Hundreds of albums have been released in 2018 and while I do get around to listening to most everything (in country music) released in a given year, I'd have to say that this year had more than a fair share of female-fronted recordings taking over the list of Top 20 albums. It's a list which is less mainstream than normal but that's just where my heart was at this year. Below are the albums which I found to be the best 20 recordings of the year. Look for Dan MacIntosh's list below.
20."Best Shot" - Jimmie Allen
Perhaps being the record most-fresh on our ears from this list helped it jump a few other contenders but the quality of country/soul and country/pop tunes found on the stellar vocalist's debut for Stoney Creek Records certainly made Best Shot a worthy, if unexpected, opener for this list. Be sure to check out "American Heartbreaker," "Boy Gets A Truck," "Underdogs," the #1 hit single "Best Shot," and the two clear best songs on the album, "How To Be Single" and "All Tractors Ain't Green," a song which challenges expectations and stereotypes.
19."Good People" - Josh Grider
Perhaps the "next" Texas Music star after Aaron Watson, Granger Smith and Cody Johnson to make the transition to mainstream country star, Josh Grider has made the kind of record which can be big in the mainstream, if given the shot. "Bad Times Roll" opens the album and the modern Honky Tonker "Top Of The Bottle" (the best groovy country song Blake Shelton's never recorded) guide the album along with "My First Band," the southernly soulful "How Lucky I Am," and the two best songs on the album, the title track "Good People" and "Pictures Do," the latter one a co-write with former Cy Young winning pitcher Barry Zito which showcases how our memories fade but like a good melody, pictures unlock them.
18. Greetings From The Neon Frontier" - The Wild Feathers
Harmonies permeate every nook and cranny of The Wild Feather's latest roots rock revelation. Always a band which wore its influences on its sleeves through their first two Warner/Reprise albums, the quartet reminds one of a modern take on CSN&Y. There's a nuanced balance the classic sun-soaked sounds of the past with the present day on tracks like "Wildfire," "Big Sky," "Stand By You," "Hold Onto Love" and "Daybreaker (Into The Great Unknown)." This is a record which blends country, rock, pieces of new wave and more into an enticing, ear-pleasing album.
17. "Dan+Shay" - Dan+Shay
On their third album the vocalist/producer duo makes everything about the music. Their album artwork features not one photo and instead focus on the songwriting, vocals and production to make everything work. Having one of the best vocalists in all of music in Shay Mooney doesn't hurt things in the slightest and taking one listen to the opening lines of "Speechless" showcases this. That song, which ends 2018 as the #1 song in all of country music, managed to do the unthinkable and surpass "Tequila" (a multi-week #1 and crossover pop hit) as this record's biggest hit. Both are well-written songs on the different end of the relationship spectrum and combined with "All To Myself," "My Side Of The Fence" and "Keeping Score," a powerful duet with Kelly Clarkson screaming to be a radio single in the future and you end up with one of the year's best mainstream country records.
16. "Sparrow" Ashley Monroe
For her fourth solo album, Ashley Monroe remains one of the best vocalists in all of country music. As a songwriter, she writes pointed, well-rounded songs and some of the best on this record include "Wild Love," "Orphan," "This Heaven," "Daddy, I Told You," and "Hands On You." This is a record which demands your attention and certainly worthy of its place on this list.
15. "Jumping Over Rocks" - Jamie Lin Wilson
How could I not include this beautifully constructed album on this list? Coming from Texas and unafraid to write and record songs which only ask for your ear. The opener "Faithful & True" is a throwback to classic torch balladry while "Eyes For You," and songs like "Everybody's Moving Slow," "Run," and "Eyes For You" showcase a songwriter who is a definite kindred spirit to Patty Griffin, Lori McKenna while "Death & Life" showcases an even higher songwriting level, one that any songwriter should strive to achieve.
14. "Cry Pretty" - Carrie Underwood
There are definite emotions to be heard on the record and like every other Carrie Underwood record, the vocals are on point. The title track did fine at radio and told a story and the compassionate follow-up "Love Wins" is perhaps too much of a message song to connect with contemporary radio stations who seem to still want only relationship and party songs. "Spinning Bottles" may feature the best, most nuanced vocal of Carrie's career while "Ghosts On The Stereo" is subdued country/pop. Standouts include the biggest potential crossover song from her yet in "The Song We Used To Make Love To" while "Drinkin' Alone" is right there with it. The record's social statements undoubtedly rubbed some the wrong way with buzzy song "The Bullet" being the closest thing to discussing gun control in mainstream country music. It's more of a "what's wrong with our society" song than a strong anti-gun song but it's important nonetheless and something a pre-motherhood Underwood would've never recorded.
13. "The Mountain" - Dierks Bentley
It seems that Dierks Bentley has settled into a nice career groove with every other album taking more chances than the other. his previous album Black was more mainstream and "bro" than Riser before it and The Mountain is certainly more Riser and Up On The Ridge than Black or Feel That Fire. This doesn't mean that he's outside of the country mainstream. Just that he takes a few more chances on albums like The Mountain, blending his love of Bluegrass and acoustic music with his love of big, grand choruses and U2-like rock. "Burning Man" is a perfect example of this as it brings in Brothers Osborne for a smashing duet and burning guitar solo while "The Mountain" has an outro which may be amongst the best in all of music this year. "You Can't Bring Me Down" features Sam Bush's distinctive mandolin and Bentley's uplifting songwriting style while "My Religion" is a sweet, Billy Joel-like piano-laced love ballad. Brandi Carlile makes an appearance on "Travelin' Light" and the closer "How I'm Goin' Out" is a mantra for how Dierks Bentley wants to be remembered as a good guy who did the best he could while he was in his 'glory days' as a music man.
12. "Radio Hymns" - Granville Automatic
There's perhaps not a more "Nashville" album than Radio Hymns. The 13 track album from the duo showcases stories about the historical Nashville and opener "Summer Street" perhaps serving as the best opening song of any of the albums here, a harmony-soaked song full of female harmonies which recall Pistol Annies, Wilson Phillips and Dolly, Linda and Emmylou's Trio. The songs touch upon the dark history of Nashville and the album should probably be put in the City's archives as a historical document but it's a mighty musical document and quite the attention-getting concept album. "News Of The World" talks about the secret-keeping patron saint of Nashville's lost souls while "Radio Hymns" talks about the Mother Church of Country Music's creator and the beautifully melancholic "Affairs of Honor" tells the story of Andrew Jackson's true love marriage destroyed by the politics of his time. Finally, don't miss "The Barber's Wife," a hallowing tale about suffrage amidst a murder trial in the early 20th century.
11. "Norman Rockwell World" - Jeff Hyde
Eric Church's longtime sideman got 2018 off to a strong start with this well-written and produced project. The 1-2 punch of "Old Hat" and "Fiction" showcase an artist that beautifully blending Acoustic Music and Bluegrass with modern rock sounds. "Fiction" has some of the most-innovative production of all country albums in 2018 and if there's a case to be made to make contemporary sounds which don't aggressively use a snap track (a trend pointed out by Grady Smith towards the end of 2018), "Fiction" is it. "Cold" is sweetly melancholic while storysongs like "Henry Ford," "The Filter," and "Norman Rockwell World" abound.
10. "Dark Horse" - Devin Dawson
From the opener "Dip" to the closing (and autobiographical) "Dark Horse," Devin Dawson made the best collection of funky country/soul. It'll leave traditionalists screaming but the production (one of Jay Joyce's most innovative to date) is on point and Dawson is a unique, emo-country revelation throughout the record. "All On Me" introduced a Gavin DeGraw-like singer but it is everything else on the record which suggests that revelation mentioned above. "Placebo," is a good example of this. There's a bit of David Gray to the production and a bit of Maroon 5 to the vocal but that's all good to these ears. This is country pop done right." add in the closing tracks "Prison" and "Dark Horse" and it's easy to see why a unique talent like Devin Dawson did break out in 2018. He's unique to country music and makes songs that aren't the standard fare of what typically makes it out of Nashville.
9. "The Tree" - Lori McKenna
She's one of the A-list songwriters in Nashville but for my money, it is the records that the Massachusetts native makes that move the needle more for me. She's a brilliant writer but her own voice is where her songs shine the most. Case in point is The Tree, her 2018 follow-up to The Bird And The Rifle. She sings her own truth, her own life and yet somehow these songs are instantly relatable to the listener. There’s a song which hits home for a different person at a different time and these songs need to be heard to find out which one that is to you. For me, it’s "People Get Old," a song which I relate to my own parents as they (and I) get older. Much how I often feel the same as I did as a teenager or a twenty-something, to me, my father will always be the tough, rough breadwinner for my family, not the man who will need a cane or walker sooner than later.
8. "Crepe Paper Heart" - Becky Buller
Our favorite Bluegrass album for 2018, Crepe Paper Heart is a great entry point into Bluegrass for the uninitiated. Not only talented as a songwriter and vocalist, Becky Buller is an educator and one of the best fiddle players in all of Bluegrass. The melodies. The vocals. The stories. They're all here. "Speakin' To That Mountain" is practically calling for more attention while "The Rebel And The Rose" is a sweet, banjo and mandolin-backed story song featuring Sam Bush on mando and duet vocals. The closing "Written In The Back Of The Book" is a modern hymn with the iconic Fairfield Four singing the a cappella song along with Becky.
7. "Port Saint Joe" - Brothers Osborne
Their debut album Pawn Shop remains one of my favorite albums of the past decade. There's no sophomore slump on the supremely talented John and T.J.'s second album Port Saint Joe. Recorded in Florida at Jay Joyce's beach house (to get out of the comforts of Nashville), the record brims with soul, funk, country and rock and is uniquely Brothers Osborne. "Slow Your Roll" could've come out many records from the 70s while the slow burning "Weed, Whiskey and Willie" is exactly about what the title says it is but it's not as cliched as it could've been given that title. "Tequila Again" is a mandolin-laced country love song (and one of the few "acoustic" moments of this record). Stax era soul comes alive on "A Little Bit of Trouble" while "Pushing Up Daisies" feels supremely downtempo and as good as these songs are, the two anchors of the album are the closer "While You Still Can" and "I Don't Remember Me (Before You)." Both showcase the duo's philosophy on life. These are people who know that life if fleeting and that you shouldn't hold grudges (on the former) while they also know that a real, true love can change a person (the latter). This is the duo in a nutshell (with plenty of groovy guitar mixed in for good measure).
6. "Lifers" - Cody Jinks
Now signed with powerhouse roots indie label Rounder Records, Cody Jinks does a good job of showcasing why he's become one of the true indie success stories just outside of Nashville's mainstream (and a secondary radio success story). The only thing missing is for mainstream country music to take the talented singer/songwriter and propel him to Stapleton-like stardom. Hell, on listen to Lifers and you may realize that Cody Jinks might not need the mainstream to become that superstar, and to a good many people, he already is that star. Miles away from his thrash metal band days, Jinks is nonetheless one of country's most-exciting artists. "Holy Water" is amongst the best album opening tracks of 2018 and "Must Be The Whiskey" one of the best singles to be released anywhere. Each subsequent song on the 11 track album tells a distinct story and narrative, stories instantly relatable.
5. "By The Way, I Forgive You" - Brandi Carlile
After some years chasing some version of the adult alternative mainstream, Brandi Carlile turned to Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb to work on this record and with that, she brought along a batch of songs which land her back closer to the "Americana" she was recording in the decade prior to 2016's Firewatcher's Daughter. Not a mainstream country radio aritst (though she, like many others featured here, should be), Brandi Carlile found kindred spirits to make this record. Take one listen to the soaring vocals on the musically elegant "The Joke" and you realize she's reminding anyone with self-doubt, addictions, or depression from being bullied that things do get better and that life is full of brilliant technicolor and that those who seek to "put them in their place" are the ones who are projecting. It's a vocal tour-de-force and the rightful showstopper on an album of showstoppers (which include "Fulton County Jane Doe," "The Mother," "Most Of All" and "Party of One").
4. "Interstate Gospel" - Pistol Annies
The buzzworthy track from the album is "Got My Name Changed Back" and this record -- the third from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley -- is their best to date. As country as collard greens, the record traverses bluegrass, old school country, and rock. The trio write some of the best country songs you'll hear in 2018 (or any year). The harmonies are strong, the melodies tight and the band at perhaps their apex.
3. "Girl Going Nowhere" - Ashley McBryde
What do you get when you give a hard-working country music troubadour some airplay on satellite radio? Well, you get a singer/songwriter into a sort of bidding war where her 11 song album Girl Going Nowhere eventually finds a label home. A Top 40 hit single later ("A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega") and she's now gracing award shows, radio stations and more. The title track is brutally honest and a musical "F.U." to people who said she'd never amount to anything (it was originally written for and debuted during her Grand Ole Opry debut and is now covered by Garth Brooks in concert). "American Scandal" is as unique a love song as you'll find, "El Dorado" a Springsteensian storysong, "Andy (I Can't Live Without You)" a song of platonic friendship and love. This is a record with classicist depth.
2. "Borrowed Heart" - Heather Morgan
Yet another songwriter making their debut in front of the microphone, Heather Morgan slays immediately on "We Were A Fire," the opener of Borrowed Heart. In a year where Lee Ann Womack hasn't released a new record, Morgan deftly steps into her space with Borrowed Heart. There's power, there's emotion, there's "Your Hurricane," a song which finds Morgan singing of the intense emotions that follow the breakup. There's a lilting beauty to her voice on this and the other tracks on the record, songs like "Morning Light," "Fall Like Rain" "Arms of a Lion" and "Speckled Bird."
1. "Golden Hour" - Kacey Musgraves
There's not much to be said about this album that hasn't been said about it in other pages. It's a complete album that's great from start to finish. There are certain sonic highlights to be found ("Lonely Weekend," "Butterflies," "Mother," "High Horse" and "Rainbow"). It's a record that has everything (except radio airplay). That's OK because it's already won the CMA Album of the Year award and is going to win Grammy for country and is a front-runner for the all-genre Album of the Year trophy. OK, I guess I could say a little bit about the year's best album.
Notable albums in consideration for this list:
- "The Tree of Forgiveness" - John Prine
- "Desperate Man" - Eric Church
- "Call Me Lucky" - Chris Smither
- "The Woman I Am" - Sarah Patrick
- "Fighter" - Davisson Brothers Band
- "Starfire" - Caitlyn Smith
- "Magic" - Ben Rector
- "This Is It" - Scotty McCreery
- "Southern Ambrosia" - Kristina Murray
- "Don't Call Me An Angel" - Hilary Scott
- "Telling All My Secrets" - Mitchell Tenpenny
- "Graffiti U" - Keith Urban
- "Bigger" - Sugarland
- "Songs For The Saints" - Kenny Chesney
- "All of It" - Cole Swindell
- "Songs From Lyon County" - Dennis K Duff
- "Strange Conversation" - Mandy Barnett
- "Here Comes Trouble - Kendall Beard
- “Out In The Open” - Steep Canyon Rangers
- “Hallelujah Nights” - LANco
- “Home State” - Jordan Davis
- “Edgeland” - Kim Richey
- “No Zip Code” - David Lee Murphy
- “Rearview Town” - Jason Aldean
- “Sleeping Dogs” - Jeff Plankenhorn
- “Providence Canyon” - Brent Cobb
- “Back Being Blue” - Kelly Willis
- “Amos” - Michael Ray
- “To The Sunset” - Amanda Shires
- “Hell On An Angel - Dillon Carmichael
- “Dying Star” - Ruston Kelly
- “My American Dream” - Will Hoge
- “Somewhere In Between” - Adam Hood
- “Songs Of The Plains” - Colter Wall
- “Experiment” - Kane BrownTicket To L.A.” - Brett Young
- “Wouldn’t It Be Great” - Loretta Lynn
- “Raising The Bar” - Terri Clark
- “E.G.O.” - Lucie Silvas
What do you think? Did we get the list right?