Country music has the power to heal. With only a guitar, it’s “three chords and the truth,” often sending a shock to the heart in ways no other format can. Some of the greatest songs ever written and performed in history have come from a deep well of sorrow and emotion. 2014 wasn’t any different. While party anthems and uptempo rockers still permeate radio, there were plenty of songs that dug far below the surface to tap into the need to tell stories. Country Outfitter has put together a healthy list of the year’s Top 10 Best Singles to hit the airwaves.
10. Miranda Lambert, “Automatic” (Lambert, Nicolle Gallyon, Natalie Hemby)
Lambert opens the flood gates of her youth with this smoothly polished mid-tempo. In the video, she returns to the attic and opens her cedar chest, reliving her past as she shuffles through a collection of keepsakes. It’s the remembrance of the past that allows her to move forward, as she does on her new album Platinum. While holding onto her roots, she’s able to explore a new direction. That’s the core of what the song talks about, and you could credit Lambert with helping bring back quality to terrestrial radio.
9. Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” (Jeffrey Steele, Jaren Johnston, Tom Douglas)
2014 was the year of nostalgia (as evidenced by several other songs on this list), and McGraw and Hill‘s blistering collaboration is one of the year’s finest. As it reminisces about missing home and small-town life, there’s an element of regret but hopefulness. The song lists countless things that they miss, from cold beer, the dirt roads, the setting sun and “knowing everybody,” while they attempt to reach their heyday once again. The result is a beautiful story about the past.
8. Florida Georgia Line, “Dirt” (Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins)
Known for their beer-chugging party anthems, this duo went in a completely different direction with this lead single (for their Anything Goes sophomore album). It’s a bit surprising, as their first-ever story-driven song. By using the vivid image of dirt to piece together our lives, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley are onto something here. While their follow-up single “Sun Daze” doesn’t quite live up to this, they have much more to offer than meets the eye (or the ear).
7. Frankie Ballard, “Helluva Life” (Josh Kear, Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins)
6. Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown” (Church, Luke Laird)
Similar to his Grammy-nominated “Springsteen,” the outsider pulls in the reigns of his southern-rock and heavy metal sensibilities for another nostalgic-laced No. 1 hit. While there are more captivating and interesting cuts on his new album, this is another example of real stories winning out in the mainstream. There’s a sorrowful aspect to Church’s phrasing that marks him as one of the year’s best storytellers.
5. The Band Perry, “Gentle on My Mind” (John Hartford)
Covers are hard to live up to the original, but this chart-topping trio’s take on the classic Glen Campbell track is just as sincere, just as organic as the first. While The Band Perry have been leaning more pop-country and rock lately (especially on their 2013 album Pioneer), they truly shine on stripped down, traditional-leaning material. Kimberly Perry has never sounded so sweet, so aching as she does here; only “If I Die Young” comes close to this excellence.
4. Little Big Town, “Girl Crush” (Lor McKenna, Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey)
The harmonious quartet’s new single, from their critically-acclaimed Pain Killer, is by far their most unconventional release to-date. But it’s earned the biggest and best fan response of every other song on the album. Band mate Karen Fairchild’s gritty, soulful lead vocal is one of the best performances of the year in any format. The aching in her delivery is palpable in the air, as she rips into the lyrics with a quiet relief. There is no group in country right now that are as dynamic and risk-taking as these four.
3. Dierks Bentley, “I Hold On” (Bentley, Brett James)
Following the tragic passing of his father and the enlightening birth of his son, life changed for Bentley as he headed in to record hisRiser album. “I Hold On” is an especially personal career moment for him; the song ultimately went No. 1 on the country charts, proving that a deeply-rooted, quality song could cut through the noise of the party. If it were possible to list his entire Riser album, this entire list would be dedicated to Bentley’s boldest yet.
2. Jake Owen, “What We Ain’t Got” (Travis Meadows, Travis Jerome Goff)
Owen has always flown quite under the radar, but his makes a bold statement with this simply stunning song. It’s a stark departure from his typical “Beachin” or “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” type anthems, and allows the singer to full exercise his emotionally powerful vocals. The arrangement is a simply piano (with little else), which shines the spotlight on the precise lyricism. There is no other male single of 2014 that matches the shock of this song.
1. Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water” (Underwood, Chris DeStefano, Brett James)
This Okie caps her decade-long career with one splashy story-driven piece. Sure, she’s covered faith plenty of times in her music (“Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Temporary Home”), but “Water” gives a heavy dose of baptism that is quite refreshing in 2014. While her male contemporaries are even beginning to release quality material, it is this Greatest Hits: Decade #1 entry that is a cut above the rest. Plus, she’s never sounded so ethereal, so grounded as she does here. The “Amazing Grace” outro is by far the best use of a hymn in contemporary country music.
Maddie & Tae, “Girl in a Country Song”
Jennifer Nettles, “That Girl”
Chris Young, “Lonely Eyes”
Image Source: Jeremy Scott for CO