An Album of the Year winner doesn’t just have to be the best title of a given year. It has to be the best effort of an artist’s career. It has to be a career record where there’s confidence we’ll all be listening to it for years to come, and the title will act like a catalyst to catapult said artist into a new stratosphere, and music of lasting resonance and importance with it. It has to be an album where in a five, ten, twenty year retrospective, there is no second-guessing of the decision.
It’s the purpose of naming nominees for Album of the Year to boil down the candidates, and put them through their paces until you’re ultimately left with one distinguished title. But in 2020, it happens to be that two albums enjoy a distinguishable consensus of not just being the best all year in country and roots music, but career-making efforts that will hold up for years to come.
Ever since we heard that Arlo McKinley had signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records at 40-years-old and was releasing what would count as a debut record, we had a sense Die Midwestern would be something singular and exceptional. Taking songs that sometimes were 10 years old, Arlo emptied the kitchen of every single top shelf heartache and sad story he had in the tank, and released a record for the ages.
You’re also pleasantly surprised by just how country some of the songs are, and how certain tracks make for more infectious moments than you’re used to from a songwriter-based heartbreak record. You come to Arlo McKinley for the pummeling, and he dutifully delivers in a way that tends to send critics swooning, but not in a way that renders the songs entirely inaccessible to many in the wider public like some critically-acclaimed Americana records.
Though officially from southern Ohio, Arlo has a lot of that Kentucky magic that has made major stars out of Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, and so many others lately. Die Midwestern has the stuff to where it’s now fair to consider Arlo McKinley in discussions with these distinguished performers.
Meanwhile Ward Davis pulled off a similar feat as a seasoned songwriter whose been paying his dues and biding his time under-the-radar for over a decade, earning the utmost respect from his peers in the business, but never the wide appreciation by the public his efforts deserve. Now all that seems to be in the past with his 2020 album Black Cats and Crows.
Inspired predominantly by a big divorce, 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. Black Cats and Crows sucks you in song after song, satisfies your musical desires, and exceeds your expectations.
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.
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Congratulations are in order for all of the Album of the Year Nominees. It seems scandalous that with the traditional country efforts Jesse Daniel and Zephaniah OHora released in 2020, they couldn’t earn this distinction, though these young men will have many further opportunities in the years to come to be considered again. Same goes for Tessy Lou Williams, Juliet McConkey, and Lauren Mascitti, who all released incredible albums in 2020, and now have our undivided attention, with bright futures ahead.
Sturgill Simpson has earned the Album of the Year distinction previously, and may again in the future, while his bluegrass records of 2020 offered some of the most enjoyable listening all year. It seems like any time Lori McKenna or American Aquarium release a record, it’s a lock to at least be considered for Album of the Year with the songwriting they present. And though it didn’t win, there may not have been a more perfect and flawless record released in all of 2020 than Cahalen Morrison‘s sparse acoustic effort, Wealth of Sorrow.
But this is the year of Arlo McKinley’s Die Midwestern, and Black Cats and Crows by Ward Davis. And as enriching as it has been to have these titles around to help us through this infernal year, they promise to enrich our catalogs even more for many years to come.