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25 Best Country and Americana Songs of 2018

Tracks by Kenny Chesney, John Prine and Courtney Marie Andrews highlight the year in country songs

best country songs of 2018

Songs by Kenny Chesney, John Prine and Courtney Marie Andrews make up our best country songs of the year.

Rick Scuteri/Invision/AP/Shutterstock; Mark Zaleski/AP/Shutterstock; Andrew Benge/Redferns

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.

Ryan Culwell

Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

21

Ryan Culwell, “Can You Hear Me”

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.

Rachel Wammack

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, native Rachel Wammack released her self-titled EP in 2018.

Courtesy of Sony Music Nashville

20

Rachel Wammack, “Damage”

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.

Dan + Shay

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

19

Dan + Shay, “Tequila”

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.

Brent Cobb

Don Van Cleave

18

Brent Cobb, “Providence Canyon”

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.

Becky Warren

Courtesy of Lucky Bird Media

17

Becky Warren, “We’re All We Got”

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.

Mike and the Moonpies

Kirk Marsh

16

Mike and the Moonpies, “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose”

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.

Tenille Townes

Jessica Steddom

15

Tenille Townes, “Jersey on the Wall”

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.

Erin Rae

Courtesy of Big Feat PR

14

Erin Rae, “Can’t Cut Loose”

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.

Ruston Kelly

Alexa King

13

Ruston Kelly, “Faceplant”

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.

Dierks Bentley

Jim Wright

12

Dierks Bentley featuring Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”

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.

Carrie Underwood

Courtesy of UMG Nashville

11

Carrie Underwood, “Cry Pretty”

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

Cameron Gott

10

American Aquarium, “Tough Folks”

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

Miller Mobley

9

Jason Aldean featuring Miranda Lambert, “Drowns the Whiskey”

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

Allister Ann

8

Kenny Chesney featuring Mindy Smith, “Better Boat”

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.

Eric Church

John Peets

7

Eric Church, “Higher Wire”

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.

Lori McKenna

Becky Fluke

6

Lori McKenna, “People Get Old”

“And I’m older now than he was then / If I could go back in time, I would in a second,” sings Lori McKenna in “People Get Old,” from her Dave Cobb-produced LP The Tree. Aging and the passage of time is well-traveled territory for country singer-songwriters, but few of them can do it with McKenna’s humanity and wit. This unadorned tune moves with surprising swiftness, from summer days with her father as a kid to a house full of her own children and catching herself saying the same things he used to say. That McKenna handles it all with such clear-eyed matter-of-factness doesn’t take one ounce of its power away. J.F.

Kacey Musgraves

Jamie Nelson

5

Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy”

On an album of genre experimentation and bold adventurousness, “Space Cowboy” was the most grounded gesture from the Texas wordsmith, a heartbroken ode to the moment someone realizes the inevitable end to a doomed relationship has finally arrived. That moment comes, more precisely, in the blissful two-second pause right after Musgraves sings the song’s hook (“You can have your space….cowboy”), turning the grand kiss-off into a devastatingly clever pun. J.B.

Ashley McBryde

Alysse Gafkjen

4

Ashley McBryde, “American Scandal”

The Grammy-nominated songwriter pines for a love as passionate (and illicit) as the one between Marilyn Monroe and JFK in this gem from McBryde’s equally stunning debut album Girl Going Nowhere. “Hold me like you ain’t mine to hold,” she belts, offering a damn-the-consequences declaration. Loving the wrong person has never sounded so right. J.H.

Pistol Annies

Miller Mobley

3

Pistol Annies, “Best Years of My Life”

The highest summit among the many peaks of Pistol Annies’ fantastic third album Interstate Gospel, “Best Years of My Life” is also one of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley’s most crushingly sad songs. “I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet,” sings Monroe at the top, accompanied by some guitar work and a chord progression that evoke “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” In this case, though, physical intimacy seems to be replaced with “intellectual emptiness” or a stiff drink — basically, anything to take her mind off the feeling of being trapped in a loveless marriage in a tiny town. As real as it gets. J.F.

John Prine

Danny Clinch

2

John Prine, “Summer’s End”

This heartbreaking ballad on John Prine’s stunning new album uses the changing of the seasons as an operating metaphor for old age and mortality. The song mixes the songwriter’s typical penchant for plainspoken absurdity (“the moon and stars hang out in bars, just talking”) with the heartstring-pulling tenderness of the simple chorus: “Come on home/ You don’t have to be alone.” But it’s the uncomfortably vivid details — damp bathing suits drying on a clothesline, a wide open car window in the middle of winter —that cement this song as a late-career Prine classic. J.B.

Courtney Marie Andrews

Laura E. Partain

1

Courtney Marie Andrews, “May Your Kindness Remain”

The best country and Americana song of 2018 is the one that left its mark through an indelible, essential message: how important it is to be a good, kind person, through and through. “May Your Kindness Remain,” the first track on Andrews’ album of the same name, starts subdued, with a delicate procession of organ and her pristine vocals presented as if she’s in an intimate conversation with only those close enough to feel her breath. But it soon takes a steady build from that contemplative folk to triumphant gospel, exploding with emotion as it progresses. “When your money runs out, and your good looks fade, may your kindness remain,” Andrews sings — flinging those words with all her might, like if she belted them loud enough, everyone on earth could hear. And they should. “May Your Kindness Remain” is a sentiment far more worthy of being printed on a red ball cap than anything else. M.M.