We’ve run down the Album of the Year Nominees for 2020, as well as the Song of the Year nominees, and an Essential Albums list is also coming together. But since the mainstream of country isn’t always well-represented on these lists—yet it’s important to highlight the best of the mainstream to support these projects and hopefully encourage more quality releases—let’s look back at some of the best albums from artists that are on major labels, or who receive mainstream radio play (or have in the recent past), or generally reside in the more commercial tier of country.
11. Brothers Osborne – Skeletons
The Brothers Osborne are out there bragging this is their arena rock record, and they deliver on this promise for sure. But where some records released in 2020 feel fortuitous in their timing, putting out arena rock during a pandemic is a pretty inopportune roll. They said when Skeletons was first announced, “If you really want to get to know us, this is the record to do it.” Well then apparently ladies and gentlemen, get to know them as a rock band in the country format.
But you also can’t deny that Skeletons is a pretty enjoyable listen. And even though both men are skilled enough to render country sounds well, they can handle themselves in the rock realm better than most country bumpkins ever could.
If Skeletons is the true essence of the Brothers Osborne, that means they’re not really a country duo. But it also means they’re not really that bad. And compared to whatever else you have to contend with out there on the mainstream country radio format, you’d much rather see them out there sticking it to Florida Georgia Line, and offering something actually listenable when the wife, husband, or co-worker switches to the corporate country station. (read full review)
10. Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels
Overall, the record is more pop than what initially put Maddie & Tae in sort of that sweet spot between the independent and mainstream. There’s just sort of an “average” feel that predominates this record. But there’s also some really great stuff on The Way It Feels. “My Man” with the bass line matching the melody reminds you of early 80’s Dolly Parton in the best of ways, and provides the record with a cool, upbeat moment. The opposite end of the emotional spectrum is touched on the superbly-written “Water In His Wine Glass,” which might be the record’s next best takeaway after “Die From A Broken Heart,” and is one of the more country offerings from the record.
Nonetheless, judging The Way It Feels among its peer group of major label works renders it above the fold, while it would be a shame if some of the better songs got lost in the shuffle between the milder tracks. Maddie & Tae won’t benefit from the massive press praise some other women of country enjoy when they’re willing to mix it up politically on social media. But they remain a very important duo to the effort to return the mainstream to a semblance of country and meaning. (read full review)
9. Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
Ahead of Eldredge’s new album Sunday Drive we got the same old mid-career spiel of how he was focusing more on substance and songwriting, looking to make an “Americana” move. Lo and behold though, Brett Eldredge delivers a record in Sunday Drive worthy of all the promises in the run up. It’s is more adult. It does feel fairly Americana. He doesn’t fall back on drum loops or snap tracks, and many of the songs are really well-written. In short, Sunday Drive feels decidedly non mainstream. It may not be a smart financial move, but Brett Eldredge is back in the good graces of all of those mainstream fans looking for something more.
Make no mistake though, it’s a stretch to call Sunday Drive country. This is more of a piano-driven, adult contemporary effort that you could listen to with your mom, though not necessarily in a bad way. Brett has never had a knack for true country, and his voice naturally lends to these more soulful and ballad-like compositions, which allows him to lean into his innate gifts. Listening to Sunday Drive really does unguard your skeptical attitude about mainstream country, and has you pleasantly surprised by the bits of mandolin, and the mature and thoughtful subject matter. (read full review)
8. Tenille Arts – Love Heartbreak, and Everything In Between
If you’re on the hunt for battle-hardened hockey players or cool country women hitting the mainstream who actually care about a good song and happen to be named “Tenille,” then turn your gaze north of the border. Not to be confused with the Columbia Nashville-signed and Canadian-born Tenille Townes who’s doing her own shaking up of Nashville, Saskatchewan native and Reviver Records-signed Tenille Arts has released Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between, and the title from this 25-year-old’s second record is anything but deceptive.
Shirking the bubblegum pop sensibilities that seem to sugar coat most of the new “country” music emanating from Music Row these days, Tenille Arts took a year full of spills in a bad breakup, and put them into the 12 songs of this surprisingly deep and smart record with Tenille herself taking a hand in co-writing every track.
We’re still talking about country pop here, so understand that going in. But if it was up to the hardened heart of this jaded gatekeeper, Canadian country artist Tenille Arts would be green carded, fast tracked to country radio, and be sent to roll down on the glitter chicks and dude bros currently on radio like an arctic front or a grizzly defenseman missing half his Chiclets cross checking the other team’s pretty boy superstar into the boards. (read full review)
7. Jon Pardi – Rancho Fiesta Sessions
Keep your expectations in line with the spirit of the project, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what this little eight-song release has in store. Produced by Pardi himself, and recorded during a one-night live jam session with his touring band at his home in Nashville (a.k.a. “Rancho Fiesta”), it certainly captures some rough and rowdy moments with of a bunch of guys just hanging out, cracking beers, and careening in and out of the cuts they love to play when they get to play what they want.
Jon Pardi fans will be more than happy to finally have proper recordings of his take on Merle’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and Dwight’s “Honky Tonk Man”—two fellow Californians that critically influenced a young kid from the small town of Dixon. But maybe mostly importantly, Rancho Fiesta Sessions is for Jon Pardi himself, and his band, to have a little fun, to blow off a little COVID steam, and keep from going crazy. They just allowed the rest of us to peer in and join the party. (Or “Pardi”? No, let’s not go there.) (read full review)
6. Mo Pitney – Ain’t Lookin’ Back
Articulating the kind of down home and wholesome side of country music that just like so many of the other more pleasing and enjoyable facets of the genre have been rendered patently absent in today’s popular realm, Mo Pitney has become a fan favorite over his burgeoning career with quality songs and a laid back demeanor that puts listeners at ease in a way that both the young and old can appreciate, and together.
Don’t expect raucous honky-tonk tunes about tears mixing with beer stains on wooden dance floors, or cutting loose on Saturday night, or somber moans from a worried man with a worried mind waking up in the gutter. No, Mo Pitney is not a troubled soul. He’s simply an old soul that sings about a simple life and simple pleasures from the distinctly country and devout life he lives.
Sure, with some of these songs, certain listeners may find them a little too corny for their version of country, and that may not be a completely unfair criticism. But a little wholesome goodness is good for everyone, even if it’s just every now and then. It’s a bit of Cracker Barrel in between the late night benders and pontoon parties to ground yourself and re-calibrate back to center. (read full review)
5. Hot Country Knights – The ‘K’ Is Silent
Stuff a sock down your pants, unearth your razor shades, bust out the acid wash, and get ready to party like it’s 1989 because what started as a cover band stage gag back in 2015 has now become a full-blown major label release with original songs and radio single. It’s called Hot Country Knights, and it’s like nothing country music has seen or heard in a very long time.
Dierks Bentley has long been regarded as one of the more favorable figures among the ranks of mainstream country performers, even for those that took a sledge hammer to their radio years ago. It’s a pock marked legacy for sure. But once again he proves to be one of the good guys by releasing a side-splitting, self-aware, and super fun record under the pseudonym Douglas “Doug” Douglason and Hot Country Knights.
With The ‘K’ Is Silent, Dierks Bentley and his road band lean into a long-established tradition among country performers of launching alter egos to record humorous music full of self-deprecation and sometimes sexual innuendo. Just like fiddle and steel guitar, this was once a rite of passage that has been regrettably lost in most modern country. (read full review)
4. Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record
Your Life is a Record is a little bit of a different approach for Brandy. Where usually her songs follow more of a proven methodology in the use of double entendres and witty turns of phrase and perspective to render themselves enjoyable—and emerge from songwriting sessions with other professionals—this record strikes a more personal chord. Brandy Clark does something she’s mostly avoided in her career heretofore, which is using the inspiration of her own mistakes and failed relationship as fodder for song material as opposed to knocking down nosy neighbors and white picket fences.
There was a moment after Brandy Clark released her debut album 12 Stories, and was later snatched up by Warner Bros. that we thought she might be one of the next big things in country music. That never really materialized as this all occurred right as the reign of Bro-Country was commencing. But time has a way of sifting the wheat from the chaff, and when that happens, the contributions and influence of Brandy Clark will find their proper place. Multiple tracks from Your Life is a Record will support that assessment. (read full review)
3. Josh Turner – Country State of Mind
Let’s be honest. Do we really need yet even more new versions of old country songs? Of course we don’t. But the wildcard here, and what makes this record worth turning your attention to is that you have the once-in-a-lifetime voice of the great Josh Turner gracing these classic songs. One of the most potent weapons in the present-day country music arsenal who tore it up in the early 2000’s, and then was put out to pasture way too early as Bro-Country began to reign, he’s back with a dozen country classics he’s cut, including many with some notable vocal contributors, and we’re completely here for it.
You can’t compare this fairly to a record of original material. But as a country cover record, Country State of Mind gets it mostly right. Being able to choose the songs he knows he can sing with conviction and clobber out of the park gives Josh Turner and unfair advantage as one of those singers you’d put on the short list of most naturally-gifted vocalists in country music right now. (read full review)
2. Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
Giving himself time for his creative batteries to recharge, and leaning into his strengths no matter what influences or genres they express, Chris Stapleton was able to turn in an impassioned, and quite expressive and involved record in Starting Over, that feels wholly Stapleton in style, approach, and scope. Starting Over is a combination of Southern soul songs and straight ahead rock tracks, and a few sentimental ballads that constitute the smattering of country tunes. Guilty of being country mostly by association, Starting Over is truly more an embodiment of elemental “Americana,” meaning an amalgam of American roots influences, presented with a relative seamlessness between them.
The greatest adversity for Chris Stapleton and Starting Over is the sentiment surrounding him as a known quantity, a sort of “been there and done that” attitude some approach his music with, especially more dedicated, hardcore music fans. He’s in a strange position as one of the few stars of substance that has ingratiated himself to the masses, which makes him easy to snub by the musical elite.
But Chris Stapleton’s talent is still undeniable, his appeal worthy of the wide recognition he enjoys, and it’s all unmistakable and captured with renewed passion in moments very much worthy of your attention on Starting Over.
1. 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. (read full review)