Despite some amazing album artists – a Willie Nelson here, an Emmylou Harris there – country music has always been a singles format. Over the past seven years, we’ve charted the development of some artists from the very beginning, like Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band, just by reviewing their singles.
Here’s how it works: At any given time, we’ll be working our way through the catalog of five artists. When we complete one of them, we’ll add a new one to the rotation.
The first five artists are:
Trace Adkins, “Just Fishin'” (Listen)
Written by Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell and Ed Hill
Wish this weren’t quite so heavy-handed about driving home the theme; a subtler approach could have made it a Strait-ish classic. Still a nice, fresh idea, though.
How are country artists faring? Let’s take a look at cumulative sales for current albums. Sales are rounded to the nearest hundred.
Top Selling Current Country Albums
- Taylor Swift, Fearless: 6,233,900
- Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift: 4,955,000
- Lady Antebellum, Need You Now: 3,138,700
- Taylor Swift, Speak Now: 3,078,600
- Zac Brown Band, The Foundation: 2,489,200
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Here are the ten singles that were almost the best of the year:
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 3: #20-#11
Poised, calculated and ferocious all at once, Rimes’ performance captures the exact persona of the scorned “ex-wives and old girlfriends” she sings of. It’s a wiser, cooler revenge anthem than we’ve heard in awhile, and it takes the crown for the year’s most fabulous opening line: “Who’d have guessed that Aqua Net could start a fire with a single cigarette?” – Tara Seetharam
What Do You Want
A contemporary spin on the standard country theme of heartache, “What Do You Want” owes its brilliance to its perfect storm of elements: The raw honesty of Niemann’s plea (“I get so tired of living like this/I don’t have the time/Neither do my friends”). The hollow, pulsing arrangement that mirrors his cycle of pain. The killer vocal performance, soaked in emotional fatigue. Each element draws out the potency of the next, culminating in one of the most captivating releases of the year. – TS
I think Tim McGraw is one of country music’s strongest singers. He doesn’t have the range or depth of a Vince Gill or a Toby Keith, but he can do what a great singer is supposed to do: deliver a song with sincerity and believability. That may seem like a low bar to clear, but it never ceases to amaze me how many country artists trip over it these days.
McGraw has a stellar track record in this area, but you’d never know it listening to “Felt Good On My Lips.” In fact, it seems that the record itself has so little confidence in McGraw’s ability to deliver a song that it puts every modern recording barrier it can think of between his vocal and the listener.
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