The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“Only Here For A Little While”
Dean’s debut single is a moving appeal for valuing the time that we have, as it will be over before we know it. His simplistic new life plan, inspired by the untimely death of a young friend, will have him “hold who needs holdin’, mend what needs mendin’, walk what needs walkin’ though it means an extra mile.”
“Some Girls Do”
Somewhere between winning Star Search and ditching leopard-skin pants, the boys of Sawyer Brown became small-town philosophers. This winning romp seems light on the surface, but is a bold and clear declaration that everyone is worthy of love and capable of finding it.
“In The Heart Of A Woman”
Billy Ray Cyrus
It’s always been easy to make fun of Billy Ray Cyrus. Even after he finally snipped the infamous mullet, his next big career move was to play a country doctor on the Pax network. He’ll be remembered, and not too fondly, for “Achy Breaky Heart”, but this lead-off single from his sophomore set was catchy, clever and sincere, mullet and all.
“Lucky 4 U (Tonight I’m Just Me)”
As odd as it is witty, this SHeDaisy single is”Friends In Low Places” from a woman’s point of view – a woman who just happens to have multiple personalities. The setup is ludicrous – a man actually asks his ex at a party how all of those personalities have been doing since he “broke our hearts” – but the payoff is quite amusing (“#5 just cries a river a minute, 7 wants to tie you up and drown you in it…”)
“What About The Love We Made”
The most heartbreaking divorce single to hit country radio since Tammy Wynette’s classic “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” more than twenty years before it. The wife and husband are splitting up the household items, but don’t know what to do about their daughter, who is upstairs crying in her room. (“We’ve told her at least a thousand times we love her, and no matter what happens that won’t change/But who can blame her if she won’t believe us? Aren’t we the same ones who told her she’d never see this day?”) Lynne’s incomparable voice communicates all the conflicting emotions of guilt, anger and resignation.
“Why Walk When You Can Fly”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
A stirring call to live a life of greater ambition and spirituality. The fiddle-laden track is among the most “country” things Chapin ever recorded.
“It Matters To Me”
A woman topping the charts for three weeks with a ballad? It was almost unheard of in the early boom years, where redneck anthems by cowboys were all the rage. This powerful appeal for greater communication found a way, and gave Hill her first signature song; in fact, the melody is suspiciously similar to “Breathe”, her mega-hit a few years later.
“Next To You, Next To Me”
Shenandoah were about as average a country band as ever came along. This cute little love song is priceless for it’s line about “barbecue chicken and a TV Guide.”
“Nothin’ But The Taillights”
I laughed out loud when I heard this the first time. Mr. Black gets into a fight with his lady, and she ditches him on the side of the road. As he starts the walk home, he plots his revenge. Great stuff.
“Now That’s All Right With Me”
Barnett was supposed to be the second coming of Patsy Cline; she even played the legend in a musical based on her life. Just when this was going to radio, the yodels of 13 year-old LeAnn Rimes singing “Blue” stole all of her thunder. A shame, really; Barnett had the chops, and she wrapped her silky voice around this song and made it her own.
“She’s In Love With The Boy”
Perhaps it’s heresy for this to be the lowest-ranking Yearwood single on this list, but let’s be honest: it’s a charming love story, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in her catalog. Everybody loves the small-town romance of Katie and Tommy, and this is a modern country standard; for anybody else, it would be a career highlight. For Trisha Yearwood, it’s just a damn good start.
“Raining On Sunday”
Like Rodney Crowell before him, many country hit-makers have realized that they can raid Radney Foster albums and find them some hits. Urban makes this Foster track his own, conveying all the frustration of a long work week that can make you long for a rainy Sunday in bed with your woman.
“Only The Wind”
Speaking of storms, Dean compares the rattling wind that scared him as a child to the stormy weather he’s facing in his current relationship. Dean’s early work was fantastic, and this is another great example of his ability to write distinctively.
14 years after “She’s In Love With The Boy”, Yearwood sent another song about teenagers in love to radio; but this time, they weren’t hanging out in front of the Tasty Freeze. Rather, they were getting their groove on in the front seat of a pickup truck as the storm raged around them. Who else could make a sordid sex romp sound so classy?
“Don’t Take The Girl”
Before Tim McGraw learned subtlety, there was the irresistably maudlin “Don’t Take The Girl”, which launched him to superstardom. A song that starts with a fishing trip will find a woman near death during childbirth, with a robbery thrown in the way for good measure. McGraw milks it for all its worth; even the most cynical will probably tear up a bit on the first listen.
“I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”
Cash turns a Beatles pop hit into a country shuffle, putting more down-home sounds into this rock cover than she ever did in her own original material. This was the last of her eleven (!) #1 hits at country radio; if this list covered the rest of the 80’s, she’d be all over it.
“My Strongest Weakness”
Wynonna’s voice is an instrument of wonder; her stark vulnerability on this record is chilling. Anything that starts with “The keeper of the gates of wisdom, please let me in…” is not going to be uplifting.
Nobody could ever be better at making the other woman sympathetic than Tanya Tucker. Your heart will break for the homewrecker here.
“There Is No Arizona”
The debut single of Jamie O’Neal was so different and fresh that it sounded like nothing else on the radio; there were whispers of the second coming of Bobbie Gentry when this hit was released. It’s still haunting and mysterious today.
Jo Dee Messina
Yes, it’s a blatant rewrite of “I Will Always Love You”, but that just makes its success that much more impressive. Messina is usually strongest at kiss-off rockers, but she sounds wonderfully sincere and honest here.
“Boom! It Was Over”
Robert Ellis Orrall
The title could refer to his career, as this was his only visit to the top twenty. But I just loved this when it came out – I was only in eighth grade then – and it brings back good memories of discovering country music.
“99.9% Sure (I’ve Never Been Here Before)”
I strongly believe that any song is improved by a few “na na na’s”. Seriously. This song wouldn’t be on the list if McComas didn’t add that “99 point, 99 point, na na na na na….” breakdown in the bridge. It hooks me every time. Na na na.
“My Heart Has A History”
Brand’t deep-throated voice was a welcome respite from all the pansies running around in cowboy hats in the mid-90’s. He’s still a huge star in Canada, but his debut album was the only thing that got attention state-side. This debut single was impossible to deny.
“Love’s The Only House”
A smorgasbord of social commentary, done in a rambling style that is intriguing, if a little bewildering at first listen. I laughed when I heard it in college, but that was in the Clinton boom years; with poverty back in the forefront, it just feels more meaningful and truthful now.
“Mendocino County Line”
Willie Nelson & Lee Ann Womack
Two great vocalists meet up for a ballad that could only be done by Texans. Surprisingly pop in production, this duet is wistfully romantic and more than a little bittersweet.