2020 has sucked. It’s been an incredibly painful and exhausting year for so many, full of loneliness, distress, and helplessness. But it has also made us look towards the things that bring us joy in a way that we may not have before. For some, this has been music - it has held us when our friends and family could not. Music is so subjective, but for me the best music makes you feel glad to be alive to hear it. Here are the eight country albums that have made me grateful to be alive in 2020.
8. The Dream – Hailey Whitters
Hailey Whitters knows what she’s doing. The Dream, her second full-length album following 2015’s Black Sheep, proves that she knows exactly who she is as a songwriter, artist and first and foremost, a storyteller.
The cover art evokes a cloud and represents the music – it’s ethereal, dreamy and hopeful. The story starts with Ten Year Town, first released in early 2019, a raw, honest, heartbreak song to Nashville and the country industry who still weren’t listening to her bare her heart - “This next song could turn it all around, I’m twelve years into a ten year town.” Little did she know. The album is a compilation of life lessons from Hailey to her listeners, but mainly to herself. It’s a map of the path she took to her dreams. She tells us to make sure we make our days count, to get on the pill if you don’t want kids yet, to not judge, hold a grudge or criticise.
These are stories of how she got back on her feet, found herself in her passion again, and shares the biggest lesson of them all: “Oh, the one thing I've learned is that the world keeps on spinnin', love's the only thing that makes it go 'round” – never have words been more true in 2020. This album is a wish for the world; that we all find what ignites us and what our dreams are. In Ten Year Town she sings “Dreams come true and I think mine will” and ends the album with “I'm livin' the dream”. It’s a great pleasure to watch your dreams come true, Hailey, and we’ve got a front row seat for the rest of the journey.
7. Show Pony EP – Orville Peck
Orville is a prime example of someone who is not appreciated in their time. He is the absolute coolest that country has to offer, in fact way too cool for country. Orville Peck may be a pseudonym and we may never see his face behind his array of wonderfully tasselled masks, but Orville might just be one of the most honest songwriters in country music.
Show Pony comes on the back of 2019’s Pony, Peck’s debut album with iconic tracks like Dead of Night and Queen of the Rodeo. The six songs on this EP take us down a new path, evocative and pensive, less descriptive than Pony but equally as haunting. The first single, Summertime, was released in April, an ode to missing the carefree and careless love that only summer can offer, reflective of the collective heartbreak we were already feeling for Summer 2020.
Drive Me, Crazy tells us the story of two truck drivers who pass each other on the highway and fall in love, Kids is about a dangerous love but “neither one of us has died”. His cover of Fancy, originally by Bobbie Gentry in 1969 and made more famous by Reba McEntire in 1990 is a haunting and much-needed queer reimagining which emphasises the deeply sad story that Bobbie and Reba’s more upbeat versions sometimes don’t convey.
Legends Never Die features the legend herself Shania Twain, a fun track about living your best life with Orville not yet realising that he is, in fact, a legend too. No Glory in the West is a melancholic depiction of what the ‘Wild West’ has to offer, as someone who hasn’t been fully embraced by the country music industry, whether it be for being gay, for the campness, or even on his own accord, or maybe it’s about a man acknowledging his own position and responsibility as a white settler on stolen Indigenous land. Just like his hero, Dolly Parton, he pushes the boundaries of what authenticity is - through camp aesthetic he is able to be his truest self, a generation defining artist.
6. Lady Like – Ingrid Andress
Ingrid Andress has had an incredible year, despite her debut album, Lady Like, coming out at the beginning of a pandemic (literally March 27th… ouch). Her debut single, More Hearts Than Mine, was released in July 2019 and climbed to no. 1 on country radio airplay this April, an all too rare feat for women in the genre.
She’s been nominated for three Grammy’s for the 2021 awards including the all-genre Best New Artist category, putting her in the ranks of greats like Phoebe Bridgers and Megan Thee Stallion. While an all-round artist, Andress’ real strength is her lyric-led songwriting, telling stories of very relatable human experiences but from a new perspective.
In More Hearts Than Mine she sings about taking her partner home to meet her family who’ll love him, and how if they end up breaking up she’ll be fine but “you’ll be breaking more hearts than mine.” It is an intimate song that speaks to the fact that boyfriends (or whomever) come and go but nothing says love like a dad trying to heal his daughter’s broken heart.
Anything But Love tells the story of someone begging their heart to fall out of love, “why can’t it be anything but love?” she asks, a question so many of us feel but few can articulate. But nothing quite matches the power of the title track Lady Like, a love letter to womanhood and every beautiful, disruptive and radical way that can be embodied. There is no right or wrong way to be a lady, but this is how Ingrid is.
5. Shape & Destroy – Ruston Kelly
Whilst the acronym for Shape & Destroy is S.A.D., it’s actually the most positive of Ruston Kelly’s three albums. In his own words, his debut album Halloween says “hi welcome to the black parade”, Dying Star says “lemme just die real quick” and S.A.D is “front flipping out of hell”.
Kelly’s been really open about his experiences with addiction and his recovery journey, in songs, interviews and on social media, something that’s really important to see visibly discussed in the music industry. (He’s just hit two years of sobriety, an incredible feat, congrats Ruston.) S.A.D. takes us down the path of self-discovery; we see all he’s shaped and then destroyed, and then shaped again.
Ruston is one of the best at visceral music, songs that connect you to your inner feelings and bodily presence in this world. Maybe it has something to do with making music with the people you love the most in the world (Kelly has both his sister and dad in his band and former wife Kacey Musgraves sings backup on some of his tracks) or the fact that these songs are part of his journey to regaining control over his own body and mind, but we can all learn something from the way he writes songs like his life depends on it, because often it has.
The first single from the project, Brave, is just that: a brave and deeply moving song that could be the most hopeful song of 2020. It’s a love song to life from a man who for a while didn’t want to be alive. As is the song called Alive, a love song for Kacey who helped bring him to that space where he can finally be thankful to be here on this mean and beautiful planet, the one that’s offered us addiction and the fear of being worthless, but also pink sunsets and someone you love singing John Prine in the kitchen.
4. Bridges EP – Mickey Guyton
Bridges means a lot to and for country music. In six songs, Mickey Guyton tells us who she is as a singer, songwriter, and a person who believes that music has power. It is shameful that we are yet to hear a full-length Mickey Guyton album in the 11 years she’s been signed to a major country label, and this EP proves just what we have been lacking.
Mickey Guyton might be one of the best vocalists in country music, but she’s also an artist who has an unmatchable talent to tell listeners the truth. Country music is three chords and the truth, however, as made evident through the backlash and racist hate Guyton has received her whole career, including after the release of her song Black Like Me, the ‘truth’ in country music is not supposed to be uncomfortable. But if country is really about truth telling, you can’t get more country than Mickey.
Black Like Me is a song that Mickey should not have had to write. It came out on what was known as ‘Black Out Tuesday’ on social media in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and tells us “If you think you live in the land of the free, you should try to be Black like me.” She’s talking to America but also to the genre that has continuously broken her heart over and over again. She sings about this heartbreak in What Are You Gonna Tell Her?, a passionate plea for all of the women and girls to come after her. She asks the people in power, what are you going to tell your daughters when she finds out that it’s people like you who are stopping her from getting as far as she can?
You can hear the heartbreak in every one of Mickey’s words so vividly that you can’t help but gasp. These are the two most important country songs of 2020. But an arguably as important song on this EP is Rosé – it is a fun, carefree drinking song that you just can’t help but dance to, and it’s the kind of music Mickey should have been able to release for the last 11 years, a celebration of her songwriting, vocal performance, and her own Black joy.
3. Reliever – William Prince
Taylor Swift isn’t the only one who’s blessed us with two albums this year – Prince released his second album Reliever on February 7th and his third studio album and first gospel record, Gospel First Nation, in October. Both are stunning and powerful displays of a love for music, but Reliever holds a special place as a balm for the early days of this pandemic. As we were all coming to terms with the existentiality of 2020, Prince’s soft baritone soothed our souls like a much-needed, well, reliever. I found myself sitting watching his livestreams feeling like maybe there was some hope left after all.
William hails from the great Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, Canada, but now resides in Winnipeg. It has been powerful to see Prince use his platform to elevate fellow Indigenous stories and voices, and I implore everyone reading this to take time to learn about the ongoing atrocities that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island face (a starting point is the story of Chanie Wenjack.) Prince comes from a long line of important leaders; the great Chief Peguis, Ojibwe war hero Sergeant Tommy Prince and his own father, Pastor Edward Prince, who’d travel around First Nations communities preaching and playing music with his son. William obviously takes after his dad as Reliever sounds like a thoughtful sermon, a collection of meditative life lessons.
The particular stand out on the album is That’s All I’ll Ever Become, a celebration of life, hopefulness and how we are what our dreams are. He shares his greatest dream - to watch his son chase his. If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that maybe our biggest dreams don’t need to be anything more than to be with the people we love. If you need someone to tell you “everything’s going to be okay”, listen to this album.
2. The Otherside - Cam
This album is delicate, thoughtful and reserved. It covers all of your essential country music bases – the heartbreak of a divorce (What Goodbye Means), the helplessness of seeing the one you love get married (Happier For You), missing home and your parents (Redwood Tree), a Hollywood movie kind of love (Like A Movie), a cheating man (Diane), and a love as ever-present and withstanding as cigarette smoke on a smoking-room mattress (Forgetting You).
The Otherside is Cam’s second studio album after 2015’s Untamed which features breakout hit Burning House. It’s clear that whatever happened between Cam and Arista Nashville, her move to RCA and Triple Tigers has both empowered and reenergised her, and allowed her to release her most confident music to date. As well as writing with country music staples such as The Love Junkies and her main, career-long collaborator Tyler Johnson, the album includes songwriting credits from Harry Styles, Sam Smith and the late great Avicii. It’s beautifully considered songwriting, track listing and production which speaks to a woman who is an expert in her field, well beyond the recognition the industry gives her. She has an unmatchable ability to portray the deepest of aches, whether it be through her definitively perfect vocal delivery or her lyrical storytelling. This is the music of someone who knows who they are – an uncompromising champion of others, good music, and herself.
Cam has used her career, and this year in particular, to point to deep voids in country music, highlighting important voices in or surrounding the industry (including Andrea Williams, Stephanie Jacques, the folks at Country Queer, Mickey Guyton and John Tucker to name just a few.) In The Otherside Cam proves that she has made it to the otherside - she’s happy in herself. No song says that better than the final track, Girl Like Me, a love song to the openhearted and empaths of this world. “She gives more than she's got, thinks everyone should do the same.” She tells us that you are more than your brokenness. Happiness is on the otherside and it doesn’t stop you writing really great sad songs.
1. Gaslighter – The Chicks
Who needs therapy when you’ve got Gaslighter by The Chicks? (Probably most of us to be honest.) Gaslighter is The Chicks’ first album since 2006’s Taking the Long Way which won them Best Country Album and all-genre Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammy’s, as well as all-genre Record of the Year and Song of the Year for Not Ready to Make Nice.
There is far too much to say about ‘the incident’ of 2003 (they were essentially shunned from the industry for speaking out against President Bush’s imminent invasion of Iraq) other than, whilst it was a rough time for The Chicks themselves, it was an incredibly important and milestone moment for the integrity of country music. In the 14 years since the release of Not Ready to Make Nice, a response to said ‘incident’, America is still very much aching for change. In Gaslighter’s March March they sing in support of gun control and March For Our Lives founder and Parkland shooting survivor Emma González, abortion rights, climate change and fake news. We all have the power to change the world, even if we’re an army of one.
For most of Gaslighter we’re taken on the journey of lead singer Natalie Maines’ bitterly sad divorce, but also her newfound selflove and will to heal. The album starts with the title track, their first single and the ultimate 2020, screaming-in-the-shower song. There has been a lot to yell about this year and thankfully, with a March 7th release, this song has been there for the most of ride. (Honourable mention to Sleep At Night’s chorus that’s got a lot of scream-at-politicians material – “How does he sleep at night? How does he tell those lies?”) The album also wins the best song title award of 2020 – Tights on My Boat, yes, that boat that they sing about on the song Gaslighter. There are no attempts to be subtle - he knows exactly what he did on her boat and I’m pretty sure we all do too.
One of the most powerful points of the album is the only love song – a love letter from a mum to her children. In Young Man Natalie tells her sons to live their own lives, “You're of me, not mine, walk your own crooked line, I promise you'll be fine”, and to not let her sadnesses hold them back. But the most needed song on the album may be Julianna Calm Down, an anthem for young girls, and anyone listening, to breathe, calm down, and strut the f*** around like you’ve got nothing to lose. Because in 2020, maybe we don’t. The Chicks are still singing, but they sure as hell have not shut up. And thank God.