The Best Mainstream Country Albums of 2018

Saving Country Music unapologetically leans towards the independent and traditional side of country music, not to show bias against anything in the mainstream, but simply to help even the balance between the incredible attention mainstream and major label artists receive, and the criminally mediocre attention independent artists commonly experience.

But that doesn’t mean the mainstream of country doesn’t get it right every so often. It’s important that we highlight those positive albums and artists to help spread the seed of good music in the sector of country that has the widest audience, and gets the most attention from mass media.

In 2018, there was a curious amount of quality music coming from the mainstream and major labels. Of course it had to fight for attention with some of the worst offenses toward the integrity of the country music genre the planet Earth has ever seen. But there were a lot of positive bright spots. In 2018, the influence of Bro-Country continued to wane, and partly helping to take its place were more positive examples of country music in the mainstream. Here are Saving Country Music’s top mainstream album picks.

9. Ashley Monroe – Sparrow

The songwriting on Sparrow is what endures, autonomous of any other concerns. It might even be fair to mark it as her most refined songwriting effort yet. Songs like the opening “Orphan,” or the stirring story of “Rita,” or the heartbreak of “Paying Attention” are what distinguishes an artist like Ashley Monroe from the mundane efforts of the mainstream. Waylon Payne worked a lot with Monroe on the songwriting of this record, of which Monroe co-write every track.

Monroe’s voice is also in top form. It’s able to handle both sexy subject matter, of which Sparrow broaches on numerous occasions, including the sultry “Hands On You” and the rambunctious “Wild Love.” It also handles the sweet and loving stories, whether singing about her new gift of motherhood, or the affection for her father in “Daddy I Told You.” (read review)

8. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Golden Hour is definitely a move to a more pop, and less country approach to the music by Kacey Musgraves. But it’s far from the rebuke of country some are salivating to characterize it as for their ulterior purposes. Perhaps there is a passing verse or two that could be characterized as political by some stretch, but Golden Hour is in no way a political album, with Musgraves putting political enterprises in her music well in the past, despite the continued protestations of ill-informed listeners, and the mischaracterizations of fawning media. Golden Hour really isn’t “empowering” in any way, even though this has become the stock accolade for any song or album released by a woman these days, which ultimately dilutes the efficacy of the verb.

Instead, Golden Hour is a mild-mannered, mid tempo and dreamy collection of Kacey Musgraves musings presented to the world in hopes people will listen regardless of their genre preferences or political affiliations. Golden Hour has some good songs. “Space Cowboy” is a very solid track, and it was well written by Musgraves with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally. “Butterflies” co-written with Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby is also quite strong, even if it’s not especially country. And yes, these were the songs we heard ahead of the release. Another song that crowds have heard before is the final song of the record, and arguably the best of the lot—the beautifully-written “Rainbow” authored by Natalie Hemby and Shane McAnally with Musgraves. (read review)

7. Dierks Bentley – The Mountain

For years, Dierks Bentley has played a critical role in pulling people together as opposed to forcing them apart as a pragmatic and likeable star in the often polarizing realm of pop country. In a time in music where it can almost be impossible for everyone to agree on a single artist, Dierks was one of the few to create a consensus. Even if you didn’t like him, you still didn’t hate him, at least until his last album Black where Dierks put a lot of his good will in peril by crossing very perceptible lines of creative decency. It wasn’t just how bad the music was. It was that Dierks Bentley knew better. And no matter what happens henceforth, that record and the efforts within will always and justifiably leave a bad taste with certain fans.

Bentley’s new record The Mountain is not some dramatic return to his bluegrass roots, and it’s probably not even fair to call it rootsy aside from a few songs. But it is a return to Dierks Bentley doing what he does best, which is putting out good, quality, often inspiring songs that are raised in importance since they’re something you can enjoy with others that may otherwise not fit your musical alignment—your relatives, your co-workers, your wife or husband. And as diametrically opposed as the world is today, this positive attribute may never be more important. (read review)

6. Kenny Chesney – Songs For The Saints

If Kenny Chesney hadn’t spent the last 20-something years of his career beating down the country music listening public with his barrage of island and beach songs, we probably would be talking about how his latest record Songs For The Saints is a striking piece of conceptualized album making, benefiting a good cause with certain proceeds going to the hurricane-ravaged island chain the record is named after, and touting the elevated songwriting and organic production that avoids many of the pratfalls of the modern mainstream sound and style. And even still, when approached with a critical ear, and a bout of amnesia about Chesney’s previous output, all of these observations arguably remain to be true.

Even for someone like Chesney, there’s too many sea songs here for it to see enough positive reception for four hit singles on country radio. At least by mainstream standards, this really is a concept record, going to benefit a charitable cause with very personal ties to Chesney, and that promotes good songs and songwriters in a manner only Miranda Lambert has done in recent memory in the mainstream. (read review)

5. Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe

So here are the Brothers Osborne with their second album Port Saint Joe being praised to the rafters, and for the most part it’s worthy, not just for the overall quality, but in making headway against the burden of the Brothers Osborne being unable to define themselves and separate from the herd. You don’t hear really any of the poppy singles. They’re definitely gravitating more towards a rootsy and rock ‘n roll sound, which at least limits the scope they try to cover. And there’s quite a few by God country songs in the mix, both in the style and the writing, making them much easier to get behind.

For the Brothers Osborne to work beyond winning awards, they don’t need radio necessarily, though any artist would be a fool to turn it down. What they need are those grassroots fans, those Chris Stapleton converts and serious country listeners who will nod their head in approval, even if they don’t count themselves as dedicated followers. Port Saint Joe goes a long way to securing that.

John Osborne is a great guitar player and composer, and they would be fools not to exploit that as they do in their explosive and extended “Shoot Me Straight.” T.J. Osborne has a billowy, deep voice that’s great for country music, which he uses well on the rootsy “Tequila Again” co-written with Kendell Marvel, and another well-written and rootsy song, “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” Shane McAnally helped pen. (read review)

4. Eric Church – Desperate Man

Desperate Man won’t go to battle with the absolute best that all of country music has to offer in 2018 when considering the strong field of independent artists, but it probably will come out near the top when it comes to the mainstream. Is Eric Church really a “Desperate Man”? Of course not. Desperate Man is definitely more Ray Wylie Hubbard than George Strait. But is that a bad thing? Of course it isn’t. It should be seen as an achievement to push something like this out on the mainstream level.

Through his efforts to build a strong fan base apart from radio, Eric Church has earned the latitude from his label to record and release whatever the hell he wants. That’s an important victory in itself. But what you do with that freedom is what’s most paramount. And what Eric Church has done is released an interesting and entertaining record a place apart from the norms of the mainstream that awakens the roots of American music. It may not be a masterpiece, and it may not appeal to the entirety of the independent crowd. But it is a major accomplishment considering the parameters. (read review)

3. Ashley McBryde – Girl Goin’ Nowhere

We’re at war for the soul of country music ladies and gentlemen, and recruiting cute little pop stars from affluent Southern suburbs, and then attempting to refine their sugary styles to be even more pop, and more cute under the misguided notion that this is how to tap into the passion of the masses has only resulted in continuing losses in that fight. As Waylon Jennings once said, “We need a change.”

We need a woman who can do battle with the bros, and beat them at their own game. We need a woman who refuses to take “no” for an answer, and won’t be demoralized by short-term losses. We need a woman who is used to battling through adversity, and whose first instinct when she faces a roadblock is not to turn to social media to complain, but to put her head down and barrel through it. We need a woman that slings her guitar around her shoulder like a Medieval barbarian firmly grips their two-handed hilt of a bastard sword, ready to go into battle. And finally we have that woman, and one who has infiltrated the ranks of major label performers, and even penetrated the once-thought impenetrable fortress of country music radio. Look the hell out, because Ashley McBryde is here, and she’s a badass.

On Ashley McBryde’s major label debut Girl Going Nowhere, there are no edges shaved off, and no punches pulled. That goes for the stark honesty and detail embedded in “Livin’ Next To Leroy,” to the emotionally-wrenching storytelling of “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” It ranges from unrepentant Heartland rock anthems like the guitar-driven “El Dorado,” to totally stripped down and soul-wrenching love sonnets like “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You).” Girl Going Nowhere doesn’t hide the tattoos and scars, it bears them. There’s no powder foundation to buff out the bad parts, there’s a circle drawn around them, and a show-and-tell undertaken. Ashley McBryde reveals the true America, warts and all. (read review)

2. The Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel

Beneath the Southern female glitz and unruly frivolity on the surface of the Pistol Annies’ persona is perhaps the trio’s most involved work, and one that is more revealing and personal than even possibly their solo efforts. From a band that has made its name running up against stuffy Southern customs and exposing small town hypocrisy, it might be the deep personal revelations from the Annies themselves that makes this record the most potent in perforating antiquated social mores.

This record should not be regarded as a repository for B-level material from these three A-list songwriters. On the contrary, Interstate Gospel includes arguably some of the best songs from each that have been released in recent memory. (read review)

1. Caitlyn Smith – Starfire

For what it is, 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.

And don’t relegate this music to “Americana” channels or anywhere else. This is music ready for the big time. There are radio hits all over this record. In fact if there’s any draw back from the effort, it’s that a few of the songs like the title track do that rising chorus action that can be predictable and annoying about radio singles, but this is forgivable given the quality of the material. It’s the destiny of Caitlyn Smith and Starfire is to blow up the mainstream. And until that destiny becomes a reality, it’s a curse and a shame on the entire industry for letting it slip through uncelebrated.

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 review)

READ: Saving Country Music’s 2018 Artist of the Year

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