It's been quite a year, but thankfully the music never stopped. Reyna Roberts appeared out of nowhere with an absolute stomper of a debut single, while Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Mickey Guyton delivered harrowing messages of desire for change.
Here are Holler's picks for the Top 20 Tracks of the Year.
'Six Years Come September' was an instant hit for North Carolina's American Aquarium, when it was released as a single ahead of their critically-acclaimed album Lamentations. The husky vocals of BJ Barham guide rich crescendos and warm electric tones, a soundscape that captures a heartfelt reflection on lost love.
A country music anecdote that couldn't be more apt - Little Big Town's 'Wine, Beer, Whiskey' was written after the band had recorded a serious and heavy song, and decided to remedy the mood in the studio with - you guessed it - wine, beer and whiskey. The track is filled to the brim with hooks galore, and with riffy horns and catchy choral vocals, it can't help but stick in your head.
2020 has seen multiple artists take to the tunes to express their anti-hate ideologies, and swamp rock duo Brother Osborne have done so with bluesy riffs and grooving jams aplenty. 'Hatin' Somebody' is a funky, slide guitar-heavy track that preaches the pointlessness of bigotry, through anecdotal lyrics about the brothers' Grandfather. "Everyone's been guilty of doing some hatin'. I have," JT Osborne notes. "And it's a song that's fun to sing for people to remind them, but also to remind myself."
In this autobiographical hit, Caylee Hammack reflects on all the time she spent dreaming about escaping her small town, only to pass up on the opportunity when it came (to stay with her now ex-boyfriend). "Phantom pains for the wings I lost", she sings, recollecting the consequences of a misjudged decision. Though the song has an air of melancholy, its prevailing theme is one of optimism - Hammack has achieved her dream, despite the hurdle, and sings now from a place of maturity.
The fact this song was written in 2015 goes to show that little has changed in this world and we simply aren't doing enough to make it so. The Entertainer of the Year could see its resonance, a venomous jab at the industry and the artists who continue to only sing about trucks and beer instead of anything of substance.
The title of this Luke Combs co-write may have sounded like another spiteful break-up song in the country music canon, but Pearce and Brice surprised us. In releasing this mature and candid single about moving on - whether you are ready or not - the pair strove to reflect, heal and succeeded.
On 'Are You Listening?', Lera Lynn's hypnotic vocal harmonies take centre stage, driven by up-tempo beats and gritty guitar phrases. There's a special power to this song - it's a confident and catchy statement of intent, complete with a dark and enticing cinematic atmosphere.
A mellow yearning number from her 2019 record Wildcard, Miranda Lambert finds herself at the fork in the road, does she carry on living fast or allow herself to finally settle down. It's a subtle pop jam, full of crossover appeal.
'Hold On' is a song to cry to, dance to and totally re-empower yourself with. Yola's glowingly rich and soulful tones are the safe embrace of love's comfort, reinforced, of course, by the power-choir that is The Highwomen. In a year of such turmoil, 'Hold On' is the message of hope and power that we can all continue return to for strength and solidarity.
"And the lilacs drank the water / and the lilacs die / and the lilacs drank the water", a surprisingly revelatory line from the highlight of Katie Crutchfield's beautiful Saint Cloud. 'Lilacs' is vulnerable, stubborn and loving all in equal measure - marking the ol' passing of time and the many moods we feel as it does so.
Cam's first single of 2020 'Till There's Nothing Left' is a dreamy anthem of lover's pride. Never one to shy away from saying things how they are, Cam's lyrics are an ode to the importance of declaring love - be it spiritually, physically or emotionally - and, quite rightly, feeling no shame about it. It's sexy, uplifting and empowering, with echoes of big 80's beats and spacey instrumentation.
'One Beer' tells a tale of drunken fate - all stemming from a single Bud Light. Hardy's characters have life turned upside-down by an out of wedlock pregnancy, but upon growing older are able to see the beauty in life's curveballs. Achieving Hardy his first #1 in the US country charts, 'One Beer' was also a big hitter in the UK, becoming one of the most played country songs of the year across the nation.
It's undoubtably once again been Luke Combs' year. As he rides closer and closer to the stadium-filling Entertainer of the Year winner he deserves to be, 'Lovin' On You' was a timely reminder that Combs has the songs to back it up. It's an absolute schmooze of a honky tonk jam.
Some songs have the power to throw you straight back into decades passed, and Margo Price's transcendental 'Letting Me Down' does exactly that. Channelling a 70's sound fit for a Fleetwood Mac record, the track captures a sense of broad and expansive freedom, like driving fast down an open road or dancing around carefree in the rain.
There's nothing quite like the angelic voices of The Secret Sisters' Laura and Lydia Rogers, showcased so beautifully throughout Saturn Return's fourth single 'Late Bloomer'. Addressing the importance of accepting life's path and trusting in what it shall bring, the song sings a simple yet loving message of encouragement. Like the support of a good friend, 'Late Bloomer' gently washes away self-doubt, reminding us that it's ok to take things at our own pace.
The Traveller's return is a beautiful tale of perseverance, love and longevity. The way Stapleton expresses the contentment found both in home and setting out on an adventure with a loved one beams with sentiment. The track may remind us just how authentic and beloved Stapleton's songwriting is, but it also offers us respite and hope in a year of isolation and not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
'What Are You Gonna Tell Her?' may be just one of the most harrowing and real declarations from Mickey Guyton's Bridges EP this year, but its message is unavoidable. Instead of letting things simply "be the way they are", Guyton wants more, for her kids and her kids' kids - and, if you aren't willing to do that, why would you bring them into this world in the first place?
With the heart-rending and deeply empathetic 'The Problem', Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell share a candid and raw conversation about abortion rights. In the sparse and considered ballad, the couple detail the fear and lack of right that so many feel, evolving into a challenge for liberty and deserved choice over your own body. It's a painful yet vital statement.
Maren Morris is not afraid to speak out. Whether it be in celebration of the many amazing Black artists that are a part of the Country community (yet don't receive half the credit and acclaim as their white counterparts), or in protest against "forces of hatred, encouraged and supported by the President of the United States", it's Maren who has spoken up. With 'Better Than We Found It', she cements her part in enacting change - delivering a rasping, unwavering ballad against injustice and police brutality that's been ignored for far too long.
'Stompin' Grounds' may be a resilient country banger for those who have to make a home, but it's also a loud wake up call for Nashville and the industry. Big, brash and undeniably assured - Roberts lays her own path by taking traditional country tropes and piercing it with venom and superstar-potential. It's no wonder Mickey Guyton and Carrie Underwood are singing her praises; she's already hot on their tail. Nashville is Roberts' as much as anyone else's, and you can be damn sure she'll secure that in 2021.
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