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25 Best Country Songs of 2016

From Margo Price and Brandy Clark to Jon Pardi and Dierks Bentley

country songs, best country songs 2016, best songs 2016, margo price, jon pardi, brandy clark, dierks bentley, miranda lambert, country countdown 2016, best country songs of the year

Jon Pardi, Brandy Clark and Dierks Bentley recorded some of the best songs of 2016.

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The song has always been the cornerstone of country music, but in recent years some have felt as sturdy as a straw house. That changed in 2016, with mainstream artists in particular sidestepping the formulaic to find or write songs with real weight behind them. Jon Pardi reinvented the country-boy love song; Chris Janson praised his wife and kids; and Kelsea Ballerini called out guys who have failed to launch into adulthood. Here are the best songs of the year. 

16

Parker Millsap, “Heaven Sent”

"Raised me straight and raised me true," Parker Millsap sings right at the top of "Heaven Sent," a standout track from The Very Last Day. It's an experiment that could go horribly sideways, an ostensibly straight man playing the role of a gay man trying to mend a rift with his religious father, but Millsap's empathetic approach holds it together. With a voice steeped in the traditions of gospel shouters and traveling bluesmen, Millsap lets his character wrangle with some of Christianity's contradictions – the kind of love that feels right to him is forbidden by the church, but he still wonders "what Jesus meant, when he said all love was heaven sent." He pleads with his father that he just wants to make him proud, backed by the swelling strings and thunderous drums of the chorus. All too often, LGBTQ individuals feel this kind of forced isolation from church and family, and Millsap's song is a valuable exercise in stepping outside oneself to gain a deeper appreciation for the experiences of others. J.F.

15

Beyonce and Dixie Chicks, “Daddy Lessons”

On Beyoncé's epochal concept album Lemonade, "Daddy Lessons" stands as an odd acoustic change of pace – not exactly a throwaway, but an opportunity to catch one's breath. Leave it to Queen Bey, however, to recognize that song's grander potential. In one of 2016's boldest crossover moves, Beyoncé turned "Daddy Lessons" into a drumline hootenanny throwdown, performing it live at the 50th CMA Awards with an assist from her fellow Texans the Dixie Chicks (in a return to country's main stage after more than a decade in exile over Iraq War politics). Dressed up with banjos, blaring horns and country-blues harmonica, this "Daddy Lessons" remake – which Beyoncé and the Chicks also cut in the studio – is a great example of what can happen when worlds, however seemingly disparate, collide. D.M.

14

Miranda Lambert, “Pink Sunglasses”

Much ado has been made about the emotional heft of Miranda Lambert's The Weight of These Wings, and rightfully so: it's a raw, affecting listen, with Lambert at her most vulnerable across the two sides' 24 songs. The brighter moments of the album, then, feel even brighter, with side one's standout "Pink Sunglasses" a swaggering anthem that almost feels optimistic. Don't let the title fool you, though. This song is one of the album's many odes to coping mechanisms, swapping out a glass of rosé for some rose-colored glasses. The second verse imagery of a pair of cheap glasses sitting next to disposable cameras is all too telling, as it becomes apparent that Lambert's glasses not only lend a rosy tint to the outside world, but to her turbulent interior life as well – casting a $9.99 sheen over memories she'd just as soon throw away. B.M.

13

Sturgill Simpson, “Call to Arms”

"They serve up distractions and we eat them with fries," howls Sturgill Simpson on "Call to Arms," the closing number off his Grammy-nominated A Sailor's Guide to Earth, "until the bombs fall out of our fucking skies." It's an explosion, all right. Simpson cranks up everything – the scream of the Dap-Kings horn section, the wailing walk of Laur Joamets' guitar, the cry of the organ – to drown out a world filled with noise and nonsense. On an album dedicated to his newborn son that's at times sentimental, this furious Sexmob-meets-Waylon Jennings anthem looks outside the nursery window to a country he knows won't survive complacency. Simpson may not have envisioned just how prophetic those lyrics would be in the age of fake news and a Donald Trump presidency, but the song could turn out to be a battle cry. He knows there's far too much at stake to leave a lullaby as his last word. M.M.

12

William Michael Morgan, “I Met a Girl”

"I Met a Girl" validates the idea that a good song is a good song, regardless of its production. The lovestruck ballad originally appeared on Sam Hunt's Between the Pines mixtape, featuring Hunt's hyper-modern delivery – heavily informed by hybrid forms of R&B and rap – and a programmed beat. Then along came Morgan, who reoriented the track around vintage tropes: a light percussive shuffle, pedal-steel guitar, a gusty, clear croon and tasteful harmonies. His back-to-basics version climbed all the way to Number One on the Mediabase chart, establishing Morgan as a young singer with a keen grasp of the classics – and reminding program directors that listeners still want to hear traditional country on the radio. E.L.

11

Florida Georgia Line, “H.O.L.Y.”

Whatever everyone expected Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley to do after having to follow Chris Stapleton's knockout performance at the 2015 CMA Awards with their own misfire "Confession," "H.O.L.Y." probably wasn't it. With its synthetic production touches and copy editor-maddening spelling, "H.O.L.Y." (an abbreviation for "High on lovin' you," in case you've consciously been avoiding it) probably didn't do much to stave off pitchfork-wielding traditionalists. Still, its blending of sex with spirituality was certainly a new, more mature look for country's most polarizing party boys as they introduced a fresh set of songs with their third album Dig Your Roots. That certainly played into the song's journey as one of FGL's biggest hits to date, but its success is really much more simple and primal: It's got the kind of melodic hook that'll lodge in a brain for weeks on end. J.F.

10

Tim McGraw/Lori McKenna, “Humble and Kind”

In a year dominated by braggadocio and intolerance, that a Number One country song called "Humble and Kind" exists is no small blessing. And that such a song was written by the inimitable Lori McKenna, one of the genre's most beloved songwriters, feels something like divine intervention. A hit for Tim McGraw (from Damn Country Music) and a track on McKenna's Grammy-nominated solo album The Bird and the Rifle, "Humble and Kind" (itself up for a Best Country Song Grammy) became something of a healing anthem in the later months of 2016. It was a victory for inclusivity, as seen in McGraw's quietly powerful CMA Awards performance, but it was also one for McKenna herself, who, nine solo albums in, is finally getting her due as an artist. B.M.

9

Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”

Drive-By Truckers made one of the year's biggest political statements with their fantastic album American Band, a collection of songs that grappled with Southern identity, police brutality and systemic racism. The album's centerpiece is "What It Means," one of the most powerful protest songs to be released in recent years. Referencing the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin along with the rash of violence against unarmed black men, the Patterson Hood-led song reaches a boiling point at the end of its first verse, stating, "I mean Barack Obama won / And you can choose where to eat / But you don't see too many white kids / Bleeding on the street." It's an essential message from a band that America needs now more than ever. B.M.

8

Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man”

"Die a Happy Man," the Grammy-nominated, CMA Award-winning second single from Thomas Rhett's Tangled Up, ranks as the sexiest come-on of the year. But it's also a sweet little song, with a simple guitar riff adorning a slow-burn vocal in which the singer-songwriter recounts a rapturous night of love makin' with all the right accouterments – bottle of wine, Marvin Gaye on the stereo and that "look in your eyes." Rhett's lyrics ring as honestly as a love note, and they should: he penned the song especially for his wife. Leave it to the pop-minded Rhett, who has more in common with Justin Timberlake than Jason Aldean, to bring sexy back. D.M.

7

Brandy Clark, “Three Kids No Husband”

Brandy Clark is psychologist-in-chief to the residents of Anytown, USA on Big Day in a Small Town, throughout which she shines a spotlight on the real heroes that make up American life and not just quarterbacks or homecoming queens. On "Three Kids No Husband," written with Lori McKenna, Clark paints a portrait of a working mother to which any parent – from one dwelling in a New York City high-rise to one serving up pie at the local diner in her hometown of Morton, Washington – can relate. That's because it's loaded with details that bring it into cinematic focus: the ash of a lonely cigarette, a pile of homework, an up-all-night baby. Jay Joyce keeps the production soft and shuffling, pushing Clark's vocals to the forefront. "There's how you plan it," she sings, "and how it turns out to be." That's a universal truth that applies to everyone, not just single moms. M.M.

6

Maren Morris, “Rich”

It's hard to choose a standout track from Maren Morris' Hero, Rolling Stone Country's best country album of 2016, but we'll make the argument for "Rich," a sparkly bit of pop-country bling. Anchored by a bass line that calls to mind Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," it's a genre-defying amalgam of what makes today's country music interesting: a little profanity, a lot of swagger and catchy hooks for days. Morris' preternatural sense of melody is all over Hero, but no where is it more apparent than "Rich," which sees the Arlington, Texas-born artist blending hip-hop rhythms with slow, twangy delivery and clever wordplay. It may sound forced to call out Diddy in a country song, but, hey, this is Morris' rich-girl fantasy – and it adds up to one priceless song. B.M.

5

Chris Janson, “Holdin’ Her”

The boot-stomping Janson's "Buy Me a Boat" was a satisfying serving of bro-vado, but it's this heart-laid-bare ballad that defines the family-first singer-songwriter. Over weeping steel, the Missouri native tells the true story of how he met his wife, had a kid and changed his life's direction, going from bad boy heartbreaker to devout dad. The song is the centerpiece of Janson's must-see live shows, met with a standing ovation nearly every time he sings it on the Grand Ole Opry. And for good reason: it's a slice of honest-to-goodness country music, the very thing that some seem to think is endangered in this age of loops and loud guitars. Not on Janson's watch. J.H.

4

Dierks Bentley featuring Elle King, “Different for Girls”

The premise to Bentley and the indie-rock singer's Number One duet may be a bit shaky – we'd argue that women can and do self-medicate a busted heart with whiskey – but the artists' vocal interplay and surprising chemistry makes "Different for Girls" a high-water mark in a year of notable collaborations. Bentley plays the compassionate narrator, sheepishly realizing that dudes have carte blanche when it comes to post-breakup bad behavior, while King spells out the expectations on her gender. Like in Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart," it's ok to do whatever gets you through the night, as long as you keep that crazy hid. But King's pounding-on-the-glass-ceiling delivery lets you know that arrangement won't work for her. Even if she doesn't openly admit it. J.H.

3

Jon Pardi, “Head Over Boots”

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more charming country song released in 2016 than Jon Pardi's "Head Over Boots," which ascended to the top of the Country Airplay chart in August. Building off four simple chords and an instant-classic chorus hook, the California native's breakout hit put a country-centric spin on an old cliché about love, pledging devotion through old age, when Pardi says they'll "rock in our chairs and talk about the weather." The instrumentation of this easygoing shuffle – bursting with steel and fiddle – registered as more traditional than nearly anything else to hit country radio this year, while the subtle drum loop underneath and expertly-placed minor fourth chord in the chorus hinted at a deep well of pop smarts. J.F. 

2

Eric Church, “Record Year”

A few crackles of static kick off "Record Year," one of the centerpieces of Eric Church's surprise LP Mr. Misunderstood. In a download-driven culture, that's a sound as foreign as the ring of a home telephone, but it's emblematic of the Chief's longest running romance: music. While many of his colleagues are name-checking denim brands and Bud Light, Church talks up Stevie Wonder, John Lee Hooker and James Brown and loads his references with inside-baseball allusions and first-class double-entendres. "All bets are off when you flip her over," he sings, keeping the vocals tender and naughtily merging the woman that left him with the records he has left behind. It's a survival guide on how to use melodies to mend a broken heart and shape a man. M.M.

1

Margo Price, “Hands of Time”

If there is anything that the ever-diversifying group of artists who call country home can agree on, it's that the genre is, at its core, about storytelling. And no one told their story better this year than Margo Price, who took us through three decades of struggle and strife on "Hands of Time," the opening track to her debut LP Midwest Farmer's Daughter. Part "Coat of Many Colors," part "Tangled Up in Blue," Price sings with pain and pride about the upbringing that built her and the losses that tried to break her down: from the death of her child to the foreclosure of her family farm, Price holds nothing back. "Cause all I want to do is make something last," she sings to a propulsive bass line and sweeping strings, her voice as strong as it is vulnerable. Mission accomplished. M.M.