This is my second annual “Best Of” series of year-end posts. Some, I assume, will be brief. Some longer. All, varying degrees of serious. I’ll try my best not to use the words or phrases “unprecedented,” “new normal,” or “unpresidented”, but I can’t make any promises.
The ground rules for my favorite album list is different than my book list, in that these had to be albums that were released this year. This put some albums, most notably Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard, which was released late last year, at a disadvantage, because they were too late for last year’s list, but too early for this year’s. (For me, Wildcard put Miranda in the George Strait stratosphere in that, once again, it proved that she doesn’t ALWAYS put out masterful music (like The Weight of These Wings), but she NEVER writes or records a subpar song.) Also, as is clear to those who know me and will be clear to those who don’t, my tastes lean heavy on Americana/Roots/Country, rarely veering off track. I’m including three songs on each album that will hook you, and, in some cases, a lyric that hooked me. Lastly, as I look at this list, I need to say that any of the albums from 6-10 could be #6 at any given moment, any of the albums from 2-5 could be #2 at any moment. Only the #1 is a clear favorite.
#10. American Aquarium: Lamentations
The last four years have offered an opportunity for boot wearing, truck driving, dirt loving southern artists to stand up and say to the wealthy, conservative white class “No. You don’t own the Country, nor do you own the country.” My list is full of these artists, and American Aquarium is the group I only recently became aware of. Band leader and lead singer BJ Barham is getting a reputation as a songwriter to keep an eye one, and if Lamentations is any indication, I’ll be diving deeper in the coming years.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Me + Mine (Lamentations), A Better South, and Six Years Come September.
LYRIC TO HOOK YOU: From Me + Mine… What are you supposed to do/ When the God you’re prayin’ to/ Up and goes missin’?/ Leaves a trail of unpaid bills/ Broken homes and opioid addiction/ And then a politian shows up/ Promisin’ that/ He’ll return the jobs/ That God himself could not bring back
#9. War and Treaty: Hearts Town
War and Treaty made my 2019 list as part of a group of acts that are in cohort and cohoots with Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile. Both Tonya Blount and Michael Trotter suffered bouts of COVID this year, but also managed to release this incredible sophomore album. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as their previous album Healing Tide, Hearts Town is by no means a “sophomore slump.” Their style levitates in the space between soul, country, Americana/roots. Like most music in that genre, (and like several albums on this list), it is intended to be listened to live. Which is to say, loud.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Five More Minutes (before listening to this song, I highly recommend reading this story about how the song came to being,) Jubilee, and Yearning.
#8. Tyler Childers: Long Violent History
Tyler Childers decided to pick up playing the fiddle not long ago, then released a masterpiece of an album that is mostly him sawing on it. The title track, which is the final song on the album, and the only with lyrics, is like Old Testament prophecy, a gut-punch to the ways in which powerful white people con less powerful white people into directing their rage away from where it needs to be. I’m no expert on what does and doesn’t get nominated for Grammys, but I suspect this may be a surprise addition.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Long Violent History, the rest of the album together.
LYRIC TO HOOK YOU: From Long Violent History… It’s called me belligеrent, it’s took me for ignorant/ But it ain’t never once made me scared just to be/ Could you imagine just constantly worryin’/ Kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe?
#7. Gabe Lee: Honky Tonk Hell
Smart. Fun. Out of left field. Gabe Lee is an Asian-American country singer that writes Dylan-esque lyrics and puts them to Honky Tonk melodies. This is a jewel. If you caught me by surprise trying to dance this year, I was probably listening to a song from this album.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Honky Tonk Hell, 30 Seconds at a Time, and Imogene.
#6. Little Big Town: Nightfall
When this album was released in January of this year, it felt like a window into what 2020 might bring: Comfort, lightness, and a feeling that the worst is behind us. A couple of months later, of course, that dream was shattered. Regardless, I love this album. When I listen to it I’m reminded of when I was younger and would sometimes linger on “Adult Contemporary” radio stations and think to myself “This stuff sucks, but I bet when I’m older I’ll love it.” Well, I’m older, and I love it.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Forever and a Night; Wine, Beer, Whiskey; and Sugar Coat.
#5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions
Every Jason Isbell album, for me, falls into one of two categories. The first, I’ll call the “Southeastern” category, which is marked by an instant recognition that this entire album, not just all its composite pieces, is a classic and is to be enjoyed as a whole. That category consists of two albums– Southeastern and Hope the High Road. The second category I call the “Something More than Free” group, which is where I’ve placed Reunions. These albums don’t necessarily have a string connecting all the songs (although Isbell has said the theme of ghosts ties Reunions together), but are simply a bucket of random, brilliant songs. It’s not a secret that Isbell is my favorite artist. His experimentation and deviation from his norm, which he does a lot on this album, never feels forced or inauthentic. His stories are among my small handful of north stars.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Dreamsicle, Overseas, and River.
LYRIC TO HOOK YOU: From Overseas… Doesn’t seem so long ago/ When we thought that we could change their minds/ We’d stay here and fight it out/ With a love that we could weaponize/ But I saw you losing faith and/ I was watching when the light went out/ You know what revolution means/ And you know it’s not an option now
#4. Ashley McBryde: Never Will
With the exception of my love for Jason Isbell shows, I’m not the wildest fan of live music. Of course I love concerts, but I hate crowds. However, nothing made me grieve the loss of live music more than the album Never Will from Ashley McBryde. Because she gets some radio play, her reach is much longer than Isbell’s, but she engenders a similar amount of passion among her fans, a feeling of community and camaraderie that comes from feeling like you are a small group of people who get it. On a cold day in early April I put this album on and went for a walk. By the time I returned, I had listened to it multiple times and my step counter indicated I had walked six miles. I’ve logged many more with the album since then.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: I can’t do this. You have to listen to the whole thing, from beginning to Never Will. You don’t have to listen to Styrofoam, the final track. It’s the one head scratcher. If it wasn’t there, the album may have been #2.
#3. Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You
Most people outside of New Jersey who still listen to Springsteen do so out of a deep sense of connection, similar to the one I feel with Jason Isbell. For me, I love almost everything Springsteen releases, but I am rarely aware of it when it is released. I usually have to discover it years later. There are two exceptions– The Rising and Letter to You. The first was written, recorded, and released in the fever dream of the months after 9/11, and was prompted by a fan who saw Springsteen on the street and yelled out of the window of his car, “We need you Bruce!” I haven’t heard of any such origin story for Letter to You, but the album feels the same. What’s interesting is that some of the songs were written clearly in response to the fever dream of this year, and others were written decades ago, but the album feels made for 2020. I never listen to The Rising without thinking of 9/11, and 2020 will always be the theme of Letter to You.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: One Minute You’re Here, Rainmaker (which, by the way, was written decades before Donald Trump took office, but speaks prophetically to the phenomenon that made such an event happen,) and I’ll See You In My Dreams.
LYRIC TO HOOK YOU: From Rainmaker… They come for the smile, the firm handshake/ They come for the raw chance of a fair shake/ Some come to make damn sure, my friend/ This mean season’s got nothin’ to do with them
#2. Taylor Swift: Folklore (and Evermore)
I was made aware this year of Swiftamine, the fictional product from SNL that is designed to cure the nauseous, fainting feeling one gets when they discover a song they like is by Taylor Swift. I’ve never been an anti-Swiftie. In her early days of pop-country, I recognized what a great songwriter she was at SUCH a young age, but also was ok with the fact that her music just wasn’t for me. I had a cursory knowledge of the pop music she’s put out since. And then the bombs of Folklore and Evermore dropped. Several people who share similar musical tastes as mine posted on social media how incredible these albums were. Like most people who listened to folklore, I was awestruck with the storytelling. Like many of my friends who write, paint, or create via other mediums, I was also struck with a sense of envy and jealousy at the volume of great work she’s able to put out. Between Folklore and Evermore, Taylor released 31 songs this year. THIRTY ONE! And every last one of them are works of art. Pass the Swiftamine, please.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Sorry, can’t do it. Listen to all of them.
#1. Waylon Payne: Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
Before this year, I was only vaguely aware of Waylon Payne. If you know anything about him, chances are it is from his depiction of Jerry Lee Lewis in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. If you learn more about him, as I did this year, you’ll think his life deserves a biopic of its own. The details of his story lend themselves perfectly to narrative: The child of a female country singer who recorded one of the most iconic songs of the 1970’s, his dad a road-warrior guitar player in Willie Nelson’s band. (Yes, his name is an ode to his godfather, Waylon Jennings.) Because of his parents’ traveling life, he was left to live with family in East Texas, until he was kicked out for being gay, which was also the reason he was booted from his short stint as a seminarian. The rest of the details, in no particular order, are just as substantive– Los Angeles., acting, drugs, alcohol, music, random jobs, Texas, recovery. He released another album, which I have yet to listen to, years ago. But this one feels perfectly timed. You can tell he has a background in the biblical story, because the yarn he spins with this album is one of Creation, Sin, Fall, and Resurrection. And it’s a revelation. I’ve never read more Faulkner in my life than what’s been required of me, but if I have, I imagine it would be akin to this album.
SONGS TO HOOK YOU: Dead on a Wheel (I highly recommend reading the description of how this song came about), Sins of the Father, and Dangerous Criminal.
LYRIC TO HOOK YOU: From Dangerous Criminal…. Sifting through the ashes of the maiden voyage/ Kind of made him feel all alone/ Everything and everyone/ Had Moved on