Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2018

I’m never sure what to write at the outset of this post. How do you sum up an entire year in a few paragraphs? It was a big year in my life, marked by a move back to my childhood hometown and a few big leaps forward in my professional life. I was busier, which left less time for discovering new music and less time for writing about it. Still, 22 of the 40 artists on the list below have never featured on a year-end list of mine in the past, and two of my top three albums are debuts. I always like knowing that there is new talent on the horizon, artists that might morph from big surprises this year to favorite artists a few years down the line. 2018 was a wonderful year for that kind of discovery.

In terms of my favorite music, I was all over the map in 2018. I leaned a little less on country than I have for the past few years, though there are still plenty of country and Americana artists on this list. Mostly, I was looking for songwriting that spoke to where I am at this current moment in my life. A lot of what resonated spoke of nostalgia and the past, a fitting theme given that I’ve been out of high school for almost 10 years now. I thought a lot about growing older in 2018, and about the shifting chapters of my life. The music, from Andrew McMahon’s “House in the Trees” to Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old” to Donovan Woods’ “Next Year,” told me that I wasn’t alone in feeling what I was feeling. As I get further from high school, I’m constantly wondering if I’ll get to a point where I’ll stop relating to music in the fiercely personal, autobiographical way that I always have. It’s a comfort to know that hearing the right song at the right time still feels as potent and poignant as it did when I was 17.

I’m rambling, as I always do at the start of these posts. So, I think I’ll stop now and let the 40 albums listed below speak for themselves.

Below is a playlist that includes my favorite song from each of the 40 records listed here, sequenced in the order they appear on the list. In addition to those 40 songs, the playlist includes 25 more songs I loved from albums or EPs not featured here. Feel free to listen along as you read!

1. Caitlyn SmithStarfire

Caitlyn Smith’s Starfire was one of the very first 2018 albums I heard. It dropped on January 19, the year’s first big release date, and I was immediately enraptured by Smith’s voice. I’d heard a fair few of these songs before, on EPs from prior years, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop of hearing the full breadth of Smith’s talent on display in one place. Her melodies; her lyrics; her voice. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard a debut album where the artist sounded this confident, this skilled, or this fully formed. It was clear that Smith had spent a long time plotting her proper introduction to the world. She had confident anthems, in songs like “Starfire” and “Before You Called Me Baby.” She had deeply affecting breakup songs, in insanely well-sung numbers like “East Side Restaurant” and “Tacoma.” She had songs that showed off her songwriting craft and her observational skill, like “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday.” She had a song called “St. Paul,” which spoke poignantly about the hometown that had shaped her. And she had deeply autobiographical songs like “Don’t Give up on My Love” and “This Town Is Killing Me,” which showed just how much she had sacrificed to chase her dream and get to this point. Immediately, Starfire struck me as a perfect debut album because it so thoroughly encapsulated Smith’s narrative up to this point. It was like an origin story in album form.

I didn’t expect Starfire to stick around at the top of my albums of the year list, if only because I never expect super early releases to hold the top slot for 11 or 12 months. But something about this album kept drawing me back to it. There were moments where I thought maybe its spot atop my list had been usurped, perhaps by Kacey Musgraves or Ruston Kelly or Andrew McMahon. But then I would listen to Starfire and it would bowl me over again, just like it had that first time. No other album from this year proved as capable of eliciting repeat emotional responses from me. Hearing Caitlyn Smith sing “Tacoma” or “This Town Is Killing Me” or even a bonus track like “If I Didn’t Love You” just did something to me, something that no other music could do this year.

I don’t know if Caitlyn Smith is a country artist. Starfire has elements of country, but it also has elements of pop music, soul, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and opera (or at very least, dramatic musical theater). Maybe that explains why most country music publications snubbed Smith on their EOTY lists, or why she didn’t earn a “Female Vocalist of the Year” nod at the CMA Awards when she outsang literally every other person who put out an album this year, in any genre. It’s tough to market an artist like Smith, who is so dynamic and so classically talented that she almost doesn’t have a parallel in the modern music world. But I’m convinced she’s a superstar: one big televised performance away from Chris Stapleton-sized success, or maybe just one album (and one decent marketing push) away from becoming the next Adele. Even without the validation of big-time success, though, there is no doubt in my mind that Starfire is a legitimate classic, and the best album of 2018. Put it this way: if I had to buy stock in one up-and-coming artist for the next decade, I would put my money on Caitlyn Smith without thinking twice.

2. Kacey MusgravesGolden Hour

How do you make a “falling in love” album sound fresh, poignant, and emotionally satisfying in 2018? How do you do that, when everyone is cynical, when the 24-hour news cycle is a constant shitshow, and when virtually every songwriter in history has attempted to capture the humbling miracle of falling in love, to wildly varying degrees of success? I’ve listened to Golden Hour probably 100 times this year and I’m still not sure how Kacey Musgraves managed it. She used to be cynical, too: the snarkiest, wittiest singer in country music. Her songs made it clear that she wasn’t afraid to tell someone to fuck off, but that she might be a little afraid of letting her guard down. That was then, though, and this is now. Golden Hour may start with a song called “Slow Burn,” but there’s nothing slow about the feeling it chronicles. This album captures the dizzying, alarming, whirlwind sensation of falling for another person with quick and reckless abandon. Wrought with aching melodies and shimmering production, the songs here call to mind the way you feel at the beginning of a relationship, when the colors seem brighter and the sunsets seem prettier and the entire world looks just a little bit different. They contain traces of past hurt and heartache, the acknowledgment of what happens when you put all your chips on the table and lose. But they also crescendo with foresight and steadfastness as the album moves forward, just like real relationships evolve from shy crushes to first kisses to honeymoon stage infatuation and beyond, all the way to something strong enough to stand the test of time. The album will stand the test of time, too. It’s the surest classic from 2018, an album that won over fans across the musical spectrum and put a country artist at the top of trendy year-end lists for maybe the first time in the history of modern music criticism. It turns out that, in this age of cynicism and endless bad news, there’s still nothing more universal than love songs done right.

3. Ruston KellyDying Star

Dying Star is the sound of a man at the end of his rope. Desperate, desolate, and achingly sad, this record chronicles singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly’s battle to beat addiction and put his life back together after an overdose and a series of messy mistakes. It’s the year’s most heartbreaking album, weighed down by drugs and alcohol and the ghosts of former lovers who Kelly himself can see left him behind for good reasons. But there’s silver lining around the edges, both in the actual text of the record (songs like “Dying Star” and “Brightly Burst into the Air,” which end the album with a reach for redemption) and in the subtext (Kelly’s own life story, which took a happy turn recently with his sobriety and his marriage to Kacey Musgraves). But Dying Star is powerful because of how unflinching it is in depicting the darker moments. Kelly doesn’t shy away from talking about the loneliness that his past life bred: the empty shame of morning hangovers after spending nights keeled over puking outside of barroom doors, or the soulless expanse of deserted highways as seen from a tour bus window after leaving the people you care about for the umpteenth time. Kelly said that he wanted this record to be “a raw transcription of a particular time in [his] life,” and he was so successful in that mission that he made what is arguably the most honest and human record of 2018.

4. Andrew McMahon in the WildernessUpside Down Flowers

When you’ve been listening to an artist for almost half your life, it’s natural to start taking them for granted. It’s an odd thing, the way your music tastes evolve but you retain strong emotional ties to albums that meant something to you when you were growing up. The common byproduct of this experience is to continue loving the albums that were formative to your musical development, but maybe get to a point where you aren’t connecting to the music your old favorite artists are making now. Andrew McMahon is an artist I feel like I’ve been taking for granted for 10 years, since he made the albums that soundtracked my coming of age. In the throes of my most emotionally vulnerable years, I related to Andrew’s music so intensely that my expectations for his new records have always been too high. And yet, I’ve found that even when he “disappoints” me, I ultimately end up coming back to his records later and discovering new things to love, or finding flickers of the same deeply human wisdom that drew me to his music in the first place. My first listen to Upside Down Flowers was different. Hearing these songs immediately made me feel like a teenager again, reveling in the way music could bruise you and heal you at the same time. And it makes sense: Upside Down Flowers is largely an album about nostalgia, and the things Andrew is nostalgic about are the same things that his old records always make me think of: old friends; old songs; old haunts. This album is about what it takes to leave those things in your rearview, but it’s also about what it takes to keep them with you in your heart and soul. No song encapsulates these themes better than “House in the Trees,” and it’s my single favorite song of the year for just how eloquently and authentically it aches for a chance to turn back the clock—if for only just a taste of how things once were.

5. Lori McKennaThe Tree

“Time is a thief, pain is a gift/The past is the past, it is what it is/Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows/That’s just how it goes/You live long enough and the people you love get old.” There is maybe no string of lyrics from any song this year that is more perfectly crafted, more patently devastating, or more wrenchingly true than these lines from Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old.” It’s a song about time and family and love and happiness and sadness and mortality and death. It captures more of life in three minutes and 42 seconds than most artists convey in entire albums. It’s also just one of the remarkable songwriting achievements contained within The Tree, a wistful and bittersweet album that charts the milestones of life’s winding road, one beautiful memory or shattering tragedy at a time. It’s remarkable how much wisdom McKenna packs into these songs, how clear-eyed her observations are, how carefully sketched her scenes. Songs like “The Fixer,” about a mother dying from cancer, or “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” about the blissful infatuation and sad naivete of young love, hit so hard because they feel like they are telling stories from your own life. Years from now, I think I’ll give The Tree to my son or daughter when they graduate high school. There is just something timeless about the way this album tackles subjects like growing up and developing an understanding of all the beauty and pain the world can hold. These messages are universal, and they truly deserve to be passed down for generations. This album did not get enough attention this year, especially on year-end lists, but I have a feeling it will eventually be regarded as the genuine classic it is.

6. Donovan WoodsBoth Ways

No one is better at writing unassumingly beautiful and quietly devastating songs as Donovan Woods. In other hands, Woods’ songs could be played for big, hair-raising emotional moments. In fact, they have been used in that fashion, by artists like Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum. When Woods sings them, though, in his soft, almost-whisper tenor croon, the knife twists come almost matter-of-factly. His delivery makes the moments of heartbreak or pain or transcendence in his music feel like moments out of someone’s real-life—small, microcosmic things that can still upend a person’s entire world. On Both Ways, Woods has achieved such a mastery of this type of writing and delivery that virtually every track breaks you heart: the significant others disentangling from one another on “Good Lover”; the happy wedding day after years of heartbreak and hardship in “Another Way”; the decision to take the plunge and let your guard down for another person on “Burn That Bridge”; the eulogy for a troubled friend in “Our Friend Bobby”; the achingly intimate proclamations of “I Ain’t Never Loved No One”; the aging, ailing father in “Next Year.” Most artists would kill to have one song that derives the kind of emotional reaction that these songs bring about. Woods delivers them one after the other, creating an album that is at once devastating enough to bring you to your knees and so poignantly beautiful that it will make you look at the world and smile with new perspective. With every album, Woods has become more adept at packing empathy and granular detail into his songs, to the point where he’s essentially become the Canadian Jason Isbell. On Both Ways, there’s a fair argument to be made that he’s crafted his masterpiece.

7. Brian FallonSleepwalkers

Most of the conversation around Brian Fallon this year had to do with an album he made when he was 28. The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound turned 10 in 2018 and spent the year receiving a healthy amount of 10-year anniversary treatment. From retrospective articles and oral histories to a 10-year tour that brought out the die-hard fans in droves, the celebration was well-deserved but had the unfortunate side effect of shunting Fallon’s current work to the sidelines. That’s a shame, because Sleepwalkers, Fallon’s second album as a solo artist, is nearly as good as the music he was making with his old band. The record successfully pairs Fallon’s heartland rock and Americana sensibilities with sizable helpings of soul, R&B, and Rolling Stones-esque rock ‘n’ roll bluster. The combination yields an album that sounds like the Brian Fallon we know and love, but expands his sound and songwriting style in intriguing new directions. The swampy New Orleans stomp of the title track is one example; the anthemic, British invasion blast of “Forget Me Not” is another. What makes the album special, though, is the emotional punch of the lyrical content. Songs like “Neptune” and “Watson” convey what it feels like to find love and happiness again after the pain of a failed marriage. They give this album a sense of joy and contentment that appropriately inverts the restlessness, anticipation, and apprehension you could hear in Fallon’s voice at the end of The ’59 Sound. Back then, he sounded like a scrappy kid with big dreams and no idea what the future might hold. Sleepwalkers is delivered instead from the perspective of adulthood, from someone who has seen high highs and low lows, and who knows a thing or two he didn’t when he first climbed out of the backseat 10 years ago.

8. Matt NathansonSings His Sad Heart

I don’t know why, but I spent 2018 being nostalgic: nostalgic for old times and old friends and songs I loved 10 or 20 years ago. A big part of my year was spent crafting a top 100 list of albums that came out between 2000 and 2009. It may have been the fact that I’m approaching 10 years since I graduated high school, or that 2018 saw me move back to my hometown for the first time since high school. For whatever reason, though, I was a bit stuck in the past in 2018. Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn in by Matt Nathanson’s Sings His Sad Heart, an album Nathanson described as “about being the only person still hung up on the past.” This album mines past relationships and heartbreaks for clarity. Sometimes, Nathanson finds that clarity, like on “Different Beds,” a song about two people who used to love each other realizing that they’ll be fine on separate paths. Sometimes, he doesn’t, like on “Let You Go,” a song where Nathanson asks an ex-girlfriend to dole out some advice on how to get over…her. Always, Nathanson sketches these songs with deep feeling, autobiographical detail, and snatches of wry humor. He makes it feel a little less lonely being the guy with a PhD in the way it used to be.

9. Death Cab for CutieThank You for Today

My first listens to Thank You for Today felt underwhelming. It had been hyped as a return to form for Death Cab for Cutie; as the best thing Ben Gibbard had done in 10 years; as an album that captured the spirit of the band’s mid-2000s run. As someone who adored 2015’s pristine Kintsugi, though, Thank You for Today felt like a step backwards. But somehow, as the fall wore on, this album proved to have a mysterious gravity for me, drawing me back in time and time again. The reason, I determined, was nostalgia. The word “today” might be in the album title, but this record is occupied thoroughly with yesterday. “You can’t double back to your summer years”; “It didn’t used to be this way”; “When you’re looking in the mirror do you see/That kid that you used to be?” These songs delicately peel away the coats of fresh paint and varnish that have been layered over our past selves, finding their way back to the kid that we all were when we heard The Photo Album or Transatlanticism or Plans for the first time. Many of these songs actually sound like those records, with the gorgeous “Your Hurricane” most accurately mimicking the weightless beauty of songs like “Passenger Seat” and “Brothers on a Hotel Bed.” But Thank You for Today isn’t an album about trying to recapture old glories. Instead, it’s an album about looking back in time and recognizing the beauty of the things you took for granted when you were young. The result is the band’s most fully formed album of the decade, a record that grapples with what the years can do, both to a once-trendy rockstar and to the fans who used to seek refuge in his music.

10. The 1975A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

By any metric, in any era, The 1975 would be special. It’s rare to get a band this versatile or this able to draw from such a huge palette of influences. Their willingness to throw virtually anything at the wall to see what sticks makes listening to their records truly fascinating. On A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationship, you hear everything from woodsy folk to electronic freakouts to guitar-driven pop-punk to brassy soul to Journey-style power ballads to jazz club slow burners to big Britpop epics. The breadth of stylistic choices on this record virtually ensures that the overused mantra of there being “something for everyone” is true for once. But what makes this record so special is the era in which The 1975 do exist. For years, I’ve pushed back against the commonly repeated proclamation that “rock is dead.” In 2018, though, I finally started questioning whether it might be true. The 1975 were the antidote, a rock band being as unabashedly fearless as great rock bands used to be. Not for at least a decade have we heard a band push this hard, or make a splash this loud. Rock in 2018 has become too timid, too small, and either too foolhardy to accept the changing of the guard or too willing to compromise artistic ideals for marginal pop success. The 1975 are none of those things. They are obnoxious and annoying and infuriating and incredibly talented and so goddamn sure of themselves that they might actually be able to will themselves into the pantheon. Like the great outsized rock bands of old—from The Beatles to Queen to Oasis—they sometimes overreach or overshare or get lost in their own ridiculous ambition. But it’s impossible to put into words how good it feels to have a rock band of that ilk in 2018—a band that can take a string of quotes and memes and disconnected pieces and turn them into the zeitgeist jam of the year. Because at the end of the day, no matter what genres you’ve pledged your allegiance to, we can probably all get onboard with the guy shouting “I’d love it if we made it” into the void. I’d love it if we made it, too.

11. Eric ChurchDesperate Man

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks were excommunicated from country radio for criticizing then-president George W. Bush. In the decade and a half since, most country artists have tried to pretend that politics doesn’t exist, that the military is awesome, and that everything is jake. On Desperate Man, one of the biggest superstars in country music acknowledges that 1) evil exists and is everywhere, and 2) both political parties are probably to blame. It shouldn’t be so fascinating to hear those revelations from someone of Church’s genre and status, but it is. On “Monsters,” he juxtaposes childhood fears of demons beneath the bed with the sober understanding he’s reached in adulthood: that true monsters are everywhere. On “The Snake,” he pens a bitter allegory about two bickering serpents who eventually team up to elevate their evil; the political undertones are hard to miss. And on “Drowning Man,” the protagonist goes to a bar to drink away the sorrows of class struggles, backwards politicians, and a world on fire. While Desperate Man is occasionally bleak and stark, though, Church finds beauty in the simple things, like a radio in a Pontiac playing great songs, or the lessons you learn in life as you grow and get older. Life, the album posits, goes on, even in dark and crazy times. This record, by capturing both the darkness and beauty of the world that we call home, proves to be Church’s most soulful and wise work yet.

12. Tenille TownesThe Living Room Worktapes

For so many years, I was hesitant to put EPs on EOTY lists. I usually shunted them off to the side, creating a distinctively less interesting EPs section after talking through my 30 or 40 favorite full-length albums of the year. I couldn’t do that to Tenille Townes, not only because her EP is magic, but because I probably spent more time with in in 2018 than all but five or six of the albums on this list. The Living Room Worktapes is only four songs long, but those four songs ache and break your heart with the power of a fully realized project. Townes leaves such an impression in just 15 and a half minutes that I found myself wanting to live in the world of her songs longer, often playing this EP twice in a row rather than just giving it the customary once-through. Songs like “Where You Are” and “White Horse” are sweeping and anticipatory, capturing the unpredictable thrill of falling in love for the first time. But the highlights are the middle tracks, two songs—“Jersey on the Wall” and “Somebody’s Daughter”—that were as emotionally weighty as any other songs I heard this year. The former is about a teen basketball star killed in a car accident, and about the doubts and lapses in faith that such a tragedy leaves behind. The latter is about homelessness and the choices, privileges, and coincidences that lead one person to be in a car at a stoplight and another outside the car, begging for loose change. More than any other songs I heard in 2018, these two made me want to pick up the guitar and write. Tenille Townes’ music cuts deep into the essence of what made me fall in love with songwriting in the first place, and I can’t wait to hear what’s next for her big, bright talent. Hopefully, “what’s next” includes a full-length album in 2019.

13. Ashley McBrydeGirl Going Nowhere

You can tell from listening to Ashley McBryde sing that she’s seen her fair share of rejections. On “Girl Going Nowhere,” the title track from her debut full-length, she sings about all the people who ever told her she wasn’t good enough: not good enough to chase her dreams, not good enough to get out of her small town, certainly not good enough to be a star. Rather than internalize those criticisms and let them keep her down, though, McBryde has turned them into rocket fuel on this impressive collection of songs. Armed with both the rough-hewn outlaw spirit of a country outsider and a mainstream radio whisperer’s ear for hooks, McBryde is the rare country artist who feels like she could be all things to all people. Big choruses on songs like “Radioland” and “American Scandal” pitch her as a potential radio darling, while stripped down acoustic ballads like the title track and “Andy (I Can’t Live without You)” sound more like things you’d hear on an independent, self-released LP. In either setting, though, McBryde has a storyteller’s eye for detail and a penchant for inventive concepts. Album highlight “The Jacket” follows a piece of denim clothing through multiple decades, using it to color the relationship between a father and a daughter. “Livin’ Next to Leroy” humanizes the opioid crisis by putting one of its victims just a few doors down. And “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” places the lens on every bar in every small town in America, highlighting the things that seem insignificant from afar but hold entire worlds of life and heartbreak within their four walls. Following a slew of positive reviews and year-end mentions—not to mention a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album—it’s safe to say no one is going to be telling Ashley McBryde what she can’t do any longer.

14. DawesPasswords

Dawes have had an unbelievable run in the past 10 years. They’ve made six albums, at least three of which are classics. Passwords is arguably the weakest album they’ve put out since their debut, but still displays a band that is so skilled and so confident in their craft that it’s hard to believe they haven’t even been around for a decade yet. Two things really shine through on this record: the band’s instrumental prowess and Taylor Goldsmith’s incredible love songs. The former has never been any secret, but has extra room to shine on this album’s jammy, extended track lengths. The latter is new, the product of Goldsmith’s courtship of—and now marriage to—actress Mandy Moore. Goldsmith’s songs in the past have been heartbroken, wry, wistful, funny, cynical, and observational, but they’re rarely been lovelorn. He breaks the tradition here, with gorgeous ballads like “I Can’t Love,” “Never Gonna Say Goodbye,” and “Time Flies Either Way.” These songs—along with “Crack the Case,” the album’s centerpiece paean to empathy and understanding—supplement Dawes’ trademark Laurel Canyon folk-rock with a smooth piano-driven luster that recalls Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is. The album could use another rocker or two to up the energy—especially in the mid-section—but it offers enough charms to keep Dawes’ “artist of the decade” candidacy alive.

15. Brandi CarlileBy the Way, I Forgive You

The biggest surprise on Grammy nomination morning wasn’t that the Grammy committee nominated multiple good LPs for Album of the Year (historically, not always a safe bet), but that Brandi Carlile earned six nominations. It’s not that Carlile is an unknown; on the contrary, By the Way, I Forgive You is her sixth LP and she’s netted plenty of critical acclaim and fan adoration over the years. She’s even scored a few Grammy nominations, as both an artist and a producer. However, there’s a fair chance that more people heard Carlile’s voice during her cameo in this year’s A Star Is Born than have actually listened to any of her records. That fact could change very soon, as Carlile’s work dukes it out in the Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year categories. Look, the Grammys do not matter and will never be truly relevant again, but it’s still nice to see a hardworking, honest-to-god talent getting recognized for her work. And damn, is By the Way, I Forgive You worthy of recognition. Carlile’s first collaboration with superstar Americana producer Dave Cobb yields her best work ever, a consistently devastating disc that somehow manages to find nuggets of uplift in songs that examine every kind of heartbreak and grief. Songs like “Whatever You Do” and “Party of One” chart the strife of a relationship on the rocks. “Fulton County Jane Doe” is about a dead woman who cannot be identified by anyone, and the crushing loneliness of that fact. “Sugartooth” is about a good man brought to his knees—and later done in—by opioid addiction. These songs are sobering reminders of the struggles that our fellow men and women are going through every day. And yet, By the Way, I Forgive You is anything but depressing. Perhaps Carlile’s greatest talent is her ability to find the rays of sunshine when it seems like they might not even be there. On both “The Mother” and “The Joke,” she addresses the paths of oppression she has traveled as an openly gay woman, and the resilience she has found in the journey.” “You are not an accident where no one thought it through/The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you,” she sings on the former, to the child she and her wife adopted together. On the latter, the message is even simpler, a stirring rallying cry for everyone who has been told they are less-than just by virtue of being who they are: “I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends,” Carlile sings; “And the joke’s on them.”

16. The Night GameThe Night Game

If The Night Game had come out in the middle of summer, there’s a non-zero chance it would be my album of the year. It carries a similar nostalgic summertime character to Butch Walker’s Stay Gold, an album that did not leave my rotation for more than a day or two back in the summer of 2016. This summer was lacking an album like that for me: a record that I wanted to play exhaustively on drives or runs or nights around the house with a beer in my hand and nothing for company but the music and my memories of summers past. This album would have been so perfect for those moments, stacked as it is with hooky pop anthems (“The Outfield,” “Once in a Lifetime”) and aching nuggets of nostalgia (“Do You Think About Us?”, “American Nights”). Instead, this record only caught the end of my summer—just in time for the autumnal chill of “Coffee and Cigarettes” to feel actualized. The result was that I never gave this record the feverish repeat plays it probably deserved. It didn’t get to encapsulate the summer in the way that I so wanted an album from this year to do. But when I did play them, these songs felt like pieces of my past presented and served up to me in a new form, their moments of fleeting euphoria and stretches of aching regret bringing my past back to life in brilliant, beating color.

17. Brothers OsbornePort Saint Joe

When Brothers Osborne arrived two years ago with Pawn Shop, they already seemed fully formed. The album may have been a debut, but here was a duo that sounded remarkably confident and self-assured in their own ability to set the roof on fire. The not-so-secret weapon was John Osborne, who shredded guitar solos like he’d grown up trying to mimic Hendrix and Skynyrd in equal measure. But vocalist John Osborne was something of a marvel too, singing with an unhurried bourbon-soaked drawl that made it sound like he knew he’d have many years and many albums to say everything he wanted to say. Port Saint Joe only furthers the promises that both brothers made on the first album. This record lacks the singles that made its predecessor a juggernaut, but it conjures up a more consistent vibe, bearing an atmosphere that reflects the gorgeous beachside album cover shot. Songs like “Slow Your Roll” and “A Little Bit Trouble” groove like an easygoing summer vacation. Lead single “Shoot Me Straight” bears the year’s most epic guitar solo, a Herculean bit of playing that hopscotches across half a dozen stylistic signifiers, from southern rock stomp to sexy Prince-esque funk. And gorgeous, cinematic ballads like “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” and “Pushing up Daisies (Love Alive)” sound as sonically perfect as any recordings released this year. But the best song might be the simplest: the sundown campfire strummer that is “While You Still Can.” Call your mom; make amends with your best friend; tell your dad to tell that joke you love. These messages and others cascade through the album’s poignant closing track, a song about reveling in life’s beautiful moments rather than letting them pass you by. It’s the perfect ending to a record that, in both sound and lyricism, extols the virtues of slowing things down and taking it easy. In the summertime, this album made it feel noble to do just that.

18. Jillian JacquelineSide A/Side B

This one is probably “cheating,” since 1) it’s two EPs rather than a proper LP, and 2) because Side A, the first of the two EPs, came out in 2017. But the titles of these EPs at least suggest that they were intended as two halves of a full-length record, and they play well as such. Side A dwells on raw heartbreak: “Reasons” is about a long-term relationship that has run its course, and about the people inside of it who feel hesitant to cut their losses and say goodbye after years spent in each other’s arms. “Hate Me,” meanwhile, is about how it’s sometimes less painful to end a relationship with screams, shouts, anger, and resentment than to part as friends. On Side B, Jacqueline moves toward resolve and acceptance. “Priorities” is a giddy, lovestruck pop jam worthy of Carly Rae Jepsen, while “Tragic” provides a laundry list of strategies for getting over a breakup, peaking with a chorus proclamation of “Bottom line, I survived.” Young new artists in Nashville—especially women—often don’t get the opportunity to make fully-formed, thematically-driven albums for years after arriving on the scene. Country music, for whatever reason, has decided that the best way to break new artists is through singles, EPs, and features on other artists’ songs. The obvious drawback is that you can’t get the same level of vision and artistry on a five-song EP that comes through on a full record. It’s a flawed system that has delayed the rise of breakout stars like Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, Chris Stapleton, and Carly Pearce—all within just the last few years. By releasing her first album in two pieces over the span of as any years, Jacqueline has managed to game the system—and identify herself as one of the most promising young talents in the country-pop genre as a side effect.

19. Pistol AnniesInterstate Gospel

When Miranda Lambert issued her 2016 double album, The Weight of These Wings, she largely circumnavigated the elephant in the room: her then-recent divorce from fellow country music superstar Blake Shelton. Turns out she was just saving most of the anger and heartbreak from that event for Interstate Gospel, the third album from the Pistol Annies supergroup side project. Supergroups, in general, are hit or miss. Especially if you are only a huge fan of one or two members, supergroup projects can be an exercise in patience as you slog through the lesser cuts to get to the diamonds. Interstate Gospel is the exception. The songs here highlight each of the members’ strengths: Lambert’s wry, outlaw-leaning rebel; Ashley Monroe’s torch-song-singing troubadour; Angaleena Presley’s wistful romanticizer of the past. Lambert is the star, so it stands to reason that she takes the lead on most of the album’s obvious singles—particularly “Got My Name Changed Back,” a shit-kicking anthem that looks at the sunny side of divorce. But Monroe is the group’s secret weapon, imbuing Interstate Gospel’s two finest songs—“Best Years of My Life” and “Leavers Lullaby”—with the wounded ache that makes their pain seem present and fresh.

20. Adam HoodSomewhere in Between

Adam Hood is a chronicler and archivist of the southern rural small-town experience. His songs are old-fashioned, but in a good way. They are deliberately apolitical, hearkening back to a time when life was a little slower-paced and a lot less plugged into the merciless 24-hour news cycle. They focus instead on the small things: living your life; doing your work; falling in love; making it to the weekend. Hood’s knack for finding beauty in the mundanity of working class life is considerable, a talent that ties him unavoidably to Springsteen. But while Hood’s poetry makes his songs feel substantial and weighty, it’s his ear for melody that allows Somewhere in Between to soar. “Keeping Me Hear” boasts one of the five or six finest hooks I heard in any song this year, using it to tell the story of a man stranded in a small town where every inch of every street or sidewalk only reminds him of the girl who left. “Alabama Moon” is a sweeping summer stunner with a melody that feels as warm as starlight. And “She Don’t Love Me No More” is a swampy, country-funk jam that gets more mileage out of a brief Brent Cobb feature than Cobb got out of his entire disappointing sophomore album from this year. Hood has contributed his writing chops to records by everyone from Miranda Lambert to Little Big Town to Will Hoge, and based on the sharpness of the writing on Somewhere in Between, his phone is only going to be ringing off the hook in the next year or two.

21. Steve MoaklerBorn Ready

For three albums now, Steve Moakler has been a poet for the heartland American everyman. His music—a mix of Springsteen’s working class upbringing, Matt Nathanson’s pop hooks, and Dierks Bentley’s weathered but tuneful country-rock—is the perfect mechanism for conveying these tales. On the whole, Born Ready is not nearly as effective as its predecessor, last year’s Steel Town, nor does it have quite the depth of 2014’s sterling Wide Open. Moakler’s slices of small-town life and hardworking rural folks hew a bit closer to mainstream radio country this time around, which means the lyrics don’t always have the same nuance or crafty concept as past successes like “Wheels” or “Damn, Do I Think About You.” The trade-off is that Moakler has never penned a finer set of hooks. Songs like “Crazy Does,” “Breaking New Ground,” “One of the Boys,” “Hard Not to Love It,” and “Nightlife” are infectious nuggets of summertime pop-country perfection, and if there had been any justice, at least one of them would have been all over country radio this summer. The best showcases for Moakler’s strengths as a songwriter come when he drops the tempo, though. “Thirty” is a deeply reflective ballad about aging and the miracle of changing perspective, while “Chesney” is an painfully nostalgic trip back to summer nights and the songs that soundtracked them—Moakler’s answer to Eric Church’s “Springsteen.” As a pure songwriting talent, there are not many people in Nashville who can compete with what Moakler has up his sleeve.

22. Dierks BentleyThe Mountain

Dierks Bentley made one of the very finest mainstream country records of the decade back in 2014, with an album called Riser. Bentley made that LP in the wake of losing his father, and the songs channeled his grief and memories into a collection of songs that was markedly more nuanced, personal, and heartfelt than what you would typically expect from a Nashville superstar. The Mountain doesn’t reach the same level of pathos, but it is a considerably more personal collection than Bentley’s 2016 misfire Black. Inspired by spending time in Colorado, Bentley made The Mountain, an album about escape, renewal, and rugged ideals. The songcraft isn’t quite on the level of what Bentley showed he was capable of four years ago, but the playing is so strong that the songs burst to life anyway. From the Petty-ish title track to the dusty Americana of “Travelin’ Light” (featuring a truly knockout vocal feature from Brandi Carlile), The Mountain is undoubtedly one of 2018’s most accomplished and best-sounding country records. More than maybe any other country artist in the game right now, Bentley is an expert at balancing the obligations of being a radio-friendly, mainstream country star with his desire to make music that has a bit more grit and outlaw spirit. Fittingly, the album mirrors that identity crisis, channeling it into a set of songs about both family and free-spirited restlessness. The result is a fascinating contradiction—a disc from an establishment star that concludes with said star musing about his own self-imposed exile from the limelight.

23. Carrie UnderwoodCry Pretty

I have always been impressed by Carrie Underwood’s voice, but I have never loved one of her albums until now. For me, at least, she was always a tough artist to relate to. Even on American Idol, her performances were so perfect and professional that she already seemed like a superstar. Once she actually reached that rarified air—and it didn’t take long—her music mostly put her in the storyteller role, weaving tales about other people rather than about herself. As someone whose favorite artists are often the most confessional and personal, I struggled to know Carrie, or feel like she was speaking to me. Cry Pretty is different. It’s not necessarily a subversion of Underwood’s storyteller side, or a complete pivot to confessional songwriting. But it does feel more grounded, more personal, more like she’s speaking to the listener directly rather than entertaining 10,000 people in an arena crowd. The title track, a co-write with Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, and Hillary Lindsay, is bombastic and vulnerable all at once, while album closer “Kingdom” is a tear-jerking tribute to the power of family and love. And while the album’s best songs—“Spinning Bottles,” about alcoholism and the toll it takes on relationships, and “The Bullet,” about the ramifications of gun violence—are both vintage Carrie character studies, she sings them with such empathy and emotion that you forget she’s talking about characters instead of people she knows firsthand. Of course, Underwood’s voice is as good as ever, lending power and weight to the heavier subject matter and making R&B-flecked jams like “That Song That We Used to Make Love You” and “End up with You” swoon with sexy, seductive longing. But the thing I love about Cry Pretty is that, for the first time, I feel as moved by Underwood’s songs as I do by the sound of her voice.

24. Ashley MonroeSparrow

Sparrow is such a comedown from Ashley Monroe’s previous album, 2015’s The Blade, that my initial listens to it felt almost jarring. The Blade was a tuneful, pop-country-flecked masterpiece. It was in turns heartbreaking and playful, and it was immaculately produced by country music legend and guitar maestro Vince Gill. Sparrow, in contrast, is dark and gloomy, a disc of southern gothic country that sheds almost all of Monroe’s poppier influences in favor of a classic-sounding, string-drenched, ballad-heavy set of songs. Gill is replaced here by Dave Cobb, a producer who has proved to be a go-to whisperer for left-of-the-dial country and Americana artists like Monroe. At first, it feels like Cobb misunderstands Monroe’s talents. Where the last record was stacked with hooky songs like “On to Something Good” and “The Blade,” the songs on Sparrow are markedly less immediate. But this album is deep and soulful, a personal rumination on Monroe’s status as a new mother, as well as her complicated relationship with her own mother. As a result, the best songs here balance the wonder of being a parent with the foreboding fear of raising a child in a grim world where everything—love especially—feels fragile and impermanent.

25. Sinead BurgessDamaged Goods

Sinead Burgess sounds like an artist from another era. Her music calls back to the Lilith Fair era, when big-voiced, acoustic-guitar-toting women like Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and Jewel could still dominate the airwaves. Her songs are bare-bones and raw, both musically and emotionally, only going beyond the acoustic coffeehouse singer-songwriter template occasionally. When those moments come—like with the crunchy outlaw country guitars of “Momma Raised a Ramblin’ Man” or the rousing gospel refrains of “Gonna Be Alright”—they hit the mark perfectly. Usually, though, Burgess can do plenty to rip your heart out with just her voice and a single instrument. The clearest example is “Wildflowers of Colorado,” a hair-raising torch song where Burgess pleads with an ex-lover not to forget her completely. But as good as Burgess is at crafting crushing breakup songs, she’s just as good at delivering rousing road trip songs (“Somewhere Between You and Vegas,” “Tennessee Bound”) and vivid, small-scale character sketches (“Richie”).

26. Ben DanaherStill Feel Lucky

Ben Danaher has traveled a tough road to reach the milestone of Still Feel Lucky, his debut full-length album. In May 2010, his brother was shot and killed by a neighbor who grew irate about a noisy party. The case got national attention and the shooter was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, though he argued self-defense. Two weeks before the trial began, Danaher’s father died of cancer. The twin tragedies sent a grieving, heartbroken Danaher scurrying for a new start. He ended up in Nashville, and he wrote this record. By all rights, Still Feel Lucky should be heartbreaking. There is a heavily personal song here called “My Father’s Blood,” which is at least in part informed by the darkness and tragedy that lies in Danaher’s past. Most of the album, though, conveys a quiet, stormy, optimism. “You can hurt and still feel lucky,” he sings on the title track, and it’s the album’s mission statement and beating heart. In another troubadour’s hands, those lines might ring out just as words to a song. The same goes for the other deeply personal songs on this record, like the steel guitar laden “Little While,” where Danaher admits to dark nights spent asking some higher power “Why?” Even if you don’t know Danaher’s story, though, it’s hard to miss the conviction in his voice when he sings these songs. To him, these aren’t just lines; to him, they are deeply learned truths, gleaned from suffering some of the worst pain a person can suffer and still feeling lucky.

27. Aaron Lee Tasjan - Karma for Cheap

What would White Album-era Beatles have sounded like if Tom Petty had been the frontman? Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Karma for Cheap ostensibly answers the question. On his last LP, Tasjan sounded not such a far cry from the psychedelic country that Sturgill Simpson was making. Here, it would be hard to classify him as country music at all—though the broader “country” community is so broad and far-reaching at this point that he will inevitably fall under some sort of Americana umbrella. In truth, though, Karma for Cheap is a true rock ‘n’ roll album, the kind most people have stopped making. I spent much of 2018 loving the new music I was listening to, but wanting to hear big, loud, catchy guitars again. Karma for Cheap was maybe the record that satisfied that yearning the most. See “The Truth Is So Hard to Believe,” which burns with sludgy, low-slung guitar leads before ripping apart into a solo that sounds like George Harrison by way of Noel Gallagher. Still, Tasjan is more than just a great guitar player, and Karma for Cheap is more than just a nostalgia trip. Songs like “Heart Slows Down,” “If Not Now When,” and “Songbird” serve up some of the year’s most resplendent hooks, and Tasjan’s lyrics throughout are cryptic and loaded with metaphor—adding some Dylanesque poetry into his cocktail of classic rock influences. It’s a drink worth tasting, especially if you’re like me and have been left feeling cold by just about everything modern pop and rock have served up as of late.

28. Kenny ChesneySongs for the Saints

I never expected to like a Kenny Chesney record as much as I liked Songs for the Saints. I’ve never had anything against Chesney, but his brand of party-ready mainstream country has also never really been my speed. That changed with this record, which sheds most of the commercial sheen of Chesney’s music for a very stripped down, very humanized set of songs. The record was inspired by Hurricane Irma and the rebuilding process that followed its devastation. The storm destroyed a house that Chesney had owned in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and you can tell from these songs that he feels real kinship with (and empathy for) the people who lost everything to wind, rain, and flood. You really believe him when he sings about resilience and the strength of the human spirit on songs like “Song for the Saints,” “Get Along,” or “We’re All Here.” Many of the tunes, meanwhile, carry a gorgeous and beguiling tone that recalls summertime, island breezes, and coastal waves. Acoustic ballads like “Pirate Song,” “Every Heart,” “Ends of the Earth,” and “Gulf Moon” are so lovely because they capture the feel of a place in song. Most moving of all is the closer, a stirring ballad called “Better Boat.” Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose—and cut initially on Meadows’ First Cigarette, one of my favorite records from last year—“Better Boat” is a slow-burning proclamation to turn over a new leaf and live life more fully. On Meadows’ record, “Better Boat” played as part of a song cycle about addiction and recovery. Here, it fits perfectly in the context of songs about disaster and rebuilding. It’s a reminder that the best songs can take on different meanings when you hear them in different settings, but still be just as meaningful either way.

29. Missy LancasterPiece of Me

Piece of Me was one of my first discoveries of the year, in the early days of January when 2018’s count of releases was still low. I didn’t expect it to stay in rotation, but in a year where quality pop-country releases were hard to find, this record ended up securing a soft spot in my heart all year long. Packed with sticky hooks and surprisingly heartfelt songwriting, Piece of Me is a wistful look back at the relationships that colored your world when you were growing up. Lots of pop-country records mine similar territory: memory and nostalgia; young love and small towns. But most of the songs on Piece of Me carry a genuine sense of place. Indeed, location is a character in these songs, from the backroads Lancaster associates with a former flame in “When I Think about You” to the parking lot where she got her heart broken in “Never in Love.” “Every memory is like graffiti on this town,” Lancaster sings in “Forget,” and it’s a beautifully fitting line to sum up the album as a whole. These songs recall a young Taylor Swift, with shades of Fearless and Speak Now poking through especially on “All That You Are,” the sweeping, romantic closing track. Now that Swift has fully embraced pop, it’s nice to know that there are still artists out there who can still tap into this youthful and universal type of country music.

30. LANCO - Hallelujah Nights

LANCO are a good band right now that could prove to be a great band in the future. At it’s best, Hallelujah Nights spits out pop country hooks that made every other artist active in the genre this year look like an amateur. At its worst, the album feels a short stone’s throw away from the dying bro country breed. Luckily, aside from middling tracks like “Troublemaker” and “Middle of the Night,” LANCO lean toward their strengths. The result is a record that plays like a pop-country Killers LP: big songs with big stadium-sized ambitions. The clearest examples are probably the singles: “Long Live Tonight” and “Greatest Love Story.” The former is a mid-tempo rocker that flickers like a stadium light show ready to explode. The latter is the kind of dusky ballad that could bring out 15,000 cellphones and turn an arena into a solar system. But the best songs weren’t the singles, suggesting that LANCO’s label either missed the mark or this band or has longer-term plans than just fleeting radio dominance. Songs like “So Long (I Do)” and “Pick You Up” have verses catchy enough to be choruses and choruses that you just want to hear over and over again. The album’s climactic title track, meanwhile, is a perfect microcosm of what a pop-country band can do well: it’s grandiose without over-reaching, instantly catchy without tripping into irritating earworm territory, and so vividly drawn that it immediately transports you to a specific time and place. That’s the magic of Hallelujah Nights: when you hear the best songs, you’re right back there in your hometown, in the midst of a teenage summer, holding onto the wild possibility of the night like it was all you had. If LANCO can tap into that transportive, anthemic sensibility rather than surrendering to their more bro-y impulses, they won’t just be the pop-country Killers; they’ll be the pop-country U2.

31. The Dangerous SummerThe Dangerous Summer

A year ago, around Christmastime, my wife got a new job—one that would take us back to our hometown and to the place where we met and fell in love, for good. In January, we packed up our cars and made the two-hour drive north to our old-new home. One of my most memorable music listening experiences of the year came in that car on that snowy day, returning to a place that I hadn’t gotten to call home consistently for almost nine years. In terms of both text and subtext, this album was the perfect companion for that drive. The Dangerous Summer were my coming-of-age band, the band that perhaps most encapsulated my journey of growing up and coming to grips with adulthood. This album is about what happens after that journey is complete. It’s about the people and places and things from your youth and how they look different once those youthful years have been spent. Playing these songs is like getting a chance to see the characters in your favorite teen movie five or 10 years after the credits rolled. Did they get their dreams or did they fall short? Did they stay friends or scatter? The Dangerous Summer doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but the way its songs yearn for reconnection with hometowns, old friends, and utopian summer nights suggests both gratefulness and yearning for times long gone. Coming from a band I never thought we’d hear from again, these messages were going to be special anyway. Hearing them at this crucial moment of my life, returning to the place where this band’s songs had meant so much to me, was even more remarkable. Sometimes, music is just nothing short of magic.

32. Field ReportSummertime Songs

Field Report released one of my favorite albums of the 2010s back in 2014, with the splendid Marigolden. More than maybe any other record released in the past 10 years, it’s an album that has only continued to increase its enchantment on me over time. As a result, Summertime Songs, the band’s first album since Marigolden, had a lot to live up to. Not only did it have to follow an album that I absolutely adore, but it also had to do so with nearly four years of built-up anticipation to satisfy. Summertime Songs did not reach the heights of Marigolden for me, and there are a few more experimental detours that just miss the mark entirely. But the best songs here retain the alchemy that made Marigolden so beguiling. Field Report mastermind Chris Porterfield is a remarkably unique songwriter in that he pens songs that are extremely personal and emotionally bare, but then abstracts them with left-field word choices and images. His songs often play like fever dreams, entrancing things that are vivid and lifelike but maybe a little blurred around the edges. On Summertime Songs, Porterfield uses that style to explore the cascade of emotions he was feeling before the birth of his first child. Anxiety; fear; restlessness; gratefulness; awe; deep, deep love. Porterfield shatters these moods like glass and then pushes them all together in an explosive and complex mosaic of color. The resulting set of songs is occasionally baffling and sometimes virtually incoherent, but when it coalesces into something beautiful—on titanic highlights like “Blind Spot,” “Never Look Back,” “Summertime,” and “Everything I Need”—it’s hard to think of more moving or effectively crafted songs from this year.

33. Courtney Marie AndrewsMay Your Kindness Remain

For a long time, I knew Courtney Marie Andrews best as the backup singer on Jimmy Eat World’s Invented. Her contributions to that album were pivotal, helping bring to life the female perspectives that frontman Jim Adkins was exploring in many of the songs. For whatever reason, though, I never explored Andrews’ solo material until a few years ago, with her 2016 LP Honest Life. I’m glad I wised up when I did: Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year in songwriting circles, and it’s not difficult to see why. This album is so rich in nuanced detail and empathetic emotion that it’s impossible to listen to it and not feel something. One of the core talking points around Honest Life was that Andrews’ time as a bartender had honed her observational eye and given her the chance to see a lot of different sides of the human experience. Those skills are only expanded upon on May Your Kindness Remain. Andrews uses her beautifully structured songs to explore everything from a city changed by time and gentrification (“Two Cold Nights in Buffalo”) to the ways in which a family’s story becomes entwined in the features of the family home (“This House”). The album’s beating heart and mission statement, though, is the title track, a stunning showcase for Andrews’ big, emotive voice. “If your money runs out/And your good looks fade/May your kindness remain,” Andrews’ wails over and over again at the climax of the song. It’s a forceful plea for empathy in an increasingly cold and selfish world, and Andrews sings the lines like her life absolutely depends on them. There aren’t many more chilling moments in songs this year.

34. FoxingNearer My God

Prior to this album, I did not like Foxing at all. 2015’s Dealer was proclaimed as an emo revival masterpiece by many fans of the genre, and even scored the number two slot on AbsolutePunk’s (final) staff combined list that year. To my ears, though, it was dreary and lifeless. I was not prepared, then, for Nearer My God, an album so epic, dynamic, and interesting that it sounds like it was made by a different band. Incorporating elements of post-rock, electronic music, Frank Ocean’s avant-garde R&B, and rafter-shaking arena rock, Nearer My God is the kind of indie rock record that we largely seem to have left in the previous decade. Opener “Grand Paradise” is foreboding and explosive, the kind of haunting music you’d expect to hear in the creepiest dungeon of a Legend of Zelda game. “Gameshark” is an apocalyptic stunner in the vein of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. And songs like “Nearer My God” and “Bastardizer” are as big and bruising and anthemic and cathartic as any indie rock we’ve heard since Neon Bible. A decade ago, critics would have tripped over themselves in their race to anoint Nearer My God as a classic and Foxing as the torchbearers for a new generation of rock. In 2018, both the band and the album flew under the radar, as publications deigned to praise bad pop albums by the likes of Ariana Grande, or far less impressive rock records by bands like The Arctic Monkeys. Don’t worry: in five years or so, we’ll look back on this one as a classic.

35. Amanda Shires To the Sunset

Kacey Musgraves rightfully got a lot of credit in 2018 for making an album that made country music more palatable to listeners of pop and indie rock. But the country album that most challenged genre conventions this year wasn’t Musgraves, but Amanda Shires. Up to this point, Shires has been one of the top torchbearers of Americana music, using her distinct voice and dynamic fiddle playing to bring life to songs with vivid imagery and detailed, small-scale storytelling. To the Sunset takes genre traditionalism and sets it on fire. In a lot of ways, this record sounds more like an indie rock album circa 1994 than it does like a modern Americana or alt-country LP. Ripping electric guitar lines, flickers of electronics, and layers of distortion dirty up Shires’ songs and make her hard-worn character studies that much more fascinating. The guitar tones sound like Shires pulled them from R.E.M.’s Monster, while the points of comparison for the songs themselves range from Dolly Parton (the lovely “Swimmer”) to Stay on My Side Tonight-era Jimmy Eat World (“Leave It Alone,” sneakily 2018’s greatest pop song). It all comes to a head on the album’s final track, the dark-as-night “Wasn’t I Paying Attention.” From the moment the song’s foreboding guitar riff crackles through the speakers, listeners will know that a happy ending isn’t in store. The ending that does manifest, though—a based-on-a-true-story twist that is so wild I won’t spoil it here—gives To the Sunset a send-off that is legitimately shocking. We expect cliffhangers and twist endings from TV shows and movies; we don’t necessarily expect them from albums. But that’s the genius of To the Sunset: it’s an album packed with surprises, the biggest of which is how thoroughly it re-calibrates both what we think of Amanda Shires now and what she could do next.

36. American AquariumThings Change

American Aquarium (and, by extension, singer/songwriter/bandleader BJ Barham) has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. Barham’s best songs are up there with the very best songs of the decade so far: “Burn.flicker.die” captured the desperation of addiction; “Losing Side of Twenty-Five” encapsulated the cold realization that all your friends are hitting new life milestones and leaving you behind; “The Unfortunate Kind” chartered the entire course of a relationship and marriage that ultimately ended in crushing tragedy. These songs are perfect, and they aren’t the only ones in the American Aquarium/Barham oeuvre that are worthy of such a distinction. In the past, though, Barham has never quite been able to engage me on that level for full albums. Things Change is the closest he’s come. Aided by the deft hand of producer John Fullbright (a truly fabulous songwriter in his own right) and propelled forward by a completely new band lineup, Barham has crafted an album that feels both of its time and like something that typically doesn’t get made anymore. Forceful rockers like “Tough Folks” and “Things Change” capture the loose barnstorming feel of late ’70s Springsteen, while tracks like “The World Is on Fire”—written in the days following Trump’s election to the presidency—speak to the urgency of the current political landscape. In lesser hands, Things Change could easily have morphed into sloganeering protest rock. But Barham is too skilled as a writer to let that happen. He largely opts to focus on personal matters, like on the exceptional “When We Were Younger Men,” which tells the story of passing years and evolving friendships through the lens of Tom Petty songs. The record does lose some of its steam as it moves into its inferior—and more overtly country-influenced—second half. But overall, it might be Barham’s finest front-to-back project to date. With a fresh start in Barham’s hands, it will be fun to see where he goes from here.

37. Heather MorganBorrowed Heart

Heather Morgan is the latest in a growing list of established Nashville songwriters to flip the script by releasing her own (very good) LP. Since 2011, Morgan has cowritten songs for Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Maren Morris, Keith Urban, Maddie & Tae, and Brett Eldredge—among others—several of which have been hits. And yet, what shines most on Borrowed Heart isn’t her writing, but her voice. She’s capable of big, powerful vocal acrobatics—see the towering “Fall Like Rain”—but can also temper her voice at a moment’s notice to deliver something with quiet and intimate vulnerability, as on lovely ballads like “I Always Did” and “Arms of a Lion” (the latter a collaboration with Lori McKenna). The fluidity of her voice enables Morgan to build Borrowed Heart into a hybrid we’re not so used to hearing in the country world, between the wide open expanses of Americana and the big, emotionally bruising crescendos of emo or post-grunge. That combination, along with Morgan’s tendency to bare her soul in lyrics about love and loss, makes her songs sound equally at home alongside country artists like Ashley Monroe or Natalie Hemby and early 2000s pop-rock singers like Avril Lavigne or Michelle Branch.

38. Dashboard ConfessionalCrooked Shadows

Dashboard Confessional were gone for so long that I had given up hope on ever hearing an album from them again. When Crooked Shadows finally arrived, more than eight years after the band’s 2009 opus Alter the Ending, I was elated, and then I was disappointed. This record lacks the punch and melodic splendor that made Ending such a triumphant work. Where the previous Dashboard album mixed Chris Carrabba’s confessional (pun intended) style of songwriting with big, crisp arena rock hooks, Crooked Shadows shoots to combine the honesty and earnestness that made Carrabba an emo hero with the contemporary pop songs of today. At first, I loathed the mix, hearing songs like “Catch You” and the lightly electronic-influenced “Belong” as shameless grabs for modern relevance. Crooked Shadows made a lot more sense when the winter had melted away and the weather had warmed up. Like most of Carrabba’s music, these songs just sound better in summertime, when their titanic hooks (the do-or-die anthem that is “We Fight”) and their breezy vibes (“Belong,” the piano-assisted rush of “About Us”) matched the mood of the season. Still, the best moments on Crooked Shadows are the ones where Carrabba sounds the most like he did 15 years ago, like the wedding-ready slow dance of “Heart Beat Here,” or the soul-bearing, hair-raising climax of “Just What to Say.” When I hear the latter, it makes me feel like I’m 15 again, drowning in my feelings and dreaming of things so impossible.

39. William Clark GreenHebert Island

20 years ago, William Clark Green would have been a superstar. Today, he’s a little-known talent that has mostly been recognized in the “Texas country” regional circuit. His knack for writing big, anthemic hooks is unrivaled on virtually any level in the modern music industry, from the mainstream country darlings to the ranks of contemporary pop music songwriters. It’s just that the type of hooks he writes went out of vogue around the time that Goo Goo Dolls stopped landing hits. Green’s songs hearken back to the era of 90s radio rock, when roots-influenced bands like The Wallflowers and Sister Hazel could coexist with bands that had punk backgrounds (the Goos, Green Day) and bands with big pop sensibilities (Third Eye Blind, Fastball). Hebert Island, as a result, sounds like a melodic nostalgia trip. The best songs have big, warm, wide-open hooks: see the biting “Hit You Where It Hurts” or the Tom Petty-ish “Wings.” The mid-section of the record is especially strong, pulling together a series of tender country love songs (“Stay,” “Poor”) and aching heartbreak songs (“She Likes Horses,” about a restless girl the narrator knows will eventually leave him in the dust) that are as good as anything on country radio. The album is three or four songs too long, and the back half has a handful of duds—especially “Farewell,” a breakup song ridden with the kind of misogyny that we should have left in the previous decade. Luckily, Hebert Island ends beautifully, with “My Mother,” a deeply heartfelt tribute to loving parents and the sacrifices they make for their kids.

40. Will HogeMy American Dream

Will Hoge’s best music is not his political music. Last year’s Anchors thrived largely because it prioritized personal subject matter and character-driven storytelling over any type of political viewpoint or agenda. Hoge’s most personal albums, meanwhile—stellar discs like Draw the Curtains and The Wreckage—shine a light on heartbreak and resilience rather than pointing that light at the White House. But you can hardly begrudge Hoge the chance to turn up the amps and get a little angry given the current political climate, and on My American Dream, he makes the most of the opportunity. Wisely, Hoge doesn’t overstay his welcome here. Brief and blustering, My American Dream is a point-by-point takedown of Trump, from his policies to his online rhetoric to his astounding dedication to still finding time to get out on the golf course. Songs like “Gilded Walls” and “Stupid Kids” crackle with energy and bone-shaking rock ‘n’ roll intensity that we haven’t heard from Hoge in years. As he’s explored country music on his last few albums, it’s been easy to forget that he’s one of the fiercest live performers in this biz. This album brings his showman side out again—especially on “Nicki’s a Republican Now,” a piledriving, barnstorming, laugh-out-loud funny rocker that sounds like an early E-Street Band live staple. I’m hoping Hoge won’t feel the need to return to this well for a bit, now that he’s said his piece, but it’s cathartic to hear an artist of his caliber rage against the machine in small doses.

The 2017 Re-Rank

My 2017 albums of the year list was not easy to make. There were a lot of very good albums, and fewer albums that I felt were capital-G Great, at least at the end of last year. As a result, everything between about number 5 to number 30 felt like it could have deserved a place in the top 10. I felt firm in my number 1 pick and still do. Everything else here shifted a bit. I doubt I played any 2017 album more in 2018 than the U2 LP, hence its big jump from number 15 to number 2. The Maine and Kelsea Ballerini albums also had a ton of replay value, to the point where I wanted them in the top 10. And the Andrew McMahon album continued to grow on me, to the point where it’s now one of my favorite things he’s ever done. The casualties were the albums that I’d ranked in my top 10, but that I didn’t listen to as much this year: The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, Turnpike Troubadours’ A Long Way from Your Heart, and Jon Latham’s Lifers.

  1. Jason Isbell and the 400 UnitThe Nashville Sound
  2. U2Songs of Experience
  3. Andrew McMahon in the WildernessZombies on Broadway
  4. Natalie HembyPuxico
  5. Travis MeadowsFirst Cigarette
  6. The Maine - Lovely Little Lonely
  7. Carly PearceEvery Little Thing
  8. Chris StapletonFrom A Room (Volumes 1 and 2)
  9. Steve MoaklerSteel Town
  10. Kelsea Ballerini - Unapologetically

HM: Tyler ChildersPurgatory

The 2008 Re-Rank

2008 was such a remarkably great year for music. I remember so fondly the albums that came out this year: the ones that got me through a tough few months in the spring and summertime, and the ones that soundtracked the beginning of my wonderful senior year of high school. I spent a fair amount of time this year recalling these albums, whether in individual retrospective pieces or in my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s post, which featured more albums from 2008 than any other year. They were so fun to revisit that I felt inclined to make a top 20 here, rather than my customary top 10 re-rank.

  1. Butch WalkerSycamore Meadows
  2. The Gaslight AnthemThe ’59 Sound
  3. Jack’s MannequinThe Glass Passenger
  4. AugustanaCan’t Love, Can’t Hurt
  5. SafetysuitLife Left to Go
  6. Bon IverFor Emma, Forever Ago*
  7. Chad PerroneWake
  8. ValenciaWe All Need a Reason to Believe
  9. Taylor SwiftFearless
  10. The Promise of RedemptionWhen the Flowers Bloom
  11. The New FrontiersMending
  12. Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes
  13. Death Cab for CutieNarrow Stairs
  14. Counting CrowsSaturday Nights & Sunday Mornings
  15. LydiaIlluminate
  16. ColdplayViva La Vida
  17. The KillersDay & Age
  18. R.E.M.Accelerate
  19. Nada SurfLucky
  20. Snow PatrolA Hundred Million Suns

*I’m aware the Bon Iver album originally came out in 2007. But I think re-releases are fair game in a case like this one. I thought about putting that album in my 2007 re-rank last year, but it felt wrong. For me, that album will always be intertwined with my memories from 2008. It was more fitting to put it here.