Of these 5 genre/radio format-oriented lists, country is the one where I'm the most out of my element, and last year was my first attempt at a year-end country list or even just consciously stepping up how much country radio I listen to and trying to become conversant in it. I love George Jones and listened to him more than ever this year, and that stuff can never be topped. But just like any genre, the stuff that lives on the radio today is its own thing that I try to appreciate on its own terms. And considering the way popular music has been headed in general, country actually seems to have less of an identity crisis than some other genres, or at least is in a more comfortable and good-natured rut.
Here's the Spotify playlist:
1. The Band Perry - "Better Dig Two"
#1 Country Airplay, #28 Hot 100
The Band Perry's big crossover hit from a couple years back, "If I Die Young," framed a love song in terms of death, and the lead single from their follow-up album followed suit with even more intense morbidity. Brandy Clark had a pretty good year, releasing her own solo debut and writing singles like "Mama's Broken Heart" by Miranda Lambert and "Follow Your Arrow" by Kacey Musgraves, but this is definitely my favorite thing she's done.
2. Brad Paisley - "Southern Comfort Zone"
#2 Country Airplay, #54 Hot 100
When I made last year's list, this song had just been released, and I threw it on the 'worst' list because the couple times I'd heard it on the radio I found the whole intro with the clips of "The Andy Griffith Show" really annoying and on-the-nose. And then I spent all of 2013 really loving this song and wondering how I could not instantly see how great it was, especially after "Accidental Racist" showed what a bad Brad Paisley song actually sounds like.
3. Brett Eldredge - "Don't Ya"
#1 Country Airplay, #30 Hot 100
The country singles marketplace is pretty crowded and there's always new acts trying to get a foot in the door, although it's not quite like how rappers and pop singers are constantly trying to get a song big enough to justify an album release. Sometimes new acts do have to swing the bat a few times before they hit one out of the park, though, like Brett Eldredge. He got close in 2010 with a moderate hit called "Raymond," but then the next single flopped and his album stayed shelved for a couple more years, until "Don't Ya" made him a chart-topping star this past summer. It's the kind of swagged out sexy dude country song that has mostly been the worst thing about country radio the last couple years, but this song has a nice swing to it and there's an interesting, soulful grain to Eldredge's voice, so it works for me.
4. Keith Urban f/ Miranda Lambert - "We Were Us"
#1 Country Airplay, #26 Hot 100
This is the current #1 song on the radio and I mean, it's just such a simple song, the lyrics aren't much more than a bunch of vague signifiers of romantic nostalgia, and I don't generally love either of the singers' usual stuff, but the way those wistful verses work up to a huge rapidfire chorus is just fantastic.
5. Toby Keith - "Drinks After Work"
#17 Country Airplay
Toby Keith is probably the most relentlessly prolific hitmaker in modern country who writes most of his own songs, practically on an R. Kelly level of consistency and longevity. But he hasn't been knocking 'em out of the park as much as he used to, so it's not surprising that his latest moderate hit was written by the same team (Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean) that penned one of the biggest and best hits of 2012, Little Big Town's "Pontoon." It's still right in Toby's wheelhouse in that it's his 5th consecutive alcohol-themed single, but it's also kind of unique in that it casts him not as beer-swillin' middle-aged Toby or someone like him but as some kind of white collar office drone with a crush on a co-worker. Still, the melody fits his voice like a glove and the whole thing is just a joy to listen to.
6. Little Big Town - "Tornado"
#2 Country Airplay, #51 Hot 100
Natalie Hemby of "Pontoon" fame also co-wrote this one, which manages to have a pretty similar sound except this whole dark maneater noir tone to it instead of another beach party, which is kind of a cool way to build on the success of the previous song without it being an outright sequel. The follow-up single "Your Side Of The Bed" was really good, too.
7. Blake Shelton - "Mind Would Be You"
#1 Country Airplay, #28 Hot 100
Both this and Kip Moore's pleasant but slight "Hey Pretty Girl" are ballads with verses in a 7/8 time signature (I also recently noticed a similar structure, weirdly, in Lee Ann Womack's theme song for the "Berenstain Bears" cartoon when watching TV with my son). Having long been obsessed with non-standard time signatures as a drummer and mostly hearing them in jazz and rock music, now I'm kind of fascinated by whether there've been a lot of country songs like this over the years and I just didn't know.
8. Kacey Musgraves - "Blowin' Smoke"
#23 Country Airplay
Same Trailer Different Park is my favorite country album of the year, one of my favorites in any genre, partly because Musgraves just unflinchingly stares down all these aspects of small town working class life that are ugly or bleak or desperate or sad, instead of romanticizing it all as the endless country boy summer you hear on radio most of the time. And "Blowing Smoke" is great because it's the album's uptempo rocker that feels even dryer and more brittle and burnt out than the other songs, approaching some kind of yeehaw Gretchen Wilson singalong bridge with the wage slave refrain of "We all say that we'll quit one day/ when are nerves aren't shot and our hands don't shake." There's a DJ on my local country station who uses this 'random diner sound effects' background noise when he's talking a lot of the time, and this year it really drove me nuts making me think he was about to play "Blowin' Smoke" all the time, which was annoying because radio really did not play "Blowin' Smoke" enough, even compared to Kacey's breakthrough hit "Merry Go Round" the year before.
9. Taylor Swift - "Red"
#8 Country Airplay. #6 Hot 100
Taylor Swift is a pretty polarizing superstar -- most people seem to either love her or hate her. I've always been kind of ambivalent, finding her material great sometimes and terrible at other times. Red was the album were she finally willingly released some singles directly aimed at pop radio that country radio could never play, leaving stations that were so-so on the country mix of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to focus on the ballad "Begin Again" and the title track, which I've really grown to love in the last few months. My favorite Taylor Swift songs tend to be the ones that are basically propulsive power pop songs like "The Story of Us" or "You Belong With Me," so this is right in keeping with that.
10. Hunter Hayes - "I Want Crazy"
#2 Country Airplay, #19 Hot 100
Hunter Hayes vaguely seems like the country industry's attempt to mint a male Taylor Swift, which is enough to make me skeptical off the bat, but this new single from the deluxe edition of his 2011 album won me over big time. Love the way the pre-chorus just surges with all this energy and these snare fills that just kill me, and then it tightens up for the actual chorus.
11. Gary Allan - "Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)"
#1 Country Airplay, #26 Hot 100
Gary Allan does these kinds of weathered, wizened songs better than anybody in country these days, I loved the follow-up single "Pieces" too although it was barely a blip on the charts by comparison. The whole Set You Free album is pretty solid.
12. The Band Perry - "DONE."
#1 Country Airplay, #43 Hot 100
The breakup song as a taunting playground chant, running the rejection into the ground with a "la di da" on top of it all, and probably the hardest rocking song on country radio this year. That moment when the music stops and Kimberly Perry just grunts with exasperation and disgust is just so killer. Those sexy hobbits in The Band Perry sure made some great songs this year, the whole Pioneer album is great and the current single "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" almost made this list too but I wasn't ready to give anybody 3 spots on the list.
13. Kelly Clarkson f/ Vince Gill - "Don't Rush"
#27 Country Airplay, #87 Hot 100
Kelly Clarkson's slow, gradual drift towards country music has, frankly, not happened quickly enough for my liking -- a Reba or Jason Aldean duet here, a half-assed country mix of "Mr. Know-It-All" there but not a whole album of country, which she'd probably be great at. But her greatest hits collection featured this great Vince Gill duet which wasn't even so much twangy as just kind of a sumptuous retro easy listening duet with two great voices who can pull it off.
14. Cassadee Pope - "Wasting All These Tears"
#12 Country Airplay, #37 Hot 100
"The Voice" may be competitive with "American Idol" in the ratings, but they've just never been able to launch any real stars into pop music. So maybe it was a good idea for the latest champ, Cassadee Pope of the emo band Hey Monday, to gear her career towards country around the time she won "The Voice"; after all, "Idol" also-rans like Kellie Pickler and Josh Gracin have had good careers in country, to say nothing of Clarkson's dabblings. And sure enough, Pope's first original country single (after a pretty lousy Faith Hill cover for "The Voice") has been steadily climbing the charts lately.
15. Justin Moore - "Point At You"
#2 Country Airplay, #53 Hot 100
Last year, Justin Bieber's dubstep hit "As Long As You Love Me" featured Big Sean saying incredibly corny things like "ask me what's my best side, I stand back and point at you." This sounds like some Nashville topliners were jamming Bieber and decided to turn that line into a country song. In fact, I'd like to think that's exactly what happened. Moore is one of my favorite voices out of the bland, crowded pack of new male country stars, though, he can pull it off.
16. Eli Young Band - "Drunk Last Night"
#4 Country Airplay, #44 Hot 100
You might assume the Eli Young Band is led by a guy named Eli Young, and that's pretty much what I figured last year when I loved their single "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." But upon closer inspection, after really enjoying a second single by them, I learned that one guy's last name is Eli and the other guy's last name is Young. The more you know.
17. Randy Houser - "Runnin' Outta Moonlight"
#1 Country Airplay, #24 Hot 100
The standard cliche that country music is full of songs about trucks isn't entirely untrue, but lately it's been a more nebulous word cloud of things like barefoot Friday nights under the stars or whatever, and this is one of the few songs in that vein that really worked well for me.
18. George Strait - "Give It All We Got Tonight"
#2 Country Airplay, #43 Hot 100
George Strait holds all sorts of unbreakable records for the most hits on the country charts and most #1s and so on (although his run of #1s has probably been forcibly ended by Billboard's new download-driven metrics for the main Country Songs chart -- this #2 Airplay hit only got to #7 on the main chart). Still, his longevity and productivity is just this totally accepted thing, and he can still make hits without really trying to sound too modern, which is pretty cool, he's probably the only '80s star who can regularly get a new song into rotation, and increasingly there are only a few '90s stars either.
19. Brad Paisley - "Beat This Summer"
#2 Country Airplay, #46 Hot 100
When this song was released in the spring, it felt like it was waiting for summer to come along. But now that summer is long tone, it feels more perfectly bittersweet, reveling in how that moment has now totally passed. It was also one of those songs where the vaguely post-hip hop loops buried in the mix should've totally marked it as some slick, desperate pop country move but it just sounded so good it didn't matter.
20. Tim McGraw f/ Taylor Swift and Keith Urban - "Highway Don't Care"
#1 Country Airplay, #22 Hot 100
Taylor Swift's first hit was named after Tim McGraw as a shorthand for her favorite song, so there's some nice thematic unity to McGraw casting Swift as the disembodied voice on the radio for his his song (with a gratuitous guitar solo by Keith Urban for good measure). Increasingly, I haven't been able to stand Tim McGraw's voice much at all (his other big single this year, "Southern Girl," oof), so really just being able to enjoy this is a small miracle.
The 10 Worst Country Radio Hits of 2013
1. Blake Shelton - "Boys 'Round Here"
2. Luke Bryan - "Crash My Party"
3. Lee Brice - "Parking Lot Party"
4. Florida Georgia Line - "Get Your Shine On"
5. Eric Church - "The Outsiders"
6. Lady Antebellum - "Downtown"
7. Tyler Farr - "Redneck Crazy"
8. Chris Young - "Aw Naw"
9. Easton Corbin - "All Over The Road"
10. Joe Nichols - "Sunny And 75"