Country radio must be getting better. My favorites list this year include more actual radio hits than ever before. Of the ten songs below, two were #1 hits, five more (including my top pick) hit the country top 40. Still, two more songs were released as radio singles and enjoyed very little success, and yet another is just an album cut that was never sent to radio. So there’s room for much more improvement. Read on to find out why I picked them as the best of the year, and click on the links to read my own single reviews when available.
10. Jewel – ‘Satisfied‘ – I had been consistently unimpressed with Jewel’s country offerings until ‘Satisfied’ hit the airwaves. The singer uses her big, emotive voice to full effect in this power ballad that centers on the theme of letting your love show. It didn’t storm up the country charts, but it made me finally sit up and welcome the Alaskan farm girl to the country fold.
9. Emily West feat. Keith Urban – ‘Blue Sky’ – Here, West delivers a stunning vocal with Keith Urban providing a gentle harmony, on this track that finds the narrator rebuffing the swinging door policy this guy has set up for himself. This kind of smart, elegant ballad is the kind of song that brought me to country music
8. Miranda Lambert – ‘House That Built Me’ – Arguably, the biggest country hit of the year – and certainly it will be the best-remembered when most everything else are just numbers in record books – the magnum opus of Lambert’s Revolution album, and her career so far, was a major hit because it resonated so well with so many people. Universal emotions, like sentimental attachment to the house where you grew up, never fail when they’re delivered this brilliantly.
7. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’ – The first time I heard this song, I thought it would fit neatly with Alan Jackson’s own music-industry/life-on-the-road songs. As with Jackson’s many like-cuts (‘Job Description’, ‘To Do What I Do’, ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’), ‘Ride’ features a tight lyrical structure, smooth melody, heartstring emotions, and a fitting vocal from Brown.
6. Keith Urban – ‘Til Summer Comes Around’ – Not since ‘You’ll Think Of Me’ hit in 2004 has Keith Urban impressed upon me so much with a single release. In this reminiscent tale of a Summer fling, the singer is paying a Wintertime visit to the carnival where his love affair started. Full of imagery and melancholy, it maintains the feel of the best of Urban’s moody ballads.
5. Sugarland – ‘Little Miss’ – Like most everybody else, I was disappointed with the bulk of Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine. But, one track stands out as a throwback to the sound they offered just 2 short years ago. ‘Little Miss’ features the acoustic, harmony-driven sound that had become their staple. In this, the duo try their best to appeal to everywoman, and with a laundry list of ‘little miss this and that’, I don’t think they could have left many out.
4. Trace Adkins – ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ – This is a great song with a fresh idea and nothing overbearing or in-your-face about the production. With it, Trace Adkins may have struck the perfect balance between his up-tempo ditties and the memorable ballads that dot his catalog.
3. Chely Wright – ‘Notes To The Coroner’ – I could have chosen at least 4 tracks from Chely Wright’s Lifted Off The Ground to list among my favorites of the year. The disc has certainly gotten more mileage than any other album in my player this year. But it was this one clever, biting goodbye from a lady befelled by her own heartbreak that stands out as the centerpiece of a five-star album.
2. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘I Put My Ring Back On’ – It’s always great to get new music from someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter. It’s even better when she returns to the infectious melodies of her signature 90s sound. Making up after a fight makes up the basis for this track, and with its rocking guitars and rolling drums, it recalls Carpenter at her own rocking best vocally.
1. Sunny Sweeney – ‘From A Table Away’ – One of my favorite new artists, Sunny Sweeney failed to make much more than a ripple on the mainstream circuit with her first Big Machine album, the excellent, ultra-traditional Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Her first single for an upcoming sophomore release has fared much better, fueled mostly by a perfect marriage of modern Nashville and Sweeney’s undeniable Texas twang. Here, she plays the other woman who spies her love interest in a romantic situation with his wife. He has of course made all kinds of promises to her about their future together. The scene brings home that he has no intention of leaving, and it’s at that moment she realizes she’s been his fool. This is the stuff great country music is made of.