The year 2018 was marked by significant changes, and contributions from country music’s women artists showed they were becoming the torchbearers for the genre’s timeless traditional structures, themes and sounds. After parting with Sony Music Nashville, Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood announced new record deals with Warner Brothers and Universal Music Group, respectively. CMT aired Nashville’s final season. Montgomery Gentry’s Eddie Montgomery released the duo’s album Here’s to You, which posthumously featured the late Troy Gentry. Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush returned with Bigger, their first album since 2010’s The Incredible Machine. Reba McEntire became a recipient of the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors, and Jimmie Allen made history by when he became the first African American to have a debut single reach No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart with “Best Shot.”
Here are the country albums that defined 2018.
10. Dan + Shay by Dan + Shay
If artists weren’t already jealous of Dan + Shay’s hit-making skills, they had to be getting there by the time the duo’s Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney released their self-titled third album. The melodies they execute throughout the collection would challenge any seasoned singer. Having written 10 of the album’s 11 songs, the two explore the theme of love by offering several scenes that illustrate the wonder of their relationships with their respective wives. They won a Grammy for the multi-platinum “Tequila.” The triple-platinum “Speechless” is nominated for best country duo/group performance at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards.
9. Port Saint Joe by Brothers Osborne
Brothers Osborne’s sophomore release is a vacation-ready album that offers themes of escapism, love and realism, exemplifying the feel of the Florida beach town where it was recorded with producer Jay Joyce. “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” “Drank Like Hank,” “Slow Your Roll” and “Shoot Me Straight” emanate the duo’s signature outlaw country sound. Port Saint Joe led to Grammy nominations for best country album and best country duo/group performance for “Shoot Me Straight.” “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” earned an additional 2020 Grammy nod for best country duo/group performance.
8. Rearview Town by Jason Aldean
Introspective songs like the Miranda Lambert duet “Drowns the Whiskey,” “Better at Being Who I Am” and “Like You Were Mine” balance the party anthems on Aldean’s eighth studio album. The No. 1s on the 13-song collection are the title track, “Drowns the Whiskey,” “You Make It Easy” and “Girl Like You,” contributing to Aldean’s staying power on country radio. The ACM named Aldean the Artist of the Decade at the 54th annual awards ceremony in 2019.
7. Desperate Man by Eric Church
Church tackles themes of overcoming odds and weaves in southern soul with his signature hard country-rock throughout his sixth album. Church provided an undertone of survivorship to the 11-song collection when he revealed in a Rolling Stone cover story that a life-saving surgery helped him survive a potentially fatal blood clot and that “The Snake” symbolizes a broken government system. Desperate Man and “Some Of It” are nominated for best country album and best country song, respectively, at the upcoming 62nd annual Grammy Awards.
6. Experiment by Kane Brown
Brown strengthened his empire of loyal fans with his sophomore release, Experiment, building on the success of his platinum-selling, self-titled debut. Having co-written 11 of the collection’s 12 songs, Brown continued to mine his past to give his hard upbringing in Tennessee and north Georgia a positive outcome in songs like “Lose It,” “Good as You,” “American Bad Dream” and “My Where I Come From.” In the time between the 2016 release of his eponymous debut and Experiment, Brown graduated to arena headliner armed with a hit-heavy set that highlighted his voice’s ability to transition smoothly from R&B-infused country-pop to the neo-traditional styles of Randy Travis.
5. Girl Going Nowhere by Ashley McBryde
With the release of her debut album, McBryde delivered songwriting skills that embodied Tom Petty’s rock ‘n’ roll power and immortalized sound country wisdom she’s gleaned over the years as a professional touring artist. Representing McBryde’s Arkansas wit and daring personality, the title song is inspired by a comment a school teacher once said to McBryde that criticized her ambitions of growing up to become a musician. Girl Going Nowhere led to three Grammy nominations for McBryde, including best country album. best country solo performance and best country song for the title track.
4. Cry Pretty by Carrie Underwood
Underwood pushes her voice to its limits on her sixth studio album, which plays like an emotive ode to self-acceptance, perseverance and the courage to be vulnerable. She co-wrote nine of the album’s 13 songs, including the back-to-back, gold-selling hits the title song, “Love Wins,” “Southbound” and the Ludacris collaboration “The Champion.” The collection received its own 2019 tour, which was arguably Underwood’s most physically demanding productions to date. Cry Pretty marked her first release under a new record contract with Universal Music Group.
3. Interstate Gospel by Pistol Annies
Over time, the musical sisterhood between Pistol Annies’ Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley grew stronger, as evidenced by the truth they share on their third studio album. They make light of exes in the incendiary “Got My Name Changed Back,” share a bold experience articulating what it’s like to have an incarcerated family member in “Commissary,” and emanate raw compassion in “Leavers Lullaby.” The collection is nominated for best country album at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards.
2. Sparrow by Ashley Monroe
On her fourth studio album, lush orchestral arrangements and elegant use of soul amplify Monroe’s storybook songwriting. The 12-song collection has an experimental rock ‘n’ roll edge that echoes The Beatles with lyrics that explore various themes of perseverance. “Wild Love” and “Hands On You” represent Monroe’s sultry side of her artistry.
1. Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
It’s safe to say everything changed for Musgraves after the release of Golden Hour. As a musical contribution, it set new standards of excellence through its use of cinematic, genre-blending soundscapes that embellished Musgraves’ growth as a profoundly perceptive songwriter. Tracked at Sheryl Crow’s home studio with co-producers Ian Fitchuck and Daniel Tashian, the album reflects a season of change in Musgraves’ life that included getting married to husband Ruston Kelly, her 29th birthday and the 2017 solar eclipse. The 13-song album has Musgraves breaking from traditional country sounds while still keeping from its song structure. The boldness of “Slow Burn,” the disco break in “High Horse” and the danceable “Lonely Weekend” are among the tracks that helped Musgraves graduate to an all-genre festival headliner for Coachella and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. Golden Hour led to a Grammy sweep in 2019, winning four awards, including album of the year, best country album, best country solo performance for “Butterflies,” and best country song for “Space Cowboy.”