I’ve been moderately encouraged by the singles released this year compared with 2009, which seemed to offer a particularly disappointing crop. While there was plenty of dross around this year, there was some good music as well. Some of my picks of the year were even hits, with my personal #1 single hitting the top of the Billboard charts.
10. Stealing Angels – ‘He Better Be Dead’
This up-tempo rant about the guy who doesn’t call back after that promising romantic evening features the lead vocals of Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla. She’s not in the same league as the legend, but this is a fun, sassy single which introduced us to a talented trio. It didn’t make the Billboard top 40, but gained some airplay.
9. Tammy Cochran – ‘He Really Thinks He’s Got It’
This entertaining single from Tammy’s excellent independent 2009 album 30 Something And Single was released this year. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), with no label support it failed to chart, but it is a wry look at dating hell.
8. Joey + Rory – ‘That’s Important To Me’
A revival of a song from Joey Martin’s independent solo album has become the latest single for the husband and wife duo who emerged on 2008’s Can You Duet. It is being ignored by radio, but has a lovely clean production with Joey’s earnest vocals shining. She is one of my favorite female vocalists at the moment.
7. Martin Ramey – ‘Twisted’
This Curb duo’s only single to date seems to have sunk without a trace, but it made an impact on me if no one else. Brad Martin (formerly signed to Epic as a solo artist) and singer-songwriter John Ramey have pleasant but individually unremarkable voices, but their harmonies blend together very attractively, and are very reminiscent of 80s predecessors the O’Kanes. Their label affiliation means we may be waiting some time for more music, but I’ll be keen to hear more.
6. Jerrod Niemann – ‘What Do You Want’
The follow-up to Jerrod’s catchy pop cover and breakthrough hit ‘Lover, Lover’ was one of the highlights on Jerrod’s rather mixed album Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury – really good contemporary country. The plaintive lead vocal, Rachel Bradshaw’s pretty harmony, and organ melody seep into your consciousness as Jerrod tries to find out what his ex is trying to do by keeping on making contact. The single is still rising in the charts.
5. Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better than I Used To Be’
The title track of 90s hitmaker Sammy’s latest independent album (and its lead single) is a deeply honest song about a man who has let people down in the past, but is man enough to admit to his failings, and to turn his life around. Sadly his return to the recording studio was not met with commercial success, but this lovely, mature song (written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley) stands up well with his past classics.
4. Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’
This downbeat look at the real cost of chasing fame in Hollywood only just squeezed into the top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, but it is one of the most memorable singles of the year. It’s not quite as good as ‘High Cost Of Living’, which was my personal #1 single of 2009, but a very fine song nonetheless.
3. Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’
Miranda’s star has risen steadily over the past five years, but 2009′s Revolution took her to a new level. I was less impressed than some by that album (mainly due to issues with the sound mixing), but this acoustic guitar-led smash is one of the best things on it. The sensitive ballad about returning to a childhood home to reminisce and regain the emotional wholeness of childhood was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the CMA Song (and Video) of the Year. It was written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin.
2. Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’
Dierks Bentley made a rare brave artistic choice for a major label artist this year when he released an album incorporating bluegrass and other roots influences and asked radio to play the singles. The singles have been only modest successes, with this second single struggling to get out of the 30s, but they have at least received some exposure – and Dierks was nominated for three CMA awards on the strength of the album. It remains one of the most beautiful singles of the year, with Alison Krauss’s heavenly harmony and the haunting fiddle adding special touches.
1. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’
The Atlanta band with one foot in the Caribbean has become one of the most interesting acts in country music over the last couple of years, and they were rewarded this year with Grammy and CMA awards for Best New Artist, and an array of other nominations. They have become a staple at country radio, and have defied the latter’s fondness for things to stay the same by having each successive single represent a different side of their music – with five of the six singles to have completed their run to date hitting #1 on Billboard, and the other only just failing to do so. This is my favorite of their singles to date, and was their third #1 hit, reaching its peak in April this year. Written by lead singer Zac Brown with his frequent songwriting partner Wyatt Durette and inspired by the latter’s regular journeys taking a son to visit his mother, the downbeat ballad is my favorite single of the year. It embodies the essential truth common to all the greatest country songs; in this case portraying family breakdown and the impact of the son’s relationship with his father.
I reviewed it just after its release at the end of last year, and said then that if it was a hit it would go some way to restoring my faith in country radio. It was indeed a success, and overall this has been a better year for singles than 2009. So perhaps the tide is turning.