by Julian Spivey
20. "I'm Not the Devil" by Cody Jinks
Every ‘best of’ country song list needs a perfect heartbreak song and Cody Jinks gave us just that in 2016 with his superb “I’m Not the Devil.” The song sees Jinks recalling past mistakes in his life that caused him and a loved one to go their separate ways. It’s such a simple, but exquisite lyric sung by one of the most exciting new voices in the country music genre.
19. "Is It Still Cheating" by Mark Chesnutt
Mark Chesnutt is one of the greatest and certainly most underrated country singers of all-time, for my money, which is why his first original studio album in almost a decade was something I greatly anticipated. The perfectly titled Tradition Lives doesn’t disappoint and the highlight is “Is It Still Cheating,” an interesting take on one of country music’s best themes. Chesnutt’s vocal is great, as usual, reminding listeners just how much he’s been missed and the lyrics are written by country’s best songwriter Jamey Johnson and the somewhat surprising Jerrod Niemann.
18. "The Very Last Day" by Parker Millsap
Parker Millsap’s “The Very Last Day” makes the end of days, which if 2016 is any indication could be near, sound so very enticing. The title track from his brilliant 2016 album imagines how he wouldn’t necessarily mind it if the world were to erupt into nuclear holocaust because he knows there’s a better home awaiting him in the sky lord, in the sky. It takes a really sly songwriter to make a theme that should be somber into something that makes you want to shout, whoop, holler and dance.
17. "Keep It Between the Lines" by Sturgill Simpson
A lot has been made of the father/son conversation that takes places throughout Sturgill Simpson’s concept album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. One of the conversational highlights is the bluesy-soul advice song “Keep It Between the Lines.” The song, which brilliantly features a horn section, is a list of dos and don’ts for his son – don’t get busted selling drugs, don’t let people take advantage of you, etc. It’s potentially the grooviest track on Simpson’s terrific record.
16. "Simple Song" by John Paul White
John Paul White’s “Simple Song,” the third song off of producer Dave Cobb’s fantastic collaborative effort Southern Family to make the top 20 this year, is similar in theme to Brandy Clark’s “I Cried,” number nine on this list. The key difference being that White’s narrator is through with the tears. After seeing a loved one struggle with illness for so long it’s sometimes better just to see them let go and not be in pain anymore. White captures this feeling with beautiful lyrics and a stellar, simplistic vocal. He may be through with the tears, but listeners won’t be.
15. "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)" by Margo Price
The first thing that came to mind when I heard Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” was Loretta Lynn. That’s pretty much the highest praise you can give any up-and-coming country songstress. “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” is the very definition of a country drinking song, but not necessarily the tear in your beer kind. ‘Hurtin’’ has a rowdy jam feel to it, which has the ability to make you want to raise a little hell while listening along.
14. "Hands Up" by Parker Millsap
The intensity with which Oklahoman Parker Millsap sings is matched by very few. “Hands Up,” about a Iraq War veteran holding up a gas station because he can’t afford to feed his children, is proof of this. The vocal is stirring from start to finish and the lyrics show that Millsap can get into the heads of his characters and write fully-fledged story songs with the best of them.
13. "Ophelia" by The Lumineers
The Lumineers have a special way of taking a great Americana folksy style and turning it into an earworm that will have the tune stuck in your head for days. They did this supremely with “Ho Hey” a few years ago and now with their sophomore album Cleopatra comes the equally infectious “Ophelia,” about falling in love with maybe the wrong person but being unable to resist.
12. "All Around You" by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a fairly bombastic album, especially considering what he’s recorded before, but the quietest song on the album “All Around You” is one of its best. The album is essentially Simpson’s letter to his newborn son about life and the soulful “All Around You” is about a father’s love – whether it’s a physical fatherly presence or a heavenly one. It’s simply beautiful.
11. "Vice" by Miranda Lambert
The entire fan-base of country music was waiting on pins and needles for the return of Miranda Lambert after her divorce from fellow country star Blake Shelton and what the response to that would be in song. “Vice” was that response, and it was very personal and revealing – even from a songwriter who isn’t afraid to be personal and revealing. The lyrics roll off of Lambert’s tongue so deliciously, proving why she won so many consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year awards from the CMAs.
10. "Kill A Word" by Eric Church feat. Rhiannon Giddens
Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” was released on his stellar award-winning 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood, but released as a single to country radio in the fall of this year. The unique song ponders all the ways Church would love to destroy all of the horrible words in this world like “hate,” “heartbreak,” “evil,” etc. The single features the addition of the lovely Rhiannon Giddens, who merely provided backing vocals on the album cut, on the final verse. It’s one of the most thought-provoking songs of 2016.
9. "I Cried" by Brandy Clark
Singer-songwriter Brandy Clark released one of the five best albums of 2016 with Big Day in a Small Town, but her best song of the year actually appears on producer Dave Cobb’s all-star collaboration Southern Family. “I Cried” is likely the biggest tear-jerker of the year with Clark telling the story of a grandfather’s death. The vocal is one of the very best of the year as it’s able to find the beauty in something so tragic.
8. "Mama's Table" by Jamey Johnson
Jamey Johnson has proven himself time and time again over the last decade to be country music’s best active songwriter. “Mama’s Table,” from producer Dave Cobb’s all-star collaborative concept album Southern Family about living a Southern life, gets the nuances of the importance of a family heirloom down perfectly. Johnson has an unbelievable knack for pulling out such simplicities of life and the story of a table handed down from family member to family member shows this off brilliantly.
7. "What It Means" by Drive By Truckers
Probably the most important song in the Americana or country music genres this year was the Drive By Truckers’ “What It Means” off of their excellent American Band album. The song is basically a synopsis of many of the troubles facing the country at the time, like racism, police brutality, gun violence, etc. It’s unabashedly political with references to the shootings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Trayvon Martin in Florida and it might come as a surprise to some of the following of this exalted Southern Rock band. It’s a song that is designed to make some listeners feel uncomfortable and if you’re one of them you probably should ask yourself, “what it means?”
6. "You Leave Alone" by Hayes Carll
When Hayes Carll released Lovers and Leavers, his first album in more than five years, this year it surprised many with its lowkey, more plaintive and introspective sound. This was frankly off-putting to some of his fan-base, but the album is stellar. The highlight for me was “You Leave Alone,” the story of Billy who has a hobby of building cars, but doesn’t have it in him to get behind the wheel of one and chase his dreams. It’s the hard luck story of many in this country who’d love to go off and do important things, but for one reason or another don’t have the means to do so.
5. "Record Year" by Eric Church
There are a lot of heartbreak songs on my list this year, in one way or another, but I don’t think any of them are done quite the way Eric Church does it on his radio airplay No. 1 single “Record Year.” Church takes the devastation of a failed relationship and turns it into something positive by spinning his favorite records – from Willie Nelson to Stevie Wonder – to get over his lost love. It’s hard not to love this song as a music lover.
4. "Fire Away" by Chris Stapleton
I don’t think there’s anyone else in country music right now that has as clean and pure of a voice as Chris Stapleton. His voice has the ability to knock you off your seat, especially when it takes on a heartbreaker like “Fire Away.” The simple lyrics about a relationship coming to an end, mixed with Stapleton’s flawlessly bluesy voice lead to perfection. Check out the music video too – it’ll go down as an all-time country music video classic.
3. "Drivin'" by Robert Ellis
Robert Ellis is such a literary lyricist that his songs frequently blow me away. My favorite song off of his brilliant self-titled album in 2016 is “Drivin’.” It’s a song about the monotony of being in a relationship that’s dead, but not over. It seems simplistic at first, as most great country songs frequently do, but has the ability to blow you away with a verse like: “Oh I just wish you’d go to bed/Without the expectation that I’ll come up there and say/Something to help you feel like things aren’t such a mess/I’ll just sweep the floor and clean the desk/Put up the dishes and then fold some clothes I guess.” Who writes like that? Thankfully Robert Ellis does.
2. "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson’s third studio album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth plays out as a letter to his newborn son. That letter (or the album) begins with the introduction into the world “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” which sees Simpson get personal and emotional about his firstborn’s entrance into the world. The song also takes on a new sound for Simpson with a horn section and, particularly on this song, and a more sort of operatic feel to it that turns midway into something more soulful than we’ve experienced previously from Simpson. It’s an epic beginning to the best country music and Americana album of the year.
1. "Heaven Sent" by Parker Millsap
Parker Millsap’s “Heaven Sent” is the best country/Americana song of the year. It’s also very atypical for country music in the theme that it takes on – a gay son of a preacher trying to understand why his father can’t be proud of him coming out, when he’s loved him his entire life. The eloquent lyrics matched with Millsap’s raw vocals provide a song that’s as stellar sonically as it is importantly thought-provoking.