When I see the numbers 2020 next to the words “so far,” all I can think about is how absolutely horrendous this year has really been…so far. Show me the words “later in 2020,” or maybe the phrase “July,” and I feel hope spring up from my feet as I ponder all the time this year has left to get its shit in order. But, as of April, 2020 has been a real mess. The coronavirus outbreak has affected every aspect of our lives and continues to inform how we live every day. As the situation becomes more grim, we simply must find pockets of joy and normalcy in order to survive. For me, one area of sustainable happiness has been the tremendous output of country artists this year. There have been so many excellent releases to arrive already, and we’re only four months in. As we mourn the loss of John Prine, one of country’s all-time greats, I’m keeping an eye out for songwriters who, like Prine, have a different way of looking at things. New, unique voices are releasing compelling albums alongside veteran favorites, and if you’re a fan of country, I can almost guarantee you’ll find something new to love. Here are 12 albums made by those artists. May they bring you solace, or, at the very least, some version of escape.
Six-time Grammy nominee and widely-respected country songwriter Brandy Clark is back with an album of her own stories. Clark has collaborated on songs for Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and more throughout her career, but it’s rare to hear her solo work. Your Life is a Record is Clark’s third solo LP, following 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town and 2013’s 12 Stories, one of our favorite country albums of the decade. It’s mature and wise—not the pickup truck anthems you might hear on the radio. Your Life is a Record is a moving collection of 11 songs sung and written by a woman who has lived a lot of life in her 44 years. The characters in these stories are empathetic (“I’ll Be the Sad Song”), innovative (yet forlorn, on the brilliantly sad “Pawn Shop”) and ever-evolving (“Who You Thought I Was”). But they’re far from perfect, which is what makes this Record so real and relatable.
Ashley McBryde has—and has had for a long time—the makings of a huge country star. That couldn’t be more clear on Never Will, her latest album, which has something for every type of country fan. “First Thing I Reach For” is an honest honky-tonk ode to vices that spares no details. On album closer “Styrofoam,” she dedicates three minutes of spoken-word sweet nothings to the creators of the impossible-to-decompose material that was miraculously chilling liquids of all varieties well before Yetis were on the market. The mandolin takes center stage on the bluegrass-indebted “Voodoo Doll,” which is one of the most impressive songs on the album, if only for its light flirtation with pure, unadulterated black magic. “Martha Divine,” another single that earned McBryde a place on several “most anticipated releases of 2020” lists, is the album’s other highlight and the eternal damnation of a serial homewrecker. If radio execs and DJs have any sense at all, they’ll play Ashley McBryde until we’re beggin’ them to stop. Few are as deserving of mainstream genre stardom as her, and Never Will is all the proof we need.
Last year, the Iowa-raised, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Hailey Whitters released “Ten Year Town,” a number about something country artists have been moaning about for the entirety of the genre’s existence: small towns, how they trap us and how they’re always there waiting, even if you’re lucky enough to make it out. But “Ten Year Town,” now the opener on Whitters’ new album The Dream—which she fully funded herself with money she earned waiting tables and plucked from her savings—doesn’t feel sorry for itself, or bemoan a geographical situation. Her outlook remains overwhelmingly positive. “Dreams come true and I think mine will,” Whitters sings. With this album, she graduates from Dream-er to doer. But the real “dream,” for many, that is, is “a paycheck at the end of the week,” an indulgent cigarette, the miracle of the earth’s rotation and some people to accompany you on the long ride. “We’re all just livin’ the dream,” Whitters sings on the record’s final song. The Dream cherishes working-class triumphs and even failures, as country music always has. You won’t find a radical change where that content is concerned. But Hailey Whitters’ heartfelt manner of describing those ups and downs is what makes her dream so damn charming.
You probably already know John Moreland, the Oklahoma singer/songwriter who has been on the receiving end of considerable press buzz for the better part of five years now. This year he released LP5, his—you guessed it—fifth full-length album. But while Moreland has been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years, it really feels like he may break out even bigger in 2020. For his new record, he recruited producer Matt Pence (Jason Isbell, The Breeders) to gussy up his mostly stripped-back sound, and the results are striking. But his lyrics are just as straightforward and understandable as ever: On the techy “Harder Dreams,” Moreland maps out the complicated desires of adulthood and the struggles of finding joy in a media-crowded landscape.
Not to be confused with a certain heir to the English monarchy, the husky-voiced William Prince seems destined to sit atop another throne: King of Canadian Country Music. The Winnipeg-based artist recently followed his 2018 album Earthly Days with his Glassnote Records debut, Reliever, in early February. With a voice like Kris Kristofferson’s and a heart like John Prine’s, Prince is a modern Highwayman. He made a splash at last year’s AmericanaFest and is sure to have a great year ahead of him. One single from the record, “The Spark,” showcases his emotional breadth in terms of songwriting, as well as the comfortable warmth that spreads over all his music.
Jessi Alexander is one of those country artists who I sincerely question why their songs aren’t shooting out from every country station south of the Mason Dixon line. Mainstream country audiences crave relatable, strong stories, and Alexander, who has made a name for herself in Nashville writing songs for and with folks like Blake Shelton and Miley Cyrus (she’s even responsible for Cyrus’ 2009 hit “The Climb”!) has plenty to spare. So it’s not like her songs haven’t been heard by the masses, but Alexander’s music sounds perhaps most at home coming out of her own mouth. She begins her recently released album Decatur County Red with the line, “It’s in my blood / It’s in the river and the dirt,” and while she’s talking about the land that made her, it reads like the installation of her country roots—which, naturally, run deep. Elsewhere on the record, she humorously summarizes the plague of exhaustion that accompanies motherhood on “Mama Drank,” drinks the honky-tonk juices on the self-examining “My Problem Is You” and dutifully and gracefully explains why we all love country music to begin with, through the lens of her own personal story on “Damn Country Music.” Damn, indeed.
Who’s the Nashville starlet who can cover Dwight Yoakam, jam with Steve Earle and sing her way right into your heart without skipping a beat? That’s Aubrie Sellers, a Nashville singer/songwriter who’s been around country music for more than a minute (since birth, actually—she’s Lee Ann Womack’s daughter), but 2020 is bound to be her take-off year. Her sophomore LP, Far From Home, is out now, and it proves she’s here to stay. Her roots run deep, but Sellers isn’t just another Music City wannabe: She’s an honest storyteller with a singular personality. She can both float in on a cloud of love songs and crank out existential country-rock, like on album single “Worried Mind”: “I can see people laughing and drinking / All I can think is they’re not thinking / With a worried mind,” she sings.
The Grammy-nominated Secret Sisters are the underrated success story of 2020 country. The Alabama-born duo—actual sisters Lydia and Laura Rogers—collaborated with Americana vet Brandi Carlile for their latest album, the dynamic Saturn Return. It’s not strictly country; the Rogers sisters have always occupied an alt-folk space. So while some of these songs lean more towards bluegrass or even rambling country-rock, there’s undoubtedly a Nashvillian energy to them all. On Saturn, they tackle aging, perhaps in response to losing both grandmothers in the process of making this record (“Silver”), motherhood, childhood and so much more. The mystical “Water Witch” features some truly stirring harmonies (which Lydia and Laura always excel at), and the thoughtful piano ballad “Hold You Dear” recalls loves lost. There’s so much warmth and wisdom to be found in these songs, which beg repeated listens, unveiling more thought-provoking messages each time I hear them.
Following her 2018 debut Starfire, Caitlyn Smith is back with Supernova (out now on Monument Records). Like so many Nashville troubadours, Smith has made a great career out of writing for others—Dolly Parton, John Legend and Meghan Trainor, among them. But Smith shines the brightest when she’s singing her own music, something that became abundantly clear on Starfire, which we named one of the best country albums of 2018. Supernova is Starfire’s cool older sister—a little wiser, a little more world-weary (though no less hopeful) and wearing a little more eyeshadow. Smith seems louder and prouder throughout the record’s 43 minutes, channeling Grace Potter on the soulful “Long Time Coming” before pivoting to Sheryl Crow on the proceeding “Damn You for Breaking My Heart.” It’s an album about rising from the ashes of a love that burned you down, and Smith is masterful in describing the many moods that come along with heartbreak. She’s sultry, smart and sly—sometimes all at once.
Few albums have brought me as much unexpected and repeated delight as Lilly Hiatt’s latest, the peppy, down-to-earth Walking Proof. It’s Hiatt’s fourth studio solo LP, and it feels like she has, with this release, graduated to a new level of alt-country prestige. Walking Proof does indeed rock—it only feels like a country album when you hyperfocus on things like Hiatt’s lyrical quirks, chirpy drawl and twang-fueled guitar. From the fortified organs on “P-Town,” to the thrill-seeking guitars on the location-dropping “Little Believer,” Walking Proof is undeniably Nashville through and through. Hiatt, who whirls in with a Jenny Lewis-like swagger, assesses her agency on the fun “Candy Lunch” (and who can’t relate, these days, to occasionally snacking on sugary sweets in place of a healthy midday meal?), and employs a rowdy do-si-do beat on the record’s delightful title track, about the beauty of “joining a rock ‘n’ roll band” and getting the heck out of Dodge. Like so many other women in this list, Hiatt possesses a singular voice that you just feel like you can trust. She won’t lie to you. When she confesses to “drinking coffee / not eating much food” on “Brightest Star” and “getting high on cocaine” on “Move,” there’s believability that comes with that. If you need to take your mind off of everything going on right now, slip inside one of Hiatt’s many truths.
Starmaker opens with a hymn rendered in AutoTune. Is calling this album “country” a stretch? Maybe. But only in the same way that calling any forward-thinking Americana artists country is. The Georgia artist’s debut album (released earlier this year on ATO Records) was touted as a genre-bending anomaly, and I refrained from listening to it for a long time due to fears that was some kind of Orville Peck knockoff reveling in its own schtick. However, once I finally gave it the time of day, Starmaker revealed itself to be a truly celestial music event, even if it’s not necessarily the most innovative country album you’ll ever hear. Elements like AutoTune, the occasional synth and the glittery production effects scream indie pop experiment, but William Fussell’s distinct drawl checks all the country boxes (check out the slide guitar action on “In Light Of Us” and you’ll hear what I mean). Clearly a child of the post-Golden Hour wonderland we now find ourselves in, Honey Harper seems determined to make a path for his one-of-a-kind voice. Starmaker is gentle yet interesting enough that you may start helping him lay the groundwork.
In 2017, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfeld quite literally blew the music world away. Her record Out in the Storm, which we named one of the best albums of that year, displayed a whole new side of the singer. Gone were the fortified bedroom pop of 2015’s Ivy Tripp, the rock-tinged freak-folk musings of her 2013 stunner Cerulean Salt and the brainy lo-fi recordings of her 2012 debut American Weekend. Out in the Storm sounds like its title suggests: loud, windy, chaotic and emotionally intense—a tried-and-true breakup album and a throwback to Crutchfield’s punk roots. If Out in the Storm was a tornado of sound and emotion, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s fifth album under the Waxahatchee alias is the calm that comes afterwards. In some ways, it possesses little pieces of all the musical lives Crutchfield has lived before: punk-y vocals à la her once-upon-a-time rock band with Allison, P.S. Eliot, searing, Dylan-esque vocal delivery, chiming guitars straight off Out in the Storm, pastoral folk not unlike that of her 2018 EP Great Thunder. The songwriting remains impeccable. Within 10 seconds, you know—without a doubt—it’s a Waxahatchee album. Yet, it’s different from anything she’s ever released before. Saint Cloud is Crutchfield’s country/Americana record. It runs on twang, jangle, truth and wide open spaces; on the album cover, Crutchfield, dressed in a billowy baby-blue frock, sprawls across an old Ford truck bearing a license plate from her native Alabama. Saint Cloud is a whole new world.