From one angle, the country music narrative in 2018 was distinguished by consistency. Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s easygoing soul-twang confection “Meant To Be” spent a staggering, record-setting 50 weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart, while the vast majority of award winners and chart-toppers are all familiar household names. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clearer that the country-music landscape is less monolithic than it’s ever been. Women once again stretched the genre’s boundaries and wrote indelible songs—even if things such as festival lineups, the albums charts, and radio spins once again didn’t reflect these creative leaps—while newcomers such as Kane Brown and Ashley McBryde provided refreshing spins on mainstream country. If anything, it’s most precise to say that country music is a big tent under which Americana, roots, indie-folk, alt-country (and all variations in between) now comfortably coexist, as reflected in the 10 albums below.
May Your Kindness Remain is one of those rare albums that truly has it all: soulful arrangements, timeless production, and most importantly, a songwriter at the height of their powers. Courtney Marie Andrews’ voice elicits the same devastation at a whisper as it does at a belt—with true grit, she slow-burns the story of a Mexican immigrant on “Border,” and swells with heartache on the path to reunion during “Long Road Back To You.” [Matt Williams]
Brandi Carlile unfurled a masterpiece this year, a jangly, orchestral album that could stand alongside classics from Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton. Carlile’s rich timbre sings sagas about the addiction-plagued “Sugartooth” and the tragic life of “Fulton County Jane Doe,” but most compelling is the autobiographical “The Mother,” perfectly capturing how parenting instantly changes who you are—“The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep”—and how you wouldn’t change back for anything. [Gwen Ihnat]
“I think you can write songs that mean something,” Brent Cobb told The Fader this year, “but they can groove too.” Damn, can they ever. Providence Canyon’s country funk conjures a simmerin’ Southern summer so vividly that you can feel the sweat collect on the back of your neck, exploring Cobb’s Georgia home, the murder of Wayne Mills (“The King Of Alabama”), and the only reason worth doing anything: love of the game (“When The Dust Settles”). [Matt Williams]
Although there was never any doubt that I’m With Her would create a sterling debut album—after all, the band’s lineup features A-list songwriters and harmonizers Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sarah Jarosz—See You Around is greater than the sum of its parts. Highlights include the sinewy folk-blues of “I-89”; the stirring, crystalline folk-pop of “Pangaea”; and a stunning take on Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles” that begins with haunting a cappella vocals. [Annie Zaleski]
One of 2018’s breakout stars, Arkansas-born Ashley McBryde splits the difference between barnstorming classic rock and hardscrabble outlaw country. On one end of the spectrum is the raucous “Radioland,” which sounds like a Bruce Springsteen outtake misplaced in the ’70s; on the other is the subdued “Southern Babylon,” a stripped-down, soulful ballad with ghostly pedal steel and shivering drums. [Annie Zaleski]
Lori McKenna has been one of folk/Americana/country’s songwriting masters for some time now—she’s got two Best Country Song Grammys—and The Tree, her bestselling album to date, further cements her reputation. “You Can’t Break A Woman” is a shattering, understated account of love’s erosion in the face of substance abuse, and “Young And Angry Again” rages against the dying of the light, a paean to the wildfire of youth. [Matt Williams]
Golden Hour is full of sweet-voiced love songs and candid self-acceptance, but Kacey Musgraves stays on the right side of cloying. Stunners like “Slow Burn” and “Oh, What A World” exploit the liminal place between country and pop, with shimmering melodies that move between synth and pedal steel. Bittersweet songs like “Space Cowboy” and “Happy & Sad” use plainspoken lyrics to talk openly about anxiety and relationships, while “High Horse” blends, to beautiful effect, old-country imagery with a danceable kiss-off. [Laura M. Browning]
Talk about a welcome comeback: Pistol Annies’ refreshingly honest third album, Interstate Gospel, chronicles smart life changes and bad decisions alike, via a deft combination of winking wit and hard-fought wisdom. There’s the cheeky “Got My Name Changed Back,” an ode to reclaiming your life after divorce, and the pedal-steel-and-electric-brimming “Best Years Of My Life,” a song that vows to make the best of an unpleasant situation despite deep regrets. [Annie Zaleski]
Carrie Underwood turned a traumatic year into a triumphant sixth album, pouring her heart out on Cry Pretty’s title track, adding torch songs (“Low”) and odes (“Southbound”) to her roots. Like Underwood’s 2015 album proclaimed, she’s a storyteller, crafting poignant narrative songs about the tragedies of gun violence (“The Bullet”) and alcoholism (“Spinning Bottles”). These tales make celebratory anthems like “Love Wins” and “The Champion” all the more exultant. [Gwen Ihnat]
If it weren’t for the studio production values, Songs Of The Plains might have been recorded while sitting around a campfire on a frozen Canadian prairie. (Producer Dave Cobb did actually put the mic next to a campfire for “Night Herding Song.”) Spare instrumentation and a throaty baritone have already earned 23-year-old Colter Wall plenty of comparisons to Johnny Cash, but Wall’s songwriting is the kind of frontier poetry that Cash himself might have covered. And although he draws from some of country’s deepest roots, Songs shows Wall is on his way to building his own folk mythology. [Laura M. Browning]
Listen to songs from these albums and our other top picks from 2018 on Spotify.