The Best of 2020: We Choose Our Top Albums, Songs and Moments from a Historic Year
Ok, so 2020 has been a year for the history books for all the wrong reasons. For many of us, it’s been filled with unease, anxiety and worry, with our lives being turned upside down. During these times, music is often the one thing that can provide us the escapism we need to turn things around and keep us trudging along life’s road. We’ve put together some of our favourite new music and musical moments from a year we’re all pleased to be moving on from.
Top 3 Albums
There will be those who say “Bruce Springsteen? I thought this was a country music website!” and that’s fair, but very few people have done so much to shape American music than The Boss. His album, Letter to You, has truly been a gamechanger for me this year. It found Bruce in a reflective mood in songs like One Minute You’re Here and Last Man Standing, a mood that seemed to suit the time perfectly, whilst also saw the E Street Band in full flight with the title track and Ghosts. In difficult times, we need our icons to step up, and boy did Bruce step up!
Another artist who may not jump to mind as ‘country’, Brian Fallon, lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem released Local Honey in March and provided the soundtrack to my early-pandemic days. Stellar songwriting and raw, passionate vocals are order of the day on this beautiful record. When You’re Ready, and ode to Fallon’s daughter and Hard Feelings were two particular highlights for me. The opening line of the record “in this life there will be trouble, but you shall overcome” came to set the tone for the year.
Picking number three was tough, American Aquarium’s Lamentations, Jason Isbell’s Reunions, Sturgill Simpson’s Cuttin’ Grass: Volume 1 and Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over all left a big impression on me, but something about this release from Brothers Osborne made it stand out. Skeletons is the sound of two of country music’s nicest guys stepping out and turning things up to eleven. A handful of extra grit and fantastic, catchy songs sets the tone here. Can’t wait to see them tour this one!
Top 3 Songs
This is a song chosen as much for the time I first heard it as the song itself. Released in August, as the pandemic was still in somewhat a ‘lull’ and we had a brief taste of normality. This simple folk arrangement reminded us all of the importance of turning the page and starting fresh once again. It was also the welcome return of one of country music’s great voices, something we all needed.
No song has ever had the hairs on the back of my neck stand up quite like this. In a world short of positivity, Bruce and the E Street Band’s absolutely rollicking Ghosts is a rock and roll dream. Filled with fist-in-the-air moments, it serves as a tribute to absent friends and how their ghosts still walk alongside us. It’s The Boss back to his best.
Filled with big guitars and clever songwriting (the opening line “this used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out” has to be one of the great scene-setters in any song”), Overseas is my highlight from Isbell’s Reunions album. The record just helped to cement the songwriter as one of the greats of his generation.
Favourite ‘New Discovery’
Ok, so this band isn’t so much of a ‘new discovery’ to me but a band I’ve really found the time to sit down and listen to properly for the first time. Eagles are one of the great bands in American music, and I’ve really taken the time to listen to their back catalogue, understanding exactly why so many country and Americana artists call them an inspiration. Admittedly, like many others, I’ve relied on the comfort of music I know and love this year. I’m hoping to discover much more new stuff in 2021!
Hope for 2021
When it comes to music, normality is my hope. Enjoying live music, artists being able to make a living again and plenty of new releases. Of course, for this to happen, the number one goal of bringing this pandemic under control has to be achieved. I believe we’ll do it, so here’s to hoping!
Top 3 Albums
Undoubtedly Drake White has been my saviour this year so there was no question that he would be included in my 2020 roundup (but I shall indulge in more of that later) Arguably, Stars is just a 5 track EP but for the sake of my round up I shall be categorising it as an album!
Each and every track has the soulful feel to it that we all know and love from Drake, and it moves from song to song with an almost bluesy atmosphere.
I don’t think I could pick just a couple of my favourites (there is only five to choose from) but I’d say each one has it’s own greatness about it, so I’d insist you give it the 16 minutes it deserves to listen to it all!
For me the release of this album was a real ‘coming out’ for the girls. It was always going to be hard for them following the success of their debut album, Start Here, but I think they knocked it out of the part with this one.
The Way it Feels has a mature sound to it, with songs that really talk about ‘grown up’ feelings, and it doesn’t stray from the sound I love from them; the seamless blended harmonies.
A few of my favourite tracks from this album that I would urge you to listen to (if you haven’t got the time – ha who am I kidding we’ve all got more time on our hands currently!) is Die from a Broken Heart, Lay Here with Me and Bathroom Floor.
Another of my firm favourite male singers thankfully released something new this year and, man, Wild World did not disappoint! It certainly has a title that sums up 2020 nicely for us too!
It still has the country rock sound, and the gravel tones in his voice that sends me weak at the knees, but also features heavily some gorgeous melodies; and songs that I know I’ll be singing along to when we can finally see him on stage again one day.
My favourite track from this album is Fire and Flame, I think it has an almost anthemic sound to it; one that I can hear ringing through stadiums when he’s back on tour. Others to mention are Janie Blu and Payin’ Hard.
Top 3 Songs
This song ticks all the boxes for me, it has beautiful harmonies (added bonus as Dierks Bentley features too – and he seamlessly fits with the girls vocals) and lyrics that just speak to each and every one of us I’m sure; asking for forgiveness following an argument and all you want is a cuddle!
It just kind of flows so nicely too, I’m a sucker for a ballad and this one has really stuck with me this year. I can only hope and pray that one day I am lucky enough to be able to see this one sung live with them all up on stage.
This song was initially released on Drakes 2018 EP Pieces, but you’ll have also heard it if you’ve been watching Drake’s weekly Wednesday Night Therapy shows online (if you haven’t, ask yourself, why not?!). It’s firmly become a bit of an anthem amongst many Drake fans (myself included).
The obvious reason is in the title, the best really is yet to come; we can only but hold out hope that this terrible year we’re all living is nearing an end and that we are to see a silver lining at some point with it.
Essentially it’s a love song “I could never love you more, than I do tonight, but I know I will tomorrow, when I wake and hold you tight” as Drake serenades you beautifully with his gravelly tones and wholesome sound. But I think it’s just the nature of what this song is about, and how much his music has meant to many of his fans this year; of which I shall further divulge later.
This one is taken from the EP Stars that was released earlier in the year and man it’s awesome! It opens with a soulful guitar riff before Drake starts with his almost rap style lyrics (I must point out I’m not a huge rap music fan, but Drake does this well!)
It has the power to just transport you somewhere else, I listen to this and I’m instantly sitting on a beach somewhere warm sipping a cocktail or three.
“It’s havin’ a little faith when you don’t know where you’re goin” if this lyric wasn’t written to sing at the top of your voice after the year we’ve all endured, I’m not sure what is! One of the other things I absolutely love about this song, and it’s something that I’ve become more aware of since Drake’s WNT shows is the stunning harmonies that all round awesome band member Dylan Jones sings. Listen out in the chorus I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Favourite New Discovery
She’s been around the country music scene for a few years now but it was only really this year that I really took notice of her and thought, “Wow, this girl is freaking awesome!”. Ladies and gentleman I introduce to you Katy Hurt. I caught a bit of her set last year at The Long Road Festival, but with lots of other music going on and the general festival atmosphere I didn’t really take much of it in.
Roll on to March of this year and I was stranded in London following the devastating news that Country to Country was cancelled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Katy Hurt was around anyway as she was due to play, and she decided to throw us all a bit of a party and do a special gig on the Saturday night (which to be honest was a god send now as it was the last proper live music for the year, and for goodness knows how long!)
She absolutely kicked butt, she has a fiery nature about her when she sings that you wouldn’t expect as she is a beautiful blond British young girl, however put her on stage with a guitar and she turned into someone else! Having kept an eye on her throughout the year via social media I’ve since come to see what an amazing vocal range she has too (she genuinely can rival the likes of Mariah Carey with the notes this girl can reach)
If you haven’t listened to her music before I suggest you do so now, her latest EP is Unfinished Business and echoes the likes of Miranda Lambert with its rocky, raw sound. But nothing can do this girl justice until you see her on stage live.
Highlight of The Year
In normal times I’d be sifting through photo’s of countless gigs, and festivals and looking back on memories that I’ve made throughout the year, but of course all of these things have been stripped away this year. Instead we’ve been left with a virtual world and there is for me only one highlight that could fill this slot.
Drake White and his weekly online shows ‘Wednesday Night Therapy’. It’s hard to believe that they started as a virtual gig acoustically way back on March 25th when we saw just Drake and Dylan (on keys), opening the show with Burt Bacharach’s ‘What the World Needs Now’ and I imagine they thought it would be a few shows, maybe a month or so filling the void whilst they were unable to work.
However, fast forward and they’ve built something very special indeed. WNT has been for so many, myself firmly included, a weekly session of love, music and as it says in the name; therapy. Drake White has the power in his voice, and his music, to take you to a different place (and Lord knows we need that right now!) As a huge fan of his (not sure if you can tell!) It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch him each week as he also gained strength following the diagnosis of AVM in Aug 2019. I won’t lie when I say I cried in week something or other when he picked up a guitar for the first time and played it live with the band; it’s like we’ve been on this journey with him and that is something truly special. It’s an intimacy that we wouldn’t normally get to enjoy, and something that I will hold onto as I say goodbye to 2020. I won’t lie I can not wait until the day I’m standing front row singing his songs along with him, but for now the shows are a way of keeping in touch with his fans and releasing new music; there are a few songs that I absolutely love that he has just showcased on there and is yet to release.
From March to now he’s racked up 39 weeks of WNT and I for one am ready for more, I pray that he continues them in the New Year, and it doesn’t look like this virus is going anywhere anytime soon, how amazing would it be for him to reach a full year of them!
If you haven’t seen any of them I urge you to take a look, they’re all to be found on his YouTube channel, find some space and shut of all the distractions as you’ll be fully immersed into your own at-home gig with, what I consider, the best male country artist around. Be prepared for dancing, singing and tears!
One of the best things I love about going to gigs and festivals is discovering that hidden gem – the person you hadn’t had on your radar who sends shivers up your spine and has you clamouring for more. In a year where live events have been as rare as hen’s teeth, I’ve really struggled to fall in love with lots of new music, preferring instead to fall back on some much-loved artist favourites who effectively give you a hug every time you listen to them. That is, with one important exception, read on to find out who.
Top 3 Albums
First out of the blocks is Ashley McBryde’s much-anticipated second major label release Never Will, which hit the airwaves in April. The big question was whether she could deliver against Girl Going Nowhere and for me, the answer was an unequivocal yes. Stand out favourites have to be One Night Standards, Martha Divine and First Thing I Reach For, which showcase Ashley’s inimitable style and incredible vocals to perfect effect.
Ashley’s 2020 UK tour was bumped through to May 2021 and while I can’t wait to see her again, I have to say I’m not holding my breath on those dates either.
April was clearly a good month (no fools around) as it also saw the release of Drake White’s new EP, Stars. At the risk of boring people (!) because I know there’s a lot of love for Drake in the SSC team, I thought this delivers his best music since 2016’s Spark. Mix ‘Em With Whiskey is the barstool anthem with a rousing chorus but my personal favourite is Luckiest Man, which channels his love of reggae music and, after a life-changing hemorrhagic stroke just over a year ago, the title is also a timely reminder of how far he has come.
And, in a year where touring has obviously been a non-event, Drake’s regular Wednesday Night Therapy sessions in his Whitewood Hollow barn have not only been a tonic for his fans but also an opportunity to introduce everyone to the new album. When he does eventually get properly back on the road, the music will already be very familiar.
You only have to fast forward a month to May for my third favourite album and it comes from Kip Moore with Wild World. I’ve long been a Kip fan and been fortunate enough to see him in concert but it’s the stripped down Kip (if you see what I mean) that I really love.
This album speaks to the heart and soul – Janie Blu is just beautiful, while Southpaw, Hey Old Lover and title track Wild World are just special tracks come from deep in his own personal journey. Talking about the album, he refers to finding simplicity and joy, searching for peace and feeling like an outsider – all the emotions are poured from the pages into these musical masterpieces.
Top 3 Songs
Really difficult to choose without simply repeating myself from the favourite albums above, so I’ve ventured a little off piste, kicking off with Bruce Springsteen’s House Of A Thousand Guitars from his Letter To You album. It’s a song of hope and we all need something to look forward to.
My second choice is Redwood Tree from Cam’s The Otherside album. I interviewed Cam earlier this year and described the whole album as a ‘mix tape’ of styles and genres. For me, Redwood Tree is a step back into more traditional country storytelling. Check out the lyrics:
Oooh, don’t know what you have when you’re young
Oooh, but you’ll know what you had when it’s gone
You’ll know what you had
It has a beautiful melody and a simplicity – and in many ways the story of only missing things when they’re gone is the story of 2020, see Hopes for 2021.
Lastly, I’m going for This American Dream, one of two recent singles from Kyle Daniel (see new discovery). If you want grit and gravel, this is the single to listen to and hold your breath for the album to follow in the spring.
Favourite ‘New Discovery’
It has to be Kyle Daniel. I must have been on a different planet in October 2019 when I missed his gig as part of Country Music Week and for whatever reason he had completely passed me by.
Even when I was offered an interview with him in London in the run-up to his planned debut at the (non-event) C2C 2020 I still wasn’t aware of the man and his music. Indeed, the interview was part of a two-hander meeting with Austin Jenckes, who was my big discovery of 2019, and who I had previously met at The Long Road, so at that point Kyle was something of an ‘also-ran’ – don’t tell him!
However, we all know you don’t go unprepared, so after a deep dive I found myself liking Kyle’s brand of country more and more. His 2019 EP, What’s There To Say, has some crackers and, having met him and then chatted with him several times since then over zoom, I can honestly say he is one of the most genuine and generous people I’ve got to know. Check out the collaborations with the Electric Umbrella charity (https://www.electricumbrella.co.uk/) to see just some of the things he’s been up to.
Kyle is currently working on his long-awaited full length debut album, Kentucky Gold, due out early in 2021 and with a scheduled UK stop at The Long Road (and possibly earlier if Covid allows) I urge anyone who’s not heard Kyle’s music to check him out now.
Hopes for 2021
It’s really simple – to go to gigs, hear the music first-hand, soak up the atmosphere, meet the fabulous like-minded souls who are our country family and chill. I know it’ll be a while, but they say you don’t miss things until they’re gone and that’s very true. Let’s see the back of this pandemic and use the music we love to get us through…
It’s the end of the year. Time to reflect on some music that, to be honest I had to check actually came out in 2020. Y’know, days becoming weeks becoming months and all that…
Top 3 Albums
Let’s start with my top three albums, shall we? I guess I may as well put them in order? Please understand, these are not the only three I’ve enjoyed this year, but I know I’ll be listening to them in years to come.
Waaaay back in February, before “Lockdown” and “Stay the hell away from me” were everyday phrases, The Cadillac Three released Country Fuzz. It’s been regarded by some as a bit samey but, that’s kind of why I liked it. When I gave it a proper listen, I realised that drinking, toking and fast cars were very, very prominent, however, each track treated those same things ever so slightly differently. These guys do rock, there’s no doubt about it and this is a fine album to add to your TC3 collection.
I was lucky enough to have Cam’s Otherside on pre-release CD in October. Yes, I still own a CD player and, in stark contrast to the guys above, this album is very, very different. No two tracks are too similar at all. It’s country pop and very much a happy, sing-along kind of album. There’s soulful ballads and the title track has very much a dance vibe. Of course, we can’t forget Diane; an anthem performed by anyone that ever hears it, anytime, anywhere.
After a debatable lull in memorable music, Chris Stapleton managed to help us forget all that and almost forget the world was falling apart at the seams when he let loose Starting Over. It’s very bluesy but still country insofar as there’s great story telling and a LOT of feeling and passion that has gone into making this into one of the best Country releases this year. For many a year in fact. I believe it will become the benchmark for future musicians and the production value alone is worth a listen. Each track is just right. Sometimes less is more, like the title track, while others are full on, in your face, like Arkansas. Absolutely fantastic and most definitely my favourite album of 2020.
Top 3 Songs
In terms of singles this year, there have been many, many to choose from. But, top three it must be…
Sunday Drive took me back to my childhood and family trips in the car. This song makes me reminisce and smile every time I hear it. Check out the album by the same name, too. Many good songs on there.
Starting Over came out a while before the album and I was super excited to hear it. I wasn’t disappointed and if there’s a lyric I find myself singing out of the blue it’s this – “I can be your lucky penny; you can be my four-leaf clover” It’s a simple track and super infectious. Everything a great song should be.
Despite my previous picks, my favourite song of the year is a collaboration. Once In A Lifetime brings together Mac McAnally and Drake White with one of the best feel good songs, like, ever. Any regular readers of this page know we all champion Drake for many reasons, but this song did it for me this year. “I can’t find a reason not to keep on smiling come what may.” This is a timeless song for me because there will always be something going on in our lives. Consider this song to be that light at the end of a tunnel, just to keep you going.
And with that, have you watched any online gigs this year? Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s not the same. We all know this, and we’ve had to accept it. However, one man (and his band) have performed relentlessly week after week. Old songs, new songs, cover songs and even songs with occasional guests like Kip Moore or Frankie Ballard. I’m talking about Drake White, of course. When we consider his personal strife and dealing with his own health issues, this man has shown us what it’s like to be a true professional. His Wednesday Night Therapy, broadcast mainly from his own home, has brought music, joy, laughter, love and faith to anyone that cared to watch. He loves his fans and he relies on us as much as we love listening to him and to see how he has recovered throughout the year is a true testament to that. You can still watch any of them on YouTube, any time you like, and I recommend you do.
Favourite ‘New Discovery’
My final thoughts for this year would be who I’ve revisited and whose music I’ve been introduced to. I’ve put on a lot of Garth Brooks this year. His music really got me into this whole country scene, and it saw me through some tough times a decade or two back. It was nice to throw on some 90’s country and just let it wash over me. Years on and his style still influences the musicians of today but it’s great to hear the man himself, doing it his way.
In terms of, I suppose you could say, “One to watch” I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing, nay, chatting with, Clayton Smalley. I was lucky enough to be introduced by a friend and he released his EP Dirt Road Therapy in October. He is the epitome of a hardworking family man that has turned his hand to music in his spare time. To watch it take off, bearing in mind there’s no tours, only an online presence has been great. He is very humble yet very talented and fortunate enough to have hit the iTunes Top 5 with that release. His songwriting buddy, John Griffin is also super cool, super gifted yet also super grounded and I’m certain their friendship will bring forth some amazing music in the years to come.
So, there you go. Let’s hope and pray 2021 brings us more great music and, it almost goes without saying, back out for some live performances. Love n hugs y’all.
I would like to preface this by saying that this is a list of some of the music I’ve enjoyed this year, rather than a “top” or “best of” list. I think 2020 has been, above everything else, a year that we’ve all found our way through, one way or another, and for many of us music has helped us to do that – so I want to say a big “Thank You” to all the artists, musicians, songwriters who have been there for us this year, whether through new material or their past releases, or their online presence. In one way or another each of the things below have impacted me during the last 12 months, and I think that’s what the artists would want – for their work to leave some kind of mark out in the world.
Favourite 3 Albums
Rumer – Nashville Tears
For me personally, this has been THE album of 2020. Superbly crafted songs in a classic style, delivered by a unique voice backed by high quality playing and supportive arrangements. But it’s the fact that I had an early copy for review that secured its place in my affections. Sitting outside in the garden on unusually warm Spring days during that first lockdown, when rumour, speculation and fear threatened to tip into a kind of national paranoia, this album provided for me a shelter from the noise and an oasis to calm the spirit. It was exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it. There’s no other way I can describe it, really.
Mo Pitney – Ain’t Lookin’ Back
An assured and very welcome follow-up to his debut album Behind This Guitar that showcased Mo’s classic country voice and his ear for a good melody. It’s such an easy listen, and that’s meant as a compliment; perfect for its August release date. An album that’s just impossible not to enjoy, and well worth the years waiting for it to arrive.
Midland – Live From The Palomino
A bit of a gift for those of us with tickets for their now three times rescheduled UK tour. Turn it up loud, imagine you’re there in the crowd, and start belting out songs like Mr Lonely and Make A Little like there’s no one listening. Nothing can replace actually “being there” but I’d rather have this album than not, in this year of all years, and it really whets the appetite for whenever the day comes when we can safely get back together for that live music experience that we’ve all been missing.
Favourite 3 Songs
Gary Allan – Waste Of A Whiskey Drink
Just such a good song, and a real ear worm with strident beat delivered initially by a heavy, almost hypnotic kick drum before the snare and guitars pick it up. Dare I suggest it could have been a massive hit, had it been recorded by a more current “name”? No matter. There’s only one Gary Allen and he does a superb job, playing the older and wiser character giving out advice in a way that just wouldn’t have worked had it been from someone in their 20’s, say.
Steve Moakler – ‘72 Winnebago
I’ve loved Steve’s Blue Jeans album ever since it was released back in Januray 2020, and this is one of several standout tracks from it. Most autobiographical songs don’t come as free and as breezy as this one. But here, it just feels like you’re on the open road, towing that Winnebago behind you, heading wherever you want to go without a care in the world. It’s the perfect kind of sentiment and imagery to see us through this spell of lockdowns and restrictions on movements, and to look towards a brighter future. Even if 2020 hadn’t unfolded the way it did, this is still a top tune from a talented and engaging artist.
Maddie & Tae – Water In His Wine Glass
Another album that I was very impressed with in 2020 was Maddie & Tae’s The Way It Feels, and this for me is one of the most striking tracks on the album. The duo have writing credits on all but one of the album’s 15 tracks, and you can hear the growth and development they’ve made as writers, while keeping a knack for sharp meoldies and fun, sassy lyrics when needed. I know they’ve been playing it live for a while now, but I don’t believe it would’ve been possible for them to record and release a song like Water In His Wine Glass 5 years ago; they were too young to truly make it stick. It really shows how the girls from Start Here have grown into women able to sincerely, sensitively and convincingly tackle more mature and complex scenarios in their songs.
Favourite Online Gig
I’m not the type to sit watching online streams night after night, as family life doesn’t really allow for that level of commitment. You’re much more likely to find me catching something shorter as and when time allows. To that end, I’ve really enjoyed the Cantina Sessions from Ryan Bingham. Just one song on each occasion, mixing his own material with cover songs that he challenged himself to learn from scratch. They’ve been bite-sized moments of raw and earthy artistic adventure that each required only a few moments of time and attention from the viewer. Standouts for me included a performance of U2’s One that felt particularly moving given everything we’ve seen and gone through in 2020, and a rendition of Bingham’s own Hot House that took me back to his brilliant gig in Manchester in 2019 (how long ago does that seem now?). And if that were not enough, he’s also used the sessions and an associated line of merchandise to raise around $80,000 for a charity providing food for the needy.
Hopes for 2021
After everything that’s gone on in 2020 there’s surely room for so many hopes for 2021, but it’s maybe unfair to put so much burden on one specific year! If we can have a year that’s overall less noisy and less angry, but with more new music and more new artists coming through, that’ll do for me.