Back to the Nineties
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
Smoke Rings in the Dark
1999 | Peak: #12
A dark, atmospheric wonder, as Allan delivers the final eulogy for a love that couldn’t help burning out. – Dan Milliken
Just to See You Smile
1997 | Peak: #1
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny sound reflects the persistent affection pulsing through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM
The themes of love and loss have permeated country music for as long as it’s been in existence. This second-to-last batch of great nineties hits contains songs that are direct descendants of well-known classics like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, along with a Shania Twain hit that would have made Roba Stanley smile.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #50-#26
Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)
1991 | Peak: #2
From the first forceful guitar strum on, this kiss-off number somehow manages to seem unusually cool and collected in its own aggression. You get the impression that Tritt’s character has been anticipating this moment, and has already determined that he’s going to relish every second of it. – Dan Milliken
I’ve Come to Expect it From You
1990 | Peak: #1
This is about as dark and bitter as George Strait gets. It’s a coat that he wears well. – Kevin Coyne
As might be expected, the subject matters are getting more intense as we edge closer to the top. But there’s still room for some carefree moments here, thanks to the Dixie Chicks and Jo Dee Messina.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #75-#51
When You Say Nothing at All
Alison Krauss & Union Station
1995 | Peak: #3
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
1993 | Peak: #1
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Some of these covers became big hits, like Billy Dean’s “We Just Disagree” and Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria.” Various album cuts and tribute projects demonstrated Lorrie Morgan’s fondness for Bonnie Tyler (“It’s a Heartache”), Garth Brooks’ love for Kiss (“Hard Luck Woman”), and more than a dozen artists’ affinity for the Eagles.
It’s just a matter of time before today’s country stars start remaking pop and rock hits from the nineties. Here’s a few that I think would work well:
Many a star was launched in the nineties, a few of them right out of the gate. This section includes the debut singles from Toby Keith, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, and Doug Stone, along with Grammy-winning hits by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76
The Battle Hymn of Love
Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien
1990 | Peak: #9
Wedding songs are typically made of the same fiber, but this one is a little different: it’s energized by burning conviction and fierce pledges. – Tara Seetharam
1996 | Peak: #10
Sure, the novelty of thirteen year-old Rimes’ prodigious Patsy imitation helped things along. But that unshakable yodeled hook would have made “Blue” a classic in any era of country music. – Dan Milliken
Johnny Cash may have been too dark for country radio back in 1994, but his morbid single lives on alongside debut singles, seventies covers, and a whole lot of Mary Chapin Carpenter.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #125-#101
1999 | Peak: #1
Sure, the melody of the chorus sounds just like “It Matters to Me.” But “Breathe” took the country power ballad to new heights, becoming Hill’s signature hit in the process. – Kevin Coyne
Life’s a Dance
John Michael Montgomery
1992 | Peak: #4
It’s the catchy fiddle riff that’s so memorable about John Michael Montgomery’s debut, number one, single. He is known for being a balladeer, but this one is an up-tempo motivational song. – Leeann Ward
Signature hits, breakthrough hits, and why-weren’t-they-hits abound in this entry.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #150-#126
1994 | Peak: #1
A perfect time capsule of the boom times, as Jackson wryly notes all of those genre-hoppers who saw dollar signs in the growing country music scene. Funny how they didn’t arrive on radio until a decade later. – Kevin Coyne
I Want to Be Loved Like That
1993 | Peak: #3
Sometimes the deepest understanding of love comes from what you see around you. The narrator in this song won’t settle for anything less than the unwavering love he’s witnessed in his life, and his examples are stunning in the way they slice straight to the core of love, to the bond that can’t be broken by the physical world. This is one of the purest tributes to love I’ve ever heard. – Tara Seetharam
Proving that the airplay charts don’t tell all of the story, this part of the countdown features several singles by nineties stars that didn’t reach the top but have stood the test of time.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #175-#151
I Wish I Could Have Been There
1994 | Peak: #4
This is the country equivalent to “Cats in the Cradle”, but more tender and less selfish. – Leeann Ward
Sometimes She Forgets
1995 | Peak: #7
Tritt gives a surprisingly but fittingly subdued performance on this cover of a Steve Earle song, telling the story of a woman who sometimes forgets that she’s sworn off men. I can never get enough of the incredibly cool arrangement. – Tara Seetharam
The hits come from all over the place here. Breakthrough hits from Trace Adkins and Carlene Carter join one-hit wonders Brother Phelps and George Ducas. And alongside crafty covers of songs by sixties rock band The Searchers and nineties country artist Joy Lynn White, you can also find tracks from three diamond-selling country albums.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #200-#176
Carrying Your Love With Me
1997 | Peak: #1
A traveler gets through his lonely nights on the sheer strength of love. It’s perhaps a little too saccharine for some, but the sweet melody and Strait’s understated vocals make the record work. – Tara Seetharam
1990 | Peak: #3
A man sits around in a bar “talking ’bout the good old times, bragging on how it used to be.” Simple premise, but the gorgeously melancholy melody and performance lift the record to Haggardly heights. – Dan Milliken