by Julian Spivey
It was announced on Saturday, Jan. 12 that John Prine would be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which was somewhat of a shock to me because I would’ve assumed he would already have been an inductee. In celebration of Prine’s terrific body of work here are his 10 greatest songs. Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut was such a perfect album that half of this list comprises of songs from that all-time classic album.
10. “In Spite of Ourselves”
John Prine can write a tragedy ballad like no one else in songwriting history, but he also has a terrific sense of humor and wit that comes out in his work and his 1999 duet with Iris DeMent “In Spite of Ourselves” is a great example of this. “In Spite of Ourselves,” originally written for Billy Bob Thornton’s film “Daddy and Them,” is a wildly strange, but lovely duet with two unique voices that mesh perfectly together.
9. “Christmas in Prison”
Most Holiday songs are cheerful, but that isn’t how everyone spends the Holidays. This is why I love John Prine’s contemplative song off his third album 1973’s Sweet Revenge about a prisoner spending the “happiest time of the year” in prison and dreaming of a love that’s outside of the bars. Prine’s evocative lyrics have a way of putting you in the shoes of the narrator and you can feel the pain in this one.
8. “Lake Marie”
“Lake Marie,” from 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, is one of the most unique songs in John Prine’s discography as it kind of melds multiple stories into one song and takes an abrupt turn by the end. The first verse tells the story of Lake Marie, on the Illinois-Wisconsin border where Prine used to visit growing up. The second verse tells of meeting a girl at the lake, falling in love and later returning to try to revive their relationship. The third verse sees the song getting macabre with news of a murder on the television. It’s an incredibly interesting, literary and mysterious track.
“Souvenirs,” off of John Prine’s sophomore release Diamonds in the Rough from 1972, is a beauty of nostalgia that proves that nostalgia isn’t always fun and games, but sometimes full of memories you’d rather keep deep down. Lines like: “broken hearts and dirty windows/make life difficult to see/that’s why last night and this mornin’/always look the same to me” are just mesmerizing, which is why it’s all the more surprising that Prine claims he wrote this in 20 minutes in a car on the way to a club show in Chicago simply because he thought he should have a new song each night so the usual crowd wouldn’t tire of him.
“Paradise,” off of John Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut, is likely his most covered song and the countriest sounding song of his career. “Paradise” tells the tale of being taken to a place called Paradise in Kentucky as a childhood by his father and how the town, which was a little perfect slice of Americana, was eventually bought out and destroyed by a coal company. Prine says he wrote the song for his father, “so he would know I was a songwriter.” “When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox,” Prine said.
5. “Summer’s End”
“Summer’s End,” released just last year on John Prine’s first album of original material in more than a decade The Tree of Forgiveness, shows that Prine hasn’t missed a step in his songwriting despite taking so much time off. “Summer’s End” is a devastating slice of nostalgia with a narrator pleading for a lost love or friend or family member to come on home. For someone who’s 72-years old like Prine the “summer” in the song could also be a stand-in for time and life passing by so quickly. “Summer’s End” was recently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song.
4. “Sam Stone”
“Sam Stone,” from John Prine’s debut album in 1971, is another of his most covered selections having been recorded by legends like Johnny Cash. The song, which a Rolling Stone magazine poll ranked as one of the saddest songs of all-time, tells the story of a war vet who returns home and becomes addicted to heroine and ultimately dies of an overdose. It’s a story so many actual vets could identify with.
3. “Six O’clock News”
“Six O’clock News” isn’t really a John Prine prime cut like so many of the others on this list, but the song from his debut album has always been one of my personal favorites, and one that’s always been somewhat mysterious for me. “Six O’clock News” tells the story of James Lewis, who finds out a mysterious secret in his mother’s diary and commits suicide. Prine said the song is based on a childhood friend who was a troublemaker and ended up in Juvenile Court where the prosecutor preceded to tell the court, and him, that his father was indeed his father, but his mother was actually his older sister.”
2. “Angel From Montgomery”
John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” tells the story from the point of view of an old woman looking back on her younger days and a past love and missing it all. The song includes a couple of my all-time favorite Prine lyrics: “if dreams were lightning and thunder was desire/this old house would’ve burned down a long time ago” and “how the hell can a person go to work in the morning/and come home in the evening and have nothing to say.” Perfection. The song found wide recognition when Bonnie Raitt covered it beautifully in 1974.
1. “Hello In There”
It always mesmerizes me when a songwriter can completely get into the mindset of his characters and their lives and feelings and John Prine does this better than most on his 1971 tune “Hello In There,” off his debut album. “Hello In There” tells the story of an older, retired couple and the loneliness of the old after their careers are over and all their children have moved away. It’s achingly sad, while beautifully written and it amazes me that a guy in hid mid-20s could understand this loneliness of the elderly so perfectly. We knew right off the bat that Prine was truly something special.
by Julian Spivey
10. “The Tree” by Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna writes the kind of songs that just rip your heart right out of your chest and has done that time after time on her latest release The Tree. They are realistic songs about life and all of its emotions – from sadness of one’s parents growing old to the nostalgia of wanting to be young and angry again. It’s honest and heartfelt songwriting and few, if any, do that better than McKenna.
9. “Girl Going Nowhere” by Ashley McBryde
Ashley McBryde’s debut album Girl Going Nowhere was a breath of fresh air for those of us wanting to hear actual country music from an up-and-comer. McBryde, who writes/co-writes her own stuff, gives us songs of love and life and as anybody from a small town knows it isn’t always easy and with a song like “Livin’ Next to Leroy” she doesn’t sugarcoat the hard stuff. The highlight of the Grammy-nominated album is the title track, which sees the Arkansan recounting a former teacher who told her her dream of being a country music singer would never lead to anywhere. She performed the song on the Grand Ole Opry – I’d say that’s “somewhere.”
8. “Volunteer” by Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show after almost two decades as a recording group have gotten to legendary status in my book and to the point where many just kind of take them for granted. They do everything I like and do it well – country, bluegrass, folk, Americana. Their sixth studio album Volunteer features the band’s great mixture of raucous bluegrass numbers like “Shout Mountain Music” and “Flickers & Shine” and some of its best songwriting to date on tracks like “Old Hickory,” “Homecoming” and “Look Away.”
7. “My American Dream” by Will Hoge
Will Hoge’s My American Dream is the ballsiest album of 2018. It’s also one many need to hear, but many will refuse to or if they do hate it instantly. I would call My American Dream a concept album because every single track on it is political in nature, tackling some of our nation’s biggest issues of the moment like gun control (“Thoughts and Prayers”), immigration (“The Illegal Line”), politician inaction (“Gilded Walls) and more. It’s the ballsiest album of 2018 because Hoge, one of Americana’s finest songwriters, truly risks running off members of his fan base.
6. “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose” by Mike and the Moonpies
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose by Texas-based red dirt country band Mike and the Moonpies might be the most unapologetically country music album of 2018. This is the kind of stuff we should be hearing on our country radio stations. The band’s fourth studio album sees them at their best with great story songs like the title track of a man and his bond with his father and country music, the rip-roaring “Road Crew,” which makes you want to get up and dance, and the absolutely infectious melody of “Beaches of Biloxi.”
5. “Desperate Man” by Eric Church
Eric Church has proven he’s one of Nashville’s finest songwriters since he debuted, but he’s also proven to be one of country music’s biggest renegades, especially when it comes to tinkering with his sound and trying out new things. That’s exactly what he did with his sixth studio album Desperate Man, which is his most soulful record to date with tracks like “Hangin’ Around” and “Higher Wire,” but also still country as hell on tracks like “Drowning Man” and “Hippie Radio.” Church has gotten to the point in his career where it seems he can do no wrong.
4. “Springsteen on Broadway” by Bruce Springsteen
I really don’t like seeing live albums on end of year best albums lists, but I just couldn’t pass this one up. Bruce Springsteen’s one-man Broadway show simply titled “Springsteen on Broadway” is something I’ve been dying to see or hear since it was first announced in 2017. His 14-month run on Broadway wrapped up earlier this month and immediately upon ending the album of the show was released, as well as a televised special on Netflix. The show is everything a fan of Springsteen could want with stories of his life growing up in New Jersey and the inspiration for his songs, both greatest hits and rarely heard numbers. The Broadway recording definitely won’t have the relisten factor of the others on this list, but it’s truly a remarkable feat.
3. “The Tree of Forgiveness” by John Prine
Legendary singer-songwriter John Prine hadn’t released an album in more than a decade so his 2018 release The Tree of Forgiveness was somewhat of a question mark going in, but upon first listen we all realized there was no reason to doubt one of the finest songwriters of all-time. The Tree of Forgiveness is quintessential John Prine, filled with incredibly life-like storytelling that hits upon all emotions and features Prine’s trademark wit. Highlights on the album include the devastating “Summer’s End” and the optimistic look at the after-life “When I Get to Heaven.”
2. “Things Change” by American Aquarium
Since their 2015 release Wolves, American Aquarium underwent a complete overhaul with singer-songwriter and frontman B.J. Barham replacing everybody in the band. It’s always interesting to hear the sound of a band that’s undergone such a drastic change, but 2018’s aptly titled Things Change is the group and Barham at their finest. Barham, who also got sober since the band’s last release, finds himself at his songwriting best on Things Change with its tales of hardworking folks who get through tough times (“Tough Folks”), dealing with the unfortunate America of today (“The World Is on Fire”), remembering fondly past brothers of the road (“When We Were Younger Men”) and his recently found sobriety (“One Day at a Time”). The sound continues the band’s Southern Rock mixed with alternative country flare that perfectly fits under the encompassing Americana genre.
1. “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile’s sixth studio album By the Way, I Forgive You sees the Americana singer-songwriter at her songwriting best with a 10-track masterpiece completely written by her and co-writers and bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth. The album, which was recently nominated for six Grammy Awards including Album of the Year making her the most nominated female artist of the year, features Song and Record of the Year nominee “The Joke,” which tells of hardships faced by those marginalized. It also features the beautiful “The Mother,” about how life can change drastically for someone after the birth of their first childhood and how it’s ultimately worth it. It also features heartbreaking tunes like “Every Time I Hear That Song” and optimistic calls to action like “Hold Out Your Hand.” Rolling Stone called the album “a delicate masterpiece” and I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
by Julian Spivey
20. "The Joke" by Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” would make the perfect song for an anti-bullying campaign. The emotional song about being yourself and forgetting about and ignoring the haters is a soaring anthem with a powerhouse vocal by Carlile. It’s a perfect song for today’s world. Carlile told NPR: “There are so many people feeling misrepresented. So many people feeling unloved. Boys feeling marginalized and forced into this kind of awkward shapes or masculinity that they do or don’t belong in. Little girls who got so excited for the last election and are dealing with the fallout. The song is just for people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.”
19. "People Get Old" by Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old” is one of the biggest tearjerkers of the year, but also a tribute to those we love dearest. It’s about the cruelty of time and how you frequently don’t even see or feel those closest to you growing old until you wake up one day and they just are. It’s a track that’s going to make anyone with aged or aging parents choke up a bit. McKenna wrote it about her now 83-year-old father and said to Rolling Stone: “In so many ways I still remember him as a younger man, doing family trips and all that. I love nostalgic songs, so this one let me start picking part the parts of my childhood I remembered and wanted to put in a song, like going down memory lane a bit.”
18. "Knockin' On Your Screen Door" by John Prine
John Prine makes not having anybody to spend time with or any money to do anything with almost fun in “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door.” It’s something that only Prine with his freewheeling, devil-may-care attitude and self-deprecating humor could probably do. At just over two minutes, “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” is a blast of fresh air, especially considering Prine hadn’t recorded an album of new material in more than a decade. At 72, Prine – a recent nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of all things – hasn’t lost a step.
17. "Country Music's Dead" by Mike and the Moonpies & John Baumann
Mike and the Moonpies and John Baumann sure do make the death of country music sound rather fine. In “Country Music’s Dead” the band and Baumann poke fun of the many who claim that country music is dead, which is a claim you’d probably believe if you only listened to the mainstream. Mike and the Moonpies singer Mike Harmeier told Saving Country Music: “The song is about being yourself and staying in your lane. We wanted to make a statement about how real country records are still being made and how the bands making that music can still be found playing to 10 people in some dive bar.”
16. "Road Crew" by Mike and the Moonpies
Mike and the Moonpies “Road Crew” is one of the most infectious songs of the year. You’ll instantly want to sing along and dance to this ode to the underappreciated, unsung heroes of touring – the men and women who help bands get from show to show – setting up the instruments, selling the merchandise and driving the van. It’s one helluva boogie too.
15. "Gulf Moon" by Kenny Chesney
Kenny Chesney has shown he has a knack for picking great songs from incredibly talented and under-the-radar songwriters over the last couple of decades and choosing John Baumann’s “Gulf Moon” for his latest release Songs For the Saints continues this trend. The song about living the Gulf life is one of the best written songs of the year and Chesney puts his smooth beach bum sound on it to give us a visual of the whole thing. It’s the perfect melding of lyrics and production.
14. "Every Time I Hear That Song" by Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You was without a doubt one of the finest Americana albums of the year. The song that gives the album its title, “Every Time I Hear That Song” is one of the most beautiful melodies I heard all year. The track recounts a failed relationship and how the narrator has gotten over it and moved on with her life but is reminded of it every time she hears a certain song. Carlile, who co-wrote the song with Phil and Tim Hanseroth, has gorgeous vocals to go along with the mellow melody.
13. "You Better Hope You Die Young" by Hellbound Glory & Tanya Tucker
My favorite duet, by far, in 2018 was the perfect melding of Leroy Virgil’s and Tanya Tucker’s voices on Hellbound Glory’s “You Better Hope You Die Young.” The cautionary tale of excess and hard living is country as hell – notice the crying fiddle throughout – and these two simply knock it out of the park. “You Better Hope You Die Young” comes off as well-earned advice in the hands of these two and not overwrought preaching, because you can tell by the way they’re singing it that they know this from experience.
12. "Tough Folks" by American Aquarium
“Tough Folks” is a political song, but it’s not one that points fingers at anybody or casts blame. American Aquarium’s B.J. Barham sings: “Last November I saw firsthand what desperation makes good people do,” referring to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and how many believed or at least hoped the election of a “non-politician” would lead to some actual change. Barham sings: “Life ain’t fair/saddle up, boy, and see it through/tough times don’t last/but tough folks do.” That’s a modern day John Mellencamp sentiment if I’ve ever heard one. We’ll get through this.
11. "Heart Like a Wheel" by Eric Church
Eric Church set out to capture new sounds on his 2018 release Desperate Man, a daunting task indeed, but he certainly didn’t fail. The soulful love ballad “Heart Like a Wheel” of two people who don’t seem like they should be paired together but can’t get enough of each other was my personal favorite track off the album and sounds like throwback roots rock. It also doesn’t hurt that the simplistic chorus is catchy as hell: “I got a heart like a wheel/baby let’s go/get in this heart like a wheel/and baby let’s roll.”
10. "Immortal Americans" by Austin Lucas
The first verse of “Immortal Americans” stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it with its terrific imagery that is Springsteen-esque (and there’s no higher compliment in my opinion) of sitting on rooftops and listening to nearby stock car races and the humming of the engines. Lucas told American Songwriter of the song: “This song is dedicated to the outsiders and freaks who grew up in small towns and the rural countrysides of America, the folks who discovered themselves and suffered for it when their identities fell outside of the mainstream.” I feel like he’s singing straight to me.
9. "Crack the Case" by Dawes
Dawes frontman and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith is one of the best songwriters in any genre of music over the last decade. He has a knack for imagery and detail that probably makes many of his fellow songwriters jealous. “Crack the Case” is Dawes at their most hopeful with a piano-based ballad of trying to crack the case of what truly makes people dislike one another and why can’t we all just get along. The final chorus, which tackles people who view fellow men as their enemy, is my favorite with lines like: “Countless revisions of history/trying to tell us the future/between each commercial break/I wanna call off the cavalry/declare no winners and losers/and forgive our shared mistakes/you can pick the time and place/maybe that will crack the case.” It won’t be easy, but we should all try to crack that case.
8. "Old Hickory" by Old Crow Medicine Show
Every Old Crow Medicine Show album has at least one track that when you first hear it you know is immediately going to become one of the band’s greatest hits and for their latest album Volunteer that song is “Old Hickory.” “Old Hickory” tells the tale of a flatwoods boy named Virgil Lee, who was the greatest musician for miles around, but sees his flame burn out before he hits it big. “Old Hickory” contains one of my absolute favorite choruses of the year with: “Old hickory/shading the porch of a house that’s been torn down/there ain’t nothin’ that’s left but the memory/and that long tall, scraggily, bitternut old hickory.” “Old Hickory” proves that Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua can write a story song with the best of them.
7. "Cabinet Door" by Anderson East
Anderson East’s “Cabinet Door” is the biggest tearjerker of the year and will rip your heart right out of your chest with its story of an elderly widowed man trying to adjust to life without his love of 52 years. Every single line of this song is devastating, but the one that truly gets me the most as a baseball fan is how he misses watching the Atlanta Braves (my favorite team) games with his wife. It’s one of the best representations of grief I’ve ever heard.
6. "Girl Goin' Nowhere" by Ashley McBryde
One of the greatest country music moments of last year was when singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde made her Grand Ole Opry debut and performed the driven-to-succeed anthem “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” which she wrote when a teacher back home in Arkansas told her to quit her far-fetched dreams of being a songwriter. Thankfully McBryde has a stubborn streak and boy did she ever make it big in 2018 with her debut album Girl Goin’ Nowhere. As she sings that’s “not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere.”
5. "You Never Really Knew My Mind" by Chris Cornell
It saddens me that one of the best songs of the year is a collaboration between two musical legends who are no longer with us. The song is “You Never Really Knew My Mind” performed by Chris Cornell (of grunge rock legends Soundgarden fame) and written as a long unpublished poem by Johnny Cash. It’s not the first time Cornell and Cash have been linked. Cash included a terrific cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” on one of his American Recordings releases in the ‘90s. Cash wrote the poem in 1967 and after hearing Cornell’s take on the song, I just can’t imagine anybody else performing it. Cornell gets the emotion of the words perfectly and conveys them in one of the year’s best vocals. I hope somewhere Cornell and Cash are collaborating in person.
4. "Thoughts and Prayers" by Will Hoge
It’s incredibly unfortunate, but Will Hoge’s “Thoughts & Prayers” might be the song that most summarizes 2018 and the world we currently live in. It’s a track about the bullshit line politicians seem to throw out every time there’s a mass shooting in this country – which is seemingly a monthly thing these days. Hoge says what many of us in this country are thinking: “we don’t give a damn about your thoughts and prayers.” Maybe one of these days the politicians who make the laws for this country will care more about human life than receiving money from the National Rifle Association, but until that glorious day comes, we’ll need songs like “Thoughts & Prayers” by artists like Will Hoge.
3. "Summer's End" by John Prine
John Prine is one of the greatest lyricists of all-time and songs like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” prove it. “Summer’s End,” from Prine’s first album of original material in more than a decade, is one of the 10 best songs he’s ever written. The song, which was recently nominated for a Grammy Award, is simply devastating, while also being nostalgic. The song on its face could be the telling of someone hoping to be reunited with a loved one – be it spouse, significant other, family member or friend – they haven’t seen in an awful long time. For someone who’s 72 years old like Prine, summer could also be a stand-in for time and life passing by so quickly. The music video, which was released in September, adds an even more devastating take to the song as it takes on America’s opioid crisis featuring a grandfather and his granddaughter who lost a child and mother to the epidemic.
2. "The World's On Fire" by American Aquarium
I’m not sure there was a song in 2018 that I felt deep down in my core like American Aquarium’s “The World’s on Fire.” Songwriter B.J. Barham recounts how he and his partner felt in the direct aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump and how it seemingly turned American values upside down. My favorite moment in the song is how Barham sings with optimism about his soon-to-be-born daughter and how if anybody builds a wall in her journey to bust right through it. The world is on fire indeed, but I love the optimism of the song’s chorus about not giving up or giving in and seeing to it that one day the fire is put out.
1. "The Mother" by Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother” has been one of my favorite songs of the year from the first time I heard it all the way back in February. The track tells of how a child can completely change your life, even turn it upside down, but in the end just how rewarding it can be. Carlile wrote the song for her first daughter Evangeline, who’s now 4 years old. The song is raw and honest and gets into the early stages of parenthood like most songs never could. It’s soul-baring if I’ve ever heard it and that’s the mark of a damn good artist. Few artists were as good as Carlile in 2018.
by Julian Spivey
40. "Hangin' Around" by Eric Church
I’m starting to wonder if Eric Church can do no wrong. “Hangin’ Around” off his latest release Desperate Man sounds absolutely nothing like anything he has ever recorded in his career and it’s just as kickass as most of his discography. “Hangin’ Around” feels more inspired by Stevie Wonder of the ‘70s or Sly and the Family Stone than Waylon Jennings and yet it comes off almost effortless and like it belongs in his repertoire. I dare you to try not to move along to its funky groove.
39. "May Your Kindness Remain" by Courtney Marie Andrews
One of the best vocals I heard all year was Courtney Marie Andrews on the incredibly uplifting “May Your Kindness Remain.” It’s truly the kind of song we needed to hear in 2018. Her soulful, almost gospel like vocals on this track hit home the positivity of it. Andrews told Rolling Stone: “I’m not a religious person, but I realized that kindness is my own gospel. In this world we are living in, it’s a hard thing to come by.”
38. "Everybody Walkin' This Land" by Paul Cauthen
Paul Cauthen had many country traditionalist fans singing his praises with his 2016 debut My Gospel, but his more alternative country sounding Have Mercy EP this year is Cauthen at his best, especially when he’s channeling one of the all-time great country prophets in Johnny Cash on the foot-stomping “Everybody Walkin’ This Land.” The singer is urging everybody to get right with God, but the part that perhaps reminds me most of Cash is the calling out of bad folks on the second verse: “you racists and fascists and nihilists and bigots, I’m callin’ you out my friend” and the reassurance that it’s not too late for these folks to turn their lives around.
37. "Young and Angry Again" by Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna simply writes perfect country songs, especially when nostalgia is involved as it is on “Young and Angry Again,” which she co-wrote with Barry Dean and Luke Laird. The song wishes to be able to live those younger days again where life was carefree and just all-around more fun. I think it’s a reflection that anybody who’s past their wild and wooly days of youth can identify with.
36. "Mornin's Gonna Come" by Brent Cobb
There’s just something so damn infectious about Brent Cobb’s soulful groove on talking-songs like “Mornin's Gonna Come,” my favorite of his excellent sophomore release Providence Canyon. The rocker about regretting what you did last night once the light of morning comes is simply two-and-a-half minutes of fun. I specifically love the way lines like: “watch out for miss comin’ up to you/leanin’ up on you/wanna take you home tonight/she got herself a six-foot-fiver Mac Truck driver/comin’ in hot and he loves to fight” rolls off his thick Georgia accent.
35. "Day of the Dead" by Wade Bowen
One of the great things about red dirt country music is it takes from various great forms of country and western music that came before it and Wade Bowen, who has long been one of the best of this subgenre, has taken the best of the Tex-Mex sound and brought it out in “Day of the Dead,” a spooky song of dead love, written by Keith Gattis, that truly makes you feel as if you’re sweating out in the 110 degree Lajitas heat as you’re listening.
34. "Resignation" by Paul Cauthen
In the late ‘60s and ‘70s there was something called cosmic country music. It was sorta country music with some of the psychedelia of the era thrown in. Paul Cauthen’s “Resignation” sounds like something that should have the “cosmic country” term applied to it. It sounds like absolutely nothing else I heard this year in such an excellent way. To describe just how different, in their review Wide Open Country compared it at different times to Roger Miller, Jim Morrison and David Bowie. Oh, there’s also a whistle solo. But, most of all it’s funky as hell, but with serious undertones about trying to escape the horridness that this world has become and why can’t we all just hit up our local tavern for a drink.
33. "Good Kisser" by Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive’s “Good Kisser” is one of the most infectious songs of the year and also one helluva “kiss off” song. The soulful, tongue-in-cheek breakup track takes a unique spin on the breakup anthem with the narrator demanding that if her ex is going to spread the bad of their broken relationship around to at least let them know that she was a good kisser. The powerhouse vocals of Lake Street Dive vocalist Rachel Price are among the most fun I heard all year.
32. "To My Dearest Wife" by Lucero
Lucero’s frontman and songwriter Ben Nichols went back more than 150 years for inspiration for “To My Dearest Wife.” He was inspired by letters written from soldiers fighting in the Civil War to loved ones back home and set “To My Dearest Wife” as one of these letters. These letters reminded Nichols of being away from his family as a touring musician, telling Billboard: “That song has more to do with me having to leave, missing my wife and family back home and being gone for work. Obviously, it’s a completely different type of work than a solider fighting a civil war.” “To My Dearest Wife” sees Nichols at his songwriting best.
31."One Day at a Time" by American Aquarium
“One Day at a Time” certainly has to be one of American Aquarium leader B.J. Barham’s most personal songs. It’s the kind of thoughtful ballad that only someone who’s suffered through and overcome something like addiction could likely come up with. One of the most telling lines is “you see songs fulfill a human need/to sit back and watch another man bleed/so for a moment we don’t have to feel sorry for ourselves.” That’s why music is so damn important.
30. "Better Boat" by Kenny Chesney
Kenny Chesney set out to get a little more introspective with Songs For the Saints after a Hurricane ripped through the Virgin Islands, a place dear to his heart and where he owned a home, last year. It doesn’t get much more introspective than “Better Boat,” penned by talented songwriters Travis Meadows and Liz Rose. The song reflects life and learning how to overcome the things that get you down.
29. "Holy Water" by Cody Jinks
“Holy Water” is Cody Jinks taking us to the church of country music. There’s no doubt the music business can put one through the ringer and make you start to do things you might not want to do or forget who you once were. I think this is what Jinks is getting at with his very effective and catchy chorus: “I need a shot of holy water/I need it to chase down my demons/and burn ‘em just a little bit hotter/I’ve been having drinks with the devil in this neon town/I need a shot of holy water to wash it down.” That steel guitar whining throughout the song is also taking us to the church of country music.
28. "Beaches of Biloxi" by Mike and the Moonpies
One of the many reasons mainstream country music pisses me off so much is you’ll occasionally hear a song that you know should be a hit and would’ve been a hit in a different era, but because of the way the country music industry is today you’ll be lucky if you even hear it on a radio. Mike and the Moonpies’ “Beaches of Biloxi” is one of those songs. By God, it should be a massive hit, with its ear-wormy groove and fantastic story of a gambler who loses it all and has the ride back home to ponder just how he’s going to break it to his wife that he’s lost everything.
27. "Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)" by I'm With Her
Vocals simply do not get more angelic than Aoife O’Donovan’s lead on I’m With Her’s “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree).” I’m With Her is the fantastic roots music supergroup featuring O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins, who released their first album together See You Around in 2018. It’s interesting how the song came about. I’m With Her took jazz guitarist Julian Lage’s “Ryland,” an instrumental guitar track, and turned it into this incredibly beautiful song of budding love with Jarosz and Watkins’ vocals melding terrifically with O’Donovan’s.
26. "Must Be the Whiskey" by Cody Jinks
Cody Jinks writes the kind of awesome and catchy country music songs that should be hits, but mainstream country music is so far removed from what the genre should be that he’ll have to settle for outcast or independent superstardom. I think that’s just fine by him, but dammit “Must Be the Whiskey” should be a charting hit. The song about trying to figure out whether or not his feelings for a girl are true or just the whiskey he’s drinking trying to convince him they are. It’s certainly one of the best drinking songs I’ve heard in a while.
25. "Christmas Eve at Kroger" by Traveller
For me, the best Christmas songs are ones that both show unique originality and can be listened to all year long (John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” comes to mind). Traveller’s “Christmas Eve at Kroger” is one of those songs. It’s also a bit melancholic for a Christmas song, another factor I generally enjoy. Christmastime isn’t always fun for everyone. I’ve felt it before when Robert Ellis sings: “Deck the halls/it’s Christmas Eve at Kroger/wake me when it’s over and the family goes home.” But, it’s not all somber. There’s some nice tradition in there too, like watching “Die Hard” with your mom and helping your dad string up the lights. “Christmas Eve at Kroger” is a Christmas song for people who enjoy songwriting with their tinsel and cheer.
24. "Shoot Me Straight" by Brothers Osborne
Brothers Osborne are one of the few shining mainstream country acts at the moment. The brothers have shown a propensity for being able to play fun country songs without delving into the pop-country or bro-country sounds that’s basically destroyed mainstream country. “Shoot Me Straight” is an example of Brothers Osborne at their best – it’s a fun song to listen to and sing along to, but it doesn’t make you want to shoot your radio. It’s a unique take on a fun drinking song with the fact that’s it’s not really a drinking song, but the narrator wanting his love interest to just give the breakup news and not beat around the bush.
23. "Drowning Man" by Eric Church
Eric Church’s “Drowning Man” is a blue collar drinking song for those who feel forgotten in this country. The track co-written by Church and Casey Beathard features one of these forgotten people the country has turned its back on sitting at a bar and not wanting to hear or think about anything, simply wanting to pour $50 worth of whiskey down his gullet. Church told Rolling Stone: “If you go to any bar or concert in America, there are whole groups of forgotten people who are very much alike, who have more in common than not. There’s a lot of madness in the world that makes no sense, and it’s not all high tides and yachts.”
22. "Western Movies" by Traveller
I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Ellis since I first heard The Lights of the Chemical Plant in 2014, so I was pretty interested in checking out the trio Traveller that he formed with fellow Americana artists Cory Chisel and Jonny Fritz. The result was pretty awesome. My favorite track off their debut Western Movies is the title track. I don’t quite know why they gave a song about enjoying Western movies sort of a Beach Boys-esque “In My Room” type sound instead of a Western motif, but it somehow works brilliantly. As someone who also loves the Western genre, I get this dreamy feeling of wanting to be in the shoes of our gunfighting heroes. I especially love the tribute line to Paul Newman – “I guess they don’t make them like him anymore.” No, they don’t.
21. "God & Cash" by Drew Moreland
“There’s only two things in life that’ll ever last – it’s the word of God and Johnny Cash – and all the rest will lead you straight to Hell.” Hot damn that’s a perfect country lyric. Texas singer-songwriter Drew Moreland released his self-titled, debut album this year, but with songs like “God & Cash” you’d think he’s a veteran songwriter/performer. The song about a young man who gets some great life advice by an old drunkard who moved in next door is catchy as hell and shows that Moreland could be one of the next big breakouts of the red dirt subgenre.
by Julian Spivey
60. "No Ordinary Blue" by John Prine
“No Ordinary Blue,” co-written by John Prine and Keith Sykes, is one of the loveliest vocals and melodies of John Prine’s illustrious career. Prine does loneliness maybe better than any songwriter I’ve ever heard – just check out the amazing “Hello In There” off his 1971 self-title debut (he freakin’ wrote that when he was in his 20s!!). He gets that loneliness and regret down pat again in “No Ordinary Blue,” a tune about an aftermath of an argument and possible break up. It’s sad, but beautiful in a way few but Prine can accomplish.
59. "Hold Out Your Hand" by Brandi Carlile
“Hold Out Your Hand” sounds completely different from most of the other tracks on Brandi Carlile’s excellent By The Way, I Forgive You, but at the same time has similar themes of just trying to survive in a cruel world that is constantly trying to knock you down. The fast-paced verses are about these things out there being thrown at us, but then we get to the slowed down and hopeful chorus: “Hold out your hand/take hold of mine and then/round and round we go.” Carlile told NPR that at the end of the day she just wants everybody to love everybody, “I love people so much, you know? I love people that don’t think the same way I think, and I do want to hold out my hand and be joined to other people that are different than me.”
58. "Weed, Whiskey & Willie" by Brothers Osborne
Brothers Osborne have shown me over the last couple of years that they can do fun country music with “It Ain’t My Fault” and “Shoot Me Straight,” but “Weed, Whiskey & Willie” shows me they can also do heartbreak in a unique manner. The song is somewhat similar to Eric Church’s recent hit “Record Year” in that the Brothers Osborne are taking comfort after a breakup in music and a little help from some intoxicating substances. T.J. Osborne’s vocals hit the right vulnerability of a man getting through a breakup.
57. "Hell on Fire" by Dusty Rust
One of my favorite albums of 2017 was Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives Western concept album Way Out West, with its songs inspired by the Great American West. The closest thing I heard to that album this year was “Hell on Fire” by Dusty Rust, which is a great story song about a Bonnie & Clyde like relationship that eventually turns sour and leads to this Bonnie turning on her Clyde.
56. "We Lost It" by Jesse Dayton feat. Brennan Leigh
There’s a lot to love on Jesse Dayton’s 2018 release The Outsider, but my ultimate favorite is the George Jones-esque heartbreaking tune of a broken relationship that is “We Lost It.” This is tear in your beer stuff right here. The melancholic ballad features terrific backing vocals by Brennan Leigh, which gives the song more emotion as if this failed couple is going through all of this hurt together right in front of our eyes.
55. "Come Back When You Can't Stay" by Parker Millsap
Parker Millsap’s 2016 album The Very Last Day is one of my 10 favorite Americana or country music albums of the last decade and had a remarkable six songs on my annual best of list that year. Millsap took a major swing on his 2018 release Other Arrangements incorporating a more pop-sound (though not like mainstream country pop, but in a good way). The result wasn’t a grand slam like his previous release, but maybe a run-scoring ground-rule double. The best track is the lonesome “Come Back When You Can’t Stay” about trying to get through a bad break up through a one-night stand. Millsap is one of the best vocalists in the Americana genre because he has such an emotive voice, and this is one of his best vocal performances.
54. "Masterpiece" by Pistol Annies
“Masterpiece” is a Pistol Annies song but make no mistake it could’ve been a stellar track on Miranda Lambert’s previous solo album The Weight of These Wings or perhaps a future release. The song talks about a perfect relationship that all of a sudden turns to nothing – no doubt inspired by her failed marriage to fellow country star Blake Shelton. The poignant ballad is filled with great imagery comparing this failed relationship to a rodeo cowboy not quite making it to the bell and references to George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s relationship – another country music marriage that didn’t quite end in a fairytale.
53. "Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6" by Tami Neilson
Traveling musicians being away from their home and family is a theme that popped up a lot in 2018 and is one of the great themes throughout the history of country music. We feel Tami Neilson’s pain from the very first line “Eight thousand miles from home/I just looked it up” in the beautiful vocals of “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6” detailing the Canadian-born, but New Zealand-based singer performing shows far from home and living life in motels.
52. "Diamonds & Denim" by Shooter Jennings
After a bit of a foray into electronic music with 2016’s Countach (For Giorgio), Shooter Jennings returned to his traditional/outlaw country roots in 2018 with a self-titled release featuring “Diamonds & Denim,” a nice jam-ballad about a strong woman fed up by the end of a hard work week who just wants to get dressed up and go dancing on Saturday night.
51. "Love to Try Them On" by Shane Owens
Shane Owens’ “Love to Try Them On” is essentially the modern day answer to George Jones’ 1985 classic “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” which asked the question of which artists would carry along the torch of country music and its tradition. Owens doesn’t say he can fill these shoes, but “he’d sure like to try them on,” and that’s damn sure more than most of the pretty boys being played on mainstream country radio are doing. I think if Jones was around to hear “Love to Try Them On” he’d be mighty proud.
50. "What Am I Supposed to Do?" by Whitey Morgan & the 78s
Whitey Morgan is known mostly for being an outlaw country hellraiser with a blast of a live show. But, the song off his most recent album Hard Times and White Lines that struck me the most is the Springsteen of the Reagan era like “What Am I Supposed to Do?” This is a perfect example of the ‘hard times’ in Morgan’s album title with its story of a factory worker who has worked at the same place for more than 30 years and all of a sudden sees it taken from him during a recession and wondering how he’s going to take care of his family.
49. "Nobody Makes It Out" by Traveller
I think anybody who’s grown up in a small town can identify with Traveller’s “Nobody Makes It Out,” probably the best song I heard in 2018 about being stuck in a place you’re trying to get out of (which as a Bruce Springsteen fan is one of my favorite themes in music). Lines like “I look around here and nothing’s changing” and “This little town’s got no sense of humor/can’t even laugh at itself” are such great descriptors of being so tired of small-town life, but my absolute favorite moment of the song is when Robert Ellis talks about jumping off a cliff at the quarry on Friday night (such a small-town thing to do) and cheekily references Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” with: “I was willing, but she wasn’t ready/the only tape in my car.”
48. "Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don't" by Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
“Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” by Sarah Shook & the Disarmers is one damn fine foot-stomping hellraiser. Shook has become one of the biggest badasses in the independent country music scene and it’s numbers like this that show how she’s accomplished that. “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” is a song about “being out until the goddamned cows come home” and then having to go home to your significant other, but not to worry they weren’t going to be happy with you anyway you swing it. The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot said: “[It] comes off as a rogue’s excuse, a shrug more than a plea for forgiveness.”
47. "Then Here Came Monday" by Dwight Yoakam
A few years ago for the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, Dwight Yoakam and Chris Stapleton teamed up for a performance of the Willie Nelson and Ray Charles classic “Seven Spanish Angels.” I loved that performance so much it made my best songs of the year list, despite not actually being released in any form. I’m thrilled that Yoakam and Stapleton got together to write, and the result is the unique and Country (with a capital C) “Then Here Came Monday.” The song begins with “Thursday came and went without a reason/That’s the kind of thing that Thursdays will often do,” which just drops my jaw every time I hear it because it’s such a great line. The song talks about how the narrator can fake his way through a weekend without thinking of his lost love, but once Monday comes along the hurt creeps back in.
46. "All My Shades of Blue" by Ruen Brothers
I know that artists always want to stand out on their own, and ultimately, they do, but when a newer artist reminds you of a legend from the past you can’t help but be excited by it. From the moment I first heard the Ruen Brothers “All My Shades of Blue” I immediately conjured up images of Roy Orbison performing it. This is what the best classic pop of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s sounded like with its lush instrumentation and deep-down crooning that works its way into your soul. Yes, it sounds as if from another era, but in a way that makes it completely new today.
45. "Earthly Justice" by Western Centuries
“Earthly Justice” by Western Centuries is one of the most fun songs I heard all year with its comical approach to barroom brawling and hardcore honky-tonk sound. Cahalen Morrison takes lead on this track for the group that includes three vocalists and his serious reading of truly hilarious situations adds to the humor. The sublime steel guitar throughout the track and the fiddle solo around the three-minute mark will make you want to give this group a standing ovation.
44. "Srinivas" by Marc Ribot & Steve Earle
Acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot teamed with many artists from different genres this year for Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 and made the perfect choice of teaming with Steve Earle, never afraid to speak his mind politically, for “Srinivas.” “Srinivas” tells the story of the racially motivated murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kan. in early 2017 by a white man. The song pulls no punches with lines like: “A madman pulled the trigger/Donald Trump loaded the gun” speaking of the President’s rhetoric leading to bigots feeling they have the right to do such things. One of the most touching and yet angering moments of the song is during Ribot’s great guitar solo at the song’s end while Earle shouts the name of people wrongfully killed in this country simply for being different, names like Eric Garner, Heather Heyer, Tamir Rice and more. It’s the protest song we need right now.
43. "Best Years of My Life" by Pistol Annies
The Pistol Annies’ “Best Years of My Life” sounds wistful, but there’s certainly a deep undertone of unhappiness abounding on it. The song, written by all three members Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, is probably the best melding off all three of their voices on their newest album Interstate Gospel. It’s a song about being stuck in a bad relationship when you felt like the rest of your life was going to be spent happily ever after. It’s also three incredibly talented songwriters and vocalists at their best.
42. "Monsters" by Eric Church
“Monsters” is the most Eric Church-sounding song off his sixth studio album Desperate Man, in which Church plays around with new sounds and genre influences. What I mean by that is “Monsters” could’ve appeared on pretty much any of his previous albums. It’s a touching song coming from the father of two boys (much like his stellar “Three Year Old” from his previous album) about realizing what’s most important in life and praying that everything remains OK in a world where dangers are lurking seemingly around every corner.
41. "Wouldn't It Be Great" by Loretta Lynn
If there was any song that absolutely ripped my heart from my chest the first time, I heard it this year -- it was Loretta Lynn’s “Wouldn’t It Be Great.” Most people know about the complicated relationship Lynn had with her alcoholic husband Doolittle over their almost 50 years together and if you know anything about it, this song will likely bring a tear to your eyes. The heartbreak and emotion in Lynn’s voice when she sings about wishing her husband would love her more than the bottle is devastating. Lynn revealed on Twitter that it was the last song she wrote for her husband before he died in 1996. “I sang it to him when he was dying,” she said. Getting this real and honest about your life – that’s real artistry.
by Julian Spivey
80. "I Can Only Dance to Country Music" by Jay Bragg
Jay Bragg’s “I Can Only Dance to Country Music” reminds me of the kind of country music that was being recorded in the 1990s, especially by an underrated artist like Mark Chesnutt. This was a special era for many country fans and it’s so nice to hear something that could’ve been a huge hit back then. The song tells of a man who’s out with a woman but can’t dance to the pop and EDM at the club and needs a little something country to two-step with. The twangy track is incredibly fun to sing – and of course – dance along with.
79."Crooked+Straight" by American Aquarium
“Crooked+Straight” is a great life lesson from American Aquarium frontman and songwriter B.J. Barham’s father to himself with a chorus that goes: “Son, the road ain’t easy/it’s all just a series of mistakes/but you’ve gotta learn how to take the bruises with the breaks/the love with the heartaches/the crooked with the straight.” Between the life lesson and the Heartbreakers-esque rocking, this is one you can certainly jam out with.
78. "Mr. Jukebox" by Joshua Hedley
Joshua Hedley is a throwBACK with an emphasis on the back because he pretty much brings you all the way back to the countrypolitan days of Nashville. His “Mr. Jukebox” sounds like it could have been a hit for Ray Price in his heyday. Sounding nothing like any kind of music today – even in the country and Americana genres – “Mr. Jukebox” tells the story of a sentient jukebox who will “play your favorite song just one more” no matter what kind of mood you’re in, as long as you keep feeding it your nickels and dimes. If only jukeboxes today would play any song for less than $1.
77. "Whiskey & Wanting You" by Tom Buller
Tom Buller’s “Whiskey and Wanting You” sounds to me like something George Jones might have recorded in the ‘60s, Merle Haggard might have recorded in the ‘70s and Keith Whitley might have recorded in the ‘80s. It’s good old-fashioned, cry-in-your-beer honky tonk music. I love every second of it. This Nebraska boy was born to sing country music and his classic country croon is one of the best vocals you’ll hear all year.
76. "Kelly's Bar" by Trampled by Turtles
It’s interesting that some of today’s best bluegrass music is coming from bands not necessarily known as bluegrass bands. If you Google Trampled by Turtles, you’d see them listed as a “rock band.” Wikipedia has them first listed as a more accurate “indie-folk,” but “bluegrass” does come third after “alternative-country.” Any way you spin it, “Kelly’s Bar” is one of the best picking and plucking songs of the year. Everything that makes bluegrass music so damn fun to listen to – fiddle, banjo and mandolin – is at breakneck pace on this banger.
75. "Nashville Tennessee at 3 a.m." by Pat Reedy & the Longtime Goners
Every year you’re going to hear a good song or two about trying to succeed in Nashville, but Pat Reedy & the Longtime Goners have certainly done the “hard luck on Music Row” theme better than most on “Nashville Tennessee at 3 am.” I think that part that really makes this song stand out is it kind of gets to the bullshit about the Nashville dream and how it’s not all roses. One of the best lines in the song is: “Everyone’s an outlaw until the cocaine wears off/the only thing that’s cheap in these bars is talk.” Are you going to be a pretender, or will you be standing with The Longtime Goners in Nashville, Tennessee at 3 a.m.?
74. "Look Away" by Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show have done their own special blend of country, Americana, folk and bluegrass for almost two decades now and continue to release stellar new pieces of work like “Look Away” off their eighth studio album Volunteer. “Look Away” is a tribute to the American South and everything that makes it great. The ballad featuring terrific fiddle and steel guitar is sort of a rewrite of the Southern anthem “Dixie,” which according to Nashville Scene, O.C.M.S. songwriter Ketch Secor was inspired to write when he learned it was written by Thomas Snowden, a freed slave.
73. "Dealing Despair" by Billy Strings
It’s great to hear some fast picking bluegrass music that isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with the times and that’s what you get from Billy Strings and “Dealing Despair,” a song made for our times in which we “don’t want your opinion/I just want to blow out your brains.” Strings was asked by Rolling Stone if he felt it was important for bluegrass musicians to carry the political flag, as their folk brethren have long done. Strings said: “People are like, ‘you should just stick to music.’ No, this is exactly what I’m supposed to do. We need to do something. This is our platform. I’m on a stage, I have a microphone, I need to be able to raise my fist up and say, ‘This is for the LGBT community. This is for all of you who have been put down your entire lives because of the color of your skin.’”
72. "Empty Rooms" by Corey Smith
“I wouldn’t trade my freedom for a minute on your stage/I’d rather play in empty rooms” sings sharp-tongued Corey Smith on “Empty Rooms,” a rocking track about maintaining credibility as an artist instead of selling out to hit the music charts. It’s a track that many “musicians” within the genre of country music currently need to hear.
71. "Like Patsy Would" by Lori McKenna
Lori McKenna’s brilliantly written song “Like Patsy Would” about trying to always give it your all has one of my favorite choruses of the year: “I wanna pray like Jesus is listenin’/I wanna play it like I’m made of strings on wood/I wanna write it down like Hemingway/Like it’s the last damn thing I’ll ever say/And try to sing it like Patsy would.” It’s apparent that McKenna is living her own advice because her recent body of work proves she’s doing all of these things and I believe Patsy Cline would be mighty proud.
70. "Higher Wire" by Eric Church
Eric Church’s sixth studio album Desperate Man sees the country superstar getting a little experimental with his music and “Higher Wire” is one of the most obvious examples of this with a reverb heavy soulful number that sees Church singing the highest he ever has on record. The song, co-written by Church, Casey Beathard and Travis Hill, tells of a woman who’s love makes him feel like he’s up walking on a high wire – and the way Church vocalizes it you sure do believe it.
69. "Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday" by Caitlyn Smith
Many of us complain about pop-infused country music and with good reason, but Caitlyn Smith proved this year with her debut Starfire that the two mixing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially with well-written story songs like “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” (one of my absolute favorite song titles of the year) about searching around a lonely bar on a late Tuesday night. Smith’s knack for detailed songwriting truly comes out on this track, which despite the fact it sounds nothing like early Sheryl Crow musically, the songwriting reminds me of stuff like 1994’s “All I Wanna Do.”
68. "Change Yo' Mind" by Charley Crockett
Charley Crockett has one of the most unique and delightful sounds right now in the Americana/Country genres. It’s a mix of blues, R&B, folk and country music with Louisiana hot sauce flavor on top and a lisp that somehow makes a song like “Change Yo’ Mind” even more infectious. It’s such a simple and short song about trying to make a woman who’s leaving change her mind but will stick in your mind and have you singing along for a while.
67. "My Way" by Ervin Stellar
From the very first twang of the guitar Ervin Stellar’s “My Way” reminded me of classic Waylon Jennings. When his vocal kicks in at the 12-second mark it just reinforced this feeling. This could have been a Waylon number in the ‘70s, but I’m glad it’s a Stellar number in 2018. We need throwback Outlaw Country songs in today’s music. That guitar jam over the final minute of this song is well worth the price of admission here.
66. "Steak Night at the Prairie Rose" by Mike and the Moonpies
Mike and the Moonpies “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose,” the title track to their fourth studio album, is one of the best story songs of 2018 and one of the better father and son songs you’re ever going to hear in country music. The song tells the story of a son who chooses to live with his father after his parents separate and the fantastic time he has tagging along with his dad to the local honky tonk where they enjoy steak night and listening to the local bands. The boy grows up to play in a band at the very same honky tonk paying tribute to his father each night singing his favorite song. The whole song is a great visual that you can see playing out if you close your eyes while listening.
65. "My Father's Gun" by Miranda Lambert
One of the more unique tribute albums was released this year in Revamp & Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Revamp was the pop record and Restoration was the country record. The best performance on either album was without a doubt Miranda Lambert’s take on “My Father’s Gun,” originally appearing on John’s 1970 country-influenced Tumbleweed Connection. Lambert completely makes “My Father’s Gun,” a tale of a young Confederate soldier who essentially takes his recently killed father’s place in the Civil War, her own and the song selection from the Elton John discography couldn’t have been better.
64. "Jimmy's Dead & Gone" by JP Harris
“I said you’re goddamn right/wrote another song about a train” sings songwriter JP Harris in the chorus of his terrific “Jimmy’s Dead and Gone.” Jimmie Rodgers may be long dead and gone, but Harris more than proves there’s still room in country music for a damn good train song. “Jimmy’s Dead and Gone” has that chugging along sound that all good train songs must have like a locomotive flying down the rails. It’s a jam that will have you moving along with its breakneck speed.
63. "Far From Home" by Western Centuries
Ethan Lawton’s “Far From Home” for Western Centuries takes on the heartbreaking story of young men sent off to fight in Vietnam, a war they had no business in fighting. The soldier writing back home to his mother: “Mother, oh mother, won’t you spin a yarn about the way things were/end it with boy, dear boy, it’s alright.” The track features accordion giving it a nice Cajun-flavor, no doubt taking shape from where the band recorded the album in Eunice, La.
62. "Good as Gold" by Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Sarah Shook has more than proved she can honky tonk with the best of them and her and the Disarmers released one of the best country albums this year with Years. “Good As Gold” tells the story of somebody who’s lover keeps threatening to leave, but the narrator knows she has more important things to lose than a lover, like her pride. Paste Magazine said the song was “a perfect twangpunk kiss-off,” and I can’t possibly think of a better way to describe it.
61. "You Worry Me" by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats"
There’s an old school soulfulness about Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats that could resonate in just about any era of music. In some ways Rateliff is kind of like a modern Van Morrison in this aspect. “You Worry Me” seems to be a bit of reassurance to someone close to the narrator that everything is going to be alright. The roots rock pulse throughout the track keeps us bopping our heads along the entire way.
by Julian Spivey
100. "Maybe It's Time" by Bradley Cooper
One of the biggest movies of 2018 was the remake of “A Star is Born” featuring Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper as an alcoholic, somewhat past his prime rocker and his protégé/love interest Ally, played by pop sensation, turned terrific actress Lady Gaga. The highlight of the film’s No. 1 soundtrack is “Maybe It’s Time,” a devastating look at the past and its impact on the now. The song was written by Americana superstar Jason Isbell and I hope it’ll lead to an Oscar nomination for Isbell, though there are flashier, more likely candidates on the soundtrack like the stellar duet “Shallow” between Cooper and Lady Gaga. Still, it’s nice to see an Isbell-written tune receive this much national recognition.
99. "Out In the Open" by Steep Canyon Rangers
The Steep Canyon Rangers have been one of the better bluegrass groups around for a while now, despite sometimes being overshadowed by Steve Martin who they frequently back in concert and on recordings. The group comes back into their own spotlight with “Out in the Open,” which sees them melding vocals brilliantly in a tune about the search for truth. It’s a song that sounds like it could be at home on an Old Crow Medicine Show album.
98. "A Blackbird" by Cody Canada & The Departed
The most interesting thing about Cody Canada & the Departed’s “A Blackbird” is it doesn’t really sound like what I’m used to from Canada, who’s red dirt country mixed with rock ‘n’ roll as a member of Cross Canadian Ragweed and as a solo artist made him a legend in the red dirt community. “A Blackbird” sounds way more influenced by bluegrass than say southern rock or outlaw country. It’s a song that has perplexed me a bit from the first time I heard it, even though I can’t get enough. Is it a straight-forward song about a weary traveler being warned by a blackbird or is there something else afoot?
97. "Wichita" by Gretchen Peters
If you’re as big of a fan of songwriting as I am then you absolutely love story songs and Gretchen Peters’ “Wichita,” with its dark-tale of sexual abuse and revenge, is one of the best story songs of 2018. Peters, who was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame four years ago, is no stranger to songs about abuse having penned Martina McBride’s 1996 CMA Song of the Year “Independence Day.” “Wichita” tells the story of a 12-year old girl who watches her stepfather (perhaps) abuse her mom, then he abuses her, and she refuses to watch him do it to her younger sister, so she decides to put an end to the man. It’s a fitting song for the #MeToo Movement and Peters told Wide Open Country: “I think one of the things songwriters do is pick up intuitively on the undercurrent that is happening. It wasn’t as though I sat down and said, ‘This is a time to write about women and girls because of all this other stuff that’s happening.’ It was more just an intuitive – picking up what was really bubbling under in our culture.”
96. "Monday Morning Merle" by Cody Johnson
Cody Johnson has been a star of the red dirt country subgenre for a few years now but found some crossover mainstream success in 2018 with his “On My Way to You” helping to remind country radio what country sounds like. He’s got a new album coming up in early 2019 but released a five-song EP in 2018 that included “Monday Morning Merle,” a terrific tribute to some great musicians (like Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, etc.) and how their music can get one through certain moments and moods in life. The song written by Bart Butler, Brad Warren, Brett Warren and Lance Miller has Johnson’s typically great country sounding vocals at his best.
95. "Waterbill" by Red Shahan
Red Shahan’s 2018 release Culberson County had a lot of standout tracks on it, but the one that stood out to me the most is the bluesy rocker “Waterbill.” The guitar-driven track tells of a man who’s undergoing a bit of bad luck — who’s struggling to pay the bills and finds his car breaking down on him in the middle of mountain lion country. But he’s not giving up and living on those: “High hopes/you ain’t livin’ ‘less you’re livin’ life broke.”
94. "Southern Babylon" by Ashley McBryde
One of the surefire signs of great songwriting is when a songwriter can tell a complete story and have you completely enthralled and that’s what Ashley McBryde (and co-writer Tommy Collier) have done with the spooky “Southern Babylon,” about a traveling musician in a car accident who stumbles upon a backroad bar only to find out the band waiting for her to lead them in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Hotel California” is a bit of a ghostly one.
93. "I Don't Deserve You" by Jason Boland & the Stragglers
Jason Boland & the Stragglers are Red Dirt Country royalty at this point after almost two decades out traveling the country giving fans a taste of true to life honky tonk music. As Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson once said of the group, they do it the right way. “I Don’t Deserve You” is right there in line with some of the best fan-favorites the group has recorded along the way telling the story of taking the troubles in life in stride because of the love of a great woman – inspired by Boland’s wife Mandy. The track features fantastic backing vocals by Sunny Sweeney.
92. "It's Simple" by Dillon Carmichael
One of the most exciting new voices to debut in 2018 was Dillon Carmichael, who sounds a lot like Jamey Johnson vocally to me, which is definitely something to be excited about. Carmichael’s debut album Hell on an Angel was released in October and includes the stellar “It’s Simple” about how perfect the simplicity of small-town living can be. It’s the kind of song country music was once synonymous with and always should be.
91. "Steel Pony Blues" by Dom Flemons
Many of you have heard the incredibly talented, multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons before as a member of the Grammy-nominated Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he founded with Rhiannon Giddens and others. This year he released the incredible concept album Black Cowboys, featuring stories of African-Americans of the Old West – a bit of history that’s too often overlooked. The highlight of this album is “Steel Pony Blues,” a track based on the real-life story of Nat Love, who was born into slavery and ended up a pullman porter out west on the railroad. The picking in this song is some of the best you’ll hear all year.
90. "Fade to Black" by Brandon Jenkins
This year we lost Brandon Jenkins, nicknamed “Red Dirt Legend" for his contributions to the red dirt subgenre of country music that encapsulates the sound of Texas and Oklahoma music, when he died suddenly at age 48 due to complications from heart surgery. His too soon passing truly made “Fade to Black” from his final album Tail Lights in a Boomtown, released less than a month before his death, a fitting, but heartbreaking goodbye, especially with a refrain like: “it’s over, it’s over, it’s over, fade to black.” The song is about giving up an addiction with the bottle and the problems it created, but you can’t help but view it just a bit differently now.
89. "Hands On You" by Ashley Monroe
Ashley Monroe is no stranger to getting sexy on record – after all she asked to “pull out the whip and chains” on 2013’s “Weed Instead of Roses” – but, she’s at her all-time sexiest on this year’s “Hands on You” where she regrets letting a potential night of fun get away. The flirtatious track shows Monroe getting a little more sensual than most in country music are willing to and it’s frankly nice to see a country lady being this frank.
88. "Eve's Daughter" by Amanda Shires
One of the best Americana rockers of the year was Amanda Shires’ “Eve’s Daughter,” which sees the talented violinist turning things up a notch, with distorted vocals giving the tale of a woman who sees a chance and takes it, falling in and out of love in a matter of three roaring minutes. The fact that Shires can tell such an arresting tale so quickly shows why she earned her MFA in creative writing.
87. "Jericho" by Ruston Kelly
Ruston Kelly’s excellent debut album (he also had a good EP last year) Dying Star was one of the moodiest releases of the year and my favorite track off the album is “Jericho.” The song, co-written with Natalie Hemby and Joy Williams, is a great example of the vulnerability in Kelly’s songwriting and performance. According to Kelly in an article on Earmilk, the song is about overcoming fears: “‘Jericho’ is a song about triumph over fear, or rather what you know it takes to triumph over your fears. Fears of self really. It’s the most thematically encompassing song on this record. It’s an answer to the rock bottom question of ‘how much is left in you?’”
86. "Calaveras County" by Jason Eady
Jason Eady’s “Calaveras County” sounds like heaven on earth. The acoustic number with great picking throughout and fiddle solos tells the story of a place where a man can just relax and be himself and not have to worry about any of the bad stuff in life. The song sprung to life via a mixture of Eady enjoying the locale playing a festival there last year and remembering a story from his childhood when the kindness of a stranger helped him and his father who were stranded in the middle of nowhere out of gas, according to an interview with The Bluegrass Situation.
85. "Me & You" by Willie Nelson
I’m frankly amazed at how frequently Willie Nelson pops up on my best songs of the year list considering he’s 85 years old. But, then again, legends never die, and this legend hasn’t even lost a step. “Me and You” is my favorite off his latest original release Last Man Standing, which is filled with great stuff. It’s a song about friendship overcoming all the terrible crap in the world that has a way of tearing people apart. When Nelson sings the chorus: “it’s just me and you/and we are definitely outnumbered/there’s more of them than us/just when you think you’ve made a new friend, they throw you under the bus/so it’s just me and you,” you feel like he’s talking straight to you. Maybe he is?
84. "Shallow Inland Sea" by Austin Lucas
My God can Austin Lucas sing a song. “Shallow Inland Sea” is one of the most beautiful vocals I heard this year with its story of young love and the way it makes one feel. Lucas makes you feel every word of this song deep inside – the nostalgia for the dream of younger days and first loves. He conjures up these images like the legendary Van Morrison has on similar songs throughout his wonderful career. I can’t think of higher praise.
83. "Somewhere Between I Love You & I'm Leaving" by Cody Jinks
Cody Jinks is one of the shining stars of the outcast country music scene. His “Somewhere Between I Love You and I’m Leaving” off his album Lifers this year is one of the most honest songs you’re going to hear about struggling to be a traveling musician and a family man. Jinks wrote the song with fellow outlaw country star Whitey Morgan (credited on the track under his actual name Eric Allen) and the result is something I’m sure any artist who also has a family back home can identify closely with.
82. "I'll Still Love You" by Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello has recorded just about every type of music and made it sound sublime. This includes a lounge singing croon quality, which he’s collaborated with Burt Bacharach on a time or two in his career. Costello brings that smooth pop croon to the words of Johnny Cash on “I’ll Still Love You,” an undated poem that was written by Cash almost certainly about his wife June Carter. You don’t really expect Cash’s words to come out like Costello has presented them and I think that’s why it’s one of the absolute standouts from this year’s compilation Johnny Cash: Forever Words. It’s a stunner.
81. "Westgate" by Rod Melancon
Rod Melancon’s “Westgate” is quite the rocker relying on a punk edge to tell the story of a teenager with nothing better to do than peruse his parents medicine cabinet looking for an easy high and hang out with a girl named Lisa and her kickass Trans Am. It’s Lisa and this Trans Am that gives our narrator something to daydream about when he eventually ends up sitting in a tank in the middle of an Afghanistan desert. The track has sort of a rough cut feel to it giving it a sweet garage rock sound.
by Julian Spivey
Garth Brooks proving to still be the only superstar in country music big enough to have a concert filmed and aired as a primetime special had his Notre Dame University concert from Oct. 20th in South Bend, Ind. aired on CBS on Sunday, Dec. 2.
The show – the first concert held at Notre Dame’s football stadium – featured 84,000 in attendance and tickets sold out in a matter of minutes. The weather was not complimentary for the show that night in October with rain during the majority – if not all (it was hard to tell on TV) – of the show. It didn’t seem to bother fans a whole lot, though that’s also hard to tell from the televised performed. If you look up the setlist online, you’ll see that there were pauses during the concert in efforts to get more or better crowd shots. I bet that was a pain for those attending live.
The televised concert kicked off with one of Brooks’ newest songs “All Night Long,” released earlier this year and proving to be his best single since he came out of retirement a few years back.
The rest of the show would include many of Brooks’ greatest hits with a couple of spirited cover songs mixed in.
Brooks, a six-time Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, is known as the most dynamic performer in the history of country music – putting on a show that frequently involves (more so in his younger days) him running around the stage and in the past flying through the air and smashing guitars together. At 56, he doesn’t get around the stage as much anymore, but still puts on quite the show and never fails to sell out audiences. The show at Notre Dame inspired Brooks to begin a stadium tour next year not long after wrapping a three-year world tour with his wife and fellow country performer Trisha Yearwood.
One thing that’s perhaps surprising about Brooks’ show at Notre Dame is despite all of his years of fame and popularity he heaps effusive praise on his crowd for their responses to him and his music. He acts like it never gets old – and maybe for him it truly doesn’t or maybe he puts it on a little for the show.
Among Brooks’ finest performances during the show were “That Summer,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “Papa Loved Mama” and “Rodeo.” Of course, his major fan favorites like “The Thunder Rolls” and the all-time great country sing-along “Friends in Low Places” were featured too. My personal favorite Garth song “Much Too You (To Feel This Damn Old)” wasn’t performed, which is a bit of a bummer, but not all that surprising.
Brooks paid homage to some of his favorite artists which included a cover of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and a medley that included bits of The Beatles “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” These were certainly nice enough covers, but I’m willing to bet that both the crowd live at Notre Dame and the one watching on television a little over a month later would’ve probably preferred more Brooks originals.
One thing that seemed a bit off about the televised performance were Garth’s vocals – not that they weren’t performed live, but that they might have been too edited for the televised special. Country music writer Grady Smith on Twitter said: “The overly clean vocal editing on this Garth Brooks special is killing the experience. They took the joy and earnestness and energy out of his voice.” While I agree the cleaning up of the vocals was too much it didn’t really take too much of the joy out of the special for me. After all, it’s still one of the best country artists of the last three decades performing many of his best songs.
Brooks ended his performance on the televised concert with his classic “The Dance,” which he told the crowd at Notre Dame was his favorite song. It was a good way to cap off a nice experience and a good show – one Brooks himself is obviously never going to forget based on his glowing smile during the show.
by Alea Jeremiah
Who says you can't put on an outstanding performance at 84?
Frankie Valli has lived a full, incredible life and isn't planning on stopping anytime soon. I had the pleasure of experiencing the legend himself in concert on Friday, Nov. 9 at Verizon Arena in Little Rock, Ark. Honestly, this was a concert I never thought I'd have the honor of attending, I'm a huge fan so it was pretty surreal.
At Verizon, they put the stage at about the halfway mark of the floor. There was some floor seating, the lower bowl, and the middle bowl open and it was pretty full. Although, I'd like to note that me being 21, I was pretty much the youngest one in attendance, aside from a few young kids who were definitely dragged along with their parents.
Before Valli came out, they showed a video on the screen which was a huge montage of highlights from his career and life. This was a tad bit emotional, I’m not going to lie, and then he came out and the show really began.
The difference between the crowd of this concert and another concert I might see myself at was that nobody stood the entire time except to applaud for a few songs. Everyone was in their seats the entire time which made it hard for someone like me who likes to stand up and dance.
As for the concert itself, it was amazing. Again, he's 84 and if you can believe it, during his performance of “Sherry,” he hit those notes exactly how he did when it was recorded all the way back in 1962. He is incredibly talented. He was also accompanied by four younger gentlemen, The Four Seasons, who were incredible, as well. Those guys really helped bring Frankie's past alive. It was like I was watching the original group. The musicians he had were equally as incredible, and as a plus, his two trumpet players were local musicians. How awesome it must have been for those guys to get that phone call!
Valli sang everyone's favorites including the aforementioned “Sherry,” “Who Loves You,” “Beggin’,” “Grease,” as well as his popular songs from his solo career. He even performed some covers of a few classics like “My Girl” by The Temptations and “I've Got You Under My Skin” by Frank Sinatra.
Valli ended the concert with “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” a very fitting finale, but came back for an encore and sang “Rag Doll,” another popular favorite among the crowd.
One of my favorite performances of the night was “Sherry.” Before he sang it, he talked about the original band and said, "we were just four guys under a street lamp, singing acapella," which is one of my favorite quotes from the Broadway show “Jersey Boys,” based on his career. Speaking of, he did mention how grateful he was for all the supporters of the Broadway smash hit, as well as the movie version. He had a big influence in those and you can tell by the way he speaks about them that he's very proud of how they turned out. In fact, the Broadway musical is how I personally came to love and appreciate the Four Seasons. I saw it when I was younger in Las Vegas and absolutely fell in love. All in all, it was an amazing concert that I would watch a hundred times over!
If you didn't get to experience it live, don't worry, he mentioned multiple times that he would absolutely love to come back here, so you may get another chance. This concert is a memory I'll hold close to my heart forever and I couldn't be more grateful and honored to have been a part of it.
by Julian Spivey
The Drive-By Truckers brought their fantastic version of filthy and fried Southern Rock to The Revolution Room in Little Rock, Ark. on Tuesday, Nov. 13 with a bombastic performance of songs throughout their entire career, including some new unreleased ones.
The truly unique thing about the Drive-By Truckers is they feature two supremely talented songwriters and vocalists that could have been successful recording artists in their own right in Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley but put together are a force to be reckoned with. The two alternated vocals the entire night sharing the spotlight on a multitude of beloved Truckers tracks and fascinating newer songs that take on a political tone providing a much needed musical voice helping us through this messed-up world.
DBT kicked off their show with “Shit Shots Count,” which pretty much summarizes the grittiness of the band. Some would call them crude – my wife has before, though she also enjoyed herself at Tuesday night’s show – but, they’re just matter of fact.
One of the first songs that really caught my attention during the show was a new composition “Thoughts and Prayers” by Hood that takes on the ineptness of politicians sending out their thoughts and prayers instead of actually trying to solve any of our nation’s problems like gun violence. Another new song played late during the band’s set was “Babies in Cages,” a direct result of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration policies that have seen families torn apart on the U.S./Mexico border and resulted in actual babies placed in cages. These two songs are in line with what was recorded on the band’s fantastic and critically-acclaimed eleventh studio album American Band, which was released just over a month before Trump was elected in 2016, being politically charged and full of hard truths.
I think American Band is DBT’s best all-around album to date and was thrilled with the five tracks they chose to perform off it on Tuesday night. The first song performed from the latest album was the hard-charging “Ramon Casiano,” telling the story of a killing on the U.S./Mexico border in 1931 by a shooter who would go on to become a leader of the National Rifle Association. The other tracks included Hood’s “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and Cooley’s “Surrender Under Protest” and “Kinky Hypocrite.” The best performance from American Band was Hood’s “What It Means,” written during a spate of killings of young black men by police and citizens “standing their ground.” It was a touching performance with Hood explaining the song and saying that after writing it he kind of felt it was a bit of a cop out because he asks these questions but didn’t really have the answers. He said he found the answer at a Patti Smith concert in Portland, Ore. when she stopped a song and shouted, “love one another, motherfuckers!”
The Truckers performed great songs from their entire discography on Tuesday night spotlighting tracks from nearly every one of their albums and even performing a song “Runaway Train” from Hood and Cooley’s first band, Adam’s House Cat, that was set to be released in 1990, but never was. That album called Town Burned Down was finally released in September. The song shows that these two have had great talent all along.
While both Hood and Cooley are incredible performers and songwriters in their own right it was Cooley’s performances of older DBT songs on Tuesday night that I found myself enjoying more. Gritty rockers like “Marry Me,” “Three Dimes Down” and “Gravity’s Gone” are all among my favorites of the band’s past releases. My only disappointment from the show was they didn’t get around to playing my all-time favorite DBT song “Zip City.”
Some of the highlights of Hood’s turn at the mic were “Sinkhole” and “My Sweet Annette,” both from 2003’s Decoration Day.
Bassist Matt Patton also got a moment to shine toward the end of the show taking lead vocals on a cover of The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away.”
The band ended the terrific two hour, 27-song set with a rocking performance of fan-favorite “Let There Be Rock.” Let there be rock indeed.