Favorite Hit Country Songs of 2022

I’ve inundated you all with these types of lists all year through a retrospective lens, but it always feels different making them in the here and now. After all, speaking as one passionate country music fan among many, I think I speak for many when I say it’s fun to document history as it’s happening – spot potential trends (and groan about them), predict new and upcoming superstars, and hopefully continue seeing the genre trend in an upward direction …

… And you know, for the first year in a long while I think this is actually a pretty consistently solid batch of hits we’re about to explore, enough to where filling out my recent “worst hits” list was actually the tougher endeavor this year. I’m not sure things are necessarily improving; heck, look at the top 40 right now and there’s still plenty to complain about – and that’s before mentioning ongoing systemic issues. But I think the right word is “exciting,” both in terms of where things could lead over the next year or two, and even in terms of what counts as a country “hit.”

And therein lies the change I’m making with this list compared to past years – and one I should have made a long time ago, to be honest. Before, and in all retrospective top 10 lists I’ve made/will continue to make, I always counted a hit as anything that’s peaked within the top 20 of country music’s airplay chart. But as I continue to see more and more songs propped up by artificial gains and industry witchcraft over actual fan interest, the more the metric doesn’t make as much sense to me as it does when looking at past decades. So, starting with this year, I’m also going to include anything that peaked within the top 10 on the Hot Country Songs chart (at my own discretion, however).

Ah, this introduction is getting lengthy, so let me just state one more thing: As with every year, this is not The Musical Divide’s list of overall favorite songs of the yearjust the hits. A more general top 50 list featuring album cuts and all will follow soon, so for now, let’s dive into the madness.

No. 10 – Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” (written by Chris Stapleton, Ashley Gorley, and Chris DuBois)

Including anything by Chris Stapleton on these kinds of lists always feels funny, if only because I don’t think anyone would really consider him a singles artist and because he doesn’t exactly need them anyway, given Traveller‘s continued massive run. And while I do wish his team would try a little bit harder in that department regardless, “You Should Probably Leave” is a definite standout in his discography. And it does it by playing against expectations, establishing that smooth, slow-rolling blues groove with enough of a pronounced slow burn to work well with Stapleton’s rougher delivery, all to coldly call a relationship here for what it is – an on-again, off-again hookup with a lot of flair but little passion behind it. I mean, no surprise here that Stapleton’s delivery really works well here to establish the bitterness of wanting something more out of something not meant to last, but it’s just smoooooth regardless.

No. 9 – Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t” (written by Ben Stennis and Matt Rogers)

As someone who enjoys rooting for the underdog, it made me happy to see a performer with an already extensive history like Cody Johnson score one of the biggest hits of the year this year. And he did it by poking at a timeless truth we’re all aware of but often act against regardless, even though we shouldn’t – the cruel passage of time and how we take it for granted in the moment in hopes that those second chances will come our way. And yeah, sometimes they do, but it’s always those missed opportunities that will end up burning holes in our memories for far longer. It’s a tried-and-true theme, but what’s always made this rise above for me is Johnson himself, notably the urgency and passion driving his delivery off of a huge hook that actually makes this come across as believable rather than platitude-filled. Regardless, I always got a little more out of it with every revisit.

No. 8 – Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Want to Go Home)” (written by Elle King and Martin Johnson)

Strange as it sounds given my affinity for both acts here, this one had to grow on me. This is the sort of hell-raising song both artists naturally nail, but I had always hoped for better interplay between them here. But the song is so relentlessly bouncy and fun that it hardly matters, especially when they still sport enough excellent chemistry together to lean into the song’s rougher rollick effectively. And yeah, I already noted that this is the type of song both artists could nail in their sleep, but I love that this goes all in on its recklessness and momentum, not only with that undeniably gargantuan hook but also the anthemic drunken antics that can feel playful … and probably a bit more real than intended. It was a real bright spot for these past two years in so many ways, time and time again.

No. 7 – Cole Swindell, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” (written by Cole Swindell, Ashley Gorley, Jesse Frasure, Thomas Rhett, Mark D. Sanders, and Tim Nichols)

I mean, half of why this is here is because of its source material, but calling it a straightforward copycat is definitely unfair. I’ve always given Cole Swindell probably way more credit than he deserves, but in framing this song as a karaoke night hookup track based around Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” he nails the simple, evergreen feeling of how music can connect us and stamp unforgettable memories in our heads. And the thing is, he doesn’t get the girl in the end – he’s got to go on his own trip to track her back down and let the same winds of fate take him wherever they may, which is another subtly cool call back to Messina’s free-spirited ode to living in the moment. It’s always been genuinely fun pretty much by default, but I’d also say it can call back to the past and still stand on its own, and that means something.

No. 6 – Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait” (written by Jim Collins and Trent Tomlinson)

Of course, speaking of songs that can call back to the past and stand on their own, this leans into its heartache effectively and creatively. I’ve been mostly against the recent mainstream country trend of namedropping old songs and artists in an attempt at cultivating nostalgia, mostly because a lot of attempts have felt empty and hollow, like they’ve been capitalizing on a trend and coming across as gimmicks, instead. But when the artist actually understands the source material, it’s a different story, especially when beyond the surprisingly well-placed references and warm neotraditional tones, the underlying punch here is that Scotty McCreery loves George Strait’s music. But he associates it now with all of the painful memories felt by a breakup, making it hard or nearly impossible to now revisit songs he once loved. And that puts up a wall that won’t easily crumble, which is frankly pretty relatable for anyone who’s ever had to distance themselves from art they still love. I’ll be even more thrilled if “The Waiter” gets pushed eventually, but this is just legitimately terrific.

No. 5 – Miranda Lambert, “If I Was a Cowboy” (written by Jesse Frasure and Miranda Lambert)

This always seemed like one of those singles that flew under the radar – even despite her name recognition – and that’s a shame, because while I wouldn’t place this above Miranda Lambert’s 2000s material – that’s a very high bar to clear – this is still greatly underappreciated within her discography. Even just on production alone I’ve always loved the liquid, atmospheric sheen running wild across this track, especially with the whistling pedal steel tones that complement the Palomino spirit well. It’s got the wide open space needed to breathe and have its character conquer her own frontier, which is fitting, given that this plays with gender signifiers to highlight how Lambert’s own outlaw tendencies might be viewed differently – hell, maybe even outright praised – if she was a male figure. There’s been a restlessness to her work for nearly half a decade now, and this is one of the best examples of it coming full circle.

No. 4 – Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” (written by Eric Church)

Some of the next few cuts may not surprise you, given that I actually placed them on my general favorite songs list last year. But I will admit this one kind of faded on me over the year, if only because some of Eric Church’s shenanigans irked me enough to not revisit his work much. So in actually revisiting “Heart On Fire” … well, yeah, it still kicks a lot of ass. I mean, it’s a straightforward, rock star-driven power fantasy that he’s kind of resorted to a lot over his career, but there’s always just been such a loose snarl to this I’ve always loved, mostly in the progression and momentum that erupts into a firestorm by its end. It’s just a simple trip back through time and a reflection on young love with no real regrets over where everyone ended up – just an appreciation for what happened and the soundtrack to accompany it. It’s a track that speaks to a much younger person’s game, but with this, Church proved he’s still got it.

No. 3 – Zach Bryan, “Something In the Orange” (written by Zach Bryan)

The surprise run of the single has been one of my favorite things to watch in recent years, if only because it’s just been so … I don’t know, nutty – especially for independent country, where this sort of mainstream breakout just doesn’t happen. I said before that I love rooting for the underdog, so to see an act like Zach Bryan go from complete nobody to true viral sensation with some actual momentum and possible longevity behind him (provided he doesn’t run out of new material before, like, February or so) has been a thrill to witness. I think what puzzles me, though, is why it was this song that arguably set the wheels in motion – a very bleak, still fairly sparse breakup track where the titular metaphor could carry many meanings. Even I wasn’t completely sold on it initially, given that I think he’s mined this well before numerous times and arguably better on past projects. No one can say for sure I guess, but Bryan is the one writer here who will explore the darkest steps of a disposable relationship like this, where the revelation of the “orange” being either the clarity of approaching dawn or the fading embers of a dead relationship is approached with an intensely raw emotionality. Love him or hate him, that’s worth appreciating to hear on a list like this.

No. 2 – Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (written by Shane McAnally, Ashley McBryde, and Carly Pearce)

I’m legitimately shocked and thrilled this took off the way it did, a dream collaboration that I thought would have remained just a fantastic album cut, but instead became a modern “Does He Love You.” And in today’s landscape, the fact that that could happen at all is worth appreciating by itself. But then a lot of that stinging blame and regret comes through in the opening burnished guitar tones, and both characters tackle the shocking revelation of possibly being the “other woman” with the emotional complexity it deserves. And because it focuses squarely on that initial shock, both women don’t feel at odds here. They can unknowingly commiserate with one another and maybe even find the empathy to understand one another – and on the album this song stems from, possibly even then turn the target toward the cheater who actually deserves the blame. It’s not a perspective that gets to cut through the noise these days, which is yet another reason to appreciate this.

As always, before unveiling my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list:

Jackson Dean, “Don’t Come Lookin'” (written by Jackson Dean and Luke Dick)

Usually when a no-name male country act pops up these days, I can’t bring myself to care all that much. But I actually hear potential in this guy. This is just a great, windows down type of driving track.

Kelsea Ballerini feat. Kenny Chesney, “half of my hometown” (written by Kelsea Ballerini, Ross Copperman, Nicolle Galyon, Shane McAnally, and Jimmy Robbins)

Another song that I wish could have went farther than it ultimately did, a great look at one’s own hometown with the sort of social complexity you don’t hear these days.

Hardy, “Give Heaven Some Hell” (written by Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson, Hunter Phelps, and Hardy)

Wow, this feels odd. But I can’t deny how anthemic this ode to a fallen friend sounds; if Hardy sounded more like this I’d definitely be in his corner.

Kenny Chesney, “Everyone She Knows” (written by Ross Copperman, Josh Osborne, and Shane McAnally)

This was a hit in airplay peak only, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites by him in years. It’s just got a warm, agreeable rollick that never failed to brighten my mood.

Old Dominion, “No Hard Feelings” (written by Brad Tursi, Shane McAnally, Geoff Sprung, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, and Whit Sellers)

And … ditto what I said above for this track.

And now, my No. 1 pick:

No. 1 – Luke Combs, “Doin’ This” (written by Drew Parker, Luke Combs, and Robert Williford)

I guess you could say that rooting for the underdog is a theme of this list in general, because while Luke Combs is certainly far past the point in his career to be considered that, it is a song for them. It’s a unique take in general for an artist who, let’s be honest, could afford to switch things up or take more chances with his topics and his sound – an interview question turned into a song, where the question of what Combs would be doing if he wasn’t the superstar he is comes with a really blunt honesty. He’d be playing the independent circuit, and in today’s climate, that would probably be just as lucrative of a way to make it without having to play the established, tired Nashville industry game. There’s never an ounce of shame in his answer over that option, either.

In a sense, it’s why you get the impression here that he’d just be happy playing music for whatever it’s worth regardless. And you know, I believe him, given that he’s done a lot to uplift an independent scene that the industry at large would rather people didn’t know about in favor of pushing their next forgettable Dylan Scott or Russell Dickerson clone. That he just so happens to be one of the biggest superstars the genre has had in years while doing so … well that says and means a lot to someone like me, and it’s all performed with an intensely passionate urgency to back it up regardless. It’s the sort of should-be anti-hit on paper, but ironically enough, it ended up being a hit that left its mark, at least for me.

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