It wasn’t a banner year for the genre like 2005 was, but there were still a lot of good singles sent to radio and retail this year. Some were hits, some weren’t, but these were all in heavy rotation on my iPod, regardless of what radio did with them. And while 2006 may not have been my favorite year for country music, I must say that the top three songs rank among my favorite recordings of all-time.
“Red High Heels”
Sure, I ragged on this song as being the second coming of Mindy McCready, but let’s be honest: McCready had some damn catchy songs. Pickler’s debut has been stuck in my head since I heard it, so she’ll anchor this year’s list.
Swift’s debut single got early press for its name-dropping title, but it’s a clear-eyed account of first love that is thankfully devoid of regret over lost innocence.
“Just This Side of Heaven”
Ketchum didn’t catch a comeback with this single, but he should have. It’s a country-gospel rave-up that makes the rafters ring.
A city girl falls for country boy tale that doesn’t romanticize or demonize either character’s background, which is a rarity for the song type.
The song is solid and her voice is haunting. It makes me want to hear the rest of the album.
“The Last Ten Years (Superman)”
It’s never too early to jot down some history, and this single collects some of the biggest events of the last ten years, by a man who may have the most familiar male country voice now that Johnny Cash is passed on.
“Something’s Gotta Give”
Yes, it’s an upbeat spin on “All the Good Ones Are Gone”, but it works well, with Rimes now old enough to tell a story like this convincingly.
“Men & Mascara”
She still doesn’t have the interpretive skills to knock a great song out of the ballpark, but her handlers sure do give her fantastic material to work with.
“Don’t Forget To RememberMe”
It’s a “Wide Open Spaces” retread, but it works because of Underwood’s sympathetic delivery.
“Every Mile a Memory”
With three traveling songs on this list – more entries than any other artist, I might add – Bentley has fashioned himself into a modern-day troubadour. This lead single from his latest album chronicles how things he sees on the road remind him of the love he has left behind.
“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
Thile lets loose on a White Stripes cover, with his virtuoso mandolin work on center stage.
“8th of November”
Big & Rich
This touching and powerful Vietnam tale shows the depth of this duo’s ability as both writers and performers.
“The Lucky One”
Bright and jangly, Hill’s tale of metro life on a tight budget was one of the most charming records on the radio this year.
“A Little Too Late”
With sweeping strings and a smooth, buttery vocal, this is as close to the Nashville Sound as Keith is likely to get. His ballads rarely fail to connect, and this is his best one in a long time.
“Settle For a Slowdown”
For once, Bentley is the one left watching as his woman drives away. Well-written and impeccably performed.
“This Is Us”
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris
A clever conceit: an older couple looks back at photographs and reminisces about their journey together. One of the best moments of their collaborative album.
“Two Pink Lines”
In a genre that can get way too family-friendly, it’s a relief to be cheering on Church and his new flame as they wish for a negative pregnancy test.
She sounds so restrained and thoughtful that it’s hard to believe she was once known for showboat vocal performances. She’s aging like a fine wine.
“I’m Taking the Wheel”
Clever and catchy, as always, but with a more organic production that skimps on the bells and whistles and just lets their harmonies shine.
Hilarious and honest, Atkins realizes that when you’re a parent, you’re setting an example whether you want to or not.
“Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)”
Should’ve been a #1 hit, but that “all you’re gonna see is asses and elbows” line must’ve kept this raucous single from reaching the top.
“A Feelin’ Like That”
The fire of the newly alive, to borrow from an old Rosanne Cash song title, Allan shakes off the somber and melancholy from his brilliant 2005 album and comes back with a rockin’ love song.
“In Terms of Love”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kristyn Osborn is one of the best songwriters working today.
“Once In A Lifetime”
A burst of optimistic love that has more urgency than his earlier work that covered the same thematic ground.
“What Hurts the Most”
I’m not a fan, but there’s always one single off of every album they put out that I like. This is the one from Me & My Gang.
“Long Trip Alone”
As I wrote before, I think this could be a fantastic wedding song. No needless romanticism here, just a quiet offer to travel together with another person for a while.
A moving tribute to a father that believed in his son, among many other things.
The cost of cheating, plainly reported.
This should’ve been the “Suds in the Bucket” hit from her latest album, but the news cycle understandably made it impossible. Still a great listen, though.
Lambert lets loose and shows off her tremendous potential as a singer and a writer, earning a well-deserved Grammy nomination in the process.
The masks we wear, the smiles we fake to get by when surrounded by people who are judging us. The Chicks explore the inconsistencies created by trying to maintain an image and reveal quite a bit about themselves in the process.
“I Just Came Back From a War”
Every station that played the hell out of “Have You Forgotten?” owes it to their listeners to put this into heavy rotation. The costs of war are most often measured by the number of men who don’t come home, but the memories that linger in those who do require just as much sympathy on our part.
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
For me, Cash is as close to the voice of God as I’ll ever hear on record, and this spiritual challenge rivets me every time I hear it.
“Looking For a Job”
Leave it to Snider to have us rooting for the ex-con that just finished two years in the slammer, who warns his boss that “with a little better aim, I’d have been there for life”.
“Leave the Pieces”
Why were they the first duo since Brooks & Dunn to top the charts with their first single? Because they put out a damn catchy song that lingers after each listen.
“Cowboys are Frequently Secretely Fond (Of Each Other)”
Skip the overproduced and three years too late “Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth.” Willie’s best social commentary of the year was his straight-faced cover of an underground gay cowboy song.
“If I Didn’t Know Any Better”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Krauss is in mourning even when falling in love. Dark and deeply moving.
“The Reason Why”
A much-needed and welcome return to form by one of the greatest country artists of all-time.
No sophomore jinx here. SugarLand may have left a band member behind, but they’ve held on to the killer hooks.
When we look back on our lives when all is said and done, can we hope to say anything more profound than what the homeless man says to the protagonist of this song?
Urban sounds so raw and biting towards the man in this song who has mistreated an amazing woman that it’s startling to hear him reveal he’s talking to himself at the end.
“Finding My Way Back Home”
Lee Ann Womack
We always seem to be moving away from home, but for the three minutes this record plays, Womack convinces us we’re heading back there. Love it.
“Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”
Pure country poetry.
Parton understands that the journey to find your true identity is also a journey to find God, and she has the brilliant talent to capture that truth in song.
“Before He Cheats”
Just when you thought she was going to be the girl next door who just happens to be a country star, Carrie Underwood defies all expectations and releases the most vicious, violent revenge song since “Papa Loved Mama”. For all the lawbreaking in the chorus, it’s amazing it got into heavy rotation at all, let alone topped the charts for five weeks.
“When the Stars Go Blue”
Like he did with “Please Remember Me” eight years ago, McGraw takes a flawless song from a top-notch singer-songwriter, and soars to dizzying heights. This is his best vocal performance to date and one of the best singles of an already rich catalog.
“Like Red on a Rose”
The most romantic record of the year, completely free of cliche and delivered with smooth confidence. Jackson’s never sounded better.
Faith Hill practically channels the late Tammy Wynette on this chilling rumination of a housewife slowly being swallowed by her own despair.
“Instrument of Peace”
Released as a holiday single just last week, Newton-John transforms my favorite prayer into a gorgeous and deeply moving meditation that is nothing short of transcendent.
“Not Ready To Make Nice”
As cathartic a record as I’ve ever heard, my blood races and my heart beats a bit faster every time that second verse builds to its thundering climax. It may be the most personal song the Chicks will ever record, but there’s a triumph of the human spirit here that validates the confilicting emotions felt by those of us who have paid a price for standing up for what they believe, and in the end, found it worth the cost.