Kyle’s 2020 Pandemic Playlist

(Editor’s Note: Country Aircheck doesn’t publish this week, so the Pulse of Mainstream Country Music will return in January.)

If you could sum up 2020 in a mixtape, what would it sound like?

In my role as both a fan and a critic, I listen to a lot of music, and thus I tend to associate various eras with the tracks that I was spinning at the time. On occasion, I’ll even throw together a CD with my listening choices as a sort of time capsule, allowing me to revisit those times in memory (and sometime question the judgement/sanity of my younger self as my tastes evolve).

As 2020 comes to a close, going through this exercise feel not only cathartic, but necessary. After a bitter presidential election filled with venom and misinformation, a summer of reckoning with police brutality and racial inequities, and a global pandemic that has claimed over 338,000 lives and counting, we can’t afford to forget the lessons we learned this year. It’s been said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and given that this is a year that no one wants to repeat, we need to do all we can to remember this year, and hopefully motivate ourselves to do things differently in the future so that we never find ourselves this crossroads again.

The only rule for this list is that there are no other rules. Songs are not restricted by genre, artist, original year of release, or anything else (in fact, given how surreal and absurd this year felt sometimes, weirdness may actually strengthen a song’s case for inclusion). All that matters is whether or not a song can be tied back to 2020 in some shape or form.

For better and sometimes for worse, this is the official Kyle’s Korner playlist for the tire fire that was 2020.

The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”

The older I get, the more I worry that I’m artificially restricting myself to only listening to certain kinds of music (in my case, mostly country music). At some point early in the coronavirus lockdowns, I decided to try to break out of this box and find some popular music in other genres to experience. I started with Billboard’s Hot 100, and it just so happened that “Blinding Lights” was No. 1 at that time. I was drawn to the song’s dark yet retro vibe, its catchy groove, and its focus on isolation at a time when we were all still adjusting to isolation as a default state. It’s a song I’ve revisited a lot since then, and it will be one of the main tracks I associate with 2020.

Dan Seals, “Big Wheels In The Moonlight”

So how does a trucking song from 1988 end up on a list like this? Call this a victory for the algorithms that dictate so much of our online existence these days: I had no idea the song the track existed until YouTube randomly recommended it to me, and a month later I was  a proud owner of a used copy of Rage On I found on Amazon. If I had to name a favorite album of 2020, this would be it, and as I listen to it I’m forever pondering what makes it so much better than many mainstream albums from this year (for example, the plethora of story songs that didn’t shy away from complex topics, like labor strikes in “Factory Town” or coping with dead-end small town life in the title track). Heck, this particular song moved me enough to attempt my own cover of the track (the vocals are pretty meh, but I was dang proud of the production):

If a song motivates me to cover it, it deserves a spot on my 2020 playlist.

Gabby Barrett, “I Hope”

Due to its radio reliance and its reluctance to really embrace streaming services, country music is regularly overshadowed by other genres on charts like the Billboard Hot 100. “I Hope,” however, is a rare exception: I liked the track when I reviewed it back in 2019, but I didn’t expect it to explode like it did in 2020, riding a Charlie Puth remix all the way to #3 on the Hot 100 and putting up radio numbers months after its peak that would keep it in the Mediabase Top 20 (maybe that’s why “The Good Ones” has been so slow to build momentum this year).

From a meta perspective, “I Hope” models the anger that a lot of people felt towards one another, especially as the election season ramped up and topics that should have been completely nonpartisan ended up as divisive wedge issues. Despite President-Elect Joe Biden’s pleas, a lot of people aren’t in a forgiving mood right now, with each side hoping the other winds up like the narrator’s ex in “I Hope.” While such anger can be cathartic in a song, it’s extremely corrosive in a society, so hopefully we can lower the temperature of our politics going forward.

Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me”

The cleanup spot is the traditional anchor of a lineup in baseball, so let’s anchor this playlist with the best country song of 2020. I’ve talked about “Black Like Me” a lot this year, but the facts bear repeating: Black Americans have a vastly different experience in this country than their white counterparts, and they face numerous (and far too often life-threatening) obstacles and institutional barriers that are completely invisible to white people. This is perhaps the lesson we need to take away from 2020, and we need to ensure that we don’t forget it, so that we remain committed to the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality for everyone.

Black. Lives. Matter.

Eric Church, “Stick That In Your Country Song”

Remember what I said about “Big Wheels In The Moonlight”? Church does, and he’d like to hear more of life’s untold tales on country radio too. I’ve discussed this song at length already too, but I hope we remember its message too: There are stories of struggle and sacrifice in this country that we need to hear, and country music is just the vehicle to help tell them.

Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix”

If we’re going to talk about country music in 2020, we have to reckon with the Cobronavirus movement, a trend in which we were all encouraged to forget about the world’s problems and use alcohol as a cure-all pill to mask the pain (a call that a disturbing number of Americans heeded, as one industry group reported that alcohol sales were up over a 1000 percent). Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita” might have been the most successful of the bunch, but the most tolerable to my ears was Rhett and Pardi’s ode to the humble pilsner (at least it had a decent groove to the sound, plus my overly-nasal Pardi impression made people laugh when I sang the song myself). I like Rhett as an artist, but I feel like he took a step backwards in 2020, and I’m hoping the post-Center Point Road era will at least be a bit more interesting.

Hot Country Knights, “Then It Rained”

When Mark Grondin gives you advice, you take it, and…

Dierks Bentley’s 90s parody album was pretty decent overall, but I’m with Zack Kephart on this one: “Then It Rained” is clearly the best cut on the disc, even if the joke may not land if you don’t know Garth Brooks’s “The Thunder Rolls.” Neotraditional nostalgia was all the rage before the pandemic hit, and the Knights captured both the classic sound and the emotional buildup perfectly. It’s the sort of absurdly self-aware take that feels uniquely 2020, and hopefully we’ll all get to enjoy our hot dogs and chardonnay together some time in the future.

Old Dominion, “Some People Do (Meow Mix)”

Speaking of absurd self-aware takes…”Some People Do” may well have been strong enough to make this playlist on its own, but when the group decided to re-record their entire album using only meows for the lyrics (they throw in the occasional woof as well), the track became an essential pick for the 2020 mixtape (even if the meows worked a little better on “One Man Band”). It’s the sort of bizarre release that feels like it could only happen this year, so it’s perfect for a touchstone list like this one.

Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle”

Speaking of remixes…Ballerini released her third album kelsea right into the teeth of the initial pandemic scare, and it was mostly forgotten amidst everything else that was going on. After “The Other Girl” failed to launch, the label made the wise move to bring out “Hole In The Bottle,” the best song on the album and arguably the only good drinking song released in 2020. Ballerini ended up re-releasing kelsea later in the year as ballerini, a pared-down reimagining of the entire album, but “Hole In The Bottle” retained its charm and energy by becoming a back-porch stomper featuring a classic barroom piano and copious use of a dobro and acoustic guitar. When a year forces you to rethink an entire freaking album like this, it’s a year (and a song) worth remembering.

The Four Tops, “It’s The Same Old Song”

Wait, now we’re turning the dial back to 1965? This is here for two reasons:

  • COVID-19 really drove home the frailty of life, and it pushed some people to check some things off of their bucket list while they still could. For an old-school car guy like my father, this meant picking up a slick-looking fifties-era Chevrolet that he could cruise around town in. The previous owner had installed a tape deck in the car, which naturally meant that we needed to make him a mixtape that fit the era for both the car and its proud new owner. Thus I embarked on a deep dive of early rock ‘n roll and the Motown sound, scouring iTunes and the American Graffiti soundtrack for just the right tracks to fill the cassette. Of the songs that still sit on my hard drive, this #5 Hot 100 track is the one I revisit the most, so it deserves a spot on this list fifty-five years after its release.
  • “Same Old Song” is a pretty good tagline for what I’ve been calling the Blandemic trend: Many of the country tracks from the back half of 2020 seemed to run together for me, covering the same topics with the same instruments and dominated by the same small subset of artists. Let’s hope 2021 delivers a bit more variety in the the genre.

Vicki Sue Robinson, “Turn The Beat Around”

Of course, if you make something for one parent, you have to make something for the other one, right? My mother’s musical roots are planted firmly in the disco sound of the 1970s (with a few detours into rock opera à la Bat Out Of Hell), so I was sent off on yet another deep dive through yet another era of music to find the right tracks for yet another mixtape. This eventually led me to Robinson’s signature hit from 1976, an expertly-crafted that featured soulful, energetic vocals and intricate percussion that drove the track without completely overwhelming it.

It’s been said that disco died several decades ago, but its influence is still felt today, and it resurfaced in a big way in 2020…

BTS, “Dynamite”

While griping about the soundalike songs dominating country music later in the year, I stumbled across the news that the the boy band BTS had become the first Korean act to top the Hot 100 with their latest single “Dynamite.” Intrigued, I gave the song a spin, and haven’t really stopped spinning it since. I’d put this in the same category as “Every Little Thing”: A silly little song with an infectious beat, tons of energy, and a happy vibe that was sorely needed as the country realized that the pandemic we’d all hoped would be done by the summer would be sticking around for a while. (For a while, I called this the best country song I’d heard in the last two months, which honestly says more about the state of the genre than it does about the song itself.) I haven’t really dived into the group’s back catalog yet, but given that I’ll be stuck inside for another few months, it’s on my to-do list.

Tee Lopes, “Lights, Camera, Action! – Studiopolis Zone Act 1”

School may have gone virtual for much of the year, but it never stopped, which meant a lot of long days grading assignments. When I’m working through a large stack of submissions, I like to put on some background instrumentals with a bit of bounce to them, and video game soundtracks are usually a perfect fit. I wasn’t a fan of Sonic Mania, but the soundtrack was pretty solid, and my favorite of the bunch was the Studiopolis Act 1 background track. The Miitopia battle theme and X-Naut theme from Paper Mario were also candidates for this slot, but this was the track that I leaned on the most.

Speaking of video games…

Viantastic, “Island”

If there was one game that dominated 2020, it was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold a mind-boggling 26 million copies in six months. Among Us may have taken over the conversation late in the year (and inspired a few decent music tracks of its own), none of them could top Viantastic’s day-one rap to the game that offered the respite from reality that no amount of alcohol could provide. Nintendo’s year was honestly kind of meh overall (after AC:NH, we got mostly ports and DLC), but with a game racking up these kind of numbers, it really didn’t matter from a financial perspective. However, I’d still like to see more from the company in 2021 (and maybe a bit less antagonizing of its fans too).

Speaking of rap…

Epic Rap Battles of History, “Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump”

It’s time to address the elephant (and the donkey) in the room: The 2020 election was a nasty affair, full of personal attacks, misinformation, and questions about whether democracy itself would survive the affair. ERB’s candidate rap battles have become a bit of a tradition since Obama vs. Romney hit YouTube back in 2012, and Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist did not disappoint with a no-holds-barred scrap that ran the gamut from policies from personalities. (The ominous piano-driven production deserves an assist for setting the perfect mood for an election in which fear was a central narrative.) The system seemed to hold up in the end, but while Biden ended up earning a convincing win, some people remained skeptical of the results, which gave us…

Schmoyoho, “Election Meme Rewind”

One of the great things about sitting around the house with nothing but an internet connection to entertain you is that you discover a bunch of interesting new YouTube channels, like Kittisaurus, Gorillaphent, and the creators of this next song, Schmoyoho. Schmoyoho specializes is “songifying” video speech to create catchy pop tracks, and each election year to turn the presidential debates into sonic masterpieces with special guests like Weird Al Yankovic and and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Since ERB already has the election covered, however, the Schmoyoho track on our list covers what happened after Election Day, as votes were being counted and states (and eventually the entire election) was called for Joe Biden.

One of the bizarre things about Donald Trump is that everyone is his orbit seemed to turn into a cartoon character (literally, thanks to Stephen Colbert), behaving so strangely that the only suitable reaction is to laugh at them for their craziness. Many of these characters refused to believe the projections of Biden’s victory, and the resulting post-election memes have been chained together into a song memorable enough that I randomly found myself singing it for weeks afterwards. On this list, the song will forever stand as an example of the weirdness an incompetent personality cult brings to politics, and hopefully will warn people off of voting for similarly incompetent candidates in the future.

Webb Pierce, “Honky Tonk Song”

You don’t need a reason to include Pierce on any list, but I’ve got three of them here:

  • Pierce randomly reemerged in the public consciousness this year after being remixed into Sam Hunt’s eventual #1 “Hard To Forget.”
  • Rather than the car my father bought, my reaction to the “live while you’re alive” realization was to order old CDs of forgotten artists from Amazon to fill out my already-large music collection. A collection of Pierce’s hits was one of the first discs I ordered, so it represents all of those forgotten artists here.
  • I’ve actually been dealing with my own “Honky Tonk Song” situation: My upstairs neighbors have been super obnoxious all year, throwing loud restriction-defying parties with loud music and drunken shouting and generally making it hard to concentrate while working (heck, I had to move in the middle of writing this song because of yet another party!). I don’t dare confront them about this because if they’re dumb enough to ignore COVID-19 restrictions, they’re dumb enough to catch and spread COVID-19, so for now I’ll settle for calling them out anonymously and passive-aggressively in a random blog post.

Speaking of the blog…

Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”

I listened to this song maybe twice all year, so what’s it doing here? This song represents the unexpected surge in popularity Kyle’s Korner has experienced in 2020. My December page view count is on pace to triple my January total, and no page exemplifies the blog’s growing readership than my deep dive on Toby Keith’s career, which is now far and away my most popular post and routinely outpaces even my homepage in daily views.

I know I don’t engage with people too much on this blog, but I really appreciate the support I’ve received over the course of 2020, and I hope we can keep the momentum rolling into 2021!

(Also, this song gets the nod over my favorite Keith track “Who’s That Man” because I found my first gray hairs this year, so I’m officially not as good as I once was either!)

Brad Paisley, “Last Time For Everything”

This song is here for one reason: During fall term finals, I closed class with “I’ll see you all on Wednesday!” and one of the students replied that they were sad because it was the last time they would hear that this time. The comment immediately brought to mind this single from 2017, and it made me think about all the last times that were on the horizon.

Some of these times were sad, of course (for example, the last time you see a friend before tragedy strikes, as I did in 2019), but as Paisley points out, not all last times are cause for mourning. If all goes well, in 2021 there will be a last time we have to hold a class over Zoom, a last time we have to wear a mask in public, and a last time we have to stay six feet away from the people we love. There will be a last official day of the pandemic, a last holiday we have to celebrate remotely, and (barring a declaration of martial law) a last day to this awful Trump presidency. In short, there are a surprising amount of lasts that we can look forward to in 2021, and if we all continue to do our parts now, we can all enjoy them together.

Speaking of lasts: This likely marks the last blog post for the year, but if there’s anyone who deserves the last word in 2020…

Charley Pride, “Roll On Mississippi”

…it’s the first Black superstar in country music, a man who became one of the 338,000+ victims of COVID-19 when he passed away a few weeks ago. It was a rough year for country music, with the deaths of artists such as Kenny Rogers, Jan Howard, K.T. Oslin, Charlie Daniels, Hal Ketchum, Harold Reid of the Statler Brothers, and many others, and COVID-19 added to the pain by adding Pride, Joe Diffie, and John Prine to that list. “Roll On Mississippi” is a calm, reflective song that invites the user to look back and think about everything that’s happened to us, and reminds us that for better or worse, time and the Mississippi keep moving forward, and we’re really just along for the ride. While 2020 will likely not engender much joy or nostalgia, it’s still important to keep both it and those we lost during this year in our minds, so that when we emerge from this dark place that we’re in, we resolve never to go back.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s hoping it’s better than the last one.

Kyle’s Top 10 Country Singles Of 2020

Ho ho ho! Santa Claus is in the house, and he’s got a sack full of songs for you to enjoy.

I opened my 2019 list with “What is a country song?”, but the question was mostly set aside this year to focus on a bigger issue: Country music has a real problem, and in a word, it’s diversity:

  • Artist diversity is the most obvious part of this: Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line continues unabated, and women and artists of color remain criminally underrepresented despite producing better tracks than their counterparts on average (at least by my count).
  • Sound diversity has become a real problem as well: It feels like nearly every mix these days boils down to some percussion, a few mass-produced guitars, and some guy on a laptop, with some keyboards tossed in if the song wants to sound serious.
  • Finally, topic diversity in the genre seems to be shrinking, and you can forget about finding any depth in these songs. It felt like every song boiled down to three things:
    • “The world sucks, so let’s drink ourselves to death.”
    • “My love left me, so let’s drink ourselves to death.”
    • “I love you soooooooooooooooooooo much! I would totally drink myself to death for you.”

    Many songs aimed to make you feel something (even if that something was nothing at all), but very few asked you to think about anything. Instead, ignorance was the name of the game: Solve the world’s problems? Try to get your love back? Nah man, just have another beer and forget about everything.

The songs on this list are the ones who tried to break that mold. They confronted the problems of the world instead of shying away from them. They acknowledged complexity and messiness rather than ignoring it. They exhibited maturity and long-term thinking instead of just shooting for ephemeral highs. They brought some surprises in their arrangements and in their subject matter, bringing back old instruments and demanding that we think about new topics. In short, they found a way to stand out from the crowd, and earned themselves a spot on this list.

I present to everyone my favorite songs of 2020.

Last Year’s Winner: Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards”

Honorable Mentions:

Artist, Song Final Rating
#15 Jason Aldean, “Got What I Got” 7/10
#14 Runaway June, “We Were Rich” 7/10
#13 Lady A, “What I’m Leaving For” 7/10
#12 Ingrid Andress, “The Stranger” 7/10
#11 Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back” 7/10

#10 Dolly Parton, “When Life Is Good Again” (final score: 8/10)

Dolly Parton is on the short list of people who, four hundreds years from now, the world will likely look back on with the same respect and reverence that we hold for folks like William Shakespeare now, so it makes sense that her thoughtful-yet-optimistic take on the pandemic would end up high on my list. Of course, no matter how much unrelenting hope Parton offers here, the relentless drumbeat of 2020 news seemed to get worse rather than better over time, causing the track to slide back a bit from its midyear ranking. Still, there’s more going on here than just Parton saying things will get better: She acknowledges that there are things we need to change about ourselves and our world when the pandemic subsides, and she commits to making that change on a personal level. Her level of charisma is perhaps unmatched in modern times, and she uses her power to persuade the listener that everyone should do what they can to help fix what’s broken in the world. No matter what’s going on, I always walk away from this track feeling better about the world, and more committed to help right the wrongs that exist within it.

#9: Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair” (8/10)

First, a disclaimer: I consider Travis the greatest country singer of all time, so he could probably just fart into a microphone and still earn a place on this list. Still, “Fool’s Love Affair” stands in stark contrast to much of modern country music, demonstrating just how the genre has changed in just a few short decades. Take the production, for example: Instead of soundalike guitars and programmed percussion lines, “it’s got fiddle, steel guitar, and piano, with the light-touch drums and understated electric guitar serving as complementary pieces rather than the main attraction.” In terms of the writing, cheating songs like this have a become a real rarity in country music, as relationships rarely reach that stage in songs today (instead, it’s mostly hookups and breakups, with the occasional wedding-ready love song), and thus it probes moral gray areas and explores ideas and feelings that other tracks never reckon with. And of course, with Josh Turner being put out to pasture, no one in today’s business even approaches early-career Travis’s smooth, emotive baritone (in truth, the trend seems to be towards rougher-sounding vocals like Morgan Wallen or Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard). Supposedly there are more vintage Travis tracks that could be released pending some legal issues, so hopefully we get more of these sooner rather than later.

#8: Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs” (8/10)

Is the ride already over for Midland? Not only have they been sinking lower on my list every year (From #1 in 2017 to #8 here), but their chart performance has suffered as the genre quickly turned away from its flirtation with a classic sound (neither “Mr. Lonely” nor this track could break out of the twenties on Billboard’s airplay chart). All of the elements that make Midland great are still here: The late 70s/early 80s throwback sound with inspired instrument choices (that wood-block percussion is a small detail that adds a lot to the song’s atmosphere), the excellent harmony work of Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy, and the tackling of cheating (again, a rare subject on the radio today) from a completely different angle than Travis’s tune (the songs have the same foundation, yet set very different moods – the sound is slicker, and the writing is sharper with more interesting details). It stands out from its competition in all the right ways, and yet was mostly ignored in favor of the Cobronavirus and Blandemic movements. It’s very possible that this trio has run out of gas in the mainstream scene (Let It Roll is certainly history at this point, and whether or not Big Machine commits to another album is an open question), but with four straight appearances in our yearly Top Ten, Midland’s legacy here at Kyle’s Korner is already cemented.

#7: Mickey Guyton, “Heaven Down Here” (8/10)

If the ride really is over for Midland, at least they got two albums out of the deal; Guyton, despite being signed to Capitol records since 2011, has yet to get more than a few EPs out into the marketplace. On the surface, this seems inexplicable: Guyton has one of the best power voices the genre has seen since Carrie Underwood (a former Capitol artist, by the way), so you’re telling me the label can’t find a way to bring her voice to the radio and an album to store shelves? Part of the problem is that society doesn’t give her the leeway to be as direct or angry as, say, a white male artist could be, so she’s forced to compromise on songs like “Heaven Down Here”: She confronts problems rather than ignore them, but she’s can’t specifically call out the problems she’s referencing or offer any solution beyond asking a higher power for help, lest she be criticized for being ‘too political’ (after all, country music in 2020 doesn’t solve problems, it pretends they don’t exist). The sound is also very safe, which slick guitars and synthetic percussion that blend in well with the rest of the radio. There’s no compromising with a voice like Guyton’s, however, and she’s able to rise to the moment by channeling both the listener’s desire to solve the problems we face and the angst and powerlessness they feel when trying to do so. Guyton is the sort of artist who can really connect to listeners and speak to the moment we’re all going through, even when she’s artificially constrained, and she turned what could have been a fairly “meh” track into something that felt meaningful, even powerful. Now can we get an album from her, Nashville?

#6: Old Dominion, “Some People Do” (8/10)

I’m still amazed at the transformation Old Dominion has made since the group first emerged with its sleazy tire fire of a song, “Break Up With Him.” The execution on this track is superb: The piano and string section set a somber mood with just a glimmer of hope for the future, the writing shows incredible self-awareness in its assessment of the failed relationship while also professing that they have learned from their mistakes, and lead singer Matthew Ramsey seals the deal with an earnest, sympathetic performance that might be the best of his career. There’s no drowning in whiskey of self-pity, there’s no attempt to pass blame where it isn’t warranted, and there’s no expectation of success with this requestno matter the outcome, the narrator knows that they’ve become a  better person. The Metro-Bro era was a scourge on the genre, but Old Dominion can count themselves among the acts that transitioned to something better as the genre shifted. I’ve gained a lot of respect for the group over the last few years, and while their latest single was a bit of a dud, I’m excited to see where they go in 2021.

#5: Rascal Flatts, “How They Remember You” (9/10)

After twenty years in the genre, Rascal Flatts has entered the legacy phase  of their career, and they encouraged everyone else to adapt that frame of mind on this track. This track resonated not only because it encouraged long-term reflection, but because 2020 was a year in which our choices seemed to matter that much more: Did you choose to listen to health officials’ advice or ignore it? Did you take a stand against racial injustice or stay on the sidelines? Did you cast your ballot or decide it wasn’t worth the time? When the need was greatest, did you lend a hand? Your choices would in turn shape the world’s perception of you, and Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus, and Joe Don Rooney drove this point home with their typical arena-ready production and solid harmony work bursting with earnest emotion. (This is part of the reason why I don’t understand the success of  Dan + Shay: Why accept an LeVox clone when the OG LeVox is still on the scene?) The trio took the time to encourage us to do the right thing in order to burnish our personal legacies, and added to their own legacies as a result.

#4: Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama” (9/10)

Parton, Travis, Rascal Flatts, and now McGraw…is anyone else sensing a pattern here? Some of the  genre’s elders really stepped up this year, and  none moreso than McGraw with this song. The understated production is an unsung hero here (the guitars are a complementary piece, with the banjo driving the melody and the steel guitar getting a ton of room to shine), but I think the lyrics are the big reason this song works: It does a nice job capturing the moment when tragedy really hits home, and seemed to speak for a lot of people as they tried to navigate the loss, realize what’s most important to them, and then reach out to those they care about. While this song is nowhere near Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” it felt like it filled a similar role, Despite his occasional missteps (“Truck Yeah,” anyone?), and McGraw has really reframed himself over the last few years as a seasoned, more-reasonable voice within country music, someone you would totally buy singing by a river and calling home to process their grief. Perhaps the reason we saw so many older artists step up this year is the same reason many of them are still around: They’re just dang good at what they do.

#3: Ashley McBryde, “Martha Divine” (9/10)

If I had one complaint about country music as a genre in 2020, it’s that so many of the songs (for the many reasons I discussed earlier) didn’t make me feel anythingthey just kind of existed for their own sake. McBryde had no such problem here: Despite using the same basic guitar-and-drum formula as the rest of the world, the song absolutely crackles with anger and energy, with an added edge to the guitars and some serious punch to the production. McBryde’s rough-and-tumble image makes her a perfect fit for the homicidal protagonist, and she absolutely (metaphorically) kills this performance (this listener 100% believes she’d cut a b***h over something like this). The writing, however, is the real star here: This is a raw, uncut look at some seriously messed-up family dynamics, warts and all. There’s no glossing over the father’s infidelity or the narrator’s rage, and there’s no glorification or true justification of the violence: This is a crime of passion, no more, no less, with the only selling of the story being McBryde letting the audience share in her rage. This is the sort of story song I really miss in country music, and I certainly felt something when I heard it.

Speaking of feeling something…

#2: Eric Church, “Stick That In Your Country Song” (10/10)

unlike with Mickey Guyton, our society has given full permission for guys like Church to get as angry as they want, and he takes full advantage of that leeway here. James Brown may have called country music “the white man’s blues,” but over the last few years the genre hasn’t been about anyone’s bluesinstead, we’re all encouraged to drink and party our lives away while the world burns around us. In this song, Church has had it with Nashville’s willful ignorance, and can barely contain his frustration as he demands that the format return to its roots of sharing the pain of invisible individuals with the rest of the world. The production backs up that call with dark, pointed production that crashes down on the listener like a wave and at times wouldn’t sound that out of place on a Godsmack album (those guitars that jump in on the third chorus are absolutely lit). The lyrics do their part by practicing what they preach, discussing the plight of soldiers and teachers and painting vivid-yet-bleak scenes of metropolitan areas where neither jobs nor dreams exist anymore. (Ironically, Church himself made a disappointing pivot back to mainstream country with his follow-up single, notching another aggravating win for societal inertia.) Our nation and our world are fundamentally flawed right now, and we need country music to follow this example and shine a light on the darkest corners of the planet to ensure that we know the stories that exist there and can take action to fix what’s broken. If we stick that in out country songs, maybe eventually we’ll stick that on our to-do lists too.

Speaking of what’s broken…

#1: Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me” (10/10)

If there’s one thing that many white Americans have come to realize over the last twelve months, it’s that we haven’t come nearly as far as we thought when it comes to racial inequality. The experience of being Black in this country is a perspective that’s never seen in a white-majority genre like country music (even artists like Charley Pride or Darius Rucker rarely, if ever, touched upon the topic in their songs). Guyton aimed to change that with this track, and while she’s still subject to the same constraints we mentioned on “Heaven Down Here” (she just can’t release her frustration like Church did above, lest she get hit with the “angry Black woman” label), she simply pairs the hard truth with her powerful, authoritative voice to get her point across, and she makes listeners sit up and pay attention as a result. Her outstanding performance transcended even those societal constraints to connect with the audience and make one simple point: Consider the perspective of people who aren’t like you in your daily interactions and decisions. While the concept may be radical to a genre as whitewashed as this one, it’s an important idea that we all need to hear. (The production does its part by helping drive home the song’s point without getting in its wayin fact, it’s eerily reminiscent of Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl”: Primarily piano-driven, some steel guitar sprinkled on top, and some more-prominent percussion, all working to underscore the importance of the message.)

Where Church asked people to “stick that in your country song,” Guyton actually did it, and that’s what makes “Black Like Me” the #1 country single of 2020.

Image from the Associated Press

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. Country music can play a major role in this simply by following the advice of artists like Mickey Guyton or Eric Church: As the Statue of Liberty might say, tell the story of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Enough with all this nihilistic, alcohol-fueled ignorancelet’s stop turning away from the problems of the world, and instead give these stories of suffering a platform, allowing the audience to share this pain and find ways to alleviate it. If we can develop a vaccine to stop a global pandemic, we can resolve to do better by those that society has long ignored, and take concrete steps to lift these people up and become the better nation we like to believe America is. If we do this, we’ll have both a better genre and a better world as a result.

Happy holidays, everyone. If 2020 was the worst year ever, let’s make a New Year’s resolution to make 2021 the best it can be.

Kyle’s Top 10 WORST Country Singles of 2020

Country songs fall all over the quality spectrum, but only a chosen few can earn the dubious distinction of sitting at the bottom of the barrel. Through a special combination of poor production, subpar songwriting, and vacuous vocals, the songs presented below are the sorts of headache-inducing tracks that move listeners to plug their ears, turn their dials, or just run screaming from the room.

Just as with my mid-year list, these songs will be presented without comment because a) I’m lazy (so much so that I copy-pasted all this opening text from last year, which itself was copy-pasted from 2018), and b) I’ve wasted enough words on this junk already in my prior reviews. Let’s get this over with quickly, shall we?

Last Year’s “Winner”: HARDY, “REDNECKER” (2/10)

“One Beer” was a slight improvement from this garbage heap, but was it enough to keep Mr. Hardy off of the list? (Spoiler alert: I already spoiled that on Monday.) The envelope, if you please…

Dishonorable Mentions:

Artist, Song Final Rating
#15 Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” 4/10
#14 Morgan Wallen, “More Than My Hometown” 4/10
#13 Adam Doleac, “Famous” 4/10
#12 Tyler Farr, “Only Truck In Town” 4/10
#11 Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME” 4/10

#10: Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart” (final score: 4/10)

#9: Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” (4/10)

#8: Lee Brice, “One Of Them Girls” (4/10)

#7: Tucker Beathard, “You Would Think” (3/10)

#6: Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live” (3/10)

#5: Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” (3/10)

#4: Travis Denning, “Where That Beer’s Been” (3/10)

#3: Florida Georgia Line, “I Love My Country” (2/10)

I get one act that puts two songs in the bottom ten every year, but FGL decided to one-up the field by putting 2.5 tracks here, courtesy of their feature on Rice’s awful single. Congrats guys, you’re this year’s recipient of the Dustin Lynch Memorial Anti-Excellence Award. Maybe that’ll make up for losing yet another Best Duo award at the CMAs.

#2: Robert Counts, “What Do I Know” (2/10)

#1: Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” (2/10)

I’ve called Little Big Town “the ultimate boom-or-bust group” several times on the blog, but even I didn’t expect them to bust this badly. On behalf of country listeners around the globe, I humbly ask LBT, FGL, and everyone else on this list to make better single choices in the future.

Looking back at my worst-of-2019 list, I closed that post with the following ominous line:

I have a sinking feeling that 2020 is going to be bad enough without bad songs like these clogging up the airwaves…

Poor innocent 2019 Kyle had no idea how right he was going to be, so 2020 Kyle will instead say this: I have a feeling that 2021 is going to be a better year, if only because there’s (almost) no possible way that it could be any worse than this one. 2021, please don’t make me eat those words.

Kyle’s Official 2020 Country Single Rankings

Is…is it finally over? (2020: Nope.)

2020 has been a emotional roller coaster of a year, and country music has been no different: It’s had its highs and lows, it’s made us laugh, cry, and toss our radios out our windows, and on (all too rare) occasions, it’s even made us think about the world around us. The genre seemed to start the year strong before devolving into the Cobronavirus movement in an attempt to imagine the COVID-19 pandemic away, which eventually turned into the Blandemic movement as our optimism waned and label budgets faltered (seriously, it’s as if every studio can only afford to put a laptop and a few guitars in the studio anymore). The last few weeks ended up adding entries to both my best and worst lists, but in the end, my quote from last year still holds: “In the end, the year still resembles the previous two [now three] that I’ve ranked: Some good stuff, some bad stuff, and a lot of stuff in the mushy middle.”

From what I could see, the debate over what constitutes “country” music took a backseat this year, as people seemed to recognize the triviality of having an unresolvable debate in the face of over 317,000 coronavirus deaths and a long-overdue reckoning with the racial inequities that plague America. Unfortunately, the genre mostly tried to ignore the issues rather than engage with them, spending much of its time promoting ignorance and alcohol therapy as temporary salves (and even if they did engage with them, it was often in overly vague and optimistic ways, ignoring the hard realities lurking below the surface). If I have one hope for 2021. it’s that country music stops burying its head in the sand, and makes a concerted effort to confront the great challenges of our time, telling the kind of stories and truths that make this genre so awesome in the first place.

But we’re not here to talk about 2021—instead, we’re here to put on our Bob Kingsley hats and count down the hits of the year that was, from the worst to the best. The only rules for this list are as follows:

  • A song must have been reviewed during the 2020 calendar year to be eligible.
  • Rankings are not strictly tied to my review ratings, as my opinion of a song may have changed between now and the review date.

We begin by pausing for a moment to re-recognize our winner from 2019 (which feels like it was roughly two decades ago):

2019 #1 Song:  Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards” (final rating: 10/10)

McBryde released another powerful track in 2020, but is it enough to repeat as our champion? To quote DashieGames, “WITHOUT FURTHER ADO…LET’S DO THIS SH*T!”

Ranking Artist, Song Final Score
#111 Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” 2/10
#110 Robert Counts, “What Do I Know” 2/10
#109 Florida Georgia Line, “I Love My Country” 2/10
#108 Travis Denning, “Where That Beer’s Been” 3/10
#107 Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” 3/10
#106 Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live” 3/10
#105 Tucker Beathard, “You Would Think” 3/10
#104 Lee Brice, “One Of Them Girls” 4/10
#103 Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” 4/10
#102 Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart” 4/10
#101 Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME” 4/10
#100 Tyler Farr, “Only Truck In Town” 4/10
#99 Adam Doleac, “Famous” 4/10
#98 Morgan Wallen, “More Than My Hometown” 4/10
#97 Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” 4/10
#96 Kane Brown, “Cool Again” 4/10
#95 Brothers Osborne, “All Night” 4/10
#94 Payton Smith, “Like I Knew You Would” 4/10
#93 HARDY ft. Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson, “One Beer” 4/10
#92 LoCash, “Beers To Catch Up On” 4/10
#91 Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” 4/10
#90 Kane Brown, “Worship You” 4/10
#89 Luke Bryan, “Down To One” 5/10
#88 Caroline Jones, “All Of The Boys” 5/10
#87 Lady A, “Champagne Night” 5/10
#86 Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go To Bed” 5/10
#85 Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 5/10
#84 Keith Urban & Pink, “One Too Many” 5/10
#83 Jimmie Allen & Noah Cyrus, “This Is Us” 5/10
#82 Parmalee & Blanco Brown, “Just The Way” 5/10
#81 Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 5/10
#80 Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 5/10
#79 MacKenzie Porter, “These Days” 5/10
#78 Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 5/10
#77 Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt” 5/10
#76 Keith Urban, “God Whispered Your Name” 5/10
#75 Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” 5/10
#74 Jake Owen, “Made For You” 5/10
#73 Luke Combs, “Better Together” 5/10
#72 Thomas Rhett, “What’s Your Country Song” 5/10
#71 Easton Corbin, “Turn Up” 5/10
#70 Lindsay Ell, “Want Me Back” 5/10
#69 Kenny Chesney, “Here And Now” 5/10
#68 King Calaway, “No Matter What” 5/10
#67 Darius Rucker, “Beers And Sunshine” 5/10
#66 Brad Paisley, “No I In Beer” 5/10
#65 Cody Johnson & Reba McEntire, “Dear Rodeo” 5/10
#64 Kenny Chesney, “Happy Does” 5/10
#63 Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” 5/10
#62 Cam, “Classic” 5/10
#61 Danielle Bradbery, “Never Have I Ever” 5/10
#60 Avenue Beat, “Ruin That For Me” 5/10
#59 Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” 5/10
#58 Ryan Hurd, “Every Other Memory” 5/10
#57 Russell Dickerson, “Love You Like I Used To” 5/10
#56 Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 5/10
#55 Jon Pardi, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” 5/10
#54 Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 5/10
#53 Johnny McGuire, “I Can’t Even” 5/10
#52 Kelsea Ballerini ft. Halsey, “The Other Girl” 5/10
#51 Luke Bryan, “One Margarita” 5/10
#50 Gabby Barrett, “The Good Ones” 5/10
#49 Old Dominion, “Never Be Sorry” 5/10
#48 Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 5/10
#47 Brett Eldredge, “Gabrielle” 5/10
#46 Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over” 5/10
#45 Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You” 5/10
#44 Brantley Gilbert, “Hard Days” 5/10
#43 Brandon Lay, “For My Money” 5/10
#42 Sam Hunt ft. Webb Pierce, “Hard To Forget” 5/10
#41 Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 5/10
#40 Bon Jovi ft. Jennifer Nettles, “Do What You Can” 6/10
#38 Zac Brown Band, “Leaving Love Behind” 6/10
#38 Luke Combs ft. Eric Church, “Does To Me” 6/10
#37 Thomas Rhett et al., “Be A Light” 6/10
#36 Zac Brown Band, “The Man Who Loves You The Most” 6/10
#35 Brett Young, “Lady” 6/10
#34 Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Happy Anywhere” 6/10
#33 Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” 6/10
#32 Adam Hambrick, “Forever Ain’t Long Enough” 6/10
#31 Taylor Swift, “Betty” 6/10
#30 Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” 6/10
#29 Hot Country Knights ft. Travis Tritt, “Pick Her Up” 6/10
#28 The Chicks, “Gaslighter” 6/10
#27 Easton Corbin, “Didn’t Miss A Beat” 6/10
#26 Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” 6/10
#25 Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” 6/10
#24 Morgan Wallen, “7 Summers” 6/10
#23 Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix” 6/10
#22 Kane Brown, “Worldwide Beautiful” 7/10
#21 Luke Combs, “Six Feet Apart” 7/10
#20 Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” 7/10
#19 Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That” 7/10
#18 Elvie Shane, “My Boy” 7/10
#17 Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle” 7/10
#16 Luke Combs, “Lovin’ On You” 7/10
#15 Jason Aldean, Got What I Got” 7/10
#14 Runaway June, “We Were Rich” 7/10
#13 Lady A, “What I’m Leaving For” 7/10
#12 Ingrid Andress, “The Stranger” 7/10
#11 Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back” 7/10
#10 Dolly Parton, “When Life Is Good Again” 8/10
#9 Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair” 8/10
#8 Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs” 8/10
#7 Mickey Guyton, “Heaven Down Here” 8/10
#6 Old Dominion, “Some People Do” 8/10
#5 Rascal Flatts,  “How They Remember You” 9/10
#4 Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama” 9/10
#3 Ashley McBryde, “Martha Divine” 9/10
#2 Eric Church, “Stick That In Your Country Song” 10/10
#1 Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me” 10/10

New/Returning Arrivals: 32 artists (a little over half the total we saw last year, further evidence of playlist shortening and radio sticking to what’s familiar)

  • Best “New” Artist: Mickey Guyton, #1
  • Worst New Artist: Robert Counts, #110 (i.e, second-to-last)

Artists Returning To The Top 10: 3

So What Happened This Time?:

Artist 2019 Position 2020
Tanya Tucker #2 No covered releases
Easton Corbin #3 Two releases, #27 and #71
Kacey Musgraves #4 No covered releases
Ingrid Andress #7 One release, #12
Jason Aldean #9 Two releases, #15 and #26
Dierks Bentley #10 One release, #48

Artists Returning To The Bottom 10: 0

Artists Returning To The Bottom 10 from 2018: 0

Artists Returning To The Bottom 10 from 2017: 1

Top Risers:

Artist 2019 Peak 2020 Peak Gain
Justin Moore #103 #20 +83
Sam Hunt #121 #42 +79
Tim McGraw #78 #4 +74
Brantley Gilbert #110 #44 +66
Morgan Wallen #88 #24 +64
Miranda Lambert #86 #25 +61
Kenny Chesney #124 #64 +60
Michael Ray #93 #41 +52

Worst Fallers:

Artist 2019 Peak 2020 Peak Loss
Little Big Town #25 #111 (i.e., Dead Last) -86
Florida Georgia Line #53 #106 -53
Travis Denning #56 #108 -52
Chris Young #58 #107 -49
Dierks Bentley #10 #48 -38

“Hey, this is MY spot!” Award:

Position Artist 2019
2020
#92 LoCash “One Big Country Song” “Beers To Catch Up On”

Kyle’s Favorite Songs Of 2020 So Far

For all the pain, suffering, and terrible music that 2020 has brought upon this world, there has actually been a surprising amount of good, and even great, music on the radio this year. A few artists have really stepped up to the plate so far, whether it be through reflecting the seriousness of the times, making pointed statements about the nation we’ve been and the nation we should be, or by finally upping their sound and song selection enough to leave a stronger impression on the audience. As easy as it is to bash country music in 2020, we should celebrate its successes as well, because there were a lot more in the first six months than I expected.

Without further ado, here are the best songs of the year thus far:

Honorable Mentions:

#10: Lady A, “What I’m Leaving For” (7/10)

#9: Ingrid Andress, “The Stranger” (7/10)

#8: Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back” (7/10)

#7: Dolly Parton, “When Life Is Good Again” (8/10)

#6: Old Dominion, “Some People Do” (8/10)

#5: Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs” (8/10)

#4: Rascal Flatts, “How They Remember You” (9/10)

#3: Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama” (9/10)

#2: Eric Church, “Stick That In Your Country Song” (10/10)

#1: Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me” (10/10)

Kyle’s LEAST Favorite Songs of 2020 So Far

And I thought 2019 was “a weird year for country music”

Like everything else in 2020, Nashville’s output this year has been all over the map: Some good stuff, some bad stuff, and a lot of songs piling up in the mushy middle. Only a few songs, however, can sit at the bottom of the barrel, and we’ve got yet another “strong” crop of losers this year. Whether it be hopping on a careless trend like the Cobronavirus movement, trafficking in antiquated/annoying stereotypes, or simply not putting enough effort into their craft, a few tracks have stood out for being just plain awful, even in a year where police brutality, governmental incompetence, racial injustice, and a global pandemic have pushed the definition of awfulness to a new low.

I don’t want to waste any more words on these songs than I have to, so I’ll stop monologuing. These are the worst tracks I’ve heard in 2020 thus far.

Dishonorable Mentions:

#10: Kane Brown, “Cool Again” (4/10)

#9: Brothers Osborne, “All Night” (4/10)

#8: Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME” (4/10)

#7: Morgan Wallen, “More Than My Hometown” (4/10)

#6: Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart” (4/10)

#5: Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” (4/10)

#4: Lee Brice, “One Of Them Girls” (4/10)

#3: Tucker Beathard, “You Would Think” (3/10)

#2: Florida Georgia Line, “I Love My Country” (2/10)

#1: Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” (2/10)