by Julian Spivey
The best country music these days is music that’s very rarely being played on mainstream country radio. I have maintained this stance for many years now ever since country radio began degrading itself with stereotypical topics and poor caliber of lyrics that honestly rarely seem to make a lot of sense. Many have failed to realize that there is a whole entire world of country music out there that’s gone completely ignored by country radio despite its obvious superiority. Because of this I’ve tried for the last few years to have the most extensive list of “best country songs” on the Internet. I want people to hear truly good music and I want people to realize there is a lot more to country music than what they’re forced to hear on their car or truck radios.
25. “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” by Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show is bluegrass music on speed. There’s absolutely nothing else like it and may not be anything as enjoyable in all of country music’s many subgenres than seeing it live. “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” is a fun ramble on the joys of prison conjugal visits that’s heavy on the banjo and harmonica. O.C.M.S. has often been at their best when mixing the seedy side of modern life, like prison sex in a trailer, with old-timey sounds.
24. “Get Out Of My Country” by Daryle Singletary
What at first seems like a Donald Trump campaign song based on its title alone is a call to rid the country music industry of the bro-country types who’ve been ruining the genre at least when it comes to the mainstream for many years now. When Singletary sings about today’s bros with the chorus: “Watered down whiskey, don’t get a man drunk/And your citified music’s just honky tonk funk/If you came to Twangtown just for the money/Then pack it up, son, get out of my country” is one type of immigration reform I can get behind. Let’s build that wall around Nashville.
23. “Freight Train” by Aaron Watson
The best songs about trains in the history of country music all in some ways seem to actually sound like a train themselves and Aaron Watson’s “Freight Train” is a high-flying runaway train that might run off the rails at any second, but somehow stays connected. The rapidity of Watson’s vocals on the track match this sound – with terrific fast-paced banjo playing – perfectly. It’s one of the most fun songs you’ll hear all year long and I’m honestly slightly surprised it didn’t have some mainstream crossover success, but that proves how bad things in the mainstream have truly gotten.
22. “Winning Streak” by Ashley Monroe
Ashley Monroe’s “Winning Streak” is a winner right from the very start with its opening piano showing it’s going to be a great country romp from the beginning. The song is about being down on your luck as the chorus goes “If losing’s a game/I’m on a winning streak.” But, Monroe’s vocal and the backing music makes the whole ordeal seem fun as hell. Monroe is at her best when her music sounds like her performances with the short-lived trio Pistol Annies (with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley) and this one seems like a lost Pistol Annies cut.
21. “Biscuits” by Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves has the rare knack of making cutesy seem like something worthwhile, and not the saccharine tripe that most artists who do similar stuff come out with. It’s probably because she’s saying important things and sprinkling sugar on top for mass consumption. “Biscuits” is one of those examples. It’s incredibly fun, catchy and cute as a button – just like its singer-songwriter – but it’s also about both being yourself and not concerning yourself with the differences of others. What other singer could sing a line like “mind your own biscuits/and life will be gravy” and get away with it. Probably only Loretta Lynn, but her version would be more of a threat than a suggestion.
20. “Take Me to Texas” by George Strait
If George Strait recorded vocals to the phonebook it’d probably find its way on a “best of” list. Strait’s surprise 2015 release Cold Beer Conversation wasn’t necessarily on par with some of his best album releases, but included fine vocals on works like “Take Me to Texas,” which was the theme for the History channel miniseries “Texas Rising.” The song, written by hit country songwriters Brandy Clark (one of the absolute best) and Shane McAnally, has “King George” singing about the love of his home state. Strait’s vocals are enough to make a non-Texan wish they were one.
19. “Still a Southern Man” by Will Hoge
One of the hot button topics in this country this year was the Confederate flag and whether or not it was time for it to come down over government properties and what the flag really meant and represents. Singer-songwriter Will Hoge was one of a few artists who decided to put their thoughts on the subject to music and came out with the rare for country music protest song “Still a Southern Man.” The song talks about how one can be proud with their Southern heritage without clinging to archaic symbols that few seem to really understand in 2015. I’m proud that there are Southerner singer-songwriters like Hoge speaking their minds through music, even when their opinions may easily cost them listeners.
18. “Too Late to Save the World” by Daryle Singletary
Daryle Singletary was a complete blast from the past and the feel-good story of the year for me. He had a couple of top five hits in the mid-‘90s with “I Let Her Lie” and my favorite “Too Much Fun” and then kind of faded into the blue. I never thought he’d be a name I’d ever hear again and he hadn’t released an album in six years when There’s Still a Little Country Left came out this year. He damn sure proved the title to be true with multiple songs bemoaning the state of today’s country music and how on the outskirts of country music there were still people playing it the way it was meant to be played. “Too Late to Save the World” is a country waltz about the whole world going to hell, but country music hasn’t fallen so far as to where it can’t be saved. It may actually be too late when it comes to country radio, but Singletary proves exactly what his album title implies.
17. “Just a Dog” by Mo Pitney
Mo Pitney wrote the tear-jerker song of the year with “Just a Dog.” There are a lot of reasons to like Pitney – he’s a traditionalist that has occasionally gotten some radio airplay (mostly with his terrific “Country” from last year), his voice his one of those perfect country music voices and he doesn’t seem to care about becoming famous and trying to record stuff beneath him to achieve fame. “Just a Dog” is probably the finest example of Pitney’s appeal as he goes through a story about picking up a stray dog and the joys and eventual pain that decision brings to his life. It’s something anybody who’s ever truly loved a dog, especially a rescue dog, will instantly love and probably shed a tear over.
16. “But You Like Country Music” by Sunny Sweeney & Brennen Leigh
This country is currently at its most divisive that I’ve ever seen. That’s exactly why Sunny Sweeney and Brennen Leigh’s duet “But You Like Country Music” is the perfect song for this time and place. “But You Like Country Music” is a humorous take on how Republicans and Democrats (in the song’s case next door neighbors) can’t get along, but maybe if they had something in common like a love of Merle Haggard and other country music they could get over it and agree on something for just a while.
15. “The Life You Chose” by Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell does devastation better than anybody. Something More Than Free, his follow up to the incredibly devastating Southeastern, isn’t as dark and is certainly more optimistic, but still has these terrific moments of sheer devastation and one that really stands out is “The Life You Chose.” Isbell crafts a heartbreaking tale of former lovers bumping into each other and realizing what might have been. The line “Are you living the life you chose?/Are you living the life that chose you?” perfectly encapsulates the moment where our future was almost unbeknownst to us decided. The sound of the track – an acoustic guitar with the perfect pitter-patter on drums from Chad Gamble – really moves the lyrics along gracefully.
14. “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
The first time I heard “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats the song and especially the performance of it frankly knocked me on my ass. It was on an episode of “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” and it was the first time I’d ever heard of this group. It was eye opening; exactly what I needed to hear at the time. “S.O.B.” is not a song I think most would consider “country.” In fact, it’s an Americana song with R&B and doo wop sensibilities, but the similarities between Americana and country are close enough to garner it a spot on this list. Rateliff’s performance on this track is a force to be reckoned, especially when he first lights into the line: “Son of a bitch/give me a drink/One more drink/This can’t be me/Son of a bitch/If I can’t get clean/I’m gonna drink my life away.” Rateliff’s performance, especially in person, makes drunkenness seem like a blast.
13. “Time of Day” by Turnpike Troubadours
The Turnpike Troubadours’ “Time of Day” is a top candidate for most infectious song of the year. The chorus of “Well, I make my hay in the sunshine honey/Ain’t nothin’ like you ever come my way/Well, I give you every bit of my spending money/Give me just a minute of your time of day” will stick with you for days on end, and you’ll enjoy every second of it. As always, the Troubadours’ sound brilliantly mixes with the lyrics, especially Kyle Nix’s fiddle playing. The Troubadours are probably the closest country act in sounding on a record the way they do live in person.
12. “Family is Family” by Kacey Musgraves
Many would choose “Biscuits” or “Dime Store Cowgirl” as the best track off of Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy nominated sophomore album Pageant Material and both are fine tracks, but “Family is Family” is my favorite from the record. “Family is Family” has the winning combination of humor and truthfulness about it in describing a tight knit group of people who love you regardless of who you are or what you do. At a time when too much of country music is breezy Musgraves can actually make it work, especially with fun lines like the chorus: “Family is family/In church or in prison/You get what you get/And you don’t get to pick ‘em/The might smoke like chimneys/But give you their kidneys/Yeah, friends come in handy/But family is family.” It’s a good thing you won’t mind this stuck in your head for days.
11. “Loud & Heavy” by Cody Jinks
I didn’t know who Cody Jinks was coming into 2015. Then I heard “Loud & Heavy” from his album Adobe Sessions and it immediately got stuck in my head. The song allows Jinks’ strong voice to really come to the forefront with sparse instrumentation, that in itself fits this song perfectly. I’m not sure exactly what was going through Jinks’ mind or life when writing this song, but the storm imagery and a line like “thin line between joy and pain” is the kind of stuff that most have felt a time or two in their lives.
10. “Django & Jimmie” by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are the living legends of country music. So, when the good friends and songwriting kings got together for their second duet album, and first since 1983’s Pancho & Lefty, it instantly became one of the most anticipated albums of the year – and it didn’t disappoint. The truly standout track on the album is the title track “Django & Jimmie,” which takes its name from the heroes and musical inspirations of each of the living legends – Willie’s hero Django Reinhardt and Merle’s inspiration Jimmie Rodgers. The song explains how a guitar picking gypsy and a blues singing railroad brakeman inspired the two to do what they’ve done for the majority of their lives. Shockingly something so autobiographical wasn’t written by either Willie or Merle, but rather Jimmy Melton and Jeff Prince who really got inside the heart and soul of the legends to craft such a fitting tribute to their heroes.
9. “Bramble Rose” by Don Henley feat. Miranda Lambert & Mick Jagger
It shouldn’t be a surprise to many that Don Henley released a country album this year. Unlike many of the rock stars who decide to go country this isn’t a ploy for new fame or fortune in another audience. Henley has always been country, as any fan of the country-rock Eagles sound can attest. He wanted to put his country roots growing up in Cass County, Texas to good use and released the excellent Cass County. The star of the album is “Bramble Rose,” a Tift Merritt cover, with guest vocals from Miranda Lambert, maybe the greatest female voice currently in the genre, and Rolling Stones legend Mick Jagger (who’s proven his country prowess before with songs like “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”). “Bramble Rose,” a tale of a woman’s love grown hard, is stunning through and through.
8. “Standards” by Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers
Sometimes the best way to make a point is through humor and red dirt country superstars and friends Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers do this brilliantly with “Standards” from their collaborative Hold My Beer, Vol. 1. It’s no secret to people on the outskirts of mainstream country music that what’s being played on country radio is mostly bullshit designed for mass appeal and not exactly strong in artistic integrity. Bowen and Rogers poke fun at that on “Standards” with the witty line: “I don’t have hits/I’ve got standards.”
7. “Nobody to Blame” by Chris Stapleton
Chris Stapleton shocked the country music world in November when he went three-for-three at the CMA Awards winning Male Vocalist, Album of the Year and Best New Artist. It was a shock because those who only know country music from listening to mainstream radio didn’t have the slightest clue who Stapleton was – leading to the both humorous and enraging Twitter trend #WhoIsChrisStapleton. It was the CMAs essentially proving a point that real country music would not be forgotten. Stapleton sings completely from the heart and gut and of all of the many great releases this year none sound better vocally. “Nobody to Blame” is prime example of this with a “done her wrong” story very reminiscent of George Strait’s “Give It Away,” written by Jamey Johnson who Stapleton reminds me of the most. It’s gritty and smooth all at the same time, which pretty much sums up Stapleton’s vocals and appeal.
6. “Three Year Old” by Eric Church
Eric Church has the well-earned persona of a musical badass; a modern day outlaw. Some choose to scoff at this persona, but having seen him in concert many times and hearing a huge difference in his songs compared to the other dudes from Nashville I choose to believe in him. The fact that the year’s sweetest country song comes from a man of such persona actually adds to this belief. Church took real-life moments between him and his son and crafted the touching “Three Year Old,” which has possibly the year’s best chorus and shows the world would be better off if we all lived a little more with the innocence of a child.
5. “24 Frames” by Jason Isbell
“You thought God was an architect/But now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/And everything you built that’s all for show/Goes up in flames/In 24 frames” is maybe the most striking lyric of the year and shows the brilliance of Jason Isbell’s songwriting. He truly is the best of his generation. “24 Frames” is an incredibly crafted track about taking advantage of life without regrets because you never know when that pipe bomb will go off.
4. “Second Hand Heart” by Dwight Yoakam
For Dwight Yoakam’s 2015 release Second Hand Heart he decided to meld the musical styles of his 2012 critically-acclaimed album 3 Pears with his ‘80s cowpunk and it left fans and critics smiling from ear-to-ear. The title track was the real highlight from the album with its tail of broken hearts not wanting to jump back into the game of love because they’ve been beaten and broken by it too many times. It’s also one of the coolest sounding tracks this year due to Yoakam’s trademark twang.
3. “Mr. Misunderstood” by Eric Church
Eric Church is one of the few mainstream country stars worth paying any attention to and he surprised the country music world this November with a surprise album released on the day of the CMA Awards. The album’s title track “Mr. Misunderstood” is a killer track that speaks to an entire generation of misfits who feel like outcasts because they don’t listen to the same music or like the same things that the populous does. The name-drops on this track of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy are particularly exciting and leave many realizing Church ain’t like the other wannabe badasses in Nashville. He’s the real thing.
2. “Something More Than Free” by Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell’s follow up to his 2013 stunner Southeastern turned out to be noticeably more upbeat and optimistic than the somber release that appeared on many “best of” list two years ago, but everybody seemed to love it just as much. The title track “Something More Than Free” showed the world that this Americana darling could write something more country and true-to-life than any of those hacks currently releasing records in Nashville. “Something More Than Free” is a true working man’s anthem and something we should all try to strive for.
1. “The Mercury” by Turnpike Troubadours
The Turnpike Troubadours are the best band currently in country music. Period. Not only does their sound perfectly capture a raucous Saturday night jam session, but front-man Evan Felker has proven himself to be something of a William Faulkner-esque songwriter when it comes to capturing the complexities and minute details of small town living. “The Mercury” is prime example of this. Felker captures the tumultuous relationship of Lorrie and Jimmy and somehow finds his narrator right in the middle of a love triangle. The Troubadours are at their best when Felker puts a complete short story to music and his story is driven home hard here with probably the most rocking country song released this year. It’s infectious as hell.