The Best Singles of 2017, Part Two: #20-#1

Best of 2017

Albums

Singles: Part One | Part Two

Our countdown of the year’s best singles concludes with a look at the twenty best releases of 2017.

The Best Singles of 2017, Part Two: #20-#1

#20
“Makin’ Me Look Good Again”
Drake White

Written by Monty Criswell, Shane Minor, and Drake White

#3 – JK

White’s the kind of soul singer who is able to elevate even his lesser material with his rangy, committed performances. “Makin’ Me Look Good Again,” though, is the best-written song on White’s debut, Spark, and it’s the kind of single that would have made him a huge star a generation ago. While most of the men on country radio spent the year mewling out PUA sleaze, White dropped what was far and away the year’s sexiest country single. – Jonathan Keefe

#19
“Broken Halos”
Chris Stapleton

Written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton

#3 – SG

The Mike Henderson-Chris Stapleton songwriting team has been spawning memorable tunes since their days in The Steeldrivers. “Broken Halos,” a tribute to those angels who touch into our lives and are called away, may be the best song they’ve written together, and that’s saying something. – Sam Gazdziak

#18
“Good With God”
Old 97’s featuring Brandi Carlile

Written by Ken Bethea, Brandi Carlile, Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller, and Philip Peeples

#9 – JK | #18 – SG

Over one of Old 97’s most break-neck arrangements, frontman Rhett Miller keeps repeating that he’s “good with God” in an effort to convince himself, the listener, and God that what he says is true. When the voice of God responds in the song’s second verse— and it turns out to be Brandi Carlile, no less— she sounds thoroughly put out and put off by Miller’s nonsense and self-deception. He may have had an opportunity to get right with the Lord, but that opportunity has come and gone, and God sounds displeased. – JK

#17
“My Old Man”
Zac Brown Band

Written by Zac Brown, Niko Moon, and Ben Simonetti

#9 – KJC | #13 – LW

Zac Brown Band promised a return to its roots with their Welcome Home project. The album didn’t deliver on that promise, but this powerful single did. “My Old Man” is as good a tribute to a good father as I’ve ever heard. – Kevin John Coyne

#16
“Tin Man”
Miranda Lambert

Written by Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall

#11 – SG | #16 – LW | #17 – JK

Lambert’s refined take on the Tin Man theme is as intimate and forlorn as it gets. From the perspective of her gutted heart, she warns the Tin Man that he would be better off without a heart, but if he really wants one, she offers her shattered heart in exchange for his armor. Thanks to her intimate performance and a sympathetic production, Lambert is able to elevate this theme above its predecessors. – Leeann Ward

#15
“A Long and Happy Life”
Delta Rae

Written by Eric Holljes and Ian Holljes

#4 – JK | #17 – KJC

A love song that in one breath rejects the simple declarations that populate most romantic anthems, and in the next, unironically embraces them. It’s a roundabout way of demonstrating that love is a universal emotion, regardless of the differences among those who experience it. – KJC

#14
“Liar Liar”
Aubrie Sellers

Written by Brandy Clark, Jessi Jo Dillon, and Aubrie Sellers

#7 – LW | #20 – KJC, SG

An aggressive production and biting lyrics, like “Liar, liar, Womanizer, bargain bin romanticizer,” still find a way to complement Sellers’ gentle voice. Even sitting at Number 14, it could easily be argued that “Liar, Liar” is the coolest sounding song on this list. – LW

#13
“It Ain’t My Fault”
Brothers Osborne

Written by Lee Thomas Miller, John Osborne, and TJ Osborne

#8 – JK | #9 – LW

The best offense is a good defense, and the best defense is to deny, deny, deny. And when the narrator of “It Ain’t My Fault” runs out of ways to dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge, he just heads to the bar to make even more poor decisions that he’ll have to try to explain the next day. A raucous and note-perfect bit of pop-country escapism, “It Ain’t My Fault” cemented Brothers Osborne’s status as the genre’s premiere duo act. – JK

#12
“A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”
Ashley McBryde

Written by Nicolette Hayford, Ashley McBryde, and Jesse Rice

#7 – JK | #8 – KJC

This Ashley McBryde record has the working class grit of Lacy J. Dalton, the sharp observation of K.T. Oslin, and the good ol’ girl done good of Gretchen Wilson.  Three points of view that were all in need of a 2017 update, from a woman with enough talent to build on that legacy with her own unique perspective. More, please. – KJC

#11
“Julie”
Rhiannon Giddens

Written by Rhiannon Giddens

#5 – KJC | #8 – SG

The story behind “Julie” was taken from the accounts of a slave in the Civil War, and Giddens approaches the narrative like a novella. The drama builds and builds until it reaches a heartbreaking crescendo — all the more tragic in the fact that the story is true and likely happened thousands of times. – SG

#10
“If I Could Make You My Own”
Dori Freeman

Written by Dori Freeman

#10 – SG, LW | #20 – JK

“If I Could Make You My Own” portrays a person who yearns for somebody that seems to be out of her reach, but she fanticizes of how perfect life would be if she could have him for her own. While her promises and expectations for this would-be relationship are purposefully unrealistic, the inviting warmth of Freeman’s vocals sell this idealized declaration of longing. – LW

#9
“It Ain’t Over Yet”
Rodney Crowell featuring Rosanne Cash and John Paul White

Written by Rodney Crowell

#3 – KJC | #7 – SG

Crowell’s lovely Close Ties album features a few autobiographical numbers, and “It Ain’t Over Yet” is unflinching, endearing and honest. The addition of Cash and White take an already excellent song to a higher level. – SG

#8
“Dead Ringer”
The Whiskey Gentry

Written by Jason Morrow and Lauren Staley

#5 – LW | #13 – SG | #15 – JK

What do you do when your vocals inevitably earn a comparison to a different, more famous singer? If you’re Lauren Staley and Jason Morrow, the husband-and-wife duo behind Georgia’s The Whiskey Gentry, you write a song about it. Staley (who honestly does sound like Alison Krauss after a half bottle of whiskey) can sing tenderly, but she’s at home with a smart-assed tune like this. – SG

#7
“Better Get it Right the First Time”
Rhiannon Giddens

Written by Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Harrington, and Dirk Powell

#2 – KJC | #4 – LW

A civil rights anthem for the modern day, “Better Get it Right the First Time” is both passionate plea for the presence of justice and stinging indictment of the absence of it. The title doubles as the terrified warning for those who love their children and the cold dismissal of the society that kills them all over again by saddling them with the blame for their own death. “Did you stand your ground? Is that why they shot you down? Or did you run that day? Baby, they shot you anyway.” You better get it right the first time, but no matter what you do, your choice will be the wrong one. – KJC

#6
“Ain’t No Little Girl”
Kasey Chambers

Written by Kasey Chambers

#5 – JK | #6 – LW | #7 – KJC

The irony that Chambers capitalizes on to brilliant effect on “Ain’t No Little Girl” is that she’s spent a significant portion of her career playing up the child-like timbre of her voice in ways that add even greater depth to her songs. On her best-known singles— “The Captain” and “Not Pretty Enough”— she performed her exceptional lyrics with a degree of just-lost innocence. That’s not the case here. “Ain’t No Little Girl” is an explosive tour-de-force of a performance from Chambers, who belts, growls, and snarls her way through a blistering kiss-off of a song that pointedly subverts the ways that, in many instances, women are still expected to behave. – JK

#5
“Three Kids No Husband”
Brandy Clark

Written by Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna

#2 – SG | #4 – KJC | #20 – LW

Clark is one of the best in country music at writing slice-of-life character portrayals, as “Three Kids” demonstrates. The woman in the story isn’t an unflappable, made-for-TV wonder-Mom who handles life’s troubles without a worry. She smokes, she has a crappy job and she’s stressed, but she does what she has to do because “those kids ain’t gonna raise themselves.” Country music doesn’t get any more real than this. – SG

#4
“Bottle By My Bed”
Sunny Sweeney

Written by Lori McKenna and Sunny Sweeney

#1 – LW | #12 – JK | #14 – SG | #18 – KJC

Leave it to songwriter extraordinaire and mother of five children, Lori McKenna, to be the one who is able to sympathize enough to empathize with the pain of the idea of not being able to conceive. For Sunny Sweeney to entrust McKenna to help her write such a deeply personal song about her struggles with infertility is a testament to McKenna’s adept songwriting and intrinsic compassion for others.

With piercing admissions like “I only call my husband Baby ’cause I love the word” and “I don’t even know you yet but I know I love you”, Sweeney reveals a emotionally raw reality of her life that may make some people feel uncomfortable, but it is honest and important.

Infertility is a topic that is all too often avoided in real life conversation, let alone in song. After years of infertility struggles and treatments, Sweeney miraculously became pregnant, only to have a miscarriage, which can all be felt in Sweeney’s emotional vocals that were recorded less than two weeks after her loss. The twist of a country song entitled “Bottle by My Bed” that refers to longing for the need for baby bottles rather than beer bottle, is both clever and, on a deeper level, as intimate and heartbreaking as a sad country weeper has ever been. – LW

#3
“Nice Things”
Mickey Guyton

Written by Stephanie Chapman, Mickey Guyton, and Liz Rose

#1 – JK | #6 – SG | #10 – KJC | #14 – LW

What feels like a lifetime ago, Pam Tillis name-checked William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams in what would become her signature hit and what the crew here at Country Universe nearly-unanimously named the best country single of the 1990s. It’s depressing, really, to reflect upon how mainstream country music has devolved over throughout the aughts in comparison. Mickey Guyton’s “Nice Things” isn’t just a gorgeously performed, thoughtfully produced, and expertly written single on its own merits, then— though it’s certainly all of those things. It’s a glimmer of hope. In 2017, it feels like a minor miracle that a current up-and-coming star would write a song that builds to a reference to a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, later used famously by Maya Angelou. “Nice Things” is a reminder that, at its best, country music— even the country music that’s aimed squarely at mainstream radio airplay– is thoughtful and smart and unafraid to challenge its listeners. – JK

#2
“The Older I Get”
Alan Jackson

Written by Adam Wright, Hailey Whitters, and Sarah Allison Turner

#2 – JK | #3 – LW | #6 – KJC | #15 – SG

As Jackson sings, “And if they found a fountain of youth/I wouldn’t drink a drop/And that’s the truth/Funny how it feels I’m just getting to my best years yet”, he does a convincing job of demonstrating that he has nicely settled into getting older and is happy to do so, despite the perceived hardships that come with it. Instead of feeling down that he has fewer friends, he appreciates the unwavering support of the ones that he still has. Likewise, instead of feeling bad about his laugh lines, he sees them as “souvenirs and little signs” of the life he’s lived.

Many of country music’s elder statesmen have sung about aging, but none more gracefully and gratefully than Alan Jackson. Adam Wright, Jackson’s nephew and an accomplished songwriter in his own right, has co-written a touching reflection that captures his uncle’s grace as he looks back with no regrets, looks forward with relaxed anticipation, and is grateful for everything in between. – LW

#1
“If We Were Vampires”
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

Written by Jason Isbell

#1 – KJC, SG | #2 – LW | #14 – JK

“If We Were Vampires” has Jason Isbell tackling the subject that trips up even the most accomplished writers: true love. He manages to weave intimate details together with unwavering sentiment without even a hint of sappiness.  The suggestion that our very mortality is what makes us capable of such deep love is revelatory. A masterclass in songwriting.  – KJC

2 Comments

  1. Miranda’s Tin Man is one of her best songs. Man, I can’t help by sing the praises of Miranda. Aubrie Sellers is living out her mom’s dream by dropping quality work. Liar, Liar only scratches the surface of Aubrie’s talent. Dori Freeman is so underrated. I discovered her this year, and she blew me away. If I Could Make You My Own is too good of a song. Sunny Sweeney and Rhiannon Giddens continues to drop amazing music. Both Trophy and Freedom Highway was fantastic albums. Brandy Clark’s songwriting is so rich in detail that you can put yourself in her shoes and feel you’re living her life. Three Kids No Husband showcase it perfectly. Kasey Chambers’ Dragonfly was a great album. She is always consistent with her work. Add Ain’t No Little Girl to all the great songs Kasey’s released. I loved Mickey’s Nice Things. She has a fantastic voice. The older Alan Jackson get, the quality of music get better. Alan will forever be awesome. Jason Isbell, what more I need to say. You can always expect Jason to drop great songs.

  2. I’ve been checking out this list on and off for a few days now and listening to some songs I had never heard before. A lot of good songs here but too many for me to comment on individually. Some i would like better if some one else was doing the singing – like Yearwood singing “The Song Remembers When” or “The Dreaming Fields” instead of respectively Hugh Prestwood or Matraca Berg, no disrespect meant to those fine songwriters.

    Thanks for the lists. Happy New Year to all.

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