Country music addressed a number of tough topics this year: addiction, failed marriages, the passage of time and disillusionment in our leaders, among them. And while those songs excelled because of their sharp lyricism, thoughtful arrangements and stellar production, or a combination of all three, at their core they reminded us that we’re all in this together. Here’s 25 tracks that gave us reason to reflect, reconsider and celebrate existence in 2018.
The unhinged buddy-comedy collaboration of Traveller, the Americana supergroup comprising Jonny Fritz, Robert Ellis and Cory Chisel, yielded a superb debut that combined the songwriters’ penchant for narrative detail, oddball humor and sharp melody. The album’s standout title track is a clever ode — part sendup and part earnest tribute — to the old-fashioned, masculine myth-making of westerns. “My lady doesn’t get it,” Ellis sings with a grin, “it appeals to the rambling bandit in me.” J.B.
In the endless cat-chases-tail conversation of what is or isn’t country, it’s hard to know where to land Caitlyn Smith, particularly because there are many moments on her debut LP Starfire that veer quite far into indie-pop territory. But “This Town Is Killing Me” takes its roots from Nashville in more ways than one. Filled with potent songwriting and a guitar melody that evokes the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” Smith gut-wrenchingly paints a picture of what it’s like to shoot for a dream in a town — Music City, to be exact — more enamored with radio hits than artistic integrity. “I scream my lungs out, confess my secrets, all my sins. But they don’t give a damn,” she sings. “Cause if it don’t sound like the radio?” She adds the response in breathy, spoken resignation: “pass.” The real fight is in how, even through all those struggles, Smith never once gave up. M.M.
Jon Nite, Chase McGill and Jessie Jo Dillon earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song for this straightforward but potent ballad about an inevitably doomed romance. For Swindell, it’s the perfect song choice and further highlights his skill set as an everyman balladeer. (When he sings that he’d still fall in love, despite the lousy outcome, you believe him.) Best of all, though, is the vocal-forward production, which puts both Swindell’s voice and, especially, the songwriters’ deceptively simple lyrics front and center. J.H.
“The world’s standing still on the 405, the vampires hang out on Mulholland Drive,” sings Kip Moore on “It Ain’t California,” full of that glorious signature grit. “Heartbreaker smiles everywhere you turn. Some learn to fly, some crash and burn.” An ode to the spirit of Tom Petty — and the era that he left behind, when more artists were simply seeking creative truth, not a blue checkmark — written with kindred spirit Charlie Worsham, Moore offers a tender, tightly composed moment of reverence that still packs a punch and serves as a reminder to get off social media and out on those California roads, or wherever you feel most free, in search of the next adventure. M.M.
Even if you didn’t catch any of the allusions to assorted trucker slang, the search for alien existence or the reference to Eric Garner’s final plea for life — “I can’t breathe” — this pulsing rocker from the Texas Panhandle singer arrived midway though 2018 as a much-needed anthem of bruised resilience. “Can You Hear Me” bleeds with underdog heartland triumph, with its pulsing backbeat and hard-won chorus that puts a thoroughly modern spin on mid-Eighties Springsteen and Mellencamp melodrama. J.B.
Compiled from stories the Muscle Shoals-born Wammack heard during her time as a bartender, “Damage,” from her debut self-titled EP, follows the time-honored country tradition of using a song to tick through different lives or different life phases, one verse at a time. But that’s where Wammack, who can usually be found behind the piano, leaves it, instead using that lyrical casing to form a dynamic Southern power ballad, loaded with raw emotion. Wammack may no longer be slinging drinks from behind the bar, serving up whiskey and a sympathetic ear, but “Damage “is the kind of track that connects in that same one-to-one way, and lasts far longer than the ephemeral high of a stiff cocktail. M.M.
For “Tequila,” Dan + Shay combined verses steeped in Max Martin-inspired boyband craft and a chorus brimming with exaggerated theatrics. The result was an irresistible hit from the fast-rising duo, a future karaoke staple that pays tribute to not quite faded memories and simmering regret. By the time the opening four words to the chorus arrive — “When I taste tequila” — it’s clear that the heartbreak that follows is not going to be pretty. J.B.
On an album of expertly-crafted country-funk formalism, “Providence Canyon” stood out as a precious exception. The breezy mid-tempo ballad, part moving memoir, part meditation on nostalgia, finds Cobb waxing nostalgic on his youth in South Georgia: coolers full of beer, black nights full of stars, and endless summers full of fading adolescence. “Somebody play an old song/T o remind us we’re still young,” Cobb sings, adding a poignant urgency to the carefree memory. J.B.
Singer-songwriter Becky Warren’s LP Undesirable works beautifully as a concept album about human struggle, but its opening track is a perfect standalone country-rock anthem. There are so many great lines that it’s impossible to pick a favorite: “Back home, they pass Christmas Day by killing something wild” and “My bones are tired, but my heart’s an unpinned hand grenade” are particularly jaw-dropping. But all of them serve Warren’s story, inspired by conversations and interactions with members of Nashville’s homeless community. Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls adds some plaintive harmony in the chorus, as rousing an ode to helping one another through hard times as you’re likely to encounter this year. J.F.
A proper tearjerker, the title track to the Moonpies’ best album yet tells the story of divorce from the POV of one of the kids, who accompanies his old man nightly to the Prairie Rose watering hole to watch the ballgame and sip a Coke. Eventually, he’s all grown up and drinking a beer with dad while listening to the band — before he finds himself at the bar all alone, toasting the memory of his departed father. It’s the circle of life, told through the prism of a Texas barroom. J.H.
The Canadian-born Tenille Townes was relatively unknown stateside when she released her 2018 EP Living Room Worktapes, but songs like “Jersey on the Wall,” presented here in simple acoustic form, show an uncanny grasp of empathetic storytelling and a voice unafraid to get tender like Patty Griffin and bend her syllables like Joanna Newsom. Inspired by the heartbreaking story of a teenage basketball player killed in a car crash, Townes plunges you instantly into the haunting walls of that high-school gym, where only a jersey and a slew of lingering questions remain. “Somewhere there is a mother who has stopped going to church, because your plan quit making sense down here on earth,” she sings, drawing that last word into a quiver, like a vibrato shaken by tears. M.M.
The Nashville singer-songwriter describes this gentle ballad as being about “romanticizing addiction in all of its forms.” But “Can’t Cut Loose,” one of the standouts on Rae’s excellent second album, also revolves around the most country of themes. “Wanna be free like we once were,” Rae sings, with a soft drama, as she searches for the imagined freedom of her past, overrun by the fiction her own memory is selling her. “Can’t Cut Loose” is a reminder that sometimes there can be nothing more addictive than our own thoughts. J.B.
The premise of “Faceplant,” the catchiest track on the catchiest Americana-leaning country album of the year, is straightforward: “I took too many pills again,” the songwriter sings in the opening line. The rest of the song plays like a nihilist nursery rhyme, with Kelly singing about drug-induced blackouts and dramatic fuckups over an infectiously cheery John Prine-inspired chord progression, until the chorus arrives with some much-needed reckoning. It’s a master class is staring down one’s darkest demons with a winking smile. J.B.
Country collaborations can often feel like forced affairs, with the guest artist punching in their vocal from afar. No so with Bentley and Brothers Osborne’s “Burning Man,” a restless rocker that explores the gray area between settling down and running free. Bentley and TJ Osborne’s vocal turns complement each other in their urgency, while guitarist John Osborne unleashes a slashing solo that could only come from his guitar. One of Bentley’s all-time best. J.H.
For the notoriously private Carrie Underwood, it wasn’t easy to open up and let the world in, especially after an extremely difficult phase in her life where she battled public struggles — like a fall that left her with over 40 stitches in her face — and private tragedies, like the unfathomable pain of multiple miscarriages. But when she came out with “Cry Pretty,” debuted live on the ACM Awards, that all changed in an instant: this was a song about making peace with being broken, and what it’s like to share that with a world that expects perfect and pretty 100 percent of the time. Plus, it’s easy to talk about how women don’t get played on country radio, or aren’t appearing at the top of festival billing. But for “Cry Pretty,” Underwood enlisted all-women co-writers (Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna), took up producing reins and brought along all female acts to open her tour. You can’t cry pretty, but it’s beautiful when you walk the walk. M.M.
American Aquarium leader BJ Barham came back with a new band and a new outlook in 2018, grappling with Donald Trump’s election and his own Southern upbringing on the LP Things Change. In the hard-rocking “Tough Folks,” Barham sees the connections between economic depression and voting for anyone who makes wild promises. “And last November I saw firsthand / What desperation makes good people do,” he sings, as the band powers through the song’s signature crunchy riff. But it’s not politicians who will improve the lives of poor Southern folks, Barham argues — it’s their own ingenuity and ability to make something out of nothing. J.F.
Jason Aldean has developed something of a reputation for stylistic experiments since breaking out with “Dirt Road Anthem,” but the best song on 2018’s Rearview Town is as straightforward a country tune as they come. Penned by Brandon Kinney, Jeff Middleton and Josh Thompson, “Drowns the Whiskey” — in true “The Bottle Let Me Down” form — envisions a heartache that can’t be killed by the potent corn liquor made in Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s distillery. The production is lovely, a sighing, undulating mix of electric guitars, steel and synthetic drums, finding a sweet spot where all these things sound contemporary. Lambert gets the assist, her distinctive harmonies smoothing out the song’s rougher edges and opening up the possibility that this particular heartbreak may go in both directions. J.F.
Kenny Chesney has made a career out of songs about the sea, the sand and the good times had in both. But in Travis Meadows and Liz Rose’s “Better Boat,” he finds the perfect maritime metaphor for self-change. Just a vessel riding life’s current, Chesney knows he can always strengthen his hull: “Now and then I let it go/ I ride the waves I can’t control I’m learning how to build a better boat.” A stunner, made all the more impactful by guest Mindy Smith’s ethereal harmonies. Alas, it failed to break the Top 20 on the charts, further proof that country radio isn’t always the place for the best songs. J.H.
There’s so much space on the gloriously unpredictable “Higher Wire,” from Church’s sixth album Desperate Man, you could crawl inside if you wanted to. Who else in mainstream country (or anywhere, really) could mix a swampy, sticky guitar vamp with vulnerable falsetto, vocal effects that sometimes sound like a skipping record and production straight out of 1969? No one else but Church, who takes a completely out-of-the-box turn on “Higher Wire” to create a song both stunningly bare but thrillingly rich, thanks in part to the power pipes of Joanna Cotten. Church has said that it was “Higher Wire” that shook him out of a creative stalemate. Were it to be released as a single, perhaps it’d shake radio out its funk, too. M.M.