There is most certainly a time and place for music and songs that motivate you, that get you moving, that make you mash the accelerator when you’re on the daily commute and spirit you through the everyday grind, or to let loose with on Saturday night. These songs are important too, and some of the best of them in country music for 2021 will be featured soon in the Saving Country Music Single of the Year nominees.
But that’s not what we’re after here. What is the litmus test for a Song of the Year nominee? Simply put, it’s something that very well might wet the eye. These are songs that have the power to change hearts and change lives, open you up new ideas or ways of thinking, or unlock memories or emotions you haven’t felt in years. Song of the Year nominees are the reason you’re a music fan. They can change the world, or at least, they can change your world.
PLEASE NOTE: Just because a song isn’t listed here doesn’t mean it’s being snubbed or forgotten. Picking the best songs of a given year is always even more personal and subjective than with the best albums. We’re not looking to pit songs and songwriters against each other, we’re looking to combine our collective perspectives and opinions into a pool of musical knowledge for the benefit of everyone.
So by all means, if you have a song or a list of songs you think are the best of 2021 and want to share, please do so in the comments section below. Feedback will factor into the final tabulations for the winner, but this is not an up and down vote. Try to convince us who you think should win, and why.
Jesse Daniel – “Gray”
To sing it, you have to live it. To succeed, you first have to fail. At least that’s the way it goes with the greatest of songs, and the most important of life lessons. Jesse Daniel knows this, because he did his time as a destitute and drug-addicted young man before he used the compass of country music to dig himself out of it, and he now stands tall in his boots as one of the most important independent names in the country music present tense.
Drawing from the wisdom of his own experiences, Jesse Daniel proves that he’s not just an entertainer, but an artist with the gut-punching song “Gray” about that guy we all know that never gave up his rowdy ways, but might give up the ghost if he can’t find his way out. It’s from Jesse Daniel’s latest album Beyond These Walls.
Cody Jinks – “I Don’t Trust My Memories Anymore”
Using simple language, an economy of words, and the tool of the double entendre to convey the things we all feel but can’t find the words to express ourselves is at the very heart of the greatest country music songs. And even after a century of practice within the rigid confines of this “three chords and the truth” concept, the best songwriters among us can still strike gold and say so much with so little.
This couldn’t be on better display than in the song “I Don’t Trust My Memories Anymore” from the recent album from Cody Jinks, Mercy. And along with being spectacularly written by Jinks with Kendell Marvel, it might be one of the most purely country and traditional songs of Cody Jinks’s career.
Sure, memories are fond and warm for many of us. But for some, recollection can be a harrowing experience. This song is dedicated to the latter.
Rhiannon Giddens (w/ Francesco Turrisi) – “Calling Me Home”
Can an old song written by someone other than the performer really compete in 2021 for Song of the Year? If it’s Alice Gerrard’s “Calling Me Home” revitalized by incredible Rhiannon Giddens, it seems downright criminal to not allow it to be considered when you behold the results.
Rhiannon Giddens has long been a strong champion of some of the most vital verses in the classic American songbook—the odes that have gone on to construct the very foundation of roots music today. On her latest project named after this composition, she once again shoulders this charge, and positively stuns with her generational voice and interpretation.
Jason Eady – French Summer Sun
If there was a songwriter out there with the acumen and muster to bust through all the bleeding-heart platitudes and overwrought sentimentally that makes so many of these types of troop-supporting songs immediately disposable, it would be Jason Eady. And with the help of the equally-talented Drew Kennedy, they turn in a song that leaves you stunned, and blaming allergies for your red eyes.
In the song, the narrator does not enlist like his forefathers, but Jason Eady actually served in the Air Force for six years, learning Arabic, and then being shipped all over the world as a translator. Much of his work he can’t talk about because it was classified.
It’s one thing to write a great song. It’s another to craft one from such over-covered subject matter, and have it resonate and impact so powerfully. It’s Jason Eady levitating above his own existence to attain a 3D perspective upon life that graces this song with brilliance. (read full review)
Kiely Connell – “Disappear”
What will we leave beheld when we exit the mortal coil? Will anyone remember our presence, let alone our contributions, or will everything we did simply fade into obscurity, covered by the sands of time? This is the vexing and existential question that the song “Disappear” from the Kiely Connell album Calumet Queen forces you to consider.
When Connell sets her mind on touching on something deep, this is when she presents music that feels indispensable, especially when coupled with the unique character of her vocal tone. Though there may not be any specific effort to capture a dark or Gothic mood, this is certainly the result from how piercing her stories of hardship and heartbreak are, and from the ravenesque aspect of her voice. Her music is haunted by the sorrow that inspired it.
Joshua Ray Walker – “Cowboy”
So much of country music in the current decade boils down to some version of cosplay, whether it’s the carbon copy pretty boys of popular country braying on about backroads and beer, or the hipsters across town in their thrift boutique finery pretending they’re from the 60’s, or those all duded up in starched and pleated Western wear for no other reason than the supposed air of “authenticity” they hope it conveys.
But Joshua Ray Walker’s “Cowboy” isn’t just a commentary on someone’s attire. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves, and the others we hurt with them. You can play a cowboy, or you can be a man, which means being honest with yourself and others, admitting your faults and your fears, taking responsibility, and treating women with respect. That is what being a cowboy is all about, not matter who you are, where you’re from, or how you dress.
Emily Scott Robinson – Let ‘Em Burn
Emily Scott Robinson is just composing on such elevated wavelengths of articulative insight and poetic delivery, her music is incapable of comparing to contemporaries at this point, forcing you to draw correlations with vaunted songwriting legends of the past as peers. She is undoubtedly one of the premier musical scribes of our time, turning what might be stereotypical country themes into emotionally stirring moments on her new album American Siren.
And sometimes laying underneath and unspoken or hidden in allegory isn’t just a quiet desperation, but a bubbling rage to Robinson’s music. “Let ‘Em Burn” might be a solo piano ballad, but it has all the emotional outcry of a heavy metal song. Just like all great songwriters, Emily Scott Robinson has enveloped the sentiments she wants to convey, and the lessons she wants to teach in layering and nuance. It takes time to peel back the layers of an onion, and often, many tears.
Vincent Neil Emerson – “Learnin’ To Drown”
There’s little happiness to be found in Vincent Neil Emerson’s deeply unburdening song “Learning To Drown” about the loss of his father to suicide, and of his own failures and shortcomings placing hurdles in front of the realization of his dreams. Still, a song like this can feel so comforting in the way it lifts the worries off our own souls, contextualizes our problems and sorrows, and lets us know none of us are insulated from life’s tragedies and challenges, or too weak to overcome them.
Don’t worry your pretty little heads country fans, the proud tradition of poet laureates from the great state of Texas has been conferred to yet another generation in the form of Vincent Neil Emerson.