The Twenty Best Singles of 2016

Our Best of 2016 retrospective begins with a look at the year’s best singles. The individual ranking of each writer is listed below the song, with a * to indicate an honorable mention.

#20
“Livin’ the Dream”
Drake White

Written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, and Luke Laird

#12 – JK | #15 – TS

As with Spark, “Livin’ the Dream’s” defining quality is White’s explosive personality, which lends urgency to lyrics like “ain’t doing half bad for a half-full glass” that might otherwise ring hollow. It’s the least distinct of the album’s first three singles, but one that proves yet that White is among the genre’s most interesting and assured new artists. – Tara Seetharam

#19
“Devil in Me”
Anderson East

Written by Anderson East, Mark Stephen Jones, and Aaron Raitiere

#12 – TS | #13 – JK

Country music has a storied history of indulging in the “Saturday night” versus “Sunday morning” dichotomy. On the soulful “Devil in Me,” Anderson East finds himself trying to drink away his unrequited crush on his preacher’s daughter, only to become smitten with her all over again when he sees her sitting in the opposite pew the next morning, and the lines between religious and physical ecstasy get more than a little bit blurry. – Jonathan Keefe

#18
“Surrender Under Protest”
Drive-By Truckers

Written by Mike Cooley

#2 – JK

Mike Cooley’s choice to repurpose a popular slogan from the “Lost Cause” movement as a rallying cry against racism is a weighty and smart act of political subversion. Hearing the song, which was inspired by the aftermath of white supremacist Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African Americans at a church meeting in Charleston, now that Roof has been convicted of each of the 33 counts in his federal indictment somehow makes “Surrender Under Protest” an even more empowering anthem. – JK

 #17
“Church Bells”
Carrie Underwood

Written by Zach Crowell, Brett James, and Hillary Lindsey

#6 – KJC |* – LMW

Carrie Underwood continues to release great story songs in the southern gothic tradition, a subgenre of country music that would be almost entirely absent from country radio without her contributions to it. – Kevin John Coyne

#16
“You are My Sunshine”
Morgane Stapleton featuring Chris Stapleton

Traditional

#10 – TS | #11 – JK

A blistering version of the well-known song, hardened by minor key harmonies and a final verse in which Morgane, in an expertly foreboding performance, makes her threat explicit: Take her sunshine away, and you’ll forever regret it.- TS

#15
“Forever Country”
Artists of Then, Now, and Forever

Written by Bill Danoff, John Denver, Willie Nelson, Taffy Nivert, and Dolly Parton

#7 – LMW | #13 – KJC

There is no way that the concept for this song didn’t look like a real mess on paper:  a wide mix of legends and current artists performing a mash-up of several songs that one wouldn’t dream could possibly work together. However, producer Shane McNally managed to pull it all together to make it work very effectively, both sonically and emotionally. – Leeann Morrow Ward

 #14
“Better Man”
Little Big Town

Written by Taylor Swift

#5 – KJC | #17 – TS

Little Big Town returned with a powerful track penned by country music alumnus Taylor Swift, who once again demonstrated her songwriting skills are in a class of their own. – KJC

#13
“Sierra”
Maddie & Tae

Written by Taylor Dye, Maddie Marlow, and Aaron Scherz

#13 – TS | #16 – KJC | #18 – LMW | * – JK

One of the things that is so great about Maddie & Tae is that they know how to expertly wrap biting words in sly sweetness. Sierra had better watch it, because she just may not know what’s coming to her! – LMW

#12
“Dead Man’s House”
Kree Harrison

Written by Benjy Davis, Kree Harrison, and Mike Walker

#7 – TS | #8 – JK

Kree Harrison, responsible for some of the finest country performances from the American Idol stage, delivers a unique kiss-off with “Dead Man’s House.” Adopting the persona of a widow who realizes that she’s been taken for a ride by a new suitor, she dresses down the deadbeat who has moved in with her. Harrison, an interpreter with spot-on instincts, downplays the natural warmth of her voice when she lets the man know exactly where he stands: “You’re never going to wear that crown/No, you’re just living in a dead man’s house.” – JK

#11
“Holy Moses”
Tami Neilson

Written by Jay Neilson and Tami Neilson

#3 – JK | #11 – TS

A bluesy, blustery triumph, “Holy Moses” finds Tami Neilson appealing for some divine intervention (“Raising my eyes to the skies above/But I don’t find nothing/Don’t feel nothing but alone”) before realizing that her fate is in her own hands (“But nobody can see this burden on me/Back breaker, no one else gonna carry it”). With her powerful vocal turn, Neilson leaves no doubt that she’s going to see herself through her heartbreak.  – JK

#10
“Jesus and a Jukebox”
Wynonna & The Big Noise

Written by Travis Meadows, Jeremy Spillman, and David Tolliver

#2 – LMW | #12 – KJC

Wynonna deliciously branches out to loudness on her first album with The Big Noise, but “Jesus and a Jukebox” is one of the quiet, pure country moments on the album. Exploring how Jesus and a Jukebox help a man get through his loss, it’s easy to imagine Mama Judd stepping in to fill things out. While Naomi is not a part of the song, it is still as effective as if this was a Judds performance. – LMW

#9
“Humble and Kind”
Tim McGraw

Written by Lori McKenna

#3 – KJC | #16 – TS | * – JK, LMW

A prayer for the gifted and privileged child, that they will accept their gifts and privileges with humility and use them in service to those in need.  – KJC

#8
“Dirty Laundry”
Carrie Underwood

Written by Zach Crowell, Ashley Gorley, and Hillary Lindsey

#5 – TS | #11 – KJC | #14 – LMW | * – JK

Over the past decade, Underwood’ has stretched her chameleon-like voice in myriad ways, sometimes to the detriment of her artistic identity. Here, though, her choices are flawless; as “Dirty Laundry” drums along, she drains the scorned narrator of all emotion with a precise, bone-dry vocal and sly inflections. When she mocks her cheating lover’s excuses in the chorus –“I’m late again / Oh I’m so sorry”—her affected performance pays off in a most satisfying way.   – TS

#7
“My Church”
Maren Morris

Written by busbee and Maren Morris

#3 – TS |#9 – JK | #16 – LMW

While it may not be everyone’s church, most of us can fully relate to the spiritual power that music can hold over us. Morris sings of that power in such an inspiring way that a song about being inspired about songs can create the same powerful experience that she’s singing about. – LMW

#6
“Love Can Go to Hell”
Brandy Clark

Written by Brandy Clark and Scott Stepakoff

#7 – KJC | #8 – TS | #15 – LMW | * – JK

Great craftsmanship doesn’t let the seams show. Brandy Clark took what could have been a forced play on words and crafted a seamless country song with it. There just isn’t a better writer out there right now. – KJC

#5
“Record Year”
Eric Church

Written by Eric Church and Jeff Hyde

#4 – KJC, JK, TS

The smart turns-of-phrases, varied musical references and oft-covered theme of music’s healing power make “Record Year” an ambitious balancing act for Church to master. But he does so effortlessly, drawing us into his sonic sanctuary such that by the end of the song, we’re only reminded of his underlying heartbreak by the lovely, melancholy instrumentation that leads us out. – TS

#4
“Kill a Word”
Eric Church featuring Rihannon Giddens

Written by Eric Church, Luke Dick, and Jeff Hyde

#3 – LMW | #6 – TS | #10 – KJC | #19 – JK

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” is how the saying goes. However, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will also hurt me” is how the saying should actually go. With the help of Church and Rhiannon Gidden’s powerful performances, the insightful “Kill a Word” acknowledges this truth and does its best to make us feel empowered to kill some of the harshest words that hurt. – LMW

#3
“Just Like Them Horses”
Reba McEntire

Written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James

#1 – KJC | #5 – LMW | #9 – TS | #16 – JK

Reba McEntire’s finest performance on record since the For My Broken Heart album. Her eulogy for her father perfectly captures the intertwined hope and sorrow that combine to form the grief of the believer. – KJC

#2
“Daddy Lessons”
Beyoncé and Dixie Chicks

Written by Kevin Cossom, Alex Delicata, Wynter Gordon, Beyoncé Knowles, and Darrell Scott

#2 – TS | #4 – LMW | #5 – JK | #8 – KJC

Mainstream country music was simply better off when the Dixie Chicks were at its forefront; there hasn’t been another act in the past thirteen years who has consistently struck the same balance between honoring country music’s traditions and incorporating forward-thinking, modern pop influences. While perhaps too much was made of the country inflections on the version of “Daddy Lessons” from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, it was clear from the beginning that the Venn Diagram of overlapping influences that went into the track included a “country” circle among many others.

What the collaboration between Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks did, then, was to enlarge that “country” circle and push it more decisively toward the center of the song’s arrangement. That the bridge from “Long Time Gone,” the Chicks’ rootsiest and ballsiest and very best single, could be interpolated seamlessly in both form and content into “Daddy Lessons” puts to bed any argument as to whether or not the single belongs in a discussion of the finest country music of 2016. It absolutely does.

“Daddy Lessons” is about the idea that what gets passed from generation to generation isn’t just genetic material: Even when the rest is, indeed, a long time gone, things like a sense of duty, obligations to our families and communities, our prejudices and our fears live in our marrow. And while there are external dangers that may give us reasons to keep a gun held high, it’s no less dangerous to turn a blind eye to how our beliefs have been shaped over time. Pledging allegiance without engaging in personal reflection, well, that’s how you end up sounding tired without sounding Haggard. – JK

#1
“Vice”
Miranda Lambert

Written by Miranda Lambert, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne

#1 – JK, TS, LMW | #2 – KJC

“Vice” was met with deafening expectations when it was released this summer, the first single off of Lambert’s post-divorce album The Weight of These Wings. In what state would the song capture her, an artist with a gift for sharing herself with her music?

Indeed, there are specific answers in “Vice” –she’s “where the numb meets the lonely,” and later, tellingly, “standing at the sink, not looking in the mirror”—but they’re secondary to the song’s simmering, cathartic aesthetic. From the scratchy opening lines to to the heavy resignation with which Lambert’s performance drips to the jarring guitar licks, “Vice” is itself a well-crafted piece of escapism. That Lambert’s transgressions are presented with a shrug, as an unavoidable part of her messy healing process, makes the song all the more riveting. – TS

10 Comments

  1. I agree for the most part with these selections although I do wish that new trio Runaway June would have made it on with their current single “Lipstick” (minor complaint).

    Out of all the songs here my favorites are the ones from Miranda Lambert, Beyoncé & Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Little Big Town and my favorite song this year “Sierra” by Maddie & Tae!

  2. For all the controversy of Daddy’s Lessons, it’s a pretty catchy song. I wish Sierra had done better. I don’t even remember it being a single.

  3. I would’ve switched the Carrie Underwood singles in my rankings and excluded the Beyoncé single. IF Dixie Chicks had released their own version of ‘Daddy’s Lessons’ I would’ve been all over it. This one? No way, no how.

    Loved seeing both Eric Church singles ranked back-to-back. I felt the need to choose between the two for my Top Ten, so as not to look like I played favorites, which was probably short sighted. I love both songs.

    Great list as usual, everyone!

  4. From my perspective, “Daddy Lessons” is more country than the majority of this list. I’m not a purist anyway – never have been – but if I was going to go that route, “Daddy Lessons” would pass the test for me.

  5. I certainly don’t think “Daddy Lessons” is purely country, but it also certainly has country elements (particularly the version with Dixie Chicks). I’d love to hear why people don’t think it’s country in any way.

  6. Ditto to Kevin! I definitely think that “Daddy Lessons” is at least as country as most of the singles on this list and actually more country than many of them.

  7. Favorites:
    Brandy – Love Can Go to Hell
    Kree Harrison – Dead Man’s House
    Tim – Humble and Kind
    Church – Kill a Word
    also like:
    Church – Record Year
    DBT – Surrender Under Protest
    LBT – Better Man
    Forever Country

    would have included:
    Mark Chesnutt’s Oughtta Miss Me By Now
    Candi Carpenter’s Burn the Bed (eligible next year)
    Cody Johnson’s With You I Am
    Jennifer Nettles’ Unlove You

  8. 1. Library Magic (The Head and the Heart)
    2. Vice (Miranda Lambert)
    3. My Church (Maren Morris)
    4. Hands of Time (Margo Price)
    5. Humble and Kind (Lori McKenna)
    6. Record Year (Eric Church)
    7. Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’ (Brandy Clark)
    8. Daddy Lessons (Beyonce)
    9. Blue Ain’t Your Color (Keith Urban)
    10. Place in My Heart (Lucinda Williams)
    12. All Around You (Sturgill Simpson)
    13. Head Over Boots (Jon Pardi)
    14. Ain’t No Man (Avett Brothers)
    15. In Bloom (Sturgill Simpsons)
    16. Setting the World on Fire (Kenny Chesney)
    17. 80’s Mercedes (Maren Morris)
    18. Forever Country (Artists of Now & Then)
    19. I Know (Shovels & Rope)
    20. Holy Moses (Tammy Nielson)

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