As we say goodbye to 2018, it's time to look back on the year's best country and Americana songs. From songs of heartache, reflection and starting over to declarations of independence and empowerment, here are Wide Open Country's picks for the best country and Americana songs of 2018.
"Damage," Rachel Wammack
One of the best songs about human pain to come out of 2018 was Rachel Wammack's stunning "Damage." In her debut single, Wammack plays the wise bartender. But instead of advice, she lends an ear to various "beautiful humans" reeling from divorce, the death of loved ones and all the heartache life puts us through. But through the pain there's the beauty of human connection and the powerful acknowledgement that "Love can do some damage." It's at once heart-wrenching and healing and everything country radio needs right now.
"Sad," Carson McHone
"Well here's the deal, I got this thing. I call it sad and it calls me home," Carson McHone sings on "Sad," the debut single from her stellar 2018 album Carousel. Possibly the most introspective country song of the year, "Sad" explores the necessity of empathy and shows how tapping into sadness and empathy is necessary and even freeing.
"May Your Kindness Remain," Courtney Marie Andrews
Out of the turmoil of the last couple of years came several songs about practicing radical forgiveness, empathy and kindness toward others and ourselves. But none were more powerful than Courtney Marie Andrews' "May Your Kindness Remain," an anthemic call to hold on to the things that make us human.
"Married Young," Elise Davis
Elise Davis' nostalgic "Married Young," which the singer-songwriter co-wrote with Alex Kline and Erin Enderlin, ruminates on what we learn about ourselves in relationships--particularly the relationships we have when we're young. The tender track about a past marriage, wrapped up in memories of first apartments, Tom Waits records and thrift store glasses, will hit you in the heart even if you've never walked down the aisle.
"Good as Gold," Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
One of several standout tracks from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers' sophomore album Years, "Good as Gold" is the best pre-breakup song of the year. "I'm worn out from worry," Shook sings to a partner with one foot out the door. "Not worried over you." The sadness may come later, but the angry kiss-off can hold her together until then.
"Red Side of the Moon," Trixie Mattel
Trixie Mattel rose to fame as a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race (and winner of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars), but she's been writing and singing country and folk music long before her star-making turn on the show. This year, Mattel (known out of drag as Brian Firkus) released the incredible One Stone, featuring the gorgeous, lovelorn "Red Side of the Moon." The devastating tune features an A Star is Born-esque storyline, centering on a woman eclipsed by her unrequited lover's fame. "Loving her was easier than a Kristofferson tune," Mattel sings. "Someday is a story and it's the one I'm sticking to/ Loving from the red side of the moon."
"King of Alabama," Brent Cobb
"He was a man among men, the old school kind / had a great big heart, a laid back mind." That's how singer-songwriter Brent Cobb describes the late country singer Wayne Mills in "King of Alabama," a track from his southern rock and country-funk masterpiece Providence Canyon. Cobb, who's been touring regularly since he was in his teens, found a kinship in fellow road warrior Mills, who was murdered in a Nashville bar in 2013. The Georgia-born singer-songwriter celebrates the life and goodness of Mills, honoring the late King of Alabama in the way you'd imagine he'd want to be remembered--in a great country song by a good friend.
"Still Feel Lucky," Ben Danaher
The title track to Ben Danaher's 2018 album Still Feel Lucky is a rallying cry for anyone going through hard times and a reminder that we can still find beauty even in our darkest moments.
"Beaches of Biloxi," Mike and the Moonpies
"Top it off, I'm bound for Texas on this lonely stretch of Interstate 10," Texas outfit Mike and the Moonpies sing on slick '80s country groover "Beaches of Biloxi," a tune about a down and out riverboat gambler who loses everything on a bad hand. It's a stark story about what happens when the honky-tonk revelry ends.
"Takin' Me a Heartbreak," Randall King
Randall King's music hits the sweet spot between the polished sounds of neo-traditionalist country and freewheeling honky tonk. "Takin' Me a Heartbreak" is a Strait-worthy tune with an anthemic chorus ("This heart can take a beatin', tough as nails/it's used to bein' hammered on") for anyone still reeling from pain from a long-gone love.
"Somewhere Between I Love You and I'm Leavin'," Cody Jinks
Cody Jinks' "Somewhere Between I Love You and I'm Leavin'" evokes images of a near-empty dance floor in a smoky bar and two people holding on to what's left of a fractured relationship. The track, penned by Jinks and Whitey Morgan, is further proof of Jinks' power as a performer who marries slow-burning honky tonk with the most soul-baring aspects of the original heroes of Outlaw country.
"Better Boat," Kenny Chesney feat. Mindy Smith
"Now and then I let it go, I ride the waves I can't control," Kenny Chesney sings on the gorgeous and pensive "Better Boat." Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the song centers on a soul slowly finding its way out of darkness and learning how to navigate pain by leaning on friends and spending reflective and quiet time alone.
"Break Up in the End," Cole Swindell
In a genre filled with stories of heartbreak and love gone wrong, the reflective "Break Up in the End" still manages to be a standout break up song for anyone of the "It's better to have loved and lost..." mindset. Like Garth Brooks' timeless "The Dance," there's no anger or regret here, just the acknowledgment of an all too rare experience. Written by Jessie Jo Dillon, Jon Nite and Chase McGill, the lyrics, along with Cole Swindell's understated delivery, pack an emotional wallop.
"Ladies in the '90s," Lauren Alaina
At a time when women are rarely heard on country radio, Lauren Alaina's "Ladies in the '90s" is as revolutionary as it is fun. The song celebrates all the women who ruled the radio in the '90s, from the Dixie Chicks and Deana Carter to pop queens like Britney Spears and Destiny's Child, outlining what hearing female voices on the radio meant for young women as they were growing up. While shouting out the leopard leotard-wearing queens of the '90s, Alaina states in no uncertain terms that the current generation of young country listeners shouldn't be shut out of backseat dreaming and singing along to their heroes.
"Die From a Broken Heart," Maddie & Tae
"Summer's End," John Prine
One of the world's greatest living songwriters made his grand return this year with The Tree of Forgiveness and, with it, "Summer's End," John Prine's gorgeous lullaby for prodigal sons and daughters.
"Travelin' Light," Dierks Bentley feat. Brandi Carlile
"I've only got room for some love and some truth and little bit of peace of mind," Dierks Bentley sings on the uplifting "Travelin' Light," a duet with Brandi Carlile. It's an album standout from Bentley's stellar 2018 album The Mountain and a gentle reminder to finally drop the weight of the hurt, shame and regret that we all carry.
"I Never Shed a Tear," Joshua Hedley
Sometimes the best way (or at least easiest) way to deal with a break up is just straight up denial. That's the method country crooner Joshua Hedley chooses in "I Never (Shed a Tear)," a "She Thinks I Still Care" for the new generation of country traditionalists. Written by Hedley and delivered in his honey-smooth, Jim Reeves-esque voice, the song is a reminder that what's classic will never go out of style
"If I Ever Loved You," Priscilla Renae
"If I Ever Loved You" showcases Priscilla Renea's powerhouse voice alongside soaring guitars and gorgeous flourishes of pedal steel. The singer-songwriter, who's penned hits for Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson and Miranda Lambert, weaves a timeless tale of a woman at a crossroads in a relationship. "If I ever loved you I probably still do/If I don't then I never did," Renea sings. "If I ever loved you, there's still a place for you in a room I never go in in my heart."
"Just For the Record," Ruston Kelly
One of many incredible moments from Ruston Kelly's album Dying Star, "Just For the Record" pairs the singer-songwriter with wife Kacey Musgraves for a look at a broken relationship. "And say it was all a cloud of smoke and say it was nothing but a joke," Kelly sings. "Everything that you said about me is true, just for the record I really loved you."
"Hands on You," Ashley Monroe
From her empowering and symphonic album Sparrow, Ashley Monroe's sultry "Hands on You" celebrates passion, pleasure and living with wild abandon. It's an honest depiction of adult womanhood that's sorely lacking on mainstream country radio.
"Can't Cut Loose," Erin Rae
Erin Rae's "Can't Cut Loose" wrestles with the pull to fall back into old habits and acknowledges the fear of being forever tethered to something (or someone). It's a feeling that most have struggled with at some point and Rae's warm, gorgeous vocals are enough to pull you through.
"People Get Old," Lori McKenna
There's no shortage of songs about nostalgia in country music. The feeling of being homesick for a place that no longer exists is something that nearly everyone can relate to. But none of those songs are more gripping than Lori McKenna's "People Get Old," an ode to her father wrapped up in memories of her childhood. Weaving in familiar snapshots of the past, McKenna reflects on how our childhood shapes us into who we grow up to be.
"Best Years of My Life," Pistol Annies
Was there a better line in a country song this year than "I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet"? It's doubtful. The Pistol Annies' heart wrenching "Best Years of My Life" paints a portrait of a woman in a unhappy and unfulfilling relationship. Outlining the vices used to numb the pain, the Pistol Annies tackle brokenness with heart and just the right amount of humor.
"Space Cowboy," Kacey Musgraves
Along with the buoyant "Butterflies," "Space Cowboy" was the world's introduction to Kacey Musgraves' brilliant Golden Hour. The songs offered two sides of love: one explores the sweetness and unknown of newfound romance while the other offers understanding for the need to let go of a broken relationship to make room for something new. "Space Cowboy" tells the latter tale, setting a familiar, lonely scene before the chorus hits like a cosmic blast. Written by Musgraves, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, "Space Cowboy" will go down as not just one of the best country songs of 2018, but one of the best songs of the last decade.