The DittyTV Staff selected their favorite 18 albums that were released in 2018. Read the write-ups below.
From Courtney Marie Andrews to John Prine, Cordovas, Brandi Carlile, and more, these are the best Americana albums of 2018
I’ve known Lucero since I first moved to Memphis over 20 years ago. They’ve always had something so uniquely special. I knew it from the first time that I saw them downtown at The South End. These guys lived and breathed their craft. They played liked their lives depended on it. You could hear it with each performance. It was primitive and beautiful.
It wasn’t until their 3rd album, That Much Further West, when I felt that sound was finally captured in the studio. For me, that record has always been the one to beat. Until now…
Their latest, Among the Ghosts, has that cohesive thread that all my favorite albums possess. From the first track to the very end, there’s a familiar energy to it. The sound is more refined, but still very lively, and at the core is great songwriting. This time, it seems to be more personal, more mature. Lucero has aged with the best of ‘em. Only getting better with time. This record is a testament to that, a highpoint in a body of work that’s far from finished. – Mark Edgar Stuart
On Make Way for Love, Marlon Williams perfects a dark sound that he’s hinted at in previous albums. It’s almost as if he took the song, “Dark Child,” from his self-titled album and said, “let’s make a whole album like this… but darker.” He lets go of some of the more traditional sounds that he’s utilized in the past in exchange for more sparse, and at many moments, downright haunting arrangements. Make Way for Love is the perfect example of less is more.
His voice shines throughout every song, especially in moments where the song simply starts with his voice and guitar or piano. From his deeper tones to high falsettos, Williams’ voice just oozes atmosphere and emotion. It’s the glue that keeps the album together at moments when the arrangements are so sparse that it feels like the song is barely hanging together, in the best possible way. Williams also knows how to write a damn catchy chorus, and this album is full of them. “What’s Chasing You” is a great example. Also, I’m a huge horror fanatic, so when Williams said this song was about horror movies, I loved it that much more. In fact, the whole album feels like a weird dark horror movie. The album’s opener “Come To Me” has a distinctly eerie yet calming vibe, as well as songs like “Beautiful Dress,” with lyrics like “Come back! Let me wear you like a beautiful dress.”
The most cheerful sound on the album doesn’t come until the very end with the title track, which is the perfect turn at the end of such an ominous sounding album. At the end of the day, Make Way for Love is a dark, haunting, and beautiful album that should be on everyone’s must-listen list. – Isaac Erickson
Striking a delicate balance between indie rock and Americana may be a daunting task for some, but Juanita Stein does that and more on her latest release Until the Lights Fade. She’s barely a stranger when it comes to this area of expertise; her former band, Howling Bells, delivered their own brand of genre-bending music in the mid 00’s. Stein has since gone solo, and her music picks up right where she left off. Combining dream-inducing indie-pop with Americana flare, the follow up to 2017’s America displays Stein’s prowess as a songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist in full force.
Each reverb-laden track brings the listener through a wide spectrum of feelings and emotions, ranging from melancholic (“All the Way”) to empathetic (“Forgiver”). What truly separates this album from the masses, however, is Stein’s ability to piece together a story with her lyrics. Nearly every track displays her knack for reflecting on the human experience and puts forward a central, uniting theme: strength. In the opener, “All the Way,” Stein’s ethereal vocal delivery paints a picture of strength as she recounts a protagonist’s struggle to survive during wartime. The more upbeat, “Get Back to the City,” serves as a word of advice to a friend, encouraging them to return to a place and time where they once found strength. Her songwriting, paired with excellent production and instrumentation, truly makes this album one of the strongest Americana releases of 2018. – Jake Hopkins
It’s hard to believe that May Your Kindness Remain is Courtney Marie Andrews’ sixth studio album. At only 28, Andrews sings with the passion and emotion of someone well beyond her years. On the title track, CMA begs and pleads with herself and her attentive listener to not fall into depression as the world seems to crumble around her. The themes of battling depression and finding inner peace with where you are in life are ever present in songs like, “Lift the Lonely from My Heart,” and, “This House.” On, “I’ve Hurt Worse,” she sings, “Mother says we love who we think we deserve, But I’ve hurt worse.” The songs are sad and beautiful. You sing between tears. Just when you start feeling better, Andrews hits you again with a good punch to the gut.
The album is cohesive and concise, never overstaying its welcome. The production is great, exactly what you’ve come to expect from Mark Howard, who has worked with Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.
Courtney has proven on May Your Kindness Remain that she is one of the great Americana singers and everyone at DittyTV is patiently waiting for her to give us more, because we need it. – Jonathan Thomason
This album was also chosen by Ronnie Wright, who writes — Another great release from our friends at Fat Possum. Courtney Marie Andrews returns with her eighth studio album, May Your Kindness Remain, with a splash of Americana, and country-fused gospel – with her focus honed in on the touching tales of solitude, love and strife.
Opening with the title track, a solitary organ builds around Andrews’ majestic voice – the commentary of her lyrics covering true love, diamonds and disappointments, all of which is in battle with the message “may your kindness remain.” “Kindness of Strangers” abounds with its contrasting messages of giving all and giving up, as Andrews recalls expertly the moments when a crutch is needed to support our emotional base, as she questions – “how do you find solace in a place so quick to judge? I’m getting by on the kindness of strangers.”
May Your Kindness Remain delivers in displaying the full spectrum of Andrews’ talents – her progression as an artist from country, to rock and gospel, has allowed her to musically evolve, but without losing the majestic sound of her previous works. Highlights from her DittyTV session for me include “Kindness of Strangers” and “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo,”a great stocking stuffer and both included on May Your Kindness Remain. – Ronnie Wright
Most times, if I hear that a new record has even a hint of politically-tilted subject matter, I’m like PASS, thanks. There’s already so much BS going on in the real world, I’d like my music to take me OUT of all that please. Right? Do I really need to weep MORE at the terrors of the world, at war and greed, at social inequities carried out by my neighbors and friends in my own backyard? Can’t I just have a small respite from reality for 45 minutes? Well, earlier this year, I am not too proud to say, I had my book-cover-judging hiney absolutely handed to me the night I heard Will Hoge perform a few songs from his 2018 politically-charged release My American Dream. To write “mind completely changed” would be a cop out. It’s more like “tune in, turn on, wake up.”
Not only is Hoge’s voice full of the rage, passion, and desire to speak out, he also possesses the insight and sagacity of a tenured professor, who still holds on to the dream, perhaps the American Dream, that if you can get through to even one person, the world can change. Oh, and he’s also a shredding rock guitarist who can howl when it’s hot or toggle to sharp and steady in the ballads and tender moments. The intensity and timbre of his vocals in “Thoughts and Prayers” cries to our awareness, literally calling out the all-too-often recycled social media offering. Or “Nikki’s A Republican Now,” a scathing examination of all those cool kids you knew from high school, out back smoking cigarettes, drinking, rebelling, flouting convention, who have hallelujah hit 40 and suddenly changed their tune. His Springsteen-esque approach to story-telling and simple, raw guitar hooks grab your attention and highlight the space around the lyrics, which are the true heart of the album. – Tatiana Z
For fans, including myself, of alt-country and artists like Wilco, The Old 97’s, Drive-By Truckers and other gritty, boot-stompin’, whiskey-drinkin’, drivin’ with your windows down and radio turned up music, this is your album. The first time I listened to it, I was already singing along, and immediately added it to my cross country, desert, beach and mountain playlists—why choose? Songs like “Just Good Night” will get the party started. Their vocals and songwriting are superb and the harmonies feel natural and warm, like a summer afternoon spent day drinking with your friends—although they do hail from chilly Michigan…brrrr. While this is their debut album, it has the trappings of longtime troubadours with well-honed songwriting skills and I am looking forward to many more. – Amy Wright
I think I have listened to this album more than any other one this year. San Francisco psychedelic meets Memphis soul and funk, with the perfect amount of Americana and vintage country. While the lyrics clearly come from the pain of Bluhm’s divorce and the end of her stint with The Gramblers, this isn’t your typical “break up record,” but rather the evolution from lost love to gaining the strength and determination to make changes to move forward. From showing up at her Mama’s house, looking for some perspective, to trying to hate someone out of her mind, this album showcases the journey from devastation to clarity and everything in between.
I love how the album straddles the line between loneliness and defiance, and in some ways, almost feels like listening in on a therapy session. You can hear the determination in Bluhm’s vocals as she tries to find the light while confronting her fears, struggles and challenges, ultimately getting to that place of freedom where she can live, write and perform on her own terms. – Robin Bender
We had the pleasure of having Marcus and his stellar band in the DittyTV studios earlier this year. His dad, Marvin, a blues guitarist and singer who devoted his life to the genre, was traveling with the group during this leg of the tour. Marcus was in Memphis playing alongside the incredible Tedeschi Trucks Band and made time to record several tunes from his latest release, Carolina Confessions.
His lineage defines his musical insight. Born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, King is a fourth-generation musician. He pinpoints his father’s devotion to the art and great-grandfather’s fiddle-playing as the catalyst for his family’s musicality. He is renowned for his guitar-playing and incendiary live performances as part of the Marcus King Band, earning him widespread acclaim as a guitar virtuoso. With Carolina Confessions, King positions himself equally as a songwriter. Filled with superb narratives, the album brims with stirring lyrics and conviction.
Carolina Confessions finds King focused on wrongdoing while striving towards redemption. “8 a.m.” depicts King wallowing in misery and defeat when he sings, “If you could see me now, you’d be glad you left me / If you knew my mind, you could see that I’m lonely / Sitting in my den drinking, wasted at 8 a.m.” Dean Mitchell’s saxophone bawls in response to King’s bemoaning. Similarly, in “Confessions,” King admits his faults yet seeks absolution when he asks, “Forgive me for I have sinned / Forgive me for how long it’s been.” The track, and the album as a whole, masterfully contend with the difficulty in managing guilt and the grit required to seek forgiveness that we can all relate to.
If you enjoyed his previous releases Soul Insight and The Marcus King Band, and cuts like 2015’s “Dyin,” or on the follow up, “Rita Is Gone,” you’re in for a treat with Confessions. If you’re new to his music, check him out, and if you have a chance to see him live, be sure not to miss it. – Ronnie Wright
See You Around is like the warm sunshine that its cover art depicts – radiant and relaxed. Impossible to ignore, the ingenious supergroup I’m With Her combines the natural flair and precise playing of three musicians: Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. Their home-cooked style is refreshingly real. It’s the perfect pinch of dreamy three-part harmonies and wholehearted delivery. While the mixed themes on the album center around abandonment, ambition, adventure and altered pathways, they all lead the listener to one place, the crossroad of heart and mind.
Experience this band live when you can. I saw them twice in 2018. First, at Travelers’ Rest Festival in Missoula, Montana, which is curated by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, and then again at AmericanaFest in Nashville, Tennessee during the Americana Honors & Awards Show where they performed “Overland,” which is an easy contender for the album’s “best track.” Each time, I’m With Her managed to bring good cheer and positive energy to the people, much like the sun of which they often sing. – Sam Shansky
Henry and Rupert Stansall credit their father’s record collection for many of their old school 50’s influences, and boy do those influences shine on All My Shades of Blue. The brothers have a unique way of wearing those influences on their sleeve, while managing to steer away from becoming a cheap imitation of classic sounds. They actually take these classic sounds (think Roy Orbison & The Everly Brothers) and combine them with modern techniques to create their own flavor.
The music video for the title track caught me by surprise. I had to show every person I know this music video, which looked like an episode of Twin Peaks with what had to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard all year. Once I looked past the video and listened to the full album I was equally blown away. I’m a sucker for an interesting voice and catchy choruses, and I got more than my fill listening to this record. Songs like: “All My Shades of Blue,” “Finer Things,” “An Evening Dreaming,” “Summer Sun” (okay, so basically every song on this record) – they all stay stuck in my head for weeks at a time. Plus, the brothers nail a great cover of the classic Hank Cochran penned country crooner, “Make The World Go Away.” Also, I’m sure being produced by the iconic Rick Rubin doesn’t hurt either. All My Shades of Blue is a fun, catchy, expertly crafted record that I personally think everyone should check out. Good luck getting these songs out of your head once you listen! – Isaac Erickson
There’s certainly a reason that Cordovas have cemented themselves as a must-see in Nashville’s music scene. The four-piece, fronted by industry veteran, Joe Firstman, have just recently outdone themselves with the excellent That Santa Fe Channel. Calling clearly upon influences such as the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills & Nash, the album manages to deliver a fantastic, country-tinged culmination of lush harmonies, melodious guitar playing, and 70’s spirit all in a modest 29-minute runtime.
The songs present themselves in a strikingly straightforward manner, each never straying too far from the formula of the last. But when the formula works this well, there’s hardly a reason to. Warm pedal steel and electric guitar both drive the tracks forward and effortlessly mimic the interplay between Garcia and Weir circa 1972. Don’t be fooled, however. Though their influences are very much present throughout the album, each song feels fresh and is unmistakably Cordovas.
Where the band truly shines on this album, however, is in the vocal performances. Each vocalist (three members trade off vocal duties) brings a unique attribute into the mix that combine into something really special. On the opener, “This Town’s a Drag,” Firstman’s drawl takes center stage as he laments about the absence of drugs, love, and lenient cops in a small town. “Frozen Rose” displays the band’s aptitude for sweet harmonies and also stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. If you’ve not had the pleasure of hearing these yet, please do yourself a favor and give a listen to one of the most impressive Americana releases of the year. – Jake Hopkins
This album was also chosen by Ronnie Wright, who writes — When bass player Joe Firstman asked to play our Danelectro Longhorn bass during his DittyTV set, his reply to our concern that it hadn’t been used in a while was simply, ‘It’s not the wand, it’s the wizard’. Delicate triple harmonies, swooning choruses, clever instrumentation and just enough rootsy grit to keep the listener and the artist honest. Think Dawes, Dead and Jayhawks with a Nashville twang and a dash of the Laurel Canyon vibe.
Across the album, you hear all of the things you’re imagining in your head and then some. For one thing, it seems like there’s about ten people singing on it. At least. As it turns out, everybody in the band sings – and they all have mighty fine voices. You know the interplay of unique voices on records like American Beauty, Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Music From Big Pink? Cordovas have got it down. Each and every Cordova sounds like they should be the ‘lead’ vocalist, they’re all great.
A sure-fire album highlight is “Santa Fe,” which was probably communicated to Cordovas by the ghost of Gram Parsons with its aching harmonies and steel guitar. “Your Town,” with its reflective lyricism and harmonies, ably supported by some beautiful piano figures — the jazzy opener, “This Town’s A Drag,” which builds to its joyous chorus and sets the stall out for the rest of the album… On this evidence, it appears the future’s looking bright for Cordovas, and they always have a place to hang their hats in Memphis, TN. – Ronnie Wright
Sounds like: sun tea with honey, warmed on the front porch; a clear and mellow voice drifting in on breezes blowing softly from the south; a magical blend of the mystical earthiness of peers like Pearl Charles and Lera Lynn with the time-measured and sprite-ish qualities of Emmylou Harris. Erin Rae is so pleasant, but not boring; pleasing, but not sleepy.
Putting On Airs is wholly listenable, over and over, without it ever sounding old or irritating. As a live performer, she maintains that appeal – you are drawn in, almost hypnotically, and find yourself smiling peacefully, swaying along, happy to listen for as long as she’ll give us. Not one instant do you feel the urge to reach for your phone. She’s mesmerizing, but not threatening. Like she’s your best friend and you’re about to go get tea after the set.
I can’t say enough nice things about Rae, or this album. Or the expert ear of the Single Lock label. From the minor chords of the opening track “Grand Scheme,” to the Elvis Costello-style lyrics of “Mississippi Queen,” to the final chords and evocative melodies that breathe across the dreamy closer “Pretend,” this is an album by which to measure Americana in 2018. – Tatiana Z
I originally discovered Ruston Kelly while reading an article about his wife, Kacey Musgraves. I checked out his album Dying Star the minute it was released and now I listen to it on repeat. Kelly’s story is a tough one to grasp, including a horrific drug addiction, which led him to overdose. While there are lyrics about taking too many pills, blacking out, and a host of other jarring subject matters, Kelly is completely transparent about his past behavior.
Despite the depressing subject matter, Kelly’s melodies and catchy grooves keep the album from sounding too dark, incorporating gorgeous harmonies, including vocals from Musgraves, with an Americana, almost-pop vibe. Mixing pedal steel, harmonica, and acoustic guitar, the album goes from twangy to rootsy to indie and back as Kelly takes you on his journey from hitting the very bottom of rock bottom to finding true love with Musgraves.
Dying Star is Kelly’s heart on his sleeve. He’s a contemporary troubadour, writing and singing about really bad decisions and their consequences. Yet somewhere along the way, there is rehab and redemption and new beginnings, and it shouldn’t be lost that Kelly’s last song on the record is a magical minute and a half of music perfectly called, “Brightly Burst Into The Air.” – Robin Bender
This one is personal for me. John Prine is my life coach and songwriting hero. Here, he defies the odds, proves that laughter is medicine and age is just a number. He also says that, “When you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head…”
His first record of original material in 13 years, The Tree Of Forgiveness is everything that’s great about John Prine and more. Who else can write timeless classics that rival their own timeless classics from half a century ago? That’s a hard rabbit to pull from the hat and John Prine is the magician, the master, and the man.
Like a good Prine record should, this one tugs at the heartstrings and tickles the funnybone. The entire record is great, but the closing track, “When I Get To Heaven,” is worth the price of admission and sums up all my sentiments to a tee. There’s honesty, humor and boundless love. He’ll make you laugh until you cry. That’s the “JP” M.O. – Mark Edgar Stuart
We don’t get west coast artists through the studio as much as I’d like. Full disclosure, California is my home state and I still hold a slight prejudice to the vast and varied art that has come and continues to come from the left coast. So, when Sam Morrow booked a session at DittyTV, I made it a point to give his latest release, Concrete and Mud, a good listen. A full-fat slab of seventies-era, funky bar room country stomp, gutsy balladry and Southern Rock from my home state, and Sam Morrow of course. Opener, “Heartbreak Man,” is a steady syrup – fuzz/twang meets Hammond organ groove. Sam shows us up front the roaming, untamable guy that he is.
“San Fernando Sunshine” is a slow, twangy ballad – the heat in the valley makes Morrow yearn for relief at the cool coast (my good friend Pete can relate). Feature track, “Skinny Elvis,” rattles along in fine style, as Sam, with guest vocalist, Jaime Wyatt (DittyTV Alumni), both represent their chosen Presley period. It’s quite possible a “Skinny Elvis” is also a coffee option in some hipster barista establishment … “Good Old Days” hurtles along at a furious pace too, Morrow dismantling the views of those longing for days gone by. “Quick Fix” is another funky Southern Rock hip swaying groove. There’s some quieter interludes that help to punctuate the collection. “Mississippi River” is one such, a fine country ballad – the praise for the Ole Muddy is no surprise, but the song is strong enough to transcend the limitations of the well-worn subject matter, not to mention just a couple blocks away from the studio.
Highlights for me are “San Fernando Sunshine,” “Coming Home,” and “The Weight of a Stone.” Good stuff, y’all. – Ronnie Wright
Music fans are quick to dismiss country, or always say ‘good’ country ended at Garth Brooks. But let me tell you, there’s still good country music being recorded, and Mike and the Moonpies are good country. You can call it Honky Tonk, Americana, or Outlaw Country, but at the end of the day, it’s just good country.
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is refreshing, never taking itself too seriously, especially on tracks like “Road Crew” and “Wedding Band.” And its got everything you want: killer pedal steel solos, dueling guitars, and some great Wurlitzer.
The Prairie Rose is a real bar in Texas that Mike Harmeier used to actually play at when he was fourteen, driving his drunk dad home after the gigs. Honky Tonk music is in Mike’s blood. Some people are born to do it, and this guy was born to play country music in Texas bars. He writes about what he knows: drinkin’, smokin’, gamblin’, and being on the road. He writes catchy, fun songs that will be stuck in your head days after, especially “Beaches of Biloxi.” Mike and the Moonpies are preachin’ the good word of country and western, and Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is their sermon. Amen. – Jonathan Thomason
Naples, Florida native, Joshua Hedley, grew up playing old country and bluegrass songs at VFW halls and BBQ joints with guys five times his age. Cake walks and square dances – that’s where Hedley got his musical education, though he claims to have asked for his first fiddle at the age of three, having been inspired by a Disney movie, as he remembers it.
He spent summers in his teens visiting Nashville with his parents, places like Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World, dreaming of the day he’d make his mark. Flash forward 20 years, and he’s climbed the ladder, played all over Nashville (and way, way beyond), and he’s created one of the best albums of 2018, his debut – Mr. Jukebox.
Mr. Jukebox is a good-humored and well-rounded collection of countrypolitan and Americana songs released by Jack White’s vital Third Man Records. The album’s masterful production is sensory and pleasant. The songs evoke a go-with-the-flow nonchalance that’s as dreamy as can be – the icing for that being the end track cover of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a song written for Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio. Perhaps, for this visionary and intuitive Americana songwriter, dreams do come true. – Sam Shansky
I would be remiss if I did not include Brandi Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You. Brandi teamed up with producers Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb with amazing results. The 10 folk/Americana/pop-inspired songs on the album highlight the amazing musical and vocal range we have come to love from Brandi. Her experiences as an artist and mother are worn proudly in the moving lyrics on songs like, “The Joke,” and, “The Mother.” This album came out in a year that has seen the world focused on women’s rights as well as the rights of other disadvantaged groups, and she is carrying the emotional torch. I have been a fan of Brandi Carlile for many years, and this is her year to shine. The album has been recognized for the following Grammys. Good Luck Brandi!
RECORD OF THE YEAR
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
By The Way, I Forgive You
SONG OF THE YEAR
BEST AMERICAN ROOTS PERFORMANCE
BEST AMERICAN ROOTS SONG
BEST AMERICANA ALBUM
By The Way, I Forgive You