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40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2018

Country music and its all-encompassing cousin Americana reminded us why the genre remains the pinnacle of storytelling

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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.

Ryan Culwell The Last American
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Ryan Culwell, ‘The Last American’

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.

Devin Dawson Dark Horse
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Devin Dawson, ‘Dark Horse’

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.

Lori McKenna The Tree
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Lori McKenna, ‘The Tree’

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.

Joshua Hedley Mr. Jukebox
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Joshua Hedley, ‘Mr. Jukebox’

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.

Rosanne Cash She Remembers Everything
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Rosanne Cash, ‘She Remembers Everything’

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.

Will Hoge My American Dream
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Will Hoge, ‘My American Dream’

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.

American Aquarium Things Change
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American Aquarium, ‘Things Change’

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.

Willie Nelson Last Man Standing
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Willie Nelson, ‘Last Man Standing’

“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.

Becky Warren Undesirable
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Becky Warren, ‘Undesirable’

“We’re All We Got,” the first track on Becky Warren’s second album Undesirable, starts off with some Tom Petty-style electric guitar riffing and a doozy of an opening line: “Back home, they pass Christmas Day by killing something wild.” It’s a statement almost as audacious as the album’s concept: songs inspired by Warren’s conversations with vendors of Nashville’s homeless newspaper, The Contributor. What could have gone horribly wrong instead goes incredibly right, thanks to Warren’s richly detailed, empathetic writing and the muscular-but-lean rock & roll that serves as its vessel. Sure, tracks like “Sunshine State” and “Let Me Down Again” sound great with the windows down, but they also depict her underprivileged subjects as complicated people, struggling with grief or mental illness, finding a little joy here and there — just like the rest of us. J.F.

Mike and the Moonpies Steak Night at the Prairie Rose
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Mike and the Moonpies, ‘Steak Night at the Prairie Rose’

In just 38 minutes, Mike and the Moonpies deliver a master class in country music on Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, a 10-song collection that cements the Texas band’s status as undeniable honky-tonk heroes. Chief Moonpie Mike Harmeier leads his group through freewheeling, two-stepping songs that celebrate both the freedom of the road and the familiarity of getting stoned on the couch, but it’s the poignant, heartache numbers that pack the most punch. The title track is a gorgeous tearjerker about spending barroom time with dad, while “Beaches of Biloxi” laments losing your nest egg — and wife — to those slippery Gulf Coast casinos. By the time Harmeier and guitarist Catlin Rutherford are swapping solos on the kiss-off closer “We’re Gone,” your faith in honest country music has been restored. J.H.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers Years
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Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, ‘Years’

North Carolina’s Sarah Shook & the Disarmers chronicle the dissolution of a long-term relationship on their marvelous second album, tightening up their playing and songcraft to make a powerful statement about resilience. Leader Shook retains her snarling, country-punk vocal delivery, cracking wise about her late-night carousing, self-medicating and bouncing between gender perspectives. She sings of reaching an exhausted breaking point in “New Ways to Fail,” warning, “I need this shit like I need another hole in my head,” and then finally breaking free in the album-closing title track as she reclaims her sense of self-worth. For anyone who felt overwhelmed and tired by the flood of terrible things in 2018, Years was a raised fist in the air to keep on going, no matter what. J.F.

Dierks Bentley The Mountain
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Dierks Bentley, ‘The Mountain’

There’s no question that Dierks Bentley is a multifaceted artist — he can be a bluegrass revivalist, a drunk on a plane party boy and a smoldering balladeer. Sometimes those distinct personalities can split his fans down the middle, making it feel like his albums only serve one segment of his self, or his audience, at a time. That all changed on The Mountain, an LP born out of the Colorado soil where it was recorded and mostly written, and one that artfully joins all of those sides together. There’s the rock & roll Bentley on songs like the Brothers Osborne duet “Burning Man,” the banjo and fiddle-loving Bentley on the exquisite “Travelin’ Light” with Brandi Carlile, and the sultry piano-ballad Bentley on “My Religion.” But the magic in The Mountain is how it blends all of these elements, with each musical moment nodding to the next. Bentley no longer seems concerned with getting to the top. Rather, he’s perfecting the path of his ascension. M.M.

Mary Gauthier Rifles & Rosary Beads
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Mary Gauthier, ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’

A remarkable project by a veteran songwriter, in collaboration with veterans in the traditional sense, this inspiring LP is a fruit of the national Songwriting With Soldiers project. Gauthier gives voice to the wisdom, struggles and pain of U.S Armed Forces members — their spouses, too — and words are not minced. “Got holes in my ear drums, bruises and clots/ Double vision and my stomach’s in knots” sings the narrator of “Still on the Ride,” a song haunted by survivor’s guilt. The title track conjures “Vicodin, morphine dreams” with visions of “bombed-out schools and homes,” while the “The War After the War” testifies to the homeland