This year brought its share of spirited (to put it mildly) discussion in country music, with multiple genre-crossing collaborations reaching the charts. Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line ruled for 50 weeks straight with “Meant to Be,” while Maren Morris lent her soulful pipes to Zedd and Grey’s ebullient dance track “The Middle,” now nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy. Additionally, 2018 saw winning collaborations in the country mainstream, like Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osborne’s “Burning Man,” as well as in Americana, with Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis’ “Wild! Wild! Wild!” Here are the year’s 10 best.
Asleep at the Wheel with Scott and Seth Avett, “Willie Got There First”
“I had such a great idea for a song,” Seth Avett laments on his and brother Scott’s tune with Asleep at the Wheel, “Willie Got There First.” If only it hadn’t been for Willie Nelson. Tributes to the Red Headed Stranger are more prolific than the strains of Willie’s Reserve, but few capture the essence of his music quit like this one, by turns brittle, breezy and wistful. It gets a boost of credibility via guest spots from Bobbie Nelson, Mickey Raphael and a verse from Nelson’s buddy of more than 40 years, Ray Benson.
Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line, “Meant to Be”
When it comes to cutting a hit record, you just can’t force things. In the case of “Meant to Be” (which was actually released in 2017 but ruled this entire year), the sheer unlikeliness of the pairing — pop-star-on-the-rise Bebe Rexha and bro-country kingpins Florida Georgia Line — may have been the key to its record-setting success. Make that record-smashing: “Meant to Be” spent an unprecedented 50 weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart, and it did so by playing to both artists’ strengths, more attitude than style without any egos getting in the way. C’est la vie, say the young folks.
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Dierks Bentley featuring Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”
If adulthood sometimes feels a little bit like barely keeping things together, then Dierks Bentley gets by with a little help from his friends on “Burning Man.” The biggest, toughest cut from Bentley’s The Mountain LP, the oblong nod to Nevada’s Burning Man Festival gets its grizzled, world-wearied edge from Brothers Osborne, and in particular the scorching guitar work of John Osborne, who squeezes not one but two solos into less than four minutes. A little bit steady, a little bit rolling stone, but above all just plain rocking.
David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”
Fourteen years is a long time to go between albums. Longer still is 23 years between Number One singles. But David Lee Murphy, a Nineties leading man and hitmaker for troves of other country stars since, not only made a comeback with No Zip Code in 2018, he also topped the charts with old buddy and fellow zen spirit Kenny Chesney on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” A breezy, life-is-good mantra that sees these two vets trading verses and singing harmonies, it fits right in with the beach-bumming gratitude of the No Shoes Nation.
Sugarland featuring Taylor Swift, “Babe”
Taylor Swift’s return to the country arena was bound to come with a media blitz, and “Babe” didn’t disappoint, with a Mad Men-themed music video starring her, Brandon Routh and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. OK, so it wasn’t the chart-topping smash that might’ve been expected, but Swift’s home-wrecking turn in the video is a perfectly meta jab at her own reputation, and the song itself has her lipstick traces all over it. Yet Sugarland make “Babe” their own, with Nettles exuding the necessary backbone to cut herself free from a broken heart.
Zedd, Maren Morris, Grey, “The Middle”
Country crossovers with EDM may not be calculated to appease the purists, but if Maren Morris’s collaborations — from Thomas Rhett to Vince Gill — have proven anything it’s that she can sing, well, anything. With a voice that’s equal parts soul and twang, her modulations make Auto-Tune sound natural, and she’s a perfect fit for the sugary maximalism of “The Middle.” Yet for all its poppy, club-going charm, this cut with Zedd and Grey — which is up for Record of the Year at the 2019 Grammys — thrives on a simple less-is-more adherence to the beat.
Jason Aldean featuring Miranda Lambert, “Drowns the Whiskey”
The last time Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert hit the studio together was for 2007’s “Grown Woman.” More than 10 years later, they reunite for “Drowns the Whiskey.” On one level, the slow-burning ballad is a raise of the glass to the Lynchburg, Tennessee-based Jack Daniel’s distillery; but just below the surface, there’s a palpable sense of heartbreak, likely fueled in part by the turmoil and tragedy that have colored both artists’ lives over the past decade. The type of emotion in their vocal delivery can only come from first-hand experience.
Sam Morrow and Jaime Wyatt, “Skinny Elvis”
Suspicious minds couldn’t hope to keep step with the do-si-doing boogie of “Skinny Elvis,” which features California outlaws Sam Morrow and Jaime Wyatt careening joyously toward the cliff edge like a 2018 Thelma and Louise. This pair knows a thing or two about living dangerously, but they keep things lean and mean here, their vocals locked in line-for-line while pedal steel great Jay Dee Maness peels off riffs that hearken to the King’s karate-chopping Vegas best. While he was still skinny, of course.
Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves, “To June This Morning”
Like any good love story, there was a touch of serendipity in “To June This Morning” landing on Forever Words, the collection of Johnny Cash writings put to music at the direction of his son, John Carter Cash. A poem that Cash wrote for June Carter Cash in 1970, it was only brought to his son’s attention by Ruston Kelly, but it’s Kelly’s performance — and chemistry — with his own wife Kacey Musgraves that brings these words so charmingly to life. Two minutes of hope and devotion, it’s time enough to break a heart or to fall in love.
Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis, “Wild Wild Wild”
We may never know what Darwin would say about rock & roll, but there’s no question how Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis feel about evolution. On their rip-roaring rockabilly throwback “Wild Wild Wild,” they declare that “the animals are running the zoo” in gleeful, full-throated unison. Every note of this song, from Lewis pounding on the ivory to Fulks shredding his guitar, is a celebration of rock’s healing, hedonistic powers, and above all to the genre’s rabble-rousing power to piss off old people.