Jan 16, 2024

Bobby's 25 Favorite Country Songs of 2023

 By Bobby Peacock

For those who don't know by now, my best and worst lists only cover singles or songs that otherwise made the charts. I don't listen to albums much, and I feel including album cuts would make these lists too hard to sort through (although I made an exception in 2022, as I felt I found enough non-single content worth sharing). Also, I limit these to one song per artist, not counting feature credits.

25. "If I Die Young Pt. 2" by Kimberly Perry"

I was getting ready to rail this song as a shameless cash-grab from someone looking for a sixteenth minute of fame. Then I actually listened to it. While 23-year-old me liked "If I Die Young," I feel that song and I have gone in vastly different directions since. I will defend its merits but also point out the faults I've noticed in the years since, while also making the occasional inquiry about Kimberly's mental stability as seen through the lyrics of "Better Dig Two" or "Chainsaw." But the brilliance of this song lies in actually reflecting growth. Over a decade later, Kimberly Perry is now 40 and it seems she's matured. She's settled down and found The One™. There is some genuine introspection in lines like "Now I know there's no such thing as enough time" and "I guess it's too late anyway to die young." Every line fits together into a solid narrative of maturity, and the call-backs to "If I Die Young" are well-executed without being overdone. This song exceeded my expectations in addressing the issues with TBP's music, so I feel it's only natural to include it.

24. "Light On in the Kitchen" by Ashley McBryde

I despised "Humble and Kind" by Tim McGraw because I felt there was no through line to the advice given. We get no concept of who it's from or who it's to; that song just felt like someone walked through a TJ Maxx and picked up all the ornamental signs that happened to rhyme with each other. (And seriously, root beer popsicles?) Ashley McBryde succeeds on the "advice song" front by coloring in the advice with a little more character than usual ("Little things like that she's always said" and, of course, the title phrase), adding a little bit of humor ("Boys are dumb, but you're gonna find you one"), and best of all, aiming a little higher with the advice. In particular, the lines about accepting friends of different ethnic backgrounds and not forcing yourself into impractical body standards are some of the best lines I've heard in one of these "advice songs" since "Help Somebody." Ashley also gives a warm, gentle, acoustic read that makes the song a very smooth and charming listen.

23. "Thank God" by Kane Brown and Katelyn Brown

I swear I'm not doing this for some annual "Bobby Defends Kane Brown on Farce the Music" points. I genuinely do like his music, but am sympathetic to why Trailer doesn't. I've historically railed against Dan + Shay for their willowy sweet nothings, and artists such as Russell Dickerson for their utter blandness in attempting to be romantic, so while I myself am markedly aromantic, I will stand up for a love song that hits right for me. I like that the production is stripped down -- just acoustic guitar with a few washes of percussion, steel, and synth. I like how Kane's delivery is light yet gritty in a way that doesn't feel forced, and Katelyn's cleaner, brighter delivery contrasts without clashing. (Seriously, their chemistry on the record is a million times more tangible to me than anything Tim and Faith have done together.) Trailer's probably not going to like this, and I'm probably not going to convince the uninitiated, but damn it, I'll go to bat for him anytime. (Unless Matt McGinn is involved.)

22. "What's This Thing You've Got About Leaving" by Girls Next Door

"Slow Boat to China" by Girls Next Door is one of my favorite lost treasures of the 80s: basically imagine the Forester Sisters if they were less frumpy and listened to more Ronettes albums. I did not expect the Girls to get back together given their obscurity, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear them again. They're a lot older and using their married names, and a more cynical version of me might criticize the slightly dodgy production (the harmonies could be mixed a tad better, but just hearing this kind of harmony at all is good enough for me), but I love the independent spirit of it. It reminds me of some of the obscure songs I'd hear WATZ play back in 2006, and honestly, the lyric style feels like a throwback to the classic wordplay I loved so much in late 80s-early 90s country ("If we're ever gonna make it, we're gonna have to make this right")  Its lyric about old-school commitment never feels stuffy or dated. So in short, they're... still the Forester Sisters if they were less frumpy and listened to more Ronettes albums.

21. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" by Sunny Sweeney, Miko Marks, Rissi Palmer, and Tami Neilson

This is one of those rare times where just seeing the talent credited, I know there's literally no way it can miss. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is already one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, and I'm already quite a fan of Sunny Sweeney, Miko Marks, and Rissi Palmer. (I had not heard of Tami Neilson before this song, but I'm glad it introduced me to her.) This version of the song slips into a 6/8 time signature for an immediate switch-up. The production is a highly appealing slow-burn, with a few washes of Hammond organ and horn alongside a vocal trade-off that goes 4 for 4 on passion, intensity, and chemistry. Dylan covers are absurdly common-place due to the strength and size of his catalog, but great Dylan covers knock it out of the park every time.

20. "I'd Lie to You for Your Love" by the Bellamy Brothers and K.T. Oslin
Hat tip to Country Universe for pointing this one out. I'm a huge fan of K.T. Oslin and her throaty, conversational vocal tone (the fact that she had a hit with a song called "Hey Bobby" doesn't hurt, either), and the Bellamy Brothers are damn near untouchable when they bring their A game. The charm of the original Bellamy Brothers version's blatant lies ("I'm an astronaut and I own this bar") was already genuinely funny on its own (especially given the brothers added words onto the original by Danny Spanos), but framing it as a back-and-forth makes the entire song about 20% cooler. There's a dry, bemused tone on both artists' sides, as lie after lie stacks up. Overall, there's something to be said about improving upon improvements, and I'm glad the Bellamys went back in the vaults (this was recorded in 2006) to bring this one out. It was worth the wait, and that's the truth.

19. "Dawns" by Zach Bryan and Maggie Rogers

While I've never doubted Zach Bryan's authenticity -- it's not like he's Midland or anything -- most of his stuff just didn't click with me. Maybe it's because he keeps album-bombing the charts, or maybe it's because "Something in the Orange" is already the new "Wagon Wheel" in terms of "song that every bar band runs into the ground," but I think the monstrous hype was negatively coloring my perception of him. Cue "Dawns," the first song of his that really made me stand up and take notice. I love how ragged and uneven it is, as if the composition is showing this struggling relationship. The off-kilter time signatures, slightly clashing vocal tones from both artists (I love how Zach snarls "I get fucked up just 'cause I'm scared" and how they're deliberately out of sync on some of the iterations of "one small victory"), and stabbing string section do wonders to make the song appropriately messy and angry. Even more interestingly, we learn the arguments are all over a crisis of faith -- you probably know I'm an atheist, but I have a ton of respect for people willing to admit their faith isn't an ironclad cure-all (exhibit A: "Cain's Blood"). Maybe this Zach Bryan guy is worth digging deeper on after all.

18. "Still Here" by Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks

For those who don't know, Rissi Palmer's 2007 single "Country Girl" made her the first Black woman since 1987 to enter Hot Country Songs. It's not hard to see how she cracked the door so artists like Mickey Guyton, Miko Marks, or Chapel Hart could get their feet in, too. And Miko Marks is from my folks' hometown of Flint, Michigan to boot. I love how utterly defiant each word of this lyric is, starting with "Like a tree standing in a hurricane / You can't knock me down with a little rain." Both vocalists bring their A-game and sound assured that yes, no matter what, they're still here, still singing, and still kicking ass. ("Tried to make me disappear / Counted me out for all these years" says so much with so few words, especially in the context of Black women trying to enter country music.) I love the slow-burning gospel-tinged groove that immdiately sets my hands clapping. If they keep making music like this, then I think both of them will be "still here" for years to come.

17. "Dents on a Chevy" by Ty Herndon and Terri Clark

Do you know how great it is to hear Ty Herndon again? I went to see him at the Wildhorse Saloon in June and he's still got it. Despite a great deal of turmoil in his life, it was invigorating to see him singing this song with Terri Clark -- an artist who mostly fell off with me after like 2005, but has seemed to bounce back quality-wise. I can't fault a song that uses a simile like "tacos and Tuesday nights." Sure, it doesn't seem deep lyrically; it's just another "you and I make a good pair" song. But it's just so much fun to listen to, and their chemistry is infectious as all hell. Ty is one of my favorite '90s artists, and it's just heartwarming to see a smile on his face after all the demons he's defeated. I've been thinkin' how good this is.

16. "We Don't Fight Anymore" by Carly Pearce and Chris Stapleton

The "dead sparks" trope is so common in country music, and I love how far gone this relationship is. There isn't jealousy, there isn't even anger -- these two are just numb. ("We could tear up the house, we could burn the whole thing down / But boy, what for? / 'Cause we don't even fight anymore.") Carly Pearce gives a great read that highlights this emotional detachment, and Chris Stapleton's harmony vocals are on point. I especially lovehow he comes in with the "I wish you would say something" and she echoes "say anything" -- that's some good use of a featured vocal there, and it makes the emotional struggle seem more nuanced. And I can't say no to a production style that goes this hard on the Dobro.

15. "Cab in a Solo" by Scotty McCreery

Hey, remember wordplay songs? Scotty McCreery does. Here, the title refers to some Cabernet in a Solo cup, solo in the cab of his truck. That's some next level wordplay, and I'm here for it. In the vein of "That Ain't My Truck," he's sitting in his truck watching his woman take off with another man. Scotty has been on my good side lately because he's matured into a very smooth neo-trad style that reminds me of Joe Nichols -- warm, charismatic vocals and plenty of pedal steel are present. Songs like this sometimes waste all their cleverness on the hook, but that's not the case here. The verses fill in details with plenty of their own little details, such as "she's busy playing hard to get back" and his realization that if he just returned the bottle to the store, he'd be spending that money in a bar. This should easily continue Scotty's hot streak.

14. "Shoot Tequila" by Tigirlily Gold

Sassy female-led groups are back in vogue, it seems. These two remind me of Marie Sisters' "Real Bad Mood" with a funky little groove and throaty back-and-forth vocals. I like the lyrical wordplay -- the word "shoot" is an interjection in this context, firing minced oaths at a love-hate relationship with alcohol. Sure, it's fun in the moment, but you regret it in the morning. I know that doesn't sound like an original observation, but it's written extremely well to a strong catchy melody. Literally every line has something a little bit different, and it keeps the song moving along. Even the Shakira name-drop doesn't throw me out of the song. This song is pure ear candy, but it's ear candy of the highest quality. I really want these two to take off in 2024.

13. "Good Day for Living" by Joe Nichols

Sometimes, you just want a good dose of happiness. Even when things aren't perfect -- when you have to sleep naked because the AC's broken and can only afford concentrated orange juice instead of the Simply Orange, at least you have solace in the small things. A loved one, a sunny day, a little time for a staycation at the Holiday Inn Express in your town -- sometimes, those are all you need to put a smile on your face. Joe Nichols' strong suit has always been his easygoing delivery, and both it and the gently insistent production are a perfect match to the calm, assertive, and unflinchingly positive lyrics. I'm glad this one managed to work its way up the charts despite being on a small indie label, because there's always room for some more positivity in the world.

12. "Welcome to Fist City" by Chapel Hart

Once again, Chapel Hart takes a classic country song and puts their own spin on it. This time, it's Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" that gets fleshed out to show the assertive no-nonsense nature of the title town  ("To devise a plan to take someone else's man / Well, that ain't gonna work around here"). Danica Hart's vocal is as bold and sassy as ever, and I love how Devynn and Trea trade off lines on the chorus. Fist City in this song poses a no-nonsense warning to the wayward and unfaithful. No doubt, Loretta Lynn herself would have approved of this extension on her own defensive, aggressive nature. It never feels mean-spirited either, just a stern dressing-down that has the bite to back itself up. (I also love that it's probably the first time someone's ever name-dropped Super 8 motels.) Chapel Hart tears it up on the up-tempos every time, and this is no exception.

11. "Killers of the Flower Moon" by Charley Crockett

This is one of the best history-centric country songs I've heard since Johnny Horton. For those who don't know, discovery of oil on land owned by an Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the late 1910s led to a series of mysterious murders among said tribe, resulting from a Congressional law requiring tribal members to have a "white guardian" manage the oil rights. This story was covered in the well-received Martin Scorcese film Killers of the Flower Moon, but for those of us with shorter attention spans, Charley Crockett covers all the details in his uniquely cool story-telling style. With just voice, guitar, and a little bit of drums, he hits the ground running, sparing no detail on the mysterious deaths and the reasoning behind them. Indeed, this is a story "about a persecution I'm sure you don't know well." While I'm not much of a history buff, I can appreciate someone shining a light on a lesser known tale of injustice.

10. "Brought Me" by Turnpike Troubadours

I slept on Turnpike way too long. I'm already hooked on the accordion, and then the song jumps into some layered Restless Heart-flavored harmonies. Oh yeah, and some steel guitar for good measure. This is a damn good slow-burner of a romantic lyric, twisting and turning just about every possible phrase without feeling cutesy or contrived ("You've torn the place asunder and you've left the party early / Looked at me with tears as if a lost and lonely child"). It's also got a hell of a chorus that turns "dance with the one that brought you" on its head, and I love how the lyrics lead into details of old barrooms and broken hearts he never thought would be repaired. There's tangible subtext from lead singer Evan Felker's struggles with alcoholism, which led to the band's hiatus and and his divorce (and I'm happy to see he's cleaned up and re-married). The chill tempo and wordy verses never make the song feel like it's dragging, and I love that instrumental coda too. If this is my entry point for Turnpike, then I think I'm in for discovering a hell of a strong catalog.

9. "Dirt Bike" by Adeem the Artist feat. Andrea Kukuly Uriarte

Adeem the Artist has been one of my favorite musical discoveries of the past few years. I love their casual, grained delivery and way with personal lyrics. This one hits the ground running with a unique premise; where else will you hear about going out on a ride on a dirt bike for a little bit of amateur gemology? Lines like "I'm not a grade A or a drop out of school kid" and "You and me are more of just the same sad story" show their trademark mix of wit and introspection in full force. Then Andrea jumps in singing about forest sprites and drum kits, with Adeem firing back a line about them (Andrea) being the big spoon, and the song instantly becomes even better. It's got a casual, freewheeling vibe that fits perfectly to the theme of riding a dirt bike together, and the impeccable production work I've come to expect from Team Adeem is as noteworthy as ever. Even the rapid-fire "hop up on my bike" at the end manages to sound super cool.

8. "Nobody's Nobody" by Brothers Osborne

I saw people calling this a weaker version of "I'm Not for Everyone" (my favorite Brothers Osborne song), but I don't think it's lesser by any means. (Probably the same crowd who, wrongly in my opinion, called "All Night" a ripoff of "It Ain't My Fault.") The switch of producers from Jay Joyce to Mike Elizondo gives them a wider, spacier backdrop full of staccato keyboards. T.J.'s voice is as strong as ever, and John's guitar-slinging has plenty of room to stretch out. The groove is easygoing but insistent, fitting alongside a motivational lyric that hits every mark. (Best line: "Some people never ever make a name / But change the game in someone's story.") I even like the "no, no, nobody" part at the end of each chorus. Maybe there's some subtext regarding T.J.'s coming out as gay and John's struggles with anxiety and depression, but either way, I think it's just damn good, unfiltered musical talent that finds the BrOs making my best-of lists without fail year after year.

7. "If You Go Down (I'm Goin' Down Too)" by Kelsea Ballerini

"Bonfire at Tina's" by Ashley McBryde didn't make my 2022 list because it wasn't a single. But if you want a radio hit this past year that is about women who've got each other's backs, it's Kelsea Ballerini of all people who delivers the goods. In easily her best single to date, she hits on a refreshingly sassy country vibe that you could easily have convinced me was originally intended for the Chicks' Fly album. Just on sound design alone, this is a very pleasant throwback listen full of fiddle and Dobro, but the lyrics are really where it shines. The narrator candidly admits her defense of her friend in any circumstance, from a one-night stand to a bank robbery to... "Hypothetically, if you ever kill your husband / Hand on the Bible, I'd be lyin' through my teeth... Thirty to life would go quicker with you." Those lines elicited the biggest double take I've had to a radio single in a long time. She went there, and I respect the hell out of her for that. Kelsea's come a long long way since "Dibs," hasn't she?

6. "Death Wish" by Jason Isbell

I don't talk about Isbell much, and I should. This one had me right out of the gate with its opening line: "Did you ever love a woman with a death wish?"Country Universe questioned how the song would play for anyone who would answer that question "no," so I'll offer my views. I've never been in love, and I've never climbed up on the roof in the wintertime in a tank top. I've never taken any drugs stronger then a little bit of cannabis (which is legal in my state). But this song is detailed, relentless, and messy in all the right ways as it chronicles something I can relate to from the other side. It's about being in love with someone who suffers from depression, and I have no doubt been a long-time sufferer of depression and related disorders. (Do you know how hard it is to write about songs you like when suffering seasonal affective disorder?) I've seen people who stick their necks out way too far for me, to the point it can be seen as destructive for either of us. The raw as hell groove (I especially love the guitar work and how he repeats the title over the last verse for extra "messiness") and Isbell's no-holds-barred delivery make it seem all the more personal. So no, I haven't loved a woman with a death wish, but I'm still picking up what Isbell is putting down here.

5. "Don't Let the Old Man In" by Toby Keith

This is by far the best song Toby Keith has released in the past 15 years -- a "weathered and worn" tale of a man who isn't letting old age knock him down. I loved it in 2018 and was disappointed it didn't make more noise, even attached to the Clint Eastwood movie The Mule. The message resonates with me because I work in assisted living and often see older people doing their best to enjoy the last few years of their lives. In particular, I think of one resident who's 96 and always has a smile on his face every time I see him. While Toby Keith has been a target of disdain both from me and elsewhere, his stomach cancer diagnosis seems to have brought him into a more favorable light. Almost nobody clowns on him anymore, and he's taken the circumstances in stride in a way that's truly inspiring. But best of all, when he came out on the People's Choice Country Awards to sing this in his first public appearance since the diagnosis -- that was the moment that pushed this already great song even higher for me. Good on him for re-releasing this.

4. "White Horse" by Chris Stapleton

This song absolutely rips. Stapleton more than has the gravel to pull off some damn fine Southern rock, and he goes so hard on this one. Right away, you get 45 seconds of some of the best guitar work on a mainstream country hit in ages, and then Stapleton drops in with a full-throttle vocal that doesn't let up. I hear all kinds of blues, rock, and country influences all over this track, as is expected from Stapleton -- but in this case, both literally and figuratively, he's turned it up to 11. Best of all, it's got a hell of a lyric about male vulnerability: I want to be the kind of lover you've got in mind, but I'm just not ready yet and I wish that weren't the case. It's a surprisingly complex narrative for how few actual words the song has, making this rival "All These Years" in terms of "minimum words, maximum impact." This one just edges out "Broken Halos" (another "minimum words, maximum impact" song) as my favorite of his.

3. "Fast Car" by Luke Combs

The original Tracy Chapman song is one of the best pop hits of all time in my opinion -- it's a highly personal yet relatable tale of trying to escape the cycle of poverty. In the 35 years since the first version came out, who hasn't felt the same? Even though I come at lines about feeling like I could "be someone" and "belong" differently -- poverty and race in Tracy's case, autism in mine, unhappy childhoods in both of ours -- the mood is universal. This isn't a cover done out of nostalgia-bait; it's a cover done out of admiration for the song and artist, underscored by the passion for music Luke has expressed in "Doin' This." I was apprehensive when I first heard it, but the more I listened, the more I realized Combs's sincerity. He sings with a conviction and passion (albeit more of an intensity) that shows a complete understanding of the song's themes and place in culture. Plus, the fact that he got a song written by a Black woman to the top of the charts may be him secretly playing the long game in opening the door for better inclusion in country. Either way, it's a damn good version of a damn good song.

2. "In Your Love" by Tyler Childers

I'm a very literal person, so subtext often goes over my head. But this one, I got right away even before the fantastic music video. It's only natural that a pansexual, non-binary music writer will gravitate toward LGBTQIA+ themes in lyrics, and judging from the YouTube comments, I'm far from the only queer person who's found solace in this song. Other people have taken to it for the Appalachian coal mine backdrop, or just the themes of undying love independently of the gay love story in the video. And that, to me, is the true beauty of this song. It never hits you over the head with any particular theme, and is written in a way that's both broad enough to have multiple interpretations, yet still sharp enough to have power in whatever meaning the listener applies to it ("We were never made to run forever / We were just meant to go long enough / To find what we were chasin' after / I believe I found it here in your love"). The production is wonderful, adding subtle piano and strings to Childers' rough-edged passionate delivery. In short, it's an absolutely beautiful song with a wide appeal, written in a way that hits just as hard no matter what you get out of it.

1. "Same Here" by Brad Paisley feat. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Brad hits on a warm conversational tone with people from California, Cozumel, and Ukraine to show that people all over the world still have the same human emotions. We drink, we watch sports, we care for our families, we laugh and cry, we pray for peace, and most importantly (and ideally), we should love each other. I like that the song is relaxing and acoustic, letting the message come up to the forefront alongside one of Brad's best vocals in years. I've always been unusually aware of other cultures around the world: our family used to host exchange students when I was young, and once the Internet arrived, I immediately began using it to make contact with people from other countries. Even to this day, I still talk to artists, musicians, and hobbyists from just about everywhere you can think of. (In fact, one such artist I know of had to flee Ukraine and find shelter in Poland back in March 2022.) The spoken-word cameo from President Zelenskyy is full of heartfelt observations on how, no matter the language or culture, there is common ground among almost everyone. Brad is usually at his best when he sings of inclusiveness ("Welcome to the Future," "Southern Comfort Zone"), and this one is no exception. In a world where outright bigotry like "Try That in a Small Town" makes it to the top of the charts, I'm glad that artists like Brad are candidly putting out words of love and acceptance. You want a better world, Brad? Same here.

(Honorable mentions: "World on Fire," "23," "Creek Will Rise," "Memory Lane," "Fearless (The Echo)," "Everything I Love" - -yeah, I said it)

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