The Sixty Best Singles of 2023: (Occasionally) On the Radio, The Politics of Identity, and I Want Your Love

Our look back at the best singles of 2023 continues with the best of mainstream country radio fare, intersectional songs about identity, and some very special love songs.

(Occasionally) On the Radio

While 2023 was undoubtedly a year with a deep bench for high quality country music, the major labels on Music Row and the ever-narrowing playlists at country radio rarely reflected that. Whether that was a matter of refusing to bite on more substantive and diverse material when it was presented or simply doubling-down on a slew of soundalike artists in Morgan Wallen’s immediate social sphere, there remains a general lack of alignment between the genre’s most captivating talents and its most propped-up stars.

Still, there are a handful of acts who are able to balance genre smarts and thoughtful material with at least a measure of success. Luke Combs’ “Where The Wild Things Are” and Kane Brown’s “Bury Me In Georgia” both proved that country’s A-list men are capable of depth and reflection, even on their most hook-forward singles. Kelsea Ballerini earned raves for a moody EP inspired by her divorce, but it was her uptempo tribute to her ride-or-die, “If You Go Down (I’m Going Down Too),” that made for her twangiest and best single to date.

Radio was ambivalent toward the Ballerini hit– it stalled in the mid-teens– but remains an even dodgier proposition for a couple of other major talents. On “Cowboy Don’t,” BRELAND turned performative masculinity on its head and pulled off the year’s best pick-up line while doing so, while Ashley McBryde’s “Learned To Lie” was yet another piece of evidence that she’s a generational talent.


The Politics of Identity

While the broader political climate turned even more overtly hostile toward marginalized communities throughout 2023, country musicians recognized that knowledge of self informs and is, in turn, informed by art. Country music, at its best, demands the same degree of scrutiny and analysis as any other art form– to argue otherwise is to demean the art itself and its audience– and country music is at its best when it reflects a diversity of human experiences.

Rebecca Lynn Howard’s “I’m Not Who You Think I Am,” a welcome return from one of the aughts’ most underrated talents, serves as a meta-critique: As Howard warns a lover not to look beneath her surfaces, the song itself grows heavier and darker, sounding nothing like Howard’s earlier work. Lydia Loveless“Toothache” was no less lacerating of a self-assessment, a vicious throwback in style and form to both the alt-rock and alt-country of the late 90s. Rodney Crowell and Jeff Tweedy were gentler on themselves on “Everything At Once,” as they reconciled with their aging– Crowell as one of country’s elder statesmen, and Tweedy as the king of Dad Rock– and ended up creating what sounded like a rootsy Arcade Fire anthem.

Roberta Lea struck a more defiant tone on her re-recorded version of “Too Much Of A Woman” with Jackie Venson, refusing to apologize for her power or her agency. On “Proud and Lonely,” Jessye DeSilva was similarly unapologetic while also drilling deep into the peculiar tensions– particularly between searching for a community while often feeling isolated– experienced by gender non-conforming persons in a year that saw more than 75 individual anti-LGBTQ laws passed.


I Want Your Love

Country music’s gender politics have become so mired in objectification, outright misogyny, and sleazecore over the last two decades that a true “love song” done right can land as a surprise. This year, there were quite a few songs that reflected the joy in healthy relationships between adults who actually seem to like each other.

For swooning romance, Dom Flemons’ “Slow Dance With You” perfectly captured a dreamlike state of reverie that was almost quaint in both its modesty and its trad-country arrangement. Another traditionalist, Brit Taylor, took a much more forward and hard-up approach on “Ain’t A Hard Livin’,” which celebrates a fulfilling sex life as a distraction from life’s hardships. Sug Daniels’ cover of “You’re Still The One” was less celebratory than perhaps reverent, a subtle distinction that made for an intimate reading of Shania Twain’s signature ballad.

There was intimacy in the vocal performances on three essential collaborations, as well. “Thank God” by Kane Brown and Katelyn Brown stands as an antidote to the toxic masculinity of so many of the genre’s A-list men. Flatland Cavalry and Kaitlin Butts’ “Mornings With You” found two partners enjoying simple pleasures that they never expected they’d look forward to, while Parker Millsap and Gillian Welch found meaning in the complexities and unknowable interiority of their partners on “Wilderness Within You.”

The year’s purest love song came from Tyler Childers, whose “In Your Love” is an all-timer of a paean of devotion. “I will wait for you / Til the sun turns into ashes / And bows down to the moon,” is akin to Keats or Wordsworth, filtered through Childers’ holler vernacular, and it’s romantic in both literal and literary terms.


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

Open in Spotify

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