Like with yesterday’s list of the worst hit songs of the year, I’m in somewhat uncharted territory with its sibling list of the best hit songs of the year. I’ll save the lengthy introduction explaining the criteria and everything else again, but if you’re curious as to what the differences are between this list and, say, my lists I made for 2018 or 2019, I’d suggest you go back and read that.
Also important to note, however, is that this list is remarkably different from what will be my eventual list of my top 50 songs of the year – which will span everything from well-known singles to underground deep-cuts and treasures alike. This, much like the aforementioned worst hits of the year list, is focused on the hits, namely songs that peaked within the top 20 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart sometime in 2021. I’ll say right now that there’s one song where I bent the rules to include a song that will likely fit better here than for 2022.
As for a brief widespread analysis before we get started … well, considering there are years in the 2010s where I’m not sure I could even put together a legitimate top 10 of songs I liked from that year, I will say things are slightly improving at country radio. But the systemic issues still remain, and I wouldn’t really say there’s much that wowed me, outside of a few cuts near the top. The genre – at least in the mainstream – feels oddly transitional right now, and yet I can’t say that affected this list all that much, unlike its aforementioned sibling list. Like with that list, there will be no honorable mentions, so let’s get started.
No. 10 – Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” (written by Randy Montana, Jeremy Stover, and Paul DiGiovanni)
In a just world, I’d be talking about Runaway June’s “We Were Rich” here instead. But quiet, reflective neotraditional country music is a solid fit for Justin Moore, and though his career somewhat seems like it’s on a downswing, this song is fairly likable as a whole. I’ve always appreciated its heavier reliance on atmospherics to let the groove ride and the warm mixture of tempered acoustics and bass, pedal steel and firm percussion settle nicely. Yes, it’s another song pining for nostalgia that’s somewhat relegated to stock images at points, but it’s placed more around the familial aspects that are nearly universal in their appeal, and it did grow a lot on me as the year progressed. Remarkably solid as a whole, and I’d gladly welcome more from Moore in this general vein.
No. 9 – Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” (written by Adam James, Brett James, and Kat Higgins)
I’m slightly cheating with this one, but only because it’s around a week away from peaking, and it’s from an album released in mid-2020. It’s also another track that grew on me, mostly because it’s a solid ballad with a pretty good hook, and also because mature reflection is a good fit for Kenny Chesney at this point in his career. The writing isn’t that detailed, I admit, but there’s a convincing wistfulness to both Chesney’s delivery and the tempered acoustics and electric guitars, all of which shows him reflecting on a past moment long gone yet still remembered with relatable fondness. It’s a track that literally comes and goes, and considering that’s all it’s meant to do, even if he’d gladly do it all again if given the chance… yeah, it was good knowing this track this year.
No. 8 – Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over” (written by Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson)
OK, it’s the third of three tracks thus far that grew on me, if only because a rollicking, chipper mid-tempo cut from Chris Stapleton is usually bound to blow away most other things on the radio on sheer talent alone. But this isn’t really trying for sheer power anyway; it’s Stapleton’s ode to finding inner peace and charting new roads ahead for both him and his family, all against little more than a prominent and slightly faster acoustic line and very subtle touches of organ. And while it’s very easy to see it as a pandemic song – especially given that it was released in August of last year – I remember “Nashville, TN” as well, a fantastic deep-cut about severing ties with Nashville. It’s forgiveness of one’s self that reflects a lot of subtle power beneath, and if you truly want to start over, sometimes you need that leap of faith to jump in and stick the landing. It’s a sentiment I grew to like more and more as the year went on, and as for what’s next from this rejuvenation, well … I’m certainly excited.
No. 7 – Kelsea Ballerini, “hole in the bottle” (written by Ashley Gorley, Steph Jones, Hillary Lindsey, Jesse Frasure, and Kelsea Ballerini)
I’m somewhat torn on this choice, admittedly. I’ve always considered Kelsea Ballerini’s brand of pop-country underrated on her best cuts, and while I wouldn’t place “hole in the bottle” necessarily within that camp, the fusion of prominent slide guitar and rickety-sounding pop production works better than expected across the board. For a song about getting drunk on wine to try and run away from one’s feelings after a breakup, it being a mishmash of styles also somewhat supports the content, oddly enough. But there’s also an acoustic remix of this that I’d argue is a fair bit better, even if the general devil-may-care attitude shines either way. Still a fun song regardless, and considering Ballerini has an even better single climbing the charts right now, I expect to see her back on this list next year.
No. 6 – Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” (written by Luke Dick, Natalie Hemby, and Miranda Lambert)
Look, I’m still not much of a fan of Wildcard, and there’s a part of me that’s incredibly thankful she righted her course with The Marfa Tapes and that “If I Was a Cowboy” is a great introduction into whatever is next for her. Of course, before the course correction comes the moment of questioning how to get there, and that’s largely where “Settling Down,” well, settles. I’m still not wild about some of the sandier production touches, but I like the weariness that comes through in her questioning where she’ll lay down her roots – to settle down or continue on a life on the road filled with endless wandering. It’s not her best song within this vein, but when said songs are some of the best within mainstream country music over the past few decade or so, that says something, and this is still pretty great on its own.
No. 5 – Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That” (written by Allison Veltz Cruz, Alex Kline, and Tenille Arts)
Because of the politics surrounding radio hits these days, I’m pleasantly surprised that this became an unlikely No. 1 hit this year, especially when it’s, you know, a damn good song. It’s euphoric country-pop carried by a supremely great hook further benefited by a strong crescendo for the chorus. And to my surprise, even the production nails what it’s going for well, with a faster groove balance and sweeping, glittering tones that contribute to the huge swell this love song is trying to capture. Granted, while that’s been enough for me since the moment I heard it, it’s more than just a fairy-tale romance. There’s a general maturity in Tenille Arts’ admittance of how she’s chased relationships she thought would lead to love and just didn’t, all carried by the hopeful optimism that she’ll find a love she deserves, all in due time. I’m not much of a fan of where’s she taken her sound since this single, but this was a hugely deserved breakthrough.
No. 4 – Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” (written by Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally, Carly Pearce)
The moment that incendiary hook kicked in, I think everyone knew this was a much different Carly Pearce than the artist we had heard before. 29: Written in Stone confirmed that later on, but this was the needed first step that remains a highlight to this day, all the way from the sharper strumming accompanying the faster tempo to Pearce’s equally biting delivery. She’s also the only mainstream country artist to consistently employ the dobro and give it prominence – she’s always won me over for that. And yet, there’s something I didn’t notice about this song until I heard the album it stems from as a whole, which was as much about Pearce’s divorce as it was Pearce herself, be it through her own culpability in the downfall of her marriage or her reflection on her own place in life. That even-handed framing is also here, where she’s prepared to warn the next girl about her ex-partner’s intentions, but also feels she should have done more to save herself and see the signs earlier. Again, it’s a fantastic start to the next chapter of Pearce’s career, and considering her duet with Ashley McBryde is looking thus far like it’ll be the biggest hit to date for both artists, there’s even more to come.
No. 3 – Elvie Shane, “My Boy” (written by Elvie Shane, Lee Starr, Nick Columbia, Russell Sutton)
I remember listening to this out of morbid curiosity last year, thoroughly expecting to hear something different than what I actually eventually heard. You know the song and dance – generic male country artist has his 15 minutes of time with a radio hit and fades away into the night. And with a song called “My Boy” … well, I didn’t expect to be talking about Elvie Shane again anytime soon. To my pleasant surprise, however, Shane is actually pretty good, and “My Boy” is an excellently written song in the vein of, say, Brad Paisley’s “He Didn’t Have to Be,” told instead from the stepfather’s own perspective. What’s always struck me most is the well-balanced framing, not only in the textured production that lets the acoustics shine with a bit of a rougher edge, but also in the way Shane assesses the impact he’s had on his stepson thus far. It’s genuinely organic in both sound and intent, and with a generally sweet but still lived-in, rough delivery, this became the surprise hit next to Tenille Arts’ “Somebody Like That” I was glad to see happen. I hope to see more, too.
No. 2 – Eric Church, “Hell of a View” (written by Casey Beathard, Eric Church and Monty Criswell)
There’s a part of me that knows I shouldn’t like this as much as I do. It’s the conventional, radio-friendly second single from an Eric Church album that always tends to scan as solid and help propel the album, but does little beyond that. “Hell of a View,” however, has simply remained a welcome exception to that rule. Sure, it’s a pretty standard tale of devotion, but it actually gives the other partner a significant role by framing both her and Church’s characters as equals trying to make it together, both of whom are each a little idiosyncratic. And despite the polished edges, I love the deeper production balance emphasized in the atmospheric-sounding guitars and keys that adds a surprising amount of ragged punch but also conveys the simultaneous joy and anguish of that journey thus far. It’s an earnestly rough-edged love song that gets adventurous without relying on posturing or machismo to get there, instead just letting it come naturally. And I like enough that it, along with my No. 1 entry, just might also make my list of the top songs of the year in general. For now, let’s examine that other possible entry, shall we?
No. 1 – Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” (written by Jason Nix, Jonathon Singleton, and Lainey Wilson)
It’s kind of sad that, outside of a few critics and fans within specific online country music circles, Lainey Wilson still remains something of an unknown entity within mainstream country music. And that was the weird thing about being a new artist in 2021 – with only limited touring options for a good chunk of the year to build or possibly further an organic groundswell, certain artists had to rely on radio to find that breakthrough point. For Wilson specifically, her debut album didn’t quite achieve that breakthrough, but she found a deserved one in “Things A Man Oughta Know,” easily her best song to date and the best song to reach the top of the charts all year, and one that hopefully won’t be her last.
Now, to get out of the way the one element I don’t like about the song, I don’t like that the entire verse is devoted to a checklist, clichéd rundown of things men are “supposed” to know how to do that she can do as well, but what unfolds afterward is something special. It’s a breakup song, but also one where the hurt is implied and the delivery unfolds line by line – even if a significant other doesn’t know what love means in the moment, if the relationship truly means something to them, they should try and learn along the way. And yet, circling back to that first verse, I’ve somewhat begun to understand the intent. She understands that a stereotypical (but still somewhat true) tough-guy stoicism can create an unintentional distance between two partners out of stubborn pride and that’s why I love how the frustration on her end is always more heavily implied than spelled straight out. Wilson can sell it all wonderfully, too. Her understated delivery balances excellently against the mandolin and bass to give this track a generally warm rollick and confidence to support that wry hook, but also emphasizes the bitterness with how those lessons learned came to be. In other words, it’s excellently delivered on all levels, and if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that this is my pick for the best hit song of 2021.