The Best Singles of the Decade, Part Four: #25-#1

The Best of the Decade, 2010-2019

Albums

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

Singles

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

Our Best of the Decade feature comes to a close with a look at the very best singles from the past ten years.

 

#25

“Blown Away”

Carrie Underwood

One of those glorious moments when the unbridled power of a Carrie Underwood vocal is matched up with a lyrical story that warrants a full blown hurricane of a performance. Nobody else could’ve sung this one so convincingly. A definitive moment for country music’s biggest female star of the century. – Kevin John Coyne

 

#24

“Cost of Livin'”

Ronnie Dunn

Only the line about gas prices hasn’t aged well— when writing a song, it’s always poor form to forget about market fluctuations— on Ronnie Dunn’s modern working-class lament. What’s exceptional about the song is its attention to detail as a character sketch. “What I don’t know, I catch on real quick,” is such a revealing line about the narrator of this song, in terms of who he is as a fully-realized and believable person and of the desperate circumstances that would lead him to make such a statement to a stranger in a job interview. Dunn’s most often known a fiery vocalist, but his performance on “Cost of Livin’” is a marvel of introspection and empathy. It’s perhaps the quietest vocal turn of his career, and certainly one of his finest. – Jonathan Keefe

 

 

#23

“The Sound of a Million Dreams”

David Nail

In this beautiful piano ballad, Nail sings earnestly of music’s ability to conjure memories, whether it’s of an old flame or a selfless mother. But he quickly pivots in the chorus to his firm faith in his own craft – his dreams of being a vessel for a song that will one day etch someone else’s life. It’s a lofty sentiment, to be sure, but does it ever work when paired with the study, powerful melody. – Tara Seetharam

 

#22

“People Get Old”

Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna has penned a few gorgeous tributes to her late mother, who passed when she was a young child. “People Get Old” celebrates the father who is still with her, and it is every bit the equal of her best maternal celebrations. As always, McKenna weaves wisdom out of the most ordinary of details, crafting a narrative that is universal in its truth despite being so specific in its content that it can only be her own story. She’s just so damn good at this. – KJC

 

#21

“If I Loved You”

Delta Rae

If there was ever a sound that matched the feeling of desperation, it’s in the infectious chorus of “If I Loved You.” There’s no grey area here: the narrator intends to break the heart of a man she doesn’t love . But her plea for understanding bleeds with anguish and regret and wistfulness such that, as Jonathan wrote many years ago, it makes the old adage “It’s not you, it’s me” a surprisingly believable one. – TS

 

#20

“Just Like Them Horses”

Reba McEntire

Reba McEntire is one of the greatest vocal stylists in country music history, and when she’s paired with material worthy of her skills, you’ll get a classic country record every damn time. She sings the fire out of this heartbreaking deathbed conversation, but the most powerful moment is right before the final chorus, when she lets out a choked breath that has more emotion in it than most singers can wring out of an actual note. Her best recording of the 21st century…so far. – KJC

 

#19

“Birmingham”

Shovel and Rope

“Birmingham” is the energetic, scrappy story of a talented husband and wife joining together in music as they did in matrimony.  A crisp and vibrant sonic delight.– Leeann Ward

 

 

#18

“Rainbow”

Kacey Musgraves

In “Rainbow,” Musgraves gently nudges a friend to the other side of a seemingly endless storm. There’s a timeless, Beatles-esque quality to the arrangement and a sense of serenity to Musgraves’ plainspoken wisdom. It’s no wonder that “Rainbow” found a new audience over the past devastating months: Every detail of Musgraves’ performance –down to the soothing “It’ll all be alright”– feels rooted in an understanding that darkness is always followed by light. – TS

 

#17

“Bottle By My Bed”

Sunny Sweeney

“Bottle By My Bed” plays against the expectations of its title, as Sweeney isn’t singing about booze, but rather her longing for a baby bottle beside her bed.  Her friends think she’s got it made with her glamorous career, but she feels a deep sadness about the “empty room at the top of the stairs.”  Sweeney’s vulnerability about her infertility struggles make for a heartbreaking country song. – LW

 

#16

“Love Done Gone”

Billy Currington

Anyone reading our slough through Sirius XM’s ranking of the 1000 Greatest Songs in Country Music knows that I’ve run out of ways to express my disdain for Currington’s lazily tossed-off half-singing of middling material. But for four glorious minutes, Billy Currington got it all perfect. Rather than lazy and disinterested, his phrasing on “Love Done Gone” scans as affable and fully in-service to a song that views an amicable break-up as a rarity worth celebrating. And it’s just pure joy: The singalong “ba-da-ba” exclamations, the jaunty brass section, a melody that outright soars in the chorus, the winking use of the holler helping verb. Every bit of it works, and it works at least in part because of, not in spite of, Currington himself. “Love Done Gone” is far from his biggest hit, but it’s handily the finest single of Billy Currington’s career. – JK

 

#15

“Mama’s Broken Heart”

Miranda Lambert

From her exasperated sigh in the opening seconds, Lambert is a defiant force throughout “Mama’s Broken Heart,” barreling unapologetically through society’s suffocating expectations of her. The arrangement adds an uneasy dimension to Lambert’s rage, like a carnival ride that’s gone off-kilter and won’t let you off. It all amounts to a delicious backdrop for the song’s central message, a warning about the unrealistic limits we put on female expression. – TS

 

#14

“It Feels Good”

Drake White

An antidote to the bro-country that was still dominating radio playlists at the time of its release, Drake White’s “It Feels Good” gets by on very little. The songwriting is economical, with just a handful of repeated phrases in its chorus and just enough to the verses to capture a distinct sense of place, while the production doesn’t involve much more than some handclaps and a wailing harmonica. That minimalism keeps the focus on White himself, and he puts on a commanding show, working himself up into a tent revival frenzy. When he shouts, “Does it make you shake it, honey? Does it make you move your feet?” the questions are anything but rhetorical. – JK

 

#13

“As She’s Walking Away”

Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson

The purest country duet in ages, “As She’s Walking Away” hinges on how both Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson embrace their artistic personas in service of the song’s characters. Brown plays the part of the upstart still trying to find his voice, while Jackson serves as the encouraging and empathetic voice of reason. While Jackson could still play that role convincingly a decade on, what a shame it is that Brown has squandered every bit of the goodwill he accrued on standout singles like this with a series of misguided side projects and unconvincing cross-genre dalliances and pissy, petulant defenses of an artistic vision he’s very sure his “haters” just aren’t cultured enough to get. Because when Brown puts his trust in his ace band and drops the bullshit attitude, he’s capable of writing and performing songs that will deservedly become standards. “As She’s Walking Away” boasts a lovely melody, crisp and resoundingly country production, and a timeless narrative. It’s one of the singles country radio really got right in the last decade. – JK

 

#12

“Giddy On Up”

Laura Bell Bundy

There’s an alternate timeline in which Laura Bell Bundy turned into the biggest star in country music. That we aren’t living in that timeline is country music’s single biggest mistake of the past decade. Bundy can sing, dance, perform, and, above all else, write. Not since Dolly Parton at her peak has a songwriter demonstrated such consistent wit or such a singular point-of-view; there’s literally no other artist who could have come up with “Giddy On Up.” The wordplay in the hook (“Giddy on up / Giddy on out”) is immediate and memorable, but even more impressive is Bundy’s command of the natural meter of language. Every syllable of the first verse hits in perfect rhythm, even when she doubles the pace (“A tall drink of water and a pretty little thing / Were kissing on the corner in the pouring rain”), and that simply does not happen by accident. As a seasoned Broadway performer, Bundy completely sells it, vamping and growling her way through the decade’s best kiss-off record. The production highlights country instruments—listen closely, and there’s even a jaw harp— while incorporating elements of hip-hop and top 40 pop in ways that create a vision of “pop-country” that, nearly a decade on, still sounds evolved far ahead-of-its time. Ultimately, “Giddy On Up” may have been too much of what it is to make for a successful lead single for Bundy. While so many spent the decade on a misguided search for authenticity in country music, Laura Bell Bundy approached the very concept of genre itself as a drag revue and created something infinitely more compelling.- JK

 

#11

“Little White Church”

Little Big Town

Little Big Town puts a rousing, modern spin on the call-and-response pattern in “Little White Church,” a barn-stomper about pushing a sluggish man to the altar.  With its hand claps, fresh harmonies and guitar work that essentially acts as a fifth member of the band, “Little White Church” is one of the most memorable singles of Little Big Town’s career. – TS

 

#10

“Nice Things”

Mickey Guyton

At its best, country songwriting boasts an interpretive depth that is truly literary. From the Biblical allusions of “Coat of Many Colors” and the striking, poetic imagery of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to the William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams references in “Maybe It Was Memphis” and cultural specificity of “Kill a Word,” country music can and should reward careful analysis. “Nice Things” absolutely belongs in the company of those songs; but for country radio’s ongoing biases against women and non-white performers, it’s the single that should have cemented Mickey Guyton’s status as a genre A-lister. The song builds its central metaphors around a line from poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy,” later used as inspiration by Maya Angelou for the title of her autobiography as a commentary on matters of abuse and racism, and it’s to Guyton’s credit that it’s in no way forced or pedantic. Instead, “Nice Things” finds its narrator gradually growing in confidence as she reflects upon a relationship that had broken her, and Guyton’s understated and beautiful performance is a reminder of how lucky the country genre is to count her among its fold.- JK

 

#9

“Dime Store Cowgirl”

Kacey Musgraves

Specific, yet inclusive; personal, yet universal, Musgraves’ “Dime Store Cowgirl” is a musical self-portrait in which just about any listener can see a little bit of himself or herself – beautifully finished off with a banjo and steel-driven arrangement and a melody that begs you to sing along. Still one of Musgraves’ finest moments. – Ben Foster

 

#8

“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”

Alan Jackson

This is the most selfless of goodbyes, with Alan Jackson shouldering all of the anger and blame as he’s walking away for good.  That alone would make it a distinctive record.  But it’s that late pivot, where he envisions the inevitable drunk dial and vows to “let it ring and ring,” that gives “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” its greatest potency, as he makes clear that she can have everything but his dignity.  – KJC

 

#7

“Sober”

Little Big Town

Like many of their contemporaries, Little Big Town have overplayed their hand when it comes to singles about drinking, but “Sober,” written by the collective of women songwriters known as The Love Junkies, takes a completely different approach than “Pontoon” or “Day Drinking.” Instead, “Sober” is the finest example— out of far, far too many— of a song that uses intoxication as a metaphor for a fulfilling relationship, and what elevates the song is that its tone is celebratory. When Kimberley Schlapman exclaims, “I love being in love,” at the start of each chorus, backed by the lush harmony vocals of her bandmates, it’s pitched as if she’s testifying in church. “Sober,” in addition to boasting a gorgeous melody and light-handed production that keeps the focus on the song itself and Schlapman’s outsized performance, is a record about joy that actually sounds joyful. – JK

 

#6

“Follow Your Arrow”

Kacey Musgraves

In a genre that often leans socially conservative, Kacey Musgraves made a positive splash with this groundbreaking record embracing the simple idea of loving who you love.  Its cheeky nature kept it from feeling preachy and overbearing, and her encouragement of trusting your own moral compass was validating to both sides without perching itself on the fence. – LW

 

#5

“24 Frames”

Jason Isbell

It’s not unfair to reduce the meticulously crafted “24 Frames” to the gut punch of its best lyric: “You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Isbell explores life’s fragility with equal acidity throughout the song, conceding that with every moment –with every 24th frame– comes the possibility of a higher power flipping you around, disorienting you, distorting your vision and all that you’ve constructed. It’s a cinematic, astute reflection of the complicated battles each of us faces just by living, and it surely established Isbell as one of this generation’s finest songwriters. – TS

 

#4

“Vice”

Miranda Lambert

She’s never hewed anywhere close to the genre’s historic expectations that its women should either be victims or, barring that, at least be polite, but Miranda Lambert has never been as unapologetic in her rejection of those social mores as she is on “Vice.” What makes Lambert such an important artist is that, from Kerosene onward, she’s demonstrated that she’s fully aware of the consequences of the actions that inform many of her most famous songs and that she makes every one of those decisions as a woman with her own agency. The narrator she gives voice in “Vice” owns every one of her choices, and she relays those choices with some of the most sharply-drawn lines in Lambert’s extraordinary catalogue. “Steady as a needle dropping on a vinyl / Neon singer with a jukebox title full of heartbreak / 33, 45, 78 / When it hurts this good, you gotta play it twice,” is simply the best opening line of the past decade, and the remainder of “Vice” builds on it with precision and purpose. It’s telling that Lambert’s biggest hits over the last decade were her most conventional, and it’s really no surprise at all that a single as confrontational as “Vice” stalled outside the top 10. And, while it may not be the hit— keep reading!— that becomes her legacy single, “Vice” managed to take the woman who was already the most vital country act of her generation to an entirely new plane in her artistry. – JK

 

#3

“If We Were Vampires”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

“If We Were Vampires” explores the idea that two people in love can’t be together forever, and it is the knowledge of our inevitable mortality that must make us love deeper and with greater intention.  “Maybe we’ll get forty years together. But one day I’ll be gone, or one day you’ll be gone.”   It’s not the flowery words you’d find in a greeting card, yet its sentiment is sweet and true, even though they pack a gut punch. – LW

 

#2

“The House That Built Me”

Miranda Lambert

A simple, relatable story told through a heartfelt vocal performance with an arrangement that stays out of the way. Just being what a country single should be was enough to make Lambert’s “House” a standout in 2010, but it shines even without comparing it to the drivel that surrounded it on country radio. The vivid first-person details in the lyrics quickly pull the listener into the story, while Lambert’s performance is a mixture of longing, regret and hope. There could hardly have been a more worthy record to finally launch Lambert into superstardom. – BF

 

#1

“The Blade”

Ashley Monroe

A breakup ballad this crisp and dignified and yet wholly cathartic is hard to come by in country music or otherwise. Monroe’s performance in “The Blade” is exquisitely measured; she reels from every gash in her heart, but she also sees her situation clearly for what it is: a casualty of the greatest risk one can take in life, which is to love unconditionally. “You caught it by the handle,” she gently explains to her ex, “And I caught it by the blade.” As excruciating as her pain is, her maturity has led her to acceptance.

That juxtaposition –Monroe’s composure and grace against the weight of the crushing central metaphor– is simply remarkable. One can only hope that material like “The Blade” will continue to put Monroe and her timeless voice in the company of country music’s best and most evocative storytellers well into the new decade.  – TS

The Best of the Decade, 2010-2019

Albums

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

Singles

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

 

4 Comments

  1. …kudos, great effort folks – and a highly entertaining well as intriguing one too. however, you kinda forgot to list little big town’s “girl crush” among the top five or even more justified top three entries. “the blade” is a surprising top choice (to me), but what a beautiful song and what superb album that is where it comes from. and if it had been a single, “leavers lullaby” off the annies’ “interstate gospel” album should have been there too among the top ten. ashley monroe at her finest, defining with her two sisters in tunes how wonderful modern country music can sound.

  2. I really enjoyed the whole list. The women was making some awesome singles throughout the decade and the list reflects that.

  3. Great job by all the writers – no surprise there. I did a rough check and it appears that the list included about 15 or 16 songs featuring female artists or a group with female & male members in each of the 4 sections. Glad to see the women doing so well. Now if only top 40 country can get with the program.

  4. Glad to see Sunny Sweeney and Ashley Monroe recognized but otherwise it’s hard for me to get too excited about these entries. It wasn’t a good decade – maybe the 20s will be better

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