And for all these qualms, the result isn't necessarily more dumpster fires. Sure, a handful of tracks embodied the true awfulness that often defines these Worst Of lists. But more than anything, mainstream country music has become aggressively and intentionally mediocre. Any 20- or 30-something white guy with a goofy haircut can release a C-rate pop song with a token banjo and score a top ten airplay hit, and it's all by design. Proving this whole point is that if these crappy hits result in an album release at all, it completely tanks. Brett Young, maybe the living embodiment of this trend, saw his most recent project come a pathetic 79th on the US Billboard albums chart. Russell Dickerson's newest came 134th. Ryan Hurd, 71st. These are artists with major radio hits and presences. There's no passion here -- just a faceless, dogmatic pursuit of being average that is quickly watering down the genre.
Now, chasing a broader audience isn't inherently bad, and in fact, some do it quite effectively. Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton, Eric Church, and others appear to have bridged the gap nicely, without completely selling their artistic integrity. But the way it's executed by the endless line of factory-produced hitmakers is a truly pathetic phenomenon to watch.
Of course, there was good to come in 2021. Our best singles list will be coming shortly, and highlights artists operating within mainstream confines in a compelling fashion. For now though, here's what me and my good friend Zack Kephart see as the worst 20 radio singles of 2021. Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Jameson Rodgers feat. Luke Combs, "Cold Beer Calling My Name"
I don't really know who Jameson Rodgers is. He doesn't appear to have any discernible talent beyond that of every other generic dude-bro on country radio, and yet apparently he has a few hits now. This says nothing of any real value nor will it be remembered a year from now. Generic fluff that (ironically) sounds like a D-rate Luke Combs track. - Markus Meyer
Heath Sanders, "Old School's In"
You likely don’t know who Heath Sanders is, and let’s hope that remains the case in 2022. If you really need an introduction though, his debut single is about the demise of the good ol’ days, all set to arena-rock guitar production that would sound awful even for Brantley Gilbert. Oh yeah, don’t tread on me, God, mama, dogs, real men, guns, country-folk, rah-rah, something else to that effect. It’s like that Aaron Lewis song, only it didn’t go viral, so … little victories? - Zackary Kephart
Sam Hunt, "23"
On its merits, the writing and performance aren't horrible here. Yet it's blatantly spits in the face of country's sonic conventions that it has to be included. He's not even remotely trying to hide it anymore. It's perhaps his most egregiously pop effort to-date Take your polished elevator music somewhere else. - MM
Old Dominion, "I Was On a Boat That Day"
I can maybe get behind the premise – some dude can’t be bothered to care about the end of a presumably bad relationship because he’s out enjoying life. It’s just that he perpetually sounds like an asshole throughout the entire song, that it’s no wonder this woman left him. Also … it’s sold by Matthew Ramsey, who remains one of the most vanilla, nondescript, terribly uncool vocalists since Hillary Scott even on the band’s best material, and utterly annoying and obnoxious on their worst material. Old Dominion kinda-sorta won me over with their 2019 album, but this was a backslide that infuriated me every time I was forced to hear it. - ZK
Parker McCollum, "To Be Loved by You"
Parker McCollum’s independently released albums sport some pretty good material, but thus far his mainstream career has produced little more than duds, “To Be Loved By You” arguably being the worst of the bunch. Beyond a fairly lackluster attempt at melody that I can’t ignore, this is just a pathetic, whiny attempt at guilt-tripping some woman into putting up with McCollum’s tough-guy act, when it’s clear she’s had enough. It’s all accusatory and never once stops to reflect that maybe her problems aren’t the only ones that should be aired here. Man, it’s just so pissy and utterly insufferable. - ZK
Niko Moon, "No Sad Songs"
And I don’t wanna hear no more Niko Moon. Then again, if you remember “Good Time” - and I can’t blame you if you don’t – this is just part two, right down to the clunky country-trap fusion that stifles any attempt at groove for something so utterly smug and self-satisfied. Also, it’s yet another one of those songs that references other songs to string together its concept, and it begs the question, why not listen to those (much, much better) songs instead? - ZK
Dan + Shay, "Steal My Love"
Spoiler: I'll have more to say on Dan + Shay later, so I'll save my fire here. In short, though, perhaps no mainstream act has put less effort into their content than these two over the past four year. "Steal My Love" is a listless, grating effort that deviates little (if at all) from their last eight or so singles. - MM
Nelly feat. Florida Georgia Line, "Lil Bit"
Nothing quite says “‘Cruise is nearly a goddamn decade old” and “yes, we know what ‘Old Town Road’ is and want a piece of that” quite like this collaboration from two – technically three – has-beens. Wait, you’re telling me this was a really big hit this year? I mean, at least “Cruise” was kind of fun … this is just another country-trap fusion lacking any semblance of groove that’s beyond too sleazy to enjoy. - ZK
Cole Swindell feat. Lainey Wilson, "Never Say Never"
Two promising artists turn in a turd of overblown country-pop complete with overmixed, fake percussion and an overdone theme of an on-again, off-again relationship that’s just vague and lacking in greater impact to justify all the bombast. Y’all, I’m tired. - ZK
Dierks Bentley feat. Breland and HARDY, "Beers on Me"
Maybe 2021's most frustrating effort. I know Dierks goes through these phases where he phones it in for heavy radio play. I know that, usually, the albums are better than the singles suggest. But this is a completely forgettable single, recognizable only for its hamfisted hook and grating melody. Dierks also doesn't sound especially good on it. Beyond underwhelming. - MM
Lady A, "Like a Lady"
I loved Ocean. It was smart, compelling, and mature. This is decidedly none of those things, and in fact is Lady A at their absolute worst. Goes for fun, and ends up crashing and burning with a stunningly obnoxious hook, a terrible performance from Hillary Scott, and a production that feels cluttered. Just a terrible effort from a band who seems determined to fail on all fronts right now. - MM
Blake Shelton, "Come Back as a Country Boy"
“God’s Country,” at least to me, remains Blake Shelton’s best – and really, only notable – release since 2008 or so. So I was actually excited to see him return to the same dark, southern-Gothic-influenced well when I heard the first notes of this. But unlike that song – which was more about reverence for the land around Shelton’s character and was pulled off well – this is just built around rural pride pandering that Shelton can’t sell with any sort of conviction, obnoxious as it all is anyway, especially with that horribly mixed vocal filter … thing. “If my neck don’t come out red, then Lord just keep me dead.” Lolz. - ZK
Brantley Gilbert feat. HARDY and Toby Keith, "The Worst Country Song of All Time"
You see, country music is all about trucks, and beer, and America. And this song says those things are bad. Pretty clever stuff from three acts known for their subtlety. So yeah, if this pure comedy wasn't enough, the production, melody, and performance are just as in-your-face and lacking in originality. Pretty much as bad as the roster of artists suggests. - MM
Dan + Shay, "Glad You Exist"
Okay, as promised, Dan + Shay make their second appearance. There is no artist in modern country music as infuriating as Dan + Shay. Everything since "Tequila" -- which was actually pretty good! -- has been some variation of "Wow, I'm so in love!". There's always a snap track. There's always a syrupy performance. It's all literally the exact same thing, cynically pandering to a fanbase that eats this up. Are they talented? Sure. They've shown it before! But everything they've done over the past five years has been spineless nonsense that is the musical embodiment of those fridge magnets, and it's blatantly obvious to anyone paying even a marginal amount of attention. They used to be touted as the modern Rascal Flatts, but frankly, they make Rascal Flatts seem gritty and authentic. "Glad You Exist" embodies everything I dislike about what Dan + Shay represent. - MM
Walker Hayes, "Fancy Like"
Prior to sitting down to write my entries for this list, Markus reminded me of what I wrote for Walker Hayes’ entry last year: “This has to be Walker Hayes’ last bid for radio airplay, and if so, good riddance.”
So yeah, I’m taking credit for cursing part of 2021 – you’re welcome. Little did I know that TikTok would make up for Hayes being a talentless hack and propel him to have the biggest hit of the year in any genre. And yeah, I get that the dance associated with it is supposed to make it lightweight and humorous, but even if there was a joke present, Hayes just has to push it through his lazy, phoned-in faux-rapping with a mugged self-satisfaction that completely ruins any attempt at being “cute.” A trip to Applebee’s suggests you’re more basic than poor, and what better way to put your wife on an even-level playing field with you than saying you want her to “dip me like them fries in her Frosty.” The pink umbrella line from Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze” may be equally be trashy, but at least they had the good sense to own it!
It’s the little dad joke that apparently could, right down to Hayes referencing getting some “Alabama-jamma.” And yet, I can’t get that angry about it. Hayes himself admits he’ll likely never have a viral hit like this again, and for as much as I could be jinxing everything once again, really, this has to be his last bid for radio airplay to actually succeed. - ZK