The 20 Best Country Radio Hits of 2018

Pretty much every year now, I end up using this list in part to talk about the emerging gender imbalance in country radio, particularly since 2014 (the peak of 'bro country' and its biggest backlash anthem, "Girl In A Country Song") and 2015 (the year of "Tomatogate"). And even though people are more aware of the problem than ever, it's actually worse than ever -- in 2018 there were 11 songs with female vocalists in the Country Airplay year-end top 60, which is the same number as in 2014, but none of them in the top 20, and the top 3 were duets with male singers. There were more #1 songs on country radio by black men (4 by 3 artists) this year than there were by women (3, 2 of which were duets with men). 

Here's a Spotify playlist of these songs, and the lists I did in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017

1. Thomas Rhett - "Marry Me" 
#1 Country Airplay, #30 Hot 100
With 3 albums that have tallied up a combined 11 chart-topping radio hits, Thomas Rhett is basically the surest thing in mainstream country these days, the biggest artist under 30 (and many of the bigger ones are over 40). And romantic songs like "Die A Happy Man" are such a reliable signature for him that it makes the twist of "Marry Me" hit that much harder. 

2. Brothers Osborne "Shoot Me Straight" 
#28 Country Airplay
If "Stay A Little Longer" established Brothers Osborne as a force for both T.J. Osborne's charismatic voice and John Osborne's guitar heroics, the lead single to their second album banked on setting them apart with the latter for a 6-minute barn burner. Radio programmers didn't take to it very readily, even in its 3-minute single edit form, but I appreciate it as a statement of intent that the band's not going to shy away from positioning themselves as a modern day Allman Brothers Band. 

3. Jimmie Allen - "Best Shot"
#1 Country Airplay, #46 Hot 100*
I live in Maryland and used to live in Delaware, and have always felt like country music is more popular in this part of the country than you'd necessarily get from where most major country stars are from. So it's been cool to see in the last few years a major act, Brothers Osborne, come out of Maryland, and now a #1 from Jimmie Allen, who grew up about 20 minutes from where I grew up in "slower lower Delaware." Of course, Allen's got a bit more attention for being a black country star, and his rise alongside Kane Brown has attracted a lot of media attention this year, but "Best Shot" is a lovely song that won over a lot of radio listeners who only know that Jimmie Allen has a great voice. 

4. Darius Rucker - "For The First Time"
#1 Country Airplay, #58 Hot 100
Now that Darius Rucker is no longer a once-in-a-generation figure like Charley Pride before him, let's just talk about him as a great country singer with no other adjectives. Even though he's gonna tour with Hootie next year, I think everyone knows he's really found his niche as a solo artist, and "For The First Time" is genuinely my favorite song he's ever made. 

5. Ashley McBryde - "A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega"
#30 Country Airplay
Ashley McBryde is a heavily tattooed singer-songwriter from Arkansas who was self-releasing albums for a decade before Eric Church discovered her and helped her get a record deal and make an album with his producer Jay Joyce. The other day she got a Grammy nomination, but country radio has been slow to warm up to this emotional little slice of life song. 

6. Jason Aldean - "You Make It Easy"
#1 Country Airplay, #28 Hot 100 
I remember on Twitter recently someone tried to pick a weird fight with me about how they thought it was so damning that Jason Aldean had continued to release sappy love songs after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history happened during one of his concerts. People are weird. What is the guy supposed to do? He doesn't even write his own songs. He holds a guitar on the cover of an album that he didn't play any guitar on. I don't know what the guy's supposed to do, although I liked when he covered "I Won't Back Down" on SNL. In any event, he's still singing sappy love songs, and "You Make It Easy" is one of the best of his career. 

7. Keith Urban f/ Julia Michaels - "Coming Home" 
#3 Country Airplay, #50 Hot 100
This was a big year for middle-tier pop starlets to score hit country duets -- the two most played songs with female vocals on country radio this year were Tori Kelly's appearance on Chris Lane's "Take Back Home Girl" and Bebe Rexha's cross-format blockbuster that I wrote about in the pop list. And not far behind was Keith Urban's hit that collided pop and country in a brash way that I found strangely satisfying: a Merle Haggard sample via 2000s pop rap superproducer J.R. Rotem, and a bridge from Top 40 singer Julia Michaels that really completed the track. 

8. Carly Pearce "Hide The Wine"
#13 Country Airplay
Carly Pearce was 2017's biggest breakthrough female artist on country radio with the ballad "Every Little Thing," but of course that kind of success is hard to sustain in the man-dominated radio landscape. So the follow-up single slowly rose up the chart for a heroic 44 weeks before ultimately peaking outside the top 10, despite being a great sassy uptempo song that served as a perfect counterpoint to her breakthrough hit.

9. Lindsay Ell - "Criminal" 
#19 Country Airplay
With Brad Paisley and Keith Urban scoring hits less often and soloing on them less, we could use more guitar heroes on country radio, and kickass Canadian singer-guitarist Lindsay Ell would be a great candidate. This year she released an album-length cover of John Mayer's Continuum, and scored her biggest American radio hit to date with one of her originals after a string of hits on the Canadian country charts. 

10. Kane Brown - "Heaven"
#1 Country Airplay, #15 Hot 100*
In the space of a little over a year, Kane Brown scored his first three #1 singles and a #1 album, anointing him as a 25-year-old biracial country superstar. "Heaven" is the biggest and in some ways least distinctive of his hits, but it's that deep voice built for ballads that gives him the best chance of career longevity. 

11. Travis Denning - "David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs" 
#32 Country Airplay
The first time I saw this song title on the charts I thought "there's a country song about Ashley Parker Angel from O-Town?" But this track, which uses the actual name from the fake I.D. that Travis Denning bought beer with as a teenager (the real David Ashley Parker gets a cameo in the video) is a really great, original autobiographical song that deserved to be bigger than it was. 

12. Chris Stapleton - "Broken Halos"
#1 Country Airplay, #45 Hot 100 
From 2015 to 2017, Chris Stapleton had such a lock on sales, reviews, major awards, and touring that it hardly mattered that he wasn't a big deal on country radio, grazing the top 10 just once. And then in 2018, radio caught up big time: he was on pop radio with Justin Timberlake, he was on hard rock radio with "Midnight Train To Memphis," and he got a country #1 with "Broken Halos." 

13. Morgan Wallen f/ Florida Georgia Line - "Up Down"  
#1 Country Airplay, #49 Hot 100
It's a litlte funny that Morgan Wallen and the members of Florida Georgia Line co-wrote Jason Aldean's "You Make It Easy," and then they recorded a collaboration that none of them wrote. They made the right choice, though, Aldean's voice sells "Easy" better than any of them could've, but "Up Down" does a good job of integrating Wallen into the Florida Georgia Line formula. I love the way the slide guitar seesaws between the high and low notes after the "up, down, up, down" refrain. 

14. Carrie Underwood - "Cry Pretty" 
#9 Country Airplay, #48 Hot 100
Lori McKenna's The Tree was one of my favorite country albums of 2018, but her solo material continues to be dwarfed commercially by the visibility of her work as a songwriter, including the lead single from Carrie Underwood's 6th album. 

15. Midland "Burn Out" 
#17 Country Airplay
I forgot how much I liked this song for a few months after Midland's album came out. And then recently when it came out as a single, I realized that I kind of ripped it off in an early draft of a song I was writing, which thankfully I changed up even before that realization. Love that chorus, though. 

16. Dan + Shay - "Tequila" 
#1 Country Airplay, #21 Hot 100
A lot of country hits sound like they could cross over to adult contemporary radio but seldom do as much as "Tequila," which pretty much sounds like a Train song anyway. Fun fact: before the group started, Shay Mooney was a solo artist signed to T-Pain's label

17. Maren Morris - "Rich" 
#4 Country Airplay, #62 Hot 100
Maren Morris's 2016 debut Hero was successful, but not so much that I had any idea its 4th single would become one of its biggest hits about 28 months after the album hit stores. But after Morris's star turn on Zedd's blockbuster pop hit "The Middle," I guess her label wanted to capitalize on the attention and maybe keep one foot in the country world. It wouldn't have been my single choice, though, "shit, I'd be rich" doesn't sound as good as a radio edit, much like "fuck it, mask off." 

18. Sugarland f/ Taylor Swift - "Babe" 
#17 Country Airplay, #72 Hot 100
Taylor Swift has been slowly creeping back from her self-imposed exile from country in the last couple years, most notably in the form of penning Little Big Town's chart-topper "Better Man." But Swift's first song actually promoted to country radio in 5 years, "New Year's Day," peaked at a measly #41, and even the Red outtake she revived as Sugarland's comeback single, though it was charming, didn't do that great. I really would be interested to hear a country album from her at this point, though, if she still has one in her. 

19. Eric Church - "Desperate Man"
#13 Country Airplay, #68 Hot 100
In the competitive world of country radio, even the biggest acts rarely risk the classic rock star move of taking chances with their lead singles and leaving the surefire hits for the 2nd and 3rd singles. But that's what Eric Church for 4 albums in a row now, missing the top 10 with his first single while bigger hits wait in the wings. I don't know which of Desperate Man's more accessible midtempo tracks while be big in 2019, but I respect that he led with the "Sympathy For The Devil" groove of the title track. 

20. Sam Hunt - "Downtown's Dead" 
#15 Country Airplay, #94 Hot 100
I have little doubt that Sam Hunt will continue to be a hugely successful act once he finally does release his second album, but I'm kind of fascinating how much he pissed away his momentum, ruling 2017 with the enormous crossover hit "Body Like A Back Road," then releasing this dour follow-up 15 months later that became the worst performing single of his career, and disappearing for the rest of the second year in a row that was presumed his for the taking (unlike Eric Church, he doesn't have the back catalog or the rebellious image for a miss like this to not look bad). I liked it, though, I thought it was a nice change of pace from his other singles. 

The 10 Worst Country Radio Hits of 2018:
1. Jake Owen - "I Was Jack (You Were Diane)" 
2. Garth Brooks - "All Day Long" 
3. Brett Young - "Mercy" 
4. Dylan Scott - "Hooked" 
5. Walker Hayes - "'90s Country" 
6. Lauren Alaina - "Ladies In The '90s" 
7. Brandon Lay - "Yada Yada Yada" 
8. Tim McGraw & Faith Hill - "The Rest Of Our Life" 
9. Mitchell Tenpenny - "Drunk Me"
10. Russell Dickerson - "Blue Tacoma"  
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