Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

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7 Responses to “Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1”

  1. bob Says:

    Good top 20 favorites list considering that going through the weekly top 40 mediabase charts for 2013 would have been of almost no help. Hope things improve in 2014 but I doubt it.

    Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity was co-written by Phillip Coleman who also wrote most of Ronnie Dunn’s “Cost of Living” with Dunn. My only complaint about “Kinds” is that it should have been a 3 minute song but runs on to 4:27 with nothing meaningful or interesting in the last minute and a half. Ashley Monroe’s “Like a Rose” has the same run-on type of ending.

    Love “Stripes” and the rest of Brandy’s album, “That Girl” and “Bruises” – good point about Carlene. Some of the other songs in your top 20 I would like better if sung by someone else.

    If I had a top 20 it would include “Better” from Maggie Rose, Ashley Monroe’s “Weed Instead of Roses” and “He Loves to Make Me Cry” from Kristen Kelly.

  2. Jonathan Pappalardo Says:

    Thanks, Bob. I have to check out Maggie Rose. I’ve heard “Better” and I really, really liked it. I’ve just never gotten around to listening to her album. I’ll get on rectifying that!

    Good points about “Kinds” and “Like A Rose.” I hadn’t come to that conclusion myself, but I totally see what you’re saying. I don’t know much about Phillip Coleman, but he seems like a fantastic songwriter based on those two songs.

    One can never go wrong with Brandy Clark and her album. So jealous you’ve seen her at the Bluebird!

  3. Markus Meyer Says:

    Pretty solid list. Completely agreed on “Follow Your Arrow”, “Sober”, “Bruises”, “All Kinds Of Kinds”.

    I don’t believe “Over When It’s Over” was ever officially released as a single, though it did get some unsolicited airplay.

  4. trevchr Says:

    Sober is like doughnuts to me. So overly sweet but so perfectly addicting. What say you of the Grammy nominations, by the way?

    • Jonathan Pappalardo Says:

      I was pleased overall with the country related categories. By shutting out FGL and Luke Bryan they left room for the better then average mainstream stuff to fill the categories. The only country category I completely disagreed with was Best Country Album – Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose should’ve been included there. The duo/group category was the best.

      The general categories were a bit unexciting, I thought, since I’m not really drawn to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ type of music or Dance/Pop in general (not that they’re Dance/Pop or straight hip/hop). But I’m glad that P!nk was included for a couple. I’m a big fan of ‘Just Give Me A Reason.’

      • trevchr Says:

        I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean my last blog post was called “Ashley Monroe Was Snubbed.” Kacey Musgraves and Guy Clark both made me so happy though.

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