As we move past the musical halfway pole for 2018, it’s time once again to look back in the rear-view mirror and see what has wowed us the most so far. Along with some excellent albums that will go on to be considered for some of the best all year, the spring of 2018 has also revealed itself as one of the busiest release periods for important albums in many years.
The clutter of releases and the propensity for things to get overlooked makes this exercise even more important, while listeners and industry professionals do their best to keep up. We’ll just have to see if the bounty we’re currently experiencing will eventually result in a malaise of new music come later in the year. But for now, we do our best to make sure we don’t miss the most important stuff.
The first albums highlighted should be considered early candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year,” while everything else highlighted should be considered coming highly recommended. But of course over time, estimations can change. Some albums may eventually reveal themselves as not worthy for Album of the Year consideration, while others may rise to that recognition.
PLEASE NOTE: This only includes albums that have been reviewed by Saving Country Music so far. Just because an album is not included here doesn’t mean it’s not good, or won’t be reviewed in the future.
Recommendations and opinions on albums is encouraged, including leaving your own list of favorite albums in the comments sections below. However, please understand that nothing is “forgotten,” and nobody’s list is “illegitimate” just because one particular album is left off, or a certain album is included. The point of this exercise is to expand the awareness of great music, and that is how it should be approached by all parties. Saving Country Music reviews a very large amount of material, and each year has reviewed more material than the year previous. That said, no critic or outlet can review every single project released in a given genre.
The albums are presented in no particular order.
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)
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Years
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ second record Years doesn’t exhibit what would generally be considered incredible songwriting. The tunes aren’t performed by a top notch collective of hot shot players who are known as titans in their respective fields. There is no innovative or evolutionary musical leaps performed on this album, no underlying conceptualized approach that works towards a greater understanding, nor is it a sweeping thematic undertaking that resonates with the listener on a grand scale. There are no timely political narratives, no cross-genre collaborations or blending of influences in novel or inventive ways. Conventionally speaking, you probably wouldn’t even regard Sarah Shook as a great singer.
But what Years has that so many albums that boast some or all of the aforementioned attributes lack is what all true listeners ultimately come to music for—a trump card that supersedes all other concerns, benchmarks, and gradients. It’s the part of music you can never learn, never practice up, never teach or toil to capture. Either you have it, or you don’t. And Sarah Shook has it. She has it in spades, while so many others fail to grasp even the mere notion of it.
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. (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)
Brent Cobb – Providence Canyon
Somewhere on the highways and byways of Heaven, Country Music Hall of Famer Jerry Reed is driving a semi truck full of Coors on a delivery for Jesus, slapping the dashboard maniacally with a big ol’ Georgia peach-eatin’ grin screaming “Hot damn son, get after after it!” as the tunes of Brent Cobb’s new album Providence Canyon come blaring out of the speakers.
This is some smooth pimpin’ sweaty and dirty shit. Pure sex on vinyl. Hide your daughters. Coffee smudges and axle grease stain each note, and the guitar grooves are glued together from the tar of the road. Not since the days of Cledus Snow and J.J. Cale have we heard such authentic and infectious country soul scratched into vinyl.
The road is what gives the album its licks and grooves throughout. It’s a guitar record, tested in front of scores of crowds coast to coast to see what resonates live before they walked into the studio to cut it. The road also comprises the theme, spelled out in songs like “Come Home Soon,” and the ending track “Ain’t A Road Too Long,” which starts out strange with the talk singing, but finishes very strong. Cobb never wails. Instead he eases the bucket seat back, grabs the wheel at the 12 O’clock position, and sings in a slow, even-keeled drawl as lazy as a Sunday drive, letting the world roll by, slowly narrating. (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.
But even if Caitlyn’s mom and myself are the only ones listening, Starfire is still a victory, because it’s real, and it’s her, and it made it out of the gauntlet that is Music Row unadulterated. 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. Listen or not, it’s what everything else mainstream should be measured against; for now, in the recent past, and for the foreseeable future. (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)
Randall King – Self-Titled
With the same deft accuracy and studious understanding other country artists have evoked certain eras in the modern context, Randall King comes out swinging and fleetly re-imagines 90’s country with one sharp song after another. Some of the terminology and subject matter might be a little more tweaked to modern sensibilities, but the music is authentic, and you keep having to check the liner notes, telling yourself this must be a song you heard before from Alan Jackson, John Anderson, or early Garth Brooks who himself has been praising Randall King.
Older artists such as the recently-passed Daryle Singletary, Gene Watson, and others have done their level best to keep this era of country music alive. And now joining other younger artists such as Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan, Randall King is making sure the best portions of an important era in country music don’t go the way of the dinosaur, but instead are preserved for future generations to be influenced from and discover as the diverse and expansive timeline of country music continues on. (read full review)
Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain
From snowy and decaying Buffalo, New York, to a convenience store in Austin, out to Denver and locations in between, Courtney Marie’s own wanderlust gives her such great insight into location, culture, and character that she then bakes into songs that despite who they’re about specifically, real or fictitious, still seem to be about all of us in one way or another. The world she sings about in May Your Kindness Remain is one of meager means, of dying places and decrepit houses, but finding the beauty beneath the ugliness due to the love that remains untarnished, and a simple appreciation for the act of living. As bad a the news may portray the world to be, it’s still better than not being around to hear it at all, or being alone while it unfurls.
Being a die-hard music fan so on pins and needles for new releases is often an exercise in being disappointed, if not from efforts, than by your own expectations. But when an artist does deliver to expectations or beyond, the alleviation and joy goes to another level. As Courtney Marie Andrews proves in May Your Kindness Remain, she is not a passing fancy of roots music, she’s a rising star that could prove to be a generational talent, with May Your Kindness Remain being one of those records you return to for years. (read full review)
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
John Prine’s new album The Tree of Forgiveness is no victory lap. This isn’t Prine resting on his laurels, soaking up embellished praise simply from the weight of his legacy as he coasts into the twilight of his life, cashing out with old cobbled together recordings left on the cutting house floor from previous sessions. His first album of all original songs in 13 years includes those same little sparks of magic and charm that keep his back catalog fresh after all of these years, and make you infinitely happy he’s still around and kicking out songs.
John Prine writes kids songs for adults. His whimsical tales enhanced with tiny observances of life’s perfect little details are like treasure troves of wit, hiding a deeper wisdom that helps breed understanding of larger meanings, sugar-coated so they go down easy, but with all the potency of the most powerful odes.
Put John Prine in that distinct category of performers that future generations will marvel that you got to see while they were still alive—a legend of music, even if he never filled arenas, or found himself at the top of the charts. That was never the point. The point was the song. (read full review)
American Aquarium – Things Change
Things Change is an absolute songwriting clinic. BJ Barham has made a career out of his ambition, guts, and determination overriding an average voice, and a general lack of direction in how to convey otherwise really good songs. His train wreck nature may be fetching for the forlorn and broken hearted, but it doesn’t make for good business, or a sustainable plan. But now with a sober mind, a brand new band, and possibly the biggest asset for Things Change—Oklahoma songwriter John Fullbright in the producer seat—BJ Barham and American Aquarium have finally found their sound, their voice, and released arguably the best record of the band’s run, and maybe one of the best of 2018.
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.
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)
Other Albums Highly Recommended:
Parker Millsap – Other Arrangements (read review)
Joshua Hedley – Mr. Jukebox (read review)
Western Centuries – Songs From The Deluge (read review)
Lindi Ortega – Liberty (read review)
Old Crow Medicine Show – Volunteer (read review)
Jason Boland and the Stragglers – Hard Times Are Relative (read review)
Vivian Leva – Time Is Everything (read review)
Trixie Mattel – One Stone (read review)
Left Arm Tan – El Camino (read review)
Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You (read review)
Courtney Patton – What It’s Like to Fly Alone (read review)
Red Shahan – Culberson County (read review)
Shotgun Rider – Palo Duro (read review)
Urban Pioneers – Hillbilly Swing Music (read review)
Wes Youssi and the County Champs – Down Low (read review)
The Church Sisters – A Night At The Opry (read review)
Darci Carlson – Wild, Reckless, and Crazy (read review)
Charley Crockett – Lonesome As A Shadow (read review)
Ugly Valley Boys – Iron Mine (read review)
The Hellroys – Hellroys Is Real (read review)
Trampled By Turtles – Life Is Good On The Open Road (read review)
First Aid Kit – Ruins (read review)
Larry Peninsula – Country Music Only (read review)
Yellow Feather – And Gold (read review)
Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe (read review)
Brandon Jenkins – Tail Lights in a Boomtown (read review)
Ashley McBryde – Girl Going Nowhere (read review)
Dallas Moore – Mr. Honky Tonk (read review)
Willie Nelson – Last Man Standing (read review)
Mickey Lamantia – Every Bad Habit (read review)
Grace Basement – Mississippi Nights (read review)
John Oates – Arkansas (read review)
Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (read review)
Other Albums Receiving Positive Reviews:
Jeff Hyde – Norman Rockwell World (read review)
Ashley Monroe – Sparrow (read review)
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (read review)
Scotty McCreery – Seasons Change (read review)
Other Albums On The Radar, But Not Reviewed Yet:
Note: Just because an album has not been reviewed yet (or is not included here) does not mean it won’t be in the future. So chill.
- Tami Neilson – Sassafrass
- Karen Jonas – Butter
- Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Downey to Lubbock
- Nicki Bluhm – To Rise You Gotta Fall
- Neko Case – Hell-On
- Pharis & Jason Romero – Sweet Old Religion
- Gretchen Peters – Dancing with the Beast
- Kelly Willis – Back Being Blue
- Pat Reedy and the Longtime Goners – That’s All There Is
- Jesse Daniel – Self-Titled
- Dom Flemons – Black Cowboys
- Kayla Ray – Yesterday and Me
- Buffalo Gospel – On The First Bell
- I’m With Her – See You Around
- Hellbound Glory – Streets of Aberdeen
- Garrett T Capps – In The Shadows (Again)
- Leftover Salmon – Something Higher
- Lake Street Dive – Free Yourself Up
- Erik Dylan – Baseball on the Moon
- Sean Burns – Music for Taverns, Bars, and Honky Tonks
- Josh Ward – More Than I Deserve
- Joe’s Truck Stop – American Dreams
- Philip Bradatsch – Ghost on a String
- Wood & Wire – North of Despair
- And many, many more….