Favorite Hit Songs Of 2009 (Collaborative Edition)

And so we begin again, by examining the end of a decade that would give way to what country music would become in the 2010s … and yet feel oddly isolated from it, even with that said. That’s the funny thing about 2009 in country music – while the economy tanked and the world looked simultaneously for hope and for escapism, country music was still very much in its own world of fighting between its identity over its sound rather than its song topics. Not quite neotraditional anymore and not quite pop-country, but rather somewhere in the middle, and even if Taylor Swift would absolutely rule the world by the end of the decade, little did we know where she’d go early on by the next one, or who would fill her place.

And … yeah, let’s not discuss that. As far as the music for this year actually goes, I’m inclined to call it more underrated than outright mind-blowing. Certain acts emerged with long-forgotten sounds while others pivoted toward something else entirely and, for the most part, as you’ll see here, did it well, enough to where I can legitimately say I love the songs just outside of my top ten.

But just in case you need an introduction, this is an examination of the hits of 2009 that appeal to me most, culled from Wikipedia – which looks legitimate enough and, as I’ve learned from contributor Bobby Peacock, sorts the songs according to when they – and is meant to be a modern examination of a time I consider very nostalgic for me personally. Oh, and I won’t be alone. Andy is joining us as well for the ride, so let’s get this started!


No. 10 (both lists) – Sugarland, “Already Gone” (written by Bobby Pinson, Jennifer Nettles, and Kristian Bush)

The older I get, the more I realize I like Sugarland way more now than I did as a kid, and I’m probably going to be kinder to their hits this time around. “Already Gone” isn’t their most iconic hit, and you could make the argument that they pulled off this exact theme better with “Baby Girl” before. But this isn’t about the starry-eyed performer who dreams of making it in Nashville; this is more about what happens before, from learning life lessons through personal experience long after those lessons were supposed to be ingrained within, fueling a recklessness that Jennifer Nettles sells as being relatable – and in a damn waltz, no less. As always, too, if there’s anyone fueling this, it’s Nettles herself, who gives the star character a sense of lived-in detail that makes for one of the band’s more underrated selections. – Zack

Sugarland’s music was vastly overplayed throughout this decade, and the critical reception was overall mixed, but looking back, I agree with Zack that their music was often a lot better than many of us gave them credit for. Lyrically, this is a pretty standard order “three act, multiple meaning chorus” song, but the chirpy, spirited, mandolin-led production, highly melodious chorus, and, I’ll say it, Nettles’ refreshingly twangy vocal performance made this the most pleasant rediscovery I made while researching this list. – Andy

No. 9 – Zac Brown Band, “Toes” (written by John Driskell Hopkins, Shawn Mullins, Wyatt Durette, and Zac Brown)

In the last edition before rebooting this series, I defended Jimmy Buffett’s brand of beach-fueled escapism as having way more heart and nuance to it than it ever got credit for, and there’s a way of further defending beach music that’s fun yet still more well-written than it has any right to be. Of the Zac Brown Band’s many attempts at the island life set to song – most of which are actually pretty good, mind you – their first attempt has always been their best, matching the titular lead singer’s easygoing demeanor with lyrics that speak to letting it all go in a way that doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. And it’s all helped that by the fact that this band was stellar on every level – technical or otherwise – in their earliest years, where the blend of sunny acoustics and swirling organ helps seal the deal on a song that’s always a joy to revisit. – Z

No. 9 – Trace Adkins, “All I Ask For Anymore” (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James)

This is not exactly high praise, but I contend that 2008’s X is hands down Trace Adkins’ best overall album. Heck, I’ll even go to bat for the goofball tracks like “Hillbilly Rich” and “Marry for Money” as being good for what they are. “All I Ask For Anymore” stuck out like a sore thumb on country radio this year, but in a positive way. The narrator of this clear-eyed, mature ballad has traded in the frivolous concerns of youth for the realization of the things that really matter in life, like the health and safety of loved ones. Sure, plenty of others have plumbed those depths, including Adkins himself on some of his stronger cuts like “I’m Tryin'” and “You’re Gonna Miss This”, but rarely has this subject matter been given this kind of deft treatment that strikes the perfect balance of being sentimental without being sappy. With just the right amount of steel, violins and electric guitar to accentuate Adkins’ vocal without overshadowing it, this is a highly underrated cut, and a song that I’ve only grown to appreciate more with time. – A

No. 8 – Carrie Underwood feat. Randy Travis, “I Told You So” (written by Randy Travis)

I could make the argument for either this or “Just A Dream” as Carrie Underwood’s best single of the decade. Not her best ever, mind you – not when “Blown Away” exists. But to put it succinctly … yeah, classic country balladeer territory suits her well, enough to where I’m inclined to like this more than the Randy Travis original … even if having him here is an added bonus, nonsensical as it is for the song itself. But for country music circa 2009, it’s amazing to hear a song with this much understated warmth in its presentation courtesy of the softer piano and fiddle and pedal steel accents, and Underwood gives the track so much powerful personality as a nice balance, that it’s a cover she makes her own. – Z

No. 8 – Kenny Chesney feat. Mac McAnally, “Down the Road” (written by Mac McAnally)

Mac McAnally is all kinds of underrated – seriously, go listen to 2009’s Down by the River if you want to hear an excellent album from this time period far too few people heard – and I give props to Chesney for giving him some well-deserved mainstream exposure here. A relatively simple but sweetly drawn perspective-switching ballad, this is one of Chesney’s most earnest vocal performances on record, and Mac’s presence is the cherry on top. – A

No. 7 – Taylor Swift, “White Horse” (written by Taylor Swift and Liz Rose)

I’ve always had an odd relationship with Taylor Swift’s earliest material. I was never within the target demographic for it, and as a young kid just getting into country music, I didn’t dislike her material so much as … just ignore it and let it pass me by. And yet I and my family members found common ground when “White Horse” was released as a single, as I think it’s the first time she was taken seriously, enough to where even her naysayers had to admit that she was a pretty compelling songwriter. And that’s a statement that holds up today, where unlike “Love Story,” this fairy tale is blended with the hardbitten reality that this happy ending is not meant to be. Like “I Told You So” before it, the power comes through in the understated presentation, and it’s arguably Swift’s finest moment of the 2000s. – Z

No. 7 – Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy” (written by Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones)

Yes, this type of song has been done to death, but Currington’s folksy, “aw shucks” vocal performance is enough to sell me on this. And Bobby Braddock is a songwriting legend – if there’s anyone who could draw blood from this well-chiseled stone, it’s him. The chorus of “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy” is an all-timer. Yes, there’s value in originality, but there’s also merit in doing something familiar very well. – A

No. 6 (both lists) – George Strait, “Living For the Night” (written by Bubba Strait, Dean Dillon, and George Strait)

When you’re dealing with George Strait, it’s hard to call a single of his underrated. But if we’re looking for the one that should be in the same regard as his absolute best, “Living For the Night” belongs within that conversation. Yet oddly enough, one of his darkest songs is not a traditional ode to the night life, but rather a lush indulgence in a miserable experience off of the swell of strings, the liquid piano and mandolin interplay as well as the pedal steel accents. It all sort of adds this weirdly nonchalant attitude to the track that’s always really worked for it, an acceptance that things will look up someday but that for now, there’s nothing wrong with dancing in the dark. – Z

A smart, fresh revisiting of territory Willie Nelson explored decades earlier on “Night Life”, “Living for the Night” represents Strait at his most underrated. This song was noted by critics at the time for having an adult contemporary sheen uncharacteristic of Strait, but the more lush, glistening production is entirely in line with its nocturnal, neon atmosphere. This is one of Strait’s finest interpretive vocal performances, and a startling reminder of how much of a treasure he is. – A

No. 5 – Miranda Lambert, “More Like Her” (written by Miranda Lambert)

Well, we’re in spare balladeer territory again, only for an artist you wouldn’t have expected based on her earliest material before this. Granted, Miranda Lambert had some phenomenal deep cuts on her first two albums that arguably tap into vulnerable territory even more effectively, but “More Like Her” … it was the first time Lambert wasn’t in control of the situation here. It’s her exclamation of regret over letting a good thing get away, where her own self-destructive tendencies led to a breakup in which it’s clear the other party just couldn’t handle it anymore, and that speaks volumes in its level of complex framing compared to, say, just flaming out together. But if I’m looking for the real star of this show, it’s Lambert herself, who can easily match that rawness in ways that few of her contemporaries of the time could. – Z

No. 5 – Taylor Swift, “White Horse”

Taylor Swift was viewed as the Devil on country music Internet conversations in the late 2000s, but looking back, it’s hard to take issue with a song with the depth and maturity of “White Horse”. In this sparse, acoustic ballad, Swift plays a woman dealing with the devastating realization that the man she’s in a relationship with isn’t the person she thought he was. A familiar theme to be sure, but hardly ever done better than here. “It’s too late for you and your white horse to come around” is as strong of a hook as there was this year. Swift wisely stays within her relatively limited vocal range, puts her strong interpretive skills to full use and delivers a commanding performance. – A

No. 4 – Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call” (written by Shane McAnally and Erin Enderlin)

Of course this was going to make my list – it’s a top five Lee Ann Womack song for me. And because I already wrote about this a few months back, I’ll keep this one brief: Erin Enderlin’s co-writing credit is always going to imbue a song with the necessary bite and cleverness to sell it effectively, all the more evidenced by Womack’s intolerance for her flighty, alcoholic soon-to-be ex-lover here. There’s a beautifully lush yet minor swell to the whole endeavor that lets this sting linger, and if there’s any further reason why Womack deserved so much better in the 2000s, it’s this. – Z

No. 4 – Taylor Swift, “Fifteen” (written by Taylor Swift)

I can’t describe Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” as anything other than exceptionally well-written and original. It speaks to real-life truths in an emotionally resonant way. Taylor Swift’s music in general has never been my speed, but I have to give credit where credit is due. That’s all I have to say about this song. – A

No. 3 – Lady A, “Need You Now” (written by Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, Hillary Scott, and Josh Kear)

I’ve talked about this song through other features before, and while I don’t want to talk positively about Lady A these days any more than I have to, I’ll acknowledge that this is the best thing they’ve ever done and that they will never top it. The interplay between Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley is phenomenal, ironically enough coming together to capture an emptiness that resonates off of the fantastic atmospheric country-pop crossover-ready textures in capturing heartache, regret, and desperation, all in one. And yet it’s that bridge that really makes it, where the entire point is just to find some sort of sweeping connection between two lonely people with an implied history between one another, even if it’s the one that hurts the most. – Z

No. 3 – Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”

Vocals, production and songwriting all come together in this barroom masterwork. Erin Enderlin and Shane McAnally traffic in familiar traditional country earmarks like bars, leavin’ and whiskey, but create a unique and unflinching story of a conflicted woman who’s beginning to reach the end of her rope. Womack’s impeccable phrasing on lyrics like “glass of Johnny Walker Red” prove why she’s one of the elite vocalists in country music history. And Tony Brown’s adroit production creates a sound that’s at once traditional and unique. You’d be hard pressed to find a more striking single released in 2009 than this.

Apropos of nothing, I appreciate the Call Me Crazy album title drop in the bridge too, one of my favorite tropes. – A

No. 2 – Jamey Johnson, “In Color” (written by James Otto, Jamey Johnson, and Lee Thomas Miller)

I mean, of course Jamey Johnson’s only top ten hit is going to make this list – it’s a damn shame I can’t include more by him! And while there’s always going to be a camp of people that tries to discredit how much of a fresh breath of air Johnson was to country music’s mainstream in the late 2000s, I’m absolutely not one of those people, and this song continues to floor me every time I hear it. Yet despite the frankly stark presentation of the burnished acoustics playing off the muted keys, touches of faint pedal steel on the chorus, and the addition of the electric guitar play weaved in later on that adds a surprising amount of potency to its finish, this was country music for adults of a modern time. This isn’t a narration of rosy nostalgia; these are hardbitten photographs of the Great Depression and war, where the reward of love in the third verse is only found after sorting through trials that had to be experienced, rather than heard about, all told from the world-weary perspective of someone who sounds like he’s lived it himself. Country music for grownups, indeed. – Z

No. 2 – Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future” (written by Brad Paisley and Chris DuBois)

Perhaps the most daring and forward-thinking single release of the aughts, “Welcome to the Future” analyzes the importance of certain technological, social and historical developments that have occurred in the lifetime of the narrator, including the rapid advancement of computers, the increased communication among people of different cultures, and the election of the first African-American as President of the United States. Needless to say, it deals with topics of vastly greater weight than the average country radio single in its or any era, and does so in a thoughtful, endearing way.

The “futuristic” synthesizer-laden production reminiscent of golden-age video game music ties in nicely with the Pac-Man reference and injects the song with a distinctive sonic trademark, and Brad is sure to keep the song grounded in country with a prominent steel guitar in the mix. An underrated classic. – A


Before we get to our respective No. 1 picks, we would like to list some honorable mentions that each missed the cut for our lists:

Alan Jackson, “Sissy’s Song” (written by Alan Jackson)

Alan Jackson just has the sort of uniformly great discography that, despite this not being within my top 25 favorites of his and just missing the cut for my top ten here, is still a beautiful reflection of loss and humanity. – Z

What Zack said. – A

Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (the Black Dress Song)” (written by Chris Young, Cory Batten, and Kent Blazy)

Arguably Chris Young’s best, and a song I really wanted to include within the top ten proper. I’m not convinced he’ll ever return to this, but if he does, it’ll be good to have him back. – Z

Lady A, “Need You Now”

I somehow wasn’t very familiar with this song (yes, I live under a rock). Easily the best thing I’ve ever heard from them, and one that just barely missed the cut. – A

Trace Adkins, “All I Ask For Anymore”

Trace Adkins traded in the cheap gimmicks for a slice of maturity on 2008’s X, and what do you know, it was an overall good fit for him. – Z

Kenny Chesney, “Out Last Night” (written by Kenny Chesney and Brett James)

A relatively rootsy production, clever lyrics and a charismatic vocal performance from Chesney make this a likeable tribute to a night out with friends. – A

Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”

Yes, I’m serious; I absolutely love this one. Billy Currington has the easygoing charm and sincerity to make this familiar theme go down very smoothly. – Z

Toby Keith, “God Love Her” (written by Toby Keith and Vicky McGehee)

That chorus. Just that chorus. – A

Josh Turner, “Everything is Fine” (written by Josh Turner)

With a voice like that, even a song about the joys of mundanity sounds mighty, well, fine. – Z

Trace Adkins, “Marry for Money” (written by Jimmy Melton and Dave Turnbull)

The rare (only?) Trace Adkins novelty single that’s both agreeable-sounding and actually pretty funny. – A

Kenny Chesney feat. Mac McAnally, “Down the Road”

I’ve said before that I think Kenny Chesney can be a strong emotive interpreter when wants to be, and this is absolutely one of his better ballads. – Z

Gloriana, “Wild at Heart” (written by Stephanie Bentley, Josh Kear and Matt Serletic)

A pleasing pop-country confection. – A

Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”

This is a song that works better on the revamped Taylor’s Version album than it does here, mostly because Taylor Swift is old enough to actually sell the wisdom she’s imparting here. Still a good song either way, though. – Z

Tim McGraw, “It’s a Business Doing Pleasure With You” (written by Byron Gallimore, Tim McGraw, and Darran Smith)

A “You Want Everything But Me” or “Fourteen Carat Mind” for the 21st century. – A


And now, our respective No. 1 picks:

No. 1 – Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”

I think what I’ve always appreciated about Brad Paisley is his approach to songwriting and delivery. There’s always a likable sincerity present – even on his goofier cuts – carried by a ton of earnest charisma and affable charm. I love this song for a lot of the same reasons I love “Southern Comfort Zone”: it’s huge, it’s sweeping, it’s carried by a relentlessly upbeat hook, and it’s celebratory of the progress we’ve made as a society made thus far without skirting over the darker details of what’s halted that progress. Which is to say that, really, it’s that third verse that hammers in what could have, admittedly, been another silly little ditty instead, likable as it still would have been. And what I love more is that Paisley never frames anything here as the end journey, but rather gives us a good reminder of the world we could – and still can – create for the better in so many more ways than one. It’s bold, yet lighthearted enough to know that hope comes in all forms, and that even though he’s welcoming us to the future here, it’s more of a declaration that it’s all constantly being shaped and reformed every moment – especially now, 12 years after its release. And while I can see detractors disregarding Paisley’s execution as hackneyed – especially when compared to a certain other single of his that kinda-sorta went for this same theme and failed miserably – this is emblematic of everything I’ve always loved about him as a performer. No question about it, “Welcome to the Future” is my favorite hit song of 2009. What a way to close out a decade. – Z

No. 1 – Jamey Johnson, “In Color”

One of the challenges traditional country artists in the modern era face is to create art in a traditional framework that’s compelling enough on its own to not remind us of older, better music. Otherwise, it raises the question, why would I want to listen to, say, a George Jones knock-off when I could just listen to George Jones? His music hasn’t gone anywhere.

No one met that challenge better in the late 2000s than Jamey Johnson. As predictable as it is, I can’t not have “In Color” at No. 1. Johnson will never be mistaken for a great technical singer, but as odd as it may seem, I’m not sure anyone else could have delivered this lyric better than him. When his vocal range is stretched to its limit during that powerful chorus, it adds a level of vulnerability and verisimilitude to the proceedings, making you truly believe that these are the words of an elderly man recalling the most important events of his life – and they’re all locked away in the past, inaccessible to all but him and those that were there with him. We can try to preserve the most important moments of our lives for posterity through photographs and other technology, but ultimately, you can’t truly understand someone else’s experience unless you were there too. You had to have seen it in color. And that’s the lesson this masterpiece teaches us. – A


Next: Favorite Hit Songs of 2008

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