The Sixty Best Singles of 2023: Cover Bosses, Friends in High and Low Places, and The Lord’s Work

Our first batch of the best singles of 2023 features outstanding covers, compelling collaborations, and spiritually minded reflections.

Cover Bosses

There’s no hard and fast rule for what makes a good cover, beyond the fact that it should in some way justify its own existence. An essential cover, however, is one that manages to recontextualize a song or on which an artist brings something personal to their performance. 

Lilli Lewis’ “Creep,” for instance, stands as a powerful declaration of agency, as a woman of color uses her extraordinary voice to ask, “What the hell am I doing here?” in a space that has so rarely welcomed artists like her. Luke Combs’ “Fast Car,” then, represents something of a force for good, as one the biggest stars in country music used his platform to take a truly brilliant song by a queer black woman to the top of the charts and into the winner’s circle at the CMAs. On “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Sunny Sweeney, Miko Marks, Rissi Palmer, and Tami Neilson attempt to make their peace with the fact that they are four of the most gifted singers the genre has ever known, but they still remain on the periphery, so they’re leaning on each others’ support as they’re traveling on. 

Other essential covers take a song’s original genre as a jumping off point. We’ve never included on our year-end round-up a single as (pop-)punk as “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” on which Wanda Jackson and Linda Gail Lewis trade verses over a breakneck arrangement by The Brains. It trades the sass of Shania Twain’s breakthrough hit for venom and invective, and it’s a perfect fit for both Jackson and Lewis. Aoife O’Donovan’s “Drover” similarly plays to her strengths, as her languid phrasing transforms Bill Callahan’s twitchy, anxious indie-folk composition about cattle-drivers into a stirring metaphor of romantic longing. There’s no romance to Joshua Ray Walker’s “Believe,” however, on which one of the genre’s savviest vocalists takes an iconic Cher dance-pop hit and ropes it squarely into the country genre as though it had been a two-stepper all along.


Friends in High and Low Places

In recent years, some of the highest-profile “vocal events” in country music have been little more than giving credit to a glorified harmony vocal. But 2023 offered no shortage of true collaborations on which all involved parties brought something impactful to the recording, elevating these singles beyond what they might have been as solo tracks. 

The way Olivia Newton-John and Dolly Parton engage in call-and-response throughout “Jolene,” reimagines one of Parton’s biggest hits as a fraught situation in which Jolene is weighing options of whose relationship she’s most keen to disrupt. In contrast, Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood’s re-recorded “Cry Myself to Sleep” finds two of the genre’s all-time greats commiserating over a love gone very, very wrong. Another re-recording, The Bellamy Brothers’ “I’d Lie To You For Your Love” added K.T. Oslin as the perfect narrative foil: Instead of a guy who’s delivering increasingly absurd pick-up lines, the single is now a horny and hilarious conversation between two people who are entertaining each other’s company because they both know they’re DTF. And nowhere were folks randier than the Lindeville trailer park, where Ashley McBryde, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti, on the ribald “Brenda Put Your Bra On,” were gleeful bystanders and voyeurs.

Other collaborations were a bit more highbrow. Amanda Shires, Willie Nelson, and Bobbie Nelson turned in a lovely reading of the pop standard “Summertime” that captured the warmth of the Nelson siblings’ interplay while providing a showcase for new facets of Shires’ immense talent. In terms of a pure vocal showcase, few singles outshone “Still Here” by Miko Marks and Rissi Palmer, a gospel-inflected rave up on which two women who were pitted against each other when they first attempted to break into mainstream country two decades prior now celebrate each other with a sense of genuine camaraderie and kinship.

The Lord’s Work

Gospel music is inextricable from country music, and many of the best singles of 2023 explored matters of faith in a world that often felt cruel and uncertain. Even when the questions were from more of an agnostic or secular perspective, they struck the same chord of wrestling with the unknowable. 

Nickel Creek’s “Where the Long Line Leads” serves as a follow-up to Chris Thile’s recent solo album, Laysongs, in that it aligns with the exvangelical movement’s rejection of the harms perpetuated by organized religion while still searching for answers as to why a life well-lived matters. Iris DeMent has mined similar territory over her career, and her “Workin’ On A World” is a triumph of secular humanism, suggesting that immortality comes from building a better world for future generations. Amy Grant’s lovely “Trees We’ll Never See” comes to a similar if more overtly religious conclusion on what is her finest record since her landmark proto-Americana album, Behind the Eyes, more than 25 years ago.

The idea of putting in meaningful work during one’s lifetime for the promise of something better is a driving force in country gospel. Gabe Lee’s “Even Jesus Got The Blues” leans into the idea that spiritual work is hard, to the extent that even Jesus Christ himself felt downtrodden at times. Those types of struggles are reflected in both “Jubilee” by Miko Marks and the Resurrectors featuring The Fisk Jubilee Singers and “Satisfied” by Vestal Goodman featuring Dolly Parton, two singles that acknowledge life struggles but are nonetheless celebratory in what they believe is yet to come.


Best of 2023

The Preamble:

The family tree was already on fire

The Thirty Best Albums of 2023:

Album of the Year: Jason Hawk Harris, Thin Places

Ten Best | Next Ten Best | Rest of the Best

The Sixty Best Singles of 2023:

Single of the Year: Maren Morris, “The Tree”

Cover Bosses | Friends in High and Low Places | The Lord’s Work

(Occasionally) On the Radio | The Politics of Identity | I Want Your Love

Optimist Prime | Love Done Gone

Uptempo Hard Shit | Life Lessons & Cautionary Tales

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