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Country Universe’s Best Singles of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination.  For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites.   But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.

As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell's "Hanging Up My Heart" is popular on XPN2: Singer-Songwriter Radio.

#20
“Hangin’ Up My Heart”
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin

What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward

Gary Allan It Ain't the Whiskey

#19
“It Ain’t the Whiskey”
Gary Allan

Individual rankings:  #10 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan; #18 – Kevin

The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken

Sturgill Simpson Railroad of Sin

#18
“Railroad of Sin”
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam

It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013.  - Sam Gazdziak

Kelly Willis Bruce Robison 9,999,999 Tears

#17
“9,999,999 Tears”
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #9 – Jonathan; #18 – Ben; #19 – Sam; #20 – Tara

Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe

Lori McKenna Salt

#16
“Salt”
Lori McKenna

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin

“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken

Corb Lund Hayes Carll Bible on the Dash

#15
“Bible on the Dash”
Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll

Individual rankings:  #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam

Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. – Sam Gazdziak

Billie Joe + Norah Long Time Gone

#14
“Long Time Gone”
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leann; #17 – Tara; #19 – Kevin

The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward

Charlie Worsham Could It Be

#13
“Could it Be”
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #10 – Tara, Jonathan; #12 – Sam; #14 – Dan

A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory.  - Tara Seetharam

Delta Rae Lindsey Buckingham If I Loved You

#12
“If I Loved You”
Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Dan

Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe

Miranda Lambert All Kinds of Kinds

#11
“All Kinds of Kinds”
Miranda Lambert

Individual rankings:  #2 – Sam; #11 – Leeann, Tara; #12 – Dan

This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak

Alan Jackson Blue Ridge Mountain Song

#10
“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #8 – Kevin, Leeann, Ben; #9 – Tara

Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after.   As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time.  When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne

Holly Williams Drinkin

#9
“Drinkin'”
Holly Williams

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #6 – Tara; #13 – Kevin; #17 – Dan; #19 – Jonathan

“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road.  - Leeann Ward

LEann Rimes Rob Thomas Gasoline and Matches

#8
“Gasoline and Matches”
LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas

Individual rankings:  #1 – Leeann, Ben; #13 – Dan; #17 – Jonathan

Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster

Jason Isbell Traveling Alone

#7
“Traveling Alone”
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #4 – Sam; #5 – Dan; #6 – Kevin; #8 – Tara; #13 – Leeann

This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point.  Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
Chris Stapleton What Are You Listening To

#6
“What are You Listening To”
Chris Stapleton

Individual rankings:  #2 – Tara; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #12 – Leeann; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Sam

Simply the most cathartic song about songs in years, layering blues and soul with the kind of crushing anguish only a master class vocal can convey. - Tara Seetharam

LEAnn Rimes Borrowed

#5
“Borrowed”
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #3 – Kevin; #5 – Leeann; #7 – Tara, Jonathan; #11 – Dan

LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe

Brandy Clark Stripes

#4
“Stripes”
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #6 – Leeann; #7 – Sam; #8 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #15 – Kevin

The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status.  - Leeann Ward

Little Big Town Sober

#3
“Sober”
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara, Jonathan; #2 – Ben; #4 – Dan; #16 – Sam; #18 – Leeann

Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself.  - Tara Seetharam

Miranda Lambert Mamas Broken Heart

#2
“Mama’s Broken Heart”
Miranda Lambert

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Dan; #3 – Sam; #4 – Tara, Ben; #15 – Leeann; #20 – Jonathan

Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song.  You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors.  The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best.   - Kevin Coyne

Kacey Musgraves Follow Your Arrow

#1
“Follow Your Arrow”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #1 – Dan, Sam; #3 – Tara; #4 – Kevin, Jonathan; #5 – Ben; #14 – Leeann

Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.

There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken

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