Unlike the experimental nature of my top albums of 2012, this list of singles reflects my nineties country upbringing to the umpteenth degree – I gravitate towards songs that are sincere, understated, and most importantly, unmistakably country. They might not have been huge hits, but that hardly matters anymore. For an even stronger reflection of my tastes, check out my year-end top 40 singles (on my blog) throughout the month.
Chick on the links to hear the songs.
10. Brandi Carlile – ‘Keep Your Heart Young’
In our increasingly adolescent leaning world, it’s easy to forget there is a correct way to keep our childhood innocence – keep our hearts young, before we get too old, before our time is done.
But the most ironic thing about this Bear Creek single is how well she “sells” country music. Carlile gave up her self-penned “Same Old You” to Miranda Lambert on the grounds she couldn’t sell it herself. Turns out Carlile can be quite the convincing country singer when she wants to be.
9. Eric Church – ‘Springsteen’
A long ago romance between a guy, his girl, and the all-American anthem bounding them for life. Oh, the joys of being 17. Here’s where Church went from wannabe to superstar, consistent hit maker to heavy hitter. His artistic triumph is easily one of the most satisfying singles of the year.
8. Zac Brown Band – ‘The Wind’
By evoking the effortless bluegrass meets country fusion that catapulted Ricky Skaggs to superstardom in the 1980s, Zac Brown Band have recorded their greatest artistic achievement to date. The classic rip-roaring lead guitar and flourishing bursts of fiddle help it sound iconic and vintage yet modern and fresh without risking radio expulsion. One of the best country singles of 2012 is also one of the best country singles to come along in years.
7. Julie Roberts – ‘Whiskey and You’
A classic drinking song infused with Roberts’ stunning alcohol soaked vocal, she’s forced to admit her stark reality – quitting the whiskey is the easy part. It’s the man, whom she knows isn’t good for her, who is the real addiction.
6. George Strait – ‘Drinkin’ Man’
Much like Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” “Drinkin’ Man” is a tale of a life gripped by the bottle – in all its bleak, honest, and raw glory. Strait has crafted one of his finest singles to date by capturing the full essence of this man, worts and all. Sometimes its easier to admit defeat than be bound by the expectation of having to be perfect.
5. Chris Young – ‘Neon’
It’s so not the 1990s anymore. Twenty years ago this neo-traditional gem would’ve been the CMA Single of the Year, a #1 hit single, and on its way to classic status. Young is exceptional on this timeless tale of a man drowning his sorrows in a barroom, underneath the neon lights he now calls home.
4. Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss – ‘I Just Come Here For The Music’
Quiet and understated, “I Just Come Here For The Music” is the rare breed that doesn’t come along much anymore, the story song with a heart and soul. He’s itching to buy this woman that crucial next drink, the beginning of mending his broken heart. She says no, not realizing he’s just here for the music (and her company) not a relationship.
3. Joey + Rory – ‘Josephine’
A heartbreaking Civil War-themed ballad, it’s the true story of a soldier and the woman named Josephine he left at home. Rory Feek, ever the history junkie, composed the lyrics from letters he found at the local historical society. Set behind a rocking mandolin-soaked production, Feek paints the picture in stunning fashion placing the listener deep within the action, feeling every turn of the plot, wincing at the twist in the final verse.
2. Alan Jackson – ‘So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore’
It’s been too easy to cast Alan Jackson off as a has-been in last few years, thanks to one mediocre single after another. But he came roaring back to life with this timeless ballad, a near brilliant reflection of a man taking the fall in order for the woman to move on. “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” is his finest single in over ten years and likely one of the best he’s ever recorded.
1. Joey + Rory – ‘When I’m Gone’
A dear friend of the duo, Sally Emory Lawrence wrote “When I’m Gone” following the passing of her mother, and these are the words she’d wished her mother had said to her in the days and weeks prior. Now it’s the message she’s passing on to her husband and son.
In the hands of a lesser vocalist, “When I’m Gone” could easily become an overwrought sentimental confection, but in the gentle hands of Joey Martin Feek it becomes the poignant masterpiece Lawrence envisioned when she wrote it. Feek’s tender yet authoritative vocal hits every nuance of the lyric perfectly, moving seamlessly from near whisper to resounding boom with natural ease.
Like Joey + Rory themselves, “When I’m Gone” seems pulled from a bygone era when the likes of “Where’ve You Been” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” were as commonplace on radio playlists as the latest hit from Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. This type of song, one that hits the heart of human emotion, isn’t found much anymore, and when it is, a weak lyric or bombastic arrangement usually stands in the way of any emotional resonance.
The brutally shortened and ruthlessly competitive playlists of country radio won’t (and didn’t) make room for this, and to deny a song this good the chance at maximum exposure is a tragedy in and of itself, but that doesn’t lessen its power or grace. Joey + Rory’s recording of “When I’m Gone” is the greatest you’re likely to hear all year, and easily one of the outstanding achievements for country music in this century, let alone this decade.