In 2021, country and Americana artists delivered songs of reflection, hope, humor, heartache and love, from Valerie June's fearless call for dreamers to Carly Pearce, Dillon Carmichael and Chapel Hart's nods to country legends and influences.
These are our picks for the 20 best country songs of the year.
"Wilder Days," Morgan Wade
One of the most stunning debuts of 2021, Morgan Wade's "Wilder Days" chronicles a romance between two souls at very different places in their lives. Wade's gritty, pleading vocals and candid lyricism are a pitch-perfect introduction to one of the most talented singer-songwriters to make a mark in 2021.
"Wilder Days" is featured on Wade's debut album Reckless, produced by Sadler Vaden and Paul Ebersold.
-- Bobbie Jean Sawyer
"Dear Miss Loretta," Carly Pearce feat. Patty Loveless
It's not unusual for country artists to namedrop music legends in their own work. From Waylon Jennings' "Bob Wills is Still the King" to George Jones' "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," paying homage to those who paved the way for you is practically a country tradition.
Carly Pearce goes a step further in "Dear Miss Loretta," penning a musical love letter to her idol Loretta Lynn. Pearce enlists another Bluegrass State legend, Patty Loveless, for a powerful ode to the Coal Miner's Daughter that reminds us all that the struggles Lynn shared in her songs will continue to resonate for generations.
"Call Me a Fool," Valerie June
Valerie June's "Call Me a Fool," featuring Queen of Memphis Soul Carla Thomas, sounds simply timeless. The song is an anthem for putting your heart on the line to seek out a dream.
"Call Me a Fool" is featured on June's The Moon and the Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, the follow-up to her 2017 album The Order of Time.
"In His Arms," Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall and Jack Ingram
Miranda Lambert reconnected with her Texas roots for The Marfa Tapes, a collaboration with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall recorded entirely outside on a ranch in West Texas. Album highlight "In His Arms" finds Lambert longing for an unknown fella who could be playing in a house band in Dallas or breaking horses in San Antone. The sweet song is another reminder that Lambert is as captivating with a stripped down ballad as she is with a high octane country-rocker.
"You Can Have Him Jolene," Chapel Hart
Dolly Parton's "Jolene" has been fascinating artists for decades now. The enduring song is one of the most gripping stories of jealousy ever recorded. Chapel Hart (Danica Hart, Trea Swindle and Devynn Hart) put a new spin on the classic with "You Can Have Him Jolene," a song for all those who have no time for a partner who's torn between two lovers.
"Where the Neon Lies," Triston Marez feat. Ronnie Dunn
If you miss tear-soaked country ballads about lost love, look no further than Triston Marez's "Where the Neon Lies," a pedal steel driven modern classic. The song, featuring country legend Ronnie Dunn, is featured on Marez's self-titled debut album.
"French Summer Sun," Jason Eady
Jason Eady's stunning "French Summer Sun" is a poignant look at the impact war has on generations.
"The idea of the song came from visiting Anzio Beach in Italy, where my grandfather fought during World War II," Eady said in a press release. "While I was there I thought a lot about how it's not just one life that's lost in battle, but all of the future lives and generations. I wanted something that visually worked with the song, but didn't distract the listener."
"French Summer Sun" is featured on Eady's 2021 album To the Passage of Time.
"You're Gonna Love Me," Hannah Dasher
It's not every day that you hear a country song that praises Clint Eastwood and Sam Elliott (oh, and Alan Jackson's '90s hair). But beyond the references to Dirty Harry, a golden-voiced legend and "Chattahoochee"-era Jackson, Hannah Dasher's "You're Gonna Love Me" is a statement that the rising country star is a true original who knows exactly who she is and where she's going.
"It Was Me," Lauren Alaina
Lauren Alaina's "It Was Me" lacks the commercial appeal of "If the World Was a Small Town" and the star power of Trisha Yearwood duet "Getting Good," making the opening track on Sitting Pretty on Top of the World an unlikely year-end pick from one of 2021's best albums. Yet the Alaina and Hillary Lindsey co-write belongs here because few heart-spilling confessionals sung this year by Nashville stars or Americana outsiders match the palpable sorrow and regret in Alaina's voice.
-- Bobby Moore
"Hose Water," Dillon Carmichael
Dillon Carmichael flies his '90s country fan flag by following the leads of two influences with discographies filled with both smile-inducing honky-tonk stompers and heart-warming stories about simpler times: his uncle John Michael Montgomery and his dog Diffie's namesake, Joe Diffie. Carmichael's new album Son of A mixes smile-inducers ("Big Truck") with heart-warmers like this homage to halcyon days back home in Kentucky.
"Radio Silence," Natalie Hemby
Good songwriters tell compelling stories overflowing with human empathy. Great songwriters build worlds through sonic and lyrical choices that make made-up genre lines irrelevant.
Natalie Hemby's "Radio Silence" exemplifies such greatness. The lyrical brilliance that's made Hemby a go-to songwriter for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves and a member of The Highwomen shines here, but that's not the only element setting this song apart. Instrumental accompaniment from the crossroads of chill country hits and ambient indie rock stunners guides along this gripping story about a fading relationship.
"I Was on a Boat That Day," Old Dominion
There's always been room in country music for silly songs and sarcastic stories, from the comedic classics of Little Jimmy Dickens and Roger Miller to the humor that flavored the '90s output of Reba McEntire and Joe Diffie. Old Dominion became carriers of this torch with one of the young decade's most clever and unforgettable radio hits, "I Was on a Boat That Day."
It's the product of sessions that began with no set plan and ended with the group's fourth album, Time, Tequila & Therapy.
"Villain," Lily Rose
Few acts, from mainstream stars to rising artists, told better stories in 2021 than singer-songwriter Lily Rose.
"Villain" exemplifies Rose's songteller virtuosity while reminding listeners that they don't need the last word when disengaging from a bad situation.
It's relatable even if you've had decent luck in the romance department. Most everyone has someone, be it a relative or former friend, that'll spring to mind as you get lost in Rose's soulful, brooding delivery.
"Things a Man Oughta Know," Lainey Wilson
Lainey Wilson's first country airplay No. 1 champions more than knowing how to change a flat tire by yourself if you haven't found a partner suiting society's expectations.
Beyond dismissing dated gender norms, Wilson and co-writers Jason Nix and Jonathan Singleton remind us to be decent to each other.
"It's about having a good character," Wilson told CMT's Cody Alan. "It's about treating people the way you want to be treated."
"Same Boat," Zac Brown Band
Zac Brown Band (ZBB) preaches empathy and the unifying power of music with more than the title track of The Comeback. Musically, "Same Boat" adds a whistle-along blast of positivity to one of the best live shows in all of popular music. Lyrically, ZBB reminds listeners in its own whimsical way that we are not so different from each other in the grand scheme of things.
"Chasing After You," Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd
"Chasing After You" has been in listeners' heads for months -- and for a good reason. Written by Jerry Flowers and Brinley Addington, the song features vocals from country superstars Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd. The single, featued on Hurd's debut album Pelago, is the couple's first duet. Though they didn't write the song, the lyrics reflect their personal love story.
"It really reminds Ryan and I of the beginning of our relationship," Morris told Billboard. "It wasn't the easiest road for us to come together. We were in separate relationships when we met. We kind of grew a love out of a friendship over many years before we were out of those other relationships and could finally be together after some time. I think it reminds us of falling in love with each other and not being able to really act on it yet."
Though the ballad is Hurd's first No 1. as a country artist, he's made a name for himself writing for several big country names, including Luke Bryan, Lady A, Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw. This is Morris' latest No 1. single, following her triple platinum and Grammy-nominated song, "The Bones."
-- Silke Jasso
"Buy Dirt," Jordan Davis Feat. Luke Bryan
"Buy Dirt" was officially released on July 19, 2021, from Davis' second EP. The song was co-written by Davis, his brother Jacob, Matt Jankins and Josh Jenkins.
"'Buy Dirt' is a song that came to me a couple of months into the pandemic," Davis stated."We couldn't tour, music, everything was at a standstill. I came to the realization of man, all you need is your faith, your family and your friends. And music's great and I love it and I'm happy I get to do it, but at the end of the day those are three things that I need to always keep at the top of my list, and 'Buy Dirt' is my kind of pledge to that."
Paired with beautiful guitar strings and lyrics, the song features perfectly matched vocals from Luke Bryan. The single is one of the country singers' fastest-growing songs, after spending 11 consecutive weeks in the Top 200 Country Streaming Chart. The single follows Davis' "Almost Maybes," along with his three consecutive multi-platinum No. 1 singles, "Take It From Me," "Singles You Up" and "Slow Dance In a Parking Lot."
"Just About Over You," Priscilla Block
"Just About Over You" is quickly becoming Block's greatest hit. The singer first went viral on TikTok summer of 2020 and released the song after fans begged her to complete it. The song, written by Block, Sarah Jones and Emily Kroll, has garnered over three million views and earned Block over 300,000 followers. It's safe to say the fans were the ones who pushed the song up the charts.
The single, which helped Block land a record deal with UMG Nashville, now appears on her self-titled 2021 EP.
The singer stated that the storyline of the song's music video was actually a real-life scenario that occurred between her and her ex-boyfriend at a bar in Nashville.
"It's the whole idea when you think you're over someone and you get to that point of 'alright, I think I'm good,'" Block told Country Now. "And then, BAM!!! A train hits you and you're like, 'I thought I was good, but I'm not...I hope people crank up the radio and scream out at their ex like, 'why'd you have to do that - I was good until you messed it up!'"
"Breadwinner," Kacey Musgraves
"Breadwinner" appears on Musgraves' album star-crossed, the follow-up to her 2018 Grammy-winning album Golden Hour. Written by Musgraves, BJ Burton, Ian Fitchuk and Ilsey Jubber, the song features powerful lyrics such as "He wants a breadwinner / He wants your dinner / Until he ain't hungry anymore. He wants your shimmer / To make him feel bigger / Until he starts feeling insecure."
"Breadwinner" showcases just how much of a powerhouse Musgraves is vocally and lyrically. The album defiantly reflects on pain while also delivering a healthy dose of power and self-love. It's a reminder of how music can truly heal a heartache.
"Truth About You," Mitchell Tenpenny
Mitchell Tenpenny is the true definition of a country artist hungry to make his voice known. Written by Tenpenny, Thoms Archer and Matt Adlerman, "Truth About You" became the singer's largest streaming debut, garnering over 2.5 million streams in the first three days of its release. The demand from fans after listening to the song on TikTok resulted in the song being sent to several country radio stations.
"I have the best and most reactive fans," the singer noted in a press release. "Their instantaneous feedback is invaluable to me as an artist. There is nothing more gratifying than making music for them."
"Truth About You" follows Tenpenny's first top ten hit on the Billboard Country Airplay song, "Drunk Me," which is 2X Platinum certified and has amassed over 500 million on-demand streams.
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