The Sixty Best Singles of 2023: Optimist Prime and Love Done Gone

Our look at the best singles of 2023 continues with songs of hope and tales of heartbreak.

Optimist Prime

2023 wasn’t a year that offered many external sources of hope, so country artists often turned to their self-belief as a source of inspiration. What’s telling about this thread of optimism is that there are no traces of toxic positivity to be found; instead, these artists are pragmatic in their positive outlooks, fully aware of their own limitations and circumstances.

On “Shoebox Money,” RVSHVD sings of how the relative poverty of his youth was a source of resilience that turned to gratitude for opportunities to chase his dreams. Houston Bernard weighs his own options on “Ditch This Town,” if putting his family’s store up for sale to follow a lover to Nashville might turn his own fortunes around. By foregrounding strong melodies, both men offered singles that actually sounded like 90s radio hits instead of just paying lip-service to that era.

Lucero’s “Macon If We Make It” was less about chasing a dream of stardom than it is about one of the finest country-rock bands praying that they make their next gig. Shakey Graves and Sierra Ferrell take that same all-bets-are-off approach to romance on “Ready Or Not,” which boasts ramshackle production that cut through the Cobbiness of so much of the Americana circuit. They’re fundamentally unbothered about what’s to come their way, and that laissez-faire vibe is what carries Charley Crockett’s “Trinity River,” on which Crockett notes that even a dirty little river is capable of washing him clean.

In terms of a triumphant spirit, Mya Byrne’s “It Don’t Fade” is a song that embraces learned optimism, recognizing that basking in the sunshine is a choice, so long as we’re able to find our star. In a dire year, hers was a message that felt like an antidote.


Love Done Gone

Optimism is necessary, sure, but country music wouldn’t be country music without songs of heartbreak and love (done) gone wrong. In 2023, it was the genre’s women who wrote with the most striking originality about break-ups, exes, and emotional scars.

Autumn Nicholas’ “Made Yet” tells the story of a relationship that never even gets off the ground, as Nicholas’ narrator can’t forget the mistakes and hurts of past loves, to the extent that she’s paralyzed by fear of wreaking that same damage again. Bella White forged ahead with a relationship that was ultimately doomed on “Break My Heart,” castigating herself for not trusting her own gift of foresight in perhaps the way Nicholas did. Julie Williams’ gorgeous “Wrong Mr. Right,” in contrast, is about a woman who realized far too late that she’s in a committed relationship with a good man that she simply doesn’t love.

Brandy Clark found herself on the wrong side of that situation on “Buried,” the most sparsely produced single of her career. Clark sings– and, as ever, it’s worth noting that she’s every bit as great a singer as she is a songwriter– of how, no matter what circumstances she may find herself in, she’ll always be in love with a partner who rejected her. Rhiannon Giddens’ “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad,” then, is diametrically opposed to the melancholy streak that runs through these other singles. Giddens turns in a fiery performance on what is the year’s most forceful kiss-off: Hers is a love that she’s all too eager to bring to an end.


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


  1. …just for clarification, mr. keefe/jonathan: “that cut through the Cobbiness of so much of the Americana circuit.” (optimist prime paragraph) – refers to dave cobb not brent cobb, doesn’t it? if so, do you mind elaborating a little what you mean by that exactly? or would it rather be some sort of stockiness that you have in mind there? again, i’d be most grateful for some clarification there.

    i read your preamble with great interest and also quoted you (“Instead, what has always mattered when it comes to the best country music is empathy”) in a developing think piece titled “touching explicitly permitted”, in which i came to a similar conclusion like you regarding empathy in and being touched by country music.

    full marks for pointing out drayton farley a few times recently – quite a discovery to me.

    • Tom,

      Happy to clarify here. It’s a reference to how, since the successes of Chris Stapleton’s Traveler and Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, the defining aesthetic for artists under the “Americana” umbrella has been one that is either (1) produced by Dave Cobb himself in the exact style of those records or (2) produced by someone else, attempting to replicate the exact style of those records.

      I’m a fan of both of those albums, of course. I championed them at the time and have continued to do so in the years since. But the pervasiveness of that aesthetic– and Cobb’s production work for so many other artists has proven him to be something of a one-trick pony– has made so much of “Americana” a bore because so mix of it– and that includes the work of other A-list producers Brandi Carlile and Dan Auerbach in many instances.

      I’m a big believer that the country universe is vast, which means there are so many sounds and styles that can serve as inspiration, and the genre is healthier when it embraces that diversity. The Americana table under our big tent has, for years now, needed to branch out.

      Brent Cobb’s fine: I had his gospel album, which I think is his best work by far, on my year-end ballot last year.

      Be sure to circle back and share a link to your piece when it’s published. Would love to read it!

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