Saving Country Music’s 2020 Album(s) of the Year
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.
– – – – – – – – – –
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.
Saving Country Music’s 2020 Artist of the Year and Song of the Year
December 28, 2020 @ 11:40 am
Love Die Midwestern. One of the few vinyl records I have on regular rotation.
December 28, 2020 @ 11:55 am
Black Cats and Crows is in my top two (along with Tessy Lou) for 2020. Both offerings are impeccable. Impressive out of the chute and satisfying on every revisit.
Die Midwestern didn’t resonate as well with me, but I will take it for another spin or two. Maybe it’ll be a grower.
December 28, 2020 @ 12:06 pm
I definitely get why Sturgill probably didn’t get it because of it being old songs with a new coat of paint. But you can’t go wrong with these two albums which are amazing from beginning to end.
December 28, 2020 @ 12:10 pm
My Top 20 Country Albums (and one EP) of 2020
1. Ghosts of West Virginia – Steve Earle & The Dukes
2. Elisabeth – Zach Bryan
3. Co-Starring – Ray Wylie Hubbard
4. Quiet, Heavy Dreams (EP) – Zach Bryan
5. Lamentations – American Aquarium
6. Heartbreaking Places in My Mind – The Boomswagglers
7. Starting Over – Chris Stapleton
8. Just Like Leaving – Bella White
9. III – 49 Winchester
10. Long Violent History – Tyler Childers
11. Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 2 (The Cowboy Arms Sessions) – Sturgill Simpson
12. Wealth of Sorrow – Cahalen Morrison
13. Lightning on The Mountain – Kyle Nix
14. The Panhandlers – The Panhandlers
15. Pure Scum – Hellbound Glory
16. Die Midwestern – Arlo Mckinley
17. The Ties That Bind – Shaker Hymns
18. I’m With You – William Elliot Whitmore
19. Give My Love to Jenny – Jordan Allen & The Bellwethers
20. Almost Home – The Piedmont Boys
Trig, Thank you for all your hard work over this challenging year. Obviously, you are the primary source/influence as to what artists I listen to in a given year and really appreciate SCM. Also, thanks to the SCM commenters for steering me towards Bella White (the only female artist on my list) and Trig’s project The Boomswagglers. Trig is too ethical and modest to promote one of the best albums of the year that took me back 20 years ago to my No Depression years of Son Volt and Whiskeytown. It’s also way more country sounding and pivotal to the growth of the genre than anything Americana Queen Margo Price has ever or will release.
December 28, 2020 @ 5:01 pm
Thanks for your comment hopTownTIGER… I am a DJ that plays the majority on your list on my radio show but there were some names I didn’t recognize that I have now reached out to their management for their music to be played on my show!
December 28, 2020 @ 12:21 pm
hoptowntiger94: thanks for the heads-up on Bella White – very nice
December 28, 2020 @ 12:50 pm
I knew that Ward Davis album would be the choice. It gave me goose bumps on the first listen it gives me goose bumps on the 50th listen.
December 28, 2020 @ 12:59 pm
Nice choice(s). Found both of these through this site.
Music Writer / Reviewer of the Year: Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, by a country mile.
December 28, 2020 @ 3:08 pm
My one and only complaint.
Not a single mention of The Boomswagglers!
WIndie City Joe
December 28, 2020 @ 1:20 pm
Completely agree with Die Midwestern although I’m not as high on the Ward Davis album. But more importantly, it was a great year with a lot of great music.
December 28, 2020 @ 1:29 pm
Both these albums were my top choices of the year. If I had to only pick one, it would be Ward Davis. Just a touch more diversity with it IMO..
However, I can’t stop listening to these Sturgill albums. It’s actually getting a lil ridiculous. LOL
Jerry Clower's Ghost
December 28, 2020 @ 2:17 pm
December 28, 2020 @ 2:46 pm
“Music Writer / Reviewer of the Year: Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, by a country mile.”
I give Trigger kudos to everyone I speak to and let it be known he is absolutely the best and most objective person in the media today- or yesterday for that matter-
December 28, 2020 @ 3:09 pm
Excellent choice(s)! Die Midwestern was AOTY for me from the day it came out.
King Honky Of Crackershire (Mask free for the future of mankind)
December 28, 2020 @ 4:15 pm
What about Midland?
December 28, 2020 @ 6:03 pm
Nice choices. I’ll have to give Arlo more time, but Ward is the man. “Nobody”, as simple as it is, may be my song of the year. And “Good to Say Goodbye” yanks a tear out me every time. Best 2021 to all!
Cool Lester Smooth
December 28, 2020 @ 6:06 pm
I gotta go with my three headed monster of Lamentations/Expectations/Elisabeth (if anything, I don’t boost Katie Pruitt ENOUGh in this section), but these are very worthy choices.
December 29, 2020 @ 1:28 am
Holy shit I don’t know I Katie Pruitt got past me before now – thanks for this.
Cool Lester Smooth
December 30, 2020 @ 7:42 am
She’s super under the radar – only found out about her because BJ Barham covered Look the Other Way on Twitter!
Absolute savage, though.
December 28, 2020 @ 6:17 pm
I am absolutely thrilled that Ward chose to name-drop “Bowser Road” in the song “Where I learned to live”. I know exactly what street he talking about and have walked down it many times.
December 28, 2020 @ 10:08 pm
oh wow, checking out these Ward Davis tracks… this is some good stuff.
Even found a few live things, he sounds great.
Gonna check out the Arlo guy tomorrow.
December 29, 2020 @ 1:21 am
My personal list:
1. Rachel Brooke’s “The Loneliness In Me”
2. Zephaniah Ohora’s “Listening To The Music’
3. The Boomswagglers’ “Heartbreaking Places In My Mind”
4. William Elliott Whitmore’s “I’m With You”
*5. Bloody JUG Band’s “Stranded” EP
I suspect in time Sturgill’s 2 releases will be what I listen to the most. So far this year the Boomswagglers and Whitmore are what I have actually spun the most. I really like Arlo McKinley’s album but I haven’t been going back to it much – which certainly could have to do with it not being a great listen on the job site and maybe my temperament on the way to and from work isn’t suited for it.
strait county 81
December 29, 2020 @ 4:07 am
I actually agree with both and would throw in Zephaniah as my other favorite album
December 29, 2020 @ 5:59 am
More country and country-adjacent albums from 2020 that deserve attention:
Pi Jacobs, Two Truths and A Lie
David Quinn, Letting Go
John Moreland, LP5
Sarah Siskind, Modern Appalachia
Jaime Wyatt, Neon Cross
Hellbound Glory, Pure Scum
Corb Lund, Agricultural Tragic
Casper Allen, Vol. 1
Milly Tabak and the Miltones, Honest Woman
Karen Jonas, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams
Billy Don Burns, The Country Blues
Cave Flowers, Cave Flowers
Western Centuries, Call The Captain
Dead Tongues, Transmigration Blues
Victoria Bailey, Jesus Red Wine and Patsy Cline
Melody Moko, Two Kids and A Radio
Maple Run Band, Maple Run Band
Western Terrestrials, Back In the Saddle of a Fever Dream
George Shingleton, Out All Nighter
Terry Allen, Just Like Moby Dick
Tanya Tucker, Live From the Troubadour
Lyman Ellerman, Closer To Home
Lew Card, Strange Neighbors
Kyle Nix, Lightning on the Mountain
J.D. Clark & The Stuck In the Mud Band
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
And keep an eye out for Lasers Lasers Birmingham releasing an EP in January!
Happy New Year, everyone.
December 29, 2020 @ 7:51 am
I have given a listen to Ward Davis ..Black Cats and Crows…and that melody is very familiar ..and the guitar part sounds like some 80s rock song.. I cant decide which songs tho…this is a mixture of genres tho .. its decent
December 29, 2020 @ 8:33 am
I can’t rank them, but this is my “most played” from Apple Music.
1-Kyle Nix-Lightning On the Mountain
2-Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit-Reunions
4-Chris Stapleton-Starting Over
5-Sturgill Simpson-Cutting Grass Vol. 1
8-Boomswagglers-Heartbreaking Places in My Mind
9-Daniel Donato-Young Man’s Country
10-Ward Davis-Black Cat’s and Crows
December 29, 2020 @ 8:59 am
Great choice on the Arlo. For me it was the clear winner from the get go. Nothing else hit me like that record did. Still got many of the songs on it bouncing around in my head regularly. Cheers
December 29, 2020 @ 1:42 pm
many good records this year and even though my AOTY is probably the balladeer i agree with Trig these two albums are carrer defining records. Very good choice. Thanks SCM ( Trig and commenters as well)for all the music you helped me discover this year! Looking forward for 2021!!
December 29, 2020 @ 7:05 pm
Well deserved! Thanks for including me Trigger and thanks to all the music appreciators here who have supported my records!
Jerry Christmas & Happy New Weir to all
December 30, 2020 @ 9:41 am
What about The Wilder Blue? Hill country is hands the best album I’ve listened to all year.
January 3, 2021 @ 11:42 pm
December 30, 2020 @ 5:16 pm
Die Midwestern is my number one of the year.
Two albums I feel should get more praise are Bo DePeñas and Westward by Jonathan Terrell.
December 30, 2020 @ 6:19 pm
Courtney Marie Andrews would fit in nicely with the breakup theme and I still haven’t gotten into the Ward Davis album as much as I probably should have, but other than that this sounds about right. Congratulations!