As we get to the halfway pole in the musical year, it’s time to look back and asses the best albums that have been released in 2020 so far. At the moment, we are very top loaded with stellar releases, with many albums already feeling like strong contenders for Album of the Year.
The first albums highlighted should be considered early candidates for Album of the Year at Saving Country Music, while everything else highlighted should be considered coming highly recommended. But of course over time, estimations can change. Some albums may rise or fall in estimation in the next six months.
PLEASE NOTE: This only includes albums that have been reviewed by Saving Country Music so far. Just because an album is not included here doesn’t mean it’s not good, or won’t be reviewed in the future. Many released albums are still slated for review.
Recommendations and opinions on albums is encouraged, including leaving your own list of favorite albums in the comments sections below. However, please understand that nothing has been “forgotten,” and no list is “illegitimate” just because one particular album is left off, or a certain album is included. The point of this exercise is to expand the awareness of great music, and that is how it should be approached by all parties. Saving Country Music reviews a very large amount of material, but no critic or outlet can review every single project released in a given genre.
The albums are presented in no particular order.
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.
But 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 compelling stories, soaring vocal performances, and music that underscores how timeless and timely traditional country music still is, and will always be. (read full review)
Caitlin Cannon – The TrashCannon Album
Like a tornado tearing through a trailer park, strewing the trash and dirty laundry everywhere, and leaving one side of a singlewide so totally exposed that every saucy detail of someone’s personal life is just sitting out there in the breeze for the entire neighborhood to see, Caitlin Cannon comes at you with this wild, attitudinal record filled with rampant oversharing and an ample bounties of wicked entertainment, appropriately titled the The TrashCannon Album.
Caitlin Cannon’s trash is the audience’s treasure trove of country and rockabilly pleasure that will have you first in stitches, then later sobbing with empathy, and then recycling the experience over and over again as you can’t get enough. Whether you’re looking for steel guitar-soaked tearjerkers, the whip-cracking attitude of Bettie Page in leopard print, or something in the spectrum in between, Caitlin Cannon has you covered, all compiled into this record that can affectionately considered a beautiful mess.
Bad lives and poor decisions tend to make for good country music. And though it’s a shame things can’t be all rosy and white picket fences for everyone, the theater of real life and the reassurance that no matter how hard you have it, someone else out there is in the same boat or has it worse is what makes for some of the best music. And The TrashCannon Album is some of the best music to be had. (read full review)
Mike & The Moonpies – Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart
There’s no question how the legacy of Gary Stewart is regarded when it comes to Mike and the Moonpies. When they were coming up in the honky tonks of Austin playing multi-hour sets for two-steppers and crazy Texans, Gary Stewart songs were a strong portion of their repertoire, and a primary influence on their sound. So who better to hand off some previously unheard Gary Stewart material to, and have them do their worst?
You can tell Mike Harmeier and the band took this work very seriously, and felt the weight of being responsible for representing Gary Stewart’s songs on their shoulders. Don’t compare Mike to Gary. That would be unfair. But comparing Mike to Mike, he hit this one out of the park. And no matter anyone’s assessment of this record specifically, covering a bunch of unheard Gary Stewart songs will always be one of the coolest things Mike and the Moonpies ever did on a growing list of cool things and curve balls this honky tonk outfit continues to throw our way.
As Mike Harmeier says, “A big part of this is turning people on to Gary who didn’t know Gary before. We wouldn’t be who we are without Gary.” But hopefully Gary helps turn some people onto Mike and the Moonpies too. Because similar to Gary in his time, Mike and the Moonpies are criminally underrated. And as Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart attests, they both deserve a hell of a lot more recognition. (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)
Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross
Country music isn’t just a form of entertainment. For performers and fans alike, it can be a reformatory institution, and has been since its inception, offering a way up from poor means, or a second chance for past transgressions. When the polish has worn off, country music will still accept you, take your scars and priors as proof of authenticity, and be attentive and sympathetic to your story. Country music can be a path forward towards redemption and forgiveness, and a portal to a simpler time. A rebirth.
Wyatt may have tapped out her stories of incarceration on her first record, but she finds ample inspiration for the eleven songs of Neon Cross. Identifying her faults, willing to blame herself, but also wondering when all the lessons and redemption will kick in is what allows Neon Cross to glow bright.
Whether it’s country music or a Lord and Savior, taking a bending knee in front of something bigger than yourself and offering up your sins for atonement can be soul cleansing. You still have to put in the work, and there will be detours along the way. But Jaime Wyatt charts a path toward redemption through country music on Neon Cross. (read full review)
Hellbound Glory – Pure Scum
Pure Scum is like a seedy travelogue down the sticky streets of one of the armpits of America. Instead of trying to apologize or rehabilitate Reno’s poor reputation, Leroy Virgil embraces the stereotypical and derogatory notions of the town, and parades them around as a point of pride. With Hank3 remaining MIA, it’s up to ol’ Leroy to see how far he can take country music across the line of decency, and he’s more than happy to grab that torch and run with it.
But if all you focus on is a running tabulation of the misdemeanors and felonies rung up in the ten songs of Pure Scum, you’re missing the deeper message. Behind all the sordid tales is a poeticism for the institutionally lost and disaffected of society, struggling with drug abuse and lack of hope, and finding comfort in the arms of each other like in the song “Someone To Use.” This a slice of the real side of life most songwriters are too scared to sing about.
Leroy Virgil is the kind of Outlaw every aspiring country music Outlaw tries to emulate, but they can’t write nearly as well, and are afraid to actually live out the stories past pen and paper. Leroy may never be world-renown, but he’s nothing short of a cult legend, in Reno and beyond. Pure Scum adds a few more marks to the rap sheet, and some more songs to the growing and worthy legacy of the King of Scumbag Country. (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. 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.
The album is a collaboration with Mascitti’s current love interest—country musician, songwriter, and producer Shawn Camp. Along with Camp, Ricky Skaggs, pedal steel legend Paul Franklin, guitarist Guthrie Trapp, fiddle player Aubrey Haynie of The Time Jumpers, and others, they put together what will be one of the better records to be turned in during 2020.
God Made A Woman is a pretty excellent specimen of country that hopefully catches on with the wide public, and launches another important career for an artist that holds true to the traditions of country music. (read full review)
John Baumann – Country Shade
With his new album Country Shade, John Baumann fortifies his spot in Texas music and beyond as a songwriter. Sure, there’s a lot of artists who write songs in Texas music. But with John Baumann, writing songs is the singular and pure pursuit—to find the perfect sentiment, to put a notion to rhyme that has the capacity and promise to change someone’s heart or perspective. It’s a purpose where any commercial value of a composition is a secondary concern. If someone else wants to pick up one of his songs like Kenny Chesney did for “Gulf Moon,” so be it. But Baumann’s exercise is one in artistry.
Country Shade is like a long uninterrupted pause on a back porch during a warm Sunday afternoon—the perfect antidote to the remarkably unsettled moment in history that marks its release date. It’s not necessarily the cunning wordsmithing that makes John Baumann so remarkable, it’s more how he captures warm sentiments just about perfectly.
Old soul ruminations mixed with everyday morals make Country Shade a must-have, and John Baumann a name worthy of the list of top contemporary roots-based songwriters. (read full review)
Ashley McBryde – Never Will
Ashley McBryde was already considered one of the best artists from mainstream label crowd, and a bright spot for country music moving forward. With her new album Never Will, she cements her place as one of the best current artists in country music, period. Inspired, inspiring, well-performed and written, make ample room in your listening rotation for this one.
Ashley McBryde is country music that speaks to the also-rans of society: the dropouts, the single mothers, the spinsters, the bastards, those with bad tattoos and credit card debt. They’re not exactly hardened criminals (well, some of them probably are), but they damn sure ain’t saints either. Through broken homes and one night stands, they’re just trying to make the best of bad decisions and situations. But underpinning it all is a perseverance in the human spirit. Ashley McBryde offers a way out. And as someone who has risen out of the dregs of society to take center stage despite insurmountable odds herself, you believe her every word.
She knows who she is an where she came from. She’s the anti-star, the also-ran who happened to make it despite the odds. She’s one of us. And that’s why when she sings, we listen, and believe it. (read full review)
Gabe Lee – Honky Tonk Hell
Honky Tonk Hell isn’t just a great record. It verifies that Gabe Lee will be one of the next great artists in country and roots music that we’ll hopefully be hearing plenty from and enjoying for years to come.
His first record Farmland was a formidable work of song and performance as well, but preliminary and austere in its approach as a mostly acoustic record. It worked for him as a naturally-gifted singer and songwriter who needs little more than a mic and a guitar to make magic, and may even include a better group of songs than this new one. But you knew when listening that you were hearing the bones of what could be something even greater when robed in a more purposeful approach to the instrumentation and production.
This hypothesis is verified in Honky Tonk Hell. From fire-breathing Southern rock, to delicate piano ballads, Hank Williams-style Southern poetry, to Dylan-esque harmonica and rhyme, Honky Tonk Hell covers it all, and with the authority of a performer who is not torn about who he is, or addled by worries of how he’s perceived by the outside facing world. Gabe Lee belts his original words out like a man born to do it and who knows nothing else. His effortlessness is uncanny. (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 promises to be 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)
Other Albums Highly Recommended
Zach Bryan – Elisabeth (read review)
Dalton Domino – Feverdreamer (read review)
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer Vol. 2 (read review)
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions (read review)
The Tender Things – How You Make a Fool (read review)
John Anderson – Years (read review)
The Panhandlers – Self-Titled (read review)
John Moreland – LP5 (read review)
Tami Neilson – CHIKABOOM! (read review)
T.J. Hernandez – Destination Unknown (read review)
Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia (read review)
Possesed by Paul James – As We Go Wandering (read review)
Western Centuries – Call The Captain (read review)
Jonathan Parker – Broken Hearts and Broken Bones (read review)
Logan Ledger – Self-Titled (read review)
Hill Country – Self-Titled (read review)
Porter Union – Loved & Lost (read review)
Jessi Alexander – Decatur County Red (read review)
Andy Brasher – Myna Bird (read review)
Pam Tillis – Looking For a Feeling (read review)
Reckless Kelly – American Jackpot/American Girls (read review)
Nora Jane Struthers – Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words (read review)
The SteelDrivers – Bad For You (read review)
Johnny Falstaff – Lost in the City Lights (read review)
Whitney Rose – We Still Go To Rodeos (read review)
Anna Lynch – Apples in the Fall (read review)
Tenille Arts – Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between (read review)
Tyller Gummersall – Heartbreak College (read review)
Eleven Hundred Springs – Here ‘Tis (read review)
Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record (read review)
Hot Country Knights – The ‘K’ Is Silent (read review)
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Other Records Receiving Postive Reviews:
Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels (read review)
Marcus King – El Dorado (read review)