Up next: The four biggest country music stars of the 2020s

photo: Andrew Wendowski

By Jeff Uveino

The beginning of the 2020s found country music in a place that is as familiar to the genre’s history as is a guitar and fiddle.

While some artists work to pull country music forward and evolve its sound, others try to preserve its traditional sounds, as has always been the genre’s case.

The previous decade saw the rise, dominance, and (near) fall of “bro country,” before a new class of Nashville sooners made sappy love songs the featured song type on the radio once again.

Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and more dominated the 2010s by tapping into these sounds. Now, however, country music seems to be experiencing a “changing of the guard,” as it has before and will do again in the future.

Of the young artists vying to become the next Aldean, Blake Shelton or Thomas Rhett, four have emerged that represent the current state of the genre holistically.

Each artist’s sound is similar enough to fit the mainstream, yet distinct enough to allow them to stand out. And, while tapping into slightly different circles of an ever-vast world of country music, these four have primed themselves to be the genre’s biggest stars of the 2020s.

Luke Combs

Luke Combs is already a superstar.

The Charlotte, North Carolina native’s popularity skyrocketed in 2017 off of the success of his debut album, “This One’s For You,” and since then, it really hasn’t stopped.

Luke Combs (Matt Winklemeyer/Getty Images)

Comb’s sophomore album, “What You See Is What You Get,” not only dominated country charts in late 2019 and into 2020, but also peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s genre-binding Top 200 chart. The album has produced four singles that have reached No. 1 on the US country airplay chart, and is certified platinum by the RIAA.

If that’s not impressive enough, “This One’s For You” spent an unprecedented 50 weeks at No. 1 on country charts. 

So, what makes Combs so popular? He has a little bit of everything, which suits everyone. He seamlessly transitions from relentlessly authentic love songs to tales of buck-wild Friday nights, all while maintaining his trademark, acoustic-based sound that features just the right amount of electric guitar.

Combs once again proved his popularity with the release of five new songs last Friday, including “Forever After All,” which soared to the top of genre-wide streaming charts, a feat that is rarely achieved by a country artist.

It’s hard to argue against Combs being the face of country music right now. He dominates the radio. He dominates streaming services. And, if his music catalog stays true to its roots, he will dominate the decade.

Jon Pardi

Jon Pardi’s debut album put his name in the Nashville conversation six years ago, but it was his 2016 album “California Sunrise” that launched his career to the level that it is currently at.

Pardi is this list’s representative for traditional country music. All three of his studio albums are loaded with fiddle, and the Dixon, California native has had a lot of radio success despite keeping his sound and lyrics traditional instead of leaning toward pop.

Jon Pardi (Jim Wright/Rolling Stone)

“California Sunrise” produced four top-10 singles, and is certified platinum by the RIAA.

In 2019, “Heartache Medication” became Pardi’s third No. 1 single on US country radio airplay, and was the lead single for his September album that bears the same name. The album made it to No. 2 on US country charts, largely held back by the dominance of Combs, and continued Pardi’s momentum as the modern-day defender of the “Bakersfield Sound.”

Pardi is 34, which is prime age for a country artist to have the biggest years of their career. Expect to hear him throughout the 20s and beyond.

Morgan Wallen

The bad boy. The wildcard. The mullet.

Despite being the most pop-centric artist on this list, Morgan Wallen has adopted the role of Nashville’s “bad boy” after his rise to fame on the success of his 2018 debut album, “If I Know Me.”

Morgan Wallen (Debby Wong/Shutterstock)

Wallen’s signature mullet, cutoff flannel and skinny jeans look was everywhere in 2019, and, in case you haven’t noticed, an absurd amount of American teenagers are cutting their hair into mullets.

Wallen may be to blame.

He’s gotten into some trouble this year, infamously getting arrested at Kid Rock’s bar in Nashville in May, and getting removed from hosting NBC’s Saturday Night Live in October after videos surfaced of him partying the week before.

However, country music has always made space for outlaws. And while Wallen’s music doesn’t fit the outlaw bill, his freewheeling lifestyle does.

At just 27 years old, Wallen’s potential is endless. George Strait, whom many consider the king of modern day country music, didn’t have his first No. 1 hit until he was 30. Wallen has had three such hits on country radio so far, and his new single “7 Summers” not only debuted at No. 1 on country charts in September, but at No. 6 on pop charts.

Wallen’s upcoming album, for which “7 Summers” was the third released single, will be a good litmus test for his popularity. Don’t be surprised to see Combs-like numbers produced by that record, and the rest of his work this decade.

Riley Green

Representing the state of Alabama, Riley Green is perhaps the least popular of the aforementioned artists. At least for now.

The Jacksonville, Alabama native embodies the rural south through and through, and his lyrics reflect it. He played quarterback at Jacksonville State before pursuing a music career, and released his debut album, “Different ‘Round Here,” in September 2019.

Riley Green (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Green’s sound is more traditional than Combs but less than Pardi, and his unapologetic songwriting has contributed to his popularity, despite some negative publicity.

Green is the underdog in the race for country music stardom, and although he may never achieve the walloping chart numbers of Combs and Wallen, he’s here to stay throughout the 20s.

MUSIC: Tyler Childers surprises country music world with protest album

photo: Tyler Childers/Hickman Holler Records

By Jeff Uveino

Tyler Childers made his message clear in the words that he sang and the words that he spoke.

The 29-year-old country singer from Lawrence County, Kentucky released a surprise album on Sept. 18, and in its aftermath, left some fans rejoicing, some furious, and some scratching their heads.

The album, titled “Long Violent History,” replicates the sound of Childers’ previous music catalogue, filled with strings and little artificial production.

Eight of the album’s nine tracks are instrumentals. It’s the title track, however, strategically placed at the end of the record, that makes this rising star of rural Appalachia an unlikely defender of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“How many boys could they haul off this mountain, shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin’ in the streets,” Childers cries in his powerful, gruff cadence. “‘Til we come into town in a stark ravin’ anger, looking for answers and armed to the teeth?”

Empathy. That’s Childers’ message.

Fully aware of his predominantly white, rural fan base, Childers presents his plea for justice in a way that his listeners can relate to.

“Thirty-ought-sixes, papaw’s old pistol, how many, you reckon, would it be, four or five,” he continues. “Or would that be the start of a long, violent history of tucking our tails as we try to abide?”

To make sure that his message didn’t get twisted or misinterpreted, Childers released a video on Twitter to accompany the album.

“(The album) is a collection of instrumental pieces intended to create a sonic soundscape for the listener to set the tone to reflect on the last track, which is my observation piece on the times we are in,” Childers said. “COVID has been a strain on all of us in some form or fashion… all the while, we have witnessed violent acts of police brutality happen around the nation that have not been addressed.”

Childers continues by asking his “white rural listeners” to do a self-examination on the matter.

“I venture to say that if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia,” Childers says. “If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?”

He closes the video with an appeal to vote out the people who have “been in power and let this go unnoticed,” as well as a questioning of the morality of the Confederate flag.

The day the album and video were released, Childers began trending on Twitter, a space that is rarely taken up by country music artists. However, it is difficult to say whether his political stance will help or hurt the rising star’s career.

Childers has been one of the buzziest independent country artists of the past few years. His album “Country Squire,” released by his indy label Hickman Holler records in August 2019, reached No. 1 on the US country charts with virtually no radio airplay.

He was named “Emerging Artist of the Year” at the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards, and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020 for his performance of the second single off of County Squire, “All Your’n.”

Engulfing himself in modern-day politics is an audacious move for an up-and-coming artist who heavily relies on a rural, and presumably conservative, audience.

The sound of the album is rock-solid. The 32-minute retreat to the hollers of Kentucky that Childers hails from is loaded with fiddle and mandolin, and features a sound that replicates bluegrass as much as it does country.

Other than a few sparse stomps, slaps and timpani rolls, there is no percussion on the album. If it were released half a century ago, it would likely be called a “fiddling record.”

Childers’ fanbase cannot fault his sound, as he has stayed true to his Appalachian roots with each of his projects thus far.

Will his accompanying message, however, turn conservative fans away? Or will it draw in new fans from outside the genre and continue his momentum?

Either way, Childers has made it clear where he stands. And it’s hard to deny his authenticity.

  The Top Ten Rap Artists of the Decade

By: Akim Hudson

Disclaimer: The term “best” is subjective, so if you disagree with the list, it is completely expected and justified. Also, the list is in no order and has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with influence on the culture of hip-hop. 

  1. Drake

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    PC:Billboard
  • In 2009, Drake made everyone aware that he wasn’t emerging, but he was here. His critically acclaimed mixtape, So Far Gone, was the beginning of Drake’s mainstream career. After the release of that mixtape, there was no looking back for Drizzy. Throughout this decade he released an array of albums that all have went platinum within days upon its release. Drake exudes an aura much greater than being a rapper, in fact, he was one of the originators of the era of rap singing. Drake is a true hybrid and became a household name, his fame and notoriety are ubiquitous, and is clearly a top ten rapper of this decade.  

Notable Discography: Take Care (2011, Grammy Award for Best Rap Album of the Year), Nothing Was The Same (2013, Grammy Nominated), If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015, Grammy Award for Best Rap Album of the Year).  

  1. Kendrick Lamar 

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    PC:Forbes
  • The one and only King Kendrick, Kung-Fu Kenny, a true wordsmith whose pen is unmatched by many rappers,not just of his era, but all time. In 2011, Lamar released the mixtape, Section.80. with tracks that indicated the motifs of the rest of his discography up to date. Lamar, with Aftermath Records by Dr. Dre released his debut album, good kid m.A.A.d city. With tracks like “Sing About Me”, “I’m Dying of Thirst” that detailed the multifaceted institutionalization of Black people within the United States. It was an instant classic that consists of little to no skips, each track potent in great diction, multiple perspectives, subjectivity, and vulnerability. In 2015, Lamar went on to drop To Pimp A Butterfly. This is my personal favorite K. Dot album. He described it as an album to lift the black artists and not the whack artist. TPAB was one of the more intricate albums of its time, along with each track is snippets of a poem that Lamar wrote, that concludes after the final track “Mortal Man”, in which he had a discourse about revolution and reform, Marxism-like reflections on socioeconomics with the late great Tupac Shakur. His last release came in 2017, the Pulitzer Prize winning album, DAMN. Not much to say about this masterpiece. A detailed introspection of oneself again, an insightful elaboration about the trauma of blacks in the United States, and so forth. Lamar is amongst the most respected in hip-hop history and has many years of dominance left in the tank.  
  • Notable Discography: good kid m.A.A.d city  (2011, Grammy Nominated for Rap Album of the Year, Grammy Nominated for Album of the Year), To Pimp A Butterfly (2015, Grammy Award for Best Rap Album), DAMN. (2017, Pulitzer Prize winner, Grammy Award for Best Rap Album).  
  1. J. Cole

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    PC: Billboard
  • The one and only Jermaine Cole, perhaps the most vulnerable, versatile, and one of two skilled rappers of his era, yet criminally underrated. To be honest, although he is my favorite rapper out now. Cole starts the decade with Cole World: The Sideline Story in 2011. Ambition was the main theme of this album, and the audience can feel the young bright-eyed ambition of Cole on the majority of tracks on this album. By 2013, Cole released my favorite, Born Sinner which was really Cole’s coming out party. That chip on his shoulder grew bigger, Cole was ready to wage war with the legends with this release. Cole and Lamar’s comparisons were one of the biggest enigmas of the decade to me. They go hand and hand, but Lamar only had more accolade than Cole. The amazing feature that Cole accomplished this decade, was three consecutive platinum selling albums with no features, but he had nothing to show for this amazing feat. Cole was snubbed every year from winning a Grammy. He has a chance to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album with his collaboration album, Revenge Of The Dreamers III. Cole is amongst the best rappers of the decade due to his ability to do everything your favorite rapper can do, but just a bit better.  

Notable Discography: Born Sinner(2013), 2014 Forest Hills Drive(2014), 4 Your Eyez Only (2016), KOD(2018).  

  1. Meek Mill

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    PC:CNN
  • King of Philly, Meek Milly. More than likely faced the most adversity than any other rapper this decade, but that isn’t why he is amongst the top ten. Meek Mill is from humble beginnings, but always divulges “f*ck being humble”, due to how everyone turned their back on him during his times of somber and melancholy. In 2011, Meek Mill lands a hit single “I’m A Boss” featuring his record label owner, Rick Ross. Along with “I’m A Boss”, drops Dreamchasers, one of four fan favorite mixtapes which gave hip-hop fans the nostalgia of gangsta rap from the 90’s and 2000’s. Then fans got a double whammy, Dreamchasers 2 and “Dreams and Nightmares” both released within 2012. The intro to “Dreams and Nightmares” is still Meek’s anthem and perhaps song of the decade. Meek’s legal issues is the highlight of his career, going in and out of jail frequently throughout the decade, each time dropping quality music upon his release. The most notable album upon his release was Championships, the 2018 release has been revered by the masses as his best album, hence why it is Grammy nominated. Since Meek’s release he has become the poster child for prison reform and unjust incarceration. Meek is on a roll still and has shown no signs of slowing down. We all love an underdog, and hope Meek can continue to stay on track.

Notable Discography: DC4 (2016), Dreamchasers(2011), Dreamchasers 2(2012), Dreamchasers 3(2014), Dreams and Nightmares(2012), Dreams Worth More Than Money(2015), Wins and Losses(2017), Championships(2018) 

  1. Nicki Minaj
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    PC: Billboard
  • The Barbie herself, perhaps the most dominant female figure in hip-hop history. Minaj came to fame under Young Money by Lil Wayne. Her debut, Pink Friday won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, on her debut she earned a Grammy, impressive for anyone, but since there hasn’t been a woman in hip-hop history to accomplish such a feat adds on to the magnitude of the highest merit in music. Her album sales are the highest of any female in hip-hop history as well, 100 million units overall. Some may believe she is the greatest female emcee, I beg to differ, I say MC Lyte, but that’s a different discussion for a different time. The Barbie started a wave that produced talents such as Cardi B, who now has the torch.  

Notable Discography: Pink Friday, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Pinkprint.  

  1. Future

    Future
    PC:Pitchfork
  • Hendrix, the father of all mumble rapping, Percocet popping, lean sipping, dread headed trap rappers. Only thing I need to discuss in Future’s decade, was his undefeated run, lasting from 2014-2018. Look at the discography in that span, Honest (2014), Monster (2015), 56 Nights (2015), Beast Mode( 2015), Dirty Sprite 2 (2015), What A Time To Be Alive (2015), Purple Reign (2016),  Evol (2016), FUTURE (2017), HENDRXX (2017). This sort of eminence speaks for itself.  
  1. Chief Keef
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    PC: NBC News 
  • Chief Sosa, The Godfather of drill music. Straight out of Chicago, Keef birthed a new genre of hip hop. On the surface, the subject matter may be the same as the typical gangsta rap, but this was more of a gang banging type of rap. a Rap derived from the gang culture within Southside Chicago. 2012 Keef blew up and took the rap game by storm. He opened the door for G Herbo, Lil Durk, Lil Bibby, Lil Reese, and other Chicago rappers of the modern day. 

Notable Discography: Finally Rich(2012) 

     8. Lil Uzi Vert

iHeartRadio Music Festival, Daytime Village, Las Vegas, USA - 22 Sep 2018
PC: Rolling Stone 

  • There wasn’t anywhere you can go in the summer of 2016 where you didn’t hear Uzi knocking from someone’s speaker. Luv is Rage had everyone in a frenzy, his melodic flow of music is irresistible to dance and vibe to. The magnitude of Uzi’s star power was utterly ridiculous. When he was going through label issues, millions of people were in anticipation of a “Free Uzi”. Anytime he released a new song the masses would be enthralled just from his presence alone. I consider Uzi to be a predecessor to Future and Young Thug. 2020 should be a good year for Uzi, gaining momentum from his latest release “Futsal Shuffle 2020”.  

Notable Discography: Luv Is Rage, Luv Is Rage 2, Uzi vs. The World, The Perfect Luv Tape 

  1. Kanye West 
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    PC: Billboard
  • Yeezy is a top five producer ever, and one of the greatest musical geniuses ever. To kick the decade off, Ye dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably album of the decade. Literally with no skips, great production, lyrics and subject matter. Yeezy himself may not have directly dominated the 2010’s, but his eminence did. He influenced every facet of hip-hop from production and auto-tune, to fashion and subject matter. Not to mention that he released The Life of Pablo, Watch The Throne, Cruel Summer, Ye, and produced many hits this decade. I didn’t like Yeezus, but it has been believed to be one of his better albums. Ye will continue his legendary career in the next decade.

Notable Discography: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), Yeezus (2013), The Life of Pablo (2016), Jesus Is King (2019).  

  1. Tyler, The Creator

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    PC:Pitchfork
  • Tyler, The  He bolstered emo rap into the mainstream audience early on in his career, bringing a no holds barred style of authenticity. His subject matter was matched by no other and was fairly controversial at one point in his career. In his debut album, Goblin in 2011 detailing the dark introspective thoughts of Tyler. He was rather explosive and quarrelsome, with his“horror core” style of music. But he would evolve into a vulnerable and romantic type. His two latest releases, Flower Boy and IGOR, depicted the growth of Tyler, and IGOR is Grammy nominated. His musical genius is only expanding and gaining fortitude and versatility. He created Odd Future, and empire that fell apart but in its prime was in a class of their own and have been dubbed the modern-day Wu-Tang. Tyler is still very young and will continue to drop classics.  

Notable Discography: Goblin (2011), Wolf (2013), Cherry Bomb (2015), Flower Boy (2017), IGOR (2019).  

 

Honorable Mention: A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Young Thug, 21 Savage, Pusha T, Jay-Z, Chance The Rapper, Migos (disqualifies because they are a group), Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, Kodak Black, Freddie Gibbs, A Boogie, Tory Lanez.  

 

“Hollywood’s Bleeding” has new twists that will excite listeners

By: Matthew Stasiw

Post Malone’s new album, “Hollywood’s Bleeding”, brings an exciting-new mix to the table, and reveals more about his lifestyle than ever before.

The album has been long awaited by fans and critics alike.  With the teaser songs of “Wow.”, “Sunflower”, “Goodbyes”, and “Circles” sparking interest in what was to come next, Post Malone delivered. The new songs on the album bring back everything fans were craving to hear.

It’s obvious Post Malone incorporated a new vibe into this album.  When listening to the songs, a higher focus in instrumental reinforcement and a classic OG feel makes every song a rock session. For example, “Take What You Want” proves Post can master any genre of music.  By featuring Ozzy Obourne and Travis Scott together, fans get the collaboration we never knew we needed.  A classic rock feel and sick guitar solo will have anyone jamming in the car.

“Staring At The Sun”, “Circles”, “Allergic”, and “Sunflower” takes the slower pace in just the right way to deliver a more classic pop vibe.  Post Malone’s roots of inspiration flourished throughout the album.

Fans might also find themselves respecting Post’s new attitude.  Through songs such as “Enemies”, “Saint-Tropez”, “I’m Gonna Be”, “Myself”, “Internet”, and “A Thousand Bad Times” Post seems to understand where he is in life.  Instead of dwelling in past depressions, like the songs of “I Fall Apart” and “Stay” in previous albums, Post throws the sadness behind him and is now looking forward.  Upon examining the lyrics, Post knows he can no longer deal with the drama in life.  He knows he is talented at what he does, and he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him.  It’s clear he had a fun time making this album, and he did it for himself.

When looking for songs to vibe to in the car with be sure to make “Enemies”, “Allergic”, “Circles”, “Take What You Want”, and “Staring At The Sun” the top five songs to add to any playlist.

What more can be said about this album?  Besides the fact that it’s a 12/10, nothing much.  Post Malone truly delivered with this new album, and he gave the fans what they were looking for.  Name one bad song by Post Malone.  Trick question, you can’t.