Continuing on in our look at my favorite albums of 2020.
The first 50 was just a table list. The rest include short write-ups and videos of favorite tracks.
* Note for those who don’t ready my weekly music column: I did not include either Cuttin’ Grass album in my rankings, despite them being two of the best albums of the year. I decided to treat them both as a Greatest Hits type album, threw every damn song on them in my Best of playlist and not rate them for the purpose of this exercise.
10. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen–Hold My Beer, Vol. 2
This one is admittedly a guilty pleasure for me. I’m a sucker for buddy country. And this one hits you right in the nostalgia. It is a throwback to an era of country I didn’t even like within that era, but hell, I’m 42 now. Nostalgia wins. Vol. 1 came out in 2015 and checked in at number six that year. This duo just gets me. It is an album that calls for the glory days, whether it be a road trip song like AM/FM or a “name songs we like” song like Speak To Me Jukebox. If we have learning anything from Pat Green or Ready Player One, just naming things you remember liking works. And this album had probably the funniest track of the year with Rodeo Clown. I hope Randy and Wade circle around to another one of these in a few years, and maybe get brother-in-law Cody to jump in as well.
Favorite Tracks: AM/FM, Rodeo Clown, Let Merle Be Merle, Mi Amigos, Speak To Me Jukebox.
9. Chika–Industry Games
My top 10 this year actually has a few albums that were first-timers for me. And Chika is one of them. The 23-year-old Alabama woman delivered my highest rated hip hop album of the year on her way to a Grammy award for Best New Artist. Industry Games is a bit of a chat again as it is just a 20-miunute EP. But damn it is 20 minutes of pure fun. This album jams hard. Roll down the windows and roll down the strip with this one blasting. This is another one where the Tiny Desk is worth checking out. I look forward to seeing what her future holds. And for those cranking Lizzo, give this one a spin.
Favorite tracks: Crown, Industry Games, Songs About You
8. Daniel Donato–A Young Man’s Country
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but if you head over to Daniel Donato’s website he is wearing a t-shirt that simply says “Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, The Band”. Then you look at A Young Man’s Country and you see covers of The Dead, John Prine and Waylon Jennings. So yeah, that quick look gives you a pretty solid idea of where this young kid is coming from. Toss in the fact he busked in front of Phish and John Mayer shows in Nashville and the picture starts to paint itself. Donato, a self-billed Cosmic Cowboy, is the link between outlaw country and jam bands that Billy Strings was between bluegrass and jam bands. This was a hell of a debut album for a gentleman who cut his teeth playing nightly for the Don Kelley Band. It usually takes decades to get to get a diamond to shine this bright. Not Daniel. This is one you put on the headphones and drift into another world too, preferably while herbily enhanced.
Favorite tracks: Justice, Always Been A Lover, Angel From Montgomery, Diamond In The Rough, Ain’t Living Long Like This, Broke Down.
7. Jonathan Terrell–Westward
Jonathan Terrell has spent much of the last decade bouncing between his country solo work and his rock and roll band, Not In The Face. Westward, his third solo album, wound up being a bit of a blend of both and it works better for it. It’s got the country tuning but with the rock and roll energy. It sits somewhere between Chuck Ragan and Hayes Carll. Austin, his current hometown, has an eclectic blend of genres, and that influence is apparent here. Never Make A Sound has a country punk beat and raspiness that would fit a Ragan album. Raining In Dallas has the sweeping strings you expect from traditional country. And Lemon Cigarettes and Pink Champagne gets some honky tonk help from David Ramirez and was written while living in an Airstream (Texas Forever).
Favorite tracks: Old Friend, Never Make A Sound, Raining in Dallas, Give It Time, Something I Do, Lemon Cigarettes’ and Pink Champagne.
6. JR Carroll–Long Story Short
Yeah, this is another cheat, because my two favorite songs on the album aren’t even on this album. Long Story Short is a five-song, 17-minute EP. But JR also released two other singles this year. And this is 2020, when albums are a concept, not an actual thing in the digital streaming world and playlists. So, in my world, Girl From A Song and Grass That Isn’t Green are part of Long Story Short. My list, my rules. We know this. JR Carroll popped up on my radar as part of the Elizabeth album (more on that one later). JR and his buddy Zach have a similar style. While Zach is raw and powerful, JR is smoother and can unleash the pipes when the moment calls for it. His writing feels like home, and not in the “ah crap, my uncle showed up” way, but in the “I miss these nights” way.
Favorite tracks: Waiting, Rocky Ford, Girl From A Song, Grass That Isn’t Green.
5. Katie Pruitt–Expectations
BJ Barham name dropped Katie Pruitt in a magazine interview a month or two back and I was not familiar. Well, one long walk later and I was hooked. Expectations is the debut album for the 26-year-old Nashville native and it is a hell of a power debut. A coming-of-age and a coming-out album of sorts, Pruitt is unapologetic and endearing at the same time. Growing up “different’ in a tight-knit community is the prevailing theme throughout.
And again, a bit of a cheat here. My favorite Katie Pruitt track of the year wasn’t on this album, but in my playlist it was. Look The Other Way is probably my Song of the Year. I just can’t get enough of it. The aggression and angst, with only a hit of subtlety is perfect. It is one of those “stop you in your tracks” songs. This is the album most likely to make you cry this year.
Favorite Tracks: Look The Other Way, My Mind’s A Ship (That’s Going Down), Expectations, Normal, Georgia.
4. The Panhandlers–The Panhandlers
And here we have another buddy country album, with Texas boys William Clark Green, Josh Abbott, John Baumann and Cleto Cordero teaming up. This was suppose to be a tribute album to the Flatlanders, West Texas deities. It turned into new original music from all four, frequently trading verse for verse within each song. Whereas the Wade and Randy album feels like two dudes just having fun, this one is an ode, to the land and the music that hails from of nowhere. This is probably my favorite album from this land since Ryan Culwell’s Flatland.
Favorite tracks: West Texas In My Eye, This Flatland Life, Panhandle Slim, West Texas Girl, Lonesome Heart, Caprockin’.
3. Arlo McKinley–Die Midwestern
I have a live bootleg of a Tyler Childers show from her. On it, a guy jumps on stage and sings Shake The Front with Tyler. Sarah didn’t care for it, because “it’s not Tyler”. Well, now that guy has the number three album on my 2020 list. Arlo McKinley’s time has come with Die Midwestern. This is the second full-length album for the Cincinnati native, and first since 2014. He also holds the distinction of being the last artist signed to John Prine’s record label. This is a dark, weary, album with regret, addiction and only occasionally hope. You know, my wheelhouse. Die Midwestern was in contention for my Song of the Year. Bag of Pills, an older song of Arlo’s that made the album, was liked by Prine. Good enough for me. Arlo has the voice of a haunted soul and it makes you want to root for everything to be right in his world.
Favorite tracks: Die Midwestern, We Were Alright, Bag of Pills, The Hurtin’s Done, Suicidal Saturday Night, Gone For Good, Walking Shoes.
2. Zach Bryan–Elisabeth
The guy who put out my number one album last year came back quickly with my number two album this year, and an EP (Quiet, Heavy Dreams) I basically tack onto this as well, and a few more Youtube videos not even on an album yet. I’m not sure what is more impressive. As prolific as Zach has been before heading off on deployment, you would think the quality would dip. Nope. Zach continues to do this his way, which means low-key production, a spare sound, mixing issues, etc. But underneath all that, is killer lines, deep thought and an incredible voice. This is one of those albums that smacks you in the face with a different lyric each time you listen.
I love the rawness of these first two albums he has done. And yet I still would love to see what he could do with someone like Dave Cobb or Shooter Jennings.
Whereas Deanne was Zach dealing with the loss of his mother, Elizabeth finds Zach in a time where he has found love, and some good friends to make music with. But within all that gooey goodness, there is still a struggle with who he was, is and will be.
Favorite track: I have 18 Zach Bryan 2020 tracks in my Best of 2020 list if that tells you anything.
And some bonus Zach not even on an album yet, just because you deserve it. You really do. Although, not you Verizon.
1. American Aquarium–Lamentations
Well this should surprise no one. I mean, it has been at the bottom of every single one of these posts, staring right at you. This is the second straight AA album to finish at number one in my list the year it came out, and Rockingham was number two its year, behind some guy named Sturgill. BJ Barham has become my musical obsession the last few years. I have said it before within these pages, his growth as a man and a musician has kind of been step-in-step with mine. Eerily so, like military cadence.
Lamentations is an album about the soul of a man and an country. It is hierarchical commentary of a social structure (Me + Mine, Brightleaf + Burnley, A Better South), it is life advice (The Luckier You Get), it heartbreaking (Six Years Come September, The Day I Learned To Lie To You) and it is, like Zach above, a struggle with who I was, is and will be (How Wicked I Was). And I say I as in we. I’m just trying to do my bes to not go full Swimfan or SWF with BJ.
Also, I’m still looking forward to that future Pearl Barham/Mercy Isbell album collaboration. Yeah, I’ve put that thought into the world. Work your magic, The Secret.
Favorite tracks: the album.
2020 was an incredible year for music and I got to a lot of it. The pandemic obviously sucked and the loss of life was devastating. I feel for all of those who lost loved ones. We have been fortunate here in IamWeez land. My wife’s job was completely flipped on its head, but she still has a job. One of my jobs essentially disappeared, but it not the one I rely on financially. I count us among the lucky ones. I keep circling back to a singular phrase through all of this. It’s a beautiful thing to have all that time. The circumstances were ugly and painful for many. But I’ve done my best to not waste the time I have been given this year.
Besides, a wise man once told me:
The more you get done boy, the less you regret.
Write it down, so you never forget.
The harder you work, the luckier you get.
Peace out 2020. Love you guys and thanks for following along with these musical ramblings.