The 20 Best Country Songs of 2018: Critics' Picks
In 2018, despite country radio’s continued snub of many female artists, their varied voices continued to soar, finding favor through award shows (especially the 2019 Grammy nominations) and on the road.
No other song reigned as supreme as Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s genre-crossing “Meant To Be,” which held down the top spot on Country Songs for a record-setting 50 weeks, but others left just as strong a mark on listeners -- including entries from two former American Idol winners who hit emotional bull’s eyes this year. Love songs -- falling in and out -- dominated the charts as usual, but several artists also sought to provide words of solace in troubled times, or at least let listeners know they were not alone when it came to wrestling their demons.
Here are the Billboard staff and contributors’ 20 favorite country songs of the year.
20. Pistol Annies, "Got My Name Changed Back"
From the opening lyrics of "It takes a judge to get married, takes a judge to get divorced/ Well the last couple years, spent a lotta time in court," we recognize that the trio behind Pistol Annies -- Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley -- haven't returned with their first new music in five years to make things comfortable for the establishment. A call to action to those languishing in bad personal situations, the song is a reminder that sometimes it's worth a full afternoon spent at the DMV to be free of the toxicity in your life. - ISAAC WEEKS
19. Thomas Rhett, ‘Marry Me’
It’s exceedingly rare these days to hear a song that still surprises without a trace of novelty. Credit Thomas Rhett for writing an affecting love song with a wrenching lyrical twist -- the chorus reveals that the song title isn't a request of Rhett's to his true love, but rather something he laments that she "don't wanna" do -- that is as heartbreaking as his past hits have been positive and light. -- CHUCK DAUPHIN
18. Eric Church, "Desperate Man"
Eric Church has become as close to an Outlaw in mainstream country music as you're likely to get in 2018, allowing each new album to follow whatever muse the singer is following at the moment. "Desperate Man," title track from Church's latest album, follows the same path of unpredictable inspiration, blending the musical stylings of Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones with the religious markings found in the lyrics of U2, ringed in pleas of desperation through lyrics like "I've walked glass barefooted / Strolled 'cross the devil's hot coal." -- I.W.
17. Carly Pearce, "Hide the Wine"
After introducing herself with the heartfelt "Every Little Thing," Carly Pearce switched gears with swampy follow-up "Hide the Wine." The infectious tune features Pearce singing about an ex she simply can't resist. So, she hides the "Two-Buck Chuck and the high dollar good stuff too" to not be tempted by his smooth ways. "Hide the Wine" embodies a hint of bluegrass with foot-stomping rhythms, soaring guitar parts and sultry vocals, making it one of 2018's best barn burners. -- ANNIE REUTER
16. Chris Stapleton, "Broken Halos"
"Broken Halos" received the Grammy Award for best country song earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why. Bolstered by Stapleton’s velvety, yearning vocals, ”Broken Halos” poignantly addresses those we've lost and the need for acceptance -- as uneasy as it may be -- as he croons, "Don't go looking for the reasons / Don't go asking Jesus why / We're not meant to know the answers.” -- A.R.
15. Ashley McBryde, "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega"
Picture this: a traditional female country singer making fans of everyone from critics to Garth Brooks with her back-to-basics, stripped-down approach. The Arkansas native managed to even make the top 30 on the Country Airplay charts—no small feat for a female artist these days -- with this heartfelt mid-tempo ballad about a bar that serves as a refuge far beyond serving drinks. -- C.D.
14. Jake Owen, "Down to the Honkytonk"
Jake Owen continues his steady career of releasing feel-good music with this love letter to honky tonks everywhere, especially Nashville’s Lower Broadway. With a distinct rhythmic singing style backed by an infectious beat, Owen admits he might not go down in history as someone fans will name their babies after, but he'll still "go down to the honkytonk." -- A.R.
13. Kenny Chesney & David Lee Murphy, "Everything’s Gonna Be Alright"
David Lee Murphy -- who created two of the biggest hits of the 1990s with “Dust on the Bottle” and “Party Crowd” -- found himself the comeback story of the year via this positive-vibed single with longtime collaborator and friend Kenny Chesney. The easy-going shuffler’s lyrics express a sentiment that would make Alfred E. Neuman smile wide: Don’t sweat the small stuff. And at the end of the day, it’s all small stuff. -- C.D.
12. Old Dominion, "Hotel Key"
With their four previous Country Airplay No. 1s, Old Dominion have proved to be both cheeky and romantic, and their fifth chart-topper is their flirtiest hit yet. The bouncy, bright guitar riff sets the tone for the playful narrative in “Hotel Key,” a lighthearted take on a short-lived rendezvous, one that makes listeners wish they had their own whirlwind romance story to tell. -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY
11. Florida Georgia Line & Bebe Rexha, "Meant to Be"
Florida Georgia Line continue to showcase their ability to turn pop stars into country hitmakers (Backstreet Boys, anyone?) with their duet on Bebe Rexha's "Meant to Be", a song they cowrote and recorded for Rexha's third EP, 2017's All Your Fault: Pt. 2. The ode’s timeless message of going with the flow, despite a heartbreak or two, helped the song reign for a record-setting 50 weeks on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, as well as tremendous crossover success, with the song peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. -- I.W.
10. Dan + Shay, "Speechless"
The dreamy piano combined with Shay Mooney’s passionate vocals make “Speechless” a quintessential ballad for any romantic occasion -- especially thanks to its video, which features footage from both Dan and Shay’s weddings. No less than Demi Lovato declared herself a fan of the song’s smooth crescendo into its dynamic chorus, taking to Twitter to declare “Speechless” one of her 2018 favorites. Fans agreed, helping the duo land their first Hot Country Songs No. 1. -- T.W.
9. Kelsea Ballerini, "I Hate Love Songs"
Unsentimental doesn’t even begin to describe this waltz from Ballerini’s sophomore album, the Grammy-nominated Unapologetically. She decries all romantic stereotypes, declaring that “cupid is stupid” and “your eyes can’t hold stars.” She and her man were drunk when they met, so she can’t even remember their anniversary, but their love still rises above the cliches in this keeper, co-written with Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally. -- C.D.
8. Luke Combs, "Beautiful Crazy"
Still a newcomer, Luke Combs has quickly become a mainstay at country radio, with four Country Airplay No. 1s in the last two years. "Beautiful Crazy” may not have reached that summit in 2018 -- it's currently in the top 25 and still climbing -- but the North Carolina native still wins the girl on this cut from Combs' deluxe-reissued debut, This One's for You Too, as he adoringly sings of a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve and whose unpredictability proves intoxicating. "Yeah she's crazy but her crazy's beautiful to me," he belts. Soaring pedal steel and delicate percussion give a stripped down feel, while allowing Combs' vocals to shine. -- A.R.
7. Dierks Bentley, "Woman, Amen"
With the first single from 2018’s The Mountain, Dierks Bentley gave notice that listeners were about to enter terrain far removed from the more pop-driven sounds found on his last album, 2016's Black. Though there is somewhat of a rock influence found on "Woman" -- a dash of Mumford & Sons here, a bit of The Lumineers there, and a propulsive beat courtesy of Soundgarden’s Matt Chamberlain -- the song is much closer to the singer's bluegrass background, with lyrics that acknowledge "This world has a way of shaking your faith/ I've been broken again and again". -- I.W.
6 Jason Aldean feat. Miranda Lambert, "Drowns the Whiskey"
It’s not every day you get two of country’s true superstars on the same track, but it’s magic when it happens, and “Drowns the Whiskey” is proof – or should we say, 80 proof. Aldean’s deep vocals are complemented by Lambert’s twangy harmonies, giving the song’s lovelorn sentiment added depth with the male/female contrast. Whiskey-drinking heartbreak songs are a country specialty, but this is one that hits you right in the feels, with the realization that sometimes no amount of alcohol can cure a broken heart. -- T.W.
5. Jordan Davis, "Singles You Up"
Breakout country star Jordan Davis burst onto the scene in 2018 with one of the catchiest songs of the year. The phrase “singles you up” (i.e. breaks up with you) may sound silly to grammar enthusiasts -- and may not actually be a successful way to land a girl -- but it’s certainly memorable, and newcomer Jordan Davis sells it brilliantly with his spirited Louisiana drawl, backed by frisky guitars and an irresistible melody. Davis took “Singles You Up” all the way to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, helping earn the singer Billboard’s top new country artist honors for 2018. -- T.W.
4. Kacey Musgraves, "Slow Burn"
While it may have officially been the fourth single off of Kacey Musgraves' prolific Golden Hour album, "Slow Burn" captured listeners' attention from the moment the set hit shelves in March, as the sultry LP opener signaled a change in creative direction for the Grammy-nominated singer. The range of feeling associated with a new love present in "Slow Burn" -- from lust to wistfulness -- made the tune the make-out song of the summer, for country fans both young and old. -- I.W.
3. Scotty McCreery, "Five More Minutes"
After losing his deal in 2016 with the only record label he had known (Mercury Nashville) since winning Season Ten of American Idol in 2011, Scotty McCreery was left holding the best batch of songs he had ever written, and decided the only thing left to do was self-release his favorite of the bunch without label backing. "Five More Minutes,” inspired by the loss of his grandfather, became a declaration of independence from an artist who matured from a blue-chip prospect to a power player. After linking with Triple Tigers, McCreery’s new label home helped him take the poignant track to the top of Country Airplay. -- I.W.
2. Kane Brown, "Heaven"
Kane Brown’s buttery voice can make anyone swoon, but up until the deluxe release of his debut album last October, he didn’t have a single that quite matched his rich croon. Enter “Heaven,” a dreamy number that combines the singer-songwriter’s impactful vocals with a waltzing guitar lick, to make for one of the year’s most starry-eyed love songs in any genre. While the newly married country star may be singing about his wife, his sincere passion is so transcendent it feels as if he is singing directly to every listener on this Country Airplay chart-topper. -- T.W.
1. Carrie Underwood, ‘Cry Pretty’
All eyes were on Carrie Underwood earlier this year as the superstar revealed that a November 2017 fall left her “looking a little different.” But when she released the impassioned title track and lead single from her sixth studio album, Underwood’s soaring vocal ability regained the spotlight. The song’s vulnerable message of allowing your emotions to take over serve as more than just an anthem for anyone experiencing a rough patch – it’s Underwood’s clarion call that no matter what she's going through, she will always be able to deliver a stunning, chill-inducing performance. -- T.W.