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Wide Open Country’s 25 Best Albums of 2018 So Far

We’re halfway through 2018 and music fans have already been given some incredible records to enjoy. From established country stars to rising singer-songwriters, these 25 releases represent the best in country music and beyond. Here’s Wide Open Country‘s picks for the best albums of 2018 so far.

Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves

The one record that I truly love from front to back this year is Kacey Musgraves‘ triumphant Golden Hour. As a woman who is just one year younger than the Texas native, I feel intensely connected to the themes of this record – love, nostalgia, sadness and the quest for finding a little bit of hope in these troubled times. The clear feminine perspective on this project is such a breath of fresh air in a genre that constantly pushes anything outside of cliched masculinity to the wayside. A record as solid as this deserves more airplay and its many accolades, but its substance is what will sustain Golden Hour as a truly landmark record. — Lorie Liebig

I haven’t written much about this album because I don’t have much to add to the effusive commentary. If you are on the fence then please trust me, a person who hates fads so much I have yet to finish Harry Potter on principle: Golden Hour is worth the hype. Musgraves’ sharp songwriting has reached new heights on this album. Really — she just keeps getting better and better. I also appreciate the album’s cheery dive into pop elements. The songs have emotional and lyrical substance, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun as well. Whether it’s the deep dive into anxiety and neuroses on “Lonely Weekend” or existential joy on “Oh, What a World,” Golden Hour runs the emotional gamut. Of course, I can’t help but fawn over Musgraves’ pointedly disco takedown of toxic masculinity in Nashville on “High Horse.” For me, Golden Hour is a reminder that the kind of slick music that tends to populate the country radio and top 40 charts can have real heart — it’s a call to action for other artists. No matter what kind of music you make, you can push yourself to be real. — Rachel Cholst

Port Saint Joe, Brothers Osborne

Maybe there’s something to be said about leaving Music City to make a country record. For their sophomore album, Brothers Osborne, who grew up in a blue collar fishing community in Maryland, traveled to another laid back fishing town (Port Saint Joe, Fla.) to write with friends and record with producer Jay Joyce. The sleepy Florida town gave the brothers space to create a masterful work that finds them nodding to country’s past and present, firing off explosive southern rock one moment and slow-burning honky tonk the next. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

In just a few years, Brothers Osborne have become one of country music’s most innovative and impressive duos. With Port Saint Joe, they bring a fun, breezy feel with songs like “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright,” “Slow Your Roll,” and my personal favorite, “Tequila Again.” Along with the lighthearted bangers, the brothers really hone in the power and passion with the instant classic “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” and the heartfelt “While You Still Can.”  — Lorie Liebig

Providence Canyon, Brent Cobb

Southern rock at its finest builds on more than “Freebird” quality guitar-slinging. The good stuff, from Skynyrd on down, incorporates swampy blues vibes and funky bass grooves, making for an amalgam of regional sounds. Per that definition, “King of Alabama,” “If I Don’t See Ya” and other memorable tracks off Providence Canyon qualify as the good stuff. — Bobby Moore

Some people spend their lives waiting to break out of their small towns. Brent Cobb was not one of those people. And you can’t blame him. Judging by his songs, including those he’s written for Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and others, there was a lot to draw from in his hometown of Ellaville, Ga. On Providence Canyon, produced by his cousin, Dave Cobb, Brent Cobb writes about his home state with reverence, telling tales of regret (“High in the Country”), journeymen (“Ain’t a Road Too Long”) and good old fashioned debauchery (“Morning’s Gonna Come”). Like your favorite novel, Providence Canyon grows more familiar and compelling each time you revisit it. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Sparrow, Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe‘s Sparrow feels like her most personal yet. The singer-songwriter teamed up with producer Dave Cobb to deliver a soaring and cinematic record that follows Monroe’s own life’s journey. On Sparrow, Monroe lets listeners in on her trek from lost  (“Orphan”) to found (“Keys to the Kingdom”), creating a striking portrait of adult womanhood along the way. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Sparrow is one of the most elegant, crisp and beautiful albums of the year. With Dave Cobb at her side as producer, the pair create a sonic palette of airy and vivid pastels. Much of that can be attributed to the gorgeous dance between the lush and soaring string arrangements and Monroe’s intimate storytelling and calming vocals. Throughout, she has an incredibly graceful restraint that makes you lean in and follow along. It’s sensitive, yet bold. — Thomas Mooney

Girl Going Nowhere, Ashley McBryde

Mainstream country radio is filled with tropes about rural America. Even though it has become cliche at this point, some artists have doubled down on songs about dirt roads and bonfire field parties. If you’re looking for the opposite of that, look no further than Ashley McBryde‘s Girl Going Nowhere. McBryde, an Arkansas native who clocked thousands of hours playing dive bars across the country before receiving accolades from folks like Eric Church and Garth Brooks, represents country music’s history of great storytelling. The album explores McBryde’s own life story (“Girl Going Nowhere”), family legacies (“The Jacket”), perseverance (“Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”) and the less idealized side of the heartland (“Livin’ Next to Leroy”). It’s a triumphant record announcing that McBryde isn’t just going somewhere, she’s arrived. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Starfire, Caitlyn Smith

After writing hits for plenty of other artists, from Lady Antebellum to Cassadee Pope to John Legend and Meghan Trainor — and even Garth Brooks — Caitlyn Smith finally released her full length album Starfire in early 2018. On it, Smith both soars (“Don’t Give Up On My Love”) and simmers (“House Of Cards”). Her song about writing songs, “This Town Is Killing Me,” has broken hearts ever since it appeared on the EP. Smith’s emotive vocal and grippingly honest lyrics make her a true gem from the heart of Music City. — Jeremy Burchard

Hallelujah Nights, Lanco

LANCO hits the ground running with the crisp and breezy Hallelujah Nights, their debut full-length. Built around clever pop sensibilities, clever hooks and timely harmonies, the five-piece delivers a batch of songs primed for chart success. Songs like “Win You Over,” and “Long Live Tonight” are slick and sharp and often remind you of Kings of Leon’s countriest moments while “Singin’ at the Stars” and “Born to Love You” are straight from the John Mayer playbook. — Thomas Mooney

Johnny Cash: Forever Words, Various Artists

American icon Johnny Cash left a wealth of music behind. But Forever Words is different. On this incredible tribute record, a handful of artists including John Mellencamp, Jewel and Chris Cornell reimagine some of Cash’s previously unreleased poems and letters. It’s an incredibly touching record that shows the depth of Cash’s own genius. Hearing Chris Cornell sing “You Never Knew My Mind” is absolutely haunting. And if there’s a more chilling intro to an album than Kris Kristofferson reading one of Cash’s final poems over Willie Nelson’s guitar, we certainly haven’t heard it. — Jeremy Burchard

The Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine

To keep country music honest, the Margo Prices and Chris Stapletons of Nashville actively introduce their fans to living legend John Prine. The 71-year-old singer-songwriter backs his young admirers’ claims of greatness with his first album of new material in 13 years. Influential Prine followers got invited along for the ride, with Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Dan Auerbach making guest appearances. — Bobby Moore

Sometimes Just the Sky, Mary Chapin Carpenter

To celebrate over 30 years as a mainstream recording artist, Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote stripped-down arrangements for less obvious songs off prior albums. The concept behind Sometimes Just the Sky proves her songwriting to be both brilliant and timeless. Opening track “Heroes and Heroines” describes modern society, although it’s actually the oldest song on the album. — Bobby Moore

Volunteer, Old Crow Medicine Show

Under the watchful eye of producer Dave Cobb, Old Crow Medicine Show had its Dylan at Newport moment. The veteran group went electric on Volunteer without overshadowing its string band roots. Plugging in adds some welcomed oomph to old-fashioned stomper “Shout Mountain Music” and the instrumental breakdown “Elzick’s Farewell.” — Bobby Moore

Lionheart, H.C. MCEntire

There are few people who can conjure up a sense of place like H.C. McEntire. The lead singer of the truly monumental band Mount Moriah covers familiar ground with her solo debut LIONHEART. In her first solo album, McEntire invokes a love that matches the natural beauty of the rural South and withstands the attacks on it from artificial human constructs. It’s a love that could have been buried deep and denied, but pushes through to create something beautiful. I don’t think queer love can ever be simple or easy — there are more obstacles for us to run through than in relationships that are considered socially acceptable. It needs to be tough. It needs to transcend self-hatred. It needs to transcend the rejection of family and peers. It needs to transcend the physical danger we risk when showing affection in public. It needs to transcend trauma. And it needs to help us find our ways back to the physical and spiritual places we call home. LIONHEART provides a roadmap to that. — Rachel Cholst

Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, Mike and The Moonpies

Austin’s Mike and The Moonpies put it all together on their potent Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. Lead vocalist Mike Harmier and company do their fair share of diving into late ‘70s truck driver burners and ‘80s honky-tonk anthems throughout while still having a modern edge. There’s a Jerry Jeff Walker style humor on “Getting High at Home” while “The Last Time” and “The Worst Thing” find the band offering Gary Stewart worthy jukebox tearjerkers. In all, it finds Mike and The Moonpies delivering their greatest, most well-rounded album to date for a honky-tonk instant classic. — Thomas Mooney

Culberson County, Red Shahan

Red Shahan’s Culberson County is a sepia-toned desert highway. He guides you through some of the roughest terrain Texas has to offer with grandiose and anthemic rumbles and gritty character sketches of blue-collar cowboys and lonesome drifters. Shahan’s version of the rural desert and prairie plains is a harsh, yet fair assessment. Songs such as “6 Feet” and “How They Lie” show the dirty underbelly of the human condition while “Culberson County” and “Idle Hands” narrates accounts of beautiful resilience and preservation of the places and people worth saving. — Thomas Mooney

Lonesome as a Shadow, Charley Crockett

There’s always this sense of desperation in Charley Crockett’s songs. The 12 that make up Lonesome as a Shadow are no different. Much like the great vocalists of our time, Crockett evokes an emotional charge when he sings. Songs like “Lonesome as a Shadow” and “I Wanna Cry” feel like lost blues singles from the ‘40s while “If Not the Fool” and “Oh So Shaky” display Crockett’s affinity for modern R&B. Crockett and his fine backing band, The Blue Drifters, are some of the sharpest, most earnest players around offering up progressive blues shakeups, country crooners and a rich appreciation of Southern roots music. — Thomas Mooney

Charley Crockett learned roots music from the source, playing street corners and subways around the world with modern blues pickers and his fellow traveling troubadours. The proud Texan with rambling fever’s latest album blends his hands-on experience with popular soul influences for an odyssey through Southern music history. Country fans will especially enjoy the Bakersfield meets Bourbon Street swing of “Goin‘ Back to Texas.” — Bobby Moore

I Rode The Wild Horses, Ross Cooper

While not a linear concept record, Ross Cooper’s I Rode the Wild Horses still plays out like a week out on the road with the rough and tumble cowboys of old and new. Cooper, a former professional bareback bronc rider offers a refreshingly authentic perspective with old school cowboy mantras (“I Rode the Wild Horses”), barren barrooms (“Strangers in a Bar”), frontier love songs (“Old Crow Whiskey and a Cornbread Moon”) and wry garage rockers (“Cowboys and Indians”). — Thomas Mooney

By the Way, I Forgive You, Brandi Carlile

The term “radical forgiveness” is being used in lots of progressive circles these days. In order to move away from a punitive justice system that breeds isolation and despair, it’s important to reconsider how we, collectively, handle transgressions. But where does that leave the people who were wronged, and how can they move forward? If the idea of restorative justice and its necessary consequence — radical forgiveness — is difficult to conceptualize, may I present Brandi Carlile’s new album? Carlile lends her powerful voice — both in terms of writing and impressive set of pipes — to more overtly political fare than she’s done in the past. She reconciles motherhood with the rest of her life and reconsiders the world she wants for her daughter. More importantly, she tries to consider her roots — all of them, the ones she’s proud of and her struggles with the ones she’s not — and figure out a way to embrace them. By The Way, I Forgive You is a triumph of songwriting and, more importantly, humanity. — Rachel Cholst

Years, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers

North Carolinian Sarah Shook often jokes that she puts the “out” in “outlaw.” It’s unequivocal where Shook stands in her scorching second album Years. This is outlaw country in the classical sense — hard-driving songs about hard living and deep regrets. Shook leads the way with forthright lyrics that refuse to give her a pass for the pain she’s caused others — or vice-versa. The Disarmers also deserve a mention for their uncanny stamina and sure-handed musicianship. “Lessons” is a strong showcase for Shook and the band as they swerve fluidly from rollicking barroom rock to surf rock and back. Years takes you back to older days that were not necessarily good and is a reminder of where the future of country music can lead. — Rachel Cholst

The Mountain, Dierks Bentley

“There’s a cactus flower somewhere out there that knows my deepest thoughts,” Dierks Bentley sings on “Son of the Sun,” the tenth track on the excellent The Mountain. “There’s a tumbleweed inside of me that’s never gonna stop.” There’s a strong sense of place on the record, and with good reason. The rootsy album was written and recorded in the mountains of Colorado — just about as far removed from Music Row as you could possibly get. The result is quite possibly Bentley’s best yet. Simply put, The Mountain just feels good. Bentley draws on the ups and downs of his own life and the unique experience of being of two worlds  (“Burning Man”) and sings of gratitude (“Living”), forgiveness (“Travelin’ Light”) and reckoning with his own mortality and legacy (“How I’m Going Out”). Lyrically rich and layered, Bentley has hit a career high with The Mountain— Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Things Change, American Aquarium

I added this to my list before I’d even listened to the full album. Judging by the record’s lead-off track “The World Is on Fire,” I knew it would be the kind of album I’ve been waiting for. BJ Barham’s the kind of songwriter who will give you words for feelings you didn’t even know you had. I was eager to hear his take on politics, even if others weren’t. Barham wields truth like a weapon, so it’s understandable why some couldn’t withstand it. But we also see the truth in smaller moments: Barham’s struggles to get sober, understand his faith, and preparing for fatherhood. Things Change is a shift for Barham from self-flagellation to self-reflection and, to be honest, it’s a good look on him. — Rachel Cholst

Mr. Jukebox, Joshua Hedley

Robert’s Western World regular turned Third Man Records signee Joshua Hedley pretty much defines the term “traditionalist” in 2018. Prime Ray Price and early Willie Nelson influence all nine original tracks on Mr. Jukebox.  Toss in a Nashville Sound interpretation of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and you’ve got the studio album equivalent of a really solid night at Robert’s or American Legion Post 82. — Bobby Moore

Joshua Hedley earned the nickname “Mr. Jukebox” playing at Nashville’s jam-packed Robert’s Western World for his unrivaled knowledge of country music and ability to play any song thrown at him by a bandmate or drunken patron. But Hedley has proved he’s more than an interpreter of songs. Mr. Jukebox so encapsulates the spirit of classic country it would sound right at home in, well, a jukebox, spinning right next to Hedley’s heroes. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Tarrant County, Mark Currey

There’s an old adage that it takes a lifetime to write a first album, but in Mark Currey‘s case, that’s more than true. Currey recently became a grandfather, and perhaps it’s that experience that has led him to reflect on his own path. Tarrant County shows Currey to be a consummate storyteller who knows how to pull all the right strings in all the right ways. Currey’s got a tenor that’s more than a little influenced by Neil Young, but his songwriting is one part Neil and two parts Petty — even the slow songs have a momentum to them that will keep you hungry for the next line. Whether it’s an interrogation of traditional forms of masculinity or confronting his own struggles with addiction and redemption, Currey’s heartfelt songs will make you stop, listen, and, importantly, feel. — Rachel Cholst

Solid Ground, Wade Bowen

For his seventh studio album, Wade Bowen pushed himself harder than he ever has before. With Keith Gattis at the producing helm, Bowen not only ventured into newer, darker territory sonically, he offered his most well-rounded batch of songs lyrically as well. Bookend songs like “Couldn’t Make You Love Me” and “Calling All Demons” are juggernauts with rocking West Texas desert edge. Still, he tugs at your heartstrings on “Broken Glass,” “Death, Dyin’ and Deviled Eggs” and “7:30” with what are his most intimate and vulnerable compositions to date. — Thomas Mooney

Putting on Airs, Erin Rae

Since I moved to Nashville four years ago, I’ve seen Erin Rae play countless clubs and venues across town. Every time, I’ve been blown away by her voice and stunning melodies, which perfectly intertwine on her new record, Putting on Airs. Confessional, relatable and charming, this collection of tracks epitomizes great storytelling and songwriting. From the nostalgic “Can’t Cut Loose” to the powerful “Bad Mind,” Rae lays it all on the table. — Lorie Liebig

Dark Horse, Devin Dawson

Not unlike the album name, Devin Dawson’s major label debut might not have been the first choice of critics prior to its release. But his uber-catchy AC pop song “All On Me” won enough attention to merit a really close look at the full record, and Dark Horse doesn’t disappoint. It’s a thorough record with wonderful sonic textures and plenty of heart to go around. Dawson’s brand of country leans closer to the smooth sounds of mid-2000s soft rock heroes Gavin Degraw and Ben Harper. It’s a really compelling and refreshing sound from a corner of country music that desperately needs it. — Jeremy Burchard

 

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