Does failure to reach a consensus indicate a year that lacked quality, or a year that had enough interesting singles that subjective taste is enough to prevent a consensus?
This was the dilemma faced by the Country Universe staff as we compiled our Best Singles of 2014 feature. We followed our usual routine. Each writer submitted their list of the twenty best singles of the year, and our numbers guru Jonathan Keefe used his time-test algorithm to produce a collective ranking.
But this year, there was only one single that appeared on four out of five lists. The rest: three or less. Rather than shorten the list to showcase only those songs chosen by multiple writers, we decided to stick to the usual forty slots, and let quite a few songs embraced only by one writer to have their place in the sun.
The result is probably the most diverse singles list we’ve ever published, and provides a great counterpoint to our upcoming albums list, which showed far more consensus than any previous albums list has.
Today, we start with the lower half of our top forty singles. Look for the upper half tomorrow, and our albums list on Wednesday.
“Truck Stop Gospel”
Raspy-voiced newcomer Parker Millsap takes it to church on one of the year’s best-drawn character sketches, adopting the persona of a truck driver whose cab doubles as his pulpit. – Jonathan Keefe
No relation by blood or style to Patty, Lydia Loveless offers a weary, disaffected take on cow-punk that makes her a distinctive talent, and the sexually frank “Head” subverts country’s gender politics at a time when country music seems more determined than ever to marginalize women. – JK
“Shut Me Up”
Even with an extremely relaxed definition of “country music,” it still seems a stretch to call “Shut Me Up” a country song. If you can overlook the crashing drums and loud guitars, “Shut Me Up” is a fine and catchy debut for Old Dominion. – Sam Gazdziak
“Let’s Get Drunk and Get it On”
As pick-up lines go, what Old 97s’ “Let’s Get Drunk And Get it On” lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in simplicity and enthusiasm. – JK
“Little Black Train”
With a rhythm section that boldly chugs along like the sound of a train, Carlene Carter’s version of “Little Black Train” pulsates as it represents preparing for repentance and redemption. Background vocals from Elizabeth Cook and Carter’s husband, Joe Breen, elevate the song’s gospel flavor. – Leeann Ward
“I Don’t Dance”
One of the most hit-or-miss singers in Nashville definitely hit with this one. Brice’s tough-yet-tender approach made for one of the year’s best love ballads. – SG
“Like a Cowboy”
The standard cowboy tale of guilt-ridden hunger for solitude, electrified by Houser’s performance. – Tara Seetharam
Clearly, someone was paying attention to the success that Phillip Phillips and The Lumineers had with catchy, folky tunes over the last couple years. “Compass” is derivative, sure, but it’s a good reminder that Lady A is quite talented when it’s not clumsily name-checking Macklemore in songs. – SG
“Bad Girl Phase”
When making a list of smart and talented female singer/songwriters currently ignored by country radio, don’t forget to add Sunny Sweeney. “Bad Girl Phase,” from her 2014 Provoked album, was sassy and fun and would have been a hit had Miranda Lambert sung it. – SG
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You”
Campbell bares his soul and finds a hidden beauty in his impending memory loss. A poignant and dignified bookend to an extraordinary career. – Kevin John Coyne
“Looking Back Now”
Country songs aren’t supposed to have body counts anymore, and protagonists aren’t supposed to end the song by dying from a lethal injection. Rose flaunted all the rules and ended up with one of the year’s most gripping singles. – SG
I’ve long suspected that Ray LaMontagne’s natural vocal timbre sounds a whole lot more like, say, Justin Timberlake’s than he lets on, but his Weathered Old Man Hat Voice is a perfect fit for “Drive-In Movies.” By focusing on first-person experiences rather than making sweeping “Get Off My Lawn” generalizations, the single does nostalgia right, and it scores bonus points for its prominent steel guitar. – JK
“Life of Sin”
TS #12 | JK #15
It might be the most basic song on Simpson’s other-worldly album, but “Life of Sin” is a testament to his ability to concoct steely contemporary country music with the heart and warmth of the genre’s past. – TS
Zac Brown Band
A straightforward, unfussy run at southern gospel heartache. It’s not extraordinary by way of the band’s eclectic catalogue, but it’s extraordinarily effective at conveying one of country music’s primitive sentiments. – TS
“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”
Old Crow Medicine Show
JK #8 | KJC #17
Old Crow Medicine Show’s old-timey stringband style may have spawned a slew of imitators over the past few years, but none of Mumford’s sons could hope to pull off a ribald single like “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” which is OCMS at their rambunctious best. – JK
Trisha Yearwood featuring Kelly Clarkson
Yearwood’s long overdue return to recording is well worth the wait, and features an excellent turn from Clarkson on harmony vocals. – KJC
KJC #10 | SG #11
Toby Keith returns to two of his most common themes – partying and patriotism – but does so with a refreshingly inclusive spirit. It’s not new ground, but he’s never covered that ground quite so well. – KJC
KJC #15 | LW #15 | TS #16
He’s not simply putting a girl in his truck to ride along as he fulfills the modern tropes of a country song, but rather, he has a specific woman in mind as they move through life together as more than just a random companionship. Tim McGraw manages to find a catchy song that fits the current trend of a girl riding shotgun, while also applying warmth and meaning to the popular theme. – LW
JK #5 | TS #17
Something that 2014 proved over and over again is that our culture remains incapable of talking about rape in ways that are at all productive or honest, which is just one reason why Kira Isabella’s harrowing “Quarterback” is such a revelation. Isabella’s performance impresses for its empathy, and the song’s all-too-familiar narrative is elevated by a perceptive take on power structures and social privileges that plenty of people would rather dismiss as fictions than acknowledge as uncomfortable truths. – JK
“Me Without You”
TS #6 | KJC #12
A sweetly confident affirmation of moving on. Nettles’ strength as a vocalist –courage with pockets of vulnerability—shines through here. – TS
Nice to see Lee Brice get some credit here. “I Don’t Dance” was definitely one of my favorite singles of the year. I believe that’s the only one on my personal list, though “Like A Cowboy”, “All Alright” and “Looking Back Now” all came close.
Btw, is something wrong with the Toby Keith write up? Or was that intentional?
A fine write up as usual. I was glad to see both Sturgill and Lydia Loveless make the list of top singles here. Life of Sin is one of my favorite tracks off of Metamodern and would make my top 10 list for sure this year. As far as main stream country goes I really enjoyed, as usual, Zac Brown Band’s output with All Alright and somewhat enjoyed Shotgun Rider by Tim McGraw.
I’m happy to see Maggie Rose make this list. One of my favorite albums that I got this year was her album Cut to Impress, and while it won’t be on any award shows, I just found all the songs incredible catchy. Mainstream thinks there are no woman in country music, but my favorite Country music acts right now are people like Maggie Rose, Brandy Clark, and Kacy Musgraves. Mainstream just refuses to give these ladies a shot and that’s my biggest criticism of the genre right now, even going over all the “Bro-Country” stuff.
Yeah, the most frustrating thing about the current state of country radio is that this is the best slate of female artists in years, even with Taylor leaving the genre completely, but they can’t get a minute of airtime.
I counted 9 songs here I’ve never heard before. I listened to the 90 seconds you get on i-tunes (one only gave 30 seconds). Maybe I’ll check you-tube later. Of those I’m familiar with, my favorite is “Me Without You” by Jennifer Nettles. I would have had it much higher. Also like the Maggie Rose song “Looking Back Now”.
Rose flaunted all the rules and ended up with one of the year’s most gripping singles.
And then she did a complete 180, throwing away all her credibility in the process, with “Girl In Your Truck Song.”
Eh, I can’t blame her for wanting to get paid.
And, anyway, “Girl in Your Truck Song” blows crap like “God Made Girls” out of the water.
I thought Maggie’s “Cut to Impress” album and the singles from it were very good yet she met with very little chart success. Although I don’t care for the Truck song, I can’t blame her for taking a shot. I believe she’s not the only artist who has done this. Hopefully her next album will be a return to the quality of her debut album.
Happy birthday Suzy Bogguss.
Eh, I can’t blame her for wanting to get paid.
I can and I will. There are better ways to “get paid” than to cater to current trends that are justly being derided for their blatant misogyny.
Eh, it’s very well sung. It’s catchy. It offers an active female perspective (note the constant use of the first person throughout the song) on bro-country cliches. Women aren’t objects, they’re human beings who want to have a good time goofing around.
Also, lest we forget, an artist doesn’t necessarily endorse the viewpoint of the speaker when they sing a song.
And, seriously, look at the lyrics to “God Made Girls” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/raelynn/godmadegirls.html I’ll take a million “Girl in Your Truck Song” copycats over that abomination.
…kudos to the fine folks of cu. trying to reflect a rather diverse year in country music’a singles segment just the way it actually was, is a commendable decision. whether it was due to increasingly drifting points of view among the jurors, or the overall quality of this year’s batch of remarkable singles may be worth looking into some time later.
at the moment, i am just curious to learn what i might have missed or misjudged, most likely. finding some confirmation here and there should be fine too, of course.