In 2015, country saw its usual mix of warmly welcomed returns from legends like Dwight Yoakam, Patty Griffin, and Willie Nelson with Merle Haggard (together!), as well as breakouts from new stars like Kelsea Ballerini, Cam, and Brothers Osborne. But if the year could be defined by one trend, it would be by the artists who split the difference — the long-suffering behind-the-scenes country vets who finally stepped out as solo acts.
Songwriters like Chris Stapleton, Chris Janson, Sam Hunt, the Old Dominion supergroup — even the already-minted Kacey Musgraves scribed hits for Miranda Lambert and Nashville before having any of her own — all got their moment in the spotlight in 2015, and turns out they could’ve been leads all along. It’s enough to make you wonder if the Big Machine of country needs rejiggering — though there were enough great factory-style hits cranked out by Thomas Rhett, Jake Owen, and Jana Kramer to suggest that maybe there’s room for both methods.
Read our list of the 40 best country songs below, and here’s looking forward to the great Shane McAnally solo breakout in 2016.
40. Alan Jackson, “You Can Always Come Home”
Despite his feints at honky tonk, Alan Jackson’s greatest and too-little-appreciated gift is for decency, whether he’s navigating global tumult (“Where Were You [When the World Stopped Turning]”), knowledge received and given (“Drive [For Daddy Gene]”) or the hard-won rewards of lifelong love (“Remember When”). This plainspoken, promissory hymn of parental love and reassurance — “even if you never find your way” — is a cry-in-your-cubicle addition to his canon. — CHRIS HERRINGTON
39. Jake Owen, “Real Life”
So lightweight it’s hang-gliding, Jake Owen’s “Real Life” is still beachin’, but this time with class consciousness worthy of Vince Staples. He slugs RC Cola and tips rude waitresses anyway, shakes the dirt off his heart and throws a dance party in the Waffle House. A lot less bubbleheaded than any of the Sugar Ray tunes it evokes. — DAN WEISS
38. Mickey Guyton, “Better Than You Left Me”
Traditional country need not spring from traditional circumstances, and so it was with “Better Than You Left Me.” Right after Mickey Guyton performed for President Obama, an old flame wanted to rekindle, and she took the smoke straight to a co-writing session. “Better Than You Left Me” is a sturdy 3/4-time ballad in the Deana Carter mold; the bare arrangement sways wistfully, giving Guyton room to work up to a cathartic bridge. It’s a striking debut single, triumphant, and tastefully rendered. — BRAD SHOUP
37. Jana Kramer, “I Got the Boy”
Maybe the most affectingly deceptive song title of 2015, a heartbroken lamentation brilliantly disguised a winking boast. Modern country so often drowns in sentimentality over young love that it’s exceedingly refreshing to hear a ballad about a love that was too young, and how singer (and former teen drama regular) Jana Kramer wishes she could’ve shown up in time for the final product, not the first draft. Kramer says she started bawling the first time she heard the demo, and with her raw-throated delivery on lyrics like “I got the first kiss / She’ll get the last,” it seems likely the Kleenex wasn’t too far out of reach during recording, either. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
36. Cole Swindell, “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey”
Everyone knows there’s a special rung of hell reserved for those who waste good scotch, and doubly so for those who ruin the stuff for others. So Cole Swindell does his ex the favor of not holding her accountable for any such whiskey wasting, claiming his drinking to be in the name of any other cause — an old friend, music on the jukebox, Our Troops — except misery over her leaving. The coiffer doth protest too much, perhaps, but with those thirst-quenching guitars soaring behind him, you’ll gladly raise a glass to him in self-delusional solidarity. — A.U.
35. The Last Hurrah!!, “The Weight of the Moon”
If you look hard enough, you can find an affinity for country music in Norway. But HP Gundersen’s Last Hurrah!! project seems to have found a time portal. Maesa Pullman (yes, daughter of actor Bill) takes over vocal duties, and a cosmic-country sound supplants previous albums’ omnivorous freak-folk. “The Weight of the Moon” is a stately countrypolitan kiss-off, with Gunderson’s steel curls acting as a second vocalist to Pullman, who coats her venom in languidness. — B.S.
34. Chris Janson, “Buy Me a Boat”
Chris Janson may want the kind of things that money just can’t buy, but if he was “sittin’ on a pile like Warren Buffet,” he could certainly fill up a Bass Pro shopping list as well. “Buy Me a Boat” is positively Paisleyan in chuckling practicality, the Nashville singer-songwriter refusing to wish for any riches beyond those that would maximize the ease by which he could live in his idyllic waterworld (“I hear the Powerball Lotto is a-sitting’ on a hundred mill / Well, that would buy me a brand new rod and reel”). Janson don’t care too much for love, love can’t buy him a Frabill Aqua Life bait box with aerator. — A.U.
33. Kacey Musgraves feat. Willie Nelson, “Are You Sure?”
Nice bar, right? The tequila’s a little warm, but the beer’s plenty cold and the floor ain’t too sticky. And the live entertainment is about as good as it gets this deep in the Chihuahuan Desert: two for the price of one! I mean, right, it’s not quite a Loretta/Conway match made in heaven, the octogenarian’s grizzled visage merely a fine complement to the relative kiddo’s Opry-approved crystalline phrasing. But they sure make a cute couple on a slow West Texas waltz yanked from the days when Willie was a songwriter first and foremost, good old Trigger nudging between choruses while that pedal steel soars alongside Kacey into the evening sky. — JASON GUBBELS
32. Lee Ann Womack, “Send It on Down”
From early pop-country hits to a career-making inspirational standard to vintage country homages to Americana-tilting projects, Lee Ann Womack has navigated a bumpy, lively path from ingenue to veteran. She’s been around, and she packs a lifetime into this restless musical prayer. — C.H.
31. Keith Urban, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”
Keith Urban sees the heartland heartstring-pulling of Kenny Chesney’s 2014 smash “American Kids” and raises it the year’s most A.V. Club-sounding C&W song title. The rock’n’roll-baptism vibes are feel-good enough that you can easily forgive the über-Americana from the world’s biggest country star to not be born in the Western hemisphere, and the bass is fat enough to make you wonder if the song should even be counted as country in the first place. — A.U.
30. Patty Griffin, “Rider of Days”
The intro is, essentially, an establishing shot: a robust acoustic guitar figure becomes a probing breeze, cutting through the main thoroughfare. Griffin embodies ache and acceptance: passing through a town that still holds her imagination tightly, remembering what she can before she’s borne to the next stop. The lead single from her first self-released record, “Rider” radiates the melodic craft (the backing vocals are a wind unto themselves) and quiet confidence that marks Griffin’s remarkable catalog. — B.S.
29. Ryan Adams, “Clean”
The greatest public service Ryan Adams provided with his 1989 cover album was to match Taylor Swift’s songwriting with the sighing harmonies and echoing guitar melodies she left behind in the Speak Now days; not a course-correction, but a fascinating what-if. His “Clean” is simultaneously shell-shocked and self-affirming like all of that 2010 album’s highlights were, and the double-or-triple meaning of a permanently grungy rocker like Adams declaring, “I think I am finally clean” is too delicious to deny. — A.U.
28. Brandi Carlile, “The Eye”
In 2014, after nearly a decade on Columbia’s roster, Carlile decamped for the more independent climes of Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. That same year, she undertook the Pin Drop Tour: a series of unamplified shows that rely on the chemistry Carlile has developed with her longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth. The surest test has been “The Eye,” a Nicksonian acoustic lament that soars on three-part harmony. Even on record, it fills the room: a delicate guitar figure chimes underneath the weighty group vocal, building to the money couplet: “You can dance in a hurricane / But only if you’re standing in the eye.” — B.S.
27. The Bottle Rockets, “XOYOU”
Two-and-a-half minutes’ worth of honky-tonk stomp/slop, boasting perhaps the grooviest electric sitar to chime out of the southland since Duane Allman backed up King Curtis on “Games People Play” — and to hear the Rockets tell the story, they wrote the whole damn thing with none other than Tom Jones in mind. There’s certainly a hint of that old Welshman’s smarmy swagger in this good natured kiss-off. But it’s the warm butter of Brian Henneman’s drawl that sells the aw-shucks regret of “it all fell apart in the shape of a heart.” — J.G.
26. Kelsea Ballerini, “Love Me Like You Mean It”
The swagger of her programmed beats makes Ballerini a possible candidate for the Next Taylor Swift, as does her biggest hit’s on-to-the-next-one warning. But more accurately, “Love Me Like You Mean It” turns Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” on its side, explaining like so many melodramas before it that you’ve gotta love her like there’s no tomorrow, or else there won’t be one. Made a lot more sense on Nashville radio than it did with its working title, “S**t or Get Off the Pot.” — D.W.
25. Sunny Sweeney feat. Will Hoge, “My Bed”
Sweeney has written some great cheating songs (“From a Table Away” is amazing), but the marriage in “My Bed” — Will Hoge is her unarousing other half — is dying from too little drama, not too much, and Sweeney flattens and dries her East Texas drawl from a prairie to a plain in accordance. — C.H.
24. Ashley Campbell, “Remembering”
The debut single of Ashley Campbell, daughter of country legend Glen, pays tribute to the paterfamilias in just about the most poignant way possible, recounting happy memories of thunderstorms and guitar lessons that her Alzheimer’s-stricken pop can no longer recall, offering, “Daddy, don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering.” It’d be absolutely devastating even if it wasn’t about one of the greatest artists in the genre’s history. — A.U.
23. The Mavericks, “Summertime (When I’m With You)”
Raul Malo and his Mavericks have been some of country’s staunchest traditionalists. The twist is that the traditions they honor include Tex-Mex, AM gold, and ska. They last feted the latter on 2013’s cross-dimensional time capsule “That’s Not My Name”; for “Summertime,” they boost the reverb, quicken the pace, and add some po-faced brass. Malo’s croon remains undiminished, an Orbisonian wonder that puts nostalgia in service to great songwriting. No idea how one can skank in boots, but one better learn. — B.S.
22. Allison Moorer, “Down to Believing”
The breaking point of a strained relationship boiled down, over plaintively exhaling guitars, to its simplest question: “I guess it comes down to believing / And whether we do or we don’t.” Turns out they didn’t — country veteran Moorer and her similarly acclaimed IRL husband Steve Earle separated in early 2014 — but the resigned acceptance of “Believing” makes for the rare breakup ballad to give that critical moment of dissolution the respect it deserves. — A.U.
21. Butch Walker, “I Love You”
Songwriter and producer to the stars Butch Walker has long been underappreciated as a solo artist, in large part because his voice is unusually frayed for a leading man’s. But with producer Ryan Adams nudging Walker down the alt-country path, latest album Afraid of Ghosts turns the frailty of its singer’s voice into an asset, imbuing its cracks with decades of lived-in weariness. “I Love You” is most affecting of all, a bittersweet remembrance of young love yet to be equaled, its use of the present tense making Walker’s broken sighs all the more painful. — A.U.