Well, 2016 is almost over, and if you’re still living in the “everything but rap and country” mindset, it’s time for you to educate yourself. That is no longer the world we live in folks, and there are plenty of country songs out there that would please even the city slicker in your life. Country is a state of mind more than it is a place. Let this playlist take you to where the green grass grows.
20. Cole Swindell – “Middle of a Memory“
If you’re still unfamiliar with Cole Swindell, it’s time to climb aboard this train. Swindell is a Georgia boy made good who has written songs for well-established stars like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line — actually he spent three years on the road doing merch for Bryan before he got his own tour. Now, Swindell is well on his way to a headlining slot after his 2014 debut self-titled album went platinum. His follow-up, You Should Be Here, came out this May and “Middle Of A Memory” is the second single. It’s a song about a guy getting sentimental when a girl he’s just met leaves him mid-flirt on the dancefloor to hang out with her friends. Mournful misandry that’s climbing country radio like wildfire? I’m in.
19. Haley & Michaels – “Drinking About You“
If there’s a single facet that absolutely guarantees a good country song, I’d have to say it’s wordplay. “Drinking About You” hits that hard and early, riffing on the endless thoughts of an ex and swapping it out for endless drinks to drown the heartache. Haley & Michaels are the married country duo, Shannon Haley and Ryan Michaels, who met in Nashville only to discover they’d grown up three miles apart in northern California. “Drinking About You” is the first single off their second EP Taking Off, which will be out later this year as the follow up to their 2014 debut self-titled EP.. It’s a sad song devoted to drinking the pain away, linking it to a long lineage of songs in the genre about the same thing, but that clever wordplay and sweeping strings give it an updated twist, without sacrificing a slinky country guitar melody.
18. Jerrod Niemann – “A Little More Love“
This is the kind of song that makes you break out in a grin as soon as it comes on. It also adheres to a them that’s prevalent in a long line of country songs — the idea that love is better than money. The track is co-written by Shane McAnally, one of the best songwriters in the business, and is the lead single off Jerrod Niemann’s upcoming album, which sounds like it will be the one that helps him break out from the pack. Niemann and Lee Brice have great vocal chemistry here, completely channeling a sun-soaked vibes and golden day-off feeling. If I already wanted an El Camino to drive around California real bad before this, I do even more now.
17. Brieanna James – “Hot“
Country music has had a woman problem for the past couple years, but that hasn’t stopped Brieanna James from strutting all over the genre with “Hot.” This woman is a 17-year-old who is more than happy to objectify the man of her dreams, flipping the script on plenty of songs that cite the girl-in-cutoffs as the sex object. Instead, James offers a litany of things she finds “hot” about this guy with a wink and a smile, it’s a sort of anti-bro-country anthem without the bite of something like Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song.” For all that women are taught about looking for stability and monogamy, it’s a breathe of fresh air to hear someone sing about wanting to hook up. Her debut single came out this summer, and I expect to hear her name everywhere by next year at this time.
16. Olivia Lane – “Quarter Life Crisis“
On the other side of the spectrum, Olivia Lane offers a mid-twenties look at how exhausting trying to grow up can be. “Quarter Life Crisis” is a twangy reflection on how arrogant and self-assured your teenage self was, and how confusing it can be to really come into your own once the dust settles on the party-happy years of your early twenties. “Quarter Life Crisis” is off Lane’s self-titled EP that came out earlier this year, and her smoky alto is reminiscent of singers like Jennifer Nettles or Sara Evans. From the sounds of it, she’s managing her own mid-twenties slump just fine.