In a year of deep tragedy and anxiety, the 20 records here have offered deep empathy, comfort and empowerment to carry us through.
Tyler Childers and Mickey Guyton released socio-political statements of intent, Katie Pruitt and Waxahatchee delved deep inside themselves to find great empathy and fulfilment, while Aubrie Sellers and Honey Harper pushed the boundaries of what country represents.
While 2020 devastated us, it offered us a wealth of amazing music.
These is Holler's Records of the Year for 2020.
With Saint Cloud, Katie Crutchfield returned to her roots in hope of recovery. In doing so, her fifth solo record is her most consequential, mature and best yet. Bright and raw like the first day of fall, rather than stewing in the anger of her dependencies and insecurities, Crutchfield simply acknowledges their very being and her desire to unfold them; the first step towards healing in the slow passing of time. Through these bare and illuminating textures, Crutchfield's vulnerability unknots itself - ensuring us we're not the only ones who are simply trying to maintain our wind on the weather vane of life.
When The Outlaw returned last month with a surprise collection of Bluegrass renditions of his own songs, nothing else this year hit so instantly or simply felt so right. Through all the exploration and experimentation, Sturgill's longing to embrace his first love at this stage of his career allows us the most revealing insight into his nature and narrative ability, through the most candid and poetic of forms. In their true shape, Simpson's songs weave masterful impressions of love, faith, grief and reckoning that yearn and ache in solidarity, capturing a fascinating artist who, like everyone, simply desires to understand himself.
“A lot of these songs are little vignettes, details of life", explains Nashville-based Caitlyn Smith. "We’re constantly bombarded by so much noise, and I wanted to create a record that held all those tiny moments - the ups and downs - that make life so beautiful” - and that's exactly what Supernova achieves. Throughout expansive soundscapes, soaring choruses and even moments of delicate intimacy, Smith showcases - with an impressively powerful vocal range - her skill for writing evocative, cinematic country-pop songs that delve into all the many depths of human emotion.
Saturn Return is effortlessness in its purest form. Alabama duo Laura and Lydia Rogers channel soul straight from the heart on their fourth album - one full of celestial, hypnotic goodness. Folky harmonies captivate in their soaring grace, achieving a lullaby-like quality throughout the record, which was produced by their friend and mentor Brandi Carlile. What feels so special about Saturn Return is how it captures such a deeply spiritual sense of womanhood. Whilst recording, the sisters lost both their grandmothers, yet also both became mothers themselves. Such grounding experiences are presented with a warm and trusting delicacy throughout, as if listeners are being welcomed into the sisterhood themselves.
Charley Crockett's wistful Welcome to Hard Times is an unearthed treasure chest of rugged soul. Weaving country, piano-driven honky-tonk, soul and blues, the Texan crooner paints a vivid world of outlaws and gamblers, prisoners and gangs - all connected through the common experience of heartbreak. Recorded and produced by Mark Neill (The Black Keys, JD McPherson), the record is raw, gothic and gritty, reminiscent of the dusty desert roads of a town stuck in time. Though it's rich in emotion, it is in no way overstated – Crockett's songwriting is honest yet assured; hardened by experience and grounded in maturity.
The Cadillac Three kept themselves busier than most in 2020 - releasing two of their strongest records yet in a time when simply existing seems like an achievement. For the trio, it was an opportunity to stretch their creative muscle - embracing their penchant for a groove over any particular limitation in genre and in doing so creating their most varied output to date. COUNTRY FUZZ embraced all of their southern frivolity, loosening the brakes on the restrictions of a red-neck country rock staple while embracing a slicker, sweatier sound thats indulgent, playful and more accessible than they'd have you believe. Someone crack a cold one.
LA-based Aubrie Sellers takes country on a wild ride to rock rebellion with her sophomore album Far From Home. Pushing the boundaries of genre, Sellers’ self-coined “garage country” is diverse, dynamic and downright defiant; an amped-up take on tradition complete with added grunge. Produced by Frank Lidell (Sellers’ stepfather), though the record certainly packs a punch with gritty guitars and arena-ready drums, Sellers’ vocals retain an authentic country style - true to her Nashville roots. Far from Home is beautifully rough, and with a special feature from Steve Earle, the record ticks all the boxes.
Not many debuts possess such soul-searching experience and unquestionable maturity as Expectations. Taking her personal tribulation and grief and laying it bare, Pruitt crafts with such beautiful orchestration that you are instantly transported to any time in your life when you've questioned your own sense of self. The weight of living is alleviated with each empathetic phrase, Pruitt acknowledging every frustration with how life has already been set out for her before she's even had chance to consider it. Through it all, Expectations is a liberating guide that simply wishes for you to follow your heart, no matter the direction you take.
Old Flowers is an intimate, honest and delicate collection of musings on the breakup of a 9-year relationship. The fifth album from Arizona-hailing Courtney Marie Andrews is decidedly more melancholic than its predecessors yet is grounded in an accessibly mature and poetic gracefulness. Recorded with only three people – Andrews, multi-instrumentalist Matthew Davidson and drummer James Krivchenia of Big Thief – in their stripped back formats, each song lays bare the emotional wounds left by the troubles of lost love with a humble honesty and sense of reflection that makes Old Flowers such a success.
Cosmic cowboy Honey Harper takes us outta’ this world and on a voyage to new space-country realms on his debut album. Starmaker calls upon the sounds of psychedelia, folk and cinematic soundtracks and coats them with a futuristic glow; seizing the freedom of Gram Parsons-era cosmic country and evoking it in the modern day – it’s experimental, innovative and unapologetically glamorous. Written with his wife, the record sees Honey Harper (aka Will Fussell) explores ideas of fame and fortune, success and failure, and love and sadness - with an authentic craftsmanship that’s set to make him the next star of country.
A hard-hitter full of soul and life experience, Neon Cross is a triumphant record from country’s favourite outlaw, Jaime Wyatt. It’s clear that Wyatt knows herself – there’s an undertone of wry humour to the record, which whilst not taking itself too seriously, manages to reflect on the troublesome trials of life with open lyrical honesty. Neon Cross has a fun and colourful swagger to it, headed up by the gritty and commanding voice of Wyatt and perfectly crafted by the smooth production of Shooter Jennings. Whether it’s in a honky-tonk or an open-top car, Neon Cross has its place as a record worthy of blasting out loud and seizing the joy of life to.
A major-label debut years in the making, Tenille Townes justified the time taken to develop her country-pop sound by delivering a striking record full of heart, confidence and maturity. With Jay Joyce at the helm, Townes was able to focus not only on painting vivid illustrations of grief, loss, liberation and self-care, but weaving them into beautiful narratives. In doing so, the record has introduced a natural-born songwriter unafraid to share her own vulnerabilities to empathise and understand others in the world. In the hyper-rushed age of instant gratification, Townes provides a down to earth, authentic release - full of personal wonder and desire.
After years of hustle and hard-work, Jimmie Allen has finally began to receive the acclaim he deserves. In his humble way, he's given it all right back with Bettie James - a unifying collaboration EP shared between contemporaries, inspirations and dear friends. It not only shows Allen's clear direction going forward, but proves he's worthy of carrying the torch. A seamless range of country-weighted laments and romantic pop moments, Allen tips his stetson to the legends while ensuring to craft a ballad that's undoubtably personal and liberating to him. In combining the sentimental joys of both genres, Jimmie Allen has lit the spark for what's to come.
Another deserved grammy nomination for Ashley McBryde marked her spectacular rise to being one of Country's definitive voices. Another deserved grammy nomination for Ashley McBryde this month marked her spectacular rise to quickly becoming one of Country's definitive voices. Being its for her third record Never Will shows its quality alone - a feisty, substantial set with a punch so swift you won't find another this side of Gaslighter. 'One Night Standards' stands up for its rights and needs in a firefight of desire, 'Martha Divine' hisses with a tribal ferocity while 'Never Will' becomes the definitive statement of McBryde's career so far. Fierce, unwavering and powerful - Ashley McBryde is delivering standards for the new country canon.
One of 2020’s most highly-anticipated Americana releases, Reunions sees Jason Isbell and the 400 unit return with sleek and highly nuanced form. Exploring themes of loss, growth, family – experiences of both Isbell’s own childhood and those of becoming a father himself – and sobriety, Isbell reflects with the characteristic lyrical poignancy that he’s, understandably, so revered for. The record’s instrumentation sweeps between haunting, distant dreaminess and more passionate moments of rock-grounded rawness, complete with highly sleek and crisp production. It’s been a year of adversity, but Reunions was worth the wait.
Not set on writing a glistening pop record that would've easily featured high up on this list - Kelsea Ballerini decided to one up herself with the stripped and unfurled Ballerini. The fact this reimagining stands the test of time is simply down to Ballerini's sheer openness and understanding within her music's natural form. It balks at the glitz and glamour of fleeting desires in the club, finding a grounded reality outside of the glorifying dreams of its sister record. It's the strongest example yet that Ballerini can transcend the boundaries of Country and in doing so find global success.
Another deserving Grammy-nominated album, Your Life Is A Record is a glaring example of how underrated Brandy Clark is as an artist in her own right. As songwriter compadre to Hailey Whitters and Miranda Lambert, Clark has been a ghost-writer of sorts to the megastars and the rising royalty - yet with Your Life Is A Record she's found her sound, allowing her to be the central yet unassuming focus. The album is the sound of someone finding pride in who they are, and steadfast desire to be who they want to be - you can be damn sure she'll do a good job of documenting her way to that point.
It was a long time coming, but after nearly 15 years, The Chicks returned with Gaslighter, a punchy and defiant treat of a record. Venturing further into the pop-country realm, the trio bring an intoxicating and unifying energy to the record, with uber-catchy songs that glisten with empowering feminism. The band enlisted Jack Antonoff on production (who’s work on Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell has made him a staple amongst the work of popular music’s leading ladies), which is just as heavy-hitting as the trio themselves. The Chicks never shy away from outspoken honesty, and with Gaslighter it's proven once more, drawing on the acerbic reflections of lead vocalist Natalie Maines’ divorce. Don't go near any boats.
Bridges exemplifies the magnitude of power that fearless lyrical storytelling is capable of. Before even releasing the full EP, Guyton caused some serious storm by dropping lead singles 'What Are You Gonna Tell Her?' and Grammy-nominated 'Black Like Me' - both of which quickly cemented her as progressive country's spearhead. Despite often focusing on themes of a topically heavy nature (Guyton eloquently delves into issues of racism, prejudice and mass inequality), Bridges stands to call for union; encouraging love and community in a time that they're so desperately needed. Country is on a journey of change, and Mickey Guyton is in the driving seat.
In the music of Long Violent History, Tyler Childers leads by example - crafting a musical landscape that’s steeped in the rich and ever-scarcer Appalachian traditions of old-time folk music. His storytelling style comes through loud and clear, as does both his deep reverence for his home state of Kentucky and his convictions about supporting a movement that he believes in. It’s a powerful statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, framed specifically to speak to white Appalachian people who may feel removed from the civil rights movement, or are critical of the protesting they saw in the media this year. Rather than viewing A Long Violent History simply as an unprecedented liberal standout from a historically red-voting state, perhaps it’s worth examining whether upheaval, independence and overthrowing social injustice might be a time-honored Appalachian tradition, and Childers’ solidarity with Black Lives Matter as just one square in the quilt of the region’s long-fought reckoning with its own racist past.
For more on Holler's end of year coverage, see below: