Showing posts with label Brad Paisley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brad Paisley. Show all posts

Jul 10, 2024

Every #1 Country Song of the 2000s: 2000

By Bobby Peacock


January 1: "Breathe" by Faith Hill

I'm not as hard on this song as I used to be. That doesn't mean I love it; I just don't think it does anything wrong. I think at the time I was already burnt out on lush pop ballads thanks to my mom spinning Céline Dion so much. I still have an allergic reaction to the Diane Warren formula. But thankfully, where this one succeeds is by being considerably less cliché than its cohorts. "I can feel you breathe" is actually a pretty solid image that's easy to understand in the context of a grandiose love ballad. The vocals aren't nearly as histrionic as Faith would get on "There You'll Be" or "Where Are You, Christmas?" That said, every time I hear this song, my brain still automatically switches over to Cledus T. Judd's absolutely hilarious parody, "Breath." So yeah, nothing awful, just a merely okay pop ballad. B-

February 5: "Cowboy Take Me Away" by the Chicks

I'm a sucker for a good wanderlust song. It starts off strong with the lyric "I wanna touch the earth, I wanna break it in my hands / I wanna grow something wild and unruly" which is just such a sharp, distinct image. And it doesn't let up throughout the song, with pillows of blue bonnets, being out in the wild with no city buildings in sight, and all kinds of cowboy/western imagery. Each one makes sense and builds on the narrative, which is always a hallmark of this kind of song. It's hard to overstate just how damn good almost every Chicks song is, thanks to Natalie's bold voice and the crisp production and arrangements. The only reason this review seems so lackluster is because the high standards of their discography mean this song is only "great" in a sea full of amazing. A

February 26: "My Best Friend" by Tim McGraw

Sometimes it's hard to write much about a song that's just... there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this song. It's pleasant, it has a solid sentiment behind the lyrics, Tim sings it well, but this song leaves little impact after I'm done listening to it. I had to look it up just to remember a single lyric from it. This feels like one that got to #1 entirely off the momentum of the huge hit before it, yet left no impact of its own. And sometimes that just... happens. Such is life on Music Row. B-

March 11: "Smile" by Lonestar

Sometimes it's hard to write much about a song that's just... there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this song. It's pleasant, it has a solid sentiment behind the lyrics, Richie sings it well, but this song leaves little impact after I'm done listening to it. I had to look it up just to remember a single lyric from it. This feels like one that got to #1 entirely off the momentum of the huge hit before it, yet left no impact of its own. And sometimes that just... happens. Such is life on Music Row. B-

March 18: "How Do You Like Me Now?!" by Toby Keith

A lot of people even at the time painted this song as misogynistic and immature, but I never saw it. The guy is bragging about how much his life has improved for the better now that he's famous and his high school crush isn't. It's a narrative I can see a lot of people relating with, and on a meta level, it's a narrative Toby probably related with. This was a song his previous label had rejected, and his then-current label DreamWorks was hesitant to put it out after the predecessor ("When Love Fades") bombed. But it seems his instincts were for the best, as this was his first big crossover and the start of a new leg in his career. It's bold and cocky, but it's tempered with a playfulness that keeps it from feeling mean-spirited (such as the way the organ actually plays the "nyah nyah nyah" riff at the end). I think this song is just fun and those who dislike it either need to lighten up, or are letting his later more problematic material cast a shadow over this song. A

April 22: "The Best Day" by George Strait

One of the first times I heard this song, I was in the passenger seat of my dad's 18-wheeler somewhere in western Michigan. My parents divorced when I was 4, and over the years, his moving across the state meant I spent less and less time with him before his death. So the lyrics of memories shared with a father certainly resonate with me. Even if the final verse taking place at a wedding is predictable, the song's sentiment never feels mushy. It's helped by George Strait's calm read and the understated production; in particular, I like the tension created by the augmented chord in the opening riff. If I ranked all of George Strait's #1 hits, even counting only the Billboard ones, this would still be pretty high up there. And considering how stacked a deck that is, that's really saying something. A

May 13: "Buy Me a Rose" by Kenny Rogers feat. Alison Krauss and Billy Dean

After spending most of the '90s as nearly a non-entity, Kenny Rogers came back for a brief period with one of his best. This song's central theme of misguided attention toward a lover is already a cut above, but then you get to the twist, where he says "this is a story of you and me" and the song becomes ten times better. It's not just a story; by this point, it's an introspection -- an example of male vulnerability that I find so rare yet so compelling every time I come across it. Of course, Kenny's gravelly gravitas is in full force here, sounding tender and vulnerable against a calm, minimalistic production style with some very fine choices for vocal harmony. I always love it when veteran artists get one last rally with a great single, and this is truly one of his best on all fronts. A well-deserved comeback. A+

May 20: "The Way You Love Me" by Faith Hill

This one stumbles right out of the gate with the dodgy as hell grammar that even 13-year-old me could spot right away: "If I could grant you one wish / I wish you could see the way you kiss." It's not helped by the bland yet padded "Ooh, I love watching you, ooh, baby / When you're driving me, ooh, crazy," which just drives home the utter lack of effort on the lyrical front. It's like she wanted to capture the effervescent nature of "This Kiss" (as evidenced by that song also having the lyric "the way you love me") but just couldn't capture that lightning in a bottle. This is just forced and empty. Literally the only thing saving it from being an abject failure is the genuinely interesting double key change on the chorus. And hey, at least the country mix doesn't have those creepy Auto-Tuned backing vocals. But otherwise, this is like if someone tried to make a cake but left out most of the ingredients -- it's just a floppy, doughy mess with no flavor. D-

June 17: "Yes!" by Chad Brock

How Chad Brock ever got a record deal, I'll never know. I once compared his robotic singing voice to the title character of Free Guy. I had a "virtual singer" program on my Mac as a teen, and even it provided more nuanced vocal tracks. Which is a shame, because the underlying lyric could have worked. Even if the setup is contrived (he meets her because she moves into his old apartment and has mail in his name; they fall in love and marry), a more likable vocalist could've made it work by nailing the hook. I would've loved to hear someone more capable of a loose funny delivery, such as Toby Keith, take on this one. It's not at all hard to see why Chad Brock faded away so hard that I legit cannot find recordings of some of his later singles anywhere online. (To say nothing of his militant conservatism on social media.) Between Chad's personality-free vocal and the canned production (seriously, what's with that gurgly synth bass in the beginning that never shows up again?), all I can say is "No!" (And be thankful that at least this isn't the Y2K version of "A Country Boy Can Survive.") C-

July 8: "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack feat. Sons of the Desert

Even at the time, I knew this was as out-of-character for Lee Ann as Alan Jackson covering Lil Wayne. A singer known for twangy, traditional, timeless fare like "A Little Past Little Rock" turns in a cold, sterile, pop ballad with no semblance of country whatsoever -- maybe it could have worked if she sounded like she wanted to be there, or if the lyrics had anything to say. This is a style of songwriting I just never liked, the way it just strings a bunch of random positive phrases together with no through line or narrative (which really set off "sellout" alarms in my head even at the time). It's like someone just cracked open a bunch of fortune cookies and just picked out the ones that rhymed. I've never understood why this is pitched as a mother-to-daughter song, when lines like "I hope you never lose your sense of wonder / Get your fill to eat, but always feel that hunger" are so broad-stroke as to instantly cover the entire canvas in beige. This played well to the Chicken Soup for the Soul crowd, but to me, it's so flavorless it makes Campbell's condensed seem like a gourmet meal in comparison. Literally the only interesting facet is Sons of the Desert's counterpoint on the chorus, but even that was scrubbed from the pop edit. D-

August 12: "What About Now" by Lonestar

This song starts off with a damn good line: "The sign in the window said for sale or trade / On the last remaining dinosaur that Detroit made / $700 was a heck of a deal / For a 400 horsepower jukebox on wheels." It's so full of vivid imagery of hitting the road and blasting some tunes with the one you love. Richie McDonald sounds like he's having fun, and the production is on point. However, there's one thing holding this back: it has a very weak melody. Nearly all of the verse is just this repeated so-mi-so-mi-so-mi-so pattern with no variation, and it doesn't get much more varied at the chorus. It's a shame the melody drags this down, because otherwise this would be one of the best post-"Amazed" cuts from a band that would spend much of this decade embarrassing themselves. B

September 9: "It Must Be Love" by Alan Jackson

I'm sorry, what was that about murder on Music Row again? Wedged between what is widely considered a high point for country music and this, a freaking Don Williams cover? AJ covering the Gentle Giant is such a no-brainer, as they both thrive on laid-back meat and potatoes fare like this. The production is the same twang you'd expect from him, not far removed from the Everything I Love album yet somehow just a tiny bit more energetic than Don's original. And it's such a simple lyric about the power of love, another theme both artists in question are quite familiar with. This one goes down so smoothly without ever feeling inconsequential, and I think it's easily a draw as to which version of this song is better -- AJ didn't change much because he didn't have to. It's just good. A

September 16: "That's the Way" by Jo Dee Messina

I've never been a fan of Jo Dee Messina's style. She never seemed to have the sass of Shania, the pipes of Faith or Martina, or the brains of Trisha -- most of her songs just felt "there" to me. However, this one works for me. It has a pretty neat opening riff full of acoustic guitar and chimes, even finding a few places to fit in a güiro. The melody is full of clever modulations, and Jo Dee sounds a lot less plastic than she usually does by finding a way to sing the chorus slightly differently each time. And honestly, it's one of the better lyrics she's picked, too. "I know from experience nothing's ever gonna make perfect sense" is a really head-turning lyric in all the right ways. I'm still not much of a fan of hers, but revisiting this after a long hiatus, I'm amazed that this one -- despite being her longest-tenured #1 and highest Hot 100 entry -- never had the staying power of "Bye Bye" or "I'm Alright," because I actually think it's slightly better than those. A- 

October 14: "Kiss This" by Aaron Tippin

2000 was apparently the year of the comeback. I always found it strange that despite his blue-collar image, two of Aaron Tippin's three #1 hits were novelty songs. And as someone who derives their usual Internet handle from one of Aaron Tippin's novelty songs, I don't object to that -- he has the goofy energy to pull a lot of this off. Case in point: a clever way of phrasing the insult "kiss my ass." It's a standard revenge narrative with a few cheeky lines (no pun intended), but the delivery is where it shines. He drops into a lower register than usual, then twangs it back up on the chorus accompanied by a crowd of female vocals (one of whom is his own wife). Simple as the lyrics are, this is a song that, like most humor, hinges on the delivery. And on that front, it succeeds. B+

October 28: "The Little Girl" by John Michael Montgomery

You know you messed up when your "motivational" Jesus song has holes in it that even a 13-year-old can see. Even at the time, I knew how massively contrived this was: a kid watches her parents die in a murder-suicide, and then is taken in by religious foster parents. She sees a picture of Jesus and says "that's the man who was by my side when my parents died." (No doubt it was one of the stock images of Jesus as a white man -- again, something I knew even at 13 was not the case.) There's no implication of trauma, and no other emotion from the girl. It's the same sort of manipulative schlock that Snopes termed "glurge" -- attempts to be motivational that are so over-the-top that you can't help but wonder how anyone believes them. Even before social media, this sort of glop was circulated via chain e-mails (in fact, that's literally how this song came to be; writer Harley Allen saw it in an e-mail). While JMM's read is remarkably free of bombast, that means nothing when something this crass and manipulative is even committed to a recording studio, never mind sent out as a single. Do yourself a favor and listen to "Friends," "No Man's Land," or any of the other great JMM songs that fell into that void of forgotten post-"Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)" gems in his catalog and skip this entirely. (And skip whatever the hell "Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise" was, too.) F

November 18: "Best of Intentions" by Travis Tritt

I don't know what happened, but after 1996's The Restless Kind, Travis Tritt seemed to entirely lose his spark. Nothing else he put out afterward had anywhere near the emotional investment of his earlier ballads like "Anymore" or "Drift Off to Dream," nor the swagger of "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)" or "T-R-O-U-B-L-E." He just became... boring. Admittedly, this is one of his better cuts in that timespan. This is a man asking for forgiveness for not pulling his weight in the relationship, telling his apparently soon-to-be-ex that he tried his best and is disappointed that he couldn't satisfy her. I think the song structure is interesting too, with two verses, the chorus twice, then a third verse. I think the only thing holding it back is that it lacks the power of his earlier ballads. If he'd cut this in 1993, the song would just soar by that second chorus. I don't know who's to blame here -- either Billy Joe Walker Jr.'s production style was too muted, or Travis just couldn't recapture the energy of his early days. Either way, it's a damn good lyric, and I'm sure he had the best of intentions delivering it, but it really is missing that special something. B

November 25: "Just Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Vassar

Phil Vassar started his career writing slightly left-of-center slice-of-life songs. His early material includes such gems as chasing after one's ex in her Isuzu; being ghosted by someone staying at a Ramada in Birmingham; and picking up a chatty hitchhiker with her own story to tell. That same energy carried into his first album, where after reuniting with a high school flame in "Carlene," we now see the ups and downs of domestic life. Children are fighting, the milk's gone bad, and the romantic candlelight dinner is Domino's, but that's okay, because you're still with the one you love. It's so utterly charming, eccentric, and sunny that it's impossible not to love. Phil gives a bright delivery against a nicely jaunty melody. It's actually kind of a shame he used up so much of his good material so quickly. A

December 2: "We Danced" by Brad Paisley

Another artist whose early career was also full of interesting slice-of-life songs got his second #1 just afterward. "We Danced" has an interesting narrative about meeting someone who left her purse behind at a bar after hours, then dancing with her and starting up a conversation. It sounds like something that could have actually happened, and never feels contrived. I think Brad generally came off more charismatic earlier in his career, and this song is proof. It's gentle and mellow, yet never soporific. Low-stakes songs like this can be boring if they aim too low (see the "My Best Friend"/"Smile" reviews above), but this one hits the sweet spot. A-

December 16: "My Next Thirty Years" by Tim McGraw

I haven't confirmed this, but I've been told that Tim has never sung this song in concert because he doesn't like it. And I don't know why. He should have more shame toward "Indian Outlaw" or "Truck Yeah" than this. Songs about taking stock of advancing age can come off as navel-gazing or preachy, but this one doesn't overshoot. I think it helps that it's another early Phil Vassar lyric. And as someone whose family has a long history of alcoholism, the line "Drink a little lemonade and not so many beers" gets a thumbs-up from me. Maybe it's because I'm in my 30s now too, but this song has aged amazingly well, and I feel just about anyone could get something out of its inspiring message. (And then once you're done, listen to Rodney Crowell's "Earthbound" and Trout Fishing in America's "Who Knows What We Might Do.") A-

Jun 4, 2024

AI Illustrated Country Songs: Most Hated Country Songs Edition

Artists and song titles at the end if you can't figure these out.

Luke Bryan - Country Girl (Shake it For Me)
Johnny Cash - Chicken in Black
Shania Twain - That Don't Impress Me Much
Trace Adkins - Brown Chicken, Brown Cow
Walker Hayes - Fancy Like
Big & Rich - Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)
Brad Paisley & LL Cool J - Accidental Racist
Tim McGraw - Truck Yeah

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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