I’ve come to terms with the fact that any list I make involving song rankings is bound to be a personal endeavor. It’s odd, too, because with the lists focusing on hit songs (that you’ve already seen), I feel like I’m mapping out country music’s popular history, and usually my favorite albums lists always feel the most “professional,” for whatever that’s worth.
But for as much as I can appreciate great songs from afar for what they can accomplish for the artists who made them and for others, at the end of the day, this list will always be the most revealing of my year – a soundtrack, if you will. The thing is, I’m still not sure how to accurately categorize this year. I found 2022 to be a mostly scattered year – I’ll dig into that more in my eventual albums list – and unlike other years, where I’ve mostly kept a running list of favorites all year and have been able to properly manage it, this is one of those years where I didn’t really know what my favorites would be. My favorite albums just didn’t tend to immediately carry my favorite songs, and I found great individual moments in unexpected places; it’s weird, and it happens sometimes. But this also feels like the most rejuvenating list I’ve made yet. It makes sense, given the past few years, but my top favorites this year resonated with me less because of personal reasons and more just for, well, purely primal ones. And that’s why it feels like this is the most fun I’ve ever had compiling and going back through the selections.
Granted, I’m also aware that the music isn’t being made for just me, so I’m here today to share my favorite songs of the year, where maybe (hopefully) you’ll find a new favorite or two yourself, or are familiar with some of these songs. As always, the rules are as follows:
- These songs had to be covered by me in some form throughout this year, either through reviewing a parent album they stemmed from or through my Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature. Singles featured here that are eventually placed on an album I review in a later year will not be featured again, however if the opposite is true and I didn’t cover something the first time around in another year, it’s fair game.
- Up to three entries per artist are allowed – I usually consider three entries per album, but this year was a bit tricky in that regard; you’ll see.
No. 50 – Little Big Town, “Whiskey Colored Eyes” (from Mr. Sun)
This is the sort of melodic slow burn that Little Big Town mastered on their last few projects, at least before the disappointing Mr. Sun pulled that focus away. But in focusing on the positive, this is a hookup between two old flames with too much history between them to end it off entirely, but who both also know they’ll never have anything more than that temporary feeling. Straightforward all in all, but surprisingly mature with the older perspective adding genuine weight to the sadness of it, further bolstered by the light percussion brushing against the twinkling acoustics and soft bass groove. And along with those gorgeous-as-ever vocal harmonies, there’s enough bittersweet regret peppered in to suggest our characters would like it all to mean something more … or just have the guts to quit for good.
No. 49 – Zach Bryan, “Tishomingo” (from American Heartbreak)
So, Zach Bryan released a lot of music this year. Entirely too damn much, and favorites will very wildly, I’m sure. But for me, “Tishomingo” is the one song I kept coming back to, and it’s possible I did just for that fantastic galloping pedal steel-led climax that has a lot of fantastic build-up going for it through the equally frantic progression. But that sense of greater stakes and urgency is also evident in the content, where Bryan retreats to the country to find peace of mind. Sure, it’s a familiar theme – and even this song hints at a breakup being the reason behind needing to escape painful memories – but as always with him, it’s the starry-eyed detail and personal reflections that make this feel more lived-in and contribute to the real reasons he needs to find solitude – he just needs to do it for himself. It’s a sense of restlessness that colored a lot of his work this year, and for me, it’s still the shining example of it.
No. 48 – Kelsey Waldon, “Season’s Ending” (from No Regular Dog)
Well, this isn’t fair. Kelsey Waldon crafts a tribute to the late John Prine, and it carries the sort of subtle grace and windswept beauty you’d expect it to, and also hits like a truck. Time and distance heal all wounds, of course, but I love that Waldon connects that familiar truth to the changing of the seasons, not only evoking some beautiful imagery along the way while she’s at it, but also going to show that the changing of the seasons can help the pain to fade somewhat … and also bring it back around again. Such is the cruel nature of time itself, and what happens when the shattering of an idol’s influence has a profound effect on us all. But if being reminded of the pain of that loss is also what keeps the fond memories and attachments alive, then we’re certainly better for it than simply forgetting altogether. After all, Prine may have bloomed and went away, to paraphrase this song, but the music will live on and be easily revisited, regardless of the season.
No. 47 – William Beckmann, “In the Dark” (from Faded Memories)
I’ve always just considered this to be a really solid post-breakup song, but it’s also the sort of track where the execution makes it so much more. First through William Beckmann’s young but still surprisingly weathered and mature delivery, and through some excellently tempered production, anchored in that bittersweet sadness through the warm pedal steel and acoustics. But it’s also a song where Beckmann searches for closure he won’t find, because his partner left him on a whim and in the dark. Even then, though, while the questions asked of why she left mostly revolve around his own possible faults in the relationship, he also just wishes they’ve found happiness wherever they are, even if it’s without him. It’s the standout track to a solid EP, and I can’t wait to hear more from him.
No. 46 – Hailey Whitters, “College Town” (from Raised)
“Everything She Ain’t” is the song paving the way for Hailey Whitters’ breakthrough, and that’s fine – it’s a good song. For me, though, I love when she leans heavier on character detail and slight storytelling, as while “College Town” is very specifically focused, it’s also relatable for many. And as someone not far removed from remembering what the events of this song are like, it’s the sort of song that will carry greater weight depending on how much one does remembers that feeling – the one of leaving home for the first time to see a bigger world that will challenge your perspective and shake everything you thought you knew. And yeah, it’s a weird mess of scary and exciting that will sort itself out in time, which is why Whitters leans into the wind to embrace it regardless, because sometimes the school of life itself is the greatest teacher.
No. 45 – The Wilder Blue, “Shadows and Moonlight” (from The Wilder Blue)
The Wilder Blue are just so wonderfully diverse in their sound, that despite mostly being known mostly for their Eagles-esque harmonies and easygoing nature, they can also turn right around to pull from southern Gothic tradition and do it damn well. Spoiler alert: It’s not the only time they’ll do it on this list. But for as dark as it is, “Shadows and Moonlight” is also just a flurry of fun, a high octane, bluegrass-inspired rush that involves alcohol-influenced hallucinations of old ghosts and a comeuppance for a character who’s been living each day expecting it. And that’s the thing – it’s such a great, vengeful story that can still manage to fly right by if you’re not paying attention. It’s a little outside of the band’s typical wheelhouse, and I’ve loved the rest of the album all year long. But this? A real songwriting and instrumental highlight, for sure.
No. 44 – David Quinn, “Long Road” (from Country Fresh)
Speaking of songs outside of an artist’s wheelhouse, David Quinn came on my radar earlier this year with the surprisingly homespun, generally rich and warm Country Fresh that’s low-key and low stakes in a mostly good way. But I found him to be a better balladeer above all else, and this is one of two examples from that album. Just on presentation alone his weathered tone does wonders for this track’s natural weariness, anchored in that beautiful piano and fiddle work but also in a sense of longing that’s just achingly sad. And I love how the faint female backing vocals could suggest his loneliness stems from a breakup he can’t shake, where the end note is one of even greater somberness as he finds himself unable to find the end of that long road. And as for what that actually means … well, it’s subject to interpretation I suppose, but I do know that this is one of the most naturally beautiful songs I heard all year.
No. 43 – Mary Gauthier, “Amsterdam” (from Dark Enough to See the Stars)
And from a sense of longing, we have a sense of peace and comfort, where Mary Gauthier is feeling alright in Amsterdam, and where against gentle, upbeat brushes of warm piano, organ, and soft percussion, I’m feeling alright as well in general. She’s one of the few songwriters who can actually create deeper meaning out of a list-structured songwriting style, thanks in part to some very specific imagery used, and because these little moments and snapshots she’s capturing around town are all used to fuel a general feeling of thankfulness for what she’s got. It’ll all be gone someday, and so will we, which is the frankly dark admittance she comes to toward the end here. But in capturing a moment to be thankful for, Gauthier made one of those magical pieces of music that actually provided some healing this year.
No. 42 – Gabe Lee, “Kinda Man” (from The Hometown Kid)
I could normally take or leave songs about sports – even as a former high school athlete – but “Kinda Man” is indicative of why I love Gabe Lee’s Hometown Kid album in general: It’s nostalgic without being beholden to the past and able to look back at memories with fondness for what happened then and what’s happening now, even if those glory days might have painted you as a more memorable character. Fitting that this particular song is also Lee’s attempt at ’80s-inspired heartland rock that has a ton of blazing momentum to it. And with a lot of excellent balance in the writing and production overall, it’s the first of many examples here to come of why Lee is still a one of a kinda man.
No. 41 – Luke Combs feat. Miranda Lambert, “Outrunnin’ Your Memory” (from Growin’ Up)
I, too, wish Luke Combs was a little more ambitious with his material, but he struck gold twice this year, with the first example being this great midtempo duet with Miranda Lambert. Call it just a case of nailing the basics extremely well, from a well-balanced groove and rollicking melodic hook, to a post breakup track that works well for these two particular acts who have a ton of natural chemistry together as performers chasing their own wanderlust; kind of a fitting way to describe them outside of the song as well. And while they both made songs I liked better this year, this is a track I wanted way more to revisit this year than outrun.
No. 40 – The Vandoliers, “I Hope Your Heartache’s a Hit” (from The Vandoliers)
Ah, the huge smile the song brings to me every time I sing along with, “I’m sorry that I’m not sorry.” It’s a moment among many on the Vandoliers’ last album where the band barges through with a shit-eating grin and a wink in their step and manage to turn misfortune around in their favor, all with a hard-charged swagger as they turn a heartache into a big ol’ alt-country hit. Fitting, too, that between the saloon piano and the swinging, crunchy guitar work, this feels like it’s meant to be played in a sweaty dive bar and relished by everyone within the establishment. “Hits” these days can come in so many forms, and it’s not like a song’s worth is tied to any metrics of popularity. But whether it’s deep within the underground or able to transcend it, this song deserves to be the dive bar classic it was made to be.
No. 39 – Carter Faith, “Greener Pasture” (single release)
Weird melodic connection to Martina McBride’s “I Love You” aside, this was one of my favorite surprises of the year. This is just a great, smoky, atmospheric pop-country track buoyed not only by Carter Faith’s stridently clear tone to her delivery as well as her presentation, but also in the way she plays around with typically male-oriented tropes to showcase the other perspective. And in this case, that means showcasing the woman who gets left behind by the cowboy who’s free to roam from town to town. And I like that she plays it all with a bit of self-aware maturity to understand that this relationship was likely doomed to end quickly from the start, but still feels hurt and left behind in thinking maybe he could change for the better. There’s just so much great subtlety in the writing and delivery to appreciate here, and if she’s got more where this came from down the line, I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
No. 38 – Stacy Antonel, “Karmic Cord” (from Always the Outsider)
I’ll get to why Stacy Antonel’s Always the Outsider was one of the most criminally slept-on albums of the year in a later list, but the way she’s able to play with tone through both her delivery and the composition itself is just jaw-dropping. There’s so much natural intensity and smolder captured in this post-breakup track, and the thing is, it’s all of a subtler variety as Antonel snakes through feelings that could either be described as bittersweet or maybe even sinister, depending on perspective. Fitting, given that she describes this as cutting a karmic cord that’s been dragged and stretched out way farther and longer than it should have been, where one can tell she’s past carrying any regrets and just wants to be done. The low-key stakes is part of the point, then … and also part of the brilliance.
No. 37 – Kaitlin Butts, “bored if I don’t” (from what else can she do?)
My favorites from this project have shifted wildly all year, and on a different day I could probably pick other tracks and they’d fit in just as well here; that’s what happens when you get a short project like this that doesn’t really feature any misses. But “bored if I don’t” has always felt like something of an outlier on what else can she do?, a moment where Kaitlin Butts isn’t on the receiving end of misfortune but rather the one who has to dish it out, if only in secret. That’s what happens when you live in a small town where life is essentially planned out for you and you end up jumping into promises of commitment way too early. And yeah, Butts knows her character is the villain here with all of her sneaking around and infidelity, but hell, she’s not going to take your judgment, either. It’s one example of many of the complexities that surround womens’ issues on its parent album, and while that easy, slow-rolling country melody is easy on the ears, it’s still a hard song to confront overall; you should anyway.
No. 36 – Luke Combs, “Doin’ This”
That’s right – two Luke Combs songs. And because I already spotlighted this song on a certain other list, I’ll keep this one brief. As someone who believes great music can be found everywhere under the country music umbrella – be it in the mainstream, the independent realm, or somewhere else – I love that this looks to bridge that musical divide and gap to speak for the lesser-known acts … all from one of the current biggest superstars in the format right now, and with a genuine emotional resonance to it. A more important track than it ever got credit for being, and possibly Combs’ best in general.
No. 35 – Kelsea Ballerini, “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too) (from Subject to Change)
Seeing Kelsea Ballerini lean heavily into more neotraditional country textures … well, I can’t lie, it’s a bit unexpected, especially given how I do think a fair bit of her pop-country is sorely underrated. But by striking the right balance between the two, she made her best moment on record to date, a tale of friendship where she’s no hellraiser, but very well could be if the situation called for it. Honestly, it’s the faster flow and quippy one-liners that come and go that really sell this for me, where, hypothetically speaking or otherwise, these best friends will do anything for one another. Anything. And with the great touches of fiddle and mandolin anchoring the melodic progression, it’s as close of a link in the modern day to classic Shania Twain and Chicks music as we’ll likely ever get. Yes, I just said that – don’t look at me like that. But that would also undercut how Ballerini made something all her own here, a song I’d be thrilled to see take off in 2023.
No. 34 – 49 Winchester, “Russell County Line” (from Fortune Favors the Bold)
How fitting that a tried-and-true road band like 49 Winchester arguably made the best song in that vein this year. The framing isn’t much different than what you’d expect – it’s simply the familiar tale of the musician working on the road who’s feeling the miles and ready to return home. The key here is the progression and grasp of tone, where our character has to face reality and accept that his hard living ways and constant time spent away from home have real effects on those left behind – consequences he can’t ignore any longer. This is a band known mostly for its snarled country and southern-rock leanings, but they’ve got a soulful bent to their best work too. And between the intimacy crafted in the understated, warm acoustics and piano work that’s doing a ton of the heavy lifting here, this is a track that can own its weariness really effectively and feel like a true catharsis for our character, especially when that track kicks into high-gear for that incredibly well-timed electric guitar solo. And as for why it’s felt so cathartic with every revisit, well, I’d like to think it’s because it feels like he’s finally choosing the way home. And for good this time.
No. 33 – Ian Noe, “Appalachia Haze” (from River Fools & Mountain Saints)
This isn’t the Ian Noe song I expected to creep up on me the most this year. It’s not the snarled frenzy of “Pine Grove (Madhouse),” nor is it the tempered character portrait of “Tom Barrett,” or even the complex elegance of “One More Night.” If not for my rule, I could have easily featured them as well. But there’s just something alluring about that minor, ghostly swell here on a heartbreaking late-album cut, where despite the obvious hardships of poverty and depression against its atmospheric murkiness, there’s a sense of fool’s hope that, sure, might be found in vain, but is something to hold on to, nevertheless. In such a world where the work is dangerous and death is so much more certain at any point, it makes the better parts worth preserving. Or, in other words, it’s a song that might as well encapsulate Ian Noe’s poetic way of capturing the heart of Appalachia he knows all too well. There will be … err, “happier” Noe moments to come, but this is a hell of a beautiful album statement that needed to be better appreciated.
No. 32 – Adeem the Artist, “Middle of a Heart” (from White Trash Revelry)
The beauty of Adeem the Artist’s work is that they can invite you into their own world to see things through their perspective, and they can just as easily look outward and see through the eyes of others, thanks to their wonderfully empathetic writing. So we have this, a tribute to a real friend of theirs framed around a character who essentially embodies the all-American male – one who grew up with guns, got married young, and went off to war. But because Adeem the Artist is not one to shy away from a reality that other country singers might otherwise glorify, they dig into the deeper effects one’s choices may have on the human psyche, like how the weight of taking another life early on in childhood leaves an impression that comes around full circle later on … I saw how this track would likely end when I first heard it, and it still gutted me regardless to hear it. Even against gentler brushes of acoustics and pedal steel, it’s not enough levity to prepare one for the progression here. It’s human, it’s sad, and it is what it is – damn you, Adeem.
No. 31 – Arlo McKinley feat. Logan Halstead, “Back Home” (from This Mess We’re In)
Arlo McKinley’s This Mess We’re In isn’t necessarily devoid of hope – hell, finding it in spite of dire circumstances is one of its main thematic arcs – but there are moments that are going to test one’s own limits, and likely without a way out for the time being. So here, we have a tried-and-true tale of a self-destructive character who implodes via his own vices, where the details are terse but effective in sketching out the scene, all the same. I think there’s two other factors that weigh heavily in this song’s favor, though. For one, McKinley’s craggy vocal style (and, by extension, Logan Halstead’s as well) fits the lived-in weariness of this song excellently, where he knows he’s past the point of return and is saddled with regret because of it. And there’s something to be said for how crushing that weight can feel, especially against a mix of barroom piano and excellent crying fiddle work that’s light but equally melancholic. But you don’t get the feeling it’s dark enough to see the stars here, at least not quite yet.
No. 30 – Ian Noe, “Lonesome As It Gets”
And on the flip side to crushing loneliness, we have, well, jubilant loneliness, where I start to have questions about our character’s mental health here when he decides to just up and burn down a Christmas tree. On the other hand, let’s be honest, this is different for Ian Noe in a good way, first with the shuffling pedal steel playing off the bass patter that’s never failed to brighten my mood, and also … well, I guess that’s it. This is, after all, just as dark and self-destructive as his most harrowing tunes. But with a wink and maybe a hint of self-awareness here, Noe made the downward spiral at least feel a little less lonely, even despite its title.
No. 29 – Caroline Spence, “Clean Getaway” (from True North)
Caroline Spence is just great at creating slow burns, thanks to nuanced writing and production that takes its spare, organic country vibe with just enough reverb to accentuate the striking melodies. And “Clean Getaway” is exactly that and a great refinement of past strengths, first evident in a really fantastically burnished groove riding off the faint atmospherics, touches of bass, and piano to really accentuate that hook. And in the spirit of the last few years, this is a song anchored in that trauma, except it looks beyond that and works through its exploration of failure to move on from past events and settle into a new, better normal. It feels grounded in a way that, to be cliche, feels “real,” but this is one of those songs that’s almost too relatable and easy to understand.
No. 28 – David Quinn, “I Just Want to Feel Alright”
And continuing onward with feeling stuck in the middle, we have the other ballad highlight from David Quinn’s Country Fresh, and this time around the middle is exactly where we’re staying. Like with before, Quinn’s naturally haggard yet soulful tone does a lot of the heavy lifting here, both in capturing the exhausted desperation of being at his wit’s end and wanting so desperately to rise above it without knowing how. But the production is also incredibly well-balanced, anchored in its sweeping, atmospheric piano work and distant pedal steel to denote the loneliness – all before a harmonica solo comes into to seal the deal, too. And I’m not sure a line like “I don’t want to feel so goddamn angry every day” could have possibly resonated louder in 2022. Just another terrific slow burn here, and the easy centerpiece of Quinn’s discography thus far.
No. 27 – Brett Eldredge, “Get Out of My House” (from Songs About You)
I have no idea how much longer we have until Brett Eldredge’s record label tells him to go back to recording generic mainstream country in order to court radio again, but I love the version of him we’re hearing right now. But a song this smooth and easy isn’t designed to be a kiss-off, and Eldridge shouldn’t be able to handle this as well as he does; he’s too nice. But that roiling, natural swagger is also part of why it works in general, as Eldredge demands the space needed to get a cheater out of his life and better his mental health – an underrated anchoring point of a lot of his recent work, really. Really, though, it’s that humongous chorus and hook that makes this another country-soul staple in his disgraphy. And if his team managed him better, this could have been the single to take the genre by storm. Hey, there’s still time.
No. 26 – Yelawolf and Shooter Jennings, “Hole In My Head” (from Sometimes Y)
… Yeah, sure, why not. I’m not necessarily establishing genre borders here by any means anyway, and this isn’t that far removed from other stuff here, either. And in yet another example of Shooter Jennings just being on a roll as a producer, we have the jangled acoustics and swell of organ blasting off of the guitar feeding well into Yelawolf’s knack for incredibly strong melodic hooks. It’s the backbone for why I thought their collaborative effort was way better than it had any right to be, and while I could otherwise take or leave Yelawolf’s take on heartland Americana in the writing, I’ll always love the sunny adrenaline rush this brings the table.
No. 25 – Miranda Lambert, “Carousel” (from Palomino)
I mean, it had to be here. And while I was slightly disappointed by Palomino, I’m not about to miss out on highlighting one of Miranda Lambert’s best songs in years. I don’t know what it is about her resorting to circus-themed material that always works so well, because when paired with the restless spirit of constantly being out on the road, it makes her character’s short-lived fling with a partner here have a big impact on her road afterward. They disappear in search of the next show, forcing her to pick up the pieces and move on, even if it means essentially starting a new life. And it’s pretty apparent by Lambert’s delivery early on that she’s going to step directly into the role of the lover left behind by the end due to how emotionally raw it is, able to finally find some peace, if not actual closure. Either way, it’s the reality of that journey, bittersweet as it is wonderful for the show to have happened at all.
No. 24 – Tony Logue, “Pilot Oak” (from Jericho)
I’m noticing a theme of songs here with a sense of distance to them, where time has either tempered the edges of painful memories or only cut the divide even worse than before. It’s the latter case with this song, the stunning closer to Tony Logue’s excellent Jericho album in which a couple is still together but the relationship is very much strained. The scars left weren’t brought on by either one’s actions, but by a miscarriage that only reminds them of what could have been, with only faint acoustics and recurrent fiddle here to fill the sound of silence. And when the subtext here suggests it might affect their relationship to the point of needing to distance themselves from even from each other … well, it’s a tough song to hear and an even more difficult one to confront, especially as an album closer. But that darker perspective is the reality for some, and it’s important to speak for that, even if it does cause damage that can’t be undone.
No. 23 – Orville Peck (unofficially feat. Bria Salmena), “All I Can Say” (from Bronco)
So, I’ll admit I didn’t love Bronco as much as, well, everyone else did. But there were two big highlights for me and this is the first one. And it’s a case where once again Orville Peck is a great duet partner, because he already boasts naturally excellent charisma and chemistry here with bandmate Bria Salmena. But I’m not sure how much I can call it a duet when their stories don’t intertwine so much as run parallel with one another, two characters letting go of love but not without finding a part of themselves out of the experience and willing to walk away with their heads held high. It’s a track with a lot of huge stakes as an emotional ballad with a huge hook, but not necessarily any bittersweet regret – more just a fondness that they can both walk away winners, which is worth it after such a long journey in which Peck’s restlessness often catches up to him. Fantastic all around, and one of the more underrated cuts on that last album, for my money.
No. 22 – Tommy Prine, “Ships in the Harbor” (single release)
We place unfair expectations on the children of musical legends, not only in expectations of quality but in terms of what we expect them to sound like. So when Tommy Prine, son of the late John Prine, decides to strike out on his own … well, he manages to support the same observational, storytelling-driven detail in his first official single I guess we should have expected, just with a bit of a warmer approach in the production and guitar texture, sporting a somber restraint meant to highlight his surprisingly smoother, fuller tone. But no, he’s not looking to imbue cracks of wry humor or dry wit into his message. Instead, he chooses to communicate a really potent observation of time and its cruel, never-ending nature, with little things like the sunrise and still waters as well as bigger things like a visit from an old friend acting as his metaphorical devices used to drive the point home. You know, things we observe all the time that are easy to take for granted, because we always expect to see them again. They leave as they should and return as they should, which is why it hurts when the ultimate disruption to that cycle comes through in that final verse. Tommy is supposedly releasing a new album sometime next year, and if this is just the first step, it’ll be a collection all his own, and probably just as excellent.
No. 21 – William Clark Green, “Leave Me Alone” (from Baker Hotel)
… Yeah, I get this one, and I’m going to keep this one brief for obvious reasons. Well, obvious only if you’re familiar with this song. But I’m also glad that William Clark Green decided to play a conversation with himself as lighthearted and overall jovial with the chipper mandolin work, where despite being old enough to know better, he stumbles through some of the same mistakes he’s made time and time again. It’s the evergreen reminder that in all likelihood, maybe you could afford to pick up the pace and better yourself. But you’re also probably doing just fine and need to quit being so hard on yourself, isn’t that right, Zack? Err, readers?
No. 20 – The Wilder Blue, “The Kingsnake and the Rattler”
I saw this once described as “some Townes Van Zandt shit,” and for as blunt as that statement is, I think it just may earn the comparison. This is, once again, not the band I’d expect that from, but between lead singer Zane Williams’ low growl and quicker pace and writing that pushes into very dark, borderline nihilistic territory, they somehow pulled it off excellently. And I only say nihilistic because, in essence, this is a mental struggle between the titular creatures that’s never going to end and will never have a winner, only the losers caught between their brawl left tormented by their own choices they can’t undo. It’s a scenario where faith in something more has long since passed and self-destructive vices are all this character has left to cling to, which, between the haunting echo of the dobro and acoustics, captures that sorrowful mental prison a bit too effectively. This is a band that can seem to do it all, and while I wouldn’t call this the best moment to introduce to new fans, I would call it the best thing I’ve heard from them to date.
No. 19 – Michaela Anne, “Does It Ever Break Your Heart” (from Oh to Be That Free Again)
One of the main motifs I’ve loved about Michaela Anne’s recent work is her exuding passion for love and wanting so desperately to find it, only to find something more fleeting that comes without a deeper sense of satisfaction instead. And this particular song from her excellent album this year treads a careful line between that, knowing full well that this chance hookup between two old flames who only ever had an on-again, off again relationship anyway won’t last, and that they’re just in it for their own short-term, selfish reasons. But instead of continuing that cycle, her character breaks it, choosing to trust her better judgment and walk away, because “it always breaks my heart to think how we hurt each other without empathy.” It’s just gorgeous overall, not just in the writing or framing but also in the minor melody anchored in a fantastic slow-burning melancholy against those gorgeous-sounding strings. Kind of breaks my own heart to listen to it, come to think of it.
No. 18 – Kaitlin Butts, “jackson”
Like I said before, I could throw a dart at just about any song from Kaitlin Butts’ most recent project and land on a great song, and while I was probably higher on other tracks throughout the course of the year, I’ve settled on “jackson” as a favorite. Just on concept alone I love how it flips the titular country classic on its head by showcasing the couple who had a falling out before they could get married in a fever. It’s the hard dose of reality that shades the greater stakes of that album in general, which is why I also love how straightforward it all is, where a gentle country waltz cadence played to slightly brighter textures – right down to a damn key change, of all things – goes to show that these things just happen sometimes. Love dies out, but Butts has the gas needed to charge forward and make it to a different destination anyway, because she’s cool like that.
No. 17 – Kane Brown, “Whiskey Sour” (from Different Man)
Well hell, this was a nice surprise. Kane Brown rises above the bulk of his contemporaries to create a tried-and-true heartbreak ballad dripping in a lot of fantastic traditional country texture, all through the acoustics and fiddle that bleed through the mix and have the needed space to breathe. Still, good tone and texture only goes so far for me, which is where the cutting framing steps in to transcend this into something inherently sadder. His character and his partner almost made it to the altar, and for him he genuinely believed they’d make it there and beyond. But no, he gets left alone, not even knowing if he has the right to mourn a love that “was never ours” in the first place. So all of that frank, skeletal intimacy is there to echo the loneliness and sadness of the situation. Honestly, I wasn’t really sold or bothered by Brown before this single, but with it, he definitely captured my attention.
No. 16 – Sacha, “We Did” (single release)
And from heartbreak and misery comes, well, the biggest blast of pop-country euphoria I came across in 2022. And no, given her own resurgence in popularity this year, the obvious Jo Dee Messina vocal comparison here is just a mere coincidence and nothing more. After all, between Sacha’s terrific grasp of lyrical flow and a more atmospheric swell backing the song’s groove, there’s enough distinctive detail to call that comparison an influence rather than an imitation. And while it is, ultimately, a simple and straightforward love song, I like that it owns it in every way possible. These types of young love-based songs usually come with an ending in which both partners have gone their own separate ways and are just reminiscing on what could have been. Here, though, that love sticks, and it’s why I called this a blast of euphoria earlier, because between that gigantic chorus and hook, there’s a wonderful urgency to everything here from the progression to Sacha’s delivery. It was one of my favorite discoveries in 2022, and if there’s more to come like it, I can’t wait.
No. 15 – Tony Logue, “Calloway County“
The first song of the year I reviewed from the first album of the year I reviewed, and also the first one I really loved. That it’s held up this well all year is a testament all its own. And despite the complex weight that’s tricky to confront through the content itself, there’s so much immediate potency to love regardless in its earthy tones courtesy of the well-tempered production, especially the ironically gentle, rollicking mandolin and the Celtic flair to that fiddle melody that helps add to the tension. And said tension involves the character coming to blows with his father after a lifetime of abuse, where Tony Logue’s weathered tone suggests it’s been a long time coming, indeed. It’s the distinctly rural, small town setting that adds weight to it, mostly because there’s always that subtext of obligation to the land in which one inhabits, either out of choice for its man-made beauty or the familial ties to it. So in trying to break that chain, he’s able to free himself from one prison and embrace the better parts of who he can be without following in anyone’s footsteps but his own, and that’s a powerful way to end the song.
No. 14 – Ian Noe, “Ballad of a Retired Man”
For as much as I label these as ways to soundtrack my personal year, every now and then a song will come right along to floor me, even if I can only truly appreciate it from afar. Ian Noe’s latest album focused quite a bit on veterans with the sort of lived-in detail that always managed to come across as empathetic to their experiences. And this is a jaw-dropping, beautiful character portrait of a Vietnam veteran that, at least according to the faintly distant echoes toward the end, is nearing the end of his life, where every flicker and experience is flashing back to him – thankfully with a fond warmth and remembrance of a full life, albeit still told through a skeletal intimacy. He’s not quite as at peace as he could be; there’s still that frantic desperation present in feeling like the opportunities have passed him by, but then there’s the turnaround at the very end, where he can look at his family and see that what he’s leaving behind is worth so much more than any personal regrets he may still carry. To this day it’s not a song I can listen to without choking up at least somewhat, a beautiful sendoff to an unnamed character that’s emblematic of Noe’s knack for sketching real characters.
No. 13 – Tami Neilson and Willie Nelson, “Beyond the Stars” (from Kingmaker)
I could say “duh,” or I could tell you all that a long-lost ’60s country classic that never was featuring both Tami Neilson and Willie Nelson is just really, really excellent. So yeah, “duh,” but that doesn’t quite do justice to the song beyond that. After all, this is a beautiful examination of grief with the emotional weight to show how the pain still lingers. And with Neilson’s booming, dramatic tone matched against Nelson’s softer, more conversational tone … well, I can’t lie – it’s a little strange at first. But by having the latter act play the role of the former’s late father and offer a counterbalance, it’s beautiful in a way that feels like it can provide closure, or at least a temporary fix. And that’s why it’s Neilson who’s the real star here, a singer who could have made this a huge statement but dials things back here to test her emotional range more and anchor in how that grief may not manifest itself in soul-crushing ways like it may have before, but nonetheless lingers and haunts her every now and then. And with a lush string accompaniment to carry it through … well, I’ll say it again, “duh.”
No. 12 – Adeem the Artist, “Books & Records“
One point that always ran through my mind but somehow didn’t make it into my review of Adeem the Artist’s White Trash Revelry is how they look to call out oppressive systems and also can’t help but acknowledge how they’re helplessly trapped by them. And “Books & Records” is one of the more frankly stark examples, where even against a really lovely, warm mix and understated groove, a couple living in poverty is down to their last line and forced to sell family heirlooms just to make ends meet. And there’s no silver lining there, either – no “we’re poor but rich in love” mentality that makes it alright; that’s just not the hard-crushing reality that colors this artist’s best work. But it also is the familial connection that grants stakes to that hook, how they’re going to buy those books and records back someday, even if it’s delivered through gritted teeth and possibly in vain, because it’s that same connection that’s going to give them the strength to keep trying. And hell, even working within a losing system, maybe they just will buy them back … at least you hope they do.
No. 11 – Gabe Lee, “Wide Open”
From the opening chords riding off the jangly acoustics and spacious keys, I could tell I was in for a great start to Gabe Lee’s newest album. The thing is, though, he’s proven himself to be a hellraiser before, so you’d think he tread similar ground with a song called “Wide Open.” But no, this feels more weathered and tempered, where Lee walks through personal memories of himself and his hometown with the same eye for detail and reflection that’s made his poetry so captivating for years now. Where opening a door will have its fair share of nostalgia to soak in, but also consequences to tango with once again over past mistakes and regrets within a place put squarely in a rear view mirror years ago. But it’s also a familiar tale where coming home means, well, coming home and finding a piece of yourself you lost along the way. And he’s smart enough to acknowledge the cliché of the concept right off the bat, noting how it’s a familiar tale for most people and that it’s not so much the place that matters, but the experiences that shaped the actual time spent; it’s what it means to us, if anything, that makes it special in the first place. It’s restless and hungry even despite being more low-key, but to be cliché myself, it hit home for me.
No. 10 – Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti, “Bonfire at Tina’s” (from Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville)
Lindeville as a whole is an excellent record, but it’s that final one-two punch of “When Will I Be Loved” and this song that really push it over the edge into something transcendental. The former cut is a well-known Linda Ronstadt cover, but the latter … this is something all its own, where Ashley McBryde and friends team up to host a neighborhood bonfire and are likely burning bras, regrets, and fucks to give, all in one. And it’s the distinctly female perspective that matters here, where they admit they wouldn’t normally get along. But under the right circumstances when they’re ready to throw back all the trouble the world has given them … well, better stay out of the way. I mean, the hook on this thing alone is enough, but with an equally huge swell and booming, magnetic presence in the string progression and harmonies, this feels like the true event on the record. Sure, the fire will burn out and they’ll all have to return to the real world – even if the real world here is actually a fictional small town with its own fair share of real life drama – but for one glorious night, they’re going to strike up a blazing, cathartic high. And it’s awesome.
No. 9 – William Clark Green, “Give a Damn”
William Clark Green made a very welcome return with Baker Hotel this year, where he brought the focus back squarely toward his emotionally intense delivery and songwriting. And “Give a Damn” has been my greatest argument for why that album deserved more love than it got. Just on a technical element there’s so much I love about this song’s mood and tone, with its excellently deep, richly atmospheric groove driving forward with just a hint of a minor swell and emotional intensity in its momentum for a great climax and ending. And it’s really within that space where Green has always best operated, thanks to the oversharing honesty that makes his work so passionate, where for as much as he’d like to forget a bad breakup, it’s just not going to happen. It’s not even a desire to move on so much as a desire to just forget a love that feels one-sided here, which makes that general conceit hit all the more effectively: You can’t just make love not give a damn; even the most hardened hearts fall for something eventually. And I’m not in that camp, so I can safely say this song is very well worth a damn.
No. 8 – Drive-By Truckers, “The Driver” (from Welcome 2 Club XIII)
Another surprisingly late entry to my list, and while it does feel weird for me to say this given that I didn’t start covering this long-running act until just this year, this may be my favorite song from them in years. It’s another song that simply brings the focus back down to where a band best operates, which for the Drive-By Truckers is in hazy, sinister territory with a ton of driving momentum (pun intended) and seedier stakes … and, you know, morally ambiguous-as-hell framing in the content itself. And the funny thing is, this track is as much about the band members themselves as it is about any of us, fans or not. It’s a lumbering behemoth of a track in general, a mind-warping experience built upon excellently sinister, chunky riffs, Schaefer Llana’s beautifully haunting backing vocals, and lyrics basically about the band’s journey from the beginning to now, just, you know, framed through still imagery and memories that evoke some pretty unsettling responses. But it also goes beyond the band itself to speak to our own perceptions of life, and how we’re all the stars of our own shows and that we’d like to think our stories are much grander and epic than they likely are in reality … even if we don’t necessarily want to pay the price to make them actually so. Kind of a sobering reflection to make, but one of the best of its kind, at that.
No. 7 – Zoe Cummins feat. Gabe Lee, “Common Law” (single release)
I must admit that Loretta Lynn’s passing this year kind of amplified this feeling, but this song has always reminded me of those old-school, tongue-in-cheek country duets. The kind you’d hear from Lynn and Conway Twitty, or Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. And I don’t make those comparisons lightly; this really is just that awesome, what with all of its eye-popping banter and excellent chemistry between Zoe Cummins and Gabe Lee, only sold with plenty of wry venom and social commentary that probably wouldn’t have flown back then, at least not completely. After all, a picture of a perfectly happy couple this is not, even if both parties stay in the relationship for their own selfish desires; it’s never a dead relationship, but it certainly is toxic as hell in the best way possible. And that’s the thing – both Cummins and Lee have the sort of ragged, hangdog charisma needed to sell this with a haggard charm, where they’ve beaten each other down and only stay together because divorce would run them both into the ground in some way or another. Between Cummins’ sharp-witted writing and Lee’s expressive production that turns this into a barn-burning honky-tonk number, it’s just such a phenomenally well-balanced cut across the board – that it’s my favorite Lee cut of the year even above certain cuts from The Hometown Kid really says a lot. It was a riot the first time I heard it, and even now, those edges are still as sharp as ever.
No. 6 – Michaela Anne, “It’s Just a Feeling”
This has never been a song I’ve ever wanted to revisit, mostly because it’s just too note-perfect in everything it says that it’s almost uncomfortable. There’s beauty in confronting that, though, hard as it is, hence why it’s here. It’s a perfect closing track – certainly one of the best I’ve ever heard to directly confront imposter syndrome – where Michaela Anne slips back into bad habits of questioning her own self-worth and needs to remind herself that it’s OK to rise above that vicious cycle and go easy on herself now and again. There’s just so something warm and kind to the sentiment, especially when that feeling of being your own worst enemy is relatable more days than it isn’t, which is why I love its generally poetic self-reflection and empathy on display as a whole, able to speak through personal experience for not just her but so many others as well. And … yeah, I’d best leave it at that.
No. 5 – Arlo McKinley, “Rushintherug”
Of course, feeding off our last entry, you can always silence a demon, but you can’t ever kill it. It’s what makes the ragged, blazing firestorm that is “Rushintherug” the highlight of Arlo McKinley’s discography thus far for me, a moment of weakness where those old demons and insecurities do crawl back and sink in further on a night when he just doesn’t need it. It’s a frankly relatable, out-of-nowhere feeling that can creep up sometimes for no apparent reason, but in wishing so desperately to be able to shake it and push on through knowing it’s just a feeling – not to mention the absolutely terrific crescendos that turn the song from a fairly quaint piano-driven singer-songwriter track into an incendiary southern-rocker ready to blast through the flames by its end, complete with that phenomenal ending climax where he pulls through to make it through another night – it’s simply one of the most emotionally cathartic songs I heard all this year. It’s so bright, I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to.
No. 4 – Adam Hood feat. Miranda Lambert, “Harder Stuff” (from Bad Days Better)
The general conceit of this song floored me when I first heard this, if only because it’s a simple truth that needs echoed far more often, where “taking on the harder stuff” means accepting responsibility and staying sober to be the person you were meant to be – in a case like this, the artist who can still craft great art without viciously lying to themselves about what’s actually feeling that creativity. I mean, the audacity to say that in a genre that values its alcohol and its messed-up characters in need of saving … it’s a bold statement. And it’s not an easy road, either. Don’t get me wrong, between backing contributions from Miranda Lambert on a soulful-as-hell track where I can hear the Blackberry Smoke influence in the slow-rolling blues groove (thanks also to lead singer Charlie Starr’s hand in the writing), it sounds like an easy road. But therein lies the paradox, how simultaneously easy it is to see the light ahead and how hard it is to actually reach that point or maintain the needed balance to stay on that path. But that end result is worth it, and Hood knows it. It’s a song I’d love to send to anyone who’d ever dare say an artist is better and more creatively worthy when they’re messed up, because it’s all the damn proof I’d need to shut them up for good.
No. 3 – Bri Bagwell, “Table Manners” (from Corazón y Cabeza)
Pardon my French, but this song fucks. Just flat-out rips from the start, and Bri Bagwell doesn’t care if it doesn’t have a moment to let you stop and catch your breath, because even despite sounding fried-out and haggard here as she plays the role of the happy housewife-turned-smoker who’s done putting up with her partner’s garbage, she’s spitting all the fire necessary to let that venom blaze onward. The way she delivers “I said, ‘I do,’ and one day I awakened flat-broke and a smoker,” too, might just be my favorite moment in music this year. It’s the punk moment on an otherwise warm Texas country project I didn’t see coming but am glad for anyway, with just so much phenomenal compositional kick in the lead guitars and even the bass groove and a swagger that she owns. I mean, hey, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose – might as well burn it all down.
No. 2 – Orville Peck, “Outta Time”
I’m not sure even now why exactly I find “Outta Time” so captivating. Maybe it’s the glossy AM sheen that feeds well into the song’s smooth midtempo flow and especially that slow-rolling, harmony-filled hook. Maybe it’s because despite being a collection of still images and frames out on the road that Orville Peck takes in, he doesn’t have the time to fully appreciate them or get as invested in the characters he comes across, even if he’d desperately like to make those deeper connections. Or maybe it’s just that incredible final minute or so when the electric guitar kicks in and the song blazes into the night – I’d say most of these songs here, the top five especially, are here because they tap into something primal within I can’t deny. And I know I’m starting to repeat myself with how many times I’ve described songs here as firestorms. But between a just note-perfect progression and Peck’s huge capabilities as an emotional performer, this song is just naturally special without requiring the deeper insight to understand it. It’s smooth, it’s rollicking, it’s a little sad overall, but it has to roll on regardless. And you know, if he stays on this path, I’ll gladly follow along for as long as time allows.
No. 1 – American Aquarium, “All I Needed” (from Chicamacomico)
It’s funny; there are years where I could easily pen a thesis-length statement on why a song is my favorite of the year. And I’ll probably end up doing just that here as well … but it’s the first time where the explanation feels refreshingly straightforward. And I wouldn’t have expected that from American Aquarium, of all acts. But in pulling from those ’90s country influences lead singer BJ Barham loves so much (as do I), well, maybe it is their most conventional song from a compositional standpoint. But it will also go down as a favorite of theirs for me.
And really, despite the overall brighter textures, this isn’t all that far removed from their heaviest material after all, given how there’s always a ray of light within the subtext for those willing to hear it. No, the difference here comes down to it simply being their most direct blast of euphoria ever, one that feels like a needed logical next step for a band that matured and grew on their latest album this year. It’s loose and easy, running off of that playful bar piano and pedal steel interplay to lend a magnetic charm and beating heart to this song’s spirit. It’s a song about a song – the kind that can either come across as a pale imitation of its influences or evident of why music is such a powerful force in the first place. And because it’s Barham behind the pen, of course it comes across as the latter as he effectively aims for broad universality in the framing to get the point across. And with a haggard vocalist like his framing it as a personal escape from demons well documented for this band, along with a huge chorus and hook to sell the pure catharsis of what the power of the song can do, you kind of get what he’s feeling here, right down to several well-timed one-liners that hit so perfectly when needed. It’s why despite our own personal hardships and struggles, we can all find value in the right song at the right time; simple as that.
And truthfully, it is hearing it within the context as a closing track to their latest project that cemented it as my favorite for the year – the perfect mission statement, if there ever was one. It was the song I kept returning to all year, the one with an anthemic beating heart too potent to deny. Sure, sad songs make me happy too, but in a year like this, I was also happy to have something this transcendent as an anchoring point. “All I Needed” … yeah, I’d say that title sums it all up best.
7 thoughts on “50 Favorite Songs of 2022”
Wow ambitious project there! I’ll definitely have to revisit. It’s inevitable that lists become personal but at first glance you’re very objective and analytical.
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Ha, thanks, Randy!
Zack, I just want to let you know that I thoroughly appreciate on in-depth your “Song of the Year” reviews are. I originally started following these pages to find great “album cuts.” In recent years, I have noticed the same songs appearing on each list and yours seems to have a very unique and personal perspective.
I know it is time consuming and I just wanted to let you know we appreciate what you do!
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Hey, Mark. Thanks so much for reading, and for the kind words! The fact that these posts come across exactly the way I intend for them to means the world to mean to hear from someone, and while you’re definitely not wrong about these taking time to compile (ha), I really do appreciate this comment.
Hi Zack – great list! I’m familiar with most of these songs, but there are some here that I’ll have to check out. I don’t usually track my favourite songs during any given year, but I have done so this year and I’ve come with a Top 15 favourite songs of the year. These are all from albums released this year, so I haven’t included a few singles that I really liked and I’m hoping they show up on albums soon (namely: The Way I Oughta Go and Rhododendron by Bella White, The Night and The Night (Part 2 ) by Morgan Wade and Jersey Giant by Elle King).
My Top 15:
15. “On the Line” by Courtney Marie Andrews – I liked, but didn’t love, this album initially, but it’s really growing on me and there are some great songs on it.
14. “Open Road” by Ned Ledoux – appropriately, this is a great song to crank up driving down the highway.
13. “Beyond the Stars” by Tami Neilson w/ Willie Nelson – simply a beautiful song and, for as different the two vocalists are stylistically, they work so well together here.
12. “Old Heartbroke Blues” by Joshua Hedley – this album was solid, but this is the standout song for me.
11. “The Ballad of Sissy & Porter” by The Whitmore Sisters – super catchy and great work from a new-to-me act this year.
10. “Backwater Blues” by Kelsey Waldon – I also really liked “Season’s Ending” and this whole album is great, but I just love this song.
9. “Hole in my Head” by Yelawolf and Shooter Jennings – glad to see this made your list as well! I don’t listen to much rock music anymore but I’m glad I gave this one a try.
8. “Big Heart Sick Mind” by The Whitmore Sisters – another super catchy (and unique-sounding) song by this duo.
7. “The Conversation” by The Wilder Blue – I know that not everyone loves the Eagles, but I really like a number of the Eagles’ songs, especially the ones with the emphasis on the harmony vocals and this song sounds a lot like some of my favourite Eagles’ songs.
6. “High Heels” by Paul Cauthen – another super catchy song and my favourite from his really interesting album.
5. “The Only” by LeAnn Rimes w/ Ziggy Marley, Ledisi and Ben Harper – not what I was expecting from LeAnn Rimes, but I ended up loving the album and this song in particular.
4. “Going to Hell” by Adeem the Artist – as I mentioned in the album review, the chorus was surprising to me (in a good way) and it’s one of those songs that makes you want to get up and dance.
3. “Chasing Days” by Michaela Anne – the production and pacing of this song fit the lyrics so perfectly and the whole album is great. I also loved the two songs that you included and “Mountains and Mesas” almost made my list as well.
2. “I Can’t Love You Anymore” by Maren Morris – this was my number 1 song for a large portion of the year. I haven’t been able to get into to much of her solo work, but I like some of her songs a lot, particularly this one – this is contemporary mainstream country at its best.
1. “Out of My Head” by First Aid Kit – I liked this song a lot the first time I heard it and now I can’t get enough of it. It’s hard to explain what I like so much about it – it’s just awesome!
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Love your picks as well, Frank! I had those Michaela Anne tracks in consideration myself, and “Open Road” just barely missed the cut for my own list – I agree, it’s a GREAT windows down type of track!
The First Aid Kit album is definitely a grower. It’s not my favorite overall by them, but several songs like Out Of My Head and Palomino have gotten stuck inside my head over this past week.
Thanks Zack! Re: First Aid Kit – I thought the album was good at first, but after a few listens it all came together and I think it’s excellent and one of my favourites of the year.
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