2018 in Review: The Year’s 20 Best Country, Americana, Bluegrass and Folk Songs
The best country, Americana, folk and bluegrass songs of 2018 are album cuts and singles. They're under the radar and award-nominated chart hits. They're feel-good anthems and heartbreak ballads. They're songs of love, resilience and pain.
In 2018, these 20 songs stood out among the rest. They're among the most-played on our playlists, and we know their lyrics by heart. And we'll keep playing them as 2018 turns into 2019, too.
In alphabetical order by artist, these are The Boot's 20 favorite songs of 2018.
“Drowns the Whiskey” is almost a follow-up to Travis Tritt’s “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.” Aldean and Lambert’s song, just like Tritt’s, is about a liquor that isn’t doing a very good job of erasing heartache. “Whiskey’s supposed to drown the memory / I’ve gone from one to one too many / And the thing that really gets me / Is how your memory drowns the whiskey,” goes the chorus.
Aldean and Lambert are an incredible duo, whether they’re playing off each other’s voices separately or in harmony. The result is a plaintive, powerful song about heartache and whiskey, a track that went to No. 1 on the charts and earned several CMA Awards nominations, including Song of the Year. -- RK
“Tough Folks” is equal parts personal and political. It’s aware of -- and deeply unhappy with -- the current political landscape, but American Aquarium's BJ Barnham comes at it his politics from a place of compassion: “The outcome’s as hopeful as the evening news,” he sings. “And last November, I saw firsthand / What desperation makes good people do.” Through the song, he traces his family’s own history in the American South, from farming tobacco to corn. “Tough Folks” is compassionate and sharp, a folk story song where the story is deeply personal. -- RK
“Taxidermy” has swagger. The fiery, blues-rock track finds Ashton calling out an ex, singing, “Love me / Leave me / I can make it nice and easy / When you come back beggin’ / Askin’ for another freebie.” The absolutely brutal dis track explodes in the chorus, as Ashton talk-sings, “You’ll be my taxidermy, taxidermy / I’ll keep you hanging on a bedroom wall / And if I ever move to Albuquerque / I’ll strap you to my Chevy Impala.” There are two lessons to “Taxidermy”: First, don’t piss off Ashton ... and, second: If you do, sit back and wait for her to turn the experience into one of the catchiest songs of the year. -- RK
Ballerini has made no secret of her pop music aspirations -- and, like peers Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett and Lindsay Ell, she has the range to pull off crossover sounds. The irresistible "Miss Me More" boasts rushes of electronic production and sleek, futuristic twang, as well as an empowering message: The song's protagonist is trying to remember who she was before being embroiled in a not-great relationship. -- AZ
Gratitude isn't just sustaining; it's the kind of thing that helps keep you humble and live a strong life. That's the theme at the core of Bentley's upbeat, surging country-pop single, which praises both women and the transformative power of women.
"This world has a way of shaking your faith / I've been broken again and again," Bentley solemnly sings. "But I need all the cracks in my shattered heart / 'Cause that's where her love gets in." -- AZ
It's safe to say that nearly everyone has gone through a wild period in their lives, when they're drinking too much or embracing debauchery as a way to fill some inner void. However, the point of Brothers Osborne's "I Don't Remember Me (Before You)" is that finding the right person can make these days feel like a foggy distant memory. -- AZ
Written with a bevy of songwriters (including Shy Carter, who's worked with Sugarland, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and Billy Currington), the unabashed love song "Good as You" exudes an easygoing, blues-rock vibe buoyed by soulful organ, laissez-faire electric guitar licks, and Brown's warm, honeyed vocals. -- AZ
Call it an anti-bullying anthem; call it an call to arms for the boys and girls whose time hasn’t come yet. No matter what you call it, Carlile's “The Joke” is a devastating, hopeful ballad about those society thinks of as less than … for now. “You’re feeling nervous, aren’t you, boy?” asks the first verse. “With your quiet voice and impeccable style.” The second verse turns its attention to the girls, asking, “You get discouraged, don’t you girl? / It’s your brother’s world for a while longer.” The song is a vehicle for pain and hope in equal measure, and Carlile’s soaring voice elevates “The Joke” to something even bigger. For all of this, “The Joke” is nominated for four Grammy Awards: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song. -- RK
As has been observed elsewhere, "Desperate Man" does unmistakably conjure the slightly psychedelic, ominous vibe of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." However, it's certainly no rip-off; rather, Church and co-writer Ray Wylie Hubbard graft an outlaw vibe over top familiar influences, which makes the song feel like a thoroughly modern update of hardscrabble '70s country. -- AZ
Most tequila songs are lighthearted party songs -- tunes about having (too much) fun, and sometimes regretting it the next day. Dan + Shay’s “Tequila” turns that mini-genre on its head, however: It’s a song about regret, sure, but mostly about the pain of nostalgia and missing someone you love. As the first line of the soaring chorus goes, “But when I taste tequila / Baby, I still see ya.” “Tequila” is a bona fide love song, with an unforgettable melody and a palpable sadness. The debut single from Dan + Shay’s third album is a No. 1 hit, is certified platinum and has earned Grammy Awards nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country / Duo Performance. -- RK
Who could have predicted that Rexha would be on a year-end best-of country music list? The songwriter and singer has been associated with pop and hip-hop acts including G-Eazy, Eminem, Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas … but when she teamed up with Florida Georgia Line for this year's "Meant to Be," the result was explosive. The No. 1 hit on both the Adult Top 40 and Country Airplay charts has been inescapable, with its finger-snap rhythm section and earworm chorus of “If it’s meant to be / It'll be, it’ll be.” “Meant to Be” has shattered Billboard records, spending 54 weeks at the top of the Hot Country Songs chart, and it’s racked up countless awards nominations, including pretty much every collaboration honor there is, from the Teen Choice Awards to the American Music Awards to the Grammy Awards. -- RK
Kelly's Dying Star is one of the year's more underrated releases, but it deserves a much wider audience. Exhibit A: The brutally honest, Ryan Adams-reminiscent folk-rocker "Faceplant," a chronicle of what it feels to hang on by a thread after hitting rock bottom due to addiction. "Come too far to turn back now," he repeats throughout the song, a phrase that's ideally a promise, not a lament. -- AZ
Brandon Lancaster of Lanco tells The Boot that “Born to Love You” is a song that “pays homage to where we all come from."
"We grew up in little towns across the Southeast, and we all come from different places, but when you start talking about it, they all kind of sound like the same place," he continues. "This song paints that picture of who we are and where we're from.”
The narrator concludes in the song's chorus that no matter where he has come from or has been, “I’ve already found what I’m looking for / Wherever I go and whatever I do / I was born to love you.” It’s an upbeat, high-energy song about roots and new beginnings, and it’s a delight to hear. -- RK
Co-written by McBryde, Terri Jo Box and Randall Clay -- the latter of whom sadly passed away in 2018 -- the slow-burning, alt-country-leaning "American Scandal" illuminates McBryde's powerful voice and evocative delivery. "Hold me, baby, hold me," she sings, a desperate and urgent tone to her voice, "like you ain’t mine to hold / Oh, kiss me, baby, kiss me, like you don’t care who knows / Oh, love me, baby, love me like Kennedy and Monroe." The reference to an affair between Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy underscores the song's conflicted feelings toward a relationship that's not quite on the up-and-up, which only adds to the complexity. -- AZ
“High Horse” is an outlier on Golden Hour, Musgraves' third studio album. On a record of mostly intimate, quiet songs about love and place, “High Horse” comes out of nowhere with a disco dance beat and absolutely brutal lyrics.
“Oh, I bet you think you’re John Wayne,” Musgraves sings. But, she concludes, “You’re classic in the wrong way.” The song combines disco with banjo, and unlike in other songs on the album, Musgraves' voice is layered and digitally polished -- and it all just works. It’s a new direction for the singer-songwriter, but it proves she knows what she’s doing even in unfamiliar territory. -- RK
Talk about inspired pairings. On the soundtrack to the Netflix movie Dumpin', Lambert joins Parton for a brisk and jaunty duet cover of the latter's first single, "Dumb Blonde." The legendary song is about eschewing expectations, and warns others not to make assumptions based on a surface veneer -- which is certainly a hallmark of Parton's career, and Lambert's musical catalog to date as well. -- AZ
Leave it to the Pistol Annies to reclaim the painful process of divorce and make it sound ... almost fun? We won’t call splitting up a good time, but we’ll definitely call “Got My Name Changed Back” one of the most rollicking good times put to record this year. The trio is electric as they shrug off the particulars of the divorce process, singing, “I don’t let a man get the best of me / Spent an afternoon at the DMV / Got my name changed back.” It’s a celebration of singleness, a way to reclaim pain and most of all, such a good time that you’ll want to listen to it over and over. -- RK
There is nothing more painful than pining after someone who doesn't reciprocate your crush. That's the premise of Rhett's melancholy, cry-in-your-beer ballad "Marry Me," which stars a narrator who's attending the wedding of a woman he secretly loves. In between expressions of regret that he never told her how he feels, Rhett laments, "Yeah, she wanna get married / But she don't wanna marry me." -- AZ
Atop a brassy soul-country backdrop with horns and a strutting tempo, Silvas bursts the bubble of someone who thinks he's getting attention for his innate characteristics. Instead, he's simply a warm body, Silvas belts: "When you're home and stoned, you know she's gonna drive by / She ain't lonely, she's only looking for a good time." -- AZ
Underwood debuted “Cry Pretty” at the 2018 ACM Awards in April, and her powerful, soaring performance did indeed include her crying ... pretty. But, as the song reminds us, that’s not really a thing: “You can lie pretty and say it’s okay,” Underwood sings in the chorus. “You can pretty smile and just walk away / Pretty much fake your way through anything / But you can’t cry pretty.” The song destroys the idea of keeping it together for appearances, and is on the side of full-fledged emotional display. Underwood’s voice is as powerful as ever, helping her lead single from the album of the same name to be certified gold. -- RK