Here’s my picks for the best of the best, the cream of the crop for country singles in 2011. See, the year wasn’t all bad, now was it?
45. Steel Magnolia – “Last Night Again”
A flirty romance tale finding a couple eyeing each other from across the room is made even sweeter knowing Megan Lindsay and Joshua Scott Jones are an item in real life.
44. Terri Clark – “Northern Girl”
How refreshing is it to hear a singer singing about where they’re from and instead of a bunch of cliches, it relays to personal experience? Clark, from Canada, sings lovingly of her homeland here and shows just how great her voice still is after more than fifteen years in the industry. If you haven’t paid Clark much attention in a while, she’s worth checking out.
43. Miranda Lambert – “Baggage Claim”
A Beyonce inspired ditty that says everything Reba McEntire wished she could’ve said in “Who’s Ever In New England.” This guy ain’t got a place to come back to.
42. Jacob Lyda – “I’m Doing Alright”
This light and breezy tale is an exercise in being comfortable in your everyday life, something we could use more of in our world. Lyda co-wrote it with legendary songwriter Paul Overstreet (whose son Chord is Sam Evans on Glee) and it has that old-time feel of a great country song. Lyda didn’t make waves in 2011, but he sure deserved to.
41. LeAnn Rimes – “Give”
It’s hard to take Rimes seriously, especially in the wake of her personal discretions. Yet, she’s not only releasing the best music of her career, but she’s releasing better country music than most of her counterparts.
“Give” is the story of being that friend you need yourself and forgiving those when they’ve done wrong. It’s hard not to scold LeAnn for this bit of self pandering, but when it’s this well executed, it doesn’t matter at all.
40. George Strait – “Here For A Good Time”
Life is fleeting so why not celebrate the time we have left? Its a lesson we can all take to heart whether we’re 29 or 89.
39. Lady Antebellum – “We Owned The Night”
Without much fuss, Lady Antebellum have created an anthem for living in the moment complete with lyrical ligtness and one of the most infectious melodies on country radio in 2011. Admit it, you were singing along.
38. Chris Young – “You”
Young is celebrating all the good in his current romantic relationship and the bad habits she’s helping him leave behind. The honeymoon phase? Maybe. But it makes one hell of a prequel to “Tomorrow.”
37. Trace Adkins – “Just Fishin'”
Stripping away his love affair with the scantily clad, Adkins embraces fatherhood in a tale about the quality time parents spend with their children. It may be all about fishing to the little girl, but to her daddy, it’s so much more.
36. Reba McEntire – “When Love Gets A Hold of You”
In her refusal to sing age-approprate material, this little gem squeaked by without as much as a whisper. It’s a testament to McEntire’s ability to find and sing great songs every now and then; this would’ve had a very strong hold on country fans had it been released just fifteen to twenty years earlier.
35. Vince Gill – “Threaten Me With Heaven”
The lead single to Gill’s brilliant Guitar Slinger finds him pondering death in a way only he can – “What’s the worst thing that can happen/If they say my time is through/Can they take away the love/Or they years I’ve shared with you/What’s the worst thing that can happen/That’s the worst that they can do/Threaten me with Heaven, it’s all they can do.” And with our good lord to come home to, death really isn’t worth fearing after all
34. Keith Urban – “Long Hot Summer”
The joys of the warmer months of the year never sounded so good coming from the collaborative team of Urban and Richard Marx. It can be difficult to hear when Urban gets it right (all his songs sound exactly the same) but he struck gold in one of his better ditties since the Be Here era.
33. Sunny Sweeney – “Drink Myself Single”
With a bottle of red and a bottle of white, she’s drinking herself single of the man doing her wrong. She can’t decide which form of wine it’ll be to drown her pain but at least she knows she’s going out on the town and plans on making a name for herself. And all in true honky-tonk fashion.
32. Alison Krauss and Union Station – “Paper Airplane”
AKUS needed to rekindle their spark and went to R.L. Castleman for guidance. In his usual fashion he delivered one of the understated gems of 2011 and a perfectly executed addition to Krauss’s ever expanding catalog.
31. The Band Perry – “All Your Life”
Continuing to prove Alison Krauss makes for a fantastic influence, The Band Perry are showing little by little a new and brighter direction for mainstream country music. I’ll walk to the end of the ocean or catch a couple thousand fireflies for The Band Perry any day.
30. Ashton Shepherd – “Where Country Grows”
Shepherd goes right, where almost every other “I’m country” anthem goes wrong – conviction. You believe what she’s singing because of both her vocal performance and the arrangement that isn’t rock disguised as country but actually a good dose of country music.
29. Lady Antebellum – “Just a Kiss”
At first this sounded like a light romantic ballad. But the more times you heard it, “Just A Kiss” became a showcase for the kind of song Hillary Scott does best.
28. Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone”
Bucking the long-standing tradition that break-up songs should only be sad and mournful, Currington shows that letting go of love could actually be fun. The horns may have been a tough sell to country radio but they make for one hell of a delightful record.
27. Kellie Pickler – “Tough”
Leaving behind the girly confections of her past, Pickler has returned with a bold new attitude proclaiming she “ain’t never been nothing but tough.” She might not be out to kill her men, but this girl has a backbone, indeed.
26. Sara Evans – “My Heart Can’t Tell You No”
A Rod Stewart cover becomes one of Evans’s best vocal performances ever. If you get the chance to hear her sing this live, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
25. Jason Aldean – “Tattoos On This Town”
Tattoos are more than perminant ink on the human body but also stamps of arrival on the places you’ve been. They let the world know you were there and what you did – like drag race your pickup truck and carve “Allie will you marry me” on the overpass.
What at first is another in a long linty of such odes from Aldean is actually his greatest “where I’m from” achievement. It has just enough drive to give it a punch yet retains its power as a country song. Whether you like it or not, Aldean is leaving is Tattoos on country music and when the results sound like this (and not his other massive hit from 2011), he’s welcome in the family anytime.
24. Brad Paisley – “Nobody’s Fool”
From the Cars 2 soundtrack comes the best song Paisley has sung (and written) in years. By embracing his bluesy side, he adds another demension to his skills repertoire. May he cultivate this sound on a future album.
23. Rascal Flatts – “I Won’t Let Go”
In four minutes Rascal Flatts sum up what every song relationship is built upon – the promise that no matter what comes our way, we can weather it together. Such promises are nothing new, but in the hands of Gary, Jay, and Joe Don, you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.
22. Eden’s Edge – “Amen”
He’s blinded by a love and she’s the friend waiting for him to finally see the light. So when she’s down at Power-Puff Beauty Shop and hears that the girlfriend left him for a boy in Illinois, she rejoices in praise. Cause he’s offically out of his love coma and can healthily move forward with his life.
The single most promising debut single country radio gave even a tiny piece of their attention to this year, “Amen” sets the bar high for this new trio and I’m fully on board to seeing what the future holds.
21. Keith Urban – “Without You”
Urban’s career has been defined by two principals – breezy guitar driven country rock and love songs celebrating his marriage. Both have become so commonplace in his repertoire, every one of his singles sounds exactly the same.
Which is why the quiet restraint of “Without You” came as such a surprise. A banjo-driven ballad from the king of muscular country? We’ll take it. Sure it’s another love song, but it’s the most honest one he’s ever recorded with venerability to match. Lay off the screaming guitars and drum machine more often, my friend.
20. Sunny Sweeney – “Stayings Worse Than Leaving”
She doesn’t care who passes judgement on her reasons and will even except the blame for ending the relationship, but God knows they did everything that could be done to keep the relationship alive. Freedom may feel like treason but saying really is worse than leaving, especially when it means living a lesser life.
Inspired by her divorce, Sweeney has crafted a break-up rocker for the ages complete with justification and betterment. Country music never sounded so good.
19. Brad Paisley featuring Carrie Underwood – “Remind Me”
They used to be madly in love and now they’ll do anything to rekindle that spark. They continue to hold on to the hope they can revert back to how they used to be. But what caused their sexual stagnation? The song does little to fill in the backstory, and the video didn’t help either. But it’s still my favorite single from This is Country Music and an example of mainstream country done right in 2011. Sure Paisley and Underwood sang at their full power but it’s the first time in a while that Paisley’s brand of muscular guitar-driven country didn’t get in the way of a song. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
18. Toby Keith – “Made In America”
Keith is playing up his strengths here – driving rock production, gruff exterior, and patriotic anthem. In other words, a classic case of pandering to reaffirm his status as one of country music’s big guns. But the difference here is simple – if you’re going to pander, make sure you have something to say and Keith definitely has a message here. He’s adding his voice to the growing movement to buy American made goods, a cause also championed by ABC News. The idea is growing traction
17. Miranda Lambert – “Heart Like Mine”
What could’ve easily been looked at a song released merely to extend Revolution just a bit longer became Lambert’s second #1 and the song to cement her a-list status at country radio. Good thing it came adorned with her most irresistible melody yet.
16. Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett – “Knee Deep”
Escapism is a daunting task to tackle in song especially when actually pulling it off. Teaming up with Jimmy Buffett may have been an obvious choice, but they smartly avoid all the cliches from Buffett’s duet with Alan Jackson. To have “is the tide going to reach my chair” as my sole worry would sound pretty good right about now.
15. The Band Perry – “You Lie”
Lying takes many forms but it’s really all the same. One lie and you’ve broken the trust in the relationship. But when you’re The Band Perry, and you’ve been burned bad enough to retain the nasty taste of crow, you remember one simple truth about men – lying isn’t what they do but rather who they are. Metaphors be damned, this is the catchiest kiss-off ditty in recent memory.
14. Dierks Bentley – “Home”
Bentley’s ode to our nation, inspired by the Arizona shooting last January, firmly takes the artistic credibility of Up On The Ridge and makes it work for mainstream radio. It’s his most delightful mainstream single in well over five years.
13. Justin Moore – “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”
If only heaven was closer he would visit Grandpa, hug all three of those girls lost in the class of 1999, take Bo fishing one more time and visit with both Hank and Janis. But most importantly, Cousin John would be able to finally see the woman his daughter turned out to be.
For all the justified criticism surrounding Moore and his poor song choices, it’s easy to dismiss the one time he actually got it right. If he only knew that displaying a little class, throwing around a traditional arraignment, and backing up his music with substance was the key to being taken seriously, he’d be our genre’s new bright light and not in the remainder bin. But some people are just as slow as they are short.
(and credit to Dallas Davidson for co-writing at least one song that doesn’t make me puke on contact).
12. Bradley Gaskin – “Mr. Bartender”
In the current radio market it isn’t cool to be of Gaskin’s ilk – an actual country singer. Sure, songs about drinking are as popular as ever but virtually gone are tales portraying the bottle as a euphemism for healing. Oh how good it sounds to hear a real drinking song, and Gaskin has delivered a doozy. It doesn’t bring anything fresh to the tradition, but “Mr. Bartender/Take Me Down with One Shot” is easily the best hook of any song all year.
11. Martina McBride – “Teenage Daughters”
McBride, relying on personal experience, tells a familiar tale; one instantly relatable to anyone who’s raised a child. “It’s like it happened overnight,” she sings, signaling the change in her relationship with her child. But deep down she knows exactly what’s going on because “at seventeen she’s just like me when I was seventeen so I don’t blame her.”
The complicated duel between parent and child is as old as the hills, but to hear it from McBride is to listen to a singer comfortable enough in her own circumstances to dig deep within and let experience out way feeble attempts at regression. She’s never sounded fresher than she does on this tale of defiance at regulation.
10. Randy Houser – “In God’s Time”
The balance between religion and spirituality in American popular culture is often shaky – there are those who believe in the teachings derived from texts and others who choose to let a higher power guide them, but don’t necessarily tie it to a particular faith. As there are those who happily merge the two. But in essence, you can believe in a God without believing in a religion.
Houser’s tale of letting life work itself out by surrendering to a greater force is the ultimate definition of spirituality, the study of the soul. In realty, “Time” is a fundamental lesson in how to live your best life – “But no one knows, not you or me, it might be tomorrow or it might never be. Oh, but don’t lose faith. Put it in His hands. ‘Cause it might be that He might have a bigger plan. Than you had in mind. Miracles happen, in God’s time.”
Very rarely does a singer emerge from the shadows to clearly leave their mark by just a song, but Houser has here. Not only is he among the greatest living of all country singers, but also he may be the best trying to have chart success today.
“Time” is nothing short of a masterpiece, a classic and iconic statement from a living prophet. Problem is, Houser occupies his time with distracting southern rock – a decision marking his downfall. If he only understood that he was put here to create songs like this, he would sour into the heavens, and fill the shoes of the ilk in his wake.
9. Chris Young – “Tomorrow”
Love is like the ultimate drug. It can be good for you or act like a poison seeping in through your pores. But even worse than the ache of love is the promise of doing something tomorrow, which is always a day away.
Young knows he and this woman shouldn’t be together since they’re “like fire and gasoline” and he understands “We only bring each other tears and sorrow,” but like hell if he’s going to waste this final chance to touch the forbidden fruit. He’s going to love her tonight, not as though tomorrow is a day away, but as though it isn’t coming at all.
You can feel the building desperation in Young’s vocal as he tries to convince himself of his reality, even going as far as to let out his primal scream – “Baby when we’re good, you know we’re great, But there’s too much bad for us to think that there’s anything worth trying to save.”
If any song from recent memory demands an answer it’s this one. So here’s Young’s side of events but where’s hers? In just over three and a half minutes, Young, and co-writers Frank J. Myers and Anthony L. Smith have crafted the shining example of country music in 2011 – not too loud nor to soft and with just enough angst to make it believable. Never have Young sounded this good, and in a market of oversexed girls chasing men unwilling to grow up, never has country music been this adult.
8. Taylor Swift – “Mean”
Always quick on her feet, Swift has created a song around the known notion she doesn’t have the greatest range in her singing voice. In reality, she crafted not only the countriest single of her career but the most traditional sounding song on country radio in 2011.
7. Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”
Written following Harlan Howard’s death in 2002, Matraca Berg and Deana Carter have crafted one hell of a drinking song. But it took nine years and the resident beach bum to team up with a knockout rock goddess to turn it into the anthem it was always destine to be.
6. Zac Brown Band – “Keep Me In Mind”
Sure it’s a tightly rehearsed jam band sing-a-long, but “Keep Me In Mind” is an infectious high energy delight that proves Zac Brown Band are at the forefront for interesting mainstream country music in 2011. Their choice to be a little different helps them stand out and gain the attention they deserve. With Lady Antebellum consistently stealing their fire they haven’t risen to the “industry darling” status they are so worthy of. But that isn’t for a lack of great songs like this.
5. Taylor Swift – “Sparks Fly”
In typical Taylor Swift fashion she’s singing about love and rainstorms. But she’s not the teenager in lust anymore – she wants to be met atop the staircase while he whispers something slow. It’s a journey worth embarking on as he’ll find out she’s better than he ever thought she’d be. Swift is growing up before our eyes and with each single, adding another layer to her assent into adulthood. The sparks are flying, indeed.
4. Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Livin'”
Written during the economic downturn in 2008, the label told Dunn the economy would have recovered by the time this would see the light of day as a single. Proving they should keep their day jobs as record execs, they were dead wrong. Not only hasn’t America recovered, its only gotten worse. And the longer the cost of living rises, the deeper Dunn’s masterful social document resonates.
Like all the emotion-driven classics of late, “Cost of Livin’” pairs a masterful vocal with tasteful production and creates the kind of song not heard on the boondocks-driven country radio of late. But unlike the likes of “In Color” or “The House That Built Me,” “Livin’” taps into the consciousness of America in a way only the most powerful of country songs can – think “Okie From Muskogee,” “Take This Job and Shove It,” or “Café On The Corner” – it’s a snapshot of our times, a historical text of a nation limping into an uncertain future.
3. Billy Currington – “Like My Dog”
It’s easy to see that Currington is trying. In his catalog of hits he’s retained more traditional country sounds than most any of his wildly popular contemporaries. Problem is, his arrangements are often backing inane lyrics (“Pretty Good At Drinking Beer”).
“Like My Dog” however, brings Currington back to displaying the charm he found wild success with in “People Are Crazy.” While it isn’t as good as it’s predecessor, “Dog” wins out with it’s true to life tale making the comparison between a man’s love for his pet and his girlfriend. Problem is, comparing the two is completely unfair, the dog wins out every time. But it makes for a fantastic song and Currington does everything right to bring it to life.
2. J.T. Hodges – “Hunt You Down”
He’s leaving town and the girl he’s totally in lust over. She doesn’t want to end things forever, telling him to “look me up when you get back to town.” He responds with an affirmative surprise telling her, “Hell I’m gonna hunt you down.”
But the shock about this song is the execution. It’s easily the most infectious country single of 2011, complete with whistling and an acoustic arrangement so delightful it harkens back to the good ole days of the 90s. Isn’t it nice t0 actually enjoy a mainstream country single these days?
1. Adele – “Someone Like You”
He’s remarried, but for her the love they shared still runs deep. She shows up out of the blue to his house hoping he’ll remember what they once shared. But she needed to see for herself if the rumor of his getting serious with another woman really was true. This relationship may be over, but she’s vowing to find someone just like him as if any two relationships could ever be exactly the same.
In a rare example of good taste, producer Dan Wilson keeps the production to a minimum to allow the ache to shine trough in Adele’s otherworldly vocal. While not released to the country market, it’s easily the best country song in ages, harking back to the glory days of the 90s when Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and the like were commonplace on the radio. And like their classic work, “Someone Like You” is a masterpiece, taking pain and denial to depths rarely reached in the years since. For someone with his or her whole life ahead of them, Adele is only 23; “Someone Like You” is going to be near impossible to top.
Tags: Adele, Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Ashton Shepherd, Billy Currington, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Chris Young, Dierks Bentley, Eden's Edge, George Strait, Grace Potter, Jacob Lyda, Jason Aldean, JT Hodges, Justin Moore, Keith Urban, Kellie Pickler, Kenny Chesney, Lady Atebellum, LeAnn Rimes, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Randy Houser, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, Steel Magnolia, Sunny Sweeney, Taylor Swift, Terri Clark, The Band Perry, Toby Keith, Trace Adkins, Vince Gill, Zac Brown Band