The best songs to emerge out of Music City this year range from protests of gun violence and racial profiling to roaring anthems for single women and homesick laments to war-scarred memories. In the case of Brandi Carlile’s “Every Time I Hear That Song,” they preached the power of music, and on Maddie & Tae’s “Die From a Broken Heart,” they admitted that no matter how old you get, no one mends an injured heart quite like mom.
What do they share in common? They’re true—and undeniable. These are the best country songs of 2018.
15. Old Crow Medicine Show, “Child of the Mississippi”
The venerable string band celebrated its 20thanniversary this year, and maybe that accounts for why their latest outing, Volunteer, sounds so damn celebratory. Much typeface is wasted these days debating “authenticity” in country music, but if you’re looking for a new standard by which to measure against, feel free to use this cut. Proud and stomping, you feel it in your soul.
14. “American Bad Dream,” Kane Brown
School shootings and racial profiling are hardly normal fare for the country airplay charts—but it’s exactly that reality that inspired Kane Brown to speak up on “American Bad Dream.” The track asks, “Is it this messed up, or is it really reality?” Like the rest of the album it arrives on, “Dream” is full of progressive pop- and rock- production, but Brown’s brazen conversation starter makes him an outlaw to us.
13. “New Ways To Fail,” Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
“Well, I need this shit like I need another hole in my head,” Sarah Shook exclaims, considering a partner who won’t get off her back about changing. The North Carolina cowpunker frontwoman isn’t having it—and given her brilliant blend of country and punk along with side-splitting lyrics and earnest storytelling, neither are we.
12. “Plain to See Plainsman,” Colter Wall
On the opening track of Colter Wall’s impressive second album, Songs of the Plains, the 23-year-old from Saskatchewan finds himself conflicted. He’s pulled toward a life on the road, but homesickness is consuming him. It’s a subject that’s inspired many a great country songs, but Wall’s no frills approach feels undeniably refreshing.
11. “Bullet Holes in the Sky,” Mary Gauthier
One of the most unique albums to release this year, Mary Gauthier’s Rifles & Rosary Beads, saw the folk songsmith partner with a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to turn their stories into ruminative, remarkable art. “Bullet Holes,” penned with Jamie Trent, who served with the Navy in Operation Desert Storm, paints the scene of watching the Veteran’s Day parade roll on by from his Waffle House booth. It’s the most visceral cut on an album full of show-stoppers.
10. “Ain’t a Road Too Long,” Brent Cobb
Over the course of two major label releases, the Georgia-bred singer and songwriter (and, yes, cousin of producer Dave Cobb), has emerged as a young master of country-funk. His punchy 2018 set hits its crescendo with this white hot album-closer. “I only do the sort of work that pleases me,” he brazenly admits. Well, that’s just fine with us.
9. “Die of a Broken Heart,” Maddie & Tae
Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye announced themselves as cheeky, biting lyricists back in 2013 with their brilliant bro-country takedown “Girl In A Country Song.” That song went viral, and the full-length that followed (2015’s Start Here) beamed with promise. But their finest moment yet arrived this year with “Die From a Broken Heart,” a tender, pleading ballad that sees the duo wrecked by love. “Am I gonna be alright?” they ask their mothers. Listening, we wondered the same.
8. “Travelin’ Light,” Dierks Bentley ft. Brandi Carlile
One of the most charming moments of Dierks Bentley’s 2018 release, The Mountain, comes near the end of the LP when he teams up with Brandi Carlile for a jangly, frank, and tender look back at the years that made them. “I’m cutting the ties,” they sing in unison, downright euphoric. “I’m dropping the weight/With all my hurt and my regrets and my mistakes.”
7. “Maybe It’s Time,” performed by Bradley Cooper, written by Jason Isbell
For his entry onto the A Star Is Born soundtrack, Isbell offers a weighty consideration of just how hard it is to change your life. It’s a subject Jackson Maine, the character who sang it, knew well. It’s also autobiographical to Isbell, who got sober a handful of years ago. The Alabama-native has channeled that experience into some of the most cutting work of the last decade, this song included.
6. “Hands On You,” Ashley Monroe
“I wish I would have laid my hands on you,” Ashley Monroe admits on the woozy lead single of Sparrow, which dropped this Spring. “Shown you a thing or two/I wish I would’ve pushed you against the wall/Lock the door and bathroom stall, windows and the screen,” she sings, effectively signing her own country radio death certificate. That’s a real shame for listeners, but good riddance to the format EPs who are too prude to play a woman who cops to her carnal desires. This is A-grade, irresistible songwriting.
5. “High Horse,” Kacey Musgraves
When Kacey Musgraves debuted in 2013 with her twangy, Texified Same Trailer Different Park, she was quickly heralded as a new(est) savior of country music’s longstanding traditions. Remarkably, she solidified her position as one of the genre’s most savvy keepers of the flame this year when she embraced indie-pop sensibilities and disco beats on her wildly original third album, Golden Hour. All that fresh air sure does feel good.
4. “Heart Like A Wheel,” Eric Church
Don’t let the aviators and beat up leather jacket fool you. There’s more than just shredding and swagger when it comes to the 41-year-old’s catalog—and the Chief’s soft side got its most compelling entry yet this year with the soulful, lovesick “Heart Like a Wheel,” off Desperate Man.
3. Pistol Annies, “Got My Name Changed Back”
We dare you to find a funnier song about divorce. (To wit: The lyric, “Well I got me an ex that I adored/But he got along good with a with a couple road whores.) Afternoons spent at the DMV, logging hours with the judge, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is—it’s all there and backed by a rollicking beat, it feels good to boot.
2. “Every Time I Hear That Song,” Brandi Carlile
The opening cut on Brandi Carlile’s excellent 2018 LP By The Way, I Forgive You is about letting go of and forgiving an old lover. But it’s also a wonderful testament to music’s ability to act as a memory scent. What a delight that it should sound as good as it does.
1. “Summer’s End,” John Prine
Every song on John Prine’s Tree of Forgiveness, his first set of originals in more than a decade, deserves your full attention. Produced by Dave Cobb—whose other 2018 credits line this page with the works of Old Crow Medicine Show, Colter Wall, Ashley Monroe, Brandi Carlile, and the A Star is Born soundtrack—it’s painfully affecting. But its best moment arrives with “Summer’s End,” a pleading missive to someone who’s stayed away too long. “Just come on home,” Prine sings, his tenor warped beautifully by a lifetime of performances and two bouts with cancer. “Come on home/No you don’t have to/Be alone.”