by Julian Spivey
Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, members of the popular Rock & Roll Hall of Fame British group The Police recently met at an undisclosed location in London, which some in the press believe was totally Sting’s sex dungeon, to discuss changing the name of the group that has mostly been defunct since 1984, with the exception of a reunion tour in 2007-2008.
Due to the current political and cultural climate of the world the band has decided they no longer want to be referred to or associated with the name The Police. This comes on the heels of American groups like the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum shortening their names to The Chicks and Lady A respectively due to racial connotations of the original names.
In a memo released to the press Sting, Summers and Copeland said, “they were sorry if their longtime name had offended anybody and their sole interest was in laying down new wave and reggae-infused pop-rock grooves and not in attempting to drive a wedge in communities around the world.”
While the trio doesn’t have any plans to release any new music, they demand all streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music change their name on the platforms and any re-releases of past records go by the band’s new name.
The memo states, “beginning today we shall forever be known as The Firefighters, because everyone loves firefighters.”
The band realizes there isn’t much that can be done about past records and memorabilia sporting the old name of The Police but figure any fans of the original name will soon be burning their band merchandise in bonfires around the country anyway. The group would like for their longtime fans to know if these fires get out of control they can always seek help by calling their local fire department.
Matthew McConaughey, Texas' Brightest Musicians Come Together to Help State Affected by Winter Storm
by Julian Spivey
Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey and his Just Keep Livin’ Foundation held a virtual concert called “We’re Texas” to help raise funds for Texans impacted by a huge winter storm in February that saw devastation across the state. The virtual concert featured performances by some of Texas’ brightest stars with videos from some of the Texans impacted by the storm and McConaughey and his foundation pitching in to help them with specific needs.
There were three ways folks could donate during the broadcast, by hitting the donate button on the YouTube feed of the special, via text or by going to jklivinfoundation.org. The virtual concert had earned more than $227,000 just via folks donating through the YouTube donation option by the end of it two hour and 15 minute runtime.
Los Lonely Boys kicked off the evening of performances, all which were done from the artist’s homes and sent in virtually, with a performance of their 2004 no. 16 hit “Heaven,” which was popular among pop, rock and country fans alike.
Don Henley, of Linden, Texas, performed an old Jesse Winchester penned song “Snow” dressed in warm clothing and mockingly playing a snow shovel like a guitar.
Among the many terrific country music acts from Texas that performed during the virtual concert were hall of famer Willie Nelson (probably Texas’ greatest son) performing “Beautiful Texas,” Miranda Lambert performing her 2009 no. 1 “Heart Like Mine,” George Strait performing his 2008 top-10 hit “Troubadour” and Clint Black performing one of his earliest smash hits “Killin’ Time.”
Kacey Musgraves covered Willie Nelson’s classic “On the Road Again” in hopes that it wouldn’t be much longer before she and her fellow musicians around the country and world go once again get back to touring and doing what they love best. As someone who hasn’t been to a live concert in more than 13 months now I can’t wait either. These virtual shows are terrific, but nothing is a substitute for live music.
Texas Red Dirt Country was represented during the virtual concert with Randy Rogers performing “Buy Myself a Chance” and Parker McCollum doing “Pretty Heart.”
There are plenty of great musicians from Texas that don’t fall within the country music genre or subgenres and that was shown with smooth R&B performances by Leon Bridges doing “Texas Sun” and Khalid doing “Angels.” I particularly enjoyed the blues-rock of Gary Clark Jr. performing “When I’m Gone.” Kirk Franklin also brought some gospel with “I Smile” and Kelly Clarkson stunned with a bluesy number called “Whole Lotta Woman.”
The biggest surprise of the entire evening came during the final performance of “We’re Texas” when major Grammy-nominated pop star Post Malone showed off his love for country music by performing a nice cover of Brad Paisley’s humorous 2001 fishing song “I’m Gonna Miss Her” and then doing a nice version of Sturgill Simpson’s “You Can Have the Crown” during the credits of the special, which was very random and awesome in its randomness. I wouldn’t mind hearing Post Malone do a country record.
“We’re Texas” was a great evening of music for a state that could truly use a bit of help right now, especially when some of its own politicians sworn to serve its people have turned their backs on their citizens. If you would like to donate to the cause please go to jklivinfoundation.org.
by Julian Spivey
The Grammy’s Salute to the Sounds of Change two-hour concert special aired on CBS on Wednesday, March 17 and featured numerous great performances, but also featured some curious omissions.
“Sounds of Change” is a broad topic, but the show did a good job of trying to get performances into the show involving civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, as well as anti-war songs.
The special was hosted by Grammy and Oscar-winning rapper Common, who did a good job at interweaving stories about the performances and showing past clips of historical moments captured during past Grammy Award telecasts like Aretha Franklin performing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the memorable performances some years back of “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert and Madonna in which many couples were married live on the Grammys by Queen Latifah as officiant.
Singer and actress Cynthia Erivo kicked off the performances on the evening with a nice cover of John Lennon’s 1971 classic “Imagine,” which longs for a world full of love and without any evils.
Smooth voiced Chris Stapleton crooned a nice version of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” though it was an interesting choice given some of the classic “songs of change” that were left out of the special, but I’ll have more on that in a bit.
I was happy to see Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” a controversial song of its time about how women now had a choice when it came to having babies or not, featured and while LeAnn Rimes did a fine job on the song her vocals were occasionally drowned out by the backing band doing a more rocking version of the song.
Potentially the best performance of the evening was Andra Day performing Billie Holiday’s incredibly important anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit,” which truly altered her career and life. Day recently won a Golden Globe award for portraying Holiday in Lee Daniels’ new film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which is Day’s film debut and can be seen now on Hulu.
Most performances during the special were straight forward covers, but reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Eric Church, one who’s never afraid of trying something new put a funky take on Edwin Starr’s 1970 anti-war classic “War.”
My personal favorite segment of the special was John Fogerty’s two-song set of “Weeping in the Promised Land” and “Fortunate Son.” The performance began with Fogerty on the piano with accompaniment from a gospel choir doing “Weeping in the Promised Land,” a brand new song he released in early January about the struggles faced in the country over the last half decade or so. He then performed a terrifically full-bad rock performance of “Fortunate War,” his anti-Vietnam song from the late ‘60s that took on the well-to-do establishment that sent less fortunate young men to die for a war the country never should’ve been in to begin with.
Another favorite performance of mine came toward the end of the program when Brad Paisley performed “Welcome to the Future,” from his 2009 album American Saturday Night, which was inspired by the 2008 Presidential election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President in U.S. history. It’s a terrific song, but I’d be remised if I didn’t say the last decade or so has shown this country still has plenty far to go before things are close to being equal, but it’s definitely a reminder that in some ways they are better than they once were.
Other fantastic performances during the special included Patti LaBelle performing Leslie Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me,” which came out almost a full decade before the feminist movement, and Gladys Knight performing the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On.”
Emmy-winning actor Billy Porter’s performance of LaBelle’s “You Are My Friend” was also a touching moment as Porter talked about how sometimes close friends truly become your family and how big of a thing this is within the LGBTQ community.
My biggest complaint of the Grammy’s Salute to the Sounds of Change was what was left out, rather than what was actually performed on the show. When I think of “sounds of change” within music there are a few performers I automatically think of – Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Neither of these artists had songs covered on the program, though Dylan was briefly mentioned, as well as Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which I genuinely believe should be adopted as the new National Anthem of this country.
The ‘Sounds of Change’ special ended with an upbeat gospel performance by Yolanda Adams doing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” which has been a major song of change for more than a century and remains as relevant today as it ever has.
by Wendy Spivey
February 10th marks the 50th Anniversary of Carole King’s highly celebrated album, Tapestry. I’m honored my son Julian invited me to offer my opinions on this remarkable album and my recollections of Carole King, one of my all-time favorites among songwriters, lyricists and vocalists.
In February of 1971, I was almost 11 years old, and as a budding young woman, with aspirations of writing poetry, Carole King was a lyricist/songstress extraordinaire, in my opinion. King was a role model for other women in the music industry, and indeed, in life. By 1971, she had already penned over 20 top hits for other artists along with her husband, Gerry Goffin. She wrote hits for the Shirelles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Vee, The Drifters, The Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, Billy Joel and the list could go on.
Carole credits her friendship with James Taylor as a major influence in her decision to become a solo artist. Carole King’s first album debuted in 1970, simply called Writer. It didn’t receive much attention until after Tapestry was released in February 1971.
Tapestry became my first ever LP purchase. I’ll always remember getting money for my birthday in April of 1971, and knowing exactly what it would be used for, and the exact record shop, and my joy at securing a copy of this best seller. Oh, the “anticipation.” Just kidding, different songstress.
Carole King: "I used to hate the sound of my voice"
Even though King, herself, may have been surprised at her success with Tapestry, due to the fact interviewers have heard her statements about the “hoarseness” in her voice, it came as no surprise to me having literally spun that album for hours on end, singing along with every lyric. I loved the raspy, soulful voice of Carole King! So, it was no shock at all to me that Tapestry became one of the greatest selling albums of all-time, received diamond status here in the United States with more than 10 million copies sold, and has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.
Carole King and her second solo album, Tapestry, received four Grammy awards in 1971, including the coveted trifecta, Record, Song and Album of the Year, plus she also one Best Female Vocalist. Again, it was no surprise to me with the radio of the day spinning her top tunes for the world to enjoy, "It's Too Late," "I Feel The Earth Move" and "You've Got A Friend."
Many people, when asked to name their favorite Carole King song, will instantly mention “You’ve Got a Friend.” I readily agree, it is a fabulous anthem to friendship, the song held its own against other odes to friendship during the “Peace, Love, No War” decade. And, believe me, there was no shortage of great songs during that time period. Songs like the well-known Simon & Garfunkel hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” The Beatles’ and Joe Cocker’s, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and I could go on and on. Carole’s close friend, James Taylor continued the success of “You’ve Got a Friend” by recording his solo version in May 1971, sealing its fame for future generations.
There is not a single song on this album that I do not enjoy. However, my three favorites never received much airtime on popular radio stations. “Home Again,” “Tapestry” and “Way Over Yonder.”
Although a bit obscure to some, these songs speak to me directly and hit me in my feels! Give them a listen, truly listen. Even pull up the lyrics and read along. There is so much power in King’s words. Her poetry has such a Spiritual quality about it. I never grow tired of hearing it.
Three Favorite Tracks from Tapestry
3. “Home Again”
A young person, lonely, in need of a friend, perhaps. A traveling troubadour missing home and feeling incomplete without his/her significant other, probably. A soldier or homesick individual longing for the love of his/her life, maybe. An estranged family member longing for family stability and warmth, perhaps. Someone seeking a Spiritual higher plane, maybe. The beauty of King’s lyrics is that they could speak to your heart, soul, and mind right across the age groups, no matter what situation life has thrown at you. King turns simple lyrics into magical words that conjure up love, friendship, affection, warmth, a cozy fire, a nice chat, HOME. Simply stated, her words give us what we need, when we need it. “Snow is cold, rain is wet Chills my soul right to the marrow I won't be happy 'til I see you alone again 'Til I'm home again and feeling right.”
Carole King’s chosen song/album title, and metaphor for life. She uses her words to spin a tale of LIFE, a tapestry woven beautifully, impossible to hold steady, unraveling, changing, then being remade. My explanation or interpretation is so lackluster compared to King’s. “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold”
1. “Way Over Yonder”
I feel Carole King’s spiritual and Jewish roots in many of her songs, but in none more than this one. Does the “land of milk and honey” refer to the Promised Land as in Jewish tradition (Exodus 3:8); or is it an idiom referring to comfort and luxury? “Way over yonder is a place that I know Where I can find shelter from hunger and cold And the sweet-tastin' good life is so easily found Way over yonder, that's where I'm bound” Whether King meant a Promised Land from the Almighty God, or she just longed for earthbound success. I am happy King lived long enough to find her life of comfort and luxury here on Earth, and that she lived in my generation and shared the songs of her life with me.
I am also ecstatic that Julian shares his father’s and my love of great music. I was blessed that he suggested we attend the “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Ark. in 2018. I laughed, I was mesmerized, I cried. Even though I’ve never been able to see Carole King in person, I felt like a part of her that day. The cast did a magnificent job portraying King’s life, and the music was spot on! Music speaks to the soul of a person, and Carole King’s music has always spoken to mine! Even today, as we near the Golden Anniversary of Tapestry, I still refer to this collection of treasured songs, as the “soundtrack of my life.”
by Julian Spivey
The 90-minute special “Celebrating America,” which aired on many television networks and streamed on multiple websites and streaming services, was a terrific and fun way to wrap up an inauguration day that many around the country were treating like a “New Day in America.”
The inauguration came exactly one year to the date of the first COVID-19 patient being hospitalized in America and the day ended as the deadliest thus far with the virus in the U.S., something that isn’t going to magically disappear with the changing of administrations and something that should always remain at the forefront of our minds, but it was a good say to celebrate America, our democracy, our ability to persevere through so much turmoil and celebrate the essential workers of this country – the medical professionals, postal workers, grocers, teachers, etc. – that have kept us going.
“Celebrating America” kicked off with an excellent performance of “Land of Hope and Dreams” by my all-time favorite singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, meaning the special could’ve ended right after the performance and that would’ve been good enough for me. The image of seeing Springsteen perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial was powerful for me and truly enough to make a tear come to my eye. Springsteen’s songs and just his being and what he stands for and has always stood for means an awful lot to me and it was a great way to begin a special celebrating our nation.
Multiple time Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks hosted the program and did so entirely outside in temperatures that were in the low 30s and if the evening was anything like the inauguration earlier in the day was likely incredibly windy. There were moments I truly felt bad for the guy as he seemed to be so cold some words slurred coming out.
In a pre-taped performance from a pier in Miami, Jon Bon Jovi covered The Beatles classic “Here Comes the Sun,” which was nice and kept with the theme of the tide of this country hopefully changing for the better.
Bon Jovi’s performance was followed by a short speech from newly sworn-in President Joe Biden who spoke of the hard times the nation has been overcome with, especially in this last year, and how together as one we can overcome it.
One of many highlights from the special on Wednesday night (Jan. 20) was “Better Days” by R&B singer Ant Clemons and pop superstar Justin Timberlake from the legendary Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tenn. that ended with the performance being finished in the street. The single would be no. 1 on iTunes within an hour of the show ending.
The Foo Fighters paid tribute to the educators of this country who have truly had to deal with the hardest thing of their careers, whether it’s been learning to teach virtually or putting their lives at risk to do so in person (or a combination of the two). As the child of an elementary school teacher, it was a truly touching portion of the show for me, and it’s also something close to Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, as his mother was a teacher for 35 years. The band played the stripped down version of their hit “Times Like These” that they had debuted on “Saturday Night Live” in November after the election and once again it floored me.
One of President Biden’s favorite poets (it’s sure nice to have a President who likes the arts) is the Irish poet Seamus Haney and he’s quoted pieces of the poet’s poetry before in speeches and debates. Tony-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda recited Haney’s “The Cure at Troy.”
Kamala Harris made American history on Wednesday becoming the first female Vice President in U.S. history and before she made a short speech on the “Celebrating America” program that evening she was fittingly introduced by Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt soccer player who became the first female in college football Power 5 conference history to play in a game and score on a PAT (point after touchdown) just a few months ago.
My second favorite performance of the evening – behind the opener by Springsteen, of course – was John Legend’s jaw-dropping cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It was the fifth time I had listened to the song that day, with the first four times being Simone’s original, in fact it was the very first song I began my day with.
Another song I listened to multiple times on inauguration day was Bill Withers’ classic “Lovely Day,” which was also performed on the “Celebrating America” program, being covered nicely by Demi Lovato, with footage of President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden dancing in the White House to it while Biden was holding one of his grandchildren.
The most awkward performance of the special for me came from Nashville where Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard of Florida-Georgia Line performed the new single “Undivided,” which was written by Hubbard. It started off nice enough with a verse by McGraw, but really got FGL’d up when Hubbard took over the vocals. It’s just not my thing. The message is good, especially coming out of mainstream Nashville, but I can do without the song.
The finale of the show was pop star Katy Perry performing her 2010 smash hit “Firework” while an incredibly firework display went off at the Washington Memorial, which to be honest is a bit on the nose, but what really made the performance was seeing the new President and First Lady watching in wide wonder at the display from the balcony of the White House.
All inaugurations feel like a major change for this country – some feel more hopeful than others – but they all have a feeling of newness to them. What lies next for our country nobody can know for sure. Hopefully, things will get better when it comes the COVID-19, the divide politically that grew to the widest it’s potentially ever been and so on. One thing is for sure though, for 90 minutes on Wednesday “Celebrating America” gave us hope and reason to believe in a better future … hopefully it’s a harbinger of things to come.
by Julian Spivey
Nobody in the music industry has had as stellar and as historic of a year as Taylor Swift and none of it was really planned at the beginning of 2020. Swift had planned on touring behind her 2019 album Lover but like with most things in the entertainment industry in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that. But Swift didn’t just sit back and relax – she went to work creating songs with a different sound than anything she’d ever recorded before with a more mellow, indie-folk vibe and more of a third-person perspective than the mostly first-person perspective she’d used before. The resulting album was folklore, released as a surprise to her fans and the entertainment world on July 24. It immediately took the music world by storm going to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and had many critics saying it was the best album Swift has ever released. When the 2021 Grammy Award nominations were announced in late November, Swift’s folklore was one of the biggest honorees gaining nominations for Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for the track “Cardigan” and Best Duo/Group Vocal Performance for “Exile,” her collaboration with indie folk artist Bon Iver. She’s likely the favorite to win Album of the Year, which would be the third of her career and make her the first female artist to ever win the award three times, something only Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon have ever accomplished. If that wasn’t enough to make her the talk of the music world in 2020, she surprised fans once again on December 11 with the release of evermore, a companion album to folklore, featuring the same type of sound. Evermore recently went to the top of the Billboard 200 making Swift the first female artist to ever have two No. 1 albums in a calendar year.
Taylor Swift used the sudden downtime in her life as a result of the pandemic better than perhaps anybody else in the entertainment industry and gave her extensive fan-base and the world two critically-acclaimed albums showcasing her ever-changing artistry … that is why she is one of The Word’s Entertainers of the Year.
We have thumbed through as many “Best Albums of 2020” lists as we could find and have devised a formula to award points based on which ranking albums were featured at on each critical list to figure up what was the critics’ choice for the top 10 albums of 2020.
1. "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" by Fiona Apple (232 points)
2. "folklore" by Taylor Swift (165 points)
3. "Punisher" by Phoebe Bridgers (131 points)
4. “RTJ4” by Run the Jewels (107 points)
5. “Future Nostalgia” by Dua Lipa (95 points)
6. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan (78 points)
7. “Untitled (Black Is)” by Sault (77 points)
8. “Women in Music Pt. III” by HAIM (70 points)
9. “Saint Cloud” by Waxahatchee (66 points)
10. (tie) “SAWAYAMA” by Rina Sawayama & “Ungodly Hour” by Chloe X Halle (60 points)
Rolling Stone, Slate, NPR, Mojo, New York Times, Complex, EW, Uproxx, Paste, Time, Consequence of Sound, Exclaim!, Uncut, Billboard, American Songwriter, The Forty-Five, Gigwise, NME, Pitchfork, PopBuzz, PopMatters Vulture, Associated Press, AV Club, Clash, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Noisey, NPR’s Fresh Air, PopSugar, The Ringer, Spin, Stereogum, USA Today, Variety, Yahoo, US Weekly
by Philip Price
I came to really discover the Bee Gees my junior year of high school after buying their Number Ones compilation (a new release at the time) and listening to it repeatedly on my discounted Wal-Mart version of the Walkman or Discman (I feel like I had to buy a new one every other month and new headphones every other week at that time), but even under what weren't the most optimal of audio circumstances the power of the harmonies of the Brothers Gibb was undeniable. I've carried on my perception of the Bee Gees from that day forward, thinking of them not as a band that changed with and adapted to the times, but more as the first white boys to legitimately understand how to make R&B, funk and soul music all wrapped up in one. So, needless to say I was pleased to flesh out more of their rich history thanks to Frank Marshall's lovely “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” which can be seen on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.
The in-depth look at the songwriting process is a real highlight, though I wish Marshall might have extended his interviews with other bands made up of brothers to all of the members rather than only Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas. This might have allowed for a better sense of just how vastly different the experience of sharing so many experiences together both as family members and co-workers can be from one perspective to the next; lending a better sense of what the differences in present interviews with Robin and Maurice might have yielded given Barry now has the single longest length of time on which to reflect. That said, Barry's final interview moment here is one for the heartbreaking books - a somber if not fitting encapsulation of how fast life moves and how much we miss what will count most later on down the line.
by Julian Spivey
25. "Pawn Shop Heart" by Left Arm Tan
Texas band Left Arm Tan really hit me with the catchy “Pawn Shop Heart” about a breakup where the narrator gave everything he had to his partner, but she didn’t quite feel the same way. It’s OK, he doesn’t regret the relationship, he just wants his heart back as he might need it again someday. Sounding like something the Eagles may have recorded at some point in their legendary careers, “Pawn Shop Heart” includes one of my favorite choruses of 2020: “Two-steppin’, two-timin’, blue-eyed heart attack/I ain’t perfect, but, baby, I ain’t that bad/I’ll give it away again someday/Or shine it ‘till it ain’t black/It’s just a pawn shop heart/But, baby, I want it back.”
24. "Goodbye John" by Joe Stamm
There have been a lot of hard losses this year for fans of the Country and Americana genres with the passing’s of living legends like Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels and more, but the one that had the biggest impact on me was the death of singer-songwriter legend John Prine to COVID-19 in April. Prine was one of the all-time best songwriters and one of many personal favorites of mine. Joe Stamm’s “Goodbye, John,” which was released exactly one month after Prine’s death, is an incredible tribute to Prine and really hit home at the hardships of 2020 and the pandemic that completely changed our world in multiple ways, and completely stopped the livelihood of traveling musicians like Stamm who can’t travel and perform so he finds his own little corner of paradise (a reference to one of Prine’s most loved songs) and finds some solace in this crazy world by listening to the master’s words.
23. "Sarah's Flame" by Drive-By Truckers
The Drive-By Truckers released the critically acclaimed The Unraveling early in 2020 and pretty much everyone expected that’d be the last new music we’d get from the band this year – but then they surprised us with a second album The New OK on October 2. The New OK included my favorite DBT song of 2020, Mike Cooley’s “Sarah’s Flame,” which is incredibly smart in that it places some of what’s gone on in our country over the last four-to-six years or so on former Alaska governor and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who started fanning some of the country’s racial flames before President Donald Trump even ran for office. It’s not something I’d previously though of, but I think there’s something to it.
22. "Crazyland" by Eric Church
Eric Church has been one of my favorite songwriters for quite some time now, but he even floored me a bit with his wordplay on “Crazyland.” One of many singles released by Church this year without an announced album attached to it, “Crazyland” sees its narrator enter a bar filled with many characters who serve as tropes of your typical country music down-and-out drinking song. The whole crew is here: “sad,” “regret,” “fool,” “lost,” “all my fault” and so on and so forth hanging out listening to the blues. It’s quite the unique spin on both the traditional country music and heartbreak song and according to Church in an interview with Taste of Country the idea came to him in a dream. “I actually dreamed the chorus of the song, and I woke up and I wrote it down, and then I ended up writing the rest of the song to the chorus,” he said.
21. "No Dancing in Bristol" by Reckless Kelly
Reckless Kelly proved greatly long ago on 2005’s “Seven Nights in Eire” that they could get that Irish sound down pat. They bring it back to a lesser extent on this year’s “No Dancing in Bristol,” off their double album North American Jackpot (on of the year’s best releases), on a song about traveling to perform overseas without your loved one. In some ways, “No Dancing in Bristol,” is kind of a more mature sequel to “Seven Nights in Eire,” as the idea of being away from the woman you love for even a short amount of time is just too much to completely enjoy the trip.
20. "The Country Doesn't Sound the Same" by John Baumann
I absolutely love the dual meaning behind John Baumann’s “The Country Doesn’t Sound the Same.” He begins the song by remarking about how the country music you hear on today’s mainstream radio just isn’t the same (read: as good) as the stuff he used to hear on his dad’s radio growing up with fiddle and steel guitar. He then pivots to how the literal countryside doesn’t look the same with family farms being bought out and going under because of cities growing larger and nature being overrun by business. Finally, he takes on the moral state of our country and the vitriolic politics that have run rampant over the past decade or so leading to American citizens treating one another like enemies more so than neighbors. Baumann’s songwriting here is powerful. It’s something many different groups of folks need to listen to and take to heart.
19. "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" by Mickey Guyton
The only negative thing I can say about Mickey Guyton’s incredibly important “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is that had it been released say three or four years ago it would’ve made for a perfect theme for the #MeToo movement. Unfortunately, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon in this world where women are too often treated like objects instead of the humans they are. Guyton’s vocal is heartbreaking on the song she wrote with Emma-Lee, Karen Kosowski and Victoria Banks about having to explain things like being sexually abused and being treated as inferior to the opposite sex to your teenage daughter. It’s particularly important coming from a female in the country genre, a genre that seemingly more so than any other in the mainstream doesn’t value it’s female performers as much as it should with major discrepancies in things like radio airplay for female artists compared to their male counterparts. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” along with “Black Like Me,” have made Guyton one of the most important voices in any genre of music in 2020.
18. "Long Violent History" by Tyler Childers
One of the most important moments in country music in 2020 was when Tyler Childers essentially said enough is enough with police brutality toward black folks in this country in his own Appalachian way with “Long Violent History,” the only song with lyrics on his surprise album of old-timey fiddle tunes released in mid-September. It was important because it was time that someone from the South who looked and sounded like Childers spoke directly to their audience who look and sound like him with truths that needed to be heard (and it was a risk that likely cost him some of that audience). Childers hypothesized about how many white boys it would take being killed by police just for being who they were before white folks would be meeting up in the streets in a “stark-raving anger, looking for answers and armed to the teeth.” Childers knows he hasn’t experienced life as a black man or woman in this country, but at least he can sympathize and asks his fans to do the same.
17. "It's About Blood" by Steve Earle
Steve Earle’s 2020 release Ghosts of West Virginia is a concept album about the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 men making it one of the worst coal mining disasters in American history. Earle had come up with much of the album’s music while working on a play with playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about the same subject that was supposed to premiere this year, but was sidelined, like most everything else, by COVID-19. The album’s “It’s About Blood” is the angstiest track on Ghosts of West Virginia as it takes on the coal company Massey Energy that seemingly cared more about profits than the lives of its employees. Touchingly Earle ends “It’s About Blood” listing the names of all 29 men killed in the tragedy. Massey Effect and Don Blankenship, former CEO of the company, may have forgotten about them, but Earle isn’t about to and isn’t going to let us forget either.
16. "Stick That In Your Country Song" by Eric Church
Eric Church has something to say, and that’s quite unusual for someone within the country music mainstream – and that’s pretty much his entire point with “Stick That in Your Country Song.” For far too long mainstream country music, especially the kind sung by the men of the genre, has been stereotypical Southern tropes about drinking, partying, hitting on women, hooking up with women, bon fires, trucks, dirt roads, back roads, etc. Many of us country fans were tired of that schtick long ago and it’s pretty hard to find a song on country radio about anything important. Country music was meant to be the music of the blue collar, working man – lately it’s been the music of a small subset of country folks who are basically redneck frat boys. With “Stick That In Your Country Song,” Church is telling everybody else within the genre it’s time to get back to these working men and women and real stuff like the veteran who comes back from war disabled or the teacher working her ass off for little pay and essentially the same amount of recognition. I don’t expect mainstream Nashville to listen, but for the time being it’s nice to hear something with substance on country radio.
15. "Only Children" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell can sure write a tearjerker – he’s done it with great effect before on tracks like “Elephant” and “If We Were Vampires.” Isbell told Rolling Stone: “There’s something about the sad songs where it’s not just sad, there’s a resilience, and I think that’s what really affects people.” His latest tearjerker, “Only Children” finds Isbell writing about a friend who died at a young age and remembering the dreams they each had when they were close at an earlier age. “Only Children” may be Isbell’s best songwriting on Reunions with flourishes like this beautiful final verse: “Are you still taking notes/will you have anyone to talk to/Castle walls that you can walk through/and do the dead believe in ghosts/or are you lost in some old building/with over-encouraged only children.”
14. "Drink 'Til I See Double" by Ray Wylie Hubbard feat. Paula Nelson & Elizabeth Cook
My absolute favorite duet of 2020 is “Drink ‘Till I See Double” by Ray Wylie Hubbard, Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook. It’s such a Ray Wylie Hubbard vibe and the line “I’m gonna drink ‘till I see double and take one of you home” is such a classic country music pickup line. I really dig duets that are kind of unique in that they don’t play up all the lovey-dovey-ness of your typical love song duet and “Drink ‘Till I See Double” fits in perfectly with some of my other favorites like John Prine and Iris DeMent’s “In Spite of Ourselves” and Hayes Carll and Cary Ann Hearst’s “Another Like You.” Interestingly, Hubbard wrote “Drink ‘Till I See Double” with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn.
13. "The Mine" by Steve Earle
Steve Earle’s “The Mine” is pretty much about how there’s two options to living in a mining town – you either take a dangerous, but well-paying job at the mine or it’s pretty much a life on welfare. Probably the most optimistic tack on Earle’s coal mining concept album The Ghosts of West Virginia, the song’s narrator assures his lover than he knows things are hard right now, but he’s close to a big payday when his brother gets him a job at the mine.
12. "Even the River Runs Out of This Town" by Will Hoge
The chorus in Will Hoge’s plaintive “Even the River Runs Out of This Town” is among the best songwriting of the year: “you can’t blame a heart for getting broken/you can’t change the color of the blues/the railroad track and the highway/I guess it’s your turn now/even the river runs out of this town.” That’s so beautifully poetic it’s almost hard to believe it hadn’t been written before. It’s the kind of breakup song where the narrator still loves the one who’s left him behind, but knows he has to let her go – I think those are maybe the most heartbreaking breakup songs of them all.
11. "The Problem" by Amanda Shires & Jason Isbell
How do you approach a topic as delicate (and controversial) as abortion in a song? With massive amounts of empathy – and few in the Americana world are as empathetic in their songwriting as the Isbells – Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell – the hit couple of the Americana genre. Written by Shires a few years ago, “The Problem” was released this year to coincide with International Safe Abortion Day with proceeds from its sales going to the Yellowhammer Fund, for reproductive justice in Alabama (Isbell’s home state). When Shires wrote the song, she imagined it as a conversation had between women, but revamped it as a duet with her husband Isbell to be about a couple discussing the possibility of having an abortion. The song features the decision making, the abortion and the after affects mentally with Isbell as the male character supporting any decision his partner makes in the chorus with, “And all I could think to say/was everything’s going to be OK/it’s gonna be all right/I’m on your side.”
10. "Honey On My Tongue" by Steep Canyon Rangers
Steep Canyon Rangers were unbelievably busy in 2020 (which seems hard for a recording artist in such a year). In January they were a part of Steve Martin’s humorous bluegrass single “California” (which also made this list). In March they released the collaborative album Be Still Moses with the Asheville Symphony. In April they released the live album North Carolina Songbook, recorded at Merlefest in April of 2019, which garnered the group a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album (a category they have won before). In October they released the studio album Arm in Arm, which features my favorite bluegrass song of the year in “Honey on My Tongue.” The track is about a relationship, that the narrator knows isn’t going to last forever, but leaves such a mark on him that he can’t help but smile and remember it fondly. It’s absolutely beautiful – both musically and lyrically – with tender lyrics and an intoxicating chorus comparing the relationship to a bee, but not caring about the danger of being stung because the honey is so sweet with the warm sounds of acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle throughout.
9. "Old Men" by Corb Lund
One of my absolute favorite country songs of the year from the moment I first heard it has been “Old Men,” off Corb Lund’s tenth studio album Agricultural Tragic. It’s a tribute to those gruff old codgers who came before and perfected a way of life through blood, sweat and tears and I think Lund realizes as a recording and touring musician of now at least a quarter-century he’s kind of turning into one of those “old men” from the young buck he once was.
8. "Thinkin' 'Bout You All Night" by Reckless Kelly
Reckless Kelly’s “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You All Night” has been stuck in my head most of the year since I first heard it, because the melody is so damn good. Willy Braun said on the Reckless Kelly website: “The audience hears the melody, listens to the lyrics and makes up its own story. They cannot feel the wind as it blows through the tamaracks or smell the smoke drifting across the lake. The author, if he does his job correctly, lets them conjure up their own tale, whatever that may be, while he, upon hearing the very same song, sees places.” Braun’s chorus is unbelievably simplistic, “I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout you all night” repeated, but the environmental images scattered through the verses mixing beautifully with that wonderful melody really paints a picture. Here the author has certainly done his job correctly.
7. "Overseas" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
I first heard “Overseas” at a Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit show in Memphis in September of 2019 about eight months before the release of Reunions, and even though I couldn’t make out all of the words live (something that’s almost always an issue with new songs played in concert) I knew it was going to be a highlight on whatever Isbell released next just by the great guitar playing and the feeling seeing him perform it live had. “Overseas” took its start by Isbell and his musician wife Amanda Shires being apart from each other on different tours and the feeling of disconnection it gave him and then he fictionalized a story about a couple who live literally a sea between each other and the sadness that creates. That guitar solo I remembered from the live show last year holds up as one of the best Isbell has ever laid down on record.
6. "If I Was the Priest" by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“If I Was the Priest,” from the latest Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band album Letter to You (Springsteen’s first with his legendary band since 2012’s Wrecking Ball), is certainly the oldest song to make this year’s list. Springsteen penned the song about a half century ago (that’s not a typo) in either late 1970 or early 1971. It’s a wordy throwback to his earliest albums that had him being hailed as “The New Dylan,” but it never appeared on any of his studio albums. Springsteen resurrected it for Letter to You, an album that sees the band focusing on mortality and just getting back to their roots. “If I Was the Priest” is essentially a tale of coming up in an area and time when many rock acts were trying to break out and likening it to a tale of you’d see in old Western movies or TV shows where only one gunslinger can come out on top. With a different sound it could’ve made a nice addition to Springsteen’s Western themed solo release Western Stars last year, but I do love how it sounds with the mighty E Street Band.
5. "How Long" by Iris DeMent
Oftentimes it takes me multiple listens to a song before I truly know how I feel about it or if it’ll have a chance to wind up on a list like this, but I knew probably midway into my first listen of Iris DeMent’s “How Long” that it was destined for this list. “How Long” just has a classic sound to it like it’s a song I must’ve heard many times before in my life despite being brand new. It feels like it instantly belongs as part of a movement and DeMent wrote it in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, according to her website. She opens the song by telling of someone once asking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “how long do you stay the course and dream the dream?” when it feels like troubles such as racism are never going to end. The chorus is his reply: “’till justice rolls down like water and righteousness flows like a mighty stream.” DeMent goes on to verses about how power and greed turn a blind eye to those who truly could benefit from a bit of compassion and understanding from those in charge. It’s uplifting and hopeful, but so were those classic movement songs of the ‘60s it reminds me so much of.
4. "Neon Cross" by Jaime Wyatt
Jaime Wyatt’s “Neon Cross” has been one of my absolute favorite songs of the year from the first moment I heard it back in February. The title track of her sophomore album with its pulsating rhythm and jangly guitar just sounds like a song announcing one’s presence with authority. And could there possibly be a better lyric for such a song than “if you don’t love me/why don’t you nail me to a neon cross?” Wyatt is resilient in this song, the “oh poor me” being sarcastic. She’s been through pain and misery – going through a stint in prison at a young age and battling addiction - and has had enough of it.
3. "Colors" (Acoustic) by Black Pumas
I have to admit I missed the ball on this one in 2019 or it would’ve made last year’s list. Luckily, Black Pumas cut and released an acoustic version of their exquisite “Colors” to qualify for this year’s list. I absolutely love vocalist and songwriter Eric Burton’s vocal on this song, especially when he goes falsetto – whether it’s this acoustic version or the original album version from the duo’s 2019 self-titled debut. Black Pumas producer/instrumentalist Adrian Quesada said to JamBands.com of the song’s inspiration: “Eric woke up midday and started the song as the sun was going down. He was inspired by the rich multicolored hues of the sky. The song was written in the themes of mortality and togetherness.” “Colors” definitely makes me think about how the world works better as one when folks of all different races and ethnicities blend together.
2. "The Spark" by William Prince
I had never heard of Canadian folk/country singer-songwriter William Prince before earlier this year when “The Spark” was suggested to me, I believe on a Spotify Americana playlist (one of the great perks of the music streaming app) and it instantly became one of my favorites of the year. The sound, the lyrics, the vocal, the entire vibe of the song just dropped my jaw. There’s so much soul in “The Spark,” about finding a love and how it can bring you out of the darkness of life. Prince told American Songwriter: “There is a warmth within the chemistry you feel when meeting someone for the first time and having it click.” As a writer I absolutely love the way Prince leaves the song’s title to the very end of the song, it really hits home how much this woman means to him and really wraps the entire piece together nicely.
1. "A Better South" by American Aquarium
As someone who has always lived in the American South, but often feels and thinks differently than many of those who live in the region I felt like American Aquarium and songwriter/frontman B.J. Barham was singing right to me on “A Better South,” off the band’s terrific 2020 album Lamentations. It’s certainly a timely song for 2020 with all the year’s injustices. Barham told AllEyesMedia.com, “I wanted to write a song that encapsulated the love/hate relationship that so many folks, including myself, have with the South. Being able to love the place that molded you while simultaneously hating some of it’s dark history.” I believe in the better South that Barham sings about and hope one day we can get there.
by Julian Spivey
50. "Welcome to Hard Times" by Charley Crockett
Charley Crockett likens the world amidst hard times to a rigged casino where you’re never going to break even (and oftentimes it feels like Hell) in “Welcome to Hard Times.” The title track from Crockett’s most recent album comes off like a pitch for sinning from the Devil himself, “do you like sinnin’?/well, you will before you go/we’ve got lots of gamblin’, ‘oh’ and we’re telling ties/you’re certainly welcome to hard times” all done with a old timey saloon like piano in the background.
49. "Skeletons" by Brothers Osborne
Some songs just come from one kick-ass creative phrase or hook and “Skeletons,” off Brothers Osborne’s 2020 release of the same name, is that with its take on having “skeletons in one’s closet” having “bones to pick with them.” The song written by the Osbornes (John and T.J.) with Adam and Andrew DeRoberts is everything that makes the duo the best currently in mainstream country music – a deep vocal from T.J., that killer lyric and some bad ass guitar playing from John.
48. "Working Man" by Tyller Gummersall
Songs of the working man have always been a part of the country music landscape because things have seemingly always been hard for the blue collar, working men and women of this country and one of the best “working man” songs of late is Tyller Gummersall’s “Working Man.” Gummersall sings about the hardships face by hard-working folks in this country, particularly the family farmer, and how it feels like “the patron saint of the working man” has finally retired. It’s essentially just Gummersall’s vocal and an acoustic guitar, but it’s one of the most powerful recordings of the year.
47. "Shut Up and Sing" by Brent Cobb
I absolutely hate the phrase “shut up and sing” from supposed music fans who don’t believe their favorite artists should partake in worldly views such as politics and how it’s their job to stick to their job of performing. I do, however, love the spin that Georgia singer-songwriter Brent Cobb put on the phrase this year with his track simply titled “Shut Up and Sing.” Cobb is going to sing, but he’s going to sing about whatever the hell he pleases – even if it includes topics like school shootings and poisonous political rhetoric – because it’s his job as a songwriter to be honest and sometimes that means telling it like it is.
46. "Ghosts" by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“Ghosts,” one of the most rocking tracks on Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s latest album Letter to You, sees The Boss paying tribute to late bandmates from his pre-E Street Band days. When George Theiss, the singer of Springsteen’s first band The Castiles, died in 2018 it left Springsteen as the last living member of the band. It got him thinking of aging and the pain of losing friends and loved ones, which really is a theme of the new album. It’s not a sad song though as Springsteen belts in the chorus, “I’m alive and I can feel the blood shiver in my bones/I’m alive and I’m out here on my own/I’m alive, and I’m comin’ home.” Springsteen is very obviously going to rock until he can’t rock any longer and he’ll be carrying the ghosts of all of those who helped him get to where he is (the greatest songwriter in rock history, in my opinion) all the way.
45. "Under the Devil's Knee" by Tre Burt feat. Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell & Sunny War
I really wish this song hadn’t made this list this year because that means George Floyd and Breonna Taylor might still be alive and not more names on a growing list of unarmed black men and women killed by police brutality. But those things did happen and Tré Burt’s answer to those tragic events was potentially the most heart-wrenching and important protest song of 2020. Burt sings of the killings of Floyd, Taylor and Eric Garner (from 2014) and how life is just different for black people in this world when it comes to policing and those folks that don’t stand up in an effort to stop police brutality and complicit in it. The title and chorus refrain take its name from the fact that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck with his knee for more than nine minutes. Burt is joined by fellow black roots musicians Leyla McCalla, Sunny War and Allison Russell in the song’s devastating chorus. Proceeds from the song benefit the Community Justice Exchange’s National Bail Fund Network.
44. "Sunday Drive" by Brett Eldredge
One of the biggest country music shocks of 2020 for me was the seeming transformation of Brett Eldridge into a piano ballad singer-songwriter with some stuff that’s almost Randy Newman-esque on his latest release Sunday Drive. It’s the title track from that album that truly hits the listener in the feels with its tale of a family just going on a nice Sunday drive together and looking out upon the world and how those memories can truly stick with you (I know I have similar memories). Where the track truly gets your eyes, watering is when the narrator flips the script and ushers his elderly parents around on one of those Sunday drives and seeing as all those old memories flood back.
43. "Stone" by Ashley McBryde
It’s always fascinating when a songwriter can take a word or phrase and pull every ounce of meaning out of it and that’s exactly what Ashley McBryde does with “Stone” from her latest release Never Will. My first listens to “Stone” had me thinking it was likely about her father, but it turns out the inspiration was her late brother Clay, who committed suicide in 2018. The song explores the sadness and anger McBryde felt in coping with her brother’s death and how similar the two of them were. It’s an incredibly touching tune.
42. "I Called Mama" by Tim McGraw
Tim McGraw’s “I Called Mama,” written by Marv Green, Lance Miller and Jimmy Yeary, was particularly touching in 2020 when many of us have been unable to see loved ones like our mothers for much of the year. The song begins with its narrator getting a phone call from a friend about the passing of an old buddy and how his friend’s untimely death shook him up and gave him a bit more perspective on life. The narrator takes a bit of time just for himself to relax and watch nature and then, most importantly, make that phone call back home to his mama. “I Called Mama” is sure to bring a tear to your eye.
41. "Tuesday I'll Be Gone" by John Anderson & Blake Shelton
I was really excited to get some new music in 2020 from one of my favorite old chunks of coal in country music, John Anderson, and while the entirety of Years was a let down for me it did feature the fantastic “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone,” a duet with modern country music superstar Blake Shelton. Anderson sounds as good as ever on this track with his unique twang, which is fantastic to hear after he had dealt with some health issues in the years preceding the recording. The song, written by Anderson with his producers Dan Auerbach (of the rock duo The Black Keys) and David Ferguson, finds Anderson and Shelton swapping lines about the freedom of the road and of not really knowing what comes ahead of one in life. In addition to being happy to have another great Anderson song it’s also the best thing Shelton has put on a record in a few years.
40. "Shelby '65" by Kyle Nix
If you’re a fan of Red Dirt country music you probably already knew the name Kyle Nix, as he was (and hopefully one day will be again) the best damn fiddle player for the best damn band in Red Dirt – the Turnpike Troubadours. But in 2020 Nix showed that sawing on a hot fiddle wasn’t his only talent – he was also a very talented songwriter and could step out front and take on the role as frontman with his debut Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories. My favorite track on the album is the rip-roaring “Shelby ‘65” that tells of two teenage lovers speeding through the night in a bit of American steel just daring the road to take them. “Shelby ‘65” is reminiscent to some of Turnpike Troubadours more raucous songs, like “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” but it’s also proof Nix can be a Red Dirt superstar all on his own.
39. "Loved & Lost" by Porter Union
The married duo Porter Union (Cole Michael Porter and Kendra Porter) were contestants on the recent short-lived USA Network singing competition show “Real Country” and were selected to be on the show by ‘90s country hitmaker Travis Tritt who saw their potential. The duo released their sophomore album Loved & Lost independently in March and instantly the title track became one of the catchiest tunes of the year. The song, written by Porter Union with Jared Hicks and Oran Thornton, plays on the saying, “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never love at all” and adds the wonderful whoever said that “has never loved and lost someone like you.” It’s a throwback to something that might have dominated country radio back in Tritt’s day, which is probably what he saw in the duo.
38. "Damned Angel" by Hellbound Glory
I feel like Leroy Virgil, who makes music as Hellbound Glory, is the only artist who could get away with opening a song with the line: “Mama says you’ll be the death of me/you’re like methamphetamines” to a throwback to the sort of suave twang you’d hear under some smooth vocals by a Roy Orbison type. It’s a heartbreak ballad with Virgil’s raspy vocals filling in aptly where the smooth vocals of an Orbison or Chris Isaak may have been in its place. I’ve enjoyed Hellbound Glory’s rowdier side in the past, but it’s nice to see a bit of a scummy suavity to his music, as well.
37. "Love is Not Enough" by Lydia Loveless
There is a wry sense of humor in some of Lydia Loveless’s music and one of my favorite aspects of this is the line: “I can’t believe the worst kinds of people achieve everything they want/it takes medication to get me off.” In the song Loveless is calling out some of the cliches one might find in your typical love song or even relationship. Loveless told American Songwriter: “The song is a response to the old-fashioned idea that love is all you need, as opposed to understanding, or give and take. On a large scale, it’s about people who say things like, ‘love trumps hate’ and take zero action to make it true.”
36. "I Remember Everything" by John Prine
The hardest musical moment of 2020 for me was the death of legendary singer-songwriter John Prine (essentially one of the fathers of the Americana genre) in early April from COVID-19 at age 73. Not only was it tragic because Prine was a legend and one of my favorites, but he was still at the top of his game as he’d shown on 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness. It seems Prine was ready to give us another instant classic, but death took him too soon. In June, his final song “I Remember Everything” was release and is a lovely ballad about looking back on all the great things in one’s life – including one’s family and career. The song, which recently garnered two posthumous Grammy nominations for Prine, is just one more bit of proof of how he could take the little and simple things in life and bring so much poetry out of them.
35. "Me + Mine (Lamentations)" by American Aquarium
American Aquarium songwriter and frontman B.J. Barham has certainly proven himself as something as a songwriter for the working men and women of this country in his past AA albums, as well as his solo stuff. “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” certainly hits upon how this country treats the blue collar, hard-working folks among them with true to life lines like: “It’s like we don’t matter, mama said, at least that’s how it seems.” The song blasts politicians who promise to return jobs to these hard-working folks, knowing damn well they won’t be able to do so. Barham said on the American Aquarium website that he wrote down the word “lamentations” in 2018, knowing full well it’s what he wanted to name his next album. “Lamentations is one of the few books in the Bible where there’s this doubt of God. I saw a direct correlation between that and a Southern man today who voted for [President Donald] Trump. I wanted to write about a broken America and all the things that lead a human being to doubting something.” Nobody has written about a broken America better in these last few years than Barham.
34. "Smooth Shot of Whiskey" by Mike and the Moonpies & Mark Wystrach
Mike and the Moonpies, one of the most stellar and hardest working groups in the Texas Country/Red Dirt scene, released a unique tribute to the king of the honky tonks Gary Stewart this year with Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart. My favorite track on the album is “Smooth Shot of Whiskey,” penned by Stewart with songwriting legends Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus (whom you know well if you like classic George Strait). The song is a brotherly duet of sorts between close friends who’re both seeing relationships falter and want to drink about it over some smooth whiskey and Mike and the Moonpies singer Mike Harmeier is joined by Mark Wystrach of Midland in a perfect melding of voices. The tribute of Stewart songs that hadn’t yet reached the public was an important record for the band as Harmeier told Rolling Stone magazine: “The music of Gary Stewart has been the driving influence of our band from the first notes we played together.”
33. "Only Faster" by Chris Hennessee
Chris Hennessee’s “Only Faster” is the kind of unique spin on a love song I’m always looking for – likening his girl’s fast paced life to a racecar on the beaches of Daytona, a cannonball, a rocket launch and all sorts of other things and how she can break your heart even faster than all of those things. With a pulsating piano-driven backing, “Only Faster” is going to make you want to put your pedal to the floor if listening to it in the car.
32. "Space Force" by Western Centuries feat. Jim Lauderdale
I feel like “Space Force” by Western Centuries is intentionally cheeky because of how ridiculous the creation of a new military branch called the Space Force by the Trump Administration is, but maybe that’s just me putting my political spin on it. I looked it up – it’s most certainly intentionally cheeky with songwriter Jim Miller stating the real Space Force to be “one of the most ludicrous ideas ever to have been foisted upon the American taxpayer” in an interview with Seattle radio station KEXP. Even if it hadn’t been satirical, “Space Force” is a riotous blast talking about how fun it would be to be apart of the Space Force and chase all the bad guys around the galaxy. It’s essentially the band turning the Space Force into an old Western bounty hunter trip. The group is joined by singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale on the track that never fails to put a smile on my face.
31. "Raining Horses" by Corb Lund
Agricultural Tragic just seems like a perfect title for a Corb Lund album and the Canadian country singer-songwriter tugs at the heartstrings with the catchy “Raining Horses” about a rancher who seemingly has too many horses, but doesn’t have the heart to give up on a beloved mare. According to Lund’s website: “The song is kind based around the idea of having too many horses on the place. But from a few steps back it’s more about desperation and eternal, irrational hope.” That “desperate and eternal, irrational hope” truly comes out within Lund’s vocal.
30. "The Curse" by Will Hoge
Will Hoge has proven he’s a many of many genres. He can write a straight up country ballad (check out “Even the River Runs Out of This Town” on this very list), he can write folky tunes, he can write rockers with a punk edge to them (check out “The Overthrow” on this very list), but maybe he’s at his best when playing the kind of heartland rock that artists like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp popularized. “The Curse,” off Hoge’s latest album Tiny Little Movies, is a tale about meeting the right person and how their love can have such a positive change on someone’s life, effectively turning it completely around. This one is sure to get stuck in your heads for days.
29. "Pawn Shop" by Brandy Clark
How many extremely important objects in a person’s life do you think have ended up in pawn shops because people needed quick cash to escape a life or change their life? Brandy Clark approaches this subject on her excellent “Pawn Shop,” co-written with Troy Vergas on her newest album Your Life is a Record. The third-person tale talks of a wedding ring given up after a dead relationship and a guitar given up by a musician who needs to change his career path to help feed his family. Clark told The Boot: “I was reading a book and a guy [working] at the pawn shop said, ‘I have the job of telling people that something’s not worth what they think it is.’ That really hit me as a song idea.”
28. "Letter to You" by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
There’s a lot of dealing with mortality on Letter To You, the latest album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (the first as a band since 2012’s terrific Wrecking Ball), as “The Boss” and his bandmates are coming to terms with being senior citizens and knowing there’s less in front of them than there is behind. Despite their advanced age the band sounds better than ever as they recorded the album in just five days live in studio with no overdubs, just the raucous live energy they bring to their sometimes four hour live shows. The title track is one of the album’s highlights as it sees the aged rock star using his years and experience to pen a letter to someone (perhaps his younger self, perhaps his early bandmates with differing bands growing up who’re no long here or his faithful fan-base).
27. "Be Afraid" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
The idea of musicians (and celebrities in general) using their platform to speak on topics such as politics and other important things rubs some people wrong. Jason Isbell thinks artists should do it anyway. “Be Afraid,” from Isbell and the 400 Unit’s latest release Reunions, is a call to action, in fact, for artists to try and inspire change – after all, most of the greats in the history of a multitude of musical genres have done just that. Isbell told Rolling Stone Country in February when the single came out: “If I don’t do what I considered to be the right thing – which is speak my mind – I’m not gonna be able to sleep when I’m an old man.”
26. "Starting Over" by Chris Stapleton
If there was ever a year to feel like just wiping the slate clean and starting over it would be 2020, maybe that’s why Chris Stapleton’s title track to his latest album Starting Over, his first single in over two years, just feels right. It could also be that Stapleton’s smooth, yet gruff soulful voice could probably sing the phone book and be pleasing to the ears and his harmonies with his wife Morgane are always incredible. “Starting Over,” co-written by Stapleton and his ex-SteelDrivers bandmate Mike Henderson, is essentially just he and his wife singing to an acoustic guitar and some light percussion. It may be simple, but it works flawlessly.