For many people I’ve interacted with online, 90’s Country essentially equals pure nostalgia and bliss. Me? I would’ve grown up on the tail end of it at best, so unfortunately I’ve just played catch-up as I’ve gotten older. Still, it’s no wonder why this era was seen as a golden era. The cheesy songs (and there were a lot of them) had more wit than they really needed, and some of the best songs truly were excellent songs that are among the best Country music has offered.
I picked 1992 for a special reason, and we’ll get to that as we explore the rankdown, but I don’t know what to say. This was yet again another solid year for Country music, with a lot of the “best” (my favorite) songs coming from very unlikely sources. Yeah, we had “Achy Breaky Heart” as well (and spoiler alert, that’s not here, although “Could’ve Been Me” was actually one of the last songs I cut for this list), but all in all this was another joyous year for Country music. As always, I’m basing this list off of Billboard’s year end list. Nothing more.
And as always, let’s begin this week’s list with some honorable mentions!
Clint Black – “We Tell Ourselves”
There’s just an aggressive tone to this in the instrumentation that I really enjoy, and Black’s effervescent charm and charisma helps as well.
Collin Raye – “Love, Me”
Admittedly, it’s a bit sappy, but it’s still extremely good anyway.
Wynonna Judd – “No One Else On Earth”
That moment when Country music got funky and it actually worked out extremely well …
Tanya Tucker – “Some Kind Of Trouble”
There’s a bluesy aggressiveness to this that I enjoy.
Dwight Yoakam – “It Only Hurts When I Cry”
Because you have to have Dwight here, right?
Onto the actual list!
No audio, because guess who we’re dealing with?!?
10. Garth Brooks – Papa Loved Mama (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 57)
You have to wonder how a track that ends with one dead parent and another one in jail can possibly be this much fun, and the truth is I really don’t know. I think it’s just the fact that this song is so over the top in every way (in a good way) that it matches up well with that faster tempo. Plus, it’s not like Garth’s delivery indicates that this is actually as serious as it seems. Whatever it is, this is well written track that proves that fun, uptempo tracks can still be smart.
9. Pam Tillis – “Maybe It Was Memphis” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 29)
Known as Pam Tillis’ most iconic song, this is simply a result of everything clicking in place to deliver a damn solid Country song. Tillis’ voice just soars right along with the melody, and by the time the chorus hits she’s just able to really unleash her power. It wasn’t her biggest song, but it’s still her most well known, and easily a gem.
8. Trisha Yearwood – “The Woman Before Me” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 49)
I love good framing, and more importantly, I love honest framing. It’s rare that you see the man in the relationship beaten down and broken, and what I like about this song is that it explores that perspective. More importantly, the song in question is smart enough to never say whether the other woman in question truly hurt this man, or if he’s just still not over her in general. Either way, the woman in particular here can see that, and Yearwood delivers a pretty heartbreaking performance as she comes to terms knowing that this man will never actually love her because he can’t. Overall, it’s well written and well delivered.
7. John Anderson – “Straight Tequila Night” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 16)
This is regarded as Anderson’s comeback single and thank goodness, because Anderson had released some of his best material this year (and he’s underrated in general). I think this just skates by for being a damn solid Country song, and while the perspective is pretty old hat by now, in its time, “Straight Tequila Night” explored heartache in a bar in a unique way by shifting the attention to some other poor soul, telling a story in the process.
6. Reba McEntire – “Is There Life Out There” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 3)
Speaking of solid Country songs that don’t need a large explanation, we have this. I don’t know, the thought of someone questioning what they want out of life at age twenty speaks to me more than I care to think about I guess. It may be a tad higher than it should be, but that’s why it’s my list and not yours.
5. Hal Ketchum – Past The Point Of Rescue (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 20)
If there’s a running theme to this top five, it’s that they all adopt ominous production styles and deal with heavier subjects that we’ve heard so far. Of course, breakup songs are hard to really offer any witty insight on. Then of course you hear this song, with that dark, kickass acoustic riff, and then you realize this song almost speaks directly to Hal Ketchum’s experience as a songwriter. I mean, he openly admits to developing writer’s block and being as down on his luck as he could possibly get from this breakup. On paper, the imagery is strong here, but in terms of the delivery in the production and Ketchum’s almost defeated tone, this is a stunner of a breakup song.
4. Billy Dean – Only The Wind (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 56)
If there’s one lyrical element that I can’t stand, it’s when songs adopt a feeling that life will just be alright just because it will be (looking at you David Lee Murphy, Kenny Chesney, Bebe Rexha, and Florida Georgia Line). However, self-awareness goes a long way in my book. In Billy Dean’s case, he comforts himself over a failed relationship by remembering an instance with his mother where she comforted him during a storm. Well, I should say he tries to comfort himself, but in the end he realizes he’s not a kid anymore, and sometimes you can’t run away from that pain. It sounds like a stretch, but adds such a sense of realness to it to use such a specific situation to get through it. Plus, the production on this thing is beautiful, capturing a simultaneous feeling of calmness and melancholy. It’s a beautiful song.
3. Vince Gill – “I Still Believe In You” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 8)
Man, this is a song that really overcomes a huge hurdle to become an utterly fantastic song and one of Vince Gill’s best. Seriously, in terms of a vocal performance, not only is Gill showing off every bit of his power, he’s also throwing a ton of emotion into his performance. Normally I wouldn’t sympathize with a narrator who has admitted to screwing up in a relationship by hurting the other lover, but his newfound sentiment just seems to come from the bottom of his heart. This is wonderfully executed and beautifully sung, and if anything, it proves why Gill has always been among Country music’s best vocalists of all time.
2. John Anderson – “Seminole Wind” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 59)
I said earlier that I’d reveal why I picked 1992 in particular, and the truth is that when I saw these next two songs, I knew I had to pick it. Seriously, ranking these two was unbelievably hard, mostly because these are two of my favorite Country songs of all time. I’ll put it this way – they’d have a tough match against Waylon Jennings, but these would easily be the next two in line on my “best hits of 1975” list. On that note, think of this more as “one and a half” rather than “two.”
Anyway, when we think of topics related to Country music, we think of love, cheating, drinking, smoking, self-medicating, and well … other stuff. Environmental damage is a topic that hasn’t appeared too many times. It’s never preachy though. In fact, there’s a sense of urgency and despair surrounding it, because even though this is a practice that has been in place ever since the “days of old”, it’s something that needs to stop now (or in this case … in 1992). And then there’s that gorgeous piano giving way to an atmospheric melody that’s simply perfect for the subject matter. This is a bonafide masterpiece of a Country song.
1. Alan Jackson – “Midnight In Montgomery” (Billboard Year End Peak: No. 27)
So on that note, what the hell could possibly beat “Seminole Wind”?!? Well, “beat” is a strong word. Music isn’t a competition. I do these lists to let everyone jump in a time capsule and re-discover some awesome music. This song has me beat on the time capsule part though, because Alan Jackson decided to salute ol’ Hank on this song. No, not Hank Jr. like a lot of modern songs, I mean Hank Williams Sr.
I feel like calling this “dark” doesn’t do it nearly enough justice considering how often I use that adjective. “Ghostly” is more like it, with that haunting, ominous pedal steel and violin giving way to a song where you can just feel the tension rise. The story of course is just as eerily sinister even though at the end of it, it’s just Hank Williams himself thanking this singer for not only visiting his grave, but for also honoring him with his music. It’s a complete masterpiece between the story and the ominous production, and it easily takes the crown for many “best” accolades – best hit song of 1992, best Alan Jackson song, and one of the best Country songs ever.