Between an incoming sales and cultural boom along with ushering in a new generation of artists, country music was certainly entering one of its most interesting decades in the ‘90s. As we move ahead in time to the present day, this is now a decade looked upon as a golden age for the genre, especially when it represents many fans’ childhood, in a nutshell.
When looking at a chart for 1990, specifically, it’s easy to see how many new faces emerged during this year; artists we, as music fans, now consider legends. Of course, the downside to having new blood in the format meant that certain older artists were on their way out, and 1990 saw many artists na their final hit.
Still, it was an exciting (and important) time, which makes looking back on this decade even better for this particular feature. As always, this feature is meant to count down the best hit songs of a particular year, in this case, 1990. 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 to share yours down below!
Also, for the first time ever with this series, I can tell you that, looking ahead, I’ll be counting down the best hit songs of 1989 and 1982, respectively. This is the first of three upcoming editions of this series to be inspired by a request, so today, we’re looking at 1990 for Derek on Twitter. Of course, if you have a particular year you’d like to see covered that I haven’t talked about yet, feel free to request that as well. You can see which years I’ve already covered here, though a structured list can be found at the bottom of the “Love List Café” page.
On with the list, starting with
more than a few honorable mentions:
- Alan Jackson – “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” (I’ve seen some people say this was their introduction to country music, and I can’t think of a better first song to hear)
- Restless Heart – “Dancy’s Dream” (I’m always going to gravitate toward songs with peculiar lyrical perspectives, though the production adds a nice touch, too)
- Randy Travis – “He Walked On Water” (perhaps a tad cheesy, but nonetheless, a powerful tribute to looking at the world through a younger set of eyes)
- Garth Brooks – “Friends In Low Places” (this year was very stacked, so leaving off these next three songs was incredibly tough. But if you’re looking for one of the most recognizable country songs ever, well … here you go)
- Kathy Mattea – “She Came From Fort Worth” (there was always something so refreshing about the simplicity and straightforwardness of Kathy Mattea’s song arrangements and lyrical details)
- Ricky Van Shelton – “I Meant Every Word He Said” (this is one of my favorite songs from Ricky Van Shelton, so I hate leaving it off the actual list, but it’s still a powerful tale of personal redemption)
Further honorable mentions can be found here.
No. 10 – Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Quittin’ Time”
As I said in the honorable mentions section, the No. 10 position for this list was tougher to decide than most years. Ultimately, I went with something simple. Now, I like a good breakup track with a touch of righteous fury to it (provided it’s justified, of course), but underneath the infectious chorus and melody, “Quttin’ Time” reads more as a sad tale of defeat. There’s no bitter remorse or even a hint that these two lovers will ultimately regret moving on, but it captures that rare middle portion of simply getting it over with in an honest way. No matter where two lovers end up, it’s always hard to ignore the history, even when it’s clear they both need to move on. Sure, it’s a familiar tale for country songs, but when the execution is good, I’m not going to complain.
No. 9 – Travis Tritt, “I’m Gonna Be Somebody”
Ultimately, “I’m Gonna Be Somebody” is an empowerment anthem without the predictable clichés and cheesiness bogging it down. As you’d expect with a country music song, “I’m Gonna Be Somebody” follows a musician’s journey to achieve the stardom he craves. While still a tad basic in its approach, there’s enough life given to the Bobby character that it’s easy to root for him and feel just as annoyed with his naysayers as he is. It’s also one case where you’re pleased there’s a predictable happy ending at the end of it all. You get ‘em, Bobby.
No. 8 – Doug Stone, “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)”
Doug Stone came out swinging with his debut single, a song with a title that’s just begging to be called a future classic. Today, it is, but its legacy is also cemented because of its quality as one of country music’s saddest songs. I mean, this guy would rather be dead than go with his life following a heartache. It’s a feeling that’s always subtly implied in country music’s more morbid affairs, but never before has it been sung with such conviction. And make no mistake, Stone went all out here, vocally, even going so far as to give the backing vocalists some firepower in their own right. Amazingly, it never once feels overwrought when it easily could have. First impressions are important, and Stone nailed his with this song.
No. 7 – The Judds, “Born To Be Blue”
Honestly, this song mainly earns points for creativity. Listeners who are only familiar with the radio edit of this song are doing themselves a disservice, as the bluesy ballad introduction is just one piece of a near-perfect puzzle. As it is, “Born To Be Blue” combines the usual fiery intensity of the Judds with an excellent instrumental arrangement to perfectly compliment their style. The key driver here is the piano accents, giving this song a monstrous groove and infectiousness that’s among the duo’s best work. Simply put, it’s a jam that’s able to rise above the usual ceiling for these kinds of tracks and be something truly great.
No. 6 – Joe Diffie, “Home”
Joe Diffie may have eventually garnered the nickname “Joe Ditty” for some of his sillier material (that is still damn good, for the record), but his debut single was an excellent slice of pure country music. “Home” is a title that’s become all too common for country songs, and pining for nostalgia is a concept that’s been played out to death, both then and now. But Diffie’s warmth as a performer ensures this particular track comes across with more conviction than the average affair.
No. 5 – Rodney Crowell, “Many A Long & Lonesome Highway”
I love ‘90s country, but I don’t always love the production. And I certainly don’t love the songs from this year that carry over that horrid, syrupy ‘80s production, so there’s something I find so refreshing about “Many A Long & Lonesome Highway.” In Rodney Crowell’s hands, it reads and sounds like an old folk standard, with a crisp combination of acoustic guitar, organ and pedal steel for accent marks. At its core, the song speaks to Crowell finding himself as an artist, but it’s told with the unique, poetic wisdom that would come to mark many of his recordings. The melody is just the icing on the cake, too.
No. 4 – Mark Chesnutt, “Too Cold At Home”
The class of ‘89 gets all of the credit, but I’m just now noticing that many ‘90s artists got their start this year, also. On that note, “Too Cold At Home” is the best testament to the strength of a new crop of country artists. Mark Chesnutt sings this weeper with the same straightforward earnestness that was an asset to many of his (underrated) singles. If artists like Garth Brooks or Travis Tritt represented country music looking toward the future, Chesnutt reminded us of the power of a simple, pure country song with one of the best hooks ever.
No. 3 – Reba McEntire, “You Lie”
Between songs like this and “The Fear Of Being Alone,” there’s a cutting frankness to Reba McEntire’s characters that always made her one of country music’s most convincing performers. Here, she knows her love is coming to an end, which finds her in the awkward position of either dragging out something that’s over or letting a wild horse run free (metaphorically, of course, though that’s really what happens in the music video). Like with “Quittin’ Time” before, it’s a peculiar perspective for a breakup track, not only because the breakup hasn’t happened yet, but because it’s the calm before the storm that never really gets addressed in these kinds of songs. Though, to be honest, McEntire could be singing about any other topic here, and I’d still love the song simply for that powerful vocal performance ranking among her best to date.
No. 2 – Alan Jackson, “Here In The Real World”
“Here In The Real World” wasn’t Alan Jackson’s debut single, but it was the kind of “Hail Mary” effort to jump-start a career that could’ve been over before it even began. Granted, this isn’t the kind of song one would expect to salvage a career with nowadays – it’s too country and too good, after all. But this was a different era, a time when a lonesome fiddle could lead a downbeat song that’s about as pessimistic as a song can get. It’s fitting that a song speaking to the allure of fiction and the dangers of it is present in the country music genre, and while it was just the beginning for Jackson, he sang this as if he was a seasoned veteran who already knew his sound.
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No. 1 – Garth Brooks, “The Dance”
“The Dance” is a song that walks a very fine line. On one hand, it really did have all the necessary parts to be a career hit, though it could have come across badly in lesser hands. Not that Garth Brooks didn’t oversell some of his material, but he had a knack for strong showmanship, sporting charisma that translated just as well in the studio as it did in his live show. Of course, charisma extends beyond showing that one can have fun with their material. Indeed, the other side of that term involves carrying a strong emotive range, and say what you will, but few were stronger in this department than Brooks in the ‘90s. “The Dance” carries a hook akin to the perfect Hallmark card, but it also carries a timelessness to its delivery that glides right over the line of being cloying or anything less than a future country standard. And Brooks’s love for the theatrical side of his work certainly made its way here, with a majestic piano intro and outro that made “The Dance” more than just a simple country song. If you want to know why Brooks was the biggest artist of the decade next to Shania Twain, part of the answer includes this song.