I described 2005 as a transitional year in our last edition of this series, so it makes sense to view years on either side of the past and present as eventful. And, well, that’s one way to describe 2004. At a glance, you’d think it was a quiet year, but this is also where we’d need to dive deeper into the what the actual hits tell us. This is really the last year where 9/11-themed songs rocked the charts, and even then, obviously not as loudly as years prior. In between that we saw the rise of artist like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and Keith Urban as legitimate superstars, all while women suffered on the charts from the (formerly Dixie) Chicks fallout. And then there’s just the songs that became legitimate huge hits out of nowhere that genuinely surprised me; but hey, we’ll get to that later.
For now, let’s get started. If you’re new to this series, we compile these lists according to what peaked within the top 20 during the year examined for each feature. And it’s all in good fun and nothing more, so be sure to let us know your favorites from this year as well. Anyway, onward!
No. 10. Shania Twain feat. Billy Currington, “Party For Two” (written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain)
… Don’t look at me like that; I already explained why I like this once before. And since that is a thing, I’ll keep this entry brief by posting a recap: Twain’s chemistry with a young Billy Currington, of all people, is shockingly great and both acts sound like they’re having a blast. It makes all the more sense, though, when you consider that these are two vocalists known more for their positive sentimentalities that can have a lot of fun with a track self-aware enough of its many, many sexual innuendos to try and dress up a hook-up. It’s campy as hell, no doubt, but both Twain and Currington know that and lean into it anyway, because … why not? It’s stupid, but I love it.
No. 9 – Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying” (written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman)
It’s arguably the biggest hit of Tim McGraw’s career, and deservedly so, considering that this was a crossover hit that swung for the fences and absolutely struck gold. It’s always a prime example of how artists can turn songs into their own despite writing them, because with the father-son connection painted here echoed by McGraw’s relationship with his own father, there’s a real, lived-in gut punch to the framing that gives this song its weight. Of course, you don’t need that welcome key change toward the end to see that this song isn’t necessarily trying to be heavy, but rather uplifting and celebratory of the gift of life itself. It’s anthemic in a way that captures lost dreams before they’re lost and inspires listeners to actually make the most of the time left, and while that’s usually easier said than done, this at least inspires me to try.
No. 8 – Julie Roberts, “Break Down Here” (written by Jess Brown and Patrick Jason Matthews)
Man, Julie Roberts deserved so much more than this minor top 20 hit. As the definitive version of an old Trace Adkins album cut, though, it’s better than nothing, especially when Roberts’ more weathered delivery against the pedal steel and organ adds a lived-in edge this track needed. And in capturing that relatable feeling of putting on a brave face to finally move on from a bad breakup, the double entendre of that hook has always added an excellent touch. Again, I wish we could have heard more, but I’ve never minded stopping for a moment to revisit this.
No. 7 – Kenny Chesney, “I Go Back” (written by Kenny Chesney)
I’m old enough now where this track about romancing nostalgia is nostalgic in its own right, and I can’t tell if that makes me sad or not. OK, so it does. But like with “Live Like You Were Dying” from before, this was Kenny Chesney’s hugely anthemic ode to life and memories made, just with a musical angle that noted how certain songs undoubtedly bookmark chapters of our lives – heck, it’s part of why this feature exists in the first place. It’s an obvious sentiment, but one painted with so much realism and a progression to its story, especially in its note of how music can remind us of both good and bad times. Again, though, like with the McGraw song, it’s always meant to be celebratory more than dour, even if that last verse hits closer to home than I’d like to admit. And yet, even with that said, I’d gladly always go back to this one.
No. 6 – Sara Evans, “Suds in the Bucket” (written by Billy Montana and Tammy Wagoner)
A story about an 18-year-old woman who leaves town to elope with her boyfriend and completely rocks her small town in the aftermath of her departure really could have only worked as a country song. There are similar small-town-themed tracks to dabble in drama that came before and after this song, but none of them have ever struck the right balance of playful fun quite like “Suds in the Bucket” did here. There’s also the added complexities of those kind of societal expectations that could make her want to run in the first place, but that’s neither here nor there. It just moves at such a breakneck speed as it is, that it reinforces the suddenness of that hook a little too well. What a jam.
No. 5 – Alan Jackson, “Remember When” (written by Alan Jackson)
Even knowing that he was riding the momentum from previous monster hits like “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” I’m still often surprised that “Remember When” became yet another staple in a career full of them. I mean, this was a deeply personal acoustic ballad that was a second single from a greatest hits compilation; I don’t know what happened to make it huge, but I’m glad it happened anyway. Granted, just digging into the nitty gritty of the song itself, it’s easy to see why this is among his best, telling the story of his relationship to wife Denise from beginning to end in flashback montage. And what makes Jackson an excellent, underrated storyteller is how he doesn’t pull punches here. The first time they were together wasn’t great, and the conflicts are given almost as much airtime as the good times. And yet, it’s that sense of lived-in detail that really makes it feel like a love story that’s earned its stripes and has really stood the test of time, especially against the supple blend of strings and pedal steel to give it all a sweet yet weathered touch.
No. 4 – Josh Turner, “Long Black Train” (written by Josh Turner)
There’s always been something warm and comforting about Josh Turner’s music for me. I attribute it first and foremost to childhood nostalgia, and that’s especially true for this song, which adopts the usual praise-and-worship presentation style for this type of rousing gospel number, but feels more grounded in realism. That is, the strength has always been in its inspiring energy and accessibility in framing it around something as common as the temptations of sin, which even Turner admits is alluring at times. This has just always had a gentle easiness akin to a Don Williams song, yet also a paradoxical unease in its lyrical framing that’s presented with sincerity over unsettling preachiness. Couple it with fantastic production, and it just may make for Turner’s best song.
No. 3 – John Michael Montgomery, “Letters from Home” (written by Tony Lane and David Lee)
This was John Michael Montgomery’s last big song to hit the charts, a wartime-themed song that feels universal rather than tied to the events of its time, and in a way that doesn’t feel pandering in capturing the family relationship across the world. And really, it’s always been what isn’t said here that grips me here, especially when there’s obvious tension between a son who chose to enlist and an estranged father trying to come to terms with it. The song never explicitly outlines what causes that tension, whether it be that the father also enlisted at one point and doesn’t want his son to witness the horrors he did, or whether the timeliness of the song’s release was supposed to say all that needed to be said, or whether it was something else entirely. Either way, that final verse packs a real punch, and when you have a great performer like Montgomery against generally warm tones in the dobro and harmonica and excellent acoustics, it’s a great send-off to a stacked career – and a pretty damn underrated one, too. – ZK
No. 2 – Rachel Proctor, “Me and Emily” (written by Rachel Proctor and Chris Tompkins)
Another one-hit wonder, and I’m even madder about this one. On the surface, this is yet another song with dark undertones to frame itself as celebratory on this list – in this case, the story of a mother who escapes an abusive partner with her daughter – but to me it’s also another song here where the punch comes only in what’s implied. They escaped and started over, for sure, but there’s still that general unease of what to do next and how the lyrics are quick to point out that they left without taking much, all while it goes without saying that they’re not quite safe yet. Yet it’s that motherly bond portrayed here that gives the song its inspiring confidence, especially when the protagonist realizes it’s because of her daughter that she found the strength to finally leave at all. Not an easy song to revisit, but absolutely underrated, and one that deserved so much more.
Before unveiling the No. 1 pick, as always, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut:
Tracy Lawrence, “Paint Me a Birmingham” (written by Buck Moore and Gary Duffy)
It hurt leaving this one off; it’s arguably Tracy Lawrence’s best late-career single.
Gary Allan, “Songs About Rain” (written by Pat McLaughlin and Liz Rose)
Man, it hurt leaving this one off, too! Just a fantastic little slow burn, and arguably one of Allan’s best.
Montgomery Gentry, “If You Ever Stop Loving Me” (written by Bob DiPiero, Rivers Rutherford, and Tom Shapiro)
A love song with some actual grit and teeth to it. Hell yeah, boys.
SHeDAISY, “Passenger Seat” (written by Kristyn Osborn and Connie Harrington)
I never liked this group, but this one is actually kind of fun without being corny or outright stupid? I kind of hate to admit that, but … ?
Keith Urban, “Days Go By” (written by Monty Powell and Keith Urban)
Songs like this are his bread and butter. So much fun to revisit.
And now, our No. 1:
No. 1 – Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby” (written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall)
Like with my recent Shania Twain entry, this is a song I’ve already discussed elsewhere, but I think the context of its release is worth revisiting here. Like “Remember When,” this is a song I’m shocked became a huge hit, especially in the early 2000s. I mean, it’s always been gutting on premise alone – a song about a double suicide caused by betrayal and alcoholism is among the most daring releases in country music specifically, even given its history of indulging in its alcohol. Before I even delve into the song itself, I can highlight so much it did right beyond it, like proving that Paisley was always worth more than just his jokes and that maybe his critics were wrong about him, and that recruiting Krauss to deliver one of her most haunting verses and vocals in general was absolutely the right call, especially with Dan Tyminski adding an additional background vocal. Though both performers act as observers and storytellers here, there’s so much added weight in having each of them contribute a verse to the larger story.
Which is to say that the song is, of course, exceptionally written, sketching the breaking point for each partner in the relationship and how their own unfortunate actions caused a domino effect that eventually led them back to each other … hopefully to find a peace they couldn’t find on Earth. The production is sparse, carried only faint touches of bass and dobro to highlight that stark and lonely contrast, but in a way it also does provide that needed sense of closure and peace by its end while also sounding utterly bleak and melancholic in the beginning. Honestly, it’s so depressing and frank in what it’s going for, that I’m actually thankful the “la’s” can provide some semblance of peace and levity to this lullaby. I already declared it to be among their best, but beyond being my pick for the best hit of 2004, it’s one of the best hits of the 2000s. Period.