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The 30 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2020

Ashley McBryde, Chris Stapleton, and others rise to meet an uncertain year

Photographs by Amy Harris/Invision/AP; Bridgette Aikens*; Remi Theriault*; Becky Fluke*

Songwriting, songwriting, songwriting: The albums on our year’s-best list all raised the bar with their lyricism. Whether artists were writing and singing about serious subjects like addiction and family strife (Waylon Payne, Ashley McBryde), or just coming up with a fresh way to describe getting stoned (The Cadillac Three, Brent Cobb), they reached new heights in their craft.

But let’s not overlook the production of our entries either. Chris Stapleton recharged his sound with an assist from two of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Margo Price gave classic rock a bear hug, and Lilly Hiatt dove headfirst into R.E.M. indie rock. Sturgill Simpson, meanwhile, dialed it way back, returning to his roots with a pair of bluegrass albums.

Of course, the narrative of this 2020 was uncertainty and strife. But our artists met the moment, showing persistence and resilience in the face of a paralyzing threat to creativity. Kathleen Edwards returned from a lengthy hiatus with a stunning collection, while some performers, like Kelsea Ballerini, even released multiple LPs, finding solace and comfort in the rhythms of productivity. These are the 30 best.

From Rolling Stone US


Brent Cobb, ‘Keep ‘Em on They Toes’

Country music’s trip-takin’ good ol’ boy got back to basics on this homespun album with producer Brad Cook (Waxahatchee). The vibe alternates between that of campfire raconteur and street-corner busker, with Cobb waxing nostalgic about his beloved Georgia home in some songs (“This Side of the River”) and mulling the moral responsibility of the artist in others (“Shut Up and Sing”). It’s all shot through with Cobb’s easygoing charm, a songwriter who can politely ask you to buzz off in a line like “What I am smoking don’t concern you” (“Dust Under My Rug”) and then offer advice you didn’t even know you needed: “The best thing you can do when the ignorance shows/Is walk on to your own beat and keep ’em on they toes.” —J.H.


Lucinda Williams, ‘Good Souls Better Angels’

One of America’s greatest living songwriters, Lucinda Williams dissects political, societal, and personal dysfunction on this focused, rock-forward record. Setting aside the blues detours of past efforts, she turns up the amps and gets down to business, eviscerating a now-loser president on “Man Without a Soul,” taking 2020 to task in “Bad News Blues,” and threatening a perennial “thorn in my side” in the ferocious “Bone of Contention.” The performances are all vibrant and intense — a cover of Greg Garing’s “Down Past the Bottom” is simply terrifying — putting Williams’ famously breathy voice right in your ear. She reunited with co-producer Ray Kennedy for the first time since the 1998 watershed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It was worth the wait. —J.H.


Hailey Whitters, ‘The Dream’

The second album from Hailey Whitters established the Iowa native as one of the most exciting artists working in the blurry margins between mainstream country and the Americana-leaning singer-songwriter genre. The gorgeous “Red Wine & Blue” showed that Whitters understands Nashville wordplay better than anyone, and the New Wave precision of “Dream, Girl” forecasted her knack for pop hooks, while the tearjerker album centerpiece “Janice at the Hotel Bar” displayed the songwriter’s deep empathy. The Dream is the type of record that could propel an artist as talented as Whitters in a million different directions. —J.B.


Joshua Ray Walker, ‘Glad You Made It’

Joshua Ray Walker had an especially shit year. His father died, his income dried up, home repairs displaced him to a hotel, and he was even audited by the IRS. But the Dallas singer-guitarist persevered to release one of the most vibrant country LPs of this god-awful 2020. Glad You Made It is an affirmation of life — the good, the bad, and the tragic. He ideates about suicide in the ghostly “Voices,” plays pretend cowboy in the steel-guitar rave-up “Bronco’s Billy,” and profiles an objectified showroom model in the character study “Boat Show Girl.” In the euphoric “True Love,” he juxtaposes heartbreaking lyrics about the temporal nature of romance (“True love was meant to fade”) with a breakneck beat. Walker is a complicated figure — lucky us he’s unafraid to publicly work through his issues. —J.H.


Brett Eldredge, ‘Sunday Drive’

You have to admire the self-awareness of Brett Eldredge. Realizing a certain weight was missing from his songs — many of them Number Ones — he threw away the script to write and record an album of mature country music. Artistically, the risk paid off. Sunday Drive, built around organic instruments and therapy-level introspection, finds the golden-voiced Eldredge in the zone, diving deep into ruminations of lost love (the criminally underappreciated “Gabrielle”), the aging process (the stellar title track), and following your bliss (the piano mission statement “Where the Heart Is”). Country radio may be slow to embrace Eldredge’s new path, but it’s one that only true artists walk. —J.H.


Katie Pruitt, ‘Expectations’

The most thrilling country-roots debut of 2020 was this warm collection from the Nashville-by-way-of-Georgia singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt. Expectations is an effortless mix of Fleetwood Mac-style AM Gold (the title track), sharp folk noir (“Grace Has a Gun”), and Brandi Carlile-indebted piano balladry (“Georgia”). Pruitt commands all of the above so forcefully that she’s able to tuck away the album’s most emotionally affecting moment toward the very end, on the moving country coming-out tale “Loving Her”: “If loving her is wrong and it’s not right to write this song,” she sings, before landing her defiant taunt: “Then … you can turn the damn thing off.” —J.B.


Elizabeth Cook, ‘Aftermath’

With some of the best songs of her career, her band Gravy at her side, and producer Butch Walker behind the console, Nashville singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook headed to L.A. to make a banger of an album. While it may be more West Coast shine than Tennessee dirt, the country livin’ in the lyrics is unmistakable. She writes of playing loose with the truth in “Two Chords and a Lie,” drops redneck bon mots like “Don’t go selling crazy/We’re stocked up here” in “These Days,” and puts you right in the room with her and her ailing father in “Daddy I Got Love for You.” Egged on by Walker in brawny tracks like “Bones,” Cook even reveals her inner rock goddess. The results are glorious. —J.H.


Ashley McBryde, ‘Never Will’

Never Will was this year’s most adventurous mainstream country album, drawing on everything from old-timey mountain music (“Velvet Red”) and storming country rock (“Martha Divine”) to the Fleetwood Mac-indebted glimmer of the title track. On “Voodoo Doll” and “One Night Standards,” McBryde firmly establishes herself as a razor-sharp chronicler of forbidden pleasure and hardboiled lust. “You’d think a girl on fire,” she sings, “would stay away from gasoline.” Never Will is an extraordinary document that chronicles — with empathy, grace, and humor — what happens when men and women pour gasoline onto their own bad decisions. It also re-creates the trick that McBryde pulled off on her stellar debut: proving that honest-to-goodness country songs can have commercial appeal. —J.B.