The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All”
The opening piano sounds like a kick-off to an old-time tent revival; the storyline is worthy enough to be told from the altar. A rich man rewrites his will as he nears death, giving most of the money to his hard-working working-class neighbor instead of his ungrateful children.
Peak: did not chart
Gary Allan had the good taste to cover this fantastic single from Snider’s debut album. Todd can’t figure out why his feminist friend, his old man and the cop that pulled him over don’t get that for all his faults, he’s an alright guy. Hilarious.
“Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”
Big & Rich
Brazen, ballsy and deliriously over the top, this was like an ice bucket of cold water on the sleepy sounds of mainstream country music. Forget Gretchen Wilson, their Muzik Mafia comrade – it’s Big & Rich, with their fearless collision of musical styles and relentless confidence, that are most likely to permanently reshape the genre in the near future.
“Shut Up and Kiss Me”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The lead single from her landmark Stones In The Road album is all snare drum and slide guitar, with seductive whispers from a tongue firmly in cheek. The apprehension of a jaded woman slowly giving in to love again, turning off her head and following her heart, is as romantic you can ever hope a cynic will get. That Brooks & Dunn got away with desecrating the hook with their carbon-copy piece of trash “Play Something Country” is sinful.
They had their share of huge hits from the diamond-selling Fly album, but this quiet little single released late in the lifespan of the project was one of the album’s best. It tells the story of a man following a woman’s ambition, baby in tow, to what they hope will be a dream town. But they find themselves surrounded by bitter and jaded people who only stand aside to see how far you’re going to go. Are they singing about Nashville? Probably, but the sentiment of being surrounded by “square people in a world that’s round” is fairly universal.
Their only real hit, this is an appropriately family-friendly story song for this trio of father, daughter and son. Mother gives her daughter on a voyage away from home “a penny for your thoughts, a quarter for the call”, hence the title.
“Down At The Twist & Shout”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
A fun and spirited Cajun romp, with enough French thrown in to make Toby Keith call her a commie.
“Smoke Rings In The Dark”
Rich and atmospheric, a casual listener might mistake this for Chris Isaak at first listen, but Isaak has nothing on Allan as a vocalist. One of the best male vocalists of his generation finally found his own sound on his third album, with this single and title track leading the way. A fantastic showcase for a gifted man.
“Somewhere In My Broken Heart”
A testament of love from a man unselfish enough to let the women he loves go and find her dreams. His voice aches with the pain of her leaving, but he invites no pity.
“Nothin’ But The Wheel”
“And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel; and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me anymore, then I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel.” The hurt in her voice is so apparent, but the reslience underneath it undeniable, that you almost feel like you’re in the car with her.
It’s easy to overstate the importance of this song; it’s one of those that his risen to legendary status in country music history. You can cry at the video montage of MLK and JFK, or play it at the funeral of someone who died too young, but this really is a sweet and simple “love gone bad” song, one of the best of those types of songs in recent years. The message that if you want to avoid losing love that means you’ll have to live without it is poignant enough without all the added pomp and circumstance.
“Drive (For Daddy Gene)”
Alan Jackson’s father had more influence and impact on him than anybody else in his life. Rather than write a sappy tribute to how empty life is with him gone, Jackson honored his father’s memory with a celebratory joy, capturing the love between the two in snippets of learning how to drive a boat and truck from his father in childhood. Tying it all up with the hope that his own daughters will look back on him the same way once he’s gone? A master stroke.
“Thanks To You”
I’ve never been a big fan of Contemporary Christian music. It’s all joy and praise, no struggle and torment. This dark gospel number from Emmylou Harris is my type of Christian music, full of love for God while struggling to live up to His standards. Her image of finally meeting her Maker is glorious: “One day up in Glory, I’ll weep and tell the story to someone who will smile and say, ‘You’re a mess, but you’re my child.’”
A woman forces her man to choose between her and his whiskey. He picks the whiskey. She leaves, and he’s lost without her. The shock of her gone is enough to push him into sobriety, but it’s too late. “The things that will haunt him till the day that he dies, is the smell of cheap whiskey and the sound of goodbye.” Stone-cold country worthy of Jones.
“Where I Belong”
Achingly beautiful. Over an acoustic guitar and tasteful strings, Proctor confesses how she’s felt lost, wondering if she was broken because she’d never found a place where she belongs. As she slowly reveals that she has found that place, you feel the warmth and comfort she sings about.
A tender appeal for respecting the generation gap, Randy Owen sings about the traditional setup of his parents – “He rattles his glass, she jumps up fast, and pours him a glass of tea; deep in her heart she believes that’s the way it should be,” and notes that even if that’s not the way we do it today, for them, it works. He quietly hopes that there will come a day where his own children will look at his marriage as quaint and outdated, but also appreciate that it works.
Brooks and his wife run into his old high school flame at a football game, and he reminisces about how he’d prayed to God that she would be his. He stops, and thinks, and says: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” A mature and thoughtful observation that sometimes what we want the most is not what we need, and there’s a higher power that knows that.
Two jaded lovers meet and compare battle scars. The pace is slow, Strait’s singing weary, but with just enough hope that maybe the next chance at love will be the one that they’ve been waiting on. A nearly forgotten gem from the extensive George Strait hit parade.
“Before You Kill Us All”
Randy’s got a problem. Since his woman left, the goldfish are floating at the top of the bowl, the dog won’t eat, the plants are dying and the cat’s down to three more lives. “I know I had it coming and it’s all my fault, but baby come back before you kill us all.” Who knew Travis could be so damn funny?
“If My Heart Had Wings”
A burst of fresh air and raucous energy, Hill never sounded more determined and aggressive then on this adrenaline rush of a hit. The throbbing intensity and fierceness of her performance are irresistable.
“I Meant To Do That”
Brandt realizes after the fact that he never did all that he needed to do for his woman, who has moved on. He looks back and lists all the things he meant to do, from love letters to kind words. This elevates above your standard ode of devotion on the strength of Brandt’s painfully heartbroken vocal performance, and sharp lines like “I’d give you the world, if you’d give mine back.”
“Ships That Don’t Come In”
Two world-weary travellers at the end of the line compare their hardships over a few beers at a presumably run-down tavern. Before the self-pity overwhelms them, one reminds the other that they’ve had chances, at least – there’s some who never have. And then they drink a toast to soldiers who have died in vain, the homeless down on Main, and “those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.”
“Sick and Tired”
Cross Canadian Ragweed
“Memories are overrated – all they do is get you damn frustrated, and who needs that on your back?” The Ragweeed boys are the voice of reason, talking to somebody who has stayed too long in a bad situation. They give voice to all those bad thoughts inside, and create a way out of the pain with frank talk and clear reason.
Rare is the country song where the woman who doesn’t want her man to leave is the bad guy. She loves him so much, and knows he doesn’t love her anymore, but she guilts him into staying: “So I say I need you, and leave you no choice – you don’t want to hurt me, so you lie.” There’s such desperation in her voice it’s hard to fault her for the game she plays, but she makes it clear that it’s the man who deserves the sympathy.
“Mine All Mine”
These girls are always clever, but have rarely used their word twists on a heartbreak number. Here they do, and it works wonders: “Sun kisses the window sill, and I am still on my second cup of ‘pity-me’.” Easily the best single of their career, the vocalist realizes she’s screwed up big time, and doesn’t see a way to make amends. “It’s my bad, my broken, all my should-haves left unspoken, mine all mine all mine.” Love it.