Newcomers ruled 2018 with standout debut releases from Devin Dawson, Jordan Davis and Jimmie Allen. The year also brought the much anticipated comeback of Sugarland and the Pistol Annies. While females struggled at country radio throughout 2018, they inarguably delivered some of the strongest projects of the year with both Kacey Musgraves and Ashley McBryde receiving Best Country Album nominations by the Recording Academy. Whether you prefer traditional country music or are a fan of the genre embracing slick beats, pop influences and swagger, 2018 offered up a mixture of both.
Below are our 15 favorite albums of 2018.
Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour
Kacey Musgraves released one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year with the striking Golden Hour. The singer penned all 13 of the project’s heartfelt tracks, which spans traditional country, pop influences and even disco flavors. Her vulnerabilities are showcased on powerful ballads like “Butterflies” and “Mother,” both of which highlight her ethereal vocals. Meanwhile, standout track “Space Cowboy” shows her prowess as a vivid lyricist and the feel-good “Velvet Elvis” demonstrates her fun side. With 13 tracks that span her influences, Musgraves more than delivered on Golden Hour. Fittingly, the project was nominated for two Grammy Awards in both the Best Country Album and all-genre Album of the Year categories.
Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty
Carrie Underwood returned in 2018 with her most dynamic release yet. The country powerhouse co-produced her album for the first time with producer David Garcia, and the project blends country and pop elements for a truly memorable compilation. While the title track showcases Underwood’s unwavering ability at vocal gymnastics with belts that leave the listener’s jaw on the floor, other songs like the sultry “Backsliding” with forward-thinking production, demonstrate her penchant for trying something new. Pop-tinged tracks “Southbound” and “End Up with You” highlight Underwood’s crossover ability while the timely “Love Wins” and poignant “The Bullet” channel the country genre’s powerful songwriters. All the while Underwood continues to prove why she’s one of the industry’s most revered vocalists.
Kane Brown’s Experiment
Kane Brown made history with his sophomore album, Experiment, as the first male country artist in 24 years to have his second project debut atop the Billboard 200 in its opening week. The album includes many of the old-school instruments that country music is known for — the dobro, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and steel guitar — mixed in with a “new cool sound” according to Brown. Tracks like the traditional sounding “Short Skirt Weather” coupled with the sultry R&B and urban rhythms of “Weekend” exemplify this diversity. “Lose It,” the album’s lead single, has gone on to become the fastest rising single of Brown’s career and third-consecutive No. 1. As he continues to break down boundaries as a biracial artist in the industry, Brown also made one of the most enjoyable albums released in 2018.
Brothers Osborne’s Port Saint Joe
On Port Saint Joe, Brothers Osborne prove why they’re the reigning ACM and CMA Vocal Duo of the Year. Their standout musicianship and powerful lyrics make for a memorable record that continues to grow with each listen. Additionally, Port Saint Joe spans a broad spectrum of sounds and musical influences. While writing the country waltz “Tequila Again,” Brothers Osborne envisioned Willie Nelson cutting the tune for Red Headed Stranger. Meanwhile, “A Little Bit Trouble” evokes an old R&B and soul flavor, one of the many sounds they grew up listening to. Brothers Osborne are well known for bringing the guitar slinging to their rock-fueled tracks, but their sensitive side is also showcased on songs like the ode to lifetime love, “Pushing Up Daisies,” and powerful album closer “While You Still Can.”
Eric Church’s Desperate Man
Eric Church has a long history of bucking trends, and his sixth studio album Desperate Man is no different. The 11-track project finds the singer once again pushing boundaries as well as himself. The album reflects a man trying to find his place in society, and while at times he’s unsure of his footing, he remains solid in his conviction and in his roots. The rollicking and bluesy throwback “Hanging Around” highlights Church’s mesmerizing falsetto alongside hand-clapped rhythms and sultry piano accompaniment. While “Desperate Man” and the bluesy “Solid” showcase Church’s steadfast nature, it’s the heartbreaking “Jukebox and a Bar” and the reflective “Some of It” that illustrate his soft side. It’s this raw vulnerability coupled with stellar musicianship and the element of surprise that has Church on an entirely different playing field from his contemporaries.
Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel
Pistol Annies’ superb harmonies are at the forefront of Interstate Gospel as is their candid storytelling. With a unique take on divorce (“Got My Name Changed Back”), heartbreak (“Masterpiece”) and marriage (“When I Was His Wife”), the acclaimed trio, made up of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, don’t hold anything back. Much of the album comes from real-life experiences the women have faced, but they’re not revealing to which singer. That, they leave up to their listeners to ponder. A powerful force, Pistol Annies prove that women have songs that need to be heard and stories that need to be told. While the genre seems to be leaning more and more towards pop production and hip-hop elements as of late, Pistol Annies stand firm in tradition with country instrumentation, witty songs and honest storytelling that makes the listener stop and think.
Ashley McBryde’s Girl Going Nowhere
Ashley McBryde’s honest songwriting is highlighted throughout Girl Going Nowhere, and the singer puts the listener in the song on tracks like “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” and the unique love song, “American Scandal.” On “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You),” McBryde shows her vulnerabilities when penning a song for her best friend and guitar player. The standout moment, though, is the album’s title track, which has become an anthem for both the singer and country fans alike. Inspired by an algebra teacher who told the Arkansas native she should have a backup plan when she shared her dream of moving to Nashville to write songs, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is a powerful and heartfelt ballad that has McBryde proving her naysayers wrong. And with a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album McBryde is getting the last laugh now.
Devin Dawson’s Dark Horse
Devin Dawson blends country, Motown and rock influences for a memorable debut album. The California native had a hand in writing each of the 12 tracks on Dark Horse, and whether he’s lamenting of the end of a relationship on “Secondhand Hurt” or singing of treating his lady right on the sultry “I Don’t Care Who Sees,” his unique blend of country songwriting and musical swagger impress. Standout song “Asking For a Friend” further showcases his talent as an adept songwriter. On closing track, “Dark Horse,” Dawson opens the curtain and shares who he is as a person. His unique storytelling partnered with Jay Joyce’s standout production give Dark Horse it’s appeal, which is surely just a taste of Dawson’s promising career.
Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain
Dierks Bentley returns to his roots for his ninth studio album, The Mountain. The singer wrote and recorded the project in Telluride, Colorado, after attending Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Throughout the album, Bentley’s appreciation for the genre and musical and lyrical authenticity shines through. The Mountain kicks off with the standout “Burning Man,” featuring Brothers Osborne, where Bentley sings of life’s struggles and triumphs. This introspection is heard throughout the majority of the project, particularly on the reflective “Living” and album closer “How I’m Going Out.” Never afraid to switch gears or push genre lines, Bentley proves a master at finding inspiration within his surroundings. As a result, his talent as a songwriter and distinct musical influences merge on The Mountain for a release that will serve as a timeless addition to his catalog.
Jordan Davis’ Home State
Jordan Davis proves his staying power on his superb debut album, Home State. The Shreveport, Louisiana, native worked with producer Paul DiGiovanni for the 12-song collection. All co-written by Davis, Home State blends slick production and thoughtful lyrics for a unique project. Standout ballads like “Slow Dance In a Parking Lot” and “Leaving New Orleans” emphasize his sentimental side, while “Take It From Me,” “More Than I Know” and debut single “Singles You Up” showcase his undeniable country swagger. A standout debut that highlights Davis’s ability as both a vocalist and a songwriter, Home State marries big sounds and production with the vulnerability of his lyrics for a truly enjoyable listen.
Keith Urban’s Graffiti U
Keith Urban’s ninth studio album, Graffiti U, continues where his adventurous 2016 release Ripcord left off. While slick production and Urban’s familiar vocals are heard on each song, Graffiti U pushes the singer’s music into new territory. Though the guitar-driven songs display Urban’s undeniable talent, Graffiti U also showcases his innate ability at singing emotional ballads. His voice soars on songs like the poignant Ed Sheeran penned “Parallel Line,” which includes a sample of Coldplay’s “Everglow,” as well as “Same Heart,” where he sings of trying his best to move on at the end of a relationship. Urban excels at pushing genre lines and, despite a bevy of producers putting their fingerprints on Graffiti U, the beloved singer never strays from the guitar shredding and vocally captivating country artist that he is.
Sugarland marked their return in 2018 with the triumphant Bigger, their first collection of new music in seven years. Well known for penning songs with a message, the duo’s Bigger is no different. On the 11-track album there are songs that touch upon the countless school shootings throughout the nation (“Tuesday’s Broken”), female empowerment and the #MeToo movement (“Bigger”) and an all-encompassing love (“Mother”). The duo penned 10 of the 11 songs with the exception of their current single, “Babe,” co-written by Taylor Swift and Train’s Pat Monahan. A versatile release, Sugarland’s powerful messages alongside forward-thinking production make Bigger an essential listen.
Cole Swindell’s All of It
A versatile mix of heartfelt songs, party starters and arena anthems, Cole Swindell continues his upward climb within the genre on All of It. The infectious “Love You Too Late” kicks off the project and sounds like something Luke Bryan could have recorded. An arena-ready anthem with soaring guitar parts, heart-pounding beats and polished production, “Love You Too Late” has Swindell singing of a relationship that ended before he realized what his girl meant to him. While “Somebody’s Been Drinkin’” brings the feels, standout album closer “Dad’s Old Number” leaves the greatest mark. A poignant song, it’s the sequel to “You Should Be Here” and has Swindell confessing that he still calls his dad’s phone number in hopes that he’ll be on the other end. Throughout All of It, Swindell furthers his reach within the genre.
Ashley Monroe ‘s Sparrow
Ashley Monroe’s descriptive songwriting is at the forefront of her latest release, Sparrow. Working with producer Dave Cobb, Monroe enlisted the help of a string orchestra which brings each song to life. The striking musicianship heard within opening track “Orphan” alongside Monroe’s haunting vocals make it an album standout. The introspective tune has the singer questioning how she can make it through the world alone. It’s this vulnerability that is heard on every track and continues to illustrate why Monroe is such a cherished songwriter within the Nashville community. Heartbreaking piano ballad “This Heaven” stuns while the sultry “Hands On You” leaves the listener mesmerized by Monroe’s ethereal vocals and the song’s steamy storyline. With a blend of traditional country and singer-songwriter appeal, Sparrow was one of 2018’s most treasured releases.
Jimmie Allen, Mercury Lane
Jimmie Allen launched onto the country scene this year with his contagious personality and equally catchy No. 1 single, “Best Shot.” The Delaware native’s debut album, Mercury Lane, introduced the singer to the music world as an adept songwriter as he penned eight of the project’s 15 tracks. With a distinct pop-country vibe and ear-grabbing rhythms throughout, songs like the heartfelt “Deserve To Be” and clever “How To Be Single” set the singer apart from the crowd. Additional earworms “County Lines,” the stirring “All Tractors Ain’t Green” and nostalgic “Wait For It” further to flesh out the release and mark the start of an already promising career.