Country music in 2018 was in a weird place: After close to three years of dominance from Chris Stapleton, and “He’s doing things the right way” talk about Sturgill Simpson, there wasn’t really a giant lightning-rod album that gave the year it’s defining statement. The new Eric Church album was solid, but it had less heat than his revealing Rolling Stone cover story. Sam Hunt still didn’t put out a new album. Stapleton, Simpson, Isbell et. al., mostly sat the year out, or performed live a bunch. Florida Georgia Line had a song at No. 1 for a whole-ass calendar year, but everyone kind of shrugged about it. The main issue in country music — which has been the issue since at least 1963 — is that radio programmers are still being openly sexist, and refusing to play women artists for reasons basically boiling down to a bunch of men being afraid of women.
Without a unifying story, this list of the 10 Best Country and Americana Albums of the year doesn’t have a narrative arc of any kind, but that allowed for a variety of albums, from pop country kings and legends to Canadian boys making C&W records and three women reuniting to deliver their best album yet. Here are the 10 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2018.
Cody Jinks makes music for, and about, the kind of people who bring a change of clothes to their day job because they only have a 30-minute commute between that and their night job. Jinks unexpectedly became a country star around his last album, and this is his label debut; it’s another album full of tales of the downtrodden, the 60-hour-a-weekers, the people who are worried the best of life has passed them by. Jinks is a rocking guitar player, and his band adds emotional heft to deliver to this, his finest album yet.
Ashley McBryde spent more than a decade trying to make it as a performer in Nashville before she finally got her chance. Those years of disappointment and struggle make her major-label debut Girl Going Nowhere lived in; the lessons learned in these songs came hard. The title track captures the feeling of your dreams falling through your grasp, but then realizing them despite everyone thinking you’re going to fall on your face, an autobiographical song that makes it hard not to root for McBryde and Girl Going Nowhere.
The title of this Willie Nelson album — his 62nd, or so, depending on what you count — is a morose joke: He really is the last man standing of his class of country stars. That sense of humor colors the album as a whole; here he’s appreciating waking up breathing, and thankful that that breath exists, even if it stinks. Willie has given us more albums that describe the human condition than maybe any other artist, and his old age albums are some of the best examples of that. This one included.
Shooter Jennings returns to more straight-ahead country, after divergences into krautrock and metal, and delivers his best album since 2005’s Put The ‘O’ Back in Country. Shooter is an autobiographical, starmaking album, the kind he’s resisted making his entire career; the best songs here even make you forget his preordained country royalty lineage (“D.R.U.N.K.” especially). Shooter spent so long giving you what you’d least expect, that an album this unadorned and direct feels like the biggest left turn of all.
Courtney Marie Andrews has a voice like the clearest bell; I imagine it as something silver that you can see your reflection in. May Your Kindness Remain is the finest album in a secretly classic catalog — 2013’s On My Page deserves your retroactive attention — filled with little stories Andrews has picked up in the years since her Honest Life vaulted her to the next level of alt-country fame. The title track here hits like a spiritual, an aural baptism in her river. She’s also one of the most consistently thrilling live acts in country music. See her after spinning this album again.
Even though Florida Georgia Line’s song with Bebe Rexha dominated the song charts in 2018, no country artist was as much a commercial juggernaut as Kane Brown this year, whose 2016 debut spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Country Albums chart. He followed that album up this year with Experiment, which, as its title suggests, experiments with different looks for Brown, who can do big, dumb bro country with the best of them (“Short Skirt Weather”), but also do political songs, a huge risk most A-list country stars refuse to take (“American Bad Dream”), and be the country Ty Dolla Sign (“One Night Only”). The Bro Country wave is starting to die down, and it’s thanks to artists like Brown, who take the tools and opportunity of bro-country and make something better.
A lot has happened in the years since the last Pistol Annies album: divorces, tabloid covers and superlative, if under-appreciated solo albums. Interstate Gospel is the group’s third nearly perfect LP; it aims to give a warts-and-all picture of life as a modern woman, from Spanx to loving people who are locked up to the indignities of the court proceedings needed to complete a divorce. Mostly this album feals honest; everything here feels real, experienced and from the heart. More albums could serve to use that approach.
John Prine songs feel like guides for how to live, each song and each line containing kernels of wisdom you might not appreciate till years later, or until you try to live them in practice. His 2018 comeback album, Tree of Forgiveness, is filled with song scraps he started as far back as the ’70s and finished recently, coming across time to teach new lessons. Tree of Forgiveness stands alongside Prine’s ’70s peak, namely in how the songs here encourage you to keep fighting against malaise, and that the bad times won’t last forever.
Despite what the traditionalists will tell you, the boundaries of what is, or what is not, country deserve to be pushed: if they weren’t, we’d still be listening to Hank Williams yodeling into a tin can. Kacey Musgraves has been a lightning rod for country provincialists since Pageant Material, when the main infraction allegedly making her “not country” was appearing on the cover of Fader. She sparked even more debates with Golden Hour, her early 2018 album that has an honest-to-god disco song at its center (“High Horse”). But Musgraves’ refusal to play to any type but to her own muse makes her one of the most rebellious, authentically country artists working today, and Golden Hour is her finest moment yet, an album that captures the rush of new love — it was written after and during a breakup and a new relationship — and is one of 2018’s consistently feel-good albums, in a year we all needed that.
Colter Wall took this spot last year with his debut self-titled, and this album feels like a massive step forward, somehow. Where his last album was a stripped-down, man-and-his-guitar affair, this album fills out his palette, delivering a modern rendering of the western albums of Marty Robbins and Tex Ritter. Wall’s songwriting has always been his secret weapon, but the way he turns his voice into a more varied instrument is the highlight here, as he goes from yodeling cowboy to growling roadsman and back again. An ode to the ways we’re shaped by, and how we shape, where we’re from, Songs of the Plains is the arrival of a new force in country music. The most unbelievable part is that Wall’s masterpiece is probably years and albums away.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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