20. Cam, “Burning House”

The mononymous Californian introduced herself properly to country radio with a power ballad stripped down to a Stevie Nicks fever dream, ominous string swoops aiding a groggy recounting of last night’s torments and the nagging conscience that won’t go away. If those crackling logs heard lurking behind the nimble acoustic riff sound more like a fire worth snuggling in front of than walls bursting aflame, well, she’s sleepwalking, after all. Then again, that hushed tone helps clamp down the melodrama, turning an act of emotional arson into yesterday’s still-smoldering embers. — J.G.

19. Brett Eldredge feat. Thomas Rhett, “You Can’t Stop Me”

A disco-pop romp that probably could’ve ended up on the latest albums by either Daft Punk or Jason Derulo with marginal re-crafting and ten percent less twang. It could be the death of All Things Country if you wished to approach it as such, or just the genre opening its velvet rope to the musical world outside, and having a blast boogieing with the new folks out on the dance floor. Unlikely you’ll be able to stop it, regardless. — A.U.

18. Turnpike Troubadours, “The Bird Hunters”

Apologies to Hinder, but with their fourth record, the Troubadours assume the mantle of Oklahoma’s best band going. They grab the title with leadoff cut “The Bird Hunters,” a lurching, raggedy waltz about two friends on a quail hunt. The narrator’s back from Tulsa, reeling from a breakup; her last words are ringing like the echoes from their shotguns. He tries to calm his fumbling hands; he recalls a fairytale rodeo dance that promised so much more than he could deliver. Painstakingly detailed, perfectly scripted: it’s a masterful honky-tonk short story. — B.S.

17. Miranda Lambert, “Little Red Wagon”

Not that she needs the validation, but Lambert’s Grammy performance of “Little Red Wagon” burned barns the NARAS didn’t even know were in their portfolio. A skittering, searing statement of being, it’s her “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” her “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” (It’s also a cover of a 2012 Audra Mae cut.) Guitars scream into the breach; a weedy synth lights up the chorus. “You know it ain’t my fault when I’m walkin’,” she shrugs, “jaws droppin’ like ooh ahh.” The band pauses to ogle, and what the hell, she jumps in as well: She’s having way too much fun feeling herself. — B.S.

16. Jason Isbell, “24 Frames”

The Alabaman songwriter is too fine a craftsman to settle for such hoary clichés as “a blink of an eye,” so he adapts to a cinematic time frame on this perfectly rendered crisis of faith (and pledge of fidelity). Transferring the action to 35 millimeter helps drive home the Old Testament truth of a hands-on God who drives a getaway car and lobs IEDs at believers and non-believers alike. Not that Isbell’s prostrate by song’s end or anything — the only muse he comes close to worshiping these days is wife and creative equal Amanda Shires. But he’s been to the brink, and knows clawing your way back can swallow a lifetime. — J.G.

15. Dwight Yoakam, “Second Hand Heart”

Over chiming guitars that approximate the midway point between the half-dozen best John Mellencamp riffs, country lifer Dwight Yoakam tries to persuade a potential partner that its worth taking her used ticker out for another spin, ultimately hoping two losers in love can reverse each other’s bad luck. A bold gambit, but if the power-pop rush of those six-strings don’t give them the confidence to go for it, nothing will. — A.U.

14. Maddie & Tae, “Downside of Growing Up”

With big-sisterly wisdom, Maddie & Tae rhapsodize about the tough part of adjusting to post-adolescence — going away to school, fixing up your own place, and falling in love all by your lonesome without anyone (besides them, anyway) to guide you through. They advise, “It’s the road you gotta take to get where you’re going.” But of course, the girls aren’t exactly out of the woods there themselves: Both turned 20 just this year, and they admit as much in the song’s bridge (“Where you are is where I’ve been / And where I still am”), before switching to first-person for the final chorus. “Downside” is tender and sweet enough that you’re not sure if the duo even realizes that it’ll hold true for the rest of their lives, too. — A.U.

13. Eric Church, “Mr. Misunderstood”

A self-romanticizing “after the gold rush” anthem? Maybe. But one that pays it forward, while allowing Nashville’s artiest hitmaker to name names beyond his beloved Springsteen (or country convention), declaring cultural affinities for Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, and Jackson Pollack, Beale Street rather than Lower Broad, with a singalong outro rousing enough to do about all of ’em justice. — C.H.

12. Old Dominion, “Break Up With Him”

Whether you think “Break Up With Him” is a literal, pushy, and uncomfortable plea, or an imagined conversation that lead vocalist Matthew Ramsey is practicing in the mirror, its nicked Weezer melody still has plenty of spark left even after Asher Roth seemingly cashed the bowl. You might even find yourself singing, “Tell him that it’s over…” while you’re jamming the original in the g’rage. Say it ain’t bro. — D.W.

11. Carrie Underwood, “Smoke Break”

People hate on bro-country, its Dixie cups full of whiskey and its hayfields illuminated by headlamps. But at its core, it’s about DIY escapism in an economy still crawling toward recovery. On the lead single to Underwood’s recent, muscular set Storyteller — which included her own tailgates-and-FM ode, recorded with Sam Hunt — she probes the on-the-clock version of that urge. “I don’t drink / But sometimes I need a stiff drink,” say the song’s single mother and middle manager: It’s not artful, but empathy rarely needs to be. The lap steel drops notes like idle thoughts, the toms smack like a ticking second hand. — B.S.

10. Brothers Osborne, “Stay a Little Longer”

No, not that Osborne family. The Maryland-born T.J. and John palm-mute a banjo like the Edge for a rappy, ultra-sticky confection of hooks glued tighter than a popcorn ball, half-courtesy of Kacey Musgraves/Sam Hunt mastermind Shane McAnally. A song about extended gratification that takes its time building up to it, that’s neat. — D.W.

9. Chris Stapleton, “Traveller”

The least-expected breakout star of late 2015 declares himself Like a Rolling Stone on the title-track opener to his chart-topping album, over rollicking acoustics and whining pedal steel that make his lifelong jaunt seem like one worth accompanying. Befitting of a longtime behind-the-scenes figure now getting his turn in the limelight, the singer-songwriter looks to relish rather than resent his lifelong journeying. Chris Stapleton may walk these streets with a loaded six-string on his back, but he doesn’t sound overly burdened by it — in fact, no one’s been this gratified to be on the road again (and again and again) since Willie Nelson. — A.U.

8. Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “It’s All Going to Pot”

Did it really take these two Highwaymen a combined century of songwriting to finally come up with that title? “It’s All Going to Pot” works its central conceit from about a half-dozen different, equally chortling directions, ending up with a song that’s as snide and cynical as it is winking and celebratory. The message, as always: If the apocalypse is really on its way, make sure that you’re too stoned and strung out on mariachi horns to give a damn anyway. — A.U.

7. Ashley Monroe, “The Blade”

A fine songwriter who also knows how to pick ‘em, the Pistol Annie and Tennessee rose scooped up this extended metaphor and transformed it into the very model of a country weepie. Vince Gill’s rich production suits the ache under exploration, in which a wounded protagonist figures out for herself that not everybody bleeds. Wielded by a less delicate hand, that spinning razor might be a bludgeon. Thanks to Monroe’s controlled timbre and elegant flutter, it instead proves worthy of mention alongside Dolly Parton’s fabled coat of many colors.  — J.G.

6. Zac Brown Band, “Homegrown”

Brown and company have some notable collaborations on their resume: Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Grohl. For “Homegrown,” they’ve tabbed the spirit of John Cougar (sans Johns Deere and 3:16). No shadow touches their pink house, though — Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle cries from joy, and the whole Band cradles Brown’s refrain like a hammock. “It’s the weight that you carry from the things you think you want,” goes the bridge, and the homey harmonies crash onto Zac’s lead vocal. Waves lapping the lakeshore on a breezy, sunny day. — B.S.

5. James McMurtry, “You Got to Me”

Dusty, literate Texas singer-songwriters are country too — just ask Townes Van Zandt. Coming seven years after his prior studio album, 2008’s Just Us Kids, McMurtry’s Complicated Game is a potential masterpiece of narrative songwriting that stretches from his familiar working-class, rural locales to deft portraits of equally searching middle-class urbanites. The typically detail-rich “You Got to Me” is one of these, and might be the album’s most concise, evocative, and cinematic song. In it, a middle-aged man returns to his college town for a wedding and abandons the forced rowdiness of the reception (“How the old and desperate misbehave”) to trace the memory of a flickering former flame. You can almost smell the cocaine, sweat, and aftershave from the line of idling limos; hear the reggae band in the background revel; and see the image dissolve as the narrator’s mind reminisces on a carnal Christmas break. He snaps out of it of course, only to witness a smoke-breaking paper boy regard this curiosity with a shrug. — C.H.

4. Sam Hunt, “House Party”

Easily the biggest Nashville breakout of 2015, the onetime UAB quarterback has shaken up a country-radio scene already disposed to swiping R&B moves. Hunt’s genius is in banishing the air quotes. He’s not looking to translate pop; he’s conversing in it. By far the bubbliest cut on last year’s Montevallo, “House Party” is as eager to entertain as its narrator. Hunt conjures every trick in his playbook: a singsong steel-guitar figure, raucous guests, and the kind of DJ-scratching last heard in “Heaven Is a Halfpipe.” It’s a precision fun machine: a party bus designed by Porsche. — B.S.

3. Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”

“Girl Crush” is so much more complex than the Britney-Madonna moment conservative country fans think. It’s as dark and obsessed as any Lana Del Rey or Weeknd song, with the idea of tasting someone’s lips just because there might be a trace of your missed lover on them. But miraculously, there’s no hint of fist-clenching resentment or malice in the eternally longing, “You Really Got a Hold on Me”-like melody, no self-destructive impulse. Just unrequited yearning, wistfully, hopelessly. The kind that gets bottled into a sweet song because it has nowhere else to go. — D.W.

2. Thomas Rhett, “Crash and Burn”

What becomes of the brokenhearted? If you’re Thomas Rhett, you just keep on whistling. The apex of 2015 country’s fascination with classic soul, “Crash and Burn” eschews Motown’s typical post-breakup melodrama for a thoroughly unrealistic combination of apathy, acceptance, and amusement — even when Rhett starts raining tears (of course), it’s more self-affirmation than self-pity. No person in history has ever reacted to being dumped this practically, but “Crash” is all the more inspiring for its “world keeps spinning” sense of perspective, like a “Since U Been Gone” that doesn’t implore you to get mad or get even, but just to get big-picture. “Some guys can’t have all the luck / If others don’t sing sad songs.” Too true, Thomas, and we’re surprisingly happy to be on the chain gang of the loveless with you. — A.U.

1. Kacey Musgraves, “Dime Store Cowgirl”

No other genre proclaims its pride in itself — its history, its geography, its culture — more frequently than country, often suggesting a deeper lack of confidence about the music’s standing with outsiders, and the outside world in general. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” is so effective because Kacey Musgraves resides in that insecurity, its title even inspired by a youthful memory of being chastised for her too-country getup by a grown-up. Backed by a gently swaying march of pedal steel and bass drum, Kacey neither dwells nor revels in where she’s from, allowing for all the Great Big World has to offer, but acknowledging that it’s just not her. The self-effacing chorus (“I’m just a dime store cowgirl / That’s all I’m ever gonna be”) could very easily be played as an anthem, but its truths are too ingrained in the singer-songwriter for her to mock oversized boastfulness with it.

Pageant Material, Musgraves’ sophomore major-label album, is at its most affecting when illustrating how you can feel the most like an outsider even when you’re on the inside. “Cowgirl” was its definitive track for showing how even when Kacey attempts her version of country’s most clichéd form of chest-puffing — after one of the most successful proper debut albums the genre has seen this decade, no less — she still manages to sound vulnerable, relatable, utterly human, and still far more assured in her musical and cultural roots than any of her shoutier contemporaries. Tellingly, the song flopped on the charts, appearing on more year-end rankings like this than Nashville radio playlists, but that’s fine: The more you try to take Kacey Musgraves out of country, the more blindingly obvious it becomes that you can’t take the country out of her. — A.U.


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