Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Best* Country Singles of 2013

*best = my favorite

15) "Songs About Trucks" - Wade Bowen (Brandy Clark / Shane McAnally) Possibly the best song ever released titled "Songs About Trucks" that is not, in fact, about trucks. Country radio is filled with trite songs about how cool and country trucks and dirt roads are, but sometimes you just want to hear a song about drinking alone. Bowen delivers his statement with mainstream sheen but without managing to come off like a cynical jerk with an axe to grind. The rhyming of all the different kinds of trucks country songs are famous for in the chorus is impressive, and the lyric video is one of the best I've seen.

14) "July in Cheyenne (Song For Lane's Momma)" - Aaron Watson (Watson) Beautiful song and heartbreaking story about a bull rider named Lane Frost who died at the age of 25 doing what he loved in Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you've seen the movie 8 Seconds with Luke Perry (I haven't), it tells Frost's story. The song and music video by Texas country artist Watson is a fitting tribute.

13) "Whiskey" - Jana Kramer (Catt Gravitt / Sam Mizell) Following the number one "Why Ya Wanna," Kramer decided to go with a ballad that draws on a classic country theme and includes audible steel guitar, a gutsy move in today's contemporary country atmosphere. It didn't even crack the top 20.

12) "Give It All We Got Tonight" - George Strait (Mark Bright / Tim James / Phil O'Donnell) Despite some fairly cheesy, digitally distorted background vocals in the chorus, Strait redeems this love song with his confident and passionate vocals. A perfect choice of lead single from his 2013 album Love Is Everything.

11) "Blue Ridge Mountain Song" - Alan Jackson (Jackson) You really can't make a debut bluegrass album without including a song that references the Blue Ridge Mountains. This one has the master of simplicity singing a story about mountain love and loss, and never sounding more at home.

10) "Like A Rose" - Ashley Monroe (Monroe / Guy Clark / Jon Randall) When you write a song with Guy Clark and invite Vince Gill to sing harmony on it, it would be difficult if not damn near impossible for the end result to be a clunker. A pleasant melody and understated production are buoyed by Monroe's always stunning vocals on this track about emerging on the other side of tough times.

9) "Tonight I'm Playin' Possum" - Randy Travis feat. Joe Nichols (Travis / Keith Gattis) A simple, glorious tribute to the late George Jones. Drop the needle, drink up, and listen.

8) "Stripes" - Brandy Clark (Clark / Matt Jenkins / Shane McAnally) This might be the cleverest song written this year. It's somewhat in the vein of the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" thematically (not musicallly--"Stripes" is an excellent example of the old school country sound in a modern day song), except the protagonist in "Stripes" doesn't actually go through with it--you know, killing Dennis Farina and all. And all because her sense of fashion is too high-fallutin for prison. "I hate stripes and orange ain't my color/ If I pull that trigger tonight I'll be wearing one or the other."

7) "Follow Your Arrow" - Kacey Musgraves (Musgraves / Brandy Clark / Shane McAnally) Much has been written about this song's content, which includes lines about smoking a joint and girls kissing "lots of girls, if that's what you're into." That's all well and good, but beyond the social statements, this is simply a great song about something our parents try to instill in us from the day we are born, and something we'd do well to remember over the course of our lives: Don't be afraid to be yourself, regardless of what other people think or say about you.

6) "Tin Star" - Lindi Ortega (Ortega) The smoky-voiced Canadian songstress' ode to struggling to "make it" as a country singer. "If the music wasn't runnin' through the blood in my veins, I might just walk away." Thankfully, her star seems to be rising by the year, as it should be, so hopefully she won't be walking away any time soon. Her rich and evocative voice is too much of a gift. And if you care about such things, she is a delightful follow on Twitter.

5) "Bourbon in Kentucky" - Dierks Bentley feat. Kacey Musgraves (Hilary Lindsey / Gordie Sampson / Ryan Tyndell) Proof that if you try something remotely different for modern country radio, modern country radio will say, "No, thank you, please take your artistry elsewhere and write me something that strippers can dance to and will make me millions." This only made it to #45, which seems rather shocking for an established artist like Bentley and a hot newcomer like Musgraves, until you realize it doesn't sound like anything on mainstream radio. But this song has me stoked for Bentley's new album release next year. It was an excellent choice calling up Musgraves for harmonies--their voices sound really good together. And you've got to love a title as straightforward as this and that name drops my home state.

4) "What Are You Listening To?" - Chris Stapleton (Stapleton / Lee Thomas Miller) The debut single from the co-songwriter of several past country hits (Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More" and George Strait's "Love's Gonna Make It Alright") and former lead singer of rockin' honky-tonk bluegrass band The Steeldrivers. As usual, Stapleton's voice is the standout here. He was supposed to release a major label album in 2013, but the single's failure to chart may have impacted whether that's still happening or not.. I hope it does, because the sweet, soulful ballad by this Eastern Kentucky native, talented songwriter, and one of the best voices in all of music only makes me want to hear more.

3) "Electric Bill" - Jason Boland and the Stragglers (Boland) An humorous ode to true love that can withstand tough times during a bad economy. This couple even tell federal spies to spy on them if they want to see what real love is all about. I admit to not knowing what "kill" was, though I did have an idea (I'm not a complete idiot), until I looked it up in the urban dictionary. The result is an excellent song with one of the best hooks of the year: "If they take away everything, they won't take us apart/ We'll roll some kill in the electric bill, and smoke it in the dark." Boland is an effortless country singer, and the fiddle and pedal steel laid on by The Stragglers makes for one of the best sounding songs of the year.

2) "It Ain't the Whiskey" - Gary Allan (Greg Barnhill / Jim Daddario / Cole Degges) The standout track from his Set You Free album. I was pretty shocked they released it as a single, because it would be a minor miracle if it made any kind of dent in today's charts. In it, the narrator claims that it's something far more lethal than his love of drink that's killing him. At the risk of hyperbole, Allan gives a powerhouse of a vocal performance on this song. He also killed it when he performed on Leno too.

1) "Sober" - Little Big Town (Hillary Lindsey / Lori McKenna / Liz Rose) One of the finest singles ever released by the best group on country radio. Included on their 2012 album Tornado, it was also one of my favorite songs of that year. Karen Fairchild hands lead vocal reins over to Kimberly Schlapman, whose buoyant and delightful personality absolutely shines through on the track. Where Fairchild sings with a throaty confidence, Schlapman sings with an assured vulnerability, as if even on the happiest of songs she could become overcome with emotion at any moment. It really brings this sweet take on the concept of being "drunk on love" to life. If Schlapman's vocals are the festive and colorful wrapping paper on this Christmas gift, the group's always immaculate harmonies in the chorus are the neatly tied bow on top. After the relative floundering of "Your Side of the Bed" at radio, here's hoping that after the holidays "Sober" can gain the momentum of previous hit singles "Pontoon" and "Tornado." A song this good deserves it. "I love being in love, it's the best kind of drug/ Drunk on the high, leanin' on your shoulder/ Sweet like wine as it gets older/ When I die I don't wanna go sober."

Other Singles I Enjoyed:

"Fuzzy" - Randy Rogers Band (Shane McAnally / Josh Osborne / Trevor Rosen) This is how write a fun, accessible party song. An example of the ensuing hilarity: "Who the hell is Heather? And when were we together?/ 'Cause I've got every letter of her name on my chest."

"All Over the Road" - Easton Corbin (Carson Chamberlain / Ashley Gorley / Wade Kirby) As far as the men go, he might be the audible steel guitar on the radio's last great hope. Hopefully he doesn't have an "Aw Naw" somewhere up his sleeve.

 "Another Song Nobody Will Hear" - Will Hoge feat. Wade Bowen (Hoge) The co-writer of Eli Young Band's hit "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" wrote a song about how honest songs aren't popular anymore. Nobody wants to hear them. We want nothing but an unhealthy spoon-feeding of escapism. "I came here to Nashville with a million tales to tell/ The first thing that I found out is that the truth don't always sell/ They want songs about the backroads, tractors, trucks, and beers, while I write another song, another song nobody will hear."

 "All Kinds of Kinds" - Miranda Lambert (Philip Coleman / Don Henry) "At some point the finger let ignorance linger/ if they'd look in a mirror they'd find/ That ever since the beginning, to keep the world spinning/ It takes all kinds of kinds." Amen, sister.

"Someone Somewhere Tonight" - Kellie Pickler (Davis Raines / Walt Wilkins) Back when she won American Idol, who would have thought Pickler would be one of the good ones? Integrity, in tact.

"Pieces" - Gary Allan (Allan / Odie Blackmon / Sarah Buxton) The kind of rock song country radio should embrace. Great chorus and, as always, great vocal from Allan.

"The Last Goodbye" - Reckless Kelly (Willy Braun) The Red Dirt veterans are understated in bidding a final farewell to a fool-makin' woman in this ballad penned by lead singer Willy Braun. But you know, the last goodbye is a lot like the last one.

"Helluva Life" - Frankie Ballard (Rodney Clawson / Chris Tompkins / Josh Kear) Lyrical cliches aside, something about this chorus just does it for me. Gives me a good feeling.

"Wild & Lonesome" - Shooter Jennings feat. Patty Griffin (Jennings) If you want your song to stand out, ask Patty Griffin to sing harmony and throw a heavy dose of steel guitar into the mix.

"The Rose Queen" - William Clark Green (Green) I'm not very familiar with Green, but if this song is any indication of his vocal and songwriting talent, I've been missing out. Great country rock.

"Little Too Late" - Zane Williams (Williams) With vocals reminiscent of Radney Foster, Williams maintains his integrity while aiming for mainstream success.

"Days of Gold" - Jake Owen (Jaren Johnston / Neil Mason) Contains a list of country cliches a mile long but is redeemed by its ragged and rugged instrumentation, including banjo and harmonica turned up in the mix and not relegated to the background.

"Drinks After Work" - Toby Keith (Barry Dean / Natalie Hemby / Luke Laird) Not country at all country and a bit corn-pop in the production department, but highly enjoyable if it strikes you in the right mood.

"Hush Hush" - Pistol Annies (Miranda Lambert / Ashley Monroe / Angaleena Presley) Fun tongue in cheek tale about family secrets nobody wants to talk about. Ashley Monroe's verse, per usual, stands out.

"Speak of the Devil" - Randy Rogers Band (Sarah Burton / Ashley Gorley / Jedd Hughes) A song about exes that everybody can relate to.

"Wagon Wheel" - Darius Rucker (Bob Dylan / Ketch Secor) OCMS's version is superior in every way, and I feel like it'd already been worn out by the time Rucker released it, but it's such a classic, well-written song. Nice to hear fiddle on country radio again too. And they didn't edit out "toke."

"You Can't Make Old Friends" - Kenny Rogers feat. Dolly Parton (Ryan Hanna King / Don Schlitz / Caitlyn Smith) Grab your tissues, these two still got it. Once you hear it you can't imagine any other two people singing it.

"Back In Your Arms Again" - The Mavericks (Raul Malo / Gary Nicholson / Seth Walker) Nobody makes me want to get up and dance like The Mavericks. Nobody sings like Raul Malo. No other band uses brass instruments so well.

"Brand New Me" - Charlie Robison (Bruce Robison) This country rock jam has Robison slyly ruminating on the man now with his former flame. Great chorus on this one.

"How Could I Want More" - Jamie Lynn Spears (Spears / Rivers Rutherford) Yes, this is Britney Spears' sister. Just listen. Then get back to me.

Listen to the Spotify playlist:

Other 2013 lists:

Worst Country Singles

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