It's not even June, but already there's so much to talk about when it comes to 2018's crop of music in the country and Americana worlds. For one, this year is shaping up to be the year of the woman, with female acts releasing some of the best music across all genres. For another, newcomers seem to be shining especially bright, giving veteran performers a run for their money ... and their fans.
Below, The Boot is counting down the 10 best country, Americana, alt-country, bluegrass and folk songs of 2018 so far. Scroll on to see who made the list.
Ortega is out for blood in her epic single, "The Comeback Kid," which is soaked in rockabilly rhythm and reverb-fueled vocals and written without much metaphor. Ortega says the song is about a character who "was shot but somehow didn't die ... now, he/she is ready to haunt." Half eerie country twang, half upbeat rock 'n' roll, "The Comeback Kid" is the best kind of revenge song: fun, gritty and triumphant.
"But I'm still alive, so I guess I'll try livin' instead," Ortega sings in the first verse with gleeful vengeance before laughing into the perfect, two-line chorus: "You took my life and wrecked it, but I've been resurrected / Oh, the Comeback Kid."
"The Comeback Kid" is Ortega's first single off her fifth studio album, Liberty.
The title of Carmichael's "It's Simple" says everything you need to know about this endearingly uncomplicated track. All about enjoying the little things and not thinking too much about the bigger ones, "It's Simple" is similar to other country songs in its theme but unique in its delivery, thanks to a swooning pedal steel treatment and Carmichael's deep, rich baritone. The track was produced by Dave Cobb, which is why there's hints of Chris Stapleton and Brent Cobb -- but, ultimately, it's all Carmichael.
"Love is for making / Kids are for raising / And home is that place in your heart," he sings in the chorus. "Don't overthink it / Don't complicate it / The secret to life ain't that hard / It's simple."
While that sentiment may be easier said than done, Carmichael makes it sound possible. Carmichael may be a newcomer, but songs such as "It's Simple" reveal a finely honed musician who knows his craft and knows how to make it shine.
Williamson may not be a household name (yet), but listen to her quietly impeccable single "Mama Proud" and you'll know exactly why she made this Top 10 list. Written at the cusp of "making a big decision and accepting all of the consequences and lingering questions" that come with it, "Mama Proud" perfectly encapsulates the universal fear and doubt of venturing into the unknown, not knowing if everything will come together or completely fall apart.
Beginning with a single question -- "When you lose a part of your heart / Does it make room for something new?" -- "Mama Proud" finds the folk singer-songwriter traversing through heartbreak and searching for a way to start anew. But as the song builds into rhythmic crescendos and adds layer upon layer of hypnotic vocals, Williamson finds the courage to make the decisions she must make, knowing that they may not please everyone. Haunting and powerful in its intimate delivery, "Mama Proud" is a track you'll want to listen to more than once ... before moving on to the rest of Williamson's equally amazing 2018 album, Cosmic Wink.
While "I Want Love" isn't technically a Stapleton original, he fearlessly (and superbly) makes the Elton John single his own. Infusing the melancholy tune with even more of a bluesy feel, Stapleton's cover is as achingly heartbreaking as the original, just in a different, more distinctly country way; surprisingly though, apart from one wailing solo midway through the track, Stapleton actually tones down the guitar in his version -- even more so than in the original -- opting instead for a section of strings, which makes the song feel haunting and lonely even as they crescendo over his soulful vocals.
Ready for your perfect summer song? Bentley's "Burning Man" is undoubtedly it. Frenetic and explosive, and from Bentley's forthcoming album The Mountain, the track is the perfect salute to the human condition, giving voice to the often-competing emotions and behaviors that live in us all on a daily basis: "I'm a little bit steady / But still a little bit rolling stone / I'm a little bit heaven / But still a little bit flesh and bone," Bentley sings in the chorus.
Through his delivery, it's clear that Bentley relates to "Burning Man," and, in fact, the singer says that he felt an "immediate connection" to the lyrics during the writing process. The pairing of Bentley's smooth drawl and TJ Osborne's raw grit makes you wonder why the two haven't sang together sooner, while John Osborne's fiery guitar solo adds a whole new layer of punch to the already electrifying track. Ultimately, "Burning Man" plays to the strengths of the three musicians, making for one hell of a country song.
While country songs about life on the road (and the life left behind) aren't exactly new territory, Cobb's superb "Come Home Soon" is one that sticks with you more than most. Rambling like the roads that Cobb has traveled with big names inclduing Chris Stapleton and Willie Nelson, "Come Home Soon" strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and being overly sentimental, fully accomplishing the former without dipping into the latter.
With a deceptively simple melody underlying Cobb's intimately autobiographical lyrics, "Come Home Soon" is an exercise in subtlety, one that Cobb achieves by being brutally honest. In the chorus, he sings, "God, it's been so long since I've felt at home / I've forgotten what it feels like to be alone," with such nonchalance that you almost miss the gut-punch of a realization that what you wished for isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
With just a pause between two words, Musgraves has turned a term usually attributed to astronauts into a heartbreakingly beautiful and emotionally complex song about love, loss and letting go. With her smooth drawl and a heavy dose of banjo and pedal steel, "Space Cowboy" has everything we've come to know and love from Musgraves, but like most of the other songs on her stellar new album Golden Hour, there's a new side of her peeking through as well. Lyrics including "I know my place, and it ain't with you / Sunsets fade and love does, too" could easily be hokey when sung by anyone else, but here, there's only pure and unadulterated heartbreak.
When the key changes midway through the song, "Space Cowboy" becomes more about being okay with letting go of a love that just wasn't right. The same exact lyrics take on new meaning, as Musgraves finds freedom in knowing that her place is with someone else, and it's time to go find him.
Leave it to Johnny Cash to give us intimately epic songs even after his death. With the addition of a simple banjo and guitar refrain and the gentle harmonies of a newlywed couple, "To June, This Morning" has been transformed from a poem Cash wrote for his wife, June Carter Cash, into a simple, yet powerful, song about falling in love through the little things.
Kelly first put music to the poem 12 years ago, when he was just 16 years old, and when he was approached by Cash's son, John Carter Cash -- with whom June was actually eight months pregnant with when Johnny penned the poem -- about putting some of his father's words to music, the singer-songwriter knew just want to do ... and he knew just who to ask to be the June to his Johnny. Kelly and Musgraves breathed musical life into the short poem, resulting in one of the most intensely personal love songs of the year.
With a title like "Hands on You," it's obvious that Monroe's first single from her record Sparrow is going to be steamy and sensual. But what listeners might not expect are the layers of smoky R&B that permeate the song, bringing Monroe into new sonic territory and somehow making "Hands on You" even more sexy.
Inspired by a weekend getaway that was ruined when Monroe got the stomach bug and had to stay inside while her friends gallivanted around town meeting handsome men, "Hands on You" sees Monroe letting her imagination run wild with desire. The song oozes confidence, both as Monroe lyrically lays out what she would do if she could get her hands on someone, and in her delivery as a powerful woman who knows what she wants. After spending more than a decade in music, she's earned that confidence.
In 2005, Carrie Underwood brought power to the jilted woman by singing about destroying her ex's car in "Before He Cheats." In 2018, Ashton is taking that sentiment about 10 steps further. True to form for the genre-bending artist, Ashton blends blues, rock and a heavy dose of kick-ass attitude in "Taxidermy," providing a crystal-clear warning of what will happen if her lover ever crosses her again: "You'll be my taxidermy, taxidermy / I'll keep you hanging on a bedroom wall."
"Taxidermy" is the second song to be released from Ashton, following her debut, "California, Missouri," and it's the perfect followup for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this song is super catchy. Punchy lyrics penned by Natalie Hemby, Luke Dick and Rosi Golan pair perfectly with the song's swaggering guitars, and the result is a song that will get stuck in your head after just hearing it once ... and we're okay with that.