It’s true that 2020 has been a disappointing year for many reasons, but one of the bright spots has been the massive amount of music we’ve been handed. In what was a veritable embarrassment of riches, these are some of the albums that made my days of lockdown and beyond immeasurably richer.
Ruston Kelly put out a fairly astounding second album; it’s all about a man using his past demons to shape himself and find his true place in the world, but it feels joyous and celebratory too. Katie Pruitt, whom I became aware of when she was his 2019 touring partner, put out a debut album that is simply stunning (which after being blown away by her live performance – probably the best of a support act I’ve ever seen – I’m not surprised about). Pruitt is 100% herself, telling her truth with clever lyrics and a voice that can be described no way other than as beautiful.
It was a great year for some of my long time favourites to make a comeback too: we were treated to the first new (solo) Teddy Thompson album in nine years, the first new material from Kathleen Edwards in eight years, and (on a more mainstream note), the first new material from The (formally Dixie) Chicks in a whopping 14 years. It can be a letdown when you eventually get long-gestating material from artists you love, but thankfully none of these let me down, all presenting material that was entirely authentic and who they are.
While I’ll admit most of Taylor Swift’s post-‘Red’ era music has left me kind of cold, she really redeemed herself this year by going back to her roots on the earthy, acoustic albums ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’. Swift tried something new too, writing from perspectives other than her own and in doing so, created some of her best work (see ‘Betty’ and ‘No Body, No Crime’). Duetting with Bon Iver was a canny move too, adding a level of credibility to her work for those who are often too ready to dismiss her.
Speaking of artists going back to their roots (and indeed treating us to two albums in 2020), Sturgill Simpson gave us two bluegrass albums this year – a promise he made good with after his fans surpassed the amount he aimed to raise for Covid-19 related charities. The songs are bluegrass versions of his back catalogue, mixed with a few covers, and even a previously unreleased track he wrote with the late great Merle Haggard, and they flow seamlessly from start to finish.
Hailey Whitters put out a strong second offering of an album in ‘The Dream’, which included the fantastic ‘Janice at the Hotel Bar’, and the Chris Stapleton written ‘The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice’, which Stapleton would then go on to cut himself on his album ‘Starting Over’. Managing to squeak in at the end of the year, Stapleton’s Dave Cobb produced album was so strong and soulful it’d be sure to convert even those pesky people who say they “don’t like country music”.
‘Your Life is a Record’ was the perfect title for Brandy Clark’s third full-length offering, it feels much more personal than her previous albums. ‘Can We Be Strangers’ is an all kinds of heart-wrenchingly perfect request after a breakup, while the less personal ‘Pawn Shop’ is a razor-sharp rumination of the items that pass through pawn shops and our lives.
The always reliable Will Hoge put out a strong showing with ‘Tiny Little Movies’, an album he said was recorded with the idea of playing the songs at shows, so the only shame is that there was no chance to catch him at a live venue in 2020. Equally, one can only picture how electric Jaime Wyatt’s ‘Neon Cross’ could have been in a live setting, so hopefully 2021 will bring the opportunity to hear such a fine album performed in person. Speaking of which, Jason Isbell also released a great piece of work in ‘Reunions’, an album that would have had an accompanying UK tour this past November, but given it’s now been postponed to the same month in 2021, I’m trying hard not to wish the year to pass too quickly.
Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen finally put out a follow up to their 2015 debut album as a duo, and the result is just about the most fun things I’ve listened to all year. Elsewhere, Jesse Daniel and Gabe Lee both gave even stronger sophomore albums than their well regarded first records. Both of them have something of a throwback country sound but still make it their own, proving traditional is anything but boring. Lori McKenna proved she can always be trusted for quality with ‘The Balladeer’, while similarly folk-tinged newcomer Thomas Csorba set himself apart with his self titled second album.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s how much we rely on and turn to the arts in times of crisis; whether that be reading a great book, bingeing an addictive TV show, enjoying the transportive effects of a wonderful film, or indeed, getting lost in a breathtaking album. Here’s to 2021 being easier all around, but may the quality of the music that’s come from this year remain unchanged.