Admittedly, I always find it odd to explore years from this decade for this feature. After all, this is meant to be a look back into country music of the past, and 2011 wasn’t that long ago.
Still, when comparing 2011 country music to the country music of today, there’s already a huge difference not just in terms of quality, but also in terms of the biggest stars of the format. This is the first year George Strait couldn’t crack the top 40, “Dirt Road Anthem” (sadly) plagued the airwaves and gave us premonitions of what was to come, and many artists featured on this upcoming list aren’t even notching hits anymore.
As always, this feature is meant to count down the best hit songs of a particular year, in this case 2011. This is also the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source. Also, these are, of course, only my personal picks and preferences. I invite you share yours down below!
Lastly, if you’re curious as to what other years I’ve looked at for this feature, click here.
First, some honorable mentions:
- Lady Antebellum – “Hello World” (I know I’m in the minority on this, but I always thought this was one of their best ballads)
- Keith Urban – “Long Hot Summer” (I’m not quite sure how many “country” lines this is violating, but this is such a well-done jam that I don’t care for this one instance)
- Chris Young – “Voices” (I miss this version of Chris Young)
- Taylor Swift – “Sparks Fly” (If you’re going to make a love song, just go all in with the passion like Swift does here)
Further honorable mentions can be found here.
No. 10 – Jerrod Niemann, “What Do You Want”
Sadly, Jerrod Niemann is only remembered these days for quite literally making an ass out of himself. Prior to 2013, Niemann was actually a welcome artist to the format, bringing a healthy dosage of creativity to the forefront. “What Do You Want” is among his best examples, a muted, understated, yet biting portrayal of someone who’s had enough. It’s the straightforward honesty and delivery of the hook that gives it all the punch it needs without any petty, bitter remorse.
No. 9 – Justin Moore, “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”
Justin Moore has certainly milked country music clichés all throughout his career, but he forgets that all you need to make a good country song is simplicity and a universal sentimentality. “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” succeeds because of both aforementioned elements, managing to resonate without being cloying. Perhaps most of the credit goes to Moore himself, who sounds genuinely invested in the idea of Heaven being a stone’s throw away by selling it with an almost child-like innocence. Whatever the reason is, “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” is a home run for Moore.
No. 8 – Billy Currington, “Love Done Gone”
No, the tone doesn’t fit the subject matter at all, but who cares when it sounds this great? Actually, that’s part of the appeal of “Love Done Gone” – trading in any attempts at clingy desperation and drama for something cheery and adopting a forward-thinking acceptance. But anyone who’s heard this song even once knows its real appeal – the horns and backing vocals that somehow imitate said horns. This is purely a textbook example of excellent execution with even better wordplay (dogwood blossoms and a red kite lost in a blue sky wind certainly stick in your mind). Sing it with me now: bah-bah-dah, bah-dah-dahhh …
No. 7 – Ashton Shepherd, “Look It Up”
Between “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” “Love Done Gone,” and “Look It Up,” it seems like this year was heavy on songs that could wrong if the mix was even just a little bit off. After a few lines, you can tell right where “Look It Up” is headed throughout its entire duration, yet the joke never tires thanks to Shepherd’s righteous fury and delivery. Sure, it pretty much sounds like a Loretta Lynn B-side, but is that honestly a bad thing?
No. 6 – Sunny Sweeney, “From A Table Away”
It’s absolutely criminal that Sunny Sweeney was only ever able to notch one hit in her mainstream country career, let alone a song that only climbed to No. freakin’ 10. Moving on to the song, though, I’ve always found its concept interesting and unique, with the “other woman” finding out her lover isn’t going to leave his wife after all. Despite the framed situation, Sweeney sells the track with just enough conviction to make the listener sympathize with her. At any rate, it’s a good reminder that not all country songs are necessarily pretty.
No. 5 – Kenny Chesney, “Somewhere With You”
For 2011 standards, this was really pushing the envelope of what counted as country music. Still, there was always something appealing about this song’s moodier rock groove. No, it’s not necessarily new ground for Chesney, but there was an intensity to his delivery that wasn’t there in the same way as before, and the whirlwind of experiences he and his lover embark on add real, nuanced, and specific details to the situation. Even when digging deeper into the song, it reads not as a love where both parties truly cared, but rather as a way to fill an empty hole of depression and need. It’s different for Chesney, but in a good way.
No. 4 – Taylor Swift, “Back To December”
Ah, the ever-polarizing Taylor Swift. Even with some production quibbles I have with this song, I’d still argue this is one of her best songs. The framing isn’t anything new for 2011 Swift standards, but it’s the delivery of it all that signaled a change for her. As per usual, Swift is singing to a guy, but this time around, she’s casting the blame on herself, with a notably stronger intensity to her performance. It marks a maturity in her songwriting that could only come with time and experience.
No. 3 – Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
Whereas I found myself arguing in defense of “Somewhere With You,” “You and Tequila” seems to be the one track that most agree is one of Kenny Chesney’s best to date. Oddly enough, though, it’s also a song where I don’t have a lot to say about what makes it great – Chesney’s burnished delivery backed against the sparse acoustic arrangement, the fact that said arrangement adds an extra layer of warmth to its sentiment, or Grace Potter’s sweet, yet haunting harmony. It’s a deftly crafted song where the lyrics do the most heavy lifting, displaying an understated level of nuance, intelligence and self-awareness to make it all the more gutting.
No. 2 – Ronnie Dunn, “Cost Of Livin'”
This is a trickier song to talk about, but one that should resonate nonetheless. I won’t dive too deeply into the politics of it all, but I will say this, considering Ronnie Dunn frames the entire situation as a job interview telling the story of why his main character can’t afford to take care of his family, there shouldn’t be any division on that powerful statement. Instead, Dunn sounds fragile and believable, enough to make the listener take stock of the fact that not all art is necessarily just entertainment.
No. 1 – Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
The underrated element that clinches the top spot for this song is its arrangement – a sparse piano ballad that could honestly become a washed-out rock ballad if its bones were put back into place. Instead, “Colder Weather” cries out like some of the best country songs, with a deafening loneliness sung by the wandering troubadour. It’s more poetic than your average straight-laced country material, but the emotion is still present underneath it all. “Colder Weather” is probably Zac Brown’s best performance, and a nice reminder of what used to be so great about this band.