Since my reviews have focused heavily on ’90s country artists lately, I figured I’d revisit this beloved decade for this week’s edition of ‘Best Hit Songs.’
As for this particular year, there isn’t much to say. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill were country music’s new power couple, and the actual boom of the ’90s was still strong, with country music clinging to a strong brand identity (for once). It was, simply, another great year for country music, both in terms of commercial and critical success.
More than most years though, I found this year to bring an abundance of quality, enough to where I narrowed this list down from over 40 great possible choices.
As always, this is the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source, as I’m counting down the best “hit” songs of 1996 (basically top 20 or close to it). Also, these are of course only my personal picks and preferences. I invite you share yours down below!
Let’s start with some honorable mentions!
- Rick Trevino – “Learning As You Go” (this is just so pleasant to listen to – what a melody and hook)
- Sammy Kershaw – “Meant To Be” (the only “Meant To Be” that should have set a record in country music … )
- Alan Jackson – “Home” (I love that huge chorus)
- George Strait – “Blue Clear Sky” (a classic all the same)
- Clay Walker – “Bury The Shovel” (very different for Clay Walker at the time, and very different in general in a good way)
- Joe Diffie – “Bigger Than The Beatles” (just seeing the title gets the song stuck in my head – how can it not be here?)
Further honorable mentions can be found here.
No. 10 – LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
“Blue” is simply a showcase of phenomenal talent. Who would have ever thought the closest we’d get to a Patsy Cline revival would come from a 13-year-old? Sadly, LeAnn Rimes’ record sales were more impressive than her radio airplay history. Nonetheless, considering the ’90s were all about reviving old traditions in country music, this was such a cool, profound way to introduce an artist.
No. 9 – Diamond Rio, “It’s All In Your Head”
I don’t know what it was about 1996, but there was a strong sense of paranoia this year. Perhaps country artists were worried about the future of country music and holding onto the strong brand identity they had. Perhaps certain artists saw visions of what the charts would look like 20 years later and wanted to warn the villagers.
Alright, so I’m overanalyzing it.
Nevertheless, “It’s All In Your Head” remains Diamond Rio’s most fascinating single to date. It’s the story of a young boy dealing with the death of his parents, but not in the somber manner you’d expect. The song itself is a mind warp, with the boy’s dad being a paranoid preacher preparing for the apocalypse before dying from a snake ritual. It’s oddly weird, and in some ways, not what you’d expect for a country song. Yet for some reason, if the listener embraces the weirdness, it’s quite a treat.
No. 8 – Reba McEntire, “The Fear Of Being Alone”
Coincidentally, “The Fear Of Being Alone” would sound right at home on Reba McEntire’s latest album – a hard-edged dose of reality that stands up with her best work. Both lovers here are bruised and beaten, but only McEntire has enough sense to know that’s not enough to lead to something more. It’s an interesting twist on an old theme in country music, and ironically, this is the perspective that feels more grounded and real.
No. 7 – Lonestar, “No News”
There’s a difference in what Lonestar became and what they started out as, and there’s no better evidence of that than “No News.” I don’t usually compliment country songs for great grooves, but this is infectious as anything else from this decade. Oddly enough, like “It’s All In Your Head” from before, this is paranoia framed in a lighter package, with “No News” opting for a more humorous route. At any rate, the examples this man thinks of for why his lover hasn’t returned to him are worth their weight in gold, especially when they get zanier as the song goes along.
No. 6 – Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
Many of the songs on this list opt for grand ideas or clever, zany lyricism. “Strawberry Wine,” on the other hand, is a good reminder of why country music is known as “three chords & the truth.” It’s a simple tale speaking to a loss of innocence that catapulted Deana Carter into superstar status for a very short time. More than any other song here, this is the easily recognizable classic from this year.
No. 5 – Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On”
The passage of time is a common theme in country music, and by no means is Tracy Lawrence trying to be anything but simple here. As the family depicted here changes just as the music and social scene around them does, time is the cruel, unforgiving entity hanging in the background. “Time Marches On” is a brilliant example of how the subtext of a song can truly carry it along or give it a deeper meaning.
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No. 4 – Garth Brooks, “Beaches Of Cheyenne”
Personally, I’ve never agreed with the notion that Garth Brooks wasn’t really a country artist. Sure, his stage antics weren’t typical for country artists at the time, and he certainly had a flair for drama in his music. Songs like “The Dance” and “The Thunder Rolls” go beyond country music’s knack for simplicity. But country music also tells stories in a relatable fashion, and that’s one of Brooks’ core competencies. “The Beaches Of Cheyenne” remains one of his most epic tales – a ghost tale filled with anger and regret. It’s simply a stunning tale where the story does all the talking needed to explain why it’s great.
No. 3 – George Strait, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”
Apparently country music was paranoid and obsessed with Cheyenne, Wyoming this year.
I don’t quite know if “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” is supposed to be humorous or not. On one hand, it’s hard not to laugh the first time you hear that line, but it’s also meant to be a testament to how much a hobby can mean more to a person than someone else. Strait’s delivery is also fairly straight-laced (pun intended), with both parties understanding that it’s time for both of them to move on to bigger and better things. What a song.
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No. 2 – Garth Brooks, “That Ol’ Wind”
This song always feels forgotten when discussing Garth Brooks’ best songs. I’ll echo what I said before with “Beaches Of Cheyenne” – this is a song where the story does all of the talking. The plot is handled excellently, with both lovers revealed to be keeping their own secrets for the sake of each other. And as always, Brooks’ flair for dramatics comes in handy to delivery this wonderful ballad.
No. 1 – Pam Tillis, “The River And The Highway”
I was sold at the idea of a piano ballad sung by Pam Tillis, but this is probably one of the most well-written songs of the ’90s. The song compares two lovers to both a river and a highway, with one being the free spirit and the other doing what’s expected of him. Like those two entities, they may intertwine at points, but at the end of the day, they’re too different to live as one. It’s an achingly beautiful song that remains Tillis’ best song to date, and it’s one of those songs that manages to floor you every time.