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25 Best Country Songs of 2017

Sam Hunt had the biggest song of the year, Ashley McBryde celebrated wrong turns and Carly Pearce persevered through heartache

Never one for in-your-face political declarations, country music took several strides toward subtly addressing the seismic changes and tragedies around us in 2017, while their more Americana-inclined counterparts fired off some direct shots. Performers also declared space for pleasure, whether it was of the carnal variety or simply enjoying one’s good fortunes while they last. Jason Aldean and Tyler Childers offered defiant snapshots of living in red state America, while Will Hoge unleashed torrents of anger over mass shootings in “Thoughts & Prayers.” 

Sam Hunt enjoyed the year’s biggest hit with a danceable tune about the familiar curves of a woman’s body, while Carly Pearce tried to shake off the memory of a traumatic breakup in “Every Little Thing.” Cam and Chris Janson took stands for women, writing bold songs about solidarity and consent, and exciting newcomer Ashley McBryde reminded us that even our wrong turns can offer moments of healing. Here are our 25 favorite country songs of the year.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
25

Jason Aldean, “They Don’t Know”

Jason Aldean has long been a no-BS defender of the country zeitgeist, but with “They Don’t Know” he tapped straight into a powerful feeling of flyover-state resentment. Snarling lyrics like Ain’t just another field, just another farm / No, it’s the ground we grew up on may refer to the physical reality of small-town life, but they also reveal much about the psyche of many rural Americans. It’s a stand-your-ground anthem that is both aggressive and deeply wounded, and a stern rebuke to the perceived put-downs of so many urbanites, offering genuine insight into the nation’s cultural divide. C.P.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
24

Lady Antebellum, “You Look Good”

It’s been a hot minute since Lady A broke through the country-pop wall with the glossy megahit “Need You Now,” but the residual schmaltz has been tough for the trio to shake – and 2014’s 747 hardly did them any favors. Now, however, their self-deprecating and loose live shows prove they’ve let their guard down, chilled out and embraced a fun, funky side. “You Look Good,” the horn-heavy standout off this year’s reset of a new album, Heart Break, is fresh, fierce and sexy in ways that previously eluded them. It’s a joy to hear Hillary Scott unleash her super freak: “Everybody better stand in line / They need to know that your body’s coming with me tonight.” D.H.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
23

Zac Brown Band, “My Old Man”

Daddy issues. On some level, we’ve all got ’em. Not surprisingly, the best songsmiths, from Neil Young to Bruce Springsteen on down, have put their old-man drama into song. It wasn’t so much of a shock then to hear Zac Brown detail an equal-parts reverence and defiance for his elder on this tender single, but rather the Georgia singer’s palpable emotion and cutting vulnerability that gave the song its heart. Equally inspired by Brown’s relationship with the late Rodney Shelton, a mentor who died in 2015, the acoustic ballad is that cherished rarity: sweet and subtle with a low dosage of sap. D.H.

22

Will Hoge, “Thoughts & Prayers”

Sadly, it seems that “thoughts and prayers” is America’s new slogan. It was especially so this year, as mass shootings, violent protests and natural disasters have had many an ineffectual leader spending plenty of time thinking and praying while avoiding actually legislating. During a year that also sparked conversations about country artists’ roles in political discourse, Will Hoge took such toothless sentiments to task in this fiery acoustic track. Hoge wrote the raw and emotional song – which likens anti-gun control politicians to “whore[s] to the pimp that’s called the NRA” – on the day of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that claimed the lives of 26 church-goers. Here’s hoping that Hoge opened the door for more defiant stances from the country and roots community in 2018. B.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
21

Brad Paisley, “Love and War”

Brad Paisley delivered his best album in years with the star-studded Love and War, but few expected the title track to contain such vitriol. “Love and War” is Brad pissed off, a scathing assessment of how American veterans are treated after their service. It could easily be a pithy moment of “Support Our Troops” flag waving if it weren’t for the condemnation he aims at the system. “They ship you out to die for us, forget about you when you don’t,” Paisley sings as he shreds away on his guitar. The critique is elevated by the presence of John Fogerty, who no doubt sees the maimed soldier in the song returning home from Afghanistan as the victim of his own “Fortunate Son.” J.G.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
20

Lilly Hiatt, “Trinity Lane”

I get bored so I wanna get drunk,” Lilly Hiatt sings in one of 2017’s great opening lines in “Trinity Lane,” the title track off her third LP. In a lot of ways, those eight words are Hiatt in a nutshell, at once self-deprecatingly funny and brutally honest. She not only knows her weaknesses, but her pattern of behavior. Named for a street in her hometown of Nashville, the song is a rocking romp through the tough love of self-improvement, when not giving into temptation means missing out on easy gratification. The bounce in Hiatt’s step on “Trinity Lane” comes from seeing life with a new and hard-earned clarity, even for the things – and places – that are most familiar in the world. J.G.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
19

Lanco, “Greatest Love Story”

A small town Romeo and Juliet find their happily-ever-after in Lanco’s “Greatest Love Story,” the band’s first Number One and lead single from their upcoming debut LP Hallelujah Nights. Frontman Brandon Lancaster wrote the song based largely on experience, crafting a lived-in vignette that rang true for any couple who’s ever taken a few scenic detours on the way to love. The song’s easygoing vibe blends the grooves of the Band with the drawling down-home poetry of Chris Knight, where true love is discovered and then lost as our heroes go their separate ways following high school, and then discovered again after each has had some time to mature. That’s how you know it was meant to be. C.P.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
18

Mickey Guyton, “Nice Things”

Mickey Guyton refuses to settle for easily digestible throwaways, favoring substance and deep emotional truths like those found in her latest single “Nice Things.” Co-written by the Texas native with Liz Rose and Stephanie Chapman, the song features Guyton’s lush vocal harmonies paired with bluegrass-style instrumentation on the track and a lyric that’s more disappointed than heartbroken over a man-child who treated her like one of his playthings. “You stole my heart and bent my wings. Your mama always said you can’t have nice things,” she sings, wounded but resilient. C.P. 

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
17

Charlie Worsham, “Cut Your Groove”

“You don’t have to be famous to be famous,” Charlie Worsham sings on “Cut Your Groove,” and they’re words that he may well live by himself. Beginning of Things, his second LP, followed the pattern set by his debut Rubberband: critically acclaimed but criminally overlooked at radio and on the rack. As “Cut Your Groove” demonstrates, it’s not for a lack of tuneful appeal, as the song ­– a hit by any standard – breezes along with instant ear-worm appeal. But there’s a message here as well: find your lane in life and own it. Worsham knows where his inner all-star lies; listen closely and he’ll help you find yours too. J.G.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
16

David Rawlings, “Cumberland Gap”

David Rawlings and Gillian Welch lay claim to the most fruitful artistic partnership in Americana music. The two have released a number of lauded collaborative albums over the years, periodically alternating whose name gets top billing. This year, it was Rawlings’ turn with Poor David’s Almanack. It can get a little confusing, sure (especially since Rawlings dropped the “Machine” moniker this time around), but what remains crystal clear is the quality of the music. That’s especially true for standout track “Cumberland Gap,” a foot-stomping ode to one of the most treacherous mountain passes in Appalachia. Though Rawlings is often praised for his musicianship, his vocals, accentuated with haunting harmonies from Welch, have never sounded more powerful. B.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
15

Little Big Town, “When Someone Stops Loving You”

“Better Man,” penned by Taylor Swift, may have garnered the lion’s share of press for Little Big Town this past year, but this good old-fashioned break-up song was its own kind of masterpiece. Written by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Chase McGill, the smoldering, soulful song off the group’s The Breaker perfectly addresses the thousand little daily heartbreaks that come in the aftermath of losing a lover. Jimi Westbrook steps to the fore and deftly handles lead vocals on the tune, which is elevated by some bluesy guitar licks reminiscent of Journeyman-era Eric Clapton. B.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
14

Carly Pearce, “Every Little Thing”

The striking title track from Carly Pearce’s debut album goes a long way in explaining why this long-struggling artist is now one of the year’s most exciting newcomers. A slow-building, female-sung ballad about the perils of heartbreak, the evocative cut was far from a sure thing at country radio. But with its sparse and eerie production, courtesy of producer Busbee, and a self-assured, no-nonsense sentiment, the simple, steely song was undeniable – and a Number One. “I remember every little thing / The high, the hurt, the shine, the sting,” Pearce sings. Even with the tears, you can feel her determination to keep moving forward. D.H.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
13

Sunny Sweeney, “Bottle By My Bed”

For women in country music, the personal is, more often than not, also the political. Daring to tell stories that veer outside of radio-approved narratives of partying is essentially a commercial death sentence, making songs like Sunny Sweeney’s confessional “Bottle By My Bed” not just brave in their vulnerability but also in their artistic defiance. This particular track, off Sweeney’s excellent fourth album Trophy, details the Texas-based songwriter’s struggles with infertility in frank, heart-wrenching terms, the double meaning of the title served up not for laughs but to underscore the gravity of the song’s little-discussed subject. B.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
12

Tyler Childers, “Whitehouse Road”

“Lord, it’s a mighty hard living,” sings Tyler Childers on “Whitehouse Road,” off his Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson-produced LP Purgatory, “but a damn good feeling to run these roads.” Born and raised in Kentucky, Childers knows a thing or two about the struggle to get by in rural Middle America, the temptations that nip at our ankles and the roads that run to nowhere and everywhere at once. Melding a dirty Southern-rock vamp with a crisp, vocal innocence, Childers puts forth one of the year’s finest narrative lines, embodying a protagonist who drowns his sorrows in women, whiskey and drugs, but still finds grace in the twists and turns of his home state. With bluegrass soul and indie angst, “Whitehouse Road” is country that stings like it should. M.M

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
11

Brothers Osborne, “It Ain’t My Fault”

With its driving beat, rumbling baritone vocals and dirty, roadhouse guitars, Brothers Osborne’s “It Ain’t My Fault” struck a defiantly old-school tone – with a little bit of Van Halen thrown in. Co-written by the siblings with Lee Thomas Miller, it was a welcome tribute to the grittier side of country’s roots, especially while so much of the format turns toward slick R&B for inspiration. You can almost feel the raging hangover as TJ recounts a night gone awry, filled with two-for-one tequila shots, fistfights with bouncers and ill-advised hookups. Still, none of that is a reason to quit. Country outlaws and rock legends alike would approve. C.P.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
10

Sam Hunt, “Body Like a Back Road”

Love it or hate it, Sam Hunt’s ubiquitous “Body Like a Back Road” was, in many ways, the country song of 2017 – it spent 34 weeks atop Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, after all. More than that, though, it served as a reminder that big country crossover hits are still possible. Coupled with an unusual rollout (Hunt released “Body Like a Back Road” on the heels of surprise track “Drinkin’ Too Much”) and nary a sophomore album announcement in sight, Hunt’s massive success with “Body Like a Back Road” proved the power of the radio single – and illustrated country-pop at its finest and most infectious. B.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
9

Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”

Though only released a month ago, Brandi Carlile’s massive “The Joke” quickly chiseled itself a spot at the top of the best vocal performances of the year, and provided one of the most poignant lyrical moments too. Partnering up with Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings on production, Carlile sings for everyone who has felt excluded, bullied or less than, as important of a political statement as ever in the dreary landscape that was 2017. And, boy, does she sing. “The Joke” was designed to reach “The Story” proportions, and it does so in spades: with artful arrangements courtesy of the late Paul Buckmaster, it’s a rock opera for love and compassion from one of the most talented working vocalists around. Because not only can Carlile belt, she can also reel it in with undecorated phrasing and vulnerable cracks – an emotional rollercoaster of a performance that mirrors what it’s truly like to be human. M.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
8

Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos”

There was plenty of pressure on Chris Stapleton as he prepared to follow up his 2015 breakthrough Traveller. But instead of overthinking it, he did what he does best: rally his band, set up shop in Nashville’s RCA Studio A with producer Dave Cobb, and cut 18 songs live in the historic “room” of the albums’ title: From A Room. The highlights are many, but “Broken Halos,” which opens Volume 1, reigns supreme. Stapleton’s voice is at its grizzled, soulful best, adding just the right amount of heft to this rumination on spirituality and how some fall from grace. “Seen my share of broken halos, folded wings that used to fly,” he growls, sounding every bit like an artist who knows from tribulation. J.G.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
7

Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl”

With the Silence Breakers named Time‘s Person of the Year and the #MeToo movement reaching full steam in 2017, the terrible (and frequently illegal or violent) behavior of men has been the dominant story of the year. Against that still-unfolding narrative, “Buy Me a Boat” singer Chris Janson offered an object lesson in the way men should be approaching consent with “Drunk Girl.” The tender track (from an album with no shortage of sensitivity) features Janson singing about meeting the girl of his dreams at a bar – except she’s totally blacked out. Rather than take advantage, he takes her home, puts her to bed and leaves his number before locking the door behind him. The track is simple and beautiful but tinged with sadness, since doing the right thing now seems like such a noteworthy act. C.P.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
6

Luke Combs, “When It Rains It Pours”

A nice guy finishes first in Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours,” one of the year’s feel-good standouts and the newcomer’s second Number One in as many tries. After getting dumped by his girlfriend, Combs’ protagonist begins a “redneck roll” with a $100 win on a scratch-off lottery ticket and keeps going until he scores his server’s number at Hooters, a used four-wheeler in a Moose Club raffle and more. A big part of the fun is Combs’ down-to-earth charm, plus a catchy, momentum-filled chorus melody. He changes up the words the second time through, tweaking conventional song structure and making this barroom epic all the more triumphant. C.P.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
5

Ashley McBryde, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”

It felt like Ashley McBryde came out of nowhere with “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” a stripped-down master class in how to be informed by traditional country songwriting and style while keeping the perspective fully rooted in the modern world. Anchored by McBryde’s rock-solid belt that rasps as easily as it warbles, it’s about seeing the light when everything else feels dark, particularly with the help of one special song. In Nashville for years before Eric Church brought her onstage and changed the course of her career, McBryde’s no stranger to finding the positive side of things, nor to chasing after her dreams even when things look bleak. In “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” that approach shows: “Here’s to the break-ups that didn’t break us,” McBryde sings. “The break down, wrong turn that takes ya to a little dive bar in Dahlonega. Hear a song from a band that saves ya.” With moments like this, McBryde’s poised to do her own saving too. M.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
4

Miranda Lambert, “Tin Man”

Miranda Lambert has long excelled at quiet, devastating songs (see “The House That Built Me”), and yet even at her most revealing, she somehow managed to keep the world at arm’s length. Not so with “Tin Man.” The most vulnerable song from her raw, scar-pocked album The Weight of These Wings, the spare ballad is Lambert at her most honest and effective. She’s sad and sweet, reflective but hardly ruined. Loosely evoking Kenny Chesney’s 1994 song of a similar name, the tune opens with lightly strummed acoustic guitar that melts atop a sea of white noise, as the heartbroken singer laments ever having one in the first place. “Take it from me, darling,” she tells that blissfully ignorant and hollow titular man. “You don’t want a heart.” D.H.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
3

Cam, “Diane”

Country – and rock’s – biggest stars have been covering Dolly Parton for ages. It’s a treasured custom, but nothing new. Cam, however, took things one step further with “Diane,” reviving the tradition of the response song and delivering a message to the woman in Parton’s “Jolene” from the perspective of the one taking the man, not the one losing him. Turns out, Jolene – or whoever the woman was – didn’t know he was married to Diane. Whatever the story, the song from Cam’s upcoming sophomore LP is an absolute blast, full of Fleetwood Mac gloss, a few more Seventies riffs and gorgeous harmonies. Cam’s one of the more playful and imaginative writers in Nashville today, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that she can sing most people under the table. “Diane” charges ahead furiously with an infectious, danceable heartbeat. In her hands, repentance has never sounded so good. M.M.

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
2

Midland, “Drinkin’ Problem”

The Texas trio’s debut single is a prime example of flawless country wordplay and melody. Just listen to that chorus: “People say I got a drinkin’ problem / but I got no problem drinkin’ at all,” sings Mark Wystrach, selling the payoff line with all the despair of one of the band’s heroes, Gary Stewart. But Wystrach and his mates Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy aren’t aping the past, or even winking at it with irony. Rather, they’re reviving it for today. Which is what makes “Drinkin’ Problem,” written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, such a pleasure – and one of the most refreshing singles served up this year. J.G. 

25 Best Country Songs of 2017
1

Jason Isbell, “If We Were Vampires”

The stunning “If We Were Vampires” makes a ruse of its unusual title. If we were vampires and death was a joke … I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand,” sings Jason Isbell on the most emotionally wrenching song from The Nashville Sound, his Grammy-nominated album with his band the 400 Unit. But death is no laughing matter here, as Isbell grapples with the impermanence of our physical bodies and the inevitable pain of separation from our loved ones. It’s a bold move toward embracing vulnerability and, with it, the fragility of life and love. Beautiful in its sparseness and breathless – practically urgent – in its delivery, “If We Were Vampires” delivers a knockout punch with the brittle harmonizing of Isbell and wife Amanda Shires, as they tell one another, Maybe we’ll get 40 years together, but one day I’ll be gone, or one day you’ll be gone.” If there was ever a year we needed an eloquent reminder to celebrate and love one another in the moment, 2017 was it – and Jason Isbell gave a perfect summation in this tidy three-and-a-half minutes. J.G.