It’s officially list season time here at The Musical Divide, and while my unofficial first post of the season was meant to generate some lighthearted satire – and where I’d like to stress that plenty of “best of” lists are coming – this is the rare occurrence where I get down and dirty in the trenches with the truly vile stuff. And indeed, for a long time this year I actually thought I’d be spared from really filling this list out; I wouldn’t say things are necessarily improving, but I truly can’t call this a bad year for country music. I’ve been offended by much worse atrocities in other years.
I think it’s why this feels like an odd year overall. Songs got under my skin, but usually for circumstances that extended beyond just the music, where I hated more what they stood for or what dead trends they tried to revive over any glaring technical elements. In a sense, then, beyond the following 10 clunkers featured here, I can’t say the bad stuff was entirely memorable enough to deserve any genuine vitriol – maybe general apathy, at best. But we are in for a bumpy ride, and as always, these songs had to peak within the top 20 on the airplay chart this year to qualify for this list (songs still actively charting are not counted). Let’s get started.
No. 10 – Lee Brice, “Soul” (written by Kevin Kadish and Tony Perrari)
One of its opening lines is, “You’re Mozart in the sheets,” and it somehow goes further downhill from there. And the thing is, Lee Brice is usually the sort of sultry presence who can pull off an effective sex jam. But that underpowered groove neuters any semblance of soul this song aims for and makes the song seel oddly hollow all throughout … which, sadly, only places a greater emphasis on the writing. I’d call it generically corny if Brice’s delivery wasn’t emphasizing every sort of creep factor this song could possibly give off, right down to that damn recurring “toeses” line. It’s mildly catchy and has enough semblance of flow to save itself from being a total disaster, but that also means I was even less enthused to revisit it compared to what’s ahead, knowing it would stick with me against my own wishes.
No. 9 – Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” (written by Cole Taylor, Derek George, Monty Criswell, and Taylor Phillips)
If I’m being fair to the true definition of a “hit,” I could disqualify this outright and save Frank Ray from being my next punching bag. But this is a symbol of how any generic dude can score a minor airplay hit with even the most horrid trash out there – and only a minor airplay hit, because they’ve certainly got no staying power otherwise. Hell, country radio will probably at least reward them with a few “hits,” because why not. And yeah, between that title and the opening snap beat, this sounds exactly like what you think it would, right down to a polished performer with no charisma whatsoever trying to pull off the same tired “real country boy” pandering schlock that wore itself out a long time ago. Letting this chart at all was the first mistake; let’s not give Mr. Ray any further attention, because I bet actual country music wouldn’t look (sound?) good on him.
No. 8 – Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” (written by Parker McCollum and Rhett Akins)
If you needed a reminder of how monumentally slow singles move up the country airplay chart these days, I reviewed this song all the way back in January … of 2021. Yeah. And look, if “Handle On You” continues its pace it will most certainly not make this list next year; it’s good to see Parker McCollum living up to his artistic potential again. But this is always just been a clunky mess that’s annoyed me to no end, from the fragmented lack of melody to the whiny writing that tries to paint Mccollum’s character in the right, even though his incessant complaining is probably why his partner is annoyed with him in the first place … and you know, it’s totally justified.
No. 7 – Russell Dickerson feat. Jake Scott, “She Likes It” (written by Russell Dickerson, Jake Scott, and Josh Kerr)
I feel like I can draw a lot of unfortunate parallels to “Soul” with this: That electric guitar loop is mildly catchy in the moment, but the song doesn’t really have anything in the low end to give it any sense of groove. It’s just hollow and clunky, and it makes me wonder why Russell Dickerson is somehow still relevant. Granted, those aforementioned descriptors also make for pretty appropriate ways to describe the writing – a laundry list of things both Dickerson and Jake Scott’s partners like that, to be fair, doesn’t come across as sleazy and mostly feel sincere as a relationship song. It’s just painfully boring as a concept, especially when this is your by-the-numbers boyfriend country song that doesn’t have a lot going for it otherwise. It weirdly offends me that this is just too painfully average to be further offensive. I don’t know what that means either.
No. 6 – Dustin Lynch, “Party Mode” (written by Jerry Flowers, Ryan Beaver, Roman Alexander, Jared Keim, and Matt McGinn)
At this point, Dustin Lynch is one of the biggest waste of space in the country market who’s way past his short-lived prime. And this is just another bland pop-country track that can’t fully commit to one direction or the other enough to be remotely memorable, even with my favorite instrument – the dobro – leading the charge here. Credit to going a bit against the grain in that regard, I guess; there is a fair bit of rollick to this. It’s just a shame that the only thing I do remember is that annoyingly stupid, repetitive hook, especially when I’ve heard this “life of the party” theme done far better with more nuance in the writing by more expressive and competent performers than Lynch. In other words, like with his discography in general, I have no use for this.
No. 5 – Walker Hayes, “AA” (written by Shane McAnally, Luke Laird, and Walker Hayes)
If you remember last year’s list, you might be surprised Walker Hayes isn’t topping my list once again this year. But I said it last year and I’ll say it again: Hayes will forever live and die by “Fancy Like,” and anything beyond that is always going to sound like a pale imitation of that unfortunate hit. “Y’all Life” proves that alone, but this was the other follow-up hit opting for the same “aw, shucks,” Gomer Pyle-esque demeanor for what is ostensibly an extended dad joke that is this guy’s discography at large. But OK, beyond the obvious (very) surface-level red flags – amateurish production that’s too hollow to even call a bad demo and, of course, Hayes’ lousy talk-singing that’s not in the slightest bit as cutesy as he thinks it is – what irks me more is the general framing. I mean, you get that AA is the therapeutic service used to help provide support, and that if you should try to prevent anything for your kids it’s the drinking in the first place, right, dude? And that alone should make me dislike this more than “Fancy Like,” but like I said before, this is just a pale imitation of that everyday dad life that he’ll only be able to milk for maybe one or two more singles; I can’t get as mad at this as I should. But I can hope to every high power that this is the last time I ever have to write about Hayes’ music.
No. 4 – Morgan Wallen, “You Proof” (written by Morgan Wallen, Charlie Handsome, Ashley Gorley, and Ernest K. Smith)
… Yeah, I figured we’d see him here sooner or later. And look, even if I were to disregard his prior offenses that I can’t help but admit leave anything this guy does with a sour taste in my mouth, I just don’t get the appeal with his music at all. Granted, if I wanted to get cynical I could say that most of the appeal doesn’t lie within the actual music but rather something else … and maybe I just will, because between the cheaply mixed drum machines and choppy guitar passages contributing no sense of groove to this thing whatsoever, this isn’t even a catchy tire fire! Maybe it just comes down to this being yet another song involving him, alcohol, and the inevitable dumbass decisions that ensue from him. Whatever – I’m definitely in no mood to commiserate with him.
No. 3 – Parmalee, “Take My Name” (written by Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson, David Fanning, and Matt Thomas)
I don’t know why I didn’t include “Just the Way” on last year’s list. It didn’t really offend me – I actually found it funny that both this washed-up, mediocre rock band and the guy who tried to make “Old Town Road Pt. 2” a thing managed to make a forgettable hit out of an inevitable wedding song. But this? This annoys me, because not only did this band milk the exact same formula for their follow-up, they somehow got another huge hit out of it! I mean, this was a band that had a minor hit at the start of the bro-country era nearly a decade ago and had been mostly relegated to their rightful place in the bargain bin ever since. And at least “Just the Way” has an annoyingly catchy hook; this is about as watered down and lifeless as it gets, from the neutered production to writing that doesn’t even have the urgency needed for a halfway convincing love song. The fact that mediocrity like this could be rewarded for being such a brazen ripoff … well, it doesn’t surprise me. I did, after all, already discuss Walker Hayes’ contribution to this list. But it never fails to rile me up, and this is no exception.
No. 2 – Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” (written by Jordan Schmidt, Josh Thompson, and Hardy)
And speaking of performers returning to the same well to recapture past success … well, this one should have worked, because for as hard as I’ve been on Blake Shelton’s music for, well, a long time now, I will gladly stand up for “God’s Country” as being a legitimately excellent single. The near southern-Gothic swell, the intensity in the bombast that actually manages to pull itself off effectively thanks to some surprisingly more complex iconography in the writing itself, and, to add to that, Shelton’s huge bellow that actually gave it a ton of genuine heft … none of it should have worked, but it did. And it worked well.
But this? This is what happens when just a small part of that formula gets tweaked, because trade in the late religious iconography and questions of ancestral obligations in favor of more straightforward rural pride pandering, and you get this track. All of a sudden, then, the ominous atmosphere just feels like self-gratuitous chest-thumping for a very overdone theme (even on this list alone), where even Shelton himself sounds far more rigid and oddly robotic than he ever has before. I have never liked these types of songs, but I like them even less when they sound as self-defensive, petulant, and overblown as this. For a while it was my least favorite single of the year, but there’s something even worse than this ahead.
Before I unveil that pick, however, here are a few dishonorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list:
Dierks Bentley, “Beers On Me” (feat. Breland and Hardy) (written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Dick, Ross Copperman, Breland, Dierks Bentley, and Hardy)
I had this in my top 10 at one point, but between his next album reportedly not featuring this single or “Gone” and Dierks Bentley himself doing better by collaborating more with names like Billy Strings – alongside a decent lead single in “Gold,” too – I’m willing to forgive this particular collaborative clunker … for now.
Sam Hunt, “23” (written by Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, Chris LaCorte, and Josh Osborne)
Oh, it feels weird to only list Sam Hunt in this category of this list. How the mighty fall, am I right? A decent groove saved it, because the writing is, of course, as smugly self-satisfied as always.
Thomas Rhett, “Slow Down Summer” (written by Ashley Gorley, Sean Douglas, Jesse Frasure, Rhett Akins, and Thomas Rhett)
I had enough examples of audio NyQuil on this list already, but hey …
And finally, Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” (written by Luke Laird, Jon Pardi, and Rhett Akins)
I’m sorry, the really corny hook eventually got to me. He can’t pull off this island-themed material for the life of him, especially when his nasal vocals make Kenny Chesney’s nasal vocals sound like Don Williams.
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1 – Morgan Wallen, “Wasted On You” (written by Morgan Wallen, Ernest K. Smith, Josh Thompson, and Ryan Vojtesak)
This feels like one of the more deflating No. 1 picks I’ve had for this sort of list, if only because everything that annoys me about it is an element I’ve outlined time and time again – even here, with the “You Proof” blurb. The weird thing about “Wasted On You,” though, is that I can’t say it fails at its premise. It’s a murky post-breakup track drowning in petty misery through the writing and the watery tonal choices and bassy trap thump. Weirdly, however, it’s because it works and is convincing that it drives me mad to no end. I mean, there’s the framing alone and the word choice, where he’s not only clearly still not over this ex-significant other, he calls their time together a “waste,” simply because Mr. Entitled didn’t get everything he wanted. Even knowing it’s just a song … man, it sure tracks with this guy’s general attitude, especially when there’s no further growth or catharsis on his end here.
It’s just endless stewing in one’s own anger that, yeah, again, works, but is just so generally unpleasant to sit through even the once, which is how I could describe listening through most of Wallen’s discography. And yeah, yeah, “leave your biases at the door and remain objective.” No, forget that. Hearing this in new context after everything this guy has ever been in the news for, I can’t help but label this as whiny entitlement that deserves to be trashed rather than rewarded. And that it isn’t … well, there’s not much I can do about it, but I can at least call it out for what it is – the worst hit single of this year by a disgustingly large margin.