by Julian Spivey
80. "Springsteen Gold" by Rich O'Toole
Bruce Springsteen is a musical God to me. Therefore, I’m likely going to be a sucker for a good Springsteen tribute song – key word being “good.” Rich O’Toole’s “Springsteen Gold” is just that. A lot has been made in country music over the years about how the genre just isn’t what it used to be. But, we haven’t really seen artists calling for the good ol’ days of rock to return. O’Toole is nostalgic for the days when Springsteen ruled the airwaves. One of the best aspects of this song is the saxophone solo that pays tribute to the E Street Band sound and late saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
79. "Robbery" by The White Buffalo
The White Buffalo, the stage name that singer-songwriter Jake Smith goes by, released one of the best story songs of 2017 with the crime tale “Robbery.” It follows a two-man heist team robbing a small-town liquor store and the police pursuit and shootout that follows it. It’s a raucous and riveting four minutes that has all the intensity of a taut two-hour action film. Smith’s rugged vocals are excellent for the telling of such a story with L.A. Times’ Jeffrey Fleishman saying, “the voice inside him whirls … hitting the air like a fist.”
78. "Pass the Pain" by Sunny Sweeney
If you’re a fan of tear-in-your-beer type bar weepers, you should love Sunny Sweeney’s “Pass the Pain.” The song sounds timeless, like it could’ve been released at any point in the last 60 years of country music. It’s Country with a capital ‘C.’ Sweeney’s Texan drawl really makes you feel the pain of the narrator as she sings about drowning every ounce of pain with every last drop of alcohol she can find.
77. "Straw in the Wind" by The Steel Woods
The Steel Woods came out roaring in 2017 with their debut album Straw in the Wind showing that there was a new sheriff in town when it came to Southern Rock and Outlaw Country. The title track is a true highlight of the album featuring the story of what happens in a town – one I assume to be in the Old West – when people come to town and take advantage of good people. As a fan of old school Westerns, I can see this entire song playing out perfectly thanks to the cinematic-ness of the entire thing. Pop Matters said of the group: “crafting a series of narrative vignettes rooted in the southern gothic tradition the Steel Woods have managed to create a vivid, character-driven world into which the listener finds themselves drawn and ultimately captivated by.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
76. "Stoned on the One" by Andrew Pope
It’s pretty genius to use a football player getting stopped on the one-yard line as a metaphor for love gone wrong. In fact, I can’t believe I’ve never heard anyone do it before. “Stoned on the One,” from Andrew Pope’s album of the same name, is a hardcore country heartbreaker with terrific steel guitar throughout. Pope’s voice is quintessentially country for a tune about losing a love and clinging to the memories that drive him insane.
75. "Old Porch Swing" by Tony Jackson
There are a few songs on this list that I truly believe would’ve been hits had they been released in the ‘90s or early ‘00s because they have that more traditional country sound you heard from that era in artists like Tracy Lawrence, Clint Black and others. Tony Jackson’s “Old Porch Swing” is one of these songs. It’s a nostalgic, down home song about the memories one has growing up on a small-town porch swing: the good times with family, friends and your first love. Jackson name dropping some of his musical inspirations like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garth Brooks and more is a nice little touch, as well.
74. "Kids in the Street" by Justin Townes Earle
Nostalgia plays a big part in many of the songs on this list this year and one of the best is Justin Townes Earle’s “Kids in the Street,” a remembrance of how easy and good life was “back in 1993.” He sings, “those weren’t better days/but they still meant something to me/when we was kids out in the streets” and you can’t help but feel a nostalgic pain in his vocals as he remembers these days. While their music often doesn’t sound too similar it’s plain to see that Justin got the songwriting talent from his old man, Steve Earle.
73. "Sallisaw Blue" by John Moreland
John Moreland’s Big Bad Luv is a terrific album filled with beautifully written contemplative songs, but it kicks off with this great rollicking rocker “Sallisaw Blue” that proves he could’ve been just as good as a heartland rocker as he is a thought-provoking Americana singer-songwriter. Rolling Stone says the song “conjures up the fire of Steve Earle” and I couldn’t agree more. The chorus: “It’s no use, God bless these blues/Let’s get wrecked and bruised and battered/I need you, come on, burn right through/Honey, show me I’m not shattered” is infectious, but also shows living in the heartland ain’t always easy.
72. "Creek Don't Rise" by William Clark Green
William Clark Green’s “Creek Don’t Rise” was released on his 2015 album Ringling Road, but its appearance as a single on the Texas Country chart this year makes it eligible for this list. From the very beginning with its powerful fiddle intro, with the instrument front and center throughout the song, this is country to the core. It’s a song about trying to get things as perfectly as one can in a relationship. At one point something like this would’ve been a hit on mainstream country radio. These days Green will have to settle for dominating the Texas Country chart.
71. "Motorcycle" by Colter Wall
Colter Wall’s self-titled debut is full of quiet, country-folk-influenced songs, which really makes “Motorcycle” stand out. It’s the most upbeat track on the album, but far from a rocker. I love how it pays homage to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 song “The Motorcycle Song” and it has one of the best verses of the year: “Well, I figure I’ll walk to the liquor store/Thunderbird, two bottles/Maybe three, maybe four/Follow my feet down the Music Row/Pour it on the pavement like you would a tombstone.” It’s a perfect way to call out modern country music by pouring one out for your homies of the past.
70. "Diane" by Cam
Cam’s “Diane” is one of the most interesting songs of 2017 because it essentially tells the other side of Dolly Parton’s timeless classic “Jolene.” Whether you want to go as far as to say that the narrator of “Diane” is Jolene is up to you. I like to believe it is. Either way, it’s a fantastic idea for a song and kudos to Cam, Jeff Bhasker and Tyler Johnson for coming up with something so unique. The musicality of “Diane” drove some country critics a little crazy, but it’s supercharged vibe really gives it a Fleetwood Mac Rumours era feel that I dig.
69. "Whitehouse Road" by Tyler Childers
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Tyler Childers this year before he even released his record Purgatory, his second album, though his first was released six years ago when he was just 19. The buzz was because Sturgill Simpson produced the album and if Simpson liked Childers’ sound it must be good. Rolling Stone said of Childers’ music: “a raw look at the darker regions of modern-day Appalachia, where bluegrass is in the soul, but cocaine is in the blood.” This is evident on “Whitehouse Road,” a smooth country-rocker about being so damn bored you’ll try anything just to pass the time – from loving multiple women to moonshine to sniffing cocaine.
68. "Drunken Barber's Hand" by Slaid Cleaves
Listen, a lot of us in 2017 realized just how much we’re screwed as a country and many great artists have put this fact into songs this year to great effect, but I believe my favorite line regarding such is Slaid Cleaves’ chorus: “I don’t need to read the papers/or the tea leaves to understand/that this world’s been shaved/by a drunken barber’s hand.” It’s such an accurate and visual response to the world. Cleaves told Rolling Stone of the song: “When I was writing the song a year ago it looked like the dominoes were going to start falling and we’d be looking at 1933 all over again.”
67. "Just to Watch Maria Dance" by Guy Clark
I’m sure there must be songwriters out there thinking to themselves, “Jesus, even Guy Clark’s demos are better than anything I’ve ever written.” Clark, who died in May of 2016, was a legendary figure in the Texas singer-songwriter community who’s never before released demo of “Just to Watch Maria Dance” was tacked onto this year’s Guy Clark: Best of the Dualtone Years compilation. The song, co-written with Lady Goodman, is a simple story of a down-trodden man sitting in a bar with nothing better to do than keep feeding coins to the jukebox to watch a woman he has no chance of being with dance to the music.
66. "Nashville 1972" by Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell’s Close Ties is an incredibly personal album from start-to-finish. One of the highlights is “Nashville 1972,” which tells the tale of Crowell’s initiation into the Music Row life and all the friends and mentors who helped him survive coming up like his hero Guy Clark. The song tells of meeting legends like Willie Nelson and old school songwriters like Tom T. Hall and Bob McDill. It’s an interesting look into a particular time in which you wish you could’ve been a fly on the wall.
65. "Vaquero" by Aaron Watson
Aaron Watson has become one of the most successful independent country musicians in the Texas Country scene, even topping the Billboard country charts despite little to no mainstream airplay. He can tell a country story with the best of them and does just that on “Vaquero,” a story of meeting an old Mexican man in a bar who gives him some good life advice about relationships and other important stuff like not leaving one’s beer “in the hot Texas sun.” By the end of the song we’re not sure if the old man was real or a figment of the narrator’s imagination. Either way, learning barstool lessons from this old vaquero will help turn your life around.
64. "Write Your Own Songs" by Dale Watson & Ray Benson
One of Willie Nelson’s most underrated songs is “Write Your Own Songs,” originally appearing on 1982’s Willie and Waylon Jennings collaboration WWII. It’s a diatribe about how music executives try to control every aspect of the career of musicians, something Nelson knew all too well. It’s the perfect cover song for Dale Watson and Ray Benson on their duets album Dale & Ray, two musical outcasts who’ve always done things their own way.
63. "Back When" by Jade Jackson
Californian Jade Jackson burst upon the scene this year with her debut Gilded featuring a husky, bluesy voice reminiscent of some of Sheryl Crow’s best work. Some critics have said they don’t like her voice, but it’s character fits her songs perfectly. The best song on her debut “Back When” is a nostalgic look at the past, like much of what appears on this list this year. It’s really no surprise in our world’s current climate that songwriters are searching for a more innocent past. Jackson told Rolling Stone, “I’ve always been drawn to artists who write sad songs. Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, George Jones and Mike Ness [who produced her debut] are a few who have done this well.”
62. "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega"