Part one can be found here.
(Editor’s note – I don’t like inserting actual music videos for the audio portion of this, but this seems to be the only way to hear “Party Of One” on YouTube)
No. 25 – Brandi Carlile, “Party Of One”
With the way that piano sounds, you can almost just imagine Brandi Carlile sitting in some dark theater somewhere playing this. Indeed, it’s a very revealing track, as Carlile sings of the frustrations of needing a break from a relationship spinning its wheels. The song also features a symphonic flurry of gorgeous sounding instrumentation, and that ending bit brings an elegant flourish to the table.
No. 24 – Amanda Shires, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” (from To The Sunset)
To The Sunset ends with its most powerful track – a dark, sinister sketch of the day a man commits suicide due to addiction. Bolstered by a grimy, smoldering groove to supplement its uneasiness, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” is just an eerie track. It’s especially disturbing given that there’s little things the narrator missed when she loaned her friend her truck where he did the deed.
No. 23 – Dierks Bentley, “How I’m Going Out” (from The Mountain)
“How I’m Going Out” isn’t Dierks Bentley bowing out and accepting defeat – it’s him laughing at defeat in the face. The song itself is a nice testament to Bentley’s philosophy in terms of his mainstream success, straddling the line between commercial and critical appeal while keeping longevity in the back of his mind. Like any true musician, playing is the kind of disease artists can’t rid themselves of no matter how hard they try, and in Bentley’s case, he’s going to use that to his advantage and keep going until that last note is played.
No. 22 – Montgomery Gentry, “Better Me” (from Here’s To You)
It shouldn’t be like this, but at least Montgomery Gentry are going out on a high note artistically. We’ve seen Eddie Montgomery tackle the subject of growing up and moving on with life numerous times before between the duo’s singles and deep cuts. For Troy Gentry however, it’s a different side of the story. It came at an ironic time, because while the 2010’s have not been kind to the duo, it really seemed like Gentry was working behind the scenes to become a better person for himself, his family, and his friends. It’s admittedly hard writing anything for this given the circumstances, but trust me, it rightfully earns its place here.
No. 21 – Kenny Chesney, “Ends Of The Earth” (from Songs For The Saints)
It doesn’t really change anything from the Lord Huron cover, but this song is perfect for Kenny Chesney as a whole. I’ve never doubted his sincerity, and this kind of wistful, atmospheric tune allows him to show it off well. It’s escapism, but not the mind-numbing kind. Instead, the search entails looking for an answer to the bigger problem at hand of life and an answer to who we are as people. That instrumental break after the first chorus is still one of my favorite moments in music this year.
No. 20 – Meghan Patrick, “Walls Come Down” (from Country Music Made Me Do It)
“Walls Come Down” is a hard charged, thunderous country-rock track that shows both sides of a family feud between a mother and a father (as well as the sister and what can be assumed to be her reaction to all of this) that shows how they both cheated on each other. The moral ambiguity is present here, mostly because they both sinned, and now their actions have a direct action on how the sister in question reacts (popping pills). It’s a dark, uneasy track that shows a family coming apart, and the fact that there’s no “good” side here makes it all the more interesting.
No. 19 – First Aid Kit, “Rebel Heart” (from Ruins)
Dynamic and unnerving are the best ways to describe this incredible song. It quickly establishes a scene where the narrator has lost out on love because of herself. We may look at those mistakes in hindsight and think that everything is under control, but in reality we’re just doomed to repeat them. Nothing matters in the end because we continuously enter into these vicious cycles. “Rebel Heart” also uses imagery of things such as storms and the wind, elements that wash away the things we know and love. It features a thumping drumbeat and ominous batch of pedal steel, but it’s when we reach that finale where we have a clash of instrumental textures that it all makes sense. The ability to weave in a violin, piano, and trumpet to symbolize that darkness consuming us is absolutely brilliant. If you can’t tell, this is one of First Aid Kit’s best songs.
No. 18 – Karen Jonas, “Oh Icarus” (from Butter)
Like many songs here, “Oh Icarus” talks about burn out from an artist’s perspective. It might lean towards a theatrical style with the ragtime trumpets and sleazier sax, but Jonas makes it feel more grounded and real. It intensifies throughout each pre-chorus, bringing in some great guitar licks to add to the uneasiness of the situation, at least until that eventual burn out happens, ending the song on a somber, but real note.
No. 17 – Cole Swindell, “Dad’s Old Number” (from All Of It)
“Dad’s Old Number” is the best song Cole Swindell has offered us. It’s a tribute to his late father that explores a rare perspective on grief that’s a mixture of denial and letting go, with Swindell dialing that old phone number on accident needing help and dialing it just to heal before realizing his life line ins’t around anymore. It’s powerful all around.
No. 16 – Jason Boland & The Stragglers, “Hard Times Are Relative”
This is a mind-blowing track as a whole. It’s wrapped in rural Americana storytelling, telling the story of two siblings trying to make it through (presumably) the Depression era without their parents. It’s a coming-of-age story that starts with a brother taking care of his little sister before the balance sways to a proper order by its end, proving how both of them need each other equally. It’s a fantastic six-minute odyssey and easily one of the band’s best works.
No. 15 – Wade Bowen, “Death, Dyin’ and Deviled Eggs” (from Solid Ground)
This track is certainly one of the more lighthearted, but still strong, takes on death you’ll hear this year. Yeah, it’s silly to bake a bunch of food and have a big old potluck after the funeral, but what good does it do to focus simply on the end? The narrators on Bowen’s Solid Ground are never stuck. They’re always doing something about the obstacles in front of them and moving on. Of course, you never want to “move on” from something like this. You always want to remember the good times, and while for some that remembrance may come in the form of grief, you can’t blame people for wanting to just be happy. Honor that person’s memory. Show them that they meant something to you by remembering the good times you shared. To some, this may sound silly, but it’s a refreshing perspective on this topic, and it shows some ultimate finality to the thematic arc.
No. 14 – Lucero, “Bottom of the Sea”
I said earlier this year than two tracks from Lucero’s Among The Ghosts were among their best. Part one housed the title track, and now here’s the other one. On the surface, this song deals with depression head on, but it’s the way its portrayed that really makes it a highlight. The atmospheric tones create a somewhat hazy, lost feel, and the steady percussion keeps it going because well … these problems don’t always just plod along They linger and suck us under when we least expect it. It’s a crushing track all around.
No. 13 – Kenny Chesney, “Pirate Song”
For as much as Kenny Chesney has dreamed of escaping to the island life, he’s never quite nailed it down as perfectly as “Pirate Song.” This is pure poetry in action, with Chesney painting a picture in a way that invites the listener on his imaginary voyage. It’s escapism used in a good way, with a dreamier atmosphere contributing nicely to the song’s sense of adventure.
No. 12 – Randall King, “When He Knows Me”
Not to make this personal, but I can certainly relate to this song, and Randall King’s personal, yet universal sentiment ensures others do too. Despite the unfortunate demise Alzheimer’s and dementia bring, King also acknowledges that our loved ones losing their memories also have their good days as well, something to hold onto for sure. It’s those days that we have to appreciate most of all … even if the bad days are almost too much at times. It’s this type of emotion that shows country music at its best.
No. 11 – Ashley McBryde, “Girl Going Nowhere”
Normally, a song that reflects on “making it” might seem premature for an artist who just released her debut album this year, but “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is written from a different perspective. The success and joy comes not from her (sadly) nonexistent chart success or how many awards she’s won, but from being able to just make music in general. The road is still long, but she’s celebrating the journey thus far, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To her, packing even the tiniest of venues is a dream come true because it means someone is actually listening, thus proving her naysayers wrong. Despite the restrained production, the mood is uplifting and hopeful.
No. 10 – Courtney Marie Andrews, “Border”
There’s a lived-in character to Courtney Marie Andrews’ voice that always add an extra flair to her stories. This extends toward the wonderful, “Border,” a track about a desperate immigrant in the deserts of Arizona where Andrews sells that bone-deep exhaustion and deep-seated anger simmering within. That organ solo just adds an extra layer of sinister murkiness to the already excellent track.
No. 9 – Caleb Caudle, “Six Feet from the Flowers” (from Crushed Coins)
It’s hard to pick just one moment from Caleb Caudle’s masterpiece, Crushed Coins to highlight, but “Six Feet from the Flowers” is just that magical moment waiting toward the end. The uncomfortable visitation between a widower and his wife at her grave and knowing he’s going home alone is the kind of heartbreaking sentiment Caudle displays excellently all throughout the actual album. The most uncomfortable part though is that the only healer is death itself to reunite the two lovers.
No. 8 – Karen Jonas, “Kamikaze Love”
Karen Jonas wins the award for the most creative songwriting this year. The song adopts a hazy, atmospheric tone and bolsters it with liquid tones and pedal steel to craft something that feels like a voyage into the unknown. Of course, it’s fitting that the song chooses to use that kind of imagery all things considered. This is the true test of “until death do us part.”
No. 7 – Jeff Hyde, “Norman Rockwell World” (from Norman Rockwell World)
I think I included this song here solely for that warm, enriching acoustic riff. Thankfully, the song offers even more commendable elements. This has a unique identity to it. It speaks to the same sentiment of not feeling in place in this world, but it feels more like a cry for help rather than a condemnation on us young ‘uns. You know what, I get that. Maybe it’s not good to live in the past, but I too miss the days when I was younger and saw things in a different light, and this song captures that feeling of dreaming of a Utopian world greatly, especially when it’s all just meant to be something personal for himself. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming.
No. 6 – Gretchen Peters, “Dancing With the Beast”
For as much as I’d hail Gretchen Peters as the queen of sad songs, “Dancing With the Beast” works by incorporating lighter and darker elements into the mix. The track is a testament to life’s ups and downs. Sometimes we’re happy, but it’s also a fleeting sentiment. That’s because we’re also sad sometimes, and it’s more of a cycle we go through in our lives rather than something that destroys us … most of the time at least. The delicacy of the track serves to highlight how Peters overcomes that darkness, and I’m assuming music helps with that. It’s five minutes of musical therapy.
No. 5 – Anderson East, “Cabinet Door” (from Encore)
“Cabinet Door” is thus far Anderson East’s finest moment on record. It’s not so much what this song says rather than what it represents. This husband and wife went through life together to the point where they actually not only succeeded in keeping that love, but also making a life for themselves and their children to pass down to their own children one day. It’s that sense of finality that comes into play once we realize that the wife in this situation has passed on, and the entire song is told from the widower’s point of view. Of course too, the song is quick to mention all of the wonderful things the couple has been blessed with in their lives. Kids, lands, dogs – they’ve got something worth holding onto, sure, but she is what made him whole. He even tries to honor her memory by cooking from her own cook book only to realize he can’t. He’s a mess at this point. He can’t even sleep in their own bed now. Of course, her leaving isn’t the only event perpetuating this decay. He himself is also old, and he’s starting to forget things. He’s obviously got so many reasons to be happy and so many memories to cherish, but they’re fading, and without her to share them with him, it’s not so much that nothing matters anymore, it’s just that he’ll never experience joy like that in his life ever again. Heartbreaking, in a word.
No. 4 – Cody Jinks, “Stranger” (from Lifers)
Cody Jinks may not have written this, but he sings it like he did. His usual contemplative tone is perfect for a song as such as this. The sobering reality of looking into the mirror and not recognizing the person we’ve become can be either good or bad, but the focus here is mostly on the change itself as it relates to age. Eventually we have to accept the limitations of our youth and realize that the person on the other end is more mature and wiser. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a change no one looks forward to. Even for as straightforward as “Stranger” is sonically, the added echoed effects (mostly noticeable in the steel guitar) provide a nice touch. What an incredible performance of a well-written song.
No. 3 – Kenny Chesney feat. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat”
“Better Boat” is, in a nutshell, 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 on an album full of incredible songs, this still managed to stand atop as the pièce de résistance.
No. 2 – Jamie Lin Wilson, “Death & Life”
“Death & Life” is the kind of track that shows why Jamie Lin Wilson’s writing is in a league of its own. The poetic nature of the track details the vicious circle of needing life to end in order for it to begin again. Sure, the common cliché of both younger and older people wanting to be like the other is prevalent, but Wilson goes even further by relating it back to that aforementioned cycle, sparking a sense of hope in the listener for the continuity of life despite the overall morbid theme. Seeped in liquid pedal steel and dobro to really give the track a dark, moody edge, “Death & Life” just may be Wilson’s finest song yet.
No. 1 – Chris Cornell, “You Never Knew My Mind” (from Johnny Cash: Forever Words)
This is one of those songs where you know right away it’s deserving of the highest of honors when you first hear it. It almost feels wrong in a sense to talk about it in this manner, but this is a damn masterpiece all its own. While this was written at some point by Johnny Cash, it’s hard not to be biased and look at this through the lens of its posthumous perspective … in both men’s cases. Of course, that disturbing quality is what makes it seem all the more real and emotional. It’s amazing how much of a gut-punch the delivery of the title brings to the table or how much it says with so little, effectively portraying the masquerade we all sometimes put up to make others happy. The mask we wear however differs on our perspective on life. Chris Cornell’s haunting, tortured performance is disturbing, uneasy and yet all the more beautiful because of it. Without a doubt, “You Never Knew My Mind” is The Musical Divide’s choice for the top song of 2018.
If you want to follow along with a Spotify link to all of this, click here.