The results of the 21st Country Music Critics Poll published in the Nashville Scene are in, and albums by Ashley McBryde, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark, and Margo Price made the Top 5 in the ALBUMS category. Mickey Guyton, Stapleton, McBryde, The Chicks and John Prine were the Top 5 artists ranking in the SINGLES realm. Thanks as usual to Geoffrey Himes for organizing.
Below is my ballot and some comments
1. Ashley McBride Never Will
Dollars to donuts says ‘Never Will’ ain’t gonna grab that ‘Best Country Album’ Grammy it nominated for, so let’s sing its praises right here. The volition of Ashley McBryde’s voice is matched by the clever songwriting of “One Night Standards.” It found a spot in the top 5 of our SINGLES poll last year, but also made a sizable impact in 2020, and still gave me goosebumps as recently as last weekend. I would’ve loved to have been in the room when someone uttered the phrase “how it goes is/bar closes,” an aha moment that springboards the whole track into a blend of singer-songwriter poesy and hook-heavy power twang that, on a more level playing field, would tickle a mainstream audience and chart a bit stronger than its high of 21. A modern gem. In our house, the album unwrapped its storytelling gifts throughout the year. From throwing grandma’s ashes off the roof to responding to treachery with a murderous glee, McBryde has upped her artistic confidence, and the music soars in kind.
2. Charley Crockett Welcome To The Hard Times
3. Mike & the Moonpies The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart
You don’t have to follow wehatepopcountry to know honky-tonk will forever be working its magic in the shadows of the mainstream, but in 2020 the proof of gin-mill twang’s value came via Mike and the Moonpies’ romp through Gary Stewart’s leftover songs. ‘Touch of You’ is a big-hearted reclamation initiative by a bar band with so-so songwriting skills – a cagey move from an outfit that could always use a few diamonds to polish. But it’s also an entertainment excursion for old-school country fiends who dig watching the bubbles in their beer while clacking boots on a hardwood floor. And even if their hearts tell ‘em successful country modernists are selling four chords and a fib, these updates by the Moonpies don’t come off as indictment against contempo chart action, just an escape route to a place where history lessons can deliver as much pleasure as Grammy nods.
4. Sturgill Simpson Cuttin Grass Vol 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions)
5. Waxahatchee Saint Cloud
6. Bob Dylan Rough and Rowdy Ways
7. Ruston Kelly Shape & Destroy
8. Colter Wall Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
9. Lori McKenna The Balladeer
10. Tyler Childers Long Violent History
The other eye-opening country protest song of 2020 is Tyler Childers’ “Long Violent History,” which accrues additional impact by following a parade of old-timey fiddle tunes on one of the year’s most unique albums. It’s as if TC is gently surveying a timeline of pernicious racism in America’s rural pathways before dropping the full citation on the album’s final track. With the loss of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and others, of course) in the air, this self-acknowledged “white boy from Hickman” reaches his breaking point and queries his own race on how it would feel if they were getting offed on the reg. A video statement made to accompany the album explained the essence of his argument, referencing the “inability to empathize in another individual or group’s plight” helps create America’s horrifying racial fissures, but on the tune itself, the plaint of his voice mixed with drones of a rosined bow and the clang of banjo strings give his perspective an even greater emotional thrust.
1. Iris Dement – Going Down To Sing In Texas
The most piercing indictments are often driven by snarls and vehemence, but by the time the 9:21 of “Going Down to Sing in Texas” ebbs away, Iris Dement sounds like she’s just ended a chat with a neighbor over the backyard fence – no big deal. And THERE is the piece’s power. The 60-year-old Arkansas native whose songbook boasts a tune called “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day” serves up her political opinions on everything from insane gun laws to murderous cops to AOC and her courageous Squad mates while riding a blithe piano figure and lining the lyrics with a measured temperament. The informal decorum of her statement is chilling.
2. Ashley McBride – One Night Standards
3. Maren Morris – Better Than We Left It
4. Mickey Guyton – Black Like Me
5. Hailey Whitters – Janice At The Hotel Bar
6. Bob Dylan – Murder Most Foul
7. Tyler Childers – Long Violent History
8. Kaley Hammack – Small Town Hypocrite
9. Maddie & Tae – Die From a Broken Heart
10. Swampdogg, John Prine – Please Let Me Round Again
1. Various Artists – The Harry Smith B-Sides (Dust To Digital)
2. Various Artists – Garland Records – Pacific Northwest Snuff Box (Sundazed)
3. Neil Young – Homegrown
4. Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Nashville
5. Bobby Bare – Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus (Bear Family)