2011 has been one heck of a year for country music. We’ve seen singles from all different sides of the spectrum: from songs that make you want to get up and dance, to songs that make you want to cry. Country has always been very good at dealing with real-life issues. It’s the story songs that make country music the genre it is. It has a way of moving you, either to get up and party, or to remember what’s really going on in the world.
It was hard to narrow down the highlight songs of the year into one package, but Ted Efron and myself sat down to do just that. There might be some surprises on our list, but these are the songs that defined a genre for 2011. Take a look at our list below and let us know if you agree, disagree, or think we forgot someone we shouldn’t have. Not all of these songs are singles, some are just the best album tracks that should have been singles this year.
20. Ashton Shepherd – Look It Up
Ted: It seems every year we get a collection of “kiss off” songs. This one was one of the earliest of the year, but clearly its best. Why it didn’t chart higher is beyond me. Ashton Shepherd’s voice is country as country gets. Perhaps she’s suffers from the idiotic “too country” syndrome. But the song was written by Angaleena Presley, who, as part of the Pistol Annies, is proving that old-school country does play in the modern day. This may bode well for future Ashton efforts.
Lydia: Ashton released one of the catchiest songs this year. I agree with Ted, that she has one of the more country sounding voices in music right now. Funny how that doesn’t mean country radio will play you as often as they should. Many fans have forgotten this single, which is a shame, because it really is one of the year’s best. The song was actually originally recorded by Australian artist Jasmine Rae in 2008, but it fits Ashton perfectly. It’s a smart, sassy revenge song.
Ted: Alabama may have been gone from touring and recording, but they were never gone from our hearts. This song brought them back to our ears, as well. That alone is reason enough to put this song on the list. Plus, it’s inspired Alabama to get back together and out on the road a bit in 2012. Thank you, Mr. Paisley!
Lydia: Brad Paisley continues to be one of the biggest artists in country music this year. While he could have had almost all of his singles make our list, “Old Alabama” was one of his best this year. It’s because of Brad that Alabama are making a big comeback in 2012. Brad is a powerhouse, and anything he touches turns to gold. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s had one of the best singles of 2011… has there been a year when he hasn’t been at the top of the charts?
18. Reba McEntire – Somebody’s Chelsea
Ted: Reba has set the bar so high for so long. Let’s hope it never gets to the point that she is ever taken for granted. That may be a bit of the case with her achingly beautiful “Somebody’s Chelsea”. Nobodys paints a picture quite like Reba and, in my opinion, this song deserves a second life. It probably won’t on the charts, but it certainly can in your mp3 player.
Lydia: The Queen of country music has had a somewhat quiet year in 2011. She always does all the right things but for some reason, she can’t find her place on country radio. She released one of the prettiest songs this year that sadly went mostly unnoticed. It’s the strongest lyrically from her “All The Woman I Am” singles so far. I’m not sure why it didn’t do better than it did. It’s an easy to understand love song where Reba does what she does best: telling stories.
17. Toby Keith – Red Solo Cup
Ted: Toby’s “bus song” went viral and became a surprising success. Yes, it gets stuck in your head and will never win any awards for songwriting. But it does show that country music and its fans still have a sense of humor. That’s worth lifting up your red solo cup and saluting.
Lydia: While “Red Solo Cup” might not make Toby Keith the lyrical king of the year, you can’t deny how huge the single has become. Within four days of the music video’s release to YouTube, he already had over a million views. Toby’s funny single, originally released for his fans, found its way on to FOX’s mega-hit series “Glee” this season for its viral fame. It’s because it became such a viral hit, and for being so funny, that Toby Keith made our list this year.
16. Blake Shelton – God Gave Me You
Ted: Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Shelton says he found this song while flipping through the radio in his truck. It was a bit of good timing for which we’re all grateful . Not every country singer could take a contemporary Christian song and make a it chart-topper, but that’s the power of Blake right now. His work on NBC’s “The Voice” has introduced him to millions of people who otherwise may have never heard of him. It’s his undeniable talent on songs like “God Gave Me You” that will make those millions fans of his own.
Lydia: Blake has become one of country music’s leading men, where everything he’s released in the last year and a half has gone to number one. He’s come a long way since his “Austin” days where he struggled to find his own identity on the charts. Blake’s comfortable with who he is, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He recorded a Christian hit single written by Dave Barnes and took a chance at releasing it to radio. It worked.
15. Trace Adkins - Just Fishin’
Lydia: Trace finally found a song that will bring back the fans of his “You’re Gonna Miss This.” This is one of the cutest, and catchier songs of the year. It’s the strongest single so far from his “Proud To Be Here” album on Showdog-Universal. Trace has been an interesting man to follow: he can go from releasing joke songs like “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” to releasing heart-tugging singles like this one. You never know what side of Trace you’ll be getting with each single, but his ode to his daughters is one of his best.
Ted: Touching and tender may not be what Trace wants to be known for, but with this song that’s exactly what we got. As Lydia points out, it could even serve as a companion to his earlier “You’re Gonna Miss This.” Trace has been around for a while now and as he reaches certain stages in life, his audience is reaching those stages with him. This song connected with every parent and grandparent who came across it. It’s that connection is what took it high up the charts and on our list here.
14. Sunny Sweeney – Drink Myself Single
Ted: I’m starting to think I have a thing for strong, sassy women from East Texas. I clearly have a thing for their music. Sunny Sweeney remains a bit underrated, but they won’t last much longer. If you haven’t picked up her “Concrete” album, you’re missing out. We could’ve easily gone with “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving”, but decided to take the fun road instead. The song is worth the trip as she travels it well.
Lydia: Sunny should become one of country music’s biggest rising stars over the next few years. She certainly has the talent to be in the spotlight. “Drink Myself Single” is her best release so far in her career. It’s a fun, uptempo song that I got to hear live at the Grand Ole Opry earlier this year. It’s just as good live as it is in the studio. It’s a honky tonk kind of song, which is why I like it so much. I can’t wait to see what Sunny comes up with in the future.
13. Eric Church – Drink In My Hand
Ted: Eric Church is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. I’ve seen him in concert many times and always walk away amazed with the energy and passion he pours into each and every one of his songs. “Drink In My Hand” serves as a ’thank you’ to the fans who have helped rocket him to the star status he’s now reaching. In typical Church style, he approaches the very common theme of “let’s have a few” with an uncommon vigor. Church is an absolute wonder with words, but he always does so in a way that speaks not over or down to his audience, but directly to it. That is certainly worth toasting.
Lydia: Eric Church has quickly found his way to becoming one of my favorite artists this year. He released this single as a tribute to his fans and how they act at his concerts: having their drinks in the air. It isn’t one of the songs where he pushes the boundaries, but it’s catchy, smooth, and likeable. It’s one of the top party songs this year and for that Eric finds himself in our top 15 singles of the year.
Ted: I always enjoy it when country’s resident beach bum takes a pause from the party. “You and Tequila” definitely takes the air out of the beach ball. Beating addiction — be it to a person or the bottle — is a tough battle. Grace Potter offered a perfect pairing with Kenny’s soft, almost sentimental delivery.
Lydia: Kenny Chesney’s duet with Grace Potter is easily one of the strongest singles this year. It’s no wonder why the single received two nominations for the upcoming GRAMMY awards: it really is one of the top songs of all-genres in 2011. His voice blends perfectly with Grace, who actually never met Kenny before recording the song together. “You And Tequila” might end up being one of Kenny’s best of his career: quite a feat looking at what he’s accomplished so far.
11. Miranda Lambert – Dear Diamond
Ted: We’ve come to expect excellence from Lambert and often that expected comes in the form of the unexpected. With the song off the chart-topping “Four the Record”, the still newly-wed Lambert doesn’t gush about love and romance. Instead, she gives us a sad, solemn peek into the ring-wearer’s world of lies and deceit. Exactly what the wearer did, we (and especially the ringer-giver) may never know. Brilliant.
Lydia: Miranda continues to be one of country music’s innovators with her latest album. She pushes boundaries, and she’s one of the best songwriters in the genre. With Patty Loveless singing backing vocals on the track, this might be one of the hidden treasures off of her album if it doesn’t get released as a single. Miranda, known for coming out guns blazing and being one of the toughest women in the industry, knows how to write some of the most beautiful songs out there. This is no exception, and she does what she does best: writes from her heart.
10. Eli Young Band – Crazy Girl
Ted: After being together for more than a decade, this song put the Eli Young Band on the map in a big way. It finished as the top country song on Billboard’s year-end chart, which shows how fans couldn’t get enough of this song. Now for the EYB comes the hard part: the follow-up single.
Lydia: This song is one that you just can’t get out of your head. It’s one that fans aren’t getting sick of, and still has massive airplay on country radio. The song is that good, and easily is one of the group’s best. It shot the group into the spotlight they’ve deserved for quite some time now. It’s a fun little love song that’s easy to sing along to.
9. Sara Evans – My Heart Can’t Tell You No
Ted: What in the world is song first recorded by Rod Stewart in 1988 doing on our country list for 2011? It makes sense if you know that the song was originally written with Barbara Mandrell in mind. Evans says she’s always been a fan of the song and took a chance in including it on her “Stronger” album. Fortunately, her love of the song shines through as she stylishly brings it full-circle and back to country where it almost originally belonged.
Lydia: Sara Evans took a big risk when she decided to record a Rod Stewart song, but she managed to make it her own. After Sara’s massive success with “A Little Bit Stronger” it was going to be very difficult to find a song that could match the song that threw her back into the spotlight. Her career is hotter than ever, and she changed Rod’s song to a country song. If you never heard the original, you would have never known it was a cover.
8. Eric Church – Springsteen
Ted: This song appears on Church’s “Chief” album and has yet to be released as a single. I don’t know how well it will hit with the younger end of country’s demographic. But for those of us who were finishing up high school with The Boss’ “Born In The U.S.A.” album, it’s a bull’s eye. As I mentioned earlier, Church has a magical way with words. In “Springsteen” he’s able to conjure up the carefree and wild days of youth that were tied together by a single artist. It truly is “funny how a melody sounds like a memory”. Again, Church nails it.
Lydia: Eric Church is our only artist to make the list twice, (second if you count Miranda Lambert and the Pistol Annies as the same artist). He’s had a great year to put it lightly. Even those of us who weren’t around for the heyday of Bruce Springsteen, Eric finds a way to help fans feel like they were there and can relate to the song. He pays his dues to the music legends of the past, and Eric has two of the best songs in 2011.
7. Pistol Annies – Housewife’s Prayer
Ted: We could’ve picked pretty much any song off of the Annies’ debut “Hell On Hells” album. For me, this song leads the pack starting off with its leading line “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire”. Angaleena Presley’s singing perfectly conveys the character’s pain, despair and ultimate resignation. There are no princesses here. No happy endings. Just the cold, hard realities that life sometimes serves us.
Lydia: This is one of my top 3 played songs on my iPod this year. It’s a heartbreaking song that everyone can relate to at some point in their lives. Angaleena found a way to convey that sense of hopelessness and pain in both her vocals and the lyrics on the track. It could easily be a future single from the album. Even though it never charted in 2011, its still one of the top songs of the year. It’s classic country.
6. Dierks Bentley – Home
Ted: It’s almost a shame that this song is out now and not held for the 4th of July. Country music has changed a bit in the last few years, but love of God and Country still remain. Dierks’ “Home” is packed with pride, without hitting us over the head with it. Perhaps it’s also a reflection of the way things have changed in that it acknowledges that things aren’t always perfect, but we soldier on.
Lydia: Even being a Canadian, I can still feel Dierks’ sense of pride in this single from his upcoming album. It’s a powerful song that he delivers perfectly. It’s well written, well performed, and well produced. It’s award-worthy and should see a ton of award show love in 2012. The simplicity of the production is what makes it such a classic. While it is good enough to cross-over to the pop format, the question going into 2012 is will it?
5. Lady Antebellum – Just A Kiss
Lydia: There’s really nothing that can stop the powerhouse that is Lady Antebellum. There’s a reason why they’re the hottest group in country music, who have found massive cross-over success. What makes this stand-out as a single this year is that the group came out guns blazing to prove that they were determined to continue being at the top of the charts. It’s a co-write by all three members of the band, with a little help from Dallas Davidson. It’s a typical Lady A song produced by Paul Worley, but it works for them like it always has.
Ted: I’m constantly amazed by the success of Lady A. That’s not to say I don’t think they deserve it — they do. It’s just that they have become so huge, so fast. I guess that’s a tribute to their ability the craft the kind of songs that resonate with both the country crowd and the pop people. “Just A Kiss” is a fine example of just that. It catches in country and plays in pop because it’s a strong song they can and does fit in both worlds.
4. The Band Perry – All Your Life
Ted: They may only have one full-length album out, but The Band Perry has proven to be far from a one-hit wonder. If all Kimberly, Neil and Reid ever gave us was the brilliant “If I Die Young”, they would’ve left their mark on country music. But there’s no denying their talent, as evidenced by the follow-up success of “You Lie” and now “All Your Life”. Their songs are catchy without being kitschy. With “All Your Life” Kimberly delivers a heart-felt warm and sincerity that allows the song to land with the listeners.
Lydia: The Band Perry have been one of the hottest acts in country music today. They haven’t slowed down since “If I Die Young” had the entire country music world check the talented sibling group out. Their new single has been a surprisingly successful one, and its the mellow vibe to the song that really makes it unique. It’s the first positive-message love ballad the group has released so far. Things are just heating up for the Perry family, and 2012 is sure to be just as big as 2011 was for them.
3. Vince Gill – Threaten Me With Heaven
Ted: Another example of how a great song doesn’t find great chart success. Maybe it was because of the spiritual nature of the song. Maybe it was because of the topic: facing death. It’s certainly not because of Gill and his distinctive sound. It’s a powerful message that he delivers in a calming and assuring way. In other hands, this song easily could’ve become a power ballad, which would probably detract from the emotion. There’s a reason why Gill’s career has thrived for decades. This song is a prime example.
Lydia: Vince Gill released one of the most personal songs of his career this year to little fanfare. It’s a tragedy to see how radio has been treating some of the legends of country music. I’ve missed hearing Vince’s voice on his own songs, and I’ve been ready to hear him without backing up another vocalist. He’s one of the most talented artists, but unfortunately, has a reason to give up on getting the radio airplay he deserves. The saddest part of this song that one of the co-writers had committed suicide before it was released. While the single may barely chart, it’s still one of the year’s best and deserves the attention of country music fans.
2. Martina McBride – I’m Gonna Love You Through It
Ted: Some songs make the list based on the message they deliver and the strength that message gives people. Much like the previously mentioned “Threaten Me With Heaven”, this song certainly is one of them. Whereas Vince delivered his song with a cool, comforting calmness, Martina’s power and passion are what give this song it’s heart. It’s tasteful and touching, which is everything you would want while handling such a difficult subject.
Lydia: Martina has one of the strongest voices in all music genres. She’s a powerhouse vocalist with the ability to tell stories that break your heart. “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” is another one of those songs, which may end up being one of the top songs of her career. Only country music can sing about cancer and what it does to a family, but Martina found a way to deliver it tastefully and emotionally. It’s one of the songs that define country music, and for that reason, Martina has one of the top two songs of 2011.
1. Ronnie Dunn - Cost Of Livin’
Ted: Do you see a theme here? This second single from Dunn’s self-titled solo effort serves as an anthem for the unemployed. If you’re in the unfortunate situation of looking for work – any work – then this song hits home. It’s tough out there and many folks find themselves forced to do whatever they can. But first they need the chance. This song, which speaks for the “every man” of the current climate, projects both sadness and a subtle resolve at the same time.
Lydia: For anyone worried about the quality Ronnie would produce without Kix by his side, they just need to listen to this song. It’s the best of the year and exactly what makes country music so great. He delivers a desperate story of a man looking for a job, any job, to support his family after his company shut down. It’s the type of song that stops you in your tracks, and is exactly the calibre of song Brooks & Dunn would have recorded together. Its simply the song of the year.