My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Top 10 Favorite Country Singles of 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

5 responses to “Top 10 Favorite Country Singles of 2013

  1. Six String Richie December 6, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    I’d probably have “Missin’ You Crazy” by Jon Pardi and “It Ain’t The Whiskey” by Gary Allan on my top ten list. I also loved “Bruises” and wish it would’ve done better on radio. There was just so little good music on the radio this year. I couldn’t imagine doing something like a Top 40 Best Singles of 2013 list. There probably was only maybe 20 country singles that I at least mildly enjoyed this year. Very few that I really liked.

  2. Michael A. December 7, 2013 at 12:44 am

    I don’t know many of these, but based on my shared love of #8 and #1, I’ll have to check them out!

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  4. Noah Eaton December 9, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Great list, Jonathan! =D

    Although it is unquestionably among the top 10% of releases this year, I have to respectfully contend with your #1 selection. It wouldn’t make my Top Ten for the following reason. While refreshing to hear a free-spirited, libertarian clarion call celebrating freedom of choice here, “Follow Your Arrow” can’t help but sound a bit rudimentary lyrically when sized up to the superior “All Kinds Of Kinds”.

    What makes “All Kinds Of Kinds” by far the superior release, in my heart, is because it is centered around relational empathy and conveys a “Let’s all try to get along!” message by painting a handful of unique character sketches before illustrating her own and then going full circle on a broader, more universal level before the final chorus. Just as importantly, Lambert’s delivery strikes a most effective nuance between sass (boasting about tossing her geometry test in the trash) and warmth/humility…………..which is most welcomed after a string of more bombastic, sometimes acerbic-toned releases like “Baggage Claim”.

    In contrast, “Follow Your Arrow” can’t help but sound a bit more knee-jerking. I can vouch for the lyrical sentimental heart here, but I can’t help but feel the tone is vaguely tribalistic: a bit “us and them” if not “us versus them.” It’s refreshing that the song accepts the types of lifestyles that are generally frowned upon, and yet at the same time, there are moments which I can see unfortunately being construed as mocking of others. Such as the “If you don’t go to church, you’ll go to Hell” line, for instance. I get the sentiment behind the lyric, I really do…………..but it can’t help but sound like she is mocking religion and church-goers there, and that undercuts her broader goal of preaching mutuality and inclusivity.

    I think “Follow Your Arrow” is a commendable song concept that was on the verge of being something truly great, but winds up considerably flawed by lyrical missteps. Musgraves offers a sweet, warm vocal performance replete with personality, and the production is refreshingly breezy and dialed-down, but the lyrics keep it from reaching my Top Ten. However, I do respect your list and take for sure! =)

    I’ll offer my list momentarily! ^__^

  5. Noah Eaton December 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    One sidenote: a few of your selections were not officially released as singles.

    “Over When It’s Over” was never minted a single. No official singles were launched to promote “The Bluegrass Album”, and I don’t recall any tracks appointed as promotional singles either. Finally, I don’t think a single was released to anchor Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern.”

    I respect your informed take on each listing, but because this is titled the “Top 10 Favorite Country Singles of 2013”, I felt the need to address this in favor of “songs” instead! =)

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