The Musical Divide’s Top 20 Singles Of 2018

It’s that time of the year again. The list-pocalypse will soon arrive to haunt us all. While I plan on waiting to release my songs and albums lists until Jan. 2019, singles are a bit of a different animal.

To be eligible for my “best singles” list, the single had to be released anywhere from Dec. 2017 to Nov. 2018.

Also note that I will once again be working with Markus Meyer over at This Is Country Music to combine my list with his. This list however comprises my top 20 picks for the best singles of the year. To be honest, it was tough filling out 20 slots for both my “best” and “worst” lists, mainly because a lot of mainstream country music this year just fell somewhat in the middle. I’m not surprised that I didn’t wind up reviewing as many standalone songs this year.

Still, 2018 and 2017 have both been better years than past ones for featuring a few excellent singles, and while not every song on my list was a huge hit, it’s the quality that matters with this particular list. The “worst” list will be released soon.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

No. 20 – Florida Georgia Line, “Simple”

As usual with Florida Georgia Line, this is by no means a lyrical masterpiece. It’s the upbeat, atmospheric instrumental mix that helps give this the levity it needs to work. Sure, it’s essentially a High Valley Mumford & Sons knockoff when you get right down to it, but Tyler Hubbard’s sincere vocal performance actually helped make this an enjoyable little summer tune. Original? No, but it works for what it is.

No. 19 – Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot”

I will admit this song has grown on me a little bit since I first reviewed it. I was initially critical of the lackluster lyrics, but it’s the other elements that end up doing the heavy lifting for this song. The tighter melodic focus of the song helped it to stand out among its peers, and the restrained production allowed for Jimmie Allen’s voice to shine. Overall, this was a great choice for a debut single.

No. 18 – Miranda Lambert, “Keeper Of The Flame”

Speaking of the songs where certain elements do the heavy lifting, Miranda Lambert’s “Keeper of the Flame” simply works for its anthemic nature. The light rock-meets-country flair creates an uplifting atmosphere as Lambert sings about honoring her heroes by keeping that flame lit. For a genre that celebrates tradition and roots, Lambert was able to craft a song about honoring those roots while also looking toward the present.

No. 17 – Midland, “Burn Out”

There were better single options from On The Rocks, but Midland knocked it out of the park once again with “Burn Out.” Country music has needed to go back to addressing heartbreak for a good while now, and between this and “Drinkin’ Problem,” Midland’s smooth delivery of a fine song provides a nice balance to mainstream country music.

No. 16 – Devin Dawson, “Asking For A Friend”

While I don’t see Devin Dawson hanging around the genre much longer given this song’s “success” on the charts, “Asking For A Friend” is nonetheless a worthy song to highlight. The bright acoustics with those pluckier strums and hints of pedal steel give way to a track with self-awareness. Dawson exudes real vulnerability as he admits he screwed up in his relationship before asking for a second chance. It’s one of those songs that could easily go completely wrong given the wrong framing, but this is executed well.

No. 15 – LANco, “Born To Love You”

For as much as I’m willing to defend mainstream country music, I won’t act like any song on this list is here for superb lyrical content. That’s certainly the case with “Born To Love You,” and honestly that’s alright. LANco’s atmospheric, melodically focused music is a nice change of pace for the genre. The breezier instrumental mix works well for the song, and the chorus is packed with the right amount of energy to balance it out. This is another track that grew on me as the year wore on.

No. 14 – Dierks Bentley feat. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”

Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osborne together is quite the deadly combo, and thankfully, “Burning Man” lives up to the hype. John Osborne’s fierce guitar playing really helps bolster the track, especially by the time the song reaches its explosive end. Bentley and TJ Osborne’s brand of hangdog roughness adds a sense of weariness to their performance in a good way, perfectly complimenting the song’s overall message.

No. 13 – Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire”

Fun fact – Chris Stapleton on autopilot is still often better than the majority of what you’ll find on the radio. “Millionaire” ultimately shines through because of its timeless delivery and its simplicity. Stapleton can howl and sing the hell out of anything, but sometimes it’s nice to hear his more tender side.

No. 12 – Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen”

It wasn’t that long ago when Thomas Rhett was stealing multiple spots on my “worst song” lists. Now he’s stealing a few spots on the better list. Last year he ranked fairly high on my list with “Marry Me,” and this year he’s come back with “Sixteen.” This song serves to show how much Rhett has matured over the past few years. Instead of reflecting on his younger days as the best that life had to offer, he cleverly refutes that notion by pointing out how we all want to grow older at some point in our life. He uses those stepping stones of wanting to be older to finally reflect and realize he’s happy where he is now. It’s a song that builds up nicely to a fitting conclusion.

No. 11 – Cody Johnson, “On My Way To You”

The great thing about Cody Johnson is that you can always expect relatively solid neo-traditional country music. Sure, the song is built on lyrical cliches, but it’s Johnson’s sincere, powerful delivery of the song combined with the warm instrumental mix that really helps to sell this love song. This is a song that would have fit right in on a country playlist ten years ago, and now, it feels like an old friend come to welcome you back to a better time.

No. 10 – Jason Aldean feat. Miranda Lambert, “Drowns The Whiskey”

Jason Aldean usually reserves the only good best songs on his albums as album cuts, but thankfully this gem with Miranda Lambert managed to be a single. The clever twist of the hook is an example of smarter writing (especially compared to their peers) and the slightly spacier, melancholic feel fits the song well. Like “On My Way To You” before it, this feels like an old friend to the genre.

No. 9 – Luke Bryan, “Most People Are Good

Luke Bryan earned his place here. The quieter, serious nature of “Most People Are Good” is a nice change of pace for him, and the message is certainly something to commend in 2018. Searching out the good in things in lieu of the negative is something we could all aspire to do, and Bryan’s sincere vocal delivery makes me believe what he’s singing. It’s easily one of his best singles.

No. 8 – Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me”

There’s some good gloomy songs on this list, but this one actually had some bite to it. Combs’ charisma is on full display for this song about channeling heartbreak into music. It’s a perspective you don’t hear much in mainstream country anymore, and Combs was just the kind of vocalist to handle the job excellently.

No. 7 – Brad Paisley, “Bucked Off”

Sadly, “Bucked Off” almost literally reads as Brad Paisley accepting his waning chart success in mainstream country music. On the bright side, Paisley is at least going to go out knowing he did it his way. This is classic Paisley, turning a sad song into a fun one that also manages to be a tribute to George Strait. I think the king would be proud that at least someone in this genre cares about their integrity.

No. 6 – Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing”

Hey, speaking of artists turning otherwise sad songs into fun numbers …

Let’s face it – we’ve had a lot of country legends leave us lately. Willie Nelson also knows that, as “Last Man Standing” finds him facing death straight in the face and laughing at it. The jazzy instrumental mix sounds energetic and fun, Nelson sounds better than ever before, and the overall jovial nature of the lyrical content lets us know that Nelson is going to go out kicking and screaming when he leaves, hopefully giving us much more music before then.

No. 5 – Danielle Bradbery feat. Thomas Rhett, “Goodbye Summer”

Who knew that a remix of a song could actually be a good thing?

But “Goodbye Summer” gets everything right where “Hello Summer” got it wrong. This time around, the song has dobro and brighter electric guitars backing it. The dobro is an effective instrument to use to bolster the somber, bittersweet attitude of the song, and the brighter electric guitars help to balance the better times the two lovers had during the summer with the eventual goodbye to come. Both Bradbery and Thomas Rhett are consistently charismatic vocalists, and this song is no exception.

No. 4 – Brothers Osborne, “Shoot Me Straight”

It’s a song like “Shoot Me Straight” that differentiates Brothers Osborne from everyone else. Sure, it’s no lyrical masterpiece, but TJ Osborne’s smokier baritone works well for this swampy rocker before John Osborne shreds for six minutes to our delight. It’s that kind of bite and muscle that’s been sorely lacking from the charts lately, and thankfully the brothers were here to fill that role.

No. 3 – Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End”

While this was unfortunately Swindell’s slowest climbing single to date, it also gets my vote for being his best song thus far. The vocal performance is sincere, the writing is mature and well-done, and the quieter nature of it all is a nice change of pace for Swindell. He recalls his experiences with his lovers in a way that doesn’t feel angry or regretful. For him, the time spent together is what matters, because after all, good things do come to an end. The nice acoustics brushed up against the piano and softer percussion adds to the serious nature of this song.

No. 2 – Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy”

Sure, Kacey Musgraves’ weird rollout of releasing two (or three?) singles ahead of her new album, Golden Hour might have made this single get lost in the shuffle, but let’s face it, radio was never going to touch it anyway. True to its name, “Space Cowboy” has a sort of “spacey” atmosphere to it, with booming drums and piano helping to fill in the sound. The dichotomy of the hook is quite enjoyable as well, and overall the mature framing in the writing makes this a truly excellent song.

No. 1 – Kenny Chesney feat. Mindy Smith – “Better Boat”

I truly enjoy every song on this list, but the choice for my No. 1 single of the year wasn’t even close. “Better Boat” is what country music is all about. Penned by the excellent duo of Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the lyrics are brutally intimate and poignant, drawing out the heartache pretty well on its own. But Kenny Chesney’s vulnerable delivery of the track bolstered by Mindy Smith’s haunting vocals really sets this track over the edge. This is perhaps one of the best songs Chesney has ever recorded, and easily the best single of 2018.

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