Since before the 1950s, Billboard has named the year’s best country song. Some of these songs reshaped the genre, while others simply capture what was fleetingly popular at the time. With this year-end list as your guide, here’s a lengthy journey through over six decades of hits.
Keep in mind that these selections reflect contemporary takes on what song defined a calendar year. Retrospectively, it’s a list full of omissions that seem outrageous. Garth Brooks, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Alabama and Keith Urban are among the huge names to never receive this honor, taking a back seat to artists time hasn’t treated as fondly.
Still, country fans curious about what song defined their birth year, then more so than now, should look no further than this exhaustive round-up of over six decades of hits.
1950: “I’m Movin’ On” by Hank Snow
Hank Snow, a great singer of train songs, built the metaphorical trestle bridge between early country and western music and the more mainstream accessible sounds that popped up in the ’50s, as exemplified by the decade’s first year-defining hit.
1951: “Cold, Cold Heart” by Hank Williams
“Cold, Cold Heart” ranks among Hank Williams’ greatest musical statements for drifting souls and broken hearts. Like Williams’ other hits, it inspired the lyrical direction of country for decades to come.
1952: “Wild Side of Life” by Hank Thompson
Amid this run of success by the three Hanks came a sympathetic view on cheating husbands that inspired Kitty Wells to sing the most famous “diss track” in country music history.
1953: “Kaw-Liga” by Hank Williams
One of Hank Williams’ most celebrated songs during his shortened career referenced the Native American influence on his home state of Alabama.
1954: “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” by Hank Snow
Before it became one of Snow’s most covered songs, by both country and R&B vocalists, his recording of “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” topped the charts for 20 weeks.
1955: “In the Jailhouse Now” by Webb Pierce
Only four different songs topped the country charts in 1954. Three of them were sung by Webb Piece. Hits kept coming the next year, including this nod to the lingering influence of the great Jimmie Rodgers.
1956: “Crazy Arms” by Ray Price
A new Nashville sound was just around the corner, but a more traditional sound still dominated the year-end charts. Ray Price’s crowning achievement of ’56 soon became a honky tonk standard following its 20 total weeks on top of the country charts.
1957: “Gone” by Ferlin Husky
The late ’50s was a time of great crooners in country music, as captured in one of Ferlin Husky’s most gorgeous and moving hits.
1958: “Oh Lonesome Me” by Don Gibson
Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” wasn’t alone in introducing the blossoming Nashville sound. It’s B-side, unbelievably enough, was the original version of the Gibson-penned classic “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
1959: “Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton
The biggest song of the year, regardless of genre, was Johnny Horton’s greatest historical narrative. The song is so engrained in country and roots music culture now that it’s hard to believe it’s not decades older.
1960: “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” by Hank Locklin
Hank Locklin surely reminded longtime country fans of another Hank with this sentimental favorite that soon drifted farther from the sounds of Luke the Drifter.
1961: “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline
An obvious choice on par with “Crazy” or “Walking After Midnight,” the biggest hit of Cline’s shortened life shows off the God-given vocal talents of one of the all-time greats.
1962: “Wolverton Mountain” by Claude King
Claude King remains arguably the best “one hit wonder” among artists with just one song that topped the charts. His rewording of a Merle Travis song became a memorable million-seller for a talented artist who never cracked the top five again.
1963: “Still” by Bill Anderson
The second of a long string of hits by Whisperin’ Bill Anderson became a benchmark of his career. It exemplifies the pop and jazz-oriented sound used back then to embellish the best singers’ talents.
1964: “My Heart Skips a Beat” by Buck Owens
Although he’s now just as synonymous with Hee Haw, Buck Owens and the Bakersfield Sound began a dominating run on the charts a few years earlier with his storied Capitol Records output.
1965: “What’s He Doing in My World” by Eddie Arnold
One of the finest crooners, regardless of genre, ended a ten-year drought at the top of the charts with this famous single. Even as the new Nashville sound took hold, legends received their just due.
1966: “Almost Persuaded” by David Houston
David Houston’s breakthrough hit introduced country fans to a song that’s since been covered by everyone from Etta James to Merle Haggard. It’s the story of a man whose moral compass won’t let barroom flirting escalate to cheating on his wife.
1967: “All the Time” by Jack Greene
Although prior year’s “There Goes My Everything” defined the Jolly Greene Giant’s career, it’s this revision of a prior Kitty Wells hit that netted him high honors.
1968: “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
In just about any other year, one of Johnny Cash’s signature tunes might have been an obvious choice. This was no regular year for the country charts, with “Fist City,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.,” “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” “Mama Tried,” “Stand By Your Man” and “Wichita Lineman” also topping the charts in an insane 12-month stretch.
1969: “My Life (Throw It Away If You Want To)” by Bill Anderson
The 1960’s ended with one of the decade’s biggest success stories reclaiming top honors. This relatively innocent love song soon took a back seat to the sensuous vibes of ‘70s hit-makers.
1970: “Hello Darlin’” by Conway Twitty
Conway Twitty became the king of the lusty country ballad with this signature song. It opened Twitty’s concerts for years to come and contains one of the best-known opening lines in popular music history.
1971: “Easy Loving” by Freddie Hart
Freddie Hart’s tales of requited lust frequented the charts often in the early ‘70s. This self-penned hit began a run of success that’s overshadowed now by the hits of more famous peers.
1972: “My Hang-Up Is You” by Freddie Hart
Before Hart became a gospel singer, he prompted a lot of pastors to preach against the carnal themes of early ‘70s country.
1973: “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” by Conway Twitty
Twitty’s other early ‘70s mega-hit that still helps define his career remains an easily recognizable hit from the years before outlaws and truck drivers claimed center stage.
1974: “There Won’t Be Anymore” by Charlie Rich
The Silver Fox remains a legend for “The Most Beautiful Girl” and “Behind Closed Doors,” but it’s this less obvious hit that defined country music success in 1974.
1975: “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Cambpell
As outlaws and truck drivers became all the rage, Glen Campbell returned to the top of the charts with yet another hit that was quickly incorporated into the great American songbook.
1976: “Convoy” by C.W. McCall
The most successful novelty song in country music history had Americans clamoring for CB radios and glamorizing truck drivers’ lives on the road.
1977: “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” by Waylon Jennings with Willie Nelson
The good times continued in ’77 for country music rebels, even if Waylon Jennings began yearning in song for simpler times.
1978: “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings
This counter to the press’ glamorization of outlaw living remains an enduring hit from one of country music’s dynamic duos.
1979: “I Just Fall in Love Again” by Anne Murray
A past Carpenters and Dusty Springfield hit went country as pop-oriented hits began overtaking the outlaw rebellion.
1980: “My Heart” by Ronnie Milsap
The rise of cosmopolitan, pop-oriented county music catapulted Ronnie Milsap back to the top of the charts. He revisited that plateau quite a few times in the years to come.
1981: “Fire and Smoke” by Earl Thomas Conley
With a new decade came new levels of success for young country stars. “Fire and Smoke” was the first in a long string of chart-toppers for Conley.
1982: “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson
Who other than Willie Nelson ever heightened the cultural profile of an Elvis song? Nelson’s version has been so great for so long that the feat somehow seems normal.
1983: “Jose Cuervo” by Shelly West
Dottie West’s daughter flew solo apart from duet partner David Frizzell, providing free advertising for her liquor of choice for what became 1983’s defining hit.
1984: “To All the Girls I Loved Before” by Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias
By the mid-‘80s, Willie Nelson’s global stardom made him a suitable duet partner for just about anyone, as proven by this pop-crossover event.
1985: “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” by Ronnie Milsap
One of the voices of ‘80s country waxed nostalgic on his final song of the year. Milsap knew a thing or two about old time rock ‘n’ roll from his own time in Memphis,.
1986: “Never Be You” by Roseanne Cash
Country and rock crossed paths when Johnny Cash’s daughter topped the charts with this Tom Petty co-write. Despite these ties to the past, it played a role in the younger Cash earning her own reputation as an interpreter of songs.
1987: “Give Me Wings” by Michael Johnson
With all due respect to Michael Johnson, this choice seems peculiar 30 years later. Johnson’s “Bluer than Blue” was more impactful nine years earlier. Besides, it’s Randy Travis’ “Forever and Ever, Amen” that owned the charts in ’87.
1988: “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Keith Whitley
The late, great Keith Whitley’s chase of mainstream stardom paid off with this career-defining hit. Whitley passed away the following year, cutting short a promising career.
1989: “A Better Man” by Clint Black
Time somehow forgot that Clint Black reached the same level of old-school cool as Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and the like. For a time, he stood tall alongside country’s biggest stars due to such traditionally-minded hits as “A Better Man.”
1990: “Nobody’s Home” by Clint Black
In the year Garth broke, Black remained at the top of the Billboard heap. Black’s celebrity back then even had him co-headlining the Super Bowl halftime show a few years later.
1991: “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” by Alan Jackson
Although the ‘90s ushered in modern pop-country, those early years stand up well as a period of traditionally-minded country hits. This climate propelled Alan Jackson to a string of singles that earned him a Hall of Fame spot.
1992: “I Saw the Light” by Wynonna
Wynonna’s hit about catching a cheater in the act stands as a reminder that ‘90s country music aged gracefully in part because of the number of talented women on the charts and the airwaves.
1993: “Chattahoochee” by Alan Jackson
Alan shared his lighter side with the lake party anthem that served as a precursor to today’s carefree pop-country.
1994: “I Swear” by John Michael Montgomery
John Michael Montgomery simultaneously brought tender love ballads back to the top of the charts while inching country closer to pop acceptance.
1995: “Sold (The Grundy Country Auction Incident)” by John Michael Montgomery
Montgomery traded tears for laughter, broadening his audience with this light-hearted song and its charming music video. It took a trip to the small-town cattle auction in an unexpected direction.
1996: “My Maria” by Brooks & Dunn
Hit-making duo Brooks & Dunn brought even more ears to an old B.W. Stephenson country-rock song about a visit to a benevolent gypsy. The cover song netted Brooks & Dunn a Grammy.
1997: “It’s Your Love” by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
A Nashville power couple both then and now, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s real-life love and natural talents made this hit sound second-nature.
1998: “Just to See You Smile” by Tim McGraw
A 20-plus year run of hits was solidified by one of Tim McGraw’s twangiest and catchiest songs. It’s the sort of broadly appealing pop song that could’ve easily been a Glen Campbell hit 30 years earlier.
1999: “Amazed” by Lonestar
Just as many decade-closing hits predicted the near future, Lonestar’s “Amazed” pointed to an even more pop-accessible approach to mainstream country. They laid the blueprint for the successful pop singers who’d soon push country music into the 21st century.
2000: “How Do You Like Me Now?!” by Toby Keith
This bombastic tale of broken hearts and revenge suits the pent-up emotions of a lot of shunned ex-boyfriends faced with a high school reunion.
2001: “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” by Brooks & Dunn
Ronnie Dunn showed off his range as a vocalist on this sultry pop song that strayed from Brooks & Dunn’s usual honky tonk formula.
2002: “The Good Stuff” by Kenny Chesney
Kenny Chesney’s most decorated song to this point of his career departed from his party hearty, beach bumming image. Instead, Chesney added a touch of tenderness to his biggest hit of the early aughts.
2003: “My Front Porch Looking In” by Lonestar
Lonestar’s second year-defining hit tells a straightforward story about valuing loved ones over earthly possessions and even nature’s most beautiful sights.
2004: “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw
For his most heart-wrenching hit, Tim McGraw sang of living life to its fullest, with illusions to the multitudes of men and women diagnosed with cancer.
2005: “That’s What I Love About Sunday” by Craig Morgan
Few artists in recent memory captured what’s special about Sunday mornings at an old country church as accurately as Craig Morgan with this gorgeous celebration of some people’s only day off.
2006: “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows)” by Rodney Atkins
Rodney Atkins became the next new thing with his second album, featuring this memorable title track inspired by a Winston Churchill quote and an old Irish toast.
2007: “I’m Watching You” by Rodney Atkins
The second consecutive year-defining hit from Atkins’ If You’re Going Through Hell album tells of a young son who emulates his dad in less than ideal ways.
2008: “Just Got Started Loving You” by James Otto
James Otto’s breakout hit follows the rocking, honky tonkin’ country song mold, but sometimes the most memorable song over a twelve-month stretch doesn’t have to cover new ground.
2009: “I Run to You” by Lady Antebellum
A new generation of vocal groups gained further legitimacy when this single from Lady Antebellum’s debut album dominated the charts and won CMA and Grammy awards.
2010: “Love Like Crazy” by Lee Brice
Break out some tissues whenever encountering this heart-warming tale of an older man who defied the critics by successfully making a young marriage work and entering the computer early in that game.
2011: “Crazy Girl” by the Eli Young Band
Despite its title, this song celebrates not allowing a partner’s quirks and insecurities end an otherwise happy relationship. Lee Brice co-wrote the song, giving him a hand in consecutive year-defining hits.
2012: “Time is Love” by Josh Turner
Before “bro-country” completely took over the Billboard charts, the baritone vocals and mandolin-driven instrumentation on this Josh Turner hit celebrated the old school.
2013: “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line
Love them or loathe them, Florida Georgia Line redefined what it means to have a massive hit single with “Cruise.” It launched an ongoing success story for the duo, as recording artists and a touring act.
2014: “This is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line with Luke Bryan
Florida Georgia Line’s polarizing music got a big stamp of approval by the modern Nashville establishment when they cut this massive hit with help from Tyler Hubbard’s fellow Georgia “bro,” Luke Bryan.
2015: “Take Your Time” by Sam Hunt
Sam Hunt’s blend of country, soul and rap shook up the charts with “Take Your Time,” two years before monster hit “Body Like a Back Road” rewrote the record books.
2016: “H.O.L.Y.” by Florida Georgia Line
Florida Georgia Line’s third song of the year in a four year stretch owes more to pop-country harmonies and religious imagery than second-rate hip-hop.
2017: “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt
Based on sales and chart performance, no song even came close this year to Hunt’s record-breaking single. It’s so undeniably catchy that staunch “bro country” haters probably stop themselves from humming along every now and then.
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