[Songs released between Jan. 2, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2019 were considered.]
Well, what do you know? The 2010’s weren’t such a bad decade for country music after all. If you don’t count Ken Burns’ trite PBS documentary. And especially if you don’t count the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival attack — a massive event that still demands answers… or at least plenty more questions.
Still, the reason those passionate fans flocked to the event was the music. And the state of country music is strong these days. This list honors songs that will hopefully have a lasting effect on country music. They aren’t always the top-selling singles, and they aren’t necessarily songs attached to the most memorable music videos, but they are the songs that capture that essence of what keeps country music great — the songwriter putting recognizable truths down to just the right chords.
No. 10: The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
“If I Die Young” may be a seven-times Platinum smash, yet it still sounds like the country music moment of discovery that it first was. The sibling trio which has disbanded is something we still long for as we head into the next decade.
No. 9: Kenny Chesney (featuring Grace Potter), “You and Tequila”
I can’t help it. I still love this song. A hit in 2011, I have yet to skip forward past it when it appears on my playlist in 2019. It’s by far the best country duet of the decade.
No. 8: Maren Morris, “My Church”
Maren Morris’ debut single lit a much needed fire in the Female Country Artist category. Like so many of the best artists of the decade, she relied on quality songs with a profound lyric — usually country blues-soaked — and delivered them with searing honesty. (Plus, it’s nice to have a viable alternative to the insufferable Kacey Musgraves.)
No. 7: Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man”
It was the love song of the year and that feeling still returns when the first notes are heard. Although Nelly covered it in another, lesser, genre, it was Rhett’s version that people longed for. Score one for country music.
No. 6: Ashley McBryde, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere”
The title-track from her debut album is a vulnerable ballad that covers what has to be a minefield of personal moments from McBryde’s rise to the top. No doubt the material she’ll put out in years to come will come from the same potent place as this inspired and instantly relatable song.
No. 5: Justin Moore, “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”
Justin Moore may only appear from time to time on a list like this, but when he does it is because the listening lister loves country music. And no one protects the purity of country music as well as Justin Moore these days. He may sound traditional — blissfully so — but there is always a contemporary edge to this artist’s output. He proves that tradition is a state of being, not a thing of the past, and he is loved for that.
No. 4: Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
Love it or loathe it, Aldean’s hit successfully opened the door to hip-hop in country music. With one verse, he made terrible and exciting things possible in country music, this avoiding the death knell of the genre — stagnation. Being influential gets a song on decades-end lists like this.
No. 3: Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Eric Church masterpiece from the ‘Chief’ album, it tells a story while at the same time evokes the nearly intangible — it is just as much about the performer and his personal relationship to the material’s subject. It exposed Church to the huge, country music audience, after years of being a darling of the in-the-know, true fans. In return, Church kept making solid music.
No. 2: Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” is simply one of the best songs, lyric, and performance of the 2010s. It does exactly what a great country song can: in telling its own story, it achieves the unexpected task of telling the listener’s story as well.
No. 1: Chris Stapleton, “Tennessee Whiskey”
Mid-decade (2015) brought a force that would save country music from its doomed “Bro Country” destiny: Chris Stapleton. Chris Stapleton’s singalong “Tennessee Whiskey” was given one of the great performances at the CMA Awards. Obviously, Chris Stapleton was next in line, following George Strait and Garth Brooks. He set a new standard for country music and sent the Nashville labels and radio in search of artists that might compete with this original. It’s because of this that 2020 is already sounding so good.