I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately; I won’t be subtle as to why. And while I have wanted to explore more slightly older years for this feature, as my first one of these in nearly seven months – and, wow, where did the time go? – I needed something that felt familiar and comfortable. And again, as the first one of these in several months, I wanted to expand this to a top 20 list, just this once. It’s my stupidest feature, I know, and no one really needs to read another year-end list, especially for an obscure year like this one. Truth be told, though, January is usually the best time to compile one of these, where that chance to breathe from new releases allows for more rediscovery … and a reminder of why I love writing about music in the first place.
With that said, today we’re counting down the best hit singles of 2006 (top 20 hits or close to it – check this list if you want to know what was eligible – and hey, I’m not the only writer to explore country music from 2006). And since celebrity and personal news seemed to dominate industry discussions over musical news that year, I don’t have a lot to say leading up to it. So let’s jump in and get started. As always, remember it’s all in good, lighthearted fun and nothing more. If you’re curious as to what other years I’ve examined for this feature, click either here or scroll to the bottom here, if you want a more organized list. If you’d like a playlist to go with it, click here.
In lieu of honorable mentions with this expanded edition, we’re going to discuss No. 20-11 with a few sentences before getting into the meat-and-potatoes of the top 10, so let’s get started with …
No. 20 – George Strait, “Give It Away”
A bit, ahem, strait-laced, but I’ve always enjoyed the no-frills presentation of this, where the relationship is utterly dead and both parties couldn’t care less about it. A bit sad, a bit humorous, and all in good fun, really.
No. 19 – Keith Urban, “Tonight I Wanna Cry”
Flip the script from “Give It Away,” though, and you get this, easily one of Keith Urban’s most emotionally vulnerable moments to date, where his pain feels like ours, too. Earnest without engaging in clichéd melodrama, it’s surprisingly stirring.
No. 18 – Jamey Johnson, “The Dollar”
Cloying to a fault, I suppose, but I’ve got a soft spot for its tinge of sadness, in which the subtext of neglect lingers through a little boy’s mind and makes it the core focus of a song that hits a bit harder than it should. The genre has its share of bad family-friendly, happy-go-lucky tunes from this time period; this isn’t one of them.
No. 17 – Faith Hill, “The Lucky One”
It’s bubbly pop-country of its era that nails the basics incredibly well, from the richer, jagged groove, the rollicking punch of the presentation, huge melodic swell and optimism that shines even in the acknowledgment of a possible darker tomorrow. OK, maybe there’s more to it than just the basics after all.
No. 16 – Big & Rich, “8th of November”
Yeah, they actually started out good, especially with this well-written, war-themed song that eschews the negative traits that surrounded songs of this vein around this time in favor of something with a bit more bite to its story and presentation. What happened, fellas?
No. 15 – Sara Evans, “Cheatin’”
It’s a victory lap sold with a bittersweet air, where Sara Evans is the last one to laugh as her life improved after leaving her ex-significant other, but can’t help but sell the bitter subtext of how his cheating destroyed a part in both of them that may never be repaired.
No. 14 – Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile A Memory”
This is a song that fits squarely within Dierks Bentley’s earliest years, when he was the bright-eyed, young dreamer with a bit of a lonesome streak and not much more than a love for the music he made. He’s still got all that, for the record, there’s just a sense of urgency captured here that fits best from that greener, younger perspective.
No. 13 – Tim McGraw, “When the Stars Go Blue”
It’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room of discussing a great song without mentioning a certain musician/general asshole who wrote it. Oh, well. It’s one of Tim McGraw’s best vocals, and given that I’ve always considered him an excellent emotive interpreter, this isn’t even his best example of that from this year.
No. 12 – Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
A bit overlong, but compelling not only because of Ronnie Dunn’s soulful performance rolling off little more than that lazy organ, but from a simple lesson learned about life from a man ready to leave his behind. Admittedly, I think it’s a bit too reliant on its first verse to carry it through, but it’s a small quibble for a great song.
No. 11 – Sugarland, “Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)
I hated having to cut this out of the top ten, the one moment where Sugarland dipped into shit-kicking honky-tonk and pulled it off remarkably well, especially for a time period that felt oddly puritanical otherwise. I mean, I’m not surprised the band could – Jennifer Nettles is the sort of vocalist with range and personality. I just wish they had dipped into this sound more!
That’s the first half, so let’s strap in for the top 10!
No. 10 – Keith Urban, “Once in A Lifetime”
Call it another result of performing the basics incredibly well, but when Keith Urban delivers one of his best melodic hooks to date on top of the expected great guitar work, “Once in A Lifetime” sticks the landing in the best possible way. But it’s also one of those singles where I think everything comes together in its own way, where a promise of commitment that’s a little unsure of itself but ready to dive into that unknown feels much grander than it ever should. Call it cliché, I guess, but when you factor in Urban’s own sense of urgency driving the pure joy of this record, it’s a song that puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.
No. 9 – Little Big Town, “Boondocks”
You know, for as much as I praised Little Big Town’s foray into dreamy, nighttime escapades last year, there’s a part of me that misses when they had a little more snarl to their work, like on “Bones” or here … and when it didn’t just feel like “Karen Fairchild and those other three singers.” Which is to say that, yes, the excellent harmonies do the bulk of the heavy lifting for what lets this rattle on through. Well, that and the excellent hook and the dirty, rustic presentation – I see you and appreciate you, Jerry Douglas – all enough to where I think people have rarely cared about what they’re actually singing about here. Granted, country pride songs aren’t inherently bad; just played out over the last decade, really. But with “Boondocks,” Little Big Town made it work.
No. 8 – Eric Church, “Two Pink Lines”
It’s funny, coming off a discussion on how Sugarland dipped into its ragged edges for a moment of brilliance – here comes Eric Church strolling in being the one artist during this time period to do all of that … and consistently, at that! Granted, I don’t think “How ‘Bout You” has aged particularly well, but “Two Pink Lines” is the single that shouldn’t have worked – and to be fair, barely did work – at country radio. It’s three and a half minutes of praying for a negative pregnancy test that’s way more punchy, fun and upbeat in the sandy drums catapulting the blast of harmonica than it really should be. Granted, what might sound contradictory to the message only reflects how it’s just … something that happens, and while I can’t deny it might gloss over the unfortunate aspects of that all too common situation, I think the frenetic tension in its ragged edges gives it the scare it needs anyway, albeit much differently than expected. Not one of Church’s better-known singles – I get why – but it dared to go where few songs from this year would.
No. 7 – Dierks Bentley, “Settle For A Slowdown”
This is a breakup song that walks a very careful line yet never feels like it. It’s the sort of song that, if written slightly differently and performed by another artist, might be one I criticize for being a little too clingy. With Dierks Bentley, however, that performance of sad desperation just works, never actively working to stop her from leaving, but wishing he had followed through on the signs he saw earlier. It’s a double-edged sword, really. He’s left wishing for that slowdown not to actually stop her, but to know that their love meant something, even though his significant other probably experienced the same feelings with her own decision. Hauntingly beautiful in a way that rarely worked for country radio, from the burnished bass and crying fiddle that, naturally, works for the sentiment, it’s quietly among Bentley’s best.
No. 6 – The Wreckers, “Leave the Pieces”
So if you want to know why people were excited by the news of a possible Wreckers reunion last year, a group that released only one album and a few singles, it’d be because of this one terrific song that’s aged incredibly well. But it’s also one that doesn’t require a lot of words for it. It’s a breakup built on burn out, tired frustration and a quiet sigh of relief when those “yeahs” kick in toward the end, all bolstered by Michelle Branch’s blunt presentation in the not-so-quiet acknowledgment that the damage was done a long time ago and that her insignificant other’s indecisiveness couldn’t possibly surprise her any more. We’ll never know if they were much more than just this debut single, but I sure would have liked to find out, and maybe we will now.
No. 5 – Gary Allan, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”
When I made my list of my top 25 favorite Gary Allan songs for Country Universe, I didn’t include this. To be fair, I’d already included five songs from Tough All Over and capped it there, and this, truthfully, isn’t among those five favorite cuts. But when you’re dealing with one of the best country albums of the century so far, that’s not a slight against it! Indeed, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” is the sort of simplistically beautiful song that works off little more than the gentler piano and occasional creeping harmonica to add a dusty, “rambling man” edge and operates just as well as you expect it to in Allan’s hands. It’s a motivational message that, digging deeper into the sad subtext behind it, acts a quiet promise to himself to push on through, which, with the naturally weary, haggard delivery that still manages to make the message sound grounded more than fried, is one of few moments of genuine peace in his discography. And, wow, did he ever deserve that.
No. 4 – Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
I’ll be honest, this is the song that inspired me to take a look at this year for this feature, and I thought – before seeing the list of contenders – that this would easily top the list. Obviously, it didn’t, but if there’s just one song I associate with pure nostalgia, it’s this. I’m not sure I’ve heard something sound this pleasantly organic while being strikingly modern in its presentation … pretty much ever. Really, too, when it comes to why I love this, I’m left pointing back to Keith Urban’s “Once in A Lifetime,” where the question of commitment is approached with a bit of unease in the danger that could lurk ahead, but adds more darker mystique off the pluckier, minor, liquid interplay of dobro, bass, banjo and mandolin – and hey, have I mentioned yet just how utterly gorgeous this sounds? It’s a love song that feels more like a sweeping journey or a dream, and one worth having, at that.
No. 3 – Tim McGraw, “My Old Friend”
This shouldn’t work as well as it does, a tribute to a nameless character built, admittedly, through clichés. Yet that’s the point in framing its painful relatability of how we all likely know that one person – or several – we lost touch with over the years and don’t know how to reconnect with, if we even can. There’s power in that sentiment, too, because when you’re not sure what to say after the damage is done, sometimes offering “a few simple verses is the least that you can do.”And though the song could have easily turned itself into an overwrought power ballad, it’s playing things much darker in the minor keys, the shuffling percussion to echo how time marches on in spite of pain or joy, and scattered cries of fiddle and dobro. It never outright references death as the primary cause for what caused this particular relationship to crumble, but it certainly alludes to it, and Tim McGraw, being the skillful interpreter he’s always been, perfectly captures the regret that comes in forgetting to do the little things – pick up a phone every now and then, stop to catch up, or just even say “hello.” Again, all too relatable in its timeless simplicity, and easily one of McGraw’s best.
No. 2 – Miranda Lambert, “Kerosene”
To shift away from death and despair, let’s turn to … a different kind of death and despair! Indeed, “Kerosene” is Miranda Lambert’s breakthrough single that didn’t just arrive, but busted through the doors with a unique, raw energy. And yes, I say that knowing the controversy behind it borrowing from Steve Earle’s “Feel Alright.” I don’t care – it transcended it off the even grizzlier, thumping drums and the intensity of its progression built off lyrical rage that goes beyond just having a familiar melody. There’s a fair share of songs on this list dealing with frustrations in a relationship, either in waiting for something more or dealing with past transgressions, but “Kerosene” throws all of that in a melting pot and literally burns it all down to a cinder. In other words, Lambert is the driving force behind this, and while it may have typecast her for a time, for better and worse, it, like Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” or Eric Church’s debut in general, brought a rare firepower to the table that certainly benefited mainstream country.
No. 1 – Brad Paisley & Dolly Parton, “When I Get Where I’m Going”
As soon as I saw this was a contender for this list, I didn’t think anything else would come close to topping it. For as much as Brad Paisley is known for his goofy, corny material that’s far more divisive than it should be, it’s telling how adept he is at being serious and pulling off earnest emotion excellently, too. I don’t think it’s ironic at all that “Whiskey Lullaby” may be his signature hit. And I don’t think it’s ironic, either, that this, arguably, makes for a close second. Granted, it pulls from the same playful, younger, innocent perspective that’s marked Paisley’s best moments on both side of that divide without being outright immature, a meditation on the peace that may come in death without getting overtly religious or preachy. Indeed, its strength lies in its humanity and hope that we’d all like to, at least, believe could exist, I think. Simply beautiful, really, and Dolly Parton’s angelic harmony vocal is really what sets this over the edge, a gorgeous counterbalance to Paisley’s plaintive, bright-eyed wonder of that great beyond. I know he didn’t write it, but he approaches it like he did, and that requires a special strength, too, one that he and Parton pulled off effortlessly.