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25 Best Country Songs of 2014

Little Big Town’s shocker, Keith Urban’s rocker and more of the songs stuck in our heads this year

Blake Shelton Ashley Monroe Lonely Tonight The Voice

Ashley Monroe and Blake Shelton perform "Lonely Tonight" on 'The Voice'

NBC Universal

Little Big Town professed a provocative crush. Trisha Yearwood came out of retirement swinging. Kenny Chesney made us all feel 16 again. And Nikki Lane made good of being bad. Our picks for the top country radio releases of 2014 include the predictable love lost, love found and love-to-drink story lines, but it also dives into delectable, largely uncharted country territory.

Maddie and Tae

Maddie and Tae, “Girl in a Country Song”

It's one thing to write a song with something to say (in this case, skewering the trend of bro-country) — it's another to craft one so infinitely catchy that even those aforementioned bros can't help but sing along. Poking fun at some of the genre's biggest names is a pretty brazen way to enter onto the scene, sure, but the teenage duo of Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye don't seem too concerned (and neither does country radio, which they currently reign over). Instead, they laced together a perfect retort to those who like their ladies wielding bikinis, not guitars — and they do it with the energy of a classic barnburner, a dose of down-home twang and the fiery, fearless angst of youthful pop. "We ain't a cliché," they sing, hopefully on the road to being just as prevalent as the stereotypes they battle.

Keith Urban

Keith Urban, “Somewhere in My Car”

Urban’s bittersweet story of reliving carnal pleasures with a lost love certainly has its charms: an insanely catchy melody, sexy lyrics that combine sorrow and passion, trademark blazing guitar solos, a plaintive vocal delivery and, did we mention, a banjo? But what propels this song into overdrive is the fact that although the lyrics scream "slow ballad," Urban, who co-wrote the song with J.T. Harding, turns it into a uptempo, turbocharged tale of regret. And let's be real: This chart topper is helped mightily by a video so hot that it steams up your computer screen.

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff, “The Body Electric”

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff wrote one of the year's most condemning political statement with "The Body Electric," a stark polemic that provides a much-needed feminist perspective on country music's age-old penchant for the murder ballad. "Tell me what's a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that's just dying slow," she sings, sick to death of hearing songs about women being assaulted and killed in song, all in the name of folk tradition. "It's become about the culture of violence we live in, that accepts the deaths of people of color, queer people and women as commonplace," Segarra says of the song's evolving message. "We are not disposable — we are living our lives as targets, and we are tired of that."

Sam Hunt

Sam Hunt, “Leave the Night On”

If it's possible to establish oneself as the Jackson Pollock of country music with just one album, Hunt has done it with his debut LP, the hip-hop, pop, R&B, soul, funk, rock and yes, a little bit country-infused, Montevallo. Its first single, the insanely catchy "Leave the Night On" colors so far outside genre lines that it has many scratching their heads over why they're hearing it on country radio and not pop. Still, it has even the crabbiest of country critics refraining from turning the dial. The track captures from its first guitar riff, setting a carefree love story to what's arguably the most unique, experimental musical arrangement of country radio's year.

Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show, “Sweet Amarillo”

It's one thing to get Bob Dylan's seal of approval — it's another to actually have the folk legend dial you up, hand over a song fragment and say, "Go to town, boys." Those may not be his words verbatim, but it sums up what happened on "Sweet Amarillo," which was built around a leftover bit from Dylan's 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid sessions and continued the trend of Dylan letting Old Crow finish what he'd started long ago (case in point: "Wagon Wheel," which has become a near-traditional). "Sweet Amarillo" is crafted to be the same kind of collective chant-along, anchored by Ketch Secor's lyrical fiddle and illustrative metaphors, topped with a subtle wink to these unconventional co-writes as he sings, "I was blinded by glory with a half-written story." Those half-written stories sure do sound glorious, though, when OCMS is done with them.

Eric Church

Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”

The centerpiece of Eric Church's acclaimed album The Outsiders is a stadium-ready sing-along written with as much poetic nostalgia as his breakthrough hit, "Springsteen." Penned with Luke Laird, "Give Me Back My Hometown" is a small-town American anthem for the age of endless suburbs, chain stores and strip malls couched in the standard country narrative in which everything in the narrator's town reminds him of a long-lost ex. The key moment? When Church slips in the oddly poignant detail that the local Pizza Hut was his go-to high school date spot: "All the colors of my youth, the red, the green, the hope, the truth," he sings in his most truly Springsteen moment to date, and also his most moving.

Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson, “Turtles All the Way Down”

Psychedelic country is nothing new, but the proudly illicit consumption in the lead track to Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music surely helped attract some early buzz to the album widely heralded as one of the best of 2014. "Turtles All the Way Down" is many things. Part twisted travelogue ("Met the devil in Seattle and spent nine months inside the lion's den"), part half-baked philosophy seminar ("Our souls must roam to and through that myth we call space and time"), "Turtles" serves as Simpson's grand mission statement for the rich storytelling and sentimentality that define this promising new artist.

Little Big Town

Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”

For their second single off Pain Killer, Little Big Town introduced one of the boldest songs not only of their career, but of recent country music memory. In a haunting exploration of jealousy, the song's narrator refrains from resenting the woman who has stolen her man, instead developing a burning "girl crush" on her. "I want to taste her lips/'cause they taste like you," Karen Fairchild sings in a minimalist, soulful arrangement that finds the group doubling down on its signature four-part harmonies. They're some of the more shocking — and refreshing — Music Row lyrics in years.  

Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”

Lambert, who just cracked 30 last year, seems a little young to be hopping on the nostalgia train, but she shows you don't have to be in your golden years to yearn for a time when things were just a little less fast-paced. On this wistful track from Platinum, she deftly ties in missing Polaroid pictures and handwritten notes with a seemingly bygone attitude of civility that included waiting your turn and working for your success. If she weren't a millennial herself, the song could sound fusty, but Lambert's youth keeps it from turning into a "get off my lawn" rant.

Kenny Chesney

Kenny Chesney, “American Kids”

Few artists have dipped into the well of nostalgia with more success than Chesney. But what made this kicky, catchy tune remarkable is the way it allowed him to ruminate on the old days and yet produce what may be his freshest, most contemporary-sounding single ever — without pandering to current trends. Written by the Midas touch trio of Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, and alluding to Chesney favorites like John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, the hook-laden ditty boasts one of the country star's most nimble vocals to date and reassures that whatever we lived through back in the day may have left us "a little messed up, but we're all all right."