The 20 Best Country Radio Hits of 2017

Country is kind of the dark horse format of American pop music with the least Venn diagram intersection with other genres, even if the Nashville establishment is so obsessed with validation from outside country that the CMAs and the ACAs are usually chock full of duets with rock and pop acts. This year, Sam Hunt scored the biggest non-Swift crossover from country to pop radio since “Before He Cheats,” but it sucked. Meanwhile, country radio had maybe its most enjoyable year since I started doing this list and paying more active attention 5 years ago. This was actually the hardest list this year to narrow down to 20 songs, there were quite a few that I had a hard time cutting.

Here’s the Spotify playlist of these songs, and my country lists from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. I’ve already done this year’s R&B, rock and rap lists, I’ll be back next week with the pop list to wrap things up.

1. Midland - "Drinkin' Problem"

#3 Country Airplay, #45 Hot 100
This year Midland rode into a country radio climate that has been light on bands -- actual bands, not vocal groups --- for a long time, and scored a debut hit that reminded me of the best George Jones drinking songs that veered between lamenting and celebrating alcoholism. The members of Midland are showbiz pros from outside Nashville --- one’s a model and TV actor, one’s a video director who works closely with Bruno Mars --- but their nudie suit sense of old-fashioned country glamor is refreshing in the context of a genre that has been fixated on bare feet and dirt roads for the last few years.

2. Carly Pearce - "Every Little Thing"

#1 Country Airplay, #50 Hot 100
Michael Busbee, better known simply as the pretentious lowercase mononym ‘busbee,’ was responsible for the unique hybrid of retro and modern sounds on one of 2016’s biggest country breakthroughs, Maren Morris’s debut album. And in 2017, busbee was all over country radio, producing hits for Morris, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Lauren Alaina, and this year’s big breakthrough female artist, Carly Pearce. Pearce’s first hit is a trembling, vulnerable ballad about “the high, the hurt, the shine, the sting” of a heartbreak, and it just seemed to gain more power every time I heard it.

3. Florida Georgia Line f/ The Backstreet Boys - "God, Your Mama, And Me"
#1 Country Airplay, #46 Hot 100
Ever since they rode their debut single to crossover glory with a Nelly remix, Florida Georgia Line have been the most unabashedly pop act in pop country. And this year they moved further into pop than ever, appearing on the Chainsmokers album and releasing singles with Hailee Steinfeld, Bebe Rexha, and the Backstreet Boys. The only shocking thing about any of this is that all of these songs were pretty good, especially the Backstreet track. Oh my God, they’re back again. 

4. Luke Combs - "When It Rains It Pours"

#3 Country Airplay, #33 Hot 100
This year Chris Stapleton continued to be the highest selling and most acclaimed country artist that almost never gets played on the radio, and Luke Combs positioned himself as someone who sounds a bit like Stapleton but writes the kind of catchy, funny, upbeat radio singles that would cost Stapleton all that critical respect.

5. LANCO - "Greatest Love Story"

#1 Country Airplay, #45 Hot 100
The greatest country music producer of the decade, Jay Joyce, continued his run of hits in 2017 with his usual clients like Eric Church and Lady Antebellum (his productions appear on this list no less than 5 times). But he also cemented his ability to break new acts, signing the band LANCO and shepherding the slowest and prettiest song from their 2016 debut EP to radio glory.

6. Jon Pardi - "Dirt On My Boots"

#1 Country Airplay, #37 Hot 100
PardiNextDoor’s second consecutive boot-themed #1 is almost as good as the first, as he remains country radio’s best current proponent of prominent fiddles. I love the way he bites into the line “I can get cleaned up if you ask me/ but I can only get so fancy!” leading into that last chorus.

7. Maren Morris - "I Could Use A Love Song"
#9 Country Airplay, #75 Hot 100
I was rooting for “Once” to be the ballad third single off Hero, but I wound up pretty happy with how “I Could Use A Love Song” sounded on the radio.

8. Rascal Flatts - "Yours If You Want It"
#1 Country Airplay, #71 Hot 100
Rascal Flatts are excessively dorky even in the context of the dorkiest genre of popular music, but now and again they package their romantic schmaltz in a tune rousing enough to win me over, and this one was my favorite since “These Days.”

9. Little Big Town - "Better Man"
#1 Country Airplay, #34 Hot 100
“New Year’s Day” recently became the first Taylor Swift song promoted to country radio in over 4 years. But the first recent signal that she hadn’t completely exited the genre where she made her name was when it was revealed, a week or two after Little Big Town released “Better Man,” that it was written by Swift. And the fact that Swift chose the group to record the track really helped cement Karen Fairchild’s reputation as one of the best vocalists in country music right now.

10. Thomas Rhett - "Star Of The Show"
#1 Country Airplay, #45 Hot 100
Longtime One Direction songwriter Julian Bunetta was behind one of my favorite pop songs of the year, Niall Horan’s “Slow Hands.” But he’s increasingly turning up on the country records, and helped write a couple of Thomas Rhett chart toppers this year. Country music is perhaps justifiably not regarded as a genre that generates a lot of visually interesting music videos. But “Star OfThe Show” was, alongside Brad Paisley’s “Last Time For Everything,” one of the country videos this year that really impressed me.

11. Jason Aldean - "Any Ol' Barstool" 
#1 Country Airplay, #52 Hot 100
Jason Aldean was performing at a country music festival Las Vegas in October when a man opened fire on his audience in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. And that awful night is, unfortunately, what will define 2017 for Aldean and for much of the country music community. But a few months earlier, he released in my opinion one of the best singles of his career.

12. Eric Church f/ Rhiannon Giddens - "Kill A Word"
#8 Country Airplay, #71 Hot 100
Rhiannon Giddens released a great album, Freedom Highway, in 2017. And I don’t think I would have heard it if my interest hadn’t been piqued by Eric Church inviting her to add vocals to the single release of this track from his 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood.

13. Dan + Shay - "How Not To"

#1 Country Airplay, #57 Hot 100
In previous years Dan + Shay have only appeared, on two occasions, on my 'worst' lists. But I'd like to finally make a peace offering to them, partly because I found this song really catchy and charming, and partly because a brick was thrown at their tour bus last time they were in Baltimore.

14. Justin Moore - "Kinda Don't Care"
#42 Country Airplay
One thing I have done in this list literally every year that I’ve made one is feature a Justin Moore track, whether it was a big hit or not, and say that he deserves more recognition as one of the finest vocalists in country music today.

15. Morgan Wallen - "The Way I Talk"
#30 Country Airplay
A lot of songs, by big and small names, kick around the country radio charts for months before climbing to the top ten. And if a song sticks around for the better part of a year, that usually means it’s got the legs to be a hit eventually (like Justin Moore's "Somebody Else Will," which reached #1 in its 43rd week on the chart). So I was disappointed that Morgan Wallen’s “The Way I Talk” only got to #30 in its 42 weeks on the chart when it dropped off, never to return. It’s a catchy little ode to southern accents that really felt like a major hit in waiting from the first time I heard it.

16. Devin Dawson - "All On Me"

#15 Country Airplay, #93 Hot 100
There was a point, back when Taylor Swift and Hunter Hayes were blowing up, when it seemed like mainstream country was about to get a little younger and more youth-oriented, but now it feels about as grown as it ever has, for better and for worse. Even the rare tracks that get big on streaming platforms before radio catches on, like Russell Dickerson’s current hit “Yours,” are often bland schmaltz. But Devin Dawson, who got popular on YouTube with covers years before he started recording original material, is one of the few new media types to make a transition to traditional country success with “All On Me,” his Jay Joyce-produced debut single.

17. Thomas Rhett f/ Maren Morris - "Craving You"

#1 Country Airplay, #39 Hot 100
Thomas Rhett is quietly maybe the biggest star in country right now who hasn’t really become a household name outside of the country fanbase, and he was the only artist with three #1s on country radio in 2017. And his father, Music Row vet Rhett Atkins, has also been having a very good year, co-writing “Craving You” as well as the Jon Pardi and Justin Moore songs on this list.

18. Blake Shelton - "I'll Name The Dogs"
#4 Country Airplay, #58 Hot 100
Blake Shelton is a good if unremarkable vocalist who trudged along in the middle of the pack for years before his unlikely trajectory to a level of celebrity that country singers rarely reach: a power couple union with another singer (first Miranda Lambert and now Gwen Stefani), a gig on one of the most popular shows on TV, and this year, a pretty widely derided selection as People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive.’ Meanwhile, Shelton’s parade of moderately enjoyable radio hits marches on, with "I'll Name The Dogs" kind of openly aping one of his biggest and best previous hits, “Honey Bee.”

19. Shania Twain - "Life's About To Get Good"
#36 Country Airplay
Garth Brooks scored his first #1 radio hit in a decade recently, and it’s absolutely awful, it sounds like it was recorded in a shed by an amateur. But Shania Twain, the other ‘90s country superstar who has spent much of her time since the early 2000s in sort of a self-imposed exile, released her comeback album in 2017, and country radio has been slow to warm back up to her, which is a shame, because it’s a good record.

20. Brothers Osborne - "It Ain't My Fault"

#12 Country Airplay, #79 Hot 100
There aren’t a lot of famous country acts from Maryland, so it’s been cool to see Deale natives John and T.J. Osborne have a run of singles from their debut Pawn Shop spend well over two years on the charts. “It Ain’t My Fault” was a funny little upbeat closer in the context of the album, but as a single it really felt like an anthem, and the very memorable video put an interesting spin on the lyric. 

The 10 Worst Country Radio Hits of 2017: 

1. Garth Brooks - "Ask Me How I Know" 
2. Sam Hunt - "Body Like A Back Road"
3. Russell Dickerson - "Yours"
4. Brantley Gilbert "The Weekend"
5. Keith Urban - "Female"
6. Chris Janson - "Fix A Drink"
7. Luke Bryan - "Fast"
8. Dylan Scott - "My Girl"
9. Kane Brown f/ Lauren Alaina - "What Ifs" 
10. Dustin Lynch - "Seein' Red"
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