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25 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2018 So Far

Including Dierks Bentley, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Mike and the Moonpies, and more

25 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2018 So Far

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.

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, ‘Years’

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.

American Aquarium, ‘Things Change’

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.

Devin Dawson, ‘Dark Horse’

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.

Brothers Osborne, ‘Port Saint Joe’

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, May Your Kindness Remain

Courtney Marie Andrews, ‘May Your Kindness Remain’

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.

Scotty McCreery, ‘Seasons Change’

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.

Traveller, Western Movies

Traveller, ‘Western Movies’

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.

Kacey Musgraves, ‘Golden Hour’

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.

Brent Cobb, ‘Providence Canyon’

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.

Caitlyn Smith, ‘Starfire’

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.

Brandi Carlile, ‘By the Way, I Forgive You’

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.

Erin Rae, ‘Putting on Airs’

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.

Charley Crockett, ‘Lonesome as a Shadow’

Dig in to Charley Crockett’s singing on Lonesome as a Shadow, his first album of original material for Thirty Tigers, and you get a glimpse of his Southern-fried soul: a little dark, a bit brittle and utterly unique. Here, the Texas singer-songwriter keeps things simple while shading in the emotional color with classically rooted fundamentals and inflection. He grooves on “If Not the Fool,” gets flirty on “Lil Girl’s Name,” and makes mourning sound like a gift on “I Wanna Cry.” But while the flourishes of ragtime piano and Tex-Mex accordion fill in the Gulf Coast swing, these songs are the work of a troubled troubadour swaggering into his hard-earned element. J.G.

Willie Nelson, ‘Last Man Standing’

We Say: Just one year after his unsuspecting opus God’s Problem Child, Nelson, 84, is back with Last Man Standing, the latest in his series of late-career ruminations helmed by producer Buddy Cannon. Whereas last year’s God’s Problem Child found Nelson staring down death in the mirror on meditations like “Old Timer” and “True Love,” this record finds the honky-tonk prophet satirizing the slow march of time with humorous musings set to a comfortable blend of Western swing and roadhouse blues. … On Last Man Standing, Willie Nelson continues to turn his ninth decade into a classic country song full of remembrance, regret and resilience. J.B.

John Prine, ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’

We Say: Prine’s kept at it steadily, despite a muse evidently grown less insistent, for nearly 50 years, and The Tree of Forgiveness is his first set of originals in over a decade. … After neck surgery in 1998 to remove a squamous cell carcinoma, and more surgery to treat lung cancer in 2013, Prine’s plainspoken tenor creaks like an wide-plank old floor in winter. … And of course, it nails the death meditation “When I Get to Heaven,” a mix of punchlines, sweet sentimentality and looming void. It’s precisely what Dylan – a major fan who offered to sit in on harmonica at Prine’s first New York gig – was referring to when he famously described Prine’s writing as “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree.” W.H.

Various Artists, ‘Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’

We Say: [T]he country-themed Restoration [is] a revelation. Tyros (Maren Morris) and legends (Dolly Parton) mine deep cuts to reveal in John’s songs a very country strain of stoic melancholy. Miranda Lambert delivers a stormy “My Father’s Gun”; Don Henley and Vince Gill wring pathos from the divorce lament “Sacrifice,” one of John’s loveliest tunes. The album concludes with Willie Nelson’s quietly epic ramble through “Border Song” – one 20th century legend welcoming another to music’s Mt. Olympus. J.R.

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