In a year ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, music proved to be a saving grace time and time again, and one of the bright spots of the year was the release of new albums from some of country music’s finest. Long awaited projects from The Chicks and Sam Hunt are featured on this list, along with debuts from rising stars Ingrid Andress, Tenille Townes and more. Breakout EPs from the likes of Mickey Guyton and Jimmie Allen proved to be mighty in spirit, while Chris Stapleton’s electrifying new album also offered a ray of light in the darkness.
Collectively, these albums capture honesty and vulnerability while showing off new sides of each person’s artistry. Here are the best country albums of 2020 (in no particular order).
2020 is the year of Mickey Guyton, and rightfully so, the powerhouse singer fully stepping into the light and power she’s been cultivating for 15 years. It was clear Guyton had turned over a new leaf with the release of the pointed “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” in February and proved she’s arrived and not going anywhere with the powerful autobiographical statement, “Black Like Me,” both of which are featured on Bridges, a collection of her best work yet. The EP flexes Guyton’s earth-shattering voice, whether it’s on the sultry “Salt,” humble “Heaven Down Here” or hopeful title track that stands as a metaphor for what Guyton is building on her bright horizon.
2020 saw Brett Eldredge making his long awaited return with the arrival of Sunday Drive. Draped in the sound of strings and Eldredge’s romantic vocals, the album shows off a new side to the country crooner, offering a sense of rejuvenation that’s the result of going off the grid for a year, his inward journey resulting in 12 beautiful songs. Whether offering a dose of warmth with the reassuring “Good Day,” serenading fans with the ode to his hometown on “Paris, Illinois” or brining tears to one’s eyes with the poignant title track, Sunday Drive was worth the wait as Eldredge proved how far he can go, making for his best album thus far.
With “More Hearts Than Mine” surmounting the top of the charts, 2020 was a golden year for Ingrid Andress. The song served as the launching pad for her honest, yet confident debut album Lady Like that chronicles the truthful telling’s of a 20-something navigating the world of dating and heartbreak, as told through her sharp wit and lyrical prowess. The album earned Andress an unwavering position in the modern country landscape and determines that underneath her clever phrases and trademark sarcasm is an endearing songwriter who only needs a few words to capture the hearts of many.
Gone West felt like a burst of sunshine upon their debut in 2018, their namesake track establishing the group of Colbie Caillat, Justin Young, Jason Reeves and Nelly Joy as a band of gypsies from all corners of the country who came together with their glistening harmonies and poetic lyricism. Their 2020 debut albums Canyons follows suit, offering a sunny demeanor and harmonies to match. Yet the group manages to strike the match of thought on “This Time” while “What Could’ve Been” and “I’m Never Getting Over You” demonstrate the power of their harmonies. Though Gone West has disbanded since the album’s June release, they left the country music world with a gem of an album and, as they sing on “Gone West, “found beauty in between.”
After 14 years, The Chicks delivered one of the most anticipated albums of the year with Gaslighter. The group picks up where we left off with their killer harmonies that are as sharp as we remember. Across 12 tracks, the trio offer potent lyricism, standing unwaveringly in their beliefs that range from the strong-willed “March March” to the female-friendship-focused “Julianna Calm Down” where Natalie Maines takes on the role of the supportive best friend we all need in life. Gaslighter continues The Chicks’ legacy as feisty, fierce and fearless women blazing a trail not only for themselves, but the worthy voices of women following in their footsteps.
Jimmie Allen’s star power only grew with the release of Bettie James, bringing together all-star collaborators ranging from Charley Pride to the Oak Ridge Boys on the seven-song collection. With the EP, Allen dipped a bit deeper below the surface, taking the plight of the world into account while looking toward the future with the proactive “When This Over,” while his voice soars alongside Pride and Darius Rucker’s on the thoughtful “Why Things Happen.” The project felt like a re-introduction to Allen as he presents himself more poised and thoughtful than ever before.
Little Big Town brought the dream factor at the top of the year with Nightfall. The 13-track album is blanketed in gentle melodies, whisking the listener off into a dreamlike state. When the Grammy winning quartet isn’t soothing us with their signature harmonies, they’re offering meaningful messages with “The Daughters” and the potent “Sugar Coat” that provide a haunting look into the harmful societal standards cast upon women. They balance this reality with such vibrant numbers as “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” that establish a well-balanced record that shows off all their best sides.
Cam has long been one of country music’s sparkling gems, and her sophomore album The Otherside only provides more fodder to support this claim. The remarkable songstress offers up her bold and beautiful voice and lyrical prowess, as demonstrated by the nostalgia-packed “Redwood Tree” that allows her voice to soar. Yet there’s a calming effect across the album that balances her stunning vocals, making for one of the year’s most noteworthy works.
Though Ruston Kelly already established himself as a maverick with his 2018 debut album Dying Star, his latest installment Shape & Destroy further solidifies this identity. The eclectic project finds Kelly in a deep sense of self-reflection, not afraid to illuminate the darkness of his past while pointing a light toward his future by pondering such existential questions as “who am I and how will I be remembered when I die?” on the tender “Brave” while closing the album with the hauntingly beautiful “Hallelujah Anyway.” Kelly is one of country and Americana’s modern prophets, and he continues to grow into his own courage and brilliance on Shape & Destroy.
If there’s one thing that could save 2020 from itself, it’s Chris Stapleton, and he makes his best attempt with Starting Over. The appropriately titled album offers a distinct vibe that blends his gritty southern rock with his gentle spirit, as exemplified by the balance of blazing electric guitar solos and serene orchestration. Stapleton effortlessly brings listeners to tears with the ode to his late dog on “Maggie’s Song” while in the same breath delivers the scathing “Watch You Burn.” With Starting Over, Stapleton’s distinguished voice and artist’s soul shine.
Brothers Osborne unpack their Skeletons on their new album to the benefit of the country music world. The brother duo of John and TJ Osborne show off their individual skill sets on the project – John with his expert musicality and TJ offering his soulful voice. The duo standing fearless in their points of view, whether admitting “I’m Not For Everyone” and being “Back on the Bottle” to offering a dose of realism that has the power to bring us back down to earth with “Hatin’ Somebody.” Brothers Osborne are simply masters of their craft and Skeletons reflects this, making for one of the best country albums of 2020.
When Ashley McBryde burst on to the scene in 2018 with her debut album Girl Goin’ Nowhere, she solidified herself as one of country music’s promising stars, a projection she continues to maintain with sophomore installment Never Will. The gritty singer-songwriter compliments the sugar with the bite, raising a glass to individuality on the to-each-their-own anthem, “Shut Up Sheila,” while just as naturally reducing the listener to tears with the gripping “Stone,” inspired by the death of her older brother Clay in 2018. With Never Will, McBryde proves she can rock with the best of them, blending her soulful voice with equally attention-capturing lyrics that position her as a legend in the making.
Kenny Chesney puts his wandering soul on full display as he sings of poets and pirates alike on his latest album, Here and Now. Though Chesney was unable to connect with his devoted No Shoes Nation fanbase in person this year with his epic stadium shows, he speaks to directly to them with such tracks as “Here and Now” and “We Do” while offering a sense of cheer in this dismal year with “Happy Does.” Chesney follows his tried and true formula on Here and Now, whisking listeners off to a beach somewhere tropical, offering a moment of peace in this “big old beautiful world” in the process.
As fans waited with bated breath for Sam Hunt’s sophomore album, he finally delivered in 2020 with Southside, packed with a dozen songs that are begging to be hits, some of which already are, including the record-breaking “Body Like a Back Road” and back-to-back chart-toppers “Kinfolks” and “Hard to Forget.” But what truly makes Southside stand out is the way Hunt lets his guard down with the vulnerable “2016” and “Sinning With You” while still proving his ability to dish out an undeniable bop – an ideal combination that maintains his status as one of the genre’s superstars.
With heart theory, Lindsay Ell opened up to fans like never before, and the genre is better for it, as the bold and beautiful album finds Ell channeling her past trauma into empowering songs. Ell pushed herself out of her comfort zone for this project, and her hard work shows up in the stories of these songs such as the powerful “make you” that offers an enlightening perspective on how she turned her pain into triumph, serving as an inspiring message to fellow survivors of sexual assault, making heart theory not only her best work, but among the year’s best.
Tenille Townes is one of country music’s newest gems with her unique, stunning voice and equally immersive songs. The Lemonade Stand finds the young star blossoming into a quiet force in the genre, creating a collection of songs that demonstrate maturity and insight. But what truly makes the project is Townes’ boundless empathy, a quality she proved is integral to her DNA with her debut single “Somebody’s Daughter” and can be heard on a range of songs including “Jersery on the Wall,” “When I Meet My Maker” and more, serving as the crowned jewel that makes The Lemonade Stand one of the year’s best.
Keith Urban has long been one of country music’s risk takers, and The Speed of Now: Part 1, proves no differently. The exploratory project finds Urban collaborating with artists across the spectrum. From the genre-blending groove of “Out the Cage” featuring country-rapper Breland and Grammy nominated guitarist Nile Rodgers to the edgy “Tumbleweed,” Urban doesn’t shy away from experimentation, a method that’s made him one of the genre’s leaders and beloved superstars.
When Margo Price drops a new album, it’s safe to say it’ll be among the best Music City has to offer, and she proves exactly that with That’s How Rumors Get Started. Her angelic voice soars on such fearless songs as “Stone Me” and “Hey Child,” all while capturing blue collar life in her own insightful way, the melodies making the listener feel as though they’ve been transported back to the era of 70s rock. Price has long been one of Nashville’s crowning jewels and That’s How Rumors Get Started keeps her crown glowing.
Kelsea Ballerini wasn’t bluffing when she said her third studio album kelsea would be her most vulnerable yet. True to her word, Ballerini pushed herself in new ways, leaving her heart on the table on the dozen songs that prove her stamina. Whether she’s winning over hearts with the sentimental “Half of My Hometown” featuring fellow Knoxvillian Kenny Chesney or adding a dash of salt to the sweet melodies with Halsey on the sultry “The Other Girl,” Ballerini shows off the experimental side of herself with kelsea.
Tim McGraw released his first solo album in five years, and it was well worth the wait. Fans were treated to a boundary-pushing project from the singer with stratospheric vocals. Debuting at Number One, Here On Earth featured the emotional “I Called Mama,” resonating with listeners and encouraging them to pick up the phone more often. Here’s hoping it won’t be another five years until new McGraw music.