Best of 2020…so far

What a year 2020 has been. All the optimism that abounded on January 1 was lost by Friday March 13. The world stopped and it hasn’t quite gotten back on track since. Throughout it all, the creators and artists have kept on keeping on in the remarkable ways only they know how. In our music scene, live shows have ground to a halt but new music releases haven’t slowed down at all. It’s been an interesting six months of releases. Below you’ll find our favorite 12 albums of the first half of the year.

Several artists such as Lori McKenna, Josh Grider, Thieving Birds, Jessi England and Brent Cobb have dropped really cool singles or EPs, but for purposes of this we just focused on album length releases. Without further adieu and in no particular order.

Randy Rogers/Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer Vol 2.

Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen Brew Up Collaborative Return With 'Hold ...

The two Texas torchbearers return with another Lloyd Maines produced collection of barroom honky-tonkers, novelty songs, western swing and hardcore country all with the background of a damn good time. This album is a perfect continuation of Volume 1. The songs are a little more on the nose than Volume 1, but the results are equally as entertaining and engaging.

Hill Country – self titled

Album Review – Hill Country (Self-Titled) | Saving Country Music

Zane Williams stepped back from a successful solo career with the ambition and gamble of creating a true band. His vision of a group of musicians sharing equal skin in the game came to fruition with one of the most talented line-ups ever assembled featuring the likes of Paul Eason and Andy Rogers collaborating on this debut project.

John Baumann – Country Shade

Country Shade by John Baumann on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

Country Shade proves Baumann’s songwriting promise has been realized.  What many saw in him from those first songs has come fully into its own.  This is a master class in songwriting and something that anyone who is craving real, genuine songwriting should listen to and share with those who need to be enlightened. Country Shade is pure light. 

James Steinle – What I Came Here For

REVIEW: James Steinle's “What I Came Here For” Exudes a Sense of ...

Steinle has an off-kilter, unique world view that he likes to splice into his lyrics and much of the music and melodies behind those words evoke the sounds of Mike and the Moonpies. It’s a cool and fresh take that puts smart, folksy songwriting right on top of pure country instrumentation. Steinle is a young artist with an ambitious artistic drive.

Zach Aaron – Fill Dirt Wanted

Zach Aaron “Fill Dirt Wanted” (Independent, 2020) – Americana UK

Aaron has been favorably compared to Ryan Bingham over the years, but Fill Dirt Wanted proves while there is some Bingham in there…there’s just as much Prine influence. Adam Carroll may even be the better comparison. This is a songwriter who isn’t afraid to get obscure and a little weird to paint a realistic picture.

Kyle Nix – Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories

Farce the Music: Album Review / Kyle Nix / Lightning on the ...

Nix steps to the forefront and out of the songwriting shadow of Felker/Edwards to unleash a torrent of creativity that bounds from bluegrass jams to Turnpike knee-slappers. Sonically it’s in much the same vein as the Turnpike catalog, but Nix pushes the lyrics to areas the Troubadours never explored.

American Aquarium – Lamentations

American Aquarium - Lamentations - Amazon.com Music

Sad songs are American Aquarium’s stock and trade, but that doesn’t mean the music has to match the material. Producer Shooter Jennings brings the best out of the band and the result is a beautifully captured fabric of American rock n’ roll behind one of the most creative and genuine songwriters currently releasing records. Lamentations is a statement on modern life and a testament to those who muddle through it on the daily. It’s also a testament to the continued cementing of Barham’s artistic vision. As the times get rockier, American Aquarium makes the looking glass clearer.

Reckless Kely – American Jackpot/American Girls

American Girls by Reckless Kelly on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

Reckless Kelly hadn’t put out a record in four years, so they decided why the hell not release a double album? Their first effort without Dave Abeyta on guitar slides solidly in the canon of RK classics. Willy Bruan’s pen has never been sharper as he turns his lyrics on the American landscape and examines relationships of all types.

Gabe Lee – Honky Tonk Hell

Honky Tonk Hell [Explicit] by Gabe Lee on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

This record blasts out of the speakers drenched in rhinestones and telecasters. Lee makes statement after statement with a rare bravado and attitude. It is fearless. We’ve heard lyrical tropes like these before, but rarely done this well. Lee delivers a fresh sound and style to country music and that energy bursts out of the seems even in the quieter moments.

Van Darien – Levee

Levee by Van Darien on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

Van Darien is a singer and songwriter full of emotions. She’s unafraid to lean into the dark and vast parts of the human experience and then present her findings in a melodic fashion. Her work reminds of Brandi Carlile both in sound and substance. And substance is found all over Levee as Darien creates atmospheric and beautiful songs throughout its ten tracks.

Zac Wilkerson – Evergreen

Evergreen by Zac Wilkerson on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

There are few artists capable of delivering more soul in their music than Zac Wilkerson. He can sing and play like few others. He hasn’t always found a way for the studio output to display the raw power and emotion that is conveyed in his live performances, but he’s come close on Evergreen. This is an album that drives through blues, soul and country and puts the hammer down on each of them.

Dalton Domino – Feverdreamer

Album Review – Dalton Domino's "Feverdreamer" | Saving Country Music

The further Domino has retreated into introspection, the better his songs have gotten…and they’ve always been pretty good. Domino’s most recent output continues to be especially raw and real. He cuts no emotional corners here and lays his soul bare on the page and into the microphone.

Brad Beheler

Raised in Waco, refined in the Hill Country, escaped from DFW. I've worked in just about every facet of the music business for 20 years. I like to write about it all. e-mail Brad Editor-in-Chief

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