Whiskey Riff’s Top 25 Country Albums Of 2020

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Another great year of country music is in the books.

Every year, we’ve always strived to make our “Albums of the Year” list a reflection of our own personal tastes. After all, music is a subjective experience, and we’re all entitled to our own tastes and opinions. This year, we’re once again happy to bring you albums from all over the country music spectrum. From Nashville to Texas, bluegrass-infused to rock-infused, old school to new school, and everything in between… I’m sure a few of your favorite records will be featured on this list, but hopefully, we’ll help you discover something new as well.

At the end of the day, country music is always going to be about the album. Even in the age of streaming, where singles reign supreme, the ability to craft a story over the course of an entire album is what separates the good artists from the truly great artists. And telling that story is no small task. It takes creative vision, introspective soul-seeking, unapologetic honesty, sheer talent, raw passion, and guts. And when it’s all said and done, and the blood, sweat and tears have been poured into the process, you emerge with a truly great piece of work.

This year, we capped it off at 25 albums, but of course there were plenty of honorable mentions as well. Albums like Margo Price’s That’s How Rumors Get Started and Jason Isbell’s Reunions. Ingrid Andress, Jesse Daniel, Tenille Townes, John Anderson, Tennessee Jet, Waylon Payne, Josh Turner… they all put out great albums this year as well, so we’re going to put together an “Essential Albums 2020” Playlist in the next week or so to showcase all of the good stuff from the entire year.

So without further ado, here’s 25 of our favorite albums from 2020, with each featuring a quote from the artist about the project.

In no particular order…

Lori McKenna – The Balladeer

“I just loved the title, ‘The Balladeer.’ When that song popped out, I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been doing all this time – singing all these sad, slow songs! So, it’s very fitting as a title, even though the song has nothing to do with me… I’m at the age now where you can see really well where you’re going, because you’re helping your parents — and you’ve lived through what your kids are doing,” she says. “It’s this weird emotional time where you’re like a bookkeeper, writing it all down, trying to make sense of it and add it all up somehow.”

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Charley Crockett – Welcome to Hard Times

“I wanted to figure out how to make something Gulf Coast, Country, and Western, simultaneously. I think that real country music—in the 50s and 60s, especially—was always eclectic. Rhumba beats behind a honky tonk band, incorporations of the blues, soul, Caribbean, cha-cha. Eclectic mixes were going into making those records.”

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Zach Bryan – Elisabeth

“There are some mistakes on there, we know about them. We’re not perfect and we wanted to keep them. I made this in a barn with my best friends. I think some of the songs need certain things that we didn’t exactly have accessible. Not to sound pretentious as hell, I’d like to give them what I think they deserve to sound like. All of my songs will be released; it’s all a timing issue as of lately. Soon though, soon.”

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Gabe Lee – Honky Tonk Hell

“Heartbreak doesn’t necessarily have to apply to romantic love but also the relationship between an individual and a community, family, and society. In a lot of ways this album is about the relationship of the songwriter to the scene, the thrill and the burden —  the heaven, the hell — and all in between.”

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Muscadine Bloodline – Burn It At Both Ends

“This album has been unintentionally in the making for probably longer than six years. Through ups and downs, long drives, hundreds of shows, and a future of uncertainty, this record will always be extremely special to us. You only get one chance to put out your first record and we are extremely excited for y’all to hear this. We worked are asses off to get to where we are now… we hope this record can be a bright spot in these dark times and we can’t wait to play this record in person once the madness is over”.

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Brent Cobb – Keep ‘Em on They Toes

“To me, listening to this album feels like I’m sitting there with somebody, having a conversation. I would hope that it feels like sitting with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. There’s nothing like being alone and listening to an album that is quiet and conversational—like those old records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger Miller, or Willie Nelson. I hope my music is that way to somebody now.”

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Brandy Clark – Your Life Is a Record

“To me, it’s endings and beginnings. You know, sometimes you have to have endings to have those beautiful beginnings. I hope people listening find themselves in me finding myself. Jay (Joyce) calls this a break-up record, which it is. But it’s a bit of me breaking up with my idea of what country radio is, too. It freed us up. There’s a vulnerability that’s not been on other records. The clever word stuff, the writing, I always love that. But this is different.”

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Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

“If ‘Pawn Shop’ was our introduction, and ‘Port Saint Joe’ was like the first conversation we had with someone over a beer, then ‘Skeletons’ is the moment where you start getting down to the real stuff and showing who you really are. If you really want to get to know us, this is the record to do it.”

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Josh Abbott Band – The Highway Kind

“‘The Highway Kind’ is the album I wish we had put out seven years ago. The lyrics, the melodies, the subtle touches; this album is the very best effort from our group. These songs were brought to life and curated to reflect where my life is now: happy, fulfilled, blessed. From love songs to songs about friendship, from ballads to bangers, this album has it all.  They’re true-life songs. I hope people listen to this record and go, ‘Man, Josh is in a really good place around now.’”

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Koe Wetzel – Sellout

“When I was writing this record I wanted to give people a real view of what I was going through and the things I had experienced at that moment. I honestly feel like Sellout has accomplished that more than any other album I’ve recorded so far. When it came time to name the album, I felt like we needed to give it something that would allow us to create some really fun content to support the release while at the same time highlighting this new relationship with Columbia.”

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Ward Davis – Black Cats and Crows

“This is my coping mechanism. I know music is a coping mechanism for a lot of people. It’s important that it’s crafted well, but it’s also important that it’s honest so that people can relate to it and get something out of it.”

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Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross

“I tried not to have any filter with these songs. Because I’ll be honest—it feels like I’m gonna die if I don’t tell people how I feel and who I am. It sounds so dramatic, but that’s the truth… it’s like John Lennon said… there’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung, but hopefully you can at least put a new spin on it. At the end of the day, that’s all I’m trying to do. I’m just a songwriter, and I spend a good portion of my life in barrooms performing and worshipping country music and rock ‘n’ roll and telling my story. And I do it because I believe in the power of music, and I believe that music has saved my life in so many ways. And that belief is a powerful thing.” 

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Zephaniah OHora – Listening to the Music

“I wanted to write songs that weren’t all doom and gloom this time around. I wasn’t in a relationship when I was writing this record, but I was looking at the couples in my life and thinking a lot about the kind of person I hoped to meet. I’ve always seen music as a tool for uniting people. A good song can bring people together, no matter what ideology they’ve adopted. It can serve as a source of solace or a tool for self-reflection. It can remind us what we all share in common.”

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Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern

“I had a guy who was dealing with brain cancer walk up to me and say that he was done with it but something in my songs resonated with him and made him get out and start living even though he knows what is ahead of him. Nothing is more important than that. That’s why I write songs like I do. I’m just another lost, hurting person in this place – I just like to sing about it.

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Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Made It

“Even if I’m writing about a boat show girl — a woman standing in a bikini, trying to sell Bud Light — I’m examining something about myself through these characters. They’re part fictional and part autobiographical. These are people who’re running out of luck, but that’s not going to stop them. Everyone’s doing what they’ve gotta do to get by, and I love meeting characters like that. I take bits of those real-life people and combine them together to create the subjects of my songs.”

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Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels

“It has been four years since we’ve released an album. For us, this is a lot more than just an album release. This sophomore album will always be a reminder that no matter the setbacks and struggles, we will come out stronger and better. We are so proud of this 15-song story. We wrote these songs during the most vulnerable times and our hope is that people hear that and connect.”

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American Aquarium – Lamentations

“Country music was the voice of the people. It wasn’t always the prettiest voice, but it was an honest voice. I think that’s where country music has lost its way. I operate in the dark shadows of what we don’t want to talk about in the South. As a songwriter, my number one job is to observe and then translate what I observe into a song, a story, a lesson. I’d be doing myself and the listener a huge disservice if I didn’t talk about the things I see, which is a country, divided.”

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The Panhandlers – The Panhandlers

Country music is music for people with rough live. That’s what this album is all about. It aspires to be music that makes people feel better at the end of a rough week. It’s one step away from the honky-tonk and one step away from the roughneck oil house. West Texas really has an identity. It gets so damn cold, and for the people who stay there, it’s half pride, half resignation, and half something else. That identity has really drawn these guys together.”

“The album feels like a story many people have lived or heard… it’s an honest rural reflection of life, voiced here from the panhandle and west Texas, but it’s not limited to those areas. Anyone from small town America can relate to the balance of blessings and hardships that life offers. People will love this album because its real.”

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Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof

“It’s crucial to live and let live, to be able to accept things for what they are. Coming to terms with those sorts of boundaries has inspired a lot of growth in me lately, and I’ve realized that it leads to better outcomes in relationships and in art. Things seem to bloom if you can just get out of your own way for long enough… When I got that little gap in my schedule over the winter, it gave me the chance to appreciate some mental stillness. I can be a pretty anxious person, but I found a sense of peace by deconstructing all of these interactions and emotions I’d experienced and reconfiguring them into songs. It helped me make sense of everything and learn to relax.”

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Hailey Whitters – The Dream

“I feel like there’s a very shallow amount of life experience right now in country songs. But country music has always been about real life and transparency, and inviting listeners to come in and share these experiences. We get so consumed with the next achievement and accomplishment that sometimes you forget that you’re living right now. And that’s what I want listeners to take away from this album and its two parts… Be happy where you are in the present moment — because your dreams have to be worth it.”

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Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol 1 & 2

“This album also begins a new phase for my career. I’m starting back the way I started out, on my own record label. I’m realizing more and more every day what I already knew, which is that I was always supposed to be an independent artist. I’m just trying to look forward and create without any industry timelines or narratives and all the creative restrictions that inevitably come with them. The real benefit is that I’ve completely fallen back in love with music again.”

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Ashley McBryde – Never Will

“The significance behind the album title comes from the lyrics in the title track: ‘I Didn’t, I Don’t and I Never Will.’ Before we recorded it with Jay Joyce in the studio, I said to my bandmates, ‘If we’re going to cut this and put it on the record, you’re promising anyone who ever listens to our music, we don’t listen to the noise in the background. We didn’t, we don’t and we never will. Don’t cut it unless you’re willing to promise it.’ And we cut it right then.”

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Kip Moore – Wild World

“I try to make music that reaches people in a pure sense – something that’s light and easy to carry with you, but 1000 pounds of weight at the same time, and I think Wild World is just a depiction of what I see. Life is one crazy, wild ride. But it can be so simple if we look for the right things, and I think that is more important than ever right now.”

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Chris Stapleton – Starting Over 

“I wrote a bulk of the songs. It’s the same guys playing all the songs. If there’s a theme – if there’s a theme it’s hopefully there’s a theme of truth somewhere in it. And what I mean by that is hopefully we’re conveying in the songs some experiences that feel real and hopefully people can find themselves in those songs and in the album. And for me if I’m looking for a theme it’s that kind of, I don’t know, that thing that binds us all together as humans.”

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Colter Wall – Western Swing & Waltzes & Other Punchy Songs

“These songs are punchier than I am…”

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