We’ve arrived to the final list at The Musical Divide for 2018. Of course, nobody needs another one of these lists to read, but I’d like to think my list is more than just a “list.” In a way, I’ve got the benefit of running a blog rather than a professional outlet. I’m free to say that the following album list was my soundtrack to this year.
Overall, 2018 was fairly on par with recent years in terms of quality. I found debut albums that blew my mind while veteran artists stepped up the plate to maintain their consistency. As has been the case for several years now, country music is a wider umbrella than ever before, meaning that the selections are getting harder and more varied.
As such, I may as well attach the standard warning that this is my list. It’s not going to be your exact list, and I most likely left off your favorite album. What can I say? I can only hear so much and allot so many slots before it becomes meaningless.
Also, don’t forget that my honorable mentions list can be found here. It includes 15 more albums.
Let’s get on with the show!
No. 25 – Lucie Silvas, E.G.O
Favorite tracks: “Kite,” “People Can Change,” “Black Jeans”
Lucie Silvas’ E.G.O was easily one of the most versatile albums of the year that actually managed to work well. Her smoky yet lush voice brought a ton of raw soul and grit to the songs here, and the production was absolutely exquisite. Overall, E.G.O. is a little bit of everything from country to pop, soul, blues and rock, but it blends together excellently.
No. 24 – Randall King, Randall King
Favorite tracks: “When He Knows Me,” “Reason To Quit,” “Her Miss Me Days Are Gone”
Randall King’s self-titled debut album hearkens back to the days of 2000s country radio when the electric guitars were a little louder and the roots still remained. Part of my love for this album does operate on nostalgia, as this is the type of material I remember hearing on country radio as a kid. That’s not all it’s good for though, as with songs like “When He Knows Me” and “Reason To Quit,” King was able to support his album with excellent writing to boot. The album feels like a long lost friend you’re happy to see again.
No. 23 – Lindi Ortega, Liberty
Favorite tracks: “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me,” “Liberty,” “Pablo”
Lindi Ortega pulled from the darkest stages of burn out and uncertainty to craft one of her best albums yet – a Spaghetti Western-themed album that takes a redemptive journey. It’s her darkest project yet, with beautiful production aided by her haunting, beautiful vocals. It’s good that the album ends on a positive note, as Ortega is the type of natural talent we need in this industry, now more than ever.
No. 22 – Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
Favorite tracks: “Commissary,” “Leaver’s Lullaby,” “Masterpiece”
Interstate Gospel was the Pistol Annies’ most weathered, downbeat and mature album to date. Considering all three artists have gone in their own creative directions since the release of the trio’s last full-length project, Interstate Gospel saw them blend those influences together into a wonderful project. Ashley Monroe’s slicker, dreamier country pop combined with Miranda Lambert’s reflective side and Angaleena Presley’s no frills attitude resulted in one hell of an album.
No. 21 – Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Years
Favorite tracks: “Good As Gold, “Years,” “Lesson”
Years was a smart, fierce sophomore effort for Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Shook improved leaps and bounds vocally, and the project wasn’t afraid to show off her punk and rock influences despite being rooted in country music. The writing was bitter, sure, but also justifiable as Shook displayed the same fiery attitude we’ve come to love from her.
No. 20 – Willie Nelson, Last Man Standing
Favorite tracks: “Something You Get Through,” “Very Far To Crawl,” “Don’t Tell Noah”
At this point, Willie Nelson owes us nothing. He already gave us multiple classics, but it’s always nice to hear a legend still at the top of his game. Vocally, Nelson hasn’t sounded this good in a long time, with the title track being one of his best performances in years. Despite the heavier nature of the album and its thematic arc of death, Nelson wasn’t afraid to be jovial, especially knowing that he’s one of the last links to a golden age in country music.
No. 19 – Ryan Culwell, The Last American
Favorite tracks: “Heaven Everywhere I Go,” “Can You Hear Me,” “The Last American”
This is probably the one album on this list I still don’t think I quite *get* even though I have my own interpretation of it. Then again, Ryan Culwell intended it that way, as The Last American is fiercely wild, dark and uneasy. It’s messy, but that’s to reflect the current state of affairs. Underneath all of the shouting and the noise, Culwell’s one hope on this album is to build a better future for his daughters, and that’s a noble quality indeed.
No. 18 – Jeff Hyde, Norman Rockwell World
Favorite tracks: “Norman Rockwell World,” “How The Story Ends,” “The Filter”
Norman Rockwell World was easily one of the most versatile debut albums of the year. Then again, when you consider that Jeff Hyde is a songwriter and member of Eric Church’s band, it’s not really a surprise. The production was incredibly interesting, and thematically, Hyde’s concept of an album about well … making an album (or rather, music in general) was pulled off exceptionally well. “How The Story Ends” is a fitting closer indeed. Thankfully, this story ended pretty well.
No. 17 – Blackberry Smoke, Find A Light
Favorite tracks: “I’ll Keep Ramblin’ (w/ Robert Randolph),” “Flesh & Bone,” “Mother Mountain (w/ The Wood Brothers)”
Find A Light might not have been Blackberry Smoke’s most adventurous album to date, but they’re too talented not to make a great album. The album finds the band honoring all sorts of southern-rock influences, and that’s evidenced by “I’ll Keep Ramblin’ ” alone. It’s their lightest project to date, but you don’t necessarily need to rock out to get the point across. The soothing closer, “Mother Mountain” is proof of that.
No. 16 – Jamie Lin Wilson, Jumping Over Rocks
Favorite tracks: “Death & Life,” “The Being Gone,” “If I Told You”
As ever, Jumping Over Rocks found Jamie Lin Wilson at the top of her game lyrically. It’s an album that pulls no punches in what it’s trying to get across, questioning the meaning of life while leaving the interpretation up to the listener. The ultimate question though is, “is this all worth it?,” to which I can only respond with this – if it leads to fantastic projects such as this, then my answer is, “heck yeah.”
No. 15 – Ashley McBryde, Girl Going Nowhere
Favorite tracks: “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” “Livin’ Next To Leroy,” “Southern Babylon”
In a year where many albums felt reflective or trying to make amends with the past, Girl Going Nowhere felt like an album where Ashley McBryde was thankful to live in the present. Even though some may argue tracks like the title track and “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” are a bit premature as celebration tracks on a debut album, you can tell that success comes just from being to make music for her. In that case, cheers to one of the few “kickass” albums on this list.
No. 14 – Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Favorite tracks: “Space Cowboy,” “Slow Burn,” “Love Is A Wild Thing”
Real talk here – most of the albums remaining here deal with heavier topics such as depression, death, and loss (among other darker topics). Normally, Kacey Musgraves would be included in that conversation, but Golden Hour was the moment of levity we needed in 2018. It was hard not to get wrapped up in Musgraves’ perspective and appreciate the little things in life that brought her joy. When combined with dreamier, spacious production, Golden Hour was one of the lighter albums of 2018 even if it still managed to pack quite a punch.
No. 13 – Karen Jonas, Butter
Favorite tracks: “Kamikaze Love,” “Oh Icarus,” “The Circus”
Butter felt like an overlooked album for Karen Jonas, which is a shame considering it may be her best work yet. I’d argue that the pure scope and creativity of her writing puts her in a master class of her own, and Butter managed to combine that with a move toward theatrical elements and instrumentation. The essence of what made Jonas so compelling was never lost though, as the pure beauty behind “Kamikaze Love” may have just resulted in her best song yet. Butter was fun and exciting, and that’s not something I was able to say about too many more albums this year.
No. 12 – Cody Jinks, Lifers
Favorite tracks: “Stranger,” “Desert Wind,” “Head Case”
Critics and fans may have regarded Lifers as one of Cody Jinks’ weakest works, but in my eyes, Lifers further improved upon his strengths. His choice to use gospel choirs and heavier drums bolstered many of these tracks with an extra dose of firepower, and the moodier feel of the project suited Jinks’ hangdog personality overall. Lifers is the kind of project that feels like it could have mainstream appeal without having to pander to get there, and that’s an accomplishment for Jinks in its own right.
No. 11 – Caitlyn Smith, Starfire
Favorite tracks: “House Of Cards,” “Starfire,” “This Town Is Killing Me”
Starfire is the debut album everyone and their mother is talking about, and for good reason too. Caitlyn Smith automatically makes this a compelling listen just for the sheer strength and dynamic of her voice, but her songs were also some of the most intimately detailed of the year as well. Overall, Starfire was a full-packaged monster of an album that blows me away every time I hear it.
No. 10 – Ronnie Eaton, The Hand That Mocked Them And The Heart That Fed
Favorite tracks: “Down Wind,” “South Hampton Rain,” “Devil In My Suitcase”
Ronnie Eaton’s album about a solider returning home was one of the most brilliant executed concepts of the year. It also highlights a real danger of PTSD, where even though the war is over, the battle lingers on through memories, making even our hometown feel like a prison. The album doesn’t even end on the happiest of notes. The narrator only leaves to try and rid himself of the past, but there’s never a guarantee. Kudos to Eaton for addressing a heavy-handed topic and creating one of the most creative, brilliant albums of the year.
No. 9 – Dierks Bentley, The Mountain
Favorite tracks: “How I’m Going Out,” “Travelin’ Light (w/ Brandi Carlile),” “The Mountain”
I didn’t dislike Black nearly as much as other Dierks Bentley fans, but it was nice to see Bentley getting back to what he does best on The Mountain. Like Eric Church’s Desperate Man, this feels like an album where Bentley comes full circle. He’s always been the type of artist to tow the line between critical acclaim and mainstream appeal, and The Mountain saw him blending those two together. It’s not Up On The Ridge Vol. 2, but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, it’s a Dierks Bentley album, and it’s nice to see an artist go in their own creative direction.
No. 8 – American Aquarium, Things Change
Favorite tracks: “Crooked + Straight,” “One Day At A Time,” “When We Were Younger Men”
BJ Barham went through hell to release this project, and while this becomes a meaningless statement after awhile, I truly mean it when I say he may have crafted his best work yet with American Aquarium. The fire is still there from previous releases, but it’s shifted toward something more reflective, with Barham focusing that fire on making a better world for his family rather than what he wants. Along the way, he also makes amends with the past. It’s a deeply poetic album that shows not only Barham at his best lyrically, but also (arguably) the best American Aquarium lineup to date.
No. 7 – Kenny Chesney, Songs For The Saints
Favorite tracks: “Better Boat” (feat. Mindy Smith), “Pirate Song,” “Ends Of The Earth”
People forget that while Kenny Chesney has made his fair share of mind-numbing beach tunes, he’s also used those influences to craft some of the most reflective songs in mainstream country. Thankfully, Chesney tapped into that introspective side for his newest album, a collection of songs that just may form his best album to date. Chesney’s own material here is quite strong, and by bringing in songs from John Baumann, Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, Chesney sings these songs as if he’s lived through them, and he has. Songs For The Saints is an incredibly fitting tribute to Chesney’s home.
No. 6 – Ruston Kelly, Dying Star
Favorite tracks: “Paratrooper’s Battlecry,” “Dying Star,” “Just For The Record”
Dying Star has already been praised for its darkness, but the narrative that got ignored with this album was the journey to redemption. Ruston Kelly crafted this album through a lens of despair while still keeping hope alive, giving stakes to his characters and giving them something to fight for. The warm instrumental mixes bolstered the album nicely, and melodically, this was one of the most enriching listens of the year.
No. 5 – First Aid Kit, Ruins
Favorite tracks: “Rebel Heart,” “It’s A Shame,” “Nothing Has To Be True”
Ruins was one of First Aid Kit’s simplest albums to date, yet the restrained feel of it only contributed to its atmosphere and beauty. It was largely a breakup album, moving through all the darker stages before finding some light by its end. But the beauty ultimately came in the duo’s passionate deliveries, and the fact that they were placed higher in the mix allowed them to shape the songs how they wanted. As evidenced already, they were in full control.
No. 4 – Brandi Carlile, By The Way, I Forgive You
Favorite tracks: “Party Of One,” “Whatever You Do,” “The Joke”
Like with First Aid Kit, By The Way, I Forgive You saw Brandi Carlile stripping away her fiery edge for something more understated and raw. For Carlile, this meant more soaring performances, with individual cuts on this album reaching the best of what 2018 had to offer. This was an album where every little detail mattered, from the revving up of the chorus on “Hold Out Your Hand” to the added lusher string section toward the end of “Party Of One.” This was one of the most meticulously crafted albums of the year.
No. 3 – Panopticon, The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness I & II
Favorite tracks: “The Singing Wilderness,” “The Wandering Ghost,” “Blåtimen”
In country music circles, this will look like an alien release, and to be fair, it sort of is. It’s a half-metal, half-rural Americana inspired double album that equated to Austin Lunn’s greatest work thus far. The metal side of the album established a sense of atmosphere and a lonelier feel while the more rootsy, lyrical side established characters who had reached the furthest depths of despair with no mercy. It’s by far the longest listen here, but for those willing to give it a try, it was certainly one of the most rewarding as well.
No. 2 – Gretchen Peters, Dancing With The Beast
Favorite tracks: “Dancing With The Beast,” “Lowlands,” “Arguing With Ghosts”
If it hasn’t been said already, it needs to be said now – Gretchen Peters is the queen of sad songs. What I’ve always liked about her writing is that she isn’t afraid to tap into the most vulnerable of emotions to bare her soul to the world. As ever, the mood was dark and heavy, and Peters’ ghostly, elegant voice only made the tracks hit that much harder. Despite the bleak perspectives, the hardest thing for people to admit will be how much they can relate directly to them, if not now then certainly at some point in their lives. As ever, Peters continues to write from a grounded, human perspective.
No. 1 – Caleb Caudle, Crushed Coins
Favorite tracks: “Six Feet From The Flowers,” “Headlights,” “N.Y.C. In The Rain”
There’s a general theme of bleakness to the majority of this top ten, but Crushed Coins was the most defeating blow of them all. It tackles every dark theme you can think of and doesn’t offer any answers because, well … sometimes those answers aren’t always there. Death is an uneasy topic for anyone to face, and when it happens to someone we know, sometimes we don’t want to fight on. We want to join them. It’s this perspective that largely inspired this depressing concept album, with the only joy left for this widower found in knowing he’ll join his departed wife soon. He’s only still among the living physically rather than mentally. Crushed Coins let a little light in every now and then, but it wasn’t for long, and it was always taken away sooner or later. It’s sharply poetic and philosophical, and Caleb Caudle may have made the right choice acting more as the storyteller rather than inserting himself within the tracks, because by following along, you’ll experience the most uneasy album to listen to this year.
No album made think or feel quite as much as this one did, and for that, Crushed Coins is the Musical Divide’s pick for the album of the year for 2018.