When I did this list in 2006 and in 2004, I knew the number one song before I started. This year was more like 2005, where the song revealed itself to me as I was compiling the list. The top ten is filled with songs that I love, and I’ve had a chance to live with all of them. In the end, one did resonate just a bit more than the rest, the crowning jewel in a year full of gems.
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Yearwood’s records are so pristine that she always shows grace and restraint. Even on the tracks where her voice soars, she’s still holding back. The lead single from her new set finds her abandoning her usual caution, and she makes the rafters ring. There’s a raw joy to her performance that lifts the spiritual lyric all the way up to God’s ears.
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
There’s an old adage that goes something like this: if you want to find your true voice as a singer, start writing your own material. Rimes has always been a gifted vocalist, but she’s never had a discernible style to call her own. Until now. Her album Family finds her writing all of her own material, and she finds her musical voice in the process, and it’s a hell of a lot closer to Bobbie Gentry than it is to Patsy Cline. She also wrote herself a better hook than Nashville songwriters have been giving her for the past decade. Listen once, and the song will be stuck in your head.
Vince Gill, “What You Give Away”
Few artists have been more charitable with their time, money and talent than Vince Gill, who will sing with anyone who asks him, and raise funds for any charity that comes calling. With this single, he demonstrates an intuitive understanding that our God-given talents weren’t sent our way to better our own lives, but to better the lives of those around us. When you use your gifts to help others, you show gratitude to Him for giving you the talents in the first place.
Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”
The opening track to Taking the Long Way finds the Dixie Chicks taking stock of where they’ve been, and taking their sweet time to get where they’re going from there. The initial guitar strums recall Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”, but before long, Martie’s fiddle and Emily’s banjo have made their presence known. Like “Not Ready to Make Nice”, there are some references to “the incident”, but they’re in passing, allowing this song to become an anthem for those of us who take our time getting where we’re going, much like “Nice” became one for those who stood their ground and paid a price for it.
Dolly Parton, “Better Get to Livin'”
When Dolly Parton was at the peak of her crossover popularity, longtime fans were lamenting that her songwriting had peaked years earlier when she was grounded in traditional country – “Coat of Many Colors” and “Down from Dover” had somehow become “Two Doors Down” and “Baby I’m Burnin’.” However, since her bluegrass set The Grass is Blue eight years ago, she’s been back in peak form, with the lead single from her upcoming album Backwoods Barbie being the latest evidence for her artistic renaissance. As she delves out her pearls of wisdom for living a better life in her trademark delivery, you can’t help but be reminded that she is an icon in a genre that’s running out of them.
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
A bold and fearless strike back against domestic violence, made all the more powerful by its first-person perspective. Lambert’s character has been slapped around and shaken like a rag doll, but the local authorities don’t seem to see the danger in letting her abuser post bail. She knows better, so she’s waiting with shotgun in hand, just in case he comes back to harm her again.
Keith Urban, “I Told You So”
Everything I love about Keith Urban, distilled into one track that I liked at first, but enjoy a little bit more every time I hear it. He’s a good guy from the start, showing understanding toward the woman who left him, but by the end, he breaks his promise not to say “I told you so”, and adds “you should’ve known better than to leave me baby.” There’s a touch of Celtic flavor in the production, but it’s the fierce guitar riff that surfaces at the end of the second chorus that resonates the most. It’s the coolest sound I’ve heard on a country record in recent memory.
A duo that’s known for its glossy pop sheen strips itself down to nothing but a guitar and the goosebump- inducing vocal of Jennifer Nettles. The lyric is startlingly intimate, and the near-naked production meshes perfectly with Nettles’ vulnerable performance. Aside from being the best Sugarland single to date, its massive success should be a lesson to country radio programmers and record label executives. Just send the best damn song on the album out to radio, and give the listeners a chance to react. You might actually start making money again.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
An achingly beautiful tribute to a man who spent his life “always giving, never asking back” and had “all he needed in life” because of it. Krauss pleadingly wishes to have a simple love like that. It could be assumed that she’s hoping for a man to love her in the way this man loved his wife and children, but I read it differently. I think she’s praying for the ability to have this simple love inside of her, to be able to love generously and to be satisfied by it.
Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
By giving a voice to our fallen soldiers, McGraw delivers an eloquent tribute to the sacrifice that they make for us. The song is timely, as America deals with significant wartime casualties for the first time in decades, but it’s also timeless, a song that will live on long after this conflict has ended, with a powerful and poetic message. It’s the finest moment of McGraw’s distinguished career, and the best four minutes of country music in 2007.