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.