If you would have told me back in January that a heist film from a Brit and a musical from a former rom-com actor would have given us the defining quotes for country music in 2018, I would have laughed, but here we are in December, and I’m still thinking about this quote from a sermon in Steve McQueen’s “Widows”: “What has happened in the world that normal now passes as excellence? When did we lower our standards?”
And I’m still thinking about this quote from Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) in this year’s “A Star Is Born” remake: “Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.”
Plenty of this year’s new crop of artists has talent. Heaps and heaps of talent. Few have anything meaningful to say.
Or, I should say, artists that have prominently been featured on country music radio don’t have much to say. There’s plenty of point of view in many songs and albums this year — Kacey Musgraves, John Prine, American Aquarium and Lori McKenna have all put out amazing records rich in perspective and characterization this year, but you’re more likely to find their songs on Sirius XM than on any FM dial.
Some artists completely eschewed traditional radio rollout altogether (Musgraves) and some were plain and simply failed by country radio’s business model (Pistol Annies). Even though we’re almost four years removed from Tomatogate, there was only one solo woman artist within the Top 40 songs of Billboard’s Top Hot Country Songs of 2018, and that was Carrie Underwood.
Bro-country is close to drawing its final breaths, thank God, but it’s being replaced by looped snap-drum tracks and more faux authentic country posturing. Instead of creating trends for other genres to follow, for many years now, the country music that has been pushed to the masses has been cashing in on Top 40 trends and artists in order to seem relevant, so much so that someone even a little bit rootsy like Chris Stapleton has been labeled an “outlaw country act” by some. Politics is downstream from culture, sure, but country music is downstream from pop music now. We’re only a few steps away from someone pulling a Greta Van Fleet with Hank Williams (actually, 2018 brought us Yodel Boy, so maybe we have already got Greta’d.)
There is a divide in country music, and it’s only getting worse. As the genre reckons with not being as popular as it once was, it has begun incorporating elements of hip-hop, country’s close cousin that has easily been the nation’s most popular musical expression for at least a decade. In doing so, country music has brought some very talented young artists into the fold. Kane Brown, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Kelsea Ballerini, they’re all very talented. But the songs they make seem to be less about expressing themselves than just imitating the flavor of the week. Some people like that (according to Billboard, a LOT of people like “Meant To Be”) and others loathe it.
That divide is what has made this year so fun to write about, but also, so exhausting to write about. Country music is one big tent that welcomes all, yes, but what happens when the tent swallows everything and anything from Bebe Rexha to Brad Paisley is sold as “country” at Wal-Mart? The mainstream country genre is dangerously close to lacking any type of cultural relevance because of how bland and homogeneous it has become.
But that’s what also made this year so much fun.
Anyone who makes the above arguments about bland country music without also acknowledging how great country music was this year is wrong. Promising new talent (Ashley McBryde), killer songwriting (Caitlyn Smith), a pop-country genre mashup that got even the “I hate country” crowd to tune in (Kacey Musgraves) and a return from an elder statesman (John Prine) were just some of my highlights of the genre this year, and all were examples of people who had heaps of talent and also heaps of perspective. All of the above examples were also clearly influenced by other genres, yet retained the artists’ individuality.
It’s just a shame that individuality has become such a rare find these days. Hopefully next year, it will be easier to find artists who have a perspective, rather than artists who just want to imitate one. Let the old ways of homogeneity run their course – as Jackson Maine once said, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
Now, on to my favorite albums of the year. I didn’t get to hear every release this year, so if I left anything off, let me know! These are just the ones that stuck with me the most. You can find an abbreviated Twitter thread of the same list here if lists aren’t your thing.
10. “Desperate Man,” Eric Church
Church’s latest album takes his “one for me, one for them” ethos and stretches it out for 11 songs. Vascillating between Motown-infused grooves and swampy guitars, Church’s songwriting remains as clever as ever while trying to serve two masters.
Read my review: ‘Desperate Man’: A Tale of Two Churches
Favorite Song: The images conjured up in “Monsters” work well with the sparse instrumentation, and it’s a perfect use of Church’s confessional style.
9. “Lifers,” Cody Jinks
Fort Worth, Texas’ resident former metalhead-turned country star returned this year with an album that’s as much a love letter to his hard-working fans as it is about the hard work that Jinks had to do to get to where he is now, selling out the Ryman and headlining his own North Texas festival.
This album is all about working toward what’s just always over the horizon, and what happens to people when they try to do that. Jinks’ deep, barreling voice, Josh Thompson’s bass lines and David Colvin’s time-keeping drums create a dependable sense of familiarity throughout the whole album, taking pleasure in the work for its own sake.
Favorite Song: The organ on “7th Floor” haunts me to this day.
8. “Life Is Good on the Open Road,” Trampled By Turtles
I”ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve put this album on in the background this year just to have it on as I work, or to let the music idly fill the air. That’s a compliment. Think of this as a jam-band album for people who don’t like jam bands.
Country? Bluegrass? Folk? Roots? Rock ‘n’ roll? All of the above? I don’t really know, these guys are tough to categorize. Just listen and see. It’s great.
Favorite Song: A Twitter friend recently told me that “Annihilate” was the song that resonated with him the most this year, and while that honor for me goes to American Aquarium’s “Crooked + Straight,” I agree that “Annihilate” is my favorite from an album of standouts.
7. “Girl Going Nowhere,” Ashley McBryde
I regret not listening to this album sooner. McBryde reminds me of the heyday of women in ’90s country — think Jo Dee Messina or Chely Wright or Deana Carter. McBryde also has the songwriting chops to stand above the crowd, though, and every song here is evocative of a place, a time or a mood that isn’t often touched on in modern country music.
Favorite Song: Case in point: “Livin’ Next to Leroy” sounds happy, but paints an accurate, bleak picture of the reality of drug addiction in the South.
6. “The Tree,” Lori McKenna
Just as she did a few years ago with “The Bird and the Rifle,” McKenna’s “The Tree” features a song recorded by another mainstream artist (Here, it’s “Happy People”; on “Bird,” it was “Humble and Kind”) amidst an album chock-full of stories about everyday people, sung with tenderness and care.
I could listen to this woman sing stories all day long. She is a master at making the everyday seem profound, poetic and wondrous.
Favorite Song: McKenna’s talent for holding the listener rapt as she describes something that most all of us will go through at least once in our lives is on full display in “The Fixer,” and I promise you will also cry hearing it.
5. “Golden Hour,” Kacey Musgraves
It’s glossier and poppier than her fans might be used to, but it’s not fake. This is Musgraves’ most personal album to date, and lends itself to repeat listens. The main narrative surrounding this album is that it didn’t get a lot of radio play, but Musgraves intentionally eschewed promoting it that way, opting instead for her fans to do the work for her.
A casual search of her name on Twitter reveals a slew of tweets that are a variation on “I normally hate country music but I love Kacey.” The album charms people, what can I say.
Favorite Song: “Mother” is the shortest song on the album but it’s full of longing.
4. “Interstate Gospel,” Pistol Annies
We don’t need a new version of The Highwaymen when we have the Pistol Annies. The supergroup composed of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley are doing what that outlaw act did for a new generation, combining their talents to comment on womanhood in a genre largely devoid of a woman’s perspective.
“Interstate Gospel” is playful, contemplative and sorrowful all at once, and also runs the gamut of country musical stylings, from bluegrass to New Orleans funk. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Favorite Song: “Got My Name Changed Back” is a rousing success.
3. “To the Sunset,” Amanda Shires
Good Lord, this album is good and gets better with each listen. Shires’ biggest sonic experiment to date, full of fuzzy guitars and distorted vocals, is a winner on all fronts, but especially the songwriting.
“To the Sunset” explores love, loss, violence and everything in between. Each song sticks with you.
Favorite Song: Maybe not my “favorite,” in a traditional sense, but “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” haunts me to this day. In a good way.
2. “Things Change,” American Aquarium
New lineup, new stages of life, new outlook. BJ Barham takes it all and makes an album full of hope and change for 2018.
“Things Change” is Barham simultaneously at his most angry and his most hopeful, and it’s the happiest Barham’s sounded on a record in quite some time. While “The World Is On Fire” opens with a gut punch of fear and uncertainty, it closes with a rallying cry of hope — for him, his wife, his daughter, his fans, his country.
His writing here is unmatched by the rest of his catalog. Especially on “One Day At a Time” and “The World Is On Fire,” Barham’s penning some of the best lyrics of his career.
Favorite Song: “Crooked + Straight” spoke to me in a way few other songs have in a long time. It’s as if this was written about me and for me, but with hope. Thanks, BJ.
1. “The Tree of Forgiveness,” John Prine
John Prine’s wise, hilarious and thoughtful return proves why he’s the best living songwriter we’ve got. At this point in his career, the characters in Prine’s songs still feel as fresh as they did decades ago, a skill he shows off in “Egg and Daughter Nite” and “When I Get to Heaven.”
The biggest strength of any songwriter is the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Prine figured out how to do that in 1971 and hasn’t stopped creating songs that force the listener to imagine what life might be like for another person. That empathy is desperately needed these days.
His wit remains unmatched, and hearing new music from him at 72 puts a smile on my face.
Favorite Song: “When I Get to Heaven” imagines a Heaven with blessings, forgiveness, rock ‘n’ roll and 9-mile-long cigarettes.
Previous Best-Of album lists: