Well into year two of the pandemic era, fans needed an escape in 2021. And you know what? Country had us covered.
From lighthearted anthems made for tuning out and turning up, to romantic daydreams with red-hot superstars and ballads built to nourish weary souls, the last 12 months found us embracing outlets of all kinds — and all sounds, too. With a wide variety of hits featuring unexpected themes and perhaps more creative diversity than ever, things are changing and a new generation is stepping up, but fans shouldn’t worry. Connecting the past and present, country has always had a way of making everything make sense, and these songs continue that tradition using clever writing, the wisdom of the ages and some carefree sonic exploration.
In alphabetical order, here are the 21 singles that defined country music in 2021.
“Breaking Up Was Easy In the ‘90s” – Sam Hunt
Nineties nostalgia was in full force in country this year, but with “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s,” Sam Hunt put a clever spin on a familiar trope. Along with his co-writers, Zach Crowell, Chris LaCorte, Ernest K. Smith and Josh Osborne, the R&B-minded star expressed how hard it is to move on in the digital age, mixing classic heartbreak with modern language and a catchy beat. Nowadays you don’t just have to worry about bumping into your ex at the mall, their face is there every time you pick up your phone.
Country has a long history of steamy duets delivered by real-life couples, with standouts from George Jones and Tammy Wynette to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill coming to mind. Count “Chasing After You” by husband-and-wife stars Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris as the latest entry in that list. Featuring a love-sick harmony and a theme of can’t-help-it romantic addiction, the sensual ballad finds two lovers caught in each other’s orbit, even when they know they should move on. It topped radio charts as Hurd’s first Number One, and went Platinum as well.
After a few albums and tours pushed the energetic, pop-leaning side of Thomas Rhett’s style, the pandemic presented a chance to course correct. Finding himself back in the comfort his home in Tennessee, and living the life he grew up with before making it big, he wrote “Country Again” about the experience – and then a whole album to go with it. Reflective and rootsy, it served as a moving reminder that life may take us in unexpected directions, but coming home always feels right.
You might not think of the guys who wrote Florida Georgia Line’s mega-hit “Cruise” as big-picture academics, but “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen” broke the bro stereotype. Featuring one of the year’s most singable melodies and another top-shelf groove, it once again propelled the team to Number One, but also took aim at something much deeper than a hook up. Capturing the campfire vibe of a Friday night philosophy session, they ponder the secrets of the universe, and pop a few tops, too.
You don’t become the most-played song of the year on country radio for nothing, and the latest collab from Chris Young and Kane Brown will be an infamous reminder of 2021 for years to come. Featuring a full-circle reunion – since the first concert Brown attended featured Young, and Brown is now one of the genre’s hottest stars – the track was an upbeat tribute to those enjoying big-time status in little towns everywhere, full of references to the artist’s real lives. Whether walking a red carpet or Main Street of a sleepy hometown, it was a fun-loving reminder that everyone’s the star of their own story.
“Fancy Like” – Walker Hayes
They say Nashville is a 10 year town, but for Walker Hayes it was closer to 20. Still, the ahead-of-his-time artist finally hit pay dirt with his funky mix of hip-hop and country on “Fancy Like.” A dressed-down date-night anthem full of good-guy charm and chain-restaurant swagger, the lighthearted track seemed to allow fans to let their guard down after more than a year of pandemic worry, and it arguably ruled 2021. After spending 18 straight weeks at Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, it also became Hayes’ first chart topper at country radio and earned his co-writers a Grammy nod for Best Country Song.
“Forever After All” – Luke Combs
Continuing a hot streak that has sent every one of Luke Combs’ singles on a rocket ride to top of the charts, “Forever After All” arrived as the last in a series of uber-romantic country anthems – but this one took the (wedding) cake. Pairing Combs burly vocal with the soft warmth of a country love ballad, it was a near perfect allegory for his just-hitched relationship with wife Nicole, and the love birds even used it to share their big day with fans. Co-written by Combs with Rob Williford and Drew Parker, it was a welcome reminder of true love’s staying power.
“Glad You Exist” – Dan + Shay
Few tracks have felt more perfectly suited for their moment than Dan + Shay’s “Glad You Exist,” as the back-to-basics gratitude anthem arrived almost one year into the grueling COVID-19 pandemic. With listeners cut off from family and friends, it nevertheless celebrated the connections that remained, with Shay’s enigmatic vocal scaling new peaks of inner joy. Featuring a bouncy acoustic setup, it was all about getting down to the simple building blocks of a well-lived life, and seeing the big picture in a time of big problems.
“Gone” – Dierks Bentley
All through his career, Dierks Bentley has shown a knack for approaching heavy subjects with soft touch – and often a dash of humor, too. “Drunk On a Plane” was like that, finding the fun side of getting dumped at the alter, and “Gone” lives in a similar vein. Heartbroken and depressed after a breakup, it follows a guy who feels like he’s lost his very identity along with his girl. But through a quick tempo and Bentley’s lovable loser vibe, he makes life as a couch-potato seem like a passing phase, and it’s hard not to smile while rooting for his comeback.
Bringing two of East Tennessee’s biggest stars together, “Half of My Hometown” was a fascinating study in what might have been, dressed up in the vivid imagery of a timeless country classic. Marking the first pairing of the ascendant Ballerini and her hometown hero, she conjured up images of the small town life she left behind, but they were filled with understanding, not disdain, and felt true to her soul. And while it imagined a world where she stayed put, it may have inspired a few others to leave.
“Hell of a View” – Eric Church
Swaggering like a modern-day outlaw, Eric Church created a soundtrack for those who live a little on the wild side with “Hell of a View,” scaling a mountain of two-against-the-world rebellion. A true against-the-grain anthem full of Bonnie & Clyde romance and a freewheeling, heartland rock sound, the tune is an idealized tribute to chasing dreams and flirting with disaster – which is territory Church knows all too well. Fans must have felt their inner daredevil stir, because the track ultimately made the harrowing climb up to Number One.
Every year needs a superstar duet, and for 2021 that track was “If I Didn’t Love You” by Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood. Despite dropping their debut albums in the same year (2005, and then following a similar trajectory to the genre’s elite ranks, they’d never teamed up before now – drawn together by a heartbreak anthem that played to their respective strengths. Dark and brooding in Aldean’s wheelhouse, and allowing Underwood to unleash a flurry of emotional punches, the track was a sure-fire hit from the start, and once again proved that opposites attract.
“I’m Not for Everyone” – Brothers Osborne
Country’s reputation for three-chords-and-the-truth remains fully intact through tracks like Brothers Osborne’s “I’m Not for Everyone” – along with its rebellious roots. An outsider’s anthem full of go-your-own-way pride, the track became the Bros’ first single following front man TJ’s coming out as a gay man, breaking down some important barriers to the genre’s inclusivity. This country rocker with booming baritone vocals and a twang-and-accordion tone only solidified their a long-held stance – supporting those who feel misunderstood, but in the inside, know exactly who they are.
“Memory I Don’t Mess With” – Lee Brice
With so much time to sit alone with our thoughts in the last two years, Lee Brice’s “Memory I Don’t Mess With” hit awfully close to home for some. Delivered with his signature smoky, country-blues vocal and a soulful sway, the nostalgic track paints a vivid picture of the one that got away, and the phantom pains of what might have been. According to Brice and co-writers Billy Montana and Brian Davis, some memories are better left un-thought. Too bad those are the ones that always seem to come back around.
“My Boy” – Elvie Shane
Sometimes a song comes out of nowhere that is so moving, and so perfectly captures a subject, that it becomes an instant classic, and you’d be hard pressed to argue “My Boy” by Elvie Shane is not one of those songs. A new-but-essential entry into the step-parenting genre, it’s a soulful acoustic ballad with a lump-in-your-throat theme, all about the family we choose – and the love we give. A sensitive career-launcher with a touch of Southern Rock grit, it became Shane’s first country radio Number One in 2021, and let countless step moms and dads know they make a difference.
“Same Boat” – Zac Brown Band
Just like any popular music, country plays an important role in expressing the cultural sentiment of its times … and in a time so polarized as 2021, Zac Brown Band’s “Same Boat” had a bold message. Full of unifying reminders that political positions are nowhere near as important as long-held values, the track was obvious in its come-together-before-it’s-too-late message – but done without taking any sides. Brown wisely kept his track from feeling preachy with a jaunty sonic treatment, one that was much like the band’s breakout mega-hit, “Chicken Fried.”
“Sand In My Boots” – Morgan Wallen
To say Morgan Wallen had an up-and-down year is an understatement. Earning the best-selling album in all genres, but also scorn for a racially-charged comment caught on camera, Wallen has now returned stronger and more popular than before, with tracks like “Sand In My Boots” showing why. His first post-controversy single, the mellow and moody track showcased great writing with vivid characters who seemed fully formed in three minutes, plus a stylistic vision that proves Wallen is much more than a symbol of the culture war.
“Single Saturday Night” – Cole Swindell
Marking Cole Swindell’s return to Number One at country radio, “Single Saturday Night” was one of those long-haulers that took about a year to reach its full potential – which is only possible when the song has some meat on its bones. Ultimately landing in the Top 5 of Billboard’s Year End radio list as well, the uptempo tune found Swindell at his relatable best, both speaking the language of guys in the bar scene and sounding like the perfect boyfriend. Plus, it features one of those clever, only-in-country hooks.
“Starting Over” – Chris Stapleton
As its opening chords ring out, welcoming Chris Stapleton’s honey-bourbon vocal with an upbeat-and-comforting acoustic guitar, “Starting Over” is something special. Unveiled while pandemic anxiety raged, it gave off an immediate sense of calm – like Stapleton somehow knew everything was gonna be alright. With the highway-loving lyrics of a poetic craftsman, and unabashed optimism in the face of tough times, it was the redemptive exhale many fans needed, and is now another Platinum hit.
“Waves” – Luke Bryan
Luke Bryan has come a long way since “All My Friends Say,” and now has a much larger and wider audience to consider – but success still seems to follow him in “Waves.” Crashing in for the summer of 2021, “Waves” found a slick, modern sound paired with the Georgia boy’s down-home drawl and an epic-pop presentation, as the American Idol judge continued surfing toward the mainstream. Even so, he’s still singing about tan lines and sun-dappled memories of days gone by, and who doesn’t love that?