The 10 Best Country Albums of 2018: Critics' Picks
Country artists stretched their wings this year, showing the expanding breadth of the genre. From projects that incorporated rock, pop and even disco to ones that reinforced country’s traditional twang, country music’s big tent embraced all.
Fans of course put out the welcome mat for proven country stars, who injected their projects with a new vitality, but also embraced newcomers, who found themselves treated with the respect usually afforded longtime hitmakers. While streaming continues to pick up speed in the country world, albums remain the coin of the realm with artists eager to make a well-rounded statement.
Here are Billboard’s staff and contributors’ 10 favorite country albums of 2018.
10. Sugarland, Bigger
Coming back after a six-year, self-imposed hiatus, Sugarland members Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles brought what each had experienced during the time apart into the recording studio, and exited with the most personal album of their careers as a duo. They also crafted one of the more political mainstream country albums in recent years, tackling issues ranging from school shootings ("Tuesday's Broken") to mental health ("Not the Only"). It also doesn't hurt to have a fan in Taylor Swift, who offering the pair "Babe," a song she had written with Train lead singer Patrick Monahan. Swift provided guest vocals on what would end up becoming the duo's biggest single in eight years. -- ISAAC WEEKS
9. Kane Brown, Experiment
With back-to-back No. 1 country radio hits and a history-making five country charts topped simultaneously with the singles from his major-label debut, Kane Brown set the bar high for his sophomore album. The crooner seemingly wasn’t fazed by the pressure, though – all 13 tracks on Experiment exude confidence, and display his versatility with heartfelt ballads like the sweetly longing “Homesick” as well as lighthearted party-starter, “Short Skirt Weather.” The set’s lead single “Lose It” continued Brown’s impressive run of chart wins, as the song ended Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s 50-week run atop Hot Country Songs with their crossover smash “Meant to Be.”— TAYLOR WEATHERBY
8. Dan + Shay, Dan + Shay
After already scoring three No. 1s on Billboard's Country Airplay chart prior to this year, Dan + Shay issued a self-titled album that solidified their place as hitmakers that appeal to both country and pop audiences. The album’s juggernaut lead single “Tequila” -- which gave the duo their first two-week No. 1 on Country Airplay, and their highest peak on the Hot 100 at No. 21 -- kicked things off on a dynamic note, and they followed it with a collection of melody-driven tunes that wonderfully blend Shay Mooney’s powerhouse vocals with playful production. Romantic second single “Speechless” (which received a co-sign from Demi Lovato) recently scored Dan + Shay their first Hot Country Songs No. 1, and their 2019 headlining tour in support of the album is all sold out. -- T.W.
7. Brothers Osborne, Port Saint Joe
The sibling duo kept their rustic Southern rock sound very much alive on their second LP. Recording in the album’s titular Florida town, which resembles the brothers’ beachside Maryland hometown, made the set feel even rawer than their full-blooded debut Pawn Shop. The album’s perceptive lyrics serve as a contrast to TJ Osborne’s low tone and John Osborne’s gritty guitar rifts, culminating in 10 tracks that grab you emotionally (listen to “While You Still Can” and reach for the tissues) and make you stomp your feet (“Shoot Me Straight,” “Drank Like Hank”). The sophomore set has been plenty rewarded by the industry, too: Brothers Osborne won their third consecutive vocal duo of the year CMA Award in November, and the set received a nod for best country album for the 2019 Grammys. -- T.W.
6. Keith Urban, Graffiti U
Almost two decades into making music as a solo artist, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year continues to make albums that simply sound good, while ignoring all musical boundaries. Whether on radio fare such as “Coming Home,” which features pop singer-songwriter Julia Michaels and opens with a distorted guitar interpolation of Merle Haggard’s classic “Mama Tried," the intimate slow jam “Parallel Line” or the musically adventurous “Drop Top,” Urban continues to strike the right notes all the way around -- and seems to be hitting a new stride at this later stage of his career. -- CHUCK DAUPHIN
5. Ashley McBryde, Girl Goin’ Nowhere
Despite the album title, McBryde definitely went places in 2018 with the Arkansas native’s stunning major label debut drawing praise from all quarters -- including a Grammy nomination for best country album -- for her honest, cliche-devoid, heart-filled songwriting, as well as her strong melodies and chill-bump vocals. The acoustic title track, a resounding F-you to a hater who didn’t believe in McBryde’s dreams, made such a fan out of Garth Brooks that he included his version, “Boy Goin’ Nowhere,” on his Triple Live album. But that's only one of the gems here: On the soaring “American Scandal,” McBryde longs for her mate to love her with the passion of “Kennedy and Monroe," while single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” exalts in the comforts found in a small-town bar, and the joy that music can bring. A treasure from an important, fresh new voice. -- MELINDA NEWMAN
4. Dierks Bentley, The Mountain
When it comes to his singles, Dierks Bentley’s catalog is chock full of wit and hooks built for radio. The Mountain was his chance to not worry about mainstream success, and it helped showed a more poignant side to the country superstar. Aside from the fiery Brothers Osborne collaboration “Burning Man” and the impassioned lead single “Woman, Amen,” the rest of the album’s 13 songs are fairly mellow. Yet, Bentley’s fervor resonates more than it ever has, and his musicianship shines on the acoustic guitar-heavy tracks. Though the singer has always been genuine in his delivery, The Mountain is a beautiful illustration of the evocative artist he’s been his whole career.— T.W.
3. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
The third project from Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe offered fans a musically diverse collection of material, ranging from the clever sass of “Stop, Drop, and Roll One” and “Got My Name Changed Back” to the stunning balladry of “Masterpiece.” While radio may never catch on to the magic of the trio -- "Name" only just cracked Country Airplay, debuting this week at No. 59 -- the public definitely latched on to this album, making it their second to top the Country Albums chart. -- C.D.
2. Kenny Chesney, Songs for the Saints
Kenny Chesney's stripped down Songs for the Saints is the singer's love letter to the Virgin Islands following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. His reflective nature is showcased on the set's chart-topping first single and plea for tolerance, “Get Along," along with the reggae-flavored (and Ziggy Marley-featuring) "Love for Love City", and the Jimmy Buffett-assisted "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season." Stirring album closer "Better Boat," featuring Mindy Smith, leaves the greatest impact: a song that touches on the aftermath of tragedy, Chesney's soft vocals serve as a reassurance to listeners. -- ANNIE REUTER
1. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Kacey Musgraves may have started out cheeky and independent on her first two albums, but as her third studio set shows, love may be her best muse after all. Musgraves fell in love as she made the Grammy album of the year nominee, and the change of mood -- as well as a switch in co-producers, to Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk -- led to magical inventiveness. “Space Cowboy" is a clever, western-inspired breakup tune, while the sparkling “Butterflies” and dreamy “Love Is a Wild Thing” detail her romance with new husband (and fellow singer-songwriter) Ruston Kelly with an unabashed positivity -- she even throws in a touch of disco on “High Horse.” Critics have always loved Musgraves' unique stylings, but they're till raving over Golden Hour, as it just earned the album of the year honor at this year’s CMA Awards, in addition to an album of the year nod for the 2019 Grammys -- both firsts for the singer-songwriter -- T.W.