2022 was a strange and often disorienting time to be a country fan. Morgan Wallen continued to dominate the charts despite supposedly being canceled for saying a racial slur over a year ago, Maren Morris made headlines for being one of the shockingly few artists willing to call out the virulent bigotry of her peers and country radio doubled down on its sidelining of women and artists of color despite increasing calls to make the genre more inclusive.
It should come as no surprise that the defining country songs of the year, by and large, came from outside of the radio ecosystem. A system this stubbornly exclusionary cannot possibly respond to the most vital music of the moment, so much of which is being made by precisely the kinds of artists who have long been marginalized.
The year's best country songs include off-center surprises from mainstream stars (Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde), country turns from indie darlings (Plains, Angel Olsen) and standouts from the Americana scene. Check out the full list of the best country songs of 2022 below.
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16. Lainey Wilson — "Heart Like A Truck"
There are few too many country songs about trucks, and far too few of them are sung by women. Even in those truck songs that do feature women’s voices, the women are often explicitly not in the driver’s seat: See this year’s “Pickup” by MacKenzie Porter, “Pick Me Up” by Gabby Barrett, and “Wait in the Truck” by HARDY featuring Lainey Wilson. But with her own “Heart Like A Truck,” Wilson flips the script. In this clever update, Wilson isn’t just driving the truck — she is the truck (metaphorically speaking, of course.) The lead single from Bell Bottom Country, “Heart Like A Truck” is a rousing ode to free-spiritedness and a reminder that skilled writers can always get more mileage out of even the most well-worn images.
15. Brittney Spencer — "a hundred years old"
It’s been a busy two years for Brittney Spencer, whose life was forever changed in 2020 when she tweeted a cover of “Crowded Table” that earned her praise from the likes of Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, a spot opening up for Jason Isbell and even an invitation to record with The Highwomen. In November, Spencer released if i ever get there: a day at blackbird studios, a live EP that offers just a taste of what the Baltimore native is capable of. The highlight of the three-song set is “a hundred years old,” a gentle number that quietly devastates. The annals of country music are filled with songs about the futility of time in mending a broken heart (“Heartaches by the Number” being perhaps the best-known example) but few are as restrained, nor as effective, as what Spencer has delivered here.
14. Priscilla Block — "My Bar"
A lot can change in two years. On “Just About Over You,” the 2020 song whose TikTok vitality helped earn Priscilla Block a record deal, a run-in with an ex at a bar leads to some regrettable (if relatable) backsliding. But on this year’s “My Bar,” the same situation has very different results. This time, instead of letting her defenses down and going home with the guy, Block stands her ground and puts him in his place: “You think you’re such a star/ But here’s the funny part/ No one even knows who you are/ This is my bar.”
13. Michaela Anne — "Oh To Be That Free Again"
Michaela Anne has spent her career negotiating what it means to feel free. On 2019’s sterling Desert Dove, the Nashville singer-songwriter found freedom in the thrill of the open road, as had so many country artists before her. But with “Oh To Be That Free Again,” an airy portrait of youthful abandon told through the eyes of a wild farm girl named Tiger Rose, Anne takes the more radical approach of finding liberation in life’s simple pleasures.
12. Plains — "Abilene"
One of the year’s most pleasant surprises was the arrival of Plains, the duo made up of Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee. On I Walked With You A Ways, the two indie darlings and Southern natives lean into their country roots and nod to their forebears, most obviously Lucinda Williams. The Williamson-led “Abilene” is a masterclass in twangy heartache, employing two essential elements of many a great country song: extreme specificity of place (what Robert Christgau once derisively called Williams’ “place-name shtick”) and lyrics that hover casually between the tragic and the comic.
11. Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway — "Crooked Tree"
It took child prodigy-turned-guitar savant Molly Tuttle three albums to make a proper bluegrass record, and it was worth the wait. Crooked Tree finds Tuttle and her band of furious pickers, dubbed Golden Highway, utilizing traditional sounds to take up topical concerns. On songs like “She’ll Change” and “Side Saddle,” Tuttle offers a feminist vision of Americana, while “Big Backyard” and “Grass Valley” make space in the historically exclusive bluegrass world for anyone who wants in. But it’s the title track, which urges listeners to embrace life’s difficulties and carve their own path via the metaphor of an imperfect tree, that most neatly captures Tuttle’s ethos.
10. Miko Marks & The Resurrectors — "Feel Like Going Home"
Feel Like Going Home, the second album in as many years from Miko Marks and her band The Resurrectors, is a thrilling history lesson. As with last year’s stunning Our Country — the Michigan native’s triumphant return after a 14-year break from recorded music — Feels Like Going Home finds Marks pulling deeply from the well of Southern music and drawing attention to the ways that country, folk, blues and gospel all overlap, pushing back on the idea that these traditions were ever that separate to begin with. The title track is a rousing, spiritual number that finds Marks homeward-bound after an arduous journey. Marks made her Grand Ole Opry debut on the day of the album’s release, becoming one of far too few Black women to ever do so, righting just one of the genre’s many historical wrongs.
9. Charley Crockett — "Time of the Cottonwood Trees"
Nostalgia is a powerful force. It’s perhaps what makes people occasionally mistake Charley Crockett — the fiercely prolific Texas-born singer-songwriter who’s released 12 albums in seven years — for a throwback act. Yes, he has a repertoire heavy on classic country covers, and his visual aesthetic often leans into so-called “vintage vibes,” but make no mistake: Crockett is making music for the here and now. Take “Time of the Cottonwood Trees,” an aching ballad that describes a lost love in terms of evocative details (a blue pickup true, the smell of wild sage). Here, Crockett evokes the past not out of a desire to return to bygone days but rather a clear-eyed sadness about what was and what might have been.
8. Miranda Lambert — "Carousel"
Tucked away at the end of Palomino, after an album’s worth of breezy travelogs, you’ll find one of the strangest songs in Miranda Lambert’s discography. A story song centering on a retired tightrope walker still carrying a torch for a cold-footed strongman, “Carousel” is an improbable tearjerker. It’s not the first time Lambert has drawn inspiration from the circus (see the openhearted “All Kinds of Kinds” from 2013), but it’s probably the first time she’s made so many people cry in the process.
7. Angel Olsen — "Big Time"
Angel Olsen is not exactly known for her love songs. Depictions of powerful, almost oppressive emotionality, sure. But love songs? Not so much. With “Big Time,” however, a steel-slathered waltz that is among the year’s most guileless depictions of queer romance, Olsen offers a love song for the ages. Olsen long resisted making a country record, despite early comparisons to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. But in the wake of earth-shattering life events — she came out as queer shortly before losing both of her parents to illness — a country sound suddenly made sense. The irony is that, rather than limiting her music, as she had feared it might do, her embrace of country has made her songs sound more generous and expansive than ever.
6. Maren Morris — "Background Music"
Maren Morris started performing on the Texas country scene when she was only 11 years old, a fact that remains a thorn in the side of those who claim she’s “not country enough” and which may be why the 32-year-old has long seemed wise beyond her years. On “Background Music,” a stirring highlight of this year’s excellent Humble Quest, she takes a sage look at love, fame and mortality — all in the same breath. “Maybe all we'll ever be to them in a hundred years/ Is three minutes in a car, in a bar, that says we were here,” Morris sings in the second verse, accepting the possibility that her and her husband’s (fellow singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd) life work will eventually fade into the background. But rather than a cause for concern, Morris sees this eventuality as something to be celebrated. “Not everybody gets to leave a souvenir,” she shrugs, her emotional acuity astounding.
5. Kane Brown — "Whiskey Sour"
Though he’s developed a reputation as one of country music’s most eager experimenters — having collaborated with the likes of Swae Lee and Khalid and occasionally dipped his toes into trap — Kane Brown tends to color within the lines of what’s acceptable for country radio. This isn’t a bad thing; Brown is one of very few people making country radio fare that’s actually good. But it’s undeniably thrilling when Brown veers outside of his comfort zone. Such is the case for “Whiskey Sour,” a fiddle-heavy ballad that’s easily the most traditional song of his career and perhaps the best. Startlingly effective in its simplicity, “Whiskey Sour” proves that Brown can be just as captivating with all of the flashy production and features stripped away.
4. Margo Price — "Lydia"
Way back in 2016, Margo Price captured the national mood when sang “All-American Made” — an elegy for a certain kind of American Dream — on NPR’s Tiny Desk, visibly fighting back tears on the day after Donald Trump was elected. Six years later, Price remains one of the best chroniclers of our fraught political moment, as “Lydia” is a testament. A six-minute opus that starts at a methadone clinic, “Lydia” finds its titular character observing the decay of her city as she contemplates an abortion. Price wrote the song before the Supreme Court unveiled its disastrous Dobbs v. Jackson decision earlier this year, lending Price’s vision a grievous prescience. “Just make a decision, Lydia,” Price sings, ache and anger in her voice. “Just make a decision.” It’s heartbreaking.
3. Adeem the Artist — "Middle of a Heart"
After organizing a successful “Redneck Fundraiser” last year (which involved asking each of their followers to donate just $1 in support of their next album), non-binary country artist Adeem the Artist released White Trash Revelry earlier this month to much acclaim. An instant classic that takes up white supremacy, queer joy and pain and working-class issues with aplomb, White Trash Revelry is difficult to boil down to a single track. Adeem’s lyrical dexterity makes nearly every song a stunner, from the scathing “Heritage of Arrogance” to the delicate “For Judas,” but it’s “Middle of a Heart” that is the album’s centerpiece and showstopper. A story song about a veteran who takes his own life, “Middle of a Heart” sees Adeem at the height of their powers. Every line is perfectly placed, but it’s an offhanded “God Bless the USA” at the end of the third verse, so ambivalent and loaded, that seals the deal.
2. Hailey Whitters — "Boys Back Home"
Critical favorite Hailey Whitters finally made a little headway on radio with this year’s “Everything She Ain’t,” a charming track in the vein of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me,” earning well-deserved if muted attention from the powers that be in commercial country. But the true heads know that the standout on Whitters’ sophomore album is “Boys Back Home,” an impossibly effective tribute to the boys Whitters grew up with in rural Iowa. Whitters describes a masculinity colored by chewing tobacco (Wintergreen Skoal, to be precise), “Carhartt and chrome” and a reverence for tradition, not with the condescension that often greets such figures but with tenderness and love. “Sometimes I still miss that girl that I was/ When I was a shotgun seat in their truck/ Singing along to the radio,” she admits in the bridge, gently reminding her listener that, even in a song supposedly about the boys, her perspective is central to the story.
1. Ashley McBryde, Caylee Hammack, Brandy Clark & Pillbox Patti — "Bonfire at Tina's"
In the haunting title story from Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez’s 2016 collection Things We Lost in the Fire, a series of horrific acts of domestic violence in Buenos Aires prompts an unexpected response. Determined to take matters into their own hands, the women of the city do the unthinkable: They begin burning themselves. “Burnings are the work of men,” a woman named María explains in the story. “They have always burned us. But we’re not going to die; we’re going to flaunt our scars.”
I thought of this story when I first heard “Bonfire at Tina’s,” a less disturbing but no less powerful call to arms for the women of country. “Small town women ain’t built to get along/ But you burn one, boy, you burn us all,” Ashley McBryde sings in the opening lines, before the voices of fellow singer-songwriters Caylee Hammack, Brandy Clark and Pillbox Patti join in, encouraging her to “light it up.” In the grand country tradition, the song calls out the misdeeds of no-good men, but the rage that drives “Bonfire at Tina’s” is more far-reaching than that. Lazy spouses, low wages, odious stepkids — numerous factors have pushed these women to the edge. The crucial subtext is the way in which country music has burned even its most successful female artists, (the genre’s highest honor, the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, has gone to a male artist for the last 11 years and counting) and how the women of country continue to create fruitful collaborations and build each other up in spite of a system that has encouraged them to tear each other down. Light it up, indeed.
Photos via Getty
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