Year-End Lists \

The 40 Best Country Songs of 2014

From Jason Aldean to Drive-By Truckers, these were the year's best shit-kickers and tearjerkers

20. Jason Aldean, “When She Says Baby”

His voice an inoffensive purr, over guitar drunk on MTV’s Buzz Bin circa 1994, Aldean gets closer than his booze-drowned colleagues to apotheosizing bro country, and he’s the guy who sang the original anthem. That is, there’s no chance at redemption, reconciliation, or recourse, not even backup vocals offering response: just submission to choral licks. When he says, “Baby,” he’s talking to himself. That’s what guys do. A.S.

19. Lady Antebellum, “Bartender”

Chasing the disco ball around till she don’t remember, Hilary Scott stars in the prequel to “Need You Now,” which idolized drunk dialing while Drake was still in a wheelchair. Lady Antebellum make sure to swing a little too; their beats are marinated in R&B and Maroon 5 as much as their harmonies are in Alabama. And, oh, those harmonies; unlike say, fellow barfly Toby Keith, Scott and Charles Kelley can’t celebrate without hinting in their voices at the trouble to come. This is country, so it will. A.S.

18. Brad Paisley, “Shattered Glass”

Country’s most zealous diplomat, slyest liberal (if you’ll recall the way he sneaked Obama into a synth-led anthem called “Welcome to the Future”) and most consistent feminist (try on “The Pants”) finally hit an embarrassing wall with “Accidental Racist.” Spooked by his first public disappointment, he played it safe on this year’s fishing-and-drinking step back, Moonshine in the Trunk. So just don’t tell the boys about this gorgeously sung power ballad hidden in the middle, which cheers for working women to “bust that ceiling out” and get that equal pay. As for the eponymous “shattered glass,” make it rain on them bros. D.W.

17. Sam Hunt, “Break Up in a Small Town”

The long-overdue Drake-meets-country eureka moment finally arrived this year, with this college football star turned Nashville singer-songwriter. “Break Up in a Small Town” switches between spoken word and Auto-Tuned crooning just like OVO’s finest, even sneaking a So Far Gone reference into the second verse. It works, mostly because Hunt’s homage is more reverential than winking, and because like so many of Drizzy’s best, the song is just as much about fondness for the minutiae of his hometown — the stoplights, the backyards, the gas pumps — as heartache over the romantic entanglements that occur therein. A.U.

16. Frankie Ballard, “Sunshine and Whiskey”

This is what keeps C&W grumps up at night: a cherubic-faced Michigan boy pens a booze tribute sweeter than Kool-Aid and calls out Tom Petty midsong. Ballard’s shtick is so thick you could stand spoons up in it, with hourglass figures, Coppertone winks, and roadside mischief like Driving While Kissing. But hey, at least he’s taking shots of Jack rather swirling a Lynchburg Lemonade. “Just when I thought it couldn’t get any hotter / You slid on in,” Ballard deadpans. Easy on the ice cubes there, bartender. J.G.

15. Billy Joe Shaver feat. Willie Nelson, “Hard to Be an Outlaw”

Outlaw shmoutlaw: Billy Joe Shaver is a bad man, silver-haired or no — just ask the buckaroo he shot in the face outside a Texas bar a few years back. So it’s a mild delight when Shaver and a weed-sated Willie play this number with slightly cockeyed grace rather than itchy trigger-finger machismo. They shake fists in the direction of country pinups, quaff White Lightning, and keep their backs to the floor. As for the young thing who “had a lot of fun” playing with their gun(s), she’s out the door before the first verse rolls to a close. J.G.

14. Drive-By Truckers, “The Part of Him”

Don’t let the beautiful three-guitar quilt of backing music fool you — the highlight of this amazing band’s best album in six years is as vituperative with political outrage as anything Drive-By Truckers have ever laid down: “His integrity was phoning in / Totally Nixonian / Honing in the art of making deals.” And despite the requisite funny asides (“His own mama called him an S.O.B.”), Patterson Hood wants us to know that these creeps don’t go away; when one’s exposed shown the door, another’s elected in. Or as he puts it: “Someone else will play the part of him.” D.W.

13. Lydia Loveless, “Really Wanna See You”

Lydia Loveless treats her lusts like her rhythm guitar: scraping at them for their own sake and cuz it’s fun irritating friends with them. In the first track off of the terrific Someplace Else, she snorts blow at a party, finds an eightball while cleaning her room, and daydreams about what she calls on another song “wine lips.” She loves Paul Westerberg and Lucinda Williams; she’ll love you too if you gave her a chance. She’ll even offer an eightball for your trouble. A.S.

12. Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water”

Many multi-platinum artists thank the lord for their success, but far fewer cap their greatest-hits album with a full-on religious audit — “There must be something in the water,” surmises the giant-voiced Idol winner, who also brags about her posse of angels, just before a huge backing choir helps slam her Good-Book salesmanship home. It’s enough to make an atheist hum at least. D.W.

11. Dierks Bentley, “Drunk on a Plane”

Flying is fun when you’re headed someplace, not coming back. No one looks their best here, either — is that why his producers bent those strings for the requisite funny-sad mockery? “Drunk on a Plane” has enough chord changes and melodic shifts to make a frathouse dizzy; what it loses in punch (see 2012’s “5-1 5-0″ for that) it regains in universalist novelty. He’s drunk on a plane. He can’t complain. A.S.