The final ten songs on my list of the best singles of the year feature only one male artist, one group, and a handful of outstanding female artists. These are the ten songs that, in my eyes, have been landmark singles on country radio (though not many have experienced chart success). They tackle various social issues, heartache, and love, but ultimately they are outstanding representations of what country music should be and needs to be. In my opinion, 2013 has been one of the best years for country music thanks to these ten songs.
It’s extremely rare to hear a song that not only captivates you, but that is powerful enough to leave you completely breathless. “It Ain’t the Whiskey” is one of those tracks. The opening organ perfectly sets the dark, haunting atmosphere needed to tell this incredibly somber tale of alcoholism. Songwriters Greg Barnhill, Jim Diddario, and Cole Degges masterfully describe the narrator’s experience at an AA-meeting by painting the grim picture of how he “stood there in the middle of the church of the broken people, listened to the walking wounded tell their stories.” From there the narrator pours out his heart, soul, and frustration as he avoids blaming the alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs for his problems but the hole left by a lost love. As the narrator delves further into his struggles, the production brilliantly crescendos to an aggressive climax. Meanwhile Allan’s vocal performance becomes increasingly more emotional as he begins to release every ounce of built up anger he may feel. By the song’s end you feel as if you’ve just played witness to this extremely painful event. This is a phenomenal song that only an artist like Gary Allan could pull off. He does it brilliantly and gives us the best song from a male vocalist on our list.
An incredible story, brilliant production, and stellar vocal performance are all elements that make Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” one heck of a single. Underwood continues to show growth as a songwriter as she, along with Josh Kear and Hillary Lindsey, provide one of the best revenge songs to hit country radio. The tale of two women murdering the man who wronged them both is something we wouldn’t normally expect from the singer’s squeaky-clean image. However, it shows the versatility Carrie has as an artist as well as lack of fear to release something so dark and controversial. The mysterious production provides the perfect canvas for the lyrics to paint each scene with clear and vivid imagery from the parade of black vehicles to the crimson smiles the women share moments after their victim is lowered into his grave. Carrie’s vocal performance serves as the brush as she delivers the story with an incredible amount of anger and sass yet also a hint of pride that leads you to believe she’s possibly smiling as she recounts the fate she’s helped bestow on the cheating man. Without a doubt this is an impeccable highlight among the music Carrie Underwood has delivered since her days on American Idol.
With “Your Side of the Bed,” Little Big Town continues to prove just how revolutionary, as artists, they are for the genre of country music. Not only do the four members have the best harmonies on the planet, but they also continue to develop and grow. They aren’t afraid to push the mainstream envelope nor are they afraid to get “real” with their audience. This song is a perfect example. Most artists today are painting happy-go-lucky pictures of love; however, LBT smacked country radio in the face with a look into what could happen (and so often does happen) once the honeymoon phase in a relationship is over. The lyrics paint an eerie picture of a couple that has grown so far apart that all that remain are memories of love made and a sense of loneliness, even though they are lying side by side. The discomforting lyrics are put into perspective as real-life married couple Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook belt out the heartbreaking tune as a duet that leaves you wondering if there’s trouble in their paradise. Meanwhile remaining members Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet provide beautiful harmonies to enhance the raw, powerful performances delivered by the lead vocalists. The haunting electric guitar melody sets the perfect tone to allow you to feel the tension in the air, almost as if you’re sitting in a corner witnessing the love less interaction between the couple. It’s quite remarkable to see Little Big Town continuing to raise the bar for mainstream country music with every release. This group is definitely something special.
Ashley Monroe is the fifth artist to make multiple appearances so far on the countdown, but this is her first appearance as a solo artist. Ashley has already proven that her roots are firmly planted in traditional country and she continues that theme on her album, Like a Rose. With “Weed Instead of Roses,” we are treated to an incredibly clever, unique, and slightly risqué take on a love song that will have you toe tapping like no other. The production features all the fixings that please the ears of traditionalists as piano, fiddle, electric guitar, and steel guitar are all blended together to create a stellar down-home feel. Monroe delivers the flirtatious story about replacing traditional romancing techniques in favor of those that are a little less conventional with just the right amount of sass and sarcasm. She playfully asks for whiskey instead of wine, a little Mary Jane instead of roses, and offers to spice things up with sexy underwear, whips and chains, and some whipped cream. Not many artists would attempt to bring a song like this to country radio, but it only proves that Ashley Monroe isn’t afraid of taking chances.
Earlier I mentioned an artist that seems to have gotten better and better as she continues to age and grow. Leann Rimes is another perfect example of that phenomenon. In the mid 1990s, we were introduced to an innocent 13 year old girl who Patsy Cline-ed her way through her debut single “Blue.” As the years passed, she became a commercial treasure we watched grow before our very eyes. Now, at 31, she’s become a polished artistic diamond that has been able to use her life’s experiences to deliver some of her best work. “What Have I Done” finds the singer taking another step towards artistic greatness as she delivers a heartbreaking apology to the man she hurt during the tumultuous ending of her marriage. The lyrics spell out every emotion, every thought, and every ounce of regret Leann feels as she recounts the details that led to the life-changing event. Her voice is doused with guilt, sincerity, and heartache as she recounts regretfully breaking the “sweetest heart of the only man that ever loved” her. This incredibly personal look into the life of Leann Rimes brilliantly gets back to the basics of country music: a fantastic story and a beautifully simplistic production. Say what you will about Leann, but she is an outstanding artistic force to be reckoned with.
Best known for co-penning hits for The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”) and Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), Brandy Clark has already cemented herself as one of Nashville’s finest songwriters. Now, it’s time for her to shine as one of Nashville’s finest female artists and “Stripes” is the perfect start. Here, we find a comedic take on the “woman scorned” theme we’ve been hearing a lot of lately. What sets “Stripes” apart from other songs of this nature is just how brilliantly well written the story is. After finding her lover in bed with a “goofy little grin and platinum blonde,” she gets her gun and finds herself ready to shoot. However, the thought arises in her head that, should she pull the trigger, she’d have to deal with a fashion crisis, as her hatred for stripes would outweigh the pleasure of gaining revenge plus orange is simply not her color. It’s this type of thinking outside the box that creates a breeze of fresh air through the sails of the ship that is country music. Not to mention Clark’s sassy, and fiery delivery is one that could only be matched by a few of today’s female vocalists (yup, talking about you Miranda). If there is any justice in the country music world, then Brandy Clark will inevitably become one of the genre’s brightest stars.
Kacey Musgraves is without a doubt this year’s most compelling and captivating artist. After blowing everyone away with “Merry Go ‘Round” last year, she’s doing it again with “Blowin’ Smoke.” The second single from the songstress is a continuation of what she does best: telling it like it is. “Smoke” is a look inside the gossip circles that can be found at any back door of a restaurant. Those circles are filled with talk of big dreams and career goals along with the smoke and ashes of the cigarettes the restaurant servers use to let off a bit of steam. Unfortunately for them, the smoke isn’t the only thing disappearing into thin air. Musgraves brilliantly delivers the comedic stories of her coworkers including recent divorcee Janie whose ex-husband is serving “two to five or five to ten or longer” and Brenda who is struggling to lose baby weight 18-plus years later. The magnificent production brings the back door conversations to life by perfectly capturing the atmosphere with funky guitars, cool drum beats, and some perfectly placed “hey yeahs.” It’s clear that Kacey Musgraves is the new critical darling in country music; let’s hope she continues to make music with the same incredible ease and poise in the future.
Ashley Monroe is one of those artists that have been bubbling under the surface of the country music radar. This year, she was finally able to get herself noticed with the release of Like a Rose, a stellar album you’ll see on our Best Albums list. The title track is one of the album’s finest standouts. An almost biographical song, “Like a Rose” gives us a slight peek into the life of Monroe. Pulling from experiences like her dad losing a battle with cancer when she was just 13, the song features some real aspects to the singer’s rise to fame. Overall, the tune serves as Ashley’s way to tell us that she’s been through some hard times, but she’s still managed to come out “like a rose.” The fantastic songwriting by Monroe, Guy Clark, and Jon Randall remains at the center of attention as the simplistic production remains quiet throughout the entire song. Backed by a beautiful acoustic guitar melody, light drum beats, and a brilliant slide guitar, Monroe is able to pour her heart and soul into this amazing story. She delivers a solid vocal performance that oozes sincerity, honesty, authenticity, and purity that makes you believe this song is all about her. This is a phenomenal introduction to the new phase of Ashley Monroe’s career, a phase that should last for many years.
Little Big Town offers a stunningly sweet love song with “Sober.” Built around one of the most accessible metaphors in country music, the single is doused with loads of purity, authenticity, and honesty. The elegant lead vocal performance by Kimberly Schlapman is the song’s highlight as she adds the heart and sweetness the breathtakingly beautiful lyrics require to come to life. The remaining three members offer their stellar backing voices during the choruses that give the song the usual LBT dimension we’ve become accustomed to. The superb production is built around a foundation laid by an incredibly sweet sounding mandolin. The mando is joined by many other traditional country elements including a faint slide guitar, acoustic guitars, and organ; however, the mandolin is never over shadowed and remains the sole driving force of the production. Little Big Town has taken 10 plus years to perfect the formula that equates to long-term success. Using that formula, the group has become the strongest group the genre has seen since the Dixie Chicks and they are continuing to grow and hone their already near perfect craft.
The only song worthy of the title of “best single of the year” is without a doubt this social anthem from the year’s best artist, Kacey Musgraves. “Follow Your Arrow” is a rare gem that only comes along once in a lifetime. The clever, witty writing from Musgraves and co-writers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally offers a universal social message that it’s ok to be who you are without caring about what others think. A song of this nature is bound to spark controversy, but when you throw in lines that encourage smoking joints and accepting gay lifestyles, then you’re bound to rattle a few feathers. However, it’s about time those feathers are being rattled. I believe it is time for the traditional ideals of country music to expand and grow. This landmark single is paving the way for that to happen by forcing listeners think outside their conservative box.
Aside from the incredible songwriting, the song’s folksy production only adds to the message’s cool vibe. Perfectly placed whistles, hand clapping, “heys” and “yeahs,” and the phenomenal mandolin all work together to create a light-hearted atmosphere. The vocal performance turned in by Musgraves is outstandingly awesome. She’s the only artist that could deliver the plays on words with such ease, humor, and a hint of seriousness. With only one album under her belt, Kacey Musgraves is already proving to be a pioneer in the new age of country music. The Texas native is not only a saving grace for the sounds of traditional country music, but also a voice for the much needed evolution of the genre.