After groaning about country music’s worst offerings of the year, it’s time to look at a few songs that moved the genre in the right direction. Of course, this list is dedicated to the singles destined for mainstream country radio – the hits, in other words. A separate list for the best songs – featuring singles and deep cuts – will be available soon.
Sadly, though, there’s always an unfortunate irony that comes with analyzing the year’s best “hits,” namely in how mediocrity usually wins over quality on the airplay charts. But this year feels a bit different; certain artists, like Ashley McBryde and Kacey Musgraves, have found successful ways to sidestep country radio, and with someone like Luke Combs currently dominating the genre, there’s room to celebrate as we head into the next decade. The following singles, hits or not, prove that.
First, just like with my previous list of the worst singles of 2019, these singles had to be released anywhere from Dec. 2018 to Nov. 2019 to qualify, and this is just a small part of a larger collaborative list I’ll be writing with Markus Meyer of This Is Country Music. Also, I’ve reviewed most of these singles, so if you’re looking for a deeper analysis, I’d suggest looking for those.
No. 10 – Tenille Townes, “Jersey On The Wall (I’m Just Asking)”
With this single and “Somebody’s Daughter,” Tenille Townes hasn’t shied away from tackling heavy-handed subject matter for her singles. What starts as an ode to a deceased former classmate ends in a conversation about faith, and questioning why to believe or not in spite of everything around us. It’s complex enough to service a sophisticated message, but written broadly to never attack anyone’s own viewpoint. Instead, Townes takes on the role of the lost soul trying to understand it all herself. The production is sparse, but gains enough momentum as the song intensifies. And even if the song ends with unanswered questions, I have enough evidence to know why this song resonated so well this year.
No. 9 – Maddie and Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart”
I’m sorry, but between the late release of this single and the bizarre string of EPs that subverts the complete album Maddie and Tae tried to deliver to their audience, the duo deserves far better than whoever is handling them. But with that aside, even if “Die From A Broken Heart” feels like a hit that should have been released much sooner, it remains a great song. The execution is where it shines – with Maddie Marlow detailing the story of what transpired in her ugly breakup through questions asked to her mother. Yet for as much as the character here is convinced she’ll never recover, Marlow effectively downplays the track to capture a genuine expression of the whirlwind of young love. After all, these two lamented the downside of growing up on their debut album – this isn’t unfamiliar territory for them.
No. 8 – Carly Pearce, “I Hope You’re Happy Now (feat. Lee Brice)”
After the poor single choice of the bland “Closer To You,” it’s nice to hear Carly Pearce return to a warm, genuine blend of country and pop. The acoustic guitar and dobro sound minor enough to signal the impending misery, and both Pearce and Lee Brice sound fantastic together. The real gut-punch, though, is that this is a song about two lovers who’ve moved on because they feel they aren’t good enough for each other, and yet neither party actually cares about the other’s flaws. If anything, they both only sink deeper without each other. Even if it’s a familiar theme, it’s Pearce and Brice who end up selling the track with convincing, powerful performances.
No. 7 – Midland, “Mr. Lonely”
Look, Midland is playing to a specific brand of throwback country that will never be “cool” in the mainstream ever again, but try telling them that. “Mr. Lonely” may just be an advertisement for a sleazy playboy, but the trick is never selling it that way. The song incorporates enough goofy one-liners and an upbeat, raucous honky tonk energy to keep the song fun and lighthearted, especially when the titular character is very honest that he’s “the number that you know by broken heart.” I don’t always agree with the sentiment that music is meant to be enjoyed rather than analyzed, but this is a nice exception.
No. 6 – Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards”
Ashley McBryde may only be readying her second album, but she sings with a rare lived-in quality that gives her material a wisdom beyond its years. We’ll be addressing another example of that soon, but “One Night Standards” certainly wastes no time getting to its point. For as much as the text says by laying down the rules of this one night stand, it’s the subtext that speaks greater volumes. The hook could easily be humorous (think Midland’s “Cheatin’ By The Rules,” for example), but McBryde sells the track with a bluntness that suggests she’s walked down this road of disappointment and betrayal many times. For as great as all of these songs are, none of them really explored this kind of raw, dark territory like “One Night Standards” did.
No. 5 – Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving”
For as much as I like Luke Combs, it’s songs like this that make me wish he’d take more risks with his material. “Even Though I’m Leaving” adopts the old trend of country songs framing themselves around a hook and having its meaning take on a different form with every verse or chorus. Admittedly, the story could easily fall into cheesy, sappy territory, but Combs noticeably underplays the track to keep it grounded and genuinely heartwarming. Also, I’m a sucker for that mandolin.
No. 4 – Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow”
To repeat myself, more so than any year, it’s tough analyzing a “hit,” in the true sense of the word. “Rainbow” settled for a paltry top 40 peak at radio, yet its actual sales and exposure skyrocketed from the Grammys, earlier this year, and in general from Musgraves having had to sidestep radio years ago. What a shame, too, as this tale of kindness and optimism rings as one of her best – a call not just for better days for a ragged soul, but to actively challenge them to change their perspective of their situation. It’s a sentiment that may not work in every scenario, but here, it proves again why Musgraves knows her way around a lyric.
No. 3 – Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine”
What “More Than Hearts Than Mine” proved is that, even if it’s impossible to always reinvent the lyrical wheel, changing the existing formula can still do the trick. It’s a breakup song, but it isn’t; instead of focusing on the typical two parties, the song paints a fuller picture, examining how a relationship also includes people we come to know … and maybe even love. Even if Andress doesn’t let her character take the spotlight here, her performance is near-impeccable, and the characters sketched out truly feel like real human beings caught in a common situation. And just by changing the perspective, Andress creates something genuinely moving.
No. 2 – Eric Church, “Monsters”
Desperate Man largely stood as Eric Church’s revelation that he didn’t have the answers to address what’s going on in the world right now. If anything, the title could almost be taken literally, and part of the album’s core came from Church just trying to understand himself. In that sense, “Monsters” feels like an old friend to his catalog – a simple production that eschews Church’s tendencies to tilt toward weirder tones, and a song that speaks to changing perspectives as age takes its toll. And when the loud, crashing electric guitar cuts through on the bridge, it’s a nice symbol for how Church may fear trying to understand what responsibility really means. Yet just like the rest of us, he’s doing his best to hold his own.
No. 1 – Ashley McBryde, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere”
Ashley McBryde may not have the radio hits, but with her recent win at the CMA Awards and her 2020 Grammy nominations, she’s poised to become a big name in the industry. Yet one of her best songs to date acknowledges that fame and recognition from a different perspective. “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” was written and recorded long before McBryde’s momentum skyrocketed. Instead of being sold as a weary “life on the road” song, “Girl Going Nowhere” finds McBryde content just being able to chase her dream and connect with an audience. It’s personal, yet the sentiment resonates for anyone proud of progress, big or small. In a just world, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” would become McBryde’s signature hit, but at least she’s going somewhere now.