The 10 Best Country Albums of 2018

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The 10 Best Country Albums of 2018

At the start of the year, Nashville journalist Marissa R. Moss published a report detailing a shocking history of sexual harassment and misconduct in country radio. Since then, we’ve seen the words “women” and “country radio” slapped together on numerous occasions, far more than we actually hear songs by women on country radio. As has been well-documented this year, songs by women only make up about 10% of country radio airplay, a statistic that’s nothing short of horrifying. Country radio was and is still due for its own #MeToo reckoning, and everyone from Amanda Shires to Carrie Underwood has been vocal about the issues. “Think about all of the little girls that are sitting at home saying, ‘I want to be a country music singer.’ What do you tell them?” Underwood said in a September interview. Until disc jockeys and stations decide to actively pursue gender equality on country radio, our answer to Underwood’s question is this: Don’t tell them. Show them. In 2018, we are no longer subject to the whims of male DJs and label executives. With streaming, we can listen to whatever we want whenever we want. So listen to female country artists, and buy their music—they made some of the best albums of 2018. In fact, 7/10 artists on this list are women or women-fronted groups. So despite the static inequality in country radio, and the resulting skewed charts, women did rule country music this year. From the hardcore tradition of Ashley McBryde to the magical crossover appeal of Kacey Musgraves to the unwavering strength of the Pistol Annies, powerful women owned country in 2018.

Here are the 10 best country albums of 2018:

SmithStarfire_countryalbums_edit.jpg 10. Caitlyn Smith: Starfire
One of the centerpiece tracks on Starfire, the stinging, superb debut album from Nashville artist Caitlyn Smith, is “This Town Is Killing Me,” a fulminating acoustic ballad about Music City. The core of the song is about the indifference and struggles she has faced in her career as a songwriter (she co-wrote Cassadee Pope’s 2013 hit “Wasting All These Tears” and the Meghan Trainor/John Legend duet “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”) and as a budding solo act. But the weariness in her voice is pure reflection of the gritted teeth and frustration that so many female artists suffer at the grabby hands of label execs, PR flaks and disc jockeys. Smith’s disappointment with the men of the world revolves primarily around her personal life throughout Starfire. She dips into pure romanticism, extolling the joys of a night in with a loved one, a movie and Chinese takeout on “Cheap Date” and giving oneself over to lust on the bluesy “Contact High.” But mostly the men in her orbit are more space junk than satellites. The first five tracks on the album are a litany of failed relationships and regret, punctuated with sharp details (“Every time I order my coffee black / Your memory keeps coming back / In a double tall breve latte, two pumps classic”) and music that dips and dives between radio-friendly lamentations and neon-lit grit. The good news for Smith is that she might be able to bypass the country-music establishment altogether. While it was recorded in Nashville and is replete with late-night regrets and twang, Starfire features plenty of crossover-ready moments. “Don’t Give Up On My Love” swells with the dramatics of an Adele hit, and her ode to her old hometown of “St. Paul” could slot right between Sam Smith and Khalid on a Top 40 playlist. —Robert Ham

Watch Caitlyn Smith’s 2018 performance in the Paste Studio


erinrae_countryalbums.jpg 9. Erin Rae: Putting On Airs
Amidst the supportive atmosphere and the energy of the Nashville scene, and Erin Rae’s good fortune at getting to participate in both, there’s Putting On Airs, her second full-length album, recorded at the Refuge, an erstwhile monastery-turned-studio operated by Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae. The album has an intimate scope made grander by its vastness of tone, cloaked in reverb that evokes the expanse of a church without giving in to spiritual surrender. It’s a personal work with a sonic quality that’s damn near tactile, like you could reach out and pluck notes from the air, each track hitting on themes from mental illness in the register of depression and anxiety, to confrontations with homophobia. Anyone else might consider keeping these profound, painful interior revelations to themselves, but for Rae, sharing emotion comes naturally: Her mother was a therapist, and she grew up attending therapy with her family. When she got around to songwriting, in other words, she was long-acclimated to opening up about her feelings. And that’s what Putting On Airs accomplishes best: Maintaining the delicate balancing act of catharsis with awareness of how others may respond to that catharsis. “There’s an option whether you want to just listen to the music, and that’s just nice and fun, and hopefully everyone thinks that it’s beautiful like I do,” she says, “or you can just dive into the words.” But you should dive into Rae’s words. They’re vital for painting an accurate picture of Nashville’s music scene, as exciting in its modernity as it is varied in aesthetics. —Andy Crump

Watch Erin Rae’s 2018 performance in the Paste Studio


rustonkelly_dyingstar_countryalbums.jpg 8. Ruston Kelly: Dying Star
Ruston Kelly’s debut full-length Dying Star isn’t the best album anyone will release in 2018. It isn’t even the best album his own household will release in 2018. That title goes to his wife, Kacey Musgraves, for her stunning Golden Hour. But Dying Star is a very impressive effort from Kelly, a heretofore little-known Nashville singer-songwriter with a perfectly fine-grit voice and a gift for pairing heavy lyrics with remarkably graceful melodies. Evidence of both appears all over the album, revealing an artist who is not only ready for a slice of the spotlight, but also capable of his own crossover someday. “Mockingbird” boasts a dense, wheezing wall of harmonica and Kelly’s best Ryan Adams impression, complete with references to drugs and Parker Posey. The simmering and sad “Paratrooper’s Battlecry” sounds like it could’ve been imported from the sessions for Whiskeytown’s 1997 classic Strangers Almanac. And “Blackout” is a lovely midtempo fusion of strummed strings, pretty harmonies, plenty of heartbreak and booze, and this particularly Adams-esque passage: “You know I ain’t doing too well / But I’ve found a few things that help / I black out in a bar…I get so fucked up to forget who you are.” That pretty much sums up Dying Star’s recurring themes: love, loss, pain, substances, desperation, self-discovery and salvation—or hope for salvation, at least. As Musgraves’ marriage to Kelly inspired the blissful sound on Golden Hour, perhaps Kelly’s next record will cover happier topics. For now, though, Dying Star is a dazzling deep-dive to rock bottom. —Ben Salmon


ericchurch_desperateman_countryalbums.jpeg 7. Eric Church: Desperate Man
The loose yet sturdy feel of Eric Church’s latest album is something like seeing the Nashville troubadour in concert. The first spin offers up plentiful surprises: sharp musical turns matched up with sounds that feel familiar and comforting. But unlike an arena show, Desperate Man is so low key that it feels like the Nashville establishment probably missed it. Perhaps they didn’t know how to program the soul explosion of “Hangin’ Around” or the sultry opening track “The Snake” or his folksy and heartfelt tribute to the birth of his son as soundtracked by “Hippie Radio.” None of it sounds terribly cozy next to the nearly pop bombast that passes for most country on the radio these days—not that that’s going to keep Church up at night. As this brilliant album makes clear, he’s on his own path, and the rest of y’all need to step it up if you’re going to keep pace. —Robert Ham


6. Ashley Monroe: Sparrow
As her career has progressed, singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe has been able to move farther and farther away from the standard Nashville plot. Some of that is due to the success that she has accrued through her association with her buddies Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley in the Pistol Annies and her other friend Jack White, with whom she performed as part of his house band for a few years.The most notable name that is not on Sparrow, Monroe’s fourth LP, is Vince Gill, the country superstar who produced her previous two albums. Choosing instead to work with Dave Cobb, the man behind the boards for Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton’s recent triumphs, was a brilliant move on her part. Their collaboration has resulted in one of the strongest and most grown-up country albums to be released this decade. Monroe dug deep on Sparrow after spending some time in therapy to unpack some of the pain of her past. Those shadows stretch over many of these songs, particularly the loss of her father to cancer as a teenager, which inspired the string-soaked opener “Orphan” and the wholehearted direct address “Daddy I Told You.” Through them, you can hear Monroe loosening her tight grip on the pain and letting acceptance rest gently in her palms. Cobb supports her by exercising restraint, letting the string section and some swirling organ lines carry some of the emotional weight while pushing the pangs of sorrow and shivers of memory in her voice to the fore. Much of the rest of Sparrow plays like a country cousin to the metropolitan pop of Tracey Thorn’s recent solo venture Record. Both women have very adult concerns on their minds, from the joy/struggles of raising children to the agony of watching someone else suffer even with the knowledge that they’ll be better off in the long run. There’s still lust (Monroe’s “Hands On You” is steamy and perfect) and life’s fleeting moments of joy, but the consequences of one’s actions are weighing on these songs. —Robert Ham

Watch Ashley Monroe’s 2018 performance in the Paste Studio


pistolannies_countryalbums.jpg 5. Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel
The cover art for Interstate Gospel, the third album by country supergroup Pistol Annies, couldn’t be more perfect: a picture of our heroines, dressed in their finest frocks, holding hands and striking a defiant pose in the woods—glamorous and unafraid to get their hands dirty when it comes to shaking loose of bad relationships or running through men “like a watering can” to get their needs met. As long as they have each other, the ex-husbands, sugar daddies and sundry other bad boys of the world have no chance of survival. Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley are standing strong and providing messages of hope to the women languishing in shitty situations. Even if they can’t remove themselves and head for greener pastures, each spin of Interstate Gospel will help soothe their soul and ease their troubled mind. —Robert Ham


4. John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness
For decades now, John Prine has operated as a kind of people’s poet—a layman’s Proust whose plainspoken prose has made albums filled with his country-folk tunes as simple as they are penetrating. With The Tree Of Forgiveness—71-year-old Prine’s first album of all-new material in 13 years—he doesn’t miss a beat, doling out material that highlight every facet of his still-underrated talent. “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” and “Egg & Daughter Night, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” deliver Prine’s sly, homespun humor. The second is a charmer that intercuts the nostalgic memories of the big night when farmers would bring their eggs (and their pretty daughters)—into town, with a frequent allusion to a “crazy bone” that makes men do mischievous things—the kind of excusable naughtiness that is usually accompanied by an embarrassed, half-scolding, half-laughing, “Grandpa!!” “I still love that picture of us walkin’,” he sings slightly plaintively, his rich, gravelly voice, noticeably deepened by a 1998 battle with squamous cell cancer, sounding weary as he gently pleads with a loved one to come home to him. It’s deeply moving, and a much more somber moment than the album closer, “When I Get To Heaven,” which has Prine reveling in mock seriousness with harps and spoken word before he can’t seem to take it anymore and bursts into the raucous chorus. “I’m gonna get a cocktail / vodka and ginger ale / Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette / That’s nine miles long,” he sings triumphantly, painting a vivid picture of an appealingly vice-filled heaven in the way only he can. —Madison Desler


3. Ashley McBryde: Girl Going Nowhere
The deck feels perpetually stacked against women in the modern country marketplace. To make any kind of commercial inroads, the constantly moving pathways currently require these ladies to either hide their twang behind a wall of pop production (RaeLynn, Maren Morris), ape the blustery sound that the boys are making (Carly Pearce) or shoot for something far outside the norm and pray for crossover success (Kacey Musgraves). Where does that leave a country traditionalist like Ashley McBryde? Surprisingly, it finds her on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” a single from her debut album Girl Going Nowhere and opening up for platinum-selling artist Luke Combs on his headlining tour. Both are sensible places to be. That song, with its lyrical laundry list of working class signifiers, is catnip to country fans. And traversing the U.S. with Combs as he plays mid-size venues on his ascent up the ladder is the best way to get her songs heard en masse without having to fight for attention at sheds and arenas. She made her name in biker bars and honky tonks before getting snapped up by a major label. And no other song on Nowhere fits as neatly into the eye of the needle that every artist in Nashville is trying to thread as “Dahlonega” does. It’s a no-bullshit record free of frills and fat; 11 songs that make their points powerfully and memorably. These songs don’t need to be messed with or tarted up or given a 21st-century shine. They work perfectly in their current roughshod, if gently polished, form. The needle may keep moving for female country artists, but that’s of little concern to McBryde. She’s on a journey toward career longevity, and Nowhere is her confident and solid first step. —Robert Ham


2. Rosanne Cash: She Remembers Everything
These songs wrestle with the primary subject of Cash’s entire career, the primary subject of country music history: the relations between men and women in adult romantic relationships. “Weren’t we like a battlefield?” she sings, “locked inside a holy war; your love and my due diligence, the only thing worth fighting for.” This time, however, those decades of negotiation are shadowed by the knowledge that there are fewer years ahead than behind. Cash, now 63, addresses this directly in “Not Many Miles To Go.” Mortality itself looms large in “Crossing to Jerusalem,” a song where the ancient city is a stand-in for whatever lies after death, if, in fact, anything does. Half the album was produced as stripped-down country-rock by her husband John Leventhal, half as pop-rock dreamscape by Decemberists’ producer Tucker Martine. Tying it all together is Cash’s gift for metaphor and even more so, by her beguiling alto. After all that negotiation and exploration over the years, she concludes, there’s still an irreducible mystery about romantic relationships. Yes, she says, keep negotiating and exploring, but don’t forget to “raise a glass, be thankful for what we don’t understand: the undiscovered country between a woman and a man.” —Geoffrey Himes


kacey-golden.jpg 1. Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour
Golden Hour is named, in part, for Kacey Musgraves’ teeny tiny hometown of Golden, Texas; population: about 200. But the title of the singer/songwriter’s triumphant third LP is also an ode to the brief period of daytime occurring right after sunrise or just before sunset, a fleeting 30 minutes during which everything is made more beautiful by a dusky, yellow glow. Perhaps darkness is just ahead, but a for little while, there’s nothing but light for miles and miles. Musgraves is all-too familiar with life’s ups and downs, lights and darks, and how they often co-exist. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?,” she sings on “Happy & Sad.” “Happy and sad at the same time / You got me smiling with tears in my eyes.” That track is a lesson in feeling comfortable with dark emotions, but Musgraves spends the bulk of Golden Hour basking in the light, giddy with new love (in her case, with husband Ruston Kelly, who’s also on this list) and in awe at the world around her. There’s an ease to the record, which is interesting considering it spends so much time investing in the often complicated work of genre-busting. While there’s more than enough twang and small-town heartache on Golden Hour to constitute a country record, there’s a delightfully surprising melange of sounds—spaced-out autotune on the psychedelic “Oh, What A World,” doo-wop keys on the starry-eyed “Butterflies” and, most magnificently, the sweaty disco beats on what should have been a pop radio hit this year, “High Horse.” For all its genre-defying powers, Golden Hour is also home to pure, stop-in-your-tracks songwriting. Musgraves has a knack for coy wordplay on “Space Cowboy” and “Slow Burn,” and if “Mother” doesn’t inspire you to call up your mom right this minute, you need to listen again. While life is full of lights and darks, Golden Hour is more concerned with the glow, and it is Musgraves’ sun-soaked masterpiece. —Ellen Johnson

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