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25 Best Country Songs of 2015

From Cam and Carrie Underwood to Keith Urban and Eric Church

25 Best Country Songs of 2015

Singles by Keith Urban, Cam and Eric Church rank among the 25 Best Country Songs of 2015.

Jim Spellman/WireImage; Raymond Hall/GC Images/Getty; Ethan Miller/Getty

In 2015, Keith Urban saluted the undeniable influence of the artist formerly known as John Cougar, Eric Church reassured us he understood, Kelsea Ballerini demanded we show her meaningful love and Chris Stapleton traveled life's open road.

But it was Cam who set the house on fire, releasing a ballad that captured what country music does best: wring emotion out of personal experience and make it relatable to all. Here are the year's 25 best country singles.

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25

A Thousand Horses, “Smoke”

On their debut album Southernality, A Thousand Horses bring a helping of Southern rock to contemporary country with rowdy jams like "Travelin' Man" and the title track. But their debut single "Smoke" is more polished, testifying that the band can effortlessly alternate between gritty and gleaming. And there's no prettier portion of the song than its repeating "When the night burns out" pre-chorus. Delivered by singer Michael Hobby with just a hint of Liam Gallagher shiiine, the refrain matches the shimmering riff of guitarist Zach Brown and elevates a simple song to one of the most memorable mid-tempos of 2015. Much has been written about the lyrics and their metaphor for an addictive relationship, but the real beauty of "Smoke" lies in the way it's delivered. J.H.

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24

Ashley Monroe, “On to Something Good”

Ashley Monroe had the sunny pop-leaning melodies of Sheryl Crow and Dolly Parton in mind when she wrote the lead single of her 2015 record The Blade with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The end result, "On to Something Good," is a mix of self-help inspiration and gritty perseverance set to a bouncy R&B strut, bolstered by joyful girl-group backing vocals and soulful lead guitar licks. "[It's] a positive, uptempo song that moves me and reminds me to keep going," Monroe, whose natural tendency is to write tearjerkers about heartbreaks, honky-tonks and hangovers, said of the song. But with "On to Something Good" she pulled off that rarest of country music feats: writing a happy song with depth and complexity. J.B.

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23

LoCash, “I Love This Life”

What will history say about a year that included (sadly, to name a few) the church massacre in Charleston, the unfathomable Paris attacks and Donald Trump looking like a White House contender? Like so many miserable years before it, we could be excused for wanting to feel just a little joy in 2015. Thankfully LoCash were up to the challenge with their breakthrough hit "I Love This Life." Separated-at-birth singing partners Chris Lucas and Preston Brust had a decade-plus of tragedy and hardship to their names when they turned in the year's most buoyant single (with help from co-writer Chris Janson), sounding radically optimistic by comparison to everything else the bro-country nation cooked up. Its glossy, pop country sheen is absolutely right of this moment, but the message is timeless: when everything else is turning to shit, it's life's little pleasures that pull us through. J.F.

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22

Chris Young, “I’m Comin’ Over”

Long pegged as a traditionalist, Chris Young wisely tweaked his approach with "I'm Comin' Over" and landed one of the biggest hits of his career. His rumbling baritone is gorgeous and classic on this ballad centered around a lingering attraction, but the song's modern production — all pinging guitars and massive drums — makes it feel so urgent. "Why put out a fire when it's still burning?" he asks, daring anyone to defy his airtight logic. How could he possibly resist a night with this person, even if he knows it's just going to fall apart all over again? Sometimes it's better to worry about the consequences after the fact, and maybe hope the cycle will repeat itself a few more times. J.F.

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21

Kacey Musgraves, “Dime Store Cowgirl”

It's the most radio-friendly song of her career, a song rife with country cliches and feel-good truisms. But in taking her biggest shot toward Nashville's center, Musgraves ended up with her most personal mission statement yet. "Dime Store Cowgirl" begins with the best opening declaration of the year ("I've had my picture made with Willie Nelson") and takes off from there, with the small town traditionalist narrating her very own origin story with a moving sensitivity. That the glitziest accomplishments Musgraves brags about as she chronicles her rise to stardom is being a tourist in San Antonio and staying "in a hotel with a pool" just goes to prove her point: "Just cause it don't cost a lot don't mean it's cheap." J.B.

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20

Kip Moore, “Running for You”

At this point, Kip Moore's deep, raspy tone has become his signature — so hearing it in all of its Bob Segered glory shouldn't be anything new or surprising. But on "Running for You," it's not so much raspy as raw, sounding more like an actual live vocal than anything produced by Music Row in recent memory. It makes the song about the restless pull of sometimes-impossible love even more emotionally heavy. Moore's not searching out an Auto-Tuned version of himself; he's favoring honesty over perfection. It's why when he softly croons, "I might shed a tear, but I'm gonna be alright," we only half believe him — and that's how Moore intended it. He wants us to know he's just as fragile as the rest of us. M.M.

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19

Carrie Underwood, “Smoke Break”

Carrie Underwood has never been too interested in subtlety, so it came as some surprise when the lead single of her latest record Storyteller was a small-scaled depiction of lower-middle class struggle and the small relief of self-medication. Echoing the fledgling waitress cigarette breaks in recent songs like Lori McKenna's "Three Kids No Husband" and Kacey Musgraves' criminally underappreciated "Blowin' Smoke," Underwood, alongside longtime collaborators Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey, crafted an anthemic celebration of occasional indulgences. A stiff drink here, a quick cigarette there when "things get tough" and "the day gets long." With "Smoke Break," Underwood shows off one of her greatest talents: the ability to make any topic, no matter how mundane, worthy of an arena-sized sing-along. J.B.

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18

Sam Hunt, “Break Up in a Small Town”

For as much as it's been romanticized in song, small-town life is frequently cruel and heartbreaking. You split up with someone and try to go your separate ways but you cannot simply disappear into some other part of town the way urban-dwellers do. Worse still, odds are pretty good that he or she is going to move on to someone you've known forever and it will feel like a personal attack. Sam Hunt got every gritty detail right in this song — down to the grass growing back in her old parking spot — and it sounded like nothing else on country radio as he talk-sung his way over those echoing canyons of synthesizers and beats. Even so, he still managed to nail the vivid storytelling style that country music does best. J.F.

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17

Maren Morris, “My Church”

In a year when country music became increasingly influenced and inspired by the Sixties soul ballad, Texas newcomer Maren Morris took things one step further with her country-gospel sing-along stomper "My Church." The song's premise — finding salvation in a car radio turned all the way up to Hank and Cash — isn't anything novel, but Morris delivers the song with a deep conviction, offering up FM channel surfing as a means to spiritual cleansing and carefree redemption. With a layered vocal that resembles her very own church choir during the chorus, Morris's slow-burning viral hit has already become the very thing that "My Church" celebrates: a song that sounds the best with the windows down and the volume maxed out. J.B.

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16

Alan Jackson, “Jim and Jack and Hank”

Jackson's signature sound and twang is back, honoring familiar themes on the single from the aptly-named Angels and Alcohol album. In this boozy number, he says goodbye to a former lover eschewing high-class affectations like sparkling water (you gotta love lyrics that rhyme "black Mercedes" with "stuff for ladies") and flings the mildest of insults. Jackson wrote "Jim" himself and it returns the legend to the two-steppin' beat for which he is best-known, after a detour through gospel and bluegrass. If you're gonna turn to Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Hank Williams (both Jr. and Sr.) to mend a broken heart (she even took the dog!), you'll find much to love here, particularly Jackson's promise that you're gonna be "A-OK." M.L.

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15

Eric Paslay, “She Don’t Love You”

Somehow singer-songwriter Eric Paslay stuffed an entire movie's worth of story into one four-and-a-half minute single that was slept on by country radio. In the beginning, he comes off like an asshole by trying to warn someone about a woman who he says just needs a warm embrace. Slowly and patiently, however, a bigger picture of her brokenness begins to form — it's not her fault, you see, because someone did her wrong. Paslay turns in the vocal performance of a lifetime here, soaring on the choruses with a heart-in-throat intensity in his delivery. The scaled-down production only deepens the impact of the dramatic conclusion: he's the one who broke her. The song could only be better if it came with popcorn and a large soft drink. J.F.

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14

Thomas Rhett, “Crash and Burn”

It's the sound of a man working on a change, gang. Taking musical inspiration from the classic soul and pop canons and emotional inspiration from the sound of teardrops falling down, Rhett juxtaposes a buoyant groove with a tale of romantic woe. Written by Jesse Frasure and man-of-the-hour Chris Stapleton — who also provides backing vocals — the first single from the Georgia native's latest album Tangled Up hinted at his new direction and pushed his voice to new limits. It all worked like a charm with "Crash" burning up the charts all the way to Number One — and its undeniable hook burning deep into fans' brains. S.R.

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13

Kelsea Ballerini, “Love Me Like You Mean It”

As the first solo woman artist to have her debut single hit Number One on the charts since Carrie Underwood did so in 2006, Ballerini commandingly illustrated that she's more than a bubblegum pop-county diversion from bro country. Instead, she may very well be country's female future. The singer-songwriter co-wrote the fun, infectious, karaoke-worthy hit, which asks potential suitors to man up or get out, making the point that she's just as agile in writing a lyric as she is in delivering it. Like Taylor Swift before her, who endorsed "Love Me Like You Mean It," Ballerini finds the teen-friendly and girl-power sweet spot, as well as a bit of sass. There's no coyness here: guys who aren't up to the task "best get to leaving'." In the end, though, the message, delivered with Ballerini's strong voice, stands as an all-ages single girl's mantra. M.L.

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12

Charles Kelley with Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley, “The Driver”

In his first solo foray outside the comfort zone of Lady Antebellum, Kelley scores with this prayerful, harmony-rich ballad about three of the elements necessary for any successful concert: a hardworking crew — including the bus driver — an enthusiastic audience of dreamers and invested musicians who want nothing more than to fulfill those dreams, as well as their own. It is a lovely, romantic paean to the power of music and how it makes the rigors of the road worthwhile. In a nice bit of trio symmetry, Kelley invited friends Dierks Bentley and co-writer Eric Paslay to enrich the imagery of the homage. The song struck such a chord that it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. Even outside of Lady A, it seems Kelley can't resist being in a trio. S.R.

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11

Brothers Osborne, “Stay a Little Longer”

With their redneck-on-the-docks single "Rum," Brothers Osborne proved that they could easily shape infectious melodies. With their follow-up "Stay a Little Longer," they also showed it's possible to craft radio-friendly tracks while still managing not to give a crap about what they are or aren’t supposed to do. You're certainly not supposed to write a nearly six-minute song where the entire last half consists of a massive, vocal-free guitar interlude, but why not? The pride and joy of Deale, Maryland, argued an important point with "Stay": that commercialism and art aren’t mutually exclusive. It's OK to write something that appeals to both gearheads, purists and fratboys, because that's WCWD (What Cash Would Do) — not try to repeat history, but find a way to morph country into the now. M.M.

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10

Luke Bryan, “Strip It Down”

It might seem strange that the king of spring break, best known for his goofy hip gyrations, is responsible for one of the sexiest songs this year. But there's no denying that Luke Bryan matured on Kill the Lights, and with tracks like "Strip It Down" he showcased his ability to churn out sophisticated, slick ballads that capture the reality of adult intimacy rather than the toils of the terminal teenager. Bigger than the song itself was how Bryan presented it: with a series of performances where he took to the piano with little or no accompaniment, putting the focus more on his vocals than the party. He's not always serious, but when he is, it works seriously well. M.M.

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9

Jana Kramer, “I Got the Boy”

Even in a year of great ballads, the singer-actress's wistful-but-not-sad ode to a first love was a standout. Jamie Lynn Spears (sister to Britney) co-wrote the song four years ago, but it didn't end up on her own EP. Both Kramer (who recorded it for her Thirty-One album) and Spears have talked about why the song resonated: because it was personal enough to be meaningful to them but broad enough to be understood by anyone who's loved and lost. Even for those for whom "class rings" and "fake IDs" are in the distant past, for whom life well lived is "no regrets" — as the Facebook platitudes suggest — "Boy" offers a poignant, rear-view mirror look at the "if things were different" aspect of first love. M.L.

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8

The Cadillac Three, “White Lightning”

Cadillac Three front man Jaren Johnston's love letter to his wife, "White Lightning" was criminally absent from country radio, barely breaking Billboard's Top 40. Why, is anyone's guess. Here was a fresh new way to present a love song, with redneck pop-culture allusions to The Dukes of Hazzard, Elvis and NASCAR in the lyrics, and an anthemic, radio-ready sing-along chorus. Not to mention the controlled muscle of country's most rocking live band behind it. Known for ball-breaking stompers like "Tennessee Mojo" and "I'm Southern," the Cadillac Three slowed down the tempo and pinned their hearts on their leather jackets for "White Lightning," resulting in a song that was just what the format needed — even if it refused to acknowledge it. J.H.

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7

Keith Urban, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”

For a guy who was raised in Australia, Keith Urban fully commits to the all-American name-checking that goes on in this catchy tune. Working with the best in Nashville's business, Urban set aside his blazing guitar skills for the electric bass while songwriting ace Shane McAnally — one of three writers on the song — pulls heartstrings with nostalgia, pinging everything from Wheel of Fortune to Superman. There's nothing spontaneous here, but what's planned is perfect: toe-tapping, singalong-worthy lyrics followed by a profound statement of faith in the bridge. What could be more quintessentially American? M.L.

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6

Dierks Bentley, “Riser”

Even though Dierks Bentley didn't write "Riser" (Travis Meadows and Steve Moakler penned the track), he felt so passionately about the anthem of resiliency that he took it as the title track for his latest album and made it the collection's fifth single. The mid-tempo track pulses with a quiet strength as Bentley vows to be the kind of man that can be counted on to rise to the occasion when times get tough. The song gained added poignancy with Bentley's decision to feature a true "riser" in the video, a woman who lost her home in the recession and was living in her car with her two children until she found refuge at Nashville's Safe Haven Family Shelter. While Bentley may often be identified with fun ditties like "Sideways" and "Drunk on a Plane," "Riser" showed the singer excels at gravitas. M.N.

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5

Chris Janson, “Buy Me a Boat”

In a concise three minutes, self-described "white trash" Janson summed up the escapist dream of the workingman: a windfall followed by the ability to do any damn thing he'd like. In this case, it's purchasing a bass boat, a truck and a cooler full of Coors Light. And therein lies the now platinum-certified song's charm. Instead of coveting a solid gold house and a rocket car — or even an import brew — Janson eschews the opulent for the everyday, reflecting the simple pleasures that country music so often heralds. While some cried "bro!" at the laundry list chorus, they were missing the point. With "Buy Me a Boat," Janson wasn't trying to squeeze any last bit of life out of a declining subgenre; he was staking his claim as the 21st-century common man, more in line with Haggard (for whom he's opened shows) than any of his stylist-approved, red-carpet-ready peers. J.H.

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4

Chris Stapleton, “Traveller”

"It says a lot about life and how we're all passing through it,” Chris Stapleton said of the title track to Traveller this past spring, long before the litany of accolades, attention and album sales that would end up making the Kentucky singer one of the biggest stories in country music in 2015. The understated "Traveller" is the perfect introduction to the 14 songs of devastation and rejuvenation on Stapleton's life-changing debut. It's a song of revelation and rebirth, the tale of a then 36-year-old and his wife, Morgane Stapleton (who sings a lovely harmony vocal on the track), rediscovering love, life and mystery in the middle of the New Mexico desert. As Stapleton himself puts it in the lyrics, "Every turn reveals some other road." J.B.

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3

Jason Isbell, “24 Frames”

In the first line of this lilting, acoustic-based meditation Isbell sings, "This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing." But the first single from his stellar Something More Than Free — nominated for the Best Americana Album Grammy — proved that the Alabama-bred singer-songwriter continues to make himself appear stronger and stronger with each release. With echoes of classic rockers like Tom Petty in the jangling electric guitars and poetic musings on inspiration, family and one's place in the world, it is no wonder the song itself was also singled out with a Best American Roots Song nomination. Twenty-four frames per second may be the speed at which film unspools on a projector, but the imprint of this song lasts much longer. S.R.

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2

Eric Church, “Mr. Misunderstood”

"One day you'll lead the charge, you'll lead the band," sings Eric Church on "Mr. Misunderstood," the first single off his surprise album of the same name. He's speaking to an awkward kid who'd rather play old records than football — but he's also talking to himself. Because a song like "Mr. Misunderstood" shows just why the Chief is indeed leading a new charge in the country landscape. One where intellectualism isn't frowned upon (he name-checks Jackson Pollock and Jeff Tweedy), radio isn't pandered to with predictable rhythm or bombastic choruses, and music, not money, is the Number One goal. "Mr. Misunderstood" isn't the most spectacular track on the LP — though its slow-fast-fast tempo change is musical dynamite — but it stands as the vital beginning of a brilliant story. And Church is in it for the whole tale. M.M.

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1

Cam, “Burning House”

After Cam's one-night-stand anthem "My Mistake" failed to ignite, "Burning House" caught fire — thanks in part to the support of syndicated radio host Bobby Bones, who championed the track. The extremely personal ballad, written by Cam (born Camaron Ochs), Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker, was inspired by Cam's dream about rescuing an ex-boyfriend from a torched building. Unlike anything else on country radio, the spare, haunting track doused any lingering bro-country machismo, entered the Top Five on the charts (where it's still climbing) and earned Cam her first Grammy nomination. It also captured the natural confidence that defines that California-raised singer-songwriter. Instead of the usual somebody-done-me-wrong woes, she is the one who has delivers the lethal romantic blow as she yearns to "take what's lost and broke and make it right." Even hearing it now, six months after its initial release, "Burning House" still brings the heat. M.N.