Matt Dearden’s 10 Most Influential Country Songs from the Past Half-Decade

Anyone who knows us well, knows we really enjoy our country music. As a service to you, I have decided to compile a list of the “Top Ten Most Influential Country Songs of the Past Half Decade.” I have conveniently provided links to the music videos of all the songs in case you don’t have them on your i-pod already.

Note what this list is NOT:

It is not a list of the best selling country songs of the past five years.

It is not a list of my personal favorites over the past five years.

This is a list of country songs that, in my opinion, “moved the ball forward” in country music over the past five years. Each song is on the list for a very specific reason. If you listen to all these songs, I think you’ll get a really good idea of the different directions country music has been heading over the past few years.

So, enjoy! Please comment and tell me what songs I missed!

1. “Merry Go ‘Round” – Kacey Musgraves (2012)

Album: Same Trailer Different Park

“Merry Go ‘Round” was the first single off of Musgraves’ excellent debut album, Same Trailer Different Park. Kacey is already drawing comparisons to Miranda Lambert, but she may end up even more influential than Lambert, who released three albums before gaining significant traction in the market. Kacey’s spot-on vocals are accompanied by minimal drums, a banjo, a piano, a little guitar, and not much else. Musgraves takes a cynical look at rural American life. The instrumentation is very country/traditional, but Musgraves manages to make the song very contemporary and mainstream—a feat difficult to accomplish in 2012. I expect Musgraves to be on the leading edge of bringing traditional country sounds back into the mainstream. If nothing else, “Merry Go ‘Round” marks the beginning of what should be an incredible career.

2. “Boys ‘Round Here” – Blake Shelton (2013)

Album: Based on a True Story…

“Boys ‘Round Here” was the second single from Blake Shelton’s hugely popular album Based on a True Story (the album, released earlier this year, has already sold a million copies). Anyone remotely familiar with country music knows that Blake Shelton is currently one of its biggest stars. Every single released on Shelton’s sixth album (Red River Blue) shot up to #1. His current album is selling ridiculously well. He is a coach on one of the biggest TV shows in America (The Voice). He has a huge Twitter following (4.3 million and counting). And he’s married to one of the biggest female country stars in the world (Miranda Lambert). When Shelton announced that he would be releasing his seventh studio album in March of 2013, country fans from all over the world held their collective breath in anticipation. Here was a guy, in the peak of his career, with the world watching, that could change the country music landscape.

And I believe he did change it—just not in the way that more traditional country fans thought he might. To be sure, the album features some more traditional country stuff. But Shelton’s half-rapping, half-singing vocals on “Boys ‘Round Here” and the relatively pointless lyrics sent a message to the country music world: It is OK if you want to release a semi-country song with a meaningless lyrics to mainstream country radio, because it will sell! My fans accepted it, and so will yours! Now—you can like or you can hate the song, but a song like this from country music’s biggest star is hard to overlook. Artists have already tried to replicate it (because it sells), and many more will in the future. It remains to be seen what the long-term repercussions of a song like this will be for country music, but there’s no denying the song’s importance.

3. “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line (2012)

Album: It’z Just What We Do and Here’s to the Good Times

If you listen to radio, whether you’re a country fan or not, you’ve heard this hugely popular (6x Platinum!) song by country duo Florida Georgia Line (FGL). So—the song is undeniably catchy. The song’s substantive lyrical content is almost depressingly simple: it is literally about an attractive woman “poppin’ right out of the south Georgia water” with whom the author wants to cruise in his “brand new Chevy with a lift kit” (which would look a “helluva lot better with her up in it”). The narrator compares the woman to a song (“baby, you a song”), and she evidently makes him want to “roll his windows down and cruise.” Eventually, the author drives “all night” with this woman, and finally reaches a point where he puts his car in park, pulls out his guitar, and “strums a couple chords” and sings from the heart—a process much like the one probably employed to write this song.

The song is catchy and poppy. The song is simple. It has no meaning whatsoever. But’s it’s a great summer, roll-down-your-windows song. The song (and its subsequent Nelly remix) ushered in a whole swath of new “country” fans—and that is what makes it influential. This type of song—and the 10 others like it that came out this past summer—will be a staple in years to come. And you’ll see many more collaborative remixes like this with rap or pop artists. Just the remix alone has sold almost 1.5 million digital copies—enough to tempt even the most traditional country singers to give it a shot.

4. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift (2012)

Album: Red

Taylor Swift is undeniably one of the biggest music stars of her generation, so she has a HUGE platform for her product. You’ll find plenty of country music purists who despise this young lady, but I am not one of them. I admire many things about her—not the least of which is her songwriting ability. Most hardcore country fans immediately bashed her Red album for its complete lack of actual country music. That may be true, but it’s actually a pretty solid album. She has matured immensely in her songwriting ability (which was already pretty good initially). Songs like “Red” and “State of Grace” are very well done.

Other female country artists have experimented jumping completely into the pop genre (Faith Hill comes to mind). But Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—along with her singles “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”—completely kicked the door wide open. A large percentage of Swift’s raving fans are not country fans at all—Swift is the only “country” artist they listen to. This song (and others like it on the album) are immensely influential, because they change the definition of what a “country” song even is.

5. “Springsteen” – Eric Church (2012)

Album: Chief

“Springsteen” was the third single on Eric Church’s much-acclaimed third studio album, Chief. The song is centered on one of Church’s idols—Bruce Springsteen. But the song is about teenage romance, and is crafted brilliantly. Church’s vocals are flawless, and lyrically the song is much deeper and abstract than most country tunes. The song’s instrumentation is unique. It features the regular suspects (guitars), but also has a prominent piano line, a synthesizer, and has no steel guitar or fiddle. The whole song has an old rock-like feel to it, which pairs effortlessly with Church’s distinct vocals. Rock and country have been mixed before, but Eric Church is probably one who has done it the best (& most creatively) in recent years.

6. “Drunk on You” – Luke Bryan (2012)

Album: Tailgates & Tanlines

There is no denying that Luke Bryan has been incredibly successful on country radio over the past few years. Since 2010 alone, Bryan has released eight top-5 country singles, and most of those went to #1. I chose “Drunk on You” (the third single from Tailgates), because I think it encapsulates what Bryan has come to represent. He is the party guy. He talks about women, trucks, beer, partying, and sitting out in the moonlight. He even released a Spring Break: Here to Party compilation album. He is probably what a country frat boy would look like. And he’s on the leading edge of what I would call the “County Frat Boy” movement. The majority of songs released to radio are about the same things (see above). There is not a ton of content, but they sell like crazy. Their sound is just country enough for the purists to tolerate them, but they are just not-country enough for those in suburbia to give them a listen. Luke Bryan can be everything to everyone—and he knows it.

7. “County Must Be Country Wide” – Brantley Gilbert (2011)

Album: Halfway to Heaven

“Country Must be Country Wide” was the first single off Gilbert’s country rock album Halfway to Heaven, and it gave fans just a taste of what they were going to get with the rest of the album. Gilbert has just recently exploded onto the scene and appeals to both rock and country fans with his hard driving drums, walls of guitars, and lead solos. This song represents the new breed of southern country/rock, which has come to be more and more prominent in recent years. Gilbert’s song “Kick in the Sticks” off the same album was perhaps the “hardest” song ever released to country radio, but the stations were playing it. Look for more of this guy in the future.

8. “Dirt Road Anthem” – Jason Aldean (2011)

Album: My Kinda Party

Aldean has been a country staple for about half a decade now, but perhaps no song of his has “moved the ball” more than “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song on which Aldean raps the verses. Aldean also did a remix of the song with Ludacris. It certainly is a different kind of rap than one would find on a Kanye album, but it is rap nonetheless. It’s not that country artists hadn’t attempted to mix in rap before (Colt Ford, who co-wrote the song, had done it quite a bit), but Jason Aldean, because of his position as a certified country superstar in 2011, kicked the door wide open. All of a sudden it became acceptable, and even cool to throw rap into a country song, and then release a remix with a “real” rap artist a few months later. The content of the song is nothing new, but the presentation certainly is. This song also did really, really well, which just adds to its influence. Many artists have tried to replicate the sound in recent years, some successfully and some not so successfully.

9. “Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum (2009)

Album: Need You Now

It’s hard to tell if Lady A knew that their single “Need You Now” would become such a mega hit (it has been certified sextuple platinum), but it WAS the title track of the album Need You Now and WAS released as the lead-off single—so it’s likely that Lady A knew it had something good going. The song won four Grammy awards in 2011, including in the coveted Song and Record of the Year categories. It was a huge crossover hit, charting well on pop and adult contemporary charts.

I kind of see Lady A as the Coldplay of country music. The three members are good musicians and great singers who have the ability to write incredibly-catchy hooks. I still remember the first time I heard “Need You Now” on the radio, and I knew immediately that it would be a mega-hit (whether Lady A did or not). The chorus represents what many believe to be a mix of pop/country perfection. Many, many bands would try to replicate Lady A’s excellent Need You Now album, but few would do it as well as the original.

10. “Chicken Fried” – Zac Brown Band (2008)

Album: The Foundation

Yes, I know “Chicken Fried” was technically released years before this, but it became a big hit after it was re-recorded and released in late 2008 as the first single from The Foundation. Since this hit, Zac Brown Band has become one of the biggest acts in all of country music (8 #1 singles and counting). The reason I include this song on the list is that it is one of the best examples of “clean” mixing/mastering in all of music today. ZBB is not afraid to utilize different musical styles in their recordings (rock, country, bluegrass, reggae, blues), and they are usually melded together extremely well. This song is a pretty good example of that.

Songs that Just missed the cut:

“The House That Built Me” — Miranda Lambert

“If I Die Young” — The Band Perry

“Last Name” — Carrie Underwood

“Wanted” — Hunter Hayes

“Pontoon” — Little Big Town

“Stay” — Sugarland

“I Run to You” — Lady Antebellum

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