I think it’s safe to say that 2016 was a rather interesting one, to say the least. Words like tumultuous, crazy, shocking, and, at times, tragic could be used to describe the plethora of events that happened. Luckily for country music fans, only one can describe some of the music released this year: stellar. From veterans releasing career defining singles to newcomers offering stellar breakthrough moments, this year has been one of the best in recent memory. Here are the 30 singles I consider to be 2016’s Best.
#30. Wynonna & The Big Noise, “Jesus and a Jukebox”
Wynonna finds herself backed by a band of four musicians on her latest project that features a more upbeat, rocking brand of country music. However, “Jesus and Jukebox” is a subtle, quiet song that encompasses all the ingredients of a classic country song. Killer lyrics describe a heartbreaking story that finds a man coping with his loss with the help of jesus and a jukebox. “Jesus and a Jukebox” finds Wynonna revisiting the traditional country roots that helped make her a formidable force in country music.
#29. Drake White, “Makin’ Me Look Good Again”
This is a powerful love song to a woman that relies more on romance and charm rather than the misogynistic themes found in popular “bro-country” songs. Drake White is easily one of the best male vocalists I’ve EVER heard in country music and he pours every ounce of soul he has in him into this song. The opening lines are so brilliant that it forces you stop what you’re doing and listen. The last song to make me do that was Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.” Here’s to hoping this song sees success at radio in 2017.
#28. Morgane Stapleton with Chris Stapleton, “You Are My Sunshine”
Morgane Stapleton can always be found onstage by her husband’s side offering incredible harmonies on some of his finest hits. Here, though, she takes center stage and delivers a stellar version of the popular tune. Backed by husband Chris, the pair deliver chill-inducing vocals that leave you covered with goosebumps. Based on this performance alone, Morgane Stapleton should one day receive the coveted Female Vocalist award.
#27. Anderson East, “Devil In Me”
I’m going to be honest, I had never heard of Anderson East until he began his relationship with Miranda Lambert. I’m now glad he was brought to my attention because he’s an incredible artist in his own right. On this soulful ditty, East sings about the constant struggle one faces when he tries to drink away his feelings for the preacher’s daughter, only to have them rekindled the next day at church. It’s a theme that has always been present in country music, but has been lacking in modern times. Thankfully, Anderson East does his best to bring it back into country music.
#26. Julie Roberts, “Why Can’t I Have You?”
Julie Roberts has one of the most unique and sonically beautiful voices in country music. On “Why Can’t I Have You?,” the singer brings her signature raspy vocal tone to a stellar soulful production, completed by Shooter Jennings, to create one of the year’s finest sounding songs.
#25. Lori McKenna, “Wreck You”
One of country music’s finest songwriters delivered another incredible album this year. The Bird & The Rifle is a fantastic set of songs, but none shine brighter than “Wreck You.” Detailing a woman who seems lost in her marriage, she’s not sure what to do to fix it. She tries to find answers by driving out to the lake after work, though sometimes she wonders if she should just keep driving. All she knows is that everything she does only seems to wreck her partner. Delivered with a powerful vocal performance, the song brings to life a struggle millions face day to day.
#24. Margo Price, “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”
Margo Price is setting herself up to be the new critical darling in country music. Her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, has caught the attention of many industry players and helped land her a performance slot on Saturday Night Live, a rarity for a newcomer. The hype is not unwarranted though as she’s become the new honky tonk queen in country music. “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” could have found itself a home in bar jukeboxes across the country back in the day. With it’s hardcore country sound and lyrics about drinking and heartache, Price has easily become a new torchbearer for traditional country music.
#23. William Michael Morgan, “I Met a Girl”
2016 saw loads of new artists offer some incredible debut singles and this is one of them. “I Met a Girl” is a traditional country lover’s dream. A heartfelt message of love offered by a singer whose traditional voice includes a hint of George Strait, this is a standout among today’s modern country sound.
#22. Maren Morris, “My Church”
Maren Morris blasted her way into country music with this spiritual anthem and has seen her congregation grow exponentially in 2016. With lyrics about Cash leading the choir and Hank delivering the sermon, Morris delivers a song that perfectly describes the church many of us country music fans who’ve cheated and cussed on a Sunday would gladly attend. The song has created so much momentum for Morris that she finds herself up for the all genre New Artist of the Year at next month’s Grammy awards.
#21. Aubrie Sellers, “Sit Here and Cry”
In a world where country radio prefers to play songs that sound the same, this Aubrie Sellers tune is a refreshing blow of fresh air we all need. The distinctive sound (pegged by Sellers as “garage country”) includes heavily distorted electric guitars and a raucous percussion line that give it the “garage” type sound; yet, everything else, including her vocal performance, make it sound more country than anything on today’s radio.
#20. Runaway June, “Lipstick”
I said earlier that newcomers have delivered some incredible debut singles and this group of women lead the way on my list. The new trio delivers clever and witty lyrics with exceptional harmonies and a pleasing country-pop (more emphasis on the country) production. “If you’re gonna love somebody, yeah you better love somebody, who ruins your lipstick, not your mascara.” I mean, c’mon! How many ladies need advice like that?! Here’s to hoping we get more creative and charming music from this group of talented women.
#19. Kacey Musgraves, “Late to the Party”
Every year I seem to get more and more frustrated by the lack of respect Kacey Musgraves gets from country radio. Her albums and singles are far more stellar than anything else on radio, and “Late to the Party” is no exception. A stellar love ballad, one of only a few in her catalog, Musgraves finds herself not worried about arriving late to her own wedding, as long as she’s late with her partner. It’s a sweet and tender song that Kacey delivers with a stunningly beautiful vocal performance.
#18. Brothers Osborne, “21 Summer”
On the surface, “21 Summer” could be seen as just another song to add to the list of current “bro-country” fodder that has taken over country radio. However, dive a little deeper into the lyrics, and this could be seen as the male counterpart to the incredible “Strawberry Wine.” With a story about lost love and the longing to be with someone again, the boys of Brothers Osborne depict a stunning love story about the one that got away. Am I saying this is on the level of “Strawberry Wine?” No, but it’s far more superior than the mediocre songs currently on radio playlists.
#17. Kree Harrison, “Dead Man’s House”
Kree Harrison finished second on American Idol and is arguably one of the best country singers to come off the show. On “Dead Man’s House,” the songstress fills the role of a widow who finds her self being fooled by a new suitor. However, just when the new suitor thinks he’s become king of the castle, she quickly shuts him down.Harrison has a knack for delivering lines with such brevity and honesty that you know exactly how she feels, especially when she delivers the chorus’ final lines: “You’re never gonna wear that crown/you’re just living in a dead’s man house.”
#16. Maddie & Tae, “Sierra”
Maddie & Tae seem like the sweetest girls you’ll ever meet. However, cross them and you’ll definitely feel their wrath and poor Sierra knows exactly how that feels. The girls get their revenge on an old bully with a tell-off song that could be one of the sweetest ones ever. Don’t let their sweetness fool you though, these girls mean business and they let their lyrics do all the talking for them. “Sierra” is yet another stellar and creative piece of country-pop goodness from one of the best duos in country music.
#15. Sam Hunt, “Make You Miss Me”
I know what y’all are thinking…a Sam Hunt song on my Best of list?! As much as I try to avoid any of the stuff on radio, this is one I couldn’t get away from. From its incredible lyrics that describe all the best parts of a relationship, to the confident vocal delivery from Sam Hunt, “Make You Miss Me” made it extremely difficult to forget this song. Though I don’t necessarily agree with his production choices, there’s no denying that Hunt is a talented songwriter that brings modern takes on traditional country themes.
#14. Eric Church w/ Rhiannon Giddens, “Kill a Word”
If you believe that words don’t hurt, then clearly you’ve never been verbally attacked because they do, in fact, hurt. “Kill a Word” brilliantly tells the truth about those words that create pain and heartache. Backed by Rhiannon Giddens, Eric Church delivers a stellar vocal performance while describing the hurtful words he wishes he could kill or change the meaning of. This song is a stellar standout on the singer’s CMA award winning album, Mr. Misunderstood and is just more proof that he is clearly one of the genre’s most underrated artists.
#13. Kelsea Ballerini, “Peter Pan”
Kelsea Ballerini is often compared to Taylor Swift because they choose to manage their own artistic identity by writing songs themselves. With “Peter Pan,” the comparisons continue as both have written songs revolving around a fairytale metaphor. However, it’s in that department where Ballerini bests Swift. “Peter Pan” brings a creative and brilliantly honest look at the story that is Peter Pan. A man that refuses to grow up is all fun and games when you’re younger, but when you’re older, it only leads to one thing: “happily ever never.” This song serves as the wakeup call millions of unhappy women have been longing for and it’ll be remembered as a career defining song for Kelsea Ballerini.
#12. Eric Church, “Record Year”
“Record Year” is a beautifully crafted song that not only pays homage to country’s past, but also serves as a heartbreaking break up ballad. Eric Church delivers a melancholic performance as he details just how a stack of vinyl is helping him cope with his breakup’s lonely aftermath. From Jones to Jennings to James Brown, Church finds himself thankful for the breakup because she’s helped him have a “record year.” It’s creative and thought-provoking songs like this that make Eric Church one of the genre’s finest artists.
#11. Carrie Underwood, “Church Bells”
Carrie Underwood’s artistic identity has done nothing but grow and evolve since her “Jesus, Take the Wheel” debut. With “Church Bells,” she takes a man-hating revenge song and turns it into a story that reads almost like a nail biting suspense novel. As the story of Jenny evolves, you’re unsure what’s going to happen to her. Is she going to fall victim to her abusive husband? You’re unsure until the song’s final verse where we see Jenny offing her husband with a mysterious substance. It’s in daring and risky songs like this that we see Underwood continue to evolve and push herself as an artist.
#10. LeAnn Rimes, “How to Kiss a Boy”
The past few years we’ve been treated to some downright brilliant music from LeAnn Rimes. This song is no different. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking look into a woman being destroyed when her first love goes terribly awry. Written by Lori McKenna (2-time CMA Song of the Year winner) and Barry Dean, the lyrics read almost like a play that tells a 3-part story detailing how to kiss a boy during times of love and happiness, pain and forgiveness, and eventually to how kiss a boy goodbye. Once again, McKenna proves she is one of the best songwriters that country music has ever had. Meanwhile, LeAnn Rimes proves she’s still a vocal powerhouse that needs to be rediscovered by the masses.
#9. Carrie Underwood, “Dirty Laundry”
2016 was the year of Carrie Underwood. She embarked on her tremendous The Storyteller Tour and reclaimed her CMA Female Vocalist of the Year crown after an eight year drought. She also delivered one of her finest singles of her career with “Dirty Laundry.” The brilliantly performed song finds a woman scorned getting revenge on her cheating husband by letting all his dirty laundry hang on the line. In order to properly portray the character, Underwood leaves behind the smooth as honey vocal tone we’re accustomed to in order to deliver a raw, dry, and gritty vocal performance that perfectly depicts how she’s feeling. In a career that includes several career highlights, this one is definitely a career-defining single.
#8. Reba McEntire, “Just Like Them Horses”
Reba McEntire’s finest moments have come when she takes emotions from personal tragedies and puts them into her work. After a tragic plane crash claimed the lives of her entire touring band, she offered her most brilliant album, For My Broken Heart. Now, after the death of her father, she’s delivered one of the finest moments of her career since that album. “Just Like Them Horses” serves as a heart wrenching eulogy for her father which she delivers with such vulnerability. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Reba at the top of her game, but she’s finally regained her artistic form with this single.
#7. Jennifer Nettles, “Unlove You”
What I love about Jennifer Nettles is the fact that she’s not afraid to talk about the negative sides of love and marriage. Country music is a genre that loves to celebrate the happy moments of matrimony, and at times, loves to shine light on unfaithful men. However, Nettles loves to write songs that tell those stories from a woman’s perspective. She penned “Stay” from the point of a mistress who ends her affair after realizing the man she loves will never leave his wife. With “Unlove You,” Nettles and Brandy Clark have written a story about a woman going through the emotional struggle of whether to end her affair or not. She knows they have other lives, she knows this will never work, but she also knows she’s never felt so much like herself than she does when she’s with her lover. So instead of doing what’s right, she simply begs him to come love her, if only for now. It’s a heartbreaking tale of the brokenness we all face sometimes face when in love, and a brilliant offering from an incredible songwriter and vocalist.
#6. Tim McGraw, “Humble and Kind”
What originally started out as a prayer Lori McKenna wrote for her kids has since turned into a song that will go down on as a highlight in Tim McGraw’s illustrious career. With a message of keeping a sense of humility and appreciating the blessings life may give you, this simply produced song packs so much power and emotion in it that it’s difficult to not get misty eyed while listening. McGraw’s stellar vocal performance allows the lyrics and message to be the center of attention, just like they should be. Lori McKenna’s win for CMA Song of the Year was an emotional highlight at last year’s awards show, but it was Tim McGraw’s performance of the hit that many will never forget.
#5. Beyonce with the Dixie Chicks, “Daddy Lessons”
Let’s talk about this collaboration for a minute. When Beyonce’s Lemonade album was released, lots of attention was paid to “Daddy Lessons” because of its seemingly country undertones. Though I personally didn’t hear too much of a country influence, I did hear the subtle blues tones throughout including the funky horns, the hand clapping, and the slight hint of a banjo. Clearly, it was more country than anything else on the album. When the Dixie Chicks began performing the song on their MMXVI tour, they took those bluesy tones and turned the song into a straight up bluegrass hoedown that preceded “White Trash Wedding,” a bluegrass ditty from their Home album, in their nightly setlist.
Though they performed it on tour, we never thought their bluegrass version would ever see the light of the day. Then came the CMA Awards when, as a surprise, they performed the song with Beyonce on the show. The funky horns were met with more banjos, more fiddle, and more Chicks power than ever before. Just when you thought the song couldn’t get more country, the bridge from the Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” was introduced and elevated the song to a whole other level.
The recreation of a hip hop/r&b song into a bluegrass masterpiece is exactly why the Dixie Chicks remain one of the genre’s most talented artists, EVER. Their ability to add their own spin to any type of song is what made them superstars at the turn of the century. Since their demise, no one has been able to do what they did. There hasn’t been anyone willing to take artistic risks as big as the ones the Chicks did when they were in their prime and there probably won’t ever be an artist of their caliber. Though this was simply a cover, this is still better than the majority of what country music artists are offering now.
#4. Various Artists, “Forever Country”
When I first heard what “Forever Country” was going to be, I was extremely skeptical. How were 30 artists going to come to together to sing a mashup of three of the genre’s most timeless classics? I was waiting for a train wreck to happen. However, with Shane MacAnally at the wheel, the song turned out to not only avoid being a train wreck, but it became one of the biggest moments in country music history.
By mashing up parts of “Country Roads,” “On the Road Again,” and “I Will Always Love You,” MacAnally tugged on the emotional heartstrings of nearly every country music fan. It’s difficult not to get choked up when you hear Kacey Musgraves’ beautiful offering of the first line of “I Will Always Love You” or when you hear George Strait’s distinctive voice on “Country Roads.” The emotional highlight though comes at the end when Carrie Underwood delivers the iconic bridge of “I Will Always Love You” while Dolly Parton finishes off the collaboration with the final lines of her song.
Overall, this will go down in history as one of country music’s finest moments. For the thirty artists involved, it was a chance to set aside their own artistic identities to come together to honor the genre we all love and adore. Both emotionally and sonically, this is a collaborative masterpiece that will be remembered forever.
#3. Little Big Town, “Better Man”
After a brief venture into the pop world with their collaboration with Pharrell, Little Big Town returned to what they do best: deliver a powerful country song with brilliant harmonies. They return with a heart wrenching ballad penned by Taylor Swift, who continues to prove she’s a songwriting force to be reckoned with.
“Better Man” once again finds Karen Fairchild taking the lead to deliver this painfully honest look at the aftermath of a breakup. The narrator finds herself attempting to justify the reasons for leaving her former flame. From giving herself pep talks in the mirror at 4am to realizing that she needs to be with someone who won’t easily change his mind, she continues to try to give herself the needed strength to believe that she did the right thing. However, no matter how much she reminds herself of her bravery or of the fact that he wasn’t good enough for her, she can’t help but miss him in middle of the night. It’s a devastating look into something we’ve all faced at some point in our lives.
Artistic integrity is something that some artists struggle with. They tend to want to become multi-faceted in what they do that they sometimes lose the essence of what made them the stars they are. Little Big Town doesn’t have to worry about that. From the beginning, they’ve stuck to their guns and to their artistic identity. They’ve pushed their own envelope in many different ways, some ways were unsuccessful, but they continue to push themselves. With “Better Man,” they’ve once again proven they aren’t just a one-trick pony. It’s rare for an artist to get to experience more than one career defining song, consider this the group’s second (behind “Girl Crush”).
#2. Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
Many questions were asked when we learned of Miranda Lambert’s first musical release since her highly publicized divorce. Personally, I wanted to know how she was going to use the emotions from the downfall of her personal life in her new music. When “Vice” was released, we all got a sense of the state mental state Miranda was in. That exactly is that state, you ask? Uncertainty.
The beauty of what Miranda has done with not only “Vice,” but with her entire album, The Weight of these Wings, is she doesn’t directly answer those questions nor does she directly reference the divorce. That’s why we’re all left with unanswered questions, but maybe that’s because even after all her reflection, she herself doesn’t know the answers. Hence, the level of doubt and lack of clarity we find in her music.
“Vice” takes us on a musical journey through various degrees of unpredictability. From drowning your sorrows with a little “sweet salvation” to waking up in a bed you shouldn’t be to not knowing where you are or how you got there, the song details somewhat of a downward spiral. Is that what happened behind closed doors? We may never know the answer to that question. What we do know though is that the badass persona Miranda Lambert once had has been lost and with that, so has her musical identity. However, in her case, it’s the best thing that has ever happened to her.
#1. Brandy Clark, “Love Can Go To Hell”
Brandy Clark has been cool as a cucumber when dealing with the pressure of following up a widely critically acclaimed debut album, 2013’s 12 Stories. This year, she calmly delivered one of the year’s best albums with this year’s concept album, Big Day in a Small Town. The album is filled with stories and characters one might encounter in small towns like Morton, Washington (the singer’s hometown). Each song plays like a motion picture depicting the hardships those living in small town America face. Love, heartache, the longing to be the once glamorous homecoming queen again, and financial hardships all take center stage on the album, but none shine brighter than its second single, “Love Can Go to Hell.”
Smothered in layers of emotional despair, “Love Can Go to Hell” is the epitome of a classic country song. As one of today’s most brilliant songwriters, the country songstress delivers masterful lyrics describing the emotional confusion one feels when they’ve been burned by love. From doing things to keep yourself occupied like going to work or church to getting drunk on a Saturday night, Clark brilliantly describes the coping mechanisms a broken hearted person tries but no matter what, they always seem to place the blame on love itself. Just like many of the songs on my list, the beauty of this one is the fact that it deals with real life. Country music is all about celebrating real life and it doesn’t get more real than dealing with love gone wrong and heartbreak.
The majority of what is heard on radio is all made up fantasies about small town life. The parties in the fields and the driving down old dirt roads are far from the truth. The reality is what artists like Clark write and sing about. Brandy Clark isn’t merely just a gifted songwriter. She’s the voice for an entire region of Americans.