never behold with your eyes. These songs are smart, thought-provoking, and life-affirming—gorgeous compositions that, at the end of a tough day or a tough year, can still make you feel the wonderment of being alive. Even some of the more conventional moments of The Lemonade Stand are touched with that same magic: the wanderlust-filled “Lighthouse”; the exuberant block party of “Come As You Are”; the romantic mystique of “The Way You Look Tonight.” Someday, Townes will make a record that bathes in that magic from first note to last, and that record will be an all-time classic. In the meantime, The Lemonade Stand is promising start, despite some missed opportunities.
25. Gabe Lee – Honky Tonk Hell
Honky Tonk Hell was a “late breaker” on my end-of-the-year list for 2020, in that it was an album I’d heard lots of good things about throughout the year but didn’t get around to listening to until the second half of December. When I finally heard Gabe Lee’s sophomore LP, though, there was no way I couldn’t make room for it on this list. Lee’s brand of songwriterly country-rock is right in my sonic wheelhouse. While the title suggests something a bit more twangy or classic-country-leaning, Honky Tonk Hell exists closer to classic rock radio. Lee sings with a Dylanesque wisp, writes songs with a road-tripping sensibility reminiscent of Bob Segar, and plays bar-band rock tunes that wouldn’t be out of place on Springsteen’s The River. To pick a more contemporary reference point, Lee’s songs often evoke the same pile-driving rock ‘n’ roll and storyteller’s soul that drew me to Will Hoge. While the songs are always catchy and often wildly fun, though (see the title track, which features an effortless chorus earworm I had stuck in my head after the first listen), Lee is also just a clear craftsman, writing songs that are rich in detail and stacked with moving slice-of-life vignettes. On many of the songs, Lee’s choruses shift from one refrain to the next, stacking more nuance into his stories than the repetition of a typical song structure would allow. Case-in-point is “30 Seconds at Time,” where Lee manages to set three different scenes – one involving teens getting high and dreaming of the future, one involving a homeless former psychic just trying to get by, and one involving Jesus (or maybe just someone who looks a lot like him) eating a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese at a local diner – into a 3:31 runtime.
26. Brett Eldredge - Sunday Drive
“Sunday Drive,” the title track from Brett Eldredge’s fourth full-length solo album, is my favorite song of 2020, and nothing else is even close. In the past, Eldredge has flirted with the bro country aesthetic, sometimes trading a remarkable voice and clear musical acumen for songs that didn’t quite merit his talent. On this record, Eldredge stuck to his guns and delivered something truly worthy of his ability. The whole album is lovely, swapping the fun-but-disposable radio plays that populated some of Eldredge’s earlier albums for a richer, more contemplative sound (courtesy, in part, of producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, the masterminds who helped Kacey Musgraves shape Golden Hour). But while there are many moments on Sunday Drive that deserve mention—the Bruce Hornsby-esque punch of “Gabrielle”; the wry Ray Charles flutter of “Paris Illinois”—it’s the title track that anchors the album and makes it something special. It’s the song from 2020 that has made me cry the most, and the single deftest piece of songwriting that I have heard in ages. The song begins with the protagonist as a child, being ushered into a car by his parents. “I remember looking up at them in the front row/Hands touched together, almost out of sight,” Eldredge sings, recalling a moment from a long-ago memory. As the song goes on, he gains appreciation for those Sunday drives with family, even though those moments are things he used to think of as “only wasting time.” The masterclass third verse flips the script, with the protagonist—now grown—leading his parents into the car for a Sunday drive like the ones they used to take, only with the driver/passenger roles swapped. As the car roles along, the son spots his parents recognizing old landmarks, reminiscing about the past, and commenting on the world “and how it’s changing/Probably never gonna be the same again.” And as the pre-chorus blossoms, the song expresses the joy of that moment: “I caught ’em in the mirror, they were holding hands and smiling/Looking younger than they’d been in years/Oh through all the years.” I listened to “Sunday Drive” at least a dozen times on the drives to and from my last-ever visit with my grandma, days before she passed away. Hearing this song in those moments, as I tried to come to terms with the thought of losing her, was devastating in every sense of the word. But it was also wholly life-affirming, a reminder of the deep love she shared with my grandfather, and of the time we’d spent together when I was so very young—just like the kid in the backseat, described in the song. The final verse leaves off on that snapshot of happiness: the husband and wife, their hands intertwined, taking a ride down memory lane, driven by the son they raised. My own experience with the song is one wrought with sadness, over a loss that still catches me off guard whenever I think about it. But it’s the song’s ability to hold all those things together at once—the love, the memories, the twinge of time’s relentless passage, the all-encompassing heartbreak of saying goodbye—that makes it the year’s very best piece of music.
27. Cassadee Pope - Rise &Shine
Cassadee Pope may be a Voice champion making music within the country music world, but Rise & Shine sounds pretty firmly like something that would have come out as part of the pop-punk/emo movement circa 2005. Pitched as Pope’s stripped-down, back-to-basics project, Rise & Shine not only scrapes away the mainstream production glut that sometimes obscures Pope’s miraculous voice, but also crafts something that sounds and feels like the music I would have listened to over and over again back in eighth or ninth grade. It’s a comfortable territory for Pope to occupy, given that her pre-Voice resume includes a stint as the singer for Hey Monday, a band that came along amidst the same late-aughts pop-punk big bang that birthday Boys Like Girls, All Time Low, We The Kings, and a slew of other similar bands. One Hey Monday track, called “Hangover,” gets reprised here, and its very 2000s brand of young-adult angst (“All that I really wanted was a habit I could drop any time that I wanted to/And what I really got was you,” goes the very AIM-away-message-worthy bridge) transfers over to the other songs in a surprisingly seamless way. Even “California Dreaming,” an achingly gorgeous ballad that sees Pope leaning back toward the country bona-fides she chased with mentor Blake Shelton on The Voice, strikes as a more successful hybrid of the singer’s emo/pop-punk roots and her Nashville obligations than any other music she’s ever made.
28. Lori McKenna - The Balladeer
Lori McKenna is a poet of domestic life. Many of her best songs tell the stories of normal people living everyday lives, and of the normal victories and tragedies that affect those people along the way. The Balladeer, for better and worse, doesn’t do much to change the script. McKenna’s 11th album—and her third straight collaboration with less-is-more producer Dave Cobb—can’t quite measure up to The Tree, the staggering masterpiece she released two years ago. It’s biggest weakness as a set of songs and a cohesive work is that it doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from a sound and template that McKenna had already perfected. But for those who love McKenna’s plainspoken songs about marriage, family, parenthood, legacy, and the passage of time (as I do), even hearing more of the same from her is a treat. These songs convey the same beautiful melancholy and patient resilience that has defined McKenna’s work for years. Most songwriters couldn’t thread the needle on a song like “The Dream,” where McKenna imagines her late father and one of her children meeting like they never got to meet in real life. A song with so much ingrained sentimentality could easily verge on mawkishness in lesser hands, but McKenna’s down-to-earth perspective and clear-eyed skill as a writer imbue it with wry humor, motherly percipience, and deep empathy. Those attributes color the other songs here, too, whether McKenna is singing about a durable relationship (“Good Fight”), talking about how youth tends to shape us all (“Stuck in High School”), or recounting kernels of wisdom that only come with time (“Till You’re Grown”). There’s nothing as gut-punch devastating as “People Get Old,” The Tree’s standout moment (and one of the best songs from the past 10 years). But as all McKenna albums are at this point, The Balladeer is another sage lesson from a seasoned songwriter who knows a thing or two about life and what it means to live it.
29. John Moreland - LP5
John Moreland has proven to be a more chameleonic songwriter than I ever would have expected when I first heard his music. The album that introduced me to him, 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat, was and is an utterly lovely record full of lonely, sad songs and beautiful melodies, but it’s also a fairly straightforward one, with many songs featuring little more than an acoustic guitar and Moreland’s big barrel-chested voice. I wouldn’t have bet, for instance, that Tulsa Heat’s follow-up, 2017’s Big Bad Luv, would feature a few legitimately danceable grooves. LP5 is perhaps even more of a leap: a weird, hypnotic sonic feast that pairs Moreland’s alt-country voice and roots with often experimental instrumentation and production flourishes. When the album first dropped on February 7, I remember thinking that much of it sounded like the music you might hear in a serene crystal ice cavern. It’s the way the keys in “I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” sound like they’re echoing off of some far-off surface and getting frozen in the air on their way back to you, or how the trills on “For Ichiro” sound like drops of water falling from icicles and hitting the frozen floor like xylophone keys. Even the more classic John Moreland songs, particularly the splendid opener “Harder Dreams,” carry this same crisp and cold – yet utterly comforting – sonic character. It’s a wholly unique sounding album, and even when the songs run together a bit in the mid-section, they still leave me with a feeling of deep peace. With the winter here again, there’s no better time to rediscover the singular charms of LP5.
30. All Time Low - Wake Up Sunshine
Listening back now, Wake Up Sunshine feels like the soundtrack to a summer that never quite was. By rights, these songs should have been fodder for road trips with friends and scalding hot days at the beach; for summer flings and sweaty moshpits at communal rock shows; for hazy Fourth of July barbeques where you drank one beer too many. That version of summer 2020 never happened, and Wake Up Sunshine feels melancholier than it should as a result. That’s the great thing about music, though: the release is a moment in time, but the album lasts forever. This one feels like it has the power to linger, spinning off songs to your hot-weather playlist for years to come until Wake Up Sunshine finally becomes the send-up to a celebratory summer than it deserved to be in 2020. As an album, it’s the most fully realized distillation yet of everything that All Time Low does well. Monster choruses; big helpings of nostalgia; songs that nod toward classic pop-punk tropes (“Melancholy Kaleidoscope,” “Clumsy”) and other songs that shoot straight for skyscraping arena rock (“Favorite Place,” “Safe”). It’s a bright, fun listen that I probably personally underrated because the overall mood of the world wasn’t in that place in 2020. But again, the release is a moment in time and the album lasts forever, and I’m glad I’ll have these songs to come back to when the tide shifts and all the things Wake Up Sunshine was meant to soundtrack can happen once more.
A few quick shout-outs to albums I couldn’t find room for in my top 30:
- Ashley McBryde made one of the most acclaimed country LPs of the year with Never Will. While I found the album as a whole frustrating and inconsistent, the very best songs (the title track, “Sparrow”) are among the very best songs I heard all year.
- Butch Walker, for the first time ever in a year where he released an album, missed my top 30. His new record, a rock opera called American Love Story, felt a little too on the nose for my taste, but had its heart in the right place and could be a record I gravitate to more in years that…aren’t 2020.
- The Dangerous Summer dropped an EP that, while it didn’t quite live up to last year’s Mother Nature for me, expanded the band’s sound in exciting and unexpected ways.
- Green Day dropped Father of All Motherfuckers, an album that seemingly everyone hated. I was in the minority on that, admiring the album’s trashy, glammy, dumb-fun sound (and superb Butch Walker production work). It’s a decidedly minor album in the band’s discography, coming in an era when we’ve forgotten that “minor albums” are things bands are allowed to make.
- Kathleen Edwards came back from an eight-year hiatus to deliver Total Freedom, a strikingly gorgeous set of alt-country songs that were, until the very last minute, a part of this list.
- Margo Price teamed up with Sturgill Simpson to make her best record yet. The closing track, a larger-than-life torch song called “I’d Die for You,” was one of 2020’s most triumphant sounds.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter got contemplative on The Dirt and the Stars, which features (among other charms) the year’s best guitar solo on its pseudo title track, “Between the Dirt and the Stars.”
- Miley Cyrus blew away any and all expectations I ever had for her music on Plastic Hearts, an epic classic-rock-indebted set of late-night pop songs that includes a knockout collaboration with Caitlyn Smith on the centerpiece ballad, “High.”
- Rosie Carney remade Radiohead’s The Bends for one of the coolest quarantine projects of the year.
- Stand Atlantic and Yours Truly got me excited about pop-punk again, making records that recalled bits of early Paramore, heyday Jimmy Eat World, and all those bands that used to dominate my life.
The 2019 Re-Rank
Re-ranking 2019 feels more bizarre than my one-year-later re-rank tradition usually does. In a lot of ways, everything that happened in 2019 (including the albums I listened to and fell in love with) feels like part of another person’s life. I can’t help but yearn for what these albums signified, or for the simple pleasures of life they captured that were mostly swept aside during 2020. Perhaps that’s why The Dangerous Summer’s Mother Nature, which really did encapsulate an idyllic summer season, swam to the forefront of my memory when I was remaking this list.
- The Dangerous Summer – Mother Nature
- Jimmy Eat World – Surviving
- The Menzingers – Hello Exile
- Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
- Noah Gundersen – Lover
- Taylor Swift – Lover
- Old Dominion – Old Dominion
- Coldplay – Everyday Life
- Kalie Shorr – Open Book
- Tyler Hilton – City on Fire
HM: Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks
The 2010 Re-Rank
If 2020 was the worst year of my life (which…it probably was), the fitting mirror is 2010, which was the best year of my life. It’s the year I fell in love with the girl I would end up marrying, and every album I love from back then is in some way colored by the early days of our relationship. Unsurprisingly, I found a lot of solace looking back at these better days when writing 10-year retrospectives throughout 2020.
- Chad Perrone – Release
- The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
- Taylor Swift - Speak Now
- Jimmy Eat World - Invented
- Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
- Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart
- Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- The National - High Violet
- The Alternate Routes – Lately
- Valencia - Dancing with the Ghost
- The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt
- Brandon Flowers – Flamingo
- Donovan Woods – The Widowmaker
- Butch Walker – I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
- Anberlin - Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place
- Cary Brothers – Under Control
- The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
- The Maine – Black and White
- Jesse Malin – Love It to Life
- I Can Make a Mess… – The World We Know