The Twenty Best Singles of 2018

The Best of 2018
Albums | Singles

This year’s best singles strike a balance between newer artists and veterans, and many of them are also highlights of the best albums of the year.

The Twenty Best Singles of 2018

#20
“Knockin’ On Your Screen Door”
John Prine

If you’re going to sing a song about loneliness and remorse, would you make it an up-tempo number that namechecks a George Jones 8-track? John Prine would, and that’s what makes him such a beloved songwriter. He finds new ways to describe universal feelings, and if he can take a sad topic and turn it into a toe-tapper that includes a reference to pork & beans, so much the better. – Sam Gazdziak

#19
“Stay Outta My Business”
Tami Neilson

The outstanding opening track to Neilson’s career-best SASSAFRASS! set is all about establishing two things: attitude and boundaries. She proceeds to let us in on quite a bit of her business on the rest of the album, but “Stay Outta My Business” establishes that she’s doing so on her own terms. – Kevin John Coyne

#18
“Woman, Amen”
Dierks Bentley

Bentley has been singing about drifters off and on since his debut album, and this soaring, anthemic ode to the woman of his dreams seems to deliver a happy ending to the saga. Instead of singing about love in physical terms, Bentley instead focuses on the spiritual, redemptive qualities of a true relationship. It’s also one of the best vocal deliveries of his career.- SG

#17
“Hide the Wine”
Carly Pearce

Carly Pearce’s just-behind-the-beat phrasing is perfectly paired with “Hide the Wine,” on which she considers all of the proactive steps she can take to ward off a hook-up that she knows she’ll regret the next day. The song is as cleverly constructed as anything radio has touched in a minute, with a catchy pre-chorus hook (“Knock, knock, here you come a-knockin’ on my door/But you’re gonna have to wait on the porch”) and soaring melody in the chorus proper. The bridge also boasts a couplet so perfect (“It’s a dangerous game/Pouring alcohol on an old flame”) that it’s hard to believe it took until 2018 for someone to write it. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#16
“Mercy Now”
Kathy Mattea

Mary Gauthier’s plaintive plea for the salvation of her family, her church, and her country had its own poignancy and relevance when it was first released in 2005. Kathy Mattea’s powerful cover reveals new layers of meaning as she applies it to the turmoil of 2018, her reading providing comfort and solace for the world as it is, while also imagining a way forward that is defined by love and forgiveness. – KJC

#15
“Friends Don’t”
Maddie & Tae

As only this duo can do, Maddie & Tae turn what could have been radio fodder into a textured, youthful account of breaking free of the friend zone. – Tara Seetharam

#14
“Radioland”
Ashley McBryde

McBryde’s second single is so effective because the transformative power of music that the lyrics claim is actually backed up by the record itself, a rocking number that she sings the hell out of. Lauren Alaina and Walker Hayes, take note. – KJC

#13
“Drowns the Whiskey”
Jason Aldean featuring Miranda Lambert

Its clever turn-of-phrase is the only thing that pops on “Drowns the Whiskey”; the rest amounts to a sigh of resignation, with Lambert as the perfect salve to Aldean’s characteristic aggression. It’s Aldean at his best, his anger matched by his pain. – TS

#12
“Ain’t No Time to Go”
Loretta Lynn

“Stay with me a little while longer/Oh, stay with me if you can,” Loretta Lynn pleads on “Ain’t No Time to Go,” balancing the pluck and sass of her commercial peak with the wisdom of her age. That the song serves as its own auto-critique– given Lynn’s repeated health scares over the last few years– only adds to its efficacy and depth. – JK

#11
“Desperate Man”
Eric Church

Co-written by Church-favorite Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Desperate Man” is a song with a life and a groove of its own. It shimmies and shakes, revs and bellows, and Church is simply commanding as its ring leader. It’s true that Church’s classic rock influences have been marked from the start, but never have they translated into something this audaciously fun. – TS

#10
“Buy My Own Drinks”
Runaway June

Attention all poptimists: The year’s best Carly Rae Jepsen single isn’t Jepsen’s own “Party For One.” Instead, it’s Runaway June’s spirited “Buy My Own Drinks,” which marries the trio’s Fly-era Dixie Chicks aesthetic to some lyrical and melodic hooks that get the former half of the pop-country formula exactly right. In a year when the women of country music increasingly took a why-even-bother approach to radio, the “I can take my own self to bed” and “I can be my own boyfriend” proclamations of “Buy My Own Drinks” play as a powerful rallying cry. – JK

#9
“Shoot Me Straight”
Brothers Osborne

One of the many reasons why country radio sounds so tepid is that the genre’s men have aggressively middlebrow tastes in non-country influences. No one should be ripping off the likes of Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, or Black-Eyed Peas, but y’all do y’all, Thomas Rhett, Chris Lane, and Sam Hunt. So how invigorating it was, then, to hear Brothers Osborne lay down a guitar riff and rhythm track that could’ve been lifted from Franz Ferdinand’s debut album, and to use that dancepunk inspired riff to propel a straightforward but still cleverly-written country kiss-off track. “Shoot Me Straight” isn’t revolutionary by any means, but it’s catchy as all hell and effortlessly cool. – JK

#8
“Here I Am”
Dolly Parton & Sia

The country music legend and the pop star resurrect a deep album cut from 1971’s Coat of Many Colors, and the result is a revelation. Parton’s gospel roots are never far from the surface, and Sia’s interpretation reinforces the spiritual undertones of the lyric. A highlight from the consistently excellent Dumplin’ soundtrack. – KJC

#7
“Slow Burn”
Kacey Musgraves

“Slow Burn” truly lives up to its name, as the autobiographical first verse, sung over a strummed acoustic guitar, eventually gives way to a larger lyrical scope and lush instrumentation. Like Musgraves’ first hit song, “Merry Go ‘Round,” this is a gorgeous and sophisticated piece of songwriting, made even better by her vocals. – SG

#6
“Got My Name Changed Back”
Pistol Annies

The ladies of Pistol Annies can cut deep with their lyrics, but “Got My Name Changed Back” is a revenge song that delights in its flippancy. The narrator makes clear that this cheating-induced divorce doesn’t deserve any drama – just a trip to the court, an afternoon at the DMV and a vow that she “don’t wanna be a Mrs. on paper no more.” It’s a delicious reclamation of power. – TS

#5
“The Kindness of Strangers”
Courtney Marie Andrews

Few country artists in recent memory have addressed the most basic elements of humanity with the frill-free fervor of Andrews on May Your Kindness Remains.Andrews is generous with her compassion throughout the album, asking of the listener only that he or she extend the same to others. On “Kindness of Strangers,” she furthers that theme by urging the listener to lean into the compassion of others, for even the grace of those we don’t know can cut through the loneliest of times. It’s a message so elementary that it could double as a children’s lesson, but so under-emphasized in our current cultural narrative that “Kindness of Strangers” should be mandatory listening for all adults. – TS

#4
“Millionaire”
Chris Stapleton

“Millionaire” has been around for years; songwriter Kevin Welch first recorded it back in 2001. Chris Stapleton is a fabulous songwriter in his own right, but kudos to him for taking a great song and giving it the audience that it deserved. His soulful voice was tailor-made to sing this song, and the addition of Morgane Stapleton’s background vocals complement him perfectly, as always. – SG

#3
“People Get Old”
Lori McKenna

McKenna’s greatest gift as a songwriter is capturing the passage of time and the mundane moments of life that end up being our markers for how that time has slipped away. She’s written so many great songs about her mother, who died when she was young. This one’s about the father who is still around, who “shouldn’t be shoveling that first snow, but you know he won’t take the help.” After all, “you still think he’s 45 and he still thinks that you’re a kid.” Tim McGraw and/or Faith Hill, please cover this soon. Please. – KJC

#2
“Hands On You”
Ashley Monroe

A bad sexy song is like bad sex; whatever the intent, it comes across as clunky and awkward and leaves the listener thinking about a list of chores that need to get done. When a sexy song hits home, though, it positively smolders. Monroe delivers the hottest vocal performance of 2018, and even though the characters in the song don’t actually make love, a cold shower may be needed after listening to it. – SG

#1
“Space Cowboy”
Kacey Musgraves

One of the most interesting films of the aughts is Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut, an interstellar spaghetti western musical about a literal space cowboy. The film’s tagline, “Space is a lonely town,” also happens to perfectly capture the tone of Kacey Musgraves’ “Space Cowboy,” the finest single of a career that already includes “Merry Go-Round,” “Follow Your Arrow,” and “Dime Store Cowgirl.” The heavy reverb that pervades Golden Hour is put to its most effective use on “Space Cowboy,” giving the track what sounds like an endless expanse of open terrain for its sadness to fill. Musgraves subverts traditional Western iconography in nearly every line of the song, sighing, “There ain’t room for both of us in this town,” not as a threat between two duelists but as an admission of defeat. When she sings, “When a horse wants to run/There ain’t no sense in closing the gate,” Musgraves can see the loneliness down the road ahead, but what makes “Space Cowboy” so effective is her recognition that she was already lonely in a relationship that had long been doomed. – JK

7 Comments

  1. I don’t follow country music like I did around the turn of the decade. But one song stood out for me this year: Burning Man. It reminds me of the Dierks Bentley I loved from the Modern Day Drifter / Long Trip Alone era. And it’s a rare song that made me appreciate more than just the melody, as it was lyrically very resonant for me as well.

  2. I always appreciate your extensive lists. I typically only think of radio songs when I think “singles,” so I appreciate you all keeping up with the other stuff too. I completely overlooked the Runaway June single until now, but it’s quite good.

  3. I feel pretty out of touch with this list. All I’ve heard off it is “Radioland” and “Millionaire”, but I did catch “Desperate Man” on Houston’s New 93Q back in August. And while I have heard something off Prine’s latest courtesy of Sirius XM Outlaw Country, the single wasn’t it (“Boundless Love” was). Don’t tell me I’ve got even more added to the already overwhelming amount of music I halfta dig into…

  4. I really love the singles from John Prine, Tami Neilson, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Mattea, Maddie & Tae, Ashley McBryde, Loretta Lynn, Eric Church, Dolly Parton & Sia, Pistol Annies, Lori McKenna, Ashley Monroe, and Kacey Musgraves. All these artists singles shined through the trash that was mainstream country singles that was played on the radio. Hopefully, country radio will try to play better songs in 2019.

  5. I would have “People Get Old” #1. I can relate to it because I’m old and I’ve heard the snow line from my wife:

    “And he shouldn’t be shovelin’ that first snow, but you know he won’t take the help.” I also turn off light switches.

  6. Runaway June is so underrated it is ridiculous. So hope they can finally breakthrough this year. Country radio likes them more than the typical female act so I am hopeful.

  7. A bit off-topic but I’m a big fan of Mary Gauthier’s Mercy Now. For a different take, check out Mike Ferris’ version. He turns it into a gospel song with a big chorus behind him.

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