I debated whether or not to even go through with this endeavor. Don’t get me wrong – I had always planned to compile this list … but in January; February at the latest. And then my personal life got crazy. And then I struggled with compiling this list. And then the pandemic hit. And then I just lost track of this idea. I’d do a “worst singles of the decade” or a “best songs of the decade” (meaning singles and album deep cuts) list if I thought I could get them out before, say, 2023.
And then I thought about the actual formatting of this particular list. Defining the best hit songs would have been easier, but I already have a feature dedicated to that, and there’s a few years from the 2010s I haven’t gotten to yet – especially when I’d love to redo certain years from that feature. Plus, I have year-end lists for 2018 and 2019 that don’t count down the best “hit” songs, so when the easiest decision was to just view “singles” as a single entity, my options expanded and made this all the more confusing to actually compile.
Which is to say my criteria for this list isn’t perfect; a single can be anything, really, and I wasn’t sure when to cut off the 2009 submissions that gained prominence in 2010. But I wanted this list to focus heavily on country airplay singles that, hit or not, were released with the intent to become huge smashes. I’m not here to determine whether they did or not – I’m just here to determine my favorite ones released over the past 10 years. And since you’re all tired of my esoteric explanations, let’s get this show on the road.
No. 50 – Taylor Swift, “Back To December” (2010)
It’s not Taylor Swift’s strongest hook by any means – we’ll get to that – but I’ve always considered “Back To December” to contain some of her strongest lyrics, and a point where her music matured. Here, she’s placing all of the blame regarding the failures of the relationship on herself, and she’s not holding back her frustrations at both herself and the entire situation in general. And it’s at this point I could just ramble off some golden one-liners – “when your birthday passed and I didn’t call” and, “it turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you” being among my favorites – but as a whole, it’s heartbreak with real earnest passion, regret and reflection behind it all; it’s the best way to start off a list of the best singles within country music over the past decade, really.
No. 49 – Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” (2010)
Hey, it peaked in February 2010 – I’m counting it. In a way, though, it feels fitting recognizing “White Liar” here. It was Miranda Lambert’s first big hit (from a chart perspective, that is), and even for its release, it felt like an artistic return to form for her. The melody and production both pulled from a rootsy, country-rock tinge that played well to her strengths, and even if the hook is a bit clunky, there’s a warped twist to the ending that makes the actual story so much more worth it. It’s also one of few selections where I immediately think of the music video, in which Jamey Johnson plays the role of the preacher at the wedding. Ah, good times.
No. 48 – Tim McGraw, “Still” (2010)
It’s hard not to weigh in personal factors when compiling a list of this magnitude, in which I’ll say that “Still” was probably my favorite Tim McGraw song as a kid. Ten years later, I wouldn’t go that far with my assessment, but I would argue it’s one of his more underrated, forgotten cuts – a somewhat angsty, desperate plea for normalcy by combing back through old memories in the mind. Granted, it’s a familiar theme, and I’m not sure the song has much left to say after that first chorus, but it’s one of McGraw’s most powerful performances, both in terms of power and sheer passion. The details may be fairly novel and mundane, but McGraw sings with the rare sort of gusto that suggests they mean a lot to him anyway, and that odd sort of esoteric specificity describing a comforting memory is, in an odd sense, fairly relatable because of it. It’s helped me a lot over the past decade – all I have to do is just be still, indeed.
No. 47 – Thomas Rhett, “Marry Me” (2017)
Look, I’ll admit I got my hopes up in 2017 when Thomas Rhett delivered a semi-decent album in Life Changes … at least until he returned to mediocrity with his next album and subsequent singles, which I suppose is still an improvement from what he was releasing before that. But upon revisiting “Marry Me,” I immediately remember why I was excited in Rhett’s shift in tone – the twist in the hook works, acting as a surprise in spite of the already somber atmosphere. And Rhett’s playing things as cool as he can watching an old friend he liked more than that get married to someone else. And what I’ve always liked about this track is the framing: Rhett knows the only person to blame is himself for not expressing his feelings earlier, and though there’s noticeable pain and anger directed at himself, he’s going to let her go; that’s part of really loving someone, after all. Hands down, “Marry Me” is the best single Rhett ever recorded.
No. 46 – Brandy Clark, “Three Kids No Husband” (2016)
That’s right – not only did Brandy Clark make an album geared for radio airplay, this was one of the singles off that project. Polarizing as it is, too, “Girl Next Door” just barely missed the cut here. “Three Kids No Husband” just fits a bit more squarely in Clark’s wheelhouse – a stripped-down, somewhat subdued performance that tells the tale of a single mother who only finds respite from her smoke breaks at work; and leave it Clark’s eye for detail to really set a harrowing scene. On the album it stems from, it’s used to frame the larger concept arc of broken characters in dead-end situations in a God-forsaken town. Leave it to Clark to make sure the songs stand on their own, though.
No. 45 – Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving” (2019)
Though often likable, I’m always left wishing Luke Combs’ material felt a bit less safe, especially when he’s the current leading artist in mainstream country music. And that criticism only rings louder when revisiting “Even Though I’m Leaving,” a fairly predictable father/son love song with an even more predictable ending, for sure, but one elevated by Combs’ choice to downplay the actual sentiment here for blunter effectiveness. And if the mandolin wasn’t enough to win over stylistic points with me, I’ll add that it was nice to see this become a huge hit. You’ve got it in you, Combs – now can we dump “Lovin’ On You” for “Six Feet Apart” again? Please?
No. 44 – Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow” (2019)
Sad as it is, we’re back in the “this should have been a hit and wasn’t because nothing makes sense anymore” category of this list. And with “Rainbow,” look, I get that there’s no love lost between Kacey Musgraves and radio programmers – bridges that people like Bobby Bones helped to burn, for the record, and oh, how it’s fitting we have a new record from the Chicks to remind us of how those tensions are nothing new in country music – but I really didn’t get it here. Like the aforementioned Luke Combs hit, what’s always worked is how much Musgraves underplays this track’s sentiment. A subtle piano ballad is used to bring even the slightest bit of joy to someone who truly needs it, and with the calming, gentle production behind it, it’s effective in offering it while still acknowledging the hardships that brought that metaphorical downpour for this person. It’s a shot of optimism that was appreciated when released in 2018, was needed when it was a single in 2019, and now, even in a new decade, is still a desperately needed message.
No. 43 – Eric Church, “Monsters” (2019)
Sandwiched in between the huge “Some Of It” and the more polarizing “Stick That In Your Country Song,” I can see “Monsters” becoming a forgotten Church hit in around, oh, five or ten years. A travesty, of course, given that, for as much as Church coasted on adopting the tougher outlaw persona in the late 2000s and early 2010s, he’s actually become one by revealing the actual, you know, human aspect of him – the nerdy, vinyl-collecting music lover branded as misunderstood who worships a certain rock legend, or, here, a father desperate to make sense of the world his kids will inherit someday. I’ve always loved the jarring transition of the solo, too – crashing out of nowhere yet revealing the instability of Church’s mind as he tries to protect his children from the real monsters of the world; ones he won’t always be around to beat down for them. Subtle, yet bold – it’s one of Church’s most underrated moments in his discography.
No. 42 – Taylor Swift, “Sparks Fly” (2011)
If you want the moment that foreshadowed Taylor Swift’s move to pop music … well, certain fans will tell you it all started with “Tim McGraw” anyway, but I’d argue the seeds were planted here. Not that the songwriting isn’t still strong, familiar as it is for Swift’s discography. It’s just that there’s so many little details about its actual formation that make it stand out: the shimmering sheen of the electric guitars, the pulse to the production to elevate the feeling of a young first love, or my favorite part, the a capella “drop everything now” hook that always manages to lodge itself into my brain. I didn’t know just how much I actually loved this until I listened back through a plethora of material when preparing this list – where I thought this would either be an honorable mention or not make it at all. But I’ll admit to hearing an entirely new side of this song upon revisiting it.
No. 41 – Eric Church, “Creepin’” (2012)
Oh, we’re not even close to being done with the Eric Church selections for this list. Though I must admit, “Creepin’” offers little in the way of actual discussion points. It’s a strange, southern-Gothic tinged ball of paranoia that benefits from Church’s increasingly frantic howl. Chaotic in the best sense, really, from the blend of swampy, trashing acoustic and electric guitars, the thumping percussion and not-the-least-bit-ordinary arrangement as a whole, it’s the sort of weird oddity that helped separate Church from the pack early on.
No. 40 – Gary Allan, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” (2013)
To this day, I’m both shocked and elated this was the third single off of Gary Allan’s comeback album – a slow dirge of a track content to toil away in its whiskey-soaked misery. Yeah, there was no room for this on radio playlists in between Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean in 2013. And that’s, perhaps, the most wonderful part – it goes just as dark in its framing and setup as you expect it to go coming from Allan, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s got a curdling, ominous organ to lead it all in. It’s not Allan’s darkest moment on record, mind you – maybe not even in the top 10 – but it is one of the boldest single releases of the 2010s, especially for its timing.
No. 39 – Kacey Musgraves, “Dime Store Cowgirl” (2015)
It was Kacey Musgraves’ autobiography in the form of a song … and her first single not to even chart at radio. A damn shame, given that there was a genuinely warm rollick to the acoustics and reserved lyrical focus of Musgraves returning to her roots that, at its core, paved the way for an easy hit. Chart success or not, though, it was as witty and full of charm as anything else she’d released until then – a self-reflection framed through humility and self-deprecation that’s subtly clever in its presentation. I guess it’s fitting, then, that the single to essentially end her country radio run focused on her doing things her own way.
No. 38 – Danielle Bradbery & Thomas Rhett, “Goodbye Summer” (2018)
I don’t know what’s most surprising: the fact that Danielle Bradbery recuperated after the horrendous “Friend Zone,” the fact that I somehow have Thomas Rhett on here again, or the fact that this is a remix of the original track that’s infinitely better than said track. Either way, it’s a forgotten single I continue to champion today, where Bradbery and Rhett play opposite to each other with real conviction and ache knowing they’ll eventually have to end their summer fling. And I’ve always loved the interplay between the dobro and brighter electric guitars to showcase the gradual move toward that goodbye. It’s not the best example of this theme on this list – we’ll get to that – but a damn solid one all the same.
No. 37 – Blake Shelton, “God’s Country” (2019)
It wasn’t even a year ago that I compiled it, yet I’m surprised I ended up leaving this single off my “best singles of 2019” list. Granted, outside of the charts it was a pretty strong year for individual singles, but this a return to form for Blake Shelton that continues to grow on me – a stark, southern-Gothic-tinged fireball with an Evangelical tinge to the writing, devoid of any opulence. It’s a song where the ultimate meaning is metaphorical, wrapped in damnation and death should the devotion be broken, and given Shelton’s howling performance, it works. Of course, given his choices for follow-up singles, I doubt we’ll hear something this brazenly weird from him again, but it’s a lightning-in-a-bottle moment I’m glad we have.
No. 36 – The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two” (2012)
And on the flip side to “God’s Country,” we have “Better Dig Two,” equal in terms of raw presentation and a southern-Gothic narrative of devotion and damnation, but one that pushes itself just a bit further thanks to Kimberly Perry’s blunt fierceness and promise in the hook. And that’s the real driving force behind it all – the sheer desperation from Perry to hold onto this love that makes the over-the-top performance actually work. It’s strange, then; this was the sort of warped weirdness I liked hearing from the band. It’s just a shame they ended up taking things a step too far in the following years.
No. 35 – Jake Owen, “What We Ain’t Got” (2014)
Not that he didn’t have a point, but there was something disingenuous about the way Jake Owen claimed country music needed to be more than just “tailgates and fuckin’ cups” during the height of the bro-country era, especially when he directly profited off of the trend. Granted, I’ve always argued bro-country is more of a subgenre than an immediate marker of quality, but with “What We Ain’t Got,” Owen put his money where his mouth was – a stripped-down (in the absolute sense of the word) performance almost solely reliant on Owen’s performance … and it works. Part of why Owen’s bro-country material somewhat works is a real sense of earnest charisma and lightweight charm devoid of the usual smugness that comes with it, and it works, conversely, to convey real regret and pain, too; especially when he’s railing off these life lessons to himself after the fact. It’s by far Owen’s best single.
No. 34 – Dierks Bentley, “Bourbon In Kentucky (feat. Kacey Musgraves)” (2013)
When Dierks Bentley previewed his 2014 Riser album with the warning that it would be a heavier collection of tunes from him, all the evidence needed to confirm it was in lead single “Bourbon In Kentucky.” It’s a fairly familiar breakup song, for sure, but one filled with so much angst in both Bentley’s performance and the smoldered guitar introduction – and one that only seems to increase its creaking tension as it progresses, where he just may have found enough bourbon to drown his sorrows, after all. And there’s nothing like featuring Kacey Musgraves on the harmony vocal to help that pain go down with a more visceral bite, too.
No. 33 – Little Big Town, “Little White Church” (2010)
There hasn’t been a more inconsistent group – at least in terms of hits and follow-up singles – than Little Big Town, 2010s or otherwise. Sadly, that’s even more evident in 2020, as their record label has absolutely no idea what to do with them or promote them properly, even when they deliver a pretty great album. But you know, it’s funny to bring up Nightfall, an album that showed a natural artistic maturation for the band, especially when we revisit “Little White Church” – a fun, nasty little southern-Gothic tinged number (because it’s, like, the fourth or fifth one I’ve featured here) that features some of the band’s best ever harmonies. And that’s before mentioning the pure jolt of the instrumentation, where those hand claps come in out of nowhere and the guitar work is excellent. I’m not sure it’s the most fun I had revisiting a song on this list – to repeat a catchphrase I’ve used already, “we’ll get to that” – but this an excellent mark in the band’s discography.
No. 32 – Cam, “Burning House” (2015)
It’s easy to forget this one, mostly because country radio – surprise, surprise – never gave Cam the support she deserved, even when her biggest hit single really was, you know, a hit single. And I remember how refreshing this was to hear in 2015, a year that seemed so dire for mainstream country that the simple acoustic melody coupled with piano and violin caught me off guard in the best way possible. That’s on top of being an absolutely gutting song, too, where Cam uses the metaphor of a burning house to describe how she has to watch helplessly as her relationship burns out. Sometimes there’s nothing more to do than let it go and watch it burn away, especially after several desperate attempts to save it. Yeah, Cam deserved way better.
No. 31 – Aaron Watson, “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song) (2015)
How does one really approach this one? It’s weird to even consider this a single, especially when, while he released them before to country radio, Aaron Watson only started promoting them properly with “Outta Style” in 2016 – and most of them haven’t been his best work since then. But “Bluebonnets” is a beautiful tribute to Watson’s late daughter, where there’s no doubting the pure pain and sincerity in his performance, nor is there any doubt to the timeless, familiar theme of cherishing what we have while it’s here.
No. 30 – Lee Ann Womack, “Send It On Down” (2015)
I think “Send It On Down” reflects best why Lee Ann Womack is one of my favorite vocalists in country music. She, of course, excels in terms of pure power and range, but on a song that’s already a vivid character sketch as it is, she plays the role of the defeated narrator with deft conviction. Her tone suggests she could sink even lower than she already is, and for as much as her plea for divine intervention scans as more of a sad whimper, it also comes with the subtle acknowledgment that she’s on the a verge of a breakdown. Her problems extend to both her and her family; she can’t outrun that, and that’s the most painfully brutal part of it all.
No. 29 – Sunny Sweeney, “From A Table Away” (2011)
Edition No. I’ve Lost Count of artists on this list who should have been stars, and even for 2011 country radio standards, this one bums me out – if only for how bold and daring it was for a debut single. Here, Sunny Sweeney dares listeners to draw empathy for the “other woman” in this scenario, drawing parallels to Sugarland’s “Stay” in how she’s led to believe by her lover that he’s going to settle down with her … and then doesn’t. The sadder part of this narrative is the element of surprise – namely in how a chance encounter with him and his wife in public reveals all she needs to know about what their relationship really means to him, and what it means, no, meant to her. Don’t get me wrong – Sweeney is still making excellent albums and songs as an independent artist, but I wish this had been the start of something more.
No. 28 – Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” (2019)
I’ve discussed this song multiple times already, and because of my weird rules, I may end up talking about it again when I make my “Best Songs of 2020” list in December – we’ll see. For now, I still love how it subverts expectations as to what it’s ultimately going to be – a love song tempered with a reality check, where Andress is blunt in acknowledging the potential long term effects this relationship could have on people her significant other hasn’t even met yet, should they eventually break up; that’s a perspective rarely shown through these kinds of songs. And with the brushes of pedal steel and piano to keep it warm and grounded, the mood is surprisingly calm. The characters feel fleshed out and actually have a role to play, and Andress handles the tone well, caught somewhere in the middle of being excited for the potential addition of a new family member, but also tempered enough to know it may not end up that way.
No. 27 – Eric Church, “Record Year” (2016)
Sometimes you have to retreat inward to find something worthwhile, and that’s what Eric Church did as he found solace in music through a breakup on “Record Year.” Of course, the entire point of “Record Year” is that it also takes more than that to actually find relief and closure, and the entire process is much messier than he may imply here. But then the needle drags over that rattled bassline and allows for one to have their own “record year” with Church … well, the music nerds, that is. Meta in the best possible way and escapism of the best variety.
No. 26 – Trace Adkins, “Watered Down” (2017)
This is the type of thoughtful song I wish Trace Adkins recorded more, a stunningly mature outlook on life that shows him down, but not out. And while his calling card has always been his strong, versatile baritone, he’s got the natural gravitas to make this convincing, too, imbuing the track with a rare sort of wisdom and gentle charisma only bolstered by the restrained production approach. And sure, the song’s reflection on mortality is hardly novel, especially for Adkins at his age; but if there’s one theory this song proved, it’s that a universal subject can go down easier when it’s matched with the perfect voice and approach.
No. 25 – Pistol Annies, “Best Years Of My Life” (2018)
This is an example of why I need to amend my 2018 year-end list for singles, if only because it’s easy to forget this actually was pushed to radio … but was made by three women, and, as such, was criminally ignored. Sure, one of them was Miranda Lambert, but even now, she just attained her first top 10 hit since 2014. But I’m getting off topic, especially when the beauty to the Pistol Annies’ “Best Years Of My Life” is how it weaves together three different narratives, all featuring characters trying to hold it together, but doing so with the blunt acknowledgment that they’re going to crash sooner or later. It’s where, for them, maturing really just means coping with misspent expectations and bottoming out, where the brushes of warm pedal steel help to both showcase the melancholy as well as depict how it’s been a slow ride down for them. I’d never put it past any of these singers to write something so depressingly real, but there’s a bluntness to the framing that’s among their best work yet – collectively or individually.
No. 24 – Jason Aldean, “The Truth” (2010)
Here’s an artist I didn’t expect to see here, let alone this high on the list. Granted, as far as timing goes, this just barely squeezes its way in, but I’m also happy to recognize Jason Aldean’s best artistic traits. Whereas his stoic approach to his material makes his bro-country tracks feel sleazy and his party songs feel sour, it sort of works here in capturing the burn out and depression this character feels knowing he went too far with his decisions in the aftermath of a bad breakup. And hey, it’s also nice to hear an Aldean song with a restrained approach, where the faint touches of pedal steel reverberating throughout only serve to highlight his ultimate loneliness, especially when the only person he can call for help is the same one who broke it off with him. It just may be the best song – single, deep cut or otherwise – that Aldean ever put out.
No. 23 – Kacey Musgraves, “Space Cowboy” (2018)
It’s got a hook that really shouldn’t work as effectively as it does, if only because it could end up sounding corny in lesser hands. But what’s always been so striking about “Space Cowboy” is its pure gravitas, finding Musgraves in an uncomfortable position where she has to let her significant other chase his dreams, even if those dreams don’t include her. There’s no blame, and I dare say there’s little remorse – she’s had the time to prepare for when this day would come and is generally accepting of her partner’s wishes, if only because letting someone go is part of loving them. It’s sad, but in a wistful sort of way where the subtext suggests Musgraves is going to hang on to the good memories and be generally fine in the end, if only because she’s adept at crafting mature outlooks on love with a progressive bent to the general framing and tone.
No. 22 – Zac Brown Band, “Goodbye In Her Eyes” (2013)
We’ll save the larger discussion of this band for later on, especially when it doesn’t take much to explain why “Goodbye In Her Eyes” is so effective at what it does. It’s the umpteenth song speaking to a relationship on the brink of death – sad songs do make me happy, after all – but it’s the one track here to capture the slow burn of that destruction, not only with its length but in its construction, too; from the careening, aching fiddle work and acoustic melody to showing how the long toll that life on the road demands led to the unfortunate decision to call it quits. And that’s on top of fantastic harmonies and a robust melodic presentation. Again, there’s a few more Zac Brown Band singles I liked better from the past decade, but this is the one to show what I miss about the actual band.
No. 21 – Keith Urban, “’Til Summer Comes Around” (2010)
There’s a few selections on this list that teeter on being both hits in 2009 and 2010, meaning I don’t know if I’m cheating or not. But even if I am, I’m not going to miss highlighting one of Keith Urban’s best ever hits, and a sad indication of the calm before the storm, as far as his artistic direction over the past decade goes. What’s funny, too, is that “’Til Summer Comes Around” doesn’t even carry the best elements of Urban’s 2000s work: the hook doesn’t pop and the mood is generally downbeat. And while it’s a chance for Urban’s sunny disposition to shine through, what I’ve always loved is his expressive exhaustion of the entire situation – he’s stuck working the same annual fair in a dead-end town where he once found joy through an old summer love, and while, for her, it was just a fleeting moment, Urban is genuinely convincing in selling how much more it meant to him. It’s genuinely moody in a way these sorts of tracks never quite aim to achieve, and it’s all the better for it.
No. 20 – Alan Jackson, “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” (2012)
Another sad song revolving around the end of a relationship – who better to handle this than Alan Jackson? To no one’s surprise, this was a comeback single that Jackson handled with poise and grace – a track acknowledging a love that’s utterly dead while he does his best to give his significant other the space she desires, even if it means having to be the bad guy to make sure any lingering feelings die too. The details regarding what went down don’t really matter, and indeed, both parties likely secretly hope Jackson will do what he needs to so they can both move on, and it’s a complex look at endings that benefits from Jackson’s broad perspective.
No. 19 – Ronnie Dunn, “Cost Of Livin’” (2011)
Here’s one element I didn’t weigh in when compiling this list: scope and impact. After all, you’d think a song speaking to the downturn of the economy wouldn’t be relevant nearly a decade later, right?
As my colleague Jonathan Keefe says over at Country Universe, however, the only line that hasn’t aged well is the one about gas prices. Otherwise, here’s a song that speaks to everything I love about country music: a defeated anthem for the working class where the subtext in Dunn’s character sketch of a desperate, older man is damning. For as powerful of a vocalist as Dunn is, this is his best performance for a different reason – testing his emotive range as he deftly unfurls every detail of his ruined financial situation with every line. There’s a set system to judging political music – populism, precision and power, and this hits all three marks.
No. 18 – Laura Bell Bundy, “Giddy On Up” (2010)
I actually have a fond memory of me sitting in an Olive Garden parking lot with my mother, where I asked her if we could to wait to go in until this song – that I’d never heard before – finished playing on the radio. And that may say more for why I enjoy this song than anything else – how it’s a descendant of the Dolly Parton discography (the fun side, that is) with a hook that will lodge into your brain and a performance that’s among the most passionate of the 2010s. The craftsmanship is excellent, too: the brass section in the pre-chorus following the fiddle and banjo interplay is, simply put, electrifying, and pushes this song over the top in the best way possible. It was the debut single from the Broadway star that should have reignited country music’s dance craze, and I’m a bit mad it didn’t.
No. 17 – Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” (2012)
Yes, she records a lot of them, but Carrie Underwood is damn good at crafting murder ballads. “Blown Away” is far and away her best showcase, where she amplifies the theatrical elements in ways that make some of her other singles feel overblown. Here, there’s a thunderous tension to the gleaming keys and strings as the guitar cuts through, all to grant power to a storm that acts as a righteous metaphor for a daughter killing her abusive father. Underwood’s best moments come when she pushes the darker edges of her material, and this dares listeners to enjoy a literal act of God of epic proportions.
No. 16 – George Strait, “Drinkin’ Man” (2012)
Most drinking songs – especially in country music – position themselves in the aftermath of a situation, judging, in hindsight, what went wrong and either trying to make right on past transgressions … or riding that downward spiral to the very end. That’s, at least, what George Strait does on “Drinkin’ Man,” only he’s going to walk listeners back through every crystal clear moment of what went wrong and what he could have done to stop it. And there’s enough real pain and regret in Strait’s performance to suggest he would have liked to, but it’s a tough battle to fight alone, and he doesn’t blame his ex-significant other for walking away when she did. Insightful yet bleak knowing there’s no easy resolution to the situation, it’s among Strait’s best. It also, sadly, marked the beginning of the end for his run at country radio.
No. 15 – Eric Church, “Springsteen” (2012)
I think it surprises most people to this day that Eric Church made a song with an obvious title and even more obvious conceit not only somehow work, but be among the best singles of his entire career. Really, it exhibits Church’s best traits as a writer – a music nerd worshiping at the altar of an idol, tempered with a bit more poise by weaving in those Bruce Springsteen references through a story of young love. A bit predictable to go that route, sure, but excellent nonetheless when it nails the sweeping wistfulness, where the atmospheric guitar tones play off the lingering piano to show a huge swell of melody that’s always been an underrated, key aspect of this track. There’s one more Church single from the past decade I connect to just a tiny bit more, but this is an objectively fantastic cut.
No. 14 – Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round” (2013)
We needed a single like this around this point in time in country music – a reality check that served to highlight the brokenness of society that mainstream country music used to sing about … until the 2010s came to be defined by bro-country. At any rate, way to just gut the American dream and do it well, Kacey Musgraves – with enough tempered weariness in her delivery to keep this grounded and hard-hitting. And while she’s generally moved away from this sort of darker material and observations on rural America, what always marked her best work in this vein was a sign of empathy: she’s in the same boat as her audience, especially when the basic conceit here is the anxiety felt trying to replicate the success these characters’ parents achieved. It’s hopeless despair that resonates way too loudly.
No. 13 – Emily West, “Blue Sky” (feat. Keith Urban) (2010)
Can a song really win me over just on performance alone? I mean, that’s pretty much where I’m at with “Blue Sky,” Emily West’s “biggest” hit – featuring Keith Urban, no less – that really should have been the start of something more. And if I’m looking for easy parallels to contextualize the song’s gutpunch effect, ironically enough, I’d point to “Blown Away” just a few spots before it. No, it’s not aiming to be an epic murder ballad, but it is using the weather as a metaphor to describe the tumultuous thread this relationship is hanging on, with West’s frustration truly coming to blows.
No. 12 – Zac Brown Band, “Highway 20 Ride” (2010)
The most obvious criticism I think I see of the Zac Brown Band’s early work is that, for as colorful as the presentation could be, they weren’t particularly good songwriters. If you’re going by “Chicken Fried” or “Free,” sure, I’ll grant you that. Most everything else prior to 2015, though? I’ll engage in a spirited debate, especially for this track – a nuanced, acoustic ballad where a father grapples with the aftermath of his divorce, namely in how it’s going to affect his son. And for as painful as it is now to drive that long, winding road to go see him now, he’s worried about the future: how his son might hate him, the mother or possibly both of them for breaking up the family, and that’s a slice of raw emotion not really explored in these kind of tracks. Less wasn’t always more with this band; it was the opposite until it wasn’t, actually, but this is a side of the band I don’t think we’ll ever see or hear again. That’s a damn shame.
No. 11 – Ashley McBryde, “Girl Going Nowhere” (2019)
I’ve said multiple times this year that “Girl Going Nowhere” is the prequel to “Never Will,” where, on that track, McBryde busts through the doors, having already made it on her own terms. Yet it starts with humbler beginnings, where here, “making it” is of a more psychological variety. She’s grateful to have the chance to play music at all, especially when she knows her words will have more of an impact in a small, intimate setting anyway. Granted, it’s great to see her at a point in her career where more people can hear her, but “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is a song about loving the music-making process and the fruits of its labor, and though it’s much quieter than “Never Will,” it roars in a different kind of way.
No. 10 – Kenny Chesney, “Better Boat” (feat. Mindy Smith) (2018)
No, it’s not the Travis Meadows version, but it’s pretty hard to beat Mindy Smith on harmony vocals here. Of course, that’d also be shortchanging Kenny Chesney, who’s never offered much in the way of emotive subtlety, but has always been at his best on his ballads; with this being the best example of his entire career. It’s the content, though, that shines – an optimistic track looking for a better tomorrow, but tempered with enough weary resignation and hesitation to know it might not come. You can work as hard as you want, but sometimes it isn’t enough, and you’ll end up right back where you started. Still, I’ve always loved the underdog streak to the writing, where even if a worst case scenario does happen, the important part is to get back up and try again.
No. 9 – Dierks Bentley, “Draw Me A Map” (2010)
Like with “Bourbon In Kentucky” earlier, I’m stunned at how deceptively simple this is. On paper, it’s a plea for forgiveness that reads as somewhat clingy and shows a character who needs to get a clue and move on. But I’ve always labeled Dierks Bentley’s charisma as homespun and sincere, and there’s a lonesome, desperate, even defeated tone to his delivery that’s always elevated the actual song. A two-pronged statement, really, given that it’s all bolstered with fiddle and dobro to compliment the melancholy, and also because Bentley never repeats the hook for a final time; the line just lingers and fades away with the extended outro, like he knows it’s all for naught. It’s such a subtly great detail that may have helped it clinch this spot all on its own.
No. 8 – Lady A, “Need You Now” (2010)
Oh, how I’m now wishing I had finished this list months ago. I mean, the band’s name would have still been problematic, but at least I wouldn’t have felt bad talking positively about their best ever single. Because, yes, I’m not convinced the band will ever top this – Charles Kelly did with “Leaving Nashville,” and I’m not exactly opposed to these three splitting up again after the smoke clears, if it clears at all. And if I’m trying to find what “Need You Now” had that most of their 2010s output didn’t, it’s a real sense of drama, power and dynamics – where Kelly and Hillary Scott play opposite each other with the sort of desperate angst I wish they utilized more, mostly because it’s one last drunken hookup where the history is implied and the pain and regret are on full display. Even beyond the subject matter, that lingering minor piano chord is the anchor for this downbeat duet. I’d say it’s a classic that’s held up over time … but I’m probably going to have to question that again, oh, a year or so from now. For now, it’s a reminder of what this band was at their best.
No. 7 – Reba McEntire, “Just Like Them Horses” (2016)
It’s strange: Reba McEntire’s best album of the 2010s contains one of her weakest singles in “Freedom,” and her weakest album of the same decade contains her best single. Really, “Just Like Them Horses” has more in common with Stronger Than The Truth anyway – a beautifully atmospheric cut that could have been a classic in another decade for McEntire. For as touching as it ultimately is, there’s a beautifully philosophical subtext to the entire affair, where a character embraces his final moments on Earth with optimism for what’s ahead. And I’ve always liked how it could be interpreted in multiple ways: perhaps a facade to offer some comfort for McEntire’s character, or an oddly progressive way of describing how his time on Earth shackled him, and that he’s ready to run free “just like them horses” in another life. Either way, it’s an emotional showcase for McEntire that offers one of the finest performances of her career, showing her trying to hold it together, yet also knowing he likely will find some peace – if not in his otherworldly expectations then in an escape from whatever pain is subduing him in his final moments.
No. 6 – Brad Paisley, “Southern Comfort Zone” (2013)
The 2010s weren’t kind to Brad Paisley – pretty much from the get-go, too, after “Remind Me.” Really, I get why. He received noticeable pushback for a … certain song, and while it was deserved, I don’t think he learned the right lesson from it. His material became noticeably more stale and less risky over the course of the decade, and I’d argue he’s still trying to find his footing again.
Which is a shame, given that the fault was in the execution and not the embrace of riskier material – like this song, about literally leaving your comfort zone to expose yourself to new ideas and experiences, some of which may even scan as uncomfortable or contradictory to your upbringing, but are essential anyway. It’s the exact opposite of the southern pandering schlock that, while not new to the genre then, would gain even more traction as the 2010s progressed. Combine that with some of Paisley’s best guitar work and a huge, atmospheric, anthemic hook, and it’s a solid reminder of what Paisley can achieve when he puts his mind to it.
No. 5 – Alan Jackson, “The Older I Get” (2017)
One thing I’ve noticed about Alan Jackson’s 2010s output is that his voice is a shade deeper from before. Ultimately, it’s just a tiny feature, though it does seem to grant his newer performances a rugged, lived-in sincerity. Case in point – a reflection on mortality that, while thematically familiar, is bolstered by Jackson’s warmth and grace. Even when Jackson recalls his past, it’s never filled with regret. Not that he hasn’t carried his own burdens, mind you; he’s just not content to dwell on them. There’s always an honesty to Jackson’s reflections, and “The Older I Get” is, as of this writing, his latest example.
No. 4 – Eric Church, “Mr. Misunderstood” (2015)
It goes without saying that, being the only contributor to this list, I’m just listing favorite singles of mine from the past decade. What I haven’t really done is actually get personal, and as we move closer to the No. 1 spot, it’s going to be harder to separate personal anecdotes from what I objectively think makes the art worthwhile. As such, and for why I think “Mr. Misunderstood” works, it’s the first time I really understood Eric Church. He revealed himself to be a complete music nerd with this single that, truthfully, felt more endearing and relatable than what his outlaw persona ever did for him anyway. Of course, not only can I relate to not sharing the same musical tastes as my peers – especially as someone who grew up in western New York and liked country music – but I can relate to the pure fascination and obsession with it too. And that’s what makes this single great – an oddball song that borrows the “American Pie” melody to better-than-expected degrees and is an anthem: not just for me, but likely for anyone that reads music websites like these. In short, it’s Church’s best single of the 2010s, and one of his best ever.
No. 3 – Alison Krauss & Union Station, “Paper Airplane” (2011)
It’s strange; I connected with this song long before I ever considered it a proper “single.” As the opener to the album of the same name, “Paper Airplane” floored me right away and contained just about everything I love in an Alison Krauss song: a somber, atmospheric pull to the production and instrumentation, lyrics that echo said sentiment, and Krauss’ smooth, almost heavenly timbre to anchor the pure frustration this character feels knowing she has to find the strength to move from a relationship she didn’t want to end. There’s a melancholic attitude to the performance, but she’s the one who made the decision, which puts a new spin on the theme by framing how hard her decision is now, but how better it will be in the long run. It’s pure poetry that speaks better for itself better than I ever could, and of all the sad songs to make me happy, this is one where the optimistic undertone to the writing just isn’t there. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
No. 2 – Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather” (2011)
Somehow, it’s the country duos and groups that evoke the most awkward conversations on this list. It felt weird reflecting on the Band Perry’s wasted potential with “Better Dig Two” and Lady A’s “Need You Now” in the wake of that disaster. And then there’s the Zac Brown Band, the saddest example of all – if only because they went from making some of the most interesting music within mainstream country to … completely flying off the rails. They somehow combined the Band Perry’s bad musical instincts with Lady A’s knack for being unable to read the room.
And if I’m looking for reasons why anyone should even care to begin with, I’d play “Colder Weather,” which isn’t even their high point of the 2010s, but speaks volumes to their early quality. It’s a sparse piano ballad that cries with the soul and bones of a rock ballad, where lead singer Zac Brown shows why he’s always been adept at playing the role of the imperfect, wandering troubadour. Beyond featurig one of their best ever melodies, that bridge and final hook are always enough to make me feel how powerful this can be without forcing it. What happened to the band that made this?
No. 1 – Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” (2010)
Admittedly, I kind of always figured it would come down to this selection as my favorite single of the decade. Let’s be honest – mainstream country music’s best years of the 2010s were its first few, and it’s not even close. I won’t mince words, either – “The House That Built Me” is, to me, one of the last singles to reach No. 1 that will still be remembered as a genuine classic. That’s not to say it’ll be the only one remembered at all; but there’s a difference between iconic and notorious, and that’s a reckoning we’ll deal with later when we write the next chapter of the country music history books.
And while I’m prepared to explain why this is an excellent song deserving of every ounce of critical acclaim it’s ever receieved, I can’t deny a personal connection to this didn’t guarantee the top spot for it. I first heard it right around the time I moved away from my house that built me … and learned what country music is all about, really. And that’s why I love how subtle the message is: we can’t go home again, but we can always revisit those memories. Honestly, for as much as I love Tim McGraw’s “Still,” this is the better version – finding Lambert literally going back to her childhood home to revisit old ghosts. And sure, nostalgia can be a dangerous entity to indulge in sometimes, but this isn’t really that: she knows the house was built through her father’s hard work; she remembers the hand prints she left on the front steps; she quietly acknowledges her favorite dog is buried in the yard. They’re the kind of simple details easy to take for granted as a kid, and even the aforementioned memory of loss started as a painful struggle to overcome – maybe even push her away from home.
Which is a fitting way to ultimately describe the song – a mixture of hope and sadness as she tries to recapture a part of her she lost, but optimistic enough to know that her trip will provide the closure and peace she desperately needs. And it helps that the delivery and production are both grounded enough to keep the details homespun rather than forced or oversold. It’s a time to reflect that has the space it needs to get that message across, and for me, no single connected with me quite like this one did over the course of the decade. Expand this list to album cuts, and it’d still have a legitimate shot at this top spot. Lambert’s written many great songs, and though this isn’t one of hers, she sings it like she lived these memories. Connection and relatability – that’s what I meant when I said I learned what country music is all about.