Welcome to 2021: The year that should’ve been but never was.
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).
2021 was supposed to be different. We had seen all the rot behind the curtain, and we were going to finally do something about it.
Spoiler alert: We didn’t.
For all the optimism that the year started with, we find ourselves at the end of this year in pretty much the same spot we did last year: Bitterly divided, starkly unequal, and mostly drunk. In short, 2021 was a major disappointment, leading most of us to not put the same faith in 2022.
However, for all the bland sameness permeating the airwaves, there were a few artists who dared to throw away the mold, ignore the headwinds, and walk the road less traveled. These artists shook up the mainstream formula, whether it be with different tales, different sounds, or by simply standing up and being themselves, and while they weren’t always rewarded by radio for doing so by radio, giving them the recognition they deserve here is the least that I can do.
I present to you my ten favorite songs from 2021.
Last Year’s Winner: Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me”
|Artist, Song||Final Score|
|#15||Thomas Rhett, “Country Again”||7/10|
|#14||Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like”||7/10|
|#13||Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do”||7/10|
|#12||Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown”||7/10|
|#11||Larry Fleet, “Where I Find God”||7/10|
#10: Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story” (final score: 7/10)
Because it’s not a Top Ten list on this blog without these guys, right? You might think that Midland, whose star has fallen precipitously since the days of “Drinkin’ Problem,” had simply missed their moment, but I’d argue that they never got a moment to begin with: The brief turn back towards a classic country sound around 2016-2017 turned out to be a mere head-fake, and when we plunged headfirst into the Boyfriend and Cobronavirus eras, there isn’t much wiggle room for a throwback band like this one. Still, I give the trio credit for sticking to their guns and making the sort of music they want to make, and I still think they’ve got a lot going for them: A textured sound that still stands out on the radio, a charismatic lead in Mark Wystrach and solid vocal harmonies from Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson, and while their material has trended a bit more towards the ephemeral side over time, there’s still a thoughtful storytelling quality to songs like this one. While I fear their downward trend will continue into next year Midland will always have their incredible run of dominance here on the blog.
#9: Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t” (7/10)
Cody Johnson hit the mainstream scene at about the same time as Midland, and until “‘Til You Can’t” arrived, he’d seen a similar lack of success too. This song has really taken off on the radio, however, and I think it’s because it not only fits the mid-pandemic moment well, but also because it takes a more active approach to delivering its message. On the surface, this is simple, straightforward, and generally obvious: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today, because tomorrow may never come. (As someone who’s been really sick all week, I certainly feel this one as the Friday post deadline approaches.) What sets this song apart is how the song forgoes the usual ‘woe is me’ attitude, and instead pushes the listener hard to act before it’s too late. There’s an urgency and an energy to both the production and Johnson’s vocals—he’s practically screaming at the user to do the right thing, and it’s surprisingly motivating (is it too late to sign this guy up as a vaccine spokesperson?). A lot of people are reevaluating their lives right now and thinking about what they really want to do, and Johnson’s call to action feels like just the sort of thing both the genre and the nation needs right now.
#8: Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” (7/10)
I honestly thought that Lambert was washed up not too long ago, and that she needed to get away from the genre for a while to recharge her creative batteries. 2020’s “Settling Down,” however, signaled that Lambert wasn’t ready to step off stage just yet (even if that’s sort of what that song was about), and “If I Was A Cowboy” is another step in the right direction. The production here is suitably atmospheric (it brings to mind scenes of the Old West with its guitar arrangement), and the song accomplishes two impressive goals: It allows Lambert to indulge in a classic outlaw fantasy (something her public persona is uniquely suited for), while also subtly exploring the gender implications of the trope, noting that men are often given the latitude for being “outlaw” while women usually aren’t. Lambert dials back her trademark in-your-face, devil-may-care attitude here, but she balances the freedom and isolation of the cowboy lifestyle perfectly in her performance, giving the listener a complete picture of just what such a life would seem like. I’m not sure how long this second wind will last, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.
“How does one end up caught in a cheating relationship?” It’s a question you ponder more than you should when you listen to as many cheating songs as I have, and this song provides as deep and as thorough an answer as we’ve ever gotten. I’ve given a lot of people static for throwing two random artists together on a song that doesn’t need it, but getting both the wife’s and the lover’s perspective on the event is what makes the song so insightful, and both Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde play their roles perfectly. A lot of songs like this focus on who’s right and who’s wrong, but the truth is often more complicated than this, and this track present the entire scene without judgement, framing both women as reasonable, rational creatures whose behavior is completely understandable and giving the audience a sense of just how big the gray areas are in a situation like this. Throw in understated production that leans on a dobro to differentiate it from its peers, and you’ve got a recipe for a song that deserves a spot on this list.
#6: Dillon Carmichael, “Hot Beer” (8/10)
This, on the other hand, seems like a recipe for how not to end up on this list. So how does a song this booze-soaked and cliché-filled end up this high on my year-end list? First of all, you justify your behavior by telling us all the ways the other person has wronged you and showing us that they’re the clear villain in the story. Second, you play an Uno reverse card and use your “country” checklist to talk about all the things you’d rather not do to make the listener feel just how over the relationship is (not fish, not hunt, and of course “drink a hot beer”). Third, bring an affable-yet-over-the-top delivery to the table as Carmichael does, and have enough everyman charisma to let the audience “bask in the schadenfreude” and not feel guilty about such a guilty pleasure. Finally, drop a surprisingly-neotraditional mix on top of the whole thing, and rely on your rough-edged guitars and plentiful fiddle to let people know exactly what song they’re listening to. Carmichael hasn’t yet been able to find traction on the radio yet, but if he keeps bringing songs like this to the table, the genre won’t be able to ignore him for much longer.
#5: Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” (8/10)
Songs from male artists have gotten noticeably more shallow lately: They seem to force themselves onto people the moment they meet them, and then they get incredibly whiny when they don’t get their way. In response, Wilson puts masculinity under a microscope here, and makes a strong case that emotional maturity should be just as big a part of the concept as using guns and changing tires. Her narrator has the sort of hard-worn edge that indicates she’s been on the wrong end of a immature man before making them both a believable and sympathetic character. The writing does a nice job moving from the classic staples of “being a man” to the relationship wisdom that they’re advocating for, and the production does just enough (i.e., it works in a mandolin) to give it a standout sound while making sure it stays in the background and doesn’t overwhelm the song’s message. It’s a stark departure from Wilson’s uncaring, unlikable persona on “Dirty Looks,” and while I’m only lukewarm on her new duet with Cole Swindell, I’m interested to see where this new and improved version of Wilson goes in the future.
#4: Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” (8/10)
When I first put together my list, I thought that this one was way too cheesy to be ranked this high, so I listened to it again…and after having to stop the song twice to gather myself, I remembered why it was here (and for the record, my mother still’s happily alive!). The song makes me think of Randy Travis’s classic “He Walked On Water” because it’s one of those tracks you don’t appreciate when you’re younger, and as you get older and stare down death from different angles, you really start to appreciate what you have and how fragile it all really is. We’ve lost over 810,000 people in the U.S. to the coronavirus to date, and that’s a lot of unexpected, premature goodbyes we’ve had to say to a parent as a country. The production does a good job balancing reverence and melancholy with its sound, and with his earnest, relatable performance, Janson continues to be the most confounding artist in the genre (how is the “Fix A Drink” and “Good Vibes” guy also the “Drunk Girl” and “Bye Mom” guy?). There’s a certain timelessness to this song, and if the genre ever sobers up and moves back towards deeper material, Janson stands to be one if the biggest beneficiaries.
#3: Taylor Swift, “No Body, No Crime” (9/10)
Swift is the first artist to wind up on my best and worst lists in a year simultaneously: Where “I Bet You Think About Me” felt petulant and over-assuming, “No Body, No Crime” might be the best story song the genre has heard since “Whiskey Lullaby.” Swift uses a firm, matter-of-fact tone to get her point across (something had to be done, and she was just the person to do it), and the other characters are unsavory enough to make what sounds like a gruesome murder at least feel understandable (whether it was justified or not is another matter, but that’s a high bar to clear). The details we get are plentiful and immaculate, allowing us to see the whole scenario from every perspective, and the production sets a dark, businesslike tone that complements the story without distracting from it. Murder ballads are tricky and it’s really hard to get them right, but through Swift’s outstanding songwriting talents and some inspired production choices, she does enough to earn a spot on my list and almost forgive her for “I Bet You Think About Me.” (Almost.)
#2: Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (10/10)
Devil’s Advocate Kyle, the floor is yours.
Thanks, Flip-Flopping Kyle. *ahem* Putting this song at #2 on this list is completely unjustifiable, and is nothing more than liberal signaling. You’re a documented Brothers Osborne hater that has labeled them a one-hit wonder, and then you’re conveniently on board the duo’s hype train the moment T.J. Osborne comes out as gay and the pair becomes one of those underrepresented artists you like to tout so much. You’re so transparent that it’s pathetic.
First of all, I don’t recall you raising a fuss when I “flip-flopped” on Miranda Lambert earlier on this list. Second of all, even if you set the sexuality issue aside, this song has a lot of the things I’m looking for from the genre right now: A distinct, textured sound (mostly thanks to John Osborne’s guitar work and the chorus accordion) that sets a hopeful, positive vibe, an inclusive message that declares that country music is a big tent for all types of people, and both brothers do a nice job of selling their story (and their position just outside the genre’s mainstream—there’s a reason I called them a one-hit wonder—lends credence to their claim that they’re an acquired taste.
While I’ll admit that T.J.’s sexuality does play a role in the song being where it is on my list, it’s because it adds another layer of complexity and a hint of darkness to what would otherwise be a kinda-sorta generic track. Consider what I said in my review back in June:
“Put this song alongside TJ Osborne coming out of the closet, however, and it takes on a whole new meaning, becoming a call for understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. When the narrator says ‘Some people are just like me, I hope y’all forgive ’em,’ they’re asking the genre and its audience (which are not typically known for their inclusivity) for tolerance of Osborne and others like him. ‘I’m a bad joke at the wrong time’ suddenly flips from a reference to the narrator’s poor sense of humor to a calling out of the slurs and derogatory terms (which are often couched in terms of bad-faith humor) that members of this community have had to endure. The description of a bar that’s always open and welcoming becomes a vision of the world the narrator wishes to see, where people can gather without pretense or prejudice and revel in their common humanity.”
In this context, the song is both a firm statement that the narrator can’t change who they are and a plea for the greater country community (and the country as a whole, to be honest) to open their minds, set aside their biases, and judge people like T.J. as whole, complete individuals, rather than as just some token who’s defined solely by who they’re attracted to.
You want to know why this song is at #2? It’s because it deserves to be.
#1: Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow” (10/10)
So now that we’re done patting ourselves on the back, let’s ask a tougher question: Chapel Hart released three official singles in 2021 (in addition to “I Will Follow,” there was “You Can Have Him Jolene” and “Grown Ass Woman”). So why did I only cover one of these releases for this list?
There’s no excuse for this, but there’s at least an explanation, and it gets right to the heart of country radio’s issues: Reviews here at the Korner are primarily dictated by our weekly Pulse posts (I try to have a score for every song on the list, even if it’s only preliminary), which in turn is dictated by the contents of the weekly Mediabase charts, which is based on the weekly spin counts from reporting country radio stations. By way of the transitive property, this means that our reviews are essentially driven by the radio status quo, which means that artists that don’t get airplay also have a harder time getting on our lists. Essentially, these reviews and lists are helping perpetuate the problems we spend so much time railing against, and someone gets screwed over nearly every year because of it (Chapel Hart in 2021, Mickey Guyton in 2020, Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell in 2018, etc.).
All of this is part of the reason I’m thinking about changing up my post/review strategy in 2022 (of course, I’ve been saying this for over a year now), but for the moment, let’s address the song in front of us and give it the credit it deserves. “I Will Follow” is similar to “I’m Not For Everyone” is a lot of ways: A simple, straightforward message that projects pride in oneself, a complementary sound that creates an upbeat and optimistic atmosphere that envelops the listener without getting in the way of the lyrics (heck, even the electric guitar sounds a bit like John Osborne’s signature axe), and an extra layer of meaning added by the artists themselves (Black artists have historically faced a number of barriers in the genre due to prejudice and racism, and continue to do so today—you’re telling me this trio can’t even get a hint of airplay, but Morgan Wallen is back in the Top Ten only ten months after being caught using the N-word?). What elevates this song to #1 is its sheer energy, which pushes it past mere declaration territory and into the realm of empowerment and inspiration. The quicker tempo, the organic feel of the production (even the clap track feels natural and fits seamlessly into the mix), the incredible vocal and harmony work that project determination and confidence (I’ve been hyping Midland for years, but Chapel Hart is even better)…this song has it all, and that’s why this is the #1 country single of 2021.
Last year, I closed my best-of list with the following statement:
“If there’s one takeaway I hope we all get from 2020, it’s this: We’re all in this together, so we’d better start caring about one another and work towards making life better for everyone.”
So yeah, that didn’t happen. Instead, 2021 was an example of what happens when everyone decides they’re not all in this together, and acts only in their own perceived self-interest and tells the rest of the world to jump in a lake. From corporations raking in massive profits on the backs of exploited workers to politicians using misinformation and outright lies to further their own careers to people putting their community’s health at risk by refusing a safe and effective vaccine, nobody was interested in hearing anyone else’s sob story—they were free to do whatever the heck they wanted, regardless of what their behavior did to other people.
We need to get back to caring about other people again, and country music can play a vital role in all of this. Artists can start as Chapel Hart and Brothers Osborne did and tell us their own stories, and then move on to Eric Church’s call from last year and tell us about the struggles that other people are facing. With increased awareness, we can take action to help those in need (whether on a personal or policymaking level), and show that having happy, healthy, and vibrant communities are truly in the self-interest of us all.
There’s a reason that Merle Haggard, “The Poet Of The Common Man,” was a country artist. It’s because country music was a place to show the world the burdens that someone carried, a place where you can stand in someone else’s shoes for three minutes and see what their life was really like. Country music doesn’t feel like that place right now, but there’s no reason why it can’t be that place again, and it’s a good bet that artists who drop songs that try to make that happen will wind up on this list next year.
2020 was a call to action, and 2021 showed us the consequences of ignoring it. My only hope for 2022 is that we don’t make that same mistake twice.