25 Best Country Songs of 2015 – Rolling Stone
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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.

Jana Kramer
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.

The Cadillac Three
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.

Keith Urban
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.

Dierks Bentley
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.

Chris Janson
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.

Chris Stapleton
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.

Jason Isbell
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.

Eric Church
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.

Cam
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.

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