Jan 8, 2021
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 26, 2020
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
When you're down-wind from a Willie Nelson concert
Nov 18, 2020
Nov 17, 2020
By Kevin Broughton
Kicking off with a blaze of harmonized electric guitars sounding like when the Allman’s Elizabeth Reed checked into the Eagles’ Hotel California, Ward Davis’s new album Black Cats and Crows doesn’t waste a second on formalities. Out Friday on Thirty Tigers, the record is a triumph on all fronts. A muscly country-rock record filled with murderous story songs, heartbreaking vulnerability, and that unmistakable voice—Davis’s weathered croon, barrel-aged then left out in the sun—are all brought to life through Davis’s and producer Jim “Moose” Brown’s care for their craft and disdain for sterility.
We’ve said here many times that as bad as 2020 has been on so many fronts, it’s been a great year for independent music. Davis’s Black Cats and Crows – upon its Friday release – will keep that hot streak alive. It’s an outstanding country-rock album that will leave fans wanting more from this songwriter coming into his own. We caught up with Mr. Davis for a lightning-round set of questions, mostly about the writing process and the music industry.
Kevin: It’s been a couple years since we last heard from you, on your 2018 EP Asunder. Are the 14 cuts on Black Cats and Crows songs you’ve developed since then, or do some of them stretch back beyond the EP?
Ward: Some of the songs on this record go back 15, 16 years. Some are just a few months old. I spent 15 years writing songs every day in Nashville hoping a George Strait or Tim McGraw would hear one and cut it, but it never happened. It’s a scary thing to think about, all the great songs that slipped through the cracks in the pavement on Music Row. The ones I cut on here that are aged, are the ones I was proudest of when I wrote them.
KB: There’s a line in the chorus of the title song, “God must have it in for me, why He only knows.” Is that coming from a historical point in your own story, a metaphor for alienation and sense of unfairness in people in general, neither or a little of both?
WD: I mean, bad luck is bad luck. Hard times are hard times. Bad stuff happens sometimes for no good reason. I’ve had a lot of friends that aren’t here anymore for reasons that I can’t even begin to comprehend. A lot of different scenarios do a lot of people in. I think a lot of times we ask God “Why?” and He doesn’t give us a straight answer. We were just pointing that out. It might feel like alienation, but it’s a pretty normal feeling, most people understand.
KB: You have a lengthy and impressive list of artists for whom you’ve written: Willie, Merle, Sammy Kershaw and Trace Adkins, just to name a few. How is your songwriting/thought process different when you’re writing them for yourself?
WD: I honestly don’t remember how I used to write songs. I was always chasing the golden geese of Nashville. I was putting songs together like Legos. I stopped that about six or seven years ago. Now I just write when I want. Or when I feel something. Or when I need some therapy. I’ll sit down and write a song in 20 minutes, but I won’t write another one for five or six months. I don’t think I have a process. I think I just write songs with people who like to write songs with me and that I like to write with.
KB: Over the last two to three years, there’s been a slew of artists churning out quality, thoughtful, earnest music that in a sane world would have a natural home on country radio. Stapleton, Jinx, Tennessee Jet, Jesse Daniel…this album would certainly fall into that category. Two-part question: Do you see country radio ever moving back from the pop/bro brink, and if not, what is the path going forward for indie artists without terrestrial radio airplay?
WD: I hope they don’t change it. All that shitty music on the radio drives people towards guys like me. The path is, “Stay real. Stay honest. Be human. Humans are listening.”
KB: For those not familiar with your history, how deep into the world of Nashville co-writes and publishing are you, and regardless of future releases of yours, will that remain part of your livelihood?
WD: I haven’t been a part of that world in over 6 years. I barely know anyone down there anymore.
Black Cats and Crows is available everywhere you consume music this Friday.