Left photo Kelsea Ballerini courtesy of Billboard.com. Right photo Margo Price by Daniel Meigs.

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Cowgirl Hotlist

Country ladies brought the heat in 2020! They presented beautiful lyrics, dynamic themes, and a variety of influences on these stand-apart albums. Here are some of the top albums from the past year.

Ashley McBryde’s “Never Will”

“Never Will” was one this year’s most adventurous mainstream country albums, drawing on everything from old-timey mountain music and storming country rock to the Fleetwood Mac-indebted glimmer of the title track. “You’d think a girl on fire,” she sings, “would stay away from gasoline.” The album is an extraordinary document that chronicles, with empathy, grace, and humor, what happens when men and women pour gasoline onto their own bad decisions. 

Elizabeth Cook’s “Aftermath”

The country livin’ in Elizabeth’s lyrics is unmistakable. She writes of playing loose with the truth in “Two Chords and a Lie,” drops redneck bon mots like “Don’t go selling crazy, we’re stocked up here” in “These Days,” and puts you right in the room with her and her ailing father in “Daddy I Got Love for You.” 

Katie Pruitt’s “Expectations”

Katie commands all of her songs so forcefully that she’s able to tuck away the album’s most emotionally affecting moment toward the very end, on the moving country coming-out tale “Loving Her”. She sings “If loving her is wrong and it’s not right to write this song,” she sings, before landing her defiant taunt: “Then … you can turn the damn thing off.”

Hailey Whitters’ “The Dream”

The second album from Hailey Whitters established the Iowa native as one of the most exciting artists working in the blurry margins between mainstream country and the Americana-leaning singer-songwriter genre. The gorgeous “Red Wine & Blue” shows that Hailey understands Nashville wordplay better than anyone, and the New Wave precision of “Dream, Girl” forecasted her knack for pop hooks, while the tearjerker album centerpiece “Janice at the Hotel Bar” displayed the songwriter’s deep empathy. 

Lucinda Williams’ “Good Souls Better Angels”

Lucinda Williams turns up the amps and gets down to business, taking 2020 to task in “Bad News Blues,” and threatening a perennial “thorn in my side” in the ferocious “Bone of Contention.” In “You Can’t Rule Me” she rebelliously states “Yeah, you might expect me to follow, but I ain’t gonna fall in line.” The performances are all vibrant and intense, putting Lucinda’s famously breathy voice right in your ear.

Kelsea Ballerini’s “Kelsea”/”Ballerini”

“If I let down my hair in the ocean air,” as Kelsea sings on “LA,” “will Tennessee be mad at me?” She answered the question herself on the stripped-down companion album “Ballerini”, released a few months later, which further displayed her versatility. Whether polished on “Kelsea” or laid bare on “Ballerini”, these songs were undeniable.

Brandy Clark’s “Your Life Is a Record”

Brandy Clark’s Grammy-nominated album takes a more rarified approach to the Western — sweeping desert vistas, cinematic strings, and good old-fashioned storytelling. It sounds like the stuff of John Ford movies, but what she continues to excel at is highlighting everyday people and emotions. She’s so self-aware of her fixation on turning heartbreak into art that it’s the basis for the whole album’s concept, with opening track “I’ll Be the Sad Song” as its thesis statement. 

Kathleen Edwards’ “Total Freedom”

On shimmering tracks like “Options Open” and “Glenfern,” she puts forth the radical notion that middle-age need not be an occasion for crisis, but instead, an opportunity for rebirth, reinvention, and reflection. As she indicates on “Fool’s Ride,” it’s also the perfect time to make new mistakes. It all adds up to a profound portrait of an artist who’s rediscovered their joy in music-making, which shines through in each song.

The Secret Sisters’ “Saturn Return”

“It doesn’t matter when you bloom,” as the sisters put it, in their trademark harmony. “It matters that you do.” Alabama sisters Lydia and Laura Rogers hit their stride on their gorgeous fourth album that tackles aging, sexual assault, restlessness, and the supernatural, with equal parts humor and grace. The singer-songwriters alternate between bouncy piano pop (“Hand Over My Heart”) and ages-old folk noir (“Fair”) to great effect.

Margo Price’s “That’s How Rumors Get Started”

Shades of Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead course through the songs, which tackle the sacrifices of parenthood (“Gone to Stay”), fame (“Twinkle Twinkle”), and the touring life (“Prisoners of the Highway”). Even more compelling are the blazing vocal showcases, like the astonishing “I’d Die for You,” and out-there sound experiments, such as the pulsing, icy New Wave of “Heartless Mind.” Three albums in, she continues to refine her restless, disruptive approach to making country music.