By Bobby Peacock
20. "One Mississippi" by Kane Brown
I get why Trailer can't stand Kane Brown. While I find him to have a distinct and commanding voice that doesn't rely on studio trickery, I can totally get any opinion to the contrary. Beyond that, I see an ability to sing about relationships without coming off as a horny fratbro or a Dan + Shay-esque whimpering doormat. I hear production that remembers the "country" half of "country pop" by keeping the verses mostly fiddle and steel. And the hook "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three shots of whiskey" does a lot to convey that boozy on-again-off-again relationship (I also dig the nod to "Smoke Rings in the Dark"). This might not woo any non-fans, Trailer included, but it's definitely tipped the scales for me.
19. "I Was on a Boat That Day" by Old Dominion
For the most part, Old Dominion have been acceptably "meh" to me. Other than a few good bits of wordplay here and there, their songs usually tend to be neither interesting enough to catch my attention nor bad enough to drive me away (although I did like "No Such Thing as a Broken Heart" and "Some People Do"). The band themselves admitted they had some tequila before cutting this, so maybe that was the trick. The instrumentation is a lot looser and more laid-back (love that accordion!), completely suiting the carefree vibe of a guy too far down the river to care that his relationship's ended. Offbeat lines like "I was drunk as a skunk eating lunch with a cross-eyed bear", combined with some of the goofy ad-libs, do a lot to add an oddball sense of energy that I've found far too lacking in country radio.
18. "Whiskey and Rain" by Michael Ray
After a pretty dubious debut album, Michael Ray seemed to be coming up with better songs but still seemed to lack something. Cue his best single to date. The melody is one of the stronger ones I've heard out of Nashville lately, and Ray's voice seems more relaxed and nuanced than on his previous efforts. I especially like how the two heartbreak themes in the title are paralleled throughout the song -- lines like "'til the bottle runs out or the clouds roll away" do a lot to keep the imagery going. And the crisp, guitar-heavy production feels like a subtle nod to Gary Allan's earlier work. If he's got a few more songs like this in him, then I guess I can forgive "Real Men Love Jesus".
17. "Till There's Nothing Left" by Cam
It'd be easy to dismiss this one as blatantly un-country, but damn it, I love Cam. She has this unusual blend of rock grandeur, pop hooks, country lyricism, and overall classiness that I find blows contemporary country-pop starlets like Maren Morris or Gabby Barrett completely out of the water (it helps that "Burning House" is legitimately one of my favorite songs of all time). The production is big and spacious, leaving more than enough room for her slow-burn vocals and the evocative lyrics. Just the first verse alone is full of winning lines like "I wanna steal every breath of fire / From every star in the Southern sky".It's a very interesting and tuneful promise of love that, like many of Cam's songs, only gets better on every listen.
16. "Justified" by Kacey Mugraves
Kacey usually grabs me far more with her up-tempos than her ballads. I don't know why; I think it's because so many of them seem to have practically the same tempo and content. But this one just has an... edge that isn't usually in her slower songs. Also working in this one's favor is its clever lyricism such as "healing doesn't happen in a straight line". This song was clearly inspired by her divorce from Ruston Kelly, and from the first note to the last, I feel the conflict that could come from fame and reality butting heads. She's clearly up and down, but looking to get the best out of it -- and best of all, her approach to this sounds as believable as a good country song should be.
15. "Evangeline" by Sammy Kershaw
I liked the original by Chad Brock because it was the only song on which he didn't sound like Blue Shirt Guy. Sammy had previously covered it on his obscure 2006 album Honky Tonk Boots, but he silently re-released it this year. And I'm glad he did, because he has the better version. Cute lines like "her pa-paw says he'll get along the best he can / And all the boys will be so brokenhearted then" tell us a lot about a cute Louisianan who drives all the boys crazy with her Cajun charm. It's an incredibly likable little character sketch with a ton of fiddle, and Sammy's voice has lost none of his edge. You could easily make this a bonus track on a re-release of Haunted Heart and not even tell that it was recorded two decades later.
14. "half of my hometown" by Kelsea Ballerini feat. Kenny Chesney
Once Kelsea started singing about something other than being boy-crazy, she got way more interesting. One of the best examples is this song that takes the love of hometown and twists it around. Some people want to stay, some people want to leave, and some people aren't sure. It'd be easy to knock this song for the references to football and prom queens, but these are used to reinforce the central thesis of hometown memories that one can't let go of. Details like Main Street and family do more to keep the theme going, and the inclusion of Chesney on backing vocals manages not to feel gratuitous. Morgan Wallen, take note: this is how you write a mainstream country song about your hometown in the modern age.
So it turns out that if you write a song about actual, meaningful events that happen to real people... you might actually get a #1 hit. Not unlike "He Didn't Have to Be", Elvie chooses to sing about the joys of step-fatherhood, and his lyrics are packed with joyous details ("It hit me like a freight train the first time he called me 'dad' / In a three stick figure crayon picture with all of us holdin' hands"). And he delivers in a relaxing, twangy vibe that wouldn't have felt out of place on an early Tracy Lawrence album. Perhaps it's that unconventional yet instantly relatable approach that drove this one to become a major hit. I just hope that he has more songs that are even half this good.
12. "Knowing You" by Kenny Chesney
Why is Kenny Chesney, who first hit the charts in 1993, still having big hits in 2021? I'd like to think it's because he continues to sit just enough outside the norm to get attention. His songs of late have had a bit more of a melancholic bent the likes of which he was able to pull off as early as "A Lot of Things Different", aided by his mostly acoustic production and relaxing vocals. So many songs have been dedicated to the idea of a lost love, but vivid lines like "Knowing you was a free-fall from 100,000 feet / When you don't even care where you land" lend so much imagery and character to an already more than solid foundation. I wonder if this song is a sequel to "Anything but Mine"?
11. "Ain't the Same" by Blackberry Smoke
I have no idea how Blackberry Smoke kept escaping my radar for so long. But this song title caught my eye, and it's definitely a strong starting point. The soldier with PTSD is such a common starting point, but this song is brimming with golden lyrics: "Here lately it's like they've forgotten his name / He just can't forget the way", "The things that he's seen and done / Are so much for any mother's son / To live down or try to run away from", and especially the simple yet effective hook of "Nothing's really changed, it just ain't the same". They're all delivered in a melancholy, plaintive country rock package with lots of electric guitar and charismatic vocals. I may have started late with these guys, but it only took one song to convince me to keep going.
10. "You Should Probably Leave" by Chris Stapleton
This one was a grower for me. I think it's because it took me a few listens to realize the scenario at hand. As Hot Apple Pie once sang, this couple's "on-again, off-again is on again". But the guy wants it to be "off again", so he keeps prodding her to "probably leave" Throughout the song, she seems to resist the "probably"s, only to wake up the next morning and find herself being the one to say that she should "probably leave". It's a great slow-burner, and in true Stapleton fashion, he delivers it with a nuanced vocal and understated production. And it's perhaps that understatement that led me to dismiss this song at first... but at the same time, it also led me to be more pleasantly surprised when I gave the song another chance.
9. "Never Wanted to Be That Girl" by Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde
Usually, when a mainstream-ish artist releases something late in the year, I hold off in the hopes of it being a bigger hit the following year. But with a combo like that, I couldn't wait. Of course, a song that gives both the wife and the mistress their own vocal roles is going to draw comparisons to "Does He Love You" -- a justified classic in my book, as its inclusion on my "Best of the '90s list" showed -- but it's far from derivative. By choosing detailed storytelling (is this the first song ever to name-drop Citgo?), regret ("I thought this kind of lonely only happens to somebody else"), direct simplicity ("I feel stupid"), and a down-to-earth delivery from both parties, this song carves out its own niche.
8. "I Need Your Love" by Charley Crockett
Charley Crockett (yes, he really is related to Davy Crockett) is a fantastic melting pot of heritage and influences. Cajun, blues, country, rock, soul -- it's all in there, and it's all damn good. This one's slow waltz tempo and horns bring to mind Sturgill Simpson's "All Around You", but his buttery vocal and some fine, slow-burning lyrics ("I can't ask to move the mountain, so just give me the strength to climb") feel like throwbacks to '60s R&B. Rarely has a plea for forgiveness sounded this freaking cool, which is a perfect description of the artist himself. I try to limit these lists to one song per artist, and especially given Charley's tendency to release about 500 albums a year, you have no idea how hard it was not to break that rule.
7. "Undivided" by Tim McGraw feat. Tyler Hubbard
When my mom first heard the opening line about the kid "picked on in school / for things he couldn't change", who else would she think of besides her own autistic son's struggles to "fit in"? Following that are several more lines that you'd probably expect me to bash because I hate "Humble and Kind". But instead, I feel that the "come together... make a change" type lyrics work very well to enhance the message (and the fact that there's, you know, a context that "Humble and Kind" utterly lacks doesn't hurt either). "We're all the same to God" was another line that I did not expect, but will gladly welcome no matter who's saying it. Our country, and our country music, both need a sense of unity.
6. "I Wish You Would've Been a Cowboy" by Adeem the Beaverist Artist
Queer Country says this was a single, so I'm going with it. Much like Adeem the Artist, I grew up listening to 90s country. So watching Toby Keith spend most of the 21st century embarrassing himself has me being much in the same boat. They pull no punches in pointing out the truth: if you hear the name Toby Keith these days, the picture is usually of a jingoistic hick making money off other jingoistic hicks. It's been 20 years, and "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" is still a punchline. When Adeem sings "you helped turn my culture into a parody" and especially "There were not a lot of places where a kid like me felt heard and understood" (easily the most relatable lyric here), their conviction pairs with the less-is-more production to deliver a statement that is personal yet relatable without feeling preachy.
5. "That's a Fact Jack" by The Kentucky Headhunters
Yes, Bobby, we get it, you like the Kentucky Headhunters. As if my five-star review of this album didn't make that clear enough. But this was what I needed in 2021, a year that saw one of the most depressed forms of Bobby Peacock that you'll ever see -- one of my favorite bands coming out with a thunderous new song that offers a hopeful message. The "get along" message may seem simple on the surface, but surprisingly incisive lines about the dangers of greed, combined with a plea for racial unity, show that the Headhunters are no slouch at social commentary. The hard-hitting groove and Richard Young's razor-sharp vocals help to complete the package.
4. "Wilder Days" by Morgan Wade
Morgan Wade had me at the first note. Another critic described her as a rougher-edged Sheryl Crow, and that's a description that I have to agree with. The Jay Joyce-esque jangly electric guitar and airy Hammond organ give a perfect sonic backing for such a voice. And the lyrics are a wonderfully believable description of learning more about her man back when he was a little more rough around the edges. There's a longing in her voice as she asks for even one night of those "wilder days" that likely shaped him into the man that he is now. I'm the kind of guy who always wants to know everything about every person that I click with, and Wade hits on that inquisitive, slightly melancholic tone flawlessly.
3. "We Are Here" by Miko Marks
Miko Marks, like most of my family, is from Flint, Michigan. I know about all that the city has endured: factory closures, demographic shifts, bad water supply, and poverty. Even if I didn't, I would still find her lines about boarded-up houses, "poison water", and struggling parents every bit as convincing. There's just something simple, direct, and powerful about "we hold onto faith, we cry / Oh, we are here", due in no small part to Marks' nuanced vocal. Her delivery and the production are downbeat and pleading, but still showing just enough of that last little ray of hope. Sometimes the biggest emotions come from being as raw and truthful as one can get -- and hitting close to home (literally) doesn't hurt, either.
2. "I'm Not for Everyone" by Brothers Osborne
One of the most encouraging things to happen this year was for one-half of my favorite current mainstream country act to come out as gay. As a pansexual country music fan, I want to see greater LGBT+ representation in the fandom, especially if it's an artist I already freaking love. Everyone is different, and honestly, life would be boring if we weren't. Not everyone can get along with each other, but it doesn't hurt to try and to forgive. To be "hanging with the sinners.” To drink scotch and listen to Townes Van Zandt and tell bad jokes. To have a badass baritone vocalist and his guitar-slinging brother tell me, and others both like and unlike me, that we shouldn't be afraid of being "different". Because "different" is cool, and Brothers Osborne get it.
1. "I Will Follow" by Chapel Hart
I'm glad I stumbled upon Chapel Hart by scrolling through Twitter. These ladies' harmonies are exceptionally strong, and they chose a fantastic and inspired self-empowerment lyric to go with them. Lines like "Mama always told me 'don't be afraid to shine'" seem simple enough when typed out, but the whole musical package is brimming with conviction (the surprise snippet of "This Little Light of Mine" is a welcome treat too). I'm a guy who has spent 34 years and counting unsure of where I am in life, desperately seeking any form of acceptance even when I seem destined to be just out of sync with literally everyone else on the planet. But in their extremely tuneful, heartfelt way, it was first the Brothers Osborne, and now Chapel Hart, that have given me a "be yourself" message that I needed to hear.
Honorable mentions: "Am I Right or Amarillo" (wasn't a single; otherwise it'd be #3), "You Time,” "Drunk (And I Don't Wanna Go Home)"