The Best of 2018
Albums | Singles
This year’s best albums were mostly disconnected from country radio, even when record buyers powered them to the top of the sales and streaming charts. More so than ever, there is great music out there for those willing to seek it out. We recommend that you start here.
The Twenty Best Albums of 2018
Now in her third decade as a recording artist, Kim Richey revisits the sound and the themes of those underrated albums she released for Mercury in the latter half of the nineties. “Can’t Let You Go,” “Chase Wild Horses,” and “I Tried” are among the album’s many high points. – Kevin John Coyne
She Remembers Everything
Rosanne Cash has long proven her ability to give her confessional brand of songwriting the weight of contemporary politics. Still, She Remembers Everything is the most overtly political album of her storied career, with an emphasis on narratives that consider the struggles of those who are disenfranchised. The heady content is matched to some of her most unconventional and difficult songwriting since 10 Song Demo all the way back in 1996; the literal violence of “Gods of Harlem” and the gender dynamics of “The Undiscovered Country” don’t make for easy listening, but Cash nonetheless sounds as vital as ever. – Jonathan Keefe
The Tree of Forgiveness
As chaotic as the world is becoming, it’s comforting to know that in 2018, John Prine remains a vital part of the Americana/folk world. Tree of Forgiveness, his first solo album of new material since 2005, is alternately sweet, dramatic and just plain goofy — in other words, everything you’d hope for in a Prine album. “I Have Met My Love Today” and “Boundless Love” are as romantic as he’s ever been, while “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” demonstrates he is one of our greatest wordsmiths. “When I Get to Heaven” is prime Prine: it makes you laugh, it tugs at your heartstrings, it has Prine quoting his father’s words: “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead.” – Sam Gazdziak
I’m With Her
See You Around
What amounts to a supergroup for their generation of Americana artists, I’m With Her impress on See You Around for how they highlight the individual strengths of each member of the trio. Sara Watkins’ dry wit and more-powerful-with-each-new-record vocals, Aofie O’Donovan’s fiery folk tendencies, and Sarah Jarosz’s guarded view of the world combine in fascinating ways over the course of See You Around, making for an album that is at turns laid-back and ferocious and exquisitely and expertly performed. Were all three women not so accomplished in their respective careers, the temptation would be to say See You Around is each of their bests. – JK
Cinematic in its scope and unflinching in its perspective, Liberty is among the finest and purest concept albums recorded in this century. Lindi Ortega’s ability to turn her meditations on the state of her recording career— from false starts to cutting self-doubts to a sense of hope she keeps at arm’s length— into distinctive narratives on a song-by-song basis is simply a marvel. That she tells her story as a Western in which she’s a wronged woman out for empowerment as much as for vengeance is a bold, creative choice that makes Liberty one of 2018’s most timely albums, in addition to one of its best. – JK
There was a maturity to Kathy Mattea’s work when she was still in her twenties and scoring radio hits. So it’s no surprise that Pretty Bird is substantive and intelligent, but it also benefits from the wisdom that only time and experience can bring. Mattea birthed this record while recalibrating her changing voice, and she sounds wonderful throughout However, it is her invaluable perspective is what gives songs like “Mercy Now,” “Little Glass of Wine,” and “October Song” their heft. – KJC
Dying Star was one of the best debuts of the year and showed that Kelly already has a veteran presence as a singer/songwriter. While sounding occasionally like Bruce Robison or Ryan Adams, Kelly’s songs feature gorgeous imagery and tight, focused songwriting. “Mockingbird,” one of the album highlights, name-checks Parker Posey circa 1993 while describing his love. While oddly specific, it paints the perfect picture for the listener without relying on a over-used piece of pop culture. “Brightly Burst into the Air” may be the most effective song that clocks in at just over 90 seconds — a perfect example of quality over quantity. – SG
A return to form after the pandering and trend-chasing Black, The Mountain finds Dierks Bentley in the hillbilly stoner philosopher mode that suits his particular gifts the best. On songs like “Living,” “Son of the Son,” spirited Brandi Carlile duet “Travelin’ Light,” and album-closing “How I’m Going Out,” Bentley aims to tell what he perceives to be big truths without lapsing into the pretense of trying to say something profound. It’s a subtle distinction that fits his aw-shucks persona and allows the songwriting to stand on its own considerable merits. – JK
The artistic evolution of Eric Church over the last decade has been a treat for anyone who appreciates a little literacy, creativity and authenticity in their country music. While most of the male country singers have chased pop radio sounds, Church has gone the other way, stripping away the sheen and focusing on the time-honored “three chords and the truth.” Church really shines on the quiet, meditative pieces like “Hippie Radio,” which draws the listener in with a good story. When he wants to rock out, though, he’s as good as anyone in the genre. We may have lost Tony Joe White in 2018, but Church is keeping the country-soul tradition alive with “Desperate Man” and “Hangin’ Around.” – SG
Kasey Chambers & The Fireside Disciples
Come for the joyous sing-alongs that bring to mind roasted fish and toasted marshmallows around the campfire. Stay for the dark explorations of mortality that are heightened by the exposed vulnerability of being in the wilderness when the fire dies out. – KJC
Wouldn’t it Be Great
The purest showcase of Loretta Lynn’s incomparable talents as a songwriter as has ever been put on record. She sounds better vocally than she has in decades. She’s recorded the title track twice before, but the definitive version is here. Heck, for as strong as the new material here is, I’ll risk the heresy and suggest that the definitive versions of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin'” are here, too. – KJC
I’ll admit that I’ve never fully embraced one of Lori McKenna’s albums until The Tree. There’s always been a lingering feeling that there was something too polite about her songwriting, which could skew toward the “universal” rather than the personal in its details. That’s not the case on The Tree, on which every song is an example of confessional songwriting at its finest. The details on these songs are idiosyncratic and unique, but that only makes the songs all the more powerful. There isn’t a single detail in standout “People Get Old” that rings true for my own experiences, but damned if the song hasn’t wrecked me every single time I’ve heard it and thought about my own aging parents. – JK
Courtney Marie Andrews
May Your Kindness Remain
Not since I heard Tami Neilson for the first time back in 2014 have I been floored by a voice the way I was by Courtney Marie Andrews’ on May Your Kindness Remain. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give— and long-time reader Erik North will surely agree that it’s the highest of praise— is that there are times, such as in the chorus of the devastating “Rough Around the Edges,” when the power, control, tone, and timbre of Andrews’ voice recall Linda Ronstadt at her peak. But May Your Kindness Remain isn’t simply a showcase for Andrews as a vocalist: The album stands as a huge leap forward in her songwriting. When she sings, “Mother says we love who we think we deserve/But I’ve hurt worse,” on “I’ve Hurt Worse,” she’s coming up with lines worthy of contemporaries like Lambert and Isbell. Andrews has said that she approached the album as a plea for empathy, and every song is about finding moments of shared humanity or opportunities to extend grace. It’s the year’s most beautiful album. – JK
Old Crow Medicine Show
OCMS has been gradually incorporating more musical elements into its sound, stretching from an acoustic string band to occasional the use of drums and electric guitar. Nothing about it screams “selling out” after signing with a major record label; it’s a natural evolution of a six-piece band with talented multi-instrumentalists at almost every position. It’s also hard to deny the results of songs like “Child of the Mississippi,” which uses drums but fits perfectly into the OCMS wheelhouse. The twangy “Dixie Avenue” sounds like a lost George Jones classic, though it was written by frontmen Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua. Still, when the band cuts loose with a “Flicker & Shine,” it’s hard to deny that few bands can match OCMS for a barn-burning fiddle tune. asdf – JK
As she gets older, Ashley Monroe is applying her unique brand of melancholy to the heavier themes of life and loss, although she’s still ace at applying them to plain old heartache, too. “Orphan” is arguably her greatest moment on record yet, and will resonate deeply with those who have lost a parent and make them hang on a little tighter if they have a kid. Check out “Daddy I Told You” and “Mother’s Daughter” as well to complete that thematic trilogy. – KJC
A brash, brassy triumph, Tami Neilson’s SASSAFRASS! finds the powerhouse singer-songwriter at her most political. Drawing inspiration from the still-smoldering dumpster fire of Keith Hill’s “Tomatogate” and the of-the-moment #MeToo movement, Neilson gives unapologetic voice to the experiences of a wide range of women. Opener “Stay Outta My Business!” addresses women who criticize the choices other women make as working mothers, while “Smoking Gun” points directly at the likes of Weinstein and Moonves in the entertainment industry. While the album’s feminism is unabashed, to dismiss the album as one-note or angry is to miss the breadth of experiences Neilson considers or the different tones she takes: Some of the album’s finest moments are the melancholy “A Woman’s Pain,” which draws from the Biblical creation story, and the ribald “Bananas,” about the struggles for women to get played on country radio. What ultimately makes SASSAFRASS! so effective in communicating Neilson’s many valid points is that her genre savvy and whip-smart humor make the album accessible and just outright fun. – JK
By the Way, I Forgive You
“The Joke” was a powerful song that even made it on former President Barack Obama’s list of favorite songs in 2017. This year, “Every Time I Hear That Song” made his list of 2018 favorite songs. Argue with his politics all you want, but you have to admit that the man has good musical taste. By the Way, produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, covers a wide musical terrain, from folk to Americana to string-driven pop, but nothing really feels out of place. Carlile’s voice can soar to heights few others can reach, but she can make the low-key “The Mother” or “Fulton County Jane Doe” sound soft and beautiful just as well. – SG
Falling in love has put the usually cynical Musgraves in an unfamiliar position, and the best moments of Golden Hour explore the confusion between what she’s feeling in her heart and what she’s hearing from her mind. “Butterflies” captures the bewilderment of having someone who loves her without wanting to take her crown, while “Happy & Sad” has her bracing for the worst while enjoying the best feeling of her life.
When she closes the album with “Rainbow,” a song about trying to make someone aware that the storm has passed and they haven’t noticed that they’re under blue skies now, it’s easy to think that she’s singing to herself. – KJC
Girl Goin’ Nowhere
Once upon a time, the arrival of Ashley McBride would be celebrated by country radio as a traditionalist singer-songwriter with a great voice and intriguing tunes. Today, well… The point of this piece, though, is to celebrate the arrival of McBryde as an heir apparent to Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan and all of the other female vocalists who made the 1990s and early 2000s so great. Girl Goin’ Nowhere has smartly written radio-friendly songs like “Radioland” and “The Jacket,” with some moody Southern Gothic and rock thrown in as well. “Livin’ Next to Leroy” is a disturbingly realistic slice of Southern life and is a standout piece of songwriting by McBryde and Nicollete Hayford. Forget the fantasy world you hear about on country radio of bonfires and beer. There is an opioid epidemic that is killing teenagers who think they’re somehow above the consequences of reckless behavior, and kudos to McBryde for her honest portrayal of it. – SG
Country radio continues to reflect the national narrative in the worst ways, promoting toxic masculinity and male mediocrity, while sidelining and shutting out female excellence, keeping those best equipped to be the genre’s salvation from even being heard. So of course, in 2018, women did what women do in the face of insurmountable injustices. They worked harder and did better.
No album better exemplified this spirit of resistance than Interstate Gospel. As individual artists, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley have made some of the best country music of the decade. Joined together, they crafted the finest album of 2018, fueled solely by their own songwriting pens. How men isolate them (“Best Years of My Life”), betray them (“When I Was His Wife,”) and ultimately waste them (“Milkman”) is all captured with documentary style intimacy.
But these ladies also fight back, controlling their own narratives and reclaiming their time, whether it means a trip to the DMV (“Got My Name Changed Back”), indulging in some mood-altering substances (“Stop Drop and Roll One”), or even ratting out your kid brother to save his life (“Commissary.”) Being a woman in 2018 isn’t easy, but Pistol Annies prove that there is strength in numbers, particularly when they’re so collectively smart and they steadfastly refuse to be silenced. – KJC
Re. Liberty: I agree that one can see a lot of the travails that Lindi has gone through in her life and her time in the music business reflected in that album. The even greater impression I got from the album, however, was in how she also reflects a great love for country, rock, Western film music, and Mexicana elements (her being born in Canada, but her father being Mexican) encased in a concept album revolving around the mythology and landscape of the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. An album like this that can contain multitudes of impressions is one more than worthy of being on any Best Of list (IMHO).
These are some solid album picks. I knew the Pistol Annies, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe’s albums would be in the top 5. Those 3 albums are among the best albums of 2018 of any genres IMO. I just recently got into Ashley McBride and Courtney Marie Andrews just last year and they impressed me. They both got a bright future. Brandi Carlile is getting the credit she truly deserve and her amazing album help give her some Grammy nominations. I’m With Her is one of my favorite supergroups currently. I agree, they know how to blend their talents very well. Tami Nelson and Lindi Ortega are continuing to grow as artists and they deserve more recognition. Kim Richey, Rosanne Cash, Kathy Mattea, Kasey Chambers, Lori McKenna, John Prine, and Loretta Lynn just get better as time goes on. I’m convince they will never fall off. Eric Church is continuing his run as one of the best talents in country music currently. Dierks Bentley bounced back well after Black flopped. I thought he couldn’t recapture the same magic of his old material, but he did and that’s a good thing. Old Crow Medicine Show continues to grow as a band. I thought they would fall off, but they proved me wrong. I hope that 2019 will be better.
Ladies rule on CU – 15 out of 20. Not as important as all those women winning congressional seats but still quite impressive.
Re. Courtney Marie Andrews: Yes, the influence of Linda on Courtney is very much in evidence to be sure. But the best thing about the way Courtney integrates that influence is to further bolster her own originality into something that is both original and authentically who she is. It is something that I think Linda would appreciate greatly; as Linda once said: “You don’t have to be original, just authentic.” Courtney definitely found the way to make that happen, and in spades (IMHO).
I’m a little late to the party. For me, it is Courtney Marie Andrews at the top of the list.
Check out Southland, by Lindsay Lou. Similar to a lot of stuff on this list…and I think it holds together better than Andrews’ album (the production on May Your Kindness Remain can’t quite capture the awesomeness that is Courtney’s live show).