The Musical Divide’s Top 50 Songs Of 2018 (Part One)

Red Shahan Caitlyn Smith American Aquarium Sarah Shook

The Musical Divide’s third list of five launches today. While crafting an artistic statement in the form of an album is important, crafting an excellent song is arguably harder. Albums give artists an average of half an hour to an hour (typically) to win you over. Meanwhile, songs have to do the same job within an average of three minutes.

We also will naturally hear more songs than albums over the course of a year, so it’s fitting that songs are honored with the longest list. In fact, the list is so long that it will be split into two parts, with each part showcasing half the list.

Keep in mind that in order to qualify this list, these songs had to come from one of the albums I covered this year. Songs released last year may be eligible if they were on an album released this year. Also, just like last year, I’ve limited the list to include up to three entries per album. While this is never usually a problem, the cutoff point is used to generate more variety for the list, because ultimately this is a celebration of good music, not a competition.

Before we begin, let’s first list some honorable mentions that barely missed the cut.

Listed in no particular order …

On with the list!

No. 50 – Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy” (from Golden Hour)

The first taste we got from Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album was also one of its best. Considering Musgraves’ material usually centered on the events and people around her, “Space Cowboy” is a nice change of pace without losing the essence of what makes her writing great. The writing has a bite to it, but there’s also a sense of calm about it, effectively ending the relationship without blaming either side for what they want. The dichotomy of the hook is also excellent.

No. 49 – Lucie Silvas, “Kite” (from E.G.O.)

“Kite” is a brutally good track with a sense of raw, rocking energy. The booming, heavier drums and electric guitar work compliment this sinister track nicely as Lucie Silvas tauntingly warns a man about his fleeting lover. It’s an edgy track that succeeds more on mood than writing, but it’s viscerally good nonetheless.

No. 48 – Jason Boland and the Stragglers, “Grandfather’s Theme” (from Hard Times Are Relative)

Rarely ever do we see songs cross generational gaps and pull themselves off as effectively as this track. It’s a warped, psychedelic country-meets-rock hybrid with no element overshadowing another one. It’s hazy, smokey, and mysterious, with Boland addressing how each generation comes with its own set of problems and ways to address said problems. The second and third verses seem to come from different perspectives, yet between this and the instrumental mix, it somehow never feels jarring and is able to make a cohesive point overall. We can’t dictate what’s best for future generations because they have different knowledge than us along with different problems.

No. 47 – John Prine, “When I Get To Heaven” (from The Tree Of Forgiveness)

Hot damn, we should all hope to be as jovial as John Prine is when we’re his age. “When I Get To Heaven” is weird and fun in a classic Prine way. Once that saloon style piano kicks in, it’s a cue to cut loose and hear Prine list off all the things he’s going to do in heaven, including starting a rock and roll band and operating a nightclub. At least he’s got his priorities straight. It’s completely silly, and Prine wouldn’t have it any other way. On an album where Prine addressed the concept of death and life in more serious tracks, “When I Get To Heaven” was the perfect moment of levity to end the album on a happier note.

No. 46 – Blackberry Smoke, “I’ll Keep Ramblin’ ” (feat. Robert Randolph) (from Find A Light)

“I’ll Keep Ramblin’ ” sounds like it blends three or four songs into one and honors just as many influences, yet it all comes together somehow. It’s jaunty, electrifying and pure fun. It combines everything that’s great about southern-rock, gospel and funk in what’s essentially five minutes of excellent musicianship.

No. 45 – Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, “What Am I Supposed To Do” (from Hard Times and White Lines)

Quite a few songs and albums referenced the death of the American Dream this year, but Whitey Morgan may have quietly released the most excellent example of it. “What Am I Supposed To Do” is melodically strong thanks to a gorgeous piano bolstering it. The chorus is exceptionally strong in this regard, but it’s the lyricism that’s truly gripping, showcasing the common struggles of most workers in America trying to make ends meet who just can’t no matter what they do.

No. 44 – Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, “Years” (from Years)

The beauty of “Years” is that it feels like it combines two parts into one thanks to a clever tempo change – the former being the disappointment shared by Shook as her relationship crumbles and the latter being the furious, righteous cry of frustration. In the context of the album as the album closer, it serves as the buildup other tracks have contributed toward, and Shook doesn’t let us down in the slightest.

No. 43 – Courtney Marie Andrews, “Took You Up” (from May Your Kindness Remain)

The theme itself is simple, but it’s the execution in the other departments that makes it a beautiful listen. The smoldering electric guitar gliding along in the background is matched perfectly against Courtney Marie Andrews’ soulful, soothing delivery. The imagery used is vivid, adding layers of depth to an already excellent song. It’s grounded in realism, showcasing that the relationship will last regardless if the metaphorical ship sinks. The love outlasts the material possessions. What a beautiful sentiment.

No. 42 – J.D. Wilkes, “Down in the Hidey Hole” (from Fire Dream)

“Down in the Hidey Hole” is a blend of multiple genres (including funk, blues, soul and Reggae) and somehow manages to make it all work. It’s mostly a showcase for excellent instrumentation and production, but the lyrics itself which speak of laying down in a bunker with a lover waiting for the apocalypse were quite … uh, fun to listen to as well.

No. 41 – Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, “Good As Gold”

On an album that explored failed relationships, “Good As Gold” was the crown jewel of an excellent album. Sarah Shook nails the perfect balance between bitterness and sadness here, with an excellent chorus to boot. It’s deservingly biting in its framing, and on a pure melodic level, “Good As Gold” proved Shook was continuously improving.

No. 40 – Shotgun Rider, “Me and a Memory” (from Palo Duro)

“Me and a Memory” may be one of the more basic tracks here lyrically, but the other elements seriously did a ton of heavy lifting here. Logan Samford’s Gary Allan-esque vocal tone was perfect for giving this song a bit of a moody, melodic, melancholic edge, especially with the minor chords present. The chorus just soars thanks to the atmosphere surrounding it, and when you combine that with sense of urgency underlying it, it featured one of the stickiest hooks I heard all year.

No. 39 – Ryan Culwell, “Heaven Everywhere I Go” (from The Last American)

On an album that explored the crushing of dreams in a wild, angry, chaotic mindset, “Heaven Everywhere I Go” was the primal yearn to feel alive. Sonically, it’s adventurous, with thick, smokey electric guitars and underlying bass creating a darker atmosphere. It’s indescribable in a sense, featuring multiple breakdowns before coming back around again. It’s a wild ride, but it’s so worth it.

No. 38 – American Aquarium, “One Day At A Time” (from Things Change)

It’s a miracle we even got new American Aquarium music this year, but that’s just a testament to BJ Barham’s driving spirit. “One Day At A Time” was the sobering reflection of hard times and lessons learned. It’s also an excellent example of seeing Barham pour his heart and soul into a performance. As other tracks on the album suggest, sometimes the best way to move on is to make right with the past.

No. 37 – Lori McKenna, “The Fixer” (from The Tree)

This decay of a marriage is only made stronger through Lori McKenna’s strong sense of symbolism. A man who’s obsessed with his machines has forgotten how to make a human connection with the one person who loves him the most and is sadly giving up, and he can barely even see it until it’s too late. It’s a crushing track that’s evidence of McKenna’s masterful writing.

No. 36 – American Aquarium, “Crooked + Straight”

If “One Day At A Time” represented the sobering reflection and quiet wistfulness of Things Change, “Crooked + Straight” represents the angrier, confused side. It’s fast-paced, but the focus of fatigue and burn out is apparent. It’s not just a story – this is what Barham has lived through and experienced. Like I said before, it’s a testament to his driving spirit, but the real credit goes toward those words his father told him long ago.

No. 35 – Lucero, “Among The Ghosts” (from Among The Ghosts)

This was the fiercest, angriest, saddest album opener of 2018. Ben Nichols’ growling, gravelly voice was on full display as he sang about the crushing despair of knowing he hasn’t been there as much for his family as he should have been. He roars during the chorus, giving the song a sweaty intensity that’s almost frightening and certainly heartbreaking.

No. 34 – Brandi Carlile, “Whatever You Do” (from By The Way, I Forgive You)

I could write a dissertation on the emotional nuance and weight added to Brandi Carlile’s performance of this song. It’s a raw track that sees her held back by her lover to the point where her dreams and ambitions overcome her love for this person. The track begins with restrained acoustics before eventually transforming into an elegant track. The strings and violin give off that feeling that she’s finally free, but her shouting at the end also signals that the decision to move on wasn’t easy. It will haunt her, and she doesn’t know yet whether it was or wasn’t the right thing to do.

No. 33 – Caitlyn Smith, “Starfire” (from Starfire)

The title track off Caitlyn Smith’s debut album was labeled as one of the weaker tracks, and to an extent, I get it. It’s not as lyrically compelling as some of the higher cuts. Like Shotgun Rider’s “Me And A Memory” though, the appeal for me comes through in the huge, moody chorus highlighting an excellent vocal performance and sticky pop hook perfection. It’s also a fitting testament to Smith’s drive and determination, as she effectively tells her audience no one will stop her from chasing her dreams. You’d have to be sick and twisted to even want to try.

No. 32 – Ashley McBryde, “Livin’ Next To Leroy” (from Girl Going Nowhere)

Ashley McBryde brought a healthy dose of no-frills country music to the table this year, and “Livin’ Next To Leroy” is one of many examples of that from her debut album. It’s a hard-charged, darker track that shows the honest side of what might happen to people growing up in poorer rural areas. Despite the actions taken by people there, it serves to highlight stronger bonds because of it. Leroy in this song feels more like a friend who we’re all sad to see go rather than a shady drug dealer. It’s a track with a commendable perspective.

No. 31 – Caitlyn Smith, “House of Cards”

“House Of Cards” is an especially heartbreaking track, with liquid violin transitioning into a song that explores self-doubt in a crushing manner. The moment she starts to sing and literally grow more and more dramatic with the lines “You’ve got to get better, you’re not good enough” can’t be done justice with my words. It’s simplistically beautiful.

No. 30 – Jamie Lin Wilson, “The Being Gone” (from Jumping Over Rocks)

On an album that found Jamie Lin Wilson grappling with the struggles of her career and the mortality of life itself, “The Being Gone” stood out as one of its brilliant moments. In terms of little things, the guitar driving the song had a good amount of groove to it, but in terms of the bigger picture, “The Being Gone” adopts some bluesy, atmospheric tones to help create that distant feeling of being away from her family, a perspective many musicians understand. If it was up to fans, the answer to Wilson’s question of whether it’s worth it would be a resounding, “yes.”

No. 29 – Eric Church, “Monsters” (from Desperate Man)

“Monsters” feels like an old friend of Eric Church’s catalog in some ways. The focus on a story with simpler production is different from Church’s preference for weirder tones. The song itself speaks of changing perspectives as age takes its toll, beginning with gentle tones before exploding with loud electric guitars during the bridge, symbolizing the fear of change and those perspectives. It’s a brilliant song that shows Church at his best.

No. 28 – Red Shahan, “Hurricane” (from Culberson County)

Red Shahan’s tribute to the spirit of West Texas was captured excellently on “Hurricane.” It hits you like … well, a hurricane. There’s a melancholic moodiness to this, with spacier textures opting for a slight alternative rock feel. It even goes so far as to make the song about that too – losing ourselves in our deeper thoughts and sometimes feeling anxiety crushing us from within. This is one of those tracks that truly takes control at night.

No. 27 – Lindi Ortega, “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me” (from Liberty)

In terms of its place in the thematic arc on Liberty, “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me” hides in the shadows and strikes with a vengeful threat. It’s a menacing way to set up the remainder of the plot, and the snarling instrumental outro gives this song a dark, kickass, rocking energy.

No. 26 – Bri Bagwell, “Empty Chairs”

This is the type of song that stands as a career song for Bri Bagwell. It’s complex, focusing on Bagwell’s simultaneous joy and frustration that comes with trying to make it in the music business. It’s honest and raw, showing the yin and yang struggles that people fight with when trying to hold on. Some of the lines really make the listener stop and think too, like how she says her worth is based on many tickets she can sell. That’s a sentiment many artists have likely experienced before. Despite the negative thoughts however, she continues to lean on God and, in a sense, let things ride. Many artists have sang about this topic wonderfully before, and it’s nice to see Bagwell will continue to keep on fighting the good fight.

That’s all for now! Stay tuned for part two!

*Part 2*

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