A 32-year-old Delaware native who moved to Nashville more than a decade ago, Jimmie Allen hustled to land a record contract, lived in his car for a while, finally released his debut album in October, and became country music’s story of the year. Mercury Lane, which follows up last year’s self-titled EP, reveals a singer with a strong, spry, expressive voice that suggests the casual intimacy of someone who climbed through your bedroom window after your parents went to sleep. The album has sold modestly so far, but Allen’s first official single, “Best Shot,” quickly climbed all the way to the top of the Billboard charts in November, making him the first black country artist to hit number one with his debut single.
Jimmie Allen’s race has been the most prominent aspect of how his story has been reported, as he’s been paired with Kane Brown in most news stories. The same week Allen hit number one, Brown, a biracial artist from Chattanooga, dominated the pop and country album charts with his second full-length, Experiment. It marks the first time in history that artists of color have dominated both country charts, a remarkable feat that nevertheless threatens to tokenize them as “black artists” rather than garnering them close and careful attention as artists full stop. Neither, of course, will appeal much to country traditionalists, as they favor slick production, the occasional programmed beat, big rock guitars, and rap-influenced melodies. The instruments that once made up the bedrock of country music — pedal steel, banjo, fiddle — are only flourishes in their music. Yet both albums are fine collections of slightly twangy pop-rock, best when they rock out and almost insufferable when they slow-jam.
What makes their success so impressive is the massive competition they face. Click on the FANS ALSO LIKE button on their Spotify pages, and you’ll find a small army of similar acts, guys who usually have two first names — Seth Ennis, Dylan Scott, Michael Ray — selling highly polished, extremely familiar music that defines country as a market rather than a music. Most are cut from the Sam Hunt mold, influenced by urban R&B and hip-hop as well as by rural country. Only a few stand out as distinctive. I remember Jordan Davis because he has that one kinda gross song called “Take It From Me” that’s so specific and direct that he might as well be singing it to a sex doll. And I remember Morgan Wallen because he has that great scratchy voice and that one drinking song called “Whiskey Glasses” that I wish I didn’t love so much. And I remember Dan + Shay’s “Tequila” because it’s definitely not the party song that title might suggest.
Together, this (mostly white) trucker-hat-sporting horde constitutes one of the most popular — and one of the most popularly derided — genres in all of pop music, still dismissed as “bro country” despite representing a new generation with a new set of ideas and sounds and skimpy clothes they like to see girls wearing (see, for example, Ryan Hurd’s “To A T”). Most of these guys range from hard to defend to downright impossible to defend, but I’d rather listen to any of them than, say, the cosplay rock of Greta Van Fleet, not least because these guys are looking beyond country’s confines to find new sounds and inspirations. Some find them in indie rock: Ruston Kelly borrows a few studio tricks from Bon Iver. Some find it in southern rock: Luke Combs splits the difference between Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd and is just about as dreary as those two poles might suggest. But most of these young male acts owe notable debuts to what we think of as “black” music, namely hip-hop and R&B, which would be a lot more palatable if the regions where country is popular weren’t so hostile to things like Black Lives Matter.
Brown and Allen, in other words, aren’t flukes. Instead, they represent the culmination of a long trend in country music, which makes them as crucial in 2018 as Chris Stapleton was in 2016. The genre is poised to better reflect a diversity of American experience that goes well beyond white, rural, middle-class, conservative Trump voters. Sure, the industry’s thorough disregard for the experiences of women artists remains a source of frustration, ushering some of the most visionary country artists — Ashley Monroe, Margo Price, Erin Rae — off to the margins. But… well, no buts. That sucks as much in 2018 as it ever did. There are hints of change in country’s DNA, suggesting a new progressivism bubbling under the surface, new movements taking shape, new styles and sounds germinating just to the left of the mainstream. This wasn’t a banner year for country music; 2018 was a transition year, offering so many different visions of what the future of the genre might hold.
Did anyone divine the future this year more clearly than Kacey Musgraves? Golden Hour might be the biggest crossover hail mary of the decade, a star-gazing country album that made room for disco and club flourishes without patting itself on the back for crossing genres. She earned effusive praise even from publications not known for their country coverage, and in November she accepted the CMA for Album Of The Year. Because she bested fine efforts by Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett, Chris Stapleton, and Dierks Bentley, it became a symbolic victory for female artists in every stratum of the music industry at a time when women’s creative contributions are still being downplayed by the industry. Miranda Lambert had to cameo on Jason Aldean’s “Drowns The Whiskey” to get her first number-one in four years, and Amanda Shires is still regarded primarily as “Jason Isbell’s wife” despite making one of the most idiosyncratic country-not-country albums of the year.
Golden Hour sold only a fraction of what Cry Pretty sold. Carrie Underwood’s fourth number-one album — a new record — had the best first-week performance of any other album (Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy was a close second), further establishing her as one of the biggest stars in Nashville. So why is she so defensive about her country credentials? “Ghosts On The Stereo” is ostensibly about what she’s spinning on the turntable (Hag, Willie, the usual suspects), but it’s also about how she sounds and where she fits: “You think I’m thinking way too much and sadly out of touch,” she declares. “Well, think what you want… I’m havin’ a ball with Hank, Haggard, and Jones. No, I ain’t alone. I feel right at home with my ghosts on the stereo.”
Once a precise storyteller with an ear for subtlety and character, Underwood has become just another arena country artist, one who now has less in common with Hank, Haggard, and Jones than she ever did. Certainly they were not stalwart traditionalists; in fact, they all pushed country forward by abandoning certain conventions and embracing sounds well outside the accepted country palette. Which is exactly what Underwood and so many others are doing, so why does Underwood sound so unconvincing? Perhaps the difference lies in how the music is pitched and what it conveys. While those artists haunting her stereo might burrow into a song and locate a particular mood and emotion, Underwood tries to make every song mean everything.
Cry Pretty is country music for the all the feels generation, which means she goes big without much build and skywrites every emotional cue. That lends the album a utilitarian quality, as though these songs need to fit very specific moments in listeners’ lives. That has, of course, always been a crucial aspect of country music and any other genre that depicts life on a granular level, but Underwood makes it sound so workmanlike, so prescribed. “Cry Pretty” is your crying-in-public song. “Southbound” is the perfect soundtrack for merging onto the interstate on your way to the beach. “The Bullet” is your Facebooking-about-politics song. As Underwood sees it, every moment of life is lived at emotional extremes and caterwauling climaxes.
As of this writing, the most streamed song from Cry Pretty is “Love Wins,” a curiously apolitical protest song that borrows its title from the popular phrase associated with marriage equality. Underwood turns it into a plea for… I’m not sure. Affability? Unity? Not harassing Mitch McConnell out of every restaurant in America? “I believe you and me are sisters and brothers, and I believe we’re made to be here for each other,” she sings in a song that addresses gun violence and tribal politics and turns that title back on itself the same way some people counter Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter.
“Love Wins” is as ham-handed as “Accidental Racist,” still the gold standard for twangy political naivete, and it’s just one of several songs this year that gestured toward progressivism without actually being progressive. On “American Bad Dream” Kane Brown bemoaned the sad state of America, but ruined it by reminiscing about a time when ninth graders were more concerned with getting laid than getting shot. Way to read the room. Longstanding bro Luke Bryan had an honest-to-god hit with the milquetoast social commentary “Most People Are Good,” sort of an “Ebony & Ivory” for people with crazy racist uncles. These songs are well intentioned — “I believe you love who you love,” Bryan croons. “Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of” — but they so thoroughly hedge their bets that they signify next to nothing.
Given country’s strategy for self-branding, for turning autobiography into songs to be decoded, I was disappointed that Aldean was so withholding on Rearview Town, his first album after the Route 91 Harvest Fest shooting in 2017. Aldean was wrapping up the final performance when an asshole whose name I won’t type started firing into the crowd, killing 58 and wounding more than 800. The shooting inspired a great deal of outrage, even landing Aldean on SNL — a venue not especially inviting to country artists — to cover Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” But this chapter in his career is glaringly absent on Rearview Town, absent as text or subtext, which makes a fairly strong country album sound like just another country album.
In 2018, it sounds like mainstream acts have no interest in writing about politics with much specificity or passion. Even Musgraves foregoes the inclusivity songs that peppered her previous albums, and Eric Church’s Desperate Man isn’t necessarily about a financially desperate man. It’s a missed opportunity, but perhaps an improvement from the early 2000s, when country was synonymous with right-wing screeds like “Bumper Of My SUV” and “Courtesy Of The Red, White & Blue (The Angry American).” Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price are between albums, which leaves Jason Isbell’s Live At The Ryman as one of the few representatives of woke country. “White Man’s World,” a thorny meditation on checked privilege, sounds even fiercer and more self-damning in this setting. “People ask me sometimes, ‘Do you think you’re going to alienate half of your audience by saying the things that you say?'” he explained to Austin360 recently. “And that sounds so ridiculous to me. Like, why would it be half? Where is the evidence that half of my audience feels one way and half feels the other way? There might be 10 people out of a thousand who get up and go to the bathroom during ‘White Man’s World.'”
Perhaps the greatest threat to the rural communities represented in country songs is the opioid epidemic, the worst drug crisis in American history and one largely ignored by the current administration. It has gutted areas of the South, the Midwest, and Appalachia, although you wouldn’t know it given the preponderance of country songs extolling the joys of small towns. The gossip mill is a more popular subject than the pill mill, in 2018 as much as any other year, but artists are starting to dig a little deeper. This crisis haunts Interstate Gospel, the third album by the Nashville supergroup the Pistol Annies: Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley. “Best Years Of My Life,” which they had the audacity to release as an early single, opens with one of the finest first lines of the year: “Looks like I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet,” Monroe sings, then sketches out a sad life and a loveless marriage in a disintegrating town.
“My hometown in Kentucky has been really impacted by the opioid crisis,” Presley told Stereogum by way of explaining the origins of “Commissary,” one the most devastating songs about this issue. “There are so many levels to being close to addiction and being close to someone who has an addiction issue… To the listener it might sound like this woman is cold and uncaring, but the reality is that her heart is breaking in a million pieces because there’s nothing else that she can do for her loved one. This song is pretty raw.”
Speaking of raw: An Arkansas storyteller with a gift for life-sized characters and an eye for local details, Ashley McBryde weaves something close to an opioid epic on “Livin’ Next To Leroy,” off her major-label debut Girl Going Nowhere. Set “in a town where people go to die,” the story-song pulls no punches in its depiction of high school pill-poppers and junkies who steal the neighbor’s bike for a hit. It’s no spoiler to say that Leroy dies before the song is over, but it’s the way McBryde delivers that news, in past tense and almost in passing, that hits you in the gut: “I can’t forget shakin’ him, tryin’ to wake him on that sofa,” she sings, then adds as an afterthought: “He never did come ’round.”
Ruston Kelly sings about addiction from a first-person perspective. After hanging around Nashville for years trying to jump-start a dead-battery career, he ODed in late 2015 and began writing songs as a form of self-reckoning. His debut full-length, Dying Star, is a candid chronicle of self-numbing with cocaine and amphetamines. “You know I ain’t doing too well, but I’ve found a few things that help,” he sings on “Blackout.” “I black out in a bar, I get high in my car, I drive ’round in circles till I’m seeing stars.”
And then there’s A Star Is Born, which makes substance abuse the crux of its love story between a leathery Bradley Cooper (who can actually sing!) and Lady Gaga (who can actually act!). It’s difficult to tell who is more addicted: Is Cooper more dependent on the booze and pills he sees as an extension of the country rock he plays, or is Gaga more addicted to the shiny pop music her character makes once she hits superstardom? That movie may be the biggest thing to happen to left-of-field country music since… I don’t know, the last Star Is Born?
Back when Kristofferson and Streisand were playing those doomed lovers in 1976, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn were in their hitmaking prime, the former a relatively new star despite being well into his forties. And they’re still adding essential installments to their catalogs. Lynn might not reach the heights of her Jack White-assisted Van Lear Rose again, but her latest, Wouldn’t It Be Great, toggles gracefully between feisty and melancholy, even when she’s singing her umpteenth version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She knows it means something a little different as she gets older.
It’s all too easy to take Willie for granted. The octogenarian released two albums this year, just like he did last year and the year before that and the year before that ad infinitum. Last Man Standing collects a batch of newly penned tunes about growing old but not necessarily growing up. “I don’t want to be the last man standing,” he sings on the title track, “but then again, maybe I do.” One of the horrors of aging is watching your friends and peers pass away, but Willie would rather chuckle than cry. My Way is his tribute to perennial influence Frank Sinatra, and Willie’s covers are weirder and woolier than Dylan’s, in particular the mod reading of “It Was A Very Good Year.” He ended the year stumping for Beto O’Rourke and penning a blue wave anthem called “Vote ‘Em Out,” in which he observes, “The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box.”
At 72, Dolly Parton is a whippersnapper compared to Willie, and perhaps the most endearing aspect of her new soundtrack to the Netflix flick Dumplin’ is how she cycles through her repertoire — “Jolene” by herself, “Dumb Blonde” with Miranda Lambert, “Here You Come Again” with Willa Amai — like they’re all new songs. Rather than play up her age, Dolly sings like these songs were all written yesterday, written specifically for the story of a plus-size beauty pageant contestant, written with these other singers in mind. The album is quietly subversive in its rejection of nostalgia and in its disregard for legacy. The best country music, Dolly insists, is whatever you’re listening to right now.
That said, it’s a long tradition to trim the tree, hang the stockings, cook the Christmas goose, gather your loved ones close, and rank albums from the past twelve months. -Stephen Deusner
10 Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Years (Bloodshot Records)
I’m convinced that this New York-born, North Carolina-based country singer could whup the ass of everyone else on this list. Brutally, even pugilistically honest in interviews, she called the Nashville industry a bunch of “rich-ass motherfuckers” as a means of laying claim to country’s hard-livin’, heavy-drinkin’ ethos. On Years, her second album with backing band the Disarmers, she reinvests threadbare subjects with new life even when she’s pondering death or worse. “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” is a drinking song that saps the romance out of drinking songs, and the title track addresses a bad relationship that inspires an even more harrowing breakup. “I need this shit like I need another hole in my head,” she sings on “New Ways To Fail,” and I still don’t know if she’s talking about whoever broke her heart or whoever sang that dumbass song about getting your heart broke.
9 Loretta Lynn – Wouldn’t It Be Great (Legacy Recordings)
Recorded with Patsy Lynn Russell (her daughter) and John Carter Cash (Johnny and June’s boy), Loretta’s 41st album was originally slated to hit stores back in 2017, but was delayed more than a year while Nashville’s finest singer-songwriter recovered from a fractured hip and a stroke. But she sounds lively and commanding as ever, her voice sarcastic on “Ruby’s Stool” and wistful on the title track, a meditation on alcoholism that she first recorded more than 30 years ago. Wouldn’t It Be Great splits its tracklist between newly penned songs and new versions of old tunes, and Lynn brings a relatable, at times magisterial melancholy to every single word. Best of all might be “I’m Dying For Someone To Live For,” which she recently co-wrote with Shawn Camp but which she sings like she’s been living with it for decades.
8 Eric Church – Desperate Man (EMI Nashville)
Eric Church doesn’t get enough credit for being a stone weirdo. Sporting an expansive definition of “country,” he’s attained something like outlaw status just for the range of influences he takes in and the range of sounds he spits out. His sixth album is full of whiplash transitions between Skynyrdesque southern rockers like “Some Of It” and prayer ballads like “Monsters,” between the country funk of “Hangin’” and the Animal Farm metaphor of opener “The Snake,” which is almost not ridiculous. He seasons the album with burbling percussion and boop-boop-booping backing vocals, and it’s precisely that weirdness, that loopy musicality that ties everything together into a cohesive and compassionate whole, magnifying his empathy for desperate and drowning men everywhere.
7 Ashley Monroe – Sparrow (Warner Bros.)
Few country artists can turn pain into beauty as well as Ashley Monroe can. Recorded while she was pregnant with her first child, Sparrow contemplates her own family history: her father died when she was young, and she was estranged from her mother for many years afterwards. From that trauma she crafts songs like “Orphan,” which sounds profound even before those countrypolitan strings come in. “How does an orphan find its way home?” she asks, not quite rhetorically. “How do I make it alone?” But you don’t need to know Monroe’s history to grasp the ache and confusion of that song, or the white-hot desire mingling with regret on “Hands On Me,” or the hard-won contentment of “Daddy I Told You.” “Daddy I told you I was gonna fly,” she sings, and Sparrow soars.
6 Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe (EMI Nashville)
“You can have my heart, it’s broken anyway,” John Osborne sings on “Weed, Whiskey & Willie. “But don’t take my smoke, my jug of brown liquor, or my country music.” Those are the essentials, although presumably not in that or any other order. I don’t know what strain he rolls or what label he drinks, but listening to the Brothers Osborne’s second album, it’s clear that John and his brother T.J. take their country music any way they can get it. Lyrically, they’re traditionalists, but musically they’re anything but. It’s not just that Port Saint Joe covers a lot of ground; it’s more that these Maryland siblings haven’t met a sturdy country ditty that wasn’t improved by a metal guitar solo (“Shoot Me Straight”) or a country funk breakdown (“A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright”). They ride “Shoot Me Straight” until the wheels fall off, and then they keep going, ending their biggest single off the album with a thirty-second ambient interlude. Their devil-may-care energy makes for a rambunctious album that always keeps you guessing.
5 Ashley McBryde – Girl Going Nowhere (Warner Bros.)
Ashley McBryde paid her dues before she released her debut album. The Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, native gigged around Nashville for a decade, self-released an EP, and earned enough praise from established stars like Hank Jr. and Eric Church that a major-label contract was inevitable. Her tongue-in-cheekily titled Girl Going Nowhere packs so much experience into these hardscrabble country tunes, in particular the opening title track: an origin story that documents every backhanded compliment she’s received on her way up. “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” first released as a single in 2017, sounds even better among these tales of small-town tweakers and diehard road warriors, as though McBryde’s truest subject isn’t the tribulations we all face but the tiny triumphs we string together into a life.
4 Erin Rae – Putting On Airs (Single Lock Records)
One of the best shows I saw this year was also one of the most sparsely attended, mainly because Erin Rae came through my little college town on a school night during finals week. There were only a handful of people, but everyone in the club was a fan. A trio of young women danced with each other at the foot of the stage, which Rae seemed to find charming as she sung the aching, vivid songs on Putting On Airs, her first album without her longtime backing band the Meanwhiles. In addition to amplifying her beautifully understated vocals, the mostly empty club intensified the intimacy of Rae’s music, which moves slow but purposefully and deliberately as she catalogs deep hopes and deeper regrets: second-guessing her same-sex desires on “Bad Mind,” moving into a new house on “Love Like Before,” gazing at the stars on “Grand Scheme.” Both the show and the album were perfectly life-size.
3 John Prine – The Tree Of Forgiveness (Oh Boy Records)
John Prine might not have had the biggest hits back in the 1970s, when he was tangentially connected to the outlaw movement, but he persevered, enjoying a long and modest career and eventually achieving vaunted status as an influence on a new generation of songwriters. Some of them — namely, Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile — appear on his first album of new material in more than a decade, the impossibly great Tree Of Forgiveness, recorded with producer Dave Cobb. It makes a strong case for Prine as our greatest living American songwriter, bouncing from hilarious to heartbreaking often in the same song (“Summer’s End” will make you laugh and cry) and sketching out entire novels with just a few well-placed words. And he’s earned every inch of that nine-mile cigarette he describes on “When I Get To Heaven,” which sounds like the perfect exclamation point on a long and storied career but let’s hope it doesn’t end anytime soon.
2 Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel (RCA Nashville)
You can puzzle over the drug references on “Stop Drop And Roll One” and ponder the maybe/maybe-not allusions to Miranda Lambert’s divorce, but that’d be missing the point of this threesome’s third album. Interstate Gospel is less about Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley and more about other people. Their hearts go out to women in small towns, bored in loveless marriages or numbed by others’ waywardness or burdened by a bloodline and five acres of turnips that won’t harvest themselves. The Pistol Annies are a respite from the memoiristic songwriting Nashville so often demands of its female artists: the supergroup as a creative outlet for three storytellers who understand that there’s strength in numbers.
1 Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (RCA Nashville)
The most compelling vision of country music’s future came from Kacey Musgraves, who peppers her third non-holiday album with sounds that we more commonly associate with the popularly derided pop-country clogging the radio: programmed beats, starburst synths, manipulated vocals, a twang that’s so subdued till it’s merely a banjo flourish or a spacey pedal steel. But Golden Hour is less concerned with expanding Musgraves’ market or hedging her bets and more intent on realizing her very idiosyncratic idea of what country music can do, how far it can be stretched, how it can convey so many different shades of emotion. If there are retro flourishes, then she’s nostalgic for an imagined era when Chic were producing Dolly Parton albums. Perhaps most impressively, she tied all of those space-cowgirl sounds to the specific sentiments in her songs, so that everything feels connected, inevitable, even organic. Would “Butterflies” have sounded quite so light and ebullient without that reggae break? Would “High Horse” have sounded quite so bittersweet without those dance-club flourishes? Would “Space Cowboy” have sounded so lonely without that reverb on everything? Golden Hour catches Nashville’s reflection in a mirrorball, then Musgraves sets it spinning.