Mar 3, 2021
Jan 22, 2021
Almost as quickly as they’d flipped the ideological switches 4 years ago, Americana artists this week returned to familiar pastures, turning their attentions from Donald Trump to subjects more native to the genre. Just like that, well-meaning but sometimes overwrought protest anthems were replaced by the sweet sounds of murder ballads and odes to ghost cowboys.
Some 35 new singles showed up in this writer’s Spotify Release Radar this morning from roots and folk artists, nary a one of them mentioning a “Cheeto” or border walls. Almost as if some dark cloud lifted from their minds, the lyrics of their songs suddenly saw tractors plowing the earth, drunks lamenting their lost loves, and coal miners praying for salvation on their death beds.
Jason Isbell began work on his promised album of Georgia artist cover songs, even finding himself jovial enough to cover Charlie Daniels’ “A Few More Rednecks.” BJ Barham of American Aquarium announced that his band was working on a new EP completely themed around North Carolina State’s signature wins in football (may have to be reduced to a single IMO). Even Will Hoge cracked a smile, vowing to release an album of songs about old pickup trucks and moonshining this March.
For his part, country and Americana legend Steve Earle was way ahead of the curve. “Oh I knew the emperor’s end was coming and it was time to get back to what we do best - and that’s singing about things from the 1950s as if they’re still relevant.” Indeed, Earle’s last 4 albums have been either covers or songs about trains, mining, and medicine show barkers.
At press time, producer Dave Cobb was booked from now until Labor Day 2023. Americana is healing.
Jan 7, 2021
Last one... till December.
~Travis Erwin1. Ward Davis - Black Cats & Crows
The title track was the first track I heard here and was strong enough to have me digging in for more. “Sounds of Chains” keeps the murder ballad alive and in gritty capable hands. The fourteen tracks here take you for an emotional ride and the collection feels traditional, without ever coming across as cliché. even on the Alabama cover, “Lady Down on Love.”
2. Bruce Springsteen - Letter to You
The now 71-year-old Springsteen has spent the better part of 50 years writing about characters as frayed as the cuffs of a well-worn denim jacket. Selling a idea of nostalgia has always been a big part of Springsteen, but here on this album, those sentiments feel more like affirmations than mystical ideals that maybe never were. ThetTitle track along with “Burnin’ Train,” “Janey Needs a Shooter,” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Stood out for me.
3. Waylon Payne - Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
Seventeen years is a long time to wait for a follow up album, and beyond that, Payne has a lot to live up given his royal lineage and ties to Outlaw hierarchy. This album lived up to all of it and perhaps even exceeded expectations.
4. Marcus King – El Dorado
With a bit of 70s funk throwback, King offers a unique vocal style. “One Day She’s Here,” and “Beautiful Stranger” were my favorite cuts.
5. Ruthie Collin – Cold Comfort
The album’s opening track, "Joshua Tree," might be my favorite cut of the year. It was inspired by the relationship of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Other favorites of mine were “Dang Dallas,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “You Can’t Remember.”
6. Swamp Dogg - Sorry You Couldn’t Make It
A few years back, I had the pleasure of witnessing Swamp Dogg join John Prine on stage a few years back, and this album again showcases their friendship as it includes a couple of Prine covers, but the richness of this album is in the soulful passion of the vocals even more than it is the song selection. Not traditional country by any stretch but soulful and meaningful as god music should be.
7. Thieving Birds – American Savage
After a long seven year wait between album releases these birds came back with a thieving vengeance in 2020. “Ruin,” “My Sweet Baby,” “Somewhere to Run,” “Sweet War,” and “Pockets of Gold” are all tracks that spoke to me.
8. American Aquarium – Lamentations
No one speaks their mind like B.J. Barham and that is why his music tends to be so provocative.
- Country Shade
More of a singer/songwriter, than a natural showman, Baumann’s sounds isn’t exactly traditional country, but it always feels pure and true. So it is ironic that the lead track, “The Country Doesn’t Sound The Same,” is about the old sound disappearing. “If You Really Love Someone,” “Sunday Morning Going Up,” and “I Don’t Know” also spoke to me.
10. Stephanie Lambring – Autonomy
“Joy To Jesus” is as powerful of a track as I heard in 2020, but Lambring’s talent goes well beyond this one track. The writing is powerful and the delivery emotional throughout the album.
Dec 18, 2020
Voted on by: Megan Bledsoe, Robert Dean, Jeremy Harris, Trailer, Kevin Broughton, Matthew Martin, Travis Erwin, Scott Colvin, and (tiebreakers) Chad Barnette.
20. Kathleen Edwards - Total Freedom
Welcome back! This first collection of songs from Edwards in 8 years is warm and lush, her music still fitting like a soft leather glove. That’s not to say the songs are all comfy, there’s ample amounts of hard-lived emotion and sharp lines. She hasn’t lost a step! ~ Trailer
Despite everything 2020 was good if only for returning Kathleen Edwards to us. Eight years removed from her last album (Voyageur), Edwards is back with her familiar brand of songs that comfort, caress, and importantly make us smile when it was needed most. ~ Scott Colvin
19. Elizabeth Cook - Aftermath
Cook’s most varied album of her career sees her pulling together threads of country, glam rock, and other genres to create a still-cohesive piece of art that’ll get your feet moving, heart pumping, and mind considering. One of her best. ~ Trailer
18. Margo Price - That’s How Rumors Get Started
I read a lot of reviews for That’s How Rumors Get Started when it came out, and the gist was “she’s not making country records anymore.” To which I say, “so what?” That’s How Rumors Get Started is a great album. Period. Whether it’s country, California country, or Stevie Nicks-esque soft rock is inconsequential. Just put it on and enjoy the ride. ~ Scott Colvin
17. Jesse Daniel - Rollin’ On
America needs many things in 2020. At or near the top of that list is The Bakersfield Sound, and Jesse Daniel delivers both a faithful send-up and a high standard for others to meet going forward. Rollin’ On exudes hope, as you’d expect from an artist who’s emerged on the redemptive side of addiction. The best pure country album of the year.
His was the last real show I saw B.C. (Before Corona), and I remember how excited I was about Daniel’s future. At the turn of a bad year, I’ll emulate his optimism: 2021 is gonna be a great year for this troubadour. ~ Kevin Broughton
16. Ashley McBride - Never Will
When people say the state of mainstream country is beyond repair, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that women only sing about happy endings and heartbreak, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. When they say that you can only make it big in Nashville if you sell out, introduce them to Ashley McBryde. And don’t give McBryde or this record any qualifiers; she is not the best mainstream country artist in 2020, and this is not the best mainstream country album; rather, she is one of the best artists and this is one of the best albums in all of country music this year. ~ Megan Bledsoe
15. Jaime Wyatt - Neon Cross
For my money, there is not a better straight up honky tonk country album released in 2020 than Jaime Wyatt's Neon Cross. Shooter Jennings produced this album beautifully as well. Jaime's vocals are incredible and the incredibly personal lyrics are deceptively strong and deep. I think this was my most listened to album of the year and I don't think it will be out of rotation any time soon. The title track and "Rattlesnake Girl" are indicative of Wyatt's songwriting and vocal ability. The self-assurance Wyatt sings with draw you in from the beginning and there is no let-up throughout the album. ~ Matthew Martin
14. Arlo McKinley - Die Midwestern
Everyday on my way to work I pass a small town, crap bar with a sign full of misspelled words and local bands that played the other bars in town last week. Then one day just before this album was released, there it was, spelled correctly and everything. ARLO MCKINLEY with a date he’d be performing. That date, the weekend after Ohio closed all the bars due to rising Covid rates. Thankfully this album was around to play the lonesome sound 2020 demanded, just not live like I wished. ~ Jeremy Harris
Seventeen years is a long time to wait for a follow up album, and beyond that, Payne has a lot to live up given his royal lineage and ties to Outlaw hierarchy. This album lived up to all of it and perhaps even exceeded expectations. ~ Travis Erwin
When Texas Jonny Tyler told me, “That new Waylon Payne album is pretty good,” I thought, “’Waylon Payne?’ That sounds like a great pro wrestling name.” On reflection, (1) this album is damn fine, with sharp lyrics and a honky-tonk sensibility; and (2) the name of the album sounds like a stable of wrestling villains. ~ Kevin
12. Run the Jewels - RTJ4
2020 may not have been an ideal year for most but if there was a soundtrack it’d be RTJ4. A guided tour of struggle and protest, on point lyrics, and some awesome beats. The perfect album for an imperfect year. ~ Jeremy
11. Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. I
As someone who has never really been a Sturgill apologist, this album made me a believer. It is something special to be able to reimagine an entire album’s worth of one’s work at all, let alone with such fresh, engaging results. It takes something even more special to deliver a bluegrass album with nuance and restraint, and Simpson does just that, proving that bluegrass is not always about instrumental prowess, but sometimes about simplicity and emotion. ~ Megan
10. Tami Neilson - Chickaboom!
I am such a sucker for female fronted garage rock. I got into Tami Neilson a few years back with Don’t Be Afraid and enthusiastically devoured Chickaboom! when it was released. I don’t have this on vinyl...but I will…and hopefully soon. ~ Scott
9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions
There's a real late-80s/early-90s undercurrent to most of Isbell's latest release from the production with high-hitting snares, slight reverb-laden vocals, and high-flying guitar solos. But, this works well for Isbell who creates brand-new sounds within the old sound. Isbell's voice is about as good as it's ever been. It's remarkable to hear him sing a murder ballad so beautifully - I had to listen to the song "River" a couple of times to clear the dissonance between the beauty of the song and the darkness of the lyrics. But, that is what Isbell is so adept at doing. He shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. ~Matthew
8. Futurebirds - Teamwork
Futurebirds have always been road dogs. Their show has always been one that seems just about ready to go off the rails in the best possible way. Their albums have always been really good, but with Teamwork, Futurebirds put in what feels like their most personal set of songs which includes the Futurebirds' best songs: "Broken Arm," "Rodeo," and the absolutely incredibly raw emotional gut-punch "Waiting On A Call." ~ Matthew
7. Ruthie Collins - Cold Comfort
The album’s opening track might be my favorite cut of the year. “Joshua Tree” was inspired by the relationship of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Other favorites of mine were “Dang Dallas,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “You Can’t Remember.” ~ Travis
I remember the first time I listened to Cold Comfort. I put it on as background music and then “Joshua Tree” started playing. The background music was brought to the forefront and the world became the background. Starting at that moment my least productive physical moments were hidden behind the sweetness of Ruthie Collins. Wasted time is a thing to relish. ~ Jeremy
6. Ward Davis - Black Cats & Crows
The title track was the first track I heard here and was strong enough to have me digging in for more. “Sounds of Chains” keeps the murder ballad alive and in gritty capable hands. The fourteen tracks here take you for an emotional ride and the collection feels traditional, without ever coming across as cliché. even on the Alabama cover, “Lady Down on Love.” ~ Travis
5. Chris Stapleton - Starting Over
I look on Stapleton as the Miles Davis of country music. Seems like he can show up in a studio and just churn out high grade stuff. (Sturgill is a lot like that. But Sturgill didn’t release any new material this year.) This record dropped in December and re-ordered my top 10. Stapleton’s a beast. ~ Kevin
4. Zephaniah OHora - Listening to the Music
It was a high bar to cross, but Ohora’s sophomore effort exceeds 2017’s lofty This Highway. On Listening to The Music, Zeph channels Merle Haggard, both vocally and spiritually. I’m not sure what was more 2020 about the song “All American Singer: (a) that it’s genuinely courageous in woke America to say “not everything has to be about politics;” or (b) that some p***y at No Depression put Zeph on blast for NOT being political enough, smearing Merle Haggard in the process. ~ Kevin
3. Tennessee Jet - The Country
A cinematic masterpiece from a Renaissance man, Tennessee Jet draws on the likes of Sergio Leone and William Faulkner to craft his characters. This is literary songwriting combined with punchy production and execution. The crown jewel on an album of gems? A grungy, scary, 3 ½-minute movie soundtrack about the creepy death of Johnny Horton. And of all the covers of “Pancho and Lefty,” -- I’ll plant a flag right now – none equals the four-headed monster version here by TJ, Jinks, Elizabeth Cook and Paul Cauthen. ~ Kevin
2. The Wilder Blue - Hill Country
A mashup of The Damn Quails, Flatland Cavalry, and The Bellamy Brothers - but with their own blood pumping through this vital music, this probable side-project may have garnered enough attention to become a front-street project soon; at least I hope so. This is a fantastic album full of great lyrics, killer harmonies, and memorable melodies. ~ Trailer
A late add to my list, but wow. There’s a lot of purity here in these harmonies and spot-on acoustic guitar licks. A half-dozen of these songs should be on mainstream radio right now, but what can you do? ~ Kevin
1. American Aquarium - Lamentations
No one speaks their mind like B.J. Barham and that is why his music tends to be so provocative. ~ Travis
With American Aquarium's latest album, BJ Barham has turned in his most poignant and pointed set of songs of his career. With the incredible production by Shooter Jennings and the tighter than ever musicianship, American Aquarium have released their hands-down most mature and best album to date. This is officially the highwater mark for American Aquarium. The opening, title track sets the tone for the album and it takes off from there. ~ Matthew
(Top Others Receiving Votes: Brandy Clark - Your Life is a Record; Marcus King - El Dorado; Katie Pruitt - Expectations; Steve Earle - Ghosts of West Virginia; Nicole Atkins - Italian Ice; Kesha - High Road; Great Peacock - Forever Worse Better; Gabe Lee - Honkytonk Hell; Brent Cobb - Keep ‘em on They Toes; Tessy Lou Williams - s/t)
Dec 17, 2020
Waylon Jennings - What Goes Around Comes Around
You have good taste, but are either convinced no good country music came out after 1979, or have suffered a lot of memory loss from the cocaine and pills.
Florida-Georgia Line - 6-Pack
You had never heard of Charley Pride until last week. You pronounce “EP” (which this is, not an album) as if it rhymes with “step.” You’re a contractor who only has negative reviews for driving like an a**hole.
Ashley McBride - Never Will
You are a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. Or you’re anybody else with an ear for worthy music, actually. It’s damn good.
Hardy - A Rock
You’re a 25-32 year old male who lost his identity once bro-country went out of fashion and you are so damn thankful you now have something new to crank out of your 2013 ragged-out Raptor with the fading “Lifted Cause Fat Chicks Can’t Jump” sticker.
The Chicks - Gaslighter
You forced yourself to believe this is a great album to fit in with the other trendy left-leaning country fans on Twitter. You’re not enthused with Joe Biden, and are even less enthused with me making you do a self-assessment of what you really think of this, The Chicks’ worst album by a long shot.
Luke Bryan - Born Here, Live Here, Die Here
The last book you read was The Hunger Games. You only have a “Blue Lives Matter” sticker on your car so you won’t get a ticket for going 60 in a 35 every day taking your kids to soccer practice.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Reunions
You are a sports writer. You frequently work “30-50 feral hogs” into everyday conversations.
Trapt - Shadow Work
You think the Covid vaccine is a Chinese ploy to seed the American population with mind control nanobots. You were one of the 12 people in attendance at Trapt’s most recent concert. You are the lead singer of Trapt.
American Aquarium - Lamentations
You are not a pecan farmer.
AC/DC - Power Up
This is the first album you purchased since AC/DC’s Black Ice. Your wife is tired of your vaping. You blame the pandemic for your weight gain, but you couldn’t fit in those size 36 Levi’s even last November.