Forget the day that music died—this might be the year that radio died.
In my 2020 list, I called out country music for three issues:
- Everybody looks the same (the genre is dominated by white men, and women and artists of color are mostly ignored by the radio).
- Everything sounds the same (every song features the same three or four instruments and does nothing interesting with them).
- Everyone talks about the same thing (there’s a list of 10-20 words that every song has to include, and you’re either drinking because you’re happy, drinking because you’re sad, or drinking because you don’t feel like doing anything else).
In my 2021 list, I called out country music for doing nothing to address these issues, and warned them not to repeat their mistake in 2022. When the receipts were tallied, Country Aircheck reported that “2021 saw Country radio’s lowest PPM share since the
methodology launched in 2007,” which you would think would kick-start some soul-searching and lead to some changes to the format.
Instead, it felt like country music chose the exact opposite approach, doubling down on their bad habits and continuing to flood the market with bland, boring tracks. Over the years I’ve found that the single quality seems to ebb and flow over the course of the year, but this year the genre went straight to the bottom and stayed there. It never felt like country music was getting its act together, and it made listening to (and reviewing) their output a less-than-pleasant experience.
Still, some artists dared to step out of line and go beyond the minimum required effort to put out some truly memorable songs. A few dared to tell some stories and offer some helpful tips, but a lot of the good stuff this year focused on perfect execution of sounds and ideas from within the rigid radio meta.
Last Year’s Winner: Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow”
|Artist, Song||Final Score|
|#15||Jason Aldean, “Trouble With A Heartbreak”||6/10|
|#14||Maren Morris, “Circles Around This Town”||6/10|
|#13||Dierks Bentley, “Gold”||6/10|
|#12||Kylie Morgan, “If He Wanted To He Would”||6/10|
|#11||Jackson Dean, “Don’t Come Lookin'”||6/10|
#10: Midland ft. Jon Pardi, “Longneck Way To Go” (final review score: 6/10)
Here we go again. Somehow, some way, despite having zero chart success, leaning on the most tired of tropes, and teaming up with one of my least-favorite acts in the genre, Midland has found a way to sneak onto my best-song list once again. (It was darn close though; Jackson Dean didn’t miss this list by much.)
How do they do it? Well, as I stated in the beginning, the difference boils down to execution. Mark Wystrach remains one of the stronger, more charismatic singers in the genre, and can make you have a good time no matter what he’s singing about. The harmony work between Wystrach, Cameron Duddy, and Jess Carson remains as solid as ever, adding yet another extra layer of positivity to the feel-good track. The production remains firmly rooted in an older, pre-neotraditional lane that nobody else plays in right now, making their sound distinct as well as good. All of these qualities are vitally important when the lyrics clash badly with the upbeat production (as they do with all sad songs trying to masquerade as party tracks), because they push the listener to look past this mismatch and focus on how the sound and singers are telling you to feel, and when it works, it’s like the tears never fell at all. Pardi is as nasally and annoying as ever, but he’s had a little bit of success on collabs like this in the past (think “Beer Can’t Fix” with Thomas Rhett last year), and he meshes surprisingly well with Midland: He’s one of the few artists still leaning into the cowboy image, and his vocal chemistry with the group is far better than it has any right to be (maybe he needs these guys to be his backup band going forward).
The clock appears to have run out on Midland’s mainstream career, but then again, I would have said that last year too, and they still managed to get an album released. They’ve been on every year-end list of mine since 2017, and if this truly is the last time we see them here, let’s joining them in pouring one out in tribute to a great run.
#9: Carly Pearce, “What He Didn’t Do” (6/10)
The Ex-Boyfriend trend gained a lot of traction in country music this year, but not a lot of sympathy from yours truly. In contrast, the “Ex-Girlfriend” wing of the trend was much smaller (no surprise given the genre’s continued allergy to female artists), with only a handful of women lending their voices to their movement (and generally receiving the same tepid response from the blog; think Priscilla Block’s “My Bar” or Carrie Underwood’s “Ghost Story”). Pearce, however, was the one exception with “What He Didn’t Do,” so how did she manage to break through the noise?
Say it with me now: Execution. Pearce struck a careful balance between laying out the case against her ex and taking the high road about the whole mess—her tone on the song is mostly disappointed, showing only hints of the anger that made other artists come across as petty and unlikable. The sound is much more subdued as well, leaning on acoustic elements and even including brighter-sounding instruments like a mandolin to to make the song feel measured and thoughtful, as if it were the product of many days of careful deliberation (as opposed to its knee-jerk, reactionary-sounding counterparts). Finally, the lyrics are effectively vague, with lines like “Treat me right, put me first, be a man of his word, stay home ’cause he wanted to” feeling like they were pulled from every Hallmark movie ever made while also leaving plenty unsaid for the listener to speculate about how the ex dishonored the narrator.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Pearce didn’t get mad—she got even (at least in the court of audience opinion), which was more than enough for her to earn a return trip to this list.
#8: Randy Houser, “Note To Self” (7/10)
On Monday I mentioned that I was “looking for more out the music I hear” as I got older, and in particular I like songs that try to say some meaningful and provide a pearl of wisdom that the listener can use long after the song ends. That’s why Houser, whose track record here at the Korner has been mixed up to this point, finds himself on this list this year: He took the sort of lost-love premise that has gone so wrong so many times in the Ex-Boyfriend era, and instead reflected on what happened, identified some of the ways he could have done better, and provided his findings to the audience in hopes that his mistake would not be repeated by anyone (including himself) that was listening. After ten-plus years in the genre, Houser now has the experience to go along with his weathered delivery, giving him some extra clout when delivering his findings (even when they’re a bit scattershot and generic at the start of the song). The production isn’t terribly notable, but the steel guitar gives the song a decent hint of flavor and the mix creates the sort of thoughtful vibe that invites the listener to ruminate on the writing without getting in the way of the song. In short, the song is the complete package, giving me darn near everything I’m looking for from a country song.
If someone like Bailey Zimmerman wants to stay off of my worst-song list next year, I suggest he start by listening to this song and taking lots of notes.
#7: Kelsea Ballerini, “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOING DOWN TOO)” (7/10)
Back in 2018, I declared that “Miss Me More” had something to say to country music:
“Pop radio has substantially fewer misgivings about putting women on the airwaves, and after ‘I Hate Love Songs’ faltered, Ballerini is sending a pointed message to country radio: She can jump genres anytime she wants, and it’ll be country music that will ‘miss her more.’”
Country radio, however, decided to call Ballerini’s bluff, and her attempts at pop crossover success never found any traction (anyone remember “The Other Girl” or “I Quit Drinking”?), leaving her stuck on the Nashville B-list as of the end of this year, not quite a star but certainly not a flop either. I still say this is Nashville’s loss, because Ballerini has continued to produce solid output in the meantime (“Hole In The Bottle,” “Half Of My Hometown“), and does so again with the unnecessarily-ALL-CAPS “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOING DOWN TOO).”
Yes, the writing advocates some less-than-healthy lifestyle choices (please don’t help your best friend kill their husband), but Ballerini is able to frame it as a noble display of devotion by leaning on the playful, tongue-in-cheek delivery that made “Hole In The Bottle” so enjoyable. The production here is absolutely exquisite, with a bright, bluegrass-tinged mix that brings to mind The Chicks’ early work, and the writing does a nice job leaning into the criminality theme without it ever feeling forced (and there are some pretty decent lines in here to boot). There’s that e-word again: Every piece of this song is executed to perfection (but hopefully not the friend’s husband), making the song an absolute joy to listen to.
I remain firmly planted on the Ballerini bandwagon, and it’s high time Nashville got over its issue with female artists and got behind her as well. If she keeps spitting fire like this, the sky’s the limit for her in 2023 (especially if “YOU’RE DRUNK, GO HOME” gets released as a single).
WARNING: If you’re drinking something right now, I advise you to swallow whatever is in your mouth before continuing. I don’t want to be responsible for any computer-ruining spit takes this next song induces…
#6: Michael Ray, “Holy Water” (7/10)
Kevin Garnett was right, folks: Anything is possible.
Four years ago, I declared that “One That Got Away” was “the biggest piece of junk I’ve ever reviewed on this blog” and that “Ray needs to get the heck out of country music and not let the door hit him on the way out.” The song was deemed the worst release of 2018, and its 1/10 remains the worst score I’ve ever given out here at the Korner (although Blake Shelton matched the feat last year). This man was a blight upon the country landscape, and I never wanted to hear another word from him.
Unfortunately, I’m duty-bound to listen to country singles if they make enough noise to make the Mediabase charts, and so I took a deep breath and reluctantly hit the play button on “Holy Water” back in April. What hit my ears was the absolute last thing I expected: An intriguing tale of a bootlegging preacher who used his moonshine to enrich himself, his church, and (plot twist!) eventually the people who catch him. No hint of Bro-Country bluster, no cast of unlikable characters, and no reason to question the choice of personnel behind the mic. Ray played the role of impartial storyteller perfectly, the swampy, mostly-classical production set a suitably dark and unsettled tone to support the story, and the writing provided enough detail to let the listener visualize the scenes without crushing the song under their weight. It was an honest-to-goodness good song from an artists that I didn’t think had one in him, and although there was a weak field this year, I think this track would have held up against stronger competition.
I bring the knives out for a lot of songs here at the blog, and some artists have become repeat offenders for the constant garbage they shovel out onto the airwaves. Still, to quote Willie Nelson, “Ain’t nothing wrong with any of us that a great song can’t fix,” and Ray finally gave us the great song he needed to justify his presence in Nashville. Ironically, its eventual failure on the charts might actually make it the song that ends his mainstream career, and suddenly I’m the one who’s calling for him to get one more last chance.
2022 really was a weird year. Don’t believe me? Keep reading—this isn’t even the biggest surprise on the list…
#5: Scotty McCreery, “It Matters To Her” (7/10)
This track falls along the same lines as Houser’s: In the face of unrepentant Ex-Boyfriend tracks, one man dared to offer a roadmap to a more-successful relationship (one coming from a place of positivity as opposed to Houser’s hardships). So what sets this track above its competition?
Say it loud for the people in the back: Execution.
McCreery is one of the most talented vocalists in the genre, and he can lay on the charm and charisma as well as any Boyfriend country singer in the business. He walks the line perfectly between earnest, honest affection and overly-saccharine emotion, and while he’s not Conway Twitty, he’s got a little something extra in his delivery to draw people in. The instrument tones and copious steel guitar put a 90s twist on the typical guitar-and-drum setup (it’s not quite as steel-heavy as “Damn Strait,” but the instrument still defines the mix), and the warm, rich sound of the production provides ample support for the relentlessly-positive writing. There may not be anything overly groundbreaking in the lyrics, but that doesn’t make the advice any less useful, and with the power of McCreery and the producer behind it, you’ll reach the end of the song wondering how anyone could treat their partner in any other way.
So many of McCreery’s contemporaries whine and fuss about how their relationships ended, but never look in the mirror to consider what they could have done to change how the story ends. “It Matters To Her” is the voice they should hear, and while it’s no guarantee of success, at least if the relationship ends now, they can walk away knowing they did everything they could and left everything on the field.
#4: Kane Brown, “Like I Love Country Music” (7/10)
I’ve been talking about Brown’s evolution as an artist for a few years now, but this song may well be the culmination of his transformation. The production is a seamless blend of fiddle-and-steel with beats, claps, and hard-rock guitars, creating an infectious atmosphere of pure joy and energy. Brown’s vocals match the production note-for-note, channeling his love for both his partner and country music and putting them both on display in such a grand and upbeat manner that it’s impossible not to share in the good vibes. (The inclusion of Brooks & Dunn’s lines after name-dropping them was a nice touch.) Yes, the lyrics oscillate between feeling silly and feeling throwaway, but at the very least they give the song a foundation of positivity and don’t get in the way of the song’s mission.
No, there’s no deeper meaning or thoughtful takeaways to be had from this song, but the song is the sonic equivalent of a Lays potato chip: You can’t listen to it just once—you’ll want to put it on repeat and let it chase away your sorrows, even if only for a little while. Even a frivolous good-time track can be worth listening to when it’s constructed this well, and while Brown may remain a polarizing figure in country music, given his output over the last few years, he’s also one of the best the genre has to offer.
#3: Jelly Roll, “Son Of A Sinner” (7/10)
As I declared in my review, “Judge a book by its cover at your own risk.”
With his bizarre stage name, face tattoos, and rap background, I went into this song expecting it to land on my worst-song list. Instead, I found a brutally-honest confessional from a man saddled with the baggage of a troubled past, a tale so personal and compelling that I just couldn’t turn away. Jelly Roll’s delivery was as stone-cold country as you could imagine, with a voice that was both haggard and clear, with a power behind it that allowed the production to stay simple, straightfoward, and out of the way of the message. The sound eschews volume in favor of a restrained-yet-serious tone driven mostly by an acoustic guitar, with some spacious synths in the background to give it the sort of arena-ready quality you rarely find in a powerless ballad. The writing cuts deep as it digs into the narrator’s struggles with substance abuse and the itinerant lifestyle of a musician, doing an incredible job of showing both the narrator’s vulnerability and strength simultaneously.
The fact that my review of this song was my most-viewed post of 2022 is a testament to its power and its reach: “Son Of A Sinner” resonated with its audience, and left enough of an impression to earn a spot on the podium here on my list. You could argue that this song was perhaps a bigger surprise than Ray’s turnaround…and yet, it still isn’t the biggest surprise on my list. Speaking of which…
WARNING: Once again, I advise you to finish your drink and find a seat before continuing. As clickbait as it sounds, #2 will shock you.
#2: HARDY ft. Lainey Wilson, “wait in the truck” (8/10)
I can’t believe it either, folks.
HARDY has been responsible for some of the biggest tire fires in country music over the last last few years. He claimed the 2019 worst-song title with “REDNECKER,” he was a driving force behind the worst two songs of 2021 (he was a vocalist on “The Worst Country Song Of All-Time” and a co-writer of “Come Back As A Country Boy”), and he’s a co-writer on this year’s second-worst song as well. Against all odds, however, the man also sits in the runner-up spot for 2022 with a classic country murder ballad that no one saw coming. How did this happen?
One word: Execution (in this case, both figuratively and literally).
Everything about this track is on point, from the dark, guitar-driven production that evokes both the Old West and a religious spiritual to HARDY’s measured-yet-resolute delivery of an honorable-but-rash narrator to the haunting story of a vigilante killing of a domestic abuser and stoically facing the consequences believing that justice had been served. (Wilson doesn’t add a whole lot in her role as the victim, but at least the victim is given a voice here; country music has a habit of ignoring “the other person” altogether.) It’s the sort of song that pulls the listener in and holds their attention from start to finish, and while the narrator “didn’t load her down with questions,” the audience is certainly loaded down with them: What sort of “bro-code” is this guy following, and why did he decide that he had to be the one to act? Why did he immediately reach for the gun instead of getting the victim help and going through the proper channels? What does this say about the perception and effectiveness of our justice system? I’m forever looking for songs that challenge our assumptions and make use think deeply about the world, and this was the song that invited the most and deepest though of the year.
However, there’s a time and place for songs that make you feel rather than think, and I believe this is one of those moments. My #1 song of 2022 is…
#1: Drake Milligan, “Sounds Like Something I’d Do” (8/10)
Seriously people, I have not been able to stop playing this song since I reviewed it a few short months ago. I haven’t felt a song like this since Aaron Watson took my 2018 Song of the Year crown for “Run Wild Horses,” and to borrow a term from Travis Tritt, I haven’t heard a song with this much drive behind it since Dierks Bentley burst onto the scene with “What Was I Thinkin'” nearly twenty years ago. This song is an absolute rocket-ride from start to finish, and its unmatched replayability helped catapault it past HARDY to grab the 2022 crown.
The Elvis comparisons that get thrown around are mostly based on Milligan’s appearance and incredible stage presence, but he’s got a strong voice and an earnest charisma that allows him to play the classic willing-to-be-reformed bad-boy in such a way that he gets the entire audience behind him. The production harkens back to the muscular feel of the early 1990s, with its rollicking electric guitars pairing well with the classic fiddle-and-steel combo in such a way that everyone gets a chance to be in the spotlight (heck, even the drums get a brief solo to introduce the second chorus). I also really like the way the song seems to build up its energy on the verses and then explode through the choruses like a NASCAR driver coming out of a corner onto the straightaway. The writing may be nothing special in the grand scheme of the genre, but it’s the kind of song that tailor-made for being elevated with the right combination of sound and signer, and when all the pieces come together this perfectly, you’ve got the most fun that we’ve had with a song in nearly a half-decade (yes, even Mr. Lonely wishes he sounded this good).
Writing song reviews can be a painful grind sometimes, but songs like “Sounds Like Something I’d Do” (and all the other songs on this list, to be honest) are why we reviewers do what we do. When you come across a powerful track from an unexpected place (and especially from some of the places we found quality this year), it makes the whole thing worthwhile.
2022 was unquestionably a down year for country music, but believe it or not I actually hold out a small slice of hope that 2023 could be a rebound, if for no other reason than it would be following the general trend of society. Everyone struck a hopeless chord at the start of the year, but while country music never shook its malaise, a lot of other parts of society showed signs of a turnaround late in the year. After getting invaded by Russia, Ukraine raised a long, stiff middle finger to Vladimir Putin and turned the tide of battle, and much of the world stood resolute behind them and gave them the aid they needed to fuel the turnaround. Inflation spiked to a forty-year high, but started to ease late in the year. Politicians who wanted to upend democracy and take away the rights of their fellow citizens were defeated in droves in November, as voters demonstrated that a) they cared about having a say in their government, and b) they wanted women, people of color, and LGTBQ+ individuals to be able to live their lives without fear of persecution. I got the sense that people have been shaken from their complacency and are ready to take a more-active role in improving everyone’s lives, and I’m very interested to see how these trends are reflected in our music next year.
It’s time to set aside the anger and selfishness that have defined our world over the last year or so, and come together to make meaningful progress towards solving the major issues that confront us today. If 2021 showed us what happened when we ignored these calls to action, 2022 gave us a hint of what we could do if we heeded them. Will 2023 see us reach across our divides or retreat back into our corners? It’s an exercise that I’ll have to leave to the reader, and next year will hinge on what course we choose.
Execution was the key to success in 2022, and it will be the key to progress in 2023. Let’s go out and make it happen.