“LOGAN LEDGER” Logan Ledger
Every year there’s one, it seems, one that comes out of nowhere to grab hold of you and shake you until you’re giddy. This year, Logan Ledger’s self-titled debut, a hooky, twangy clutch of Orbison-channeling country noir, was the one.
“PAULINE” Ashley Ray
On this fierce collection of gutbucket country, Ashley Ray tells stories with unapologetic candor about herself and her people, from her Kansas beginnings (“Pauline” is her grandmother) to the time she put in waiting tables and a break once she decamped to Nashville 18 years ago.
“BONNY LIGHT HORSEMAN” Bonny Light Horseman
Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson, and Josh Kaufman combined their formidable musical talents in this under-the-radar supergroup (can there be such a thing?), and the shimmering folk they made on their self-titled debut evoked the most intense emotional response of any record I listened to this year.
“PEACEFUL AMBASSADOR” The Dead Tongues
After kicking off with an unalloyed “Exile”-era Stones vibe, Ryan Gustafson’s 2020 album proceeds to oscillate among sounds that variously bring to mind Dylan, Neil Young, and Hiss Golden Messenger as he sings songs that reconnoiter and wrestle with the life that he’s lived and the paths that he’s chosen, to marvelous effect.
“STARTING OVER” Chris Stapleton
It says something about what country outlier Chris Stapleton is capable of that, among the fine songs on “Starting Over,” his plainspoken elegy for his dog Maggie just might be the finest. But then, Stapleton could be singing about watching paint dry and it would still be worth listening to just to hear that voice.
“EVER-ROVING EYE” James Elkington
Trust the folks at North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors to put out at least one Top 10-worthy record every year. Elkington’s sophomore serving of his psychedelic Brit-Americana folk definitely qualifies. What makes it even better: Tamara Lindeman (who performs as the Weather Station) lends her vocal talents.
“SORRY YOU COULDN’T MAKE IT” Swamp Dogg
Jerry Williams, a.k.a. sui generis soul man Swamp Dogg, claims he’s been making country music all along. So why wouldn’t he go to Nashville at 77 years of age to make a record (including a pair of duets with John Prine, who would leave us shortly thereafter) and turn out a primo slice of vintage country-soul?
“BLUE EYES, THE HARLOT, THE QUEER, THE PUSHER & ME” Waylon Payne
Wayne Payne put out a stunning first record in 2004, and then disappeared down a well of addiction and darkness. I’ve been waiting and hoping for his return ever since, and 16 years later, my wishes have come true in spades with his new record, an unflinching, open-book distillation of descent and recovery into art.
“THAT’S HOW RUMORS GET STARTED” Margo Price
Margo Price sets her sonic scope a little wider on her third album, pulling shades of soul, gospel, and fuzzed-up rock ‘n’ roll into her country. But as ever, she sings her songs with an intense urgency that can take your breath away.
They got the band back together for another album, only 35 years after the last one, and it’s chock full of vintage X sounds, the edge-of-the-cliff harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, and one of the best lines of the year, from Exene’s spoken word coda: “All the time in the world turns out not to be that much.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.