2020 has been a bad year for many things, but a good year for country music albums. Accordingly, the nominees for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year have been expanded to an unprecedented 12 entries to represent the best releases the year has to offer. Also, the field may have never been more wide open, which is one of the reasons for the expanded number of entries. There are no clear front runners. All these records have an opportunity to win, and feel deserving of top consideration.
Even with the expanded field, obviously there still has to be a cut-off somewhere, but please understand that each year Saving Country Music also publishes a much more expansive Essential Albums List, along with the “Most Essential” albums that were considered to be right on the bubble of Album of the Year nominees.
In 2020, these excellent “Most Essential” records will include, but are not limited to Charley Crockett‘s Welcome to Hard Times, Brent Cobb‘s Keep ‘Em on They Toes, Kyle Nix‘s Lightning on the Mountain, Rattlesnake Milk‘s self-titled underground record, Caitlin Cannon‘s The TrashCannon Album, Ashley McBryde‘s Never Will which is one of the standouts from the mainstream, Jaime Wyatt‘s Neon Cross, Zach Bryan‘s Elisabeth, and Hill Country (now The Wilder Blue).
Also understand there will be separate Song of the Year nominees, and artists such as Gabe Lee, John Anderson, Jason Isbell, and others might appear there. Also, Saving Country Music is far from finished reviewing and considering albums for 2020. In fact, this is one of the busiest Decembers for new releases in recent memory, while albums from earlier in the year will also continue to be considered for review, and have already been heard here, and considered for Album of the Year as well. However, we want to start the discussion now about what might be the best for 2020 to give everyone time to ponder the nominees and weigh in.
As always, your feedback isn’t just requested, it will be considered in the final calculations of the eventual winner. So if you have an opinion, please leave it below in the comments section, including your list of top records. However, this is not a straight up and down vote. Your opinion will count, but it will count even more if you put the effort out to convince all of us why one album deserves to be considered above the others. And please, no “You Forgot!” comments. You think something has been unfairly omitted? By all means utilize the comments section to inform us of the oversight, and please understand the upcoming Essential Albums list might include your favorites.
Ultimately this isn’t an effort to make music into a competition, and Saving Country Music is not an autocracy. The purpose of this annual exercise is to expand the knowledge base of great music that we all think is the year’s best for the benefit of everyone.
Without further ado, here are your 2020 nominees for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year.
Ward Davis – Black Cats and Crows
Ward’s followup to 2015’s 15 Years in a 10 Year Town has been long-rumored and a longer time coming. But he got a little sidelined with a bitter divorce. All the better though, at least for us. Because Ward Davis puts all those fresh and raw emotions into this record, along with a lot of underlying heart and soul, fielding a collection of quality songs that for some performers would constitute an entire career’s worth.
Song after song, Black Cats and Crows sucks you in, satisfies your musical desires, and exceeds your expectations. With 14-song albums, you commonly anticipate a couple of weak tracks. Not so much for Black Cats and Crows. From growling tracks to get your blood pumping, to some of the easiest country songs to ease into, to songs written with such searing insight you’ll be squeezing back tears, Black Cats and Crows may have been inspired by bad luck and worse decisions, but it results in immense measures of good fortune for listeners. (read full review)
Cahalen Morrison – Wealth of Sorrow
Prepare to be stunned from the opening song on, where Cahalen Morrison starts out performing a capella on an original composition, dispelling any notion that you need a collaboration of instruments and fancy production to capture audio magic.
The wide public has been left weary from the amount of acoustic albums and cover records released by restless and cash-strapped musicians in recent months, and for fair reasons. But that’s not how Wealth of Sorrow should be regarded. Instead imagine Ralph Peer or John Lomax foraging through the hills and hollers of Appalachia and the American West, ferreting out the rich musical wonders lurking in the forgotten corners of the rural world, hiding among the meek and poor. This is what you feel you’ve uncovered when you hear this record—primitive, raw, and real, with nothing shielding you from the naked emotion and wisdom imparted in these songs.
Where most songs and performers must conceal their shortcomings in layers of music and mixing, Cahalen Morrison strips it all back to expose the expanse and character of his voice, and the depth of his insight. (read full review)
Lauren Mascitti – God Made a Woman
God Made A Woman is a great specimen of true country music in both the stories and sounds, and offers a strong counterargument to the prevailing wisdom that such a thing can’t be relevant in these times, while introducing a songwriter and singer we’ll hopefully be hearing much more from in the future. The warbling tone of Lauren Mascitti is not overpowering, but heartfelt and believable, with pain inferred between the notes and runs.
Lauren Mascitti displays no desire to sway from the charge of interpreting her personal stories within the traditional confines of country music. But there’s also ample variety and latitude displayed on this record, from the bluesy attitude of “Faded Love, Faded Love,” to the traditional country waltz of “Losing My Mind,” to the playful acoustic tones of “Play Me Like a Song,” she keeps it spicy and interesting throughout, while broaching subjects that feel relevant to audiences regardless of age. “I Wanna Show You My Town” is a brilliant stroke of songwriting as both a love letter to a loved one and to the sense of home we all feel. (read full review)
Zephaniah OHora – Listening to the Music
“Perfection” is a very hard metric to measure when it comes to music. As a subjective art form, what is perfect for some and what falls short for others is often in the eye of the beholder. Country music is no Chinese piano box, or acrobatics routine. But if your measure of perfection is how well you re-interpret and reinvigorate the classic styles of country music from its bygone Golden era, then Zephaniah OHora’s second record scores a 10.0.
From the way the songs are authored down to the very word, to the sounds and instruments rendered down to the very note, to the exact amount of reverb and chorus employed, to every single one of the production elements and decisions—and most importantly Zephaniah’s voice—everything is meticulously crafted with persistence to be right in line with what you think about when you think classic country music. Regardless of what one feels about the songs or the outcome of this record itself, the accuracy here is a spellbinding all its own, and an achievement worthy of high regard.
Sure, Listening to the Music won’t spirit the legacy of country music forward like some of the groundbreaking conceptualized works regularly cited as some of the most important in history. But it’s interpretation and preservation efforts for classic country are of high importance all the same, and the record is so expertly executed, it’s worthy to elevate it into the elite class of recorded works. (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
UPDATE: Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Vol. 2’ has been added as part of this nomination.
Sturgill Simpson has always been a bonafide Kentucky-born a bluegrass picker who’s been stuck in country rock bands his whole career, and looking for the right opportunity to break out. Well now he’s found it. Beginning with Sturgill’s earliest recordings in his original band Sunday Valley, the trained ear could discern that what Sturgill was picking and singing was much more indicative of bluegrass than standard issue country, even if it was electric in nature.
Yet who would pay attention to the poor son of a coal miner’s daughter fresh out of the Navy trying to turn the tables on the powers that be in country music to the tune of winning a Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and nominated for all-genre Album of the Year if he had started off as just another soul trying to make it in bluegrass? And how would that same guy convince some of the top bluegrass pickers of our generation to collaborate him on his original material? Sturgill Simpson first had to become Sturgill Simpson to be able to make this album, and to have anyone pay attention to it, and for it to mean anything.
Sturgill Simpson proves his place as the frontman of an ambitiously populated bluegrass band on Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1. (read full review)
On Vol. 2, Sturgill Simpson isn’t just fulfilling a promise to fans to cut a bluegrass record, he’s finding and settling into the next phase of his career, which is as a full-blown bluegrass musician. (read full review)
Juliet McConkey – Disappearing Girl
Suffocating you beneath moments of uncommon emotional gravity, transporting you to internal places normally avoided from the unbearable pain they supress, breathing life into characters that feel as close as kin, and overall awakening the alchemical sorcery of music to an advanced degree normally reserved for only the most favorably gifted and enlightened of the art form, Juliet McConkey’s debut album Disappearing Girl leaves one touched in a way that is lasting, and reminds you why music holds such a dedicated and reverent place in your life in the first place. You’re left spent, and eternally grateful.
Demure and austere in musical approach, yet expansive and expressive in its storytelling in a way that stokes and compels the imagination, Disappearing Girl is cast in an elemental version of roots music; earthen and indicative of the very kernel of classic American songs.
Giving voice to moments of crippling self-doubt, and resolving them into moments of reassurance and hope are the mechanics that makes Disappearing Girl so therapeutic and moving in a way that feels crucial once you’re initially exposed. In a time period where and the loudest, most terse voices are often the ones where attention centers, Juliet McConkey busts through the noise with eternal truths told eloquently through story. It’s Sunday afternoon in song, and some of the best songcraft offered up during an otherwise infernal year. (read full review)
Roo Arcus – Tumbleweed
With his first album in five years and fourth total, Roo Arcus pulls out all the stops, from the songwriting, to the players and performances, to the studio and mastering, it’s all done to near perfection on this living testament to the beauty of country music. Using top-flight musicians and co-writers to fully develop his ideas and vision, Tumbleweed is an astounding country music work from stem to stern. It’s also in many ways about Roo’s curious passion for country, not that it’s entirely foreign for an Australian to find appeal in country. But Roo gives his country a distinct American flavor that is perfect for country fans around the World to enjoy.
From the way he expertly plys his passion for country music, to the trueness he shows to himself, Roo Arcus is one of the best places to turn for more of that straight-laced and squared away version of country music indicative of George Strait, yet it’s still country that cuts to the bone with ruggedness and authenticity. These lofty standards and expectations are certified by Tumbleweed. (read full review)
Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern
Arlo McKinley empties the kitchen of every single top shelf heartache and sad story he has in the tank on what is officially his first solo album, Die Midwestern, and turns in a stunner of a record.
Be forewarned, Arlo McKinley is not here to make your cares melt away. A devastating record of songwriter-based Americana roots music, it’s one mid to slow tempo emotional steamroller after another with lines that cut and moans that reel. And it’s not as melody bereft and musically challenged as some of this ilk suffers from. Die Midwestern captures inspired takes of songs that sometimes are 10 years or older in McKinley’s repertoire, and that don’t just rely on writing and rapt attentiveness from the audience for appreciation. Despite the dour subject matter, these songs feel alive, and producer Matt Ross-Spang makes sure they’re blessed by character and presence.
Die Midwestern is this Ohio/Kentucky boy making good on a better-late-than-never opportunity by turning in a record that may be one of the year’s best. (read full review)
Tessy Lou Williams – Self-Titled
In an era when it seems like most every single piece of “country” music must come with some sort of prefix, suffix, or other qualifier or explanation attached to it—and it’s even more difficult to find younger performers still willing to steadfastly adhere to the traditional modes of the genre—Tessy Lou Williams and this debut album is like the answer to all prayers, the fulfilling of all requests, auspiciously plugging a gaping hole in the country music environment with a worthy and worthwhile effort that announces Tessy’s strong move into this bereft but important sphere of music.
Appearing on the album as co-writers are names like Larry Cordle, Brennen Leigh, Lesley Satcher, and Jerry Salley. Performing on it are the highly-respected Brian Sutton and Aubrey Haynie, Ashley Campbell on banjo, and Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Brennen Leigh, and Jon Randall all singing backup. Seeing the list of talent this record accrued speaks to the respect Tessy Lou Williams has earned from her peers in the traditional country realm already.
What an excellent foundation and opening salvo this is from an artist we hope to hear more from well into the future. Country music isn’t dead. It’s bursting from the heart of Tessy Lou Williams through ompelling stories, soaring vocal performances, and music that underscores how timeless and timely traditional country music still is, and will always be. (read full review)
Jesse Daniel – Rollin’ On
Classic country music fans, train your attention squarely upon the skinny shanks and fresh face of California songwriter and singer Jesse Daniel, for he’s about to become your next favorite artist, and Rollin’ On your next favorite album. It’s only a few precious times each year we get to enjoy a landmark release that really defines the best in country music, and goes on to cement an artist as an important part of country moving forward. The release of Rollin’ On is one of those moments.
It’s country. It’s cool. It’s well-written, and exquisitely produced and performed by the top notch musicians involved. Most everything is spot-on down to the mixing and mastering. Taking pointers from the rough and tumble cowboys of the classic Bakersfield Sound and the King of country cool himself in the incomparable Mr. Yoakam, Jesse Daniel brings the West Coast “dim lights, thick smoke” dimension to country back to life in the modern context, and does so while maintaining a robust adherence to the tenets of traditional country.
As Jesse Daniel explains in the song “Old At Heart,” this is no act. He’s found the skin he was born to live in through traditional country, and he couldn’t fit in it more smartly. Rollin’ On is a testament to that, and his commitment to music and himself and his own well-being through music, and you can’t help but feel that passion and purpose in each track. (read full review)
Lori McKenna – The Balladeer
The Balladeer takes lofty expectations already reaching towards the unattainable, and still impresses with what might be the high water mark of Lori McKenna’s career so far. It would be hard to impossible for her to surpass what she’s been doing already with writing songs. But on this new record, McKenna and producer Dave Cobb labor not just to present stellar songs that work all by themselves in a way that is flattering and reverent, but to discover the perfect sound for each track. They’re more explorative than ever, letting some of the outtros elongate, and relying a lot on piano to paint the melody as opposed to guitar. This results in a landmark record not just for Lori McKenna, but for 2020.
Once again, when you want or need to turn to music to reset your mood or world view, refocus around the real priorities of life, and put your petty concerns into perspective, Lori McKenna is the medicine you reach for. The wisdom and calming attitude flowing from these works is as potent as Asian proverbs. Along the way McKenna also proves that you don’t need to be broken and destitute to pen songs or mine inspiration. It’s the calming order in which she presents the cycles of life that decorate us all in poeticism and importance. (read full review)
American Aquarium – Lamentations
B.J. Barham is one insufferable son-of-a-bitch. The frontman and final original member of North Carolina’s American Aquarium has run off a quarter hundred fellow bandmates over the years for one reason or another. And as an opinionated, cantankerous, politically acrimonious type of character with his glass perennially half empty, his mopey moanings make for some of the most depressingly severe musings to be found in all of American music. It just happens to be that it’s this very type of bad medicine many are looking for.
Some will bandy about this record as the best released so far in 2020, and it sure makes a big case for itself, especially in the Americana and songwriting realm, while also making for a good specimen of a record that is able to broach political subjects in a respectful manner in what has been a very political year in American roots music.
But no matter where it lands on the end-of-year lists, Lamentations is once again a testament to B.J. Barham’s insistence to not just refuse to shield our eyes from the growing entropy in American life, but to inspire us all to persevere through it and to rise above the cards we’re dealt, just like he has done continuously throughout his career. (read full review)