In some ways, this is uncharted territory for me. Because of time constraints last year and contributions to multiple year-end lists, I didn’t publish a list of my favorite and least favorite singles of the year. I only published my list of 50 favorite songs in general (singles and deep-cuts), as well as my favorite albums of the year list, which I still plan to do for this year.
With that said, this isn’t so much a reintroduction of those lists as it is a revamping of them from years past. In 2018 and 2019, my criteria for what qualified for my best and worst singles list extended to anything released to country radio throughout those respective years, which certainly provided some much better lists than you’d expect, but also didn’t offer much of a coherent structure (I will freely admit that certain songs slipped through the cracks for both lists – it happens when you’re scrambling for the end of the year). So, to keep in line with our now ongoing reflection and deep-dive of past singles of the years, I’m only going by what actually became a hit single this year, which is any song that peaked within the top 20 or higher on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in 2021 (I’m trusting you on this one, Wikipedia). Songs still actively charting will not count for this year. That certainly doesn’t give me much to work with for the eventual list of the best hit singles of the year, but it also means I don’t have to talk about endless generic filler that no one cares about or even gave a spotlight to zombies that had brief, frankly unwarranted moments in the spotlight, like “Am I The Only One” or “The Worst Country Song of All Time,” both of which would have handily made this list if the qualifications had been different.
And, obviously, to start, we’re going to take a look at the worst hit singles of the year. Believe it or not, this list was equally as tough to fill, mostly because I’d describe country radio in 2021 as bland and unexciting more than anything else. Finding music that actively enraged me … well, that was a little tougher. By the same token, finding anything that elicited a reaction out of me – good or bad – was tough, but I do believe in keeping up with what’s popular and what is mostly seen as the “face” of country music, so to say, so without further ado, let’s examine the blemishes that marked country radio in 2021. There will be no honorable or dishonorable mentions for either list.
No. 10 – Lady A, “Like a Lady” (written by Brandon Paddock, Dave Barnes, Hillary Scott, Martin Johnson, and Michelle Buzz)
I mean, the bungled name controversy was enough to sour me on this group forever – even as someone who kind of liked their 2019 album and would defend a few other cuts from them – but between an album release this year that no one cared about and a lead single that played off their “new” name, this just all became more appalling to me the more I thought about it. This group has always been pathetically “uncool,” and though “Like a Lady” does sport some decent mid-tempo rollick and bounce off the fiddle play, it’s a song about a night on the town that’s trying and failing miserably to be Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.” It doesn’t help matters that Hillary Scott has the charisma level of a baked potato and can’t sell this in the slightest, or that all the emphasis is placed on her (while the man only contribute to the hook?…), or that, again, that aforementioned controversy just places a weighted context on a song that’s already not that likable. 2021 seemed to be the year the world finally moved from this group, and at this point, it’s for the best.
No. 9 – Luke Bryan, “Waves” (written by Chase McGill, Ryan Hurd, and Zach Crowell)
I almost feel bad putting this here, mostly because this really isn’t anywhere close to Luke Bryan’s worst … but then I think of what qualifies as his worst, and I also think of how there were a good three or four possible different single choices from his last album that could have defined his year compared to recent cuts like “One Margarita” or “Down to One” and been better for it. But at the end of the day, “Waves” is a by-the-numbers summer romance song set to beach imagery that even Kenny Chesney has done better and with more conviction. It’s overly serious and self-indulgent to the point of being overblown, especially against a blur of synthetic elements and reverb that completely saturate the mix. Again, not infuriatingly awful by any stretch, but Bryan is capable of better, and is at the age where he needs to prove it. This wasn’t it.
No. 8 – Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” (written by Ashley Gorley, Mark Holman, and Michael Hardy)
Have you ever wanted to support an artist who you have no business rooting for but believe is capable of better anyway? I was that way with Cole Swindell for a time, who, after delivering a horrendous bro-country debut in 2014, took steps toward maturity with some surprisingly strong single choices and albums that were … well, at least kind of halfway decent (a deep-cut from his All of It album, “Dad’s Old Number,” even made my list of favorite songs of 2018). That good faith pretty much fell completely by the wayside with “Single Saturday Night,” and can’t you tell off that White Claw reference that this is one of those songs that was released last year – in the summer, no less – and only became a “hit” late this year for no good reason? Sadly, that’s only, like, the fifth or so most infuriating thing about this track, coming in behind the flagrantly synthetic production complete with a snap beat, blocky drums and a trap-inflected skitter. It’s easily the most clumsily produced “country” song I’ve heard in a long time, and yet even the content manages to annoy me, where he reflects on his “last single Saturday night” out with friends before meeting someone – miraculously while at the club with the boys, of course – and settling down … and tries to make it all sound bittersweet and remorseful? As if an anonymous night out with the bros is anything special, or anything beyond cliché within mainstream country music since the last decade or so. It’s a huge step back from an artist I was finally starting to like, and that, I think, is my greatest disappointment.
No. 7 – Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live” (written by David Garcia, Brian Kelley. Corey Crowder. Josh Miller, and Tyler Hubbard)
Even with an album release in February that I guarantee no one remembers, we seemed to be mercifully spared from Florida Georgia Line in 2021 … and yet, they’re still on this list twice somehow. This is the first song on the list and one that’s squarely theirs, and wow, can’t you just tell there was friction between these dudes even before Brian Kelley’s beach album thing by how by-the-numbers this is – even for their standards? It’s not as egregiously offensive as, say, “I Love My Country” from last year, but it’s really not much of anything beyond the same song and dance you expect from these guys. In other words, if you want a snapshot of a duo on its last legs with a reign that was never meant to last as long as it did anyway, here it is. “Long live the Walmart parking lot”? Please disband.
No. 6 – Chase Rice feat. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen” (written by Cale Dodds, Chase Rice, Corey Crowder, and Hunter Phelps)
I’m glad I don’t have to talk about Florida Georgia Line’s collaboration with Nelly, but I’m not exactly enthused that Chase Rice is still charting hits in 2021, either; there’s no excuse for it. Actually, I may have to backtrack what I said about Florida Georgia Line’s demise earlier, because according to their features, they just wouldn’t go away in 2021. And that’s the thing, I hear the cheap snap beat and clunky percussion propping up Rice’s fried-out tone against Hubbard’s equally gravelly-ass delivery – enough to where an alley cat choir would sound more pleasant than this – and I just want to walk away and not even acknowledge this song’s existence. But it became a hit, because country radio gonna country radio, of course. And I’m just sitting here disappointed that yet another song about bro-country tropes framed around religious iconography – all while, oddly enough, trying to go for something of a campfire song – could prop up acts that don’t deserve any further attention. Not surprised or even angry, just let down once again is all.
No. 5 – Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go to Bed” (written by Jason Evigan, Sean Douglas, Dan Smyers, and Shay Mooney)
Speaking of duos that have overstayed their welcome and repeatedly produce retreads of the same songs …
Dan + Shay used to be fairly inoffensive around five or six years ago, if completely confined to being known as a modern Rascal Flatts. In 2021 … well, they’re still that, but they’ve grown bigger than ever by shamelessly pandering to their fan base in ways that reek of wish fulfillment over talent winning out. They’re so aggressively bland, that they somehow end up offending me for their pure ubiquity. And I somehow wish this particular song hadn’t carried over from 2020 to qualify for this list, because, to play on the title, this song has thoroughly and simultaneously bored and offended me every time I’ve been subjected to it, which seemed to be any time I went grocery shopping. Forget the mostly muted and sanitized piano that accompanies the first half of this song or the blocky vocal production that shreds away the duo’s lone legitimate talent for vocal harmony. It’s that bridge that kills it for me, a bombastic wave of strings that doesn’t fit a song about trying to find escape through sleep. The sad part is, this isn’t even their worst hit on this list, and to go from being tolerable to insufferable in just a few short years … man, and here I thought I’d never miss Rascal Flatts.
No. 4 – Darius Rucker, “Beers & Sunshine” (written by Ross Copperman, Darius Rucker, J.T. Harding, and Josh Osborne)
Maybe you’ve noticed – and if you haven’t, I can’t exactly blame you, given the slog of songs that accompany country radio airwaves these days – but most of these songs were released in 2020 and have functionally acted as zombies propped up by record labels to become artificial hits throughout a long, slow climb in 2021. And can’t you tell that this is one of those many songs released in the summer of 2020 to revive old bro-country tropes so that we’d forget about the pandemic? I mean, the hook seriously plays out as “the only B.S. I need is beers and sunshine.” It’s a pure Nashville industry product, right down to the attempts at shameless escapism and production that rivals Cole Swindell’s “Single Saturday Night” for pure shoddiness. Seriously, from the get-go, the hand-clap, crummy backing vocal layering, and canned, synthetic tones are all mixed together to sound like boiled-ass, and that’s not what I want out of my summer song. The thing is, Darius Rucker is better than this, and when even he doesn’t sound like he cares, I’m out of reasons to take my discussion of this any further.
No. 3 – Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” (written by Tayla Parx, Dan Smyers, Jordan Reynolds, Ryan Lewis, and Shay Mooney)
As I noted before, I’m nowhere close to being within Dan + Shay’s fan base, and I’d be happy letting them do their own thing and forgetting they even exist. That is, until cuts like this come along. While I initially thought “I Should Probably Go to Bed” was worse, this became more grating as time went on. The thing about the boyfriend country trend thus far is that, like with bro-country, it doesn’t actually support women or place them in a favorable light. Nashville would have you believe that they’re lucky just to get to play the subservient role. That’s how we get supposedly charming and cutesy tracks like this, where the basic sentiment expressed is, “I’m glad you exist, fellow human,” because that’s charming, especially when you know that the implied subtext is, “I’m glad you exist for me.” It’s all so grossly backhanded in its execution, that my distaste for the chintzy, badly incorporated synthetic elements takes a backseat to my dislike for this flaming turd forever relegated to Target store soundtracks. Boys, you’ve got an aggressively stale formula set to expire in, oh, five or so years. Just keep try to keep it level until then, OK?
No. 2 – Niko Moon, “Good Time” (written by Anna Moon, Jordan Minton, Joshua Murty, Mark Trussell, and Niko Moon)
Did you miss bro-country? It came back in a big way last year and even through parts of this year, this time with the obvious misogony you’ve come to hate and expect as well as trap skitters and hi-hats! And that’s exactly what Niko Moon’s “Good Time” is, a clunky fusion of past and modern production elements that tries to aim for a chilled-out party anthem and doesn’t even succeed at doing that. It’s thoroughly unoriginal in its execution, and on that alone you’d think I’d slot it lower for coming from just another forgettable male artist cashing in on his 15 minutes of fame on the assembly line of Music Row. But no, there’s something that’s legitimately bugged me about this song ever since I first heard it, and I think it’s because it exemplifies the worst tendencies of the bro-country of yesterday – a smug, self-satisfied nature that’s completely insufferable, both in tone and courtesy of Moon himself. There were always ways to make these party tracks work, and charisma made up for half of the battle to get there. But this? Well, it went No. 1, because of course it did. But Moon hasn’t been able to replicate its success thus far, even despite releasing follow-ups that are literal carbon copies of it – with “No Sad Songs” and “Paradise to Me.” And if we never hear from him again, it’ll be too soon.
No. 1 – Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” (written by Walker Hayes, Cameron Bartolini, Josh Jenkins, and Shane Stevens)
Yeah, like it was going to be anything else. And let’s get this out of the way now – this didn’t become Walker Hayes’ breakthrough No. 1 hit because he possesses the talent to make decent music; it’s because of TikTok and knowledge of how shameless brand integration works. And yeah, I get that the dance associated with it is supposed to make it lightweight and humorous, but I kept waiting for the punchline on my first listen, and little did I know I’d be forced to hear it against my own will several more times this year. The thing is, even if there was a joke present, Hayes just has to push it through his lazy, phoned-in faux-rapping with a mugged self-satisfaction that completely ruins any attempt at being “cute.” I’ve seen some defenses of this as reflective of the genre’s commitment to its working-class roots, and to that I call bullshit. A trip to Applebee’s suggests you’re more basic than poor, and what better way to put your wife on an even-level playing field with you than saying you want her to “dip me like them fries in her Frosty.” The pink umbrella line from Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze” may be equally trashy, but at least that duo had the good sense to own it!
No, this is all self-satisfied bragging for Hayes’ own good luck and fortune, which could have worked if sold right. But when the hook is equivalent to a dad joke that’s lame even by those standards, what is there to praise about this? Is it that limp-sounding electric guitar trying to go for meaty, southern-rock swagger that would get Hayes laughed out of the building by both Blackberry Smoke and Whiskey Myers? Or did listeners actually like Hayes referencing getting some “Alabama-jamma”? And what does it say about Hayes himself than even he admits he’ll likely never get a viral hit like this again? It shouldn’t have happened the first time, and that it did at all … well, Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad” may have truly set the lowest bar possible for the most disgusting “country” song of all time. But this, unfortunately, became a very close second, and like with that song in 2017, this was the biggest country song of the year. Let’s hope Hayes doesn’t repeat that achievement for 2022, or has another hit ever again.