Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it’s meant to highlight the best work in the genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
For fans of country and folk, 2018 was as good a year as any, even if it felt like these artists in these genres on the margins had to fight even harder than ever for the recognition they deserve. Still, if there’s anything the country and folk-minded among us are excellent at, it’s fighting for what they rightly deserve, and plenty of artists put their all on the line in order to get their just deserts. From radio hits and Billboard chart toppers to independent, brand new artists with nothing to their name but a collection of folk songs and a dream, here’s a look at the shining stars in this realm for 2018.
20. Jason Aldean, Rearview Town
Jason Aldean’s resilience after surviving the horrific mass shooting at Las Vegas’ Route 91 music festival is admirable, and even if he didn’t get into that tough subject matter on his new record, Rearview Town, there’s still plenty that resonates on this strong entry into his already packed and successful discography. “High Noon Neon” deals with the bright that can shine through in life’s darker moments, while “Drowns The Whiskey,” a searing song featuring Miranda Lambert, is a gorgeous, bummer-duet lamenting the times when not even booze will cure the hurt. The stand out track here, though, is an ode to his wife, “You Make It Easy,” a slow-building, syrupy ballad of adoration for the woman who has held him down through hell and back — quite literally. On a personal note, seeing him perform this track while at a couple’s resort this summer was the peak of appreciation. That’s a sentiment older than cowboys themselves, and Aldean pulls it off beautifully.–Caitlin White
19. Anna St. Louis, If Only There Was A River
This Kansas City songwriter made a strong debut with her stately, elegant full-length If Only There Was A River, the follow up to her initial cassette release, First Songs, with folk-centric New York indie label Woodsist (label description: “fine archaic audio artifacts”). After moving to LA several years ago, St. Louis began writing songs, and came up with that tape before seriously embarking on making an album, enlisting experts at the helm in Kyle Thomas (King Tuff) and Kevin Morby to produce it. St. Louis uses nostalgic strings and expertly positioned vocal phrases to draw the listener into her heady, mesmerizing world, full of wobbly melodies and intently stated folk koans that continue to unfold in your mind long after the song comes to a close. Sometimes the simplest things are the most important, and St. Louis wields that wisdom with the dexterity of an expert, even though she’s just starting out.–C.W.
18. Kane Brown, Experiment
Kane Brown makes excellent pop country that falls just outside the box and had a breakout year when his second full-length album, Experiment, went No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Numbers aren’t everything, but as a biracial, heavily tattooed newcomer to the country scene, it speaks volumes about Brown’s talent that he was able to easily find success in a genre that is still often highlighted for its stoic, conservative ways. (Plus, he was one of only three country artists to snag a No. 1 on that chart this year. The others? Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood) The Tennessee-born songwriter skirted the traditional label system when he was starting out, gaining over 400,000 fans on Facebook in two weeks after the viral status of an early single, “Used To Love You Sober,” made Nashville proper sit up and take notice. Experiment stays true to Brown’s roots as an outsider ready to own the genre from the inside, with pop-country magic on “My Where I Come From” and “Short Skirt Weather” lassoing the old world charm of stars like Tim McGraw and remixing it for the social media age.–C.W.
17. Erin Rae, Putting On Airs
We were early to this breakout star’s sophomore album, Putting On Airs, which came out this summer, but really took on a life of its own after a special show at Camp Wandawega highlighted the work. Our own Chloe Gilke traveled to Wisconsin for that performance, hanging with Erin and her crew, and getting a feel for the golden, hushed feel of the record. “Listening to it, you hear a natural reverb, a sense that it was made somewhere big and echoing and timeless,” Gilke expertly noted. Full of nostalgic, piped-in piano, up close and personal steel guitar, and Rae’s effortless, feathery alto, this record is like a sweet, warm wind, rushing through your window just when you need a reminder of how beautiful and breezy life can be.–C.W.
16. Dawes, Passwords
Dawes remains one of the more underrated bands in all of Los Angeles, though there’s quite a big pile of excellent musicians over here in the biggest west coast hub that still seem to never get their due. Passwords is less country and folk-leaning than a lot of the band’s previous work — and there is a lot, as Taylor Goldsmith and co. have been consistently making great tunes over six records and nearly ten years. This record is a little slower, but funkier, a little more subdued, but even more fixated on delivering the fascinating story-songs that hint at the cosmos inside of every conversation. Lengthy, sprawling standouts like “Feed The Fire” and “Telescope” capture the band’s ethos best, delivering their tales of human expectation and disappointment with Laurel Canyon simmer.–C.W.
15. Tony Molina, Kill The Lights
When I listen to Kill The Lights, I can’t help but think about The Beatles. I know Tony Molina is a veteran of the Bay Area hardcore scene, but this latest release leaned so close to the folk-pop side of things, it felt impossible not to include him on this list. His tender, laconic phrasing reminds me of the Fab Four, and the tightly-constructed, crystalline melodies on his impossibly short record evoke the simple, perfect brevity of a song like “In My Life,” or “Norwegian Wood.” Of course, there are fewer harmonies here (though there are some), and Molina’s songs tend to be even shorter than Lennon’s — the entirety of Kill The Lights clocks in at 14 minutes. But within those seconds, he manages to evoke one of the greatest bands of all time. This album is well worth the few minutes you’ll need to give it a chance, and packs a punch far beyond that time.–C.W.
14. Amanda Shires, To The Sunset
Amanda Shires has long been an esteemed Americana singer/songwriter in her own right, but this year’s To The Sunset felt like a breakout moment for her. The sweeping, static of this majestic record takes any ideas about what Americana is or should be and turns them on their head, letting enormous melodies and her powerful, enigmatic voice take the lead. A decorated award winner in the genre, both for her astounding work on records like The Nashville Sound with her husband, Jason Isbell, and her own solo output, To The Sunset is a sharp reminder to anyone who tuned in late that Shires and her massive discography have been holding things down in the country world for about a decade and a half. The fierce, wild songwriting she’s built her reputation on shows through clearer than ever on To The Sunset, with the thundering opener “Parking Lot Piroutte” and freewheeling “Break Out The Champagne” serving as indicators that she just might have another 15 years of music to give us after this.–C.W.
13. Ruston Kelly, Dying Star
Ruston Kelly is another entry on our list married to a beloved country star, his wedding last year to the genre’s beloved Kacey Musgraves was a news story in its own right. Now, he’s back for what he’d rather be in the headlines for — an album of his own. And the lonesome and blue Dying Star is cold and bright in all the right ways. As the title suggests, most of the album concerns itself with bright things that are losing their staying power, a meditation on loss, pain, and the whole damn thing. Even when these songs are tinged with heartache, Kelly’s velvety, rough voice makes the bitter go down sweet. “Faceplant” and “Blackout” will be familiar territory for those who find themselves perpetually single, relying on outside uppers to numb the pain or sabotage the best things they’ve had. If you’re into harmonica-heavy, whiskey-drenched ballads, this record is for you. After all, there’s plenty of kinship to be found in melancholy — and it takes some of the bite out of these drained ballads to know that, in reality, Kelly is happily in love.–C.W.
12. Alela Diane, Cusp
Quietly rebellious as ever, Alela Diane wrote an entire album about her experiences with motherhood on Cusp, summarily dismissing the notion that starting a family somehow halts a woman’s creative drive, or diminishes her contributions to the art world. The resulting record is hushed and close, silvery and quiet, like new fallen snow, or a flicker of folk candlelight in a dark, uncertain world. Diane sings, as she always has, about the small exchanges between people who love each other, and the massive impact these interactions can have on the world at large. In something of a break from her past work, which has focused primarily on guitar, Cusp is a very piano-heavy album, and the shift helps add another layer of levity to a somber but lovely piece of work.–C.W.
11. Van William, Countries
Kicking off the year with a strong start, Van William’s solo debut, Countries, remained a highlight in the folk-country world, even as it was joined by plenty of other strong contenders. Along with his work with the collective WATERS, and a former project as Port O’Brien, Van Pierszalowski was ready to release a collection of songs under his own name — or as close to that as he’s ever going to get. Like many other massive, great records, Pierszalowski’s songs resulted from a sense of loss, both from a breakup and from losing a historical family encampment up in Alaska. Out of his pain over these shifts came Countries, a spry, resilient record that is open, self-assured, and a fantastic debut. “Fourth Of July” is the easy standout here, spotlighting the pop sensibilities and soaring choruses that make Countries such a rousing success.–C.W.