So far, 2018 has given us the dreamy, even disco, vibes of Kacey Musgraves, the Rocky Mountain highs of Dierks Bentley, the smooth stylings of Joshua Hedley and the grit of American Aquarium. Here are the best albums in the country and Americana worlds from the year’s first six months.
Building on 2016’s strong They Don’t Know, Jason Aldean released another solid entry this year with Rearview Town. Singing better in the studio than he has since his 2010 breakout My Kinda Party, Aldean delivers a satisfying mix of radio-ready country music. The title track is a defiant kiss-off to a go-nowhere dot on the map, lead single “You Make It Easy” is an R&B Number One, and the Miranda Lambert cameo “Drowns the Whiskey” commands attention for its double dose of star power. But it’s the stunning, vulnerable “Better at Being Who I Am” that captivates, with Aldean lamenting a relationship that was doomed from the moment he tried to be something he’s not. The Georgia native may be known as the genre’s preeminent hard-rocker, but he’s at his best when he’s letting down his guard. J.H.
Ashley Monroe’s solo efforts – four albums in at this point – have continually outdone themselves. The 2015 LP The Blade picked up where 2013’s Like a Rose left off, doubling down on that album’s delicate heartache and throwback twang. Now on Sparrow, Monroe explores new recesses of her own heart, writing about her difficult relationship with her mother, the death of her father, and the birth of her first child. Produced by Dave Cobb, the album is Monroe’s grandest affair yet, with sweeping string arrangements that, true to its title, give the album plenty of room to soar. B.M.
“When you live in your rearview you just crash,” sings Dierks Bentley on “Travelin’ Light,” a bluegrass-drenched track from The Mountain that features Brandi Carlile. It’s a song about refusing to be held down by our pasts, and The Mountain, Bentley’s ninth LP, is built from that sense of freedom to climb up and over any of life’s rolling hills – allowing for a misstep or 10 along the way. Bentley wrote the bulk of The Mountain in Telluride and recorded it there, too, and it strikes a smart balance between existing outside of the Nashville machine and not sacrificing a penchant for surefire crowd-pleasers like “Burning Man” and “You Can’t Bring Me Down.” The air’s thin in Colorado, but, for Bentley, it was creatively rich as can be. M.M.
If there’s anything Mike and the Moonpies know how to do well, it’s laying down a groove that just won’t quit. After 10 years, four albums, and upwards of 200 shows per annum, the Austin honky-tonkers could keep a roomful of cowpokes dancing in their sleep. Steak Night at the Prairie Rose captures them at their boot-scootin’ best, from the frantic boogie of “Road Crew” to the hand-clapping roulette spin of “Beaches of Biloxi.” Not surprisingly, it’s also their most accomplished batch of songs. Credit singer-guitarist Mike Harmeier, who writes unassailably great tunes — in most cases, stories full of heartache and humor in equal measure — and lets the Moonpies lock in and go, cat, go. J.G.
In a time when fiddles pop up as frequently as guitars and even Florida Georgia Line is rebranding as a “Simple” back-to-the-basics duo, Old Crow Medicine Show serve as a reminder of why the string band is truly one of American music’s greatest traditions – especially when infused with a little punk-rock spirit. Pairing up with Dave Cobb, Volunteer marks Old Crow’s move to a major label (Columbia Nashville) and their commitment to form: songs like “Flicker & Shine” are explosive, fiddle-driven and boot-stomping Appalachian revivals, while “Look Away” showcases how they can pull inspiration from Seventies rock as much as they can from busking on West Virginia street corners. M.M.
Long after the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan vanished as viable subject matter in post-9/11 country music, Mary Gauthier teamed up with a group of veterans to co-write songs about their own complicated, diverse experiences overseas. The resulting album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, is not only one of the most arresting American singer-songwriter records in recent years, but one of the most vital pieces of art to come out of those two wars. With gut-punch narratives like “Iraq” and “Bullet Holes in the Sky,” Rifles is a bar-raising statement of harrowed trauma, broken faith and, ultimately, communal strength. And by sharing her platform with the voices of veterans, Gauthier’s album also serves as a necessary lesson in the power of country-folk storytelling and its ability to provide a voice for the voiceless. J.B.
While there are plenty of artists out there who have bought cowboy hats and tried their hands at classic country, Joshua Hedley is the real deal. A regular performer (he also plays the fiddle) at some of Nashville’s most beloved honky-tonks, Hedley has more than paid his musical dues, so much so that he earned the nickname “The Mayor of Lower Broad.” Mr. Jukebox, his Third Man Records debut, showcases the pristine voice for which Hedley initially came to be known, with lush, even ornate arrangements that recall the sounds employed by Hedley’s influences, like Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold. B.M.
We Say: The title track of McBryde’s Girl Going Nowhere is a whispered anthem about crushing it in the face of doubters. Most triumphant artists would holler, gloat, swagger, flip the bird, but in this opener, McBryde barely raises her voice, which quivers potently over a muted snare, guitar notes flashing like phone screens in a dark arena. Then “Radioland” crashes in, a country rocker about old-time broadcast bliss, invoking John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” and McBryde’s daddy, “a rock star riding on a tractor listening to Townes Van Zandt.” … McBryde’s got a big, vibrato-tinged alto, biker-chick style, and she wrote or co-wrote everything here, including “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” with a sharp eye for piercing detail. She has a serious gift. W.H.
Lanco’s “Greatest Love Story” was one of last year’s most pleasant surprises in country music, an unadorned acoustic story-song that became a left-of-center Number One smash at country radio. On their 2018 Jay Joyce-produced debut, the rock-based Nashville country group refuses to rest on the success of the song, offering instead a grab-bag of arena-rock anthems (“Born to Love You,” “We Do”), tongue-in-cheek novelty tunes (“Trouble Maker”), gentle bro-country updates (“Pick You Up”) and sing-along stomps (“Middle of the Night”). For a band with as much hit-single potential as Lanco, Hallelujah Nights is a wonderfully cohesive record that resists padding possible hit singles with filler and instead showcases some of the countless directions the band could go in the future. J.B.
Here’s the thing about being tough: There’s usually a vulnerable, even scared, side hiding somewhere beneath the surface. That’s certainly true of Sarah Shook, except for the fact that she doesn’t try to hide a damn thing. On her second LP, Years, the North Carolina singer-songwriter doesn’t mince words – she swears a blue streak. But even as Shook drowns her demons in “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” (a tip of the hat to the Hag) or throws up her hands in the flat-funny “New Ways to Fail,” she does so with honesty, transparency and self-deprecation – a bigger show of strength and smarts than any so-called tough guy could ever hope to attain. J.G.
BJ Barham earns every bit of his Southern Springsteen cred on American Aquarium’s first studio album since 2015’s Wolves, and its first with an entirely revamped lineup. The change, as they say, does Barham good, who’s been gifted the perfect players to soundtrack his bewilderment and rage over the 2016 presidential election. Rhythm section Joey Bybee and Ben Hussey are in lockstep on the resilient anthem “Tough Folks,” pedal-steel player Adam Kurtz gives “Crooked + Straight” its immersive wall-of-sound vibe, and guitarist Shane Boeker’s solo on “The World Is on Fire” is appropriately apocalyptic. But Barham’s lyrics are the centerpiece here, as he ponders a fractured country (“I saw firsthand what desperation makes good people do,” he sings in “Tough Folks”), mourns the mass exodus of his old bandmates (“When We Were Younger”) and celebrates the restorative power of hard labor (the marvelous “Work Conquers All”). Aside from a few twangy licks, Things Change is an unabashed rock & roll record – a snapshot of a band and its reinvigorated leader. J.H.
Country music has become a proud melting pot, which makes it the perfect home for Devin Dawson’s Dark Horse. A former metal-band bassist, the California native combines all manner of vibes and personas on his major-label debut: there’s the wounded lover, the smoky-voiced heartthrob and the head-banging bad boy. Sultry on “Symptoms,” tender on “All on Me,” and just plain cutting loose on “Prison,” Dawson has a gift of elasticity that he complements with a taut, penetrating eye as a songwriter. As far as introductions go, Dark Horse doesn’t miss a step. J.G.
The country duo covers an incredible amount of territory on their second album, named for the Florida Gulf Coast town where they recorded it with producer Jay Joyce. Lead single “Shoot Me Straight” is a six-minute rock epic about breaking things off, with singer TJ Osborne demanding “lay my six-foot-four-inch-ass out on the ground” in his chest-deep baritone, and guitarist John Osborne serving up a dazzling fireworks display for the song’s back half. They also tackle Jerry Reed-style country funk on “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright,” hard-driving rock on “Drank Like Hank” and glistening country soul on “Pushin’ Up Daisies (Love Alive).” In “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” the Brothers make a turn back into boozy country, proving they’re just as adept at the fundamentals as they are at playing with the formula. J.F.
Courtney Marie Andrews has become one of the most prolific young singer-songwriters in Americana, having released a half-dozen albums well before her 28th birthday. But the Arizona artist settled on her most affecting sound yet with May Your Kindness Remain, an open-hearted, gospel-inflected country-soul statement that preaches generosity and empathy on songs like “Kindness of Strangers” and the title track, while showcasing the singer’s show-stopping vocals more fully than on any of her previous efforts. Andrews’ carefully crafted latest album makes a quiet statement without ever drawing attention to itself, offering a vital roadmap of grace, forgiveness and compassion during a year when the demand for such virtues has never been higher. J.B.
In 2016, things were looking bleak for onetime American Idol champion Scotty McCreery: after his single “Southern Belle” failed to make waves at radio, he was dropped by his record label and found himself, in his early twenties, having to figure out how to navigate the next phase of his professional life alone. Thankfully, he still had a lot to meditate on, including the surprise hit “Five More Minutes” that revitalized his career and showcased a tender new direction – and his artistic control. Soon after, McCreery signed with Triple Tigers and released Seasons Change, a playful and poignant testament to the power of holding your ground and falling in love. M.M.
When Traveller, a trio made up of Robert Ellis, Jonny Fritz and Cory Chisel, released the song “Western Movies” in 2015, fans and critics hoped for a proper release from the new outfit. It took three years, but Western Movies is now a full-length album, and a damn good one at that. A true collaborative effort, Western Movies sees the three songwriters pretty evenly splitting frontman duties, allowing for plenty of space for each of the three’s beloved idiosyncrasies to shine through. As is emblematic of each of the artists, there’s humor and heartbreak in equal measure, making for an album that offers new surprises with every listen. B.M.
We Say: [Y]ou might not recognize the weed-loving cowgirl troublemaker of “Follow Your Arrow” on this moony set, a throwback to easy-listening pop that’s only “country” by the loosest definition. Joined by a familiar dream team of Music City co-writers – Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally – plus new partners Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, the newlywed Musgraves is uncharacteristically cooing love songs; see the swooning title track and “Butterflies.” But she hasn’t lost her wit: “Northern lights in our skies/Plants that grow and open your mind,” she muses on “Oh, What a World,” a vocoder intro shimmering in the distance amid plinking banjo. Who knew Americana and robot rock were a thing? W.H.
We Say: Cobb’s as much a throwback Southern rocker as a modern country singer, and his sound is a perfect match for cousin Dave Cobb, whose production work with Chris Stapleton – Brent’s tourmate of late – and others continues re-shaping the Nashville Sound into an earthier, more idiosyncratic thing. Where Cobb’s fine 2016 breakout Shine On Rainy Day cast him as singer-songwriting tale-teller, these songs are more from the gut. The soulful “King of Alabama” is a funky tribute to a fallen friend and fellow traveller that rides a deep-southern strut: “If you thought he looked country/y’oughta heard him sing,” Cobb observes, drawl so thick he might as well be talking about himself. “Sucker for a Good Time” is spiked with screaming doubled-guitar lines that echo the Allmans’ Eat a Peach, while “.30-06” makes its jealous threat with a particular old-school hunting rifle, another example of his eye for telling detail. Throughout, you get the sense of a dude trying to hold on to his roots while riding the present hard. W.H.
Folks in Nashville have been cheering on Caitlyn Smith for years now, watching as the songwriter-turned-artist cranked out hits for artists like Rascal Flatts (“Let It Hurt”) and Garth Brooks (“Tacoma”). With her debut album Starfire, Smith finally gets her turn in the spotlight. The high points of Smith’s songwriting – her sense of melody, her expressive use of dynamics, her way around an infectious hook – are all there, as is her otherworldly voice, which puts her on par with some of music’s best vocalists, country or otherwise. A highlight of the album is Smith’s own take on “Tacoma,” which affords her the opportunity to show off just how wide her vocal range really is. B.M.
We Say: On her sixth LP, veteran songwriter Brandi Carlile teams up with co-producers Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb for a moving and righteous piece of Americana-infused pop. Across the 10-track LP, the folk-tinged singer belts with gusto, whether offering nostalgic, harmonized forgiveness on album opener “Everytime I Hear That Song” or a shoulder to cry on with anthemic ballad “The Joke.” B.S.
The word “personal” gets thrown around a little too liberally in music writing, but there’s really no way to discuss Erin Rae’s fantastic new album Putting on Airs without mentioning the p-word. Chronicling such difficult subjects as coming to terms with her own sexuality, Rae’s latest is a little like listening to a diary, albeit one with beautiful imagery and impeccably crafted melodies. It’s also Rae’s first release with John Paul White’s label Single Lock Records, and her first without her band the Meanwhiles, making for an LP that truly spurred evolution – both musical and personal – for its creator. B.M.