Brad Paisley is everything he's supposed to be: a nice guy who's actually nice, a "country" man who celebrates his surroundings without disrespecting others', a wise man who even at his absolute nadir understood that he has no idea what it's like in someone else's skin. He also plays a ton of guitar and turns more clever phrases than Robert Downey Jr. and writes his own damn songs. He makes soft-focus mush like marriages and fatherhood and whiskey and fishing sound like a blast, except when he's breaking your heart, and he virtually never means to hurt anyone. He's the rightful successor to his '90s analog, the witty, hearty, hooky Garth Brooks, and next month he releases Love and War, which will have collaborations with Mick Jagger and Timbaland.
Paring him down wasn't easy; go beyond these for 1999's astoundingly tender stepdad tribute "He Didn't Have to Be" or 2001's astoundingly flippant "I'm Gonna Miss Her," in which a woman makes the mistake of coming between him and his fishing rod (not a euphemism). But here's one critic's attempt to get him onto your A-list; if you only ever give one cowboy-hatted good guy a chance in your entire life, make it this one.
15. "Remind Me" (from This Is Country Music, 2011)
This Is Country Music is a little more nervous than Paisley's usual; meet "Love Her Like She's Leavin'." But this surefire Carrie Underwood duet turns the simple conceit of rekindling a longtime or reunited couple's physical life into pure honey, with an explosive chorus worthy of the flight-missing sex they pine for.
14. "Whiskey Lullaby" (from Mud on the Tires, 2003)
These days, Paisley doesn't like to sing other people's songs, but his hushed, celebrated hit Alison Krauss duet is still sad bastard gold on the order of "she put him out like the burning end of a cigarette" and "he put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger." With any justice its closing "la la las" would be as familiar to bipartisan audiences as the "bum bum bum" a cappella in Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" or Marianne Faithfull's cracked outro to Metallica's "The Memory Remains."
13. "Karate" (from Wheelhouse, 2013)
With help from Charlie Daniels, Paisley rhymes Tecate with karate in this anti-domestic-violence song that's peppy and proactive without getting you down.
12. "Shattered Glass" (from Moonshine in the Trunk, 2014)
After Wheelhouse's more successful risks were overshadowed by the deafening (and deserved) bad press for "Accidental Racist," it's easy to read its quick and low-key follow-up's blander margarita-and-car anthems as a desperate backpedal toward the Luke Bryan set. But his liberal conscience couldn't resist including this plea for the wage gap to be eradicated by the time his young daughter grows up, and of course it's the best thing by far on Moonshine in the Trunk.
11. "All I Wanted Was a Car" (from 5th Gear, 2007)
The title (which is also the chorus) is simple enough, so it's everything surrounding that makes it special. There's the comparatively more ambitious classmates in the first verse (including Herschel -- a Jewish name you're not bound to hear much in country -- who "did commercials"), and the beauteous falsetto bridge where he sharply separates himself from other 16-year-old boys who only dreamed of one thing. Though another verse makes clear he dreamed of that too: "I even broke in the back seat."
10. "Waitin' on a Woman" (from Time Well Wasted, 2005)
Paisley's writing regarding gender roles can verge on the corny ("That's Love") but he's also extraordinarily sympathetic to POVs he doesn't understand, a boon to any rich white male, but goes double for a Red Stater. "Waitin' on a Woman" doesn't just stop at idling while she gets dolled up though -- by song's end he's straight-up metaphysical: passing time on a bench in heaven because of men's mortality rates. An early stroke of genius.
9. "The Pants" (from American Saturday Night, 2009)
Only the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt can boast about a fluency with tropes he shares with Brad Paisley, a prerogative he uses to invert whenever possible. But Paisley's got actual sales so he's not merely lampooning conventions; he's infiltrating their chart headquarters. Which makes it sad that "The Pants" was never given a video, never put Larry the Cable Guy on post-feminist drag duty. But it's about who wears the titular item in a relationship, and how much harder it is to wear the skirt: "In the top drawer, of her dresser, there's some panties / Go try on that purple pair, with lace and frills / With your big old legs, I bet you can't get in them / With that attitude of yours, hell, I bet you never will."
8. "Welcome to the Future" (from American Saturday Night, 2009)
"Water" and "Waitin' on a Woman" are two examples of one of Brad Paisley's true gifts: time-jumping from verse to verse, Moonlight-style, without losing a narrative step. But in "Welcome to the Future" he does it even more impressively within self-contained vignettes, making its opening bid with Pac-Man at the arcade and noting that he now has it on his phone. This goofy synthesizer-incorporating song gets serious, too; it recounts how the high school running back asked out the homecoming queen and got a cross burned on his lawn. The contrast there was intended to be the election of Obama and how much had presumably changed. Maybe he needs to update.
7. "Those Crazy Christians" (from Wheelhouse, 2013)
Just because Paisley is a steadfast centrist with empathy for fortnights doesn't mean his commentary can't be absolutely vicious. "A famous TV preacher has a big affair and then / One tearful confession and he's born again again" sets up an exasperated "It's like they can't wait to forgive someone for just about anything" that could only come from the wounded heart of a disenfranchised liberal. Yeah, yeah, he loves 'em and possibly even attends church. But this isn't just country's usual incisive play-around with the contradictions of everyday life -- it's a cutting exposé of hypocrisy that runs rampant in his demographic and he's not too nice to call it out.
6. "Camouflage" (from This Is Country Music, 2011)
A love song to Paisley's "favorite color," "Camouflage" is a distillation of his genius for turning something rote about backwoods life into everloving Borscht-Belt comedy. Who else could've written the second verse, where two creative prom attendees get a tux and gown made from Duck Blind Mossy Oak? To wit: "We took pictures in the backyard before we went to the dance / And the only thing that you can see is our faces and our hands."
5. "Water" (from American Saturday Night, 2009)
As with "Alcohol" or "Camouflage," Paisley's ability to zero in close on a subject that seems too simple or obvious to even write about is unparalleled. He loves water, that thing we're all made of and need. He draws a through-line from the inflatable pool as a three-year-old to a riverbank as a teen and a Daytona Beach experience from a Spring Break he probably never actually had: "Eighteen girls up on a stage / White t-shirts about to be sprayed." But the best line is "Drive until the map turns blue," another stunner from his astounding cellar of how-did-no-one-think-of-these-befores.
4. "A Man Don't Have to Die" (from This Is Country Music, 2011)
Paisley's most indelibly beautiful ballad is attached to his greatest show of empathy -- which believe you me is about as easy to crown as Shane McGowan's greatest drinking song. In typical Paisley novelty-construction fashion, "A Man Don't Have to Die" plays like Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" goes to hell: "It's payments that you can't make on a house that you can't sell," "It's six months short of thirty years when the boss man lays you off, " et cetera. Except it's far more realistic than "ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife."
3. "Alcohol" (from Time Well Wasted, 2005)
Like the recently departed Chuck Berry, Paisley's gifts are so formalist and seamless that they sound impossibly simple. Which couldn't be further from the truth. Maybe once the concept for "Alcohol" came to him he wrote it in five minutes, and it's not like any of the rhymes are Eminem-level braided. But it's still a concept no one else in the most trope-heavy genre thought of before, singing from the perspective of the titular poison ("I got blamed at your wedding reception for your best man's embarrassing speech") like a cuddlier, less moribund "Sympathy for the Devil" wherein the host spends his time "helping white people dance." If it's so easy, why didn't you think of it?
2. "Ticks" (from 5th Gear, 2007)
It's tempting to dub this No. 1 Country Airplay hit Paisley's greatest song, encapsulating everything that makes him audacious except his groundbreakingly delicate politics; the bald-faced creepiness of the narrator who builds to a chorus offering something completely disgusting can be read all different ways. Just about every line in the song is either a brilliantly-constructed pickup maneuver's setup or punchline ("I wish I was your beer," "I'd like to see the other half of your butterfly tattoo"), and by the first chorus (no spoilers) he's sticking to this ultimate camping plan for the rest of the song, which means it only gets grosser (and more hilarious) from there: "I've got your back/ And I've also got your front," "The only thing allowed to crawl all over you / When we get there is me." Yet as tempting as it is to read it straight, this sort of wink has always been Paisley's specialty, with early 1999 single "Me Neither" also built from botched pick-up lines and the general context of him being far more adept as a monogamous family man than a lech in a bar (he reportedly doesn't even drink). His constant craving for cleverness is a saving grace that his nearly all of his charting bro-theren could use.
1. "American Saturday Night" (from American Saturday Night, 2009)
All right, this is everything that makes Brad Paisley one-of-a-kind, a uniter who shreds, a sly humorist when you know his hammered-home point, whether it's obvious yuks or soft encryption. The opening title track off his greatest album opts for the latter, to outstanding effect, with a cheesy partybilly riff straight out of Nick Lowe's "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)." Then he lists off various good times with key product placements from imports we take for granted: Italian ice, Canadian bacon, French kisses. He name-checks Coronas and Amstel Light so innocuously that his fans may not even notice they fit the multicultural pattern. But what better use is there to make from a major label than letting xenophobes know how much of their consumption, how much of their sacred "good times" come from non-"country" (loaded word, eh?) sources? True to Paisley's nature, there isn't a guilt trip in sight; he's a privileged ally 'til death do us part. Very few of the white male creatives who wrote him off with "Accidental Racist" have accomplished so much.