Country radio may not have reflected the results, and the conversation around the topic was often rancorous, but there’s little doubt that 2018 belonged to women. Kacey Musgraves signaled a new beginning with the glorious, boundary-pushing Golden Hour; Brandi Carlile provided a cathartic statement about perseverance in turbulent times with By the Way, I Forgive You; and Ashley McBryde announced herself as a major new talent with her debut Girl Going Nowhere. Meanwhile, exciting Americana talents like Courtney Marie Andrews and Becky Warren released collections that highlighted their distinctive singing and songwriting voices. Not that the dudes were a slouch — Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osborne released top-flight mainstream country albums, while American Aquarium and Will Hoge offered potent documents of a nation in crisis. Established performers like John Prine and Kenny Chesney shared space with newcomers Kane Brown and Dillon Carmichael, just one of the many reasons this corner of the music industry is consistently worth watching.
One of the most highly anticipated country albums of the year, Kane Brown’s second offering dug deeper into the radio-friendly mix of trad country, swaggering pop and limber R&B that has made Brown one of the genre’s most successful new stars. But whether he’s singing hard Nineties country (“Short Skirt Weather”), crooning Faith Hill-inspired balladry (“Homesick”) or stomping to rock beats (“Lose It”), Brown’s rich baritone sets the tone for the rush of sweeping hooks and radio-friendly arrangements that make up Experiment. And when he steps back from the spotlight to sing about gun violence and over-policing on “American Bad Dream,” he shows that he’s capable of handling tricky territory with care, craft and depth. J.B.
Cowboy songs have always been part of country’s essence, dating back to when it was known as “country and western” music and Gene Autry ruled the airwaves. Colter Wall, who hails from Saskatchewan, pays tribute to the tradition here. Old-school production wizard Dave Cobb soaks Wall’s mighty baritone in reverb and sets it riding across wide-open vistas, trailed by steel and harmonica. There’s even some heartfelt yodeling (“Calgary Stampede”). But it’s not all nostalgia. “John Beyers (Camaro Song)” updates the mode of transportation. The druggie drifter tale “Manitoba Man” is a haunted, time-warped gem. And the traditional “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” a campfire song about hard-drinking buckaroos who rope and brand Satan, offers a timeless metaphor for putting evil in its place. W.H.
This debut offering is a compelling introduction to Dillon Carmichael’s blend of hardscrabble retro Seventies country and bluesy Southern rock. Drawing on singers like Jamey Johnson and Hank Jr, Carmichael is one of the most convincing young country singers to arrive in the wake of Chris Stapleton’s unexpected superstardom. The Kentucky native’s instant-classic baritone shines brightest on the album’s many ballads (“It’s Simple,” “Might Be a Cowboy”), but on the roadhouse blues and country funk of “Hell on an Angel” and “Country Women,” the twenty-something shows he equally comfortable singing about honky-tonks and heartache. Produced by Dave Cobb, Hell on an Angel is a flawlessly executed portrait of an artist growing into his voice. J.B.
When Scotty McCreery and his show-stopping baritone won American Idol, there was no question the North Carolina kid had talent. But what he didn’t have, quite yet, was an artistic identity, as a series of rather bland releases proved. Turns out all McCreery needed was to sharpen his writing skills and loosen the reins of his label to find his muse, which he did on the breakthrough “Five More Minutes.” In the wake of that tender ballad’s success, McCreery was snatched up by Triple Tigers and found his footing on Seasons Change, a record that finally makes good use of that deep tone and a playful but mature approach. Seasons Change starts with the sound of a storm, but everything clears up from there, lingering in moments of love (“This Is It”), beachy relaxation (“Barefootin'”) and traditional twang with a modern twist (“Still”). It may have taken him years to find his wheelhouse, but artistry isn’t supposed to happen overnight — that’s only on reality shows. M.M.
There’s a reason country singers like Charles Kelley and Charlie Worsham have cut Donovan Woods’ songs: he’s got a knack for slice-of-life storytelling that blends heartache and hooks. On his fifth album Both Ways, the Canadian folkie expands his horizons with bigger productions, turning the monotony of touring life into cinematic, sweeping rock & roll on “Truck Full of Money” and evoking the synth-soaked mid-Eighties work of Bruce Springsteen in the blue-collar anthem “Easy Street.” Even when he returns to quieter territory, it’s still high drama — he can’t help but look back in “I Ain’t Never Loved No One” or examine his failings in “Good Lover,” casually dishing out devastating couplets that never feel gratuitous. In “Next Year,” Woods deals with the stealthy passage of time by recalling the many ways he’s put off something meaningful like hanging out with his own son. As with the best of his work, it’ll take your breath away. J.F.
“Well here’s the deal,” Carson McHone sings at the opening of Carousel, launching head-first into the album’s mournful bit of clever honky-tonk, “Sad.” Through the course of 11 emotive and conversational tracks, McHone lives up to that sort of casual, candid entrance. The singer has spent years on the Austin scene scuffing up floors and stages, and that kind of seasoned authority shows — on moments like the unsettling vulnerability of “Drugs” and the heartbreak call of “Gentle,” where McHone’s warble slides even more solemnly than the steel guitar. There’s a delightful sense of traditionalism within the melodies of Carousel, but she never feels bound to it either. Like on the bare-bones, Gillian Welch-evoking “Spider Song,” which closes the record, McHone knows it’s the words that matter just as much as the packaging. M.M.
The church gospel and communal R&B of Michael and Tanya Trotter arrived like an unexpected, much-needed balm during the turbulence and violence of 2018. “We’re gonna love like there’s no tomorrow,” the duo sings in the opening moments of their thrilling 11-song debut, establishing the urgent backdrop for their healing and compassion. The married couple employs love as a potent metaphor and spiritual guidepost on the LP, which serves as a concept album of sorts about the metaphysical, political and religious capacity for healing when humans decide to embrace one another. Songs like “Are You Ready to Love Me,” “Hearts” and “Here Is Where the Loving Is At” find the duo offering up this potent hypothesis on a mix of gospel-rock barnburners, soulful ballads and Seventies funk. As such, Healing Tide felt like one of this year’s most timely and vital roots releases. J.B.
Maggie Rose has always had the pipes, but she’d never quite had the freedom. In the hands of various labels, her previous projects, like 2013’s Cut to Impress, felt like there was so much left in the stable of the D.C.-born Rose than was actually allowed to run. For Change the Whole Thing, Rose took to the studio with her touring band and Nashville collective Them Vibes to record the album live, tracking a couple of takes and picking the best one, flaws and all. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that doesn’t sound perfectly intentional — Change the Whole Thing sees Rose flirting with R&B and soul, pushing those pipes to Kelly Clarkson proportions (with whom she’ll tour in the new year) and embracing a rootsy, organic vibe. M.M.
Opelika, Alabama, songwriter Adam Hood has had his songs cut by Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert, but never mind that — the real magic lies in hearing Hood sing his own compositions. On Somewhere in Between, his nasally tenor is a breath of fresh air as he traverses the bayou, his home state and those idyllic small towns that mainstream Nashville just loves to celebrate. The difference, however, is that Hood knows there’s also broken hearts and broken dreams in those locales. Even when he’s crowing about blowing off steam in “The Weekend,” he knows he has to go through hell to get there. His pain is our gain. J.H.
Aaron Lee Tasjan moved to Nashville from New York City as a solo guitar-strumming poet and quickly evolved into one of the town’s most inventive and musically playful voices. Karma for Cheap is a psychedelic hoot that’s meant to conjure up some of the departed greats — John Lennon, David Bowie, Tom Petty — while morphing it all into Tasjan’s own idiosyncratic space, where genre rules are out the window and rock & roll has certainly never died. Whether he’s pining for action on “If Not Now When” or encouraging the vagabonds to keep pushing on “Dream Dreamer,” Karma for Cheap is an album that proves karma is real: through Tasjan, the good stuff does eventually come back around. M.M.
Shooter Jennings has always done his best work on the fringes of country music: he just earned a Grammy nomination for co-producing Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You. But on the eponymous Shooter, a brash barroom country album, he reminds us exactly whose son he is. He’s Bocephus-level boastful on songs like “Bound ta Git Down,” proudly fucked-up on “D.R.U.N.K.” and off-the-rails on “I’m Wild and My Woman Is Crazy” (a modern-day “Good Hearted Woman”). Still, for all its outlaw vibes, Shooter can’t help but indulge the artist’s inner music nerd: the moody “Fast Horses and Good Hideouts” is a slice of keys-driven prog-country — perhaps the next genre Jennings will explore. J.H.
Doug Paisley’s first album since 2014’s Strong Feelings is not showy, loud or aggressively produced. Nor is it trying to take him in some progressive new direction. Instead, it’s a focused meditation on how we build our day-to-day comforts and our sense of steady place through simple folksongs in the Guy Clark vein. Based in Toronto, Paisley exists outside of the Nashville machine and even the Americana world, landing in a sort of appropriately isolated corner that sometimes feels more like Tom Waits on “Ol’ 55” than anything else. “We cannot afford not to borrow,” he sings on the title track, carefully tracing the disconnect that comes with finally having a place to rest but feeling like there’s always something bigger waiting — whether it’s a better house, a closer relationship or even a vision of yourself. M.M.
Arising from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma to his part-time home of St. John, Songs for the Saints is Kenny Chesney’s most focused, heartfelt effort in years. Contemplative reflections like “Better Boat” and “Every Heart” convey a bruised vulnerability rarely shown from the stadium-sized singer, while feel-good anthems like “Get Along” and the title track pack some sign-of-the-times gravity behind their messages of communion and togetherness. That sort of seriousness carries throughout the well-plotted album, even when Chesney’s carefree-country mentor Jimmy Buffett shows up for a somber, climate change-tinged update on his own Seventies chestnut “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” After several albums of more laidback, adult work, Songs for the Saints is the strongest argument to date for Chesney’s role as a new country-music standard-bearer. J.B.
After toying with a more commercial-friendly sound on The Blade, Ashley Monroe teamed up with Dave Cobb for this defiantly retro, orchestral collection. Monroe’s voice is as boldly expressive as ever on the LP, which merges songs about lustful sensuality (“Hands on You”), dog motherhood (“She Wakes Me Up”) and familial trauma (“Orphan”) into a tightly-woven portrait of clear-headed reckoning and newfound thirty-something maturity. Layered strings help sell the grand Countrypolitan drama on highlights like “Rita” and “Hard on a Heart,” while the R&B-leaning strut of “Wild Love” and “This Heaven” showcase Monroe’s subtle vocal theater. Sparrow, Monroe’s most challenging LP, is also her deepest, the sound of a songwriter growing into the messy complications of adulthood. J.B.
It’s damn near a sin that some of the best songwriters go unheard. Don’t make that mistake with Ryan Culwell, who offered some of the year’s sharpest — and perhaps weirdest — lyricism on his roots-and-reverb second album. Whether he was singing about UFOs, truckers and police brutality in “Can You Hear Me,” doomsday preppers in “Dig a Hole” or sleepy-time fantasies to soothe his kids to sleep in “Tie My Pillow to a Tree,” Culwell brought an outsider’s perspective to the often insular Americana genre. Released independently via Missing Piece Records, The Last American is first in its class. J.H.
Country radio hasn’t been big on subtlety of late, so Devin Dawson’s Dark Horse didn’t quite get the attention it deserved. But the heavily tattooed California native (and former metalhead) showed off his remarkable versatility and meticulous songwriting on the collection, pairing angst with a breezy soul-pop groove on “All on Me,” thrashing through love in “Prison,” tossing out a classic country one-liner in “Asking for a Friend,” and even exploring the dank corridors of dub in love-as-sickness jam “Symptoms.” The title track, a guitar and voice mission statement about not being afraid to color outside the lines, should resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong. The sleeper mainstream country debut of the year. J.F.
In addition to being one of country’s premier songsmiths – often as part of Music Row A-team the Love Junkies — Lori McKenna is a mom, times five. On her second set with Dave Cobb, she brings that experience to bear, musing on family verities with hard-earned wisdom and a near-magical ability to skirt the maudlin. In a sense it’s the impulse behind Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind” (a song she wrote and released on her last LP) expanded into a concept album. The craft is remarkable and deceptively understated — one imagines Nashville rookies and pros alike studying these songs before their writing sessions. The single “People Get Old” is a wise, wistful tearjerker, but we’re partial to “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” about getting busy in blue jeans in the literal and figurative shadow of the local church. W.H.
Florida native Joshua Hedley looks to country’s classic Nashville Sound era on his Third Man Records debut, showing his reverence for the pillowy “oohs” and “aahs” and sophisticated arrangements that drove Patsy Cline’s records to massive crossover success. A longtime fixture of Nashville’s honky-tonks and ace sideman, Hedley proves himself to be a studied songwriter and a gifted crooner who — like Eddy Arnold or Ray Price before him — can wring pathos from even the most straightforward line. He tries to rekindle a flagging relationship in “Let’s Take a Vacation” (complete with recitation!), opts for bitter denial in “I Never Shed a Tear for You,” and embraces the rumor mill in the lively “Let Them Talk,” often finding himself the unlucky one who, as the title track suggests, cranks out the music for everyone else’s enjoyment. In lesser hands, it might sound like an ironic joke — in Hedley’s, it sounds refreshingly sincere and surprisingly contemporary. J.F.
An icon of modern country — both for her genre-busting, tent-broadening artistry and her devoted social activism — delivers one of the most potent works of her career. While “8 Gods of Harlem” may be the talking point, a prismatic narrative involving gun violence that enlists Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello as singers and co-writers, the title track is no less indelible, a duet with kindred spirit Sam Phillips that evades pat interpretation but conjures memories of female experience in the shadow of the Kavanaugh hearings. Arrangements are immaculate throughout, sculpted with producer Tucker Martine and flecked with elements of jazz and European folk. It’s a fitting testimony for a master singer-songwriter who’s made her name by following a rangy muse. W.H.
After some forays into mainstream country, Will Hoge found his true calling — and most important voice — as a singer of protest songs on My American Dream. The songwriter’s favorite target: detached, disingenuous politicians. He tees them up in “Gilded Walls,” calling them out over unsafe drinking water, before lambasting their hollow “Thoughts & Prayers,” which come like kneejerk responses to every mass shooting. Hoge, a Tennessee native, doesn’t shy away from his own myopic mistakes either, imploring his countrymen to tear down the Confederate flag that he once waved as a teenager in “Still a Southern Man.” But it’s on “Nikki’s a Republican Now,” a Ramones-like rocker, where Hoge is at his most ferocious, equating membership in the mutated modern-day GOP with the utmost in hypocrisy. J.H.
BJ Barham’s country-rock outfit underwent a major overhaul in between their last studio effort Wolves and this year’s Things Change, revamping his North Carolina band with Nashville and Texas pros and hitting the road before the studio. It worked: the new lineup lit a fire under Barham’s ass with their fierce, urgent playing style, redefining the sound of a band that some thought would never top their 2012 high-water mark Burn. Flicker. Die. Things Change equals, if not surpasses, that effort, with an older, wiser and sober Barham writing from the perspective of a man who’s seen it all and refused to blink — even when it comes to politics. “This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for,” he sings on opening track “The World Is on Fire.” No other country album in 2018 opened so defiantly. J.H.
“I don’t want to be the last man standing/ On second thought, maybe I do” croons Willie over a funky roadhouse on this top-shelf LP, one of two the 85-year-old legend released in 2018, while still finding time to campaign for Beto O’Rourke’s historic Senate run. Basically, the theme is death, with Willie — being Willie — winking slyly at the Reaper. “Halitosis is a word I could never spell/ But bad breath is better than no breath at all,” he reasons on the unlikely waltz “Bad Breath.” On “Heaven Is Closed,” he figures that “Hell’s overcrowded/ so I think I’ll just stay where I am,” listing those he’ll “burn one” in tribute to while he’s at it. The man’s still putting acts half, a third, and a quarter his age to shame. W.H.