The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“Wrong Side of Memphis”
Yearwood kicked it into a higher gear with this lead single from her second album, the critically-lauded Hearts In Armor. A classic tale of leaving home for the bright lights of Nashville, the vivid imagery of the lyrics (“I’ve had this dream from a tender age, calling my name from the Opry stage”) and her full-bodied delivery help make this one of the best singles of her career.
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is about a mother pushing her young daughter into prostitution as a way out of their poverty-stricken life. Leave it to Reba McEntire to make this sordid tale into a triumph of female empowerment. Her cover of this Bobbie Gentry hit was so powerful and memorable that it became Reba’s signature tune.
“Come Next Monday”
K.T. Oslin has a subtle vocal delivery, laid-back and comfortable just humming the melody along with the backing music. She sounds here like she’s singing out of the corner of her mouth at times, signaling only the slightest conviction that come next Monday, she’ll go on a diet, stop talking dirty and give up on the man that’s no good for her. Her commitment is as forceful as her delivery, leaving no doubt that on “temptation Tuesday, I might be sorry.”
“Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”
Mattea makes the painful observation that we’re surrounded by an abundance of everything we need, but we fail to take advantage of that fact – we’re knee-deep in water and dying of thirst. She uses the metaphor first to acknowledge that “friends I could count on, I could count on one hand, with a leftover finger or two” but she took them for granted and they slipped away. Then she recounts the lovers that still linger in her mind, and she can’t recall why she let them go. But the kicker is in the third verse, where she challenges all of us: the homeless on the streets look to her for help, but she looks the other way. They are the ones, in the end, who are dying of thirst in the richest nation in the world; and as a society, we are looking the other way as they suffer among us.
It was girl-power anthems and cocky independence that launched the Chicks into superstar status – songs like “Ready to Run”, “Wide Open Spaces” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” were all spunk and self-reliance. But when they showed their sensitive side, the girls really shined. This tender ballad about a woman who can’t convince herself she’s better off alone, even though her former man is doing fine without her, is intense and heartfelt. Like album-closer “Let Him Fly”, this foreshadowed the sound that would dominate their next record, the masterpiece Home.
It’s hard to remember that when we first heard “Breathe”, many of us said, “Hey! That’s the same melody as ‘It Matters To Me’!” This was such a giant hit that it eclipsed all of her previous work fairly quickly. Its popularity was justified. The record builds from a sultry first verse that is sparse in instrumentation, with Hill singing softly in her lower register. Then it builds to a powerful chorus, where all the tension is released and she sings with passionate intensity.
“My Old Friend”
One of the reasons you make some of your closest friendships when you’re young is that you don’t really have the time once you’re out of school and working full-time to make and maintain deep friendships. Indeed, the busy pace of your everyday life can make even the best of friends slip away, as there just isn’t time. McGraw never exactly says why he is saying goodbye to his old friend, though it’s clear the goodbye is a final one. The cause of his friend’s death is a mystery, though McGraw’s need to apologize for not being there for his old friend subtly suggests suicide. Regardless, it’s a potent reminder that if you don’t make the time for the people you care about, you run the risk of time running out too soon.
“A Little Past Little Rock”
Lee Ann Womack
Again, a woman is leaving a relationship behind and hitting the road. This record is distinguished by a haunting melody and string section that casts a dark pall over the record. She’s running as much from herself as she is from the man she’s leaving behind; she simply doesn’t trust herself to make the right choices if she’s in the same city as him.
This is as close to avant-garde a country radio hit ever got. The irregular rhythm section, the surprising burst of horns, the nearly out-of-place female backing vocalists, and Yoakam’s distant and cold delivery make this one of the most intriguing and mysterious records of his career – heck, of anybody’s career.
She’s best known for her self-described “balls to the wall” honky-tonk rockers, but when she decided to get reflective on her fourth album and began writing with Mary Chapin Carpenter, she revealed a sensitivity and thoughtfulness that was previously only hinted at. This appeal to find the strength within herself to face her fears is her finest moment to date.
Recorded as a charity single to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, this country gospel number serves as a challenge to all of humanity to follow their best instincts, and to remember that we are creating by our example the next generation: “Our children are watching us, they put their trust in us, they’re gonna be like us.” An inspiring and timely message.
“You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”
A harrowing portrait that shows how a failure to communicate will doom a marriage. Cryner can’t figure out why her husband doesn’t know her well enough by now. She feels she shouldn’t have to tell him she feels neglected and bored at home, so she doesn’t. In the end, as he is leaving her, he says through tears that she doesn’t talk to him enough.
“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
A father works as hard as he can to provide for his family, and his young daughter is the center of his world. But he doesn’t know how to show that love through words or affection, and nearly a year after his death, his daughter is still struggling with the fact that he never said “I love you” to her. This is the finest ballad of a career that is defined by them.
One of the best-produced country singles in history. Powerful contrast is used to heighten the emotions of the song. A bouncy melody is applied to the darkest of messages – “I’ve got the bleeding stopped, but there’s gonna be a scar.” On the verses, there’s a back-and-forth between Pam and the band, where she sings a line and the fiddle or guitar echoes it back in response. They build off of each other, escalating the intensity until it explodes in the bridge. It’s a country record with the sonic texture of a classic 60’s pop record.
“My Baby Loves Me”
With it’s “Born In The U.S.A.” beats and “Shiny Happy People” melody, this was a burst of sunshine on the radio in 1993, a stunningly confident celebration of a love that is built on respect and positive reinforcement. McBride has rarely sounded better since.
“A Real Fine Place to Start”
Once Keith Urban scored a big hit covering Radney Foster’s “Raining On Sunday”, artists in Nashville started hitting the Foster catalog trying to find hits of their own. Earlier this year, Evans scored big-time with this spot-on rendition of Radney’s “A Real Fine Place To Start”, which practically leaps off the radio with its energy and joy. Her voice absolutely soars by the time she hits the bridge; the entire record radiates sexual tension.
“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”
Always ahead of their time, the Chicks were already covering Radney Foster back in 1998, when they included one of his songs on their first collection for Sony. A few years later, they covered this achingly beautiful lullaby that Foster wrote for his young son, who was living thousands of miles away in Paris with his mother. His son would play a tape of his dad singing this song every night before going to bed – “God hears Amen wherever wer are, and I love you. Godspeed little man; Sweet dreams little man. My love will fly to you each night on angel’s wings.” Maines’ delivery of the song in a near-whisper and a faint echo of vocals from guest Emmylou Harris make the Chicks’ cover resonate as deeply as Foster’s original recording.
“Believe Me Baby (I Lied)”
For a change, Yearwood plays the role of the jerk. She’s said way too many things in anger that she’s wanting to take back, but realizes she may have gone too far. So she begs her lover to believe her when she says she lied. It’s a clever play on words, as one would expect with Kim Richey being one of the writers. The most interesting thing about the record is that instead of having the big vocal moments in the chorus, the moments of intensity come in the verses – a particularly stunning “You’re the only one” in the second verse will destroy a cheap set of speakers.
“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”
It’s easy to forget just how innovative the production of this record was in 1990. For such a staunch traditionalist, Travis was very comfortable pushing the boundaries from time to time. On this fantastic Hugh Prestwood cheating number, he does his very best to lay blame on the broken relationship with the wife he has cheated on. His attempts to minimize his own role in the troubles they have are unbelievable: “Since the day I was led to temptation, and in weakness did let your love down, I have prayed that with time and compassion, you’d come around.” He’s the one who cheated, but he’s so good at playing the victim that the listener can’t help but wonder why the woman just can’t get over it.
“Past The Point Of Rescue”
Ketchum is slowly sinking into misery and delusion as he tries to convince his ex-lover, and himself, that she’d be better off if she came back home. “Do you know how much you’re losing? No you don’t, but I do.” As he contends to descend into the darkness, he confesses that it’s really just him who is lost without her.
“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”
Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, before they had been fully processed and cynically politicized, Jackson struck the bare and frayed nerves of the American public by giving voice to the mosaic of reactions that different people had to the shock of the attacks. That he did so without judgement, or preference, or moral grandstanding is no small feat. He only hints at his own beliefs by recounting that he remembers from his childhood lessons that of all the gifts God gave us, “the greatest is love.”
On the surface, it’s a nostalgic waltz that recalls a young girl losing her virginity in the fields under the hot July moon. But on a deeper level, it’s about longing for a return to your innocence, back when having a car represented new freedom and “thirty was old.” Carter’s sandpaper vocals are perfect for conveying the wisdom that age brings.
“On Your Way Home”
Loveless wonders where her cheating husband goes on his way home from cheating – not just where his car takes him, but where his mind wanders as he’s heading back to the woman he has wronged. She’s wanting out, too; she’s only staying out of spite to punish him for his dishonesty. An angry, bitter and mournful turn of the knife by a woman who’s been done wrong.
“Love Without End, Amen”
A young boy gets a black eye in school, and is trembling at home waiting for his father to dole out the punishment. Dad lets him in on a secret that he’ll pass on to his own son in the second verse – “Daddies don’t just love their children every now and then, it’s a love without end, amen.” In classic country style, it becomes a spiritual lesson in the final verse, where our narrator finds himself in heaven and thinks “there must be some mistake. If they know half the things I’ve done, they’ll never let me in.” Then he hears his father’s words again coming from the mouth of God himself. Hillbilly poetry.
“Straight Tequila Night”
Seemingly out of nowhere, John Anderson made a monstrous comeback on the strength of this honky-tonk ode to a woman who has been drinking to forget the man who hurt her. As the bartender, Anderson tells a new man her favorite song and her choice of wine, and urges him to “turn her love life around.” But, he warns, stay away from her if she’s hitting the hard stuff tonight. She “blames her broken heart on every man in sight on a straight tequila night.” His goosebump-inducing vocals and a fiery fiddle help make this one of the best honky-tonk hits of the modern country era.