A friend of mine recently asked me “What exactly do you look for in a country song?” It took me a while to come up with an answer, because to me there’s no magic list of things that make up the perfect song. (With apologies to David Allan Coe, “mama, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk” isn’t always enough.) In the end, I guess I’m just looking for a song to move me in some way (some way other than hurling my radio across the room, of course) and connect on a deeper emotional level. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a deep, thoughtful song—a smile or a laugh can be just as meaningful as a nod or a tear.
These are the songs that moved me the most in 2017.
|Artist, Song||Final Rating|
|#15||Zac Brown Band, “My Old Man”||7/10|
|#14||Justin Moore, “Kinda Don’t Care”||8/10|
|#12||Midland, “Make A Little”||8/10|
|#11||The Railers, “11:59 (Central Standard Time)”||8/10|
#10: Brett Young, “In Case You Didn’t Know” (final rating: 8/10)
Young’s self-titled debut album was an emphatic statement that country music was living in the post-Bro era. There was no rough-edged production, no trace of hyper-masculine swagger, no gratuitous objectification of the opposite sex—heck, outside of some frustrated mansplaining on “Like I Loved You” (which of course was released as a single because Nashville always finds a way to screw things up), this album featured no attitude at all.
“In Case You Didn’t Know” wasn’t the best song off of Brett Young, but it exemplified what made that disc great: A terrific blend of traditional and modern instrumentation, a double dose of heartfelt, thoughtful writing, and an earnest, charismatic delivery from Young himself. While Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” relegated this track to being the second-most popular country song this year (Top 20 on the Hot 100!), it more than earned its place on this list. Here’s hoping “You Ain’t Here To Kiss Me” makes an appearance on the charts in 2018.
#9: Brad Paisley, “Last Time For Everything” (8/10)
I jumped on the Brad Paisley hype train back in the Who Needs Pictures era, but after almost two decades, it looks like that train has reached the end of line. Where once his songs breezed to the top of the charts with ease, they now struggle even to make it into the top ten. However, while he’s rapidly losing his mainstream relevance, he hasn’t lost his musical edge.
“Last Time For Everything” is exactly what you’d expect from a Brad Paisley song: Clever writing with equal parts insight and humor, a unique take on an old subject (not every “last time” is a bad thing!), a delivery that exudes empathy and charm (he’s just so darn likeable!), and stellar production with a hearty helping of guitar wizardry. While the song has some minor warts (the verses are the very definition of laundry-list songwriting), they’re masked by the flawless execution of Paisley and his band. If this is really the end of Paisley’s mainstream career (and judging from the cool reception to “Heaven South,” it probably is), at least he’s going out on top.
#8: Luke Combs, “When It Rains It Pours” (8/10)
My first impression of Luke Combs wasn’t very good: His debut single “Hurricane” struck me as just another song by just another singer. Sure, it eventually rose up to No. 1, but there have been plenty of one-hit wonders in country music (anyone heard from A Thousand Horses or William Michael Morgan lately?). If Combs wanted me to remember his name, he needed to convince me that he had staying power.
“When It Rains It Pours” grabbed my attention from its opening note and never let it go, mixing an unapologetically-neotraditional sound with a charming, believable delivery and strong songwriting that was both unique and amusing. Basically, he took Brad Paisley’s early-career playbook and executed it to perfection, and while the result isn’t quite “Celebrity” or “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” it’s pretty darn close. The bottom line: As far as I’m concerned, Luke Bryan is now the other Luke in the genre.
#7: Glen Campbell, “Everybody’s Talkin'” (9/10)
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the degree of difficulty here: While being run down by both Father Time and Alzheimer’s disease, Glen Campbell stepped up to the mic one last time and transformed a dark, depressing song into a bright, optimistic look at his future with an incredible performance that would be the envy of singers half his age. Let’s see Garth Brooks try to pull that off in thirty years!
Backed by a traditional, banjo-centered mix, Campbell takes a song first performed over fifty years ago and absolutely owns it, making it feel like it was written just for him. His voice is surprisingly strong, and the charm and charisma he rode to stardom are no worse for wear decades after his peak. I still contend that Campbell could have gone toe-to-toe with the Sam Hunts and Luke Bryans of the world had this song been an official single instead of just a promotional one.
Rest in peace, Rhinestone Cowboy. Like Maxwell House coffee, you were good to the last drop.
#6: Danielle Bradbery, “Sway” (9/10)
Years after Danielle Bradbery’s win on The Voice, my parents still talk about “that young girl” and how successful she’ll be in country music someday. What appeared to be a preordained route to success, however, ended up being a road to nowhere, as Bradbery’s initial singles failed to resonate with country listeners. In response, Bradbery took a hard left and struck out in a new direction to regain some of her old momentum, and the result is perhaps the grooviest song I heard all year.
“Sway” is not a particularly deep song, and all the traditional trappings of her previous songs are nowhere to be found. Bradbery herself is still here, however, and she throws down a strong, soulful performance that would catch peoples’ attention on the Hot 100, let along the country charts. This effort is backed by excellent production that establishes a relaxed atmosphere while also providing the sort of groove that even inspires a dance-hater like myself to bust a few moves on my kitchen floor. It’s a track that moves you both emotionally and physically, and charts a promising path for Bradbery’s career going forward.
#5: Thomas Rhett, “Marry Me” (9/10)
The massive success of “Die A Happy Man” allowed Thomas Rhett to survive the collapse of Bro-Country by giving him an identity as a pop-country balladeer whose material is packed in positive energy. Rhett went to this well several more times with success (“Star Of The Show,” “Unforgettable”), but for the third single from his Life Changes album, Rhett surprised us by deking in that direction again before pulling a complete 180 with “Marry Me.”
The production sold the fake perfectly, coming across as a standard wedding mix before taking a bittersweet turn and slowly cranking up the song’s energy and urgency. Rhett’s impressively-earnest delivery proved he had the chops to handle a song like this, and the writing provided the necessary level of detail to properly set the scene. It’s easily Rhett’s best work to date, and while it might not reach the heights of “Die A Happy Man,” it’s an emphatic declaration that Rhett has the flexibility and charisma to maintain his A-list status for a long time to come.
#4: Trace Adkins, “Watered Down” (10/10)
As an artist, Trace Adkins is surprisingly polarizing: For every listener who adores his golden voice and can’t get enough of his most powerful material (“Every Light In The House Is On,” “Help Me Understand,” “You’re Gonna Miss This”), there’s one who will never forgive him for his occasional heel-turns and bizarre single choices (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” “Brown Chicken Brown Cow”). What’s undeniable, however, is that when Adkins sets out to make an old-school country song, there are few in the business who can do it better, and “Watered Down” might well be his best one yet.
As a veteran artists who has reached some dizzying heights and troubling depths during his career, Adkins is the perfect artist to sing a song like this, as his experience gives him an extra layer of authority and gravitas on the subject of aging. The production here harkens back to Adkins’s early-career neotraditional style, and sets a thoughtful, reflective mood that nicely complements the writing. Finally, Adkins’s voice is positively ageless: When I play this song back-to-back with “There’s A Girl In Texas,” I don’t hear any difference in his delivery at all.
When the history of the 90s/00s country music is chronicled decades from now, I hope the writer saves a few kind words for Adkins’s legacy, because with song like this, he deserves them.
#3: Easton Corbin, “A Girl Like You” (10/10)
I feel like I’ve been second-guessing my review of this song ever since I wrote it back in January. Yeah, maybe that opening drum beat turns some listeners off. Yeah, maybe the writing is more meatheaded and less clever than I gave it credit for. Yeah, maybe I was blinded by my fandom and gave the song a score it didn’t deserve.
It’s high time I stopped looking for flaws in this song and starting accepting the fact that I love everything about it.
I love how the production fuses together traditional and modern elements to create a fun, catchy sound that perfectly straddles the boundary of country and pop (and I admire the audacity of whoever decided to take this risk in the first place). I love how the writing subtly subverts the typical “Metro-Bro” tropes, using all the objectifying buzzwords yet coming across as respectful towards the opposite sex. I love Easton Corbin’s earnest, effortless delivery and the positive energy he injects into the song.
Normally I frown upon songs that hang around the airplay charts for 40+ weeks, but as far as I’m concerned, this one can hang around as long as it wants to. Now when is Mercury Records going to get around to releasing that new album?
#2: Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl” (10/10)
Did I say Trace Adkins was polarizing? Let’s talk about Mr. “Truck Yeah” for a moment.
Chris Janson seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place with respect to country music. He’s capable of releasing powerful songs like “Holdin’ Her” that earn him hosannas from the traditional country crowd, but they get nothing but crickets from mainstream radio. When he pivots to shallow-but-mainstream-friendly material like “Buy Me A Boat” or “Fix A Drink,” he achieves commercial success but gets ripped to shred by me and the rest of the critical community. What Janson needs is a song classical enough to draw praise from the Saving Country Musics of the world, yet raw and emotional enough to capture mainstream attention. With “Drunk Girl,” I think he’s got exactly that.
By themselves, the piano-driven production or the “Marry Me”-esque head fake or Bro-repudiating lyrics or Janson’s charismatic delivery would be enough to make the song interesting. Together, however, they generate a wave of raw power that sweeps up the listener and demands their attention, painting a vivid picture that places them in the bars and the dwellings beside the song’s protagonists. Even though I knew the deke was coming, the way the song laid out the narrator’s choice was so compelling that I was still enraptured when it happened.
So what’s a song this powerful doing at #2? Well…
#1: Midland, “Drinkin’ Problem” (10/10)
Midland hit country music like a tidal wave earlier this year, and if I did album reviews, their debut disc On The Rocks probably would have earned my #1 slot. While there’s been a fierce debate over the group’s “authenticity,” I think the discussion misses the main point; namely, that Nashville is capable of making a darn good traditional country album when it really wants to.
Much like “Drunk Girl,” “Drinkin’ Problem” is an immersive song, whose excellent harmonies and old-school production put the listener at a table in a 1975 dive bar. (Of all the songs I’ve heard this year, this is the one that would sound the least out of place on an oldies station.) While it lacks the strong social message of “Drunk Girl,” the mix’s melancholy mood and Mark Wystrach’s exceptional vocals do a great job transmitting the narrator’s pain to the listener, to the point that it makes him or her question their own recreational habits! It’s a hauntingly beautiful track that made Midland the new face of the traditionalist movement currently rising in the genre.
The battle between “Drinkin’ Problem” and “Drunk Girl” was a complete toss-up, with both songs worthy of the “song of the year” crown. How was I going to make a decision? In the end, it comes down to the “moving” comment I made 2000+ words ago: Both songs moved me, but only one of them moved me to make this:
While perhaps a bit unfair to Chris Janson (I only learned that his song even existed a few weeks ago!), “Drinkin’ Problem” and its narrator’s relationship with alcohol mirrored my own relationship with Splatoon so perfectly that I was inspired to write and record a half-baked parody! Splatoon may have lost this year’s gaming crown to Miitopia, but in an ironic twist, it’s what convinced me to keep “Drinkin’ Problem” at #1 despite Janson’s strong challenge.
Congratulations Midland, you three have earned my “song of the year” award for 2017. I look forward to seeing them and everyone else on this list continue to push the genre to new heights in 2018.