Well, we’ve made it – the end of another wild, unpredictable year in country music filled with evolving trends, freshly-minted superstars and more. 2020 is just around the corner and with it comes a fresh new decade of country history, but before we open that pandora’s box, it may help to stop and look at where we’ve been.
From pure-country throwbacks to unthinkable crossover hits, and from carefree party anthems to ballads built on serious social commentary, country has seemed to walk a fine line in the past 12 months — both changing and morphing while also holding fast to the traditions it was built on — but it wouldn’t have ended up where it did without these high-impact singles. In no particular order, here are our picks for the 20 songs that defined country in 2019.
Blake Shelton – “God’s Country”
Coming into the year, success and a busy schedule may have had Blake Shelton on cruise control, but he says now that “God’s Country” revitalized his career. The dark, stormy anthem felt more tied to who Shelton is and where he’s from, and it may mark the turning of a creative page.
Eric Church – “Some of It”
At this point fans know Eric Church isn’t releasing anything that doesn’t have “something” behind it, but he hit a new high with “Some Of It.” Filled with timeless, courage-giving wisdom and brought to life through a unique vocal flow, it may as well be the uncompromising star’s theme song.
Luke Combs – “Beer Never Broke My Heart”
After busting out with the five Platinum No.1 of his debut album, the pressure was on to see if Luke Combs’ next project could hit another bullseye. “Beer Never Broke My Heart” put those questions to rest, showing the burly every-day hero knows exactly what he’s about.
Miranda Lambert – “It All Comes Out in the Wash”
Miranda Lambert reconnected with that mix of in-your-face attitude and undeniable charm that defined her early work on “It All Comes Out in the Wash.” Proving she’s still having fun and still at the top of her game, it arrived just as empowered female artists were more needed than ever.
Dan + Shay – “10,000 Hours” (with Justin Bieber)
With the triple hits of “Tequila,” “Speechless” and “All to Myself” behind them, “10,000 Hours” (with Justin Bieber) was a game changer just for signaling Dan + Shay’s official ascension into the pop mainstream. Both brilliantly simple and instantly unforgettable, its journey is likely just beginning.
Craig Morgan – “The Father, My Son and the Holy Ghost”
They say country is just three chords and the truth, and Craig Morgan’s emotional return to public after the death of his son, Jerry, is country music at its devastating best. Clearly shattered and stripped bare, anyone with a beating heart can feel not just his pain, but his hope.
Maren Morris – “Girl”
It’s not easy to win over both fans and critics in country music, but Maren Morris did it (again) with “Girl.” With defiant, empowering lyrics, edgy garage-rock sonics and torchy vocals, she’s blazing her own creative path – and blazing up the charts, too.
Dierks Bentley – “Burning Man” (featuring Brothers Osborne)
Conventional wisdom says that at a certain point, we’re all supposed to settle into life and leave our wilder days behind – but Dierks Bentley has essentially called B.S. on that. Digging into the push and pull of youth versus experience, his “Burning Man” collab with Brothers Osborne makes a case for 45 as the new 25.
Kane Brown – “Good As You”
It really felt like Kane Brown found his sweet spot with “Good As You,” a chart-topping hit mixing smooth R&B with a country heart-of-gold. The new father and devoted husband kept exploring that vein with the streaming smash “One Thing Right” (with Marshmello), so expect more to come.
Kelsea Ballerini – “homecoming queen?”
Kelsea Ballerini let fans in on a secret with her single, “homecoming queen?” In a time full of bullies and body issues, this encouraging ballad found her taking off the public mask of perfection and offering a shoulder to cry on – because really, even the homecoming queen needs one from time to time.
Thomas Rhett – “Look What God Gave Her”
It’s no secret how Thomas Rhett feels about his wife, Lauren – she is the “Star of the Show,” after all. But “Look What God Gave Her” stood out for its energy. TR found a way to combine danceable beats with romantic fun and a splash of faithfulness, and that seems like a gift from above.
Old Dominion – “Make It Sweet”
Old Dominion are like professors of song craft – they write, record and deliver tracks with a near-perfect combo of smart lyrics and unforgettable melodies. But with “Make It Sweet” they somehow added feel-good wisdom to the mix. … Pay attention, this will be on the test!
Carrie Underwood – “Southbound”
She may be known for epic, empowering anthems and powerhouse vocals, but “Southbound” proved Carrie Underwood can do carefree fun in the sun, too. All about letting loose and maybe even shooting a little tequila, it was a welcome reminder that divas need a day off just like the rest of us.
Lil Nas X – “Old Town Road” (featuring Billy Ray Cyrus)
It’s probably fair to say no one expected Billy Ray Cyrus to be country’s comeback artist of 2019, and he can thank an eccentric young rapper with a taste for tassels and fringe. Say what you want about this song’s origins, its popularity moves the country-rap needle a little further, and it’s too fun to ignore.
Keith Urban – “We Were”
Some things seem to getter better with time, and Keith Urban is apparently one of those things — like a fine wine he’s only gotten more refined … and potent. “We Were” seeks to explore a dreaded romantic “What if?” But in Urban’s hands, even that seems like a healthy endeavor.
Morgan Wallen – “Whiskey Glasses”
With it’s woozy backbeat and smooth-pouring vocal flow, “Whiskey Glasses” sounded unlike anything else on country radio this year. It felt so good you almost wanted to join Wallen on that barstool, trying to forget a former flame that burned so bright beer goggles just won’t cut it.
The Highwomen – “Redesigning Women”
Not content to just talk, The Highwomen are instead challenging country’s male/female divide head on. Coming out of the gate hot in their twangy debut, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires got fired up about the superhuman expectations placed on women.
Blanco Brown – “The Git Up”
Every decade needs an official line-dance song (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Copperhead Road” …), and “The Git Up” has to be a prime contender for the 2010s. From Blanco Brown’s unique vocal delivery to his 808s-n-twang production style, a good two-step is hard to keep down.
Kacey Musgraves – “Rainbow”
Quite possibly the most uplifting song of the year, Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” is just as beautiful as its name implies. A colorful lullaby of hope and resilience, it features a timeless, almost-magical quality that would be right at home in a Disney movie – or perhaps, while singing your daughter to sleep.
Walker Hayes – “Don’t Let Her”
Walker Hayes put the entire male population on the spot with “Don’t Let Her,” casually penning his wife a tribute so sweet the rest of us should retreat to the doghouse on principle. Written to the man Hayes hopes would take his place if something ever happened to him, he proved his love with a detailed list of what makes her great – and a tear jerking request of selflessness.