The Sixty Best Singles of 2023: Uptempo Hard Shit, Life Lessons & Cautionary Tales

Our final batch of singles tackle the hardships of life and the lessons learned from them.  Our Single of the Year will be revealed tomorrow in a standalone post that also recaps the entire list.

Uptempo Hard Shit

One of the things that country music does better than other genres is mask thematically difficult material in production that is deceptively cheery, uptempo, or outright jaunty. I always think of Buck Owens as one of the real masters of this kind of bait-and-switch, and it was refreshing to hear so many country singles in 2023 carry on this specific tradition.

In terms of multiple forms of tradition, Wylie & The Wild West’s cover of “Ribbon of Darkness” pulled off the rare feat of nailing both halves of “country & western” without reducing their performance to pastiche or shtick. More impressive was the simple fact that anyone covered Marty Robbins without getting decimated by the comparison. The War and Treaty ran no such risk on “Ain’t No Harmin’ Me,” the vibing-est country single of the year, on which two of the finest singers in the modern country space made it clear that, no matter how fiery a groove they might lay down, they are taking care of themselves first.

And, while I’m often critical of the poor vocal technique of so many modern country acts, it wasn’t just The War & Treaty who shone brightly for their singing ability. William Beckmann’s “She Can’t Be Found” was a note-perfect honky-tonk banger about a man who’s been left by a lover who’s over his bullshit, while Billy Gilman shocked the hell out of us by following his stint on The Voice with a Bluegrass pivot, with his “Roller Coaster” making a toxic relationship sound like a lot more fun than it should.

Sierra Ferrell’s “Fox Hunt” took the breakneck pace and acoustic instruments from Bluegrass, filtered them through a Millennial Whoop aesthetic, and came up with perhaps the most anthemic-sounding country single of the year… with a song about subsistence hunting that also carries a streak of Hunger Games and Most Dangerous Game menace. Then there was “Chipping Mill,” the comeback single for Turnpike Troubadours, who turned a lyric that is really about a lifetime of failures (“I always kept the best for you”) into a cheerful-sounding sing-along hook.


Life Lessons & Cautionary Tales

It’s rare that I gravitate toward “advice” or inspirational songs: I generally don’t care for songs that feel like they’re telling me what to do, and I don’t take kindly to sermons of any flavor. But, circling back to the idea of radical empathy, I love a country song that’s about sharing hard-earned wisdom. Sometimes, that takes the form of words of warning moreso than a message of kindness, and that’s fine, too. This was a year when, more often than not, it felt like we were all just trying to get through the day.

On “Change of Heart,” which I was at least a little bit bummed isn’t a Cyndi Lauper cover, Margo Price and Sierra Ferrell deliver one of those cautionary tales, going full-on Loretta Lynn with lines like, “If you break both your legs / Don’t come runnin’ to me / I had a change of heart.” Billy Strings and Willie Nelson also reflected on a shift in perspective on “California Sober,” noting that they haven’t given up all of their vices but have toned it down as they’ve grown up. It’s a record that feels something like a passing of the torch– or something else– across generations.

While Billy and Willie were self-deprecating, other artists’ lessons carried a wearier tone. Son Volt, on their best single in decades, leaned into a reality-check on their cover of “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows.” Drayton Farley’s “Norfolk Blues” takes the perspective of a man who’s done just that, who is putting in soul-killing shift work in an attempt to make things better for his family, before realizing, “It’s all the way it’s always been.” Still, he perseveres for the sake of the family he loves.

Familial bonds figure heavily into two of the year’s best-written singles. Brandy Clark’s “She Smoked in the House” is, on the surface, a remembrance of her late grandmother, but it ultimately embodies the notion of giving people their flowers while they’re around to appreciate them. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s “Cast Iron Skillet” is similarly driven by the notion that life is too short to let bonds be undone by emotional or physical violence, and of how shameful it is that we often abide more closely to rules for caring for things than we do to values for caring for people.


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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