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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


Caylee Hammack, ‘If It Wasn’t for You’

Georgia native Caylee Hammack is delightfully extra on her supremely confident debut album, nodding to Nineties alt-rock (“Just Friends”), classic country sass (“Redhead”), and soaring power balladry (“Forged in the Fire”) while spilling personality from every direction. She gives a little backhanded gratefulness to an ex for showing her how strong she is in “Preciatcha,” and then just shakes another right out of her hair in the breezy, groove-driven “New Level of Life.” Best of all was the single “Small Town Hypocrite,” a devastating ballad about the guy who broke her heart that felt so intimately specific, with weary anger so finely honed, that it was hard to imagine what heights Hammack could reach on her second album. —J.F.


Margo Price, ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’

Nashville’s pre-eminent rabble-rouser Margo Price leaned more toward her classic-rock influences on That’s How Rumors Get Started, produced with the help of like-minded maverick Sturgill Simpson. Shades of Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead course through the songs, which tackle the sacrifices of parenthood (“Gone to Stay”), fame (“Twinkle Twinkle”), and the touring life (“Prisoners of the Highway”). Even more compelling are the blazing vocal showcases, like the astonishing “I’d Die for You,” and out-there sound experiments, such as the pulsing, icy New Wave of “Heartless Mind.” Three albums in, Price continues to refine her restless, disruptive approach to making country music. —J.F.


The Secret Sisters, ‘Saturn Return’

Alabama sisters Lydia and Laura Rogers hit their stride on their gorgeous fourth album, a Brandi Carlile-produced effort that tackles aging, sexual assault, restlessness, and the supernatural with equal parts humor and grace. The singer-songwriters alternate between bouncy piano pop (“Hand Over My Heart”) and ages-old folk noir (“Fair”) to great effect, never settling for or relying on their Muscle Shoals country-soul comfort zone. The result is the most moving, lasting statement of their career. “It doesn’t matter when you bloom,” as the sisters put it, in their trademark harmony. “It matters that you do.” —J.B.


Brothers Osborne, ‘Skeletons’

What’s a band to do when you record an album designed to be played live in huge venues and the entire world shuts down? If you’re Brothers Osborne, you give the people what they want and put the damn thing out anyway. Skeletons, the sibling duo’s third studio album, centers their dual-guitar attack and goes big on attitude, calling out infidelity in the thumping title track, pleading for togetherness in the jammy “Hatin’ Somebody,” and mixing the funk of Prince with pulse-quickening rock & roll in “All the Good Ones Are.” At seemingly every turn, the interplay between T.J. Osborne’s baritone and John Osborne’s guitar offer evidence that they sound like no one else in country — or rock. Play it loud. —J.F.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell continued his reign as Nashville’s most empathetic wordsmith with his seventh album. A slightly more subdued production than 2018’s stormy The Nashville Sound, the LP still cuts deep lyrically with ballads like “Only Children” and “Dreamsicle” — “New sneakers on a high school court/And you swore you’d be there,” he sings in the latter. The impassioned “Be Afraid” takes aim at silence in the wake of injustice, with Isbell proclaiming, “If your words add up to nothing, then you’re making a choice.” His keen self-awareness has always been a core component of his work, and like the hard-fought sobriety he chronicled in “It Gets Easier,” he doesn’t always have the answers. On Reunions, Isbell is willing to keep pushing forward anyway. —J.F.


Kathleen Edwards, ‘Total Freedom’

On her first album in eight years, the aughts alt-country luminary reintroduces herself as a wise and winking roots-pop auteur. On shimmering tracks like “Options Open” and “Glenfern,” she puts forth the radical notion that middle-age need not be an occasion for crisis, but instead, an opportunity for rebirth, reinvention, and reflection. As she indicates on “Fool’s Ride,” it’s also the perfect time to make new mistakes. It all adds up to a profound portrait of an artist who’s rediscovered their joy in music-making, which shines through in each song. Edwards puts it most plainly early on: “I am so thankful for it.” —J.B.


Waylon Payne, ‘Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me’

Waylon Payne’s second album arrived some 16 years after his promising debut, with a period of shattering family loss and self-destructive behavior between. The son of Seventies country star Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson’s longtime guitarist Jody Payne, Waylon recounts his journey to live as an out gay man, his struggle with addiction, and his eventual recovery with startling clarity and detail across the four acts of Blue Eyes. There’s loose, freewheeling Americana (“Sins of the Father”), lush countrypolitan (“Shiver”), and tender ballads (“Precious Thing”), laid out in a chronological order that crawls deep into darkness before finally finding some light. But since it’s about real life and not some made-up story, there aren’t any neat resolutions — just a sense of gratitude that he was still around to be able to sing about it. —J.F.


Brandy Clark, ‘Your Life Is a Record’

The past few years have been a boom for cowboys and outlaws, in country music and in the wider cultural consciousness. Brandy Clark’s Grammy-nominated Your Life Is a Record takes a more rarified approach to the Western — sweeping desert vistas, cinematic strings, and good old-fashioned storytelling. It sounds like the stuff of John Ford movies, but what Clark continues to excel at is highlighting everyday people and emotions. She’s so self-aware of her fixation on turning heartbreak into art that it’s the basis for the whole album’s concept, with opening track “I’ll Be the Sad Song” as its thesis statement. —C.S.


Kelsea Ballerini, ‘Kelsea’/’Ballerini’

Kelsea Ballerini will not be deterred. Despite her album Kelsea almost being swallowed whole at the start of the pandemic, she proved herself to be a songwriter clever enough to transform dull industry maneuverings — in this case, her cautious crossover pop ambitions — into fodder for a quasi-concept album about the comforts of past acceptance and fears of future rejection. “If I let down my hair in the ocean air,” as Ballerini sings on “LA,” “will Tennessee be mad at me?” She answered the question herself on the stripped-down companion album Ballerini, released a few months later, which further displayed her versatility. Whether polished on Kelsea or laid bare on Ballerini, these songs were undeniable. —J.B.


Chris Stapleton, ‘Starting Over’

The country troubadour’s last release — the 2017 two-album set From A Room — was ambitious but unwieldy. On the aptly titled Starting Over, Chris Stapleton distills what he does best over 14 tracks. There’s blues (“Devil Always Made Me Think Twice”), rock (“Watch You Burn”), R&B (“You Should Probably Leave”), and, on the title track, the old-school country he’s been credited with helping revive. Stapleton also benefits from the addition of a pair of rock legends: Heartbreakers-for-life Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell pop up throughout, adding a classic-rock vibe to the record, specifically on the roadhouse barnburner “Arkansas.” —J.H.


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.