Brothers Osborne, "I'm Not for Everyone"
Solid, breezy and just downright enjoyable in terms of the tone, execution, and the equally bright production that favors a solid, laidback groove and welcome accordion to lighten the mood. I can forgive a checklist lyrical structure when every line has a dash of well-timed humorous irony to it, and that this isn’t the duo’s biggest hit to date … Well, it may not be for everyone, but it’s still downright criminal. - Zackary Kephart
Cody Johnson, "'Til You Can't"
A familiar theme of appreciating what one has is well-executed here, thanks to Cody Johnson’s passionate, damn-near thunderous delivery that suggests maybe he’s just another person who needs to hear the message, too. It’s as hopeful as it is urgent to make the most of life while there’s time, and while songs like these usually fall flat from being too cloying or saccharine, Johnson nails a perfect balance of conviction and desperation. - ZK
Taylor Swift feat. HAIM, "no body no crime"
What could have come off overwrought in lesser hands is engaging and well-crafted in Swift's. The production is atmospheric and well-suited to the murder narrative and Swift more than sells it without going over the top. Another win in what has been a run of them recently for Taylor Swift. - MM
Justin Moore, "We Didn't Have Much"
Solidly warm, inviting neotraditional country is a good fit for Justin Moore, and while I don’t have much to add beyond what I said about Cody Johnson’s similarly themed song from before, I’ve always appreciated this song’s heavier reliance on atmospherics to let the groove ride and the warm mixture of tempered acoustics and bass, pedal steel and firm percussion settle nicely. Yes, it’s a song pining for nostalgia that’s somewhat relegated to stock images at points, but it’s placed more around the familial aspects that are damn-near universal in their appeal; it’s just nice. - ZK
Elvie Shane, "My Boy"
A modern “He Didn’t Have to Be,” told instead from the stepfather’s own perspective. What’s always struck me most about this song is the well-balanced framing, not only in the textured production that lets the acoustics shine with a bit of a rougher edge, but in the way Elvie Shane assesses the impact he’s had on his stepson growing up. It’s genuinely organic in both sound and intent, and with a generally sweet but still lived-in, rough delivery, this became a surprise hit I was glad to see happen. - ZK
Scotty McCreery, "Damn Strait"
The real gem from Scotty McCreery this year is a deep-cut called “The Waiter,” but “Damn Strait” works better than it has any right to, especially when it’s not the first song to use that title or build its premise around references to George Strait songs. Maybe it’s the solid production that eschews bells and whistles in favor of something more grounded, or maybe it’s because it’s all built around a breakup and the Strait references are actually a detriment to McCreery’s attempt at moving on with things. Either way, the references work far better than expected and, unlike other songs in this vein, actually contribute to the larger story and don’t just feel tacked-on for credibility purposes. It’s mature country music of some of the best variety. - ZK
Brett Eldredge, "Good Day"
A delightful track that doesn't overthink things too much. A mature take on life's simple pleasures that doesn't come off as either hokey or sappy. It finds Eldredge in top technical form, and the production is restrained enough to let his raw talent shine through. An excellent track from a vocalist finding his artistic stride. - MM
HARDY, "Give Heaven Some Hell"
An example of HARDY's lack of polish working. Yes, you have the classic "me and the boys love trucks and stuff" going on, but the bombast and HARDY's vocal style work well to help it come as authentic rather than pandering. The hook and chorus are memorable and overall it's a touching and engaging effort. - MM
Carly Pearce feat. Ashley McBryde, "Never Wanted to Be That Girl"
Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde team up for a perfectly balanced duet in which they find out they share the same significant other who’s been cheating on both of them … I could just stop there, right? I mean, I don’t want to, especially considering that I like how it’s framed within the context of Pearce’s divorce album, which focused just as much on Pearce’s own decisions and path in life as it did the scandal in question. Of course, that’s also the sad beauty of the track. Both women will blame themselves for letting something like this happen even though it’s neither one’s fault, and there’s an unfortunate reality sketched there that gives the song its heartbreaking resonance. Coupled with fantastically burnished production to let that heartache sizzle, it’s a hit that I hope keeps on growing in the new year. - ZK
Taylor Swift feat. Chris Stapleton, "I Bet You Think About Me"
Taylor Swift playing to all her strengths. "I Bet You Think About Me" is detailed, authentic, and self-assured in its writing. The production is near-perfect, with a rich blend of harmonica and acoustics that make it memorable and accessible. Swift sounds beyond confident behind the mic and Stapleton adds a richness to it that is welcome. It hits all the right marks, and reflects just how far Swift has come as an artist and her ability to still operate in top form in country circles. - MM
Kelsea Ballerini feat. Kenny Chesney, "half of my hometown"
Not a combo I would necessarily expect to work, but it does. The two vocalists blend surprisingly well and the writing, production, and melody all reflect a maturity seen in both artist's work of late, to a degree. A well-executed pop-country record that reflects small town life in an interesting and authentic manner. - MM
Chris Stapleton, "You Should Probably Leave"
Perhaps a bit smooth and lacking in greater dynamics compared to Chris Stapleton’s more rock-oriented or stone-cold country songs, but the groove of “You Should Probably Leave” is strong and pronounced, and the song more than succeeds in its overall rougher emotional delivery. Stapleton has the subtlety to match his power, and he handles the yin-and-yang feeling of not wanting to end an on-again, off-again relationship yet knowing it’s for the best well. - ZK
Eric Church, "Heart on Fire"
It’s rock-star wish fulfillment that blatantly references old rock icons and revels in them, all framed around a past teenage romance that, coupled with the bright, jaunty keys and propulsive groove, fits well within Eric Church’s wheelhouse. It’s basic for his standards, I admit, but it’s so enjoyable and well-framed, if nothing else. There’s no anger or resentment present – it’s just reveling in a memory and mining the best of it. There’s two other hidden strengths, though. One is Joanna Cotten’s backing contributions, and two is how the percussion ramps up for that “freedom of you dancing on the bow of your daddy’s old boat” line that really opens up this song and lets it come alive. Sometimes simple songs can soar with the best of ‘em. - ZK
Jordan Davis feat. Luke Bryan, "Buy Dirt"
An absolutely charming record that is organic, memorable, and accessible. Davis -- who has always had the raw talent -- sounds fully at home, and Bryan sounds just fine as well. A bit checklist-y? Sure. A bit cliche? I suppose. But the quirky hook works, and it's so well-constructed that it's hard to complain. - MM
Kenny Chesney, "Knowing You"
In what is my personal favourite radio single of 2021, Chesney appears to have finally grown into his role as an elder statesman of country music. After a few half-baked attempts to become "serious" -- think "Noise", "Get Along", among others -- "Knowing You" finally hits all the right marks. It's not overly sappy. It's not overly aggressive. It's a mature take on lost love that demonstrates appreciation, reflection, and a degree of personal growth. The hook is a fairly clever play on words that resists the urge to become hamfisted, and Chesney delivers it with the wisdom that a man of his age and experience should project. The production is eloquent and subdued, posing in stark contrast to Chesney's usual tendencies. A gorgeous effort that befits his role within the genre and hopefully signals more of the same to come. - MM
Chapel Hart, "I Will Follow"
A bright, bouncy song with an inspirational message, and one that’s subtly inclusive as to who all can succeed at what they’re going for, adding a sense of realism to its stakes. Ergo, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your skin color is, you can’t let others’ perceptions of you dictate your chosen in life; you’ve just got to follow your own drum. And Chapel Hart did it even one better by framing it as an absolutely infectious anthem with a deliriously catchy chorus and hook, all backed by a well-balanced mix of handclaps, sunny tones, excellent harmonies, and a solid bass groove to add driving momentum to a track brimming with exuberance. Oh, and it’s also a good reminder that, if you’re not onboard with Chapel Hart yet, you’re missing out. - ZK
Lainey Wilson, "Things a Man Oughta Know"
Even at the No. 1 position, I want to address the one element I don’t like about This Is Country Music’s top single of the year. The entire first verse is devoted to a checklist rundown of things men are “supposed” to know how to do that our female protagonist can do as well and just as well. What unfolds afterward, however, is something special. It’s a breakup song, but also one where the hurt is implied and the delivery unfolds line by line – even if a significant other doesn’t know what love means in the moment, if the relationship truly means something to them, they should try and learn along the way. And yet, circling back to that first verse, I’ve somewhat begun to understand the intent. She understands that a stereotypical but still somewhat true tough-guy stoicism can create an unintentional distance between the two, and that’s why I love how the frustration is always more heavily implied than spelled straight out. Wilson can sell it all wonderfully, too. Her understated delivery balances excellently against the mandolin and bass to give this track a generally warm rollick and confidence to support that wry hook, but also emphasizes the bitterness with how those lessons learned came to be. An easy choice for the No. 1 single of the year, and given how scattershot 2021 has been for mainstream country music, that feels good to say. - ZK