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Staff Picks: The Best Country Songs of 2016

Wide Open Country‘s music writers share their favorite country and Americana from this year.

Humble and Kind,  “Lori McKenna”

It’s not a typo. Tim McGraw may have racked up the praise and awards with his rendition of “Humble and Kind,” but there’s nothing like the version performed by its sole writer, Lori McKenna. Released in July 2016 (McGraw released his version in January), McKenna’s version feels like the motherly hug it was intended to be. She wrote the song as a “lullaby” of sorts, with lyrics comprised of all the life lessons she wanted to tell her five children. Thanks to McGraw, she reached quite a few more kids than just her own. Talk about good parenting. And here’s the craziest part: it may not even be the best song on her phenomenal record, The Bird and the Rifle. — Jeremy Burchard


“Vampires,” Cody Jinks

It’s hard to pick just one song off I’m Not The Devil for this list, but “Vampires” really shines up against any other tune from the year. Also written with kids in mind, the tune asks the important question of why we let others suck the joy and imagination out of life. Or as he says, who told the vampires they were welcome? It comes late in the album, but it’s an important moment in an otherwise heavy body of work. He says he and his wife want their kids to believe the world “doesn’t suck” for as long as possible. He wrote a phenomenal song in doing so. — Jeremy Burchard


“Hands of Time,” Margo Price

It’s hard to find another song from this year that’s as purely country as Margo Price’s “Hands of Time.” It’s a literal retelling of her life, from her childhood through her struggles to make it as an artist, to the devastating heartbreak of losing her son. There’s no ego, no pretending. Just pure emotion and hope that things can be made just a little bit better. If this song doesn’t feel like a swift punch in the gut with each listen, you may want to check your pulse. — Lorie Liebig


“21 Summer,” Brothers Osborne

It’s always hard to follow-up a massive hit with another, but Brothers Osborne managed to do just that this year. After breaking records with their single “Stay a Little Longer,” TJ and John once again climbed to the top of the charts with “21 Summer.” The nostalgic song immediately takes the listener back to the bittersweet magic of falling in love for the first time. The brothers’ ability to mix classic country storytelling with modern style and a bit of rock and roll flare will likely keep them on this list for years to come. — Lorie Liebig


“Vice,” Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert fans were on pins and needles waiting for a taste of her first new album since splitting with Blake Shelton. Heartbreak is, after all, one of the best muses around for a songwriter. Instead of a cliche-filled revenge song, Lambert laid it all out on the table with “Vice.” It’s surprisingly honest lyrics channel the outlaw lifestyle that society never seems as accepting of if you’re a female. Of course, what society says has never mattered much to Miranda Lambert, and we are all the more better for it. — Lorie Liebig


“Unlove You,” Jennifer Nettles

Ugh. Never mind Jennifer Nettles is one of country music’s most gifted voices ever. This song will pull out your beating heart and show it to you, no matter who sings it. But her immaculate delivery, soaked in what has to be her own life experience, nails this tune down as one of the best. And the fact that Nettles co-wrote it with bona fide master Brandy Clark certainly doesn’t hurt. In another time, this song would be a No. 1 tune on country radio, probably for several weeks straight. But we’ll have to settle for it just being a timelessly great song. — Jeremy Burchard


“My Church,” Maren Morris

In a matter of months, Maren Morris evolved from a hard-working Nashville singer-songwriter to one of country music’s biggest new stars. “My Church” was the song that helped make all of that happen in record time, thanks to its massive amount of online streams and satellite radio spins. The sudden success of the anthemic tune helped her nab a record deal with Sony Nashville, which resulted in her hit debut record Hero. If this song doesn’t make you want to roll the windows down and turn up the dial, I don’t know what will.  — Lorie Liebig


“Ain’t Who I Was,” Bonnie Bishop

For nearly 14 years, Bonnie Bishop plied the road as a country singer. Frustrated with years of dead ends, she left it all behind. Then she synced up with producer Dave Cobb, Nashville’s man-with-the-Midas touch, and something remarkable happened. Instead of going for a straight-ahead country record, Cobb summoned the powerful soul singer that was living in her all along. The result is Ain’t Who I Was, a phenomenal album of country-soul music. The title track on the album is the standout, as it shows Bishop’s powerful vocal talent and tells a brief story of her transformation. — Matt Alpert


“Heaven Sent,” Parker Milsap

Parker Milsap’s “Heaven Sent” explores what life would be like as a young homosexual man living under the judgment of his preacher father. Milsap is not a gay man himself, but he did grow up going to a Pentecostal church. With those experiences, his remarkable narrative abilities and powerful voice, Milsap makes you feel the internal struggles of a man rejected by his pastor father for falling in love with another man. The refrain delivers the biggest emotional punch: “Papa I don’t need a preacher/I ain’t some kinda creature in some old double feature/I just wanna make you proud with kind of love I’ve found/But you say it ain’t allowed, you say that it’s a sin/But did you love me when, he was just my friend?” Matt Alpert


“Head Over Boots,” Jon Pardi

Jon Pardi was one of 2016’s breakout artists, and “Head Over Boots” was the song that sent him up the elevator. Plain and simple, this song just makes you feel good, and it’s consistently enjoyable with every listen. Attend one of Pardi’s shows, and you’ll see how this song gets a massive audience reaction. You can two-step to it, you can sing to it, you can drink to it. Keep an eye on Pardi in 2017; he is poised to become one of the format’s leading male singers. — Matt Alpert


“Sea Stories,” Sturgill Simpson


Of all the songs on Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, “Sea Songs” sounds the most like straight-ahead country. Here, Simpson takes gives us a panorama of his Navy career, from Pollywog to Shellback. We get glimpses of boredom, excitement and despair. “Sea Stories” is chock full of killer lines, my personal favorite being “get high and play a little Golden Eye on that ol’ 64.” All you 30-somethings out there know exactly what that means, and you should smile that it made its way into a country song. — Matt Alpert


“Solving Problems,” Brent Cobb

With Shine On Rainy Day, Brent Cobb released one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the year. Cobb has a knack for transporting his listeners to sentimental memories of everyday life in the rural South. The album’s opening track, “Solving Problems,” takes us through a front-porch conversation with his friend on a Sunday afternoon. They’re not talking about anything profound; it’s just two good old boys shooting the bull. But it makes you feel like you’re right there with them in a rocker, smoking a cigarette, laughing and drinking a beer. Ultimately, it sounds exactly like a warm Sunday afternoon conversation would. — Matt Alpert


“I Met a Girl,” William Michael Morgan

Hat Country went out of style for a while, but it’s definitely coming back, and William Michael Morgan is one of the young artists leading the way. His No. 1 single, “I Met A Girl,” was one of the most distinctly country-sounding records on the radio this year. Ironically, one of the co-writers was Sam Hunt, the dartboard for anti-pop country critics (Hunt’s demo version is quite different). William Michael Morgan has the cool, calm country style that brings this song to life. — Matt Alpert

Wide Open Country’s Best Country Songs of 2016 Playlist

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Staff Picks: The Best Country Songs of 2016