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.
On their debut single, Runaway June provide an invigorating antidote to heartbreak, a country take on what the pop star Sia calls the "victim-to-victory" trajectory. Everything here is pitched for encouragement: choppy, no-nonsense guitar; reckless fiddle; snappy beat; bountiful harmonies. "Lipstick" clocks in around the three-minute mark, a triumph of economy, but it's packed full of clever, ear-perking songwriting (When's the last time you heard an allusion to the Sahara desert on country radio?). Runaway June tie the track neatly together with a smoothly changing color theme: starting with black tears, moving to smeared red lipstick, and ending with a dream man who appears out of the blue. E.L.
It's tough to listen to Jamie Kent's optimistic "All American Mutt" in the wake of a divisive election and not feel like the melting pot he praises is increasingly in peril – but that's exactly why we should. Packed with a funky vamp, splashes of fast-picking twang and a pop sensibility that Jason Mraz would admire, Kent focuses on the differences that describe but don't define us. And who else can mention Buddhists in a country song? "We're all dreamers, outsiders, lovers and fighters," he sings, "footprints made by every kind of shoe." From his album of the same name produced by Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark), "All American Mutt" suggests that maybe music can be the wavelength on which we all vibrate together. M.M.
With city-slicker dance jams like "Move" and a closet full of tight jeans, it's easy to forget that Bryan is a bona fide country boy. He revels in reminding all y'all of that fact in "Huntin', Fishin', and Lovin' Everyday." While no means a groundbreaking bit of songwriting, the satisfying outdoorsman's anthem reflects Bryan's true self: He's most at home on a bass boat, in a tree stand or rolling with his lady in the literal hay. This is Bryan channeling Bocephus, a breathe of fresh air that evokes early back-to-nature gems like "Country Man" and "Rain Is a Good Thing." For an artist whose authenticity is often questioned, it's as honest of a statement as an "I'd rather be fishing" bumper sticker. J.H.
Even though Taylor Swift left straight-up country behind for the wider horizons of her expansive pop kingdom, her songs remain a sweetly barbed presence on country radio. Here we have another delectably pointed truffle, written by Swift and beautifully sung by Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild off the vocal group's upcoming album The Breaker. "Better Man" doesn't simply lament the end of a love affair; it finds the narrator realizing that it never had a chance in the first place. Why? Because the dude just wasn't good enough. "I just wish you were a better man," Fairchild sings, delivering Swift's lyrics with icy regret. Will those hapless paramours never learn? Let's hope not. D.M.
Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney catch a lot of shit for their brand of light and airy country, but we challenge you to find another two guys capable of pulling off a song as un-ironically sweet as this wedding ballad. With "From the Ground Up," the duo provided country music with its lyrical love story of the year, an unabashed declaration of monogamous commitment – which may be the least "bro" topic you can sing about in 2016. But that doesn't concern Dan + Shay. Instead, while detailing the 65-year marriages of their respective grandparents, they wholeheartedly embrace the goal of a life well lived. And loved. J.H.
Nostalgia is one of country music's most precious currencies, but far too many songs try to conjure up a faded youth and fail to truly do those moments justice. Brothers Osborne, however, bring one seminal season to life in full color on the Grammy-nominated "21 Summer," off their Jay Joyce-produced debut Pawn Shop. Anchored by TJ Osborne's rich, soothing baritone and written with his brother John and Craig Wiseman, it uses echoing plucks of the guitar and a dreamily chanting chorus to create a mood that exists somewhere between the sweet and the melancholy – as most memories actually do. "You're the only broken heart I've ever had and love to have again," sings TJ. "21 Summer" is the sound of time healing all wounds. M.M.
Children have often factored into country songs about divorce, like Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney's "Every Other Weekend" or Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," but they're viewed from a parent's perspective. Not so with The Voice alum RaeLynn's heart-rending "Love Triangle," where she's the little girl trying to make some sense of it all. In a lightly sandpapered twang, she describes waiting for her father, suitcase in hand, and the bowling alley burger and fries routine they enjoy every couple weeks. "Some mamas and daddies are loving in a straight line / take forever to heart and have a long, sweet ride," she points out in the chorus, "But some mamas and daddies let their heartstrings tear and tangle / And some of us get stuck in a love triangle." This emotional tug-of-war is devastating with every exchange – she weeps for her mother every time she visits her father, then weeps for him when she returns home – and illustrates the collateral damage that can accompany even the most amicable separations. J.F.
It was a big year for duets on the country charts, but none proved as much of a break-out moment as Young and Pope's break-up anthem "Think of You." Over a sweeping, muscular rock arrangement, the pair comes to terms with not being the "It couple" any longer. Young pushes his voice to a lacerating edge, and Pope, a savvy partner, echoes his delivery with laser-like focus – the voice in his head that he just can't escape. In a twist on the traditional breakup song, this relationship's dissolution seems to have thrown an entire small-town ecosystem out of alignment, with friends apparently unable to go on. Sings Young: "It's like they don't know how to act." Get back together, please, if only for everyone else's sake. E.L.
Ballerini earns every one of those Taylor Swift comparisons on this soaring indictment of a guy content in his stunted growth. Like Swift's new song for Little Big Town, "Better Man," Ballerini pulls no punches with "Peter Pan," emasculating him with the razor-sharp kiss-off "You're never gonna be a man." Women can likely relate as they recall bad romances and even worse dates, while those self-aware dudes among us are forced to take stock of their own failure to launch. It may sound like sprightly country-pop, but "Peter Pan" is actually a sobering listen, with Ballerini, who co-wrote the song, asking the tough questions. J.H.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.