The best country albums of 2020 come from artists who set out to tell a great story. Beautiful lyrics, dynamic themes and a sensitive, melodic weave mark most of the albums that top our list for the year. And then there's one that's just too much fun to ignore.
Most of all, our team of music critics coveted a dynamic experience in rating and ranking the 5 best country albums of 2020. When they're played front to back, a vocalist needs to show a variety of influences, some range and an ability to cover different subject matter convincingly.
No. 5: Kip Moore, 'Wild World'
Kip Moore puts it all together in a way he hadn't before during the 13 songs on Wild World. With great urgency, he pulls you through stories of personal heartache, love and tragedy, mixing in just the right amount of optimism and American landscape. There are radio-friendly songs that don't feel like add -ons ("She's Mine," "Red White Blue Jean American Dream") and deeply personal expressions of his faith.
"Payin' Hard" is a fine album closer, and a focus track because it finds the singer opening up about his late father for the first time. Guitar-centric arrangements that steady songs such as "Southpaw," "Fire and Flame" and "Sweet Virginia" are just as exhilarating, however.
Moore's new album is his most patient and complete, with every verse mattering. That's rare in country in 2020.
No. 4: Ingrid Andress, 'Ladylike'
Ingrid Andress has made it clear that she hasn’t always considered emotional vulnerability to be her strong suit; in fact, she told The Boot that when she wrote her debut single, “More Hearts Than Mine,” she flinched a little bit at the rawness of the subject matter, and her co-writers had to talk her into keeping the song’s perspective vulnerable.
But for a performer who doesn’t always love being open about her emotions, Andress crafted a fantastically confessional, intimate project with her debut offering, Lady Like. “More Hearts Than Mine” is emblematic of the level of vulnerability you’ll find across the album, though Andress’ deft songwriting pen keeps the tracklist from ever becoming repetitive.
Andress is a practiced all-genre songwriter, whose tenure in writing for other artists included penning “Boys” for pop artist Charli XCX. “Boys” gets the singer-songwriter treatment on the deluxe version of Lady Like, though, appearing in the tracklist in Andress’ own confident and clear voice. And it doesn’t feel incongruous to have the pop hit on the album: Andress’ sure hand as a vocalist, pianist and songwriter is everything the album needs in order to feel cohesive, as she proves again on the album during an unlikely, two-song venture into what can only be described as a tropical aesthetic: first subtly, on “Bad Advice,” and then overtly on “Waste of Lime,” a song that even borrows a line or two from the Beach Boys’ 1988 hit “Kokomo.”
As Lady Like’s title track explains, Andress is unapologetically herself: the kind of person who keeps a lipstick in her cigarette pack, talks about politics while men are hitting on her and is “untameable, unframeable.” She may be a Lady Like that, and Andress’ debut prove she’s an artist like that, too.
No. 3: Tenille Townes, 'The Lemonade Stand'
After years of introductions, acoustic EPs, private party performances and the other trappings of the “new artist on a major label” blueprint, Tenille Townes finally got to properly re-introduce herself with The Lemonade Stand. Though it’s technically her third album (she released two independently in Canada), The Lemonade Stand is Townes’ major-label coming-out party, helmed by the venerable Jay Joyce and featuring all the character we hoped to hear from a voice as unique as Townes’.
Many of us have been listening to different iterations of songs such as “Somebody’s Daughter” and “Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking)” for years now, so it should come as no surprise that the rest of the album is equally thoughtful and unafraid to peel back the personal layers -- you know, the reason many of us fell in love with country music in the first place. Joyce’s production footprints are all over this thing, which is what you want when you’re dealing with a singer who is equal parts rockstar and coffeehouse hero, depending on which switch she chooses to flip.
Though still in her 20s, Townes brings a certain, worn-in weight to her lyrics, which spend much of their time exploring faith, personal identity and love — and how, for her, they’re all intertwined. Perhaps the most notable feat of The Lemonade Stand is how Townes and company manage to turn songs that are truthfully all ballad bait into a dynamic album that seems to rise and lull in all the right places.
No. 2: Chris Stapleton, 'Starting Over'
If Chris Stapleton's catalog were a body of water, he'd be a deep river: familiar, dependable but never predictable, unafraid to press up against boundaries and (if you'll allow some hyperbole) a reservoir for life.
The main current is driven by his big, soulful voice, but songs such as "Cold" on his new Starting Over album begin new tributaries. Over time — much less time than you'd think — the shape and direction of his artistry changes into something quite unique but equally spectacular and important. Remember that, once, this man was just a songwriter, then the lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and now one of precious few artists bringing credibility to a genre beyond willing to give in to commercial realities.
Heavy blues riffs dominate Starting Over ("Devil Always Made Me Think Twice," "Worry B Gone"), but these songs are necessary bridges to lyrically potent hits including "Maggie's Song" and "Old Friends," a Guy Clark cover. "You Should Probably Leave" and the title track are the most centered of the 14 songs, and the two most likely to produce radio hits. But a survey of fans of this album will reveal a disbursement of favorite songs. "Starting Over" feels like the best choice today (those opening guitar chords just set the perfect mood for closing this troubled year and beginning a new one), but ask us again in April and we may have the must-have road-tripper "Arkansas" turned up to 10.
No. 1: Little Big Town, 'Nightfall'
Little Big Town's Nightfall is a textured album that is every bit the cinematic experience the band promised. Lyrically, they don't just ask questions, but draw conclusions that won't alienate. "Problem Child" gets lost after Karen Fairchild's signature performance during "Sugar Coat," but here, Jimi Westbrook says what we're all thinking but never found words to say: We need to show more love and less skepticism to today's youth.
That sensitivity is really the thread of this album, the group's ninth and first since The Breaker in 2017. Fairchild leads and thrives across this album because she has the support of her bandmates, and with great humility, they all play vital roles. Husband Westbrook joins her for a duet during a Laurel Canyon-inspired ballad called "River of Stars" that could hang on a wall. Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman quite capably lead "Forever and a Night" and "Throw Your Love Away." It's their shared vision that truly makes this project special.