The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“Any Man of Mine”
There are a few records in country music history that serve as a clear turning point. “On The Other Hand” is one. “Any Man of Mine” is another. After a short five-second tease of twangy guitar, the arena-rock drums slam in, and the rules for what you can put on a country record and still call it one are permanently rewritten. This was the pivotal single from The Woman In Me that launched Shania Twain into the stratosphere, replacing Garth Brooks as the dominant creative force in country music. Ten years later, I still remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “They can’t do that, can they?”
“You Can Sleep While I Drive”
Shania was the earthquake that made everybody sit up and take notice that women were suddenly the dominant voices in country music, but artists like Trisha Yearwood had already been laying the groundwork for this seismic shift since the dawn of the nineties. One of the reasons country music became a female-dominated genre for the first time in its history was the artistic risks those women were taking. Having only a few strong women in the genre’s history to emulate – Dolly, Loretta, Emmylou & Rosanne were about it – women like Yearwood expanded their realm of influences to include country-rock artists like Linda Ronstadt, Yearwood’s biggest influence. Ronstadt had made it big by finding songs by rock artists that sounded good done as a country song. Following that example, Yearwood covered this brilliant Melissa Etheridge track, adding a bit of steel guitar and making it her own.
“Back When We Were Beautiful”
Peak: did not chart
Female artists would have been a lot quieter on the charts in the nineties if it wasn’t for sharp material being written by female songwriters. Of all the women writing in Nashville, none of them had more impact on country music in the nineties than Matraca Berg, who penned smash hits for Patty Loveless, Deana Carter, Suzy Bogguss, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. She had recorded for RCA in the early nineties, and resurfaced on Rising Tide in 1997, who signed her hoping she’d have as much luck with her own voice singing her songs. It didn’t work out that way, but not because the music wasn’t there. This poignant ballad, debuted on the CMA Awards that year, recounts a conversation between a grandmother and her granddaughter, and is a heartbreaking commentary on the affects of aging (“I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully. I fight it every day, I guess they never see.”)
“The Back of Your Hand”
Yoakam’s a great songwriter, and great songwriters are usually pretty good at spotting quality outside material. This string-dominated appeal to save a fading relationship is a bit odd, but then again, so is Dwight. Who else would spot the genius in asking a woman to stay with him by encouraging her to “pick a number from one to two”?
Kim Richey had plenty of success as a songwriter in Nashville, penning a few big hits that are on this list. Her solo work was so good that many songs off both of her country albums have been covered, by everybody from Brooks & Dunn to Patty Loveless. This was the only single from Bitter Sweet to chart, and it deserved greater success. Here, Richey tells herself that she should be moving on and forgetting about the man who left her behind. You’re not sure if she’s trying to convince a girlfriend she’s talking to, or if she’s just arguing with her own pride.
“Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago”
Lee Ann Womack
In one of her rare self-written hits, Womack takes stock of her life as she’s putting her makeup on, and as she’s driving the kids to school. The song is just fantastically written – “I remember when he took my hand and said ‘I do’, and the kitchen I was standing in when he said, ‘I’m through.'” She learns that for all the wrong turns made, she’s right where she’s meant to be. It’s a lesson for all of us: what we consider our mistakes were often necessary steps towards becoming who we are today.
“Tough Little Boys”
Gary Allan doesn’t do vulnerability often, and even here he’s holding back. But he confesses that even though he was a tough little boy, taking black eyes with pride and not crying when Old Yeller died (“at least not in front of my friends”) – “but when tough little boys grow up to be dads, they turn into big babies again.” This is funny and sweet and a great tribute to parenthood. I don’t even have a daughter yet, but when he says on her wedding day, “I’m gonna stand there and smile/But when I get home, and I’m alone, I’ll sit in your room for a while”, I can flash forward thirty years. That’s how good this is.
“Asking Us To Dance”
Country music has many songwriters, but few poets. Hugh Prestwood is a poet. It is not easy to write a convincing love song, even harder to write a genuinely romantic one rather than an one of those “I’d die for you” or “I want to sleep with you now” numbers. Prestwood’s appeal to “get caught in this moment, be victims of sweet circumstance” because it feels “like all creation is asking us to dance” is undeniably romantic. Needless to say, Mattea knocks a great song out of the park.
There were so many songs written as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and quite frankly, most of them weren’t very good. I would say that was an event that separated the good songwriters from the great ones; for all their hits, Toby Keith and Phil Vassar are merely good songwriters; Alan Jackson and Dolly Parton are great ones. Parton’s heartfelt attempt to talk to God about all the hate and violence in the world asks all of the right questions on behalf of a bewildered population: “We fight and kill each other, in Your name, defending You. Do You love some more than others? We’re so lost and confused.” The pleas simply escalate as the choir comes in: “Hello God, we’ve learned our lesson…please forgive us, for we know not what we do, give us one more chance to prove ourselves to you.” She got that it was humanity that was attacked that day, not just a city or a country. Sadly, many of our musicians and most of our politicians missed that.
“Has Anybody Seen Amy”
John & Audrey Wiggins
There comes a moment when you realize that you’re not part of the cool generation anymore; when you teach junior high, you reach that moment earlier than most. This fantastic hit captures that very moment where you suddenly become the adult that doesn’t “get it”, the guy you swore you’d never become back when you were a teenager. The killer line: “Those songs I hear from those teenage cars, still got the beat but they’ve lost the heart.” Oh, and “you feel your age when you face the fact, you can always go home but you can never go back.”
“When The Lights Go Down”
All day long you can wear the masks that hide who you really are. But when the lights go down, “and there’s nothing left to be” and “the truth is all you see”, you can’t hide from yourself. All of the voices in your head that you can drown out by staying busy will finally be heard when you’re all alone at night, and you “wonder if my life’s about the sum of all my fears and all my doubts.” Deeply penetrating.
“They Don’t Understand”
The boys challenge us to think a little more about what our neighbors are going through, and not about how they may be a minor annoyance to us. That old man you’re honking for driving too slow? His family doesn’t have time for him and he has no choice but to fend for himself. That woman who won’t discipline her screaming kids? Turns out they’ve been up all night at the hospital with their dying father. The man up on that cross?
Black hasn’t been the same since his woman left him. Actually, in most ways he has been the same: same job, same morning routines, same cologne, same truck. But “since you left everybody says I’m not the guy they’ve known – the lights are on, but nobody’s home.” Black at his most incisive.
Why almost goodbye? The fight was bad enough, and “everything we said, we made sure the neighbors heard.” Everything comes down to one word, but they don’t say it. The next morning, as the sun is shining, they breathe a sigh of relief that the storm in the relationship has passed and they didn’t walk away from love in the heat of a fight. As the bridge perfectly states, “sometimes the most important words are the ones that you leave unspoken.”
“Safe In The Arms of Love”
This dreamy little single sounded like nothing else on the radio ten years ago, and it still sounds fresh today. Back when McBride was making great records instead of vocal showcases, she transforms a song of hope for future love into a magical and uplifting celebration of hope itself.
“When It Comes To You”
Anderson is the voice of reason and resignation as he contemplates leaving his woman. “If we can’t get along, we oughta be apart…I’m tired of being the villain of the peace. Now you’ve been giving me bad times, tell me what did i do? Saying things that you didn’t have to, how come I always get a hard time, honey when it comes to you?” I haven’t met the woman who inspired this song, but judging from Anderson’s simmering anger and the edge in his voice, not to mention the cutting lyrics, I’m willing to wager that she’s as cold as ice.
“Back of the Bottom Drawer”
Peak: did not chart
Sometimes we hang on to things because they remind us of good memories; sometimes we hang on to them because they remind us of our failings, and we want to remind ourselves not to make the same mistakes again. Chely’s got things that fall in to both categories in a box at the back of her bottom drawer so she will be “reminded of my rights and wrongs.” I want to say this is incredibly creative, but it’s really incredibly truthful. So many songs come nowhere near truth that when we hear a song that is, we think “how creative!” We need more songs like this.
“When You Say Nothing At All”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
This Keith Whitley cover worked incredibly and unexpectedly well for bluegrass stars Alison Krauss & Union Station. In hindsight, it makes sense. The message of the song is that someone you love can say everything with a look or a touch; they don’t need to loudly proclaim their love with words. Krauss’ near-whisper vocals and the band’s soft instrumentation are the perfect match for that message. No wonder this won Single of the Year – it managed to improve on something that was already a classic.
“A fried bologna sandwich, with mayo and tomato, sitting ’round the table, don’t happen much anymore.” With that line, McGraw described in exacting detail all the big family gatherings that used to occur in my house every weekend when I was a kid. As so many of those family members have either moved away or passed away in the last twenty years, McGraw’s nostalgic yearning hit me hard. Silly, perhaps, since this song is very tongue-in-cheek, but still deeply meaningful to me.
“I Wanna Do It All”
What a great list of ambitions! Fighting city hall, Paris in the fall, watching the Yankees play ball, beating the odds with your back to the wall. Yep, they all rhyme with “all.” It’s close to what a Dr. Seuss country song would sound like, though I don’t think he moonlighted in the genre like Shel Silverstein did. But how can you not love a woman who wants to catch a few beads down at Mardis Gras?
A hard-working man learns the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You can work your ass off and still be behind on all of your bills, and you can love your kids but not be able to make things work with your wife, who now views you as a monthly check. His refusal to scream “It’s not fair” makes you want to do it for him. We are destroying the working poor in our country; hell, you can work 40 hours a week at Wal-Mart and still be below the poverty level, with no health benefits, and if a hurricane hits and you don’t have a car to leave town, some people still won’t care about your situation. The reality Adkins sings about is becoming more widespread, as millions more fall into poverty, even though they’re working as hard as they can.
“September When It Comes”
Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash
When you know death is coming, you prepare the best you can for “when the shadows lengthen.” When Rosanne invited her father to sing on this, the walking definition of artistic integrity said he’d need to hear it first before saying yes. After hearing it, he could not decline. His section of the song, where he sings “I cannot be who I was then. In a way, I never was”, perfectly captures the conflict between his status as an icon and his status as a mortal man.
My parents are of the generation that picked one job and stuck with it for life. I’m of the generation where you get restless doing the same thing for too long. For my generation, this is the anthem. “Five years and there’s no doubt that I’m burned out, I’ve had enough.” Life is simply too short to do the same thing for forty years. You only get one life. When will you get the chance to do something different? I love my job and I’m still feeling that itch now that I’m in my fourth year. How can I still be in the same place when I’m 30 that I was when I was 23? Sugarland are struggling with the same question.
“Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
With “When You Say Nothing At All”, AKUS made a great record even better, which is no small feat. But I’m even more impressed with them turning an incredibly schlocky record like “Baby Now That I’ve Found You” by The Foundations into a heartfelt and touching appeal for holding on to someone who has already let go.
“I’ll Think of Something”
“I can’t say today that I’m alright, but by tonight, I’ll think of something.” A gut-wrenching testimony from a man who still loves the woman who has let him go, but promises to find a way to get through it, even if he’s not sure what that way is. Should he drink enough to drown her? Should he find a one-night stand to meet his short-term needs, even if it won’t be a long-term solution? He doesn’t have the answers to those questions. It’s all he can do to take it one day at a time.