by Julian Spivey
100. "Can't Be There Today" by Billy Bragg & "I Ain't Been Nowhere" by Chuck Mead
Especially during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic this year artists seemed like they were rushing to see who could be the first to get a coronavirus song out on the market – like that was something the listening public, even in those first days of this seemingly never-ending nightmare wanted – and the majority of them were absolute crap (even from artists I really like). But there were two of these songs that truly stood out to me – one that really hit on the loneliness of the pandemic and another one that’s just creative and funny as hell. Billy Bragg’s “Can’t Be There Today” is incredibly depressing because it was written and released in March in the very early days of quarantining and the pandemic and as we now approach the Christmas holiday and many of us still can’t be with our families and loved ones it really shows how life-changing this whole year has been, and frankly shows how goddamn selfish many of our fellow Americans have been, who could’ve done a lot to help this thing simmer down when it’s instead exploding. On to the fun one … every country music fan knows the Hank Snow 1962 classic “I’ve Been Everywhere” (and if you don’t your certainly know Johnny Cash’s cover). Well, in April Chuck Mead put a funny spin on that classic with the cabin fever brought on by the pandemic and quarantining. It’s a note for note parody of the original and really hits home at the monotony of quarantining and all the stuff one does to pass the time like playing board games and going through every last show on Netflix. It was nice to have some levity during a terrifying year.
99. "Fancy" by Orville Peck
I try not to include many or any cover songs on my annual list if I can help it just to give artists a chance to showcase their originals and to just help put something new out into the world, but I knew the moment I heard Orville Peck’s take on the Bobbie Gentry/Reba McEntire classic “Fancy” there was no way I wasn’t including it. Peck, an out Canadian country singer known for the frilly mask he wears when performing (nobody has seen the man’s face!), put a gender-bending spin on “Fancy” that just worked for me as a listener from the first listen. Peck switches up some of the pronouns in the song to give an added meaning, but it’s a mostly faithful performance lyrically, but where he really changed it up was in how it sounded taking some of the darkness in the song’s lyrics about a mother turning her daughter into a prostitute to give her a better life by giving the song a haunting, sparseness that works perfectly for it. If an artist is going to cover an all-timer of a song that have to find a unique take for it and Peck certainly has.
98. "Too Much Alike" by Robert Planet & Patty Griffin
Robert Plant, the former lead singer of hard-rock legends Led Zeppelin, has had quite the solo career as an Americana singer, especially when collaborating with some of the best female musicians in the American Roots genres. Plant’s collaboration with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand in 2007 earned him the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2008. Plant has teamed up with Patty Griffin for the duet “Too Much Alike,” a cover of an old Charley Feathers rockabilly tune, that fits their voices perfectly. The jangling guitar, a trademark of rockabilly music, is one of the track’s true highlights.
97. "River of Fools" by Logan Ledger
Logan Ledger has instantly proven himself as a master of different kind of classic country styles on his self-titled debut album, but it’s a song not upon that album, but done as part of an Amazon Originals series with producer T-Bone Burnett that stuck out the most to me. From the first time I heard Ledger’s “River of Fools” I thought of one of my all-time favorite country music songwriters Roger Miller. “River of Fools” just has that wacky, fun-loving appeal to it that Miller did better than anyone has ever done, but it’s important to note while it sounds like it could be a tribute to Miller, it doesn’t sound like a copy or a parody (which is a problem I had with another country artist this year you’d find on a few other ‘best of’ lists). “River of Fools” is just a fun vibe.
96. "Panhandle Slim" by The Panhandlers
The Panhandlers, a supergroup of some of the brightest in the Texas Country/Red Dirt subgenres of country music Josh Abbott, John Baumann, Cleto Cordero (of Flatland Cavalry) and William Clark Green, made its debut in early 2020 with a self-titled release. The best track on the debut is “Panhandle Slim” (there’s probably too many Texas panhandle references on the album though) co-written by Baumann and Cordero about a lone wolf cowboy of the panhandle who doesn’t know he needs love until it one day knocks him off his feet. It’s a lovely little folky-country waltz.
95. "Bad Car" by Brandy Clark
Great songwriters can take inanimate objects and bring such life out of them and the inanimate object that songwriters have probably brought the most life out of are automobiles. Brandy Clark certainly brings a lot of nostalgia and feelings to her remembrance of an old car that’s been through so many things with her in “Bad Car,” off her recently Grammy-nominated album Your Life Is a Record. Clark said in one of her Play and Tell YouTube videos that the song, co-written by Jason Saenz, could’ve truly been about anything – a hometown, house, etc. – anything that gathers memories and eventually is left behind.
94. "Haven't Even Kissed Me Yet" by Aubrie Sellers
Aubrie Sellers truly has a multitude of sounds to her music and seemingly does them all very well. Seriously, I’ve seen her do a cover of The Kinks classic “All Day and All of the Night” live in concert and it's garage band punk glory. On “Haven’t Even Kissed Me Yet,” the daughter of award-winning country singer Lee Ann Womack, is a soft sounding ballad of a potential burgeoning relationship with sort of a swaying, lowkey surf vibe to it. It’s tender and vulnerable with a terrific vocal from Sellers, who should be more known than she is.
93. "P-Town" by Lilly Hiatt
Songwriting talent simply runs in the veins of the Hiatts as Lilly’s father is the legendary singer-songwriter John Hiatt. There’s a lot to be excited about on Lilly Hiatt’s 2020 release Walking Proof, including the title track, but my favorite track is the kiss-off tune “P-Town.” The jangly-rock song finds our narrator and her significant other during a disagreement in Portland, Ore. (one of Hiatt’s favorite towns) that’s unfortunately based on a real moment in her life. Hiatt told PopMatters.com: “It was a fun song to write, but had I written it two years ago, there would have been a little more pain. To me, it’s a bit funny, and I can laugh to myself about the whole week. It’s impossible to be a visitor there and not have a great time, but somehow in that week, I was able to get wrapped up in a frenzy of emotion.” And, yes Lilly, I absolute hate it when people say, “it is what it is”!!
92. "Long Hard Life" by 49 Winchester
One of the funkiest songs to make the list this year is 49 Winchester’s “Long Hard Life,” about how hard it is when all you have to show in this world is 13 acres of property, three dogs, two kids and one wife. Cowboys & Indians magazine explained the song has “so many elements of a classic country song”: “a funky walking bass line, a mid-song key change, an impressive twangy guitar solo, and a humorously told hard-luck tale involving a questionable money-making scheme.” There’s no doubt the song from the Virginian band is a helluva lot of fun.
91. "California" by Steve Martin with Steep Canyon Rangers
Steve Martin is a true renaissance man; he can pretty much do it all. Many know by now he’s an incredibly good banjo player and records albums with the bluegrass outfit Steep Canyon Rangers. Early in 2020 I saw Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers on “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” performing a new song called “California” and it immediately stuck with me. It’s quintessential Martin mixing fun humor with excellent picking.
90. "Lost in the City Lights" by Johnny Falstaff
You can get lost in time listening to Johnny Falstaff’s “Lost in the City Lights,” the title track to his latest album. The twang of his Telecaster guitar and the crying of a steel guitar just take you back in time to a honky tonk, where some might be shedding a tear in their beer at the bar while others spinning their loved ones around the dance floor. Falstaff told ProCountryMusic.com: “This one takes me to a peculiar little corner of my mind. I had moved back home to Texas from Nashville in ’91, kicked it around with a few bands, and eventually put one together called The Sundowners. Houston had a really cool scene at the time, and we would put on the Western finery and go out carousing amongst it. That is what the song is about and I think it still holds true.”
89. "Emmylou" by Gabe Lee
Gabe Lee’s 2019 debut album farmland was one of my favorite releases of last year, so it was surprising that Lee already had a sophomore release in March of this year with Honky Tonk Hell. The album sees Lee make a departure from the John Prine-esque songwriting of his first and going in a more country than folk direction. My favorite track on Honky Tonk Hell is Lee’s piano-driven (there’s also some nice organ on the track too) ballad “Emmylou,” which sees Lee at his best singing a heartbreak ballad about a woman. Lee’s vocal on the track is one of the most powerful on any record this year with Saving Country Music’s Kyle Coroneos saying of it: “It’s not just about some natural gift of singing. It’s his instinct to know how to use it. The second time Gabe sings the simple named, ‘Emmylou,’ you’d swear it would have the power to make a barren field sprout flowers with the amount of emotion contained in those few fleeting, but eloquently elongated syllables.
88. "Hotter Than Hades" by Anna Lynch
The first thing that captured my attention on Anna Lynch’s “Hotter Than Hades” was her stunning vocals, especially the twang in her voice when she hits that ‘ha’ sound on ‘hotter’ in the chorus. “Hotter Than Hades,” off 2020’s Apples in the Fall, is an exploration of modern love in the age of finding hookups and potential relationships via apps like Tinder. Lynch told WideOpenCountry.com, “I wrote [the song] whilst being a single person being extremely frustrated with the whole modern courting process, I was frustrated with feeling like I should be ashamed for being ‘promiscuous’ (I hate that word so much) and I think the most hurtful judgment is from my fellow women.”
87. "Mama Drank" by Jessi Alexander
Jessi Alexander’s “Mama Drank” is in the vein of tough country women like Loretta Lynn or more modernly Miranda Lambert (heck I could see the track on a Lambert album). “Mama Drank” is about your every day, blue collar woman trying to do it all for her family – both working a full-time job and being a mother and wife to her kids and husband and all the hard work both of those things entail and how you just need a little something to take the edge off. Alexander told The Boot: “[This song is] one I had to live to write. I had this title when our firstborn was probably six months old. I think I said it as I was changing a diaper or something.” It’s the real stuff that makes for the best country music.
86. "Watch the World Die" by Cody Jinks
When is Cody Jinks not releasing new music? Despite having two complete album releases in 2019 and one the year before that he found time to release “Watch the World Die” in 2020. It’s a more apocalyptic take on how things have been going in 2020, but with a fairly positive spin about how if the world truly is dying he’s just going to sit back and make love to the woman he loves and let everything else burn around him. Guess there are definitely worse ways to go if we’re truly approaching the end times.
85. "Drive" by Austin Lucas
Austin Lucas goes back to his punk rock roots for “Drive,” off his latest album Alive in the Hot Zone. I love the imagery of just being alone out on the highway with all the thoughts racing through your head as the white lines pass by and particularly the line about playing the steering wheel like a drum (because I’m constantly doing that). Lucas told Americana-UK.com, “The song goes out to anyone escaping horrible situations at home, in order to live as their truest and most authentic selves.”
84. "Janie Lynn" by The Wilder Blue (Hill Country)
Zane Williams has been one of the best in the Texas country music scene for a while now – he’s appeared on this annual list multiple times – so it was not a shock to me that his newest project The Wilder Blue (which started out as Hill Country and then changed names after its first album release, but before its first year as an act even finished in a confusing mess perhaps due to the generic-ness of the name) would release one of my favorite story songs of the year, “Janie Lynn.” “Janie Lynn” is a Western tale about a miner who rides into town and becomes enamored by the sight of the titular woman, a dancing girl at a bar, and the short relationship between the two. When the drunken narrator sees Janie Lynn being roughed up by another man he kills that man and is sentenced to death for the killing, but tells his love that, “ten minutes with you was better than a lifetime in the mine.” OK, so that line is maybe too much, but the song still rocks.
83. "Sinner, Saint, S.O.B." by The Statesboro Revue feat. Wade Bowen
Austin’s The Statesboro Revue released one of my favorite raucous little country-blue-rock numbers of the year with “Sinner, Saint, S.O.B.,” featuring red dirt legend Wade Bowen as a guest. With one of the catchiest choruses of 2020 - “Look at me how I’m shinin’/like a West Texas bolt of lightnin’/all the girls are linin’ up to take a ride with me/I’m the highest member of my family tree/I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I’m a S.O.B.” – the group is showing that all sorts of genres meld together perfectly down in Austin, Texas.
82. "100 Proof Honk-Tonk" by The Reeves Brothers
With piano playing reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis or Mickey Gilley’s “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” The Reeves Brothers’ “100 Proof Honky-Tonk” kicks off with one of the finest honky tonk numbers in recent memory. The narrator’s girl has left him and he wants to drown his sorrows at the bar with classic country on the jukebox and if it’s not straight-up cheating songs with crying steel guitar it’s just not going to do for him.
81. "Body in a Boxcar" by Sunny Sweeney
If you’ve never had a chance to see Sunny Sweeney live in concert then you’re really missing out. It’s a raucous show filled with terrifically traditional country music from one of the best songwriters in the Texas Music scene. On Recorded Live at The Machine Shop Recording Studio, Sweeney and her band captures the live sound of their shows perfectly with many of her career’s best works, but a real highlight is “Body in a Boxcar,” a new song co-written with Buddy Owens and Galen Griffin, filled with steel guitar and an incredible fiddle solo it’s honky tonk at its finest.
80. "Dreamsicle" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
“Dreamsicle” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit really hits home the sadness experienced by children from broken families forced to move from town to town. The line that particularly hits me comes early on: “Gotta break the news to all my friends/but they won’t care/they’ll just find another face/to fall behind, to take my place/to run way out past second base/and just stand there.” Wow! “Dreamsicle” has all these traditional memories of childhood like eating ice cream in a folding chair on a summer night, but there’s this beautiful tragedy underneath it all about how things could have been had mom and dad just stayed together. Isbell truly does have a great knack for finding beauty amidst such sadness in his songs. In some ways that makes him a natural torch bearer for his last friend John Prine – though I feel Isbell is probably too humble to agree with the comparison.
79. "Babies in Cages" by Drive-By Truckers
Drive-By Truckers have proven time and time again, especially over this last decade, that they aren’t going to pull any punches when it comes to their music and if you have an issue with it you can move along. This year’s The Unraveling pretty much picked up where 2016’s excellent American Band left off when it comes to songs about the current state of the U.S. and with a song titled “Babies in Cages” I’m sure you know where it’s headed. I first heard the song live in concert at a DBT show in Little Rock in 2018 more than a year before it appeared on this album. It’s essentially songwriter Patterson Hood struggling with how to explain to his children the horrors this country has become when the President and his administration have no qualms about separating children from their parents at our Southern border and keeping them in cages. It’s horrifying, but it’s also important that musicians like DBT won’t just let it slide and disappear.
78. "St. Augustine at Night" by Dawes
Taylor Goldsmith has proven to be one of the most adroit songwriters in the Americana genres – sure, some would consider Dawes more indie rock, but it’s all relative for me. His pen is delicate as he weaves a story like “St. Augustine At Night,” from the group’s seventh studio album Good Luck with Whatever, about one’s relationship with their hometown (in the song’s case St. Augustine, Fla.) and when you’re young your hometown might seem idyllic, but once you mature you view it more as a trap. Goldsmith told Rolling Stone: “[It’s] also a song about the varying degrees to which we all watch our lives pass us by.”
77. "Monte Carlo" by Caleb Caudle
Caleb Caudle’s gritty “Monte Carlo” is just a bad ass of a song. It’s the kind of tune that makes you want to jump in your own car and beat on down the road to nowhere in particular. Caudle told Rolling Stone: “I have to give full credit to my childhood for the imagery in this one. My grandpa had a 1970 Monte Carlo that was glitter green with dark green leather seats. He had a little Batman figurine hanging from the rear view. We would ride all over the back roads in North Carolina.” It’s a fantastic rootsy rocker about just pressing that peddle to the floor and going for broke.
76. "Die Midwestern" by Arlo McKinley
Arlo McKinley is trying to come to grips with something I’m sure a lot of folks from the Midwest (and I know some folks from the South, where I’m from) have to come to grips with – love of hometown coupled with the desire to branch out and find or do something bigger elsewhere. In “Die Midwestern,” the title track from McKinley’s latest album, he fears it’s time for a make or break decision or he’ll wind up too old and set in his ways to do anything about it.