Like everything else in 2020, country music was full of unexpected moments—many of them painful. Even before the coronavirus pandemic started spreading wide in the U.S. and forcing shutdowns, Nashville, Tennessee—country music’s epicenter—was fighting its own share of battles. A tornado whipped through The Music City the first week of March, causing severe damage to the East Nashville neighborhood, where many country artists live and work. Even when engulfed by damage and sickness, the country community rallied. Even when they lost some of the greatest among them, like John Prine, Kenny Rogers and Charley Pride, country musicians found the strength to stay engaged with fans (if only through livestreams), fight for much-needed change and share some truly stellar records in the process.
There were oodles of great country albums released in 2020 that are not listed here, both from mainstream heavy-hitters and newcomer songsmiths alike: Lori McKenna, Kathleen Edwards, Sam Hunt, Ashley Ray, Kelsea Ballerini, Little Big Town, Lucinda Williams, Mickey Guyton, Margo Price, John Moreland, The Secret Sisters and so many other talented women and men who wrote and sung their hearts out, even when tours stopped and Nashville’s lights went out. There were also plenty of exceptional Americana and country-adjacent records that probably deserve a list of their own, like Lilly Hiatt’s Walking Proof, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, Katie Pruitt’s Expectations, Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers ... and the list goes on. Hey, even Taylor Swift released a country tune or two in 2020. But, here, we included the 10 core country albums that stuck with us the most, followed us around and pleaded that we listen a little closer.
Listen to Paste’s Best Country Albums of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.
We waited a long time for Cam to release The Otherside, the follow-up to her 2015 debut Untamed. The fiery singer/songwriter first flashed on my radar with her 2017 single “Diane,” a tale of two infidelities that also appears on The Otherside. “Diane” is the descendant of Dixie Chicks fables and Shania Twain’s girl power anthems, but it’s also something entirely new, and I’ve been eager to hear more ever since. Cam, neé Camaron Ochs, does not disappoint on The Otherside, a pop-country, radio-ready costume piece that is begging to be displayed live on stage. While we’ll have to wait a bit longer for a Cam tour, there’s plenty to keep us entertained in the meantime in the form of these 11 songs, some of which were co-written or produced by pop forces like Jack Antonoff, Harry Styles and Sam Smith. There’s the heartfelt opener “Redwood Tree,” disco-infused title track and the risk-it-all lovestory against a doomsday backdrop “Till There’s Nothing Left.” She’s one half of a stylish couple on “Classic” and a somber counsel on “Girl Like Me,” where she details her personal journey to success in the crazed country ecosystem. In all, The Otherside is further proof that the spunky Cam can do whatever she wants—and it would do us well to pay attention. —Ellen Johnson
The Chicks have never tolerated liars, cheaters or scoundrels. They coaxed dirty secrets from their lovers’ mouths on “Let ‘Er Rip,” promising strength in the face of the truth. In another case, the offender in question was such a scumbag they plotted his murder. In 2006, on their most recent album Taking The Long Way, they still weren’t ready to make nice. While they’re famous for romantic songs like “Cowboy Take Me Away” and hopeful ballads like “Wide Open Spaces,” Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Strayer have always been tough as nails. So it should come as no surprise that the band are consistently resilient on their relentless fifth LP Gaslighter. Ultimately, Gaslighter is powerfully split between the band who were once the Dixie Chicks and who are now The Chicks. Old demons dance alongside new loves. Meanwhile, Natalie, Emily and Martie shout their political opinions, cries for justice and messages of support on behalf of abused women everywhere from the mountaintops, all to the tune of polished, country-pop gold (in part thanks to the production savvy of Jack Antonoff). —Ellen Johnson
Six-time Grammy nominee and widely-respected country songwriter Brandy Clark is back with an album of her own stories. Clark has collaborated on songs for Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and more throughout her career, but it’s rare to hear her solo work. Your Life is a Record is Clark’s third solo LP, following 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town and 2013’s 12 Stories, one of our favorite country albums of the decade. It’s mature and wise—not the pickup truck anthems you might hear on the radio. Your Life is a Record is a moving collection of 11 songs sung and written by a woman who has lived a lot of life in her 44 years. The characters in these stories are empathetic (“I’ll Be the Sad Song”), innovative (yet forlorn, on the brilliantly sad “Pawn Shop”) and ever-evolving (“Who You Thought I Was”). But they’re far from perfect, which is what makes this Record so real and relatable. —Ellen Johnson
Caylee Hammack’s debut album begins with a good scolding. “You should’ve never come over,” she exclaims. “You should’ve left early and kept your hands to yourself / You knew better / You should’ve never promised me bliss if you couldn’t keep it.” Stand back—she’s breathing fire. But as the album opener, titled “Just Friends,” continues, it becomes clear that the issues in this relationship weren’t entirely to blame on the handsy guy. Hammack continues, “I should’ve listened to my mama / And not let you in my head / I should’ve told ya that I loved ya / But not let you in my bed.” Her predicament is a familiar one to anybody who hustled into a relationship with a friend too quickly. The 26-year-old Hammack wrote or co-wrote and produced all 13 tracks on If It Wasn’t For You, her debut album released earlier last month, and the Georgia native peels back the curtain on everything from failed friends-with-benefits arrangements and redhead stereotypes to existential woes and family issues (namely on “Family Tree,” which is akin to Kacey Musgraves’ “Family is Family”). —Ellen Johnson
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions
Jason Isbell isn’t the kind of guy you’d think of as haunted, but he’s surrounded by ghosts on his new album. Some of them are the literal shades of people he (or his narrators) once knew who are gone now. Others are figurative: past selves, maybe, lingering in the shadows that memory casts. Together, they’re the spirits that constitute Reunions, Isbell’s latest LP with his band The 400 Unit, and the follow-up to his 2017 release The Nashville Sound. It’s not surprising that Isbell would find himself in the company of specters. It’s a function of getting older and realizing how much you, and the world around you, have changed over time, of discovering that parts of life that once loomed large in your mind aren’t as big you seem to remember. Isbell turned 41 this year, young enough that his formative years still seem closer than they really are, and old enough for the Alabama-born singer to have discovered that taking the longer view helps ease the sting of all those hard-learned lessons that can pile up in early adulthood. That is, if you’re lucky enough to come through it with your wits intact and with enough perspective to see the journey as something more than a bumpy ride over rough terrain. Isbell has both smarts and perspective, and each seems to increase a little bit more from one album to the next. He’s always been an empathetic songwriter with a distinctive willingness to see the world from a point of view other than his own. Like any good storyteller, Isbell creates characters, and he has a storyteller’s ability to bring them to life by infusing them with enough of his own experiences, be it sobriety or fatherhood, to make their struggles and small triumphs resonate. —Eric R. Danton
Shape & Destroy is not the first time Ruston Kelly’s journey has been captured in song. His debut—2018’s Dying Star—showcased his considerable melodic gifts and fearless honesty as it explored Kelly’s trip to and from rock bottom. It’s an album that’s equal parts harrowing and heartening, and it pointed the way for Kelly to deliver on his enormous promise as an artist. Shape & Destroy finds him on the right path, but not yet out of the woods. Nowhere is this more clear than in two back-to-back songs—“Alive” and “Changes”—that examine Kelly’s journey from two very different perspectives. “Looking at the flowers coming up from the ground through all of the rubble of everything that I tore down,” he sings in “Alive,” a slow-burning love song to life (and a supportive partner). One track later, however, he kicks off the strummy, upbeat “Changes” buried in the rubble. “What the hell am I doing down here?” Kelly sings. “I thought that I was finally in the clear. All it takes is once to make your demons reappear.” What a difference a couple of years, hard work, personal reflection and loving, supportive relationships make. Where Dying Star offered only glimmers of hope that Kelly’s garden would someday flourish, Shape & Destroy is a modestly verdant landscape as far as the eye can see—maybe not “tall and purposed” quite yet, but healthy, happy and headed that way. —Ben Salmon
Ashley McBryde has—and has had for a long time—the makings of a huge country star. That couldn’t be more clear on Never Will, her latest album, which has something for every type of country fan. “First Thing I Reach For” is an honest honky-tonk ode to vices that spares no details. On album closer “Styrofoam,” she dedicates three minutes of spoken-word sweet nothings to the creators of the impossible-to-decompose material that was miraculously chilling liquids of all varieties well before Yetis were on the market. The mandolin takes center stage on the bluegrass-indebted “Voodoo Doll,” which is one of the most impressive songs on the album, if only for its light flirtation with pure, unadulterated black magic. “Martha Divine,” another single that earned McBryde a place on several “most anticipated releases of 2020” lists, is the album’s other highlight and the eternal damnation of a serial homewrecker. If radio execs and DJs have any sense at all, they’ll play Ashley McBryde until we’re beggin’ them to stop. Few are as deserving of mainstream genre stardom as her, and Never Will is all the proof we need. —Ellen Johnson
What do you get when you cross one of country music’s finest storytellers, a crack team of bluegrass’ best players and a lawnmower? The best dang hootenanny of the whole dang year, that’s what. Modern-day outlaw Sturgill Simpson is owner to a discography of idiosyncratic country tunes, from his breakout, psychedelic-inspired Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to 2016’s soft spoken roots record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth to last year’s aggressive country-rock/anime package SOUND & FURY. He’s been breaking rules and beloved for nearly a decade now, but who knew that he’d make some of his best work recreating songs he’d already recorded? Simpson recruited a cast of star bluegrass musicians like Tim O’Brien and Sierra Hull to re-record songs from throughout his career in a series of sessions at Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio. The result is the cleverly titled Cutting Grass Vol. 1 and, as of just a few weeks ago, Vol. 2. These records have been two of the year’s greatest surprises. Containing bluegrass recreations of some of Simpson’s best songs like “Breaker’s Roar,” “Turtles All The Way Down” and “All The Pretty Colors,” the Cuttin’ Grass records provide something so rare and entertaining: an artist covering his own songs. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a lonely 2020 day: unabrasive, uncomplicated—but never sleepy—folk music, sung by its creator and his fiddlin’ friends. Simpson probably could’ve cut the tracklists in half, but who is he if not dedicated? Don’t fight the sheer volume of these records: just throw ‘em on, maybe pour a drink or two and sail away on Sturgill Simpson’s lawnmower. —Ellen Johnson
Country rockstar Chris Stapleton has written tons of songs for pop singers like Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake, and he frequently finds himself flirting with soul styles and the blues. That’s quite a few genres crammed into one little sentence, but Stapleton is comfortable with them all. It’s the first two (“country” and “rock”), though, where he spends the most time on his new album Starting Over, which, as the name might imply, is a record of fresh starts. The Kentucky-born, Nashville-based roots musician made waves with his 2015 southern rock opus Traveller and again in 2017 with the double album From A Room. Now, he’s winding it down with Starting Over’s country-folk lullabies, like the tender cover of John Fogerty’s “Joy Of My Life” and the even-more-tender original “Maggie’s Song,” a tribute to a bygone beloved four-legged family member that will definitely make you cry. Stapleton also reckons with the devil on his shoulder in the stony “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” (which another country artist on this list, Hailey Whitters, covers on her own 2020 album) and welcomes the day with a brown bottle in hand on “Whiskey Sunrise.” He even makes a rare reference to the mass shooting at a 2017 country festival in Las Vegas on the foreboding “Watch You Burn.” Stapleton is unafraid to sing about issues that might make country fans uncomfortable, but he’s also right at home on familiar slow-burning roots tunes and southern rock staples. Starting Over is a choose-your-own-adventure country journey. —Ellen Johnson
Last year, the Iowa-raised, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Hailey Whitters released “Ten Year Town,” a number about something country artists have been moaning about for the entirety of the genre’s existence: small towns, how they trap us and how they’re always there waiting, even if you’re lucky enough to make it out. But “Ten Year Town,” now the opener on Whitters’ new album The Dream—which she fully funded herself with money she earned waiting tables and plucked from her savings—doesn’t feel sorry for itself, or bemoan a geographical situation. Her outlook remains overwhelmingly positive. “Dreams come true and I think mine will,” Whitters sings. With this album, she graduates from Dream-er to doer. But the real “dream,” for many, that is, is “a paycheck at the end of the week,” an indulgent cigarette, the miracle of the earth’s rotation and some people to accompany you on the long ride. “We’re all just livin’ the dream,” Whitters sings on the record’s final song. The Dream cherishes working-class triumphs and even failures, as country music always has. You won’t find a radical change where that content is concerned. But Hailey Whitters’ heartfelt manner of describing those ups and downs is what makes her dream so damn charming. —Ellen Johnson
Listen to Paste’s Best Country Albums of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.