My 40 favorite country singles of the year include a few guilty pleasures (beginning right off the bat with #40), a couple smash hits, and whole lot of good songs that received little to absolutely zero radio play. If you've ever just grazed by the country station while station-surfing in your car and left it on there for even just a few seconds, you've got a pretty good idea about the state of mainstream country music. Chances are whatever song you might have heard, radio programmers would rather play that same song over and over again or another song just like it than play 20 to 30 songs that appear on this list. There were a few breakthroughs, though, and by "few" I mean two or three.
I've included in parentheses the month each single was released followed by its chart position reached on both the Billboard Country Songs Chart and the (new) Country Airplay Charts. If you do not know, the original country chart used to essentially only be a radio airplay chart, but a couple months ago Billboard changed its criterion to include online downloads and streams in addition to spins at radio. Subsequently, Taylor Swift's "We Are..blah blah blah" has been #1 on the country chart for God knows how many weeks in a row now... and it BOMBED at country radio. All that to say, I've included both chart numbers because I think including only one would be confusing for both me and you. That is, if I haven't confused you enough already. (More confusion: some songs charted when the Airplay chart wasn't around yet. Those songs only have one number listed.)
Anyway, I hope you find a few songs on this list that you like and a few that you've never heard before. Enjoy.
40) Florida Georgie Line - "Cruise" (Released in August, peaked at #2 in November on Country Songs Chart, currently at #1 on Country Airplay Music Chart)
Songwriters: Brian Kelley, Tyler Hubbard, Joey Moi, Chase Rice, Jesse Rice
I pray to the music gods that Florida Georgia Line is a one hit wonder -- it would be awful (though absolutely unsurprising) for a bunch of similar songs to get popular on country radio -- but I can't help but bob my head and sing along every time I hear this. It's a "Pontoon"-level smash on the airwaves. The lyrics are terrible, make no mistake about it, but the chorus is sickeningly catchy, especially the part that goes, "This suped-up Chevy with a lift kit/ would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it" part. I know and, yes, I'm ashamed, and even more so for the fact that it took five damn people to write the guilty pleasure of the year.
39) Brad Paisley - "Southern Comfort Zone" (September, peaked at #17 in December, currently number #12 and climbing)
Songwriters: Brad Paisley, Kelly Lovelace, Chris DuBois
From reviews and comments I've read about this song, this has to be the most misunderstood single of the year. Unfairly labeled as Paisley regurgitating another "I'm so country" laundry list song for the masses, it, if anything, is calling out the insane amount of those kinds of songs infiltrating radio waves. It's about getting out of your comfort zone and realizing that not everyone is like you, and that perhaps to really know yourself and really appreciate where you were born and raised, you may have to leave it for a little while. The only thing keeping this from being higher on my list is the production, which is far too overdone and honestly a little bizarre. I'm not sure what Paisley was thinking there.
38) Randy Rogers Band - "One More Sad Song" (July, peaked at #38 in September, #37 in November)
Songwriters: Randy Rogers, Sean McConnell
If you look past all the bells and whistles, this is a really good song. I'm not one to accuse Randy Rogers and company of trying to become Nashville sellouts; after all, this is only one song from their upcoming record called Trouble, to be released February of next year. But I have to admit that they've never sounded quite so produced before. You only have to see who produced it to find out why: Jay Joyce, who was at the helm of Eric Church and Little Big Town's most recent albums, which are both good, especially Church's. But adding those production elements to RRB (and even to LBT to a certain extent) seems a bit like fiddling (no pun intended) too much with a great thing. For "One More Sad Song," Joyce even puts some kind of effect on Rogers' vocal, completely unnecessary for one of the most unique voices in modern country music. With all that said, the chorus is catchy, the lyrics are thoughtful, and it's still Randy Rogers Band. It grows on you after a few spins.
37) Randy Houser - "How Country Feels" (May, currently at #14 & #10 and climbing)
Songwriters: Vickey McGehee, Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher
Hollers and hills, pick-up trucks, and cornfields all make appearances here, but it's truly amazing how a classically excellent vocalist like Houser can effortlessly elevate a song. He makes what would come off as cliche in lesser hands (read: Luke Bryan) actually stand out. But the song is also unique in that the narrator isn't bragging about how proud he is that he's from the country (because that means he's probably cooler than you), he's just trying to show a woman he likes (who was raised on an "asphalt farm") some of the great things he's been able to experience growing up and living away from the bright lights of the city. It's essentially a song about how peaceful, pastoral, and romantic the countryside can be. And he seems to take pride in those qualities in and of themselves and not because he thinks that ladies love country boys.
36) Eli Young Band - "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" (January, peaked at #1 in July)
Songwriters: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay
Country radio has a tendency to overplay a song when they fall in love with it. The song has a great message -- "keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart" -- but this version has just about wore on me. It's still one of the best singles of the year. I wrote some more about it back in July here.
35) Josh Turner - "Find Me A Baby" (October, has not charted yet, currently #51 airplay)
Songwriters: Josh Turner, Frank Rogers
I thought "Time Is Love" was rather boring. "Find Me A Baby" is nothing but light fun, but it's light fun done right, with banjo, pedal steel, and fiddle providing the instrumentation, while rounding everything out is Turner's distinct deep voice, which honestly gives him an advantage over everyone else on just about anything he puts out. Give me this on the radio over faux frat-bag cock-rock any day of the week.
34) Carrie Underwood - "Two Black Cadillacs" (November, currently at #32 & #27 and climbing)
Songwriters: Carrie Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, Josh Kear
Musically, this is an unabashed pop song; lyrically, this song takes pride in fitting firmly within country music's long history of obsession with the theme of murder. And despite some unnecessary background vocals, it all works quite well. It's no secret that Carrie Underwood can sing, and can sing a damn fine sounding country tune when she wants to, but she has more often than not opted to take the pop route. It's the eerie, nuanced, just-detailed-enough storytelling on "Two Black Cadillacs" that makes this one of the best singles she's ever released. With more releases like this, she could really start to carve out her own unique sound at radio.
33) Gwen Sebastian - "Met Him In A Motel Room" (May, peaked at #58 in September)
Songwriters: Rory Feek, Jamie Teachenor
I am a sucker for a song like this, even more so when it's this clever and well done. If you are anything like me, when you saw the title you didn't think "Him" referred to a Jewish carpenter from 2,000 years ago. Up until the end of the first verse when Sebastian sings, "She whispered I ain't ever prayed to you before," it seems pretty obvious that it's going to be a dark and perhaps regretful song about a one night stand or cheating, what with the "curtains drawn" and a "Do Not Disturb sign on the door." But the twist is a good one, and it doesn't wait until the end to reveal itself. Ultimately, it's a song about the dark places we human beings can sometimes find ourselves in. But more than that, it's a song about the strange and funny ways redemption makes itself available to us. Oh, and it is actually country. Thomas Rhett and "Beer With Jesus," eat your heart out. (No wonder it's a good song; it was co-written by Rory Feek of Joey + Rory fame.)
32) The Dirt Drifters - "There She Goes" (February, did not chart)
Songwriters: Jeff Middleton, Matt Fleener, Ryan Fleener, Levi Fleener, Blue Foley
In May The Dirt Drifters posted on their website that they would be not be going on the road in the summer due to some personal issues within the band; all shows were cancelled. I'm not sure if that meant they were taking a short hiatus or breaking up, but hopefully it's the former, because this is a band with real artistic merit that has a great amount of potential for mainstream success. Take "There She Goes" for example: it's catchy, well-produced but not overproduced, sung and played beautifully and in tune (with nary a hint of Autotune), and it's about a heartache. That's really about all I can ask for when it comes to listening to the radio. Hopefully whatever was or is going on within the group can be worked out. I wish them the best. (It apparently took five people to write, but it's still good.)
31) Little Big Town - "Pontoon" (April, peaked at #1 in September)
Songwriters: Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Barry Dean
I'd probably put this song higher if I wasn't just about sick of it. Certainly the song of last summer and maybe the song of the year, radio play for "Pontoon" has been ubiquitous in 2012, and Little Big Town seemingly perform it at every awards show they're invited too. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that -- I mean, it's the biggest hit of their career -- but it's time to move on. I hope the other singles from Tornado won't be overshadowed by it, and hopefully the single released after "Tornado" will be "Sober." I wrote a full review for "Pontoon" around the time it was released here. (As you can tell, I was a little more appreciative of the song back then.)