Best Country Singles of 2008, Part 4: #10-#1

Our top ten singles of the year represent the very best of what country music is and what country music can be. With a combination of rising stars and veteran artists, it’s clear that the genre has worthy guardians waiting in the wings, even as the current keepers of the flame show no signs of fading away.


Ashton Shepherd, “Takin’ Off This Pain”

I cheated a bit by throwing this one into the mix, since it was technically released last fall. But as it wasn’t on the site’s 2007 singles countdown and didn’t even peak until this past May, I’m going to take this opportunity to opine, quite simply, that this single paints the best kind of picture of everything contemporary country in the 2000’s can be. It’s not pure traditionalism, as some have suggested – there’s a lot more modern drive than old-school shuffle at work here – but few major-label artists this decade have updated the spirit of classic country more loyally or convincingly than Shepherd has with this debut. Even if you take away the whopping voice, you’ve got clear, focused storytelling with palpable personality and an unusually clever hook. Loretta Lynn is smiling to herself somewhere.  – DM


James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”

James Otto has one of the most soulful voices in country music, comparable to Travis Tritt. In “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” he uses his vocal range to irresistible affect. While it’s often compared to Gary Allan’s “Nothin’ On But The Radio” and Josh Turner’s “Your Man”, this is a song that could have easily been delivered by Conway Twitty, as it’s in the grand tradition of steamy tracks like “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” –  LW


Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman”

Donn Sampson and Wynn Varble penned this moving piece, one centered around the (mostly correct) notion that the fairer sex exercises greater, ahem, patience than their male counterparts. A newlywed husband on a shopping trip with his young bride meets an elderly man at the local mall.  Soon, he’s listening to the advice of the sage, one who sees the waiting as one of life’s sweet, simple pleasures. The corresponding video clip, featuring iconic television actor Andy Griffith, added gravitas to an already-compelling lyric that ponders mortality and the everlasting love in a healthy marriage. – BB


Josh Turner featuring Trisha Yearwood, “Another Try”

The measure of a good song is if it can properly elicit its intended emotions from its listener. Josh Turner’s “Another Try” does exactly what it intends to do – it nudges its listener toward sadness. With the brilliant assistance of Trisha Yearwood’s prominent and gorgeous harmony vocals, the song aptly captures the sadness and regret that Turner feels as a result of neglecting his relationship. From his mistakes he learns that “there’s no changing things that we regret”/The best that we can hope for is one more chance.” – LW


Hayes Carll, “She Left Me For Jesus”

Pure novelty? Sure. But we’d be remiss to ignore the significant part that well-done funny songs have played in country music’s legacy (“A Boy Named Sue,” anyone?), and that’s just what Carll has given us here. His story of an impossibly clueless man who mistakes his girlfriend’s conversion for a secular love affair is not just an outrageous hoot; it’s also one of the most meticulously constructed releases of the year, with nary a wasted line and a whiny delivery that sounds perfectly matched to thoughtful conjectures like, “They must think that I’m stupid!”. Five years from now, you’ll likely have forgotten about 3/4 of the gooey ballads and feel-good nothings littering this week’s Top 20, but you’ll still remember Carll’s ludicrous threat to pick a fight with his gal’s “other man.”  – DM


Jamey Johnson, “In Color”

Jamey Johnson delivered one of the most powerful singles of 2008 with “In Color,” a candid look at life through the eyes of a grandfather who shares his black-and-white photos with an awed grandson. With four minutes of sheer mastery, Johnson captures the mood of our times. The references to the Great Depression and World War II are chilling (and awfully reminiscent of our challenging times), and Johnson (with co-writers James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller) humanizes these passages with a careful attention to detail.  In the final verse, the old man points to his favorite photo, one of his wife on their wedding day; the choice to paint a picture (“That rose was red, and her eyes were blue”) of the scene is a brilliant lyrical move. A modern-day classic.  – BB


Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”

Womack returned to radio with this deliciously bitter response to a late-night booty call.  The concept is a staple in country music lore; a libidinous, liquored-up lethario dials up an old flame from the comfy confines of a barstool.  This time, the woman ignores the sad sack, admitting to herself that she’s just a convenient target for his whiskey-induced “I love you’s.”

Womack is a throwback to the superstar ladies of the ’60s and ’70s; her sense of phrasing (not to mention her choice of material) is sublime. A number of country starlets would’ve rushed right through the last line of the caustic chorus. An old pro like Womack knows better.  Just listen as she holds her breath, then gives the final verdict on this failed relationship (“’cause I’m always your last call”) with her woeful warbling. It’s over, she’s saying, and it’s about time.  Echoing Travis Tritt’s classic kiss-off, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” Womack’s dismissal is kryptonite for dependent losers.  – BB


Randy Travis, “Dig Two Graves”

‘Til Death Do Us Part. It’s a romantic promise of eternal love at the beginning of a marriage. As the years go by, it becomes a slowly approaching reality. Author Harold S. Kushner wrote that “If we are lucky, marriage means finding the person who makes us whole, as Adam and Eve were reunited to form a single being.” With death, that bond is broken again, and you don’t lose a partner or a companion. You lose part of your own existence, part of your own being. Is it any wonder that Randy Travis wants them to dig two graves, rather than attempt to live on without his wife by his side? – KJC


Trisha Yearwood, “This Is Me You’re Talking To”

Life is never quite as linear as we like to think it is. Sometimes, halfway through your future, you get summoned back a few chapters and find yourself reliving what feel like ancient sensations all over again. Those old feelings – the ones that really mattered, but somehow went south – creep back up, perhaps couched in the possibility that things could turn out better this time. Part of you hates yourself for even considering that possibility, while part of you would give anything to feel that neglected gash finally heal. But what should happen if you find out that the other person has already moved on, that you’ve gotten your hopes up just to have them dashed again?

Once upon a time, recounts of situations like these comprised the very best that country music had to offer, giving quiet validation to the sort of emotional suffering that’s too nuanced to be fully appreciated or understood amid the bottom-line bustle of everyday life. It’s the rare songwriter(s) who can capture the raw nature of such a situation, and the even rarer singer who can interpret it effectively through manipulation or his or her instrument. “This Is Me You’re Talking To” represents the brilliant junction of both. – DM



LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Part of the Serenity Prayer, which has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programs, says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,/courage to change the things I can/and wisdom to know the difference.” Our favorite single of the year,  “What I Cannot Change”, gracefully expounds upon that prayer: “I will learn to let go what I cannot change/I will learn to forgive what I cannot change/I will learn to love what I cannot change/But I will change,/I will change/Whatever I, whenever I can.”

This song embraces a pragmatic honesty that is all too often lacking in today’s mainstream country music. Rimes understands that while there are things she should change, there will always be aspects of her life that will be out of her control. She realistically acknowledges: “I don’t know my father or my mother well enough/It seems like every time we talk we cant get past the little stuff/The pain is self-inflicting, I know it’s not good for my health/But it’s easier to please the world than it is to please myself/Oh the rest is out of my hands.” Finally, with that painful self reflection, Rimes bluntly admits, “Right now, I can’t hear about how everyone else feels/I have enough hurt of my own to heal.”

Not only is this an exquisitely beautifully written composition, Rimes sings with both power and grace. There are no fancy production or bombastic vocal tricks. Instead, the strength of “What I Cannot Change” lies in its tastefully simple instrumentation that allows Rimes’ mature and sensitive vocal performance to shine.   It’s easily the finest moment of Rimes’ career, and it’s the best single of 2008. – LW


  1. Wow….that write up about “This is Me Your Talking To” was amazing. Great job and I agree 100%. The song kind of reminds me of one song “Song Remembers When” in how all it takes is just one moment to throw you right back into a whirlpool of emotions. Yearwood has a excellent ear for this material and luckily and outstanding voice for delivering it to us.

    I really think this will be a show down of Rimes/Yearwood at the Grammys….AGAIN at least this year they have their own songs haha.

  2. A stellar top 10!! I know people were saying some songs should’ve been included and some shouldn’t have, but these 10 are spot on!!

    Great job guys! This was really fun to read!

  3. To be included on the list, a song must be:

    *A single released in 2008
    *A single released in 2007, but reaching its chart peak in 2008
    *A single that was not included on the 2007 best-of list

    Although there was a video for “I Can’t Outrun You,” it was not officially released as a single. If it had been released, I agree that it deserved a spot somewhere on the list. Where, I’m not sure.

  4. Yeah, great list all-around. As far as the grammys go, I’m hoping for a LeAnn win in Female Vocal Performance and Trisha win in the Country Album category.

  5. Oh so you do your like I do, ok.

    I thought you were counting anything that was made a single in this year reguardless of future intension. It is Trace’s next single, but not official until next year. That’s good to know then, this list makes so much more sense to me now.

    I hope it makes next years list then. Thanks Blake.

  6. Think you guys may be right about LeAnn taking the award :( Haha no it is a good song and for once her diction seems much improved from past vocal perfomances. But I still wont count Trisha out on this one. But Album is the one I really want Yearwood to win

  7. Wow. Heck of a list…. and one I can’t argue with.
    I agree that LeAnn should definitely get the nod for “What I Cannot Change”. That song was sadly glossed over by “country radio” (their loss) but it is definitely a landmark performance for her.

    I also LOVE the other Lee Ann and “Last Call”. I would really love to see that song/performance get some much deserved recognition cuz it. is. country!

  8. I was fully expecting Trisha to take the top spot because of Kevin’s simple review of it as being, if I recall correctly, “flawless”. But seeing as I haven’t even heard “What I Cannot Change”, I guess I don’t know how they compare. I must listen to it.

    As for the the top 10 itself, the only two songs on the list that I liked were Trisha’s and Brad’s, and most of the rest was pretty boring to me (even if I do belief some of them were technically well done). However, my tastes are very pop and pop-rock leaning, so I’m not exactly the person to talk to.

    My only minor quibble other than that is that I much preferred Ashton Shepherd’s “Sounds So Good” over her debut single.

    On a side note, perhaps an idea for a discussion could be “Fav. Non-Country Singles of the Year”.

  9. it’s no secret that I’m not a big mainstream country fan, and I’m not going to snipe the choices here since I’d be hard pressed to put together a list of singles that I think are worth recognition but……

    “Josh Turner’s ‘Another Try’ does exactly what it intends to do – it nudges its listener toward sadness.”

    “Nudges” isn’t how I would put it. “Bashes” maybe?

  10. From the introduction:

    “Our top ten singles of the year represent the very best or what country music is and what country music can be.”

    I think this statement more accurately characterizes the two singles from Patty Loveless’ Grammy nominated CD Sleepless Nights than any of the top ten choices listed here.

    Miss. Loveless demonstrates the best of what Country music IS by elegantly giving new life to some old classics that have nourished the genre, and and by making them her own and more relevant than ever. (One of her teenage assistants heard a rehersal of Crazy Arms, and was very impressed and asked Patty if it was a new song.)

    And Patty shows us what Country music CAN BE by demonstrating the powerful potential of deeply reconnecting with the roots of real Country, and giving us a template for another revival of Traditonalism…By bringing back mournful steel, rich fiddle accompaniment and deeply soulful and artfully measured melismatic vocal inflections, Patty Loveless leads the way for a return to true Country. She, more than anyone listed here is keeping the flame burning brightly for the good stuff..authentic Country music.

    I feel it is a serious omission not to have included Why Baby Why and Crazy Arms in your top five, or at least your top ten.

    Patty and Emory’s accomplishment deserves to be recognized with such a ranking, and you folks had an opportunity to make a rebuke to “country” radio and TV for shamefully neglecting Patty’s latest masterpiece, but sadly you did not take full advantage of this opportunity to reward a truly deserving artist.

    Crazy Arms #34 rank for the year is an honor, more than the Nashville establishment has bestowed on Patty, but when I see what you have put ahead of Patty’s singles, I am left scratching my head.

    You are all eloquent advocates for your individual choices, but I still don’t see how many of these singers can be considered even in the same league with Patty Loveless, or how many of these singles are superior to Crazy Arms and Why Baby Why..

    I guess it does come down to a matter of personal taste and preference. I guess it’s the year of the cynical single by troubled troubadors with tortured souls..and also a year still of predictable pop. This in spite of some of the creative and inspired choices you did make.

    I just think that with latest masterpiece Sleepless Nights, and the two singles from this brilliant album..Patty Loveless gives us even more evidence that she is the best thing to happen to authentic Country music in a very long time.

    Many critics call her the last of the true, great Country singers and I have to agree. Patty Loveless is the Queen of Mountain Soul, and with Sleepless Nights she has demonstrated once again that she is also the Queen of Country Soul.

  11. Kent,

    “This is Me You’re Talking To” was #1 on my personal list. This one is based on the input of four of our writers, and the albums list will be based on all five of our writers.

    Hollerin’ Ben,

    I think what Josh does is a lot closer to “nudge” than “bash.” It’s a pretty understated performance, in my view.

  12. Honestly, Steve – and anyone else who might find some of the rankings a bit wonky – the process by which we assembled this cumulative list was bound to yield something a little scattered, simply because the four of us submitted very different top 20 lists and Country Universe had never done a collaborative one before, so it was sort of new ground.

    Consider: Blake was the only one of us who knew that “Crazy Arms” had been released as some kind of single (it wasn’t even shipped to radio, but it had a music video), so it really had no way of ranking higher here, since he was the only one who included it. It’s only natural that our top ten turned out mostly mainstream; the mainstream stuff was the only stuff we were all well-acquainted with this year. I’m still quite proud of this list, but I would personally take these rankings more as a general guide than a “gospel” opinion of how we would collectively rate each of these individual songs. I’m sure we’ll refine our process a bit for next year.

    But also consider that it would be sort of unfair of us to just play favorites with our picks. I played Lady Antebellum’s stupid-catchy debut single more than just about anything else released this year, but I would never try to argue that it deserved to be ranked objectively among the year’s very best.

  13. “It’s a pretty understated performance, in my view.”

    the performance is understated enough I suppose, but the production is pretty heavy-handed. They even have a church bell ring right before the hook. The production was just, in my opinion, way over the top sensitive.

    but as far as these sorts of lists go, I enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts on these.

  14. Thanks Dan, I appreciate the response.

    I know we are not all going to agree, and I do appreciate the insight you shared regarding the process..I guess by commitee or by consensus, the results are bound to be a little “surprising” to say the least, whether dissapointing, or delightfully so…and I think your countdown had some of both.

    But Patty’s Crazy Arms rank was somewhat puzzling to me given the almost universal respect and appreciation that she receives here for Sleepless Nights as an album, as well as the respect she is shown here as an artist. And throw in the praise that Kevin and Blake had for the Crazy Arms video, and it was even more surprising. (although I guess that came after CA was already placed at #35)

    Also, I seem to remember, I think it was Kevin or Blake who gave Patty’s Why Baby Why an excellent review as a single, back in August before the album even came out.

    Anyway I see that it is understandable that the mainstream songs would have a leg up, given the more universal familiarity those songs enjoyed. Never doubted the creativity or integrity of the staff, but I was surprised, and I am always happy to put in a good word (or hundreds!) for my favorite artist, Patty Loveless!

    Thanks for listening.

  15. I’m glad to see Ashton Shepherd on this list. I really like that song.

    LeAnn Rimes’ song has really good lyrics and a good message, but her singing his always bothered me. Sometimes she hits words too hard and it makes her singing sound harsh, even on ballads. Still a good song in composition though.

    Lee Ann’s song is okay. Not much to say about it, just that I’ve heard it a few times.

  16. Steve,

    I enjoyed “Why Baby Why”, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to include in my top submissions. It’s good, but not something overly memorable to me. As for “Crazy Arms”, I probably would have included if it had been released as an official single rather than just as a video. It’s interesting that I have as much mainstream as I do, since I never ever listen to regular country radio anymore. I try to keep current with it in other ways though.
    Ben, I actually like the production on “Another Try.” The strings may be a little much, but I don’t even think they’re overwhelming…not in a Glen Campbell kind of way anyway. I thought they wre pretty understated, really. I guess I don’t mind a church bell here and there.:)

  17. While I don’t completly agree with the James Otto and Brad Paisley’s track being so high, I love all the rest and think they fit well in the Top 10. “This Is Me You’re Talking Too” was a great single this year, and “What I Cannot Change” was an unexpected surprise from LeAnn, and although I love Trisha Yearwood’s album more, I think the song “What I Cannot Change” deserves the top spot.

  18. As far as I know, Saguaro has sent both “Why, Baby, Why” and “Crazy Arms” to Americana radio, and only “Crazy Arms” had a video. I enjoyed “Crazy Arms” (it finished #12 on my individual list), but “Why, Baby, Why” was probably my least favorite song (relatively speaking) on the album, although I gave it a B+ when I reviewed it this summer.

    I think our general confusion about whether or not “Crazy Arms” was a single (which, honestly, is still a gray area to me as well) speaks more about the culture of country/Americana radio than anything else. Cowboy Bleau asked about Trace Adkins’ “I Can’t Outrun You” earlier, and I justified its absence because it wasn’t officially issued to country (or any genre) radio. I’m happy to see that GAC has been playing the video for “Crazy Arms” occasionally, as that’s the only major outlet that I know which prominently featured Loveless. Good on them.

    There were many album cuts that I enjoyed much more than the singles listed above. “Sleepless Nights,” “The Pain of Loving You,” and “That’s All It Took” are my favorites from the album, but there’s not a single bad cut on the whole project.

    As a whole, the album is one of the finest of the year, in my opinion. Given that we will be having a “Year in Review” theme next week, as well as listing the albums of the year, this won’t be the last time Loveless is mentioned.

  19. Blake, I’ve been making my singles and album lists for the year, and I wish I had gotten Sleepless Nights. I got the title track as a free download, and I love it, but I just haven’t had the money to get the album so it won’t be on my albums list…

    I know it would on my list be if I had it though.

  20. OK, Here’s a question for ya.. What is the difference between “Americana” as a genre, and Country or Bluegrass..I’ve always wondered…Is “Americana” more of an umbrella term that also includes Folk, Blues and Cajun?

    And Blake, if Why Baby Why is your least favorite cut from Patty’s album, with a B+ no less, that certainly does speak well of your opinion of her Sleepless Nights CD as a whole. Can’t wait to see your year end evaluations and lists..

    Yeah, I think my favorites from SN are Crazy Arms, Why Baby Why, and I am with ya Leeann (and Blake) on The Pain of Loving You..(the most Mountain sounding song on the album) and the title cut as well, which took some time but REALLY grew on me! Such depth of emotion and passion, even by Patty’s high standards.

    That’s All it Took…I am delighted that Patty’s been including that in her set list this year, along with five others from Sleepless Nights…WONDERFUL song, and her performance of Cold Cold Heart is even better live, and is truly heart wrenching and tear inducing..Kinda caught me by surprise when she closed with CCH, and I had that reaction..Yep, Patty Loveless can make grown men cry.

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