This year's group is an eclectic bunch, made of newcomers, established stars, and comeback stories. It's a group that showcases risk taking in an avenue that generally pushes back on it. Most importantly, these are tracks that are likely to hold the test of time and encompass the traditions of country music, whether in storytelling or style. Enjoy our top 20 radio singles of 2020, and have a very happy holidays!
Brett Eldredge, "Gabrielle"
As mature as Brett Eldredge has ever sounded. His vocals are given room to shine against a crisp and compelling production scheme that blends an almost AC-pop sound with more traditional elements. It's a reflective track that finds Eldredge putting his talents to good use. Refreshing. - Markus Meyer
The Chicks, "Gaslighter"
It had to grow on me, but the Chicks’ big comeback single represents just about everything you’d hope for from them – a fiery, blustering presentation, a biting indictment of a certain someone explored even further on the album it stems from, and an all-around infectious hook. I wanted more from said album, but this was a very welcome return. - Zackary Kephart
Carly Pearce, "Netx Girl"
I’m not as enamored with this as most other critics – if anything, I prefer “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and other cuts off her self-titled album - but I do appreciate the fresh direction Carly Pearce takes here. The presentation is organic and solid, the groove is prominent, and it’s as good of a kiss-off track as we got this year, warning that next girl to not make the same mistakes she did. I’m looking forward to hearing where Pearce takes this sound in 2021. - ZK
Jon Pardi, "Ain't Always the Cowboy"
Heresy as it is to say, Jon Pardi has been inconsistent for awhile now, at least, to me. This isn’t the case, though, and beyond the clever George Strait nod and tones I like hearing in a country song, there’s a maturity to the breakup sentiment, where Pardi almost sounds jubilant in getting to buck the titular stereotype. Good stuff; I’m happy (and genuinely shocked) it actually became a hit. - ZK
Kelsea Ballerini, "hole in the bottle"
For anyone who’s read our “worst singles” list, I should offer a clarification: there’s nothing wrong with good-time party music, and sometimes the escapism it offers is the first step to finding genuine happiness. The worst examples of those types of singles this year were just dour and dumb. This, on the other hand, flips the script a bit. Kelsea Ballerini is reveling in her misery by framing it with a self-aware wit, where she’ll only take things far enough to have some lighthearted fun and nothing more. I wish the ballerini version had become the hit, but for just a small moment in time this year, there was an actual country song that was infectious and smart. - ZK
Maren Morris, "To Hell & Back"
Between her involvement with the Highwomen project and this single, I’m starting to come around on Maren Morris, though I’m still going to temper those expectations. At any rate, “To Hell & Back” is her best single yet, so of course it’s one that hasn’t moved the needle at country radio. *Sigh* But beyond the organic groove bolstering the sentiment, there’s something to appreciate in a love story that doesn’t try to overdo it. This couple has accepted each other for who they are, for better or worse, and considering the writing plays with a bit of a Gothic tinge, it was another single that should have been so much bigger than it was. - ZK
Luke Combs feat. Eric Church, "Does to Me"
By far Luke Combs' finest effort to-date. Highly detailed while remaining universal, and rooted in sentiments that, to some extent, ring true for everyone. A big production scheme that never feels bombastic with a performance from Combs that ties things all together. Church adds a nice dose of wisdom in the bridge. Superb track. - MM
Zac Brown Band, "Leaving Love Behind"
Zac Brown Band's The Owl was an atrocious effort, with "Leaving Love Behind" serving as an easy standout. It finds them in top form, with a moving lyric, a sparse piano production, and a compelling performance from Brown. A mature, thoughtful effort that finds them at the height of their abilities. - MM
Runaway June, "We Were Rich"
Either version is great, and though it’s another case of a country radio single that is far from a hit here, this year specifically, it should have been. The sentiment of realizing you have it so much better than others even when you don’t have much resonated so much more this year than it did upon its initial release in 2019, and while no member of the band – past or present – wrote this, they perform it like they did. Best of all, though, it’s a reminder that, while poverty is an inescapable reality for some, it need not define who they are. - ZK
Miranda Lambert, "Settling Down"
A remarkable balance of hope, contemplation, and melancholy that finds Lambert in peak form as a performer. An exellent hook and a melodic structure that begs for repeat listens. Lambert's best single in years, which says something for an artist of her consistency and excellence. - MM
Taylor Swift, "betty"
In my view the most impressive single of the year. Well-structured and with excellent character and perspective development, "betty" showcases Swift's knack for storytelling and evocation in a way that puts her well above her peers. The harmonicas and acoustic backdrop make for an irresistable record. Just so, so good and is perhaps Swift's best ever country release. - MM
Mickey Guyton, "Black Like Me"
Arguably the most important song of 2020 – a call for empathy from white listeners to understand the struggles Mickey Guyton – as well as others in the black community – struggle with daily. The specific proof for Guyton is evident in country radio’s chilly reception toward her thus far, but there’s also the struggles we don’t – and haven’t – seen that define this recording. It’s easy to say a recording resonated even more strongly in a given year, but in 2020, this absolutely did. It’s not the point where anyone should have jumped on the Guyton bandwagon, but hey, better late than never. Let’s keep it going. - ZK
Eric Church, "Stick That In Your Country Song"
Whereas Eric Church’s Desperate Man album era found him at a loss for words for how to navigate the current cultural climate, “Stick That in Your Country Song” is the result of him finding what he wanted – and needed – to say. Granted, the actual message is a bit scattered, but for anyone who saw our “worst of” list, it’s refreshing to hear an artist fed up with songs and artists that say nothing, coming from one who is ready to hold them accountable. It’s Church at his angriest, and we’re all the better for it. - ZK
Ingrid Andress, "The Stranger"
Andress once again shows her vocal and songwriting prowess on "The Stranger". It's an interesting take on a fizzling relationship that feels both polished and earnest. Memorable hook, electric performance, and a lush backdrop makes for another killer record from one of the most promising talents in mainstream country music. - MM
Chris Stapleton, "Starting Over"
Bombastic, no, but tremendous nonetheless. Stapleton dials it down here, but the simplicity works. It's a refreshing, breezy track that hits all the intended notes. Stapleton is in top form and the melody hooks you in instantly. Exellent stuff and a nice welcome back for Stapleton. - MM
Eric Church, "Hell of a View"
Scattered and inconsistent as they were, Eric Church’s run of singles this year was, at the very least, fascinating. It’s ironic, then, that his best single of the year was one of his most straightforward and simplest yet. It’s a fairly standard tale of devotion, but one bolstered by its deeper production balance that offers a surprising amount of ragged punch to the simultaneous joy and anguish of “making it” thus far. It’s a song that sounds weary yet still has the energy left to push on through, and if that wasn’t far too relatable this year, I don’t know what was. - ZK
Mickey Guyton, "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?"
I guess I understand the cold reception this received from country radio in April, given the subject matter and how they’ve generally received Mickey Guyton thus far. I mean, I guess I should say I don’t get it, so much as I’m just not surprised. But now, in the aftermath of the year she had? There’s no excuse. Yet “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” rolls on anyway, a brutally honest blow to any woman who’d dare dream for higher aspirations … because society has failed them time and time again, and you can’t blame someone who gives in to fatigue after maintaining hope for so long. But it’s also a bit more universal in its message of sex and race, not to mention that hard work isn’t necessarily the key driver for success anymore for many, if it ever really was. In an industry where it’s been proven – with data, I might add – that the deck is stacked against female artists and artists of color, especially at country radio, it hits a little too hard, especially when it’s, you know, Mickey Guyton behind the microphone. It’s the best single of the year that wasn’t a radio hit - it never even charted, actually - and that’s proof enough of why we need to try and do better in 2021. - ZK