In the humble estimation of Saving Country Music, 2018 has been the second bumper crop year in a row for excellent, top shelf efforts in country music. To reflect that, the number of nominees for Saving Country Music’s vaunted Album of the Year recognition has been pushed to its capacity of 10 once again, with each selection worthy of the topmost recognition in 2018. And with no clear front runners, and no obvious names to walk away with the distinction this year, it’s a wide open field.
Even with 10 nominees, it still feels like numerous albums got shorted, which is just the way it is when you have to cut the amount of candidates off at some point. This includes Lori McKenna’s The Tree, and John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness—both songwriting tour de forces. So is The Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel. Also sitting right on the bubble was Tom Buller’s When A Country Boy Gets The Blues, which probably deserves recognition for one of the greatest discoveries for 2018. If the bylaws could be changed and 11 nominees allowed, it would very likely go to Colter Wall’s Songs of the Plains.
You won’t get any complaint here if Country Marie Andrews and May Your Kindness Remain, or Randall King‘s self-titled album is one of your favorites, or the favorite of 2018. Cody Jinks and Lifers also remains a strong effort, and similar to Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves, they still might be represented in the nominations for Best Song of the Year, so don’t lose hope in them being considered for end-of-year accolades just yet.
Plus all of these records and more will be included on Saving Country Music’s much more expansive Essential Albums List, which will be published later in December. So if you feel something was left off here, be patient. Further albums will also be reviewed, and be made eligible for the Essential Albums List as the end of the year nears.
As always, your feedback isn’t just requested, it will be included in the final calculations for the winner. So if you have an opinion, please leave it below in the comments section. However, this is not a straight up and down vote. Your opinion will count, but it will count even more if you put the effort out to convince all of us why one album deserves to rise above the others. And please, no “You Forgot!” comments. You think something has been unfairly omitted? By all means use the comments section to inform us. Because ultimately this isn’t an effort to make music into a competition. The purpose of this exercise is to expand the knowledge base of great music to all the music we think is the year’s best for the benefit of everyone.
Without further ado, here are your 2018 nominees for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year.
Whitey Morgan and the 78’s – Hard Times and White Lines
Whitey Morgan is like the embodiment of all the rage and frustration of true country music fans channeled into one hairy human vessel. Whitey’s “Fuck Pop Country” shirts are just as famous as some of his songs, and no quarter is given when he walks out on stage to whip crowds into a honky tonk frenzy, and feed them a steady dose of hard country shit kickers.
Hard Times and White Lines is only Whitey’s fourth full studio record in nearly 15 years of playing, but it’s always been quality over quantity with Whitey, allowing an appetite to build among his rabid fan base before slinging them a thick slab of red meat they’ll feed off of for years to come, and that’s what he does here. Whitey doesn’t look at new records as some experimental artistic medium, or an opportunity for him to noodle around with innovative ideas that potentially may alienate his fan base. He’s not looking to reinvent himself for the adulation of media critics. He knows who he is, and what he does. He is the voice of the whiskey drunk, the working man, and the weary country music listener, and he wears that badge proudly.
“Country” music in all of its modern incarnations and mutations will continue to devolve and disgust the folks who know what the music is supposed to be. But as long as Whitey Morgan and the 78’s are still around, they will be offering a true compass of what real country music is, and give the fans of real country a home, and a voice. (read full review)
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Years
You think music is a skills competition? You think what speaks deeply to people in music is the perfection served through drum loops and Auto-Tune, or technically adept musicianship, or even vintage styling conveyed through cute production techniques trying to emulate past greatness? Four scraggly dudes and a single mother from North Carolina just proved they can supersede all other efforts simply by assuring the pain and the blood of real life experiences are sown straight into your songs, embedded between the notes, and born out in the melodies. Years is soaked in whiskey and sweat, tenderized through conflict, forged from 700-mile van rides to play $200 shows, and ultimately captured in studio recordings that like a great sponge, are able to soak up all of that pain, and convey it with lossless quality.
Sarah Shook is the badass woman we’ve been waiting years for. She can play the guys off the stage and drink them under the table, all on a half night’s sleep and her eyelids at half mast. Years is the exact type of country music album you crash little music websites and Spotify playlists searching for—that album that immediately sucks you in, and promises years of enjoyment and recurring listens, even in the world of endless audio variety. It’s a record that feels like it was made specifically for you, regardless of you’re in the midst of a breakup and a bout of drunken depression, or you’re beyond all of that and enjoying a stable, sober family life. It’s an album where every song begs to be heard, and not one gets passed over. There’s nothing expressly special about any of it. But there’s something especially warm about all of it, making you say, “This is what I’m talking about when I say I love country music.” (read full review)
Caitlyn Smith – Starfire
Starfire is an opus. Even being wise to the talents this young woman possessed for many years, and steeled from multiple spins of her short-run EP’s and scattered video releases, Starfire still cuts deep, surprises with each new track, and universally impresses. All these incessant releases from Music Row of young women trying to make it in country, rolling off the assembly line one after another with their strident attempts at contemporary styling, stretching average talents to attempt to appear exceptional, trying to win ears with songs written by committee and algorithm—all that effort expended feels like such a waste in the presence of a project like Starfire.
The only thing keeping Caitlyn Smith from being a household name is simply the lack of knowledge to her existence. She once penned a mega hit for Meghan Trainor called “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” If there was any justice in the world, the tiers that Trainor has attained would be waiting for Caitlyn Smith as a reward for what she’s accomplished on Starfire. Whether anybody else knows it or not, Caitlyn Smith has made a near masterpiece, and made the model of what modern country pop should be. (read full review)
Jamie Lin Wilson – Jumping Over Rocks
Call it The Tao of Jamie Lin Wilson. It’s about figuring out a way to pursue your passions, regardless of the challenges. It’s facing adversity with a cheerfulness and perseverance until the walls in front of you come crumbling down almost automatically. It’s about making yourself available to finish a co-write, lend a backing vocal, or whatever else it takes to wiggle your way into the music scene with a smile and a willingness in your heart, just like Jamie Lin Wilson has been doing for years.
Jumping Over Rocks is Jamie Line Wilson’s second official solo release to go along with her early work with The Gougers, and later with the Texas music supergroup The Trishas. All that feels well in the past now though, similar to how referencing Jason Isbell as “The Former Drive-By Trucker” feels obsolete. Jamie Lin Wilson is Jamie Lin Wilson—The Queen of Texas/Red Dirt’s modern era.
Jumping Over Rocks is not a default title; it’s perfect. It’s a testament to Jamie Lin Wilson’s dexterity as an artist, and as a human. She is a remover of obstacles, a doer of the demanding. They say you can’t be a full time mother and have a meaningful music career. You can’t give birth to a child and release a new record and hit the road a few weeks later. Try telling that to Jamie Lin Wilson. Just as her music bolsters our spirit, imparts important wisdom, and wets the corner of the eye, Jamie Lin Wilson’s personal story inspires us to pursue our own dreams and persevere, touching us just as much or more than any single note she may sing, or splendid line of verse she may compose. With Jamie Lin Wilson, it’s the full package that leaves you spellbound. (read full review)
American Aquarium – Things Change
Backed into a corner is where an artist and songwriter like BJ Barham performs at his best. With a guy like this, defeat is where he finds his greatest inspiration, his most deep-seeded determination, and his willingness to sacrifice it all for the cause, and the dream. Limping along just successful enough to sustain was not the right place for American Aquarium. It all needed to implode for it to ultimately succeed. It’s gutting out a living, and giving a middle finger to the sweltering sun that has always been at the core of American Aquarium—a philosophy like is embodied in the song “Work Conquers All” from Things Change.
Even the political stuff here is done with such better tact and respect than others recently. The line “And last November I saw first hand what desperation makes good people do…” from the song “Tough Folks” does so much better at encapsulating the political dilemma the United States is in. Instead of insulting people, it recognizes their inherent goodness, regardless of their political stripes. Contrast this between the judgemental and ineffective venting of anger in recent projects. This approach helps to bridge understanding as opposed to drawing hard lines.
Seven studio albums in is about the time you start ignoring a band as the treads wear down and the sound begins to dull. But out of the smoldering ashes of American Aquarium 1.0, this band found its footing, and it is truly something to behold. (read full review)
Blackberry Smoke – Find A Light
Screw talk of saving country music, or even notions of “Southern rock.” With their latest album Find A Light, Blackberry Smoke prove they’re singlehandedly saving rock and roll and everything that stands for—Southern, countrified, and everything in between. Blackberry Smoke transcends genre—in the good way where you’re so badass, everyone wants to claim you as their own, and no single scene can contain you.
Blackberry Smoke doesn’t give a shit anymore about trying to fit into anyone’s preconceived notions of what they should be. Find A Light is the band unsheathing the guitars and going for it. In this calculating music world where so many bands are obsessed with their public perceptions, it’s refreshing, needed, well past due, and welcomed to have a band indulge their barbaric rock and roll masculinity and let the cards fall where they may.
These guys prick such an array of emotions and eras in their efforts with Find A Light, and revive sounds that are going so incredibly underserved except for backlist titles from classic rock greats. Yet their efforts to record roaring anthems and tear-soaked ballads are in the right here, the right now, in the modern context, hoping to become the classics for future generations, and replenish what ClearChannel ran into the ground for decades on classic rock stations.Blackberry Smoke is saying, “We’re here. It’s our time to step up and save the Southern music, be damned what anyone else thinks is cool or relevant.” And that’s exactly what they accomplish on Find a Light. (read full review)
El Coyote – Self-Titled
We’re blessed to live in a time period when there are plenty of woman-led singing duos, trios, and quartets to peruse for your listening pleasure. With the power conjoined female voices can bring to the hopeful and heartbreaking sentiments of country and roots songs, you can’t have enough of this audio virtue. But the one issue a lover of female harmonies who also happens to be a lover of country music will find listening to these respective acts is that despite the promising sounds of their names, they often veer way more folk than what you’re hoping for.
For those fans of the old Carter Family records, or the sounds of the famous Trio collaboration between Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, you just want something a bit more country backing these strong, beautiful voices. You want the moan of the steel guitar to match the emotion that three part harmonies evoke, and you want sentiments the fit more with the agrarian and blue collar experiences that country music provides.
Enter the band El Coyote from Montreal, Canada who makes all of this happen and in brilliant form in their debut, self-titled album. Made up of three women singers and songwriters named Angela Desveaux, Michelle Tompkins, and Katie Moore backed by a three piece band, they’re just about everything you want from a woman-fronted singing trio as a country fan, but without losing the gentleness of the folk portion of the discipline. (read full review)
Dillon Carmichael – Hell on An Angel
This record is nothing short of merciless in how it just grinds out one deeply-powerful, slow and plodding track after another. Everything is too damn slow in the best possible way, like the Southern drawl of your grandpa on a Sunday morning, graced with a familiarity that makes you feel like you’ve found home. Dillon Carmichael and Hell On An Angel is what we mean when we say “country music.” Like all great things, country music gets better with age. This is what makes us revere the old greats of country, and suspicious of fresh-faced newcomers, like some are sure to regard Dillon Carmichael. His skin may be tender, but his soul is definitely old.
There’s just something about being in the country that settles your mind, and warms your heart. You can count on it. It’s not complicated. You sit beside a lake with a line in the water, or stretch out between a tall pine, and everything is right in the world. That same feeling washes over you when listening to Dillon Carmichael’s Hell On An Angel, not just because the music is good, but because it assures you that country music is in good hands for the future, with young, impassioned artists keeping the sound alive, and showing sincere promise to help do so for many years to come. (read full review)
Jason Eady – I Travel On
The songwriting of Jason Eady is unquestionable, and has been for some time. In the realm of Texas country and beyond, Jason Eady’s penmanship is arguably the pinnacle, with only a select few performers to be consider beside him, including his wife Courtney Patton. Eady’s approach to country music has always been a measured one. The sounds come from wood and wire, in acoustic-only arrangements, not letting anything get in the way of the songs themselves, which is where the spotlight and attention should always be with an artist like this. But while lumping worthy praise upon Jason Easy’s last few records, Saving Country Music has been vocal about the lack of muscle, or gas behind the music.
How to resolve adding a little bit of enthusiasm to the music, but still adhering to Jason Eady’s acoustic-only proclamation was a tough riddle to solve. Since Jason Eady fits more the model of a Texas honky tonker, bluegrass never really entered the mindset as a possibility. But adding a couple of hot shot bluegrass ringers was the exact injection Jason Eady’s music needed to not just coast, but soar, and the results speak for themselves on I Travel On.
No toes are stepped on. The music never drowns out the emotion of the story or the moment. It’s probably not even fair to call this a bluegrass album. It’s a Jason Eady album with some badass instrumentation to go along with his established and beloved sound, with incredible music runs embellishing the songs, and adding new textures to Eady’s storytelling experience. Still even with a fuel-injected bluegrass kick behind great songs, the music of Jason Eady will never be for everyone. It’s too damn good for the masses. (read full review)
Mike and the Moonpies – Steak Night at the Prairie Rose
The romantic notion of what an old school honky tonk band from Texas should be has been used to stoke fantasies and fill television and movie screens for years. It’s also been a template for Music Row-molded fashion plates to play dress up and role play the part for many patently unaware fans. But putting your finger on the actual embodiment of a Texas two-step honky tonk band who can play covers and originals for four hours non stop and make it look easy—and all while looking cool themselves—is a little more myth than reality. Yes, there are many smoky bars and wooden dance floors throughout the Lone Star State. And there are many cover and original bands that play them. And then there’s Mike and the Moonpies.
It’s the local flavor, the authenticity, the dedication to themselves, their fans, the music, and the true-to-life dues paid by Mike and the Moonpies that make them darn near the perfect embodiment of the Austin, TX dance hall and dive bar band so many want to emulate, but so few want to put in the sweat or make the sacrifices to actually become. And with such a salivating appetite for authenticity now stirring out there among the country music listening pubic, it’s time for Mike and the Moonpies to step out of the shadows of being considered an undercard band of the Texas music circuit, a “poor man’s Turnpike Troubadours” as some have referred to them in the past, and be hoisted forward as just about the perfect example of what a true Texas country dancehall band is all about. It also happens to be that Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is about the perfect record to do that with. (read full review)