Each year this list gets more difficult to put together. We’ve varied the number of records we include every year, from 2018 we’ve chosen 17. There are bands, duos, trios, solo singers, acts of all shapes and sizes. 2018 was a bumper year for fantastic albums from this genre, our long list was over 40 long, and there are still pains of guilty about some of those that haven’t made it. Anyhow, on with our selection.
Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys – Southland
The smooth tones of Lindsay Lou are a joy to experience on the ten songs on Southland. From the soulful groove of ‘Roll With Me’ through the slow-paced gospel sounds of the title track and bluegrass thump of ‘River That I Knew’, this is their Twitter description made life: “Bluegrass instruments and Motown soul” indeed.
Elise Davis – Cactus
After 2016’s surprising hidden gem The Token, the singer from Little Rock, Arkansas switches the focus from the past to the present on Cactus. She’s written a set of affirming songs (“I’m feeling good enough / To find my own way out of here” from ‘Hold Me Like A Gun’) that are catchy (‘Cactus’), twangy, thoughtful (‘Married Young’ and ’33’), and fiesty (‘Don’t Bring Me Flowers’). It’s a tour de force of confidence.
Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You
Wowing critics and the Grammy committee is this sixth album from Brandi Carlile. It’s a culmination of the journey she’s been on, from respected singer-songwriter, to beloved but niche live performer, through to genuine recognised talent. Singing about things that matter to her, and sharing the limelight with the Hanseroth twins, the trio have great songs, deep and meaningful lyrics, and their live show is food for the soul. If you haven’t listened yet, turn the lights off, put your headphones on and lose yourself in By The Way, I Forgive You.
Dierks Bentley – The Mountain
Having been surprised people with the roots-y 2010 record Up On The Ridge Dierks Bentley had warmly hugged the mainstream since, particularly on his last two, wildly successful records. The Mountain sees him embracing his inner traditional nerd and his external crowd-pleasing persona. With rockers (‘Burning Man’), thoughtful musings (the title track and ‘Living’), break-up songs (‘Goodbye In Telluride’), and the fantastic closer ‘Travellin’ Light’, the Arizonan makes real good music that melds his two worlds perfectly.
Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe
As if a Grammy nomination and some CMA awards for their debut weren’t enough, T.J. and John put out a stunning romp for their second album. They showed their confidence on lead single ‘Shoot Me Straight’, they were bold and loud with ‘Drank Like Hank’, clever and sweet on ‘Tequila Again’, tender on ‘Don’t Remember Me (Before You)’, and just plain brilliant on ‘Weed, Whiskey and Willie’. Fans have lapped it up, more awards will follow, now they just need bigger sales. They’ve got time.
Aaron Lee Tasjan – Karma For Cheap
Second year in a row for Mr Tasjan in this here list. After his genre pushing debut came Karma For Cheap which tested the boundaries of Americana even further. Part shoegaze, part rock, part country, tracks like ‘The Truth IS So Hard To Believe’ are a mix of the best of the 60s with some 90s indie riffs thrown in. Then ‘Strange Shadows’ twangs and shuffles, it’s a fabulous blend of sounds and influences.
Caitlin Canty – Motel Bouquet
Now this, this is a proper country record. A thoughtful, serious album, Motel Bouquet combines Canty’s immense talent with a collection of Nashville’s finest, including a Punch Brother on production duties. Pedal steel, fiddle, and stories, it’s got it all. From the first tune, it’s obviously one of the years best.
Joshua Hedley – Mr Jukebox
Possibly the song of the year is the title track from Joshua Hedley‘s debut record, he’s singing about himself and his weekly slot on Music Row; it’s a foot tapper, a hummer, and a melodic earworm-y beast. It’s packed with new songs that sound like forgotten classics, and for a guy from Florida, couldn’t sound more country if he were born in Tennessee and Georgia at the same time. Truly wonderful stuff.
The Woods Brothers – One Drop Of Truth
Only a band on their sixth record could feel like an overnight success. They took their freedom on One Drop Of Truth, and it landed them a Grammy nomination. There’s a certain cheeriness throughout the ten tracks, which at times masks the seriousness of the lyrics, ‘River Takes The Town’, but also a sense of fun on the likes of ‘Sky High’. This is The Wood Brothers at the self-confessed purest; it’s great to finally hear them.
Clay Parker and Jodi James – The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound
It’s unusual for a record to capture the sound of an expanse, yet keep the songs so small and close, that’s exactly what Clay and Jodi have done with the ten songs here. You’ll swoon over the laid-back groove of ‘Easy Breeze’ and marvel at the epic-ness of ‘Cumberland Mill (No Pain)’. It’s a beautiful thing is The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound.
Kristina Murray – Southern Ambrosia
Rugged and rocking, that’s Kristina Murray‘s second record. The accessible opener ‘Made In America’ lays Murray bare, the backstory continues on the steel-laden ‘Strong Blood’ and the childhood memories of ‘Pink Azaleas’. There’s low slung and groovy (‘Lovers and Liars’) as well as space-y and country (‘Potter’s Field’), it’s a truly terrific album.
Ashley Monroe – The Sparrow
With the voice of an angel there’s no chance Ashley Monroe would fail to make it, the only danger was what kind of artist would she be. Turns out she’s one of a kind. Expanding her sound even further on her third record it’s telling that her songwriting is even more striking than her voice, and that’s saying something. Listing the songs that are good would just mean writing the tracklist out, save to say ‘Hands On You’ and ‘Rita’ are two stunners. A personal favourite is ‘Wild Love’. Honestly though, just listen to the damn thing, it’s beautiful.
Caitlyn Smith – Starfire
In a list full of terrific records it takes something to stand out, but Caitlyn Smith‘s debut is an absolute stunner. Opener ‘Before You Call Me Baby’ showcases that’s unbelievable voice, and there are real get-you-moving songs like ‘Contact High’, but it’s the minutiae of ”Scenes From A Corner Booth At Closing Time On A Tuesday’ (and what a title that is), and the sheer heartbreaking truth in the lyrics and delivery of ‘This Town Is Killing Me’ that lift this into the stratosphere. Amongst some stiff competition, this is possibly the most enjoyable record of 2018, seriously get it in your life.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Years
Being tagged as country-punk does Sarah Shook and her Disarmers a disservice. Years is as trad-country as it gets, ‘Good As Gold’ is all slide-y, foot tap-y, and melancholy, then there’s the gothic feel of ‘The Bottle Never Lets Me Down’, the jive paced ‘Damned If I Do, Damned If I Do’. From start to finish this is a rollicking country record, make no mistake. Shook’s one of the treasures of the genre.
Kayla Ray – Yesterday & Me
Mining a rich vein of attitude is Waco native Kayla Ray. Her second album, the barnstorming trad country Yesterday & Me lights up its sound with lashings of pedal steel and Ray’s Texan-laden vocal. From opener ‘Rockport’ to closer ‘1963’, by way of the brilliantly perky/biting ‘Pills’ and foot stomper ‘Hell Of A Day To Drink All Night’ or heartbreaking ‘Camel Blues’, this is a wonderful throwback to genuine classic country.
Brent Cobb – Providence Canyon
Following on from his hugely enjoyable Shine On Rainy Day (which appeared on the list in 2017) was an easy task for the man from Alabama; he went for broke with the most soulful country record you’ll hear this decade. Whether it’s party tunes (‘Mornin’s Gonna Come’, ‘Suker For A Good Time’), tributes to country heroes (‘King Of Alabama’) or musings on keeping your wife safe (‘.30-06’) Cobb’s got it covered. The groove that he started on his debut fills out and has grown with his confidence making this a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
Tyler Childers – Purgatory
Now Purgatory is kinda a cheat, it was actually released in 2017 in the US but was discounted from last years list as it had an early January 2018 UK release date. Boy was it worth the wait! From the opening bars of ‘I Swear (To God)’ it’s a wonderful slice of country music. Every song is a winner, particular praise to the vivid descriptions of ‘Little Feathered Indian’, the far-out vibe guitar vibe of ‘Universal Sound’, and the brilliant ‘Banded Colvis’. Doesn’t really matter about the year, it’s one of the decades best.
Amanda Shires – To The Sunset
We’re big fans of Ms Shires her at TDF, and her branching out on To The Sunset carried on her rich vein of creativity. Despite being a talented fiddler Shires real talent is in her ability to write clever, witty, and incisive lyrics, whether she’s musing about societies addiction with technology (‘Mirror, Mirror’), or tearing it up on ‘Eve’s Daughter’ (based on her mum’s life story), the words are what will keep you coming back. It might be a new sound, but it’s the same quality of song.
Some other records the listen to once you’ve made your way through these beauties are: Kenny Chesney‘s ode to the Virgin Isles and the aftermath of Hurrican Irma; Pistol Annies return was so very nearly on the main list and definitely needs a listen; Courtney Marie Andrews latest has been heavily lauded in end of year lists, and rightly so, it’s beautiful. Colter Wall improved in every way, Kendell Marvel followed his pal Christ Stapleton in stepping out from behind the songs with his cracking debut Lowdown & Lonesome, I’m With Her had the second supergroup cracker of 2018, and debuts from Rhyan Sinclair, Carolina Story, Zack Logan, Vivian Leva and Liz Cooper and the Stampede are also all fantastic.