Not long ago, I wrote about the top 12 country songs of all time. When I wrote it, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure how many modern songs would make the list, and it turned out that the most recent entry on the list was from 1993.
I’ll admit that there are plenty of songs I love from the last few years of country music, and when I received the challenge to make a list, I found it was easier than I realized. You’ll notice that certain popular country hitmakers aren’t on this list, and that’s for a good reason. (I’ve made my feelings about Florida-Georgia Line and their ilk crystal clear for a long time.)
Here’s my list of the ten best country songs from the last ten years. Some of them were big hits, while others weren’t. I chose a couple of them to represent the total output of certain artists. I hope you’ll enjoy the list, and who knows? You might even discover some songs you didn’t know you loved.
10. “Need You Now,” Lady Antebellum (2010)
Ok, so maybe not all of us have been so desperate to speak to an ex so badly that we call that person after consuming a few drinks, but I’m sure we’ve all had the thought of reaching out to that love we lost. I think that’s what made “Need You Now” resonate with so many people.
Lady Antebellum had already carved out a niche of irresistible songs with nice, tight harmonies, so it wasn’t a surprise when “Need You Now” followed their other hit singles. And it was almost as if Lady Antebellum had perfected their formula (and I don’t mean that word as a negative) this time.
“Need You Now” hits the sweet spot of heartrending lyrics, a melody built for singing along, and the rich harmonies for which the trio had been cultivating a reputation. It’s country enough to not alienate fans, but it’s also pop enough to cross over – which it did, topping the adult contemporary as well as the country charts and hitting number two on the Hot 100. It also topped the charts in Israel and went top ten in five other countries. The trio also won four Grammy awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
That’s a ton of achievement without a drum machine beat or lyrics about getting in a truck. Take that, bro country!
9. “The House That Built Me,” Miranda Lambert (2010)
It doesn’t take much familiarity with country music to know that it’s loaded with sentiment, and so many country artists love to sing about growing up. It’s easy to see the appeal of singing about home: a simpler time, fewer cares, and more security. Miranda Lambert left her stamp on this country music theme with a song that gave her a number one and won her a Grammy.
The writers of “The House That Built Me” pitched the tune to Lambert’s then-husband Blake Shelton, but she snapped it up instead. She sings so convincingly about the home she grew up in that it’s hard to believe she didn’t write the song (in fact, it was her first hit single that she didn’t have a hand in co-writing).
A video accompanying the single took place at a house that was a near copy of the house where Lambert grew up, so the sentiment in the song translated well to the screen. Lambert managed to spend a month at number one with “The House That Built Me,” and it’s easy to see why it resonated with listeners so well.
8. “The Promise,” Sturgill Simpson (2014)
Sturgill Simpson made a name for himself as a throwback to the outlaw country movement of the ‘70s, albeit with the occasional odd, metaphysical lyric thrown in. He first began to attract national attention with his second album, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Right in the middle of that album is one of country’s most surprising cover tunes – the 1988 technopop tune “The Promise.” Instead of an upbeat, danceable number, Simpson turns the song into a gorgeous ballad that honestly works better than the original.
Simpson drenches the song in strings and gorgeous guitar, and he wrings every bit of the emotion out of the tune. He sings as if he’s lived the lyrics, and the production creates a wall of sound that’s as unforgettable as any country classic. Once you’ve heard Sturgill Simpson sing “The Promise,” you just might forget that a British band originally wrote and recorded it in the ‘80s.
7. “If I Die Young,” The Band Perry (2010)
Country music has often had a unique obsession with death. Many times, these songs can be morbid or downright depressing. But a trio of siblings injected a bit of beautiful poetry into the sub-genre of death country and churned out their first number one hit.
Kimberly Perry and her brothers Reid and Neil burst onto the scene with the surprisingly gentle song “If I Die Young.” Instead of ruminating on death at the end of a gun or from too much of the bottle, Kimberly Perry’s song imagined dying young and what such a passing would entail.
“If I Die Young” talks about comforting loved ones from beyond the grave, the tragedy of lost love, and the notion that a person’s ideas and words have more worth after they’re gone. The sweet harmonies and lilting, poetic lyrics made for an irresistible sound that topped the country and adult contemporary charts and made a decent showing on the Hot 100.
The Band Perry has had a handful of other hits, but label changes and continued rumors that the trio would switch to pop music have kept them off the country charts for a few years. That’s too bad, because country music needs more songs like their first trip to the top.
6. “Macon,” Jamey Johnson (2010)
In a perfect world, Jamey Johnson would be one of the most popular artists in the country music industry, and people would be listening to him relentlessly and asking “Jason Al-who?” But instead, Johnson has had only a handful of hits and a cult following.
Johnson fits that outlaw country look to a T, and his clear baritone could match Johnny Cash note for note. In his best song, he trades in one of the common themes of country and Southern rock: getting home from the road to be with his family.
“Macon” is a pitch-perfect country rocker, and Johnson and his band play it up right. (He gets bonus points for making the protagonist’s home in the epicenter of Southern rock.) Give “Macon” a listen, and then try to figure out why you haven’t become a Jamey Johnson fan yet.
5. “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” Carolina Chocolate Drops (2010)
Carolina Chocolate Drops burst onto the scene in the first decade of the 21st century by bringing the African-American experience to the exuberant bluegrass genre. The band, whose various members revolved around the immensely talented Rhiannon Giddens (who was the first woman to win the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for bluegrass), showed instrumental and vocal mastery and created something one-of-a-kind.
Carolina Chocolate Drops blended folk, country, blues, and the overlooked tradition of black string bands, along with clever takes on modern tracks. One of those pop tunes that received the band’s unique treatment was Blu Cantrell’s pop and R&B smash “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
Giddens conveys the sass that Cantrell demonstrated in a totally different idiom. The minor-key pop jam becomes a driving country track in the band’s capable hands, and the effect is startling. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” takes on an exciting life on its own when Carolina Chocolate Drops gets a hold of it, and it’s just one part of their breathtaking repertoire.
4. “Tennessee Whiskey,” Chris Stapleton (2015)
Chris Stapleton had one of those journeyman careers for a long time: writing songs that other artists turned into hit singles and playing in different bands. But one day he hit it big with his Traveller album. Country purists fell in love with him, and the general public went head over heels as well when he performed “Tennessee Whiskey” on the CMA awards with Justin Timberlake.
“Tennessee Whiskey” is a cover of a song that David Allan Coe and George Jones both popularized, so it’s not a song that Stapleton wrote. And it’s not the best moment on the album (for me, it’s the title track), but it has become notable for being the moment where Stapleton became a household name.
Stapleton’s take on the song is the perfect blend of old and new. He took a classic and made it his own. His look and overall sound recall outlaw country greatness, while his big, soulful voice fits well in any era and genre of music. “Tennessee Whiskey” marked the moment when a star was born, as well as a time when the music industry got it right and poised the right artist for success.
3. “Wagon Wheel,” Darius Rucker (2013)
Darius Rucker made a name for himself with the Southern pop-rock band Hootie & the Blowfish in the ‘90s. Even then he had a soft spot for country music – Hootie covered Radney Foster’s “A Fine Line” on their 2000 covers album. So it made sense when Rucker opted for a solo career in country.
Rucker also quoted Bob Dylan – liberally enough that the singer-songwriter’s managers demanded credit – in Hootie’s biggest hit “Only Wanna Be with You,” so it also stood to reason that he would cover “Wagon Wheel,” a song written around a chorus that Dylan wrote years before the band Old Crow Medicine Show wrote the rest of the song.
“Wagon Wheel” is one of those songs that listeners think they’ve heard for years when they hear it for the first time. It’s the perfect sing-along song, and Rucker’s easy baritone fits the tune perfectly. It feels old and new at the same time, and it’s just plain fun. The members of Old Crow Medicine Show looked a gift horse in the mouth by refusing to perform “Wagon Wheel” after Rucker made it a hit (they likened it to the joke of requesting “Freebird” at every band’s show).
Rucker topped the country charts and made the top 20 of the Hot 100, and he won his first Grammy as a solo artist. “Wagon Wheel” has become his biggest hit, including his days with Hootie & the Blowfish.
2. “Something in the Water,” Carrie Underwood (2014)
Carrie Underwood has become the undisputed queen of modern country music. She managed to parlay winning American Idol into a sustained hitmaking career better than any of the show’s other alumni. She has been able to churn out hit after hit for over a decade now.
Underwood has also maintained a commitment to her deep Christian faith, and she hasn’t been ashamed or afraid to let it show in her music. In the midst of the tunes about keying a cheater’s car and waking up with a wedding ring on and no memory as to why is the occasional expression of faith. “Something in the Water” was one of the latter songs.
The song is an exuberant expression of redemption and life change that results from faith in Jesus and the sacrament of baptism. The lyrics are genuine – Underwood co-wrote the song – and her voice is clear and beautiful. It’s clear that she’s a true believer in what she’s singing about (even if the video is weird). She even works a verse of “Amazing Grace” into the end of the song.
“Something in the Water” is a powerful testimony of faith, and Underwood not only hit the top of the country charts but also managed to cross over to the top of the Christian charts as well.
1. “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” Zac Brown Band (2012)
I could have filled this list with Zac Brown Band songs and held my head high – no regrets. I even joked with a friend or two that I would approach this list that way. They have conquered just about every genre of music, from rock to Jimmy Buffett-style island jams to dance pop. Is there anything these guys can’t do?
But their bread and butter is sweet Southern country music. It’s hard to choose from so many incredible songs, but their best is “Goodbye in Her Eyes” from 2012’s Uncaged album. As far as modern (good) country music goes, this song about the disintegration of a relationship is the total package.
Everything in this song is perfect; the instrumentation and the harmonies are spot on. The lyrics draw on some classic subject matter – love gone wrong – without sounding maudlin or cheesy. The real magic in the song comes in the build of the song from soft and quiet to big and powerful. You could use “Goodbye in Her Eyes” as a lesson in dynamics for any band in any style of music.
“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is a near perfect country song – heck, it’s just about perfect in any genre.
There you go! Are there any songs you think belong on this list? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.