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 Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
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) Travis Tritt
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 made up his mind that he’s going to relish every second of it. – Dan Milliken
I’ve Come to Expect it From You George Strait
1990 | Peak: #1
In the Entertainer and Male Vocalist races, I’ve been making the case for fresh blood. In those categories, the routine nominees are mostly past their peaks, and there’s room to let some rising stars in on the action.
Oh, to be able to make the same case for the Female Vocalist race. Let’s take a look at last year’s nominees:
For the first time in this category’s history, I believe voters are facing a dilemma that plagued the Vocal Duo category for most of the nineties: there just aren’t enough worthy nominees to finish out the category.
Even earlier in this decade, when radio was barely playing any women at all, there were women like Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless who earned nominations for their critically acclaimed roots records. Krauss was even a regular in this category for a good chunk of the decade, and despite being largely absent from radio, she sold more records than some of her fellow nominees.
This year, there isn’t even a woman who could step forward and claim that mantle. So my picks don’t bring anything new to the table. Maybe some of you can make the case that I’m unable to, and suggest new blood in the comments.
Picks for Female Vocalist
She deserves her fourth consecutive nomination, and on the strength of Revolution and its hit single “The House That Built Me”, I think that she deserves the win this year.
In any other year, this would be the slot that should be up for grabs. McBride didn’t release a new album, and while she had some success at radio with “Wrong Baby Wrong”, it didn’t crack the top ten or reignite album sales. Still, who is standing in her way? Kellie Pickler? Gretchen Wilson? Laura Bell Bundy? I fully expect her to earn her thirteenth consecutive nomination, matching Reba McEntire’s record run from 1983-1995.
Speaking of McEntire, she’s been popping up in this category again in recent years. After those thirteen consecutive nominations ended in 1995, the race was far too competitive for a good while. She’s earned three nominations since then, in 2004, 2006, and 2009. Her massive hit “Consider Me Gone” and surprisingly strong record sales mean that this won’t be a filler nomination. She’s earned it.
Yes, I know the idea of her winning vocalist awards makes many wince, but c’mon now. There’s no denying she’s one of the top female artists today. Until Eminem’s recent comeback, she was the biggest star in all of music, period. And she’s got a shot at reclaiming that title with her third album, if initial reaction to “Mine” is any indication.
The three-time winner is radio’s favorite artist and her album sales have remained strong. If Lambert hadn’t surged with “The House That Built Me”, I think that Underwood would be ahead in the race this year. If she makes the final ballot for Entertainer, I suspect that voters will reward her in that category and give Female Vocalist to Lambert. There’s good precedent for this, as Dolly Parton (1978), Barbara Mandrell (1980), and Shania Twain (1999) won Entertainer without winning Female Vocalist that night. It’s happened even more in the Entertainer/Male races, given that the big prize has gone to men far more frequently.
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
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 (more…)
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 (more…)
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 (more…)
The list continues with appearances from artists who first surfaced in the eighties and continued to thrive into the nineties, like Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless, along with new stars from the nineties who would find greater success in the next decade, like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276
#300 Does He Love You Reba McEntire with Linda Davis
1993 | Peak: #1
This two-female duet was a gamble at the time of its release, but it offers such a brilliant fusion of perspectives that it’s hard to imagine why. The song fleshes out the range of emotions that the two women are experiencing –from pain to longing to self-doubt– and culminates in one shared question that they’ll never know the answer to: “does he love you like he’s been loving me?” – Tara Seetharam (more…)
The second segment of our countdown includes the first appearances by Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, two of the biggest-selling stars of the decade.
#375 How Do I Get There Deana Carter
1997 | Peak: #1
It’s always a gamble when friends decide to take their relationship to the next level. “How Do I Get There” explores the struggle of following one’s heart, even though it’s taking a big emotional risk to do so. – Leeann Ward
If I Could Make a Living Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #1
This song is either ridiculously cheesy or irresistibly cheesy depending on your taste, but there’s no denying Walker sells the heck out of it with charm and enthusiasm. – Tara Seetharam
It Sure is Monday Mark Chesnutt
1993 | Peak: #1
Mark Chesnutt is one of the best male vocalists of the nineties, but there were many times when he did not always rise to the challenge of conveying the energy to elevate a decent song to a good one. Case in point: “Friends in Low Places”, which was eventually properly energized by Garth Brooks. “It Sure Is Monday”, however, is a positive example of Chesnutt actually making a song his own by demonstrating the ability to breathe life into a decent song and make it really good. – LW (more…)