Our Favorite 18 Albums from 2018

The list of incredible albums in country, Americana, bluegrass and the like this past year was too great to name individually or rank in any of kind of official list (It’s hard, y’all. So very hard.).

But for us at CMT.com, there were a few records that we kept spinning on repeat for a myriad of reasons, maybe similar to yours or completely different. So, we put a list of our personal favorites together to share with you as we close out this year of great music and anticipate another one in 2019.

Enjoy them all, in no particular order.

Contributing to the list are Alison Bonaguro, Edward Morris, Samantha Stephens and Lauren Tingle.

  • The Tree of Forgiveness by John Prine

    Prine is the Salvador Dali of songwriters. Under his prismatic gaze, Heaven becomes a place to play rock ’n’ roll, drink vodka and ginger ale cocktails and smoke cigarettes “nine miles long.” Elsewhere in his weird wanderings, Lincoln, Nebraska holds an “Egg & Daughter Nite” (???) and a cuckolded Vulcan sends Venus and Mars a wedding gift of “a three-legged stool and a wheelchair lift.” But there’s more than verbal and visual whimsy here, as evidenced in the sweet recounting of “Summer’s End” and “I Have Met My Love Today” and in the ominous and compelling “Caravan of Fools.” EM

  • Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves

    Musgraves’ third album did more than leave fans standing in thunderous ovation and complete awe. It first left them suspended in a near-cosmic state of introspection, quiet reflection and self-awareness, which is maybe the truest measure of art we have. With Golden Hour, Musgraves took her time, dug deep, dared to stretch her limits and ultimately soared beyond the confines of genre. Always erring on the side of total authenticity, listeners felt even closer to the singer-songwriter than before through this dreamy, ethereal collection of perfectly-crafted songs. Her evolution as a woman gave way to the most stunning evolution of an artist and birthed the best album to come out this year in any genre, in my opinion. SS

  • Hallelujah Nights by Lanco

    When bands are new, one of two things can happen. You can think to yourself, “They might have a shot at this.” Or, “Where have these guys been all my life?” For me, that’s what happened with Lanco. I saw them open for Maren Morris at 3rd & Lindsley a couple years ago and immediately felt like they were going to be a constant in my life (And I was in the way back for that show. So, I couldn’t see them. I could only hear them. That’s always the ultimate acid test for me.). So when Hallelujah Nights arrived at the beginning of this year, it sounded new to me, obviously, but also had some kind of familiarity I can’t put into words. It might just be because some of my favorite songwriters helped frontman Brandon Lancaster pen these songs. But whatever it is about this album and this band, I guess you could say I was born to love them. AB

  • Encore by Anderson East

    East is part of an elite group of artists who are an integral part of redefining today’s Nashville sound, and Encore is one of the greatest soul performances to come out in recent memory. His compassion shines through on the sweet “Kind for a Day,” string-laden “Without You” and the mournful “Cabinet Door.” Listens of scorchers “Surrender” and “Girlfriend,” and they will burn on the brain for days. He revisits Ted Hawkins’ “Sorry You’re Sick” and Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up the Pieces” with an unbridled attitude. LT

  • My Way by Willie Nelson

    Forget the headband and the braids, Willie Nelson is Frank Sinatra. Inside. He has Sinatra’s ear for understated but compelling melodies, his sensibility toward the woes and wonders of love and his actor’s touch in transmuting measured lyrics into casual and intimate conversation. When he sings Sinatra, we are in an elegant world of white dinner jackets and uniformed waiters at every elbow, a black-and-white Life magazine world, before the barbarism of rock and roll, when the only light show is tall tapered candles gleaming from gilded mirrors. EM

  • Port Saint Joe by Brothers Osborne

    What a journey it’s been for John and TJ Osborne, and what a continuation of that journey is their sophomore effort Port Saint Joe. Cheeky, sharp, yet thoughtful, nostalgic and heartwarming, this album has it all, just like the brothers. They can’t help but be anything but themselves, and it’s to everyone’s benefit. Port Saint Joe is a playground for stories of their transgressions, their triumphs, their bad times and well as their good, their memories and their reflections at the end of this incredible season of life, perfectly captured in the album’s closing track “While You Still Can.” SS

  • Live at the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame by The Earls of Leicester

    Even in my decrepitude, I stand ready to fist fight anyone who says there’s ever been a bluegrass band equal to Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys. Their music was organic, sublime, whole and golden. The Earls of Leicester understand this and have the skills to capture the magic as no cover band ever could. Listening to their live performances of such Foggy Mountain classics as “I’ll Go Steppin’ Too” and “My Mother Prays So Loud in Her Sleep,” you can close your eyes and smell the Martha White cornbread baking. And you are home. EM

  • Rearview Town by Jason Aldean

    What I love about this Jason Aldean album is Jason Aldean. What I mean by that is this: I know every batch of music he releases will sound like his 2005 self-titled debut. He is always himself. He’s never pivoted from that. He has never claimed to sonically move the needle. He’s never promoted an album as the “album he’s always wanted to make.” He has been comfortable in his own skin since day one, and I swear I can hear that confidence in every song on his latest. Even on unreleased singles like “Better At Being Who I Am” and “Blacktop Gone.” And on the best track on the album, “High Noon Neon.” Even though we all know Aldean’s personal life is just fine, he is believable when he’s singing about the complete loneliness of day drinking by yourself after crushing blow. AB

  • By The Way, I Forgive You by Brandi Carlile

    Diehard Carlile fans knew this was coming, the moment the entire world knew what they’d known since her first release back in 2000: that Carlile is an icon in the making. Though she’s the most nominated act heading into February’s Grammy Awards, Carlile’s superstar status hasn’t altered her message. Her ability to cut through the surface to the bone is second only to her ability to cut straight through to the heart, which she does masterfully on By The Way, I Forgive You. Boasting the rare gift as a storyteller of making personal issues seem broad and the broad topics seem personal, this album feels just as much like a statement on society as it does her individual truth. And we as a society, all in this thing together, need that reminder now more than ever before. SS

  • E.G.O. by Lucie Silvas

    E.G.O. continues to show that Silvas is a master at matching lyric to melodic groove. With her latest 12-song collection, she shakes loose any expectations of the artist she should be while capturing all the colorful characters she’s lived in her soul through life. It screams timelessness. The liberating “Kite” has her singing about a heroine who won’t be tied down by anyone. “I Want You All to Myself” haunts as she alludes to the selfishness one sometimes feels in love, while “E.G.O.” is a funky look at how everyone gets off on losing themselves in today’s self-obsessed digital age. LT

  • Tribute to the Kentucky Colonels by Roland White & Friends

    An inspired mandolin player, White performed stellar work with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Country Gazette and the Nashville Bluegrass Band on a long journey that led to his induction into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2017. Before all that, though, White and his brothers Clarence and Eric performed as the Kentucky Colonels, with Clarence earning particular distinction for his guitar work. The Colonels disbanded after Clarence’s death in an auto accident in 1973. In this album, Roland is aided by an array of established and up-and-coming bluegrass pickers to offer new takes on such canonical favorites as “I Am a Pilgrim,” “If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me,” “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and “Alabama Jubilee.” It’s truly a celebration worth celebrating. EM

  • Nobody’s Everything by Tucker Beathard

    I feel like I know Tucker Beathard now. The whole him. As if, on his first few songs, I got a glimpse of the singer-songwriter he could be, but now he is an open book. And it’s a page-turner. The way he crafts songs makes me think that he writes lyrics, then rewrites them, then rewrites them 100 more times. Or maybe he is such a natural at this that he comes up with lines like “This life is gonna kill me” or “The right feels wrong” right out of the gate (That may actually be the case, because his father Casey wrote some of the songs with him, and I swear there’s something lyrical coursing through their veins.). Either way, this album is one that I’m going to wear out in the years to come. Music like this sustains me. AB

  • From A Room, Vol. 2 by Chris Stapleton

    Yes, technically Stapleton’s record released Dec. 1 of 2017, but we as an audience didn’t really get to fully enjoy the fruits of his labor until this year. In an age and town of tracks, beats, layers, synths, and endless pads, he and producer Dave Cobb boast the most seemingly obvious secret weapon to success: simplicity. When you’ve got the story and the singer, you don’t need anything else. He is a testament to the utter beauty and magic of real storytelling. SS

  • Interstate Gospel by Pistol Annies

    Pistol Annies’ Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe are at their best when they speak their truth. And they don’t hold back on Interstate Gospel, arguably the greatest country album released in 2018. They make light of exes in the fiery “Got My Name Changed Back,” but their raw compassion shows through in the telling “Leavers Lullaby” and “When I Was His Wife.” They even touch on one of the toughest perennial country music themes — prison — in “Commissary,” a telling ballad that sharply depicts what many people with loved ones in the clink go through. LT

  • The Mountain by Dierks Bentley

    There isn’t much about this album I don’t love. But I think what stands out to me is how it reminds me of Bentley’s 2010 bluegrass album Up on the Ridge. The Mountain may not be packed with the straight-up fiddle/banjo/mandolin-heavy songs like that one was, but there’s just enough of that sound to take me to a place where novelty songs and shiny pop arrangements aren’t welcome. And because of that, it seems like I can hear more of the grit and gravel in Bentley’s voice. That could’ve been done with purpose and intent, or it could just be some kind of happy accident. Maybe if I listen to The Mountain a hundred more times, I’ll figure it out. And I’m happy to do that. AB

  • Still Feel Lucky by Ben Danaher

    It may seem a little bias for this to make my list, as this Texas native and I often collaborate together. But whenever I perform or write with him, I feel much more like a student in a master class rather than a pal. Danaher’s raspy voice is wrought with the type of soul that can only come from experiencing a lifetime before age 30, which he has. But his real gift is playing the dark and light against each other. He’s not afraid to show us his broken parts, but he always leaves the cracks wide open to let light — and love in, which is perfectly embodied on this earnest, autobiographical collection of songs. SS

  • Somewhere In Between by Adam Hood

    No one writes about country living better than Hood. That’s why everyone from Anderson East, to Little Big Town, to Frankie Ballard, to David Nail records his songs. Somewhere In Between exudes endless country wisdom. For example, the entire collection opens with the lines, “Life’s a gamble some people say / They make it look so easy every time they play.” With a sound that embodies classic Delbert McClinton, “The Weekend” captures surviving on just enough to get through a weekly grind with blue collar class. Every southern belle wishes “Bayou Girl” and “Confederate Rose” were written about them. “Real Small Town” is an idyllic look at the steadiness of small town living. LT

  • In the Meantime by Motel Mirrors

    John Paul Keith released two Memphis music masterpieces in 2018, his latest solo album, Heart Shaped Shadow and In the Meantime his latest Motel Mirrors collaboration with bassist Amy LaVere. LaVere’s husband Will Sexton gives captivating guitar performances on both that are every honky-tonk country fans’ dream. But the real star of the show on both albums is the Memphis realism Keith delivers in the lyrics. On In the Meantime’s “The Things I Learned Without You,” LaVere takes the lead singing a litany of life lessons she’s learned on her own except the one about how to love another. “Paper Doll” and “Do With Me What You Want” are companion pieces but take on different interpretations of getting used by love. “The Man Who Comes Around” is an addicting country shuffle about a married mom who fools around the ice man, who ultimately becomes a childhood hero of the mother’s progeny. LT