The Best Southern Albums of 2020

Though 2020 brought a raft of venue closures and tour cancellations, the year did offer some great new releases. These twenty albums (in no particular order) provided us some much-needed musical balm

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Hailey Whitters
The Dream

From the opener, “Ten Year Town,” to fan favorite “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” the debut album from Hailey Whitters shines with catchy melodies and self-deprecating humor. New listeners may recognize at least one of The Dream’s tracks: “Happy People,” a song Whitters co-wrote with Lori McKenna, climbed the charts for Little Big Town in 2017. But the album holds plenty more gems, with songs on both chasing dreams and finding the joy in life’s smaller moments. It’s ample evidence that Whitters is one to watch, both as a songwriter and a performer.—D.O.S.

Margo Price
That’s How Rumors Get Started

If you follow Margo Price’s social media accounts, you know the Nashville singer-songwriter takes no guff. For her third studio album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, it made perfect sense that she turned to her fellow take-it-or-leave-it pal Sturgill Simpson to helm production, and Rumors contains some of her most honest and emotional songs to date. Price’s heroes loom large: The Laurel Canyon vibes of Fleetwood Mac ooze out of the more delicate moments while the dusty rock of Tom Petty drives songs like “Twinkle Twinkle” (Heartbreaker Benmont Tench guests on keyboards). The whisper-to-a-roar finish of “I’d Die For You” proves Price can be both vulnerable and badass.—M.H.

The War and Treaty
Hearts Town

The soaring harmonies of husband-and-wife duo Michael and Tanya Trotter are on full display on Hearts Town, the follow up to the War and Treaty’s 2018 Buddy Miller–produced debut. Songs like “Take Me In,” a goosebump-inducing anthem about unconditional acceptance, show off both the duo’s vocal range and raw emotional power, with staggering high notes and uplifting lyrical themes. It’s an album that both recognizes life’s trials and offers a way through them with a welcoming spirit and soul-soothing melodies.—D.O.S.

Waylon Payne
Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me 

After some initial success in the early aughts, Waylon Payne descended into a years-long odyssey of drug addiction and self-destruction. His second album, the epically autobiographical Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, isn’t a redemption project so much as it is a reminder of how prodigiously talented Payne is. “Sins of the Father” and “Santa Ana Winds” are emotional rollercoasters, but Payne’s voice is as pure and pristine as a Tennessee lake at sunrise. By his own admission, Payne probably should be dead. Instead, the album is a sweet resurrection.—M.H.

Charley Crockett
Welcome to Hard Times

“I took the title from an old 1960s Henry Fonda movie where a diabolical bad man is terrorizing a Gold Rush town,” Charley Crockett told G&G about Welcome to Hard Times. “I guess that bad man turned out to be 2020.” With steel guitar, lonesome lyrics, and Crockett’s low drawl, the Texas native’s latest offers the old-school country hallmarks that his fans have come to expect. Ambling standout “The Man That Time Forgot” would be right at home on the jukebox of a Lone Star dive bar, and “Run Horse Run” sounds like the soundtrack for a classic Western. But while Crockett takes cues from the past, the album’s blues undertones and cosmic energy make for a sound all his own.—D.O.S.

Industry Games 

The sizzling EP from the Alabama rapper/singer Chika is only a breezy seven songs, but it is easily my favorite debut of the year. Deftly tackling hot-button topics, she weaves her nimble rhymes like a Ferrari dodging cars on the expressway before breaking into some 1970s funk and soul. Her song “Crown” made it onto President Barack Obama’s 2020 summer playlist, and she’s been nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy, so it’s safe to say, people are taking notice.—M.H. 

Ashley McBryde
Never Will

On her hotly anticipated follow-up to 2018’s Girl Going Nowhere, Ashley McBryde flexes all her Southern music muscles, drawing from gospel influences on songs like “Velvet Red” and bluegrass lore on the murder ballad “Martha Divine.” Teaming up once again with producer Jay Joyce, whose touch has lent a harder edge to albums from Eric Church and Cage the Elephant, McBryde also leans into her rock sensibilities while showcasing her resilient spirit. The riff-laden standouts “Never Will” and “Hang in There Girl” make an up-tempo case for refusing to give up—a theme throughout the album and in the thirty-seven-year-old’s breakout career.—D.O.S. 

The Otherside

Over the course of the pandemic, I found myself reaching for music that was comforting and served as a balm, and once I put on The Otherside, I never let it go. It’s been nearly five years since Cam’s last album, and the time off served her well. While The Otherside is definitely mainstream country, it contains effortlessly written songs like “Redwood Tree” and “Classic” that are loaded with breezy pop hooks and soaring choruses.—M.H.

Jason Isbell

Recorded in Nashville with Jason Isbell’s longtime producer Dave Cobb and his band the 400 Unit, Reunions boasts a rock-forward edge, and it finds Isbell weighing the impact one person can make. “Be Afraid” calls on both artists and listeners to stand up for what they know is right, regardless of the cost (“Be afraid, be very afraid / Do it anyway”), while “What’ve I Done to Help” grapples with the guilt of inaction (“World’s on fire, and we just climb higher / to where we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and the sound”). Isbell has a knack for verses that hit home, and from the melancholy childhood memories on “Dreamsicle” to the choked-up parental pride on “Letting You Go,” Reunions is further proof that he’s one of today’s most gifted songwriters.—D.O.S.

Brent Cobb
Keep ‘Em on They Toes 

Brent Cobb’s vibe on Keep ‘Em on They Toes is like sitting on the porch with a glass of sweet tea on a sizzling summer afternoon: a little hazy and a little sleepy. But the Georgia native’s songs on his third album have some bite to them, too. The title track is a gentle but steadfast push for his son to prize his individuality, while “The World Is Ending” and “Shut Up and Sing” are delicately defiant, with Cobb encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones.—M.H.

Swamp Dogg
Sorry You Couldn’t Make It

It’s been more than fifty years since Jerry Williams, Jr.—better known as Swamp Dogg—began building his name as an R&B musician, and he would go on to pen songs for other artists, including the ‘71 Johnny Paycheck country hit “(Don’t Take Her) She’s All I Got.” His 2020 album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, draws primarily on the Virginia native’s country background—with plenty of soul mixed in for good measure. Recorded in Nashville, the album features guest appearances from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, and John Prine, who passed away in April, on the duet “Memories.” The song’s easy pace and clever, wistful lyrics are a bittersweet reminder to appreciate the time we have with those we love.—D.O.S.

Pylon Box 

Despite only releasing two albums in the early ’80s, art rockers Pylon were one of the most influential and beloved bands of the Athens, Georgia, music scene. This enthralling box set contains remastered versions of 1980’s Gyrate and 1983’s Chomp along with a plethora of unreleased material, live recordings, and B-sides. But it’s the accompanying 216-page book featuring testimonials from a who’s who of Athens bands (R.E.M., B-52s) that provides the fullest picture of a group who chose art over commerce.—M.H.

Brandy Clark
Your Life is a Record

Brandy Clark has long been one of Nashville’s great songwriting talents, and this year, she added two more Grammy nominations to her long list of accomplishments with Your Life Is a Record. Her fourth full-length release, the album finds the Washington State–born Clark articulating the many phases of love gone wrong, with poetic meditations on heartbreak (“I’ll Be the Sad Song”), fiery kiss-off anthems (“Long Walk”), and a rollicking post-mortem on a failed relationship (“Who Broke Whose Heart”). The song I turned to most this year was the debut single, “Who You Thought I Was,” a bittersweet track about how the growth inspired by a partnership can outlast the relationship itself.—D.O.S.

S.G. Goodman
Old Time Feeling

On her debut album’s opening track, “Space and Time,” the bewitching voice of Western Kentucky native S.G. Goodman rises like the morning fog. Produced by fellow Kentuckian and My Morning Jacket lead singer Jim James, there’s a mystical, fuzzy vibe to Goodman’s songs, which volley between gritty rock and roll and spooky, ethereal folk. But they all provide vivid depictions of the lives of the rural and working class from where she grew up.—M.H.

Sturgill Simpson
Cutting Grass Vol. 1

Fans of Sturgill Simpson’s older work—or bluegrass diehards new to Simpson altogether—will find lots to love on Cutting Grass, a twenty-song collection of old-timey takes on songs from the Kentucky native’s stellar catalog. Fiddle-fied cuts of live show standards like “Life of Sin” and “Turtles All the Way Down” show familiar numbers in a new light, while too-often-overlooked gems like “Old King Coal” and “The Storm” receive well-deserved, string-heavy reprises. The standout might be “I Wonder,” one of several deep-cut callbacks to Simpson’s time with the Lexington-based band Sunday Valley nearly a decade ago. Cutting Grass feels like a gift designed specifically to delight longtime fans—and he’s just released the project’s Vol. 2.—D.O.S.

Marcus King
El Dorado 

Marcus King’s guitar chops are out of this world, but what sometimes gets lost in his jam band fireworks is how skilled the South Carolina native is as a singer and lyricist. His solo debut—produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach—puts those qualities front and center. There are soft, soulful edges on cuts such as “Young Man’s Dream” and “One Day She’s Here,” with the latter driven by a smoky funk groove. The album has its explosive parts too, like “The Well.” But it’s the quieter moments where King shows his true soul.—M.H. 

Leyla McCalla
Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes

Originally released in 2013 as Leyla McCalla’s first solo album following her time with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, this moving tribute to the poet Langston Hughes was reissued in October by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The Haitian folk song “Rose Marie,” which features former Chocolate Drop bandmate Rhiannon Giddens, draws inspiration from McCalla’s own heritage, while other tracks interpret Hughes’s words directly, such as the devastatingly powerful “Song for a Dark Girl,” named after one of his poems. And on “Lonely House”—a song Hughes penned with Kurt Weill for the 1946 musical Street Scene—McCalla’s sparse strings and lonesome vocals bring a particular weight to lyrics that feel especially timely: “Lonely house, lonely me,” she sings, “Funny, with so many neighbors, how lonely it can be.”—D.O.S.

Soccer Mommy
Color Theory 

Nashville is loaded with buzzy guitar acts, but only a few pack the songcraft and visceral wallop of Soccer Mommy, aka 22-year-old Sophie Allison. While sometimes coated as pop songs, her lyrics turn thornier when Allison drops lines like: “I am a liar and my truths are shackled in/My dungeon of fire, I’m the princess of screwin’ up.” There’s a real gift in marrying melody with emotional heft, and Allison is blessed with it in spades.—M.H. 

Chris Stapleton
Starting Over

You might have heard Starting Over’s title track on the radio or during commercial breaks, but the whole of Chris Stapleton’s latest, released in November, stands to be a go-to album for country, Southern rock, and Americana fans. “Whiskey Sunrise” draws on Stapleton’s searing vocals for a Southern rock anthem with a dark twist. His take on Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” follows a honky-tonk path. And “Maggie’s Song” might be the first love song to call out its subject’s penchant for chasing squirrels—yes, the sweeping number is an ode to a very good dog.—D.O.S.

Bob Dylan
Rough and Rowdy Ways

On his 39th studio album, Bob Dylan surveys the American landscape and doesn’t like what he sees. The songs are filled with thieves, charlatans, and gangsters, while cycling through blues, Memphis garage rock, and country twang. On “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” Dylan pays tribute to the legendary Mississippi bluesman, while “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is an examination of mortality as the subject takes a drive along Route 1 from Miami. The spooky 17-minute closer, “Murder Most Foul”—Dylan’s first number one hit—is centered around the assassination of JFK. There’s a case to be made that, starting with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s last five original albums are the best things he’s done since his 1960s zenith, and on this one, the 79-year-old is at the top of his game.—M.H.