Considering this feature is now kinda-sorta operating under a new name and that it’s been another extremely long period since I’ve completed one of these (after saying it wouldn’t take me another extremely long period to complete one of these), I feel like an explanation is in order. “Best Hit Songs” is one of this outlet’s
only most popular and loved features, but also one I’ve tried to distance myself from, if I’m being honest. I’ve already noted how much I wince at some of the earliest editions of this series, but in truth, something I’ve realized about this hobby blog over the past month or so is how much I’ve treated it as a second job rather than something fun I get to do. In other words, as the feature that by far takes the most time and effort to compile, while I don’t wince at other editions of this series, I realize now that they were rushed in order to simply finish them and have posts out, and that’s not the way to do it – especially when several years brought forth new and exciting discoveries for me. I should have cherished them.
And considering I’ve billed them as “the best” hit songs when I should have just gone with “favorites,” part of me has just wanted to forget this feature even exists at times. Still, despite the amount of effort required for it, it is fun. I guess what I’m saying is, like with the outlet in general, I want to start over. Not with all of them, mind you, but with several of them, for sure. They won’t release like clockwork like before, but I promise they’ll be as complete as they can be. It may not be another long period before one is out, but I hope you’ll bear with me.
Anyway, this latest edition is one that’s been sitting in my writing backlog for several months now and is one I’m happy to share today. In terms of variety, 1977 was an excellent year in country music. The biggest contributor to that? It wasn’t the outlaw movement or the pop-country crossover hits or the other offbeat stuff – it was all of it combined and more. Seriously, the versatility of the hits that year was absolutely stunning, and I think the following list will reflect that. As always, this feature will take a look at the best hits songs of the year – those being top 20 or higher. Feel free to share your own favorites down below. Anyway, onward!
First, an honorable mention:
Waylon Jennings, “The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You)” (written by Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman)
No. 10 – Dolly Parton, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (written by Dolly Parton)
As one of the earliest showcases of Dolly Parton’s foray into pop-inspired country music, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” stands as one of her most overlooked and underrated compositions. Maybe it’s because it’s a song that speaks to her infamous break from Porter Wagoner that doesn’t have the emotional immediacy of “I Will Always Love You.” But damn it, it’s right up there with it, from the fantastic progression and crescendos that turns a simple piano ballad into a full-blown gospel romp by its end. For a song about finding hope and optimism in life again, this has the punch and potency in its pacing to make it feel like a rebirth for everyone involved, including the listener.
No. 9 – Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou” (written by Joe Melson and Roy Orbison)
There are rare cases where one of an artist’s best songs becomes another artist’s signature hit, and with Roy Orbison, his own “Blue Bayou” has transcended as a classic because of Linda Ronstadt. With its perfect way of making the best out of a familiar melancholic situation – missing home and hoping to return to find some semblance of peace, that is – it’s the perfect blend of happy and sad that Ronstadt has always understood. Her hushed tone may introduce the song, but by the end she rages with fiery hope. And with the accompanying bass line, marimba and lusher piano backing, it fittingly reflects her own Mexican roots, making that feeling of longing for home all her own.
No. 8 – The Kendalls, “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away” (written by Jerry Gillespie)
It’s just one classic after another, though the Kendalls aren’t as well-known today as they should be. For context, they were a father-daughter duo active throughout most of the ‘70s and ‘80s … and often sang about adultery, ironic as that is for this particular pairing. But when it comes to their best example of that, well, the context hardly matters. It’s sinfully delightful, hard-edged honky tonk that, with its bouncy melody and composition, encourages the dangers of cheating, come what may. The hook pretty much says it all, and what a hook it is, but there’s no sense of regret in Jeannie Kendall’s delivery either, making the descent (or ascent) all the sweeter.
No. 7 – Kenny Rogers, “Lucille” (written by Hal Bynum and Roger Dale Bowling)
It’s songs like this that remind how well-suited Kenny Rogers’ sandy, ragged voice is for downhearted country songs like these. It’s another song with an iconic hook – and one that reveals the ultimate twist of this cheating ballad that further twists audience expectations on its head. It’s rare to see such guilt felt by “the other man” in these cheating situations, but it’s a story that takes its time for a big payoff and resonates long afterward, just as it does for the man who has to live knowing he destroyed someone else’s life. A fine time indeed, Lucille.
No. 6 – Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” (written by Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman)
You could put any of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s buddy anthems on a list like this, and it wouldn’t really be wrong. As someone who is a sucker for this sound – warm, reverb-echoed bass, soft pedal steel, and a greater intimacy in the production – this song about bringing everything back down to the basics has a fitting accompaniment. And while this isn’t a song where these two necessarily trade-off each other like they do elsewhere, it’s still a testament to how far they’d come together and individually. In other words, having a comedown moment here feels well-earned.
No. 5 – Merle Haggard, “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday” (written by Glenn Martin and Sonny Throckmorton)
This bitter number is among Merle Haggard’s most overlooked and underrated. To an extent, I get it. The song’s melody and subject matter is eerily similar to Haggard’s own “If We Make It Through December,” simply placed at a slower pace. But whereas that song holds out hope, “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday” doesn’t play around, acknowledging that this relationship is utterly dead and that drawing out the pain is simply for the sake of saying they tried and that it at least somewhat mattered. Subtle in its actual execution, especially against the gentle brushes of piano, pedal steel and welcome harmonica that I wish showed up more here, but brutal in its delivery nonetheless.
No. 4 – Jerry Reed, “East Bound and Down” (written by Deena Rose and Jerry Hubbard)
Gah-damn, y’all. It’s a dadgum Jerry Reed song. It’s gonna be funky as hell and blast through the roof! The whole nation’s gonna be feelin’ it!
… Ahem. In all seriousness, this is rapid-fire, truck-driving country at its finest, especially with the dirtier, unpolished production emphasizing the crunchier electric axes and banjos carrying the groove. It’s not reliant on humor or a greater punchline like Reed’s other classics, but it’s such a fun, stomping tune with an excellent hook, that it doesn’t really need to in order to work. It’s quick and over before you know it, but man, what a blast this shorter-than-expected song is throughout its entire duration. Watch ol’ Bandit run, boys.
No. 3 – Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville” (written by Jimmy Buffett)
I actually recently defended this as belonging within the greater conversations surrounding all-time country music greats, and if there’s one thing the godfather of beach-inspired country music understood better than his multiple successors, it’s that the island life could actually be, you know, lonely. So don’t scoff, because “Margaritaville” absolutely carries a misunderstood emptiness to it that resonates, even despite the generally chipper atmosphere that’s more wistful than celebratory. Yes, wasting away on a tropical island still does sound better than whatever you or I are going through at any given point, and maybe it did typecast Buffett in a way that his earlier, lesser-known material didn’t, but there’s a somber emptiness permeating this record that hits with the best in country music, and a classic is a classic for multiple reasons, after all.
No. 2 – Crystal Gayle, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (written by Richard Leigh)
Simply put, that piano riff. I’ll likely say it again at some point, but this is one of the best-produced singles in country music history, enough to where the content hardly matters because it’s such a beautiful-sounding song. Of course, I suppose it is a little too tasteful and cheery for a song reveling in heartache, but there’s still something so commanding about its gentle sway and hushed tone, that its general melancholic feel against the slight brushes of strings and muted keys wins out regardless. As the first platinum success by a female artist in country music, it’s the crossover smash that was omnipresent for years – no, decades – and there’s a good reason for it.
No. 1 – Dolly Parton, “Here You Come Again” (written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Well)
It’s pop-country that ultimately wins this round, because while this list is littered with classics that deserve their titles, this is one that showed how Dolly Parton could meet both worlds with respect and poise. It’s neither an abandonment of the latter nor a blatant attempt at appealing to the former; it’s simply an artist chasing her creative ambitions and crafting something that stands as a love letter to them. Granted, that late-addition pedal steel is what contributes a lot of warmth to this simply joyous song about … finding love over and over again in the same person. Yeah, there’s nothing complicated to explain here – it’s simply a bright song with an excellent melody that exercises caution at first before the strings and slicker electric axes heighten this to become the lovestruck ballad that Parton sells excellently with her childlike innocence. It may not have been as gripping as her earlier country work, but as she proves here, it really didn’t need to be to still rank among her best.