400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1

And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles.  Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1

#25
Smoke Rings in the Dark
Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12

Listen

A dark, atmospheric wonder, as Allan delivers the final eulogy for a love that couldn’t help burning out. – Dan Milliken

#24
Just to See You Smile
Tim McGraw
1997 | Peak: #1

Listen

Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM

#23
Small Town Saturday Night
Hal Ketchum
1991 | Peak: #2

Listen

Country music is rife with songs that elaborate on small town life, but none are as catchy or even as clever as Ketchum’s take on it: “Bobby told Lucy, ‘The world ain’t round/Drops off sharp at the edge of town/Lucy, you know the world must be flat/’Cause when people leave town, they never come back.'” Sounds like the fate of the small town that I grew up in. – Leeann Ward

#22
Choices
George Jones
1999 | Peak: #30

Listen

The hard-living George Jones did not write this reflective song about the consequences of various life choices, but you’d never know it, because it sounds as if he feels every word and emotion of it. With regret he he acknowledges, “I guess I’m payin’/For the things that I have done/If I could go back/Oh, Lord knows I’d run/But I’m still losin’/This game of life I play/Living and dying/With the choices I’ve made.” – LW

#21
For My Broken Heart
Reba McEntire
1991 | Peak: #1

Listen

In a state of shock, very little about everyday life seems significant. The body and mind become transfixed on the impossible new information they’re supposed to process, and suddenly everything else feels shallow, unnecessary, intrusive. In classic country tradition, McEntire’s shock here is from a love walking away, but the sensation the song beautifully captures can haunt any manner of broken heart. – DM

#20
Fast as You
Dwight Yoakam
1993 | Peak: #2

Listen

Hearing the opening hard driving riff of this Yoakam classic is all that any country music listener needs to hear to know just what song it is. There’s probably not a more recognizable introduction of the nineties. While the song is sonically bold, the character within isn’t so confident. He’s being emotionally run over by his lover, but hopes that the roles will reverse someday: “Maybe I’ll be fast as you/Maybe I’ll break hearts too/But I think you’ll slow down/When your turn to hurt comes around/Maybe I’ll break hearts and be as fast as you.” – LW

#19
Neon Moon
Brooks & Dunn
1992 | Peak: #1

Listen

Night after night, a heartbroken man drinks his sorrows away at a rundown bar. An average scenario for country music, no doubt, but Dunn spins it into a classic with his spot-on performance, dripping with wistfulness. – Tara Seetharam

#18
You’re Gone
Diamond Rio
1998 | Peak: #4

Listen

The lyric’s clarity and gratitude in the face of a great loss suggest that he’s reached the acceptance stage of grief.  The mournful vocal suggests that the grief will never go away. – Kevin Coyne

#17
Callin’ Baton Rouge
Garth Brooks
1994 | Peak: #2

Listen

This is country music on a stadium scale.  Never before or since has Garth Brooks so perfectly captured the fiery exuberance of his legendary live performances. – KC

#16
Café on the Corner
Sawyer Brown
1992 | Peak: #5

Listen

We’re truly defined by only two things in our life: our work, and our relationships.  The man in this song has lost his farm, and has to work bussing tables to support his family.  The crippling loss of dignity our protagonist feels is restored by the narrator’s sympathetic portrait and the empathy of the listener.  – KC

#15
The Dance
Garth Brooks
1990 | Peak: #1

Listen

A gorgeous moment of resolve, as love’s joys are deemed well worth its ultimate sadness. Brooks’ rich, warm performance stands among the most affecting of the era. – DM

#14
I Still Believe in You
Vince Gill
1992 | Peak: #1

Listen

Some singles are beloved because they feel technically perfect. This isn’t necessarily one of them. The keyboard production sounds dated, and the lyrics, while serviceable, are somewhat colorless. At first, it sounds dangerously close to an easy-listening snoozer. But then that chorus hits, and the melody – and Gill – launch this weathered re-declaration of commitment into the high heavens. And there’s no coming back down. – DM

#13
Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart
Randy Travis
1990 | Peak: #1

Listen

This song is so brilliantly constructed that it accomplishes what should be an impossible feat: it makes us sympathize with the one who broke the marriage vows, instead of the woman who he has disgracefully betrayed. – KC

#12
He Thinks He’ll Keep Her
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1993 | Peak: #2

Listen

A sharp, melodic feminist anthem with a marked nineties sound but a timeless sentiment about the true value of capable, giving women. – DM

#11
Brand New Man
Brooks & Dunn
1991 | Peak: #1

Listen

Brooks and Dunn begin their long, successful run with the memorable strains of Ronnie Dunn’s incredible vocal pipes. As he begins, “I saw the light, I’ve been baptized”, we know that we’re hearing something special. Instead of the expected cerebral declaration of salvation, however, we’re treated to a rousing declaration of love and how it can save a person. – LW

#10
Strawberry Wine
Deana Carter
1996 | Peak: #1

Listen

Memories of lost innocence and a sweet, sighing vocal from Carter combine to create one of the crown jewels of nineties country, with an emotional core so resonant that even the specifics of the story feel like each listener’s own. – DM

#9
When I Call Your Name
Vince Gill
1990 | Peak: #2

Listen

About a man who’s drowning in loneliness, this ballad is elevated to masterpiece standards by its haunting chorus. No one can convey searing pain like Gill; pair his voice with one as sorrowful as Loveless’, and the result is nothing short of exquisite. – TS

#8
Shake the Sugar Tree
Pam Tillis
1992 | Peak: #3

Listen

If the bouncy “Shake the Sugar Tree” sounds organic, it’s because it is. Since the Homeward Looking Angel project was out of money to spend by the time Tillis found the song, Tillis and her producer took the demo recording and added her voice to it, because she had a strong feeling that the song was a hit. While it feels organic, it also sounds bright and undated, which is a testament to simplicity in recording tactics. The instructive lyrics cleverly advise on the importance of constantly tending to relationships in order to keep them alive. – LW

#7
Angry All the Time
Bruce Robison
1998 | Peak: Did Not Chart

Listen

As their marriage crumbles around him, he looks around for one last appraisal, a foot out the door and still not sure why things ever went and changed.  – DM

#6
Meet in the Middle
Diamond Rio
1991 | Peak: #1

Listen

A humble, plucky little record about the beauty of compromise in relationships. It’s so blissfully unassuming that it’s easy to take for granted the song’s sweeping truth: “Ain’t no road too long when we meet in the middle” is one of country music’s greatest slogans for humanity, intentional or not. – TS

#5
Friends in Low Places
Garth Brooks
1990 | Peak: #1

Listen

“Friends in Low Places” is the party anthem of party anthems. While the lyrics don’t exactly paint the setting of a rousing party, the vibe of the song does in a big way. While it is Garth Brooks’ signature song, it is also an iconic song in general. With its sing-along chorus, the song went beyond small country music listening circles; its popularity expanded far and wide beyond that smaller community, to the general music listening world at large. Even those who may not have heard a country song before could at least sing a line from “Friends in Low Places.” What made the song so larger than life? We will probably never really know. But we do know that it remains a memorable part of pop culture, which is really a rare accomplishment for a little ol’ lightweight country ditty. – LW

#4
The Greatest Man I Never Knew
Reba McEntire
1992 | Peak: #3

Listen

It’s often said that actions speak louder than words.  That isn’t always true, especially in the eyes of a child. Everything her father did said “I love you”, but never having heard him say the words, she didn’t know how he really felt.

Now, almost a year after his death, she finally knows. The real tragedy isn’t that her father never said “I love you” when he was alive, but rather that she’ll never have the earthly opportunity to respond, “I know. I love you, too.”  – KC

#3
The Song Remembers When
Trisha Yearwood
1993 | Peak: #2

Listen

A masterpiece that reduces the soul-shaking power of music to its very essence.  Not only can a great song heighten the intensity of the moment you’re living in. It can also take you back to that moment in a heartbeat, when you least expect and aren’t quite ready for it.

For an artist like Trisha Yearwood, who collected more excellent songs than just about anyone in the past twenty years, it’s only right that one of her signature songs is itself a poignant tribute to songcraft.  “The Song Remembers When”  both makes the case for the power of music, and validates it with its flawless execution. – KC

#2
Independence Day
Martina McBride
1994 | Peak: #12

Listen

“Let freedom ring.” It’s not just a hook used to characterize a suffering mother’s actions; it’s a war cry that represents everything “Independence Day” stands for. Because in a country founded on ideals of life and liberty, a woman felt there was no way to protect her or her child except to destroy. Because even in a small town where everyone knew everyone’s business, nobody stepped out of line to salvage their neighbors’ existence. Because freedom is still compromised everyday, everywhere, and the only chance of saving it sometimes is to shout.

“Independence Day” is certainly such a shout, combining a bold, stinging Gretchen Peters lyric with a thunderstorm vocal by McBride. The record is fearless in conveying the dark truth of domestic violence, and wise enough not to cast any more judgment on the scenario than necessary, knowing that the situation speaks for itself.

Ultimately, the record has done much to shed light on its subject matter, as well as expand the boundaries of what can be discussed in a mainstream country song. Today’s acts may not often choose to use those expanded boundaries, because even in fields of artistic expression, it’s often easier to take the safe route and look the other way when confronted with humanity’s more troubling truths. But “Independence Day” stands as an example to all brave enough to follow in its path: a shout of truth, well-considered and well-timed, can ring on. – DM

#1
Maybe it Was Memphis
Pam Tillis
1991 | Peak: #3

Listen

It’s only fitting that this nostalgic list should end with a song about longing for the past.  Those of us who discovered country music in the nineties embraced it with an evangelical zeal, imploring their family and friends to listen to this amazing song, to that incredible artist. But what felt like the beginning of something that would keep getting better turned out to be a magical moment in time.

“Maybe it Was Memphis” is the perfect embodiment of that moment.  The song is poetry set to music, effortlessly evoking Faulkner and Tennessee Williams in its romanticism of the south.  The arrangement is stunning, with hallmarks of rock in steadfast service of its country core. The Tillis vocal is raw and emotional without being overwrought.  All of the disparate elements are brought together in perfect harmony. With relentless energy, it demands to be heard.

It’s a record that could’ve only existed in the nineties, when country music was broad enough to allow outside influences, but self-confident enough to incorporate them without sacrificing its own identity and integrity.  “Maybe it Was Memphis” defines an era of country music that approached meritocracy, an era where genuine talent paired with a worthy song was regularly rewarded.  An era where an a young artist’s debut single could become a classic as easily as the latest from a veteran superstar.

That era is over.  Long over.  But we still hold out hope that the magic will return, so we hang around.  We cling to a “Stay” here, a “House That Built Me” there, but the glimmers of hope are few, and they always seem to fade away.  Just like that Memphis summer night,  the magic has come and gone.  But we’ll keep looking back, ’cause it sure felt right.    – KC

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Jump Around

#400 – #376
#375 – #351
#350 – #326
#325 – #301
#300 – #276
#275 – #251
#250 – #226
#225 – #201
#200 – #176
#175 – #151
#150 – #126
#125 – #101
#100 – #76
#75 – #51
#50 – #26
#25 – #1

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32 Comments

Filed under Back to the Nineties

32 Responses to 400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1

  1. Paul DennisNo Gravatar

    For whatever reason, on the whole I like songs 1-25 far less than I did 26-50 and 51-75, and your top five are all songs I can take or leave. On the other hand placing non-charting or low charting songs such as “Choices” and “Angry All The Time” shows considerable courage

    The real classic out of this bunch is “Small Town Saturday Night”. It and “Past The Point of Rescue” would be in my top ten for the decade and I’m not even much of a Hal Ketcham fan. That said , on those two songs, and “Five O’Clock World” Hal really nailed it

  2. I’m the exact opposite of Paul…this top 25 should be a mixtape all its own, as pretty much every song demonstrates what can (and should) be good and right about country music. I remember working at a pop radio station when “Memphis” came out, and how Arista REALLY wanted that song to cross over. I was disappointed that it didn’t at the time, but now I’m glad it didn’t. If I was to make one change, it would be to bump “Meet in the Middle” further down the chart and make room for Dwight Yoakam’s “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”.

  3. Travis in VIrginiaNo Gravatar

    i mentioned earlier in a post that “maybe it was memphis’ better be in the top ten, imagine the shock I felt when I saw it at number one. It is a classic thats still gets played next to carrie and taylor on my local radio station. That song gives me such vibrant imagery of the south, from the Katiedid’s to the misty moonlight!!!! I am also very pleased “the greatest man” made it to number 4! My father passed away 3 years ago at the age of 49 from colon cancer and that song hits home for me. He never once said he loved me, even though I could tell from his actions. I wish I had said it to him more, but I know he knew I loved him to. To hear that song live kills me everytime I see Reba in concert!!!!!!!!!!!1 Great job on the top 25 CU staff!!!!! How bout a top 400 list of the 80’s next!!!!!!!!!!1

  4. Really great list guys and I agreed all along the way (cept for “Meet In The Middle” being top 10), Can’t wait for the next countdown. Also still waiting for 100 greatest men of country list, heck I’d even take an updated woman one. ;)

  5. Michael A.No Gravatar

    A good eclectic bunch. This list has been a really fun read; your writeups were so well done! Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Can’t wait to see what you guys have up your sleeve next.

  6. JoJoNo Gravatar

    Awesome!! So glad to see “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “Strawberry Wine” and “Brand New Man.”
    It was really fun following the list from 500-1!! Thanks!

  7. Kyle WNo Gravatar

    Great list, but I’m really surprised that Maybe It Was Memphis is #1. Sure it’s a good song, maybe even a great song, but i have it behind just about every other song in the T25. I’m also quite surprised that The Dance didn’t make the T10, I thought it had a shot at #1. All in all though, a thoroughly enjoyable list that featured almost all of my favorite iconic 90’s songs (Randy Travis’ “The Box” was really the only song i was shocked didn’t make the list).

  8. Right on. “Maybe it Was Memphis” is easily my personal #1 pick for the 90s, and that write-up is just to-the-letter perfect. And my #2 pick, “Neon Moon,” pulled a nice consensus rank here, as well.

    I’d split the difference with Paul: My own top 25 would include more than half of these picks, but I liked the #75 – #51 run better than the last batch. But that’s really just a matter of splitting hairs. This has been a fantastic feature, with some of this site’s finest writing and discussion. Well done, gang.

  9. BobNo Gravatar

    At the beginning of this series, Kevin stated that “the list is a reflection of our personal tastes”. My taste is very different so if I had the energy to comprise a list of my favorite 400 singles of the 90’s, I would probably replace at least 150 of the songs here. It’s not meant as a knock on your collective efforts – the write-ups for all the songs were very good. There were just so many great singles in the 90’s to choose from.

    I admit to being surprised at the choice for #1 but Kevin makes such a good argument he has me thinking maybe it’s not that outrageous. I like about a half dozen Pam Tillis songs better than “Maybe It Was Memphis”.

    I was happy to see Paul’s comments about my favorite male country artist, Hal Ketchum. Since I’m more of a pop country fan and Paul’s the expert on traditional country we rarely agree. Two of my favorite HK songs in the 90’s however were not singles, “I Miss My Mary” and “Daddy’s Oldsmobile”. Besides plugging HK’s music, I mention this because great country music of the 90’s was not limited to singles.

    Of this final 25 group, my favorites are “The Dance”, “Friends in Low Places”, “You’re Gone”, “Smoke Rings in the Dark”, “Small Town Saturday Night”, “Independence Day”, “Just to See you Smile”, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart” and “The Song Remembers When”. The last 2 songs were solely written by Hugh Prestwood. As examples of songs I would have included in my top 400 I’ll mention two other Prestwood songs, “On the Verge” by Collin Raye and “Ghost in This House” by Shenandoah.

    Thanks for all your efforts. As someone else suggested, I hope to see a 400 best singles of the 80’s in the future. My kids were young then so I missed a lot of the that music.

  10. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    I know this took a great deal of thinking and sorting out, which is why I would like to thank the good folks here at Country Universe for creating this series and giving us things to think about when it comes to what country music was about during the final decade of the 20th century. I won’t quibble with the choice of “Maybe It Was Memphis” for #1, because I think Kevin is right when he says it came from a period when the combination of a worthy song and a great talent were things that the industry still valued.

    As for a few others here:

    Re. “Independence Day”–As this is a powerful “message” song about domestic violence, rendered well, and without undue histrionics, by Martina, it’s only fair that it should be so close to the top. And Gretchen Peters should be given all the credit in the world for writing such real lyrics, though she is right to be mad about Sean Hannity hijacking its meaning for his own nefarious purposes.

    Re. “Fast As You”–This record, as much as any in Dwight’s canon, shows him to be a true maverick of country music, especially that of the West Coast kind, which is far more eclectic in nature than most people realize. He also has a great sense of the music’s rich history and traditions, which is more than I can say for most of today’s “hot” artists.

    Re. “The Song Remembers When”–It was with this song (and album) that I really began taking Trisha seriously as a singer, country or otherwise. I felt that there was a substance beneath the image her handlers were presenting, which made the frequent comparisons between her and her spiritual role model Linda Ronstadt very credible.

  11. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for! After reading the blurb for #2 (Heard that one on the radio just earlier today – it’s high ranking was well-deserved), I paused and tried to guess who would be number one. My first guess was George Strait, but I can’t believe Pam Tillis didn’t come to mind.

    Throughout the whole time I’ve been reading these posts, I was thinking that “Memphis” was sure to be somewhere on the list. I really can’t think of any better song to represent such an amazing decade, and it’s foremost among the many reasons why I love Pam Tillis so dearly. I think it’s wonderful that “Maybe It Was Memphis” is one of the songs that Pam Tillis is most remembered for, and is even occasionally still heard on country radio today (though not as often as what I would like).

    Y’all did an awesome job in putting together these lists. It was a fine representation of your excellent tastes in country music, and it reminded me that when I read an album review on Country Universe, it’s coming from someone who really knows great country music when he/she hears it.

    Semi-related question: Are Lynn Douglas and William Ward still writing for Country Universe? It’s been over a year since we’ve heard from either one.

  12. And the nostalgia sadly comes to an end. Big thanks to you all for working hard on this list and bringing us back to simpilar times where rich songwriting and great music coincided quite often.

    I can see how all your songs would fit in their respective slots. Personally, I’d probably make a case for “The Song Remembers When” to be #1 on my personal list. I love that recording by Yearwood, its so introspective and gives the listener a lot to think about with the meaning of the song. And Yearwood brings the song to a whole new level. So i was happy to see that song at #3. :))

    I was also glad to see a Mary Chapin Carpenter track in the top 25!! I love that song, and to think that she was inspired by an old commercial! But I love the feminist statement that goes with the song.

    I was glad to see TWO Reba tracks in the top 25 as well! “For My Broken Heart” was such an honest performance from McEntire. Even though “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” isn’t one of my oft listened to singles by McEntire; but I was not surprised to see it higher than “For My Broken Heart,” considering it is a stronger performance than the latter; and it just goes so well with McEntire’s relationship with her father.

    The only single I was sure that would be in the Top 25 was Carter’s “Strawberry Wine.” I wasn’t sure if “Independence Day” was on the earlier half of the list or not, but now I see that it does belong (at least) in the Top 5.

    Great list, and thanks for all your hard work!! :)

  13. PeteNo Gravatar

    Not relevant to the single picks, but what’s up with the cover to Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When”? It’s as if she’s being consumed by a pack of evil sunflowers.

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  15. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    @ Pete:

    I think the cover of THE SONG REMEMBERS WHEN was inventive, but what do I know? Anyway, you really can’t judge an album just by its cover…at least not all of the time, anyway.

  16. CynthiaNo Gravatar

    Thank you so much for compiling this entire list. All these songs brought back so many memories.

    The Song Remembers When would be my top pick. Because it is a great song and because Trisha Yearwood is such a great vocalist. I played this song for my 3 yr old niece and then asked her what it was about. She said it was about an old lady who was remembering stuff. Whenever she wants me to play this song, she asks for the Old Lady song.

  17. Cory DeSteinNo Gravatar

    “The Song Remembers When” pays tribute to the gift we are all here to discuss-music. The power of song, the memories a melody can stir up. I have felt for 17 years, its the ultimate song’s song.

  18. Mike J.No Gravatar

    Really, really glad that “Smoke Rings in the Dark” made it high up on the list. It’s my personal #1, while “You’re Gone”, “Meet in the Middle”, “Neon Moon”, “Fast as You”, “Hard Rock Bottom”, and “The Dance” are all in my top 25 as well.

  19. “Anyway, you really can’t judge an album just by its cover… at least not all the time anyway.” -Erik North

    Notable exception: Trailer Choir

  20. PeteNo Gravatar

    @Ben Foster:

    I think I’m risking upsetting a lot of Southerners (Sorry, I love you all, please continue your lovely accent-y ways), but does that mean that Trailer Choir really does boil down to ‘Two hicks and a tramp’?

  21. Who says hicks and tramps can’t make good music? Not me, that’s for sure. But I will say that Show Dog’s marketing strategy behind Trailer Choir, in treating them as a novelty act, does them a disservice by making it nearly impossible to take them seriously as artists. That strategy is reflected in both their songs and in their album artwork.

  22. codeNo Gravatar

    nice to see reba in this list

  23. DanniNo Gravatar

    Just wanted to say thanks for this series. As a relative newbie to the genre this has been a wonderful journey through the archives of country music.

  24. Soul Miners DaughterNo Gravatar

    Heck of a list! Thanks for all the work put into it and thanks for the memories.
    LOVE all the Pam Tillis, Trisha, Patty, and Chapin love, among others. Looking back, it’s encouraging to see what encouraging and brilliant work women were contributing in the ’90s. The songs were smart, effective, and truly memorable. It wasn’t all about “find the next blonde to sing about blah, blah, blah…”. Their work was admirable and so much that it’s still appreciated and sought out today.

    Suffice it to say, good luck on finding even 100 *best of* ’00 “country” songs.

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  26. Soul Miners Daughter– They did do a Top 201 greatest songs of 2000-2009, I think.

  27. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    We did. The big difference for me was that I could listen to all 400 of these and enjoy them, including the many that weren’t on my personal list. The 2000-2009 list, I get easily tired of some of the ones that I included on my own list!

  28. Humpty HumpNo Gravatar

    This list shows that there used to be good songs in country music. But not anymore. Country music has sold out the the Jesus freaks and the redneck morons and the degenerates like Jamey Johnson and the racists like Buddy Jewell. Sadly the religion and racism go together. I could appreciate Pam Tillis and Hal Ketchum. But country music now seems to be targeting drunks, rednecks, racists, religious whackadoos and other people who aren’t worthy of respect. Its embarrassing to say you are a country fan cuz people might put you in that group. I used to like country music but now I hate it and what it stands for.

  29. Michael A.No Gravatar

    Although making many gross generalizations and horrible assumptions in an incredibly ineloquent post, Humpty Hump did bring up one point that was interesting to me. He’s right, I am actually more embarrassed to say I’m a country fan today than I was in the 90s. I usually have to follow up a statement like, “I like country music,” with “but not…”

  30. I say it in regards to the music, but not the people who sing it. Of course, there a few bad apples, but painting country music and its artists with such a negative broad stroke is mildly offensive to me.

  31. PatrickNo Gravatar

    Yayyyyy Strawberry Wine at 10!

  32. KennyNo Gravatar

    Pam at No.1! Wonderful!