(Editor’s Note: Country Aircheck doesn’t publish this week, so the Pulse of Mainstream Country Music will return in January.)
If you could sum up 2020 in a mixtape, what would it sound like?
In my role as both a fan and a critic, I listen to a lot of music, and thus I tend to associate various eras with the tracks that I was spinning at the time. On occasion, I’ll even throw together a CD with my listening choices as a sort of time capsule, allowing me to revisit those times in memory (and sometime question the judgement/sanity of my younger self as my tastes evolve).
As 2020 comes to a close, going through this exercise feel not only cathartic, but necessary. After a bitter presidential election filled with venom and misinformation, a summer of reckoning with police brutality and racial inequities, and a global pandemic that has claimed over 338,000 lives and counting, we can’t afford to forget the lessons we learned this year. It’s been said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and given that this is a year that no one wants to repeat, we need to do all we can to remember this year, and hopefully motivate ourselves to do things differently in the future so that we never find ourselves this crossroads again.
The only rule for this list is that there are no other rules. Songs are not restricted by genre, artist, original year of release, or anything else (in fact, given how surreal and absurd this year felt sometimes, weirdness may actually strengthen a song’s case for inclusion). All that matters is whether or not a song can be tied back to 2020 in some shape or form.
For better and sometimes for worse, this is the official Kyle’s Korner playlist for the tire fire that was 2020.
The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”
The older I get, the more I worry that I’m artificially restricting myself to only listening to certain kinds of music (in my case, mostly country music). At some point early in the coronavirus lockdowns, I decided to try to break out of this box and find some popular music in other genres to experience. I started with Billboard’s Hot 100, and it just so happened that “Blinding Lights” was No. 1 at that time. I was drawn to the song’s dark yet retro vibe, its catchy groove, and its focus on isolation at a time when we were all still adjusting to isolation as a default state. It’s a song I’ve revisited a lot since then, and it will be one of the main tracks I associate with 2020.
Dan Seals, “Big Wheels In The Moonlight”
So how does a trucking song from 1988 end up on a list like this? Call this a victory for the algorithms that dictate so much of our online existence these days: I had no idea the song the track existed until YouTube randomly recommended it to me, and a month later I was a proud owner of a used copy of Rage On I found on Amazon. If I had to name a favorite album of 2020, this would be it, and as I listen to it I’m forever pondering what makes it so much better than many mainstream albums from this year (for example, the plethora of story songs that didn’t shy away from complex topics, like labor strikes in “Factory Town” or coping with dead-end small town life in the title track). Heck, this particular song moved me enough to attempt my own cover of the track (the vocals are pretty meh, but I was dang proud of the production):
If a song motivates me to cover it, it deserves a spot on my 2020 playlist.
Gabby Barrett, “I Hope”
Due to its radio reliance and its reluctance to really embrace streaming services, country music is regularly overshadowed by other genres on charts like the Billboard Hot 100. “I Hope,” however, is a rare exception: I liked the track when I reviewed it back in 2019, but I didn’t expect it to explode like it did in 2020, riding a Charlie Puth remix all the way to #3 on the Hot 100 and putting up radio numbers months after its peak that would keep it in the Mediabase Top 20 (maybe that’s why “The Good Ones” has been so slow to build momentum this year).
From a meta perspective, “I Hope” models the anger that a lot of people felt towards one another, especially as the election season ramped up and topics that should have been completely nonpartisan ended up as divisive wedge issues. Despite President-Elect Joe Biden’s pleas, a lot of people aren’t in a forgiving mood right now, with each side hoping the other winds up like the narrator’s ex in “I Hope.” While such anger can be cathartic in a song, it’s extremely corrosive in a society, so hopefully we can lower the temperature of our politics going forward.
Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me”
The cleanup spot is the traditional anchor of a lineup in baseball, so let’s anchor this playlist with the best country song of 2020. I’ve talked about “Black Like Me” a lot this year, but the facts bear repeating: Black Americans have a vastly different experience in this country than their white counterparts, and they face numerous (and far too often life-threatening) obstacles and institutional barriers that are completely invisible to white people. This is perhaps the lesson we need to take away from 2020, and we need to ensure that we don’t forget it, so that we remain committed to the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality for everyone.
Black. Lives. Matter.
Eric Church, “Stick That In Your Country Song”
Remember what I said about “Big Wheels In The Moonlight”? Church does, and he’d like to hear more of life’s untold tales on country radio too. I’ve discussed this song at length already too, but I hope we remember its message too: There are stories of struggle and sacrifice in this country that we need to hear, and country music is just the vehicle to help tell them.
Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix”
If we’re going to talk about country music in 2020, we have to reckon with the Cobronavirus movement, a trend in which we were all encouraged to forget about the world’s problems and use alcohol as a cure-all pill to mask the pain (a call that a disturbing number of Americans heeded, as one industry group reported that alcohol sales were up over a 1000 percent). Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita” might have been the most successful of the bunch, but the most tolerable to my ears was Rhett and Pardi’s ode to the humble pilsner (at least it had a decent groove to the sound, plus my overly-nasal Pardi impression made people laugh when I sang the song myself). I like Rhett as an artist, but I feel like he took a step backwards in 2020, and I’m hoping the post-Center Point Road era will at least be a bit more interesting.
Hot Country Knights, “Then It Rained”
When Mark Grondin gives you advice, you take it, and…
Dierks Bentley’s 90s parody album was pretty decent overall, but I’m with Zack Kephart on this one: “Then It Rained” is clearly the best cut on the disc, even if the joke may not land if you don’t know Garth Brooks’s “The Thunder Rolls.” Neotraditional nostalgia was all the rage before the pandemic hit, and the Knights captured both the classic sound and the emotional buildup perfectly. It’s the sort of absurdly self-aware take that feels uniquely 2020, and hopefully we’ll all get to enjoy our hot dogs and chardonnay together some time in the future.
Old Dominion, “Some People Do (Meow Mix)”
Speaking of absurd self-aware takes…”Some People Do” may well have been strong enough to make this playlist on its own, but when the group decided to re-record their entire album using only meows for the lyrics (they throw in the occasional woof as well), the track became an essential pick for the 2020 mixtape (even if the meows worked a little better on “One Man Band”). It’s the sort of bizarre release that feels like it could only happen this year, so it’s perfect for a touchstone list like this one.
Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle”
Speaking of remixes…Ballerini released her third album kelsea right into the teeth of the initial pandemic scare, and it was mostly forgotten amidst everything else that was going on. After “The Other Girl” failed to launch, the label made the wise move to bring out “Hole In The Bottle,” the best song on the album and arguably the only good drinking song released in 2020. Ballerini ended up re-releasing kelsea later in the year as ballerini, a pared-down reimagining of the entire album, but “Hole In The Bottle” retained its charm and energy by becoming a back-porch stomper featuring a classic barroom piano and copious use of a dobro and acoustic guitar. When a year forces you to rethink an entire freaking album like this, it’s a year (and a song) worth remembering.
The Four Tops, “It’s The Same Old Song”
Wait, now we’re turning the dial back to 1965? This is here for two reasons:
- COVID-19 really drove home the frailty of life, and it pushed some people to check some things off of their bucket list while they still could. For an old-school car guy like my father, this meant picking up a slick-looking fifties-era Chevrolet that he could cruise around town in. The previous owner had installed a tape deck in the car, which naturally meant that we needed to make him a mixtape that fit the era for both the car and its proud new owner. Thus I embarked on a deep dive of early rock ‘n roll and the Motown sound, scouring iTunes and the American Graffiti soundtrack for just the right tracks to fill the cassette. Of the songs that still sit on my hard drive, this #5 Hot 100 track is the one I revisit the most, so it deserves a spot on this list fifty-five years after its release.
- “Same Old Song” is a pretty good tagline for what I’ve been calling the Blandemic trend: Many of the country tracks from the back half of 2020 seemed to run together for me, covering the same topics with the same instruments and dominated by the same small subset of artists. Let’s hope 2021 delivers a bit more variety in the the genre.
Vicki Sue Robinson, “Turn The Beat Around”
Of course, if you make something for one parent, you have to make something for the other one, right? My mother’s musical roots are planted firmly in the disco sound of the 1970s (with a few detours into rock opera à la Bat Out Of Hell), so I was sent off on yet another deep dive through yet another era of music to find the right tracks for yet another mixtape. This eventually led me to Robinson’s signature hit from 1976, an expertly-crafted that featured soulful, energetic vocals and intricate percussion that drove the track without completely overwhelming it.
It’s been said that disco died several decades ago, but its influence is still felt today, and it resurfaced in a big way in 2020…
While griping about the soundalike songs dominating country music later in the year, I stumbled across the news that the the boy band BTS had become the first Korean act to top the Hot 100 with their latest single “Dynamite.” Intrigued, I gave the song a spin, and haven’t really stopped spinning it since. I’d put this in the same category as “Every Little Thing”: A silly little song with an infectious beat, tons of energy, and a happy vibe that was sorely needed as the country realized that the pandemic we’d all hoped would be done by the summer would be sticking around for a while. (For a while, I called this the best country song I’d heard in the last two months, which honestly says more about the state of the genre than it does about the song itself.) I haven’t really dived into the group’s back catalog yet, but given that I’ll be stuck inside for another few months, it’s on my to-do list.
Tee Lopes, “Lights, Camera, Action! – Studiopolis Zone Act 1”
School may have gone virtual for much of the year, but it never stopped, which meant a lot of long days grading assignments. When I’m working through a large stack of submissions, I like to put on some background instrumentals with a bit of bounce to them, and video game soundtracks are usually a perfect fit. I wasn’t a fan of Sonic Mania, but the soundtrack was pretty solid, and my favorite of the bunch was the Studiopolis Act 1 background track. The Miitopia battle theme and X-Naut theme from Paper Mario were also candidates for this slot, but this was the track that I leaned on the most.
Speaking of video games…
If there was one game that dominated 2020, it was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold a mind-boggling 26 million copies in six months. Among Us may have taken over the conversation late in the year (and inspired a few decent music tracks of its own), none of them could top Viantastic’s day-one rap to the game that offered the respite from reality that no amount of alcohol could provide. Nintendo’s year was honestly kind of meh overall (after AC:NH, we got mostly ports and DLC), but with a game racking up these kind of numbers, it really didn’t matter from a financial perspective. However, I’d still like to see more from the company in 2021 (and maybe a bit less antagonizing of its fans too).
Speaking of rap…
Epic Rap Battles of History, “Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump”
It’s time to address the elephant (and the donkey) in the room: The 2020 election was a nasty affair, full of personal attacks, misinformation, and questions about whether democracy itself would survive the affair. ERB’s candidate rap battles have become a bit of a tradition since Obama vs. Romney hit YouTube back in 2012, and Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist did not disappoint with a no-holds-barred scrap that ran the gamut from policies from personalities. (The ominous piano-driven production deserves an assist for setting the perfect mood for an election in which fear was a central narrative.) The system seemed to hold up in the end, but while Biden ended up earning a convincing win, some people remained skeptical of the results, which gave us…
Schmoyoho, “Election Meme Rewind”
One of the great things about sitting around the house with nothing but an internet connection to entertain you is that you discover a bunch of interesting new YouTube channels, like Kittisaurus, Gorillaphent, and the creators of this next song, Schmoyoho. Schmoyoho specializes is “songifying” video speech to create catchy pop tracks, and each election year to turn the presidential debates into sonic masterpieces with special guests like Weird Al Yankovic and and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Since ERB already has the election covered, however, the Schmoyoho track on our list covers what happened after Election Day, as votes were being counted and states (and eventually the entire election) was called for Joe Biden.
One of the bizarre things about Donald Trump is that everyone is his orbit seemed to turn into a cartoon character (literally, thanks to Stephen Colbert), behaving so strangely that the only suitable reaction is to laugh at them for their craziness. Many of these characters refused to believe the projections of Biden’s victory, and the resulting post-election memes have been chained together into a song memorable enough that I randomly found myself singing it for weeks afterwards. On this list, the song will forever stand as an example of the weirdness an incompetent personality cult brings to politics, and hopefully will warn people off of voting for similarly incompetent candidates in the future.
Webb Pierce, “Honky Tonk Song”
You don’t need a reason to include Pierce on any list, but I’ve got three of them here:
- Pierce randomly reemerged in the public consciousness this year after being remixed into Sam Hunt’s eventual #1 “Hard To Forget.”
- Rather than the car my father bought, my reaction to the “live while you’re alive” realization was to order old CDs of forgotten artists from Amazon to fill out my already-large music collection. A collection of Pierce’s hits was one of the first discs I ordered, so it represents all of those forgotten artists here.
- I’ve actually been dealing with my own “Honky Tonk Song” situation: My upstairs neighbors have been super obnoxious all year, throwing loud restriction-defying parties with loud music and drunken shouting and generally making it hard to concentrate while working (heck, I had to move in the middle of writing this song because of yet another party!). I don’t dare confront them about this because if they’re dumb enough to ignore COVID-19 restrictions, they’re dumb enough to catch and spread COVID-19, so for now I’ll settle for calling them out anonymously and passive-aggressively in a random blog post.
Speaking of the blog…
Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
I listened to this song maybe twice all year, so what’s it doing here? This song represents the unexpected surge in popularity Kyle’s Korner has experienced in 2020. My December page view count is on pace to triple my January total, and no page exemplifies the blog’s growing readership than my deep dive on Toby Keith’s career, which is now far and away my most popular post and routinely outpaces even my homepage in daily views.
I know I don’t engage with people too much on this blog, but I really appreciate the support I’ve received over the course of 2020, and I hope we can keep the momentum rolling into 2021!
(Also, this song gets the nod over my favorite Keith track “Who’s That Man” because I found my first gray hairs this year, so I’m officially not as good as I once was either!)
Brad Paisley, “Last Time For Everything”
This song is here for one reason: During fall term finals, I closed class with “I’ll see you all on Wednesday!” and one of the students replied that they were sad because it was the last time they would hear that this time. The comment immediately brought to mind this single from 2017, and it made me think about all the last times that were on the horizon.
Some of these times were sad, of course (for example, the last time you see a friend before tragedy strikes, as I did in 2019), but as Paisley points out, not all last times are cause for mourning. If all goes well, in 2021 there will be a last time we have to hold a class over Zoom, a last time we have to wear a mask in public, and a last time we have to stay six feet away from the people we love. There will be a last official day of the pandemic, a last holiday we have to celebrate remotely, and (barring a declaration of martial law) a last day to this awful Trump presidency. In short, there are a surprising amount of lasts that we can look forward to in 2021, and if we all continue to do our parts now, we can all enjoy them together.
Speaking of lasts: This likely marks the last blog post for the year, but if there’s anyone who deserves the last word in 2020…
Charley Pride, “Roll On Mississippi”
…it’s the first Black superstar in country music, a man who became one of the 338,000+ victims of COVID-19 when he passed away a few weeks ago. It was a rough year for country music, with the deaths of artists such as Kenny Rogers, Jan Howard, K.T. Oslin, Charlie Daniels, Hal Ketchum, Harold Reid of the Statler Brothers, and many others, and COVID-19 added to the pain by adding Pride, Joe Diffie, and John Prine to that list. “Roll On Mississippi” is a calm, reflective song that invites the user to look back and think about everything that’s happened to us, and reminds us that for better or worse, time and the Mississippi keep moving forward, and we’re really just along for the ride. While 2020 will likely not engender much joy or nostalgia, it’s still important to keep both it and those we lost during this year in our minds, so that when we emerge from this dark place that we’re in, we resolve never to go back.
Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s hoping it’s better than the last one.